Friday, August 31, 2007
In the past year I attended a lecture by the architect Peter Lang at the Miguel Abreu Gallery about the Stalker Group/Osservatorio Nomade's work with a public housing project on the outskirts of Rome, the Corviale, which is 958 meters long. Corviale is a state-sponsored housing project built on the outskirts of Rome in the 1970's as part of a regional plan to alleviate crowding in the older central city. It was conceived as an independent community for about 8000 people including, in addition to housing, other community facilities such as schools, shopping, recreation facilities and even a church. Built on rolling farmland southwest of Rome between 1972 - 1982, it is now considered a failure & is known for its high crime rate and the poverty of its residents. The enormity of the structure has also resulted in an ad-hoc "customization" of its spaces by the residents, including its own television station - such adaptations are the subjects of the various projects initiated by the Osservatorio Nomade.
Also, in this past year, in a group show I participated in, "Weak Foundations" at Momenta Art, I attended a slide lecture by Robert Neuwirth, who was another participant in the show, and who is the author of a book about squatters' communities in Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Istanbul, and Nairobi, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A Urban New World. Robert Neuwirth is also a neighbor - someone I recognize from the street, seen walking his dog; Neuwirth was a recipient of a Macarthur Foundation fellowship for his work on Shadow Cities.
Just as the Osservatorio Nomade studied a community/structure which is an official failure, yet has fostered communities which have evolved independently of state policy, Neuwirth's book examines squatters' communities which have developed their own infrastructures anterior to official policies. Both these lectures come to mind as I bring up another document which enters in a dialogue about urbanity, Guy Tillim's Jo'burg.
"Jo'Burg" is the colloquial form of Johannesburg, South Africa - similar to "B'klyn" for Brooklyn, New York. Jo'Burg, the book, is a small accordion book of photographs taken in 2004, of an impoverished class of people occupying decaying buildings in the center city of Johannesburg, the economic center of South Africa. A photojournalist, Tillim has used a book structure associated more often with artists' books. The most notable example of an accordion book is Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Many of the buildings have been abandoned and/or condemned. Johannesburg's blight resembles the abandonment of US industrial cities in the 1970s, however with a population which has moved into an evacuating city, formerly white-only under the policies of apartheid, only to face imminent evictions and dislocation. Johannesburg appears much more a menacing and entropic labyrinth - a Blade Runner with all the businesses gone.
The images follow one another like cinematic frames - images of abasement and struggle, in a sordid maze of modernist urbanity. The small size of the book facilitates an intimate viewing of the pages, very unlike a standard photography monograph. The book begins & ends with panoramic images of Johannesburg from the roof of a hotel - the first image facing north, the last facing south. The images are not linked the way a conventional magazine photo story is laid out with a clear beginning, middle & end, however there is a sense of sequentiality in that the last images are of police & evictions - thus tracing a more generalized path for the residents of the city. The end papers of the book, in effect it's cradle, are a photo of a map of Johannesburg. Without captions in the shank of the book - the credits of the book include thumbnails of the images with brief terse explanations. The endpapers offer the lengthiest explanation:
A map of central Johannesburg at the Inner City Regeneration Project Office, City Council, Loveday Street. The pins indicate the different states of buildings as identified by the project: red indicates "bad buildings"; blue indicates "illegal use"; black indicates "finalised"; and yellow denotes Clause 61 (i.e. owners will be forced to repair the dilapidated facade of the building). There are 235 "bad buildings" in the city centre, with about 25,000 people living in them.
What emerges is a cycle of decay, abandonment and misuse which is orchestrated by a greater bureaucracy. Perhaps it is useless to ask: Which came first - urban decay, or its management?
The discreet artifice of Tillim's book amplifies & expands its subject. The poor & the abject are stock characters in photojournalism - at its worst play-actors for a white liberal bourgeoisie with a taste for "authenticity" & the horrors of this authenticity. Tillim deals with the people of Jo'Burg in a way which rather than implying a paternal empathetic identification, instead allows the differences between himself & his subjects to simply exist. The structure of the book expands as well into a great self-consciousness that a document, or should I state, "document" is being made. It denaturalizes the processes of urban decay & exploitation such that what appears is much more insidious.
Monday, August 27, 2007
Now out of print and selling for high prices, Esko Mannikko's self-published book Naarashauki The Female Pike (2000) is high on my list of shoulda/woulda/coulda purchases I did not make.
I first saw prints by Mannikko through Jeffrey Peabody at Matthew Marks, when the images were being sold by Paul Morris. Jeffrey had purchased a few as well which I had also seen in his apartment. The specific project The Female Pike is color portraits of mostly middle-aged men living in the northern wilds of Finland, in relative solitude & one could guess "reduced" circumstances. By description the work may sound rather National Geographic or very basic photojournalism. Instead, the photos while detailed & informative as such, indicate a great sharing between photographer & subject(s). Unlike the more aggressive tactics of National Geographic, trading in the exoticism of the world, or professional photojournalism which is committed to defining reality as conflict & story, a packaged thing - instead in Mannikko's portraits there is more a curiosity, an exploration, & a remarkable lack of editorializing. One does not enter the false consciousness of photojournalism: knowing & feeling the subjects, by sight. Instead, the men, their homes, retain their cipher-like distance & simply float in the print as image, retaining their "difference" if that is looked for. The photographs are deceptively readable in that the lighting, the colors, the attention to details are all very highly defined. One can see so much. & yet a sense of reality, of the false totality which has been both a "promise" & a curse of photography - its relentless colonialization of the world - is absent in the work. There is a remarkable lack of psychology, or explanation: one is simply face to face with difference. This is not to say that there is no mood - these are extremely sensitive images, just circumspect in this sensitivity. Mannikko's photographs are slow history, the way historians such as Fernand Braudel or Alain Corbin would term it - dealing with the minutae of the everyday, as opposed to larger statements or narratives. I am also reminded of a comment made by the writer Manuel Puig who I heard speak at the 92nd Street Y. Puig stated, "I am interested in what people who have nothing to say, have to say." When Mannikko's photos are exhibited they are placed in old (not necessarily "antique" - too grandiose a term), relatively conventional frames. In the global art world this is an eccentricity, but it does place the images in a polemic which, by taste & utility, forgoes the international chic of the gallery world for a humbler household.
Currently represented by the Yancey Richardson Gallery, Mannikko has also exhibited & published work done in San Antonio, and a newer body of work of close ups of animals.
Monday, August 20, 2007
This morning, lying in bed, on the shelving next to me I randomly picked up William Eggleston's Guide which while not intentionally meant to be there, still offered me a bit of everyday felicity, as potent, it seems, as when I first saw the book.
The small format of the book, its faux-finish cover, like an erstwhile album - its modest sequencing - it is one of the books I treasure. Considering the actual amount of work that Eggleston has probably done - it is such a tiny but still exquisite edit. When I first saw the book years ago I perceived the images to be a projection of sorts of the children in the book - thinking perhaps of the child on the garage floor - this was his book. Looking at Eggleston's work over the years I realize I had projected my fantasies into the work, overwhelming it perhaps, but I think my skewed perspective does touch on what I think is Eggleston's true merit which is an intense sensitivity & ability to look anywhere in the world. This "democratic" vision is interpreted by John Szarkowski along formal terms - an agenda Szarkowski brought to his own curatorial strategies in the 1970s - but I would say there is a "there" there as well - a reality to the things, even if the photographs in their grace & gaze seem to drain all context & outside meaning from the images. Szarkowski wrote, "Whatever else a photograph may be about, it is inevitably about photography, the container & vehicle of all its meanings. Whatever a photographer's intuitions or intentions, they must be cut and shaped to fit the possibilities of his art. Thus, if we see the pictures clearly as photographs, we will perhaps also see, or sense, something of their other, more private, willful and anarchic meanings." In Szarkowski's view what a photograph is is its corporeality, its will to being a photograph, which in such a system is curiously ahistorical - detached from meaning or interaction from the world outside of itself - or to clarify, any meaning which would be part of a greater cultural reckoning. In such a logic there is a suspension of any sense of cultural relativity - it is the logic of undisturbed patrician values. A photograph is a "photograph" first, then a photograph of something, or a photograph doing something, later. Still, despite my reservations, Szarkowski follows such a passage with one of the truly haunting statements about photography, "The world now contains more photographs than bricks, & they are astonishingly, all different. . ."
I would question whether all photographs are astonishingly all different from one another - but that's another story.
Eggleston in interviews is remarkably laconic about his own work - in contradistinction to the excess of of glib contextualizations taught in art schools these days. Still in the Szarkowski introduction, Eggleston does offer a cryptic observation that his compositions are based on the composition of the flag of the Confederacy, which is hardly a symbol drained of meaning outside of its form. & this was after almost 2 decades of civil rights activism in the US! Eggleston's work traffics in both high & low - the dining room centerpiece, along w/ garbage in a ditch, the remnants of signs for Nehi or gasoline, along w/ bits & pieces of the lost world of the ghostly Confederacy. If I feel critical of Szarkowski's theories for suppressing the social, the world-at-large, the photograph as a cultural product, I would state, that that sort of cultural aphasia is what gives Eggleston's work its power - it's simultaneous embrace & distance of a messy contradictory world, its lack of interpretation, its mechanical indexing of whatever whenever. Even in contrast to a hermetic, depressed photographer such as Robert Frank, the epitome of a post-war nomadic artist - Frank's work in The Americans & The Lines of My Hand has an almost documentary & social value - whereas Eggleston's inventories of the mundane things of the world float in a much more intangible ether. Robert Frank's journey is identifiable, his moods are distinct - if we don't know where he is going we still have something of a map to orient ourselves. But where is Eggleston? Where is he going? Everywhere? Nowhere? Eggleston's refusal to interpret his work reminds me of an aphorism I may be mistakenly attributing to Diana Vreeland (of all people), "Elegance is Refusal."
Eggleston's work is usually presented as local, "Southern" & in this Southernness he is joined by such great colleagues as Eudora Welty (herself a very fascinating photographer) & William Christenberry. Referring to any of them as "Southern" states a fact of their backgrounds & locales, but their arts could hardly be contained by any idea determined simply by such boundaries. The cosmos may look a great deal like Memphis after all. I think Eggleston has been well-served by such peers - Szarkowski's intruction to The Guide, Eudora Welty's introduction to The Democratic Forest - & if anyone has ever had the great fortune to hear William Christenberry speak, Christenberry in his graciousness will speak of his good friend as well as his own work. We are also fortunate to have Michael Almereyda's film of Eggleston, William Eggleston In the Real World, to view. Eggleston has a bit of a tabloid past, which although of (excuse the pun) great color, still seems almost besides the point in trying to understand his work. Or it is simply an outer shell of being, which indicates the unfathomable complexities of an artist, without necessarily revealing much. I can't help but think of Eggleston as a romantic artist along the lines of Edgar Allan Poe (for example), rather than a tabloid headline. A patrician, an aristocrat, with deep reserves of - well whatever it is, he's not telling, & one can appreciate his delicacies in this matter.
Instead we have Eggleston's images, which with great economy and simplicity turn the world into ciphers. What is remarkable about the book as well is Szarkowski's donnish plea for the merits of color photography - since the publication of The Guide, color photography has become the norm as opposed to it's once clandestine position in the art world. Mercifully, there are delights to reading Szarkowski: as a wordsmith he is felicitous to read, content notwithstanding. & considering that Szarkowski was the great architect of American Art Photography in his time, all of which was black-&-white - Szarkowski's willful contradiction of himself (although this is overstating the case) is also an aspect of this charm. It could also be perceived as an attribute of Szarkowski's cultural power at the time - an indication of his clout as an arbiter of quality. Szarkowski's ideas read as a kind of conversation, with multiple threads of thought, digressions, happenstance.
The impact of Eggleston's use of color was misapprehended as a use of more commercial, mass-produced technologies, outside of the hand-crafted artisanal black-&-white work of darkroom experts. This would place Eggleston's work more along the lines of conceptual artists such as Ed Ruscha who used inexpensive methods as a strategy - this in turn coming out of Pop art, & Duchamp's "readymade" - still I would point to the sumptuousness of Eggleston's dye-transfer prints, which have a sensuality far beyond the machine-made. This aint no drugstore print - although both Eggleston & Christenberry made absolutely lovely work as well with Brownie cameras & the local camerashop printers. Eggleston's overt dandyism, his seeming aloofness from the intricacies of techniques (think of the common photo books of the time such as by Hollywood glamor photographers such as George Hurrell - the books meticulously record camera & darkroom information - aperture, film type, developers, etc - information for the avid darkroom hobbyist) obscures his meticulousness of execution. Eggleston's public image is closer to the genteel hobbyists of the 19th century - Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Count Primoli - than to either darkroom gearheads or commercial photographers existing in a parallel universe of fame & publicity. One sees a connoisseur, but a connoisseur of enigmas.
The limpid brevity of The Guide belies what seems to be an actual excess of work, now some of it slowly being exhibited & published. The Twin Palms book 2 1/4, Los Alamos, the book 5x7, large bodies of work in black-&-white, unedited video footage. My sense is that a lot of photographers simply worked a lot more than your average artist - one can only dream of the future portfolios appearing of Diane Arbus, or Peter Hujar, for example. Garry Winogrand's legendary (promoted by Szarkowski/MoMA) excess of exposed film notwithstanding, I think it was the general ethos of photographers of their generation to simply work A LOT. Think of the amazing & extensive portfolios of Lee Friedlander, as another example.
Which brings me back to where I began this morning, book in hand, gazing at the images & for a few moments transported - to where I feel a bit closer to the world.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Beatriz Colomina's Domesticity at War, MIT Press, 2007, is a study of the applications of military technologies in the post WWII domestic culture of the US.
In it Colomina writes about the participation of Charles & Ray Eames in the production of a 7-screen slide show, entitled Glimpses of America for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, which was the first cultural exchange between the US and the USSR since the Bolshevik Revolution. 2,200 images were projected on seven 20-by-30-foot screens, which were suspended from inside the roof of a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. Given the conservatism of the Cold War, and the conservatism of the Eisenhower administration, it is a curious alliance of architects & thinkers with government, artists who would have been perceived as being much more progressive and modern, if not actually radical. But then US "modernity" became a selling point, if not of a national attributes, at least of a national sense of being "new" & dynamic & forward-thinking, in this period, after the quotidian deprivations of WWII. The screens were not strictly geometric: they had rounded edges, a "modernist" quasi-organic softness, resembling the shape of the then relatively new appliance, the television screen. The Eames, known as architects and designers, had also been involved in communications, as filmmakers, exhibition designers, and originators of multi-media presentations. Images used in the presentation were shot by Charles, his family, and associates across the country and culled from photo archives.
The Eames used imagery of daily rituals and entertainments, vernacular landscapes, and ordinary objects to promote popular culture as the currency of exchange between nations and people. The American National Exhibition was remarkable in that it's purpose in the Cold War between the US & the USSR, was to promote the splendid excess of domestic life in the US in opposition to the military build-up and Sputnik experiments in the USSR. This was a period in which the USSR was perceived as a serious military threat to the US. The famous "kitchen sink debate" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khruschev, reported as as spontaneous outburst of opposing leaders, was actually a planned public staging, in a model kitchen, adjacent to the Glimpses of America. This is a curious use of the domestic attaining the status of symbol & myth as propaganda: a cornucopia of products in lieu of weapons. The excess of images, a generic display of potentially EVERYTHING as an attribute of the psychic good life of the US, in tandem with the newly scientific kitchen & bath, the post-war home-world, invokes a consumerist paradise, stoked with incessant dreams, dreams which also function as advertisements. Private Capital becomes synonymous with Government, which could be seen as a portent of the globalization we now experience in our social worlds. It is a curiously pragmatic method, a political seduction by new & improved creature comforts.
Although only one small part of the book, the reckoning of the Eames' use of photography, which in their highly developed sensibilities is an awareness of photography as mass communication, a potential for all, has much to say about the parallel world of images in our world, from LIFE Magazine, to the internet, in their ability to occupy consciousness in manners benign in their ubiquity, & dynamic as coercive tool.
Monday, August 13, 2007
Tom by Paul Kranzler, Fotohof, 2006, documents a 20 year old boy Thomas, living in rural Austria with his family. Perhaps "documents" is too distinct a word, it has too much of a history and resultant expectations which defines the photographer's actions. In contradistinction to "classic" documentary which implies a non-intervention on the photographer's part,a witnessing but non-participatory presence, Kranzler makes the camera & picture-making a very conscious interactive process. Although there is no great physical resemblance, I am reminded of the posed portraits in Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, & Evan's distinction of the term, "documentary style" as opposed to "documentary." The image is treated in an iconic manner to reveal indexical truths.
I had seen Kranzler's earlier book, Paul Kranzler: Land of Milk And Honey, which details elderly neighbors of the the photographer's in Linz. Land of Milk and Honey bears more a resemblance to a book such as Richard Billingham's Ray's A Laugh, although Kranzler's tone is a bit more somber, although as earthy and open as Billingham. Land of Milk and Honey is mostly in black-&-white, with some color - as a formal issue, the use of black-&-white renders the scenes of the abjection of the elderly & poor in a less sensational manner than the immediate sordidness of color. Color, when it appears in the book, has the effect of a shock, a dread of the all-too real.
The images in the book Tom are in color & some have a magazine-like beauty to them - which references as well the cultural indeterminacy which is part of the book's agenda: Tom is part of a larger series entitled Country Youth (Land.Jugend) which examines the intersections of rural Alpine culture with a media-based globalism, which disseminates pop culture and consumerism everywhere. This is a fairly ineffable subject: how does it read visually, as opposed to say fragments of lyrics of songs half-remembered, or the fragments of stellar scandals & narrative threads that float in the ether? How do we see where the world intrudes on our lives, tucked away wherever we are?
I think this is a very tender book: it deals with the boredom & entropy of daily life. The youths look like saintly martyrs to the dullness of the world.
Kranzler's images are both graceful & matter-of-fact. They read as inventories of the boy Tom, his parents, his peers, & their immediate world. There is a simplicity in this which allows one to study the ordinary for clues to its prismatic nature.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Bill Butt's "WAMBA" was a scandal in Detroit in 1973 when it was removed from the 59th Exhibition for Michigan Artists at the Detroit Institute of Arts. If there hadn't been a scandal I might not have ever been aware of it, & w/o remembering exact circumstances I know I saw it as it had what seemed a disturbing effect on me: not knowing what it meant exactly I knew that whatever it might be I would want to see more. I was 13 at the time. In the dullness of my life I became aware of "something more" although it was unclear what that might entail & that something more seemed to generate from my body. This was a scary but an altogether new consciousness. In retrospect I could say that becoming aware of sexuality was also a way of aware of my own autonomy. I had probably seen the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers with its cover by Andy Warhol which visually is reminiscent of the work, but I don't recall any connection to it, but the relative explicitness of WAMBA was altogether of a much different impact. It was as if I had learned a secret. Susanne Hilberry showed the work again in 2003 in an exhibit entitled Detroit, Detroit - if by chance I hadn't seen it on line then, I would probably not have recalled the name or title.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
What became the book Jens F., by Collier Schorr, was first seen on exhibit in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. To quote Schorr: "The Jens pictures began as an experiment. To photograph a young boy in many of the positions that Andrew Wyeth painted the model Helga; to give someone another identity and photograph them through the transformation. Working exclusively in a small town in Germany, I was also interested in the impulse of Americans like Henry James, to travel to Europe in search of a certain 'privileged' landscape only in fact to insert an American inflection. The work evolved into a kind of dance between the two models, between painting and photography, between the exacting detail of photography and all the nuances of sketches and drawings. As a way of keeping track of all these images, I began to clip out the contact prints I liked and to paste them into a book."
Using the catalogue of the Andrew Wyeth Helga paintings as a template, the poses re-enacted, the soulful profiles, the hints of mysteries and concealments - but in a blue-skied, pastoral rural Germany, with an adolescent boy as opposed to an adult woman. In the work exhibited at the Whitney the actual Helga book was much more in evidence than in the published book - without pursuing this difference my guess is that in publishing a book which is using another book (and a well-known one) as its structure, an array of possible copyright lawsuits could be tendered. The Helga-Jens connection is not quite so obvious in the book, published by Steidl, however fragments of Helga do appear and clarify the connections. Another significant change in the published book from the art on the walls is the re-casting of other figures as Helga, as well, both male & female. Viewing either work is like entering a hall of mirrors, all becomes familiar yet elusive. The fragmentation of Helga/Jens could be compared to other cultural splits, such as the Madeleine/Judy character in Vertigo, or the portrait of Laura/Laura herself in Laura. The notebook format puts us in a methodology of similarities, incarnations, resemblances, resonances. The cutting & pasting & approximations are a process of discovery & investigation: Collier Schorr's working methods & ideas become the work, in contradistinction to a singular finished work of art. The work can be seen as both analytical and also passionate: the engagement of the work with issues of desire opens the issue of desires as a mapping or tracking of impulses. "Jens" is as much a construction as Helga - in fact Jens is several people, or more accurately, Jens is portrayed by several people.
I would also bring up that this is one of the sumptuously printed and produced artist's book I have seen. Gerhard Steidl's books are distinguished by strong production values, sophisticated printing. A lot of artist's books have been made on the cheap & utilize such limitations, whereas Jens F. represents a rapturous amount of largesse at the printing plant.
As much as Schorr's work seems to be about embodying ideas of desire, desire reveals itself more as a process than a finished image. Her methods recall the obsessiveness that can distinguish the simple act of looking & looking again & again, over & over. What are we seeking when we look at photographs? & what compels us to continue? Identity & gender are fluid. Obsession can also consider itself & its forms. Schorr's work has 2 distinct movements - one in pursuit, in following ideas of desire, its forms, & the other, static & contemplative, analytical - the forms are assessed in an almost anthropological manner.
I think of how different Collier Schorr's work is from historical photographic bodies of work that at least superficially deal with with "obsession" & "desire" (what commonplace words in art photography), such as Alfred Stieglitz's portraits (which number in the hundreds) of Georgia O'Keeffe, or Harry Callahan's photographs of his wife Eleanor. Stieglitz's images of O'Keeffe are always portraits. Callahan creates modernist compositions with Eleanor, even when the image emulates a snapshot, a domestic tableau. Or is Collier Shorr that different? Initially her choice of Wyeth as a template for cataloging desire seemed odd, almost kitsch. Andrew Wyeth in the NY art world seems a bit out of place. My uncle in Muskegon may think Wyeth a great artist but that's not a name I hear very often, otherwise. On the other hand, responding to desire is outside of taste as well - my harangues re Wyeth are really only about taste, nothing more (perhaps). This impresses me with what I perceive as a great independence of spirit for Schorr, of having a finer intelligence in navigating the structures of the busy world of images we live with, consciously or not, in the everyday.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
I first saw Paul Graham's project American Night as an exhibit at PS1 in Long Island City. It is also a book published by Steidl in 2003. Enormous digital c-prints of of some of the high-key images of the series. These images are printed as almost pure white: there is a visceral effect to the images akin to trying to see something in too-bright light, as if looking directly in sunlight or a lamp. The images are of figures tramping on the outskirts of edges of spaces - roads, streets, parking lots. The locations are varied: Detroit, Atlanta, Los Angeles, however the specific city is unimportant in distinguishing the conditions, which are generic. These are images that confront situations of homelessness, poverty, the dispossessed. But what is truly remarkable is the composition, which foregrounds the environment and places the figure in the background. This is an oppositional tactic to classical post-WWII photojournalism which has cast misfortune in much more clearly cinematic throes of anguish: the subjects are to act out their misfortune in the proscenium of the camera frame. The audience can feel both the sentiment of empathy and the safety of the conflict contained in the all-too defined image. Graham's work, albeit enormous, initially an experience of stately silence, presents a much more dystopic sense of the photograph as vessel of meaning. The distance between eye & subject becomes the content of the work, a kind of misery in inertia.
Traditional photojournalism embraces catharsis as an outline of conflict & also as a resolution of meaning - it allows the viewer to know the subject, of whatever it is, and in this knowledge the viewer can comprehend even that which may be jarring or incomprehensible, & also to move on, which, given a daily diet of disaster in the news, may have a needed therapeutic effect.
Paul Graham's work in American Night, as exhibition and book, uses what would be considered initially apolitical aesthetic strategies to impact a sense of class disparities, loss, and social abjection in a landscape setting - in the US the landscape representing the manifest destiny and splendors of the land. Huge prints, of a size comparable to Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware, are unheroic, not beautiful, not ennobling. Suffering does not lead to an exalted state. Graham's techniques are didactic and confrontational, yet done with great delicacy, and a great respect to the lives of others. In classic Hollywood film editing, a close-up is used to indicate literally a close-up of emotion. Contra Hollywood, I think of films such as Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse, which ends with minutes of footage of the streets of the suburban Roman development, RUR, as the emotional end of the film (a drama of casual lovers in the modern world, the incompleteness of intimacy). The space is anti-dramatic yet it speaks of the complexities of the world, with deeper resonances.
This morning reading Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I came across this passage about mountain-climbing, which makes me think of the spatialization of Antonioni & Graham: "You realize that no matter how much terrain you cover, there's far more than you ever will. Mountaineering is always spoken of as though summiting is conquest, but as you get higher, the world gets bigger, and you feel smaller in proportion to it, overwhelmed and liberated by how much space is around you, how much room to wander, how much unknown."
We are put in a position not of understanding inequities by an illusion of intimacy, but of facing the unconcerned landscape itself, experiencing it as a ground zero of movement.
In Graham's book, the high-key, almost indeterminate images of forlorn figures are contrasted with images of pristine suburban houses, glowing like advertisements. This is in extreme contradistinction to the high-key images, the affluent suburban world more carefully composed, floating like advertisements, as evidence of quality & desirability. By highlighting differences, by emphasizing incongruities, Graham puts the viewer(s) in a moral labyrinth, without a map.
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Madones Infertiles by Jean-Christian Bourcart, TDM Edition, 2002, is a small, lovely book of photographs taken surreptitiously by JC in the early 90s, in brothels in Germany. The camera was hidden; likewise in the circumstances, it was impossible to use the viewfinder. Such a process relies on chance and repetition, and also an acknowledgment of the unknown: what the camera records is unseen until later, when developed. JC put himself in situations wherein photography would not be allowed. Also he did not know what he would see. The hallways of brothels in this sense function as labyrinths, the exact passages never known. The images are in color & given the long exposure times there is a considerable amount of camera shake & blur. Given that this is a simple technical explanation, I would also point out that in his necessities - secrecy, long-exposures, JC has produced a series of images which read as dream-like & hallucinatory. If one were to consider the fantasies & desires that are brought to a setting such as a brothel, I cannot think of a better "documentary" of such a space. The tactility of the images, their lack of calculation, put one in the position of a voyeur. The "dirty old man" in raincoat is a stock comedy figure of foolishness & perversity: it is to JC's credit that he can basically assume such a role, that he understands that that is perhaps one of the great roles of photography in our culture, & that the obscene is ultimately very close to the sacred in its elucidation of desire: both are outside the self & are marked by perpetual yearning.
There are other strategies of photographing such a site: the portraits of prostitutes in early 20th century New Orleans by E.J. Bellocq, which may have been done as advertising for the houses, are, or were, crystal-clear & sharp, although now what we see is are fragments, the names & places lost. Lost, forgotten, until found by Lee Friedlander in the 1960s, exhibited & published by the Museum of Modern Art, these photographs violate their own conventionality with the ghostliness we now in our modern world are forced to confront in viewing their obliquity. Or a few years ago I saw a project by Paul Graham, of graffiti on bathroom walls, much of which is of a licentious nature, done with what looks like a large-format camera. In this the details, the colors, the readability of the graffiti are foregrounded. I bring up the Graham work which while not of brothels, such as the work by JC or Bellocq, the bathroom walls, public, indicate that if they are not directly the setting of illicit sexual encounters, such encounters are hypothesized in these anonymous confines, they are still a site of fantasy and bodily functions. The show had a rather snide title, Paintings, as the images were printed huge & resembled abstract-expressionist or color field paintings, but are otherwise of forlorn, abject spaces. I think this refers, sardonically, as well to the art-commodity status photography has gained in the art world since the mid 1980s. Paul Graham is among a group of documentarians whose work circulates now as fine art exhibitions, fine art prints, and books, rather than in the mass media - circumstances similar to someone like Luc Delahaye. A small catalogue was published by Greenberg Van Doren, or whatever it was called when the show was up, however it does not allow one to read the graffiti, which is really what the prints are about.
JC's project is contemporaneous with black-&-white work by Stephen Barker, which was published by Twin Palms under the title Nightswimming. Nightswimming was photographed in gay porn theaters in New York City, of men together. Given that Giuliani, the mayor, closed these theaters in 1995 it is now a record of a lost culture, as well as a very romantic evocation of anonymous, casual sex. I believe Stephen had/has a bit of an agenda about making queer desire visible, which articulates the work.
In the early & mid 1990s I used Brian Weil's darkroom & studio on Franklin St, off of Hudson. In the enlarging room a postcard of one of the images of what was to become Madones Infertiles was on the wall: not knowing the photographer it was simply a visual talisman for me. The work resembles as well some of the early work by Brian, which included a staging of sexual fetishes, which he photographed, then re-photographed, in what was a distinct style for his work, of extreme grain & contrast, next to no detail. I have mentioned this to JC which he insists is impossible, however both JC & Brian showed in the early 90s at Gilles Dusein's gallery in Paris, Urbis et Orbi, which is where the postcard was from. Along with my admiration of JC's work, his project reminds me as well of my love for Brian, and for so much of what now seems in retrospect the best part of my life in that period.
Thursday, August 2, 2007
Darin Mickey: Stuff I Gotta Remember Not to Forget, J&L Books, 2007
The "reality effect" of photographs, the tacit trust we can enter into with them that even if they may possess a bias or intent, something of the real, something that really exists or is revealed, is exposed (excuse the pun) and communicated is still our primary faith in mechanically based images, even as the advent of digital technology is theoretically making the directness of the olde-fashioned film camera image a quaint fallacy of the industrial age. There is an opacity of meaning to photographs as well: without a specific context or caption, a photograph floats loose & can carry multiple associations. For example a police mug shot, out of the context of law enforcement can become an aesthetic object, a fragment of something, not as it was intended. Or found photos: what do they mean? Reality & loss of reality: can such a duality of meaning in photographs be approached or understood by the photographer? I would venture that this potential abyss can be utilized as a strategy, at least in a partial manner, & that it is in evidence in Darin Mickey's book, Stuff I Gotta Remember Not To Forget.
As a colleague of Darin's at the International Center of Photography I have seen some of the prints, which exist as mural prints. Initially I was surprised by the small format of the book. The images are primarily of Darin's father. To quote the end page of the book: Ken Mickey is a salesman. His product is storage space in converted caves and abandoned mines throughout the state of Kansas. In 2001, Ken's son Darin began following him around, documenting his life at work and at home.
Such an epilogue is a very laconic description of the photographs in the book, which reads as an all-too familiar documentary project. However Darin's photos are also emphatically NOT journalism - they are sharp, minimal, more a scientific examination of the everyday. Rather than directing us in a specific narrative, the images overload us with fact. But what does that mean? Such a presentation has an uninflected irony in it as the images with great detail and economy examine a middle-class Midwestern male existence, situated between a home in the suburbs & work in caves. Ken Mickey is identified at Darin's father however the images are most emphatically not private - one is not seeing a son's relationship to his father, or are we? It is never clear. & what does Darin think of his father? Do we need to know that? Can we? The images, seemingly intimate, can also be perceived as a proto-cinematic document - objective, floating in a field of un-meaning. I do not mean to infer any cruelty or rancor, but the images are also remarkably unsentimental. The strangeness of the cave images - cave as office - as well as the domestic interludes, of cocktails & TV sports, can be read as simple "fact" yet also indicate humor, a delirium of the ordinary.
Contra Darin's lush mural prints the small book reads more as a story; however it is also a pleasure to see a full sequence of them, in hand. The image of Ken Mickey jumping in his chair, watching sports haunts me: someone's father looks like a little boy. With minimal detail Darin Mickey presents a very curious panorama of small details, of daily life, as something both recognizable and strange.