Saturday, November 15, 2008
From the onset I must admit a bit of jealousy: Caroline Blackwood's essay "Memories of Ulster," from the book, For All That I Found There, about growing up in Northern Ireland, states more or less what I would ever want to state about growing up in a provincial backwater such as Detroit:
. . . But I still feel surprised whenever I hear Ulster mentioned in the news. It always used to seem like the archetypal place where nothing would, or could ever happen. For as long as I could remember, boredom has seemed to be hanging over Northern Ireland like the grey mists that linger over her loughs. Boredom has seemed to be sweating out of the blackened Victorian buildings of Belfast, running down every tram-line of her dismal streets. Now when Northern Ireland is mentioned, the word 'internment' rattles through every sentence like the shots of a repeating rifle. And yet for years and years so many Ulster people, both Catholic and Protestant, have felt they were 'interned' in Ulster - interned by the gloom of her industrialized provinciality, by her backwaterishness, her bigotry and her tedium . . .
However, contra Blackwood, I would state that in her descriptions of the absolute tedium of Belfast, parallel to that of Detroit, there is none of the partisanship which I as a former (former? does is end?) Detroiter, former Michigander (as opposed to Michiganian - a latter pretentious term), partake. I don't think I am alone in this: in utter nadir, the city nevertheless instills a fierce loyalty if not pride.
In its current state, Detroit is a remarkable victim of globalization: shrinking in population, economy, it is nothing like the weird industrial superpower it was with WWII & its immediate aftermath. Geographically it is a monument to sprawl - the population moving further & further out from the city center, until the center becomes empty. & it has brought back with a vengeance an unapologetic racism into a quotidian dynamic: the city is black, the suburbs are white. What was once one of the wealthiest cities in the US is now on the verge of becoming obsolete. Without going too far into the sociology (the nature of the major industries - the automobile industry) of such effects, I want to discuss how Detroit has been represented in art & photography.
The underdog mentality of the city has been a reigning principle for decades at this point. It is quite unfortunate, but I'd state that it is an important factor to mention. Chicago was formerly the "Second City" - Detroit was a fifth - & is now further down the ladder in terms of size.
As a site for literature, it has a strange, wonderful pedigree. The most literary work may be by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who writes about being an immigrant, working at the Ford Rouge Plant in Journey to the End of Night. & then there are numerous early novels by Joyce Carol Oates, set in Detroit, dating from her teaching days at the University of Detroit & the University of Windsor. The Garden of Earthly Delights. Expensive People. them. Do With Me What You Will. Oates understood a very salient factor about the social make-up of Detroit - the influx of country folk (Appalachian) to an industrial metropolis between WWI & WWII.
The Dollmaker by Harriet Simpson Arnow is a great novel about the displacement of rural folk into the industrial city. & the most contemporaneous & fabulist of all such work are the novels by Jeffrey Eugenides, both The Virgin Suicides & MIddlesex. Middlesex in particular, given it's "fabulist" structure, of an epic tale of an immigrant family, told by a hermaphrodite, nevertheless has almost documentary-like details in its descriptions of city & suburb.
But how is it seen? Despite my citings of rather cosmopolitan authors - Celine, Oates, Eugenides, Arnow - Detroit has been rather hostile to its representations. This is boosterism coupled with a truly embattled sense of place. It is a violent, embattled society - how to make pretty on this?
As an image Detroit had only marginal representations until its industrial boom in the 20th century. The 2 most important renderings may be the Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, & the photographs (done for Ford Times - an in house publication) by Charles Sheeler of the Ford Rouge Plant. The industry murals brought together, harmoniously (unlike the experience Rivera had with his destroyed Rockefeller Center work), in a truly amazing bit of odd-bedfellows, in this case uber-capitalist Edsel Ford, who paid for the murals, & uber-communist Diego Rivera. Much of the culture which exists in Detroit is for a large part indebted to the enthusiasms & financial largesse of Edsel Ford & his extended family. The Rivera murals are truly great work although they were not always perceived as such. Upon their completion there were complaints about Rivera's politics, the merits of the work, as well as the subject matter as inappropriate. Up until the 1970s the court was the smoking lounge of the museum, & was a place for relief, not art, by any means.
The Sheeler photographs were done as publicity & emphasize monumentality over any interpretation. There are also paintings done by Sheeler, of the plant. Sadly, none have made it to the DIA as far as I know. I bring this up as I sense there has been a sort of horror of industry & its culture among the collectors of Detroit - going back to a sense of the "inappropriateness" of Rivera's murals, for example.
The DIA does have a collection of photographs by Robert Frank which were done in Detroit which constitute a curious record of the city. Frank's work while specific in its locales is also not specific per se - his images are about moods, as opposed to information. I believe 4 of Frank's Detroit images were in his book The Americans. Frank's image of the Gratiot Drive-In in Roseville is one of my favorite images ever: it invokes both the industrialization of an urban setting & it's contrast in what had been very recently rural space. Undetailed (compare this w/ O. Winston Link's image of a drive-in), grainy, it invokes a twilight between car & absolute emptiness. This is a Caspar David Friedrich kind of image, positing both the here & now & then an indifferent infinity.
I am not a historian of images of Detroit & I do not know what is being done there now - the DIA, to its credit, in conjunction with a show of photos by Kenro Izu set up a contest on flickr of "sacred spaces" in Detroit which I found articulate & moving. It made me realize that there is potentially a lot of work out there which may or may not be seen.
Perhaps the most intriguing thread I can find in all this begins with images such a Frank's: "unofficial" images, images from a working-class or middle-class background, images coming from displacement, movement, industrialization, modernization. When I see some of the art of Mike Kelley, from Westland, originally, it is near documentary of the middle-class youth culture I grew up in as well, just slightly earlier than my own time. Or the bad-actor theatrics of the Cameron Jamie video "Spookhouse," likewise.
Other work that comes to mind are the photographs of auto show models (Detroit, Paris, Tokyo) by Jacqueline Hassink which make explicit the symbiosis of the car & sexuality, a prosthetic attended to by these dutiful hired maidens. Hassink also made a video "Car Girls" of the spectacle of pretty girls showing off the latest models with gestures & presence.
Detroit as abject space, junk space, dead spectacle - this is when it seems most alive & fascinating.
Detroit was the origin of some great photographers who moved on elsewhere: Harry Callahan, Arthur Siegel, Todd Webb. Some of Callahan's early near-abstract images of natural forms, twigs, water, snow - were done in Detroit - aesthetically removed from the industry & sprawl, in contrast w/ Siegel's fantastic image "The Right of Assembly." The Callahan images bring to mind some of Edward Steichen's earliest pictorial images, of exquisite remove from the quotidian, which were done in Milwaukee!
Walker Evans made a series of images of people walking on the street in Detroit, shot w/ a 2 1/4 camera, at a dutch angle, against a blank wall which I have always found somewhat strange & haunting. Evans' "documentary style" as he termed it is in full force in these images. They seem loaded w/ information yet they deny it too - unpicturesque, the antithesis of the languor of street photography, they emphasize the process of the streets - the street is a conduit of movement, as opposed to a pictorial space.
From the 1970s my only points of reference are of Brad Iverson's images of the Belle Isle Casino's mens room, w/ its lewd graffiti & intimation of illicit sex. These had some local controversy at the time & where are they now? These images are more journalistic than Paul Graham's t-room images exhibited & published as "Paintings" but of comparable import.
Michael Kenna made a series of images of the Rouge Plant which given its louche industrial structure tempers Kenna's amok neo-pictorialism in an interesting way. I am usually indifferent to Kenna's work, but the Rouge work (done ad hoc, unofficially) I find interesting - making pretty of very un-pretty circumstances. 2 other bodies of contemporary work which I found evocative were for magazines: Ken Schles did a series of images of the People Mover downtown which emphasize its dystopic vistas; & there was an assignment for Esquire (I believe) of outlying strips where there was a serial killing of prostitutes, by Stephen Barker, which to my knowledge were never published or shown elsewhere, which are still active in my imagination - I still think of these images, how they deal w/ both the sordid & the dull in an animated, aesthetically informed manner.
& there are of course the vernacular news images of Detroit. Besides the "Work is What I Want" image from the Detroit News, there is also the image of Walter Reuther being attacked at the entrance to the Rouge Plant. & images from the 1967 riot can be truly outrageous.
Urban images tend to emphasize the picturesque - Paris or London or New York. Pretty or interesting or monumental. Just as there have been recent shows of images of Los Angeles, I think Detroit would be another alternative to such surveys.
The term "occupational" for photographs comes from a commercial appellation: a term used by dealers to indicate a portrait in which the subject is presented in terms of work. It is an antique term as well - used for distinguishing the nature of early media such as the daguerreotype, ambrotype, & tintype, for example. This is slightly different than the multitude of ethnic types sold as mass-produced cartes-de-visite (the typical Swiss or Welsh, for example) in that the other processes cited were unique images & were meant to be individual portraits, even if the portrait focused on a more generic social position such as one's trade.
Heaven bless such traders of images, for allowing them to continue to circulate into the present day, without dint of high artistic standards. I cannot help but think of more-or-less contemporaneous images such as those of the US Civil War which persisted because of the extreme ardor of those collecting any ephemeral aspect of the conflict. The numerous books of Matthew Brady's images for example: poorly printed, ignoring the visual qualities of the images in lieu of their historical (non-visual) significance. These all predate the modernist epicureanism of the Photo Dept at the Museum of Modern Art or other such venues in which the subject of the images is subordinate to their formal qualities.
From such "lowly" considerations, there is nevertheless a genuinely fertile & expansive way to consider images outside the scales of aesthetic hierarchies. Revisiting the exhibition at ICP, "America and the Tintype" I find that it has deepened my interest in the tintype, also its permutations. One of the provisional categories in the exhibit is the "occupational portrait" of which there are dozens of examples. For the most part the trades shown are artisanal & in the period in which they were taken they were being made obsolete by industrialization and mass production, The curator, Steven Kasher, makes an argument that such portraits, which would have been commissioned by the subjects, in effect represent a social assertiveness of the little man, the itinerant tradesman, a kind of embodiment of one's skills intertwined with one's identity. Such a synthesis of self, work & image seems impossible in our own media-based but alienated culture. I am not what I do everyday. Who would want to show that?
The occupational portrait has a pre-photographic history in European graphic traditions dating back to the 17th century of representations of itinerant trades. These are generic images - not of individuals but of types. The emphasis on lowly "types" as color - ethnic, geographic, class-based - was a tradition for the upper-middle-classes & aristocracy which functioned as entertainment, and informed later anthropological studies. The itinerant, the poor, are an exotic other in our midst. There is also an erotic element to looking at such abject classes. In Alain Corbin's history of the beach he cites the important erotic allure of working women, with bared feet & ankles seen at the shore - that this would be a revealing of flesh outside the confines of respectability & a powerful image as such. This in turn brings to mind the unstated eroticism of Walter Benjamin's mention of the Hill & Adamson photographs of the Newhaven fishwife in "A Small History of Photography." This is outside the social advocacy which we have seen in much photographic work, yet in terms of formal structures they are remarkably parallel. One could cite an early work such as John Thomsen's Street Types of London as being a rather dour moralistic Victorian reinvention of what had been hitherto a source of laughter & delight for the higher echelons of society - de-emphasizing the charm of such itinerant local color, being too specific & "real" even without individual names & situations cited. The photograph, as a medium, lost any aesthetic disinterested consideration in its emphasis on mechanical appearance - it was a form of industry made visible, as opposed to the mediation of an artist's hand. As an art, following traditions, it looked garish & unseemly. "Occupationals" lack the skill of fancier private portraits: frontal, with a frontal gaze, as opposed to the more aesthetic sideways glance, the beautiful pose which would turn the portrait into a consideration of beauty & poise. Tools in hand. Ready to work.
Kasher's reading of the occupational portrait, of such a portrait, while directed by economy, social strata, class, nevertheless representing an assertion by the subject, is an important re-writing of photographic history. Our so-called "vernacular" photography (& vernacular is a vague word I overuse myself) has so often been seen as a kind of technological determinism - a limited set of qualities which are foisted on the un-thinking subject. Kasher proposes a much more dynamic interaction between the subject & the paltry low-class tintype. & one can elaborate more, with other work, from there.
ICP has had some remarkable exhibitions of vernacular work: "African American Vernacular Photography" from the Daniel Cowin Collection. Geoffrey Batchen's exhibit, "Forget-Me-Not" of photography used as memorials for the dead. & also a small show of E.J. Bellocq, done in conjunction with the George Eastman House for a series of shows "New Histories of Photography." Photography relegated to the art museum denies its social roles & its experiences outside the museum. ICP has done important work in considering the myriad workings of photography in our world & also how it has been written, in the past & now.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Sunday, September 21, 2008
America and the Tintype is a catalog for the exhibition at the International Center of Photography, curated by Steven Kasher and Brian Wallis, with essays by Kasher, Geoffrey Batchen and Karen Haltunnen. The collection of tintypes was assembled initially by Kasher.
The tintype, a cheap process, with few of the pretensions of more established commercial studio photograph, is overlooked in most histories of photography, except as a footnote as a process which was derivative of the daguerreotype, or the ambrotype, but without any of the retrospective artistry now accorded these other processes: a cheap imitation of something better. It lacks the detail or contrast of the daguerreotype or ambrotype. Also, as a process with little value attached to it, it has survived often in a way similar to the once ubiquitous stereocard - tattered, dirty, & because of its metal base, often bent, the emulsion damaged. The tintype would have been encased in a metal frame, or a cheaper paper frame, & as we see on the scrap heaps of flea markets & junk shops, any supporting armature has been detached, or destroyed, & any personal history has been lost.
Stanley Burns published a rather lavish book of his collection of painted tintypes, The Painted Tintype and the Decorative Frame 1860-1910, which emphasizes the most lavish production of full-plate tintypes: painted over, often obscuring the photographic matrix of the image, and according, equally a value to the remarkable frames which were produced. Such images were "imitation" portrait paintings for the middle-class, which have a formality which can seem both grave & absurd, slightly not "of quality" although quixotically interesting as such. Painted tintypes can often resemble early American portrait painting from the 17th & 18th centuries, in their stiffness - flat, inexpressive, almost uncannily so.
The collection assembled by Kasher emphasizes qualities which are overlooked by the Burns collection, or by other surveys such as Heinz & Bridget Henisch's The Photographic Experience, in their antic, populist humor. The images are smaller (i.e. cheaper) plates, primarily, & involve scenarios of role-playing, posing, earthy jokiness, a sense of the ridiculous, as well as being quite "everyday" - memorial portraits, whether of athletics or deceased children, groups, the photographic moment now part of daily life. These are fragments of obscure but evident lives. It is a medium which has no masters or masterpieces, & which had a "mass audience" as opposed to the celebrity culture which used photographic studios to articulate a public persona - there are no statesmen or theatrical stars portrayed in the tintype, it circulated only in private circles; & as a cheap common medium which still necessitated a professional operator with skills, it was eventually made obsolete by the introduction of the Kodak camera in the late 1880s & George Eastman's accessing and creation of a huge amateur market.
The collection at ICP shows an unruliness & anarchic sense of the photographic image, far from any formal conformity. I think this is a truly admirable way to examine what has been more often considered plain old junk. The writing in the book emphasizes the tintype's place as a hybrid medium that is both artisanal & industrial, in a time of economic & political flux. There is a chapter about the "occupational" portrait which also brings up the growing obsolescence of the trades depicted, in their time. Along the lines of Susan Sontag's statement that all photographs are memento mori, I am also reminded that to photograph something or someone, is also in a sense to relinquish the original to nothingness.
Kasher & Wallis open up the tintype, basically a fairground amusement, as a micro-history of daily life & consciousness.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Not quite a "genre", one "type" (for want of better term) of early photographic image which fascinates me is the partial concealment of parent or adult, in supporting baby or small child, in studio portraiture. In my scavenges of flea markets & Ebay I have found 4 so far.
The recalcitrance of little people in the photo studio, & the transformation of parental figure into armature, inspires a bit of mirth. There are remarkable variations: cloth over the figure to mimic furniture, retouching, radical framing. Meant to be practical & pragmatic, it still seems metaphoric about "the ties that bind" child with parent. This is a reading outside the historical - but one's delight doesn't need to have strict perimeters.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Leigh Ledare, "You Are Nothing To Me. You Are Like Air."
Jane Hammond, Photographs
Zoe Beloff, "The Somnambulists"
In school, in the late 1970s, in my "hippie college" there was a strong Women's Studies program. I knew a group of students in the program who declared themselves "separatists" which as I understood it, was a short-lived phenomenon, historically, but which was fairly articulate & developed, or so it seemed, at the time. There were houses where no men were allowed. Women were learning carpentry & plumbing to create a new infrastructure. This was a fairly iconoclastic mentality. & what I appreciated most about it was it's utter distance from & questioning of images, of media. Unlike the dull-normal bourgeois world which accepts whatever is there as a false sense of "natural", this was a dynamic, somewhat paranoic, awareness that media exists ultimately as a kind of training, a primer of appearance, of behavior, of role. If I were to continue my questioning of our lesbian separatist sisters I would query whether it was ever really possible to distance oneself from the general culture, especially now in our mediatized world wherein the intrusiveness of media is so omnipresent as to NOT seem present, as if we are all walking around inside our heads, even as the insides of our heads seem to resemble CNN, MTV, etc.
Such reactions came to mind the other day on my gallery-hopping Saturday, going from the Leigh Ledare show in the lower east side, to Chelsea, to the Jane Hammond show, & then Zoe Beloff at Bellwether.
The Leigh Ledare show, provocatively entitled, "You are nothing to me. You are like air." (what a great dis) involves more work done with his mother Tina, seen earlier in the year at Andrew Roth which also involved the publication of a book. Both the Roth show & the book are an extensive exploration of the artist's relationship with his mother, who is by all appearances an extremely complex, possibly difficult presence, & also rather provocative. In our all too Puritanical world, for a parental figure to embody any form of sexuality seems dark & dysfunctional, & in Ledare's work the mother is a fully sexualized figure. This has perhaps obscured Ledare's work, which is extremely sensitive yet also extravagant: this is a kind of baroque riff of what we see in something like John Cassevetes films, which are about revealing very uncontained, unruly emotional states. Emotional states which do not follow rules of decorum or social propriety. The show at Rivington Arms is much smaller & much more oblique than the show at Roth. It also includes 2 videos which are as interesting as the photos or the book. Both are loops. In one there is a view of a watercolor of one of Ludwig II's castles (w/ "Mack the Knife" playing) then scenes of the mother & her boyfriend in what seems rehearsals for a skit of some sort - the boyfriend in a tux, the mother in an evening gown. The mother is spanked by the boyfriend, lines are forgotten or mixed up. It is fragmentary & anti-climactic. The mother receives lascivious directions about her performance for the camera, sucking on rhinestone jewelry, told, "Kiss it like it's a cock." & so on. In both this & the other video in which the mother cries stage tears, one is more face-to-face w/ her has a presence & I must say, she seems like quite a character & very provocative (& not at all in terms of the roles that are being enacted). I found all this very humorous & also very moving. We live in a culture of too much "revealing", too much confession, which ultimately means nothing, & despite the seeming transgressive aspects of Ledare's portrayal of his overly-sexualized mother, it is really much more about discretion, sensitivity & complexity. It's not about sound-bytes about role or behavior.
There are also a remarkable series of self-portraits of Ledare posing as responses to personal ads. This is a curious corollary to the work with the mother - he is role-playing as much as his "subject." Both are implicated in these tableaux.
Such a parallel indicates a kind of trauma - not necessarily a trauma as perceived in a pop-psychological manner, but a general rupture & tension between parent & child. Parents are the first media (as it were) for a child, & offer templates of the world at large.
I must confess I was entirely unfamiliar with the work of Jane Hammond, other than knowing generally that she is an artist, & this was her first exhibition of photographs. & I can't discern whether they are good or not - I have no way to discern quality, but I found them provocative (which isn't so bad is it?). There were separate images, matted, framed, & then also groupings of faux snapshots, memorabilia. Images in which Hammond's face was photoshopped onto whatever figure was in the found image. This is where my memories of the separatist element at the RC came to mind - Hammond's images are not fine or beautiful or particular. She used anonymous snapshots, soft-core porn, stock imagery, all of which are made more ridiculous by the omnipresence of her face. Unlike the modernist Bauhaus experiments w/ collage which deconstruct mechanical images into a new vision, or Surrealist photography which creates a parallel universe of senses, Hammond's images are too prosaic & too pedestrian to be "uplifting" however the humor & mockery presuppose another kind of distancing & relishment of cliche imagery, of the pedestrian, of photo culture in general. These are very sprightly, informed images. Even when some start to look like the complacent fantasies of someone like Jerry Uelsmann, they still are so ridiculous, so silly - it's just impossible to take them "seriously" which seems their real strength. There's a Rene Magritte photo collage of oxen foraging in front of the Paris Opera, which is what comes closest to mind in assessing these images. Hammond uses fairly elaborate means to disguise her artifice - there is painstaking staining, yellowing, tearing, fraying of the images to simulate age. Also in imitation of the genteel deckled edges of old snapshot prints, there is equally painstaking simulation of such conventions of the past. This makes for a certain unease in understanding the pictures. What comes across is an earthy ebullience & mockery, although when exactly is it from?
Zoe Beloff's The Somnambulists consists of 2 rooms of toy theaters outfitted with digital projections. In the front room there are 4 theaters using "Pepper's Ghost" a stage trick of projections used for supernatural effects - using mirrors & scrims the figures appear transparent, ghostly. In each of these figures in loop re-enact filmed hysterics from past medical experiments involving film. In the back room, 2 scenarios, "A Modern Case of Possession" & "History of a Fixed Idea" are based upon case histories written by the French psycho-pathologist Pierre Janet. These are presented as musical entertainments, w/ Janet as a narrator-emcee, & are also done in stereoscopic format, 3-D, seen w/ Polaroid 3-D glasses. The conflation of psychological experiment, theatrical entertainment, & visual technologies (from early i.e. "Pepper's Ghost" to contemporary DVD projection)allows the work to exist in an open, critical manner. It incorporates history, psychology, theater, music, optical toys, film - the theaters themselves have a childlike hand-painted prettiness which offsets the actual "darkness" of the case histories. These are simultaneously childlike & wise, like puppet shows.
The Svengali-like role of Dr. Janet w/ patient baffles a clear distinction between doctor & patient into more of a symbiotic relationship. The observation & diagnosis of the doctor articulate the performance of the patient. Extended to entertainment & mass media, a pathology emerges in the everyday. Beloff has worked with the case histories and photographs of hysteria by Jean-Martin Charcot at Salpetriere Hospital, previously; these are images which now, more than a century later, appear more fantastical & posed than their initial presentation as objective scientific experiment. Both The Invention of Hysteria, by Georges Didi-Huberman, & Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness, by Sander Gilman, question the culture of science - the Didi-Huberman book deals with Charcot's images in particular, which involve trances, paralysis, involuntary movement, facial grimaces. (One wonders about the pathologies of our own day.)
In 1995 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts presented a large exhibition, Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe, which included images of hysteria by Charcot, alongside, the graphics & paintings included in the show. Although never directly cited by the artists shown, the synchronicity of the images both artistic & medical can be uncanny. & in the 19th century, cultivation of illness & morbidity as a mode of aesthetic hauteur, meant hypersensitivity & rarified emotion & thought in a crude, industrial, mass-produced world. In such artistic circles it was also a sign of refinement & (spiritual & hereditary) aristocracy. Beloff's location of a similar estrangement in the even-more disenfranchised poor world of madhouse & cabaret is all the more plaintive.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
In my early photographic endeavors I had certain avoidances to what I would do, for want of better term. For instance: I avoided photographing scenes in which automobiles appeared. Cars act like clocks, or calendars, in images: they connote a more or less specific time. One can date, approximately at least, a photo by the cars in it. In my vagueness, I wanted to avoid all signs of a specific time (for no good reason necessarily - this was more a gut instinct rather than an agenda). I wanted my photos to float out of time, somehow.
Celebrity functions like the automobile: each year brings new models. There are those who can identify specific models & years, & others who cannot (I can barely distinguish one car from another, other than by size or color, for instance). What is special once can become laughably obsolete, very quickly.
As a suspicious consumer I feel wary about celebrity, even when I can simultaneously enthralled by it, by its enticements & distractions. It informs my everyday speech, even if only in disdain or mockery (evidence of its persuasive powers). Also, to give media credit - it basically distorts the everyday in a manner not unlike the Catholic Church, with a lot less guilt involved, even when equally repugnant. & its vulgar polytheism changes more quickly than the television seasons, such that today's horrors are forgotten in tomorrow's amnesia. Whatever it is - it will be over quickly. But that's just a knee-jerk reaction.
In The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire made a distinction between eternal, "classic" beauty & temporal, contingent beauty. The latter has an infernal modern aspect in its rejection of permanence, "eternity." It speaks to the senses rather than to any intellectual or moral imperatives. It's ideals are of one's day, rather than the cosmos. Eternity itself is a dead perfect thing, outside of life.
While without the hubris of Baudelaire, Andy Warhol's silkscreens of pop "stars" (Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Jacqueline Kennedy) elevate media images to an equivocal state which echoes some themes of the essay. The silkscreens can be perceived as transcriptions of existing imagery, as a kind of homage, or a queasy distortion of questionable iconicity (the images flattened by the posterizing silkscreen process, roughly painted in with solid colors). They are recognizable yet different. I have seen students try to copy the method & it invariably appears wrong somehow - the student work tends to be too clean, too well done, too reverential (one of my students made a grid of Anna Nicole Smith, after her untimely death). Even a witty pastiche such as Deborah Kass' images of Barbra Streisand still are a bit more laden with too much meaning - even if that word is a bit warped in this instance. Warhol's images simultaneously elevate & eviscerate what are ultimately all too brief cultural "icons." ("icon" is one of those words which should be expunged from the English language, for our own good.)
Stars as subject has a juvenile aspect: one's self is displaced in a vulgar polytheism of media celebrity, an Olympus of tabloid scandals & product placements. A excellent & vicious guide to the stars are the 2 volumes of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Anger may be the most Baudelairian of our contemporary artists in the extremities of his simultaneous relish & disgust in the wayward ways of Hollywood movie star egoists; monsters who built an oasis of decadence in the former deserts of Los Angeles.
Recently I saw Francesco Vezzoli's video Marlene Redux, which is a very funny "copy" of an E! Hollywood True Story - in this case termed "A Hollywood True Story" which is of the rise & fall of the artist Francesco Vezzoli, a narrative of success, then failure - Vezzoli lost in the sexual bazaar of Hollywood. Such a narrative is so much a cliche & so common in our tabloid culture - what would a parody actually accomplish? How different would it be? Still, it is a very well-crafted reproduction of the dizzying collage of edits & sound/image bytes & it becomes much more what I'd want to see on television - interviews (do such brief statements count as "interviews"?) with male porn stars & male prostitutes & gym trainers (*ahem*) & drag queens. The tale is much more decadent than the puritanical sobbings of US TV. As parodic as it may be, it is also a grandiose idealization of the form.
In a more global sense I'd state that the Vezzoli also reveals how much tabloid narratives have become extremely pervasive, & overlooked, in their ubiquity. They exist w/o question. There's a lot of pop star imagery in the arts which can ironic or not. I think of the paintings of rock stars & royalty by Elizabeth Peyton, which are extremely sincere - these seem quite similar to the work of Constantin Guys, who is the unnamed subject of Baudelaire's essay - both are kinds of elevated fashion illustration, & as such have almost a "documentary" value for the future, irregardless of one's taste for their styles. Will we even know who these people are in a few years? Looking at CDVs of royals & theater stars from the 19th century - who can identify them? Outside of the technologies used, is our world all that different? Celebrity seems most interesting when its obsolescence is acknowledged. (All these potential sequels to Sunset Boulevard. . . )
A more complex reading of our exploding pop inevitable is in the paintings, drawings, videos & installations of Karen Kilimnik. There is a violence & obsessiveness in her treatment of her pretty & cute subjects. Pretty becomes a kind of pathology, & the stars, real & imaginary, (Emma Peel, Leonardo di Caprio, Rudolf Nureyev, various Vogue models) become quite monstrous in their appeal. Kilimnik's work deals a lot w/ the reception of & reaction to media as a kind of invasive species of consciousness.
& in the case of an even more complex & enigmatic artist, Ray Johnson, whose collages & drawings & mail are full of images & names of stars, the stars themselves are internalized & abstracted to a kind of nothingness, as hermetic clues which never reveal themselves, & there is a much louder laughter (of sorts) coming from Johnson: the stars are there & they are nothing but cut paper playthings, filler for nonsense lists & fake meetings. Johnson's art is about sitting on a void & dawdling on it, making games & jokes out of a great big disappearing act.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Now in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, "A Boy for Meg" was on long-term loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where I saw it on numerous occasions as a child. It is one of the first paintings I can recall, distinctly, & as such represents a kind of primal memory (as it were) of aesthetic experience in my childhood. I was not directly aware of tabloid newspapers such as the NY Post, which was the template for the painting, I could recall tabloid "style" - my education was primarily cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Rocky & Bullwinkle) & the Warhol in its own way followed such a suit. Easy to recognize, it seems.
My mother read movie star magazines rather obsessively in these days - Photoplay, etc. which she would hide, like pornography, & I as an inquisitive child, found them & read them cover to cover, before returning them to their hiding-place. Ethel Kennedy's affair with Andy Williams (my mother & I would watch his TV Christmas special together every year), Jackie K becoming Jackie O & as such transforming from Great Widow to Great Whore in the scheme of things, Ted Kennedy's "incident" at Chappaquadick (I think we paid attention to the Kennedys because they were Catholic - I went to a Catholic grade school at one point & my 3rd grade teacher told us all that if a Kennedy was elected, this was before the death of RFK, then God would be in the White House, helping out). for example.
Along with Photoplay, etc. my favorite book at that time was Edith Hamilton's Mythology - Timeless Tales of Gods & Heros. Itself a compendium of (truly) immortal gossip. I would attribute any ability on my part to recall intricacies of connections to these 2 random aspects of my childhood culture. Seeing Renaissance & Baroque tapestries for example I could recognize attributes of Gods unseen to my family: Mercury, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.
The Warhol somehow fit into the pop mass cultural world around me & also remove itself from the "shelf" as it were - I could recognize the same Campbell soup cans, the Brillo boxes, the ads in the back of comic books, etc. to be found in any supermarket. My aunt Lucille, a secretary at GM Overseas, had taken me to the DIA for an exposure to culture, something neither of my parents would have ever attempted - it meant an exposure to that great entity, "the finer things in life" which from her petit bourgeois world meant also that they were the stuff of museums, others, "not for us." This was not dissimilar from the car rides we did on Lakeshore Drive in the Grosse Pointes to look at the mansions of the Fords, etc. Look but don't touch. But like the illicit photos of Jackie O being stalked, the weirdness & splendor of an art museum was another form of forbidden fruit. & although making no claim at all for any deep illuminations in all this media hubbub, I think I did discover & discovering knowingly, looking at the Warhol, a way to mediate the mediation all around us. & it had humor & spirit - a child could understand its mockery, it camp, & its independence.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Thomas Struth: Making Timeis a catalog for a show by Struth at the Prado, as well, with a bit of perversity, a documentation of Struth's show at the Prado. There is some wit in this: the catalog, rather than representing a simultaneity between show & catalog, depicts it in the past tense. The show had to be up, & photographed, for the book to be made. Photographs of the installations become "Struth photographs" along with the existing Struth photographs placed throughout the museum.
When I first saw Struth's museum photographs I found them striking - perhaps mainly because of formal aspects such as color & the luminosity of the printing, which is sober but rich. & also my voyeuristic interest in seeing old master paintings was satisfied. I don't know if my satifactions have been sustained by the work, however.
The work in the Prado, like the Pergamon Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, wherever, has its greatness, its indisputable status as classic. That's not quite the subject of the photos - the photos detail the morgue-like setting of the museums as a site of spectatorship & also a kind of aesthetic enthrallment. I'd say at this point I find myself withdrawing from the work as I can't abide what seems a near single-minded focus of the museum-goers on the art, in a timeless state of contemplation, as a common scenario. The temporal spectator face-to-face with the eternal masterpiece: Vita brevis, longa ars. This seems an idealized, unrealistic assessment of a contemporary museum experience. Even in the thick crowds depicted, which in "reality" would be loud with noise & distraction. Struth's cool, sober formalism shuts out any sociology of a museum experience. I can't help but think that a more satirical & social photographer such as Martin Parr might be an interesting counterpoint in such a situation.
There have been rather silly images of "art-viewing" in the history of photography. The most reproduced one I can think of is the Robert Doisneau image of an older couple looking in the window of a gallery, on the wall there is a painting of a naked lady - the viewer recognizes that the "nude" is really "naked" & there for a prurient gaze from the man. This is a kind of visual joke that was more popular in the world of picture magazines, w/ images by Doisneau, or Elliott Erwitt. Well - maybe the sociology I miss in Struth is actually rather stupid & magazine-like, after all.
Am I positing 2 extremes merely for effect? The mocking vulgarity of the mass culture magazine, in which high culture is meant to be "brought down" a notch or so, as not being quite what it purports to be. Versus the humorless, solemn & all too beautifully pensive images of Struth, wherein the art experience still has an aura of "elevation." Perhaps.
Still, I find myself bristling a bit w/ the Struth museum images in that they hold back any meaning in an opaque formal way. Orson Welles said that one could never believe a (filmed) image of someone praying; likewise I doubt any image of an elevating visual experience. Even if in theory it is a reflective state I seek rather often (I doubt it would look like anything however).
This may be an overstatement. It is intriguing that the Prado, or any museum, would exhibit photographs of its galleries in its galleries. Such "self"-reflexivity (the institution as a kind of self - a little too museum for my comfort) is a kind of reactionary version of something like Daniel Buren's installations in galleries in the 1970s, which baffled the ideologies of galleries by drawing attention to them, and reducing them to generic geometric flows. In the Struth museum images, which can seem a bit marvelous, and offer a lot of seductive visuality, one is unable to understand much beyond just that. While the lack of anecdote or narrative, & the resolute formalism of the images is of interest, and easy to "enter", again my mind wanders to work which is not quite so visually pleasing but of much more interest in looking at art: from the installations of stripes by Buren, to the photographs of art in its settings by Louise Lawler, in which art is a status symbol, a possession, a decoration, an example of taste - in which there is a negation of any metaphysics or inner-experience.
I try to remember first seeing Struth's work in galleries, in the 1980s. It was a different experience than now & I do not believe that is just an example of my own aging. When first seen in NY, for instance, Struth, along w/ Andreas Gursky & other students of Bernd & Hilla Becher, utilized a technological objectivity which initially dated from experimental photography in the 1920s, & which had been reinvigorated by the Bechers, given a conceptual rigor lacking in magazine or artistic photography of the past decades. Still, it is almost shocking how someone like Struth can "cross the street" so effortlessly & go from the avant-garde to the academy, & look quite the same, doing so.
At the risk of sounding too harsh re Struth, I can also state that in the glorious galleries of the Prado, w/ Las Meninas & The Spinners, along w/ other Struth photographs "intervening" among the old masters, there was also one of my very favorite portraits by Struth, of the art historian Giles Robertson (there is also a very great double portrait of Robertson w/ his wife). & that meant something to me somehow - a photo in a photo in a book of a show - these curious mediations we take to see ourselves & our worlds.
Friday, August 29, 2008
There is a Sufi story about a group of blind men feeling an elephant, each at a different part of its body, each trying to describe the totality if the animal, from the point at which they touch it. The story being that none fully describe it. Andy Warhol as an artist seems as perplexing as this hypothetical elephant. What did he do? What did he mean? I can think of few artists who can embody so many contradictory practices and tastes - someone held in esteem both by the editorial board of October, & family members of the deposed Shah of Iran.
Depending on what work is seen, a different Warhol appears. If I were to have seen only the installation at the DIA Foundation in Beacon, for example, with its enormous gallery of abstract shadow paintings (which I found rather uninteresting except in the excesses of the installation), it would be different from the more spectacular gallery in the Hamburger Banhof in Berlin, with its enormous Mao, its even larger camouflage painting, & some of the Disaster silkscreens.
Or I think of one of the first paintings I can recall clearly from my childhood, a painting entitled "A Boy For Meg" - a painting of a NY Post headline about Princess Margaret. It is now in the National Gallery in Washington, but was on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts, when I saw it. An early lesson in camp for me.
Or the films, which are wonderfully terrible as drama (Vinyl, Poor Little Rich Girl), & mesmerizing about the "film" experience.
Or the very ambiguous celebrity portraits. Was Warhol a court portraitist to a global power-elite?
To add to the bewilderingly prismatic Warhol bodies of work is a great catalog of a show at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London of black-&-white photographs which was curated by Steven Bluttal.
"Portraits & Landscapes" is a collection of black-&-white photographs done over an extended period. The title refers to the layout of the images - portrait is vertical, landscape is horizontal. Unlike previous collections of Warhol's photographs which relate to work such as the silkscreens, or were exhibited independently, such as the stitched photographs, the images in the show do not represent any any specific artistic project per se. These are random photographs. The Warhol we see in this is near anonymous - this is the work of an active snapshooter. We look at them because Warhol's name is attached to them. The Warhol we see can baffle us further: a photographer accumulating images, shooting constantly. This is about bulk, much more than a studied delectation. The camera becomes a tool of acquisition.
The design of the book is based on the Ed Ruscha book Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Like the Ruscha it is an accordion book, in a foil-covered slip case. The images are reproduced at the top & bottom of the pages, counting to over 200. It's a genuinely lovely book, well-done. There are other books which parody or emulate Ruscha's self-published books, such as Louisa Van Leer's Fifteen Pornography Companies, which wear a little thin in such recognition. The catalog from Timothy Taylor is both similar & different enough to exist independently as a book, even in the long tall shadow of Ruscha.
Steven Bluttal is also the editor of a book of images of the designer Halston - it is a thick brick of a book of ads, editorial images, & other visual ephemera. Bluttal is bright & sensitive to the fascination of materials which could very easily be overlooked. Given the excesses of what is coming out of the Warhol Museum, one can only hope for more & different work to emerge.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Last night at Light Industry in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I attended a presentation by William E. Jones of 2 films made by Fred Halsted, Sex Garage and LA Plays Itself. LA Plays Itself is almost a "lost film" in that no fully extant version of it exists currently, except perhaps a film in the film department of MoMA, which does not circulate. Jones has made a provision reconstruction of the film which includes a fisting scene at the end which was removed when the film was transferred to VHS way back when.
Another issue, discussed by Jones after the screening, is the squeamishness on the part of some institutions and individuals in involving themselves with research & reconstruction of a gay porn film. This involves both commercial video companies as well as remaining family & colleagues of the late Fred Halsted. In the commercial film industry, porn exists as a quasi-invisible parallel universe to the corporate fantasies of giant entertainment conglomerates, & as such is kept distant, or ignored, or denied. & if it is gay - one can exponentially increase that disdain.
I had never seen LA Plays Itself. There is a brief excerpt of it in Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself - in addition it gave Andersen a title for his film. Made in a span of 3 years, from 1969 - 1971, released in 1972, LA Plays Itself now exists as a kind of archaeological find of gay porn. In photographic terms, I would say it is comparable to looking at the work of Hill & Adamson, early calotypists making portraits in the 1840s, in an exploratory, ad hoc manner, in contradistinction to the later industrialized commercial portrait studios of Paris, London, New York, churning out mass-produced cartes-de-visites.
What is so striking about LA Plays Itself is its affinities to experimental films as well as its raunchy hubris. Kenneth Anger without any occult. Stan Brakhage in a backroom. Discontinuous editing akin to Soviet experiments of the 1920s. I don't know if Halsted had any experience of any of this kind of film, & it doesn't really matter. What is apparent is Halsted's extreme engagement with the material, his radical "focus" (excuse the pun) on desire, lust, carnality, & how that shapes the provisional narrative - that really is the narrative as such. There's also an amazing array of other "things" in the film, scenes of nature in Malibu Canyon, flowers, insects, fish, & the streets of Los Angeles, & also a rather "Pop art" use of billboards, advertising & newspaper headlines to punctuate scenes. This recalls a similar use of billboards & advertising used by William Klein, in his film Muhammad Ali: The Greatest or the advertising copy which becomes party dialogue & also visual commentary in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou - Criterion Collection ("put a tiger in your tank!"). The newspaper headlines involve the Tate-LoBianca murders & Charles Manson, which become ominous in lieu of the last part of the film which involves an s/M scene between a youth & Fred Halsted in which they are intercut, leading up to the now fragmentary, partially lost fisting scene.
Both Malibu Canyon & the streets of Los Angeles as scenes of cruising, either solitary or in general groups (Selma Ave. was the hustler strip at the time as per Jones) become existential theaters. In daylight they seem still isolated, interior. While the "nature" scenes are lush & fecund, the streets seem infernally shabby. The streets are senseless, cruel, mocking. There is a repetitious Warholian dialogue overlaid on the scenes of street, of Halsted speaking to a young Texan hick, new to LA, telling him to be careful hustling on the streets. There is a sardonic aspect to this as it leads up to the extraordinary 2nd sexual sequence of the film, of a boy being dominated by Halsted - forced to climb stairs on hands & knees, tied to a bed, worked over. At the risk of casting it in negative terms, the film is not joyous about sexuality, although it is certainly obsessed with it.
Contra contemporary porn which has a great deal of polish, a fully illustrative manner in detailing sex acts, routine conventions & a fairly predictable schedule of sequencing, Halsted's films look hand-made. Although made for public consumption, there's a degree of angst to them which in commercial terms is very different from "product". The camera movements are hand held, blurring & obscuring actions. It is often difficult to follow what is going on, or to understand the narrative (jump-cuts a la Antonioni for instance). This can seem intentional, in rendering the sexual violence as truly dangerous. & when it is more oblique, we the viewers are forced into an existential immediacy of consciousness, which seems the true "story" of the film. The images pulsate in & out of near abstraction. In art photography, especially nude "erotic" photography, abstraction is often a kind of visual brake to keep the sexuality of the images contained & controlled, to elevate it to an aesthetic level of "tastefulness". In Halsted's use of abstract framing, with its kinetic force, it instead amplifies a heated voyeurism, or extends the sexuality to that which is not directly sexual or genital related - the lilt of hair, a shoulder, the curve of a back. One could say that this relentless looking of the camera pulls EVERYTHING into a sexualized tension - including the flowers, insects & rocks (& of course the gritty streets): A low-down heated-up frenzy.
Looking at men erotically in our culture has been commercialized so successfully, whether it be a Falcon video, or an Abercrombie & Fitch ad campaign, & so thoroughly identified as such (along with appropriate product placements), it is invigorating to see something like Fred Halsted's films, which are so much more delirious & messy & complex an experience. Our "real" commodified, defined world looks truly shallow in comparison.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photographs at the Huntington Library in San Marino is a large exhibition. "Los Angeles Photographs" as a category is actually an eclectic array of work: albumen cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite from the 19th century, commercial studio work, news photographs, publicity images, & a variety of artistic processes. Likewise, "Los Angeles" itself is posited as a cultural imaginary as much as a location on a map. The exhibition is organized by loose themes, Garden, Move, Work, Play, Dwell, Clash, and Dream, as opposed to epoch, style or author. As such it becomes quite open-ended in presenting a kaleidescope of images and meanings. The images exist in & of themselves, but also are recontextualized in a tapestry of what would be our imaginary Los Angeles.
In its categories & recontextualizations I am reminded of 2 other works (both non-photographic), Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, and the Thom Andersen film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Loosely, of course. The Banham comes to mind in its "revisionist" reading of Los Angeles as a complicated, potentially marvelous place, contra its mass-media image as a gigantic air-headed suburb. The exhibit at the Huntington ranges from exquisite carte-de-visites by Carleton Watkins, to large color prints of San Fernando Valley porn film shooting sites. My friend K. & I were most delighted w/ 3 photos by Allen Ruppersberg with accompanying dialogues typed on paper (unfortunately not in the catalogue). I was also struck w/ the modernist topographical images by Max Yavno, & a commercial studio which has a very whimsical name, the "Dick" Whittington Studio. Pictorial work. Physique Pictorial work. Bruce of Los Angeles. Catherine Opie. Ed Ruscha. Julius Shulman. William Garnett. William Claxton. William Henry Jackson. Edmund Teske. Joe Deal. Karin Apollonia Muller. John Divola. Edward Weston. I could go on. It's a large show but in a way I wish it were larger. & that the catalogue were printed better, although it's certainly a great read.
In its eclecticism, the images of Los Angeles constitute a collage of meanings which touch on beauty, aestheticism, land surveys, boom & bust economies, anarchy, riots, ecology, architecture, conceptual art, show biz, pornography.
Now back in New York, I have been trying to consider whether such a show could be made of New York City. I do not think I am merely being boosterish in claiming that NYC is one of the most photographed cities in the world & as such is extremely recognizable. & there have been shows, such as Max Kozloff's New York: Capital of Photography. Still, looking through the Kozloff book - it's not quite of the range I find in the Huntington show, it's still a modernist photo collection, sealed off from "other" or "outside" meanings - one sees photos, not an exploration of NYC itself. Perhaps NYC is too much a "dominant" site on the map to sustain a fluid & poetic remapping of a real & imaginary city, as constituted in the exhibition & book by Jennifer A. Watts & Claudia Bohn-Spector. & while Los Angeles was built of hucksters & boosters, & has been in a state of being perpetually for sale, it does not have the symbolic totality of Manhattan (contra something like Sarah Morris' video, Los Angeles, which constitutes a fragment of a bit of local "color" e.g. the entertainment industry). For all its capitalistic excesses, Los Angeles has also been a site of remarkably varied forms of dissent and exploration. Whereas NYC, with its checkered past, it's excess of representations, now seems quite homogenized, packaged, wrapped-up neatly. A NY of differences is now a kind of theme park nostalgia. Curious.
Friday, August 8, 2008
In Long Life Cool White: Photographs and Essays by Moyra Davey (Harvard University Art Museums)one of Moyra Davey's essays is entitled "Notes on Photography & Accident." The accidents she refers to are what Roland Barthes termed the punctum of a photograph - contingencies which exist in an image almost unconsciously, overlooked, ignored, that which was not the intent or purpose of the photo. Davey cites Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Janet Malcolm, Susan Sontag, Rosalind Krauss in a very thoughtful consideration of qualities about photography cited by these authors. Davey also ponders whether the contingencies and "accidents" cited are now obsolete in the current art world.
Here I am guessing Davey is referring to both the advent of digital technologies as a primary tool in the use of cameras & printing (in which case the "mistake" can be fixed in photoshop), as well as the appropriation of "photography," formerly a bastard technological medium of low artistic value outside its own smaller art ghetto, into the mainstream art world in which case it now functions not as a tool of any sort of realism, yoked to its subject, but exists simply as another mode for an aesthetic gesture, any gesture. A plaything for those who have the ability to own it.
Davey's writing is structured in fragments, akin to Walter Benjamin, & also the title alludes, at least in its grammar, to Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp." I feel a dread in trying to discuss Davey's ideas in so short a form as a blog: for as seemingly terse & brief as her pieces seem, the writing is extremely expansive, thoughtful, rich, and with great economy, very moving. There is a gravity in her writing, a kind of morality, which is outside the pleasure express of our mediatized culture. I find myself re-reading the same passages repeatedly, simply for the pleasure of doing so. My one complaint would be: More! I want more!
Although there is no discussion of vernacular photography in the book, the thoughts about photography & accident also bring to mind what it is in snapshots which draws me "in" - akin to the Surrealist "found object", & a sense of lost time, the accident being the hallmark of something better than perfection. Perfection is death, & the "flaw" is that which is unique & meaningful.
(note to self: re-read Diana & Nikon).
Saturday, July 26, 2008
One of the weirder issues of living in NYC (at least for me) is a sense of confinement, of not getting out of the perimeters of daily life, unless accessible by subway. One of my great regrets of the past year, in terms of NOT doing something, was NOT going to DC to the National Gallery for the exhibition The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978.
The catalogue, mercifully, is a marvelous alternative to "being there." Following shows such as The Snapshot at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Other Pictures at the Metropolitan Museum, and Closer to Home at the Getty Museum, The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978 is a comprehensive survey of snapshots, as historical forms, from the collection of Robert Jackson. Jackson's collection has great aesthetic appeal, but its assiduous cataloging of the various permutations of snapshots over a 90 year span, gives it a historical resonance in tandem with any visual pleasure. In short, it is a very rich experience.
In the Summer 08 issue of Art Journal there is a trenchant criticism by Catherine Zuromskis about the collecting & exhibition of vernacular photography in art museums - that the snapshot is forced into a new role as "art" & as such is re-evaluated in modernist, formal, artistic terms, unconnected to its origins or histories. This is an echo of the essays of a generation ago now by Rosalind Krauss & Abigail Solomon-Godeau, among others, about the re-writing of photography into the museum ("Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View," "Calotypomania: The Gourmet Guide to Nineteenth Century Photography").
In discussions about the exhibition of snapshots, I would also cite exhibitions/catalogs which explore vernacular forms explicitly, such as The Art of the American Snapshot, Barbara Levine's Snapshot Chronicles, "African American Vernacular Photography: Selections of the Daniel Cowin Collection" at the International Center of Photography. Or to cite another kind of history "re-written", the exhibition/catalog Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits, curated by Deborah Willis utilized commercial portraiture of public figures to create a revisionist "Gallery of Illustrious Americans" a la Matthew Brady, as a visual history for a disenfranchised but not unremarkable community. & also David Deitcher's exploration of gay desire in the show/catalog Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together 1840-1918. This is not to contest the points made by Zuromskis, but to tease out alternatives to the hegemony of the art museum, as described.
The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978 is the fullest exploration of snapshots I know of to date. Its attention to forms, time periods, & historical circumstances illuminates what has been all to easy to overlook in our scraps of the everyday. This is a very exploratory & educational collection.