Saturday, March 27, 2010

Death, Destruction and . . .

In conversation w/ D., about the photographing of ruins.

Ruins were common subjects in the first decades of photography: there are exemplary examples of such, as daguerreotype, calotype, wet plate image, etc. As a technical consideration, the immobility of any site, it's stationary aspect, facilitated its imaging by processes which were time-intensive. & in these images one can see a cultural shift in the use of the image to delineate time as a physical residue, residue which can be simultaneously historical & touristic.

We can see the Acropolis or the excavations of Pompeii with the new technological vision of the camera. The sites tend to be much dirtier & unkempt than in our present day, or so it seems - it could be a problem w/ early orthochromatic films. It is as the places do not know how to be seen - how awkward they can seem. Or I think of the views by Roger Fenton of fantastical gothic ruins in England, with tiny figures randomly placed in the overgrown sites. This reminds me of how different it could be to experience such sites, physically, in different times. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Tess could run off to Stonehenge in her great solitude, whereas nowadays one would be on a very controlled guided tour.

The photograph also has air of judgement in it's seeming ability to discern what is to be preserved & what is to be discarded. For example, the survey by Charles Marville of Paris before the expansion of the city by Baron Hausmann had obliterated the medieval city is an inventory of what is to be destroyed, after it has been recorded by the camera. This is a concrete manifestation of the assertion by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his article about the stereoscope: Form is henceforth divorced from matter. The image is what is necessary, not the thing itself.

Images of war, as the urgency of the conflict fades from memory, become quaint & fascinating for their visual qualities. From the US Civil War, George Barnard's images following William Tecumseh Sherman's "March to the Sea" have an uncanny solitude, like Pompeii, which in no way imparts the aggressive fury of a military campaign of massive destruction. Such a duality in images - their ability to succor us from the horrors which they represent, is where I want to begin w/ my talk w/ D.

There are 2 photo books out this spring of Detroit - Detroit Disassembled, by Andrew Moore, and The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre. I have my own ongoing photographic project of Detroit, which includes images of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, & Victorian ruins in Brush Park. More on this another time: but is Detroit a "disaster" or the outcome of capitalist logic played out, & played out on home turf? Isn't it about economic obsolescence? An end that is now in sight?

From there the conversation led to Robert Polidori's book of photos of New Orleans, after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori: After the Flood.

For D., the viewing of ruins is a romantic activity. & less substantial than, say, the lyrics of Shelley's Ozymandias. No judgement is in the image itself, no (excuse the pun) point of view; the photographer is more a camera operator than an interpreter, with a technological recording at hand. The oblique photograph does not hone one's perspective but instead offers distraction & a puzzlement of meaning. In more general terms, the photograph reduces all to tourism.

Polidori's images of New Orleans are a fairly exhaustive inventory of damages from the hurricane & subsequent flooding, yet do so in a richly pictorial style we know from Polidori's earlier work, with it's sharp focus, rich colors, & intense details. I am partial to Polidori's book of Havana, for example, which although of a poverty on a scale we ignore in the US (& also of a past sumptuousness equally foreign to our more Puritanical shores), does not read necessarily as a kind of victimization except as a manifestation of an Exotic Other (although I suspect it may function as a prospective real estate brochure for those waiting for the fall of communism in Cuba).

The images of New Orleans are structured entirely around the flood; the images also manage to aestheticize the disaster
& have it read as natural. As if it is the high waters & mold lines constitute the issues at hand, rather than the class warfare & bureaucratic neglect which facilitated the true disaster. & this is where the work becomes troubling, in its delectation of a ruined city, for no other purpose than it's aesthetic consumption, in a simplified equation of cause & effect.

That said, I find that the void I sense looking at these images is what compels me to continue to look.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Anthony Hamboussi, Newtown Creek - A Photographic Survey of New York's Industrial Waterway

Newtown Creek: A Photographic Survey of New York?s Industrial Waterwayby Anthony Hamboussi is a journey around the perimeters of the Newtown Creek in New York City, an industrial canal which separates north Brooklyn from the western perimeters of Queens, flowing westward towards the East River. It is a self-propelled project, which began with Hamboussi's knowledge of the area, beginning in a childhood in nearby Maspeth, Queens. A seemingly casual project became an obsessive chronicle of several years. The images are presented chronologically which suits the essentially private nature of the enterprise, that of Hamboussi's journey into a polluted heart of darkness within New York City limits. Thoroughly researched & plotted, Hamboussi's itinerary also incorporated intuitive aspects, which can be seen in the fitful un-mappings of the area, giving it more the fitful mutability of dreams, in its starts & stops & divergences, while it inventories a large area of mixed industries.

I have been struck by how many New Yorkers do not know where the Newtown Creek is, although it is a ubiquity to those living in Greenpoint, Bushwick, Long Island City, Maspeth. The community with the most unlikely name in such a gray mess is Blissville, which straddles a cemetery & a Best Western Motel, on the Queens side. The creek stinks. It is poisonous. Its most notable landmark is the sewage treatment plant through which flows 3/4 of New York City's waste (& which now features a remarkably innovative park within its facilities). Good friend of mine once lived in Greenpoint, at the end of Manhattan Ave., on the other side of the Pulaski Bridge from the sewage treatment plant, which when the wind blew in a certain manner, mixing with the scents of a nearby scented candle factory, the area would be imbued with odors of intense sweetness & shit, even for those with a high gag threshold. There are now 2 centuries of industry layering its shores, & within it the boundaries have blurred between public & private, as streets mysteriously disappear into the gated confines of corporations, as maps mutate with no reason other than as the residue of decades of corporate aggression homesteading on these filthy borders. Seemingly deserted, it is actually active & dynamic as an economic nerve, sinking below the horizon of freeways, warehouses & factories.

Perhaps the most acute irony I could discover about the area is that in the 18th century, before its industrialization, the Newtown Creek gave its name to the first cultivated apple in the US: the Newtown Pippin. Grassy meadows sloping down to sweet waters, a peaceable kingdom of fish & fowl, a New World . . .

At this point we can only take someone's else's word on this. Hamboussi's photos show a diverse area of industry & infrastructure. While the frontage on the East River is now being developed as a corridor of high-rise apartments, the filthy core of the creek is still a crazy-quilt cross-section of industries & abject histories.

What will happen to the parking lot for the Fink Means Good Bread trucks? What pollutants were left behind by Phelps Dodge, before its site was taken over for the Fresh Direct warehouse? How can National Grid justify legally its prohibition of photography at its perimeter, outside its fenced borders?

Hamboussi looks at the Creek with the eyes of both an insider & an outsider. Given the lugubrious tally of industry & its aftermath at hand, Hamboussi's photography has a contrasting lightness of touch. While I know the work he has put into it, the images flow with their attention to detail, to the ability of Hamboussi to guide us through a landscape which would be so easy to ignore in its harshness, yet which reveals so much about the world we live in.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Herve Guibert, Ghost Image

Herve Guibert's L'Image fantome was published initially in 1982. The English translation, Ghost Image (Green Integer), by Robert Bononno, I have came out in 1996, from Sun & Moon Press, and is available currently from Green Integer Press. The book is comprised of short written pieces which were published originally in Le Monde. A posthumous volume, La Photo, inéluctablement, was published in 1999, which has not yet appeared in English.

Guibert, known primarily for his books, also photographed. Several years ago I saw an exhibition of his photos at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, on upper Fifth Ave., just below the Met, & I have a book published by Schirmer/Mosel. From 1993! (It seems so not so long ago).

The pieces in Ghost Image are short, some the length of a paragraph. Although notable photographers are mentioned (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, August Sander), the pieces discuss photography in the everyday: Family photos, identity photos, album covers, film stills, etc., as well as the acts of photographing, the tensions & disappointments of it. I enjoyed particularly an account of an adolescent infatuation with a still of Terence Stamp in the Fellini film Toby Dammit (in which Guibert mistakenly refers to the Stamp character as the devil, when in fact Stamp is more a Swinging London version of Faust, who has sold his soul). There is a diaristic aspect to the writing - family episodes are recounted, memory is intertwined with photography - and it is public and brief, in a form that is perhaps more familiar to blog readers of today. Truly, it seems prescient of so much web writing now, although with a much more delirious perversity and greater powers of observation:

. . . I recall an incident that made a great impression on me when I was 8 or 9 years old. My sister was 12 or 13 at the time, and her breasts were just beginning to develop; high and firm, we had already seen them at the beach the year before, but that was the last time, because the following year they were covered up by a bra. That morning, it must have been a Sunday, my sister was locked in the bathroom. My father was at the door, camera in hand, trying to get in. He said, without hiding his intention, that he wanted to photograph his daughter's breasts, because at that age, the moment of their initial formation, they are at the height of their beauty, and if they weren't photographed then, that state of perfection would be lost. That was the extent of his argument. At the time, he sadly renounced his failed attempt at appropriation through the image and fought against that limit; he wanted to push back by a notch the phase of abandonment, of renunciation and at the same time, extend his role as a father in order to assume that of a lover within the conventions of voyeurism, for between the father and the lover, desire was probably not very different. . . "Inventory of a Box of Photographs"

Photography, in Guibert's book, is a multiplicity of effects. It is a technological reinforcement of morbid curiosities, it facilitates social controls, it supplants memories, dreams and perceptions, replacing them with its own mediated Olympus of illusions.In "Photographic Writing" Guibert finds photographic aspects in descriptive writings by Goethe and Kafka - looking backward from the perspective of the technological present to a pre-photography concealed in language. Without any direct quotations, I find traces of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes in Guibert's considerations of the social aspects of photography. Barthes makes an appearance as "R.B." in "The Photograph, As Close to Death as Possible" which is an account of Guibert approaching R.B. to photograph him with his ailing mother, who in the interim, died. Guibert presents his own lust for photographing in equivocal terms: it is morbid, it is fetishistic, it is selfish. & the compulsion can be sweet as well.

Written with almost aphoristic brevity, these episodes of photography seem both exceedingly particular & also informed with much larger ideas. To continue with photographic metaphors, these vignettes are like snapshots, fragments which indicate a much larger whole. I last read the book in what must have been 1996-1997, when the translation was published. Rereading it has been as stimulating as I can recall it to have been, with what seems new finds:

A Japanese dancer from the Sankai Juku group dances with a peacock. His entire body is very white, powdered with white clay, and his head is shaved. He wears nothing but a plain linen loincloth tied around his waist and stands out in relief against a wooden backdrop to which varnished fishtails and enormous fins from some cetacean have been attached. He embraces the peacock like a woman in a swoon, and the pattern on the bird's plumage extends his loincloth with a gold-flecked train. We can see that the peacock's thighs and feet are very muscular, like an ostrich, but the dancer keeps them bent, broken at the joints, and immobilized in his left hand, pressed against his side. His right hand encircles the peacock's neck, stretches it, plays with it as if it were a delicate instrument, squeezes it almost to the point of strangling it. Everything is limited to a few contractions, and to the flow of blood, which he must feel and control with his palm: the Japanese dances a kind of slow-motion tango with the peacock, he dances with the peacock's fear, with its vital fear of death. It really is an extraordinary moment, one of great tension, great beauty. But when the dancer releases the terrified peacock, we no longer know where to look, and our eye, which wanders between the dancer and the bird, loses its orientation. The peacock is nothing but a big terrified fowl who scratches around stupidly and snares itself in the cord that restrains its feet. The dancer is nothing but a dancer gesturing slowly. Our fascination has worn off, and rather than be deceived, we prefer to divert our gaze to the empty space between them, where the magic was created, the site of a latent photograph. Morever, when the Sankai Juko group came to Paris, many people, many photographers, returned to the performance with their cameras mounted on tripods. They bought seats in the front row and waited for the appearance of the peacock. They fired away - they were guaranteed beauty. That eminently photographic image, however, doesn't belong to them (what is it that eludes photography here, except the infintesimal movements of contraction of the peacock's neck, which are essential to the dance?), it belongs to the dancer, and he has decided that this will be a dance and not a photograph. And we might reiterate that beauty, like theater, is tied to the ephemeral, and to loss, and can't be captured. Only I would prefer that photographers put more dance (or theater, or cinema) into their pictures, just as the dancer had put photography into his dance. - "Dance"