Monday, December 31, 2007

Time Lines

Last week at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, in the exhibit "Brave New Worlds" I saw a 17 minute 35mm film (playing on a loop) by Runa Islam entitled Time Lines.

The film is made up of long shots of aerial transports on the outskirts of Barcelona. The cable cars also function as the vehicle for tracking shots, of the cable lines, of the sky, which become quite abstract with the trance-like camera movements. There are actors, or more appropriately, costumed models in some of the cable cars, although the fiction is not consistent. Such an indifference to illusionism is one of the great charms of the film. If anything it amplifies the industrialized vision of such structures - such lifts, the Eiffel Tower, ferris wheels, panoramas, photography, cinema - technology is our vision & it creates our pleasures.

The particulars of Barcelona, its topography, and the proximity of the sea, pale in the enormity of the ether in which the figures traverse. With a simple economy of means so much is suggested. Industrial culture appears toy-like, and also obsolete. I am reminded of some lines from The Communist Manifesto: All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air . . .

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Power Book

The Power Book is a compendium of Jacqueline Hassink's work to date. Hassink's projects are a hybrid of documentary photographic practices, in which a specific subject matter is isolated and photographed, as a series (e.g. corporate board rooms, or models employed in car shows in various cities), and also the creation of systems for the information gathered, which is a practice which resembles systems-based methodologies of conceptual art - I am thinking in particular of some of Douglas Heubler's work, or the rigorous necessities used by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Hassink's work addresses information and discipline. Hassink's subjects as well are primarily corporate, on a global scale, represented by their built spaces, as architecture, decor, amenities. Perhaps a superficial resemblance could be made between Louise Lawler's work & Hassink - in which case I would say that Lawler's photos of art collections in private homes and offices pale considerably to the corporate super-structures in which Hassink places herself. The art collections Lawler photographed are but one of many decorative accents and investments in these citadels of economic power. Although the photographs are notably absent of people, for the most part, I can't help but think of Hassink by dint of persuasion, drive, research and intelligence putting herself in these privatized corporate power centers, going where there is no intention of any visitors, and leaving with her assiduous reports. While she seems entirely familiar with the worlds she documents, her role is still that of an investigative outsider. What Hassink photographs is particular to regions and cultures, but also global: corporations exist with their own borders.

In project-based books such as The Table of Power, Hassink documents corporate boardroom tables, along with salient information gathered in the making of the project. In this project there is a pun in the use of word "table" as it refers to the literal tables in boardrooms as well as the table of information that Hassink establishes in assessing the similarities and differences of each corporation, including the hospitalities extended or not to Hassink. The "table" also incorporates what could be considered gendered space, such as in the work Female Power Stations: Queen Bees, which documents both the executive boardrooms and private dining spaces of female CEOs.

Hassink documents female CEOs, as well in a continuation of the project which became Arab Queen Bees. Hassink also deals with gendered spaces which do not represent sexual equality but which reify more traditional roles in VIP Fitting Rooms, and in Car Girls, in which models pose before cars at car shows. The car girls are especially chilling in their robotic symbiosis with automobiles.

By dint of being a compendium of work, The Power Book forfeits the intimacy of Hassink's project-based books, but it is an excellent introduction to her work. Published by Chris Boot, who has published other books of documentary work in innovative forms, it includes facsimiles of Hassink's notebooks and descriptions of the projects. Hassink's work deals with information, which in sense can seem entirely pre-existing (does anyone need to go anywhere to know such things?), nevertheless there is a sardonic, intuitive intelligence applied to what one would associate with corporate reports. While not a documentary per se, Hassink's work makes new space for further inquiries.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Urban adventurers wind up the keepers of Parisian treasures

By John Lichfield in Paris
Published: 26 November 2007
The Independent

A group of urban adventurers has wound up the French state by creating a clandestine clubhouse in the dome of the Panthéon, one of the most celebrated buildings in Paris.

The group devoted part of its nocturnal occupation of the Panthéon to repairing the building's 19th-century clock, which stopped working in 1965. But when informed of this public-spirited act, French officialdom was less than grateful.

The government has made several unsuccessful attempts to prosecute the group, who are mostly professional people in their thirties, with the latest case thrown out of court last Friday.

The phantom clock repairers belong to a team called "Untergunther", which is part of a wider movement called UX. Originally, it held parties in the 17th and 18th-century catacombs under the city. But since the discovery in 2004 of a clandestine cinema deep under the Place de Trocadéro, many of the secret access routes to the catacombs have been sealed off.

Members of UX, including students, but also lawyers, nurses and even a public prosecutor, have turned instead to nocturnal invasions of public buildings and Métro stations. "Lazar", a spokesman for the Untergunther group, told the French national newspaper, Le Monde: "We are not squatters. These are urban no-go zones. We use them for non-political, creative gatherings, such as film festivals and renovating the country's architectural heritage."

In the gallery under the dome of the Panthéon, which contains the remains of France's official artistic and political heroes and heroines, Untergunther created a kind of informal clubhouse. Armchairs, a table and an electric hob were hidden away in packing cases after each visit.

Entry was child's play. A group member hid in the building during opening hours, stole a bunch of keys and copied them. The group also entered through a passage from the sewers, which emerges under the tomb of the early 20th-century moderate socialist leader Jean Jaurès.

One member of the group – Jean-Baptiste Viot – was a professional watch and clockmaker. With his guidance, Untergunther rescued the Panthéon's timepiece from four decades of official neglect.

After a year of work, they informed the Pantheon management in September 2006. The Centre for National Monuments took legal action, arguing the action might inspire malicious imitators. The proceedings got nowhere until four members of the group were arrested in the Pantheon at 3am one night last August and accused of damaging a gate. This case was thrown out last Friday for lack of evidence. The government is now considering a new law to make it illegal to enter public buildings after official hours.

And the Panthéon clock? The monument service admits that it works perfectly. The clock has, however, stopped once again. The Panthéon management, wound up by Untergunther, is peevishly refusing to wind up the clock.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

vernacular photo of the week

Accumulating random photos I have found myself tricked into new fictions: Was I there, or not? Was that me? For example: looking at a black-&-white First Communion image of a young boy, I was trying to recall the photo session, which eluded me entirely. Appalled with my faulty memory, finally I remembered: that wasn't me.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

vernacular photo of the week

Vernacular photos in their anonymity, their lost histories, become receptacles of our projections & fantasies. While I feel a bit iconoclastic in terms of reading photos: thinking that reality is actually not all that visible, & that photos cannot be read clearly at all, that their secrecies are always intact & elusive; still it is w/ a sense of the uncanny that I find myself veering towards certain images. Is this a kind of wish fulfillment done in fragments?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Cameron Jamie

Last night, on the way home walking down Bedford Avenue, I stopped at Spoonbill & Sugartown, for a just-before-going-home browse where I purchased the Walker Art Center catalogue for a recent show of Cameron Jamie.

A few years ago my first encounter w/ Cameron Jamie's work was the book Rugburn, which is photographs of Jamie, in what looks like modified Dr. Dentons & a wrestling mask, wrestling in an apartment with a Michael Jackson look-a-like. With no other context (who is this person? what is going on?) than what I saw before me it was such a great delight - the humor & excess have not diminished for me yet. Jamie was also an editor of a Taschen book of Theo Ehret's Exquisite Mayhem, of erotic photographs of "apartment wrestling" such as that duplicated by Jamie & the Jacko look-a-like - all of which piqued my interests - both in terms of seeing more of Jamie's work & also finding more apartment wrestling pix.

(Also, a few years ago with Tim Lehmacher, in a junk shop on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint I found a few - when I went back a few weeks later to get more, the store had disappeared. It all seemed like a dream).

The catalogue from the Walker is the first museum show of Jamie's work, in the US. The binding is eccentric - slipcased in gray cardboard, with a faux "typed" name on the front, the glue binding is exposed rather than covered - it is deliberately poor, unfinished, abject looking. Other than a foreword, an introduction by Philippe Vergne, & a poem by Charles Bukowski, there is no other identifying text. The book exists as images only, of artwork, installations, photographs. As such, as well as with its "industrial" binding, it reads more as an oblique artist's book, than a museum retrospective.

Identified as a child of the San Fernando Valley, Jamie's work primarily embodies the fantasies, fears & dissociations of a teen culture one would associate with a generic US suburbia, not necessarily the Valley in particular. Although I can't help but think that southern California is a sort of ur-Suburbia for the rest of the country. A place both new (without history, without depth) & obsolete. A place with the semblance of home, a home at its phoniest, & yet not home to anyone: who could belong to such a place? Made from blueprints of cliches, charted with commodities, which are the true subjects of this post-war domestic idyll. Jamie's work also addresses the flux & indeterminacy of adolescence as it makes sense of a society of junk, transforming the weird, the obscure and the lurid into rituals, into cargo cults centered around horror movies, old porn, loud music.

When I see Gillian Barberie on Good Day, LA, speaking about living in the Valley (hanging with her girlfriends Carmen Electra & Pamela Anderson), or more luridly, some of the late-night fare on Skinemax, such as Bikini Escort Company, I think to myself: this garbage is the dreamed-for Valley, this is mall-nirvana, but what it's really like is what I see in Cameron Jamie's work, which is more withdrawn & yet rages more too (besides being more interesting - no offense to Gillian Barberie). One could call it a kind of documentary of frustrations & horrors & stupidity too.

Monday, November 5, 2007

from the blog

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Twenty Million Books / Three-hundred thousand members.

We recently hit another big milestone—20,000,000 books and 300,000 registered members!*

The exact twenty-millionth book was All Day Every Day by David Armstrong (2002), added by BernardYenelouis last Wednesday night. BernardYenelouis, who gets a gift-account for his good luck, has a library filled with interesting photography books. In this case, he was actually the first to add the book.

It's an interesting light on the books members have. I usually stress how books bind people together. I once almost broke the system proving that while, as the idea goes, everyone may be six-acquaintances away from everyone, if you consider books as the connection, they're more like three books away. But people's reading tastes are also amazingly diverse. Over 1.7 million books are singletons on LibraryThing, and five million books belong to a work in ten or fewer members' libraries. Sure we have a hundred-thousand Harry Potters, but the "long tail" of books is very long.** Chris Anderson has shown this in book sales, but the long tail of ownership is much longer.***

Twenty million feels pretty big to us, but we're not quite sure where it puts us on our—admittedly asterisked—climb up the global libraries list. We're in the top five, it seems. The largest, however, the Library of Congress has 30 million books. That's going to be a fun one!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bob Colacello's Out

Interview Magazine, when still published by Andy Warhol, as Andy Warhol's Interview, to be specific, circulated a very curious "picture" of society, from the 1970s, through the early 1980s. Done on a shoe-string budget, it presented a kaleidescope of the rich, the famous, and/or the infamous, on cheap acidic newsprint, which as a mass market publication circulated into odd, less-than-chic corners of America. Seemingly done for a niche market of insiders, with a bit of humor & put-on, like all media it managed to travel some, even if not seen at a supermarket check-out.

Like all tabloids it transmitted the virtual world of publicity: images relating to the entertainment & fashion industries, images of stars, models, the successful - the rich, the chic. On yellowing newsprint images were printed full page, fully styled, lit, composed, with all-important credits, like a signature, which mentioned the photographer & also, curiously, the make of the camera used. As a teenager this is where I learned the important words "Hasselblad" & "Rolleiflex." While itself a bit of a parody of the extensive credits in the back of any Conde Nast publication, one could argue that the parody is also somewhat disingenuous. The signature/credit functioned as an imprimatur of status, similar to the use of Warhol's signatures on his silkscreens, which accorded these works as "Warhols" as opposed to mass-produced items. Likewise one could argue that if a mock-magazine in ways, it also was genuinely an early, somewhat eccentric form of a lifestyle/glamor magazine, nonetheless. It's form was certainly much more minimal than a commercial magazine, but I wonder how different was the ethos?

For those of us somewhat familiar with Warhol's work from the 1960s, which was a bit scruffier, bohemian - a Factory of loose-cannons & misfits & the ambiguous - Interview presented a much fiercer vision of a society driven by money, power & status, much more corporate, conservative, exclusive. Looking through old issues one can see that Warhol had a predilection (an attraction?) to power. When Jimmy Carter was president, we saw photos of Miz Lillian, his mother, at Studio 54. When Reagan became president, Nancy Reagan & her girlfriends, all in their couture collections, forerunners of the concept of "retail therapy," appeared (also Ron Reagan Jr worked at Interview). & of course there was that playboy of the western world, Henry Kissinger, former escort of Jill St. John, in evidence as well. Outside the art world, one could look at Warhol's snaps, his Polaroids, his portraits as a truly epic portrait of American society, in its time, with Interview as a kind of local newsletter. Curiously, if Interview seemed an in-house circular of High Society, it was still a bit decadent, compared to any more "serious" magazine such as Vogue or Town & Country: the sort of publication it most resembled, despite the highfalutin credits, is a zine. The stars were "real" & they were invented. A buff waiter could be as notable as Bianca Jagger, perpetually on her white horse in Studio 54. The risque element of Interview, its apparent homoeroticism, its cultivation of physical pleasures, its stand-offish attitude to median values, as circulated in middle-America, are the radical aspects to what seems primarily a panorama of the repugnantly rich, chic & stupid. Like all media it had a propagandistic function & with its glamorous parties, movie stars & boys, empowered pockets of glamor otherwise hidden in the coarse social fabric of what had been a crude, warring country, a tough AmeriKKKa of binary gender differentiations. Mini-Halstons of the Midwest had a printed point of reference.

Going through the various catalogs & memoirs that have been published about Warhol & his Factory, it is clear that the early Factory, while dirty & weird, w/ stranger characters given easy access, was otherwise not that dissimilar, socially. Heiresses were still prioritized over the poor - Warhol was not experimenting with new social orders so much as amplifying hierarchies & castes & later in his career, making that the subject of his art/business, although one can see echoes of this in the great films he made, & in his books. Warhol's diaries are fascinating reading for their systematic accounts of socializing & also for his attention to the costs of things. I recall the diaries receiving criticism for this endless penny-counting, but I can't help but think that there is some documentary value in this, & also, in terms of understanding Warhol as an artist - he makes the costs of things apparent, too. & this is a radical act too in that in "polite society" one is not supposed to speak of money or allude to it. & I must admit I find this more interesting than estimations of the characters of various members of the Iranian royal family, or pretty Upper East Side wives, or oil tycoons, or whomever - although his clever, sarcastic analyses are usually very entertaining. Reading the diaries it becomes clear that snobbery aside, Warhol is still a middle-class boy, & like the poorer classes, is always aware of the value of the rich. This is a case wherein "how the other half lives" is from the perspective of the middle-class looking at the rich.

The images of Interview would begin with the air-brushed cover, inside with full-page studio portraits by other photographers - all black-&-white, & ending with a page of party snaps by Bob Colacello, the editor, with the column heading, "Bob Colacello's Out" which has just been published as a photo book, Bob Colacello: Out.

Given the laborious efforts put into the covers, which began with polaroids of whomever, with stylist & make-up people, & then it being transposed to a much more plastic image, with a very recognizable style - stylish but never unique, let's say. I like to show my students slides of some of Warhols polaroids - & there is also a sequence of Jane Fonda being made up for a cover, which involved extensive use of white pancake & monumentally "big" hair, which provokes a great deal of incredulity & laughter. Beauty Knows No Pain, let's say.

The portraits inside were "retro" in that they were made in studios & lit in ways that alluded to past Hollywood glamor images by the likes of George Hurrell & Clarence Sinclair Bull (& I believe the elder George Hurrell photographed Duran Duran for Interview in the 1980s). After the rough & cinema verite styles of late 1960s, early 1970s film & photography this was an almost reactionary sensibility in this - the mask of glamor, the hothouse studio illusions as ciphers of desire. In this as well I remember portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe, & also a series of images of young Richard Gere, styled as a grease monkey at a service station, in faded jeans & wife-beater, by young Herb Ritts - dreams of trade for us all. This was a very prescient understanding of the illusionism of periodicals, the power of images to be so unreal as to become collective fantasies. In lieu of the innovative magazine work done in previous years, such as by Diane Arbus, this seems aesthetically a step back, per se, but a powerful such step. I can't help but think that the plethora of lifestyle magazines, of whatever level of sophistication or targeted audience, as being cloddish echoes of the inspired small staff of Warhol & company.

Colacello's images were done on the fly at various clubs & parties. Using a point&shoot camera, with flash, they are artless in their execution. Warhol used a similar point&shoot camera & it's not all that easy to distinguish the work of either from the other. Still, in retrospect, looking at the images, now decades later, they are remarkably vivacious & fascinating - unlike the way the covers (which resemble prototypes for the graphics of Patrick Nagel) & the portraits (Duran Duran - who dey?) seem to seem be encased in their petrified periods. The Warhol Museum has already circulated a large exhibition of Warhol's photographic work - even that seems a mere scratching of the surface of Warhol's actual photographic output. & it can be seen as independent work, as well as maquettes for further work such as silkscreens, and also on an "amateur" level in hordes of snapshots.

I am not sure whether the vivacity of the images is due to the authorial skills of Colacello, who in his writings seems very bright & witty, so much as the images being part of a snapshot culture, a larger culture of pleasures mechanically recorded. If one were to consider celebrity as a kind of pursuit, these would be great trophies from a social safari. Originally in the pages of Interview such images, accompanied by a column functioned as a kind of photo-novel of the rich & glam, a revolving cast of characters not unlike the cast of a Robert Altman film, but at a higher tax bracket, involving corporate names such as Rothschild, Agnelli, Halston, Klein, Jagger, & their minions, children of dictators & tycoons, anonymous sexual partners, drug buddies, whatever. Now, most of the names obsolete, one sees instead tableaux of glowing black-&-white bodies cavorting in a display of constant play. I can't help but think of the sardonic maxim: Play Now, Pay Later. Why does star worship seem to be tempered with potential grotesquerie? But still there is a great charm in the images. One could argue that the images are directed by the status of the subjects; on the other hand such a world seems quite perishable & really no different than the world in any collection of snaps. One sees how rather ordinary & mundane everyone really is - lives like in a romance novel, in pursuit of love, money, beauty, a little adventure, a little bitchy rivalry, & exultant hopes. As the advertising copy ran for the game Mystery Date, "Will it be a Dream, or . . . a Dud!" Now in the past tense the images can haunt the subjects with former spouses, the deceased, illusions of happiness gone. Photos can offer an illusory unity of the past, shining brighter than the chaos of the present moment - they can also remind of all that is no longer. The book is beautifully printed & designed & unlike the images in the original Interviews, some of which were printed as small thumbnails, these are a great size. I can refresh my vague memories & see a lot more.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Vernacular Photography

What is vernacular photography? Too broad to be understood as a genre per se, it can encompass anonymous snapshots, industrial photography, scientific photography, "authorless" photography, advertising, smut, as well as work that might be perceived as "other" than any of this random list. It could be understood as an oppositional photography - outside technical or artistic histories, yet, especially with the snapshot, it could also be entirely conventionalized, a manifestation of visual banalities, or an image so enigmatic that its meaning or genesis is entirely obscured. It is mistakes & failures as much as it may not be. & how we understand the images may or may not be separate from their initial intents. Is this a category we are making up?

The idea of the vernacular in photography is also an indication of photography as a medium informing the everyday, prevalent, "naturalized." An august photographer such as Walker Evans, working primarily in the 1930s & 1940s, collected postcards & signs; his work in particular addressed the issue of authorial anonymity - itself an "anti-art" strategy after decades of pictorialism, Camera Work, and other photographic practices which emulated high art forms of the time (the Pre-Raphaelites, salon painting, Symbolism, Decadence). A question comes to mind: is there a recognizable Evans style? While Evans has created a very distinct body of work - Cuba, Appalachia, New York, Chicago, Victoriana - is there a style that predominates? Could his images be recognized as an Evans image without his name attached?

The Surrealists, in various publications (La Revolution Surrealiste, Minotaure, Documents, among others) published images both authored & anonymous. News photographs appeared with artistic endeavors. The automatic, industrial structure of the camera was understood as a parallel with the nervous system, triggered by psycho-physiological impulses. One could even make a case for Eugene Atget, published by the Surrealists, as well as ultimated collected & canonized as a master of photography by the Museum of Modern Art, as a vernacular photographer. Atget's work was a vast archive of images of Paris and outlying areas - images sold from a humble street kiosk as aide-memoires for artists, or a possible souvenir. Atget's self-effacement as an artist/photographer in lieu of a vast archive. Atget's work could be seen as a precursor to the work of Evans, or Berenice Abbott, as well as in the work of Bernd & Hilla Becher. In all of these disparate bodies of work the camera functions as a mechanical recording device, an industrial eye. With such disparity in mind I can't help but think of it also being the crux of what John Szarkowski wrote of as being "photographic."

& yet the photography I want to discuss is also far from the canon of the photographic established at MoMA, far from the pristine & posh galleries of Chelsea, & far from artistic manifestos. In the case of snapshots, the deity is George Eastman, a brooding capitalist who envisioned a vast amateur market for photography, for profit. & out of these industrial products scavenged bits of the personal & the particular have been culled out of silver, celluloid & corporate anonymity. & industrial photographs, from the factory, laboratory, advertising agency, school, corporation, or news agency - vast piles of images floating around now bereft of their original purpose. 2 very brilliant books from the 1970s address the ubiquity as well as the obsolescence of images: Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, and Evidence by Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan. Lesy's book in particular is a mournful examination of the "reconstruction" of the past, of historical understanding in lieu of recording technologies such as news stories & photographic archives. Evidence by Sultan & Mandel pieces together disparate images which create a nonsensical narrative or sequence. In either book, the photograph, as trace of the past, as hard "evidence" as it were of whatever, a thing or event or process, reveals less than is seen. One could cite Siegfried Kracauer's essay "Photography" in The Mass Ornament, in which the photograph replaces memory - in this case ultimately losing its sense as well.

In a relatively early published collection, American Snapshots, collected by Ken Graves & Mitchell Payne, published by the Scrimshaw Press, 1977, the introduction by Jean Sheperd emphasizes in a rather condescending manner the folky artlessness of the family snapshot, but also a statistic from the Polaroid Corporation is cited: that that year a billion photographs were made. The title of the Graves & Payne book also indicates that the snapshot is a shared venture, among private folk, & that the experiences are in a sense universal: We all share our Kodak Moments.

Beyond such quaintness Pierre Bourdieu's book, Photography - A Middle-Brow Art, examined the sociology of the amateur photographer in terms of economics & class. Published in 1965, Bourdieu examines the meaning of the possession of a camera, as a relatively luxe technological toy, & the concept of the artistic photographic & photographic "appreciation" as level of taste which functions to distinguish the bourgeoisie from the working class. Certain aspects of Bourdieu's book have dated: It was written before the advent on the market of inexpensive Japanese SLR cameras which broadened the photographic market in the West, & before the 1970s photo "boom" in general which could be ascribed to the influx of cameras & amateur market materials, as well as a wider base of collectors, and a growing institutionalization of photography by museums & universities. Still, it is a sober estimation, in the midst of a lot of gift books & cute items. Bourdieu's estimation of photography as a technical aide for self-actualization & fulfillment for a skittish, unsettled bourgeoisie may be as salient a point today as it was in 1965. Perhaps because of its academic nature it did not have the impact of a more general interest book such as Susan Sontag's On Photography, at its publication in 1977. While hardly incendiary in its estimations of the photograph, Sontag's book garnered a great deal of hostility when it was released, especially within photographic communities. Public symposia were held at Pratt Institute, the Corcoran Gallery, and the International Center of Photography to discuss the rancor invoked by On Photography. Sontag's scholarship does not seem to be at issue, at least publicly, but merely Sontag's lack of photographic credentials, her outsider status as a public intellectual, saying what's what to those who do do it. Such a situation indicates the relative inbreeding of photographic interests at the time: what other media would cringe at such publicity? In more traditional artistic cultures, the critic is more often courted rather than reviled.

As photography has been more assiduously collected by museums & galleries, its canon of masters has grown, following traditional art historical models. Photographic practices are often not accountable within traditional artistic forms, however: Vernacular photography & the snapshot are such "outsider" practices, which are now tentatively entering the Academy, as well. How this is done, & what is presented is of great variety & I can't help but wonder that the variety can only increase as more shows are curated & books are published.

In 2000, the Metropolitan Museum presented a show of vernacular images by Thomas Walther which was subsequently published by Twin Palms Press as Other Pictures. Walther's collection of modernist photography is well known; the pictures of "other pictures" shared some attributes, in terms of compositions, forms, subjects, with a canon of great photographers - but also by dint of chance & mistake & miscalculation, seemingly (we don't really know after all). Light leaks, blur, fingers obstructing lenses, double exposures - all could enter into an aesthetic arena. This was a very beautiful show; one could also wonder that such collections really become about the tastes of the collector/curator more than any history could encompass.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted 2 exhibitions with catalogs in 1998: Snapshots - The Photography of Life from 1888 to the Present; & Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence. Douglas Nickel's essay "The History of the Snapshot" is a succinct introduction to the snapshot & its marketing. The historian Geoffrey Batchen curated & published Forget-Me-Not: Photography & Remembrance. Batchen has written about vernacular photography, among the essays collected in Each Wild Idea. Another remarkable exhibition/catalogue is Snapshot Chronicles - Inventing the American Photo Album, at Reed College, curated by Barbara Levine & Stephanie Snyder.

In contradistinction to practices such as at MoMA, in which vernacular photographs are places in a high art context, these exhibits present vernacular work precisely as that, & that status is the focus of study.

Currently at the National Gallery in Washington on exhibit is The Art of the American Snapshot from 1888 - 1978, from the Collection of Robert E. Jackson. This is the largest collection I know of being exhibited, & is presented chronologically. The catalog is fairly sumptuous. Again, I can't help but be struck - what is on exhibit is as much about the eye of the collector, the collector's impulses, as it is about a photographic form. The Walther collection seems an ancillary of his larger collection. The Jackson collection is much more methodical & historicizing in its classifications. Nevertheless both deal in what are ultimately unique images. The history of the snapshot can be collected in a seemingly endless manner.

Or has the snapshot seen its historical moment? With the advent of digital imagery, what is going to end up on the curb, in the shoebox, at the flea market? What will be abandoned? Will we see any images leftover from our times? I tell my students that photography is about loss, about death, about time - the scraps we call vernacular photos are the ruins of their technology. The "birth" of the snapshot is ascribed to 1888, with the introduction of the Kodak camera on the market. To speak of the "death" of a form is too portentous & heavy, but I can't help but think of the historical moment really being over, too.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Harry Callahan - Eleanor

Recently in conversation with the collector Evan Mirapaul, Evan had mentioned looking at a collection of dye transfer prints made by Harry Callahan. Evan's enthusiasm brought to mind, in contrast, my own lack of attention regarding Callahan, a result of my own protocols of torpor - & I decided to look at Callahan's work again. It had been quite a while & I realize how much I have forgotten. Years ago in Michigan, circa 1979 or so, at the Halsted Gallery, when it was on South Woodward in Birmingham, I had attended an opening of Callahan's work - & both Callahan's were there - I remember them both as plump & smiling in this small gallery. I had seen some of the images before & it was remarkably low-key to see an iconic presence such as Eleanor Callahan in person.

Currently there is an exhibit at the High Museum of Art of work by Callahan - the organizing principle of the show is that the images are all of Callahan's wife Eleanor, & a very beautiful catalogue of the show has been published by Gerhard Steidl.

Harry Callahan is one of the great mid-20th century modernist photographers. Essentially self-taught, Callahan cited a workshop taught by Ansel Adams in Detroit, as the "turning point" for him in realizing the potentials of photographic practices. At that time Callahan had had an office job at Chrysler, his wife worked as a secretary. In this period, photographic education was ad hoc - no college programs, scattered workshops, apprenticeships, home darkrooms. Neither Callahan or his wife had attended university; although in lieu of his accomplishments, Callahan eventually became adjunct faculty at Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's New Bauhaus in Chicago, where emigres such as Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe also taught. & then Callahan set up a MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he taught until his retirement in 1983. Along with his photographic accomplishments, one could say Callahan had as strong a role in photographic culture as an educator, as well.

The New Bauhaus became the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The influence of emigres such as Moholy-Nagy & Mies impacted the booming post-war economy. The Midwest is often overlooked as a site of culture, but one could cite the design & architecture coming out of the Chicago, Charles & Ray Eames at Cranbrook, outside Detroit, the Saarinens, Eliel & Eero, at Cranbrook as well, & the muscle car designs coming from The Big Three, as examples of a post-war new world. The "new" as an idea informed mass media designs as well as urban & suburban development - clean, hygienic, rational lines - space itself became subject to the enterprises of newness & utility. Whether in terms of the packaging of mass-produced products or the logic of parking lots around suburban shopping malls, one experienced a kind of euphoria of the new & improved world.

Callahan's work is remarkable in its attention to the everyday. Unlike say a travel photographer, or Callahan's initial inspiration, Ansel Adams, Callahan stayed in the backyard, as it were. Remarkable images could be made wherever he happened to be: Detroit, Port Huron, Chicago, Providence. Location is in a sense a moot point - without a place name, the images remain the same. Callahan's images have an elemental simplicity: water, snow, grass, tree, & in images made over a 20 year span, his wife Eleanor, and their daughter Barbara.

In fashion there is a curious linguistic term, a Muse, who becomes a public example of a couture house. While it may sound poetic to term such a spokes-model as a Muse, it is also a position that comes with a salary & a contract. The term can also be used metaphorically & it is used to indicate a figure (usually female) who is an inspiration to the artist. In photography notable examples of the photographer/artist & his muse/collaborator include the hundreds of images by Alfred Stieglitz of his wife Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as some remarkable commercial photos made by Irving Penn of the model Lisa Fonssagrives, who also married Penn & subsequently retired from modeling. Stieglitz's images of Georgia O'Keeffe are distinguished by a self-conscious arty hauteur, & Fonssagrives was a remarkable model in her time, whereas Eleanor Callahan has a downright modest presence. In the interview with her in the book she is remarkably self-effacing about her role or lack thereof in the photos. Mercifully the term "muse" is absent from the Callahan catalogue, although one is certainly tempted to indulge in such a fanciful word - the book includes an introduction by Emmett Gowin, who studied with Callahan at RISD, & an essay by the High curator, Julian Cox, who also interviewed Eleanor Callahan for the book. Cox is also the author of a catalogue of the work of Edmund Teske, done for the Getty Museum, & he was involved in a catalogue raisonne of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Callahan's formalist aesthetics extend to images of his wife & child: there is a curious lack of psychology in the images - given their great intimacy, one is still in a space of restraint, as it were, of contemplation. These images are not meant to reveal anything other than their very design. The image of Eleanor in Lake Michigan, with her eyes closed, is one of the earliest images I can recall in which I became aware of photography as something other than just a picture - that it could be an interpretive skill. Perhaps even more remarkable are a series of horizontal images of Eleanor, in what in film-making is called a long shot: her figure stands in the midst of a panorama of whatever - vague architectural spaces, or in the deep space of a forest or lake. By placing her figure so distant, yet so succinctly in a space, the entirety of the space becomes imbued w/ the intimacy we would limit to the perimeters of her body. What great intensity of concentration in the images.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Los Angeles, 2003-2006, Vol. 1

Last week in my colleague Jeff Ladd's blog, which is exclusively about photo books, he wrote a comic passage about Larry Clark signing copies of his new book, Los Angeles, 2003-2006, Vol. 1, at Luhring Augustine, in tandem with Larry Clark's new show. Jeff's tale - of slow lines, dealers bringing in other Larry Clark items to be signed, the tensions of such a moment (I witnessed an especially egregious example of this earlier this spring at ICP when William Klein spoke with Max Kozloff - afterwards people were asking Klein to autograph everything from postcards from his shows, to even the program notes from the evening - one fellow on line with a stack of books finished, then got back on line again with another pile - when confronted w/ his "double dipping" he flatly denied he had been on line already). This is all part of the theater of passions that confronts book fetishists such as Jeff & myself & myriad & sundry others.

Yesterday with a brief window of time I got to Chelsea to see the Larry Clark show & to purchase the book myself. Clark's early books, Tulsa & Teenage Lust, are great examples of books-gone-rare & inflated prices being charged for the first editions. This was followed by 1992, which jumped the gun, as it were, of inflationary prices & sold initially, if I remember correctly, around $225 - I recall asking at the St. Marks Bookstore. & then a few years ago, Punk Picasso's initial retail was $500. All of Clark's books seem to enter a sphere of high cost for one reason or another - A Perfect Childhood was never released in the US, although copies can be found in used shops, or available from Europe. A brief excursion on Bookfinder leads to a phenomenal array of prices. I will not dispute the merits of Clark's work, especially Tulsa & Teenage Lust, but the Luhring Augustine show, the high art merchandising of Clark, brings up other social & cultural considerations.

The high priced fetishism of Tulsa reminds me of rare screenings of the Robert Frank film, Cocksucker Blues, which occurred a few times at Anthology Film Archives, using, I believe, a print owned by Robert Frank, although the ostensible owners of the film are the producers, the Rolling Stones, who evidently were dismayed by how stupid & seedy they seem in the film & subsequently "canned" it from any viewing. In lieu of Frank's work in general, & his films in particular, which are often quite brooding & despairing, & if anything, never flattering, I would say re the Stones: what where they expecting? At any rate, the few times Cocksucker Blues showed, hundreds of people came out of the woodwork to see it - fans of Frank, or of the Stones, or was it just that it had been "suppressed"? One sees Keith Richards nodding out, one hears an awakening groupie shrieking, "Is that cum on my leg?" The louche appeal of the Frank film does not seem all that different from that of Tulsa - however I do not mean to discredit either Frank or Clark - this is really addressing the issue of popularity both works have engendered. Tulsa is also one of the most important US photo books of the 1970s & in its straight-forward representations of a community united by drug usage, it's lack of moralizing, & also its reality-effect, its candor, have been extremely influential in documentary, art & fashion practices - everything from Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency, to Corinne Day's early photos of Kate Moss.

& judging by the success of Goldin & Clark in the art world, it leads me to suspect there's a wealthy bourgeois art-buying audience for such work. Cheap thrills for the well-heeled? More exotica for the rich? Although I believe it was meant to be somewhat (perhaps feebly) ironic, I remember one of Lydia Lunch's rants: My pain is your pleasure!

The photos in Larry Clark's Los Angeles 2003-2006 Vol. 1 are of a teenage Latino boy from the South Central area of Los Angeles, Jonathan Velasquez, who was "discovered" by Clark at a casting for a fashion shoot Clark was doing with his then girlfriend, the extremely beautiful Tiffany Limos. Clark photographed Velsaquez over a 3 year period - roughly the boy from ages 14-17 - in a manner that is reminiscent of Clark's early work - in fact many of Velasquez's poses are near-identical to the poses of the 8th Ave teenage hustlers in Teenage Lust. The difference being that Velasquez is portrayed simply for his own photogenic beauty & if anything comes off rather chaste & boyish, as opposed to the teen sex workers in the earlier book.

In this I sees parallels between Clark's photos of Velasquez & some of Bruce Weber's projects which highlight one model in particular, such as the boxer Andy Minsker in The Andy Book, or the model Peter Johnson in The Chop Suey Club. Also Weber published an extremely beautiful book of photos by Jim French, the founder of Colt Studios, of the physique model David Skrivanek, Like a Moth to a Flame. The fetishism of male beauty is common in gay erotica, but in the Chelsea art market world we are seeing instead a more innocent Huckleberry Finn type scenario - a rambunctious teenage boy - updated to a skateboarding South Central never-never land. I'm curious why the book is entitled Los Angeles as indeed exact locations are never specified in the images, nor in the captions. The work reminds me more of the lyrics of the Eddie Cochran song "Teenage Heaven": I want a house with a pool/Shorter hours in school/& a room with my own private phone . . . What we see is the sybaritic splendor of youth - pleasure without gravity. & for the fancy collectors out there, it is also a step into the danger zone of other classes, other cultures. Such an issue was a part of an independent film directed by Wash Westmoreland & Richard Glatzer, Quinceanera, in which a teenage boy, the brother of the principal character, finds himself a sex-object of his new white landlords: the desirous (& young) other.

The prints for the show are mural-sized pigment prints, some with multiple images sewn together. The use of multiple sequences has been used by Clark before & it is very attractive - but I find the beauty of it making me question the work. Why is it here? What is it supposed to be telling us? Is it simply a question of looking at a teenage boy (who is remarkably photogenic - a real beauty)? I prefer the book - I still think of Clark's work working best in book form & like his other books, there's attention to design, editing, layout - he seems truly gifted at this - which can amplify the work & make the sum more than a total of the parts.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Zoe Leonard's book Analogue is an artists book/catalogue from her exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The images date from 1998-2007, & were taken in poorer (or formerly poorer) neighborhoods in New York such as the Lower East Side, Harlem, Canal St., Williamsburg, Bushwick, as well as more (seemingly) exotic locales such as Kampala, Warsaw, Havana, Ramallah, Budapest, Chicago. The subject(s) are storefronts & merchandise displays in small storefronts, or by street vendors. I bring up the locations as the images themselves do not present their locations, visually - we need the captions, which are very precise, in order to "place" them.

I have never felt that I fully understood Zoe Leonard's photographs - visually there's a certain "poorness" to her framing & the quality of the prints, which is still not "poor" enough to be thoroughly amateurish, which could be very interesting (I think of some images from the 1970s, such as a series of self-portraits by Adrian Piper which are extremely underexposed - these are a "mistake" which becomes extremely seductive & mysterious - or the machine-made pop images of Ed Ruscha, for instance, which galvanize the drugstore print, the mechanization of the everyday, as an artistic tool). Instead I have often understood Leonard's photos to be an amplification of what I see a lot of students do: the photograph is used as a simple recording of something, whatever, anything, the image existing as a kind of evidence, or an indication of being somewhere. Even the subject of the exhibit/book Analogue is not so different - how many times have I seen students bring in images of storefronts? The generic storefront images often embody 2 distinct types - images of female mannequins in a seeming theater of commodified femininity, or the nostalgia of obsolete merchandise. How often our daydreams are connected to advertisements, to products.

My reservations aside, I see in the book Analogue, a re-hashing of the nostalgia for small abject storefronts, generic framing, indifferent print surface - & yet that is precisely what makes this a powerful work in itself. How sad & pathetic & overlooked the world looks in these photos.

The images can be read as a near catalogue of small-scale business, globally, but is also a type of business which is vanishing, or being pushed to the edges (flea markets, street side sales) of a global economy of corporate consolidations & franchises. Without being too systematic, the accumulation of Leonard's images is akin to a stroll down a street, or many streets, itself - meandering, intuitive.
Years ago at the Collective Unconscious I saw a 3-D slide show by Zoe Beloff of images of storefronts for shops specializing in ladies' undergarments in the Lower East Side - the slides also had an overlay of film, giving a much more spectral effect of the passage of time. Beloff's images as well were of an older immigrant economy which is almost entirely gone from the area now. Also, thinking of the "junk" being sold in these poor storefronts I thought of the essay by Rem Koolhaas, "Junk Space" - however as per Koolhaas, the junkspace is what is to come - a new world order of globalized, malled control. How even more invisible are the poor today in the face the new.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Derek Stroup @ The Williams Club

Through our mutual friend Barry Stone, I have the good fortune to be acquainted with the artist Derek Stroup.

Derek has 3 exhibitions on view currently, at the A.M. Richard Fine Art gallery in Williamsburg, the Williams Club, & at Pace University in Westchester.

Last night I attended the opening at the Williams Club, which is in a brownstone on E. 39th St. The show is primarily digital photographs of candy & chip packages, in which the language has been removed; This emphasizes the graphic elements of the packaging, which retain some recognizeability (Lays, Ruffles, Utz - for example), yet also slide into a quasi-formal state, enlarged & stripped of language. As things, as objects, they have a great deal of beauty - but also by virtue of their mass production, their reproducibility echoed as well in the medium of photography, it is a very witty, ironic beauty. Denuded of language, as things they become oblique. Derek's artist statement includes the thought that these are "perfect objects that don't exist anywhere in the world."

Also included are photographs taken of roadside signs in the 1970s by a Williams College professor, Sheafe Satterthwaite, which Derek has scanned & manipulated, removing the language from the signs (billboards, gas stations) such that the signs seem to mimic minimal art in the landscape - floating bits of enigmatic forms along the roadside. These are printed small - 5x7 inches - & are very interesting as landscapes. My sense is that the photographs were not intended initially to be viewed artistically, & yet like so much vernacular work, there is a creativity, freshness & strangeness as potent as any intended Work of Art. I hate to use the word "beauty" as that seems to put an inappropriate emphasis on the aesthetic, over the analytic, & I think that Derek's work works against the aesthetic as much as it may amplify it in his methodologies. There is as much attention to thoroughly mundane, commonplace materials, to this infrastructure of the ordinary, as such. The lack of language persists as just that: what are pastoral hills or chip bags without it?

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

Naarashauki - The Female Pike

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

William Eggleston's Guide

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

Domesticity at War

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

involuntary memory #1

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

Jens F.

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.