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.