Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Shimmer of Possibility

The 12 volumes of Paul Graham: A Shimmer of Possibility (12 Books Set) are ostensibly based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov. "Based on" meaning that each volume functions as a short story, not a specific Chekhov story, but focusing on the specifics of daily life, as one would find in Chekhov.

Such a literary allusion may be misleading, in that looking through the books, I don't quite see a correlation to Chekhov, although the sequencing of images in the contained space of a book does generate a narrative, and with a limited number of images, an intimate narrative is created, although loosely, without dramatic catharsis, or denoument. Graham also plays with this in that some of the sequences conjoin images (all identified only by locale and year) which bear no direct correspondence, such as "New York and North Dakota, 2005" or "Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, New Orleans, 2005-2006." The entire book is a set of untitled books, distinguished from one another by the colors of the bindings, and the discreet notations at the end, indicating place & time. Each volume does place in seeing a sequence of an action, such as a walk, or, by editing disparate sequences together, a cinematic situation is engendered.

The publisher's allusion to Chekhov still bothers me, even when I can separate it from the individual volumes of A Shimmer of Possibility, when I can forget it. I am assuming this was an editorial consideration in making accessible what could be otherwise rather hermetic although very moving photo sequences. Not to diminish Chekhov, but his stories are almost entirely about the bourgeoisie, a haut-bourgeoisie, who in their daily lives face boredom, loss, destabilization - a kind of Biedermeier suffering. Written before the Russian revolution, the stories have been interpreted often as a symptom of the decadence of the ruling classes - not all that dissimilar from the stories and plays of Arthur Schnitzler, which offer more of a psychological analysis and also a sharper, more cynical assessment of human foibles. Curiously, both were doctors, which structurally reinforces a narrative template of symptom/diagnosis to their creative endeavors (not necessarily by them, but by those interpreting the work). & photography, in general, has had a similar use as evidence for diagnosis, from its beginnings in the 19th century, through its uses by the medical establishment, the police, and (as widely as one may interpret this) the state, among others. The photograph used as evidence by journalists, sociologists & documentarians has been the basis for documentary work - the image as cold hard fact, a brutish bit of reality. Used to make a point.

Paul Graham's work comes out of what is now a century-old tradition of documentary work, which in Europe has had stronger political affiliations than in the US (at least since the Cold War & post-WWII "red-baiting"). "Things as they are." Graham's early work such as A1 - The Great North Road, and Beyond Caring were recognizable within existing traditions of photojournalism, as "concerned" photography, although in such work there is a consciousness of the semiology of the down-&-out, & of cultural detritus, a kind of arty sophistication which is usually absent in most documentary work. Graham is aware of the conventions & cliches which can guide documentary projects in articulating preconceived ideas of a subject into an image. There is also a strong sense of the tedium of the everyday, which is almost never presented in classic photojournalism, which exists in perpetual crisis & catharsis, theatrical & dramatic. If anything Graham's photographs emphasize the overlooked, the ignored, the abject, & it's mostly outdoors, or not at "home" - a great invisible outside, the no longer existent public sphere. These are images of the lives lived in the junkspace of our world. Most of the images in A Shimmer of Possibility are of economic poverty, but even those that aren't ("California 2005-2006") have a similar alienation - the McMansions are no less horrible or tedious. To get back to my pedantic points about Chekhov, Chekhov's stories are all about lives in the Tsarist McMansions of their time; Paul Graham's "stories" exist on the peripheries of any enclosed domesticity.

The set of books which make up A Shimmer of Possibility are scenarios of anonymity - the lack of dramatic intrigue, the attention to detail, & the ability to withhold information & image (one of the books consists of 1 image) make the entire "book" an extremely rich (excuse the pun) experience. It is extremely sensitive.

& it also makes one question the efficacy of many documentary images - how quickly are they meant to be seen? Are they just one more consumable aspect to our daily world? A kind of virtual junk parallel world of the suffering of others? Paul Graham's book(s) slow us down & make us look at what is at our feet.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Barry Stone at Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery

My friend Barry Stone left our north Brooklyn neighborhood at the end of this past summer, moving with his family back to Texas, where he is from, to teach at Texas State University in San Marcos. Barry is Texas born & bred & is now living back in Austin, where he went to school.

The immediate results of this shift are on display at the Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery, on Union Avenue in Brooklyn, near Kellogg's Diner (a reference point for the old-timers of the neighborhood). Barry has stated that since returning to TX he has taken approximately 1500 images - using his digital camera. What is on display in the gallery is as much about the arrangement as the use of specific images - the space as a kind of giant notebook - which is a very energetic, witty & experimental use of images.

The photographs are presented in different sizes, unframed, pinned or taped to the walls. Mixed in as well are collage pieces using record album covers as templates, which show a more explicit comic abstraction. Citing formal considerations as the guiding principle in relating otherwise disparate images to one another (e.g. Harry Callahan, John Szarkowski), which would indicate a disregard for subject matter, organizing by virtue of physical correspondences, the images are nevertheless quite full of "subject" even if unstated: what emerges is a cosmology which is both abstract and homey, cool yet earthy. The "unfinished" quality of the prints and the arrangements relate to the photo album as much as the gallery wall. Such ersatz randomness also shows a vivacity and willingness to experiment that is lively, intelligent & stimulating. It makes us aware of the potentialities of new meanings that can be generated by the rupture & suture of disparate images - a kind of proto cinema, or dream state. I told Barry that while I regret we lost him from the tenements of north Brooklyn, it seems he's found a lot more to photograph, where he is now.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Coleman Dowell photographed by Carl Van Vechten

In school my teacher, Warren Hecht, recommended I read the novels of Coleman Dowell: Island People (American Literature Series (Reprint of 1976 ed)). Too Much Flesh and Jabez. The Houses of Children (American Literature (Dalkey Archive)). Mrs. October Was Here. White on Black on White. At this time Dowell's first published novels were relatively new, recently published. My first association w/ Dowell is from this time & w/ such a relatively primitive attachment as my talisman, a vague nostalgia for misspent youth, I still associate the books as some sort of secret to those early years of my life.

In all honesty I did not read Dowell all that seriously until a few years later, in New York. Bomb magazine published 2 fragments of memoirs which were later published in the book A Star-Bright Lie. As I understand it now, the memoir may not be all that "accurate" although what distinguishes it may not be the successes or failures noted so much as the tone, the atmosphere, the feeling - like his fiction which as linear narrative is disorienting, yet in such fragmentation so much is revealed nevertheless. Coleman Dowell's memoirs aren't necessarily the letter of the law of facts so much as a great tale being told. In Edmund White's memoir of Dowell fantastical meals are described as are late night long elaborate conversations. Late at night seems to be the most appropriate time for any of Dowell's stories Again more associations: secrets, night, late.

The chapter about Carl Van Vechten has a great deal of fascination for me. Van Vechten was a name I associated w/ my paperback of Gertrude Stein, only. In Dowell's memoir Van Vechten emerges as an irascible social puppeteer, a scatological bad boy (with the emphasis on bad - mocking, rude, cutting) along the lines of the figure of Lord Merlin, who is in 2 of Nancy Mitford's books, The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate: Two Novels: An omniscient older sort, who is as socially and artistically well connected as an arriviste such as Dowell is not. A diabolical art-father. (my comparison between Coleman Dowell & Nancy Mitford is strictly in terms of the archetype of such a surrogate father figure - I can't think of 2 writers w/ less in common, otherwise). The memoir brings up figures who now seem quite forgotten, such as Dagmar Godowsky (author of her own rather fanciful memoir, First Person Plural), and bits of catty gossip (why is Gloria Vanderbilt nicknamed "Ears"?), along with accounts of social ambitions, intrigues, and other diabolical associations. To be honest the memoir is remarkable in how thoroughly downbeat it is, even if it is written in prose that is magical in its phrasing, its wit, as well as it's ability to explore the petty & the dark.

& what I learned from this as well is that Carl Van Vechten was a prodigious photographer & devoted several years to photographing his amazing acquaintanceships with writers, actors, singers, ballerinas, models, et al in a homemade studio in his apartment on Central Park West, that there are literally thousands of images by him, printed in postcard sizes, 8x10, & 11x14, usually marked by a blind stamp. The photos are readily available still on Ebay, which is where I found a print of Coleman Dowell, the same image that appears on the cover of A Star-Bright Lie. The seller knew who Van Vechten was, but had no idea as to the identity of the sitter. Curious.

Keith Davis wrote a short book about Van Vechten's portraits for the Hallmark Collection, The Passionate Observer: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten. The collection is now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Van Vechten's photographic techniques were not strong & the prints can vary wildly in terms of surface. Likewise as a diligent amateur the images are not all that consistent - one can find the remarkable as well as the banal, visually. What does inform the images is the enormity of the archive as well as the variety of sitters. The Davis book ends with biographies of the sitters - their identities are part of the fascination with the work. This is a bit of the obverse of a photographer such as August Sander's portraits which are intended to be of "types" although one can find remarkably accomplished, famous people in such roles (Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Dix, for example). Van Vechten's portraits are DIY glamor shots of very distinct characters, akin to say Victorian cabinet cards or carte-de-visites of actors, beauties, celebrities. Although intended perhaps more as bit of private glamor, the images now have another life as a remarkable document of the artistic social orbits of New York City after World War II, especially Van Vechten's support of African-American artists as well as what was not perhaps identified directly at the time but what amounts to a great gay subculture.

I treasure my image of Coleman Dowell, which isn't especially great, & the print is irregular, portions of it faded, but like any fetish for a person, it functions as something which touched the person, somehow, while alive. This brings up the much darker & more irrational uses of photography, as a kind of totem of connection, or desire, a cult object - or is that a cargo cult object?