Sunday, September 21, 2008

America and the Tintype

America and the Tintype is a catalog for the exhibition at the International Center of Photography, curated by Steven Kasher and Brian Wallis, with essays by Kasher, Geoffrey Batchen and Karen Haltunnen. The collection of tintypes was assembled initially by Kasher.

The tintype, a cheap process, with few of the pretensions of more established commercial studio photograph, is overlooked in most histories of photography, except as a footnote as a process which was derivative of the daguerreotype, or the ambrotype, but without any of the retrospective artistry now accorded these other processes: a cheap imitation of something better. It lacks the detail or contrast of the daguerreotype or ambrotype. Also, as a process with little value attached to it, it has survived often in a way similar to the once ubiquitous stereocard - tattered, dirty, & because of its metal base, often bent, the emulsion damaged. The tintype would have been encased in a metal frame, or a cheaper paper frame, & as we see on the scrap heaps of flea markets & junk shops, any supporting armature has been detached, or destroyed, & any personal history has been lost.

Stanley Burns published a rather lavish book of his collection of painted tintypes, The Painted Tintype and the Decorative Frame 1860-1910, which emphasizes the most lavish production of full-plate tintypes: painted over, often obscuring the photographic matrix of the image, and according, equally a value to the remarkable frames which were produced. Such images were "imitation" portrait paintings for the middle-class, which have a formality which can seem both grave & absurd, slightly not "of quality" although quixotically interesting as such. Painted tintypes can often resemble early American portrait painting from the 17th & 18th centuries, in their stiffness - flat, inexpressive, almost uncannily so.

The collection assembled by Kasher emphasizes qualities which are overlooked by the Burns collection, or by other surveys such as Heinz & Bridget Henisch's The Photographic Experience, in their antic, populist humor. The images are smaller (i.e. cheaper) plates, primarily, & involve scenarios of role-playing, posing, earthy jokiness, a sense of the ridiculous, as well as being quite "everyday" - memorial portraits, whether of athletics or deceased children, groups, the photographic moment now part of daily life. These are fragments of obscure but evident lives. It is a medium which has no masters or masterpieces, & which had a "mass audience" as opposed to the celebrity culture which used photographic studios to articulate a public persona - there are no statesmen or theatrical stars portrayed in the tintype, it circulated only in private circles; & as a cheap common medium which still necessitated a professional operator with skills, it was eventually made obsolete by the introduction of the Kodak camera in the late 1880s & George Eastman's accessing and creation of a huge amateur market.

The collection at ICP shows an unruliness & anarchic sense of the photographic image, far from any formal conformity. I think this is a truly admirable way to examine what has been more often considered plain old junk. The writing in the book emphasizes the tintype's place as a hybrid medium that is both artisanal & industrial, in a time of economic & political flux. There is a chapter about the "occupational" portrait which also brings up the growing obsolescence of the trades depicted, in their time. Along the lines of Susan Sontag's statement that all photographs are memento mori, I am also reminded that to photograph something or someone, is also in a sense to relinquish the original to nothingness.

Kasher & Wallis open up the tintype, basically a fairground amusement, as a micro-history of daily life & consciousness.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

vernacular photo of the week

Not quite a "genre", one "type" (for want of better term) of early photographic image which fascinates me is the partial concealment of parent or adult, in supporting baby or small child, in studio portraiture. In my scavenges of flea markets & Ebay I have found 4 so far.

The recalcitrance of little people in the photo studio, & the transformation of parental figure into armature, inspires a bit of mirth. There are remarkable variations: cloth over the figure to mimic furniture, retouching, radical framing. Meant to be practical & pragmatic, it still seems metaphoric about "the ties that bind" child with parent. This is a reading outside the historical - but one's delight doesn't need to have strict perimeters.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"What's my motivation?" - Leigh Ledare, Jane Hammond, Zoe Beloff

Leigh Ledare, "You Are Nothing To Me. You Are Like Air."
Rivington Arms

Jane Hammond, Photographs
Galerie Lelong

Zoe Beloff, "The Somnambulists"
Bellwether Gallery

In school, in the late 1970s, in my "hippie college" there was a strong Women's Studies program. I knew a group of students in the program who declared themselves "separatists" which as I understood it, was a short-lived phenomenon, historically, but which was fairly articulate & developed, or so it seemed, at the time. There were houses where no men were allowed. Women were learning carpentry & plumbing to create a new infrastructure. This was a fairly iconoclastic mentality. & what I appreciated most about it was it's utter distance from & questioning of images, of media. Unlike the dull-normal bourgeois world which accepts whatever is there as a false sense of "natural", this was a dynamic, somewhat paranoic, awareness that media exists ultimately as a kind of training, a primer of appearance, of behavior, of role. If I were to continue my questioning of our lesbian separatist sisters I would query whether it was ever really possible to distance oneself from the general culture, especially now in our mediatized world wherein the intrusiveness of media is so omnipresent as to NOT seem present, as if we are all walking around inside our heads, even as the insides of our heads seem to resemble CNN, MTV, etc.

Such reactions came to mind the other day on my gallery-hopping Saturday, going from the Leigh Ledare show in the lower east side, to Chelsea, to the Jane Hammond show, & then Zoe Beloff at Bellwether.

The Leigh Ledare show, provocatively entitled, "You are nothing to me. You are like air." (what a great dis) involves more work done with his mother Tina, seen earlier in the year at Andrew Roth which also involved the publication of a book. Both the Roth show & the book are an extensive exploration of the artist's relationship with his mother, who is by all appearances an extremely complex, possibly difficult presence, & also rather provocative. In our all too Puritanical world, for a parental figure to embody any form of sexuality seems dark & dysfunctional, & in Ledare's work the mother is a fully sexualized figure. This has perhaps obscured Ledare's work, which is extremely sensitive yet also extravagant: this is a kind of baroque riff of what we see in something like John Cassevetes films, which are about revealing very uncontained, unruly emotional states. Emotional states which do not follow rules of decorum or social propriety. The show at Rivington Arms is much smaller & much more oblique than the show at Roth. It also includes 2 videos which are as interesting as the photos or the book. Both are loops. In one there is a view of a watercolor of one of Ludwig II's castles (w/ "Mack the Knife" playing) then scenes of the mother & her boyfriend in what seems rehearsals for a skit of some sort - the boyfriend in a tux, the mother in an evening gown. The mother is spanked by the boyfriend, lines are forgotten or mixed up. It is fragmentary & anti-climactic. The mother receives lascivious directions about her performance for the camera, sucking on rhinestone jewelry, told, "Kiss it like it's a cock." & so on. In both this & the other video in which the mother cries stage tears, one is more face-to-face w/ her has a presence & I must say, she seems like quite a character & very provocative (& not at all in terms of the roles that are being enacted). I found all this very humorous & also very moving. We live in a culture of too much "revealing", too much confession, which ultimately means nothing, & despite the seeming transgressive aspects of Ledare's portrayal of his overly-sexualized mother, it is really much more about discretion, sensitivity & complexity. It's not about sound-bytes about role or behavior.

There are also a remarkable series of self-portraits of Ledare posing as responses to personal ads. This is a curious corollary to the work with the mother - he is role-playing as much as his "subject." Both are implicated in these tableaux.

Such a parallel indicates a kind of trauma - not necessarily a trauma as perceived in a pop-psychological manner, but a general rupture & tension between parent & child. Parents are the first media (as it were) for a child, & offer templates of the world at large.

I must confess I was entirely unfamiliar with the work of Jane Hammond, other than knowing generally that she is an artist, & this was her first exhibition of photographs. & I can't discern whether they are good or not - I have no way to discern quality, but I found them provocative (which isn't so bad is it?). There were separate images, matted, framed, & then also groupings of faux snapshots, memorabilia. Images in which Hammond's face was photoshopped onto whatever figure was in the found image. This is where my memories of the separatist element at the RC came to mind - Hammond's images are not fine or beautiful or particular. She used anonymous snapshots, soft-core porn, stock imagery, all of which are made more ridiculous by the omnipresence of her face. Unlike the modernist Bauhaus experiments w/ collage which deconstruct mechanical images into a new vision, or Surrealist photography which creates a parallel universe of senses, Hammond's images are too prosaic & too pedestrian to be "uplifting" however the humor & mockery presuppose another kind of distancing & relishment of cliche imagery, of the pedestrian, of photo culture in general. These are very sprightly, informed images. Even when some start to look like the complacent fantasies of someone like Jerry Uelsmann, they still are so ridiculous, so silly - it's just impossible to take them "seriously" which seems their real strength. There's a Rene Magritte photo collage of oxen foraging in front of the Paris Opera, which is what comes closest to mind in assessing these images. Hammond uses fairly elaborate means to disguise her artifice - there is painstaking staining, yellowing, tearing, fraying of the images to simulate age. Also in imitation of the genteel deckled edges of old snapshot prints, there is equally painstaking simulation of such conventions of the past. This makes for a certain unease in understanding the pictures. What comes across is an earthy ebullience & mockery, although when exactly is it from?

Zoe Beloff's The Somnambulists consists of 2 rooms of toy theaters outfitted with digital projections. In the front room there are 4 theaters using "Pepper's Ghost" a stage trick of projections used for supernatural effects - using mirrors & scrims the figures appear transparent, ghostly. In each of these figures in loop re-enact filmed hysterics from past medical experiments involving film. In the back room, 2 scenarios, "A Modern Case of Possession" & "History of a Fixed Idea" are based upon case histories written by the French psycho-pathologist Pierre Janet. These are presented as musical entertainments, w/ Janet as a narrator-emcee, & are also done in stereoscopic format, 3-D, seen w/ Polaroid 3-D glasses. The conflation of psychological experiment, theatrical entertainment, & visual technologies (from early i.e. "Pepper's Ghost" to contemporary DVD projection)allows the work to exist in an open, critical manner. It incorporates history, psychology, theater, music, optical toys, film - the theaters themselves have a childlike hand-painted prettiness which offsets the actual "darkness" of the case histories. These are simultaneously childlike & wise, like puppet shows.

The Svengali-like role of Dr. Janet w/ patient baffles a clear distinction between doctor & patient into more of a symbiotic relationship. The observation & diagnosis of the doctor articulate the performance of the patient. Extended to entertainment & mass media, a pathology emerges in the everyday. Beloff has worked with the case histories and photographs of hysteria by Jean-Martin Charcot at Salpetriere Hospital, previously; these are images which now, more than a century later, appear more fantastical & posed than their initial presentation as objective scientific experiment. Both The Invention of Hysteria, by Georges Didi-Huberman, & Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness, by Sander Gilman, question the culture of science - the Didi-Huberman book deals with Charcot's images in particular, which involve trances, paralysis, involuntary movement, facial grimaces. (One wonders about the pathologies of our own day.)

In 1995 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts presented a large exhibition, Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe, which included images of hysteria by Charcot, alongside, the graphics & paintings included in the show. Although never directly cited by the artists shown, the synchronicity of the images both artistic & medical can be uncanny. & in the 19th century, cultivation of illness & morbidity as a mode of aesthetic hauteur, meant hypersensitivity & rarified emotion & thought in a crude, industrial, mass-produced world. In such artistic circles it was also a sign of refinement & (spiritual & hereditary) aristocracy. Beloff's location of a similar estrangement in the even-more disenfranchised poor world of madhouse & cabaret is all the more plaintive.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


In my early photographic endeavors I had certain avoidances to what I would do, for want of better term. For instance: I avoided photographing scenes in which automobiles appeared. Cars act like clocks, or calendars, in images: they connote a more or less specific time. One can date, approximately at least, a photo by the cars in it. In my vagueness, I wanted to avoid all signs of a specific time (for no good reason necessarily - this was more a gut instinct rather than an agenda). I wanted my photos to float out of time, somehow.

Celebrity functions like the automobile: each year brings new models. There are those who can identify specific models & years, & others who cannot (I can barely distinguish one car from another, other than by size or color, for instance). What is special once can become laughably obsolete, very quickly.

As a suspicious consumer I feel wary about celebrity, even when I can simultaneously enthralled by it, by its enticements & distractions. It informs my everyday speech, even if only in disdain or mockery (evidence of its persuasive powers). Also, to give media credit - it basically distorts the everyday in a manner not unlike the Catholic Church, with a lot less guilt involved, even when equally repugnant. & its vulgar polytheism changes more quickly than the television seasons, such that today's horrors are forgotten in tomorrow's amnesia. Whatever it is - it will be over quickly. But that's just a knee-jerk reaction.

In The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire made a distinction between eternal, "classic" beauty & temporal, contingent beauty. The latter has an infernal modern aspect in its rejection of permanence, "eternity." It speaks to the senses rather than to any intellectual or moral imperatives. It's ideals are of one's day, rather than the cosmos. Eternity itself is a dead perfect thing, outside of life.

While without the hubris of Baudelaire, Andy Warhol's silkscreens of pop "stars" (Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Jacqueline Kennedy) elevate media images to an equivocal state which echoes some themes of the essay. The silkscreens can be perceived as transcriptions of existing imagery, as a kind of homage, or a queasy distortion of questionable iconicity (the images flattened by the posterizing silkscreen process, roughly painted in with solid colors). They are recognizable yet different. I have seen students try to copy the method & it invariably appears wrong somehow - the student work tends to be too clean, too well done, too reverential (one of my students made a grid of Anna Nicole Smith, after her untimely death). Even a witty pastiche such as Deborah Kass' images of Barbra Streisand still are a bit more laden with too much meaning - even if that word is a bit warped in this instance. Warhol's images simultaneously elevate & eviscerate what are ultimately all too brief cultural "icons." ("icon" is one of those words which should be expunged from the English language, for our own good.)

Stars as subject has a juvenile aspect: one's self is displaced in a vulgar polytheism of media celebrity, an Olympus of tabloid scandals & product placements. A excellent & vicious guide to the stars are the 2 volumes of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Anger may be the most Baudelairian of our contemporary artists in the extremities of his simultaneous relish & disgust in the wayward ways of Hollywood movie star egoists; monsters who built an oasis of decadence in the former deserts of Los Angeles.

Recently I saw Francesco Vezzoli's video Marlene Redux, which is a very funny "copy" of an E! Hollywood True Story - in this case termed "A Hollywood True Story" which is of the rise & fall of the artist Francesco Vezzoli, a narrative of success, then failure - Vezzoli lost in the sexual bazaar of Hollywood. Such a narrative is so much a cliche & so common in our tabloid culture - what would a parody actually accomplish? How different would it be? Still, it is a very well-crafted reproduction of the dizzying collage of edits & sound/image bytes & it becomes much more what I'd want to see on television - interviews (do such brief statements count as "interviews"?) with male porn stars & male prostitutes & gym trainers (*ahem*) & drag queens. The tale is much more decadent than the puritanical sobbings of US TV. As parodic as it may be, it is also a grandiose idealization of the form.

In a more global sense I'd state that the Vezzoli also reveals how much tabloid narratives have become extremely pervasive, & overlooked, in their ubiquity. They exist w/o question. There's a lot of pop star imagery in the arts which can ironic or not. I think of the paintings of rock stars & royalty by Elizabeth Peyton, which are extremely sincere - these seem quite similar to the work of Constantin Guys, who is the unnamed subject of Baudelaire's essay - both are kinds of elevated fashion illustration, & as such have almost a "documentary" value for the future, irregardless of one's taste for their styles. Will we even know who these people are in a few years? Looking at CDVs of royals & theater stars from the 19th century - who can identify them? Outside of the technologies used, is our world all that different? Celebrity seems most interesting when its obsolescence is acknowledged. (All these potential sequels to Sunset Boulevard. . . )

A more complex reading of our exploding pop inevitable is in the paintings, drawings, videos & installations of Karen Kilimnik. There is a violence & obsessiveness in her treatment of her pretty & cute subjects. Pretty becomes a kind of pathology, & the stars, real & imaginary, (Emma Peel, Leonardo di Caprio, Rudolf Nureyev, various Vogue models) become quite monstrous in their appeal. Kilimnik's work deals a lot w/ the reception of & reaction to media as a kind of invasive species of consciousness.

& in the case of an even more complex & enigmatic artist, Ray Johnson, whose collages & drawings & mail are full of images & names of stars, the stars themselves are internalized & abstracted to a kind of nothingness, as hermetic clues which never reveal themselves, & there is a much louder laughter (of sorts) coming from Johnson: the stars are there & they are nothing but cut paper playthings, filler for nonsense lists & fake meetings. Johnson's art is about sitting on a void & dawdling on it, making games & jokes out of a great big disappearing act.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Andy Warhol - A Boy For Meg

Now in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, "A Boy for Meg" was on long-term loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where I saw it on numerous occasions as a child. It is one of the first paintings I can recall, distinctly, & as such represents a kind of primal memory (as it were) of aesthetic experience in my childhood. I was not directly aware of tabloid newspapers such as the NY Post, which was the template for the painting, I could recall tabloid "style" - my education was primarily cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Rocky & Bullwinkle) & the Warhol in its own way followed such a suit. Easy to recognize, it seems.

My mother read movie star magazines rather obsessively in these days - Photoplay, etc. which she would hide, like pornography, & I as an inquisitive child, found them & read them cover to cover, before returning them to their hiding-place. Ethel Kennedy's affair with Andy Williams (my mother & I would watch his TV Christmas special together every year), Jackie K becoming Jackie O & as such transforming from Great Widow to Great Whore in the scheme of things, Ted Kennedy's "incident" at Chappaquadick (I think we paid attention to the Kennedys because they were Catholic - I went to a Catholic grade school at one point & my 3rd grade teacher told us all that if a Kennedy was elected, this was before the death of RFK, then God would be in the White House, helping out). for example.

Along with Photoplay, etc. my favorite book at that time was Edith Hamilton's Mythology - Timeless Tales of Gods & Heros. Itself a compendium of (truly) immortal gossip. I would attribute any ability on my part to recall intricacies of connections to these 2 random aspects of my childhood culture. Seeing Renaissance & Baroque tapestries for example I could recognize attributes of Gods unseen to my family: Mercury, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.

The Warhol somehow fit into the pop mass cultural world around me & also remove itself from the "shelf" as it were - I could recognize the same Campbell soup cans, the Brillo boxes, the ads in the back of comic books, etc. to be found in any supermarket. My aunt Lucille, a secretary at GM Overseas, had taken me to the DIA for an exposure to culture, something neither of my parents would have ever attempted - it meant an exposure to that great entity, "the finer things in life" which from her petit bourgeois world meant also that they were the stuff of museums, others, "not for us." This was not dissimilar from the car rides we did on Lakeshore Drive in the Grosse Pointes to look at the mansions of the Fords, etc. Look but don't touch. But like the illicit photos of Jackie O being stalked, the weirdness & splendor of an art museum was another form of forbidden fruit. & although making no claim at all for any deep illuminations in all this media hubbub, I think I did discover & discovering knowingly, looking at the Warhol, a way to mediate the mediation all around us. & it had humor & spirit - a child could understand its mockery, it camp, & its independence.