Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Corinthians - A Kodachrome Slideshow

The Corinthians - A Kodachrome Slideshow, edited by Ed Jones & Timothy Prus, published by The Archive of Modern Conflict, is a collection of anonymous Kodachrome slides, dated 1947-1974.

I became aware of the press through another book edited by Jones & Prus, Nein, Onkel, which is also of anonymous material, in this instance, snapshots of Nazi soldiers - material which is a bit more difficult, historically, especially in lieu of its innocuous banality and rich un-self-consciousness (the soldiers being innocuously ordinary, cute, without any distinction). As far as I know, Nein, Onkel is available in the US only through Dashwood Books, & I have never seen a copy of The Corinthians available except through the internet.

While The Corinthians does reference a specific historical conflict like Nein, Onkel, the title is taken from the book of Corinthians in the bible, a series of letters from St Paul which address a decadent society: thus the images hover between being a relic & being an ambiguous indictment. Kodachrome itself is of recent obsolescence, & like much analog film material, now represents its own historical passage in the past tense.

In terms of using the specific materiality of Kodachrome (color transparency, vivid hues with a palette akin to Technicolor)and its anonymous usage, there is Guy Stricherz's book Americans in Kodachrome 1945-1965, which is a much gentler, nostalgic collection. & this is not to diminish the Stricherz collection, either, which has its own fascinations. The title of the Stricherz book also reveals what is often unstated about nostalgia: that nostalgia has national borders, that nostalgia can be used as a technological fantasy of a shared & cohesive history, a Family of Man in lower-case letters. My guess is the images in The Corinthians are primarily from the US, & the sometimes gaudy hues & occasions to photograph are representative of a post-WWII glee, a kind of ascendancy of an ability to observe one's daily life, which over time detaches itself from any context & becomes cryptic. But the shared "American-ness" of the Stricherz book is not apparent in The Corinthians, where instead the images clash, they do not relate to one another, whether by year, region, practice, or taste. What is revealed can seem simultaneously obvious & opaque. What separates the collections of Stricherz and the Archive of Modern Conflict is in the choice of images & their editing. One of the remarkable things about the images in The Corinthians is that they are often uglier than beautiful. The interiors & family scenes can be claustrophobic if not downright unpleasant. This is so against the grain of the fading twilight of nostalgia, in which a partial forgetfulness is often equated w/ sweetness or tenderness, a slight regret along with a letting go - instead the images are jarring, & whether through accident or intent (the difference between we will never know), there is a crudeness, an awkward possessiveness which resonate w/ more craven aspects of the photographic process: the images force the participants into a pantomime of an image-self, as an illusion of what they would be, which is realized w/ an almost violent lack of skills. In this sense The Corinthians reminds me of the vertigo of the images in Wisconsin Death Trip. Vanitas vanitatum.

If one thinks of the billions of snapshots which exist, in utter randomness, the collection of whatever becomes the ad hoc solution to extract any sort of meaning what is otherwise accident & chance. Both The Corinthians & Nein, Onkel posit the amateur photo collection as a kind of black mirror to the past, in a Barthesian sense of lost time, & also in the excesses of detail which add strangeness & confusion to memory.

I would also recommend The Corinthians for it's unusual binding, which reproduces the cardboard mount of a Kodachrome slide, with a window cut in both front & back. This is anterior to the content of the book, but still references the original physical form of the slides. It shows a great deal of concentration to the enterprise, & its tally of vanishing forms.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Ulrike Ottinger - Image Archive

At the Walker Art Center this week I bought a copy of Image Archive: Photographs 1970-2005 by the filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger. The photographs were taken over a 35 year span & include stills & studies for both Ottinger's experimental narrative films as well has ethnographic work done in Mongolia & China.

Seeing it brought back memories of when I worked at Anthology Film Archives, when in its small gallery there was a show of black-&-white images by Ottinger from her films: immaculate, well-printed, finished objects, which could be independent of the films themselves. The production of film stills is something which has for the most part diminished w/ the decline of the studio system in Hollywood, when stills were integral to publicity as well as continuity purposes. & certainly for experimental work it is often not a priority or something done w/ a great deal of work. I recall the show at Anthology as being a setting for a Halloween party. Also that it would have been circa 1989 - 20 years ago now!

There are almost 600 images in the book, mostly in color, mostly from the documentary work in Asia, but there are generous archives of images from the earlier experimental narratives, such as the spectacular Tabea Blumenschein in Madame X - An Absolute Ruler, & Ticket of No Return, & Magdalena Montezuma in Freak Orlando. & my one-time boss at the Bleecker St. Cinema, Jackie Raynal, as 1/2 of a Siamese twin in Freak Orlando. Among many others.(a nude study of Rosa von Prauheim, Delphine Seyrig as Lady Windemere in Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia, etc.).

Ottinger's images veer from the carefully studied film still images to photographs of a much more casual, "collecting" mode. Nevertheless there is a great deal of economy in Ottinger's diversity. The photographs often function as sketches for the larger work of the films. While not intended as a primary work by Ottinger, the photographs can be looked at as great footnotes to her cinematic oeuvre. & given Ottinger's careful practices, these are a truly fascinating addendum to the films.

Years ago my friend K. spoke about the absence of "women's adventure stories." I have always thought of Ottinger's films as being just that: whether a pirate queen, or a society lady drunk on a fabulous bender (Tabea Blumenschein walking on mirrors & destroying them as she walks into the future), or the meetings of all on the Trans-Siberian express on the steppes of Mongolia, Ottinger has created a hypothetical universe of expanding possibilities.

I am less familiar with the later documentary work, but in tandem w/ the narratives I am struck by the absence of tedium or banality in Ottinger's observations. Everything is about diversity & hybrid forms. The minutae of daily life can become an object of deep focus, as well as manifestations of the truly strange & unusual.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll

Yesterday, browsing at the St. Marks Bookstore, I picked up a copy of Jean Nathan's The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, a biography of Dare Wright, the author of The Lonely Doll. I had had a copy which I had given away & it seemed fortuitous to pick up another copy, hardbound, to replace it.

I was not aware of Dare Wright or her numerous children's books, illustrated with her photographs until well into my adulthood. My good friend K. was the first to mention The Lonely Doll to me, as it had been a beacon for her in her childhood. & then subsequently others I knew mentioned this as well.

I've been rereading The Lonely Doll & other books by Dare Wright. I am struck by how Edith, the lonely doll of the title, encounters & addresses serious issues: isolation, separation, doubt. The appearance of Mr. & Little Bear is a kind of wish fulfillment & also a plateau in which Edith's sensitivities can be played out, in determining her emotional perimeters. Written w/ a laconic sweetness, it is nevertheless resonant w/ indications of trauma - loss, rejection, abjection.

Dolls can be quite serious. I can think of such oddities as the doll of Alma Mahler that Oskar Kokoschka made as a kind of effigy, or the mutating poupees of Hans Bellmer, but perhaps more for understanding Dare Wright we should think of the tableaux of Laurie Simmons, or the use of dolls in the Todd Haynes film Superstar - the Karen Carpenter Story. In either case dolls & a doll world are miniatures of an ideological structure which can be apprehended as such in its shrunken state.

Children are anarchists, surrealists, & clairvoyants before the fact: they can see the tree from the woods & then some. The images of The Lonely Doll & its sequels are in a sense quite spare & shocking, given their photographic sources. The amateurishness of the tableaux is more than obvious. As an adult this may seem somewhat paltry, but for children it allows the child to enter in the fiction & finish it, which may be part of the power Dare Wright's books have, in addition to fairy tale aspects of the narratives. The Lonely Doll culminates in a potential trauma in which Edith the doll & Little Bear transgress Mr. Bear with their uncontrolled behavior. Edith fears rejection & the loss of her only friends, which is assuaged in Mr. Bear's forgiveness & a swearing of unconditional love. Given the simplicity of means, this is a remarkably complex situation which addresses primal insecurities. I think I can understand the truly vehement passion of my various friends who have grown up with this book as it touches on the intensity of separation & isolation for a child.

Jean Nathan's biography of Dare Wright is a very sensitive assessment of Wright's life, which was remarkably circumscribed & controlled. In lesser hands maybe there wouldn't seem like anything to write about, or perhaps the macabre aspects would stand out more. Dare Wright's career as a children's book author is almost accidental - she had been an acting student, a model, & then had branched out into photography, all the while living w/ her scarily controlling mother. All her life Dare Wright was like a doll herself, made up in fantastic configurations of impossible, untouchable beauty, except by dear old mom. In terms of The Lonely Doll, here is where some parallels become a bit too disturbing: the doll is named Edith, after the mother, Edith "Edie" Stevenson Wright. The doll Edith wears a wig that is identical to Dare Wright's bangs-&-ponytail hairdo. If anything, the reason to get the hardbound copy of The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is its cover which features a truly sick contact sheet of 6x6cm images of Dare Wright fidgeting w/ a Hasselblad, until the last frame of Edie, mimicking the same.

Looking at photographs of Dare Wright in her youth & adulthood I am struck by her poise, by what seems a kind of visual self-possession. Her demeanor was urbane, bordering on bohemian, but w/ a backbone of proper. If anything, reading about her life w/ mother, I am reminded of the end of the Hitchcock film Marnie in which the mother screams at her lying, stealing, pathological daughter that she was raised to be "decent." & so was Dare Wright. Or along more pop lines, Dare Wright was raised to be like the Nat King Cole hit "Mona Lisa." Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep/They just lie there and they die there/Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?/Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art? Beautiful, inscrutable & untouchable. Wright's story is a story about proper manners as a kind of perversion, an ill-fitting mask over psychological oddities. It's all about what wasn't said, what wasn't done & what didn't happen.

After the mother has passed, as Dare Wright entered old age, this became a paradigm of extreme self-destruction. Her later years had been spent in a apt on E. 80th St., & she spent a great deal of time in Central Park, often sleeping there, or bringing people she met there to her home. Ultimately, Dare Wright died in a public hospital on Roosevelt Island.

Given Dare Wright's timeline, I along w/ my friend D., another avid devotee of The Lonely Doll, realized that in her proximity to the Metropolitan Museum, & Central Park, along w/ our own - either one of us could have seen her, potentially often, without knowing it.

(This reminds me of another story involving my friend G., who had worked at both the National Academy of Design & the Guggenheim Museum, on upper 5th Ave. In an apt bldg between the 2 museums there was an older resident my friend dubbed "Baldy" who every day would go into Central Park & bring home black men to his 5 Ave apt., which was apparent to all those working in the National Academy, in the tedium of their workday. My friend G. was also a big fan of the writings of Coleman Dowell, an interest I shared. Ultimately after Dowell's suicide (by leaping off the balcony in said apt bldg) when stories of Dowell's sexual conquests in Central Park emerged, I had to show G. that "Baldy" & Coleman Dowell were one & the same.)

I must give Jean Nathan credit for telling a macabre story in a sensitive, respectful manner, without sensationalism or a sense of spectacle. It could also be perceived as a potentially slight story - ultimately little happened in a very circumscribed life - & again Jean Nathan opens this up to a sense of the profundity of just that. The story is almost Victorian. As a biography it's all sadness, but one must look at the books, the ability to create them, as being the true achievement.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Michelangelo Pistoletto - No To The Increase of the Tram Fare, 1965

Michelangelo Pistoletto's mirror paintings, while not photography per se, engage the viewer with, for want of better terms, the conditions of photography. I find them meditative in regards to the act of looking in a technological, inexpressive manner, akin to either the snapshot or a news photo. They address the anonymity of photographic images, as a kind of mute recording, and the residue of looking at a photograph, unmoored as it is from its initial exposure, as a kind of after-taste. The mirror-polished steel of the surface, on which drawings from photographs are glued could be conceived as an echo of the daguerreotype, with its brilliant mirrored surface. However that seems much too historicist a reading: Instead what seems germane is the tension between a photograph as an art of both space & time, in which the recording of time is rendered as a 2-dimensional image, and the act of looking at a photograph, which is always a looking at whatever "time" is recorded as that time in the past tense, contrasted with the phenomenon of looking at that time in the here & now. The viewer is necessary to see the image & is complicit in its structure.

On a recent trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts I found a Pistoletto mirror-painting in the permanent collection of which I have no memory. The DIA is a museum I knew well in high school & college, but which I saw little of except in the past few years. The museum was renovated & expanded, re-opening in 2007 & I am just now seeing my way around its changes.

I found the Pistoletto very moving. I realize that Pistoletto's work isn't really suitable for an "emotional" reading per se. While like other examples of Arte Povera it involves a very direct experience in the here & now, it is also suffused w/ enough irony & distance to become a kind of alienated experience, it amplifies the lackings it invokes. Most often in the Pistoletto mirror-paintings it is images of others, but others barely seen, figures turning away, social scenes of no fixity, which put the viewer reflected in the scene into an oblique relation to the scene, never involved enough, not really there, but there. In this oeuvre of anonymity there are also several scenes of political activism, such as the scene in No To The Increase of the Tram Fare. The ambiguity of the relation to a political event, which can evoke both sympathy & distance, seems the ultimate subject. Other examples that come to mind are the woven global maps of Alghieri e Boetti in which the needlepoint contours of countries are filled w/ variations of their flags, or numerous paintings of Gerhard Richter, such as his portraits of leaders, or the suite of paintings of the Red Army Faction taken from news photographs - also w/ Richter, history is as common as the utter banality of the everyday, it is not "different" from more anonymous scenes. It's a kind of queasy relation to history, to politics, existing outside the boundaries of the frame of whatever - photo, weaving, painting.

The DIA has a remarkable mural sequence by Diego Rivera in the center of its original structure, made in 1933 of industry in Detroit which was paid for by Edsel Ford. The subject is primarily the manufacture of automobiles, but it also includes the pharmaceutical industry, shipping, aviation, agriculture. There was controversy about the murals in terms of Rivera being a sworn communist (although kicked out of the CP for his interactions w/ Leon Trotsky), also a communist being paid by an uber-capitalist such as Ford - I think also there was difficulty with the subject matter being a bit too close to home. The automotive money which built the DIA had fairly conservative tastes which was a happy occasion for the museum being able to acquire great Italian, Dutch & Flemish paintings, but not necessarily navigate the sedition of modern art. The Rivera murals are not biased with a specific political viewpoint, except out of sympathy with workers & the conditions of working & work as a fact of daily life. There is a cartoon-like parody of the bourgeoisie in the portrayal of factory visitors to the Rouge Plant, seen on a platform overlooking the assembly line (& looking almost like something from the Fleischer Studios) - then, as now, a feature of Ford. But otherwise any insidious propaganda is lacking, from what I can discern.

The direct engagement between Rivera & the factory is not there in the Pistoletto & his strikers, but I think the sympathy is still at least somewhat extant. But it has become a mediation of a mediation, hanging there mysteriously.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Larry Sultan 1946-2009

Larry Sultan's work is most familiar to me from books: Evidence, Pictures from Home, and The Valley. The work also exists as gallery prints & has been used in magazines spreads. My personal attachment is to the books & the experience such a form offers: private, on my own time.

Evidence, made with Mike Mandel, is a collection of industrial photographs, which as a collection, leads to a kind of non-sense of imagery. Nothing relates, nothing really means anything, but the viewer is face-to-face with "evidence" of something somehow. There is a dry humor in the residue of corporate imagery, it's utter obscurity & obsolescence, but it is also a kind of psychic downward spiral, a tension between the kitsch of execution & a horror of banality.

Unlike a lot of work which uses vernacular imagery often as a kind of nostalgia, or a collection used to codify forms, Evidence uses imagery which traffics between the institutional & the ridiculous - as archaeology, the imagery is ultimately embarrassing in its weirdness, its cryptic passages between intention & effect.

There is an agitational quality to Sultan's work, an unrest, a meta-critique of the uses of photography which is most apparent in Evidence, in which the imagery is found, but which also informs the 2 long-term projects, Pictures from Home, which deals with the suburban culture of Sultan's parents, and The Valley, which is "behind the scenes" of the adult film industry.

Pictures from Home uses both Sultan's color photographs of his parents, living on the edge of a golf course, in southern CA, along with frame enlargements of home movies made by Sultan's father. The home movies are predictably bucolic & idealized - vacations, fun, high points. Sultan's photographs seem much darker in comparison, although in extremely lush color, in the brilliant SoCal light, in their acute focus & detail (contra the pictorial inexactitude of the home movies). Sultan's parents are used as kind of a test-case of post WWII prosperity & its retirement, figures placed in an artificial new world of synthetics, hovering in an ahistorical constant present. Sultan's parents become the post WWII nuclear family, severed from kith & kin, adrift in a sea of commodities.

In comparison, the images in The Valley seem the most illustrative, juxtaposed with both Evidence & Pictures from Home. The images can be read easily in either magazine or on a gallery wall: the behind-the-scenes of the adult film industry, on location in rented McMansions in the San Fernando Valley. The images concentrate on the absolute clutter of the houses as sites of filmmaking, in terms of the logistics of the set-ups as well as everything that is necessary to sustain the shoot. Also the images deal with the hours of waiting behind any film project - hours of tedium distinguishing the work involved. While it has some of the romantic appeal of a film like Boogie Nights& a general fascination with the adult film industry in our culture (a Puritanical vision of carnality at its most commodified, i.e. sensible form), the real subject seems to be the conformity & dullness of work, any work. The hideous McMansions of the Valley photograph extremely well: settings of baroque vulgarity, impersonal except for the particularities of bad taste from house to house, & even then nothing is ever unique or outstanding. Everything is prefabricated, mass produced, & strangely empty. The models for the films reiterate the alienation of the architecture & decor in their utter displacement from it. Everything looks kind of awful & inexplicably expensive.

Larry Sultan's photographs for The Valley, printed large, fit comfortably in art galleries, wherein large color photographs are a kind of contemporary salon painting. Akin to PL DiCorcia's images of pole dancers, or the more obscure images of porn sets done by Jeff Burton, which seem more about distraction & daydreaming on the job (Burton was also working for various companies). Still, Sultan's images have a kind of distancing & self-consciousness which keeps them from being pure commodity. The images are rehearsals for images, attempts, auditions, lapses, distractions. The models look mechanical & bored. The theme of scientific management seen in the images of Evidence is sublimated but constant throughout The Valley.

From Evidence to The Valley: dealing w/ corporate imagery, the family, suburbia & sex. Such an engaged & challenging use of the camera & the photograph.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Joachim Schmid, Other People's Photographs

Photography as a medium of originality can be explored in museum collections, from the rough-hewn negatives & positives of the calotype, to the MFA mandated images of today. If one were to consider photography not just as another medium, but as a social phenomenon, its ubiquity as well as its banality must be taken into account. From the introduction of the Kodak camera (& image) in 1888, which created a global amateur market, photography has had a role beyond its aesthetics, in the everyday.

The industrialization of imagery, its crazy ubiquity, as well as its acceptance, indicates a faith which may extend beyond the average. The lowest common denominator may be recognition, if nothing else. A tacit faith in doing something, with a machine, which in its objectivity, denotes a moment, its reality.

I first noticed the books of Joachim Schmid on the shelves at Printed Matter. There is a great deal of humor in Schmid's self-published books, such as Phantome, in which a sort of game is involved, matching up media images of criminals with their crimes. Schmid addresses the absolute & unconscious aspect of photography, the fact that it is accepted without a question, as well as its role in daily life, whether or not that is actually clear. It is simply there.

The books,"Other People's Pictures" are a series of POD books available from Blurb. Culled from flickr, Schmid has created his own taxonomies using appropriate key words, & utilizing the daily excess of on line postings. "Other people's pictures" indicates a willingness to share & to be like others as much as it will show a sense of standing alone. Photography is a lonely but ubiquitous enterprise. I is like others.

Schmid's books interject in a daily electronic culture, a vast every-expanding archive of virtual collections.

The apparent clarity of selected keywords ("Mickey" or "Digits" for example) become strange & exotic. Ostensibly each book ordered from Schmid is itself unique in its selection & editing. No two are exactly alike, yet all are so familiar.

Photography in Schmid's book becomes a shared technology rather than a singular expressive medium. Our fantasies are also someone else's & we can see so, easily. On sites such as flickr this may be the salient detail/ which prompts not only an excess of compiling images, but of circulating them in an efficient & globally open manner.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Alice O'Malley, Community of Elsewheres

Alice O'Malley lectured at ICP last week, showing work she has done since around 1990, which seems not so long ago, albeit it's almost 20 years. Alice's early work is from the Clit Club & other nightclub venues downtown, but her main body of work is a series of black-&-white portraits, a tiny portion of which have been published in the book Community of Elsewheres.

The portraits are done simply - frontal, centered, collaborative with the subjects. Many of the subjects are performers and artists & as such have some public existence, such as Antony of Antony & the Johnsons, or Kembra Pfaler. However what I find of interest is the great attention & regard O'Malley brings to her subjects. I am not convinced one has to know anything about the sitters to find them thoroughly alluring. The photos are dandyish & witty. The photos are an excellent guide to the low-rent talents of downtown NYC & all that has been great about living in NY, even as it seems a kind of diminishing world, at the mercy of landlords & mortality. O'Malley uses the camera as a kind of memory guide, citing, among others, the photographs of Peter Hujar & the paintings of Romaine Brooks.

Some artists need never cite any other artists in their presentations; I am struck by O'Malley's citations (also she mentions Cecil Beaton & the salons of Natalie Barney) as indicative of her seriousness, as well as her consciousness in making a kind of history, which would potentially be ignored otherwise, which is queer & lush & fabulous.

O'Malley cites Peter Hujar as an influence. I would also include another photographic portraitist, David Armstrong, who likewise makes seductive, compelling images. The portrait, as a form, flirts with utility & function: it has a job to do. It needs to be recognizable as a portrait to be understood. & it revels in its illusionism: we have to believe it for it to exist. I think of Hujar, Armstrong, & O'Malley as being almost like Victorians, in their dedication to portraiture. While each has been depicting their immediate social orbit, a bigger picture emerges in this endeavor & how fortunate we are to get a glimpse of it.

Another aspect which comes to mind is that in these portfolios there is also a sense of loss - from AIDS, drugs, the vagaries of time. We can see how much preciousness has slipped through our fingers, as it were, leaving us with these shadows of what had once been.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans

One of the difficulties of looking at photographic oeuvres in recent retrospectives is the presence of the photographer him or her self, whether as a live presence or the active involvement of an estate. I don't find this remarked upon at all which I find problematic. I have been disappointed in exhibitions of truly great photographers such as Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus & William Eggleston, primarily by the exhibits having a hagiographic aspect which avoided the nature of the work itself in deference to a museum-mausoleum solemnity of tedious seriousness.

Curiously, the current exhibition of Robert Frank's work for the book The Americans which originated at the National Gallery in DC avoids such institutional tedium, perhaps by virtue of its focus on a particular book & body of work. That the exhibit is about a publication, rather than a more general body of work, is remarkable too, although in some ways the book, in its various editions & incarnations, still appears somewhat peripheral to the images, which are shown in remarkably lush exhibition prints. Highlights of the show for me are a wall of work prints, which are in poor shape & unimpressive technically, as well as a vitrine of various editions of the book which is at the exit of the show. Both show a Robert Frank in process, as it were, as opposed to a grand old man of the medium. It seems unfair to lionize Frank or historicize his work, as what distinguishes it is its ambivalence about imagery & meaning, its intense tension in contemplating the visual. Frank's ambivalence seems young to me & unfinished, unresolved. Seeing such gorgeous prints obscures the work somehow. Perhaps my happiest encounter w/ Frank is in the Tod Papageorge book about Frank & Walker Evans - reading, study seem to be proper forms for looking at Frank. Or I think of the photos of the poet Allen Ginsberg, which can seem unexceptional except for his captions, but what captions they can be! I have yet to see Frank contextualized say in terms of the St Marks Poetry Project, or downtown NY once upon a time.

The Americans is a strange powerful book. Given its ambitious title it is remarkably unspecific about "America" except as a last resort, a vague & difficult window onto troubling opportunities, if at all. The title promises a travelog which never happens except in the most abject manner. Unheroic, crummy, stupid, boring - this is what is revealed stretching from sea to shining sea.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Empirical Experience: The Artist, Information, and the Book


This session explores the use of data in the construction of artists’ books: The accumulation of information, its management, and concurrently its potential mismanagement, have been templates for artistic interrogations of the perimeters of the real, the document. In the age of the internet, with more than 1,001 wikis of unstable veracity ready at one’s fingertips for any conceivable topic, the artist’s book, exploring and mimicking the book form as a vessel of knowledge, becomes a rich counter-consciousness of existing cultural forms. Jacqueline Hassink and William E. Jones, two artists that visually communicate data-gathering activities, present their information and evidence in conversation with like-minded moderator Bernard Yenelouis.
Matthew Carson, organizer
Bernard Yenelouis, moderator
Jacqueline Hassink
William E. Jones

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Peter Hujar - Photographs 1956-1958

The current show of Peter Hujar's early photographs, dated 1956-1958, at Matthew Marks Gallery, convinces me (not that I really needed to be convinced) that Peter Hujar is one of truly great photographers of our time. "Our time" may be a bit porous - these images are now over 50 years old, & Hujar died in 1987, but perhaps his "time" is now & in the future. My suspicion is that there is much work that has never been seen, like the images in the show, which I do not think have had much circulation.

The photographs are of what are now referred to as "developmentally challenged" children. One of my students, who accompanied me to the show, asked, "Are these special needs students?" These terms are bureaucratic & with all good intentions, more inhuman than any pejorative term in their sentimental but airtight classification. It's language which acts as a placebo for the speaker, absolving the speaker of having to say much else. The Hujar images predate a very well-known body of work by Diane Arbus of the same subject, by about 10 years & have some structural similarities (square format, black-&-white). The Arbus images are rightly famous for their moodiness, their sense of isolation & incarceration. Peter Hujar's images have a very different emotional tenor in what could be seen as ebullience, anarchy & a very deep sweetness. Both bodies of work were done in institutions - institutions for those who would be classified (using the volume titles employed by August Sander for his planned books of portraits) as among "The Last People." Such institutions also function as as a kind of container for society, hiding away its defective members. The intrusion of a photographer in such a setting has many possibilities, such as a journalistic narrative of whatever stripe. What distinguishes both the Arbus & Hujar portfolios is their media-uselessness. Why? What for? The photographer in her/his naked voyeurism shows a curiosity & suspension of judgment which allows for multiple readings of the subjects & their images. We can't look at the photos & know automatically what to think.

Peter Hujar's photographs resonate with me so strongly. Everyone I know thinks he's great, so I feel a bit presumptuous saying this, but he appears neglected in histories & anthologies. His photographs of animals are as strong as his portraits. His photographs of nighttime streets are as erotic as his nudes. Hujar's work is permeated with mortality: I hesitate to describe his work as morbid, despite the many photographs of dead animals, or the photographs of the catacombs in Palermo, or a portfolio I saw once of the tableaux of the long-gone Wax Musee at Coney Island, which was primarily of serial killers in action (I remember Richard Speck strangling a nurse, in particular). Or the portrait of Candy Darling in her hospital bed. Or the portrait of Edwin Denby just before Denby died. Nevertheless in such finely wrought forms I think there's a strong sense of corporeality: Flesh has its own life, whether it is a waddling duck or the enormous cock of a nude boy.

Estimations of mortality are written out of a lot of current photographic discourse. The photographic is understood more in semiotic terms, or as a cultural product. Hujar's photographs are more like a 17th century memento mori image: a Dutch bouquet in which in such splendid beauty there is the beetle & the worm, slightly hidden, the slight but advancing wilt, with their intimations of passing.

I try to discern: what are my favorite Hujar images? The list just extends - it is a useless prospect. I hesitate to use the word "classic photography" to describe his work, which evokes more formal black-&-white images of western landscapes or abstractions of natural forms done with The Zone System, yet Hujar is part of such a former photographic world. Hujar's work can be classified in very traditional terms: portraits, nudes, cityviews & landscapes. But the work is intense & immediate which undermines its great formality. Hujar's work is imbued with a remarkable moral sense: the same level of carefulness goes towards both a woman passed out in his stairwell on 2nd Ave, or a portrait of Miss Peggy Lee. I am also reminded of this in his portraits of the elderly Edwin Denby or Lotte Eisner. I have little reference to Hujar's psychology, except in the work, which is perhaps a more ideal way to contemplate anyone's creative endeavors. One hopes that at some point there is a truly great book of this work, in all its scope.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dan Graham

I have been to the Dan Graham show now a few times. It isn't a large show per se & as I understand it, he is extremely prolific, but still the work has a peculiar density to it: the film & video work in particular are time-based, as are ostensibly some of the installations of the mirror chambers. But it's not just that: compared to other recent shows of conceptual artists shown at the Whitney, Robert Smithson & Gordon Matta-Clark, the Dan Graham show is remarkably immaterial, it's about questioning situations, space, roles, authority - it is emphatically not about the object but about a physical, social & psychological dynamic.

How curious to think of Dan Graham as immaterial as 1/2 of the show is of his mirror chambers, which are part carnival mirror-labyrinth, part horrifying mall architecture. Both seductive & repellently dystopic. In all their physicality, they are nevertheless about claustrophobia, entrapment, a paranoid sense of totalitarian control - issues not necessarily evident in the glass, wood & steel, per se. There's a sense of humor in the displacement of the senses, the distortion of perceptions, but also there's a deadly serious sense of interrogation, of isolation, of torture to it all, too.

The work by Dan Graham I am most familiar with is the magazine piece Homes for America which was originally published in
Arts Magazine. The layout is on display along with a slideshow of the images & some boards on which images are mounted - a kind of educational presentation. The images, shot in Staten Island & New Jersey, are mock-serious in setting up distinctly formal arrangements of housing developments, which are of a distinctly lowbrow nature. The symmetry or assymetry of doorways & windows. The geometry of cheap materials. The abject non-spaces of fast-food places. In a retrospective manner the images are quite beautiful - but of a chintzy, Las Vegas, cardboard & tinsel kind of sophistication - something promising more than the shit at hand. The images are mounted on boards which are now curling w/ age & humidity.

The cheapness & lack of grandiosity are perhaps what I find most compelling about the work. There is so much to think about in looking at this work.

Slap Your Gondola production stills

Friday, August 21, 2009

Richard Avedon

Given what would be otherwise sympathy & interest in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of his more unfortunate statements was to the effect "The rich are different." I balk at this statement, even if it were true. In & of itself the statement isn't so lame, but it is when it is used elsewhere by others, in which case the heaviness of it begins to sound creaky & moribund. One example, & my memory may be incorrect given the lapse of years (my childhood, spent in front of a TV) & the lameness of the source, was on the Merv Griffin Show, in which Merv Griffin asked Truman Capote, by then late & unproductive in his writing, just that question, "Are the rich different?" Truman Capote, by biographical accounts severely alcoholic & socially unacceptable to the "swans" of high society whom Capote had written about in novelistic fragments at this point, said, wittily, "Yes, they are different. They have better vegetables."

Truman Capote was a former collaborator with and later critic of Richard Avedon. Avedon, Capote & Alexei Brodovitch created one of the great photo books of the 20th century, Observations. Ultimately, perhaps, it is Brodovitch who is the great genius behind the book: Avedon's portraits are mixed with Capote's texts, all of which are determined by the graphic design (the first letter of each text must relate visually to the photograph, etc.). At any rate this is a great meeting of great talents meeting on the printed page. The book, Observations, also foreshadows what would be a model of Richard Avedon's presence in books & exhibitions: his portraits, overshadowing his fashion work, which was the bread-&-butter of Avedon's career & also the work which brought him to public attention, initially.

Avedon's portraiture dominates his exhibitions & catalogs. It is ostensibly "editorial portraiture" - no less commercial than the Dior New Look or "The Most Unforgettable Women in the World Wear Revlon" but it has the cachet of being of public figures, of the great & strange of the world, as opposed to the puppet-like world of models & couture. & I don't think anyone would question me on this, Avedon was smart: he had an eye on his posterity, on his skills being seen in a larger cultural sphere than the narrow world of fashion. The exhibits, from the 1977 retrospective at the Metropolitan to the 1995 "Evidence" at the Whitney were demonstrations of the extreme width & depth of Avedon's access to the various powers-that-be in the world along with umpteen & sundry most unforgettable women in the world, too, as more of an afterthought.

My sense of Avedon's separations between his "serious" & commercial work is not a novel observation (excuse the pun). Almost like a mantra, I have heard many people say, "Avedon is great, but I really like his fashion work." Such an idea informed the exhibit curated by Vince Aletti & Carol Squiers at ICP, in conjunction with the Richard Avedon Foundation.

As I understand it, Avedon began destroying vestiges of his commercial fashion past before his death - again, second-guessing posterity. For anyone who came in the remotest proximity of "Dick" & would be instructed to address him as such, this is perhaps not unusual, as a self-made star himself (played in the movies by Fred Astaire, no less, almost 50 years before Avedon's death) with a stronger will-to-power than your average photographer. I think of Avedon as a very conscious heir to the likes of Nadar. Both were self-made, liberal, & occupied a "public" sphere of mass media. Both courted a portrait clientele of great figures. & if anything Avedon's scope was remarkably wide: from artistic characters from the 1950s such as Ezra Pound (which is one of my all-time favorite images ever) & Marianne Moore, to the various characters involved in the Watergate trial. One does indeed see a calvacade of our age's notables. One could question the making of distinctions between his theatrical, somewhat morbid portraiture & his fashion stories. How far is the vanitas portrait of Duke & Duchess of Windsor from, say, any of the images of Dovima, which occupy an even more hermetic sense of grandiose glamor, with a creeping sense of despair somehow in them?

Not to diminish the portraits, but none can approach the serial images of the constantly transforming Suzy Parker in terms of presence, or the mock-elegance of Dovima with the elephants (itself an echo of the Elisofon image of Gloria Swanson reprising her Sunset Boulevard persona in the ruins of the Roxy Theater, a star among faded grandeur). The "Paris by Night" sequence is an elaborate cosmology of a mythic, glamorous, chic, sexy Paris. Such a Paris is the opposite of US Puritanism, with its intimations of gourmet foods, perfumes, & sex, louche nightclubs, physical pleasures, couture . . .

Avedon was also a great pupil of the work of Martin Muncacsi - models run, jump, & laugh, the image is experiential, it contains an element of chance. But in a thoroughly post WWII economic boom kind of way. It's special. It's great. Something (the beauty of the girl? the clothes? the photographic experience itself?) is exclusive & beckons us to want more of such privileged giggles & leaps.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stephen Shore @ The Factory

One of the treasures of my library is the 1968 Moderna Museet Warhol catalog. When I use the word "treasure" I am thinking of the pleasures the book has given me: now going through the books about photo books (Andrew Roth, Martin Parr/Gerry Badger)& the prices on bookfinder, I realize that was cast-off when I found it (circa 1990)is now itself a hot commodity on the market, at least hypothetically, in terms of current prices asked.

One of the curiosities of the catalog, besides the great 1960s Warhol work showcased, is that the last 1/3 of the book is 2 portfolios of photographs of Warhol & the various people around him, as assistants, friends, visitors, etc., mostly in Warhol's studio, "the Factory," by Billy Name & Stephen Shore. Shore's "career" at the Factory began when Shore was 17 - the work of a teenager w/ a 35mm camera, who found a subject of interest & stayed there: 35mm black-&-white snapshots, chaotic, social frames, which can seem extremely different from Shore's later work in color with a large-format camera. If one were to try to distinguish the salient qualities of Shore's color work, it would be in its hyperreal, mechanical ("objective") perspective, in which vision floats with a technological perfection outside any viewing body. I have heard Hilla Becher state that Shore's work was of great inspiration for her & Bernd Becher in articulating their own ideas of the uses of a camera. Still, if one considers Shore's retrospective projects, such as American Surfaces, which was done with a 35mm camera & includes more private snapshots, as well as his more recent Mac books, one can see a more eclectic range of work than the "signature style" of the Uncommon Places images.

The Stockholm catalog is printed on cheap acidic paper & the 2 portfolios of Shore & Billy Name are printed in an equally un-fine contrasty manner. Given the predominantly indoor, low artificial light shooting situations, there is an amplification of the decadent hybridization of private & public which distinguished the publicity around Warhol's Factory. The Factory, with an almost proscenium-like theatrical aspect, included myriad projects, assistants, visitors. In an immediate context this seemed an antipode to the solitary studios of the Abstract Expressionists, in which outside of the gestural aspect of painting (which can be seen in Hans Namuth's photographs of Jackson Pollock at work, for example), all other work is invisible, internal, in the heads of the mysterious artists, with utter seriousness. The Factory resembled more a classical atelier in which the artist acted as entrepreneur & brand, & the work would be executed by multiple hands.

The inclusion of the photographs in the museum catalog, of a social scene tangental to the artist's work, is a curious anti-formal excess. The images have no captions which exacerbates a sense of their exclusivity - one gets to see a party to which one was not invited. The art is a pre-text for the real goings-on behind the scenes, of which these are a tantalizing fragment.

I am struck by the purposefulness of the photographs in the catalog as support material. Years after the fact, both the Billy Name & Stephen Shore photos have been published independently of Warhol, as documents of these years, & they have also been used as illustrations in various books about Warhol. In the Stockholm catalog Warhol seems to be beating everyone to the punchline, as it were, & beginning his own visual history, in anticipation. The Shore images have been recently reprinted (in what appears to be digital prints) exhibition-size & sold by his gallery. I found the new prints lacking somewhat - black-&-white digital prints still seem to lack the depth of silver prints, unlike the color reprints of Shore's Uncommon Places and American Surfaces images which are luminous. Perhaps, too, taking the images out of the context of Warhol per se, whether a catalog, memoir or history, & presenting them independently, as art itself, does some disservice to the images, even though it is astonishing how well done the photographs are: "snapshots" - they are nevertheless informed, composed, witty. How precocious Shore must have been.

I think Warhol understood the privileges a photograph can give to daily life. What is recorded becomes the memory of what has been. The photograph acts as evidence of experience & also a kind of trophy, a prize. The inclusion of the Factory portfolios in the Stockholm catalog privilege a social scene which would have been invisible or unknown, mostly, otherwise. Warhol's later snapshots, taken by himself, explore this further: in which Warhol can "collect" the famous, the chic & the louche with his camera. The images from the 1960s are a bit more private & experimental, without the certified pedigrees shown.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Las Vegas Studio - Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archive of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brownis a catalog for an exhibit at the Museum im Bellpark, Kriens, edited by Hilar Stadler & Martino Stierli, in collaboration with Peter Fischli. The book includes an essay by Stierli, a conversation "Flaneurs in Automobiles" with Peter Fischli, Rem Koolhaas, & Hans Ulrich Obrist, & an essay, "Tableaux," by Stanislaus von Moos. The images are from the archives of the architectural firm of Venturi & Scott Brown, & were made as part of a class they taught at Yale in 1968 in which the sprawl of Las Vegas was studied, resulting in the book Learning from Las Vegas - Revised Edition: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. The class included prints, slides and films of Las Vegas collected as part of the research, some of which were used as illustrations in the book. The first edition was physically large and included more images, whereas the more commonly known second edition included images which are in miniature on the page, in a sense de-emphasized, but still crucial in the book's role as a kind of manifesto of the strip, of sprawl, of vernacular car culture as a site of learning.

As an amateur in the field of architecture I will refrain from saying much about Venturi & Scott Brown's ideas, but I will say I have always been struck by the images in the 2nd edition, regardless of their miniaturization, & that the catalog of their image archive is a delirious collection of what is now a long-lost world of unconscious automobile excursions (cheap gas, the charm of the highway strip) & "old" Vegas, before it became a place of Disney-scale family entertainment.

The photographs are emphatically not "fine" - they have none of the spectacular aspects of then-contemporary commercial architectural photography (Julius Shulman, Ezra Stoller, Balthasar Korab) & instead are executed in a laconic, amateurish, mechanical manner. It is easy to see parallels between the Venturi & Scott Brown images & the self-produced artists books of Ed Ruscha (Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Some Los Angeles Apartments, Twentysix Gasoline Stations), in scale & lack of visual inflection: & it is noted in the catalog that Venturi & Scott Brown visited the studio of Ruscha in Los Angeles & were well aware of his photographic work, as they began their work! Given the heroic scale of most architectural photography, one can see the images, which as much as they rely on chance, on the aesthetics of the amateur snapshot, as being quite deliberate & intentional. In tandem with the text of Learning from Las Vegas, this reifies a looking at the most common vernacular forms as a place of study. To quote Denise Scott Brown: What environment lies about us, and how is this different from what the media of a dominant culture suggest should be there?