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.