Saturday, April 28, 2007

"When birds do sing/Hey ding a ding ding..."

"Pink blossoms" by Tim Connor, all rights reserved.

Weather is not climate & the web is global. So this may not be the way it is where you are. But if it is, I hope you're able to get out there & enjoy it .

Thursday, April 26, 2007

More hippies

I didn't know this when I wrote about Elaine Mayes's pictures of hippies , but we're warming up to the 40th anniversary of "the summer of love" (god help us). The way I know is that AP Photos sent me a lightbox (I'm a photo editor). Go here & click on the face-painted girl on June 21 to see their selection.

To my mind, the AP photos are worth looking at as history, but they're not much as images. It's an interesting question why these competent & newsworthy photos seem so distant & exotic to me , whereas Mayes's portraits seem so immediate & vital. Why is that?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Elaine Mayes: From hippies to hawaii

"Haight Ashbury, Commune Group, 1968" by Elaine Mayes

A few years ago at a photo conference Elaine Mayes showed a series of black and white portraits made during the “summer of love” in Haight Ashbury. That famous summer, 1967, I was 20 years old. I hadn’t yet made it to San Francisco, but I was a fervent member of the counterculture. I dropped in & out of school, did various low-paying jobs, wandered around, listened to a lot of music, got high as often as I could. I called myself a hippy. My hair and beard were wild. I wore cast off clothes. I believed our country needed a revolution to make us all free.

More than three decades later, Mayes’s slides showed me what I had seen but in some way not registered back then. Her pictures are skillfully direct -- unpretentious, accurate. For me they were a kind of reseeing -- only lucid this time, not stoned or lonely or in a hurry to get somewhere else. It was like suddenly having memories I didn’t know existed.

The 60s aren’t chic in these pictures. The hairstyles aren’t like the coiffed manes of the musical Hair or all the movies that would come later. The clothes -- mostly picked up on the street or in thrift stores -- often show imagination but haven’t yet become a marketable style. Everyone is so young. Only a few of the faces show the drugs & disillusion that would overtake the scene in just a few years. They are earnest childlike faces -- sweetly idealistic. The only ones that seem rooted in the here-and-now are the young mothers and their babies, for whom Mayes clearly had a special feeling.

"Haight Ashbury, Kathleen and Damian, 1968" by Elaine Mayes

I wouldn’t have thought so before, but these portraits convinced me the 60s are best pictured in black and white.

After the slide show, I told Mayes how much I liked her work. Later she was kind enough to critique a portfolio I had brought to the conference. A longtime teacher at NYU, she was surprisingly soft-spoken, essentially modest. But it was one of the only critiques that ever made me change the way I work.

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"Pau Hana Inn Parking Lot with Reflection in Water, Moloka’i, 1990" by Elaine Mayes

I’m writing this post because I happened upon some of her large-scale color landscapes of Hawaii at the recent AIPAD show in New York. They combine the clear-eyed observation of her earlier work with a surrender to the gorgeousness of island light & color.

It's a pleasure to make her acquaitance again.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, R.I.P.

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth, It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies --'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "

From God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or, Pearls Before Swine by Kurt Vonnegut

If you're of a certain age, you remember Vonnegut, who died yesterday (his obituary in the NY Times is here.) Like Bob Dylan or the Beatles, he was a near-universal in a less fragmented coming-of-age culture -- one in which books still mattered enormously. Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a fine appreciation, also in today's Times, touches on why he was so important to us at that topsy-turvy time.

"...the time to read Vonnegut is just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be... He says not only what no one is saying, but also what -- as a mild young person -- you know it is forbidden to say. No one nourishes the skepticism of the young like Vonnegut. In his world, decency is likelier to be rooted in skepticism than it is in the ardor of faith.

And this (forgive me for the extended quote: "So you get older and it's been 20 or 30 years since you last read 'Player Piano' or 'Cat's Cradle' or 'Slaughterhouse Five.' Vonnegut is not now, serious enough. You've entered that time of life when every hard truth has to be qualified by the sense of what you stand to lose. 'It's not that simple,' you find yourself saying a lot, and the train of thought that unfolds in your mind as you speak those words reeks of desperation.

"And yet, somehow the world seems more and more to have been written by Vonnegut, and your life is now the footnote..."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Irene goes to France

"March 1, 2004," by Irene Meltzer Richard

My friend Irene Meltzer Richard (petitesoeur at both fotolog & flickr) will have a show at Le Poulailler, a gallery in Lille, France. Titled "Apt. 615/Daily Views," it records a year of changes & staying the same from the window of her apartment in New York's Greenwich Village. If you're in France between April 14 to May 15, don't miss it.

More info here.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Tod Papageorge at Pace/McGill

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From "Passing Through Eden" by Tod Papageorge

How many of us have the guts to walk right up to entwined lovers in the park and take their picture? Tod Papageorge does in Passing Through Eden: Photographs of Central Park (at Pace/McGill through May 12). Made in the park from the late 60s through the 90s, the show is full of artful glimpses, not confrontations, but it got me thinking about unpremeditated, shoot-what-you-find technique. Spotting the subject, pre-visualization & technical fiddling beforehand, the approach, how close to go, when to raise the camera? – all of it converging in the anxious, improvisational moment of pressing the shutter. I loved the show for the gorgeous unplanned perfection this technique can sometimes discover in the uncontrollable world.

In the late 70s I prowled through my own summertime eden, the neighborhoods around the lakes of South Minneapolis, determined, like Papageorge, “…to call this intoxication to account.” I called the resulting book, Snapshots Deluxe; you can read what I wrote about it here .

Except at parades, demonstrations or other public events where people are in a sense costumed and expecting to be photographed, I rarely take these kinds of pictures anymore. I wonder if Papageorge does. Even as cellphones snap away by the millions, there seems to be a new & pervasive fear of being photograpically singled-out on the street. In the workshops I taught this year, my students were intimidated. “How do you take pictures of people you don’t know?” they asked. I suggested they ask permission. “But what if I want them NOT posing?” they asked. I told them to just shoot & see what happens. But I also gave them my opinion: “Don’t shoot children you don’t know.” In “Snapshots” I photographed a lot of kids without asking for permission. Not anymore. Pedophiles, real & imagined, have replaced the devil in our modern consciousness. Shooters beware.

All that aside, this is a GREAT show. At 20 X 24 the prints are large enough to study but modest enough to avoid the smug self-regard of so many gigantic gallery prints. They favor silvers over deep blacks in keeping with the mostly mid-day light, often on bared flesh. They’re sad & funny & full somehow of the eager attention to the world that brought them into being.

Here’s Papageorge’s own thoughts about what he was doing:

"Photographing in the street with a Leica doesn't have much to do with planning. You walk out the door and—bang!—like everyone else, you're part of the great urban cavalcade. But unlike everyone else, you're carrying an amazing little machine that, joined with a lot of effort, can pull poetry out of a walk downtown. All of the failed pictures you've ever made, all of the other photographs you've ever loved, even songs and lines from poems walk with you too, insinuating themselves into your decisions about what you'll make your photographs of, and how you'll shape them as pictures. The process, if anything, is intuitive rather than the product of planning—although the fact that very few people have been able to produce this kind of work at a high level also suggests how difficult it is. In other words, intuitive may not be an adequate word for describing the stew of wildness, dogged work and hard thought that goes into producing the best of this kind of photography." (From an interview in Bomb Magazine )

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"The show doesn't exactly cohere"

"Untitled" 1998 by Judy Linn

I wanted to see Judy Linn's show, which closed this weekend, because the New Yorker described it this way:

"This survey of thirteen recent photographs—some in color, most in black-and-white—is modest, quirky, and offhandedly shrewd. Like so many contemporary photographers, Linn tends to take pictures of things that are not very interesting: bits of bread scattered on trampled snow, a sunny sidewalk peppered with tiny buds, a blond woman with an extravagant ponytail, a pine tree in a flooded field, a solitary cow. But each image is at once self-effacing and just right. The show doesn’t exactly cohere (what does this woman in bed have to do with that dishtowel?), but no matter; Linn’s scattershot approach feels right on target."

I've noticed that the only shows that don't fit into a catchy concept (the faces of Iraq war veterans, hypnotized subjects, naked mothers & children in the wild, etc.) are by photographers who are at the end of their careers or dead, with names that are already an established brand. Only then, it seems, can imagery be allowed to stray off message or venture into more than one style. I wondered how Linn got away with it.

Alas, I missed the show (it closed this weekend), but here are the pictures online.

And courtesy of Alec Soth's blog, here's some of what Linn says about her work:

"I think when someone first looks at a photograph they automatically wonder, “What is it?” I want a photograph that easily answers that question. I want to be extremely obvious; obfuscation is bad grammar. Hopefully, the two-dimensional arrangements of shapes on the paper will be as lively and interesting as the three-dimensional world trapped inside the photograph. There should also be something there you haven’t seen before. Something should happen in the act of looking.

I want a photograph that makes me aware of what is physically in front of me, a photograph that gives me the pleasure of getting lost. It is like asking yourself a joke: not really knowing what the answer is, giving up, and then seeing the punch line and really laughing."