Saturday, June 30, 2007

Mari vs. Bush: TKO to the kid

"Mari & Kyla at the pond, W. Barnett, VT, 1998," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Mari Oye, the 18-year-old daughter of our old friends Ken Oye & Willa Michener, made the front page of the Boston Globe yesterday for handing George Bush a letter urging him to reject torture & treat terror suspects humanely. The occasion was a White House ceremony honoring Mari & 149 other Presidential Scholars. She had handwritten the letter the night before & persuaded 49 of her fellow winners to sign it with her. "I really felt l could not just go down and smile for the camera and not say anything," she told the Globe.

We've know Mari (she's on the left in the picture above with our daughter Kyla) since she was a tiny baby. Bravo, Mari! We're proud of you.

You can read a transcript of the interview with Mari & two other signers on CNN's "American Morning." (Ironically, I found it on News Busters, a site dedicated to strafing so-called "liberal" media).

There's also a good story here (with video) on WBZTV's site. Or just go straight to the video.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Van Gogh & Expressionism

"Self-Portrait with Straw Hat," oil painting, Vincent Van Gogh

"Van Gogh and Expressionism" is heading into its final weekend at the Neue Galerie & -- my opinion -- you ought to do whatever it takes to see it if you can. For once, the show's curatorial concept, which explores "...the enormous influence of Van Gogh on German and Austrian Expressionism," is more than crit speak. You can really see it in the paintings.

Van Gogh learned how to deconstruct light & color from the Impressionists. His muscular brush strokes & emotional palette were then adopted at the turn of the century by Germans & Austrians, who were the first champions of his work. These Expressionists carried his ideas further -- to wholly subjective, emotional color, even more prominent brushwork & an attempt to "penetrate the essence of nature." In Paris, Cubism was cooling painting down, but in Germany & Austria, Expressionism was heating it up. Like Van Gogh's , the best of the Expressionist canvases in this show vibrate with conviction & feeling.

"Maskenstilleben (Masks Still Life)," watercolor on paper, 1911, Emil Nolde

Plus -- the Neue Galerie is, to my mind, the coolest museum in New York. Set in a Fifth Avenue mansion once lived in by Mrs. Cornelia Vanderbilt III, it's certainly grand, but I think Mrs. V must have lived alone (with servants of course!). The staircases are marble & the rooms are huge, but there aren't that many of them. The paintings are on two floors -- six rooms altogether, plus hallways -- so it's possible to go through all of them in an hour or two. Afterward, you can get amazing coffee & sweet things at a Viennese-style cafe downstairs.

"Adele Bloch-Bauer," Gustav Klimt

There's a lot to see on those two floors, including the gold-leaf-covered Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (above), called "the most expensive painting in the world" after it sold in 2006 for $135 million. There are some very famous Van Goghs -- on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam -- & some that you've probably never seen before. To me, with my limited knowledge of painting, the Germans & Austrians -- Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein & others -- are a revelation.

A confession: at painting shows I love to lean close & mentally/visually surf the paint strokes. Completely absorbed, I can do this for a long time, amazed at how intricate the painting is -- how bold & confident. I realize this is absurd, a kind of imaginary painting-- like playing air guitar while listening to Eric Clapton -- but after all, I'm a fan, not a player. It was a weekday so I got to do this as long as I wanted, step back, step close, my eyes no more than two feet from the gorgeous surfaces of paintings I truly adore. It was that intimate, that uncrowded. Neue Galerie is across from the Met, only a few streets uptown (on 86th), but it hasn't been discovered yet by the tourist hordes(I can't vouch for the weekends). The guards, however, as you can imagine given the wealth in the room, are not your usual sleepy types, so don't try to step over the black tape line in front of the paintings or try to take a picture.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Almost got the Mermaid Parade

"Mermaid Parade 2007," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Along with about 10,000 other photographers, I was at Coney Island on Saturday blazing away at the willing exhibitionists in this year's Mermaid Parade. For those of you who don't know, the parade is a Brooklyn seaside event, created in 1983 by local artists as a jokey carnival of sun, sea & summer. This year I heard a lot of complaints about how big & commercial the parade has gotten, but the separation between participants & spectators is still pretty porous & -- it seemed to me -- wacky (& raunchy) amateurism remains the rule.

I got a lot of good shots (above is an almost random example) but no winners. I'm not too disappointed. I think you just don't get many with this kind of on-the-move, small camera street shooting. With big restless crowds, multiple scenes & stories happening all at once it's like shooting inside a kaleidoscope -- instinctive, unplanned, gestural, reactive. You need some luck. If you're technically competent, open to possibilities & you work hard, you definitely raise the chances of getting lucky. But, like any gambler, sometimes you have to wait.

On his 2point8 blog Michael David Murphy recently did a great interview with veteran street shooter Richard Kalvar that touches on this point. Here's an excerpt:

2point8: When you’re out shooting, you know when you’ve got a particular shot.

Kalvar: You know when you might have something.

2point8: Right.

Kalvar: What counts is the result. It works or it doesn’t work. You may think after you’ve taken a picture that you may have something. And then you find out that you don’t have anything, that you almost had something – but that in fact, you pressed the button at the wrong time. That you took a lot of pictures, but you were on auto-pilot - that instead of waiting, you shot buckshot at it, so you missed the one that might really work.
But every once in a while, I look at my contact sheets and I discover something I hadn’t even seen. That’s possible, too.

2point8: True surprise.

Kalvar: Yeah, I take a lot of lousy pictures, and sometimes it turns out that one of the ones that I didn’t even think about was in fact pretty good.

A couple of years ago I got what I think are a couple of keepers at the Mermaid Parade. Here's one. I'm still fascinated by this kind of shooting. I'm going to keep doing it.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Keith Dannemiller's 'LuzTranslation'

"Christian punk rocker with this dog," 2006, Keith Dannemiller, All rights reserved

Keith Dannemiller is an American photographer who lives in Mexico. In addition to journalistic & corporate work, mostly for American clients, he has been making street-level, color portraits of Mexicans for three years. The project is called LuzTranslation (translated light) & Dannemiller is up front about the difficulties. The pictures, he explains, are a translation "...from a multi-dimensional world of temporal elements to the Cartesian plane of the photograph," but, even trickier, from one culture to another.

"Young woman training to be a boxer," 2006, Keith Dannemiller, All rights reserved

Of the creative leap across cultures Dannemiller writes: "This too then surely is a translation. The photographer/interpreter of people selects the way to present character details that will resonate with others while retaining the person's essential, descriptive oneness. Unfortunately, as a foreigner, I can only hope for an exact translation. Some facets of the experience here will always be off my radar screen. My best is an approximation of Mexican reality."

This needs to be said. But it could as easily be said of the life's work of August Sander, the great German portrait photographer these pictures made me think of. And Sander, don't forget, was attempting to "represent" his own culture. In fact, such a modest, even tentative, approach ought to be taken toward the making or the viewing of any photograph, I think. This in no way diminishes the magic of the medium -- or of Dannemiller's powerful portraits.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New work at Nelson Hancock Gallery

"Three girls on Friday night," Nelson Hancock, All rights reserved.

Artist/gallerist Nelson Hancock’s “Kamchatka: Photographs from Russia's Far East,” are on display till July 28th at his gallery in DUMBO. A highly accomplished photographer, Hancock brings an anthropologist’s sensibility (he has a PhD from Yale) to these brilliantly lucid & direct black & white portraits.

“Most in the US who have heard of Kamchatka at all know it as a good place to launch an attack on North America in the Cold War board game Risk,” [Hancock writes]. “Russians consider the region the consummate backwater; the provinces are one thing, but Kamchatka is beyond provincial. It is beyond Siberia, beyond everything, on Russia’s Pacific, about a thousand miles north of Japan.”

One of the many things I like about Hancock’s portraits is that this “otherness” is not the point, as it so often is in National Geographic-style depictions of other cultures. Hancock’s decision to use black and white and shoot in large format is part of this, but mostly it’s a matter of approach. There’s no unspoken pretense that these people are any more “exotic,” or unfamiliar with cameras & representation than people in, say, Michigan. The pictures are not trophies. They’re about the subjects, not the photographer and his excellent adventure.

"I-95 Branford," Keith Johnson, All rights reserved.

I’m sorry I missed Keith Johnson’s recent show at the same gallery. Reflecting a somewhat different anthropological approach, Johnson’s pictures matter-of-factly document oddities that don’t seem to know they’re odd – turf farms, for example, or shrink-wrapped fields or giant plastic whales. He says, “I am endlessly entertained by what I see” and “humor is a major component.” But there’s much more to his pictures than a quick laugh.

Working mostly in landscape mode, Johnson may share to some extent the intention to shock one feels behind Duchamp’s famous urinal. But I’d guess the proportion of cynical to wide-eyed in that work is higher than in Johnson’s. Johnson doesn’t seem angry. He seems to have a sympathy for absurdity. With no obvious axes to grind, his photography is more like a form of pure play. After all, from somebody’s point of view, the weirdness makes sense.

Friday, June 15, 2007

We're shorter, we're fatter, we want to be perfect

Today the left & right pillars of the NY Times editorial page, Paul Krugman and David Brooks, do an inadvertent Jon Stewart-style routine on our increasingly wacky (U.S.) national obsession with body image. Krugman notes that recent scientific studies show Americans -- once famous as the tallest people in the world -- have now become "...shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries." Widely viewed as "indicative of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment," height in our case turns out to have nothing to do with wealth. Still the richest citizens per capita, Americans are squashing down & out, Krugman believes, because of too much reliance on fast food, forced on us because we work too much -- way more than our European counterparts. Hmm. Meanwhile those wily layabouts, the welfare-state Dutch, now the tallest people in the world, are no doubt doing it all because they can't wait to kick our butts in basketball.

OK, on to Our Mr. Brooks. He reports on the astonishing popularity of businesses that sell sperm & eggs from genetically "superior" donors . Apparently, Americans can't get enough of browsing online (at work no doubt) "...through page after page of donor profiles, comparing weight, noses, personality and what one site calls 'tannability'." What do these shoppers want? Well, the male versions would be ", blond-haired 6-foot-2 finely sculpted hunks who roast their own coffee."

In his column Krugman predictably concludes that in its pursuit of wealth "...America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most..." Brooks -- who has become increasingly snarky as the avatar of his party is increasingly revealed to be a lethally incompetent idiot -- first of all distances himself from the trend & then says it's impossible to stop it. "There's no way people are going to foreswear the joys of creative genetics," he sighs.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The mermaid has been drinking

"Mermaid Parade," Tim Connor, All rights reserved.

This year's Mermaid Parade starts at 2 PM on Saturday, June 23rd at Coney Island, Brooklyn.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Should you be allowed to see this picture?

Michael Kamber

This story is not new, but it bears telling over & over. It was 1st told by Michael Shaw at the Huffington Post. I got it from Tim Atherton at Muse-ings.

Michael Kamber is a photojournalist who has covered conflicts all over the world. He keeps going back to Iraq, where he has worked mostly for the New York Times and produced a number of front page photos. In May he was embedded with the U.S. 10th Mountain Division & accompanied a patrol in search of missing American soldiers. The patrol ran into an IED & one American soldier was killed, 3 Americans and 1 Iraqi wounded.

Kamber told the story of the attack, evacuation & aftermath in pictures. This is one of the most powerful series of photos you'll ever see.

Soon after the pictures ran, Kamber wrote the following from Baghdad:

"The embed restrictions have tightened up considerably since I was last here. You now need written permission from a wounded soldier to publish his photo if he is in any way identifiable. and even if his face is not visible. If unit insignias or faces of others soldiers are visible, that also disqualifies a photo from being used, according to one of the highest-ranking PAO's [Public Affairs Officer] in Iraq. As I'm told, the wounded man's family can figure out who he is from the other people in the picture.

I was on an operation last week that suffered five casualties including one KIA. One soldier was temporarily blinded and put on a plane to germany. Should I have asked him to sign a piece of paper giving permission to use pictures he can't see as he's lying on a stretcher in great pain?
When I was here in '03 and '04, the military was much more welcoming. I was invited to shoot memorials (now off limits) and when I embedded with the 1st Cav, they just invited me out. No papers to sign, no written conditions. They just asked that I show respect for the soldiers if they were killed, which I would do anyway.

Now there all these new restrictions make it nearly impossible to shoot the dead and wounded. They say it is for the soldiers protection. but the soldiers in the unit I was with -- the one that took the casualties -- loved our story and photos, thanked me and asked me for copies. The grandfather of the most seriously wounded soldier recently tracked me down demanding copies and saying the photos were crucial to his grandson's recovery.

I seriously question who these restrictions are for.

One journalist asked whether being wounded takes away your right to privacy. Actually, it does in my opinion. You're involved in a very public event, the largest war for the US since Vietnam. When you enlist and go into a war zone with journalists around, with historical consequences, you can not then claim that what happens is a private affair.

The question I pose is: What would have happened to our visual history if Robert Capa and Gene Smith were running around the battlefield during WWII trying to get releases signed as they worked? What if this had been required in Vietnam? Or any war?"

The Bush administration doesn't want you to see this war. Never mind that Kamber's photos show the soldier's courage & humanity -- their fearful sacrifices -- as well as these things could ever be shown. Bush & his creatures don't really care about that, though they love to get all misty-eyed talking about it. What they really want is for you to go on shopping & forget about the whole ugly mess.

Kamber came to speak to a college class Mel Rosenthal & I co-taught a couple years ago. Kamber is a quiet, unpretentious guy. Somebody asked him about tips for shooting in wars & other scary situations. He said, Keep your camera turned on. He wasn't kidding. He very seriously told us that when the action starts, everything is reaction & instinct. He can't be sure he'll have the presence of mind to figure out why his camera's not on. He told us another amazing thing. Shooting in Iraq, he makes $250 a day, can't get insurance of any kind. When he shoots for the New York Times, they own everything, lock, stock & barrel forever (to be legally correct I should have credited the photo above, Michael Kamber for the New York Times).

So why does Kamber do it? He's a sophisticated guy & quite capable of engaging in a lively discussion of truth & photography, but he made it clear to our class that for him this work is about witnessing -- pure & simple. He wants to show you what he saw as accurately as he can because he believes it will make a difference.

He should have the right to do that.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Zoe Strauss is the real deal

"Do rag," Zoe Strauss, All rights reserved

Zoe Strauss’s show (through 6/23) at Silverstein Photography is titled, “If You Reading This Fuck You,” although in its press materials the gallery prefers to shorten it to, “If You Reading This.” That tells you something. Strauss shows it the way she sees it. Before going up on the walls in Chelsea, most of these pictures were first shown to Strauss’s South Philadelphia neighbors as taped-up prints in an outdoor installation under I-95 where it passes over Front & Mifflin Streets. They’d better be honest.

They are.

"Marine billboard," Zoe Strauss, All rights reserved.

Irony may be a fact of modern life, but Strauss is nevertheless determined not to let the viewer off easy. The show has a picture of a wary-looking black man on crutches making his way down a rundown street. Above him a Marine recruiting poster shows a gleaming pink-cheeked young warrior in his dress uniform. It’s a strong picture, one any photographer would be proud of. But it’s unusual in this show, which generally avoids the obvious to hone in directly on its subjects. Strauss photographs hustlers, crack users, victims of domestic violence & crazies, sometimes with grim humor, but she’s not granting you, the viewer, comfortable distance or detachment. These people are not exotic characters to be contemplated. They’re in your face.

In the same way her pictures of signage & graffiti – surely among the loudest honking of contemporary cliché subjects – have a direct unmediated quality that channels the desperation & rage of the people who scrawled them. Messages like “White trash whorse go home” [sic] or “…that man fucked up…” are not kidding around. Thus, when Strauss pulls back to show an empty billboard above a tangle of unloved roadway the effect is not – or not only – poetic.

In this show juxtaposition adds meaning, but the effects are not easy or cleverly grouped to flatter the viewer’s perspicacity. I’m thinking of the way Strauss includes so many pictures of institutional buildings. Some of these have designations like Victory Annex (yes, ironic) but others are simply blank or generic. To most of us, these buildings start out being merely ugly, but the show leads us to see them from a new point of view. Their impersonality become forbidding, even malevolent.

"Lights in Chinatown," Zoe Strauss, All rights reserved.

In the same way the many images of futility & chaos – scrambled venetian blinds, falling down houses, shot-up appliances in a trash-filled desert landscape – become more than abstract visual exercises. I was wondering why they’re not downers? Part of it is just Strauss’s good eye. She finds compelling designs in her subjects like any successful photographer, but, more than that, she makes you know this is her home turf & she cares about it.

“The juxtaposition of the difficulty involved in getting by and the beauty in our everyday lives is what I’m interested in,” says Strauss. It’s one artist’s statement that delivers.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Andreas Gursky: New photographs

"James Bond Islands," Andreas Gursky, All rights reserved.

I wrote 2 weeks ago here that Andreas Gursky's new work , seen on the web, seems “chilly.” Well, I saw his pictures in person today at Matthew Mark, and they struck me as almost robotic in their perfect lack of emotion. I imagined a spaceship, a kind of bristling techno-bubble, beaming further & further from earth, programmed to detect pattern but oblivious to human concerns. Not that this is without its fascination. Computer-assisted cameras don’t see like humans. They see better – at least in technical terms. They also see without bias.

It may be that Gursky is presaging a world of all-powerful networked satellite & surveillance cameras. This doesn’t seem far-fetched. But it’s not clear from his work what he thinks about the idea. Several images in the show want to have it both ways – awe-inspiring macro-patterned spectacle & identifiable human stories.


From a distance his picture of the glass-windowed wall of a high-rise hotel, for example, depicts hundreds of human beings engaged like colorful insects in incomprehensible activities.


"At the gallery," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

But move closer. At 10 feet tall the picture has more than enough detail for the viewer to zero in on individuals & groups of individuals. Where is this crowd rushing? What is that sexy woman doing? Look, that man seems to be gesturing at the camera! What’s going on here?

I think it’s interesting that Gursky & others are pushing the technology to include both context & stories in the same image. But the stories need to be involving in some other way than as technical achievements. Once a certain scale is passed, this is harder & harder to accomplish. Too often in this show Gursky seems to depict spectacle for its own sake. The images feel empty.

I came upon a very strong related critique of this aspect of Gursky’s new work in a blog piece by pathetica. He says in part:

“…there is nothing in Gursky’s work itself to suggest any kind of critique of these massive projects he photographs so grandly. Rather everything looks to me like the Grand Glorification of Money and Industry. Look how much of the earth we can take over for our racetrack. Look at how our structures dwarf the tiny humans. Even his natural subjects start to look like Land to be Colonized. It’s the Capitalist Sublime. Of course it helps to remember just how much these pictures cost, and who’s buying them. Do the bank-owners believe they’re spending six figures on a critique of their wealth?”

At the end of his piece (scroll down to see it) pathetica juxtaposes two images: Gursky’s depiction of an elaborate homage to the current Dear Leader in Pyongyang, North Korea & a historical homage by another world-famous German photographer to a "leader" a generation ago. Pathetica says he just "couldn't get it out of my mind." Whether it's fair to Gursky or not, I couldn't get it out of my mind either.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

On the road with Stephen Shore

"California 177, Desert Center, California, December 8, 1976," Stephen Shore.

Between 1969 & 1975 I crossed the North American continent seven times by car or hitchhiking. I didn’t own a camera then & never thought of taking pictures. At about the same time Stephen Shore was making many of the same journeys. His pictures, made between 1969 & 1979 and gathered at ICP as “Biographical Landscape,” are among the finest road pictures ever made.

"U.S. Route 10, Post Falls, Idaho, August 25, 1974," Stephne Shore

Shore was young when he shot the pictures for "Uncommon Places," the earlier show that makes up the bulk of this exhibition. He was probably following the venerable American tradition of “lighting out for the territories.” But unlike the classic American runaway, he was neither hung up on the place he had left nor dreaming about the place he was going. His pictures are firmly rooted on the road itself -- this place -- specific & unrepeatable -- familiar and uncannily strange.

An exhibition note in fact describes Shore’s pictures as “…the daily experiences of an astute wandering stranger.” To me they feel more expansive than that. Unlike his spiritual predecessor Robert Frank, whose dramatically personal black-and-white snapshot aesthetic defined the road for an earlier generation, Shore’s anti-romantic color & carefully considered view-camera framing seek to fix not so much the random, high-speed jumble – the experience – of traveling as the distillation of stopping to really look. If Frank’s pictures point to the movies he would make next, Shore’s are very explicitly still photographs. The images are about the photographer of course, as all pictures are, but they also, I think, consciously seek to be icons for other strangers .

"Sunset drive-in, Amarillo, Texas, 1974," Stephen Shore

Before heading out on the road, Shore was the youngest member of Andy Warhol’s circle in New York, photographing the actvities of the Factory. He was familiar with the Duchampian concept of the readymade as championed by Warhol, & he became an avid collector of postcards that depict places (samples from his collection can be seen in an introductory room at the show). It is on these matter-of-fact postcards that his large color prints piggyback to become something new – part deadpan aide-memoir & part transcendent vision .

"Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979," Stephen Shore

At this point I feel I should push the pause button on analysis & say how blown away I was by this show. Go & see it. The large vibrant color prints will lock up your mind for minutes at a time (the JPGs I'm posting here are a pale imitation). Granted, these pictures often have a personal resonance for me, sometimes seeming to be places I might have actually been. It’s not the same shopping center, the same desert vista, but, then again, it is.

"Sutter Street and Crestline Road, Fort Worth, Texas, June 3, 1976," Stephen Shore

I’ll end this post by talking about one of many pictures I looked at for a long time. It’s set in a raw, hastily planned suburb that could be anywhere in the U.S. or Canada (Crestline Road). A nondescript ranch house is set behind an uneven asphalt intersection & surrounded by ragged weeds & half grown shrubs. Behind it are more houses, telephone wires & a soft summer sky. The house is backlit, as though its details don’t matter, but the cars parked on the road are lit. They’re the core of the composition, one fire-engine red, the other baby doll white. Poised for a getaway, the cars are parked on a road in nowhere, but that road leads to everywhere. The picture feels like a Leonard Cohen lyric from his 1968 song, “Stories of the Street:”

“Where do all these highways go?
Now that we are free.”