Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Arbus speaks!


An audio clip of Diane Arbus talking about photography is the mesmerizing centerpiece of Almanac Magazine, a new online effort of Ben Fernandez and Chris Callahan. I've pored over Arbus's pictures in books and on walls for years, but I was unprepared for the immediacy of hearing her voice.

It's 1970, she's talking to a roomful of students and admirers,but -- even though she's unusually gifted with words -- there's nothing polished about her presentation. It's an improvisation in the true sense; she doesn't know what she's going to say next; keeps giggling when she hears herself. What's amazing is her unguardedness. She talks about what she thinks drives her to take pictures as intimately as though the audience is her confidante or her shrink. This was something some people in the 1960s actually tried to do. Today we all think we know the cost. Maybe we're right.

Arbus killed herself a year later. Still, even knowing that, listening to her talk, I found myself falling in love with her.

Also in this 1st issue are pictures of Martin Luther King by Ben Fernandez. Fernandez is a great, mostly unknown chronicler of the protest movements of the 1960s & 1970s. These pictures, taken in the last years of King's life & including a heart-wrenching shot of his coffin, surrounded by his children, are a high point of the involved-photographer genre..

Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Signs… signs… everywhere a sign

Signs. Everybody looks at them; most photographers shoot them. Over the years commercial signs have proliferated & changed. Have photographers' attitudes toward them changed too?

In the decade before & after the turn of the 20th century when Eugene Atget did most of his work there was, it seems, less stuff in the world. The Parisian street windows he photographed seem quaintly minimalist.

"Au Tambour" by Eugene Atget

Although Parisian commerce, then as now, was surely no stranger to self-promotion, the signs seem mostly limited to “what it is” (butcher, haberdasher, wine, women’s lingerie) & “what it costs” (handwritten on a slate or printed on small placards).

Eugene Atget - hotel
Eugene Atget

Sometimes Atget's signs are actually hard to find, as in this graceful shot of a curving street lined with ground floor shops but only a single advertisement for a hotel.

By the 1930s in the U.S. capitalism was more unbridled. Walker Evans, who consciously modeled his aesthetic after Atget, loved signs. He enjoyed photographing what he called “the pitch direct” of storefront businesses.

Walker Evans

Signs in the 30s were still mostly the province of sign painters, a proper trade, but many people couldn’t afford them & made their own. Evans seemed attracted to the quirkiness & ambition of these efforts. Never without some ironic distance, his approach was nevertheless generally affectionate.

Margaret Bourke-White

It was left to Margaret Bourke-White to make a powerful critique of racial attitudes with her famous 1937 picture of black people waiting in a long line for relief supplies under a government billboard of a smiling white family enjoying “the world’s highest standard of living.”

Robert Frank, who called Walker Evans his mentor, also made pictures of signs -- and flags. But by the time he shot The Americans in the late 1950s signs had acquired a new meaning.

Robert Frank

In The Americans Frank seems faintly disgusted by signs . To him they seem a hectoring background mockery of the actual lives people live. In his view American life is melancholy and sometimes desperate, played out against the chattering of signs that were by the 50s already ubiquitous.

And what about photographers today? Some find the modern onslaught of signs offensive & try to work around them. Others include them in the frame but try to cut off or scramble the messages, decapitate the logos. It's probably safe to say that most street shooters & photojournalists -- essentially realists, after all -- feel they have to include signage in their depiction of modern life. But very few set out to directly tackle our up-to-date versions of "the pitch direct" and the cultural reality of rampant consumerism. I'll mention two.

Andreas Gursky seems to regard signage with the same magisterial curiosity he brings to everything else. The godlike eye of his photos records vast spaces in meticulous, mind-blowing detail but the only emotion we can discern is -- detachment.

Andreas Gursky

His "99 cents" is 7 feet high by 12 feet across (the small jpeg above is only a reference). Looking at the museum print, a viewer is stunned. He can read the labels on the cleaning products; he can find out the prices on the candy bars. It's a tsunami, an avalanche of signage. But the picture is somehow not disgusting or threatening; it's not even annoying. Far away, precisely ordered, colorful, it could even be considered attractive -- like a coral reef first spied through clear water by a scuba diver. Gursky shows us this without comment. In his quiet affectless way he amazes us. Our jaw drops open. What hath man wrought?

Brian Ulrich
takes on consumerism from ground level. A Mother Jones photo essay from his Copia series, "...a long-term photographic examination of the peculiarities and complexities of the consumer-dominated culture in which we live," prowls through malls, stores, markets, shops, all the places we buy things.

Brian Ulrich

Many of the shots in "Copia" are portraits. Ulrich has a knack of capturing his subjects in bemused states as they contemplate their purchases, but there is nothing alien about these people. They are us & the wraparound display in which they are ensconsed is our new human environment. Signs? Oh yeah, now that you mention them, sure. But it's home.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Unfading flowers

Memory Garden, Mayfield, Kentucky
Tim Connor, all rights reserved

They call this cemetery outside Mayfield, KY a "memory garden." From each plaque rises a metal vase containing permanent bouquets of bright flowers with fabric petals. The flowers are good, resilient fakes. Their colors will stay bright for years.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


blog 3/11/03
Deomatty Arjun by Eric Harvey Brown

No, it's not an expletive or a slur. It's a Hindu New Year festival that involves LOTS of colored powder, transplanted by emigrants to the Caribbean countries of Guyana & Trinidad & then to Richmond Hill, Queens. Whatever else it's about, Phagwah is about color. Jersey City freelance shooter Eric Brown covered the festival with his trusty Holga & got a 6-pic essay, "Pink Clouds Over Richmond Hill," in today's City section of The New York Times. Killer work.

For more Phagwah see vivid takes by Adam Pantozzi/tozzer & Lori/gardengal on Flickr.

Question: is Phagwah a Hindi word? What does it mean?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

'Cocksucker blues:' more Robert Frank

Film still by Robert Frank (courtesy Shane Lavalette)

Exploring the photo blogosphere, I came upon Shane Lavalette's journal, which has a March 9 entry about Robert Frank's notorious 1972 film "Cocksucker Blues." Frank made the documentary in 1972 when he traveled with the Rolling Stones on their nationwide tour. The footage shows band members shooting up, group sex & other activities Focus on the Family wouldn't approve of. But "Cocksucker" was never distributed because -- surprise -- the Stones sued to stop it. Jagger said at the time, "It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in the country again."

Shane's blog links to YouTube excerpts, including a kickass high speed version of "Street Fighting Man." Really makes me want to see the complete film.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Flogging can be fun

This blog got a nice notice from my friend, photographer/writer Andrew Long at The Daily Flog. Thanks, Andrew.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Looking at pictures: Robert Frank

I was struck by these words of philosopher Roland Barthes (quoted in an article by Richard Avedon):

"Photography is a captive of two intolerable alibis. On the one hand, 'ennobled art pictures.' On the other hand, 'reportage' which derives its prestige from the object. Neither conception is entirely correct. Photography is a Text, a complex meditation on meaning."

Consider this photograph by Robert Frank.

When I was a literature major in college, we studied ‘books,’ not ‘texts,’ but never mind. I think I take Barthe’s meaning. We almost never look at photographs outside a context. Big & gorgeous in a white-walled museum, they’re ‘ennobled.’ Under a screaming headline in a newspaper, they’re ‘real.’ In fact they’re neither. [Straight] photographs are faithful only to the patterns of light that fell on the lens that made them. One could say they’re indifferent to meaning. The viewer gives them meaning.

After looking at the picture, is your 1st response: Where is it? When? Who is the baby? Where are the grown ups? If so, you’re like most people. We’re all natural news gatherers. We want a story to make sense of what we’re seeing. OK, let’s say the picture was made on one of Frank’s cross country trips between 1955 & 1957 when he was shooting what would later become his seminal book, The Americans. Let’s say it was in a juke joint in the Arkansas delta. Frank was there in the daytime having a drink with the child’s parents, who were just outside the frame. Segregation was a fact in that place and time, so it was a fairly radical act to be there at all. He was the only white person in the place.

This might even be true.

Robert Frank is my favorite photographer. The Americans is the book that made me want to become a photographer. I’d argue that what sets his pictures apart from those of his peers is an active resistance to the kind of categorization I describe above. He doesn’t want you to take away a neat explanatory story. He wants to keep it complex, mysterious. This doesn't mean his work is esoteric. On the contrary it's about daily life. Nor is it apolitical. Frank's pictures(his early work) plunge into difference: race, region, nationality, class. They show you the real stuff. But they refuse to make it simple.

Take a look at the photo above. Frank has reduced it to the jukebox & the baby. What kind of story can you tell about that? The jukebox is like a gleaming god. Could the baby be seen as a sacrifice? The baby is healthy, active, clambering up onto the pillow. Or is the baby unsteady, about to roll off & bang its head? The room is barren & there are holes in the wall, but the floor is clean & there’s a clean tablecloth on the table? Is this about poverty or pride? Abandonment or family? Is the light that's streaming through the windows the hot milky light of a stifling Southern afternoon or is it the holy light of religious iconography?

You decide. Maybe it's all these things at once. Frank seems to want the picture to reveal its own meaning for you. He once told Life magazine: "When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice."

Friday, March 2, 2007

Wall wars

This Sunday's unusually long, front-page profile of photographer Jeff Wall by Artur Lubow in the NY Times Magazine has sparked a firestorm of commentary (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters). With the cover teaser "Where Jeff Wall has taken the photograph" superimposed on the artist's silhouette against one of his massive images, the piece was clearly meant as a definitive statement; Wall is positioned as champion of an important historical stepping-off moment for the medium.

This tends to draw a line in the sand for photographers who can't find a way to connect to his pictures.

I've been hearing about Wall's importance for years and have looked at whatever pictures of his I could find online & in magazines. My reaction has always been puzzlement. THIS is what they're all talking so excitedly about? I knew a little about the theoretical ideas that inform his work &, after reading the article, I know more (the guy is a spellbinding talker). I decided to go to MOMA & see his work the way he means it to be seen.

Yes, the pictures are techinally impressive. If only for the notion of creating huge lightboxes for the wall, Wall deserves a lot of credit. But big & detailed as they are, the images are still bloodless & bland. In the article Wall says, "“Believing in the specialness of what you are photographing is a disaster. Then you think the photograph will be good because of what’s in it." So the boredom is deliberate, a way of signaling that we shouldn't be dazzled by subject matter or all the machinery of illusionism.

One of his preoccupations is connecting photography with the great Western tradition of figurative painting. For instance, his "Picture for Women" references Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere". In both images a woman stares into a mirror in which a large room is reflected and a man gazes at her. The wit of the picture is that in Wall's picture the woman looks commanding -- in the Manet she's deferential, if not defensive -- & the man, played by Wall himself, looks worried -- in the Manet he's predatory. And the Wall picture has something else: a large view camera placed in the center between man & woman. Instead of a sumptuous chandeliered Paris nightclub behind it, roaring with life, it's set in a generically austere photography studio lit by bare bulbs. Devoid of colorful bottles, flowers, fruit, tophats, jewelry, it's also deliberately empty of visual pleasure. OK, point taken, though I don't believe a viewer should be expected to conjure up a historical painting to enjoy it. And not a bad point either, as any photographer who has been dismayed by the way some viewers go instantly, it seems relentlessly, to the content of a picture, as though that was all it was or could be. But isn't there a way to make the point without some kind of monastic denial of the visual world?

Most of the work in Wall's show seems oh-so-seriously intent on making similar didactic points. When he creates "story" pictures -- an eviction in a neighborhood, say -- he's deliberately cheesy, campy, a B movie quality that says, This isn't real; it's a construct; I know it & now you know I know it. Or when he photographs the mundane corner of a garden & deliberately overexposes in harsh midday light, he seems to be saying, "You thought you were going to enjoy some sensuality, huh?"

I know photographs aren't real. I've know for a long time. Why does Wall have to keep insisting on it?

And why does he so often select the homeless, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, the socially marginalized to deconstruct? I understand that making obvious "semblances" (his word) of homeless men or American Indians may be a legitimate critique of "socially conscious" photography that too often is a kind of liberal trophy hunting. But how does this square with Wall's supposed "artistic and political radicalism"? With infinite subject matter available, why would a self-avowed politically correct artist want to signal to an audience that suffering isn't real?

Frankly, the guy is all over the place conceptually & in terms of execution. To be fair, I guess this indicates a willingness to try new approaches. Some of his later work corresponds to this somewhat surprising quote in the Times piece: "I’m a more affectionate person than I thought I was. I like trees or I like people’s faces. That’s one reason I think my work has changed. I realized I wasn’t interested in filtering my affection for things through certain levels of mediation."

Several of the works -- an exterior of a nightclub with kids milling around & one lovely image of two women in a living room with a view of a harbor, for instance -- have some real human attraction. You actually want to know more about the people in the story (yes, I know they're not real). So...he seems to be moving in a promising direction (from my point of view).

I guess the real question is not, is Jeff Wall a good artist? He's certainly a good artist. The question is why is this method, the photograph as a record of fearsome theoretical ratiocination & obsessive compulsive process, showered with money & renown while photography that interacts directly with the real world is consistently pushed to the outer darkness?