Saturday, May 31, 2008

New growth

"New tree, cloudy spring day," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Today I took an all-day workshop in photoshop C3. It was well-taught & addressed the areas in which I needed help. At home I tried to put my new knowledge to work but kept finding myself trapped in technical cul de sacs I never even knew I had entered.

As a boy, I was a natural at sports. Later, the same with reading & writing. Not this computer stuff.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tema Stauffer's 'Teenage boy'

"Jesus boy," Tema Stauffer, All rights reserved

This portrait of a boy at Barton's Spring in Austin, TX by the talented Tema Stauffer stopped me cold (it's being auctioned here).

How do some photographers consistently make great portraits? I wish I knew. I have always thought they must have a gift (and maybe a few behavioral tricks) for making subjects trust them. I'm not a photographer who can do that. I don't know whether Stauffer is. I do know that sometimes it doesn't matter. A subject, sometimes a perfect stranger will, for his own reasons, offer himself exactly as he is at that moment. Eye to eye transmission.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Gregory Crewdson - Younger than that now

"Woman at Gregory Crewdson show," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

For years I've been making references to Gregory Crewdson's work based solely on what I've seen & read in books or online. This didn't seem right, so 2 weeks ago I went to look at his "Beneath the Roses" show at Luhring Augustine (sorry, the show is now closed).

A critically & commercially successful artist & influential teacher at Yale, Crewdson is an originator of the large-format, total-control style that continues to dominate contemporary art photography. Most of the time setting out to tell stories in a single frame, his methods are famously cinematic. He rents locations & hires large crews for weeks at a time, builds, demolishes, sometimes burns sets, uses truckloads of lighting equipment, fog & snowmaking machinery, etc. Though he works with a set designer & crew, a lighting director, even a director of photography, Crewdson is said to remain in complete artistic control of every detail of his pictures.

Gregory Crewdson, All rights reserved

Crewdson's stories are open-ended, often melodramatic, with a tendency toward wistful melancholy. Take the picture above. In the deserted downtown of a small New England city, dawn is burning away the night mist. A car is stopped at a stoplight. The driver's door is wide open, but the driver is nowhere to be seen. The passenger, a woman, sits stiffly in the car, staring straight ahead. What has happened? Was it a lover's quarrel? A family fight? Was a crime committed? The car's headlights are on. All the shops are still closed up tight. Soon the stoplight will change from yellow to red. The 1st early risers will begin to appear on the streets. Where is the driver? We don't know. Why, we ask ourself, doesn't the woman at least shut the door?

Crewdson's genius is to create a richly specific, lavishly detailed world where he doesn't have to answer those questions. By sifting visual clues, it's up to the viewer to answer them. In a movie, Crewdson would have to do more. Even if past or future are not revealed, a movie is responsible for them. Cinema is all about time. Crewdson's pictures, on the other hand -- though bursting with associations to the world outside the frame -- are frozen in an eternal stasis. Like movies at their best, they enable rapturous time-and-space travel to a real (made up) place; but, unlike movies, they trap us there. I found this immensely pleasurable. Looking steadily at the large prints I could almost feel myself floating into an imaginative borderland between the gallery & the stilled story inside the photographs.

Gregory Crewdson, All rights reserved

In person the large prints are truly gorgeous. Almost all Crewdson's "stories" are set in the small towns & surrounding countryside of rural western Massachusetts & southern Vermont. It's an area I know well & have lived in. For me the shock of recognition in these pictures is almost palpable. I don't mean the specific locales but the feel -- a familiar sadness in the dusk light, the damp lushness of the summer woods, the icy bleakness of a street of white frame houses in mud season.

Let me say it again: the photographic craftsmanship in these pictures is nothing short of breathtaking (the jpegs shown here are really little better than placeholders). The pictures are a delight to look at, cloud by cloud, board by board, leaf by leaf. But they don't stop at realism. The versimilitude is supended to accentuate theatrical elements (for example, in one picture a porch light blazes across a yard & into a nighttime street like an annunciation; caught in its glare a young woman holds a suitcase as a taxi behind her gets ready to leave).

It can't be a coincidence that in three straight clipbook interviews I skimmed at the gallery Crewdson tells the same Ur story about his art. He grew up the son of a psychotherapist, he says, trained to ignore the steady stream of patients going into his father's study. But these comings & goings fascinated him; his elaborate fantasies of what went on behind those closed doors became obsessions -- which are, he claims, the source of the photographs. A little overtidy maybe, but I don't doubt it, even if the story is now mostly a reliable strategy for fending off journalists' stupid questions.

Gregory Crewdson, All rights reserved

The question is whether these obsessively remembered adolescent psychodramas are begining to wear thin as material? For me, despite their brilliance, they sometimes have an edge of levity -- & they're way too earnest to be ironic. The stories are sometimes overtold, over-obsessed perhaps. In the picture above, for instance, the dreamscape shock of adolescent humiliation is immediate & palpable -- but did the mother really have to drop the groceries in the driveway? It's too much. I get the same feeling from Crewdson's recurrently pictured theme of furtive woodland sex & post-coital tristesse -- it's too grim, too fraught -- more like Hester Prynne & the Reverend Dimmesdale in a pickup truck than an encounter people can relate to.

The gallery told me that a Crewdson print sells for 75 grand. I guess that's a pretty big incentive to keep doing what you've always done, but, then, at 46, Crewdson is still mid-career (I read that he recently exhibited very different work -- early minimalist black & white studies of fireflies -- though I didn't see it). I hope he continues to experiment. Like the mid-20th century painter Edward Hopper, one of his avowed heroes, Crewdson has a profound gift for creating (recognizing) places that take on an uncanny life. Both artists find the deep sadness (& sometimes the joy) of such places with perfectly judged emotional light. But they seem to me a little clumsy at introducing people into their made-up world.

"A woman in the sun," Edward Hopper, oil, All rights reserved

Looking at some of Crewdson's pictures -- the ones that struggle to give meaning to solitary humans staring blankly into the darkness -- I wish he would do as Hopper so often did. Let the place alone tell the story.

"Rooms by the sea," Edward Hopper, All rights reserved

Friday, May 16, 2008

Back to the garden

"Leaf leaf flower flower," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Today I'm going to Vermont. I'm exhausted. That's a word you hear a lot these days, but I really mean it. I need to get away from the city. I'll be back Wednesday, May 21st.

Sorry I will miss the New York Photo Festival right here in DUMBO, Brooklyn! If you can manage to get there, don't you miss it. Ciao, darlings.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Separated at birth?

"Atlas V rocket, launched from Cape Canaveral," Simon Norfolk, All rights reserved

"Untitled," Gregory Crewdson, All rights reserved

Two famous contemporary photographers fascinated by similar imagery. Simon Norfolk: a politically charged hyper-realist, particularly interested in the technology of modern warfare. And Gregory Crewdson: a creator of obsessively detailed psychological fantasies that evoke anxiety & dread..

Norfolk's lightbeam explodes upward. Crewdson's descends from the sky.

What does it all MEAN???

Sunday, May 11, 2008

"Where am I?": A story about Andre Kertesz

"Chez Mondrian," Andre Kertesz, All rights reserved

"Ten nights before he died, master photographer Andre Kertesz, my friend, tripped and fell while walking back to bed after shutting off the hallway light. As he was 91 and had a fever, he didn't possess the strength to push himself up, and he fell into sleep on the floor of his apartment. He opened his eyes at dawn and thought, "How strange...what lovely light...such interesting angles...where am I?"

Recounted by Sylvia Plachy in Unguided Tour, 1990.

I wrote about Plachy here & Kertesz here.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Subway preacher

"Subway preacher, Brooklyn," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Another handoutman (woman) portrait. Her handout was "Fifty-seven cents that made history," published by the Old Paths Tract Society. As always, I almost walked past her because I was afraid. When I got up the courage to ask if I could take her picture, she gave me a big smile & nodded yes. Then she posed, silently demure. I asked her if she would please go ahead & preach. She launched into it, full force.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What they did at art school

"Video installation by Jacqueline Arias," Photo by Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Quick impression of Parson’s BFA in photography show at Calumet Gallery: These kids are not taking any chances. Admittedly, I only looked at maybe half the pieces, but these seemed to be all about technique. That aspect was often formidable, as you might expect. But with few exceptions their points of view & content bored me.

I noticed that nearly every picture of people contained one or more nude women. These young women were, each in her way, beautiful -- effortlessly sensual . But after looking at a few, I found myself asking: isn’t it actually unfair to depend on an instinctive biological reaction to make sure a picture gets looked at? Granted, it’s a sure fire strategy. At the very least, every heterosexual male, no matter how civilized & art-minded, will look long & closely. But the truth is counterintuitive. Showing naked women guarantees interest & imparts an avant-garde, even risqué ambience, but in fact -- unless it takes us somewhere new -- it’s a safe, even conservative choice.

I guess I’m getting too old to put up with the time-honored “look how decadent we were in art school” aesthetic.

I went to the show because I was invited by an old friend, Jacqueline Arias [Thompson] --( on fotolog she called herself ticaphoto). I’m happy to report that her video of a movement piece she made was the most interesting thing I saw at the show. Projected from overhead onto a lenticular piled dirt frame on the floor, the images seemed to shift & writhe in the dirt as though they had been created there.

Congrats to Jackie, who's now a bachelor(ette) of fine arts!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Triple-teamed in DUMBO: William Greiner, Sylvia Plachy & Andrew Miksys

I'm not a very good planner, but sometimes I get lucky. I went over to 111 Front St in DUMBO after work last week to see fellow blogger William Greiner's 1st New York show (I wrote about William here). I was also aware that the reliably excellent Nelson Hancock Gallery was opening a show next door, though I didn't know the photographers. And then I discovered that a brand-new (at least to me) gallery had also sprung up down the hall, opening a show for one of my all-time heroes, Sylvia Plachy (I wrote about her here).

This is pretty great, BTW: three galleries showing first-rate contemporary photography, all clustered together on the east side of the river (deepest Siberia to a true Manhattanite ). Actually, four, counting Safe-T-Gallery, which is on the same hallway at 111 but didn't have an opening Thursday night.

Watch your back, Chelsea.

"Sport palace," William Greiner, All rights reserved

At Klompching Gallery Greiner's show, called "Fallen Paradise," depicts New Orleans before Katrina (the storm exiled Greiner, like so many others, from the city in which he had spent most of his life). But Greiner's lost city -- though weirdly attractive -- is no fabled Atlantis. In his pictures, trailers, bars, movie theaters & old industrial buildings seem to doze under neon & hard blue skies. Their gritty realism is both intensified & undermined by Greiner's geometrically precise but not finicky compositions & his lush, saturated colors, which seem to leap off the page. The hyped-up realism is in fact so real it ends up being more about ideas than the actual places Greiner is depicting. This seems right for New Orleans, a place well-known for flaunting style against the odds.

"Culture blast" from "Out of the corner of my eye," Sylvia Plachy, All rights reserved

Plachy's show at Umbrage reflects her new book, Out of the corner of my eye. Included are black-&-white & color pictures from the 60s to the present. Still working steadily, Plachy is a photographer whose career output has already put her among the greats. Andre Kertesz said of her work: "I have never seen the moment sensed and caught on film with more intimacy and humanity. Photographically it is the maximum."

From "BAXT," Andrew Miksys, All rights reserved

BAXT, a Roma (Gypsy) word that translates to English as "fate" or "fortune," is the title of the show by Andrew Miksys at Nelson Hancock. Mainly portraits of young Roma men & women in Lithuania, these pictures navigate between disparate cultures & even eras. The gallery's handout quotes a remarkable piece of criticism by Andrei Codrescu that describes this feat: "...The people who pose for Andrew in these photographs expect something idealized and heroic from him, something that they have been taught years before, is the truly 'artistic,' portrait. Whether they know it or not, their ideas of art were formed by 'socialist-realism.' In seemingly granting them their wish, Andrew does something of a triple somersault: He quotes their ideas back to them without offending them while he makes the multiple ironies accessible to everyone, including his subjects."

"Crying bride," Andrew Miksys, All rights reserved

Itself worth seeing the show for, Miksys's bride (above) has wisely been printed large. A classic wedding shot of a beautiful young woman, it takes on depth as we notice that the bride is crying. Are they tears of joy or is a tragedy unfolding here? Both are possible.

Also included in the show at Hancock is a 2nd photographer, Jonathan Gitelson. His Artist's Books seemed smart & funny, but I was in a big hurry at that point & barely glanced at them.