Monday, December 29, 2008

Polaroid dreams

Fake polaroid 2
"Fake polaroid 2," Tim Connor All rights reserved

I read Michael Kimmelman's homage to polaroids, "Imperfect, Yet Magical," in yesterday's Times & got nostalgic. As you've no doubt heard, Polaroid, the corporation, announced this year that it will no longer make polaroid, the film, touching off a tsunami of rapturous elegies & a worldwide hoarding orgy. Yes, I admit that reading the piece I too got a little weepy -- then I realized I had never owned a polaroid. I did once borrow a friend's SX-70 for about a week years ago to attempt a little erotica. Later I walked around & took pictures of things like mailboxes & hamburgers & bicycles in the bushes.

Fake nostalgia then.

As Kimmelman points out, most people use polaroids to take pictures of loved ones. Or to record the objects that symbolize life's milestones -- a Christmas tree, a birthday cake, a shiny new car . To use Kimmelman's lovely phrase, polaroids are "...memories coming into focus on a small rectangle of film."

I am, however, nostalgic for the pictures snapped (I mean click-whirred) from the point of view of a curious alien from a distant nebula. These pictures are not art; nor are they visual notes -- the alien is not an anthropologist. No, let's say the alien is a tourist in a big hurry, stuck here between quantum jumps. He has no idea what he's photographing. He just thinks he might want to look at it later

I take a fair number of pictures like that (see above), though I still don't own a polaroid.

Oh well, "Memento mori" anyhow.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

William Eggleston's 'Democratic Camera' at the Whitney

William Eggleston is a Southerner whose 1976 show of color photographs at MOMA & subsequent book, Willam Eggleston's Guide, leapfrogged him past the curatorial establishment & largely redefined the still picture for the next three decades. 'Democratic Camera' at the Whitney Museum is his first major New York show in 32 years.

From "William Eggleston's Guide," All rights reserved

Panned as vulgar & banal in 1976, Eggleston's work is now generally, if not universally, acclaimed. But I've noticed that viewers who agree on the importance of his work still seem at odds about its intentions. Many see -- many photographers try to imitate -- a certain deadpan irony they believe they see in his pictures. In their view Eggleston's celebrated tricycle, made monumental as a low-angle closeup (above), might be seen as his urinal a la Duchamp, his way of sending a pretension-deflating message -- perhaps, "Banal is boring, but boring is honest (get over it)."

This is a misreading. In fact, Eggleston's pictures are never boring. There's a pulse of surprise, even astonishment, in every one of them, no matter how quirky or humble the subject. Eggleston's distinctive compositions & strong, occasionally hallucinatory, color underline the point -- these are not family snapshots.

From "William Eggleston's Guide," All rights reserved

Except -- in a way -- they are. The suspicion of empty amusement on the photographer's part probably persists because some viewers can't accept such commonplace subject matter as serious. For one thing, many of the pictures are located in the suburbs, a place our liberal culture regards with contempt . Yet Eggleston, paying no attention, finds there, as he seems to find everywhere, what The New Yorker's Peter Schjedahl calls "epiphanies in the everyday."

"Backyard barbecue," William Eggleston, All rights reserved

John Szarkowski, the photographer & critic who, as director of MOMA, famously championed Eggleston's work, wrote about the strange, often dark currents that swirl around these ordinary, middle-class subjects: "We have been told so often of the bland, synthetic smoothness of exemplary American life, of its comfortable, vacant insentience, its extruded, stamped and molded sameness... that we have come half to believe it, and thus are startled and perhaps exhilarated to see these pictures of prototypically normal types on their own ground...who seem to live surrounded by spirits, not all of them benign."

From "Wiiliam Eggleston's Guide," All rights reserved

Eggleston's unstudied equanimity, his conviction that each subject is as important as every other subject -- expressed in this show's title, "Democratic Camera" -- is not disturbed. The intensity of his vision seems to combine strong attraction with a natural tendency toward detachment. "I think I had wondered what others see -- if they saw like we see," Eggleston once remarked. "And I've tried to make a lot of photographs as if a human did not take them. Not that a machine took them, but that maybe something took them that was not merely confined to this earth."

A little spooky (possibly part tongue-in-cheek), but such aesthetic distance does not imply lack of feeling.

From "William Eggleston's Guide," All rights reserved

Take the shot that opens the Whitney show, a big tawny hunting dog lapping muddy water from a pothole on an unfinished country road in Louisiana (above). To my northern city eye it's an exotic image of an insular Southern, masculine world. But could the impulse to take it have been a kind of joke? No doubt Eggleston is well aware of the Southern mythology that goes with such a picture -- the guns & bourbon & big roomy muscle cars racing on dirt roads through the cotton fields. Is he playing with my middle-aged male literary head here? Is he invoking an updated Yoknapatawpa County?

Eggleston won't tell us. He won't talk about his pictures, except in a cursory way. But after seeing the Whitney show, I'm convinced visual cleverness & double meanings are not very important to him. To me the central truth of the picture comes to this: Eggleston loved the dog. He may or may not have known her before that moment or stood on that road or had any connection to the car or house in the background. But I believe he loved the dog, her rich colors & insouciant grace & that it was this-- some kind of romantic intuition of pure beauty -- that compelled the picture.

I find it significant that Eggleston never feels the need to explain his pictures. Even at their strangest & most startling --- shots of the inside of his oven or shoes tumbled together with an old gilt frame underneath his bed -- they are not made to comment or to illustrate. At their best they are complete in themselves. Form & content are fused & thus inexplicable in words. Szarkowski again has it right when he says the work "...leads us away from the measurable relationships of art-historical science toward intuition, superstition, blood-knowledge, terror and delight." (Szarkowski's complete essay is here.)

From "10 Dye Transfer Prints, V2," William Eggleston, All rights reserved

Some of Egglston's pictures seem so unhesitating, they suggest little or no gap between romantic perception & its realization. It's as though he already knew certain pictures were his -- that they fulfilled some private meaning -- before he ever saw them. Take the redheaded girl at the snack stand (above). Yes, this picture could be about the lost salvation of youthful beauty. Or it could simply be that the young girl's unearthly red, red beautiful hair -- the way it pours through the frame -- needed to be acknowledged & preserved as a sort of private miracle.

From "Troubled Waters," William Eggleston, All rights reserved

In its 2nd sentence, Wikipedia's article about Eggleston states: "He is widely credited with securing recognition for color photography as a legitimate artistic medium to display in art galleries." I've read dissenting opinions that very properly want to include in this achievement great color artists like Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas, Joel Meyerowitz, Helen Levitt & others. However, having seen the Whitney show, I see why the honor went to Eggleston. The color in these pictures left me staring, slack-jawed -- not because of the brilliance of its hues (any photoshop amateur can produce that) -- but because of their richness & subtlety. Such colors may exist in the real world (& we don't see them) or they suggest colors we are unable to see. In either case, they seem perfectly calibrated to enhance, rather than overwhelm, the work's essential naturalism.

Why is Eggleston's color so different from other photographers? In the late 60s & early 70s he was running around shooting slides like thousands of others. He began experimenting with color-dye transfer prints, a difficult & expensive process that allowed him to saturate certain colors without changing others. "I don't think anything is as seductive as dyes," Eggleston concluded. He's right, and seduction is the key word. Dye-transfer printing allows Eggleston to access what Schjedahl calls, "his great subject...the too-muchness of the real."

From "Los Alamos," William Eggleston, All rights reserved

It almost goes without saying that the color in the images I've downloaded here bears little or no relation to the color in the prints at the Whitney or to Eggleston's artist-approved books, monographs, portfolios or museum catalogs. For me, focusing my view on Eggleston's rich colors -- forgetting the rest of the picture -- induced a kind of deeply pleasurable trance. But, alas, don 't try it at home.

From "Kyoto," William Eggleston, All rights reserved

There's much more to this show. For instance, Eggleston's 1974 black-&-white video, "Stranded in Canton," plays continuously in one of the back rooms (I wrote about it here). The video, chronicling wild times in the dive bars of Memphis & New Orleans, is another aspect of the artist -- the Eggleston who lived with Viva at the Chelsea Hotel & ran with companions like Dennis Hopper. I suspect there's more to come.

In the meantime, see this marvelous show.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chris Bonney's Vineyard seen

"Vineyard Impressions" (book cover), Christopher Bonney, All rights reserved

A lot of Flickr users have been enjoying Chris Bonney's take on Martha's Vineyard for years. Well, now he's gone & made a book of it! And a fine book it is, self-published through Blurb, which also sells it online & even offers a very nifty preview.

I've been looking at Chris's pictures a while & have concluded his biological clock is set very differently than mine. He's an early riser, early shooter, beneficiary of the gorgeous soft yellowy light that first caresses a night-washed world. It's a gentle but very precise light, one that suits the Vineyard's comfortable graces.

My favorite pictures by Chris tend to be over water . They remind me of the boating pictures by Thomas Eakins, the great 19th century American painter, whose style, like Chris's, is very exact in pursuit of pleasure.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sad songs find their 'place in sun'

"Life in a snow globe," Ernest McLeod, All rights reserved

I'm off from work this week to catch up on projects & get some sleep. So I got to spend some real time looking at work by place in sun, aka Ernest McLeod, a photographer I've admired for years. McLeod favors modest, seemingly ordinary subjects -- the places & things he encounters in his own life in Vermont, Montreal & traveling. His instinct for form & the revelatory light which unveils it -- & especially his understanding of the deep emotional power of color -- make these pictures extraordinary. I'm particularly taken by his unabashed (I mean un-ironic) passion for north country landscapes (full disclosure: I love those landscapes too).

"Goldenrod," Ernest McLeod, All rights reserved

But wait a minute! All the above is true, but it's not the reason I started this post. I wanted to weigh in on one of the critical questions of our time, which 'place in sun' posed in his most recent post? What are the 12 saddest songs of all time? Do you love sad songs too? The ones that make you tingle with miserable joy? If so, check out his (unfinished) choices here. The videos are amazing -- Springsteen's "The River" took me to such an exalted peak of regret for the splendid stupidity of youth that I nearly died & went to heaven.

Anyway, here are a few of my own candidates for 'place in sun's' list. These might (or might not) eventually appear on his excellent blog, parade music in a quiet room .

"One More for the Road," Frank Sinatra -- (is that Doris Day in the vid?)

"Talk to Me of Mendocino," Kate & Anna McGarrigle, with Rufus Wainwright

"The Brand New Tennesse Waltz," Jesse Winchester

Two more I thought of & found but couldn't download from YouTube (site maintenance).
"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Hank Williams
"Cat's Cradle," Harry Chapin

I'm out of gas. Who's next?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Late autumn, Prospect Park

Caged tree, late autumn
"Caged tree, late autumn, Prospect Park," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Screen people

"When technology shifts, it bends the culture," Kevin Kelly wrote last month in "Becoming Screen Literate" (NY Times Magazine --11/23/08). I'd say that's indisputable. Yet I'm always surprised at how many people shift & bend without seeming to notice, let alone resist. They adapt (as humans have always done). The new magic is too potent. In the face of it, resistance is futile. Why not obey? And, if you have no choice, why not adapt in style?

Dialin' & stylin'-- textin' & nextin'
"Texting," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

In fact, Kelly's important & generally well-done article is not at all about what I wrote above. That's my thing. I do plan to write more about Kelly's ideas in upcoming posts. But first, a last curmudgeonly swipe at the techno-utopian aria that ends the piece & is, to my mind, too typical of the way we imagine technology. I thought this kind of rapture writing went away when the dot com bubble burst.

"With our fingers we will drag objects out of films and cast them in our own movies. A click of our phone camera will capture a landscape, then display its history, which we can use to annotate the image. Text, sound, motion will continue to merge into a single intermedia as they flow through the always-on network. With the assistance of screen fluency tools we might even be able to summon up realistic fantasies spontaneously. Standing before a screen, we could create the visual image of a turquoise rose, glistening with dew, poised in a trim ruby vase, as fast as we could write these words. If we were truly screen literate, maybe even faster. And that is just the opening scene."

Wow! Watch out, you closet romantics. Nerd heaven is starting to sound like Coleridge on two grains of opium.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...