Thursday, April 30, 2009

Robert Frank was here

"San Francisco, 1956," Robert Frank, All rights reserved

My friend Ted Sher wrote to say that this picture was "talking to" my "White boys" picture (see previous post).

Yeah, talking. In Frank's picture though, the voice is clotted with rage. It's a deadly serious whup-your-ass voice so unnerving it jolted Frank's camera up a compositional notch (I'm guessing) out of sheer terror. In my picture, the voice is relaxed, ironic. My title is playful. It invites the reader to be amused by the postmodern plethora of meanings for the term "white boy."

Like Frank, I took my picture without permission. But when I titled it, I knew -- guessed -- that my subjects, like me, would be able to parse the meanings of "white boy" with detachment, without fear. Franks's picture is different. He's the white boy. In his picture, what that means is anything but playful to the couple who feel their privacy has been invaded.

I'm guessing (again) that after taking this picture Frank hurried away, fearful & probably guilty. After all, what could he know about the future of the image that was coiled in the innards of his Leica? Now, more than 40 years later, the picture reveals in an instant the smouldering state of U.S. race relations in that era. It's a gift, a legacy to the generation -- both whites & blacks -- that came after. But I'm guessing that , to Frank at the time, this picture must also have been a source of conflicted feelings -- excitement mixed with shame.

More on this blog about Robert Frank:

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Couple reading, Bensonhurst

"Couple reading on front porch, Bensonhurst," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Monday, April 20, 2009

My photos to be included in 'New' New Yorkers show at Judson Church

"Handout man / Emma's Dilemma Deli, Tim Connor, All rights reserved

The young man shown above handing out fliers in Manhattan is one of nine of my street portraits of immigrants that will be included in an upcoming exhibit at Judson Church in Greenwich Village. The exhibit "...will showcase the works of area photographers aiming to capture the modern immigrant experience in New York City." Opening reception is Thursday, May 14th from 6-9 PM. For a preview of all the photos go here.

Here's the press release:

When: Thursday, May 14th, 2009 – 6:00-9:00 p.m.

Where: Judson Memorial Church Assembly Hall, 239 Thompson Street, Greenwich Village

NEW YORK, April 20, 2009 – Judson Memorial Church will host the “New” New Yorker Photo Exhibit and Reception on Thursday, May 14th from 6-9 p.m. This exhibition will showcase the works of area photographers aiming to capture the modern immigrant experience in New York City. Admission is free.

From December 2008 to March 2009, Judson invited amateur and professional photographers to participate in a competition designed to create a greater awareness and appreciation of New York's newest residents. What constitutes a “new” resident? The scope of that question produced many answers. All of the submissions Judson received highlight the experiences, challenges, and opportunities facing individuals from many cultures who now call New York City home. The images reflect and reaffirm New York as an environment that breaks down the idea of people being either “foreign” or “native.”

Visit to preview the photographs featured in the exhibit. The grand prize photo, plus three runner-up photos, will be chosen by a panel of Judson Memorial Church members. Grand prize winner receives $250, the runners-up receive $50 each, and all will be announced during the reception.

About Judson Memorial Church:
Based in Greenwich Village, Judson Memorial Church has long associated itself with artists working in many media. Judson’s current programs include work with the New Sanctuary Movement for immigrant rights and a "community ministers" program that trains future clergy on how to involve congregations in social-change activities. Judson Church maintains an anti-censorship stance that welcomes art, whether tough or refined, as one voice of "secular prophets." During the pastorates of Bob Spike (1949-55) and Howard Moody (1956-92), Judson became famous as a venue for avant-garde arts and a foe of art censorship. This tradition continues today, as Judson makes its facilities available to a wide variety of artists in dance, theatre, music, and visual arts of diverse styles.

The Judson Memorial Church Assembly Hall is located at 239 Thompson Street in Greenwich Village, just south of Washington Square Park. Entrance is located just 3 blocks east from the A, B, C, D, E, F, V at West 4th St.-Washington Square subway stop.

Matthew Brown

Judson Memorial Church
55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012

Friday, April 17, 2009

Show and tell: A new tactic for the transportation wars

Crowd, originally uploaded by keepnymoving.

As a NYC citizen who doesn't own a car & rarely takes a cab, I consider my 30-day MTA pass a potent exemplar of higher civilization. Thus, I have faithfully followed instructions to email my NY elected officials for several months now as a member of the Campaign for New York's Future (the Campaign aims -- among other good ideas -- to force NY pols to fund mass transit without screwing the millions who use it).

A few days ago I got a Campaign email that began:

"Show legislators why fair funding matters!

For months, our thousands of letters, phone calls, and emails haven't been enough to make Albany understand the hardships New Yorkers will face if doomsday strikes.

That's why we've created the Commuter Photo Journal – so we can show legislators what it's really like to get to work."

Cut to the crowd scene.

The pictures of packed & problematic subways & buses in the Photo Journal (a Flickr group) aren't terribly impressive, but maybe that's on purpose. The grubby phone cam look says, "See! See! Here's how ordinary commuters like us -- your constituents, by the way -- get to work. You fat cats in your chauffeured cars don't see this, do you? Well, take a good look!"

Could there be in our great city a purer fount of populist rage than a jampacked Number 4 train stalled in a sweltering tunnel at rush hour? I don't think so.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Peter Schjedahl sez

"There's something sickening about the scale of the art-mediating infrastructure...advertising more stuff than one might ever get around to looking at , let alone valuing...Can we please not think about that?"

From "Their Generation" , The New Yorker

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A sword in her heart

"Virgin with bearers," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

"Virgin against night sky," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Every Good Friday, starting at Sacred Heart and St. Stephens Church, a procession of the dead Jesus in a glass coffin, followed by his grieving mother (above), winds through the streets of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The custom is from the island of Bari in Sicily, where most of the original inhabitants of the neighborhood come from.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dylan on Obama


What does the man who wrote, "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters," think of President Barack Obama? He likes him a lot, it seems, but he still doesn't like politicians. I got this from an interview Dylan did recently with music critic Bill Flannagan. Dylan's political remarks are only a small part of the interview, but journalists hunting for a lede keep highlighting them (I just did it myself).

In fact, I come as close to worshiping Bob Dylan as to any human on the planet, present or past. That doesn't mean I have any particular respect for his political opinions. What I take off my hat & bow low to is the man's prodigious, unstoppable creativity. It never quits. It never has. His life is a nonstop improvisation -- words, music, writing, film, drawing & painting, in fact whatever's handy -- an endless riff. His legacy will be (& should be) his astonishing music, but he's brilliant in every form he picks up. He's inspired. An inspired genius liar. And his very best lies are often the truth.

It seems to me that Dylan is constantly taking in the world -- reading, traveling, talking to people, having dinner & all the rest of the stuff people do. And, simultaneously, he's turning it into a story.

In the interview Dylan tells Flanagan he read Obama's Dreams of My Father and was "intrigued." Here's where the interview goes next. (BF=Bill Flanagan; BD=Bob Dylan)

BF: What struck you about him [Obama]?

BD: Well, a number of things. He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage - cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

BF: In what way?

BD: First of all, Barack is born in Hawaii. Most of us think of Hawaii as paradise – so I guess you could say that he was born in paradise.

BF: And he was thrown out of the garden.

BD: Not exactly. His mom married some other guy named Lolo and then took Barack to Indonesia to live. Barack went to both a Muslim school and a Catholic school. His mom used to get up at 4:00 in the morning and teach him book lessons three hours before he even went to school. And then she would go to work. That tells you the type of woman she was. That’s just in the beginning of the story.

BF: What else did you find compelling about him?

BD: Well, mainly his take on things. His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.

BF: What in his book would make you think he’d be a good politician?

BD: Well nothing really. In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second - selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.

BF: Do you think he’ll make a good president?

BD: I have no idea. He’ll be the best president he can be. Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men. Johnson would be a good example of that … Nixon, Clinton in a way, Truman, all the rest of them going back. You know, it’s like they all fly too close to the sun and get burned.

Portrait by Mark Seliger, All rights reserved

Hold on.  Jefferson Davis an ancestor? Bantu, Masai, Griot-type cattle-raiders, lionkillers? Sold German bonds? Where did all that come from?  Well, sorry that's Dylan. He's telling a story -- no sense in letting facts get in the way. A little embroidering. Dylan has been doing it from the beginning.  You think Joey Gallo was really a mobster-hero who "opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion..."?  The story, the myth is what drives our imagination forward, not the facts.

Before Obama was elected, when Dylan was asked about politics, he said:

"Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval. Poverty is demoralising. You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor.

"But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up...Barack Obama.

"He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to."

He got it. He still gets it.

In the interview Flanagan asks:

BF: What's your take on politics?

BD: Politics is entertainment. It's a sport. It's for the well groomed and well heeled. The impeccably dressed. Party animals. Politicians are interchangeable.

Do you think that's a contradiction? Then you don't get Dylan.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Paul Graham: A shimmer of possibility

From New Europe, 1986-1992, Paul Graham, All rights reserved

After all these years of looking at photographs, it's hard to believe I just last week discovered the work of British shooter Paul Graham . Since the early 80s, Graham has been applying his poetic sensibilities & colorist flair to documentary projects -- England's A-1 highway, the troubles in Northern Ireland, jobless people waiting at the employment office -- & later to more psychological explorations, e.g. people watching TV. After 1996, Graham also began to experiment stylistically. His American Night breaks completely with conventional documentary style by juxtaposing faded & oversaturated images as a way of exploring class differences in the U.S. His latest project, A shimmer of possibility (2006), seems to turn in an entirely new direction (I'll have a lot more to say on that shortly).

The phrase "straight photography" may be best understood as an oxymoron. Still, I'm immediately drawn to Graham’s earlier work, which reveals without sentimentality the restlessness & malaise of ordinary young Europeans. These pictures avoid stylistic tricks, but they also reveal a delight in natural beauty -- indeed, in the conscious arrangement of shape, color & light that makes the pictures successful. Like earlier artist photographers Robert Frank & William Eggleston, Graham selects & isolates epiphanic moments intuitively understood to represent more than themselves & then uses all of his considerable artistry to burn them into our brains. At their best, such pictures are, in Graham's words, " to pierce the opaque threshold of the present."

Yet the pictures are not truly "straight." Does that mean we should call them dishonest? A better question might be: how much do these highly symbolic one-time framed moments actually tell a viewer about the person or place pictured? How much, I mean, can this style, which is based in photojournalism but appropriates the prerogatives of art, inform us without adding closely related narrative-building pictures or captions or text? For Graham, photojournalism, with rare but important exceptions is “… pablum, and aspires to nothing beyond well-worn vernacular.” Specific information is not his intention at all. Neither is inflated meaning. So what is he trying to do?

In a wonderful interview on his site, Graham makes it clear his early work was inspired by photographers “… from 1966 to 1976, mostly American, let’s say from ‘New Documents’ to ‘New Topographics,’ “ who both adopted & subverted the straight documentary style. These photographers -- Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Ed Ruscha – committed themselves to the idea that “… making images of life as it happens, lies at the very core of the medium. ” At the same time, they were wary of the cult of the "Great Picture.” “Photographers have been trying for years to make bodies of work where images work together to build up a coherent statement.,” says Graham. “ It’s not about one great picture by Robert Adams; it’s about twenty or thirty pictures that form a sensitive, intelligent reflection of the world. …”


These & photos below from A shimmer of possibility, Paul Graham, All rights reserved

A shimmer of possibility takes this idea a giant step further. Graham's monumental 12-book work, recently published by Steidl, with volumes ranging between relatively extended passages of more than 20 pictures over 60 pages, to a book that contains just one, doesn't necessarily play well on the internet (visit the 9-picture spread here for an approximation). Still the little I've seen has convinced me of the idea's radical freshness.


Graham says the idea for the project came to him after reading the short stories of Anton Chekhov. With his brilliantly desultory character-driven stories Chekhov was getting at something Graham had been feeling about his pictures -- that their essence was in the mundane potential for action, not the action, that their locus lay between the plot points, on the way to the significant gesture; before the summation. He tried to adopt Chekhov's approach, described as follows by Virginia Woolf : "He is not heroic, he is aware that modern life is full of nondescript melancholy, of discomfort, of queer relationships which beget emotions that are half-ludicrous and yet painful and that an inconclusive ending for all these impulses is much more usual than anything extreme."


Graham wanted to express this in visual terms. He had been driving around the U.S. taking pictures for much of 2004 -2006. In his essay, Sliding Sight, Setting Suns, David Chandler describes Graham's method: "...driving to and from places, visiting and not visiting; the locations, towns and cities becoming less and less relevant and more and more representative. He would drive, and stop, and walk, sometimes for a few minutes, at other times for hours, maintaining an unstructured and intuitive itinerary, and photographing all the while, keeping restraint in mind, never dwelling too long on any one subject or being drawn too far beyond that initial point of fascination. "

Graham realized that all his half-coherent attempts to photographically crystallize meaning were in fact themselves the meaning. And later that this simple shift in attitude meant a new kind of presentation.


In this work Graham by no means abandons artifice. Many of the images, though unfussy, reflect a lifetime of pointed, symbolic looking. Graham combines two, three or even four sequences in a single book, uses montage, variation of image size, repetition, digression, opposition, pauses, juxtaposition & many other techniques. As the Steidl blurb puts it: "These filmic haikus avoid the forceful summation we usually find in photography, shunning any tidy packaging of the world into perfect images. Instead, life simply flows around and past us while we stand and stare..."


I like ending with the reference to haiku. Although haiku is popularly perceived in the U.S. as the easiest form of poetry -- our poetry for dummies -- it's really one of the most difficult. The idea of haiku is as much about the poetic revelation as it is about the words that express it.  Historically, the form has been linked to the moment of sudden enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. Like the best sequences in "A shimmer..." ,  haiku is transmitted directly from the world to its author, who gratefully receives it as a gift.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hail hail rock n' roll

"Stormy love," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Before this one, no posts in over a week. I have been unable to push through the exhaustion to work on pictures & write after a day's commute, work day, errands & chores.

This blog is work, sure, but it's fascinating, if not always fun, for me. I needed to take a break. Remember John Lennon on the White Album, wailing that he feels so bad ... "I even hate my rock n' roll!"

I don't want to ever hate my rock n' roll.