Sunday, June 24, 2012

Roger Mayne: You say you want a revolution...

"Man and  boy," Roger Mayne, All rights reserved

Now 83, Roger Mayne is a Brit who made his name photographing in working class slums in London and other British cities in the 1950s and 60s. Shooting in black-and-white with a small camera, he worked exclusively in a few chosen streets, which he visited over and over, becoming well-known enough to be ignored. Mayne describes his approach as “…visual rather than storytelling” and himself as “… a documentary rather than a journalistic photographer.” This seems right. His best pictures, though deeply grounded in a specific time and place, are Cartier-Bresson-like “decisive moments,” presented in universal human terms.
In his pictures Mayne’s sympathies are clear, but , ironically, his elegant high-contrast shots often take their power from the very scarcity that makes poor people poor.  For instance, Mayne frequently makes use of the clean converging lines of an empty street and identical flats to give depth to foreground figures.  With no cars or buses, no fruit stands, not even trash bins to clutter the view, these stripped-down black-and-white vistas have an undeniable graphic appeal (Bill Brandt used the same trick).  But, in fact , no stuff means no money -- poverty.  These neighborhoods are economically depressed.  Should they be aesthetically pleasing?
In this show Mayne’s  principal subjects are children and adolescents . American viewers will think immediately of Helen Levitt, who, during the same period, similarly turned her lens toward children at play in the poor sections of New York City. At that time, before TV had conquered everything, neighborhood streets in both British and U.S. cities functioned as public living rooms and playgrounds.  Both Mayne and Levitt saw the visual opportunities and treated the communal street as a stage on which anything could happen. Yet, looking at the two bodies of work, the British and American streets come across very differently. Was it that the two cultures were that different? Or did the two photographers see the street life of their subjects in fundamentally different ways?

"Boys playing, NYC," Helen Levitt, All rights reserved

Many of Levitt’s New York pictures, for instance, have a wild, anarchic edge never glimpsed in Mayne’s work.  Her children at play in Hell’s Kitchen or Harlem are making up the rules as they go along, broadcasting chaos and sometimes violence (along with joy) into cityscapes boiling with conflict. It’s possible that Levitt was only able to capture these moments because she was willing to shoot like a stranger – sometimes more like a spy – gladly tolerating suspicion and ostracism for a chance at life in the raw. In any case, her children are often fierce. They seem intent on testing limits. They give the razzmatazz to all comers. By contrast, Maynes seems to have gone after– or at least documented – something much more conservative.  His West London or Battersea kids are tough all right. They have dirty faces and wear old shabby clothes; they smoke cigarettes almost out of the cradle. Yet their clothes are a kind of sober poor child’s uniform – the boys in stained suit coats, pants and caps, the girls in frayed but respectable dresses and sensible coats.  Both sexes ride bikes for transportation, not pleasure. And their games, though boisterous, are deeply traditional – from medieval battles fought with construction-scrap swords and shields to cricket, soccer and marbles to mother-may-I? and  hide-and-seek.  If there is anger in these children, Mayne’s photographs don’t show it.

"Girl, Southam Street," Roger Mayne, All rights reserved 

I wonder why.  Anger isn’t visible in the children’s parents either, although a certain stoic wariness is detectable. It’s possible Mayne concentrated on photographing the young people because their parents discouraged his attentions (one marvelous exception shows a man in the street conducting an imaginary symphony for the camera; I’m guessing he’s gloriously drunk). Found almost always in the background or on the margins, the grown-ups are properly deferential (Mayne was an Oxford man) but not warm. They have been through a terrible war after all – and now they face unemployment and poverty.  When most of these pictures were made, the horrors of the Blitz were more than 10 years in the past, yet little or no change had been delivered to the poor.  Mayne’s middle-aged subjects may have wanted to believe in the sturdy, traditional England of “Keep calm and carry on.”  But – from the discreet evidence of these pictures -- the old slogans were wearing thin.
Mayne continued to work in the British streets through the early 60s, capably depicting the teddy boy subculture that rebelled against the austerity of working class life. But his documentation of British life seems to have stopped there.   By the mid 60s, Mayne had begun to travel and concentrate on nature photography and portraits of his growing children.

Petticoat Lane 1956:Teddy boy and girl
"Teddy boy and girl, Petticoat Lane, 1956," Roger Mayne, All rights reserved
I wish he had continued. As an American boy, I was fascinated in the early 60s by the Mods and the Rockers,  “swinging London”and the mysterious Flower Children.  I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the Beatle’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio. The British Invasion of rock n’ roll and blues and all that went with it ignited this country and eventually the world. Yet no great photographer recorded these changes in a way that matters.
Conclusion: we ought to appreciate pictures for what they are, not criticize them for what they’re not. Roger Mayne made genial, accurate – sometimes inspired -- pictures of a place which arguably spawned a global culture. Good enough.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Eye eye, sir!

"Eye, eye, sir," Tim Connor, All rights reserved
"Disdainful lady," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Memoir becomes fiction

"Flyer for 'Stranded in Canton,' " All rights reserved

In 2006 I attended the premier screening of legendary photographer William Eggleston’s only film, a documentary titled “Stranded in Canton,” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Shot from 1973-75, the film had been recently edited by Eggleston and co-director Robert Gordon, who were at the screening in person. This is the review I wrote for the Society’s magazine, which has since gone offline.
Tim Connor, 2012

William Eggleston’s documentary, “Stranded in Canton,” breaks through boundaries as disdainfully as Eggleston’s then-shocking color pictures blurred art and documentary and led the way for photography to appear on museum walls in the 1980s.  From 1973 to 1975 Eggleston videotaped more than 30 hours of footage with an early Sony Porta Pack, fitted with a  “prime” Zeiss lens and, occasionally, with an infrared tube that allowed shooting in near darkness.  Thirty-three years later the film made out of that footage carries a gut-punching intensity.

In the film Eggleston’s dry voiceover explains that he “…shot everything, wherever I happened to be…” but his subjects -- mostly friends at bars and private parties in Memphis, New Orleans and Mississippi—are no ordinary bunch. 

It was the early 70s (popularly known as the 60s) and excess was in fashion.  Drugs still had a prophetic sheen and people wanted to believe, with Jim Morrison, they could  “break on through to the other side.” Loaded on booze and pharmaceuticals, Eggleston’s friends in the movie vie with each other – to roar and chant tall tales, songs and tirades into the Southern night.  Often they succeed in invoking a truly extreme quaalude voodoo delta strangeness.

Their filmic intensity owes a lot to Eggleston’s unblinking no-judgment choices. His unfussy way of moving the camera in exact sync with his curiosity, and of holding his subject in long, still super- tight close-ups seems to have spurred his characters on to performance extremes.  The  uninterrupted close-ups and winding tracking shots sometimes even make the viewer uncomfortable.  There’s more than technique at play here.

No matter how woozy the action gets – and it includes biting the heads off live chickens and a casual game of Russian roulette – Eggleston’s camera stays cool, despite the intensity of the performances and the intimacy created by all those super tight close-ups.

At the time the Sony only shot in black and white. It’s interesting that with his trademark color gone Eggleston’s film relies heavily on sound. And, true to the period, the music – glorious, soulful blues, mostly by renowned Memphis bluesman, Furry Lewis– is the best thing in a very good film.

But the post-screening question-and-answer session was disappointing. Dressed in a light-colored suit, bow tie and skin-tight black leather gloves, Eggleston, along with his co- director Gordon, fielded queries that were almost uniformly technical.  One cinephile called the film a “gorgeous object” and then asked: “how was the sound quality achieved?” Audience members wanted to know how using the Porta Pack compared to Eggleston’s still camera, how the tape was transferred to digital, what was the editing procedure?  There was nothing wrong with these questions, but I was absorbed in contemplating the end credits, which detailed what had happened to Eggleston’s friends, in the three decades since they appeared in the film.

Two had been murdered, one shot to death by a pharmacist the victim had tried to hold up for barbiturates. A couple seen bickering in the film had both committed suicide. One of the musicians had disappeared. Another, like Eggleston an apparent survivor, was “a recording artist in Mississippi.”  Two other characters had died young, causes unstated  - perhaps a reasonable guess would be booze and/or AIDS. And the beautiful woman who had been Eggleston’s girlfriend, she of melting close-ups in the film, was summed up this way: “owns rental properties.”

I was too shy too ask Eggleston my question: “Do you believe in ghosts?”

By Tim Connor, 2006

Watch "Stranded in Canton"

Friday, June 1, 2012

"Heinrich Kuehn and his American circle:" A review

"Woman in riding costume," Heinrich Kuehn, All rights reserved

Austrian photographer Heidrich Kuehn was a friend of well-known American shooters Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen around the turn of the last century. The three men visited each other and took pictures together in both the U.S. and Europe; Stieglitz and Kuehns also corresponded vociferously for over 30 years.
This trans-Atlantic artistic friendship is the basis of a new show, “Heidrich Kuehn and His American Circle: Stieglitz and Steichen,” at the Neue Galerie.  No doubt the concept serves as an excuse to pull in American audiences who know Stieglitz and Steichen, but it’s also a fascinating exercise in curatorial sleuthing.  As the show makes clear, ideas did flow freely among the men. We can literally see Kuehn’s bold romantic use of natural symbols like trees and clouds turn up in prints by Stieglitz and Steichen. At the same time the Modernist tendencies of the two New Yorkers start to appear in Kuehn’s painterly landscapes.
But what impresses most about this show is the sheer impact of its century-old prints. 
"Die Kunst," Heinrich Kuench, All rights reserved

In a back room the show’s curator Monika Faber has reconstructed an installation of Kuehn’s large-sized Pictorialist land- and seascapes that appeared in 1906 in Stieglitz’s Gallery 291. The approach is as insistent as any contemporary artist aiming to grab eyeballs. Strongly tinted in cyans, greens, brick reds and carroty oranges, the pictures seem to leap out of their frames. Hardly the faded stuff of ancient photo history, they are  brassy and bright as a new penny.
Later, Kuehn’s Stieglitz-inspired turn toward Modernist clarity also exhibits a freshness one rarely sees in large-format pictures before 1920. Abandoning the large prints, universal themes and impressionist effects of Pictorialism, Kuehn launched into Modernism by making intimate, psychologically–telling portraits of his family.
"Lotte and her nurse (Mary Warner)," Heinrich Kuehns, All rights reserved

A recent piece by Karen Rosenberg in the New York Times calls Kuehn “one of the medium’s great control freaks” and describes how, in making the family portraits, “…he selected a site and sketched it in pencil, had his children and their nanny assume specific poses in clothing he had preselected for its photogenic qualities, and waited until every shadow was right where he wanted it to be.”
"Autochrome," Heinrich Kuehn, All rights reserved

Yet Kuehn’s portraits in this show – even those in color, using the then-new Autochrome process -- seem remarkably unposed, warm and natural.  How could such a punctilious taskmaster produce such relaxed work?  The answer probably lies with the family’s young English nanny, Mary Warner, who had taken charge of Kuehn’s four children after his wife died. Photographed by Kuehn with his children, Warner seems a tender presence. When she reveals her face to the lens she is nothing short of radiant. 
It comes as no surprise that, during this period, master and nanny were lovers. Later, as Kuehn’s companion, Warner posed for an erotically charged series of nudes, some of which are included in the show.
"Nude (Mary Warner)," Heinrich Kuehn, All rights reserved

After that, Kuehn’s story goes swiftly down hill. The First World War devastated his traditional world.  He lost his money and stopped reaching out to the great world beyond his Tyrolean hills. In the end – so the story goes – Kuehn became a crank and finally a recluse.
I wonder what happened to Mary Warner?