Thursday, December 23, 2010

Another Way to Look at It

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Photo-eye bookstore and gallery in Santa Fe. Despite having family in New Mexico, I hadn't been there for about five years. While in Seattle now, and having lived in Phoenix for many years, a visit to the high desert of New Mexico is always a refreshing change of pace. It was a stunning experience, merely driving North to Santa Fe from Albuquerque. The landscape changed with snow making long, patterned streaks in the sand as the air became cool. It was a great contrast to the other sensation of the trip, that of a brief rain in Tucson that left the air smelling of rich earth, a smell only briefly manifested as the ground rapidly gives up its newfound water.

Since last in Santa Fe, the bookstore has moved a few doors down, now replaced by a full fledged Photo-eye gallery currently featuring nudes by Carla Van de Puttelaar. It's always a shock to see a fresh take on the nude. Given the genre's long history one would think it to be exhausted but occasionally someone will come along to prove the possibilities of the human form unending. The perfectly sized prints, at 11x17", showed young women from above, as we and they drifted in a state of half-sleep, their pale skin a contrast to the black backgrounds, every detail visible. The work reminded me of the completely different nudes of John Coplans who photographed his male, aging body after having already spent decades in art criticism. Coplans had no vanity to preserve, most interested in seeing how his hair, wrinkles, and sagged flesh might be turned into something new through radical cropping and the lush greys of a gelatin silver print. How typical our fascination with the erotics of youth and the simultaneous, yet ignored opposite of aging and death. It's funny how Coplans' nudes manage to be the greater playground for beauty.

Carla Van de Puttelaar:

John coplans:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

David Byrne: Strange Ritual

Strange Ritual by David Byrne
Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1995. N.p. pp., numerous color illustrations, 7¾x10¼"

Big suits go by, take me to the river, and flippy-floppy. Time isn't holding us, it's only David Byrne taking us on a printed journey through his mind. While in 1995 I was only a formative fan of the music of Talking Heads, I did see the book Strange Ritual and it struck my eye. Its austere cover, with leather-like black texture and inset-gold titling, were striking in simplicity. While not knowing it at the time, Byrne was mimicking the production values of various religious tomes, whose own proclivity towards stark design was a reference to the serious portent of what was within. While Byrne's Strange Ritual may appear severe on the outside, on the inside it is anything but. While the Jehovah's Witnesses or various other obscure religions would have you take their book as proselytizing, Byrne's message is one of joining him on an absurd safari through the beliefs of men.

The full-bleed, gutterless photographs are a collection of pictures taken by Byrne of the world-at-large, and for Byrne our world is his playground. Japan to New York to India, Byrne takes all of these places in, assimilating what he sees as iterations of themes or religion, consumerism, accidents, and dreams. Shops around the world sell religious icons, here it is kitsch, there it is holy relic on colored velvet. It makes no different to Byrne both in spiritual value of thing as the value is in its perception not in its particular context. For Byrne it's all the same. In these pictures it is the usage of a thing that define what its value may be, especially for the person who utilizes and defines that object.

Byrne sees what a thing could be as well as how it could be a new idea when shifted slightly. A chair is shown in typology on a clean, green rug. It dances with the viewer over four shots, shown in all positions but the frontal one in which we may actually be able to sit in it: sideways, upside down, tilted back. A chair could be a lot of things for not sitting, mostly a possible sculpture, or even an anthropomorphized object with personality that we don't typically perceive. Chairs have feelings, too, much as so many of these objects/paintings/flyers have feelings of the people who made them. Why do we make the things we make? How do we come to understand God in the everyday? Vertical faces take the form of advertisements, idols, scribbles, and paintings. All different but all the same.

There is much God here for Byrne to explicate. While we can't see normally see God, maybe it's in many of these things that we can touch a dream of something bigger than ourselves. Our human-ness may seem silly as in the bright, shiny objects of consumer desire (shopping malls, aluminum foil) but maybe it's also in a Polaroid typology of hands in various shapes. As much as we will likely never touch God or something close to the spirit, we shall still create rituals that bring us closer to whatever else may be out there. A bottle of placenta spot-lit against a purple velvet background in a gilt gold frame.

Byrne brought his eye to bear on these worshiped objects and assembled a cogent journey through the weirdness of human culture, whether in a 99 cent store, religious relics, or a ceramic Dalmatian. That is one of the pleasures here, the notion of turning the pages to be surprised at what may be next, something that is sorely missing in the infinite vertical scroll that we consider the internet. Perhaps that is something that relates to the joy of printed matter; it's fixed nature. When something exists on paper it indicates choices that were made with a sense of permanence. Now it seems like everything is available all the time, simultaneously lessening the value of that same everything. Strange Ritual is Byrne's own visual journey of taking all of his seeming mindless snapshots and experiments into a new form, one that makes them cogent.

In an oddly simple, yet gratifying series, Byrne double-exposes images of what look like Southern California bungalows. The gables interweave with palm trees, bushes, and driveways as well as the ghostly projection of other homes atop of them. Funny, it shouldn't even work but it does, coming across as a dream-land of domesticity, somewhere near but completely accessible. The book also features several short essays/travelogues/fictions by Byrne featuring his trademark sardonic wit. There are awesome re-photographs of car crashes, too overlaid with a running, central tickertape about death and disaster. It's sensational like everything else here, feeling but without feeling too much, less things just get out of control.

I'm not sure where I originally picked this up, but it's unlikely I paid full price as it seemed like I saw it on remainder tables everywhere for years following. Really, it's kind of a shame that Chronicle Books saw the value of Strange Ritual, while no one else seemingly did as you can still find it new for less than a dollar. Maybe it's easier to take Byrne's mash-up approach for granted what with the hotels, religious objects, deadpan observations, and other kitsch that make up the subject of most of the images. Urban Outfittes has made all this stuff too ubiquitous in addition to numerous blogs made up of web-links and you might see something similar, if not as good. Byrne has had a long, rich career in music and the arts that most would envy. His interest in human ingenuity, especially manifested in the consumption/creation of meaning-through-objects continues well into his fourth decade on the scene and shows no signs of stopping. Strange Ritual was just a first book-stop as the music of Talking Heads became the art of David Byrne.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Paul Graham: Empty Heaven

"Paul Graham: Empty Heaven - Photographs from Japan 1989-1995"
by Paul Graham
Scalo Books, New York
96 pp., 54 full-page color illustrations, 9x12"

Printed pink graces the cover and dust jacket interiors to Paul Graham's "Empty Heaven." It's pink like half-tone dots spreading and assembling into the color to represent Hello Kitty, princesses everywhere, and the antithesis of the horrors of life. Pink like perfect sunsets and the lips of the young Japanese woman on the cover, a woman who appears transfixed yet vacuous in her off-camera gaze.

When I first heard of Paul Graham it was about ten years ago when my friend Christian Widmer left a message on my answering machine saying something to the affect of, "I have found God. I have found God. Call me." At the time it was a typically strange message from Christian, who at the time was completing his MFA thesis work at Arizona State University and would persistently call me Wlliam T. Shaffner after the great Star Trek, William Shatner. Schaffnerd was also a common moniker. "God" in this case happened to be Paul Graham, a British photographer essentially unknown in the United States despite a substantial body of acclaimed work known in Europe. Christian had procured the books "Empty Heaven" and "Paul Graham," a Phaidon contemporary artists monograph, from the ASU library system. How he heard of Paul Graham, I don't know, but he, another friend Mike Williams, and I gathered in the print-washing area of the photo program to examine this new artist.

Until that time, I was still looking for my photographic "voice." I had come a long way since my beginnings as a street photographer shooting black-and-white at the Phoenix flea market known as "Park and Swap" but still had yet to find a present day image-maker to be wowed by. Thus, beyond emulating the past heroics of Winogrand, Frank, and Friedlander, or otherwise making adolescent collages or playful staged imagery, my inspiration was still wanting. Utilizing the color darkroom proved to be a big step forward for me, mainly because I was longer confined by the slow production of fiber prints and the attendant high cost of silver. Make twenty prints in a session? No problem. Make a 20x24 print? Easy as pie. With the color darkroom it was miraculous to slide a freshly exposed sheet of photo paper into the Kreonite brand processor (made in Wichita no less) and gaze upon a lush, color image a mere five minutes later. Still, there was still a long way to go before I could produce something with a sustained grasp of composition and content.

Maybe previously I had drawn inspiration from Christian and Mike's work, sort of baffled by how easy they made it look, yet realizing how hard it was to actually execute a picture of daily life without it looking quotidian, snapshot-like, or just plain masturbatory. Graham changed my vision of everyday life photography by providing a new method of working that drew inspiration from the cold irony of Robert Frank's "The Americans" and Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's "Evidence." In "Empty Heaven" Graham took the alienated, social observation of Robert Frank and combined it with the calculated, scientific nature of "Evidence" to come up with something completely new. In doing so he formulated a vision of Japan unique to the properties that only photography could convey.

Honestly, when I looked at the pictures, I didn't get it. The pictures seemed...repulsive. Women in darkened clubs with their hands awkwardly gesturing, close-up profiles of men with glasses, and new automobile engines looking like objects of worship. Audaciously every photograph was shot with on-camera flash and yet said technique did not override any other content or resemble photojournalism. The book itself was printed full bleed vertical, devoid of any captions, text, or other context to give the viewer a quick explanation. While repulsive it was also terrifyingly engrossing, as if coming to this book was like entering the eyes of a great intelligence capable of deploying photography in hitherto unknown, amazing ways. Personally I consider it a great compliment to any artist who makes me wonder the meaning of a thing created, how that art came into existence, or even cause a pang of jealousy at not having thought about the world in that particular way previously. Paul Graham did that for my friends and me.

Graham employs several tactics in "Empty Heaven" to create some thematic groundwork with which for viewers to engage. As this work was created over six years, it would be interesting to know how long it took to arrive at his subject matter and the technique to photograph those "things" as they became ideas. The majority of images are of women in unglamorous poses, car engines illuminated like reliquaries, pre-made imagery like printed matter or other photographs, and plant life in constraints. Those subjects are accented by pictures less constrained by particular subject, but still open to Graham's critical view of Japan as a place distantly removed from atomic destruction yet still so affected by it that in most surfaces lay reference to the conflict between technology and nature, men and women, or even fantasy and reality. Based upon the sequence of images, the men with glasses seem to view car engines and women with worship, yet distortion, unaware somehow of the potency of themselves or that which they admire, objectify.

Several weeks before writing this essay, I spoke to Mike Williams about our fateful uncovering of Paul Graham's oeuvre. We both gravitated towards "Empty Heaven" from the standpoint of viewing it as a great mystery and yet an answer to how photography could be used to address contemporary issues, history, and do so within the context of street photography. My friends and I were definitely (and continue to be) street photographers. How fresh it seemed that someone like Graham could take the quick, spontaneous nature of street photography and apply it in a highly tactical way to fulfill a vision of Japanese culture. Here Graham made something remarkably tight, yet with open room for interpretation. He didn't hesitate to go all the way with an idea and then disarticulate for fear of drawing in too many lines for the viewer. It is a gentle balance for an artist to create something that means something, is accessible to audiences, and yet doesn't paint in so many details as to become didactic. For those reasons "Empty Heaven" is my favorite work by Graham.

It would be a disservice to delve deeper into this body of work without compromising it, or as Graham might say, "pin the butterfly down." Should further explication be needed, "Empty Heaven" does include an amazing interview with Graham that nicely lays out his interests. The interview is included as a pamphlet contained loosely within the book, printed on pink paper.

In the past several years Graham has gained increased traction in the United States, mainly I think as a result of spending greater time here teaching and working to critique American culture through photography much as he has done in Ireland, Great Britain, Europe, and Japan. His critical reception culminated with the publication of the multi-book set of American work "Shimmer of Possibility" and its attendant exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009.

Friday, October 1, 2010


After the Trees Have Grown
October 4-29

101 Prefontaine Pl S
Seattle WA 98104

Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
reception October 7, 2010, 6 – 8 p.m

Monday, September 20, 2010

Like Us: Primate Portraits by Robin Schwartz

Like Us: Primate Portraits
By Robin Schwartz
WW Norton
87 pp., numerous black-and-white illustrations, 7½x7½"

It's monkeys, dude. I mean...primates to use the correct term. Monkeys, chimpanzees, orangutans, baboons, and a bunch of other words I can't remember. We're all related to them...or not if you're that guy who gives children the anti-evolution speech, which features a chimpanzee with lipstick. The guy says, "Do we look like this?" and the children expectedly shout "No!" Yes, it appears it's true we are actually not related to chimpanzees as much we are too orangutans based upon similarities in DNA. Nonetheless your average child probably couldn't identify an orangutan either as it's been about thirty years since Clint Eastwood shared the screen with a hairy orang in Every Which Way But Loose. Not exactly a film fresh in my memory but when I think of primates I also think of Project X, Gorillas in the Mist, 2001, and Jane Goodall. Where was I? Evolution? The Man with No Name? Monkeys?

It was something about the feeling of a wonderful surprise, let alone a really cheap surprise as in the book "Like Us: Primate Portraits," by Robin Schwartz from 1993. I came upon this used book at Third Place Books in Seattle for a mere $4.99 about three years ago. Now, don't get me wrong. If you're like me you typically avoid thematic photography books in the vein of: things I ate every day, lost dog signage, things colored pink, lost shopping cars, and basically anything involving baby animals. These kinds of books are a cottage industry for publishers, making great money (I would imagine) for impulse shoppers and gift-givers. They line the shelves of SALE sections of bookstores everywhere with big discount stickers affixed in the corners. "Like Us" is not such a book. While it may not have preceded the trend of the mono-book, it does sit in a world apart, approaching the subject of domesticated primates with a cool detachment more likely to be found in an art program rather than a publishing house.

Perhaps unconsciously, I chose this book as a radical departure from the subject of my previous essay on Paul Graham's Japanese work, "Empty Heaven," but didn't realize until looking at "Like Us" repeatedly, and on different days, that it is also entirely done with on-camera flash. In this case, it was likely there was no way around it, rather than flash being an artistic choice. Shot indoors (except for the final image) the level of low-light combined with the bouncy nature of the beasts would make available-light shooting impractical. The images here have the classic deep blacks Kodak Tri-X is known for matched with that most common of lenses, the 35mm. You can imagine Schwartz making a lot of telephone calls and shaking hands to gain entrance into these homes to shoot, though she doesn't share where in particular the images have been made. Are some regions of the country more prone to primate home captivity than others?

Most of these primates seem to have clear personalities, perhaps not that different from the personification of domesticated animals such as dogs or cats, with whom they frequently seem to share home space in these images. Often they are seen like the Celebes ape "Nikka" (1990) garbed in baby diapers or engaged in an human-like activity such as "Minnie" (1989), a macaque whose consumption of a chocolate fudge flavored soda is complemented by the presence of Halls and Velamints, available to assuage a cough or freshen breath. Eerily, a stuff bear gazes at Minnie from the other side of the flower-patterned sofa, as if in a Pinocchio like trance. Said bear seems to want to come to life or at least sip from the straw to savor that yummy chocolate drink.

A baboon named Pete sits atop a Big Wheel, a female Macaque looks distraught, seemingly embarrassed by the notion of a stranger photographing her whilst bathing, and an orangutan beckons us to join her atop a miniature carousel horse. Could it be that these and other primates are really LIKE US?! It's certainly within reason, especially given their general similarity to people with an upright stance, opposable thumbs and personable eyes. Maybe different, too, what with all the tails, extremely long limbs and hairy flesh. They also don't talk but didn't they teach Koko sign language?

"Like Us" doesn't attempt to address the political ramifications of keeping wild animals, nor to include images of the human adults who keep them. Titles are limited to personal name, date, species, gender, and age. The book makes for a collection of humble primate portraits that are pleasantly free of slickness seen in Jill Greenberg's monkey imagery or the witticisms found throughout Elliot Erwitt collection of dog imagery. Somehow Robin Schwartz' "Like Us" manages to be more fun than those projects, feeling more like someone considering at interesting subject rather than a photographer conjuring anything grand. They're primates, primates are strange, and some people are probably a bit odd for keeping critters such as these in their homes. When my next guest comes over to take a look at my photo books, they may be relieved when I show them this book instead of canonical favorites Robert Frank or Richard Avedon. "Check this out. Dude it's monkeys!"

Monday, September 13, 2010

Duane Michals

Duane Michals
Introduction by Renaud Camus
Pantheon Books, New York
Centre National de la Photographie, Paris
144 pp., 147 illustrations, 5x7½"

There aren’t many photographers capable of dealing with the topic of sex in interesting ways, let alone those whose interest in sex doesn’t come to overwhelm other subject matter explored by the artist. Duane Michals' exploratory sequences and nudes from the 1970s and early 1980s considered ideas such as narrative, mortality, and desire without pandering to either the fine-art photo-establishment or prurient interests. Michals' best-known work straddles the line between an artist exploring new ideas while simultaneously gently massaging our notion of sex in photography.

"Duane Michals," a slim, abused paperback originally published in France in 1983 originally priced at $7.95. You may have seen these little Pantheon Photo Library books in your local used bookstore. It seems as if the volume on Man Ray pops up in every R-section of photography in used bookstores, but more exclusively this was the only Michals book from the series that I have seen, and it was priced perfectly as a reference and teaching tool for a mere $4.00 at Third Place Books in Seattle in 2005. The cover alone is a fine portrait worth the price of admission as Andy Warhol is seen with both hands palms inward, covering his face with long, slender fingers that parallel vertical slats of life on the wall behind him. The light coming through the windows tenderly opens up a space confined by dark shadow on the right side of the frame. We see only the top of Warhol's hair, a touch of his neck, and the fabric of a white dress shirt, pulled taut at the shoulders emphasizing the motion of arms pulled together to cover chest and head. From 1958, the image hints at Warhol's amorphous identity, well before his identity as an art provocateur had been solidified. Maybe then he was still just Andy, shy and uncomfortable with a camera focused on him.

Having only known Michals' best-known works: Paradise Regained, Things are Queer, and Death Comes to the Old Lady, this volume proved to be a great, intimate showcase for that work but also lesser-known singular images such as The Illuminated Man (1969), Nude Denuded (1983) amongst other portraits of the famous and the obscure.

It was refreshing to find that Michals could create strong, singular images that are typically the hallmark of our most famous image-makers. In the Illuminated Man another white-shirted figure is facing the frame, but no face or shoulders are visible, only the bright negative outline of the man is shown, as if his upper body is releasing light towards us, the viewer. The light is in strong contrast to the receding background of a brick-made tunnel, whose layers of new and old bricks add texture to the blown-out form of the man. We see suggestions of ear and hair, but otherwise it seems like the glow originates not from a human, but from some kind of metaphysical force. This brightness attracts and deflects our gaze. The light fades into the black of the tunnel. The more we look, the more apparent it becomes that there is nothing to see but a void reflecting absence upon us. Perhaps it is not an image replete with meaning but it is striking.

Initially my impressions of Michals were unfavorable, thinking him a photographic simpleton whose use of sequencing was more arty than a LIFE magazine spread and remarkably uncomplicated in comparison to the dynamics of your average frame-to-frame comic book narrative. In what is perhaps Michals' best known sequence "Things are Queer" from 1973 the image of a bathroom interior morphs from gigantic to tiny proportions as each picture becomes part of a larger whole of a man walking down a tunnel before shrinking back to the bathroom originally referenced, but now seen with greater meaning as a detail of the room now hints at the story just seen.

On the more sexual end there are ridiculous, erection-filled works like "Take One and See Mt. Fujiyama" and "The Young Girl's, Dream" in which a sleeping woman is seemingly ravished in a moment of angel-like visitation. Some of the sequences feature text hand-written by Michals, adding to the narrative quality of the work and acting as a gentle reminder of Michals' personable approach to directed photography.

Other terrific sequences include "The Bogeyman" and "Death Comes to the Old Lady," both of which description alone will fail to render faithfully and only disappoint those who have seen these works. Instead I would encourage you to seek them out in this or other retrospective volumes. The original series of Pantheon books, including this one, are now published by Thames & Hudson under the banner of a series called Photofile. New volumes on the work of artists such as Araki, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Peter Beard are also available. Each has fine reproductions, duotone in this case, and make for an affordable access point for some great artists.

"Duane Michals" makes for a fine summation of Michals' work up until 1986. Regrettably work since then is largely not worth seeing and what was once original now feels like the contrivances of an old man considering young sex, namely in the series "Salute, Walt Whitman." Regardless, Michals has given us some great, interesting images that reinforce how cold directed, or staged photography has become in recent years. This work is an intimate contrast to the chilly over-worked images produced in numerous BFA programs across the country.

Once I saw Duane Michals speak at an artist lecture at Arizona State University. He was spritely, witty, and generous with the jokes. While the audience of cynical art students may not have been swayed by his metaphysical fascination with serendipity and fleeting time, it was refreshing to hear an artist make a genuine effort to connect with the audience, rather than intoning dull, academic explications of this or that. Michals clearly enjoys life and photography. It is a feeling that comes across in work he shares with us through little books like this one.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Paul Fusco: RFK

by Paul Fusco
Aperture Boooks, NY
180 pp., 80 color illustrations, 11½x8"

"Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it."

Camelot seems like a long time ago or a place that never was for the majority of we Americans who grew up long after the Kennedy family held the nation's heart with their prominent place in politics and celebrity culture. We've read about JFK in textbooks and heard his powerful words, especially in relation to service and setting the bar higher for each of us to make the United States a better place. Some of us remember John Jr.'s plane crash and could only grasp slightly the outpouring of feeling at the departure of Edward Kennedy from his role in politics, and then from this earthly plane. It was a finality for a family my generation will never know, as well as for that of an America uprooted by the 1960s and thrust into a cynical worldview with that triumvirate of assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, coinciding with the failure of the Vietnam War and the long Cold War, ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall, sadly again, an event that I witnessed as a child but the significance of which I could not grasp.

Perhaps in this way it seems like a better part of recent history has always been out of reach. That seems to be changing somewhat in my 30s. A student of mine, who is now 18, asked me to explain the events of 9/11 to her. It was oddly exhilarating yet scary that such a recent event in my mind is also the distant past for her short life. "RFK" is not the experience of a photojournalist witnessing an event but that of decoding an event through its aftermath, or in a more personal way, through the faces of those who experienced tragedy. Perhaps this is why most photojournalism feels empty as it is largely a record of events with emotions put in view as means to an end, rather than an end unto themselves.

"RFK" is a book I first saw in its original incarnation as "RFK Funeral Train" a slim, stunning book of photographs by Paul Fusco from 2001, shot from vantage of the train that carried RFK's body from New York to Washington D.C. for his internment on June 8, 1968. "Funeral Train" was a modest paperback that I meant to buy for a while until it just sort of got away from me. It features a striking cover image. In dusk light, two men stand on a small plank bridge between a frontage road and train tracks. Lit from behind, they appear to be a disheveled father and teen son, each saluting the train as it rolls by at high speed. They are flanked by a woman holding a hand to her heart, standing partly in the shadow of a boarded up white structure. The figures are all small in the frame, tilting slightly from the effect of Fusco's odd angle of shooting from train-height, and exaggerated further by the wide-angle distortion of his lens and blurring movement of the train's progress to its destination. There is something proudly resilient about the figures, as if they know the meaning of labor and hunger yet wouldn't be cynical to say that someone completely unlike them could understand the meaning of calloused hands.

Alas, that image is not the cover here but it is still found within the larger "RFK" volume that represents a greater unearthed collection of Fusco's images unearthed from the archives of LOOK magazine. It is the color of these pictures that most immediately draws one in. Saturated yellows and reds that you recognize immediately as indicative of Kodachrome transparency, that first mass-market color film that dominated slide films for the better part of a century. It's a color that feels almost inherently American, so deeply different from the cool tones of Fuji Velvia that it's like any image shot on Kodachrome is an invocation of historical significance. Between the color of the film itself and the general palette of the 1960s, Fusco's images are like getting sucked into a journey through the last days of American promise.

It really is "Funeral Train" not the new title of "RFK" that these images represent, for this series doesn't represent the successes of RFK as attorney general, civil rights advocate, or state senator. Here RFK is the mystery of a man mourned, rather than that of a life lived. Figures with forlorn faces stand by the railroad tracks arms crossed, flags waving, or hands waving, as if to say goodbye to someone great. That's all we can really know from the pictures themselves. All colors and ages of people line up to say farewell to a symbol of hope, shot down on the eve of a presidential campaign. Crowds go by in blur after blur of people trying to get a view of the train carrying someone barely known, yet containing great hope.

On page 197 a family of seven stand evenly spaced from short to tall. On the left are five shoeless children, barely clothed and dirty from play. The youngest barely squeezes into the frame at perhaps five years old. The oldest of about twelve, looks into the camera, standing next to his dressed parents, fully clothed but showing signs of hard work on their faces. The light gives off the glow of the time right after sunset, when blues have a pleasant dusky warmth. The family stands in testament, a humble gesture of sequence and space to a man the children never knew, from parents who can now only remember time lost.

The book closes with an increasingly blurry series of images as the shutter speed seems to get slower and slower as the light dims, followed then by a wholly unnecessary series of night-time images of the funeral itself. It really lessens the work, this pale effort to give closure to the train journey by filling the frame with black-clad mourners bearing candles in the dark. The loss here is experienced more profoundly through all the people who lined the train tracks, not by the officiated ceremony.

They are touching photographs to a recent, memorable America, leaving both a lump in the throat at the tremendous show of affection for Kennedy but also a feeling of great hope. While cynically it is hard to imagine people lining-up for any contemporary politician, that isn't necessarily true. It's hard to know what love people are capable of until crisis occurs, and even harder to know what greatness could arise from the American people in decades to come.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Atget's Paris

Atget’s Paris
Ed. Christian Adam
Taschen, Los Angeles
192 pp., Numerous black &white illustrations., 5½x7¾"

Eugene Atget is our memory of Paris from the turn of the twentieth century. What greater acknowledgment could there be for a photographer than for creating a body of work that has come to definitively represent how we know a particular place and time? Atget’s images exist outside of our normative ideas of art, history, and photography yet exemplify the greatest achievements anyone could make in those areas. We have known and never will know much about this humble keeper of Parisian life, and that adds all the more to the legacy a huge body of work found in Atget’s thousands of photographs of early twentieth century Paris, a selection of which is found in this slender volume.

A tall, soft-spoken man who made photographs for sale to artists and civic institutions, Atget arose early each day to photograph architectural details, storefronts, and workers – well before the streets became to bustling with the business of each day and those curiosity-seekers who might interfere with the work of photographing. He carried a large view camera, utilizing plate glass negatives as his recording device, and continued to work in this manner long after acetate film had come to replace the easily-damaged glass substrate. The load weighed approximately 20 kilograms, making it no small feat in traversing cobblestone steps and stairs of an expanding metropolis. The rooms he occupied with his companion and assistant, Valentine Compagnon, were simple and the work area he used for his photography was equally spare. Atget photographed for a few years at the tail end of the 19th century and then for years to come until his death in 1927.

He did not participate in the flourishing cultural scene of painters, writers, and musicians, but existed in his own world of creating a document of Paris before the notion of his Paris became too new a thing of the 20th century. The roads were widening and the haste of modernity was bringing a speed to bare on Paris that would leave it unrecognizable for a man whose job it became to record the everyday shapes of walls filled with lush, hand-drawn posters, the carousels of yore, or the stonework found in the detail of an ancient structure. Picture after picture shows storefronts, their proprietors, and the wares they sell. In his most famous image Magasin de vetementes pour hommes or Menswear Shop, three male mannequins gaze in different directions as their gesturing hands hover above a row of sized pants. They appear to look to an outer world, smiling yet still bound by their Pinocchio-like lifelessness, approaching reality only through the reflection of distant trees illuminated by bright sun. In another image, Maison d'un chiffonnier or Rag-and-bone man's house, the front of a clapboard shelter is adorned with a motley collection of cherubs, animal figurines, and even a few actual stuffed animals all wrapped together in the vertical embrace of ivy from a makeshift window box barely standing on its two legs. At the corner of a house, a solitary black shoe sits on the bare soil.

Perhaps we, as Americans can barely begin to appreciate the idea of the continuous influence of history as it is known in Europe outside of a littering of references to the 18th century on our East coast. Atget knew more than he showed and displayed his knowledge not by romanticizing what was or by recording out of prescience for a disappeared world, but out of appreciation for the world as it is now. Maybe holding on to the world could be done without reflex or pretense more easily then than now. Atget’s nominal job was in supplying historical institutions with images of the city but photography was also his avocation. While workmanlike in their quantity, consistency, and comprehension, they are also subtly affectionate for both place and medium. By the time Atget went to work, the industrial revolution was already at full-tilt but Atget was just young enough to know an earlier world, one without the haste for dissatisfaction that has now come to define our lives. He made the most of this knowledge of change.

Atget's Paris is part of Taschen’s ICONS series of slim, paperbacks often found in large stacks at half-price books for a few dollars. Unable to afford the more lovely Atget productions like John Szarkowski’s Atget from 1998, this book seemed like a simple way of adding Atget’s work to the my library and his inspiration to my own consideration of the changing face of King County (including Seattle) here in the 21st century. The images lack the crème tonality of the original albumen prints found in other color reproductions of the work and, despite being cropped to a full bleed, the viewer can still appreciate the work greatly as I did, slowly turning the pages in a quiet room to take in the clear mysteriousness of each picture. A time and place, all past, containing wondrous, typically vertical, pictures of alleys receding into alleys, ghoulish concrete creatures leering at us, vendors hawking their wares, and the occasional prostitute beckoning us through the camera’s eye. All are past yet unlike other documentarians of place such as Timothy O’Sullivan or John Thomson, the place feels present in every sense of the word.

Owing to the size of his oeuvre and ability to perceive the significant nuance in a multitude of subject, Atget’s work stands apart for approaching a place from near-to-far, rich-to-poor, and reflectively for the inside-out-ness of things be they interiors or exteriors, most exemplified by glass storefronts or interiors decorated with larger mirrors. Atget was consistently able to see a place for the subject itself and what it could be as projected through photographic space in 2D form. Projected as well in secondary form through time as we enter the artist’s mind, walking and thinking through a dream of a Paris long disappeared. Whether in a newspaper kiosk, a cart for hauling water, or the statuary at Versaille, I feel compelled to step inside to better understand the subjects' reason for being.

It is amazing how so modest a man could be so bold in his efforts. Daring whether it be in the striking verticality of a picture like Former choir school, Ancienne maison de la maitrise, emphasizing Atget’s use of wide-angle lens or in choosing subject matter unique as in Loueuse de bateaux modeles reduits, a woman renting model boats to pleasure-seekers.

Technicallly the images often have imperfections, even given the more limiting photographic processes that Atget chose, but they are of no matter. The blown-out sky or fuzzy subject only add to the aura of lost Paris. I like to imagine Atget’s primary camera on view as an object of reverence within a protective vitrine, containing all the marks of its use, much as in how Garry Winogrand’s Leica camera looks like how he used it, that these machines show time spent photographing much as the pictures show time captured. Cameras like theirs represent the photographer as worker, devices to be honored for their survivability against users who would exploit them to no end but incessant picture-making.

He was made popularly known through the dedication of Bernice Abbott and the fawning attention of our most famous Surrealist photographer, Man Ray who claimed him as a modern primitive. Without addressing their efforts, I would like to think that we would still know him today, as the work needs no mediation or academic explanation. The few facts we know of Atget's life are perfectly adequate, giving just enough information to leave us wanting, and never getting in the way of the photographs themselves. Atget, and his notion of Paris, needs no further voice than what can be seen in these perfect, timeless pictures.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nobuyoshi Araki

Nobuyoshi Araki
Summer: Retrographs
Heibonsha Limited, Tokyo
Unpaged, numerous black-and-white and color illustrations, 6x9"

Nobuyoshi Araki
Xeroxed Photo Albums
The Works of Nobuyoshi Aaraki - 13
Heibonsha Limited, Tokyo
Unpaged, 200 color and duotone illustrations, 5 1/4 x 7 1/2"

The Japanese renewed my faith in black and white photography when photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki, Shomei Tomatsu, and Daido Moriyama gained new attention in the United States in the late 1990s. Nobuyoshi Araki aided that renewal by clarifying my notion that the best thing an artist can possess is a strong work ethic. Until then, my model for hard work had been Lee Friedlander, a remarkably prolific photographer who, like Araki, produces numerous books and does not edition his work. Araki produces numerous books that are often terrible, but occasionally rise to a level of merit with the right editing or singular idea.

The first time I visited Arcana: Books on the Arts in Santa Monica, I purchased the lovely, small (about 5x7") hardback collection of Araki images "Summer: Retrographs." On a high shelf towards the front of the store Arcana had dozens of imported Araki books. Previously I had only perused the dull, Tokyo Lucky Hole in the adult section at Tower Records and the book that contrasted decayed film-images with close-ups of flowers shot with ring flash. Unfortunately the name of that book escapes me at the moment. It was seductive in that case to see the garish color of the luminous flowers in contrast to the streaked, deteriorating images on the upper half of each page. Seeing such a selection of Araki books at Arcana captivated me as I looked at various books, trying to decide which one would make the journey to the cash register, and then back to Arizona where I was attending university. It was immediately impressive to become aware of a photographer who published such an enormous amount of material year after year, so much so that there was a series of books called "The Works of Nobuyoshi Araki" that seemed to number at least fifteen in quantity, one of which I would later purchase - "Volume 13, Xeroxed Photo Albums."

Araki's images look uncomplicated enough in composition and technique. There it is, the subject, the thing itself, sitting right there in the middle of most of the frames with little other formal monkey business. In picture after picture, he relentlessly photographed a better part of Tokyo's criss-cross of streets, electrical lines, clouds, and countless nude women in compromised or otherwise objectified positions. The subject of nude Asian women was alluring for a young, heterosexual photographer interested in traveling overseas as well as becoming a successful image-maker. While I personally have never produced a nude or been terribly interested in them other than in the occasional prurient foray into pornography, Araki's images managed to satiate something in the space between female exploitation and artistic expression. Araki's work, in my opinion, is pornography as it meets the criteria for potential usage as common masturbatory device but is saved from residing in that sexual ghetto for their oft-elegant compositions, usage of black and white, and interest in subject matter beyond the female figure. By my own definition, many things could be defined as masturbatory devices, but it just happens that those things typically reside behind the counter at the convenience store or on a high shelf like the aforementioned collection of Araki books at Arcana rather than in a Macy's ad for women's underwear. This also happens to remind me of Todd Hido's recent "Between the Two', a book that certainly fulfills jerk-off requirement for paying girls who wear lots of mascara to take off their clothes in hotel rooms. Nonetheless, back to the pornographer before us!

"Retrographs" and "Xeroxed" both feature samplings of Araki's photo-installations, in which he creates fascinating combinations of numerous pictures whether in using them as wallpaper, creating posters for temporary outdoor display, showing elongated transparencies, or by displaying contact sheets. These were just a few of his display methods seen in Xeroxed and the primary reason I purchased it as these techniques felt like a refreshing change from prints in frames that dominate white cube galleries.

"Retrographs" opens with an interesting sequence of pictures showing a piece of luggage by the rear of an open train. The position of the suitcase remains stationary while the tracks turn this way and that, the landscape constantly changing. The books is composed of black and white, vertical images with a small white bleed, excluding a brief, unnecessary middle section of color installation shots. Part of the attraction of these images is what seems like a consistent, technically perfect use of Tri-X film. The images sit in the blacks yet always feature full detail through the highlights.

The book features obligatory nudes as well as shots of various Tokyo streets adorned with power lines floating near our heads and advertising signage. Araki's cat appears around the house or in backyard, clouds flutter listlessly through the mid-day sky, and Araki himself pops up as subject of installation views or shown as sexual agent. In contrast to most black and white American photographers seen at the time, Araki's images felt remarkably fresh for their spontaneity in engaging the immediate world to the fullest. Even when not exploring Tokyo with cameras of various formats, Araki comes up with odd juxtapositions of toy lizards and lawn furniture in his backyard. While most of the Americans I was aware of were emulating Edward Weston in large format or Robert Frank with a hand-camera, Araki's use of small format photography felt unburdened by American photographic history that had come to define my own working methods.

It was striking to consider Araki as model for photo-making, less in that of emulating his lifestyle but more in how he earned the nickname 'photo-maniac' for the incessant, relentless photo-documentation of his own life after the death of his wife, Yoko. I had first heard of Araki from Mark Klett, who had suggested I look at the book that contains the photo-story of Yoko's decline into illness and death, "Sentimental Journey." Araki has acknowledged that his life ended and began after Yoko's departure. This shift in his life makes his photographs all the more pathetic, as if to keep himself going he entered a sordid world of sexual exploration best signified by the 768 page paperback ,"Tokyo Lucky Hole," that was likely his first US book, produced by Taschen in 1997. In that book, little of the elegance of his best work is seen as it feels mainly like a gaudy collection of visits to love hotels for prostitutes and little more. This post-death sexual exploration makes the work seem vapid at times, striking in its portrayal of all women other than Yoko as being without emotional value.

Also sharing the bill at nude-heavy publisher Taschen is Roy Stuart, whose work is more openly pornographic, but at least in Stuart's work the women have a strong sense of their own agency, making it more compelling than the great majority of sex-imagery available in the art book selection of Barnes and Noble where you can regularly find such boob-lovers as Jock Sturges and Sante D'Orazio.

"Xeroxed" includes many photos of Araki's handmade books, made mainly with low-contrast black and white photocopies, color copies, or other unknown reproduction methods. As with his installations and demonstrable work ethic, it was inspiring to see a number of books made in the least professional way possible. Rather than being limited to quality prints, high-quality reproductions, or standard binding or sizing, seeing an artist completely unencumbered by the traditional norms of publication was refreshing. Some of the image quality looks terrible, but that doesn't get in the way of fundamental composition or a need to quickly convey some notion/emotion of an image to the viewer. It is as if Araki is in a constant flux of creation and distribution, unperturbed by notions of perfection or completion. For Araki more is more. His books are just one more way to add to the ejaculatory nature of his ongoing output. Some of the books are amazing while others feel downright sloppy. Either way, the published material looks like an occasional, accessible pause in an ongoing stream of images.

Ultimately that lack of cohesion or self-reflective pause is also Araki's fatal flaw. Take away the sexual provocation and it's easy to see the man as a mediocre photographer interested in responding to the urban business of Tokyo with hectic pictures of power lines, otherwise in contrast to the soft look of colorful, sexualized flower imagery. Without the sex, or even because of it, he is kind of gross old man trying to hold on to meaning in his life through photography when all else is lost. Still he does get it right a lot of the time with many an elegant, erotic nude to save all those pictures that look no better than amateur sex-shots.
Araki has inspired numerous young Japanese to take up the camera as a means for documenting their lives, mostly to bland, diaristic effect. The only standout being Hiromix, who was unfortunately unable to sustain much excitement in her work beyond her the book "Girls Blue." Would looking at most people's diaries really be all that interesting?

At his best, Araki is an inspiring figure who utilizes photography as an integral part of the artist's life, at worst, he is an unhappy man who objectifies women and encourages us as viewers to do the same. It's interesting that despite his flaws, I continue to look at these two small books as models for what can be done with photography if you set aside the burdens of creating singular images and give yourself up to a stream of picture-making. With a camera in your pocket, maybe the world can reveal something to a curious mind when it comes to picture-making - even without all the sex.