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.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ansel Adams: Our National Parks

Ansel Adams: Our National Parks
Edited by Andrea G. Stillman and William A. Turnage
Little, Brown and Company

Ansel Adams was never one of my favorite photographers. It felt as if I was expected to like him since he was the most famous photographer in the landscape genre when in fact the pictures he made were rarely personable enough for the average viewer to relate to meaningfully. At the time pictures of nature often felt too far removed from my suburban life for me to easily access them. Adams' images served as a referent to a natural world in which I had no interest in recreating, nor in emulating photographically. Perhaps even while disliking the work, I still respected it as my father respected Adams for the luscious, technical perfection he brought to his representations of the apparently untouched American West.

Looking at this book after not considering it in a long while reminds me that I have owned it twice. Once as a teenager I purchased it to give to my father as a birthday or Christmas present. Later I purchased it on my own as part of a clearance, closing-sale of a small bookseller in the Kansas City area. At the time it was the beginning of the end for independent bookstores. Even prior to the ubiquity of Borders and Barnes and Noble, stores like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks had come to define what local bookstores were in the Kansas City area. Our National Parks was probably an odd splurge for a teen boy who was more interested in buying science fiction by Piers Anthony , CDs of British rock, or in having a few extra quarters to play Street Fighter II.

The book is a slender, modest paperback collecting highlights of Adams' imagery of our National Parks. The reproductions are good, not great, but certainly fine enough to admire Adams' prowess with the medium. The range of tones from deep black to detailed highlight are almost disheartening, as if teasing young photographers to wonder, "How could I ever produce something so beautiful?" Disregarding all subject matter, historical significance of the parks, or the current ghetto that is fine art landscape photography, Adams' mastery of the medium is rarely equaled and potentially unsurpassed in influencing those of us who pick up cameras to create something of beauty. It seems doubtful that Adams' work would be considered in a BFA context these days beyond an art historical reference, but his vision of pristine wilderness mediated through the view camera still holds sway in the work of photo-hobbyists and in publications such as View Camera, LensWork, and Camera Techniques.

During high school I perused the books from Adams' still-excellent technical series: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print (later Polaroid as well). The zone system seemed far beyond my skill set and to this day I have never properly made an exceptional black and white negative and print to my liking. Still it was through Adams' instruction that I was able to gain a significantly better understanding of basic shutter/aperture controls to view camera movements. While not a devotee of photography as pre-visualization of the natural world, he did contribute to my learning that picture could be a new thing, far from a literal transcription of a scene. It was never National Geographic or Sierra Club imagery that Adams made, even despite his association with the latter. In Adams' pictures the skies had an undeniable presence that was god-like, the leaves described unknown textures, and the light that fell upon the Grand Canyon seemed like an index of the hand of God.

Adams was the artist who took the idea of Straight Photography to the landscape and came back with something completely new. It wasn't a mountain, a stand of aspen, or the moon over Hernandez, NM that Adams' pictures revealed, but the idea of what nature and a photograph could be if you applied enough imagination to them. Even better, Adams seemed to have viewed all of photography and nature holistically, educating about photography even as he campaigned for the preservation of our natural world. That we could still read any of his technical series and essentially know everything necessary for darkroom-photography is much to his credit as a legacy of significant imagery in publication and museum collections.

The book contains a selection of Adams' National Parks related writings as well as a picture of him with Gerald Ford in the Oval Office. Such was the power of Adams' pictures that he became the aging statesman of photography and great advocate for the perpetuity of our natural spaces through conservation.

At a large family gathering for Christmas several years after purchasing this book, my cousin gave several members of my family framed Adams' images of about 16x20 inches. It felt quite generous at the time to give us such large, difficult-to-transport presents. Little did I realize until several years later that the gifts were acquired from the then-bourgeoning scene of Los Angeles parking lot art sales where "framed art" could be purchased for around $5.99. It is in the omnipresence of Adams in poster sales that his pictures have been immortalized as beautiful decoration, much like Van Gogh, Monet to the likes of Nagel or Peter Max. Needless to say such sales didn't exist in the Kansas City area and "Moonrise Over Hernandez" did festoon the space above my bunk-bed for years to come.

Most of our tastes change in time and much as we might be embarrassed for what we once loved, there is also a certain discovery to be had for coming back to the child we were in seeing something for the first time. Ansel Adams made stunning pictures that few have equaled, even if landscape photographers continue to unnecessarily ape him year after year. If you dislike Adams' bombastic view of nature, those who now tread similar territory largely come across as copycats. As first, and best, to approach the American West as an artist unaligned with geographical surveys, Adams will always hold high esteem for me in showing pictures as worlds all their own, attached to nature and yet still about photography's inherent potential for transformation. Each picture shows a mastery of camera, negative, and print that would humble any picture-maker taking up a camera for the first time.