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.