Friday, March 30, 2007

Try again. Fail again. Fail better

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better" Beckett

Baton Rouge Blues - William Greiner

A small package arrive in the mail this week - a copy of William Greiner's little book Baton Rouge Blues. It's a tiny pocket sized book simply produced by the Visual Arts Gallery of the University of Alabama. It's quite an exquisite gem - rough diamond - of a thing (and although I'd love if someone like Nazraeli - hope you're listening! -would take it and re-publish in their usual high quality print style, but in fact the slightly ad-hoc gritty style of the little book is quite appropriate for the subject matter - a photographer in exile in his own land).

Greiner really is a master of colour and colour coincidence (from the book Chromophobia: "Urban life is filled with "color rhyming" moments; you walk down the street and a yellow truck appears in your frame of vision just as a man in a yellow jacket turns into view and suddenly you feel the ineffable. That's what the book is really about -- honoring moments like that." )

This from the introduction:

Born and raised in New Orleans, and having lived in the city most of my adult life, never in my wildest dreams did I envision myself living permanently in Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge is the capital of Louisiana, located about 65 miles northwest of New Orleans. However, after Hurricane Katrina hit, Baton Rouge is where I ended up.

The series, Baton Rouge Blues is the product of the emotional and psychological roller coaster I have experienced living here after the storm. Anger, frustration and bewilderment gave way to confusion, disorientation, then resignation and, finally, acceptance.

Whether the photographs in this series accurately exemplify the reasons and circumstances of their making is far less important than the process and product that got me through this almost unimaginable experience.

Bloom where you are planted.

I think the only way to get hold of a copy is to contact William though the book is published by the Visual Arts Gallery of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I have no idea how many copies are available or what they cost.
Greiner's Katrina + Beyond blog is here

(Note: not all these pictures are from the book)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Amy Stein

I keep coming across Amy Stein recently. Her work has popped up in several places, and we were also both asked to pick and describe "What Makes a Great Photo" for the Conscientious site (hers would be on my short list as well). She also has a fun blog

Anyway, here's some of her work and what she says about it

Domesticated: My photographs explore our paradoxical relationship with the "wild" and how our conflicting impulses continue to evolve and alter the behavior of both humans and animals. We at once seek connection with the mystery and freedom of the natural world, yet we continually strive to tame the wild around us and compulsively control the wild within our own nature. Within my work I examine the primal issues of comfort and fear, dependence and determination, submission and dominance that play out in the physical and psychological ecotones between man and the natural world.

The photographs in this series are based on real stories from local newspapers and oral histories of intentional and random interactions between humans and animals. The narratives are set in and around Matamoras, a small town in Northeast Pennsylvania that borders a state forest.

Stranded is a meditation on the tension and desolation found on the shoulders of America's highways and interstates. My photos challenge the viewer to slow down and witness scenes of futility playing out in an uneasy and alien space. Within these photos we see the faces of people stranded and evidence of lives broken down or lost on the side of the road... For this series I spend weeks at a time driving across America looking for and photographing stranded motorists.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Judy Linn - contemporary black and white

...well - and colour too. In my recent quest for who is doing contemporary black and white work, I saw Alec Soth had a post on Judy Linn. Apparently she's most well know for her photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith - non of which happen to grab me (and I say apparently, because the one picture of her I had seen before was one of her "knee" photographs from an upcoming show at Vancouver's excellent Presentation House Gallery - she does seem to have a thing for knees and calves)

Anyway, she just fits in my arbitrary criteria of contemporary as being at least a Baby Boomer. The main stuff on her current exhibition is here and here

The short review from the New Yorker is interesting in what it says about her small show being so disparate - seemingly very different subjects, mixing black and white and colour and so on - and yet still hanging together. In fact, while a nice tight theme can be helpful and provide a good security blanket for a viewer, sometimes a photographer just takes picture of stuff and things - what they see - and the real underlying theme is just the photographer themselves.

Alec also picked all the best quotes, so go there for the full deal - I'll just cherry pick a couple

The short review from the New Yorker: "This survey of thirteen recent photographs—some in color, most in black-and-white—is modest, quirky, and offhandedly shrewd. Like so many contemporary photographers, Linn tends to take pictures of things that are not very interesting: bits of bread scattered on trampled snow, a sunny sidewalk peppered with tiny buds, a blond woman with an extravagant ponytail, a pine tree in a flooded field, a solitary cow. But each image is at once self-effacing and just right. The show doesn’t exactly cohere (what does this woman in bed have to do with that dishtowel?), but no matter; Linn’s scattershot approach feels right on target."

And this from Linn:

Words and pictures by nature don’t agree. There is no good fit. I can’t say what I do or have done, but I know what I want, what I try to do. I can tell how I aim. I can’t say how I land.

When I began, I hated what I couldn’t control—all the annoying things I couldn’t see in the moment of taking a photograph, the crazy stuff that jumps into the edges of pictures. Now I like that part the best. But I do want to be accurate, although “accurate” is a slippery word. I don’t mean a quality of photography. I think Cezanne, Ingres, and de Kooning are all accurate. I don’t think Ansel Adams is accurate. If you look at a Hiroshige woodcut of a whirlpool, you figure it is a fanciful rendition because how accurate can a woodcut be? But if you go to see the whirlpool, you see that he is telling you exactly what it looks like.

I think when someone first looks at a photograph they automatically wonder, “What is it?” I want a photograph that easily answers that question. I want to be extremely obvious; obfuscation is bad grammar. Hopefully, the two-dimensional arrangements of shapes on the paper will be as lively and interesting as the three-dimensional world trapped inside the photograph. There should also be something there you haven’t seen before. Something should happen in the act of looking.

I want a photograph that makes me aware of what is physically in front of me, a photograph that gives me the pleasure of getting lost. It is like asking yourself a joke: not really knowing what the answer is, giving up, and then seeing the punch line and really laughing.

(and I had to include the one colour photo because my laughing nearly caused me to choke on my morning coffee when I pulled it up...)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

John Szarkowski (and George Tice)

Two nice little pieces in the latest Focus Mag (warning 26mb...) - one on John Szarkowski and one on George Tice. I think I'll probably be heading out to get a copy of this particular issue.

As always, John has some interesting things to say about photography (including a dig at the idea of "equivalents"..), as well as on big photographs (not necessarily bad):

Photography is the easiest thing in the world,if one is willing to accept pictures that are flaccid, limp, bland, banal, indiscriminately informative and pointless, but if one insists on a photograph that is both complex and vigorous, it is almost impossible. One can, like an unreformed gambler, keep going out, keep trying, hoping that one might one more time be visited by luck or grace and make one more photograph that is exactly right... and if one is to photograph seriously, that also takes one’s best, concentrated attention. It cannot be picked up on Friday night and put away on Sunday—except perhaps by the greatest geniuses or talented beginners...

Size is a very interesting problem and deserves a thick book. Big is not bad; consider the pyramids and the elephants.Furthermore, I will say without equivocation that the first pictures that Talbot made with cameras were too small. They were a little smaller than 35 mm contacts, and his wife called his cameras mousetraps. It is hard to do serious work while one’s wife is making jokes about how one goes about it.

On the other hand, I think it would not be unfair to ask the Germans exactly what they think they are achieving by making photographs that seem to compete—at least in size—with Raphael during his Roman years.To my mind something is lost in these gigantic prints...

and from the Tice article:

“One of the things Paterson is about is the story of Paterson,” says Tice.“Paterson II is part of the future of the first Paterson, 30 years later. Tice’s distinctive awareness of past time and future time in the present moments of his photographs separates them from the work of other photographers who have turned their lenses toward similar subject matter. A typical street scene by Lee Friedlander, for example, offers the energies of a frenetic puzzle of contemporary life, corralled and ordered for the viewer to release. The stillness in what Tice himself describes as the “sad beauty” of his urban scenes has a different weight, the weight of history, not moments, but stories evolving. As with putting down a good book to go and do something else for a bit, Tice says of his work, “Any of these projects that I’ve done, I feel I can go right back to them and pick up where I left off.”

(note: Fair Dealing review of Focus Magazine)

Monday, March 26, 2007

The only good photographer is an old photographer?

I'm a little cautious about blogging about blogs - it all starts to get a little incestuous and easily leads to some kind of internecine strife.

But then someone says something that articulates a vague thought that has been tumbling about in the back of your mind and - well - it just makes sense to point it out.

Over on Hiding in Plain Sight, George LeChat has this to say:

Writing in L.A. Weekly last fall, Holly Myers created a minor tempest with the following: "In thinking about Diane Arbus, as one does from time to time, I came to a distressing realization: that I couldn’t name a single photographer subsequent to Arbus (and Frank and Winogrand and Friedlander and Eggleston and the other greats of her generation) who ranked on anywhere near the same level, which is to say, who thrilled me near as broadly, deeply or consistently."...

...Myers attributed the decline to the elevation of concept over feeling. I think the problem is that contemporary photography too often lacks formal elegance or distinction. In its place, many photographers appear to believe that a clever, or topical, or referential subject will itself suffice. It seldom does.

George then goes on to give a couple of example of what he means using some photographs - Brian Ulrich and Lee Friedlander; Alec Soth and Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

Now, as LeChat admits, there are dangers to this sort of generalisation, but it certainly got me thinking.

While I like a lot of work from contemporary photographers - indeed, I'm obviously enthusiastic about a lot of it - when I sat back and thought about Myers' comments, there seemed to be a kernel of something there.

My list of photographers "who thrilled me... broadly, deeply or consistently" came from the same sort of group Myers describes. And despite all the contemporary books on my shelves, I really had to work hard to come up with even a couple who lived up to this description in the same sort of depth I think she's talking about.

The two I did come up with (and her choice of Tillmans didn't come anywhere close) were Thomas Struth and Martin Parr (I'd also pick John Gossage, though I think he sort of bridges these generations - and as much as I'd like to pick Sugimoto, sometimes he's just a little too cool and detached).

But for me, it became pretty apparent that the majority of photographers I'd pick whose work "thrilled me... etc" came from at least a previous generation. What about you? (Perhaps we could set the dividing line for current generation at the Baby Boomers onwards - say 1946 to be generous, though that may seem ancient to some of you...)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Alleyway No.1

I'm dubious about posting these for all sorts of reasons.

First, I don't normally circulate work in progress until there is at least a small sized body of work that I'm happy with.

Secondly, the internet really sucks for showing the sort of Large Format (neg size that is) pictures that I make, where the intended print size is at the very least 11x14 and usually bigger. Additionally, the web sucks even more imo for black and white work. LCD displays that are out of balance with far to much contrast and brightness just don't convey something that is full of varying (often subtle) tones.

So, now that's all out of the way, here are a small selection from the first few negatives I've made on a new project - Alleyway (or maybe Alleyway's?) - you might also want to take into account a bunch of the stuff I've said previously about traces, evidence, oblique glances and so on...:

Tim Atherton

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Winogrand at work - the movie

Okay, it's only about a ten minute segment, but Michael David Murphy has a movie up of Gary Winogrand at work on Bill Moyers/PBS in 1982 (Note: right click and save is probably best - it's about 26mb).

It's quite incredible watching him and listening to him at work. It's a bit like watching Beethoven compose or Einstein busy calculating - as commented over on the Streetphoto List, this is the Zapruder film of SP...

There is also a transcript up - a couple of quotes:

A picture is about what’s photographed and how that exists in the photograph - so that’s what we’re talking about. What can happen in a frame? Because photographing something changes it. It’s interesting, I don’t have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I’m photographing. I have a responsibility to describe well...

The fact that photographs — they’re mute, they don’t have any narrative ability at all. You know what something looks like, but you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know whether the hat’s being held or is it being put on her head or taken off her head. From the photograph, you don’t know that. A piece of time and space is well described. But not what is happening.

I think that there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of ‘em. They do not tell stories - they show you what something looks like. To a camera. The minute you relate this thing to what was photographed — it’s a lie. It’s two-dimensional. It’s the illusion of literal description. The thing has to be complete in the frame, whether you have the narrative information or not. It has to be complete in the frame. It’s a picture problem. It’s part of what makes things interesting...

And wait until you see his filing system

(MP4 file here and wmv file here )

(Thanks for this David)

Friday, March 23, 2007

August Sander

I don't know - there's not much that you can add to what's already been said about August Sander. His skill as a portrait photographer is rarely surpassed. His far reaching project to document the typology of the German people at a particular point in history remains mesmerising - as well as being one of the starting points for a good few well know contemporary photographers.

And if I had to chose between Julia Margaret Cameron and August Sander for the best portrait photographer of all time, I don't think I could do it - it's pretty much a draw... Sander is one of a group of photographers I find I have to come back to time and time again to remind myself that yes, it is possible to produce such extraordinary work.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

What the heck is the Atlas Group?

Stanco (Stand Banos) asks "OK, a little help here, please! This Atlas Group- a few snapshots, a lotta concept, and some stained and unspotted prints that appear scavenged from the bottom of the reject bin of a Darkroom 101 Photo Class..."

The best I can do on short notice is a Guardian article from a couple of years ago (there's also an article in Village Voice among others):

...Among the various factions, cadres, cells and shadowy organisations that emerged in the aftermath of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, the Atlas Group remains one of the most enigmatic. Not only is there some doubt whether the group still exists, there are also those who believe it never existed at all. Rumour piles on rumour. Claim is matched by counter-claim. Forged papers, false documentation, fake texts, staged and doctored video footage and testimonies are at the heart of the group's work, just as rumour, myth, disinformation and bald untruth are the tactical weapons in the information wars that continue long after actual hostilities have ceased and the parties have reconciled themselves to whatever it is that the future holds....

...Although Raad's work, and the Atlas Group itself, deals in the gulf between events and their description, and casts doubt on those who claim to hold the truth, its purpose seems to me to go deeper. The larger truths of history - such as who won or lost a war, or how it came about - and the smaller events and individual experiences that make it up are not the same thing...

To me their work is about media, media bias, propaganda, seemingly endless regional conflict, the effect on people of such conflicts, humour, resilience, resistance, truth and deception, the truth and fiction of photographs, memory/history/archives, complicity and complacency - all of which are at the heart of our way of life today in one way or another.

A last quote from the Guardian (though I also like the introductory story - about a subversive surveillance photograph er who preferred to photograph the sunset from The Corniche than his subjects...):

We all know that how we read images, and what we infer from them, depends in large part on what we are told. This is as true of art as it is of newspapers, documentary footage, and even the things we see and experience for ourselves. Raad does more than pick away at our sense of certainty.

Over 15 years, 3,641 car bombs left 4,386 dead and thousands injured during the civil war in Lebanon. This much is certain. But is it also true that the only part that remains after a car bomb explodes is the engine, and did photo-journalists during the civil war compete to be the first to locate and photograph the engines, which sometimes landed hundreds of metres away from the blast? What do the 100 photos, annotated in Arabic, and which show soldiers, munitions experts and others gazing at the wreckage of all these cars, actually tell us, over and above the dreadful repetition of the images, the archiving of the scenes? Just to show them seems enough. And then one thinks of the absurdity of all the camera-toting picture-hounds, rushing to be the first on the scene.

and another from a gallery exhibit:

Walid Raad works with video, photography, and literary essays to investigate the contemporary history of war in his native Lebanon. (We Decided To Let Them Say “We Are Convinced” Twice. It Was More Convincing This Way.), a series of 15 large-scale photographs, specifically recalls the Israeli Army’s invasion and siege of Beirut in 1982. That summer Raad, an intrepid 15-year-old with a telephoto lens, took photographs of near and distant military activity in West Beirut from his home in the eastern sector. Recently reprinting the pictures from the original, now degraded negatives, he discovered that the images’ unusual discoloration, creases, and holes offered a disturbing but realistic representation of a broken world rendered flat by the series of catastrophes that had befallen it.

FWIW, my response to all this is very much a gut one. When I see something like this - even if only in print or in the internet, I get this kick in the guts that say - hey, he's got something there - even if that feeling has a hard time overriding some of my - hmm, that's a fuzzy tattered photo instinct (or the "I hate video installations" voice in my head). I've learnt that in the end I get most benefit from listening to the first gut response, even if it takes a while...

The Atlas Group archives can be found here

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

a few Immersive Landscapes

I came across this short passage in Steve Edwards excellent little book Photography: A Very Short Introduction (well worth a read btw):

"Panofsky felt that Renaissance perspective was neither natural nor inevitable; rather, it was the historical product of a society that valued detachment more than immersion; order rather than flux; regularity instead of discontinuity; and structure over experience."

(Link to more Immersive Landscapes)

Tim Atherton

and the winner is...

...Walid Raad/The Atlas Group - interesting choice

(Civilizationally, We Do Not Dig Holes to Bury Ourselves)

Big Photography Prizes

(The Atlas Group)

Photography doesn't have that many big prizes that are handed out (compared to - say - literature and writing), but one of those is the Deutsche Börse Prize - which is to be announced later today (btw, it used to be called the Citigroup and/or Citibank Prize if I remember correctly?).

Jim Johnson over on his thoughtful blog has a post about it. Like many of these prizes, I'm often in two minds about them. They often never seem to chose quite the right one - though last year the Deutsche Börse chose Robert Adams - and in fact the history of this particular prize has maintained a pretty interesting selection of finalists of the years

And I'm with Jim on this. I really think the Atlas Group should win (either ways, I had them lined up for a future blog post), but possibly Anders Peterson will take it - but who knows - all four finalists are interesting and very different.

Pictures from the finalists at the Guardian

And interestingly, in light of the hum generated by Charlotte Cotton's essay on the New Color, two of the four finalists are essentially black and white work (as was last years winner) - okay, The Atlas Group is really multi-disciplinary, but it seems to be their black and white based work that is most often highlighted.

(Anders Peterson)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Uta Barth

One thing I sometimes think happens is that we see work by a photographer and we can see there is something there. It immediately says something to us. But somehow we don't quite like it (though perhaps like isn't quite the right word). Each time we come across it we say to ourselves "oh yes, that stuff, I remember that". Then - sometimes quite a while later - it almost imperceptibly just clicks.

For me that's the case with
Uta Barth's photographs. And right now I'm going "ah yes - now I get it" and want to look at more of it. It's probably all in response to the how the areas and ideas I'm investigating right now resonate with the things she has done in her work. But there's a sort of double pleasure to it. Coming to the realisation that yes, your suspicion was right, there was something to it. But mostly, the excitement of pouring over some pictures that you had probably seen before and yet now they seem fresh and intriguing in a way you couldn't quite perceive before.

From Uta Barth: In Between Places: "Deceptively simple, Uta Barth's photographic works question the traditional functions of pictures and our expectations of them. By photographing in ordinary anonymous places - in simple rooms, city streets, airports and fields - Barth uses what is natural and unstudied to shift attention away from the subject matter, and redirect focus to a consciousness of the processes of perception and the visceral and intellectual pleasures of seeing....

...Uta Barth provides a compelling look at the nature of our own experience.Her beautifully composed photographs, most often created in places that seem somehow familiar, prompt our consciousness of visual sensations and a deeper consideration of what looking really means.

...Barth has used photography exclusively in her aesthetic projects, experimenting with depth of field, focus and framing to create photographs that are suggestive rather than descriptive, alluding to places rather than describing them explicitly. Her interiors and landscapes engage the viewer in an almost subliminal way, testing memory, intellect and habitual responses..."

There also a fairly in-depth interview with Barth here

A few tasters: ...We assume that the photographer observed a place, a person, an event in the world and wanted to record it, point at it. There is always something that motivated the taking of a photograph. The problem with my work is that these images are really not of anything in that sense, they register only that which is incidental and peripherally implied... I have never been interested in making a photograph that describes what the world I live in looks like, but I am interested in what pictures (of the world) look like.... My primary project has always been in finding ways to make the viewer aware of their own activity of looking at something (or in some instances, someone.) ...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

So, where "are" the New Black & White photographers?

(Idris Kahn)

I've been ruminating over Charlotte Cotton's essay The New Color: The Return of Black-and-White, which I blogged about recently, as well as some of the responses to it.

(Osamu Kanemura)

One thing that has come to mind is this; whether we believe or not that black and white might be on the the rise as the new darling of the art world, who exactly is doing new, vigorous, exciting, innovative work out there in black and white?

(Jason Evans)

Cotton gave her list - some of which seem worthy, others perhaps not. But that list aside, who else is out there? Right now it actually seems a pretty sparse field. Some of the best work is still being done by the old guard from the Sixties and Seventies (okay and Eighties) - Friedlander, Gossage, Adams, the Bechers, Frank - they remain innovative. Certainly, I hope this crowd keeps going at full steam and coming up with new ideas, but who are the new generation of up-and-comers, the new guard - those with a whole career ahead of them?

(Jason Evans)

One of the most continually innovative and fresh would have to Sugimoto, but he really belongs to the group I've already mentioned. There are also Basilico and Geoffrey James for example, but they are really masters of Modern photography, probably pushing it's boundaries as far as it can go?

I've hunted my bookshelves, and magazine pile and meandered around the internet, but I'm still a little stumped (I also hunted back through the archives of some blogs like Conscientious - and discovered a surprisingly small amount of contemporary B&W there). So my question is: who is there out there?

There were a couple on Cotton's list that have caught my eye.

An-My Lê (above) for one and Jason Evans (images higher up) for another. I like the way An-My Lê's Small Wars and Vietnam work has, among other things, taken the New Topographics deadpan cynicism and put a whole new twist and take on it. (Along with Susan Lipper, who Cotton also mentioned)

Idris Khan (nice article in the Guardian here too) is one I have come across elsewhere. He seems to be doing what I feel Abelardo Morell's work could succeed in doing (but somehow, with a few exceptions, the latter never quite seems to make it out of Keith Carter territory). I find Khan's work some of the more exciting and interesting contemporary black and white I've come across recently.

Michael Wesely is another I've encountered - I thought his Potsdamer Platz work was brilliant (though he has started to become rather formulaic now, and a little bit too clever - Berlin didn't quite seem to translate to the MoMA reconstruction project)

So - here's the big question - any more good suggestions for who to watch and where to find them?

(An-My Lê)