Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni

Blogs all over have been paying tribute to Ingmar Bergman on his passing - and now the world of cinema has lost another great - Michelangelo Antonioni who died at 94.

There are lots of obituaries online - the Guardian is a good place to start known for Blowup and Zabriskie Point as well as his earlier films like La Notte.

Now as much as Bergman may be a giant of cinema and hugely influential on a wide variety of artistic endeavours, I've always personally preferred Antonioni.

Here's some of what John Berger says about one of his earliest works, (full essay here, from The Shape of a Pocket) - a nine minute documentary film, Gente del Po, made in the 1940's:

Michaelangelo Antonioni comes from Ferrara—in the simple sense that he was born there, but also, in a more complex way, because the city or its spirit is invariably present in his work...

...Whoever says Ferrara, says also the river Po. Other places are more intimate with the river—Cremona, Torino, the little town of Paesana near its source, but Ferrara is its monument, its mortuary headstone. After Ferrara the river begins to negotiate and finally join the beyond. This dimension of the beyond is marvelously held at the end of Antonioni's first nine-minute documentary film, Gente del Po, made between 1943 and 1947...

In Antonioni's film the river is a chief character, defined by her colossal will, but not her impatience, to reach the sea. When she does, the sea, instead of embracing her, gives her a leg up and she clambers into the white bed of the sky.

The other principal characters in Gente del Po are the captain of the tugboat, hauling five barges down the river, the captain's wife and their daughter, who is down below in her bunk for she has been taken ill. The mother goes ashore to buy a remedy for her daughter in the chemist's shop of a poor riverside village. The tugboat is called Milano and the river is constantly reminds the villagers of elsewhere. This was twenty years before Italy's postwar economic miracle...

...This first, brief, black-and-white film without spoken dialogue is prophetic in another way too. In it we today recognize Antonioni's special way of framing his shots—as though the focus of his interests is always beside the event shown, and the protagonist is never centered, because the center is a destiny we do not understand and whose outline is not yet clear.

Essentially his cinematic handwriting hasn't changes since he began making this first film when he was thirty-one years old. An immense evolution is to come—including that of color—but the same vision, the same pair of eyes was already there in 1943...

...Those who admire Antonioni's films often say that he narrates like a novelist. Those who criticize his films often accuse them of being abstract, over-aesthetic,
formalist. It seems to me that if one wants to enter the world of his imagination, one should first think of him as a painter. Human behavior and stories interest him, but he begins with what somebody or somewhere looks like. His most important perceptions are pre-verbal. (This is perhaps why he can use silence so well.) Kieslowski, for example, is a real novelist of the cinema because he thinks about the consequence of actions. Antonioni gazes at the silhouette of an action, with all the painter's desire to find in it something that is timeless. I would often go so far as to suggest that he often forgets the consequence...

...Antonioni's films question the visible until there's not enough light to see anymore. The visible may be Monica Vitti or Marcello Mastroianni or a river bank or a ship's hull or a tree or a tennis court. Unlike a true painter he can't touch their image with his hands; he has to worry it in other ways—by lighting, by movement, by waiting, by a kind of cinematic stealth. His purpose is to make us peer into his films as one peers into the Po as it flows, as Monet peered into the depths of the lily pond, as one walks peering through the fog.

The hope which, I believe, sustained him as he made each film, was that, as we peer, something will come to meet us, something that almost escaped him, something so real it doesn't have a name.

Halfway through Gente del Po a peasant on the river bank sharpens a scythe and a line of women, dressed in black, rake hay. One of the women straightens her back to gaze at the river as the barges pass. She is young. She is like nobody else. She has slightly protruding white teeth when she smiles. And she smiles, because whilst she gazes at the wide river with its colossal will to reach the sea, something comes out to meet her. We can read it on her face. But on the film we can't see it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Frank Gohlke

Via a post over on the Large Format Photography Forum I learnt that Frank Gohlke now has a website up (it's interesting how many well known photogs don't - too busy with commissions I guess...).

Gohlke is one of the founding fathers of the New Topographics movement and has gone on to produce bodies of work from the Mount St. Helens eruption, to tornado aftermath in Wichita Falls, Texas, to gentle photographs of the Sudbury River all with his own particular and unique take on the American landscape.

I've always likes the Mt. St Helens pictures, but I'm glad he has some of the Sudbury River pictures here (all done in 5x7 colour I think). This is (or at least was) his own neighbourhood, and they a really a labour of love. I have a copy of the small paperback of the project, and I think you can still find it cheaply. It's well worth hunting out.

Living Water is about a place and about Place, about a river and about Rivers. Its subject is the Sudbury River in eastern Massachusetts, but the river is bound up in something larger and less tangible: the process of discovery and creation through which we come to be at home in our particular parts of the world. I moved to Massachusetts from the Midwest in 1987. Disoriented and ill-at-ease in the crowded spaces of the Northeast, I began photographing a small river near my home. What started as a stay against confusion quickly became my chief preoccupation, as I penetrated the dense growth of human and natural history fed by the moving water.

(btw, needless to say that the originating post above generated the usual he said/she said argument as the Guild Photographers claim "this guy's work is crap, boring, didn't he ever learn the rule of thirds" from their pedestal built of Weston's and Adams' bones, while the Art Photographers cry foul from their ivory tower "you just don't get it, open your eyes and your minds, don't you see this guy is one of our heroes" - which, even though I find it hard to resist, gets a little tiresome. Just don't show me one more fracking Spanish Colonial Cloister full of light and shadow...)

Oh, and Gohlke's website - it kinda sucks (okay, maybe that's pot and kettle time), but the layout crosses the line from clean and simple to boring, and the image reproduction just doesn't quite work. Which I put down to the outfit that built it for him.
I also note Gohlke's printing some stuff via inkjet - based on the website production values, I really hope he's got himself a good printer - much of his stuff would look great as really great pigment ink prints.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

BRICK magazine

I picked up a copy of my favourite literary magazine - BRICK - the other day and discovered (like many such magazines I imagine) they were having financial woes. So for now, they have found some sponsors and supporters, and also seriously expanded their circulation in the US.

I don't know if you experience the same thing as I do, but go to the "art magazine" section of a major bookstore and newsstand, and there are may half a dozen good photography magazines if you are lucky, but probably two or three shelves of literary magazines. I never quite knew which to pick (and many of them looked terribly boring) when I was browsing them until I started reading BRICK. Now it's probably the only one I get regularly (okay, it's only out twice a year...).

It always has some good articles and pieces in it (especially, though not only, literary non-fiction). Michael Ondaatje is on the editorial board (among others) - in fact the current issue has a delightful conversation between Ondaatje and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche - whose book Half of a Yellow Sun is awaiting me at the library. As well as Arnold Schoenberg’s dictates on art, Jim Harrison has his fill, and more.

The other nice thing about it is that it frequently has some interesting photography tucked into it here and there (in this issue, among others, by Martin Helmut Reis - though I couldn't find the particular ones online).

Although my favourite in this edition is Peter Glassgold's translation of William Carlos Williams The Red Wheelbarrow into Old English:

Seo Reade Hweolbaerwe

swa miċel hangaþ

Readre hweol

Glasiġre of reġen

Be sidan þæm hwitan

(read the original here)

So maybe look out for it on your local US (and Canadian) newsstand if you are across this side of the Pond - or even buy a subscription.

(Two B&W photos - Martin Helmut Reis)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Garageography 3.0.7 - Lewis Koch

Lewis Koch sent me some information about his latest work Garageography 3.0.7

It's pretty funky. The website itself is pretty cool - it has the potential to be annoying, but in fact works really well... just be sure to keep your mouse roaming around looking for hotspots - little arrows, crosses and stuff that allow you to peer closer at things. Actually, this is one of the better virtual exhibitions I've seen.

GARAGEOGRAPHY 3.0.7 translates Lewis Koch's third project in his private garage in Madison, Wisconsin (USA) to the Internet. Through its various digressive layers, the site presents a text-based cabinet of curiosities within the confines of a simple wood frame one-car garage. The installation includes a video poem, a photographic frieze, hand-stamped leaves, bumperstickers, a hand towel, a unique jigsaw puzzle, and various found objects, as well as material that normally resides in the garage space. Using Tristan Tzara's 1934 text When Things Dream as its basis, the interactive installation is revealed via photographs, text, animation, sound, and video. The physical installation was mounted last year in Madison, April-July 2006. This new, virtual work also presents segments from Koch's two earlier garage projects, Duct Tape Works (1993) and Garage Interiors (1983).

Rather makes me smile as I go around it. In some ways it reminds me of a life-sized piece by Joseph Cornell. I think Lewis' take on things resonates with a lot of the way I see things - for one thing, "elevating" the humble garage to a piece of art.

Oh, and Lewis also kindly bought one of my alleyway prints - I'll look forward to perhaps seeing it in a future installation... :-)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"TRACES - Alleyways & Spandrels" new website

Well, I finally got around to putting together a selection of work from the first phase of my current project TRACES - Alleyways and Spandrels

There is a small text section as well here

"The principle of exchange states that every contact leaves a trace – that with contact between two things there will be an exchange. I see this as being not only the exchange that takes place between inhabitant and place, but also between photographer and place – the trace of light on film – an exchange...

...Over time in a new city, trying slowly to make sense of it, I eventually became aware of the suburban alleyways (this city has almost 1300km of alleys), seeing them as being un-regarded or hidden routes and pathways through the city. Essentially unnoticed and much of the time un-peopled. Yet full of the evidence of people. Things left over. Things to be discarded. Things waiting to be used. A different viewpoint on peoples lives. Back yards often seem less regarded than front gardens (though not always). Back gardens are frequently more “relaxed”, off-guard, and by the time the alley is reached, it is dustbins and recycling boxes and left over bricks and spare siding. Though every now and then this is punctuated by a garden of beauty and pride..."

I still feel like there's more I want to do on this project as the summer progresses through into autumn, but I'll have less time for that... and I also want to work on the second main aspect of it, which is the "bethicketted" wild places and routes within the city. We've got over 1100km of alleyways and 7,400 hectares of green-space (Central Park is only 340) - so there's plenty to keep me going.

It's still a bit rough and I'm sure there are all sorts of typos in there too. But I really wanted to get it up and out there (one of these days I'm actually going to have to pay someone to make me a real website... my favourites are always the simplest, but it seems hard to find someone to do those well - dosh aside).

Website location is http://www.timatherton.com/ (same as link above). It uses a small amount of flash, but not objectionably so imo. If you don't have flash it has a sort of clunky html version.

(and finally, many thanks to Struan Gray for the idea of spandrels)

Pictures of stuff that isn't there anymore

I've come across a number of examples of photographers who have taken pictures of places where something happened in the past, but that you really can't see any evidence of anymore - crime scenes long after the crime was committed, or battlefields decades (or even centuries) after the battles were fought.

I've always been intrigued by this. But I'm also intrigued be the way some people react to such pictures. I've come across an almost violent reaction against them - that such pictures are stupid, meaningless, pointless - how can you take a picture of something that isn't there any more!?

But then I'm the sort of person who can stand on the Iron Age earthworks of Maiden Castle on a grey windy autumn day and almost smell the previous inhabitants or who grew up with the remains of a D-Day Mulberry Harbour (that never even made it across the Channel), visible at low tide from my bedroom window), and who could imagine the convoys of ships forming up and preparing to cross to France.

So for me, it makes perfect sense to photograph a place where something significant has happened - even if there is barely a trace - or even no visual trace at all - remaining. For me, these pictures can still hold something of the aura of the physical place - if we let them.

A couple of examples that come to mind are Joel Sternfeld's book On This Site - Landscape In Memoriam which documents places - many years after - where some tragic event in recent (and a few not so recent) American history occurred. The picture postcard beach off Rockaway where ten Chinese immigrants drowned.... the street where Cari Lightner was run down by a drunk driver (leading her mother to found MADD) etc

From an essay by Linda Levitt:

Without the context of their accompanying text, the photographs in Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam could easily be misread as what they only appear to be: serene images of the urban, suburban, or rural landscape. Each of the fifty photographs is placed on a right-hand page of the book. Sternfeld’s concise, sometimes terse text is placed on the facing page of each photograph, contextualizing the image as a site of tragedy. Some of the images, like the corner of Austin Street in Kew Gardens where Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in 1964, are hauntingly familiar. Others are more obscure, and the viewer is at a loss to make meaning beyond the significance of the image itself.

The first photograph Sternfeld made for the book is an image of the crab apple tree in Central Park under which Jennifer Levin’s body was found on the morning of August 26, 1986. The photograph appears to have been made at dawn, and the scene is awash in warm morning light. Although not centered in the frame, the tree itself is the focal point of the image. Sternfeld says he “went to Central Park to find the place behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Jennifer Levin had been killed. It was bewildering to find a scene so beautiful…to see the same sunlight pour down indifferently on the earth.” There is no visible trace of the horror that marks this site; Sternfeld’s perception of the space is colored by the memory he carries with him to Central Park. The viewer too is confronted by the beautiful scene Sternfeld captures: how the photograph comes to mean depends on whether the viewer is, like Sternfeld, haunted by the specter of Levin’s murder. “As the fascination that photographs exercise is a reminder of death, it is also an invitation to sentimentality,” writes Susan Sontag. “Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgments by the generalized pathos of looking at time past.” If the past is “an object of tender regard,” then we bring a dual sensibility to Sternfeld’s photographs: a kind of nostalgia for the familiar, but one that carries with it a trace of the familiar as catastrophic. more

Another is the work of Markus Neis who photographs European Battlefields (his project "Folgelandschaften") - Verdun, the Allied invasion sites in northern France.

Bart Michiels is another who works in a very similar vein and whose work really grabs me (Thanks Adam)

(Waterloo 1815, The Fall of the Imperial Guard , 2001)

(Anzio, 1944, Yellow Beach, 2004)

Then, while thinking about this post I came across (via Greg Wasserstrom) a link to Christian Pattersons new work Out There where he undertakes "an exploration of the landscape connected with a series of murders committed by a Nebraska teenager in the 1950s.
"When I started following my map, I found things that I never imagined I would find nearly fifty years after the murders took place. There are very few things that remain, and they are very hard to find, but I found some very interesting things that will show up in the photographs. My research and imagination are helping me to fill in the blanks.""

There is an excellent interview, including a number of pictures, with Christian on the project at making room.

And then, of course, there is the grandfather of them all, Roger Fenton

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Günter Grass Postscript

Interestingly, Conscientious today linked to Timothy Garton Ash's piece in the New York Review of Books on the whole Günter Grass issue. One the whole it's a very good reasoned argument and makes some of the same points made above (though far better than I) - especially the key point that it was not the Grass served int he Waffen SS, but that he continuously covered it up for so long.

"Yet I'm afraid that Grass has only half a point. In fact, what is really surprising is that he is so surprised. Recalling the way in which Grass has repeatedly attacked leaders of the Federal Republic such as Helmut Kohl, the bishop of Kohl's home city of Mainz quotes Saint John: "Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone." For more than forty years, ever since he became a famous writer, Günter Grass has been one of the literary world's most inveterate stone-throwers. In thousands of speeches, interviews, and articles he has raged against US imperialism and capitalism; against German unification, which he furiously opposed, since a united Germany had "laid the foundations of Auschwitz"; against Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, and all their journalistic supporters. Like one of the Teutonic Knights he admired as a child, he has laid about him to left and right—in recent years, mainly to right—with a bludgeon. He has set himself up as a political and moral authority, and delivered harsh judgements. His language has often been intemperate. Now it is payback time for all those he has criticized, directly or indirectly. In paying him back, some of his critics have fallen into precisely the mode that they previously criticized Grass for adopting: a simplistic, moralistic judgment, elevating the Nazi past to the single yardstick of morality or immorality.

This said, both outrage and amazement seem in order. Outrage not at the fact that he served in the Waffen-SS as a teenager but at the way he has dealt with that fact since. According to the historian Bernd Wegner, a leading authority on the Waffen-SS, the "Frundsberg" division in which Grass served as a tank gunner "consisted mainly of members of the RAD [Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labor Service] who had been conscripted under duress."[6] Since Grass had previously been conscripted into the Reich Labor Service, it seems likely that his earlier volunteering to fight in the U-boats had nothing to do with his being assigned to the Waffen-SS. There is no suggestion that he was involved in any atrocities. By his own account he hardly fired a shot in anger.

No, his war record is not the cause for outrage. Thousands of young Germans shared the same fate. Many died as a result. The offense is that he should for so many years have made it his stock-in-trade to denounce post-war West Germans' failure to face up to the Nazi past, while himself so spectacularly failing to come clean about the full extent of his own Nazi past. One painfully disappointed reaction comes from his most recent biographer, Michael Jürgs, whose life of Grass appeared in 2002. Grass spent many hours talking to Jürgs, yet allowed him to repeat the standard version that the novelist's war service had been as an auxiliary antiaircraft gunner (he was also that, briefly, before going into the Waffen-SS), and then in the Wehrmacht. This is not merely "keeping quiet" about your past. I'd say it counts as lying. What's more, if a conservative German politician had behaved like this, Grass himself would surely have called it lying, adding a few earthy adjectives to boot.

Worse still, knowing full well his own biography, he nonetheless denounced the joint visit by Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl to a cemetery in Bitburg in 1985 where, among many war dead, forty-nine Waffen-SS soldiers were buried. Of the forty-nine, thirty-two were under twenty-five years old. The youngest among them may well have been drafted like Günter Grass. He could have been one of them. To denounce the Bitburg visit without acknowledging that he himself had served in the Waffen-SS was an act of breathtaking hypocrisy, doublethink, and recklessness." (More
here - and well worth reading)

In the end I'm reminded of a ritual I witnessed a number of times. New intakes of conscript recruits into the German Bundeswehr where taken around the memorials of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp. Unlike Auschwitz, all that now remains - apart from a small museum - is some large monuments and, most telling of all, a series of huge stone faced mounds - each with the inscription "here lie 15,000 dead", here lie 20,000 dead" and so on. As the recruits walked solemnly and silently around taking this in, only their instructors could be occasionally heard reminding them - this must never happen again... we must never let this happen again.

I hope Garton Ash is correct that even if much of Grass's activism falls into disrepute (and I fear more of it will than Garton Ash's optimistic take on it), that the writings of Günter Grass will still retain their power to remind us in the same stark way. But would that he had taken this decision 40 years ago instead.

Günter Grass and the Waffen SS

I can still recall quite vividly the experience of reading The Tin Drum when I was 15. So w
hile I was away recently, among all my other reading, I finally got around to reading Günter Grass's rather long apologia in the New Yorker vis a vis his "forgetfulness" in ever mentioning his wartime service in the Waffen SS.

In 2006 he caused more than a ripple of controversy when he revealed this hidden fact. In many ways the heat of the controversy was not so much because he had actually enlisted in the Waffen SS as a young teenager at the end of the war (as had many others, with not a lot of choice), but rather that Grass - as someone who had made a good part of his career being a critic not only of Germany's Nazi past, but also of his contemporaries reaction to that past - now seemed in retrospect to have been a displaying a rather high level of hypocrisy.

The New Yorker piece is interesting - though it merely tells his story: one of many young boys called upon to defend the Fatherland (and reads more like a chapter out of Antony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin than anything) . And while he certainly doesn't try to sugar coat his feelings and views as a teenager, in the end it all seems rather self serving. Though I think this New Yorker piece, has it been written early in Grass's career would hold an entirely different meaning.

How I Spent the War

In 1943, when I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in Danzig, I volunteered for active duty. When? Why? Since I do not know the exact date and cannot recall the by then unstable climate of the war, or list its hot spots from the Arctic to the Caucasus, all I can do for now is string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist. No mitigating epithets allowed. What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly. No pressure from above. Nor did I feel the need to assuage a sense of guilt, at, say, doubting the Führer’s infallibility, with my zeal to volunteer.... (full article

My only thought at the end of it was that it's such a shame that Max Sebald died so young. Not only did Sebald write extensively on Grass's work, but he also wrote in depth about the lack of personal grief and the collective psychology of denial of the German people in the years following World War II. What he would have said about all this would surely have been worth reading. And a strong antidote to Grass's own ultimately rather vapid justifications.

(Photo: The New Yorker - Grass, right, in 1944, at sixteen, when he was drafted into the Labor Service)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tim Davis

I've scrolled through so many blogs and posts the last couple of days doing a bit of catchup, I can't remember where I came across the reference to Tim Davis. All I can say is that I'm glad that I did (Ha found it - Shane Lavallete's Journals).

Alongside the photography he also has a selection of his writings on photography - some directly seem related to his projects, others not.

Here's a couple of selections

From On Photography:

Story #2 In Ionesco's children's book, Story #2, "Papa teaches Josette the real meaning of words." He tells her that the bets on all names of things are off. She makes up the names. Ever since that book was dropped in my papoose, I've favored renaming everything. It's a way to resist authority. Visually, it's distrusting design. Less grandly, it's loving looking at things you're not supposed to. Architecture, for example, is a form for controlling human behavior. It's ideological. Try just noticing in every room you enter how some cognitive force has anticipated every move you make. Then notice how your presence in that room alters the grand design in infinite ways no architect could anticipate. You scratch surfaces. You add images. You misuse. That is how I feel about photography. It is the mapping of the way humans rename every syntax the designers can toss at us.

From Illilluminations

The classicists who write photography textbooks dutifully translate "photography" from the Greek as "light writing." It was Cervantes who saw translation as “the back side of a tapestry,” and in the case of photography’s many translators, most have been staring at the wall. In photographic language, light is read as grammar; as an aesthetic tool, helping the artist describe an apprehended visual world. I am pursuing a visual world where light is syntactic; light veering close to content. In all my work light is cultural and political. It is put there by someone, for a purpose: to invite citizens to share their money with corporations, to keep workers working, to describe democracy, to allow paintings in museums to be seen in one particular way.

In Illilluminations I am photographing grand and gorgeous failures of light to sync up to its supposed functions: Braille billboards, odd elaborate shadows behind figurative sculptures, spring pear blossoms arc lit into oblivion, neon koans to no one. I am interested in light that obscures as it illumines, that overstates and overblows, and in some cases, that fails to appear at all. You can sift through any photographer’s amassed images and find moments when the light shifts from something that describes to something that is described; moments when the photographer has seen ­ or better, understood — the light.

Looking-Glass Editions - Print #4

I've selected the fourth print for my Affordable Art Editions. It's from - Traces: Alleyways and Spandrels my current "work in progress" and the picture is "Alleyway #3 - 76th Street"

"The alleyways of the city and suburbs provide a sort of unnoticed network of alternative routes and pathways. They are usually ignored and unnoticed, often uninhabited, especially during the day. I look for traces of things - of people, of memories – clues. I often find myself led from one thing to another, often like following evidence. I photograph to make sense of things around me, to try and understand what I see - these traces, these clues give rise to more questions, and to looking more closely."

I recently started to send some of this work out to some trusted colleagues and curators and I am already getting very positive feedback from them - probably more so than any of my work to date, the the project as a whole is still very much "in progress" right now, although this first major phase is complete. But this is an excellent opportunity to get in on the ground floor as they say.

This picture is the fourth of the Looking-Glass Edition affordable prints and is available for only US$25.00 until the edition of 100 is all sold out - print is 7 1/2"x9 1/2". The previous prints as already selling rather well... (BTW, I had a couple of messages concerned about my blog turning "commercial", which I must admit rather had me chuckling. "Commercial" implies at least a serious expectation of profit. Put simply, unless an artist is regularly selling their work at several thousand dollars a pop, any expectation of profit is a long, long way away.)

Simply click on the link below to buy - 25.00 + 9.50 shipping to wherever you are.(If you are in Canada, email me at the link in the sidebar, as shipping is a bit cheaper. I will also take USPS International Money Orders - again, email for details.)

More on John Szarkowski

As John Szarkowski passed away during the time I was at the cottage, I've only just been reading through the avalanche of obituaries and tributes online.

I'm still mulling over a few thoughts, but I wanted to add these comments he had on Atget - who I think was one of the major touchstones in photography for Szarkowski. One, a comment from the introduction to the big MoMA four volume series on Atget, the other from a comment on Alec Soth's blog from critic and photo historian (The Photobook I & II with Martin Parr) Gerry Badger

"Atget, Pointing.

As a way of beginning, one might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing. All of us, even the best-mannered of us, occasionally point, and it must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others. It is not difficult to imagine a person-a mute Virgil of the corporeal world-who might elevate the act of pointing to a creative plane, a person who would lead us through the fields and streets and indicate a sequence of phenomena and aspects that would be beautiful, humorous, morally instructive, cleverly ordered, mysterious, or stonishing, once brought to our attention, but that had been unseen before, or seen dumbly, without comprehension. This talented practitioner of the new discipline (the discipline a cross, perhaps, between theater and criticism) would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much of our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from the pattern created by the pointer.

To note the similarity between photography and pointing seems to me useful. Surely the best of photographers have been first of all pointers-men and women whose work says: I call your attention to this pyramid, face, battlefield, pattern of nature, ephemeral juxtaposition.

But it is also clear that the simile has flaws, which become obvious if we consider the different ways in which the photographer and the hypothetical pointer work. The formal nature of pointing (if the notion is admissible) deals with the center of an undefined field. The finger points to (of course) a point, or to a spot not much larger: to the eyes of the accused, or a cloud in the sky, or a finial or cartouche on a curious building, or to the running pickpocket-without describing the context in which the spot should be considered. An art of pointing would be a conceptual art, for the subject of the work would be defined in intellectual or psychic terms, not by an objective physical record. The pointing finger identifies that conceptual center on which the mind's eye focuses-a clear patch of the visual field that one might cover with a silver dollar held at arm's length-outside of which a progressive vagueness extends to the periphery of our vision."

And by Gerry Badger:

"John Szarkowski’s passing will be widely mourned by those of us in photography, although he was always a controversial figure. His vision of photography was maybe narrow, but at least it was a consistent vision, passionately and eloquently held, and importantly from my point of view, privileged photography before pseudo-painting with the camera. It’s also important to note that he was a photographer himself - he knew what was going on in photographers’ minds at that moment of pressing the shutter.

I was always in awe of him. A long time ago, when I was a young whippersnapper, we were discussing his favourite subject, Eugene Atget.

‘Tell me,’ he said, referring to one of the major bones of contention in Atget studies - intentionality, ‘when he looked through the groundglass, did Atget totally know what he was doing?’

‘We can’t know that,’ I replied, taking the craven way out.

‘Of course he fucking did,’ snapped Szarkowski, dismissing me imperiously.

Once out of his office, and rather chastened by this, I got to thinking about it. Damnit, of course he was right. Of course Atget knew absolutely what he was doing. He may not thought of himself as an artist, he didn’t have a theory, he probably couldn’t articulate it. He was a photographer, he used his eyes. He looked through the groundglass, he liked what he saw, he took the picture.

Thank you, John, for that fundamental lesson, and for many others."

BTW, although the MoMA books are hard to find and expensive, you can still get Szarkowski's single volume book of - meditations is the only word I can come up with - on Atget. And in the light of John's passing, if you own the book, take the time to read again his comments on the last two or three photographs in it

Sadly, The Wit of the Staircase is no more

Theresa Duncan - one time video game designer - now social critic and film-maker ran a rather quirky, offbeat and at times just plain crazy blog called The Wit of the Staircase. Sadly, on July 10th she took her own life. The sadness became further compounded when her longtime companion - artist Jeremy Blake appears to have followed her a week later by walking into the Atlantic off Long Island.

I had followed her blog and exchanged emails with Theresa a few times. The last time, as she had a fascination with the Masons, to tell her about the research about the Manitoba Legislature having been built to Masonic principles - the Masons were just one of her many quirky interests. As the NY Times reports, "She listed her interests, as “film, philology, Vietnam War memorabilia, rare and discontinued perfume, book collecting, philately, card and coin tricks, futurism, Napoleon Bonaparte, the history of electricity.” - along with an interest in radical Episcopalianism...

Here is one of her last blog posts:

Our Order From Their Chaos

"A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment..."
--Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

(Above, Christian Schad, Shadogrophie)

Simply very, very sad.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Aspiring "New Colour" photographers need Shore Things

From the indubitable Amy Stein:

Do your urban landscapes suffer from 'contemporitis?' Does the glut of taupe Geo Metros and silver Honda Civics that dot our modern malls, liquor stores, and gas stations thwart your attempts to produce insta-classic color photos? Are your efforts to explore 'the American identity' missing that critical old car nostalgia that immediately places your work in the rarefied company of Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld?...

...Shore Thing Cars for Photographers is a division of Grandma's Attic Inc., makers of old lady wallpaper, vintage family portraits, and brick-a-brack interior props for the discriminating fine art photographer. more


Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Stray Shopping Cart Project

The Stray Shopping Cart Project - or The Mall - take III...

I just discovered The Stray Sopping Cart Project (Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys anyone?) - which is quite fun (if slightly obsessive).

A sort of Field Guide to shopping carts

The Mall - take II

Someone mentioned the work of Brian Ulrich in connection with my quest for Mall photography (though that wasn't who I was thinking of).

I've been meaning to post on Brian's work for a while. I think he takes a broader look at consumerism than just "the mall", but has some very good (excellent in fact) work on the subject none the less (some of it reminds me of a softer, gentler version of some of Martin Parr's "consumerism" work - I know at one point Brian showed his work to Parr).

There's a good interview with Ulrich on Conscientious, and here's a few selections from his work for now.

BTW, I think the existence of draconian regulations and restrictions (as one commenter put it) on photography in such places as malls and stores is all the more reason for photographers to be doing some good work there.

Here's Ulrich's comments on a bit of that (I've no idea if he has permission from any of the stores?): "With the Copia pictures, most people have no idea they've been photographed. I'm using a waist level viewfinder and am actually very close. They might notice me with the camera and ask about it. I try to say something simple along the lines of 'oh this is just a new camera, I'm trying to figure out how it works' or something along those lines. Again I'm not trying to deceive here, I just know that if I really try and get into a discussion on a larger idea, people will make assumptions on that idea. Kind of like when you tell someone an idea for a photo project and they shoot it down, well it's just an idea and the picture is going to be very different. I'd much rather have a discussion over the finished picture than a concept. I have 'found' some of the people in the pictures and they've all either cared very little, or thought it was really funny. The older couple with the motorized cart, I later found out, is a good friend of my Grandparents. I sent them and her each a print and they were going to blow it up and put it on their front lawn!"

The Mall

Here's the poem I mentioned yesterday by Evelyn Lau (and here) from The Walrus:


Today I choose it over the ocean.
Over the trees, their fall leaves
a flock of orange parrots perched on branches.
Over the chandelier of sunlight broken
on blue waves, over flowers
shaped like teacups or trumpets,
over the jade garden where once I dreamed
I wore a green velvet dress
clasped tight at the waist
like the grip of a man’s hand.
I walk towards it like a Zombie,
this strange planet suspended in time,
a space station in the rainforest
inhabited by teenage girls wearing glitter eyeshadow
and slippery lipgloss. I skate
along its arid walkways
as if on an invisible track, away
from my life. Here it could be day or night,
the walls stripped of clocks,
music moaning a mindless refrain,
not a window in sight.
The stores hold their mouths open
like seductresses, radiating heat and light
and a bright array of wares,
a sorbet rainbow of merchandise
delectable as pastilles.
Outside, the lives of grasses
and insects and breezes go on.
After a day at the mall,
stepping back into what’s left of the world,
the sunlight will sear your skin,
and the gallons of fresh air
will pour over you like pain.

- Evelyn Lau

For me it perfectly captures the spirit (or lack thereof) of Malls. I find them deadening, soul destroying places. I don't know if it's still the case, but West Edmonton Mall used to be the largest mall on the planet - entering there on the rare occasions when I have to (such as when a visitor to town really wants to see it...) is like entering one of Dante's levels of hell. Although I haven't worked out precisely which one yet.

My question is, where is all the good "mall photography"? (Obviously I don't have any, I had to go with the next best/worse thing: sub-arctic Walmart). A huge portion of the lives of North Americans is spent in malls. In fact, not just N Americans, but increasingly Europeans and others - when I was in Nicaragua a few years ago, malls were being built in the centre of the still earthquake damaged Managua.

Much "classic" street photography - as it is often still practiced - seems like a sort of quaint anachronism when put alongside the life of the mall. I recall someone on the Streetphoto list at one time was doing some good work along these lines (I've lost the link...), but what else is there out there being done? I haven't come across much, but maybe it's out there.

Featured Comment: from Adrian Tyler:
"it's gonna be difficult, firstly because every mall in every town in every country in the world is the same, and (as william bouroughs says) so are the people in them. secondly cameras are prohibited. i got a commercial project which involved photographing a mall, i thought "bingo" but the contacts where as nullifingly boring as the mall itself.

So to your question where are all the good photographs? well in the age where the "white noise" of contemporary photography reaches almost everywhere, perhaps it's because the image processing software program to make those places real and interesting just hasn't been invented yet!"

Or as Rem Koolhaas put it, "Close your eyes and imagine an explosion of beige" (I recently heard on what was ostensibly a comedy show, a design company trumpeting their greatest achievement as the invention of the colour greige - which was far too close to the truth to be funny...)

(Photo: Walmart, Yellowknife. Tim Atherton)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Edward Butynsky in The Walrus

Well, back from my sojourn at the cottage (19kbps connection on neighbors phone line - gave up after a couple of attempts. The web is just not designed to work on dial up any more...).

But, I did take a pile of books and magazines to read.

One of them was the current edition of The Walrus (a sort of Canada in Harpers). Ed Burtynsky has the cover (one of his newer marble quarry photos) and a two page essay inside. I found two points interesting.

First, he comes out pretty clearly as being opposed to massive unsustainable development - of the sort that much of his photography depicts - and rather green. Albeit in a mildly Canadian way.

Secondly, says many of his photographs were intentionally ambiguous. He wanted to leave their meaning open ended so as to enable him to continue having access to the places he wished to photograph. While he excuses this on the ground of disliking polemics and cliches, I think some of his work suffers because of it.

(He also said he gave up early on trying to photograph "just" the Canadian landscape because of what he calls the gravitational pull of cliches. But I've seen a bit of this work, and I think it's some of his best - I wonder what would have happened had he pursued this?)

An interesting read if you can find a copy - in fact the magazine is nearly always worth reading. There isn't usually too much obvious CanCon (aka "Canadian Content" - a federal regulation for TV funding) in most issues - this one has a rather good poem by Evelyn Lau called The Mall.

(photo is one of Burtynsky's earlier Carrera images)