Tuesday, April 15, 2008

So What's Good Out There?

I must say, it's been a while since I came across photography that really gripped me - that got me thinking or re-thinking about things - whether it be the subject matter or the way of seeing.

Work that makes me stop in my tracks for a while and perhaps re-assess how I approach my own work. Photographs that stick in my mind while I'm doing other things. Something you end up obsessing over for a while - you just want to soak in as much of it as you can of it. You hunt down books or shows or articles about the work. Perhaps you end up following the tail of a loose thread from it in some new direction and through that discovering other related work. Something that has you meditating on it for a time.

Certainly there's been plenty of good work I've come across recently. Especially work by some of my favourites photographers and artists. I'm sure we all enjoy seeing a new project or exhibit or book by someone whose work we admire - Frieldander, Basilico, Sugimoto, Gossage or whoever it might be. But most of the time that is quite comfortable - certainly I'm rarely disappointed when the new book arrives in the mail. The work is more often than not excellent - but it's a bit like a new recording by your favourite cellist or bandoneon player (Daniel Binelli), or a new novel by a favourite author - it's new and fresh, but you recognise some of the themes and the style and the technique like old familiar friends. Absorbing them is a pleasure and often thought provoking, but for a viewer familiar with the artist, it's rarely entirely radical or groundbreaking or leads to a fault line - a shift of viewpoint - at least in terms of personal experience, though not necessarily in the medium as a whole.

In that vein, due to the work I've been doing recently, I've probably been getting more, visually, from handling and dealing with old photographs than anything. On the whole, these aren't "important" work at all - they aren't vintage Strands or Steichens or Eva - on the whole they are vernacular photographs: landscapes, families, street scenes, farms, businesses and so on.

And yet there's something about working for some time with such photographs - handling and looking in detail at an albumen print from the 1880's or 90's or an even early Talbotype. A slightly blurry photograph of a small surviving(but for how long?) herd of buffalo on the prairie. Two young women in white dresses wading in a swimming pool in the river - one close to falling over, laughing. A serious, elderly farmer in the depth of winter in heavy coat and cap beside a horse drawn farm sled, his bright young son perched on the seat behind him. Prints from the early 20th Century before World War I, or even a POW's ID photograph when he were processed into Stalag V111B, having been captured in the Dieppe Raid.

Despite his misgivings about photographs and art in the age of mechanical reproduction, I find that Walter Benjamin's authentic aura is powerfully evident in these images. I find they also puncture the viewer in some small way as Barthes seemed to understand it - occasionally "that accident which pricks, (but also bruises me, is poignant to me), ...for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole---and also a caste of the dice" and more frequently the punctum whereby in the photograph "There is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die....every photograph is a catastrophe which has already occurred.".

there i was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother...looking for the truth of the face i had loved. and i found it...

lost in the depths of the winter garden photograph, my mother's face is vague, faded. in a first impulse, i exclaimed: "there she is! she's really there! at last, there she is!" now i claim to know--why, in what she consists. i want to outline the face loved by thought, to make it into the unique field of an intense observation, i want to enlarge the is face in order to see it better, to understand it better, to know its truth. i believe that by enlarging the detail, i will finally reach my mother's very being.

This isn't a call for novelty in the least, but rather a call for depth, for vision among other things. So I keep looking for contemporary work - work made with intention - which is able to convey some of these things as well.

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