Friday, February 29, 2008

A Ramble in Olmsted's Parks

I'm waiting eagerly for Lee Friedlander's new book Frederick Law Olmsted Landscapes to arrive, but in the meantime I came across a piece in the NY Times (with slideshow) on Friedlander's photographs. There is also an exhibit of the work currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

(From the NY Times) "In the early 1980s the photographer Lee Friedlander, best known for his relentless exploration of the American vernacular — nowhere street scenes, spectral television sets, caustic self-portraits — began to develop his own interest in Olmsted, photographing Central Park as part of a growing body of landscape work. In 1988, commissioned by the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, Mr. Friedlander started digging even more deeply into Olmsted, photographing his parks around the country for six years and then continuing to shoot them even after the project ended.

Beginning Jan. 22, 40 of the black-and-white photographs that have resulted from that fascination, most never before on display, will go on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibition “Lee Friedlander: A Ramble in Olmsted Parks,” keyed to the 150th anniversary this year of the design of Central Park.

Jeff L. Rosenheim, a curator of photographs at the Met, said that he was interested in showing a selection of the works — the first solo exhibition Mr. Friedlander, 73, has had at the museum — because he saw a deep affinity between Olmsted and Mr. Friedlander, in part having to do with their mutual belief in the rewards of paying attention and looking at the world....

“Friedlander is someone who reminds me of the pleasure of seeing itself,” Mr. Rosenheim said. “And it’s richly evoked in this particular series of photographs.”

“The work is interesting because I think he’s seeing these places as kinds of living works of art,” he added. “And I think he is interested in Olmsted in that Olmsted was the engineer of a transformation of a particular way of looking at the American dream, of American imagery of nature.”

In many ways like Olmsted’s work, he said, Mr. Friedlander’s “really is a sight for sore eyes, for eyes inured to advertising and all the other images that inundate us.” (Olmsted wrote that “a great object of all that is done in a park, of all the art of a park, is to influence the mind of men through their imagination.”)...

“(Friedlander) likes to get behind and among,” he said. “He likes to make that picture plane just completely dense with both meaning and stuff. He doesn’t shy away from any of what you might call bold and intense complexities.”...

“The subject itself,” he wrote of landscape, “is simply perfect, and no matter how well you manage as a photographer, you will only ever give a hint as to how good the real thing is. We photographers don’t really make anything: we peck at the world and try to find something curious or wild or beautiful that might fit into what the medium of photography can hold.”

“The photographs of these places,” he added, “are a hint, just a blink at a piece of the real world. At most, an aphrodisiac.”"

5B4 also has a good review of the book as well, where he says in part:

"This project in particular is interesting because it came at a time when Lee was experimenting with different camera formats and frame ratios. Within the span of the 89 images in Frederick Law Olmsted Landscapes he shifts from his Leica, to a Noblex pivoting lens panoramic camera, to his Hasselblad Superwide, and the results are noticeable beyond the obvious frame shape.

For the past two decades, Lee’s world - as he describes it - has become more chaotic and claustrophobic. Where as before he would occasionally use thickets and bushes to obscure his subjects, of late he has fought his way into them; looking out from their prickly interior. Jagged lines and straw-like hash marks of undergrowth break background architecture and formations into mirages that the eye has to fight to see. His book The Desert Seen was a starting point towards a new aggressive attitude towards the viewer‘s eyes with its representation of the high-key Arizona midday sun made even brighter by Lee’s fill-flash. It makes one’s eyes vibrate across the page with such an intensity eye strain seems to be a distinct possibility if the entire book is attempted in one sitting. Lee seems to allude to this aggressive stance in his introduction, “I think of these desert pictures together as one long sentence, not especially one written by Proust but maybe one that resembles one written by Patrick White, or, if I may presume even further, like a long solo, like one played by Paul Gonzalez with Duke Ellington’s Band, doing “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” the Newport 1956 version. More probably, it’s just like a long scratch of a fingernail on a blackboard.”...

The book is beautifully realized with the book-making “dream team” of Katy Homans on the design and typesetting, Thomas Palmer doing the separations, and Meridian Printing, under the supervision of Daniel Frank, putting the ink to paper. The lush tri-tone reproductions are nearly perfect and the ochre book cloth and large reproduction tipped into the cover lend an appropriate tone of classicism to the book’s exterior."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Sublime

(John Ward - Gordale Scar)

John Ward's painting of Gordale Scar is a wonderful example of the
Romantic (big "R") understanding and experience of the sublime - which really has very little "romantic" (small "r") about it - on the contrary, it is often a quite dark, powerful, sometimes violent, sometimes ugly - growing from formlessness rather than form, evoking uncertainty and frequently overwhelming.

(John Gossage)

Unfortunately, if you google "sublime photography" you are overwhelmed with some of the most depressingly trite kind of pretty and superficial photography and which mostly seems to have not a hint of the sublime about it - indeed quite the opposite.
This came to mind because I've just started reading a book called Turner and the Sublime that I brought back two summers ago from the cottage and never got round to reading, along with an equally interesting and related book - Alexander and Robert John Cozens.

(J.M.W. Turner)

In many ways, photography and the sublime are a very good fit and yet that doesn't often seem to be widely recognised.
To quote from the Wikipedia on the Sublime (mainly because it's handy and easy to cut and paste from - and in this case does a reasonable job, even if it's very brief):

(Risaku Suzuki)
Edmund Burke argued that Beauty may be accentuated by light, but either intense light or darkness (the absence of light) is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. The imagination is moved to awe and instilled with a degree of horror by what is "dark, uncertain, and confused." While the relationship of the sublime and the beautiful is one of mutual exclusiveness, either one can produce pleasure. The sublime may inspire horror, but one receives pleasure in knowing that the perception is a fiction.

(Walker Evans)
And Jean-François Lyotard who is perhaps the other, contemporary bookend, to Burke's beginning argued that the sublime's significance is in the way it points to an aporia (yes, I had to look it up too) in human reason; it expresses the edge of our conceptual powers and reveals the multiplicity and instability of the postmodern world. Of course, between the two there is an immense body of work - both artistic and creative which is sublime in in and of itself, as well as writings about the place of the sublime in aesthetics.

(Julia Fullerton Batten)

Slightly tongue in cheek, this photograph (above) presents a concisely sublime experience (listed recently as the Greatest Art Photograph Ever, because it manages to combine more current art photography cliches in one picture than any other work - a teenage girl, pretending to be dead, with a stuffed animal, and models, in a liminal space, at the edge of the city, at night - in fact the whole series on art photography cliches is pretty good)

Of course, you could spend a lifetime writing and reading about the Sublime.

(Finally for those who mutter against big photographs, Ward's Gordale Scar is 12ft x 14ft...)

(Jitka Hanzlova)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Boris Mikhahilov's panoramics - "At Dusk"

An absorbing set of panoramic photos by Boris Mikhailov from his book At Dusk. (via John Brownlow). The work was also featured in the V&A exhibition - Twighlight:

"1941. I was three years old and I can still remember the bombings, the howling sirens and the searchlights in the wonderful, dark-blue sky. Blue, blue, light-blue…' Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov made his series At Dusk in his home city of Kharkov following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In it, he uses twilight to record a society in transition and to evoke childhood memories.

Mikhailov proposes a monochrome visual language to deal with this new social reality. The photographs are tinted blue, both to make them appear 'old' and to refer to the 'blue hour' of twilight.

At Dusk also refers to Ukraine's deprivation during the Second World War, which the artist experienced as a child. Few photographs of this period survive, and there is little photographic history of Ukraine during the Soviet period, so Mikhailov proposes his own constructed history as a substitute.

At Dusk is therefore a hybrid between a documentary and a conceptual project, recording but also staging a time that might be both 1941 and 1993, or neither."

I often have a hard time "getting" Mikahilov and yet I never come away from his work feeling dissatisfied. Eventually I always come back for more.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Supermarket Checkout

(Brian Ulrich)

It was only yesterday that I realised how interesting the queue (line-up) for the supermarket can be. Even if you are in a hurry, there's nothing you can do about it - so why not enjoy it. I realised that I wasn't just zoning out as I stood there with my trolley (cart) full of stuff, but I was catching views of the people in my own queue as well as the adjacent one, and listening to the the criss cross of the various conversations going on (at least cellphones are good for something).

(Brian Ulrich)

It was like turning the dial on the radio through the shortwave band - faint voices coming and going, then one stronger for a while and then fading (I remember how clearly I could get Radio Moscow when I lived in the Arctic...).

In the adjacent line-up was a young, handsome, but scruffily dressed man who seemed to be from somewhere in South America. On his cellphone he was busy apparently talking to a member of his band as they were due to fly into the airport. Switching from Spanish to English and back mid sentence, he made arrangements to meet them, talked about the gig and then- more excitedly about their future plans. (The young woman behind him was staring intently at both his long flowing hair - as he talked on the phone with a great deal of animation - as well as his behind...)

(Brian Ulrich)

Behind me was a huge man with close cropped hair in jeans and a leather jacket using his Bluetooth. He had a boxer's nose and barked with apparent authority over the ear-piece in what sounded like one of the Slavic languages. I was convinced he was perhaps Chechen mafia - and when he paid for his couple of items (celery sticks and carrot juice?), he peeled off $20 from a huge wad from his inside pocket. But as I hauled my own load back to the car, I saw him helping a little old lady pull her cart through the half melting slushy snow and help her load it into her car.

(Brian Ulrich)

Then there was an elderly man with a weathered face and a plaid woolen shirt under his overcoat. One basket, small or single portions of everything, 1l of milk and a couple of cans of dog food.

Finally there was a very diginified elderly Afghan man wearing his pakul hat and talking with his young grandson as they waited. He was switching in and out of English as they talked - about hockey, going sledding and school lessons. (I struck up a short conversation with him - his grandson was the same age as my son - and it turned out he was a scholar and a historian).

(Brian Ulrich)

No photographs, but - surprisingly for me - time not wasted. And images held and formed in my mind, if not on film. And besides, Brian Ulrich has already done it so well.

(All pictures - Brian Ulrich)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ultima Thule - Stephen Vaughan

I've followed Stephen Vaughan's work for a while (I should write about his peat bog graves sometime).

I recently came across news of has current project which is currently being shown at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford - Ultima Thule

When I was sixteen, I spent two months that summer in Iceland - mainly in the uplands, fjells and glaciers. Not only is it a place I would love to return to again, but it also still a place that has a hold on a part of my imagination.

Ultima Thule explores not only the landscape of Iceland, but he also aims to explore the connections between geology, archaeology, history, and memory.

In Ultima Thule, the persistent human urge to explore unknown territory is considered within the context of complex geological processes, over vast periods of time, and the formation of the Earth itself. Vaughan's photographs are richly detailed, monumental representations of the landscape surface – yet they also transpose this factual evidence into broader, metaphorical themes. The potential for discovery or transformation from beneath the surface or beyond the threshold is a central theme in the making of his photographs.

Ultima Thule was initially inspired by the exploratory voyage of Pytheas, in 325 BC, from the Greek colonies of the Mediterranean to the far north-Atlantic – beyond the edges of the known world. Made in Iceland (thought to be the location of Pytheas' Thule), Vaughan's photographs traverse territory that is analogous to the contemporary frontiers of inter-planetary exploration – showing Earthly landscapes that are the nearest equivalent to the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. The photographs in Ultima Thule – of volcanic fissures, shifting tectonic plates, vast glaciers and steaming, sulphurous pools – connect Pytheas' ancient voyage of discovery to contemporary inter-planetary exploration...

Islands are places apart where Europe is absent.
Are they? The world still is, the present, the lie,
And the narrow bridge over a torrent
Or the small farm under a crag
Are natural settings for the jealousies of a province.

W.H. Auden - "Journey to Iceland"

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes

An interesting looking exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis:
Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes.

I like the idea that it brings together the work of photographers (who surely have been the most prolific in examining and exploring the suburbs visually? And probably over the longest period of time?), along with other visual artists and architects.

(Gregory Crewdson, Untitled from the series Dream House)

"Because suburbia occupies a dominant presence in so many lives—a place of not only residence but also of work, commerce, worship, education, and leisure—it has become a focal point for competing interests and viewpoints. The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. On the one hand, the suburbs are portrayed as a middle-class domestic utopia and on the other as a dystopic world of homogeneity and conformity. Both of these stereotypes belie a more realistic understanding of contemporary suburbia and its dynamic transformations, and how these representations and realities shape our society, influence our culture, and impact our lives.

(Coen + Partners, Mayo Plan #1: Reinventing a Midwestern Suburb)

The intention of Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes is to demonstrate how the American suburb has played a catalytic role in the creation of new art. Challenging preconceived ideas and expectations about suburbia (either pro or con), the exhibition hopes to impart a better understanding of how those ideas were formed and how they are challenged by contemporary realities. The exhibition features artwork by Gregory Crewdson, Dan Graham, Catherine Opie, and Edward Ruscha, among others, and architectural projects by firms such as Fashion.Architecture.Taste, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, MVRDV, and Estudio Teddy Cruz."

(Chris Faust, The Edge, Eden Prairie, MN)

There is an associated book - Worlds Away - that looks well worth the cost, and which includes some good looking essays from architects and urbanists to accompany the work. In the arena of the city and the suburbs there is a whole matrix of different disciplines often looking at the same things, from different directions and perspectives, but not always relating their findings to one another - indeed, often not even realising the others are there, exploring the same things.

(Michael Vahrenwald, Straw Hill, Wal-Mart, Bloomsburg, PA)

I like Stefano Boeri's idea of the Eclectic Atlas - the bringing of all these views together to interact and interrelate. He sees the view of the photographer - often poetic, frequently oblique, to be of equal weight with that of the urban planner or the architect or the geographer in mapping and understanding the urban condition and the suburban state of mind.

(Paho Mann, Re-inhabited Circle K’s (Phoenix))

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I'm not a big fan of dog photographs. I really don't like Elliot Erwitt's dog pictures - they always seem so twee. And I like William Wegman's weimaraner pix even less.

But when I came across this series recently, I must say I liked it.

Although these are show dogs, my best memories are of the whippet as a northern working man's dog - made for rabbit coursing and for racing. And mix it with something a touch sturdier and it's the perfect poacher's dog - a Lurcher.

The Refusal is by Jo Longhurst. (She even has a Steidl book out of the same title)

"My work with the British show Whippet - a dog bred to an ideal standard - focuses particularly on the evolution of the visual image of the Whippet, and the construction of human identity through the shaping of the figure of the dog."

Despite the "working-class" view of the whippet I gave above, it's also a dog that is found in various classical paintings from Tiepolo to the Flemish school to Dürer. And I've seen a General's staff-car come to pick him up, and as the rear door is opened for him by his driver, there's a whippet curled up on a tartan rug on the rear seat.

Finally, I'd have to admit, my old dog was half-Whippet, half-prize winning Sheltie (those skinny little guys can clear a high fence to get what they want...)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Is it Possible to Make a Photograph of New Jersey Regardless of Where You Are in the World

(Trenton , New Jersey - Virginia Beahan and Laura McPhee)

I noticed this competition a while back -
Is it Possible to Make a Photograph of New Jersey Regardless of Where You Are in the World - and it intrigued me somewhat. Unfortunately not enough to actually get me off my backside and enter... (mind you, entries must be in by Feb 22nd, so if you are seriously interested you still have time - I'll even give you a free concept in a few line :-) ).

I've never been to New Jersey - I've seen it on films, I've read about the place - but never been there. The whole idea of photographing somewhere you have never been has certainly got me thinking - the cogs are grinding away in there anyway. And after all, writers and composers do it all the time. A few photographers have tried it in different ways, but not many (I particularly like Joan Fontcuberta, "Sputnik: The Odyssey of the Soyuz II" for example - I'm pretty sure he never made it into orbit).

Anyway, I did have an idea of how to photograph New Jersey, but as it's been too damn cold here for the last three weeks or so, feel free to use it if you are looking for inspiration... (and I'm sure I'm not the only one to come up with it).
"Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?"

To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general,
up the sum, by defective means--
Sniffing the trees
just another dog,
amongst a lot of dogs. What

else is there? And to do?"

The rest have run out--

after the rabbits. Only the lame stand - on
three legs. Scratch front and back.

Decieve and eat. Dig

a musty bone.
Paterson by William Carlos Williams is one of my favourite "epic" (if you can use that of a Modernist work?) poems. Focusing on both the man and the place Paterson, it seems to me that the work is so full of images, echoes and resonances, making photographs that in some way reflect and respond to that wouldn't be impossible.

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He

lies on his right side, head near the thunder

of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.

Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom

seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his


drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring
animate a thousand automatons. Who because they

neither know their sources nor the sills of their

disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires -- unroused.

-- Say it, no ideas but in things --

nothing but the blank faces of the houses

and cylindrical trees

bent, forked by preconception and accident --

split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained --

secret -- into the body of the light!

From above, higher than the spies, higher

even than the office towers, from oozy fields

abandoned to grey his spelling beds of dead grass,

black sumac, withered weed-stalks,

mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves --

the river comes pouring in above the city

and crashes from the edge of the gorge

in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists--

(What common language to unravel?
. . . combed into straight lines
from that rafter of a rock's


A man like a city and a woman like a flower

-- who are in love. Two women. Three women.
Innumerable women, each like a flower.


only one man -- like a city.

William Carlos Williams, from "Paterson" (1946)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

OnSite: Talking On Culture - February 20th

This is a plug for those in the Edmonton area (of course anyone is welcome... the more the merrier).

OnSite Magazine is a publication about Culture, Urbanism, Art and Architecture. I have an article about my Traces Project in the new issue (currently probably only available on Canadian newsstands such as Chapters - and the website doesn't feature the new issue yet).

OnSite is having a "Salon" event in Edmonton of February 20th with six of the Contributors to this issue - including myself... So anyone is welcome to come along for the evening, straight after work - there are drinks and snacks as well:

OnSite: Design Salon

'Edmonton Salon' to roll out OnSite Review's new Culture issue

michael leeb syncreticism in Yuquot

tim atherton urban archaeology with a lens

adrian benoit the culture of urban deviance

joylyn teskie third space culture

heather cameron culture in the face of war

peter osborne architecture / culture / place

shafraaz kaba modern life

peter brown moderator

Join 20th, 2008 at the Matrix Hotel as we roll out the new issue of this leading architectural magazine. After a drink or two, we'll introduce you to Issue 18 with six speakers from across Canada. Each speaker will present for ten minutes. This format, akin to architectural speed dating, will expose you to a range of topics that examine architecture's role in our culture. Previous salons in Toronto and Calgary generated much excitement and discussion. Also, if you've somehow overlooked OnSite Review until now, you'll come to see that this is one of the most inspiring architectural magazines being published today. OnSite Review is based in Calgary and presents compelling work from around the globe in every issue.

Event Date: Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Place: Matrix Hotel, 10001- 107 Street, Edmonton (
Activities: 4:30pm- doors to the Amber Room open (Second Floor)
5:00pm- bar opens (2 coplimentary tickets, with cash bar after)
5:30pm- presentations begin
6:45pm- book draw (for new subscribers to OnSite Review)
6:46pm- open forum/ discussions begin

Event Hosts: OnSite Review, HOK, Manasc Isaac Architects

Cost: Free!

Why a 'salon' format? A century ago, salons effectively discussed and disseminated new ideas, particularly within artistic and scientific circles. The salon notion has recently caught fire again. Contemporary salons bring like-minded people together, stimulate the exchange of ideas and generate change that makes a difference.

The Commodification of Photographic Archives

(NWT Archives n-1979-058-0002)

There are a couple of interesting but divergent trends in the world of photographic archives.

One is what you might call the democratization of historic photographs preserved in archives. I have written about this before, and it is the route taken by such institutions as the Library of Congress or the Wisconsin Historical Society, or the Northwest Territories Archives along with many others. Here, collections of photographs have been put online. They are usually easy to search. Many "unknown" photographs can be discovered by a broader audience for the first time. Some archives have gone even further and have made many of their images available as big enough files that you don't have to place an order with the archives, but can just download it and print it yourself.

(Musee Heritage Museum P974-185-01)

Other archives have placed parts of their collections on Flickr, which not only makes them much more widely available, but also begins to allow for what you might call "citizen descriptions" with the images being tagged via crowdsourcing.

(Musee Heritage Museum P974-185-07)

But then there is the opposite approach. Archives that have put a lot of time and effort into digitizing their collections suddenly find a much increased demand for photographs within a fairly short time. Rather than really seeing this as a positive thing in terms of access and availability, they tend instead see it through free-market eyes and now view their collection as a source of revenue and profit. Instead of being the Keeper of the Records, they become the Toll-Keeper.

As a result, not only do they commodify the records they hold, but they also tend to become highly possessive about their collections and expend a lot of energy trying to exert control. Any "unauthorized" (in the broadest sense) use is seen as a threat to their bottom line. In more than a few cases this has led to institutions trying to re-invent copyright to suit their own ends. So we get cases where archives ignore both the word and the spirit of Copyright law and try to claim full control over photographs where copyright has expired and they have long been in the Public Domain. Or they seem to have forgotten that their have always been limits to Copyright in the form of legitimate exceptions.

(Musee Heritage Museum P984-002-11)

Most of all though, they begin to erode the availability and access to photographs by means of pricing. Of course most archives have always charged something for reproductions from their photographs - whether darkroom prints in the "old days" (where I started my archives career), or for digital files. But it was generally an amount that covered the basic costs of production. This meant that everyone from a student writing a paper to a little girl finding pictures of her great grandmother, to school kids doing a class project to an academic writing a book could easily and affordably obtain copies. But now, every "customer" is increasingly seen as a $ sign. Every use is being regarded as "commercial" and reprint prices are being increased 100% at a time.

(Musee Heritage Museum P988-047-52)

Digitization of photographic collections isn't just (or even) undertaken to increase access and availability. It has major benefits in terms of preservation. A photograph that his been digitized can be stored in the best environment to preserve it - e.g. nitrate negatives or colour prints can be frozen, or b&w prints can be kept in dark storage at a constant temperature and humidity etc etc. They don't have to be re-handled to copy again or in most cases to be brought out for research. The increased access that digitization brings is in some ways a happy side-effect. Either way, it is really something that archives should be doing as one of the core functions and mandate in order to help preserve their collections.

Of course this means it also makes the images easier to find and to access - which can only be beneficial.

Bear in mind that probably the majority of archives, photographs (and other documents) are usually held in the public trust in one way or another. The archives describe, order and preserve these documents on behalf of all of us - as either a broad population or a smaller group - as well as for future generations.

Turning them into a commodity which begins to reduce access for the sake of ideology and generating profits is not only a bad idea, it is also a bad precedent.

(Musee Heritage Museum P977-004-06)

(all photographs from the Archives of the Musée Héritage Museum unless stated)