Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Excitement of Photographs

Maybe there are only some of us who "get" photography in this way while the rest of the world goes merry and oblivious on its way, but I still get excited when I encounter a pile of unknown photographs - especially those from another age.

A lady came into our Archive today looking for a home for two thick albums - one of photographs and the other of postcards.

They belonged to her great aunt and covered the life of some of the early Francophone settlers in the Canadian West from the late 19th to early 20th Century. The album of photographs - perhaps 100 - had many studio photographs, along with other snapshots.

The album of postcards (perhaps 200) had some commercial photographs - everything from Edmonton to New York to Montreal to Paris. It also had lots of personal photographs printed and sent on postcard paper. There all sorts of messages and stories on the backs, along with a few poems obviously - in combination - meant to woo some young lady.

The point for me (or at least one) was that looking through them I was full of excitiement and anticipation to see what the next page would reveal. Two young men photogrpahed in a studio set-up - palm treed landscape background, the pair of them sat at a small round table, whisky and cards in hand; or the strange faded hand colouring of postcards from 1915; or a personal photograph printed as a postcard of beautiful french farmhouse in Normandy; a family on a rustic picnic - again in France - children, adults, and some heavy duty cast iron cookware hanging over a fire - and many more.

Of course none are scanned yet (so a few images from elsewhwere for now) and there is intriguing work to come identifying people and places based on the basic information we have on the owner and her life. But encountering the traces and stories trapped in the image and text is like suddenly falling into the middle of a novel - one where I have no idea yet how it ends (or if it ends).

(images LoC)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Old" new finds - Sebastian Lemm

I've been going over more closely all the blog based email I received over the last few months but didn't get a chance to look at properly. There a number from photographers and groups that highlight some very interesting photography.

One of those emails was from Sebastian Lemm about his various projects. I must say that this work really grabbed me (many would say, obviously so...). Lemm says about his work:

"...My work is informed by nature in a broad sense. Visually, I am fascinated by seemingly random structures in the natural environment and I see parallels to patterns or events in my own life. Taking a more wide-ranging definition of nature, I am attracted to subtleties of human interactions, the subconscious and physics’ theories about dimensions that are outside of our perception. Although these ideas may not be inherently obvious in my images, they do have a significant impact on my artistic process.

Apart from experiences in my own life, inspiration for my work comes from concepts of Romanticism especially those of Caspar David Friedrich, texts by Edmund Burke (about '‘Sublime and Beautiful’), Gilles Deleuze (‘Rhizome) and Roland Barthes ('Camera Lucida') among others."

Aside from the pain in the arse requirement to write "artist's statements" (isn't an artist's work his or her statement? Curators and Gallerists should be kicked in the behind daily to remind them of that one), I could easily apply about 75% of what he says to my immersive landscape work (among other projects). Just substitute Cozens for Friedrich and Derrida for Deleuze (although now I need to look at Rhizome again...) ...among others.

I'm especially drawn to schattenseite as well strata. I'm also very intrigued by subtraction (but if you are looking, don't ignore the other work - take a look through it). I find that the way he takes "natural" views and draws the viewer into them by emphasizing or distorting or unveiling the subject quite sublime, while the veiling or screening that occurs in many of the photographs also softens that sublimity tending it toward beauty in often unexpected ways. He certainly manages to take a traditionally Romantic subject and move it to a place somewhere beyond Modernism. Looking through different parts of his work and projects at times he manages to be all at once Romantic, Modern and at least one of the many postmodernisms (or to be pedantic, possibly more Derridian/deconstructivist than postmodern...).

I'm also convinced that these are pictures you really need to see up close, on a wall and experience (hopefully I'll have the chance one day). Certainly they work pretty well on a monitor, but I just want to be able to immerse myself in some of those strata or schattenseite pictures.

There is an insightful little interview with Lemm here. I like his down to earth and yet not anti-idealistic attitude where he says:

LO: Many artists want to become well known for their work. I understand this in terms of having more support to make your work and better venues to show it, but otherwise I sometimes think it’s not a good goal to have at all. What are your thoughts on this?

SL: Speaking for myself, the creation process is very addictive. The desire to create better work than before, to visualize and then realize new concepts and ideas—this is incredibly satisfying and this is what drives me. A show is an important payoff because it provides opportunities for exposure and feedback from people who are interested in your work. Being recognized through sales or in press is encouraging and essential not only for an artist's career, but also for the next steps in the work itself—to be frank, New York is an expensive place to live, and the creative process takes time, space, and materials. Although this type of “success” is relative and cannot be a primary goal in creating work, it is a reward I could not imagine wanting to live without.

I'm reminded a little of Fred Astaire: "You'd be amazed how small the demand is for pictures of trees..." - Fred Astaire to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.

(all pictures: Sebastian Lemm)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Obama Day

Crowd at Lincoln's second inauguration

Well, I guess an awful lot of the world is rather preoccupied today - what with it being my birthday Barack Obama's inauguration. I'm not sure if all those of you who live south of the 49th realise it, but Obama fever seems to be hitting Canadians almost as much as it is USAians. People up here are pretty excited about it all. So, not a lot of blah blah blah today - just have a great time everyone!

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln

(Oh, just one more thing - I've just been thinking about getting a digital camera. Apart from a little family Canon Elph, I haven't ponied up the dosh for one yet... Been looking at the Canon G10 - and then I just happened to come across this from Mark Tucker Overheard in Ad Agency offices — from film to digital (and back?) - hmmm... So, any thoughts on the G10? Or should I just stick with my Phillips 8x10, couple of 4x5's and the trusty Ikoflex TLR? It's not like I don't use digital cameras for stuff - they're just not my own.)

(Photos: Library of Congress online collection)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Totenstill - Dirk Reinartz

Last year I mentioned Dirk Reinartz among a group of German Photographers. Reinartz died too young in 2004 at the age of 57. Wile he is probably most well known for his collaboration with Richard Serra, photographing Serra's sculptures, it was an eight year body of Reinartz' work that caught my attention.

I finally tracked down a library copy of his book Totenstill - or Deathly Still - as the English version is called (unfortunately out of print from Steidl). Reinartz spent eight years photographing the sites of 26 of the Nazi Concentration Camps spread across Europe.

I've seen this described as one of those projects where the locations of some event: battles, horrors, crimes etc. are photographed but, but nothing remains of the original event and we are invited to use our imagination to reconcile the (usually) ordinary scene with the extraordinary event.

While the book does have some such photographs, there are many more that are of what either remains or has been reconstructed of the concentration camp. More often than not we are given fragments of these. And every one of these fragments seems to resonate. There are the heather and birch tree lined paths of Bergen-Belsen and a portion of one of the many raised mounds that cover the ground - but he never gives us the didactic stone facing on their fronts with their "HIER RUHEN 5,000 TOTE. APRIL 1945".

The almost manor-house-like main building at Flossenberg, where the brilliant German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for his opposition to Hitler and his part in a the bomb plot to assassinate him.

There is a white tiled autopsy table.

Or the record room at Theresienstadt, with it's neat rows of index card filled pigeon-holes

And there are hooks. What are taken for ordinary hooks in walls - coat hooks, tool hooks - and indeed, some probably are just that. You don't notice them at first. On the edge of one picture here, the top of another here. And the realization comes, almost imperceptibly, that some are far more than just "ordinary" hooks. Such a mundane, everyday thing, almost unnoticed, yet a thing that can be imbued with such a sense of horror and disgust.

It is indeed a very "Still" book, but it is one in which the tension of dread and abhorrence gradually rises to the surface as the book proceeds. Yet the sense of stillness remains as a bass line.

Totenstill is also a book this isn't easily put down.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Stasi Archives

In an old post I mentioned the archives of the Stasi, the former East German security service.

The archivist in me keeps coming across the odd article about them and I've managed to hunt out a few papers and books on the whole thing.

I also recently watched the brilliant movie "Das Leben der Anderen" (The Lives of Others) which gives an insight into how those archive were produced.

While I was waiting for a few of those books to arrive, I came across an article in a 2008 issue of Wired; Piecing Together the Dark Legacy of East Germany's Secret Police, which gives a good quick overview of the whole thing, along with some interesting information on software and hardware designed to try and piece together the approximately 45 million torn up pages of documents the Stasi tried to destroy in the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall - 5% of the total of Stasi documents. (the frantic Stasi officers resorted to tearing by hand after they had burnt out every paper shredder they could get their hands on).

Stored in paper sacks, they were previously being pieced together by hand, like some immense never ending jigsaw puzzle but where you have no idea what the picture is. In 13 years the Archive staff had managed to piece together 620,500 pages by hand (I can't imagine even trying to do that..). They figured it would take about 700 years to finish them all.

From Wired:

"...As the enforcement arm of the German Democratic
Republic's Communist Party, the Stasi at its height in 1989 employed
91,000 people to watch a country of 16.4 million. A sprawling
bureaucracy almost three times the size of Hitler's Gestapo was spying
on a population a quarter that of Nazi Germany.

Unlike the prison camps of the Gestapo or the summary executions of
the Soviet Union's KGB, the Stasi strove for subtlety. "They offered
incentives, made it clear people should cooperate, recruited informal
helpers to infiltrate the entire society," says Konrad Jarausch, a
historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They
beat people up less often, sure, but they psychologically trampled
people. Which is worse depends on what you prefer."

That finesse helped the Stasi quell dissent, but it also fostered a
pervasive and justified paranoia. And it generated an almost
inconceivable amount of paper, enough to fill more than 100 miles of
shelves. The agency indexed and cross-referenced 5.6 million names in
its central card catalog alone. Hundreds of thousands of "unofficial
employees" snitched on friends, coworkers, and their own spouses,
sometimes because they'd been extorted and sometimes in exchange for
money, promotions, or permission to travel abroad...

(the short slide show is also worth looking at)

BTW, an archive usually indicates the extent of a particular holding or set of documents in terms of linear shelf space - 8" of papers or 6.3m of documents or such. The Stasi archives consists of 112 linear kilometres of files. I'm not sure of the statistics for other organisations, but I can't can think of any other single organisation that has amassed that amount of documentation over the same period of time. The Vatican Archives "only" consists of 85 linear kilometres of documents in it's archives - and that was amassed over a few hundred years. I imagine something like the US defence department might have more - but that would be for the whole of the US Army, Navy and Airforce etc and not one single government department. It's quite mind boggling

(Photos by Daniel Stier/Wired)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Icebergs - New Clichés of Photography #2a

I'm afraid I'm going to mess with Mark Page over on the Manchester Photography Blog a little bit. He seems to have started running a little series called New Clichés of Photography. He's only up to number 2. I just took a look at it, and less than 30 seconds later looked at another blog and knew right away, there and then, I was looking at just that - a new photographic cliché. So, rather than stealing Mark's number three, I'll just classify this as #2a.

You can see Mark's first two here: No.1 (the Dodgy Painting) and No.2 (Mounds & Heeps)

(Photo Olaf Otto Becker)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Roger Ballen

Having just mentioned Roger Ballen the other day I came across an interview/podcast with him on Lensculture

From the Lensculture intro:

"Ballen’s photographs are beautiful because of the richness of light, the
abundance of textures, the surreal archetypal imagery and dream-like
juxtapositions. They are complex pictures, exquisitely composed, printed to
near-perfection — and almost always they hold some tension that lingers long
after the first gaze...

The images are obviously staged, but they are troubling in their brutal raw
reality. Ballen uses recurring themes and props: wire, shadows, dirty feet,
soiled bed sheets, filthy walls, boxes with rough holes cut out, crude drawings
cover many surfaces. Junk is piled on junk. People and animals are in awkward,
dangerous and absurd positions.

It would be easier to swallow if we could
think of the characters as models or actors, following stage directions. But
very many of these images seem too real. The characters look like they are
really strung out on the far edges of ordinary life...

Ballen is very open and generous in our interview. At the end he says,
“Do we live in a world of order or chaos? That’s a pretty important
question to deal with.”

— Jim Casper

I was just talking with someone who went to his talk at the NY Photo Festival last year. They said it was one of the most stimulating and thought provoking talks invloving photogrpahy htye had been to in a long time. It was apparently mor elike a performance piece than just a talk, alhtough one where the perfmormer wasn't really performing, rather, presenting themselves.

Go take a look and a listen on lensculture - definately worth it.
along with a god few of his photographs

(All photographs Roger Ballen)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

"Expiration Notice" - Under 35? Don't bother applying.

I've often thought that that there are certain areas of photography that were more like architecture than like, say, painting; in that many of the best practitioners often really don't come into their own until they get to - oh I don't know - around 50. In addition many often come to it from a different direction than the arts school and acadamie puppy-mills. (Some of Atget's most brilliant work wasn't done until he was in his late 60's and he didn't start photography until he was in his 40's after being a seaman, an actor and trying painting for a bit.).

Certainly a part of me cheers every time there's another new form of encouragement for "photographers under 30" - a new website to show their work, or a new 'zine or exhibition. But there's also a part of me that cringes each time that youth also seems to be tied to "emerging talent".

Being a young photographer doesn't actually = an "emerging talent". Frequently the organizers of whatever gallery/magazine/website clearly have to stretch the definition of "talent" a bit too far in order to get their quota of the "best 35 under 35" (or whatever it is) they are looking for. It's an incorrect assumption that photographers start around 18, go to school (or head out onto the street, assist, or jet off to the latest war), then do a couple of projects, then get them shown or published, get a gallery and so it goes - on from there. For one thing (except maybe for the ones that jet off to get their war in), there's often not much life experience in there - which is one of the big things that often shows.

I remember (Sir) Andre Previn once telling a technically brilliant young pianist that she really needed to go and have a passionate affair, get seriously laid, have her heart broken, see something of the world, go hungry, come back and then they'd really be able to see what she could do. She lacked the passion and experience to meld with her technical brilliance

Stan Banos and Mark Page of, respectively, Reciprocity Failure and Manchester Photography (among with a good few other old farts) are apparently of a similar opinion and so they have launched Expiration Notice. I'll let them explain it in their own words:

"...Mark Page and I are launching a new website, or more accurately, a new online gallery called Expiration Notice catering to 35 yr olds and over (kids, that's what ya get for excluding your elders from your predesignated venues). We plan on exhibiting the work of two photographers every month, so submissions will be ongoing, no particular theme...

Frankly, this undertaking may flat out tank, or it may turn into one very valuable resource for photographers (and other lovers of the medium) to engage in some excellent photography by unfamiliar names who have achieved high level bodies of work, and are currently lacking gallery representation. Obviously, we're hoping and betting on the latter.

So, if you're past the age that values the aesthetics of sagging trousers... Represent!

(hmm... what about if you are reaching the age where you are beginning to value the comfort of sagging trousers? - tim)

"After various online debates about ageism within the art world and the fact that "emerging talent" really seems to mean "young talent" and the fact that if you've not made it by the time you're thirty-five you are going to struggle.
Add to this the fact that so many competitions have a cut off age around thirty and it was all beginning to piss me right off.

So me and Stan thought well lets play them at their own game only we'll put out a shout for over thirty fives. All that life experience, technical experience less of a willingness to swallow the latest art photography fad, and we should be onto a winner.

So if you want to appear in the first crop you need to be over 35 not have gallery representation and of course be fucking good!

For guidelines contact details and general info go here to our shiny new site."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

looking towards 2009

(T. Atherton)

2008 wasn't exactly the year, photo-wise, that I hoped it might be (mind you I still have a big stash of 120 colour neg film unscanned and some more unprocessed...). I was basically laid up for some time - hence the blog hiatus - and after spending a while (do they still call it convalescing? I see loungers out in a sun porch and "taking the waters", with nurses in starched uniforms...?) at the cottage without the internet, I took a good break from it all.

That said and done, life is pretty much back to normal and I'm looking forward to 2009. (Among other things I'm hoping to curate part of an exhibit tentatively called Signs & Signifiers in the Spring).

(Roger Ballen)

(Roger Ballen)

I spent part of New Years morning (alongside trying to adjust one of the drones on my English bagpipes - Northumbrian Smallpipes to give them their correct name) trying to think of any really memorable photographs I saw this year. Something that grabbed me - whether they did so gently or by the scruff of the neck. I only came up with one set, and those were the photographs by South African (American) photographer Roger Ballen. These are the sort of photographs that come back to you in your dreams - indeed, they look like they've come from dreams. I remember Ballen from years ago when most of my own work was much more "strictly" documentary and reportage. Even then his work, which was also "documentary" (at least that was the closest term to label it with) struck me as powerful (see below). It has been fascinating to see how it has developed and morphed - and yet the roots of his current work is clearly obvious in that work from the early 90's.

(Roger Ballen)

(Roger Ballen)

So what about 2009?
Well, how about less derivative work, less work that just follows the current limited fashions and the small imaginations of the photorati.

And more, much more, experimentation; more going with your instincts, more Gilbert & George and Broomberg & Chanarin (in fact more photographers with "&" in their names); more "real" 21st. Century Black & White (you decide what that means); more critical, cynical and satirical photography (both about the world in general and especially the world of politics and money and about photography itself). Photographers, take a deep close look at the new political world that may be starting (or not) on January 20th.

More work by photographers who really, deeply and instinctually understand colour (if it were painting, too much current work is still stuck somewhere around the Dutch Masters, with Turner, never mind Gaugin or Van Gogh, still beyond even imagining). More works of deep imagination, regardless of what the photo art establishment thinks of it.

Less 10 minute instant internet photography experts, commentators and curators who really know buggger all about photography.

More commentators and thinkers with a passion for photography and seeing (e.g. Errol Morris among others)

Less portfolio reviews and competitions where photographers pay through the nose for the chance to win a 10 minute exhibition or book for the luck few, while the photorati are busy expanding their egos. They stifle so much imagination and creativity while only nurturing whatever is this months great new thing (which is usually last years great new thing) and which is quickly tomorrows fish and chip wrapper.

More of the creative curators and critics who bring their energy and imagination to working with photographers finding ways to develop, encourage, publish and otherwise showcase their work. More finding creative and imaginative ways to use technology and the internet to do so. They make good use of the huge amount of the huge amount of energy, talent and potential out there in partnership with photographers, not suckling of them. (e.g. Humble Arts Foundation and Women in Photography).

Less semi-formal portraits of childhood, adolescence and post-adolescence; or of strangers or old people from the former Eastern Block. In fact less semi-formal photography of old people anywhere. In fact any of the aforementioned should be banned for at least a year. Instead, use your imaginations and find something truly elegiac...

Less exotic documentary-style tourist photography from distant lands and locations. Workaday photographs that depend entirely on their "exotic" content. Like post-colonial postcards from National Geographic to the art world. (That is to say, precisely not Dog Days Bogota)

More photographic partnerships with the majority of our planet who inhabit these places, discovering what's really interesting and important about these places and to these peoples, discovering what is in their hearts and imaginations. Finding out and listening to what they have to say in their photography and images.

Less Photoshop

More first class open source imaging software that does everything Photoshop does but better - aka Open Darkroom (...?)

Oh and this might finally be the year that, when my old PC dies, I swap from PC to Mac...

Now this post was getting far too long, and no one reads long blog posts. So if enough people ask for further explanation of the above, I may post the bits I cut out. But note that one serious new years resolution is no whiner comments and no wanky comments (They'll either just be deleted or ridiculed in the blog...)

Finally, as Alice said while laying bare the critically flawed logical core of Victorian science and belief; "What is the use of a book without pictures..". This year, lets make a few in the same spirit.

(T. Atherton)