June 30, 2004
More Brightly Lit Visions From Contemporary Photographers
For today, a little more perusing of the work of contemporary photographers whose commercial and fine art work overlap considerably, in look and sensibility, with at least a couple having the distinct, strobe-lit look discussed in yesterday's post:
* Brent Stirton is a photojournalist with an extensive portfolio of projects on his website -- over half thoughtfully and directly address dire and depressing situations around Africa and the Third World, such as the amputees of Sierra Leone, HIV in Africa, and the sexual exploitation of African women. There are also other interesting, if occasionally curious projects from Stirton such as a Hell's Angel funeral, Sweden's US car obsession and Coney Island Portraits (the latter which I enjoyed considerably, maybe as a slight relief from the weighty and important topics addressed in most of Stirton's photoessays).
Stirton likes to get close to his subjects and seems very fond of saturated color and in many situations, some strobe light, which gives his subjects an odd, almost incongruously glamorous and contemporary look --- aesthetically it's striking and at its best, it's attention getting in a positive way as it doesn't reduce the photographic subjects to victims rendered flatly and depressingly (which subtly reinforces the typical defeatist pessimism around topics like AIDs in Africa). It's weirdly fascinating, for example, to see Bangladeshis rendered with such hyper-vivid color and stylized light, while avoiding National Geographic type cliches -- Stirton makes the most marginal of people matter in his photography as a result.
This type of approach can gets wearisome from an aesthetic perspective when viewed across the substantial amount of photographs on Stirton's site, and the subjects are naturally serious and can't be skimmed over lightly, so it's best to take the projects a few at a time. Moving and highly accomplished work, though.
Brent Stirton image
* Greg Miller is a New York based editorial photographer whose slick commercial work doesn't seem all that different in look at first blush from the personal portfolios on his website. On the surface, much of his work is well lit and presented in a contemporary way that (as I noted in yesterday's post) satisfies clients by looking happy, hip, ironic and affecting in ways that can move people, but also sell products and lifestyles effectively.
The durability of such attractive work and its depth in the service of more probing personal work is subject to debate, and many commercial photographers have a tough time getting the mix right -- and clearly one's mileage will vary depending on the sympathy with the subject matter and the execution of the photographer.
That last sentence makes it sound like I have issues with Miller's work, but actually, I think he's one of the few that gets it right, or at least walks the line in a particularly interesting way. The interesting thing about Miller is that his work, most notably his Italy portfolio (which is the subject of a small exhibition at the Redux Gallery in New York), seems a bit more thoughtful, more deliberate, even a little staged. As best as I can tell, he's using a large format camera, which would support the point about staging (since it would be difficult getting such sharpness and spontaneity using large format). There's an amazing clarity to the images and the light that's set up is even more pretty than in most pictures of this sort -- no clumsy, hard edged shadows or garish lighting to underline emotions and moods in the scenes.
The best of this portfolio looks like a hybrid of Tina Barney's staged work of upper class lives and Jock Sturges' beautiful young people on the beach, even though in some of the images, the prettiness seems ornamental rather than artful, so it's hard to escape a glossier (and less satisfying) fashion vibe. A lot of it is truly gorgeous to look at, even in small web sized images, though I'd love to see a little more background text behind some of the images and what Miller was hoping to achieve. (If the color work isn't your thing, there's an equally impressive "Gotham Shot" portfolio featuring vivid black and white scenes from around New York)
"Via Cassia" Greg Miller image
* Finally, Erika Larsen is a contemporary photographer who does her share of commercial work, but takes a slightly artier approach to her personal work, presenting her work as diptychs and employing a very particular type of ambient light...it's the light of cloudy days outdoors, and of light filtered through windows and door openings indoors...even when the light is strong enough to light the entire frame and the subject, it seems to whisper. There is plainness, weirdness, and even a little bit of ugliness in the many cryptic images, but with the portfolios "Bittersweet" and "In and Out", there's also a restless, washed out mood that speaks to an interesting and distinct sense of observation. It's a reasonable antidote for those who find the strobe lit visions of contemporary commercial photographers a little too bright and cheery.
Erika Larsen diptych, from "In and Out"
June 29, 2004
Street and Platinum Portfolios from Canada, and Consumer Culture In A Sickly Light
Time seems to be generous to even the most basic of documentary or street photographs from years past, and gives them the ability to catch our attention and even make us gasp, decades after the images have been captured...especially given how relentlessly corporate expansion has homogenized street life, city architecture, and retail spaces in the last 20 to 30 years. The most memorable images seem to come from grand stages like the streets of New York in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, which provided the setting for thousands of memorable photographs taken by the likes of Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, and countless others.
But there are many pleasures to be found in ways of life documented in streets and communities outside of the glamor and grit of Weegee and Winogrand's New York or Cartier-Bresson's Paris or even Eggleston's Memphis. One modest discovery I came across recently was Ian MacEachern, a Canadian photographer whose street and documentary B&W photographs from over 30 years ago are a pleasure to view for their humor, timing and quiet insight into a different world.
MacEachern has his own website where one can view multiple portfolios thoughtfully arranged around different themes (including an interesting set of images of a Velvet Underground performance in Canada from 1966), but the most comprehensive and best looking selection may be at (of all places) photo.net, where he has assembled an outstanding set of portfolios...apart from the large and broad "Single Images" folder, "Asylum" and "St. John's" are also excellent. (It wouldn't be photo.net, of course, without a few random and irrelevant pieces of "constructive" criticism regarding suggested crops and distracting elements, but these are thankfully minimal). A short interview with MacEachern regarding his St. John images can be found here.
"New Society" Ian MacEachern image
"Splash" Ian MacEachern image
* Also from Canada, Elizabeth Siegfried is a photographer specializing in platinum prints with a series of portfolios mining some familiar themes (familiar especially to the alt-process crowd) -- self, imagined narratives around psyche, aging and decay, and nudes. Platinum prints tend to display poorly online, so Siegfried has done the smart thing and kept the images small, but has organized and presented them well within a site that has the appropriate look and feel for the themes she explores (and the processes she employs). The portfolios that I liked were A Sense of Place (where the use of historical images effectively combines with the self-portraits to illuminate the broader themes of modernity encroaching on family and place), and Lifelines (an intelligently sequenced series of self-portraits, still lifes and landscapes). (Note: The portfolios as a whole are slightly confusing to navigate in that some images repeat themselves several times across portfolios).
* Fast forward to the present, where Chicago-based Brian Ulrich's Not if But When is a more contemporary depiction of crises of self, the encroachment of modernity, and the lamentable replacement of street life with mall culture. This is heavily trod ground, but Ulrich's amazing use of the dehumanizing white light of shopping spaces and his flair for composition and found moments make for an arresting (and weirdly addictive) critique of consumer culture. (The 43 image Copia portfolio, in particular, is a tour-de-force). From Ulrich's artist's statement:
" ...post 9-11, citizens were admonished to take to the malls to boost our economy through shopping. My photographs of excessive, corporate, and sometimes hyper-real spaces document the everyday activities of consumption. By scrutinizing these rituals -- ones we often take for granted -- I hope to help us evaluate the increasing complexities of our everyday world. As world events grow beyond our control, is this how we will cope?"
Brian Ulrich image
Ulrich's use of rather unflattering indoor ambient light is a striking contrast to what a large number of commercial (and quite a few fine art) photographers are doing, which is using flash or strobes to provide a particular type of artifice to contemporary photographs. A recent post from Kevin at Botzblog talks about this -- about the flattering and interestingly "unnatural" possibilities of strobe as practiced by accomplished contemporary photographers like Brian Finke and (I would add) Nathaniel Welch. This speaks to a point that Kevin didn't make directly, but could be inferred -- that such "unnatural" light has interesting creative possibilities, as it can both highlight and subtly critique the subjects and phenomena captured (in Hinke's case, cheerleaders and football players, in Welch's case, spring break party animals).
While I acknowledge the talent of both Welch and Finke, I think Ulrich is more effective with the "ugly" available light of department stores and malls, despite his more overtly didactic approach, simply because he's found a way to use his compositions along with the light to find a quiet but highly effective and damning way to make his points...Ulrich probably didn't have a choice to use flash in most cases, but I'm struck by how much I like what he's done with what he had to work with.
With both Welch and Finke, on the other hand, (who granted, are shooting rather different subjects, but are addressing some of the same themes), it's sometimes difficult to tell whether they're applauding what they're photographing or criticizing it, and when there is an attempt to convey absurdity or provide a critique, the way the artificial light is used serves to broadcast the critique with a bit too much volume. Like it or not, the frequent use of such strobe techniques in editorial and advertising photography -- for generally "positive" subject matter and themes -- also tends to reduce the power and nuance of such techniques when applied in more personal work, because of the overwhelming prominence of the style of the commercial images in people's minds. Both photographers still capture some amazing moments, but there's a more uneasy mix of irony, cheap laughs, and affection on display.
Nevertheless, all three photographers provide an interesting window into various aspects of modern American (and increasingly global) society...I wonder how these images will look to people 20 to 30 years from now.
June 24, 2004
Those '70s Photographers, Turning 50, and Poetic (Non) Polaroids
Interesting exhibition that's opened recently at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, "Six From the Seventies", featuring the work of mostly lesser-known but influential photographers from the 1970s -- Michael Bishop, Frank Gohlke, William Larson, Michael Martone, Joel Meyerowitz and Bea Nettles -- and the work they did that anticipated the postmodern photography trends of the 1980s and 90s. (Of this group, only Meyerowitz is very well-known, and even then mainly for his Cape Light and other work that came after the photographs in this exhibition).
The gallery website has a 53 image slideshow (click on "Exhibits" and "Current") that's well worth checking out to get a sampling of the diverse styles and viewpoints of a very interesting group of photographers. William Lawson's fascinating fax transmission composites look like avant-garde work from the early part of the century, while Bea Nettles' Kwik Print collages, as the gallery press release points out, presages the fascination with found and recycled imagery in the 1980s. Michael Bishop has experimental, moody color work that predates the explosion of experimental color C-prints for landscapes and staged scenes the last twenty years.
Michael Bishop image, 1979
Cornered Birds, Bea Nettles image
I first saw Michael Martone's work at the Ricco Maresca Gallery website and found him interesting but tough to pin down, and the personal, more journalistic entries in the "Six From the Seventies" exhibition make him seem even more versatile and more mysterious...I guess some artists weren't meant to be figured out easily, but he is certainly interesting and I'll continue to monitor his work as more of it gets released to galleries. In the meantime, his work at Ricco Marresca and at the Greenberg is certainly worth a look. (UPDATE: Michael kindly sent me a note to let me know he's been working steadily since 1956, and continues on personal photographic work, as well as contributions to major publications such as the New Yorker)
"Newlyweds--Self Portrait" Michael Martone image
Bea Nettles is one of the few photographers from the exhibition with an active web presence beyond her gallery representation. None of the work in the Greenberg exhibition appears to be on her website, though she continues to sell her books and pursue some interesting projects. Most notable is "Turning 50", a photoessay that makes heavy use of single images and triptychs in a way that's thoughtful about questions of aging and self.
Finally, a quick plug for "66 Polaroids That Never Existed", a funny and highly creative use of collage and the Polaroid aesthetic, which pokes affectionate fun at Polaroids and art in general. Great stuff. (link courtesy of gmtplus9)
June 23, 2004
More Original Pinhole Visions, and Tea Stained Memories
As it appears likely that another alternative processes class I signed up for will not have adequate enrollment, it looks like I'll try, as John suggested, to learn some of this stuff myself. I'll still hold out hope for taking a shorter workshop sometime later this summer, or in the fall. In the meantime, I'll be fooling around with some of the more "basic" ways to get the alt-process vibe -- pinhole photography, and a continuation of experimentation I did last summer with various types of toning in the darkroom.
Along those lines, here are a few of the photographers whose work has intrigued me recently:
* Joao Ribeiro is a Brazilian commercial photographer who dabbles extensively with alternative processes (gum bichromate, Van Dyck, bromoil), but some of his most interesting work is with a 35mm zone plate pinhole camera with an effective aperture of f64. Zone plate images often strike me as too much of a good/not so good thing, given that many pinhole images are already fuzzy (and zone plates dial up the softness quotient), but Ribeiro uses the effect in color with some interesting results.
Joao Ribeiro 35mm zoneplate image
* Walter Crump uses a variety of pinhole cameras (most notably cylindrical pinhole cameras), along with extensive darkroom work with bleaches and toners to create highly moody and dreamily distorted work. I especially love Crump's anamorphic images (1, 2, 3). More images and links to other galleries of work can be found on his website.
"Northern Avenue Bridge II" Walter Crump pinhole image
* Gina Glover uses color and the pinhole to create waterscapes and beachscapes (among the most overphotographed of subjects) with considerable beauty and delicacy in her gallery, Outside Time. (A few more images and a short bio can be found here).
Gina Glover pinhole image
* James Reeder uses tea toning to imbue his still lifes and collages with considerable graphic power and dreamy intensity...the cliched alt-process still life "look" (sepia toned/warm-toned pictures of insects/butterflies/skeletons/flowers with messy borders) gains freshness in Reeder's portfolio of tea-stained images and photograms. I especially like his project, Clue -- the lightness of the tea toning and the delicate construction of the collages give the images a glow uncommon to more conventionally toned work of this sort. (I only wish the images on his website could be a little bigger)
"Dark Star Torso" James Reeder image from "Clue" series
June 22, 2004
Thinking Outside the Book: the Touchless Automatic Wonder and the Poetics of Randomness
In a world of increasingly elaborate hypertext, Shockwave and hypertext-based visual culture projects, it puzzles me that I don’t come across more imaginative online alternatives (let alone basic equivalents) to the more creative art gallery presentations of photographic projects…diptychs, triptychs, series, etc. I’m not intending to start the old argument about the ”2D” limitations of the online experience…if anything, the “flat and 2D” nature of photographs would seem to be tailor-made for the limitations and the strengths of the web.
Photographs do make up an essential part of the web experience…as presented in online forums, in galleries, personal web sites, photoblogs, hypertext zines, as part of journals and on and on. But so frequently the mode of presentation for images is serial and chronological…so much so that even *I’m* thrown for a loop when I don’t come across the standard “next” and “back” buttons when browsing through a photographer’s portfolio or photoblog online.
Of course, the magic of photographs is their ability to confound our sense of time and order and what we’re seeing, so that even the most linear of presentations with particular artists’ work can become a visual poem. But in most cases online, that magic comes from the images themselves (occasionally in conjunction with text), and the way such images use the characteristics of the photographic medium, as well as the realities and alternate realities they represent on an image by image basis…we evaluate individual images for certain qualities, and series of images around certain broad themes.
In a museum, gallery, or other real world space, though, photographs can be arranged and presented so that juxtapositions, alternative sizings and framings, sequencing in different rooms, creatively built spaces etc can present fresh and alternative ways of seeing and thinking about the artist’s work. Online, web technologies can appropriate or approximate some of these devices, and can even present fresh alternatives…Colors Magazine is one of the best examples in terms of using photography imaginatively around certain themes (they go overboard at times, but they’re no different from artists and art galleries in this respect), and ZoneZero has some interesting uses of multimedia among its vast array of portfolios.
But it seems simpler, safer, more direct for most photographers to do things by the book, literally…browsing through online portfolios are the equivalent of flipping through page after page of an artist’s book, one image per page.
I’ve recently come across a couple of photographers’ work that present, in an old-fashioned, non-Flash(y) way, interesting images and bodies of work made even more engaging, puzzling and (at times) resonant through non-chronological juxtapositions, through reference to other bodies of work, and even through outright random image generation.
* Lewis Koch is a Wisconsin based photographer who is responsible for the classic Touchless Automatic Wonder, one of the more interesting and deceptively simple uses of the Web in presenting a body of work (and a general aesthetic) online creatively.
Diptych excerpt from Touchless Automatic Wonder
Lewis Koch diptych, from Touchless Automatic Wonder
It’s a bit confusing to navigate Koch's online work at first and absorb the mood – but the key is clicking on the *eye* symbol between the next and back arrows whenever it appears (see the lower right of the first image above) – doing so brings up a reference to an installation where the photograph appeared, or sometimes to a different set of photographs. It's fascinating to see how an image was first displayed in one of Koch's creative installations, and how it gets recontextualized in this electronic photoessay.
The presentation is not perfect…the view of the installations that he cross-references online is pretty small, which Koch tries to overcome by occasionally allowing the opportunity to magnify an image to see more detail, but the magnification doesn’t do much to help. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Touchless a lot, and it’s worth it to make the trip through the series twice (or more)…you’ll see things the second or third time around you didn’t see before, and a certain appealing logic to the sequencing and digressions becomes apparent. Found text, road signs, and even peculiar compositions and light form a sort of hieroglyphics that provide a glimpse into a different experience of the mundane and the everyday. His gallery's statement says as much:
"...Koch's work has been described as remarkable and mesmeric, relentless, and as a kind of hallucinatory documentary. Throughout his work, he expresses a desire to organize disparate experience into a unified whole to give form to the fragmented aspects of what we call reality. Drawing upon elements of sculpture, text, architecture, performance and readymades, his prints and assemblages call attention to the mundane and unremarkable elements of everyday life, to recognize these as the building blocks of daily existence."
Koch isn't using gimmickry in presentation to elevate mediocre images to something greater than the sum of their parts...he produces high quality black and white work that's more ostensibly "conventional" and that sells (such as this gallery of images), and he produces stunning individual images like this one of the Statue of Liberty...but his metier really seems to be the creative installation and photo-essay incorporating found text and images, such as this short project.
* Barbara Crane is a Chicago based photographer and professor who’s taught photography at the Art institute of Chicago for over twenty years, and is an even more engaging and maddening example of a prolific artist marching to the beat of her own drummer and using the web to chart all the byways she’s taken in random and peculiar ways. From her artist statement:
"I photograph the real world attempting to represent various subject matter differently than that in my previous work. I am interested in a super reality and concurrently an abstraction of reality. The subject matter is of limited relevance to me; the transformation of it into another experience is of great importance."
A first browse through her massive, sprawling website leads one to quickly jump to the conclusion that the website is either the record of 1) an artistic genius and her protean genre-hopping and experimentation, or 2) an interesting artist whose work is inadequately pruned and self-indulgently dumped in mass quantities on a haphazardly organized and frustrating site. I think the truth resides mainly with point number 1, with a little bit of 2 -- she's a major artist who deserves a wider following, but as generous as her website is, I wonder at times whether it serves her as well as it could.
I’m inclined to be generous and credit Crane with an amazing track record of creativity, because there is a fair amount of thoughtful photography and fascinating projects on her site. To be fair to Crane, the website is the creation of a particularly enthusiastic student and friend of hers, Philippe De Jonckheere...but with that said, one of the best sections of the site, which serves as an excellent introduction to Crane and her methods and aesthetics is De Jonckheere's long, rambling, affectionate essay on his experiences with Crane as a teacher and fellow artist. (This part of the site doesn't always load properly, so you may want to come back and try if the server is acting up, because it is a good read)
There are multiple ways to navigate Crane's site and peruse work from over two dozen projects. The most direct and orderly way is to go to a virtual desktop/hard drive and browse through her file cabinet and project folders, which gives one the ability to view the individual images in sequence...as a viewing experience, sifting through a virtual folder is a bit clunky, though. (The operative metaphor is that of tracking the labyrinthine paths of the artist's creativity through voyeuristically plumbing her hard drive, which includes not only Crane's projects but links to the webmaster's own projects, such as a journal on Marcel duchamp).
A more interesting and free-form, but also more frustrating way to view the images is to go to the site map and try to click on various projects -- it helps if you read along with the tutorial (though the less patient may be tempted to throttle the webmaster for making such a tutorial necessary). There's a navigation bar that usually sits alongside the featured image on a given page, and if you click around randomly, images from other projects will randomly appear in turn...if you want to go with a more focused presentation of images, you can pay close attention to the URLs that appear in your browser when you mouse over the navigation bar, and click on the URL for the next image in the series.
This all sounds more trouble than it's worth, and I have to admit that I've probably absorbed only about half of what the site has to offer even after multiple visits...it doesn't help that the website seems to be a labor of love that isn't supported by a reliable server. But as someone who's lived in Chicago for a number of years, I'm impressed at how Crane has taken the most basic subject matter -- snapshots of Taste of Chicago festival goers, Loop architecture, commuters, Albanian soccer players, field mushrooms -- and turned them into found art and collages through a diverse array of organizing metaphors and presentation techniques.
Barbara Crane website images
Crane is a fascinating individual as well as artist, and though she's retired as a professor, she continues to practice her art, including working with digital, and she's even found love late in life with another artist (though this weird random discovery through an internet search probably wasn't intended to be part of her aesthetic of randomness).
Despite an intermittently successful site and a cranky server, Crane is worth checking out in depth if you have a taste for experimentation and alternate modes of presentation. I will probably pick up her (out of print) book if I can find it at a reasonable price, or find a copy at a local library. She is quite a find, in my opinion.
June 19, 2004
Enjoying the Latest Online Magazine (and PJ) Links
Mostly linking to other updated sites before the weekend:
* A new issue of Blue Eyes magazine (which I plugged last month for some wonderful photojournalism from Haiti) is now online. What I like about Blue Eyes relative to other online outlets for PJ work is that the photography is presented with more size, more coherence, and just a bit more sparkle, which gives the serious subject matter more weight and presence. This month, I like Carolyn Drake's photoessay on the Lubavitch -- I've seen other photoessays on this subject done in black and white, which is a natural for the men in black hats, dark suits and beards, but the use of bright, saturated color is refreshing, and the compositions and general storytelling are excellent.
* Another web-based PJ magazine comes from Poland, Photodocument.pl (link courtesy of Phototalk), with a focus on central and Eastern European documentary photography (all in black and white). The presentation is simple and the images modestly sized (making it more typical of the photojournalism showcased on the Web), but the gritty spare, and slightly skewed sensibility of the best photography on the site makes it worth looking through (though it looks like it hasn't been updated in a while). The most interesting work on the site, Ex Oriente Lux, is the biggest:
"Ex Oriente Lux is an extensive documentary project about Poland-Belarus-Lithuania border area in the wake of coming socio-political changes connected with EU expansion that started on the 1st of Jan 2002, and it will continue for 365 days. With more than 10 photographers taking part in an organised project like this, we are aiming at probably the biggest documentary photography event in Poland's history".
Tykocin image, from Ex Oriente Lux series
* Untitled Magazine is yet another web based, Flash based documentary zine, with a very straightforward format -- two portfolios each issue, one in B&W, one in color. The B&W work tends to be "straighter" documentary work anchored to more explicit events/themes, while the color work is a bit artsier and more abstract. Mike Slack's Polaroids are featured in the latest issue (#16) on the site, and a photographer with a very similar sensibility, Jason Fulford, has a color showcase worth checking out in issue 15. (Many more images can be found at Fulford's website, starting here).
Jason Fulford image
* Finally, the latest online magazine to be updated (and probably the most interesting, with a broader scope of fine art photography, not just PJ), is ak47.tv. Just about every portfolio is outstanding this month, with my favorite being Wolfgang Mueller's Karat, featuring amazingly vivid, artful and depressing captures of street kids in St. Petersurg.
Wolfgang Mueller image, from Karat series
June 17, 2004
Speaking With Hands, and Surreal Postcard Art in Sepia and Screaming Color
* An interesting new exhibition, Speaking With Hands, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, looks at 170 photographs with hands as a subject and theme. These images stretch across a variety of photographic representations, from straight photographs to photomontages to Polaroids. From the overview:
"In October 1993, Henry M. Buhl purchased a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands. This photograph would come to be the cornerstone of a private collection that now includes over one thousand images by the medium's foremost practitioners as well as little-known and emerging artists. Focusing on the theme of the hand, Buhl has gathered images spanning the history of photography, from a photogenic drawing negative made in 1840 by William Henry Fox Talbot to serial Polaroids made in 2002 by Cornelia Parker. The collection also encompasses a comprehensive range of photographic practices, including scientific, journalistic, and fine-art photography, with a strong component of contemporary art."
The website has an interesting selection of images, with explanatory text for each image, that provides a hint of the diversity in this sizeable collection of 170 works. There's also a generous looking but rather pricey catalog available that accompanies the exhibition. The comprehensive online presentation is capped off by a profile of Buhl the collector.
Herbert Bayer, The Lonely Metropolitan, 1932 photomontage
* Another cool looking exhibition, Postmarked: Real Photo Postcards 1907-1927, at KS Art, highlights a selection of 45 Real Photo Postcards from the collection of artist Harvey Tulcensky. These postcards stand out for the quality of their reproduction, as they are prints directly onto postcard stock...a little bit on the history of the Real Postcard:
"Real-photo postcards are an early breed of postcard, popular just after 1900, where the image is an actual photograph, rather than one reproduced hundreds of times with the photo-engraving process of magazines and books. Real-photo postcards were made possible by the genius of George Eastman, who developed a light weight, hand-held box camera that greatly simplified photography. Since Eastman preloaded each camera with 100 exposures of film, the photographer had only to take the picture--the source of Kodak's famous slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest." When the film was completely exposed, the photographer returned the whole camera to Kodak for developing, where he or she had a choice of prints or sepia- colored real-photo postcards".
Untitled, from Real Photo Postcard exhibition, KS Art
There are many Real Postcards being sold as collectibles and for their nostalgia value online, but the KS Art exhibition looks interesting as it represents a more idiosyncratic collection of images...I would expect that lovers of found and surreal imagery would have a blast, and the exhibition comes recommended by both Time Out and the Village Voice. A gallery of images can be found here. More background on Real Postcards can be found at vintage collectible and nostalgia sites -- here's a typical selection, and articles on the background of the Real Postcard are here and here.
* Finally, postcards from all periods and cultures of the last century seem to be fodder for books, many for nostalgia or camp value (or both). The last time I was in New York, I had a chance to browse through one of the most lavish of these books, Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight, a book of John Hinde Butlin's photographs of his holiday camps made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, designed to be showcased in bright color on postcards. While the initial impression is definitely one of camp and cheap irony, a closer exploration of the photographs reveals a stunning amount of detail, color that makes the eyes bleed, and a series of narrative details that makes any photographer stop and say "How did they manage all that?". One can't overstate how rich the color is...leafing through the pages of the book, it practically establishes another dimension. (Online, the color and detail are fainter -- the highest quality samples are on this page...click on the images to get the large version)
As the book and related articles point out, no other postcard publisher ever went to this amount of effort to capture these types of fantasy images, and it's easy to see the roots of the postmodern, narrative based art and fashion photography of the last two decades in Butlin's postcard photographs. These photographs were part of an exhibition in the UK two years ago, and a good review of the highlights of the exhibition and the details behind the photographs is here, with some images. (A similarly well-written Guardian review is here). An excerpt that reveals tasty details about the process behind the postcards:
"On a more postmodern note, it has emerged that many of these images were not taken by Hinde, who was sufficiently wealthy from the proceeds of his postcard empire to have given up photography by 1965. Instead he employed two young German photographers, Elmar Ludwig and Edmund Nägele, as well as a British snapper, David Noble, to carry on his work. Their task was a complex one that included the setting up of the tableaux, the arranging of often large numbers of holidaymakers who would act out elements of their Butlin's experience in lounge bars, sun loungers and dance halls. Preparation and pre-lighting often took a day, and an image was captured in one shot before the impatient punters grew restless. From his studio in Dublin, Hinde oversaw the colour-separation process that, above all else, invests his work with such an unreal sheen."
As one might expect, this irresistible mix of 1960s/70s kitsch and optimism has avid followers, and there's a site, I like John Hinde, that provides more background along with a more extensive gallery (though the images aren't quite as good looking at this site as they are elsewhere). I can only imagine how amazing (and scary) these images would look blown up on a gallery wall.
Butlin's Ayr: Lounge Bar and Indoor Heated Pool image by Elmar Ludwig
June 15, 2004
Stylish, Affordable and Retro Art, and Polaroid Maniacs Revisited
I've talked about a number of photographic artists that share similar approaches or sensibilities, whether it be in the area of photojournalism, postmodern staged photography, or alternative processes, and it's interesting to find corresponding galleries that not only orient themselves toward certain genres or approaches, but strive to maintain a distinct identity, beyond collecting prints from a few of the biggest names and the "hot" artists of the moment.
Ricco Marresca is a NYC based gallery I talked about last week that has a number of emerging photographers using alternative processes in more modern (or postmodern) ways, and Robin Rice Gallery is another very interesting gallery devoted to emerging artists. The sensibility behind the stable of artists at Robin Rice is a little trickier to pin down, and the owner of the gallery says that the artists don't belong to any single genre:
" 'In 1990 I opened the Robin Rice Gallery. While artists I show are, by choice, new, emerging or established, they belong to no one particular group or school.'... 'More simply, I endeavor to acquire and exhibit work that I would choose for my own personal collection, with a sympathetic approach to the artist' "
Indeed, there's an interesting mix of photographers with expansive commercial portfolios as well as photographers who seem more fine arts oriented...but it appears that most photographers have a very distinctive visual approach...heavy use of toned black and white, selective focus, a more classic, "retro" look applied to modern subjects...and for artists that use color, the color tends toward pastels and a painterly look, but there's a slightly unusual and contemporary edge to the color, compositions, and subject matter that keeps the images looking interesting. (Distortion and holga and pinhole type visions are also in evidence with a few of the artists).
* When I saw Todd Burris' work, for example, without looking at the captions, I thought I was looking at the work of an unknown fashion photographer from the '50s...but it's actually smart and very retro looking '90s fashion and editorial work. Bill Phelps' work at the same gallery mines a similar vein, as does the work of Christine Cody. In heavy doses, this approach can get stale and predictable, but there's no question that these photographers have some very nice looking work in their galleries.
Todd Burris image
* On the color front, you have the enigmatic work of Patricia Heal (more images from past exhibitions here and here), whose painterly color prints (especially in the area of fashion) remind me of a more subdued Sarah Moon. There's also Kim Reierson's more saturated, close-up photographs of vintage automobiles in various states of motion and distortion, from her recent exhibition, Devotion.
"Mayra" Patricia Heal image
"Cream Jete", 2004 Kim Reierson image
There are several other worthwhile artists and galleries at the Robin Rice gallery website, though less than half of the artists have images online, and a few (such as the talented and prolific RJ Muna) are better represented by other work or by their own sites. Best of all, the art at Robin Rice appears to be generally affordable (according to New York Magazine's Best of 2004 blurb), and the devotion to emerging artists extends to rotating shows fairly regularly.
* I liked the glimpse of Polaroid obsessive Mike Slack when I saw it featured in Idanda a couple of months ago, and it looks like his recently released book, OK OK OK, continues to get favorable exposure. Here's a recent extensive interview with Slack in webesteem magazine (link courtesy of paperbrigade.com), and an even larger and more generous gallery of those excellent Polaroid color compositions.
Mike Slack Polaroid
June 10, 2004
Some Artist Updates, C-Print Soap Operas, and Gas Stations as Totems
Some updates and new links:
* I wrote a while back about seeing a sampling of Sebastiaan Bremer's drawn-on C-prints in In Magazine (in this post), and at the time his U.S. presence was still pretty limited. His visibility is gradually growing, thanks to the currently running Open House in Brooklyn exhibition. The web still isn't the greatest place to observe the delicacy of his work, but at least the Roebling Hall Gallery website has larger sized and more current samples, some of which look pretty interesting. (thanks to Paige West's excellent Art Addict for the reference)
"Goliath" Sebastiaan Bremer Ink on C-Print
* An interesting magazine I just became aware of: Slingshot Magazine (courtesy of gallery hopper)...from their statement: "Slingshot's mandate is simple: to bind unconventional and compelling visual and literary arts in a way that has complicity, intelligence and life. The writing must be visual, and the visuals, a good read.". (in this respect, I'm reminded of Blind Spot, which also combines contemporary leading lights in fiction and photography, but Slingshot skews more toward writing and Blind Spot more toward photography).
Combining words and images in synergistic ways is probably more compellingly done in the hard copy magazine...I'm assuming this because Slingshot's online layout is spartan in some areas, cluttered in others...the images are often highly compressed, and the dense texts are difficult to read (let alone absorb and appreciate) on the screen the way they're presented. Based on the few issues available on the web, the layout is gradually improving, and they do employ an interesting array of photographers, such as Eri Morita (whose Family Drama series is unsettling but also humanistic), Lisa Kereszi, whose portraits and interiors stand out for their color and skewed perspective (bigger collection of images for the Flash-phobic here), and Michael Ackerman, whose blurry black and white night scenes work evoke Daido Moriyama...here's a small sampling from his series "Smoke", and here's a larger portfolio.
Here's an interview with Andrea Ryder, the editor of Slingshot...I look forward to future issues, as she seems well-intentioned and has good taste in photographers.
Michael Ackerman image
* Yet another exploration of contemporary alienation through large C-prints comes courtesy of Carlos and Jason Sanchez, two brothers based in Canada who claim to be heavily indebted to the influence of Jeff Wall (and presumably Philip Lorca di Corcia, Gregory Crewdson, and others exploring similar themes). Their large (48x60 inches is typical) wall-sized prints typically take months to plan and execute, and employ a variety of special effects and props. I've seen a beautiful reproduction of one of their images in an art magazine, and a few of their images are strikingly lit and composed.
But there are thoughtful ways of addressing their well-worn themes, and then there are less subtle, more melodramatic ways of doing the same thing, and unfortunately the air of mystery and "innocence lost" that the Sanchez brothers attempt to cultivate comes across often as faux-surrealist and highly overblown soap opera, much in the way that the worst work of Wall and (especially) Crewdson does. I don't personally find that bigger budgets, bigger sized images, or Hollywood actors (which Crewdson uses) provide greater illumination and insight into the ways of the contemporary world, nor do they make for a particularly interesting alternative world. In this respect, di Corcia is much more effective because 1) his equally obsessive methods (but more modest approach) demonstrate an understanding of how to use scale and light, 2) his concepts and sense of storytelling are more open-ended, and 3) he actually allows his subjects and models to breathe within the frame, rather than use them as stillborn props for some Big Surrealistic Scene.
For an alternative viewpoint, here's a recent interview with the Sanchez brothers. In the interview, filmmakers like David Lynch and P.T. Anderson are predictably invoked as inspiration, but unfortunately young photographers like the Sanchez brothers don't understand that Lynch and Anderson use the tools of cinema to give their images life and resonance with the viewer in a way that isn't readily achievable with straight photography, at least not without a bit more imagination beyond simply creating bigger, weirder movie stills. Descent is probably my favorite image in the Sanchez's portfolio, but it's difficult for me to warm up to the series.
* Finally, Spessi is an Iceland based photographer with a varied portfolio of commercial and personal work who's currently exhibiting in Brooklyn as well...I like his "Bensin" series on the gas stations that serve as a connection to the outside world for many remote Icelanders. The color and lighting and compositions are frequently basic, but the spartan presentation (and the presence of a few interesting details and splashes of color) highlights the totemic qualities of these service stations in the Iceland landscape.
Spessi image, from Bensin series
June 08, 2004
Alt Process Bonanza at one NYC Gallery, Plus Other Artists (and Collages) of Note
The Ricco Maresca gallery in New York City is wrapping up an interesting exhibition featuring two contemporary photographers, Jayne Hinds Bidaut and Mark Kessell, utilizing alternative processes. Apart from the fine work that these two photographers have on display at the gallery, there are other artists worth checking out at the gallery as well. (Here's an interesting interview from Aperture with Bill Hunt, a co-director of the gallery along with Sarah Hasted Mann...it's refreshing to hear from someone who doesn't necessarily go with the pack of others who think gigantic C-prints are the way to go for contemporary artists)
* Jayne Hinds Bidaut has gained increasing renown in the art world for her well-crafted tintypes of nudes and still lifes from nature...tintypes are amazing to look at in person for the way they glow and illuminate detail, so as one might expect, the web can barely approximate their impact, and admittedly Bidaut's early still lifes of certain subjects (like her insects) tend to look quite samey and pro forma online. But her latest work, Nature Morte, featuring more massive tintypes and impressionistic color images, provides good impact even in an online glimpse with their size, and the experiments with color and vegetation play well off the traditional tintypes to underline her chosen themes of life vs death, detail vs fantasy. More images from Bidaut can be seen here and here, and she also has a book out. (Here's a brief review of past work).
Jayne Hinds Bidaut color image
* Mark Kessel's latest exhibit at Ricco Maresca is FlorileGum, a series of large (11x14) daguerreotypes featuring close-up, impressionistic presentations of surgical instruments (which, as the description points out, look more like nature still lifes given the intriguing treatment). Kessell's work with the daguerreotype is very distinctive, given the range of subjects he applies the process to, and his own web page is a good showcase for his work -- I'm actually very fond of the portraits, and the images in general with people in them. Other galleries on his site worth checking out are Stranger Inside I, Stranger Inside II, and It Was, But It Wasn't Her.
Kessell is one of the stronger and more eloquent advocates for the expressive power of the daguerreotype process on his web site, and he's also featured on another Daguerrotype resource website along with other artists worth taking a look at.
"The daguerreotype is in the midst of another flowering. A small but increasing number of new devotees are acquiring the skills to make interesting images and to push the medium in directions its original practitioners could not have contemplated. The aesthetic of the 19th century remains relevant as historical context for an art form marginalized almost to extinction. But, for most modern viewers, the stylized portraits of that time, while quaint and curious, rarely transport the viewer beyond the rigid immobility of a bewhiskered man or a whaleboned woman.
As a conveyor of beauty, memory, even mystery, the daguerreotype remains an excellent medium. But as a means of portraying one of the defining characteristics of our species - an awareness and simultaneous uncertainty of our own idenitity - this medium, in my view, is not only without rival but has immense untapped potential.
Looking Glass II, Mark Kessel image
* Gwen Akin and Alan Ludwig use the platinum palladium process to give beauty and mystery to subjects that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to look at. This is most evident with their submissions (along with many others) in the Mutter Museum exhibition of two years ago, an exhibit of images from the collection of the Mutter medical museum in Philadelphia which featured images of skulls, casts, and various disfigured specimens. Akin and Ludwig also have large Diana landscapes in their Ricco Marresca portfolio. Other work from Akin and Ludwig from older exhibitions can be seen here.
* Michael Flomen uses light in unusual and evocative ways to create images of considerable interest, including the light of fireflies in his latest series, and in a past series of ethereal landscapes, the light from vast fields of snow. A little more on Flomen can be found here.
"Contact" Michael Flomen image
* Finally, the collages just keep on coming, and here are a couple of cool practitioners: Joseph Heidecker , who mucks around with old found 19th century portraits and uses other found objects to create sometimes lighthearted, sometimes nonsensical work that's delightful. Meanwhile, Darryl Baird's Aqueous Humor collages are pure Photoshop, and though some have the usual digital cheese factor, the best ones actually use the cheese to advantage...the technique and sense of humor work more often than they don't. Check them out at his web site, and at his photo-eye gallery.
Darryl Baird collage, from Aqueous Humor series