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October 29, 2004

Fall Reading Online: On Photographs, Memories, Love, and Robert Frank

While I haven't had much time to reflect on recent discoveries or exhibits I've attended, I've managed to steal some time for reading and viewing online, and it's worth sharing quickly some of the highlights:

* Stacy Oborn's "The Space In Between" has provided some of the most stimulating and rewarding reflections on photography of any website in its limited time online, and her recent post, "the art of losing love, pt.1 : words on masahisa fukase", was widely linked for good reason. Now she weighs in with part 2, "the art of losing love, pt.2: seiichi furuya and christine gössler", and it is every bit as moving in the questions it raises and the thoughts it provokes as Part 1.

The work of the Japanese photographers she discusses, masahisa fukuse and seiichi furuya, is of course worth looking at, but her thoughts take our appreciation of these artists to another level. Absolutely essential reading.


Seiichi Furuya image

* More eloquent discussion, specifically the story of a photograph, in the wake of unbelievable horror: The Falling Man. From Esquire Magazine's recent photo issue, and a long and very worthwhile read. (courtesy of consumptive.org)

* The first issue of a new online magazine, BZK Mag, is now up, "by photography lovers for photography lovers"; it is spearheaded by the intelligent and talented BZK Group (António Lucas Soares, António Vieira, Bruno Espadana, Luís Farrolas and Mário Filipe Pires), and also includes contributions from Joerg Colberg and Don Brice. A good selection of Alec Soth's large format explorations of the Mississippi and Tolo Llabres' lomo photography from Africa are only the beginning of the highlights of this well put-together combination of essays and photography. Check it out.

* The fifth issue of ak47.tv is out, and it is another outstanding collection of photographic portfolios presented intelligently and with high quality. Just about everything is good in the latest issue, though I'm especially partial to Finn Manford's architectural shots and R. Jerome Ferraro's portfolio of portraits, 52.


Finn Manford image

* The Guardian continues its roll in producing insightful pieces on photographers with a series of pieces on Robert Frank, given the opening of a Frank exhibition, Storylines, at the Tate Modern. Geoff Dyer weighs in with an extended profile, Adrian Searle talks more specifically about Frank's work in the context of the exhibition, and best of all, Sean O'Hagan gets a rare interview with Frank, in which he reflects on a productive, strange and unfortunately tragic life (including the death of two children):

"I ask him, finally, if he is happy with his place in the scheme of things. 'Happy is a big word. My wife says, "Robert, you are never satisfied." I guess I got where I wanted to get, but it didn't turn out to be the place I hoped it would be. I'm an outsider, still. How does that song by Johnny Cash go? "I'm a pilgrim and a stranger." I like that. That's how it is with me, and it's too late to change now.' "

The Tate website has six reflections of its own on Robert Frank from Ed Ruscha, Lou Reed, Liz Jobey, Mary Ellen Mark, Mark Haworth-Booth, and Frank himself (discussing My Father's Coat).


* If you run to your local newstand this weekend, you can still pick up the latest New Yorker, which has 50 portraits from an unfinished portfolio by Richard Avedon, Democracy 2004, which attempts to get a sense of the United States in the midst of a crucial and divisive Presidential campaign. Many of the portraits are entertaining and some are especially penetrating, but as a whole the work is difficult to make sense of given the freshness of the subject matter, and the fact that many of the figures and types depicted are overexposed in the current moment.

Perhaps in a few years, these portraits will yield more secrets, but at present, as good as some of them are, they only add noise, and the worst of them seem as inconsistent and superficial as Avedon's celebrity work in recent years for the New Yorker.

For photography fans, the magazine is still worth picking up, given the generous selection of images, and for Avedon fans it's a must.

UPDATE: You can now view all the images by clicking on the "Democracy 2004" link and then clicking on the slide show sidebar on the right. Interestingly, the images seem more compelling and digestible *as photographs* viewed one at a time in a more modest web format (as opposed to side by side in a brighter and larger two page glossy magazine layout)...but perhaps, the cacophonous clash of so many strong personalities and types side by side was truer to Avedon's intent. All speculation, because the portfolio was never completed...and the emotions and repercussions of the recent election are of course going to remain for quite a while as well, making the impact of these portraits on us years from now unclear.

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October 18, 2004

Hungarian Photography Pt 2

I'll still be posting a bit infrequently until the end of the month, when I hope things settle down.  Thanks again to people for dropping by to comment, or who sent emails with nice comments or informative links.

A recent post alluded to some of my initial favorites and thoughts regarding the discovery of several online resources for photography from Hungary, done by both natives and people from other countries.  Here are a few more of my recent favorites:

* Zoltan Vancso's "Silent Stills", both the first and second installment. 


Zotlan Vancso image, from Silent Stills

* The Horus Archive of Found Photography -- those who covet found photography should have a field day with this collection of artfully random (or randomly artful) snapshots.


Image from the Horus Archives

* Demeter Balla, who has an odd and varied assortment of still-lifes, collages, photograms, etc:


Szívem közepébe (1996), Demeter Balla image

* Sandor Sara, surreal black and white documentary images and images of people:


Sandor Sara image

* Andras Hajdu, who goes against the grain of the typical romantic and documentary portrayals of gypsies by using saturated color and compositions and poses derived more from fashion and commercial photography:


Andras Hajdu image

* Thanks especially to Peter for commenting on my previous post on Hungarian photography and including more good links.  Check them out...I especially liked Imre Benko's vast portfolio of artful documentary and street photography.  Make sure to look at Steel Town (1, 2, 3) and the Faces (1, 2, 3) series.


Imre Benko image, from Faces series

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October 06, 2004

Memories of an Online Friend and Influence

I learned over the weekend that an online photographic colleague and friend passed away. While I never met Jacques, he was a very, very big influence on my photography and way of seeing things, but oddly, I'm not sure how effectively I can convey his influence and vision within the structure of a blog like this one.

Jacques and I, along with Ed and several others, joined the Samples and Galleries forum at dpreview four years ago, at a time when digital photography was just hitting its stride. But we shared photos because of the joy of sharing them so easily in a virtual community, without any agendas of film vs digital, or boasting about equipment (at least not most of the time), or meeting some ratings standards. (It's hard to appreciate now how much fun this was at the time, because most online photo-sharing forums have since devolved into ratings morasses filled with numbing, nitpicking critiques and politically motivated cliques).

Jacques does have galleries up now that are worth perusing, and I definitely have my favorites (though many of my favorites from the early years don't seem to be online at present...he was amazingly prolific). But unlike many of the recommendations I make in this blog, his influence can't be appreciated by clicking on a link and making a quick thumbs up/thumbs down judgement or categorization, as I know many people do (myself included) with the links I provide here. Jacques was best appreciated within the regular rhythms of the online photo sharing community, where he would share photos that spanned genres and made him almost impossible to classify: unlike so many others who contributed travel photos, portraits, still lifes, macros, flowers, and all the other usual favorites of beginning to intermediate photographers.


At dpreview, as with many online sharing forums, you'd see the usual posts, some good, some really good, some less inspired or reflecting the typical early photographer mistakes, and then you'd see a "Jacques" photograph: a landscape, or perhaps a detail of a door, or a pair of shoes, or an unusual perspective of a person in low light. And these photos stood out frequently for their quietness, their casualness, their eccentricity in composition, their relatively flat light, their peculiar choice of details, when so many other images were screaming to be recognized for their strong technical qualities and/or their prettiness. The nitpickers at any number of forums these days would no doubt have had a field day flailing away at their checklists and all the violations Jacques committed in the areas of shadow detail, rule of thirds, sharp focus, consistent color, visual clutter etc etc.

And Jacques' eccentricities were not mannered or calculating in the way they defied photographic conventions...he didn't have an artist statement spelling out why he did what he did. He just did it. And he didn't take sides when it came to genres -- didn't proclaim the superiority of large format landscapes or 35mm high speed, low light street stuff, or any other genre with religious conviction -- he liked many, many styles of photography. In the early days of his posts at dpreview, some of his images made no impact on people (which happened frequently when he first started posting), some of them actually elicited hostile reactions, and the ones that came closest to convention or that formed some sort of series (and hence had some sort of hook for viewers to latch on to) got the most positive responses.

But a funny thing happened as people came and went from the forum. Jacques made himself heard, and more and more forum members started to understand that he was really seeing things in his own way with a camera, and wasn't afraid to share it (in fact, he was often refreshingly and unselfconsciously enthusiastic about the whole experience of sharing and critiquing photographs). Moreover, he often expressed his own blunt opinions (made more blunt sometimes by his direct English online) about others' photos, especially when he felt there was something false about them -- his comments about technique were thoughtful, but he seemed to really care more about people being honest with themselves and challenging themselves when they photographed, and not blindly photographing what was pretty or fashionable.

It was an eye-opener for me to see someone who stuck to the way he saw the world with little regard to what other people thought, while valuing photography and community so much. And I still consider it one of the great things about the online experience to actually see people I had made my own snap judgements about, people with seemingly narrow preferences in photographs, come to appreciate and praise photos from Jacques they never would have attempted themselves. Some even started to break out of their own patterns and take different types of images, having had their eyes opened (so to speak).

Personally, Jacques really taught me to see beyond the numbing categories that photo forums and camera clubs impose on photography, and even now, I learn a lot from him in reflecting on his passing because he didn't do it in the name of "art" or being an "artist" -- he seemed very much the opposite of the type that craves sales of his photos, or gallery representation, or who inflates their self-worth based on participation in some group show. He did enjoy following the artistic pursuits and experiments of friends he respected, but most of all, as corny as it sounds, he truly, truly loved photography and never stopped exploring.

The way he worked, without guile or pretense, and forced others to appreciate his unique way of seeing, was a very positive example for me, and I'll miss him greatly. So often, teachers, mentors and peers tell those of us who create to do what is important to please ourselves, and not what will please others. Yet I've seen very few people who manage to be true to this dictum without considerable insecurity or pressure to compromise. Jacques was not immune to the slumps or occasional insecurities that plague anyone who takes photographs, but he was considerably truer to himself than the majority of photographers and other visual artists I've encountered.


(Dirk Vermiere, one of Jacques' closest friends and a frequent shooting partner and extremely talented photographer himself, has shared a thoughtful tribute on his 2.8 website -- look for the section "In Memoriam")

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October 05, 2004

Commercial and Fine Art Mixed Effectively and Spiced With Humor

Catching up with some recent links:

* Jenny Lynn is a photographer with an unusually accomplished sense of design and an ability to mix her commercial work with personal projects and mixed media to create abstractions with purpose, resonance, and frequently, a sense of humor. Her website is loaded with interesting and peculiar creations, including milk chocolate bar wrappers, the Eyewatch, and what she calls PhotoTotems.

Among her more photographic fine art projects, I'm very drawn to Personal Myths, her superb SX-70 work, her mixed media Extrapolations (combining photographs and photograms), and Soliloquy.


Jenny Lynn SX-70 image

* Robert Fullerton-Batten was kind enough to send me a note regarding my raves about his daughter, Julia Fullerton-Batten, and point me to this interesting interview with her. He also points out that she's not technically German, but has dual nationality with a British passport (and father!).

One of the more interesting things to come out of the interview was a citing of her major influences, notably Lars Tjunbork, who does as good a job as any photographer of making something interesting and moving out of the most mundane scenarios. Check out his excellent "A Country Besides Itself", and this article and interview about the series.

Also check out this small but entertaining portfolio of office spaces, and a few images from Oman.


Lars Tjunbork image, from Oman series

* The latest issue of PDN is focused on travel photography, which I didn't have high expectations for. But there are some very nice features and beautiful reproductions of photography, most notably from geologist Bernhard Edmaier, who takes stunning aerial photographs from a variety of perspectives. There is a website that does a rather good job of showing excerpts of his work worth looking at, though understandably the images, as well presented as they are, pale in comparison to a good magazine reproduction or print.

Also profiled in PDN is Pat and Rosemarie Keough's Antarctica series and the resulting $2900(!) book, a real labor of love. The website devoted to the project is informative and well structured, though the image presentation on the whole looks flatter on the screen than Erdmaier's web work, even though there are some stunning images worth looking at.

I have a somewhat limited tolerance for context-free, National Geographic styled eye candy involving the wonders of the world, but the work that these photographers have done seems more obsessively inspired than the typical work coming from their genres, so a look at the magazine on the newstands is well worth it.


Erdmaier image detail, from 2700 ft aerial view of California

* PDN's October issue also recognizes a variety of commercial photographers whose websites and other promotional activity are distinctive in the industry. I liked William Moree's self-designed personal and commercial websites -- even though the "America" portfolios are extremely worn photographic terrain, Moree (mostly) sidesteps the cliches and makes very nice use of the rectangular image in his most memorable compositions...most contemporary photographers tend to use the square these days with the theme and subject matter. For a comparision, check out David Bowman's work from the American heartland (also featured in PDN).

And last but not least, German photographer Claudia Goetzelmann is undeniably commercial but there's a spirit and sense of humor in her work that I do like a lot. My only request is: more laundromat images please! Check out the projects Around Town (selective focus architectural portraits), 10am, Laundromat, A Deal Gone Sour, and the bizarre Tree Man.


Claudia Goetzelmann image

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Richard Avedon 1923-2004

Richard Avedon, as many know, passed away over the weekend, quite suddenly and sadly. There have been many well-written obituaries that have appeared, with a variety of observations and remniscences, and I've listed a few below:

Extensive Telegraph Obituary

Guardian Obituary

Vince Aletti obituary in the Village Voice

New Yorker remembrance from Adam Gopnik

NY Times Obituary written by Andy Grundberg

Slide show on Richard Avedon's "The Sixties"

When I was getting more interested in the history of photography and some of its leading lights, Avedon was one of the big names that I was ambivalent about for a long time. Not because of his background in fashion -- this was a huge plus as far as I was concerned, especially with a mentor like Alexey Brodovitch, and in terms of giving his images something beyond the stiff, painterly formality and reverence for the subject produced by more classical portraitists like Arnold Newman or Yousuf Karsh. But I wrestled for a while with how effective and resonant his distinctive and deceptively simple studio style was with subjects outside of his well-known celebrities, and how well his images worked outside of magazine layouts.

I've seen a few of his portraits reproduced large in the last year, and have more recently come to admire just how talented a portraitist he was...how much depth, and how much of a unique story he could obtain out of even famous subjects who typically resist the gaze of the camera or manipulate it to reinforce their existing public image. Sometimes this gaze seems almost too frank, too cruel, but with some of the most famous and powerful subjects, it was a more penetrating gaze than any written biography or profile or expose could provide. (He certainly elicited polar reactions regarding his style: one of my classmates in a portraiture class considered his methods for drawing out a subject crass and manipulative, while another friend of mine loved only his harshest and most withering portraits)

One of my favorite examples of just how amazingly Avedon could work magic is with his portrait of Henry Kissinger, one of the 20th century's oddest and most emotionally (and intellectually) bankrupt figures. Avedon has some very eloquent text about this portrait and some broader observations about portraiture on his website, but oddly, I can't find the actual photo on the site. I think to honor Avedon, I'll let his words (full text available here) and the very revealing portrait speak for themselves:

" ...As I led him to the camera, he said a puzzling thing. He said, "Be kind to me." I wish there had been time to ask him exactly what he meant, although it's probably clear.

Now, Kissinger knows a lot about manipulation, so to hear his concern about being manipulated really made me think. What did he mean? What does it really mean to "be kind" in a photograph? Did Kissinger want to look wiser, warmer, more sincere than he suspected he was? Do photographic portraits have different responsibilities to the sitter than portraits in paint or prose? Isn't it trivializing and demeaning to make someone look wise, noble (which is easy to do), or even conventionally beautiful when the thing itself is so much more complicated, contradictory, and therefore fascinating?

Was he hoping that the photograph would reveal a perfect surface? Or is it just possible that he could have wished - as I would have if I were being photographed - that "being kind" would involve allowing something more complicated about me to burn through: my anger, ineptitude, strength, vanity, my isolation. If all these things are aspects of character, would I not, as an artist, be unkind to treat Kissinger as a merely noble face? Does the perfect surface have anything to do with the artistic integrity of a portrait?

... So who is Henry Kissinger? And what, or who, is this photograph? Is it just a shadow representation of a man? Or is it closer to a doppelgänger, a likeness with its own life, an inexact twin whose afterlife may overcome and replace the original?

When I see my pictures in a museum and watch the way people look at my pictures, and then turn to the pictures myself and see how alive the images are, they seem to have little to do with me. They have a life of their own. Like the actors in Pirandello, or in Woody Allen's movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, when the actors leave the screen and join the audience. They have confrontations with the viewers.

Photography is completely different from every other form of art. I don't really remember the day when I stood behind my camera with Henry Kissinger on the other side. I'm sure he doesn't remember it either. But this photograph is here now to prove that no amount of kindness on my part could make this photograph mean exactly what he - or even I - wanted it to mean. It's a reminder of the wonder and terror that is a photograph."


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