« January 2004 | Main | March 2004 »

February 29, 2004

Two Good Photography Magazines: Offline vs Online

I've been playing up a lot of magazines on this blog...I guess just as there is a bookslut, given my long-standing vice of accumulating magazines of all types, I could be considered a magazine whore...oops, there's already one of those (on the same site).

A print magazine whore, anyway. I have a more grudging relationship with magazines of the online sort, beyond the most obvious models (Slate, Salon, etc which are modeled heavily on offline news and culture publications) or the obvious transplants from offline newspapers and magazines. Some of this is my already documented fetish for the printed page and the quality of photography and design reprinted on such. But some of this is also a reflection of the reality that print magazines are a much, much more mature medium than their online counterparts, especially when it comes to layout and presentation of visual content -- yes, hyperlinks and shockwave and flash have already been used to present multimedia content in fresh ways, but just as often it's a disorganized, distracting mess.

I do expect it will continue to get better. There are a number of magazines that are online-only or that derive most of their audience and revenue from the Web, and the number continues to grow as sites find ways to gain paying subscribers and/or advertisers, and provide content that leverages the strengths of the online medium.

I've come across two specialized magazines that epitomize the difficulty and near-schizophrenia involved in combining quality print publishing with an online presence. Both publications have excellent photography and design, and a wide range of cultural content, with interesting offline and online components.

In Magazine, a CD sized (5 inches by 5 inches) publication that goes for $4 on newstands, is a model of outstanding design in print, and (sadly) much more compromised design online. As one of (seemingly) thousands of publications covering contemporary culture, it features a particularly thoughtful variety of bite-sized glimpses into the work of various artists, known and not so well-known. I love the form factor, and I can't emphasize enough how beautiful the color printing is.

The print version has interviews with two world-class cinematographers from past and present, Raoul Coutard and Christopher Doyle, who produce images in their films that make you reach for the freeze frame over and over again. Additionally, there are small photo-essays of 4 to 6 images apiece from Beth Block, Uta Barth, Colby Katz and Tammy Schoenfeld...I'd never even heard of Block or Schoenfeld, but I liked the limited sampling of their work a lot.

Also, there's an interview with artist Sebastiaan Bremer, a Dutch postmodernist who combines photographs with drawings (drawing directly on fuzzy C-prints in most cases) in a style I like:


Graciosa, 2000, by Sebastiaan Bremer

Bremer is quite cool, as he cites one of his primary influences being comic books. Unfortunately, a lot of Bremer's stuff doesn't look very good online (the texture of his drawings on dreamily blurred photographs is mostly lost on the Web), and the work I've seen is mostly from a few years ago... the newer work in the magazine looks really nice, so check out the print pub, which is available at Tower Records and a number of other independent bookstores.

The online version of In Magazine features a selection of articles and a few photographs here and there, but it feels too much like a truncated version of the print magazine. Not only that, but links to a couple of the back issues are broken, a real no-no. Still worth checking out among the back issues online is "Incognito", which has an interview with Lee Friedlander, and there's a sprinkling of other interesting visual artists among the back issues. Shame that such a hip and intelligent cultural magazine can't create a better web presence.

Then there's Colors Magazine, which is the photojournalistic product of Benetton. The contrast between the online and offline versions of Colors is reversed from In Magazine -- the print version is conservatively laid out and features lovely saturated color photography as well as some black and white, with a number of thoughtful articles around a central theme (the February theme is Energy). Meanwhile, the online version uses Flash so heavily and in so many clever (and at times, maddeningly cutesy ways) that it feels like a different magazine.

The print magazine is the superior way to view some good photography (though the photo credits are almost impossible to track down, given the non-existent page numbers)...there's much excellent work from names I didn't recognize, but there's also quality work from Lucinda Devlin and especially Edward Burtynsky, who has his amazing industrial landscapes scattered throughout the magazine (including a stunningly detailed and depressing shot of thousands of discarded oil filters accompanying a blurb on the impact of oil leaked from cars and aircraft).

But the online version of Colors has its own unique ways of presenting its big themes, which include violence, slums, slavery and prisons. Colors' web site has a very comprehensive archive section and the recent issues are especially worth going through -- whatever the site loses in terms of the individual impact of the images is more than made up for by the combination of text and images in all sorts of innovative ways. I enjoyed the issues profiling the City of Birmingham and the "Photo Studio" issue, which focuses on portraiture studios around the globe.


Layout from "Slums" feature in online version of Colors Magazine.

So check out the online versions of Colors Magazine and In Magazine, and pick up an issue of In if you see it in a bookstore, and if you like good design and contemporary photography (and visual arts generally). And speaking of good online stuff, if you haven't seen the images of Edward Burtynsky or Lucinda Devlin, there's a good selection on the web beyond what they're most well known for -- Devlin's work on capital punishment (the Omega series) has earned well-deserved praise and is required viewing, but her series "The Pleasure Ground" featuring various recreational interiors (casinos, spas, bookstores, etc) is also worth seeing. Both photographers use color in striking ways to address real issues, and whether viewed on the web, on the printed page, or in a gallery, the best images, with their emptiness, subtle color, and damning detail, have quite an impact.


"Jules Under Sea Lodge" by Lucinda Devlin.

11:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 26, 2004

Putting the City Back in NYC (and elsewhere)

I enjoy a fair number of photoblogs out there, and I keep meaning to discuss some of my favorites in more detail...but the sheer number that can be sampled is overwhelming, as one can see at photoblogs.org. Though quantity hardly makes for quality, it's impressive how many interesting variants on the daily image there are out there.

I've got some early favorites (among several) listed on the sidebar, but here's a shout out for two photoblogs that happen to hit my sweet spot these days, especially with my recent trip to New York, and my concerns about the increasing homogenization of urban areas everywhere: Quarlo and Artcoup. The auteurs behind both photoblogs happen to be based in New York, though in the case of Artcoup, his street imagery spans the globe, though a fair number of his images center around street life in the rougher areas and subcultures of New York.

You couldn't find two more diametrically opposed approaches: quarlo makes heavy use of crossprocessed color, funky light, and imaginative compositions to make street art, while Boogie at Artcoup has a rawer, grittier, very in your face style that employs black and white exclusively. I had bookmarked quarlo a while back (his photoblog has always been one of the most popular in the web photoblogging community), but he hadn't posted for quite a while...thankfully, the last three weeks have generated a fresh set of images, and they're worth the wait. I haven't been able to quite pin down yet what makes quarlo's images worth tracking down consistently, but I think it's the heartbeat behind all the technique that comes through...he has a real eye and vision running through all his images, which is no easy thing to come by in a place as overphotographed as New York.

Artcoup, just to warn people, is not for the faint of heart...there's not any gratuitous nudity or violence to shock for the sake of shock, but Boogie likes to let his subjects do the talking for the camera and doesn't editorialize with his imagery in any overt way...this ostensibly neutral approach to some of his subjects may rub some the wrong way. Personally, I see a lot of compelling imagery and true feeling amidst the rawness...this is the part of cities that tourist bureaus and city mayors want to wish away, and Boogie captures much of it with passion. And this sensitivity extends beyond New York to citizens of Cuba, gypsies and even skinheads and crackheads.

Technical wizardry is hardly the main reason to visit these photoblogs, but I should note that quarlo's use of crossprocessing is some of the best I've seen out there on the web...whether he has a particular film/development combination that works well, or whether he employs some digital manipulation afterward, is unclear. I mention this only because one of the most popular searches leading to my site is crossprocessing, as I've discussed the methods of crossprocessing film in a couple of early posts. Anyone interested who's landed here should definitely go to his site...and then throw away the consideration of technical details after a few minutes, and just enjoy the images.


Crossprocessed image, Fuji Sensia 200 slide film developed as C-41.

02:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 25, 2004

Two (or three) Takes on Contemporary Portraiture

Today, I thought I'd be linking innocuously to some online magazines of note...since I know I've been fixated on offline publications, and harping on the problematic nature of viewing images online. I've gotten a couple of thoughtful emails indicating that online options can be pretty good, and I do plan to respond to those..

But I read two articles today that reflected on the state of contemporary portraiture, and came across two different approaches from contemporary artists, Elina Brotherus and Loretta Lux, that got me thinking. What stimulated my thinking, in particular, was an outstanding essay by William Ewing in the current issue of Next Level (an UK based photography journal).

An excerpt:

"Traditionally in photography, as in popular culture, the face has been considered the primary site and marker of individual identity. The photographer Paul Graham recently summed up this deeply rooted belief when he defined portraiture as 'one of the most profound things that one can do...to simply and truly see someone, and express their sentience. To reflect the inner self through external appearance.'

The new 'face' photography contests this assumption: 'simply and truly' is seen as touchingly naive. They dismiss as myth the belief (fervent though it is) that a successful portrait captures or reveals the essence, the inner being -- the soul of the subject. Moreover, they take issue with the idea that a portrait is, by definition, a credible likeness of an individual; they are too aware of the range of manipulative procedures that stand between the subject and the image. While it is true that manipulation has always been a factor in portraiture, the computer has made seamless manipulation easy, fast and cheap, and home, as well as office-based -- in other words, universal. Doubt is everywhere apparent: Iraqis scorn the pictures of Saddam's sons as 'American fabrications'; Americans scoff at pictures of Saddam during the war - 'body doubles'. Cynicism is standard fare for produces and consumers of images....

...the producers of the new 'face imagery' (for want of a better term, any term must encompass photographers and artists that use the camera) construct their work in a spirit of scepticism, founded on a belief that illusions and falsehoods (or rather half-truths and half-lies) abound. They have broken with the faith, so to speak, of 'conventional face value'. As Baudrillard has put it, 'photography is our exorcism; primitive society has its masks, bourgeois society had its mirrors, we have our images."


Elina Brotherus, Suite Francaises 2

There are all so many ways this discussion could be extended, and indeed, it stimulated my thoughts because of the journey I've taken myself in terms of the portraiture I engage in, and the portraits I tend to admire these days. My early portraiture professors had a very classical style that guided them in their instruction, heavily influenced by Yousuf Karsh and Arnold Newman, and old Masters in painting...it was all about beautiful light and flattering the subject as much as possible... while engaging the subject in order to get at some "essence" (as the article above indicates).

Other teachers I've had, though, along with more exposure to contemporary photography and art (not to mention the bombardment of images in mainstream news and celebrity culture) have made me more aware of the limitations of such classical approaches, and I tend to apply a more postmodern reading these days to images of people. I still enjoy classically done portraits for particular subjects, but it's possible to engage people in different ways to produce different types of portraits...and yes, with the best contemporary portraitists, it is possible to enjoy the different levels a portrait operates at -- the way it can provide insights about subject, photographer, relationship between the two, and the image-making process generally-- and this enjoyment can happen on an intellectual *and* emotional level.


Elina Brotherus, Self-Portrait

Featured in the same issue of Next Level are the images of Elina Brotherus, a Finnish photographer who achieved recognition early in her career for her interestingly romantic, yet distanced self-portraits documenting different stages of her life (marriage, divorce, learning French, not wanting sex). Her early self-portraits were more "in the tradition" of self-portraiture that is raw and revealing, but as she has progressed in her career, she's combined her self-portraits with abstract landscapes and photographs of interiors to add other dimensions to her portraiture reflecting her concerns as an outsider in different countries.

Brotherus' latest project, The New Painting, is actually less about direct portraiture, and more about the relationship between photography and painting and between people and the landscape...she positions subjects within vast landscapes and makes witty allusions to modernist and surrealist paintings.

The connections between painting and photography are significant and unfortunately, can be often overdone. Which brings us to Loretta Lux, who has gained significant cachet in the contemporary photography world with her weird and wonderfully compelling manipulated portraits of children. Lux's style didn't really grab me at first when I saw it online, as I have a rather ingrained skepticism of digitally manipulated work, but she was one of the few contemporary photographers to earn significant buzz at AIPAD, and upon viewing the actual prints, I could see why. Lux employs a light touch with her digital manipulation, her background in painting definitely shows (in a good way), and at times, it doesn't even seem like anything has been done.


Lois No. 1 by Loretta Lux

There's a fine article in the current Village Voice by Vince Aletti on Lux's current exhibition at the Yossi Milo Gallery. An excerpt:

"Compared to the elaborate manipulation involved in Jeff Wall's, Nick Knight's, or Yasumasa Morimura's work, Lux's computer-enhanced images are modest, and that's part of their appeal. With their solitary, doll-like figures and simple settings, they deliver an immediate hit of pleasure, but just as quickly undermine it. The longer you look at Lux's photos, the more uncomfortable you become. These lovely, grave children, with their porcelain skin and vintage clothing, are as hollow and idealized as automatons. Strangers in a strange land (whose model citizen might be Haley Joel Osment's helplessly anxious android in A.I.), they're all the more unsettling for being so familiar, so unassuming, and so lost."

Which I think cuts to the heart of what makes the best contemporary portraiture so worthwhile...the ability to keep you looking, to invoke pleasure, and yet to imply or suggest distance, unknown spaces, and to invoke questions. Of course, with other contemporary portraits, the equation is sometimes turned on its head...it's not pleasure, but revulsion that's provoked at first when certain subjects or subcultures are captured, but a certain kind of beauty then starts to creep in with repeated viewings.

Many have made the connection between Loretta Lux and Rineke Djikstra (including Joerg at Conscientious last year), because both combine an eye for the vulnerabilities in their subjects with a more distanced (but not cold) observational approach. I haven't seen a really good collection of Djikstra's work on the Web in one place (it seems to be scattered in multiple places), but the latest issue of ARTnews on the newstand has a very good profile on her.

Whatever one thinks about the art market and postmodern portraiture generally, there's something in the peculiar distance of Brotherus (even at her most emotional) from her environment in her self-portraits, and in the empathy and observational intensity of Lux's and Djikstra's portraits, that turns heads in unexpected ways. In the case of Lux and Djikstra, the results are certainly ringing big bells at cash registers with art collectors...and more importantly, they're also gripping people who normally don't give a thought to portraiture in general, documentary, postmodern or otherwise.


Coney Island, N.Y., USA, July 9, 1993, by Rineke Djikstra

02:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 23, 2004

Emerging Photographers and the Pursuit of Glory Pt 1

My apologies for being offline a little longer than I would have liked...apart from being busy with some unanticipated things, I've been trying to set up a wireless network at home with multiple operating systems...a bit of challenge for me which, needless to say, makes photography seem like a walk in the park by comparison...

Anyway, when I wasn't online reading various tutorials and tech support documents, or spending time on the phone with a tech support person, I was jumping around between various online and offline sources of photographic creativity, commercial and artistic. The theme that suggested itself after a few hours (and days) of frequently interrupted browsing was that of prolific creativity (raw and polished) and passionate personal projects... coming from "emerging" photographers out there shooting fashion, advertising, photojournalism, fine art, or just shooting for themselves. But the balance between nurturing that creativity and making a buck and a name for yourself seems a pretty tenuous balance, and it doesn't seem to favor the photographer too much...at least not financially nor in terms of fame.

I'm not even talking about the photographers regularly linked to by my esteemed online blogging colleagues at Conscientious, flux+mutability, pretty serendipities or defocused...many of the photographers featured on these sites have sophisticated web sites built with flash, representation with a gallery, and several big commercial shoots under their belt for multinational corporations. Though they may not be household names in the US or globally (few photographers are), they've reached a certain tier or level that gets their name and work circulated widely (or at least they market themselves effectively to appear that way).

But there seems to be a considerably larger subculture of photographers that plug along with personal projects and yes, quality commercial work too...but don't necessarily have the cachet of some of the trendier names of the moment. Or they've had their moment in the sun (a big gallery show, features in several magazines, a limited run book, etc), and are trying to get back in the limelight. Or they have a more country-specific or region-specific appeal, or fill some other aesthetic/commercial niche. These names don't show up when we're browsing through photography, fashion, and news magazines, or when we take a trip to museums and galleries, or even when we pick up a specialist photography magazine...or if they do, their stay is very brief, and they leave our memory quickly.

Of course, one could argue that this is the case for most artists, but photography is particularly fascinating because it's a medium where significant bodies of work can be generated more rapidly, and are ostensibly generated in greater quantities and for different commercial and artistic purposes...there are boatloads of anonymous sculptors and painters out there as well, but probably many more photographers with stacks of images pursuing multiple worthwhile projects.

Would a better comparison would be the endless variety of musicians out there cranking out songs and albums in anonymity, just as talented photographers crank out the images? Maybe, maybe not. Music, whether classical, jazz or pop, is an art form, but it's also a consumer object and commodity that lends itself better to sampling, to widespread distribution and to quick aesthetic appreciation than photography...in short, it's a better consumer object and fetish object around which significant subcultures can be built, relative to photography, even though the web benefits both art forms in providing access to a wider range of work.

The increasing digitization of images renders them equal to music in terms of audience access, hypothetically speaking, but many aspects of photography suffer from the translation to the web (most especially fine arts black and white images and almost anything done in large format). And of course, the fear of piracy that's plagued the music business renders many photographers and agencies equally unwilling to share their images in anything more than a thumbnail view online...though this is changing, and gradually younger photographers are becoming more comfortable with the web as a medium for displaying their work. But still, the gallery, the photography book, and the (well produced) glossy magazine are the best venues for appreciating quality photography...which leaves out of view a large range of potentially interesting photographers who can't crack these venues.

I reflect on all this as I perused a couple of thick, expensive, glossy but far from mainstream print magazines in Doingbird Magazine and Pictured Magazine. Pictured Magazine is a British publication with a commercial focus that aims to showcase creativity from photography professionals around the world. You can see a sampling of images from their most recent issue on their website, but what distinguishes this magazine (besides its intelligent selection of worthwhile commercial images) is its writing and features.


Articles of note in the current magazine are a feature on the commercial German photography market and a feature on Nadav Kander, one of the more interesting commercial and fine art photographers out there. (There's also a short piece on the cult of Lomo photography, though perhaps it's just as well it's not online, as it casts a skeptical eye on the Lomo aesthetic).

I find Pictured fascinating and a good survey of what's going on with photography from a commercial perspective, but I also find it frustrating because it reduces many good photographers to their latest commercial projects... a few serviceable images reproduced in their accounting of a Diesel, New Balance or other advertiser campaign. Only the feature on Kander has space to put his fine arts work and commercial work in some sort of perspective, and provides the right amount of quality imagery to get a sense of the photographer and the artist.

And when I want to find out more about what some of the other featured photographers are doing on their own? Well, ideally, the web comes to the rescue here, and in the case of some of the more well-known artists in the latest issue of Pictured (Sam Taylor-Wood, Craig McDean), there are reasonable online resources (it helps if you've shot Madonna, like McDean has). But for interesting photographers I'd never encountered before, like Leonora Hamill or Thirza Schaap, it can be frustrating to find little to nothing...when I checked Hamill's page, all the image links were broken. Hamill's work intrigues me, as it features large format color portraits of people (subtly staged) and their favorite novels.


Color portrait by Leonora Hamill.

Hamill is part of a worthwhile "Underexposed" series in the center of Pictured magazine, which also features the emotional landscapes of Spencer Murphy, who views much of his work as self-portraits of a sort. He at least has done well with his website (particularly the "Landscapes" section), even though the images are a bit on the small side, and don't project their air of mystery online nearly as well as they do on the printed page.

Then you have Doingbird magazine, an Australian fashion magazine that is nearly 300 pages of fashion portfolios from a wide variety of photographers, some with cachet (notably Terry Richardson) and many I'd never heard of. I admit it could be my US-centric myopia that makes these names unfamiliar to me, but a search online didn't dig up much more information on many of the interesting contributors.

Doingbird's 7th issue is a fabulous survey of current fashion photography, and it is much more adventurous than the vast majority of magazines out there, for better or worse. A lot of the photography featured contains beautiful subjects but is far from conventionally "beautiful"...there's grain, weird color, off-kilter compositions, blur, and a complete absence of models or people in general in some of the images. Among the highlights are Rachael Cassells' almost retro use of pushed color film to produce atmospheric grain in her nighttime images, Christophe Cufos' very flatly toned sepia fashion model portraits, and Coppi Barbieri's use of hypersaturated color to juxtapose macros of bugs with fashion model detail (no kidding)...here's an example of a layout:


Coppi Barbieri layout, from Doingbird #7.

Both Barbieri and Keetja Allard, another interesting contributor, have their entire Doingbird portfolios online, and though they're diminished from the high quality printing of the magazine (especially Barbieri's), they're still worth checking out. (Allard does have one of the slicker flash websites around, along with a nice background music mix...but of course this has nothing to do with good photography, though it doesn't hurt)

Finally, the latest issue of Doingbird gave me the chance to gain a new appreciation for the work of Collier Schorr, a more hyped photographer in the New York art circuit who's even featured on PBS' Art in the 21st century series. Her most notable projects have profiled German soldiers (photographing them in the German landscape), and currently she has an exhibition at New York's 303 Gallery featuring images of high school wrestlers.

Schorr's portraits of soldiers and wrestlers seem noble enough at first glance (if a little pro forma), but her Doingbird fashion spread, which features one pretty young preppy Caucasian male after another, dressed in Calvin Klein, Prada, Hilfiger and other designer labels, perversely converted me to her way of seeing...and believe me, preppy fashion spreads are no favorites of mine generally. But she's got a way of bathing these pretty boys in romantic light and oddly saturated Egglestonian color that puts them on an peculiarly distanced pedestal for worship...she has a way of fetishizing masculinity yet inviting questions about it at the same time.


Collier Schorr, Overhead (cornfield) from Forests and Fields

I'm not sure how compelling Schorr's wrestling images will be, based on the limited online view, but she's someone I'm going to pay more attention to. At least she has the benefit of the hype. There seem to be many more photographers, though, who have nothing more than talent and ambition, and who warrant attention. All one can do, I guess, is look out online and offline for their work, and hope these photographers can make increasingly creative use of the online medium to show off their projects and their artistry, limitations of the web be damned. This is a discussion that has many more dimensions to it...and I'll continue the discussion and revisit some of these themes in future posts.

01:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 19, 2004

Times Square In and Out of Focus

My weekend in New York City was great fun, if a little tiring, and I've already discussed some of the highlights. I spent some time idling in Times Square Saturday evening, which has become quite the tourist trap, and played with soft focus to give a different feel to what I was seeing. (It sure helped to be using a lens with paper thin depth of field). Here's a casual photo essay documenting the sights...thanks to Mike at sublimate and Antonio at defocused for the ideas and inspiration.


And the story continues...







12:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

February 18, 2004

Deborah Luster's One Big Self

One of the highlights of the recently concluded AIPAD show in New York City was the opportunity to meet Deborah Luster, the author of one of last year's best photography books, One Big Self, a book that made at least a couple of critics' top photography book lists of 2003.

Before I even met Luster, though, I first encountered her work not at AIPAD, but at the Whitney Museum, which had a small but rich gallery of photographic portraits from their permanent collection being exhibited in the mezzanine area. Photographers whose work was being exhibited included Irving Penn, Nicholas Nixon, Sally Mann, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and Chuck Close. Roughly 10 to 12 of Luster's tintypes of Louisiana prisoners were exhibited in a glass case alongside numerous outstanding portraits from the big names just mentioned...and Luster's work drew as much of a crowd as any of the more famous images. There was an oddly compelling glow and power emanating from her small 4x5 portraits printed on black aluminum.

Which then brings me to the book, One Big Self, which features over 150 of her large format portraits, reproduced in the same dimensions as her aluminum plates. The prisoners photographed come from three correctional facilities in Northern Louisiana, and Luster photographed them over a three and a half year period. A simple documentary approach to photographing the prisoners would have been compelling enough, but even with Luster's simple approach to lighting and capturing her subjects, there is something deeper and more intense in the connection that these portraits convey between subject and photographer. What motivated Luster to photograph them? An excerpt from the introduction to "One Big Self":

"The orange box was my favorite object for it contained hundreds of photographs, loose for the touching. For countless hours I would arrange and read the hypnotic language of the bodies and faces of my kin. Time and death dissolved when my great-grandfather and I stood side by side as slips of paper. I was in the here and now. I was in the there and then. I was neither here nor there. I was making contact. I was converging.

Perhaps I was channeling my ancestors in the years following the deaths of my mother and my grandmother. Perhaps it was their spirits that moved me to pick up my camera -- for in our family, the camera was manned by women. It was my turn. Or perhaps I picked up the camera out of desperation. I did need a tool. I was buried under the loss of my family members. The world was a sinister one. I was awake and numb and frightened. How could I sleep under the same stars as my mothers' murderer? I used the camera to dig out. I found I was still capable of making contact."


A 1997 Luster image, from the series Rosesucker Retablos.

The portraits encompass a wide range of subjects, and Luster includes information under each image (in real life, the information is etched on the back of the aluminum plate): doc (department of corrections) number, date and place of birth, length of sentence, and other details like number of children, wording of tattoos, nicknames, current activities and future plans when such information was volunteered or available.

In addition, One Big Self includes a series of poetic fragments from poet and folklorist C.D. Wright that weave throughout the images, incorporating overheard and imagined prison conversations, utterances, meditations, and observations laced alternately with hope, cynicism, despair, and more than a small amount of black humor. I initially found the rhythm of Wright's voice to be at odds with the quiet power of the photographs, but as the book progresses, it's clear that the idiosyncratic poetry and the images work off each other to breathe life into the complexities and tragedies of prison culture and the individuals whose portraits are so riveting.

And what a gallery of portraits! There are prisoners captured starkly in the field...prisoners in Halloween masks or mardi gras costumes...numerous women focused on the culinary arts at their institution dressed in chef's garb...prisoners showing off their tattoos...prisoners looking away from the camera or who show only a part of themselves, or show an image of a loved on in their hand...and many who simply stare straight ahead at the camera with an intense gaze that almost obliterates the mundane, sad, or violent reality of their real-life circumstances.

Luster refers to some stunning statistics regarding incarceration in Louisiana and the U.S. generally, particularly at Angola, the infamous maximum security facility with over 5000 male prisoners. But she doesn't romanticize these prisoners nor their lives, nor does she intend to present them as objects of aesthetic admiration or personal pity. There is something richer and more complex going on, fueled by real loss and a yearning for hope, as she indicates:

"Eighty seven percent of Angola's inmates are violent offenders. Forty percent are first offenders. Seventy-eight percent of inmates are African-American. The average inmate reads at the third grade level. Angola's oldest inmate is ninety-one years old, and the youngest is seventeen. There are ninety men on Death Row. Eighty-eight percent of the men who are incarcerated at Angola will die there. Following the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11th, Angola's inmate population donated $13,000 to aaid victims of the disaster.

I cannot explain the need I felt to produce these portraits, because I do not fully understand it myself. I only know it has something to do with the formal quality of loss and the way we cannot speak directly to those who have gone -- how to touch the disappeared. I cannot explain my need to produce these portraits in such numbers except to say that I needed an aesthetic equivalent to the endless and indirect formality of loss. I also needed rules to support my intentions and to keep from being trapped by them."


This image was the first to sell out at AIPAD, but there are many that are as good or better in One Big Self.

The aluminum plates I saw at the Whitney and at AIPAD are by far the most luminous representations of Luster's work, but Twin Palms, always one of the best publishers of photographic books in my experience, has done another fabulous job with One Big Self. In person, Luster is extremely friendly and quite modest...she hadn't seen the Whitney exhibit yet when we spoke, and seemed genuinely humbled by the inclusion of her work alongside so many other stellar names. She's won numerous awards but claims no intense photographic schooling, apart from workshops and a few mentors, and she mentioned that one of her biggest influences on her photographic style is Mike Disfarmer, the unique and distinctly disquieting Arkansas photographer.

Deborah was down to earth and quite supportive of other photographers...she was curious about my own aspirations as a photographer (even though I never tried to bring them up), and she indicated she intends to continue on another project that continues to mine some of the themes she's explored in all her projects to date, after a much needed cooling off period.

But even if she had done nothing more than autograph my book and walked off, I would have nothing but the highest recommendations for One Big Self. It's a cliche, but the work really speaks for itself, and then some. With a clear eye and a compassionate but never cloyingly sentimental approach, she makes the faces and lives in her images resonate, and as with the best portraits, it's almost impossible to stop looking.

(Note: a selection of Luster's work can be found at the Catherine Edelman Gallery and at her photo-eye gallery, though as might be expected, her tintypes suffer in the translation to the web. Still worth checking out, of course)

01:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 15, 2004

John Currin at the Whitney

I will have more time to reflect on everything I saw at AIPAD and to talk about photography generally tomorrow...but in the meantime, I wanted to make note of my quick visit to the Whitney Museum while in New York, where I got to view the much hyped retrospective of John Currin paintings...and I have to say that I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. There have been some wildly enthusiastic reviews -- and some carping about lack of substance and depth. In fact, the discussion can be almost as much fun to partake in as the actual paintings. Currin does seem to me to skim across a variety of approaches and themes in his painting, tweaking and provoking along the way, making him seem shallow to his detractors and not worthy of the hype.

While I'm no fan of precious postmodern slumming myself, Currin's wit, clever appropriation of influences from high art and popular culture, and sense of irony, along with his painting technique certainly seemed entertaining and thoughtful and funny and provocative in mostly the right mix. As someone who enjoys fashion photography, I have to say that I find his appropriation of fashion expressions and tics in his paintings as clever (in a good way), and his fashion pinup series in particular was one of my favorite parts of his retrospective.

Anyway, I'm no authority on painting, but I've enjoyed the fuss generated by this Whitney exhibition, and I'd encourage people to drop by and judge for themselves, rather than rely on the firestorm of opinion from multiple camps...the paintings do look good, even if they don't end up being your cup of tea. The best things I've read on the exhibition have been Michael Kimmelman's cautiously enthusiastic review in the New York Times, a slightly contrarian correction to the enthusiasm by the Village Voice, and even this slide show from Slate (which is much more thoughtful than Karen Lehrman's hopeless piece on fashion photography that I took issue with a while back).

Note that though the detractors would like to point to the articles in Slate and the Voice as being less positive about Currin, in fact, just about everyone acknowledges Currin's likeability and technique and sense of detail...it's more a question of how deep it all is in the end. Jerry Saltz in the Voice makes the best observation about what makes him interesting to a photographer and popular culture media junkie like me:

"My favorite things about him are the high level of specificity in his work, how he engages a wide audience, and the original way he uses photographic sources while shunning photographic space"

Arthur Danto, the excellent art critic for the Nation, also has written a long and thoughtful, if rather enthusiastic piece (one of his favorite Currin paintings, Stamford after Brunch, is one of my least favorite), but unfortunately, it currently is available to subscribers only. It may be available on the Nation's web site in a few weeks, though.


Skinny Woman, 1992

11:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

February 13, 2004

A Quick Note From AIPAD

My computer problems are far from over, but I thought I would just post quick first impressions from my initial whirlwind tour of the Photography Show at AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers), being held at the New York Hilton this weekend.

The show is indeed a cornucopia of excellent photography, and it was a bit much for me to absorb all at once, especially since I had a tiring trip here. I went through two floors of artwork hung on the walls from various galleries quickly...I will probably look more closely at some tomorrow, and also ask the people at the booth to walk me through some of the stuff they have laying on tables.

There's a lot of great, great photography to view, and the nice thing about a show like this is the collection from multiple galleries in one place, and the opportunity to view artists' work large (and even larger). The show so far seems a bit more conservative than I had expected, even though most of the galleries have at least one contemporary photographer featured as well as the big recognizable names. Lots of black and white, lots of platinum prints, and the most expensive stuff definitely seems to be the vintage prints from folks like Alfred Eisenstaedt (vintage print of Marlene Dietrich $150K!) and Helen Levitt.

One photographer whose work really benefited from being blown up was Desiree Dolron, who had massive 50x60 slide prints employing some special color process being shown by Michael Hoppen Gallery. Dolron has been receiving some well-deserved buzz online for the last six months or so because of her fine online galleries, but I'd have to say that her real world prints were the early standout of the show for me.


Desiree Dolron photographs, from the series Te Di Todos Mi Suenos

Additionally, I tried doing some research on AIPAD online, but didn't get very far...but while doing so, I did come across the aerial photographs of Owen Kanzler, whose work was exhibited at AIPAD a couple of years ago. Really, really nice stuff, and definitely worth checking out.

More impressions in the next day or so...

10:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Problems and Glamor

Unfortunately, I've had all sorts of computer problems pop up in the last couple of days as I prepare to head for a trip to New York, which has kept me from posting at any length...but I'll have plenty to post about from there and afterward, as I'm heading to the AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers) show, which was recommended to me a while back.

In the meantime, here's my submission to the Photofriday challenge for Glamor (which will also be a part of my ongoing Dreams of Dance photo album):


09:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 11, 2004

Another Alternative Process, and Dance Photography

I am just starting to learn about the mechanics of various alternative processes in photography, even though I have been enjoying the work of numerous practitioners that fall under this broad catch-all category of photography for a while now. I don't think I will really "get" how to do a lot of it until I have some of those huge negatives to play with, but I am enjoying the early learning about the history behind various processes such as cyanotypes, collodion, platinum, gum bichromate, etc.

One of the processes that I'm not likely to pursue, but find intriguing when done well by others, is bromoil printing...as this article indicates, it requires a fair degree of patience and attention to detail. I came across the work of Joy Goldkind, whose bromoil work evokes Sarah Moon, a long time favorite of mine:


Goldkind uses 4x5 Polaroid film and has a more overtly classical style than Moon...whereas Moon likes to play with the conventions of pictorialism in her photographs and has a light touch (thanks to her open mind and fashion background), Goldkind seems more heavily immersed in the tradition. She explains her methods here.

One of the personal projects I have started recently is inspired by dance and movement, though I am not attempting dance photographs in the commonly understood sense of the term i.e. straight photographs of ballet dancers, tap dancers, hip hop etc...even though I have experience photographing these varied types of dance. Straight documentary approaches to dance photography are highly problematic, as is much photography of any stage performance generally, because the visual record of the performance is inevitably a poor stand-in for the art and emotions that arise from witnessing the performance live...anyone who's taken concert photographs knows how the vast majority of live captures make fine mementos but less than great art.

I've immersed myself in quite a bit of dance photography published over the last fifty years, and the vast majority of it appears to focus on form and (highly controlled) motion. Some of the most creative results have been achieved by Lois Greenfield through the active use of dancers and movement in the photographic frame, though it is a studio based approach (which is common because strobes are needed to freeze movement). My personal preferences, though, lie away from the studio, and in the direction of motion and low light, and even a little bit of narrative. Perhaps not as romantic as Andy Stewart's approach with ballroom dancers, but the mood I'm pursuing has some similarities.


Andy Stewart ballroom dancing image

I'm still exploring, and in the end, it may not be even dance that is central to what I'm pursuing, but some other themes and narratives. But I've started to upload a few images into my latest album, and have also been spending time printing in the color, B&W, and digital darkrooms...I hope to make progress over the next year in documenting and sharing some of these efforts.


01:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack