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February 06, 2004

Artsy Monkeys, And Two More Essential Pieces of Reading

I enjoy the sense of community I've gotten from my limited time with blogging, even though it seems driven at times by a very limited attention span and numerous interruptions...but that seems to be the state of the world and certainly the Web, so it's up to me to adjust.

Along that line, I've met some interesting and cool virtual friends, such as cat, who recently designated me an "artsy monkey" on her enjoyable Hey Monkey weblog, and this week made my blog her "Featured Monkey". No cynical gibes from me on this one...I'm sincerely very flattered. Thanks Cat!

Speaking of another artsy monkey, my friend Andrew has work included in "The Dog and Pony Show" at Stacy Bueschel's Courtyard Gallery, 46 Waltham Street, in Boston, a collection of paintings, photographs, sculpture and jewelry. Andrew will be in the distinguished company of artists like Henry Horenstein, David Hockney, and Willem de Kooning, who also have work in the show. I'm going to try to make the trip down to the gallery this weekend, though the show will be running from Feb 6th to March 14th. Directions can be found here for interested folks in the New England area.

I've said this before, but there is so much weird and wonderful stuff on the Web that it feels distinctly retrograde to be referring to magazines...but when it comes to discussions and detailed insights and *context* on fine arts and commercial photography, the web still falls short in several areas. A lot of online galleries, a lot of competitions, a lot of professional showcases, a lot of discussion of equipment and technique...but not enough on what it all means in the real world, or the world of ideas and art.

There are a *lot* of art sites and art blogs on the Web, but it seems that photography is still a peculiar sort of stepchild when it comes to discussion and reflection, outside of the occasional article in a newspaper with significant online presence, like the New York Times or Washington Post.

Here are two great pieces of offline reading that I'd recommend, one long established, another a brand new magazine:


Photo District News, or PDN, is a long established resource for professionals and aspiring professionals, and I find it absolutely essential reading on a monthly basis...it's one of the few magazines I actually read cover to cover. I would recommend it to just about any photographer with reasonable ambitions or aspirations of moving forward in some direction with their photography, whether it's just going to school, taking workshops, getting work into galleries or magazines, or becoming a professional in any number of areas.

PDN is *not* a magazine filled with trite "how-to" articles...if anything it speaks distinctly to people with experience in the photography world. But what better way to learn and have ambitions if you're inexperienced than to see what the burning issues are among professionals...whether they're the concerns of wedding shooters, or photojournalists who edit their images in war zones, or fashion photographers?

The current issue highlights the Fine Arts market, specifically finding venues to get your portfolio reviewed, working with galleries, and dealing with gallery contracts. There's also an extensive section on printers favored by big name fine art photographers like Stephen Shore, Mary Ellen Mark and Richard Avedon.

Furthermore, even if you're not terribly interested in "trade talk", there are always featured portfolios and artists...the bias is obviously toward people who have been published or are about to be published, but there's a section on current photography projects as well. For example, there's a great piece in the current issue featuring large format photographs of the living spaces of elderly prisoners done by Edmund Clark, a former photojournalist. Another highlight is a feature on Andrew Moore's architectural photographs of Havana and St Petersburg.


Havana image, Andrew Moore

The thing I find valuable about PDN is how it roots all its discussions around photography as a market, but honestly lays out the challenges of working photographers out there, as opposed to simply documenting stories about big names and putting them on a pedestal. So if you've ever harbored any number of ambitions: considered becoming a photojournalist, or shooting weddings recreationally, or even taking your travel photography and making a book, PDN is a very good and enjoyable reading resource for placing your issues in some context of what others are doing. It's a bit New-York centric, but in general, I find it's a good way to think bigger about your photography if that's what you want...but even if you don't, the magazine will turn you on to interesting artists and interesting projects, while laying out the challenges those artists and projects faced.

Influence Magazine has just released its first issue, and it comes at a time when the options for more aesthetic discussions of photography, both classic and contemporary, seem surprisingly limited. Even the American and European fine arts magazines I've seen focused on photography tend to talk technique and commerce as much as aesthetics, or they feature artist portfolios in a very rareified environment. There are several magazines that are still enjoyable for the quality of work they feature, but too often the artists' work is viewed as an object of commerce, or an art object to be lavished with praise and admired in isolation...a few influences or big names are dropped with a hushed reverence at best, but the complex connections between an artist and his contemporaries and influences is rarely explored with any degree of depth.

Then there are the postmodern arts magazines that feature cutting edge contemporary photography, but again, the context is scant, and even the most worthwhile of photography seems to be included at times primarily for its weirdness and conceptual ambition.

Influence sets out in its first issue to "explore the metaphoric concept of fracture as it relates to our everyday experience...that zone of knowledge within our sight but just beyond our grasp that all art approaches, with trembling and wonder in equal measure". Big words...VERY big words. I'm sure anyone it's tempting for anyone who's read this far to tune this out as some postmodern act of self-indulgent publishing.

What makes the magazine worth reading though, is the intellectual but highly accessible way in which it tackles big and interesting topics, and the range of topics it tackles. The general format for an article/essay is a discussion or interview with a featured artist or selection of artists -- for example, a roundtable discussion between Vince Aletti, Gil Blank and Charles Traub on the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and its influence on succeeding generations, including artists like Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman. Or an essay on the postmodern urban work and landscapes of Ed Ruscha and Stephen Shore and Robert Adams. Or another roundtable featuring the staged aerial surveillance photographs of Danny Goodwin.

And there are even cooler portfolios and contemporary projects. Ulf Lundin doing a photo-essay on spying on his next-door neighbors, with their (semi-tacit) approval. Louis Brawley's pinhole photography. Nigel Cooke's stark, apocalyptic photographic paintings. Ari Marcopoulos' peculiar images of snowboarders. Comparisons of Hubble images to Vermeer. And so on. Along the way, Influence does things that have been done by other magazines attempting to capture our wired and attention-addled zeitgeist...placing names and bios of other related artists in sidebars, including paintings or photographs of historical giants when they come up in the article. For example, Philip Lorca di Corcia's bio and Wellfleet photograph are referenced in the Goodwin discussion, and Vermeer and Richter are referenced in another discussion.


Francesca Woodman image

I've found this type of tactic rather precious in other "postmodern" publications -- art history for hipster dummies, complete with faux hyperlinks on the printed page -- but it actually works very nicely in this magazine. First off, the amount of jargon in the magazine, given its contemporary focus, open-ended discussions, and philosophical ambitions, is surprisingly minimal. Second off, the numerous observations and connections that the authors and interviewers make are actually interesting and stimulating. Here's just one excerpt, around the merits of staged contemporary street photography vs actual photojournalistic images:

Louise Neri: ...And as long as there are human beings in the world, the idea of the photographic instant will be viable. I'm not talking about manipulating an image after the fact, but about how things happen in reality. You see certain news photographs and you can't believe they're real, like the images of wedding couples in full bridal regalia wearing medical masks during the recent SARS scare in Hong Kong -- that's perhaps more powerful because it's a real response to a social epidemic.

Gil Blank: But that's a perfect illustration of what I'm talking about: a photography that on one hand is intended, however misleadingly, as a rote, factual document, a useful photography, a service photography, even a populist photography, and then on the other hand a photography that's totally divorced from established knowledge, a specialized elite artistic confection. At this particular moment a yawning divide seems to have been staked between the photojournalists on one hand and the conceptual photographists on the other. The challenge then is how to go about finding a photography that is a viable descriptor of lived experience, that maintains a connection, however tenuous, to knowable fact, and yet transcends that very limitation as a unique authorial sentiment."

As with any magazine that discusses photography in such an ambitious way, the pretensions can get a bit thick, and if you don't like small print and creative layouts, this won't be your cup of tea. Personally, I found the first issue of Influence to be highly stimulating, and worthwhile as an introduction (and re-introduction) to many superb contemporary and classic photographers and their art...art that gained in resonance as connections were made between seemingly disparate images and projects.

Both Influence and PDN can be bought at well-stocked locations of Borders, Barnes and Noble, Tower Records, or (even better) the cool independent bookstores in metro areas.

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Posted by: Cat. at Feb 6, 2004 10:27:45 PM

I love your website. I was thinking maybe there should be a limit to your entries on you front page.

Posted by: Mike at Feb 7, 2004 6:57:06 PM

Just to tell you that because entries like this one you are becoming a must read for me in each passing day! :-)

Now I must go and check Influence... if I can find it here.

Posted by: Farrolas at Feb 9, 2004 7:11:44 AM

Farrolas told me today of your blog.

I must put it on my list, i enjoyed the reading :)

Posted by: Mário at Feb 11, 2004 10:31:19 AM