My friend Arlene Gottfried has been shooting in and around her hometown of NYC since the 1970s. Her latest book (which is just coming out), “Bacalaitos and Fireworks,” tracks her 40 odd years documenting her time in and around the Nuyorican community. From the quiet portraits of her dearly departed Miguel Piñero to the crackling, color-saturated moments stolen during parades and everything in between (a pig roasting in a rubble-filled city lot, little girls in crisp communion gowns marching past the dystopian, surreal setpieces of a crumpled car and a battered tv, bizarre moments of city life that would seem staged if the characters caught therein weren’t so irrefutably genuine), Arlene manages to make the viewer feel like he or she is with her in that moment, like a welcome participant in some grand secret, great spectacle, private moment, neighborhood function, or deep sorrow. She’ll be presenting her work at 3pm today at B&H’s Event Space on 34th and 9th.
Hi, my name is Gail, and this is my first post. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time the past few weeks, as any reasonable New Yorker would, thinking about the summer heat and its theoretical consequences on, say, Norwegian black metal enthusiasts. You see, because heavy makeup undoubtedly runs when mixed with sweat, black clothing becomes stifling in the sunshine, and spiked leather gauntlets seem like they’d become uncomfortably heavy, chafing, and waterlogged when filled with a pint of perspiration – and this all seems like it would simply serve to further irritate an already rather grim-minded set of individuals, because who doesn’t get a bit more cranky in the brutal heat, much less suffocating clothing and rapidly failing makeup?
Oh, right, but the PHOTOS. Peter Beste’s images of “True Norwegian Black Metal,” published in 2008, is likely one of the most name-checked visual resources on this controversial genre. What makes Beste’s work compelling is the lack of sensationalism – a scene studded with the odd suicide, murder, sundry dead animals, and arson of the church-sort is ripe for sensationalist gawking in which the subjects become props to be reviled or at the very least studied as freaks/”the other.” Yet Beste guilelessly presents these stone-faced, corpse-paint-spackled men seemingly without any agenda but to show them, juxtaposed often with the idyllic, almost twee surroundings from whence they sprang.
Where Beste captures the momentary encounter between dramatically adorned Kvintrafn and a less imaginative passerby shifts the power dynamic so elegantly in this frozen moment, elucidating a point made by placing these dramatic-looking men in their contrasting (bucolic) surroundings: in their own homeland, worshipping their Norse gods, tossing about their goat heads, they are live specters who do not fit, belong, or make sense.
I was familiar with these images (this book was featured prominently in an office where my husband worked) but not with “After Hours,” a series Beste took at night spots around Houston. I was immediately drawn in to this work – possibly because these subjects seemed to be having, oh, slightly more fun than his glorious corpse-painted scions across the fjords. Here Beste depicts the stars, scenesters, outlandish decor, and very specific trappings of H-Town after dark in what feels like loving detail.
Beste manages to shoot a faraway-eyed woman tightly locked in a slowdance with the same equity as the crumpled bills at the feet of strippers at the Blur Flame Cabaret; it’s not as though he is dispassionate here, but devotedly relating an aesthetically glorious spectacle with its own profound signifiers and specific uniforms. Through the care and rigor taken with this series, Beste’s bright images of humanity mid-celebration transcend mere glimpses of “debauchery after dark” to become something more culturally sublime and richly codified, in the way his Norwegian metal-men become sad warriors without a crusade when fixed in his lens.
For many years I have noted down quotes, aphorisms, favorite bits from articles, essays and books and even TV interviews in little cvs notebooks and I return to these sometimes, now rarely as there are so many little notebooks and they are not organized. However, the photographer William Gedney (1933-1989) kept very detailed notebooks in clear and elegant handwriting and these are now superbly assembled and available online (http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/).
I have been carrying around a few pages from Gedney’s notebooks to read on long subway rides, and have recently been mulling over the following observation he made in 1971:
“During a depressing day yesterday I pulled out the Bellocq book “Storyville Portraits.” How beautifully lucid and strong the pictures are. There are only 34 plates in the book and as I remember looking at them at Lees (Lee Friedlander), only a little over 90 photos in all, in existence: the total surviving work of Bellocq. I was struck now in looking at the book how in just 34 pictures, so complete a world is rendered, an all-encompassing wholeness. Each one of his photographs seems to contain the germ [of] all his work. If only one of his pictures existed (all the rest had been destroyed) you would still sense he was a great photographer, at least I get that feeling. So consistent and concisely clear is his vision.
I know part of this is the time in which the trial pictures were made. The choice of camera and material to work with was limited and this made for an overall unified rendering [conformity] in photography of that time, in our age we have an array of choices in equipment and style in which to work. Bruce Davidson who seems to be a prime example of many of the confusions that exist today in photography goes from 35mm to 2 1/4 to view camera with ease. Yet he lacks the steadying personality that would carry him from one style to another. He travels with ease but without presence. Even though these unifying factors existed in Bellocq’s time, (1912) one has only to look at other examples of photography of the period. The technique is the same, the tripod camera, the slow lens and film, the subject deliberately posed for the photographer, a singular form, composition, the direct front view, is something all pictures of that time have in common. Yet within this limited convention, Bellocq’s photographs stand out. It is the subtle but telling difference that makes him a great artist.
Take under very similar circumstances, at different times a hundred different photographs and let them stand the same girl, in the same room in front of the same view camera and each would come up with a slightly different picture. But I wonder, would any come up with a picture better than the rest. If Bellocq was one of those photographers, I believe he would. It is a continuously amazing thing that this impersonal machine, the camera, should render not only the surface of the visible world, but is capable of rendering so sensitively the personality of the photographers.”
I marvel that Lee Friedlander discovered these valuable photographs by Bellocq and purchased and printed the glass negatives and shared them with us, similar to Berenice Abbot’s work in saving and promoting the work of Atget.