In conversation w/ D., about the photographing of ruins.
Ruins were common subjects in the first decades of photography: there are exemplary examples of such, as daguerreotype, calotype, wet plate image, etc. As a technical consideration, the immobility of any site, it’s stationary aspect, facilitated its imaging by processes which were time-intensive. & in these images one can see a cultural shift in the use of the image to delineate time as a physical residue, residue which can be simultaneously historical & touristic.
We can see the Acropolis or the excavations of Pompeii with the new technological vision of the camera. The sites tend to be much dirtier & unkempt than in our present day, or so it seems – it could be a problem w/ early orthochromatic films. It is as the places do not know how to be seen – how awkward they can seem. Or I think of the views by Roger Fenton of fantastical gothic ruins in England, with tiny figures randomly placed in the overgrown sites. This reminds me of how different it could be to experience such sites, physically, in different times. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess could run off to Stonehenge in her great solitude, whereas nowadays one would be on a very controlled guided tour.
The photograph also has air of judgement in it’s seeming ability to discern what is to be preserved & what is to be discarded. For example, the survey by Charles Marville of Paris before the expansion of the city by Baron Hausmann had obliterated the medieval city is an inventory of what is to be destroyed, after it has been recorded by the camera. This is a concrete manifestation of the assertion by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his article about the stereoscope: Form is henceforth divorced from matter. The image is what is necessary, not the thing itself.
Images of war, as the urgency of the conflict fades from memory, become quaint & fascinating for their visual qualities. From the US Civil War, George Barnard’s images following William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea” have an uncanny solitude, like Pompeii, which in no way imparts the aggressive fury of a military campaign of massive destruction. Such a duality in images – their ability to succor us from the horrors which they represent, is where I want to begin w/ my talk w/ D.
There are 2 photo books out this spring of Detroit – Detroit Disassembled, by Andrew Moore, and The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre. I have my own ongoing photographic project of Detroit, which includes images of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, & Victorian ruins in Brush Park. More on this another time: but is Detroit a “disaster” or the outcome of capitalist logic played out, & played out on home turf? Isn’t it about economic obsolescence? An end that is now in sight?
From there the conversation led to Robert Polidori’s book of photos of New Orleans, after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori: After the Flood.
For D., the viewing of ruins is a romantic activity. & less substantial than, say, the lyrics of Shelley’s Ozymandias. No judgement is in the image itself, no (excuse the pun) point of view; the photographer is more a camera operator than an interpreter, with a technological recording at hand. The oblique photograph does not hone one’s perspective but instead offers distraction & a puzzlement of meaning. In more general terms, the photograph reduces all to tourism.
Polidori’s images of New Orleans are a fairly exhaustive inventory of damages from the hurricane & subsequent flooding, yet do so in a richly pictorial style we know from Polidori’s earlier work, with it’s sharp focus, rich colors, & intense details. I am partial to Polidori’s book of Havana, for example, which although of a poverty on a scale we ignore in the US (& also of a past sumptuousness equally foreign to our more Puritanical shores), does not read necessarily as a kind of victimization except as a manifestation of an Exotic Other (although I suspect it may function as a prospective real estate brochure for those waiting for the fall of communism in Cuba).
The images of New Orleans are structured entirely around the flood; the images also manage to aestheticize the disaster
& have it read as natural. As if it is the high waters & mold lines constitute the issues at hand, rather than the class warfare & bureaucratic neglect which facilitated the true disaster. & this is where the work becomes troubling, in its delectation of a ruined city, for no other purpose than it’s aesthetic consumption, in a simplified equation of cause & effect.
That said, I find that the void I sense looking at these images is what compels me to continue to look.
Newtown Creek: A Photographic Survey of New York?s Industrial Waterway by Anthony Hamboussi is a journey around the perimeters of the Newtown Creek in New York City, an industrial canal which separates north Brooklyn from the western perimeters of Queens, flowing westward towards the East River. It is a self-propelled project, which began with Hamboussi’s knowledge of the area, beginning in a childhood in nearby Maspeth, Queens. A seemingly casual project became an obsessive chronicle of several years. The images are presented chronologically which suits the essentially private nature of the enterprise, that of Hamboussi’s journey into a polluted heart of darkness within New York City limits. Thoroughly researched & plotted, Hamboussi’s itinerary also incorporated intuitive aspects, which can be seen in the fitful un-mappings of the area, giving it more the fitful mutability of dreams, in its starts & stops & divergences, while it inventories a large area of mixed industries.
I have been struck by how many New Yorkers do not know where the Newtown Creek is, although it is a ubiquity to those living in Greenpoint, Bushwick, Long Island City, Maspeth. The community with the most unlikely name in such a gray mess is Blissville, which straddles a cemetery & a Best Western Motel, on the Queens side. The creek stinks. It is poisonous. Its most notable landmark is the sewage treatment plant through which flows 3/4 of New York City’s waste (& which now features a remarkably innovative park within its facilities). Good friend of mine once lived in Greenpoint, at the end of Manhattan Ave., on the other side of the Pulaski Bridge from the sewage treatment plant, which when the wind blew in a certain manner, mixing with the scents of a nearby scented candle factory, the area would be imbued with odors of intense sweetness & shit, even for those with a high gag threshold. There are now 2 centuries of industry layering its shores, & within it the boundaries have blurred between public & private, as streets mysteriously disappear into the gated confines of corporations, as maps mutate with no reason other than as the residue of decades of corporate aggression homesteading on these filthy borders. Seemingly deserted, it is actually active & dynamic as an economic nerve, sinking below the horizon of freeways, warehouses & factories.
Perhaps the most acute irony I could discover about the area is that in the 18th century, before its industrialization, the Newtown Creek gave its name to the first cultivated apple in the US: the Newtown Pippin. Grassy meadows sloping down to sweet waters, a peaceable kingdom of fish & fowl, a New World . . .
At this point we can only take someone’s else’s word on this. Hamboussi’s photos show a diverse area of industry & infrastructure. While the frontage on the East River is now being developed as a corridor of high-rise apartments, the filthy core of the creek is still a crazy-quilt cross-section of industries & abject histories.
What will happen to the parking lot for the Fink Means Good Bread trucks? What pollutants were left behind by Phelps Dodge, before its site was taken over for the Fresh Direct warehouse? How can National Grid justify legally its prohibition of photography at its perimeter, outside its fenced borders?
Hamboussi looks at the Creek with the eyes of both an insider & an outsider. Given the lugubrious tally of industry & its aftermath at hand, Hamboussi’s photography has a contrasting lightness of touch. While I know the work he has put into it, the images flow with their attention to detail, to the ability of Hamboussi to guide us through a landscape which would be so easy to ignore in its harshness, yet which reveals so much about the world we live in.
Herve Guibert’s L’Image fantome was published initially in 1982. The English translation, Ghost Image, by Robert Bononno, I have came out in 1996, from Sun & Moon Press, and is available currently from Green Integer Press. The book is comprised of short written pieces which were published originally in Le Monde. A posthumous volume, La Photo, inéluctablement, was published in 1999, which has not yet appeared in English.
Guibert, known primarily for his books, also photographed. Several years ago I saw an exhibition of his photos at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, on upper Fifth Ave., just below the Met, & I have a book published by Schirmer/Mosel. From 1993! (It seems so not so long ago).
The pieces in Ghost Image are short, some the length of a paragraph. Although notable photographers are mentioned (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, August Sander), the pieces discuss photography in the everyday: Family photos, identity photos, album covers, film stills, etc., as well as the acts of photographing, the tensions & disappointments of it. I enjoyed particularly an account of an adolescent infatuation with a still of Terence Stamp in the Fellini film Toby Dammit (in which Guibert mistakenly refers to the Stamp character as the devil, when in fact Stamp is more a Swinging London version of Faust, who has sold his soul). There is a diaristic aspect to the writing – family episodes are recounted, memory is intertwined with photography – and it is public and brief, in a form that is perhaps more familiar to blog readers of today. Truly, it seems prescient of so much web writing now, although with a much more delirious perversity and greater powers of observation:
. . . I recall an incident that made a great impression on me when I was 8 or 9 years old. My sister was 12 or 13 at the time, and her breasts were just beginning to develop; high and firm, we had already seen them at the beach the year before, but that was the last time, because the following year they were covered up by a bra. That morning, it must have been a Sunday, my sister was locked in the bathroom. My father was at the door, camera in hand, trying to get in. He said, without hiding his intention, that he wanted to photograph his daughter’s breasts, because at that age, the moment of their initial formation, they are at the height of their beauty, and if they weren’t photographed then, that state of perfection would be lost. That was the extent of his argument. At the time, he sadly renounced his failed attempt at appropriation through the image and fought against that limit; he wanted to push back by a notch the phase of abandonment, of renunciation and at the same time, extend his role as a father in order to assume that of a lover within the conventions of voyeurism, for between the father and the lover, desire was probably not very different. . . “Inventory of a Box of Photographs”
Photography, in Guibert’s book, is a multiplicity of effects. It is a technological reinforcement of morbid curiosities, it facilitates social controls, it supplants memories, dreams and perceptions, replacing them with its own mediated Olympus of illusions.In “Photographic Writing” Guibert finds photographic aspects in descriptive writings by Goethe and Kafka – looking backward from the perspective of the technological present to a pre-photography concealed in language. Without any direct quotations, I find traces of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes in Guibert’s considerations of the social aspects of photography. Barthes makes an appearance as “R.B.” in “The Photograph, As Close to Death as Possible” which is an account of Guibert approaching R.B. to photograph him with his ailing mother, who in the interim, died. Guibert presents his own lust for photographing in equivocal terms: it is morbid, it is fetishistic, it is selfish. & the compulsion can be sweet as well.
Written with almost aphoristic brevity, these episodes of photography seem both exceedingly particular & also informed with much larger ideas. To continue with photographic metaphors, these vignettes are like snapshots, fragments which indicate a much larger whole. I last read the book in what must have been 1996-1997, when the translation was published. Rereading it has been as stimulating as I can recall it to have been, with what seems new finds:
A Japanese dancer from the Sankai Juku group dances with a peacock. His entire body is very white, powdered with white clay, and his head is shaved. He wears nothing but a plain linen loincloth tied around his waist and stands out in relief against a wooden backdrop to which varnished fishtails and enormous fins from some cetacean have been attached. He embraces the peacock like a woman in a swoon, and the pattern on the bird’s plumage extends his loincloth with a gold-flecked train. We can see that the peacock’s thighs and feet are very muscular, like an ostrich, but the dancer keeps them bent, broken at the joints, and immobilized in his left hand, pressed against his side. His right hand encircles the peacock’s neck, stretches it, plays with it as if it were a delicate instrument, squeezes it almost to the point of strangling it. Everything is limited to a few contractions, and to the flow of blood, which he must feel and control with his palm: the Japanese dances a kind of slow-motion tango with the peacock, he dances with the peacock’s fear, with its vital fear of death. It really is an extraordinary moment, one of great tension, great beauty. But when the dancer releases the terrified peacock, we no longer know where to look, and our eye, which wanders between the dancer and the bird, loses its orientation. The peacock is nothing but a big terrified fowl who scratches around stupidly and snares itself in the cord that restrains its feet. The dancer is nothing but a dancer gesturing slowly. Our fascination has worn off, and rather than be deceived, we prefer to divert our gaze to the empty space between them, where the magic was created, the site of a latent photograph. Morever, when the Sankai Juko group came to Paris, many people, many photographers, returned to the performance with their cameras mounted on tripods. They bought seats in the front row and waited for the appearance of the peacock. They fired away – they were guaranteed beauty. That eminently photographic image, however, doesn’t belong to them (what is it that eludes photography here, except the infintesimal movements of contraction of the peacock’s neck, which are essential to the dance?), it belongs to the dancer, and he has decided that this will be a dance and not a photograph. And we might reiterate that beauty, like theater, is tied to the ephemeral, and to loss, and can’t be captured. Only I would prefer that photographers put more dance (or theater, or cinema) into their pictures, just as the dancer had put photography into his dance. – “Dance”
The Corinthians – A Kodachrome Slideshow, edited by Ed Jones & Timothy Prus, published by The Archive of Modern Conflict, is a collection of anonymous Kodachrome slides, dated 1947-1974.
I became aware of the press through another book edited by Jones & Prus, Nein, Onkel, which is also of anonymous material, in this instance, snapshots of Nazi soldiers – material which is a bit more difficult, historically, especially in lieu of its innocuous banality and rich un-self-consciousness (the soldiers being innocuously ordinary, cute, without any distinction). As far as I know, Nein, Onkel is available in the US only through Dashwood Books, & I have never seen a copy of The Corinthians available except through the internet.
While The Corinthians does reference a specific historical conflict like Nein, Onkel, the title is taken from the book of Corinthians in the bible, a series of letters from St Paul which address a decadent society: thus the images hover between being a relic & being an ambiguous indictment. Kodachrome itself is of recent obsolescence, & like much analog film material, now represents its own historical passage in the past tense.
In terms of using the specific materiality of Kodachrome (color transparency, vivid hues with a palette akin to Technicolor)and its anonymous usage, there is Guy Stricherz’s book Americans in Kodachrome 1945-1965, which is a much gentler, nostalgic collection. & this is not to diminish the Stricherz collection, either, which has its own fascinations. The title of the Stricherz book also reveals what is often unstated about nostalgia: that nostalgia has national borders, that nostalgia can be used as a technological fantasy of a shared & cohesive history, a Family of Man in lower-case letters. My guess is the images in The Corinthians are primarily from the US, & the sometimes gaudy hues & occasions to photograph are representative of a post-WWII glee, a kind of ascendancy of an ability to observe one’s daily life, which over time detaches itself from any context & becomes cryptic. But the shared “American-ness” of the Stricherz book is not apparent in The Corinthians, where instead the images clash, they do not relate to one another, whether by year, region, practice, or taste. What is revealed can seem simultaneously obvious & opaque. What separates the collections of Stricherz and the Archive of Modern Conflict is in the choice of images & their editing. One of the remarkable things about the images in The Corinthians is that they are often uglier than beautiful. The interiors & family scenes can be claustrophobic if not downright unpleasant. This is so against the grain of the fading twilight of nostalgia, in which a partial forgetfulness is often equated w/ sweetness or tenderness, a slight regret along with a letting go – instead the images are jarring, & whether through accident or intent (the difference between we will never know), there is a crudeness, an awkward possessiveness which resonate w/ more craven aspects of the photographic process: the images force the participants into a pantomime of an image-self, as an illusion of what they would be, which is realized w/ an almost violent lack of skills. In this sense The Corinthians reminds me of the vertigo of the images in Wisconsin Death Trip. Vanitas vanitatum.
If one thinks of the billions of snapshots which exist, in utter randomness, the collection of whatever becomes the ad hoc solution to extract any sort of meaning what is otherwise accident & chance. Both The Corinthians & Nein, Onkel posit the amateur photo collection as a kind of black mirror to the past, in a Barthesian sense of lost time, & also in the excesses of detail which add strangeness & confusion to memory.
I would also recommend The Corinthians for it’s unusual binding, which reproduces the cardboard mount of a Kodachrome slide, with a window cut in both front & back. This is anterior to the content of the book, but still references the original physical form of the slides. It shows a great deal of concentration to the enterprise, & its tally of vanishing forms.
Yesterday, browsing at the St. Marks Bookstore, I picked up a copy of Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, a biography of Dare Wright, the author of The Lonely Doll, a children’s book published originally in 1957 and currently in print. I had had a copy which I had given away & it seemed fortuitous to pick up another copy, hardbound, to replace it.
I was not aware of Dare Wright or her numerous children’s books, illustrated with her photographs until well into my adulthood. My good friend K. was the first to mention The Lonely Doll to me, as it had been a beacon for her in her childhood. & then subsequently others I knew mentioned this as well.
I’ve been rereading The Lonely Doll & other books by Dare Wright. I am struck by how Edith, the lonely doll of the title, encounters & addresses serious issues: isolation, separation, doubt. The appearance of Mr. & Little Bear is a kind of wish fulfillment & also a plateau in which Edith’s sensitivities can be played out, in determining her emotional perimeters. Written w/ a laconic sweetness, it is nevertheless resonant w/ indications of trauma – loss, rejection, abjection.
Dolls can be quite serious. I can think of such oddities as the doll of Alma Mahler that Oskar Kokoschka made as a kind of effigy, or the mutating poupees of Hans Bellmer, but perhaps more for understanding Dare Wright we should think of the tableaux of Laurie Simmons, or the use of dolls in the Todd Haynes film Superstar – the Karen Carpenter Story. In either case dolls & a doll world are miniatures of an ideological structure which can be apprehended as such in its shrunken state.
Children are anarchists, surrealists, & clairvoyants before the fact: they can see the tree from the woods & then some. The images of The Lonely Doll & its sequels are in a sense quite spare & shocking, given their photographic sources. The amateurishness of the tableaux is more than obvious. As an adult this may seem somewhat paltry, but for children it allows the child to enter in the fiction & finish it, which may be part of the power Dare Wright’s books have, in addition to fairy tale aspects of the narratives. The Lonely Doll culminates in a potential trauma in which Edith the doll & Little Bear transgress Mr. Bear with their uncontrolled behavior. Edith fears rejection & the loss of her only friends, which is assuaged in Mr. Bear’s forgiveness & a swearing of unconditional love. Given the simplicity of means, this is a remarkably complex situation which addresses primal insecurities. I think I can understand the truly vehement passion of my various friends who have grown up with this book as it touches on the intensity of separation & isolation for a child.
Jean Nathan’s biography of Dare Wright is a very sensitive assessment of Wright’s life, which was remarkably circumscribed & controlled. In lesser hands maybe there wouldn’t seem like anything to write about, or perhaps the macabre aspects would stand out more. Dare Wright’s career as a children’s book author is almost accidental – she had been an acting student, a model, & then had branched out into photography, all the while living w/ her scarily controlling mother. All her life Dare Wright was like a doll herself, made up in fantastic configurations of impossible, untouchable beauty, except by dear old mom. In terms of The Lonely Doll, here is where some parallels become a bit too disturbing: the doll is named Edith, after the mother, Edith “Edie” Stevenson Wright. The doll Edith wears a wig that is identical to Dare Wright’s bangs-&-ponytail hairdo. If anything, the reason to get the hardbound copy of The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is its cover which features a truly sick contact sheet of 6x6cm images of Dare Wright fidgeting w/ a Hasselblad, until the last frame of Edie, mimicking the same.
Looking at photographs of Dare Wright in her youth & adulthood I am struck by her poise, by what seems a kind of visual self-possession. Her demeanor was urbane, bordering on bohemian, but w/ a backbone of proper. If anything, reading about her life w/ mother, I am reminded of the end of the Hitchcock film Marnie in which the mother screams at her lying, stealing, pathological daughter that Marnie was raised to be “decent.” & so was Dare Wright. Or along more pop lines, Dare Wright was raised to be like the Nat King Cole hit “Mona Lisa.” Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep/They just lie there and they die there/Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?/Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art? Beautiful, inscrutable & untouchable. Wright’s story is a story about proper manners as a kind of perversion, an ill-fitting mask over psychological oddities. It’s all about what wasn’t said, what wasn’t done & what didn’t happen.
After the mother has passed, as Dare Wright entered old age, this became a paradigm of extreme self-destruction. Her later years had been spent in a apt on E. 80th St., & she spent a great deal of time in Central Park, often sleeping there, or bringing people she met there to her home. Ultimately, Dare Wright died in a public hospital on Roosevelt Island.
Given Dare Wright’s timeline, I along w/ my friend D., another avid devotee of The Lonely Doll, realized that in her proximity to the Metropolitan Museum, & Central Park, along w/ our own – either one of us could have seen her, potentially often, without knowing it.
I must give Jean Nathan credit for telling a macabre story in a sensitive, respectful manner, without sensationalism or a sense of spectacle. It could also be perceived as a potentially slight story – ultimately little happened in a very circumscribed life – & again Jean Nathan opens this up to a sense of the profundity of just that. The story is almost Victorian. As a biography it’s all sadness, but one must look at the books, the ability to create them, as being the true achievement.
Larry Sultan’s work is most familiar to me from books: Evidence, Pictures from Home, and The Valley. The work also exists as gallery prints & has been used in magazines spreads. My personal attachment is to the books & the experience such a form offers: private, on my own time.
Evidence, made with Mike Mandel, is a collection of industrial photographs, which as a collection, leads to a kind of non-sense of imagery. Nothing relates, nothing really means anything, but the viewer is face-to-face with “evidence” of something somehow. There is a dry humor in the residue of corporate imagery, it’s utter obscurity & obsolescence, but it is also a kind of psychic downward spiral, a tension between the kitsch of execution & a horror of banality.
Unlike a lot of work which uses vernacular imagery often as a kind of nostalgia, or a collection used to codify forms, Evidence uses imagery which traffics between the institutional & the ridiculous – as archaeology, the imagery is ultimately embarrassing in its weirdness, its cryptic passages between intention & effect. We can see the flotsam of bureaucratic engineering, of attempts at social delineation and control, and also it’s limited shelf-life, it’s temporal lapse into nothingness.
There is an agitational quality to Sultan’s work, an unrest, a meta-critique of the uses of photography which is most apparent in Evidence, in which the imagery is found, but which also informs the 2 long-term projects, Pictures from Home, which deals with the suburban culture of Sultan’s parents, and The Valley, which is “behind the scenes” of the adult film industry.
Pictures from Home uses both Sultan’s color photographs of his parents, living on the edge of a golf course, in southern CA, along with frame enlargements of home movies made by Sultan’s father. The home movies are predictably bucolic & idealized – vacations, fun, high points. Sultan’s photographs seem much darker in comparison, although in extremely lush color, in the brilliant SoCal light, in their acute focus & detail (contra the pictorial inexactitude of the home movies). Sultan’s parents are used as kind of a test-case of post WWII prosperity & its retirement, figures placed in an artificial new world of synthetics, hovering in an ahistorical constant present. Sultan’s parents become the post WWII nuclear family, severed from kith & kin, adrift in a sea of commodities.
In comparison, the images in The Valley seem the most illustrative, juxtaposed with both Evidence & Pictures from Home. The images can be read easily in either magazine or on a gallery wall: the behind-the-scenes of the adult film industry, on location in rented McMansions in the San Fernando Valley. The images concentrate on the absolute clutter of the houses as sites of filmmaking, in terms of the logistics of the set-ups as well as everything that is necessary to sustain the shoot. Also the images deal with the hours of waiting behind any film project – hours of tedium distinguishing the work involved. While it has some of the romantic appeal of a film like Boogie Nights& a general fascination with the adult film industry in our culture (a Puritanical vision of carnality at its most commodified, i.e. sensible form), the real subject seems to be the conformity & dullness of work, any work. The hideous McMansions of the Valley photograph extremely well: settings of baroque vulgarity, impersonal except for the particularities of bad taste from house to house, & even then nothing is ever unique or outstanding. Everything is prefabricated, mass produced, & strangely empty. The models for the films reiterate the alienation of the architecture & decor in their utter displacement from it. Everything looks kind of awful & inexplicably expensive.
Larry Sultan’s photographs for The Valley, printed large, fit comfortably in art galleries, wherein large color photographs are a kind of contemporary salon painting. Akin to PL DiCorcia’s images of pole dancers, or the more obscure images of porn sets done by Jeff Burton, which seem more about distraction & daydreaming on the job (Burton was also working for various companies). Still, Sultan’s images have a kind of distancing & self-consciousness which keeps them from being pure commodity. The images are rehearsals for images, attempts, auditions, lapses, distractions. The models look mechanical & bored. The theme of scientific management seen in the images of Evidence is sublimated but constant throughout The Valley.
From Evidence to The Valley: dealing w/ corporate imagery, the family, suburbia & sex. Such an engaged & challenging use of the camera & the photograph.
In two current shows in New York, Still Life, curated by Jon Feinstein, at the Camera Club, November 5 – December 19, and Surface Tension: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection, curated by Mia Fineman, at the Metropolitan Museum, I am struck by the insertion of historical work placed in proximity to contemporary images.
The title Still Life is a pun: still life as an artistic term is meant to be arrangements of things, often humble and domestic, such as Dutch 17th century painted floral studies or tabletop displays. The French term, nature morte, is even more explicit in a tacit understanding of that which is viewed being wrenched from the world of the living to a static collection of some sort. In Jon Feinstein’s show, the work is all portraiture, which in conventional terms is the antithesis of the still life: the portraits are presented as a series of masks, as formal, technological constructions. The title “Still Life” also alludes to the stilling of life, which reminds me of the panic of the portraitist in the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Oval Portrait” in which the finished portrait enacts an occult death of the model, to the horror of the artist. Or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1859, about the stereograph, “Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it.” There is also a Barthesian sadness to the title, as it alludes to the morbidity of the photograph – all we see in a photograph no longer exists as such.
Still Life includes studio work by two former members of the Camera Club, Louis S. Davidson and John Hutchins. Davidson was also a former president of the CCNY. Hutchins was also a dramatic coach who had worked with Cary Grant, Genger Rogers, Tallulah Bankhead and Lauren Bacall. He also lectured on photography through the US.
Working with models and elaborate studio lighting represented refined skill sets and photographic knowledge at its acme when these images were made in the 1940s. In hindsight, what we see now are images of great plasticity but adrift from any context beyond their surfaces. Sixty-some years does not necessarily represent much on a time line but in terms of the contexts we need to sustain meaning in photographs, it is apparent how simple and easy it is for such armature to disappear. What we are left with is the aesthetic experience of a mask, as a cipher to what had been.
A sense of future archaeological inquiry informs the selection of the contemporary work, of the portrait as a mysterious other, which can be confirmed in its formal arrangements, but otherwise evades our prying eyes.
At the Metropolitan, the show Surface Tension brings together mostly contemporary photographic artistic work which explores the “thingness” of the photograph, it’s intersections with that which it records or traces. This can include a 1:1 replica, such as a digitally stitched image of pavement (by Matthew Coolidge), physical actions upon the photographic paper by hand (Marco Breuer) or light (photograms by Adam Fuss), or light leaks which disturb a conventional image but which make it a unique thing (Wolfgang Tillmans). The show makes a case for looking at some contemporary practices, with their meta-consciousness of forms, as echoes of earlier photographic forms.
This is done with a remarkable vitrine in which there is a copy of the first photographic book, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae – Cyanotype Impressions, self-published in 1843, which predates William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, published in 1844. Atkins’ images are all photograms – the algae specimens are identified by their forms, which are seen in negative on the blue field of the treated paper. The images circulated loosely & were bound by their recipients. There are less than 20 known copies of the book. What I find so resourceful & simple to the book is that the images constitute the pages. Atkins was a botanist and amateur photographer – such an elegant solution to bookmaking.
Also in the show is a remarkable salt print facsimile of a medieval religious text, by Roger Fenton. Both Atkins & Fenton used “originals” to trace something which then be reproduced. One can’t help but see this as an aspect to a lost “golden age” (or perhaps more appropriately “silver”) of photography when it existed as a new technology and as such could be used in a remarkably fluid manner.