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.
I apologize for the long silence – I was overwhelmed by exhibitions and other deadlines, but hopefully I have a few new things to share from visits to the Catherine Opie show at the ICA in Boston, and the Grazia Toderi installations at the Hirshhorn, and the superb Lewis Baltz show at the National Gallery of Art, both in Washington, DC.
Over the years I have seen Lewis Baltz’s photographs in small groupings most recently at the Whitney and a little while back in a Chelsea gallery New Topographics themed show. I had found his photographs austere, flinty but potent, formally diagrammatic with deep inky blacks, yet not at all easily pleasurable like the photographs of Aaron Siskind or Harry Callahan.
Yet seeing the 60+ small photographs from the “Prototypes” series all together in this NGA show ramped up my admiration. The photographs had such a distinctive feel and look that I was tugged into his notion of the American landscape – tough, unsentimental, not-sleek, practical, unheroic. I circled the galleries several times, marveling that such modest-sized prints – roughly 6 by 9 inches could wield such power. The wall text explained that Baltz “inked the edges of many of his prints and mounted them so that they project forward from their mat board rather than recede behind it. With this technique, he minimized the illusion of his photographs as “windows on the world” and stressed instead their nature as independent objects.”
And for a long time I have shared with my students a text by Lewis Baltz – his review of “The New West” by Robert Adams, from a 1975 issue of Art in America. I will quote at length from this, as what he writes is insightful about photography and his own work and is one of the best examples that I know of an artist speaking about a fellow artists work with a profound understanding:
“The ideal photographic document would appear to be without author or art. Yet, of course photographs, despite their verisimilitude, are abstractions; their information is selective and incomplete. The power of the documentary photograph is linked to its capacity to inform as well as to reflect our perception of the external world. In view of this it becomes possible, for example, to marvel at the striking resemblance the rural south still bears to Walker Evans’ ‘30s photos.”
Thirty-five years ago, before media theory quotes from Baudrillard became a photography theory staple, Baltz was aware of how our reading and understanding of the world was aggressively influenced by images.
Baltz continues in his review to say: “Adams’ insistence on the ordinary and the typical, as well as on the verifiable function of picture taking, is a prophylactic strategy against our culture’s increasing suspicion that photography, if not an outright lie, is at best a willful distortion of the world. By confining his attentions to the most commonplace objects and events, and by using his camera in the most direct and uninflected manner, Adams builds a series of points of correspondence between the viewer’s experience of the world and his own. Through this means he prepares the viewer for the one aspect of his work which falls outside the bounds of logical language: the strange and glacial beauty that, in spite of everything, still resides in the land.”
I urge you to take the Bolt Bus to DC and see this gem of a show, however if you cannot leave New York, then swing by Yancey Richardson Gallery before June 4th to see a few of his images in a group show. You can also flip through his new book “Prototype Works” published by Steidl, but even high quality publishing is nowhere near the real thing!
Lewis Baltz: Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit
March 20–July 31, 2011
Baltz, Becher, Ruscha
April 21 – June 4, 2011
by Lewis Baltz
Croatian artist, David Maljkovic says that a lot has changed in Zagreb where he lives and where Orson Welles filmed “The Trial” in the early 1960’s. In his project “Recalling Frames” which has been on view at Metro Pictures for the past month (it ends today – sorry for alerting you so late!) he combines stills from the movie with his photographs of the same locations in present day.
The photomontages are large (framed 42” by 53”) and feel substantial. I particularly like the compositions where angled geometric shapes where the two images combine or shift perspectives animate the stills and suggest motion. The full frame with information (frame numbers, ilford 100 delta pro labels, etc) underscore that the image is made with film and perhaps even slyly plays with the traditions of full frame = full truth.
In the Guardian (see link below) he explains: “I deliberately used an archaic technique to make this shot, so that it felt linked to Welles’s film-making process. I took photographs of the original film frames, and then went to the same location and took another picture from the same angle. Then I put the two negatives together, and produced another photograph. It was a complex process. No labs for processing film exist anymore – the craft is dead – so I did everything myself. I constructed a lab in my studio and developed the pictures by hand. It would have been easy to do it all in Photoshop, but then the end result would have a completely different feeling.”
Photographers have a pretty intense relationship with their cameras. I remember reading that it took Dianne Arbus over a year to get used to her Rolleiflex when she changed cameras (the Met show in 2005). I am taken aback when I inventory the cameras I have used over the years: several Nikon FM’s, Leica M6, Mamiya 7, Horseman, and Hasselblad, and many digital cameras from Nikon, Olympus, and Panasonic. Of all of these, I loved – still love – the Leica – the solid, chunky feel, the lovely balance in the hand, the satisfying deep click of the shutter release, the gliding movement of the film advance lever with its partial cocking motion, the distinctive typeface (CorpoS – custom, of course) and the superb images too. Perhaps I bought the Leica hype, which helped me to deal with minor annoyances like the fussy film loading. Yet this love affair was brief, as I had already begun to slide over to the evil side – to digital – I did not have the patience to deal with the laborious scanning of negatives. So much for true love.
The British photographer Stephen Gill has made a series of photographs of a flea market in Hackney Wick by using an inexpensive camera that he bought at the very same flea market. Zoe Leonard made her large documentary project of shop fronts in the Lower East Side titled “Analogue” using a vintage film camera – the Rolleiflex too, I think. Yet, the German artist Susanne Kriemann who is based in Rotterdam and Berlin takes this approach much further. In an auction at the Army Museum in Stockholm she bought a 1940 Victor Hasselblad reconnaissance camera – the Ross – with some rolls of old film. Then she hired a helicopter and took aerial photographs of 1960s modernist housing outside of Stockholm using this old camera. Her project has several other strands including gathering other photographs taken by this camera that she found in archives in Sweden and also tracking down photographs of birds taken by Victor Hasselblad. She also made some amazing photographs of this 1940 camera, and the distinctive look of the Hasselblad models that we are familiar with is already in the DNA of this early prototype.
For more on the project, please see: www.susannekriemann.info/one-time-one-million-migratory-birds-romantic-capitalism/
“The Ross, 1940” by Victor Hasselblad
“The Ross, 1940” by Victor Hasselblad
Aerial view of Sweden
Aerial view of Sweden
A few months ago a promising young artist – and recent Bard/ICP graduate – Pierre Le Hors told me that one the most interesting books he had seen at the NY Artist Book Fair at PS1 was “Spomenik” by Belgian artist Jan Kempenaers. He sent me a link to the website of the superb Roma Publications where I could see a sampling of the page spreads. The photographs were of strange concrete monuments with unusual shapes – more sculptural than building-like, yet they carried echoes of Le Corbusier and Niemeyer – especially in the plastic forms – cylinders, starbursts, waves, hollowed out cubes – all made of cast-in-place concrete. Spomenik is a Croatian word for monument and in the late 1960s and early 1970s the socialist government in Yugoslavia built dozens of these monuments, however by the early 1990s they were neglected and in ruins.
The color photographs are probably large-format, straightforward in that the monuments are centered in the composition and their setting amidst grass or trees or placement within low foothills subtly included in the frame of the photograph. The lighting seems neutral and uninflected but not in the insistent Bechers mode.
I liked the photographs but was struck more by the back-story about the artist locating these monuments in Yugoslavia by using a map from the 1970s.
And then a few days ago I saw the book at Dashwood on Bond Street and was surprised by the precise beauty of the photographs and also by the scale. I had mistakenly imagined the book to be quite modest say 9 by 6 inches whereas it is a bit more substantial 13 by 9.5 inches.
You can see the spreads I first saw at http://www.romapublications.org/main.html, but I urge you to seek out the book for the full impact!
Last month I visited India to work on a new project in Nagaur and on my way back to New York, I stopped for a few days in Amman, Jordan and visited an alternative art space called Darat al Funun – a series of houses and lovely gardens and courtyards on a side of a hill – quite an unusual but effectively intimate setting to see provocative contemporary art from the Middle East. In a large show called “Sentences on the banks and other activities” curated by Abdellah Karroum, I came across two photo-based projects that I really liked.
The first was a simple photograph, not very large – probably 16 by 20 inches – of what appeared like two very large ladders with lights on them propped up on the side of a low, workshop-like building. The ladders rested on the ground but seemed to not lead anywhere but simply point up to the sky. Not functional. I liked the image but could not really figure out what it was about. The mood was hushed, night or early morning sky, and I liked that the lighting on each of the ladders was different and that these were huge ladders obviously not store-bought. Familiar object rendered fresh and magical, and a reminder that a beautiful image can be built with quite simple means, and that a single photograph can be alluring and powerful without the benefit of a series or large size. The artist Ninar Esber is Lebanese-born and Paris-based and works with video, performance, installation.
Check out her work at: http://www.ninaresber.com/spip.php?article46
The second project was in a way the opposite of Ninar Esber’s single, surreal photograph – a series of large collaged photographs by Catherine Poncin titled “Vertiges.” She combines sharp color photographs of the Rhummel gorge in Algeria with black and white, archival images – negatives printed as positives – of women in hijab. The images are diptychs or tryptichs within a single frame – not layered – yet they are quite beautiful and unsettling.
To see the complete project, please see: http://www.fillesducalvaire.com/index.php?SITE=1&CURRLANG=2&CONT=exhib&EXHIB=20