This is my last guest blog post and it’s been an honor to share my thoughts about contemporary photography with the Baxter St/CCNY audience. I wanted to end my guest blogging stint with a post about an upcoming continuing education course I will be teaching at the School at the International Center of Photography.
Titled Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography, this course focuses on historical and contemporary representations of family. It is intended to expose students to the range of artists and photographers who have used their cameras to define their concept of family. Though weekly critiques, in this class students will also begin or continue to develop their own body of family work.
Below you’ll find more of the course description plus select images that played like a slideshow in my head when I was thinking about the photographers whose work I wanted to discuss in this course:
Capturing the immediate family as subject matter has almost always been considered a form of vernacular photography, and yet some photographers have made it a part of their life’s work—thus confirming or contesting official discourses of race, gender, and sexuality.
Moving beyond simple snapshots of domestic scenes and the heteronormative, “nuclear” family, this course reexamines the genre of family photography and investigates its cultural politics and new importance, as it is being redefined by historical events such as migration/immigration and queer visibility.
Throughout the term, we will look at and address the family work of a diverse selection of historical and contemporary photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Elinor Carucci, Emmet Gowin, Catherine Opie, Carrie Mae Weems, and other artists, such as LaToya Ruby Frazier, Zanele Muholi, and many more.
Top Image: Renee Cox. Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.
For more information or to register, visit the Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography course page on the ICP School website. This is a 5-week, course that will run on Mondays from 6:30-9:30pm from May 22 through June 26, 2017.
Also note, in June of this year I will also be teaching a one-weekend course titled Layered Narratives: Visualizing Stories Through Photocollage.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.
Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:
Photography at the 2017 Whitney Houston Biennial
Conversation with Marco Scozzaro on Digital Deli
Five Visual Motifs in the Photographs of Ren Hang
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity
Autograph Media is a recently launched photography licensing agency from the people who run Autograph ABP, the British-based photographic arts organization. Specializing in all aspects of race and cultural diversity throughout history, Autograph Media’s image library is comprised of a multitude of collections from various media partners like Getty Images and Magnum Photos.
Covering a wide range of subjects, while browsing through the Autograph Media archive online one quickly realizes what a treasure trove it is. Well tagged and contextually/conceptually linked, during my first look I quickly went from 1950s images of newly arrived West Indian immigrants in London to documentary work on the British in India… and yet Autograph Media doesn’t stop at visualizing the history of Britain’s colonized subjects.
During my Autograph Media search I discovered images from the Afro Newspaper/Gado archive. Founded in 1892 by John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave who gained freedom following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, The Afro-American newspaper was formed when Murphy merged several church papers together. With a large circulation in several cities, the Baltimore-based newspaper was instrumental in effecting social change on a national scale from pushing for black representation in the legislature, to establishing state-sponsored education for African Americans, fighting the implementation of Jim Crow segregation and even collaborating with the NAACP on civil rights cases.
With its nontraditional and inclusive hiring practices, The Afro-American employed notable black intellectuals (Langston Hughes, Romare Bearden) and journalists and while many of the images in the newspaper’s archive don’t give photographer credit, we do know that they employed women photographers like Erika Stone. The image of Little Miss Black Liberty below from Autograph Media’s online archive is by Stone, a photojournalist, magazine photographer and member of the Photo League. After she had children, Stone exclusively photographed children and family. (For more work by Erika Stone, take a look at this portfolio of her Ellis Island images from a previous Baxter St blog post by Patricia Silva.)
Autograph Media is a compilation of several photography archives, many of which you can access individually from their own websites. Yet the value of Autograph Media lays in its mission of making visible a multitude of historical images that offer a more fair representation of human history at the intersections of race, culture and gender. Visual resources like this remind us of our past, our humanity and ultimately what’s worth fighting for in this era of uncertainty and political instability.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party, The Black Female Self in Landscape, In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes and Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers.
Sadie Barnette’s Do Not Destroy solo show opened last week at Baxter St to a roaring reception. It’s not every day that you get to see a gallery show that features the classified FBI documents of an ex-Black Panther Party member. That Panther is Rodney Barnette, who founded the Compton, California, chapter of the Black Panther Party of Self Defense in 1968. The centerpiece of Barnette’s show is undoubtedly the wall filled with copies of her father’s surveillance files, embellished in the artist’s signature “graffiti” and faux jewel treatment.
Barnette’s show features minimal photography. Opposite the wall of FBI files stands two seemingly life-sized portraits of a young Rodney Barnette that his daughter/the artist has rephotographed. On the left we see him smiling in his US military uniform. In opposition, to the right is Barnette captured in harsh flash donning a black beret, t-shirt and leather jacket; his dark shadow looms large behind him as he looks off camera. This photograph of Rodney is untitled, and yet we need no explanation that this is a changed man, reincarnated as a BPP member.
In the juxtaposition of these two portraits, the viewer contends with the use of photography as a witness to Rodney’s shifting identities and ultimately the medium’s political power. Without going into the internal politics and covert government action that caused the party to disband, I’d like to briefly discuss what art critic John Berger considered to be “the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle” and the Black Panther Party’s strategic use of photography (and posing) in crafting their own brand of Black anti-fascism.
Many B&W photographs exist of the high profile BPP leaders. Both male and female members are pictured in socio-political context: raising fists, encouraging crowds, marching in demonstrations, standing in formation, working at their headquarters, being interviewed by and addressing the press, conversing critically with each other, meeting other political leaders, performing community service or even just relaxing at home.
Then we see the isolated figure: numerous solo portraits of Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. This image of the lone revolutionary becomes ubiquitous just a few years earlier with Cuba’s Che Guevara and the Black Panthers utilize their portraits on paraphernalia like flyers, buttons, posters, t-shirts, publications. Sometimes these solo portraits were used to vilify the Panthers, like in the wanted poster below of Angela Davis. (Side note: you can view this poster in person at the ICP Collections at Mana Contemporary in NJ. It’s quite an amazing experience!)
The Black Panther Party’s visual message also conveyed their unique style and sex appeal, both aspects of the party’s identity that no doubt helped with recruitment efforts. Jet black leather jackets, Ray Bans, berets, perfectly coiffed afros merged effortlessly with the sleek profiles of .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols to create an impressionable representation of Black power.
Both Kathleen Cleaver (BPP communications secretary and wife of Eldridge) and co-founder Huey Newton became the party’s default sex symbols. Newton was pictured exhibiting his bare-chested, muscle-toned physique both at home and when he was freed from prison in 1970. Bingham’s images of Cleaver portray her as a thing of beauty though she may not have intended this to be her role. Yet Cleaver did play with fashion by often sporting a large afro, hoop earrings and the radical above-the-knee length skirt style thus creating a new revolutionary aesthetic in clothing for (Black) American women. The Black Panther style was even appropriated in advertising as seen in this vintage ad for Newport cigarettes.
Not only did the Black Panther Party provide political power for many Black Americans, but they also affirmed the notion of family. This familial bond was forged mainly through offering life-sustaining services like free breakfast programs and community schools operated in cities like Oakland, CA. So not only do we see Panthers providing children with nutrition and education, but we also see children in attendance at rallies and marches. Of course, the most famous BPP child was Tupac Shakur, son of party member Afeni Shakur.
Knowing that the photographic image is only as empathetic as the photographer behind the lens, the BPP leaders were strategic in appointing Stephen Shames as the party’s official photographer. In another move to control their image, Muhammad Ali’s personal photographer Howard Bingham was contracted for six months to shoot a 1968 cover story for LIFE magazine upon the insistence of party leader Eldridge Cleaver.
Despite the negative reports and judgements about who they were, the Black Panther Party members were in full control of their own image as surely they knew their supporters and haters around the world were watching. The BPP’s strong message spread overseas in areas where other Black communities were struggling for their own civil rights, inspiring regional groups like the British Black Panthers – see the work of Neil Kenlock. In this time post-US election where many are preparing for struggle once again, we are fortunate to be able to reflect on these images.
For additional viewing, I’ve created a Black Panther Party Photography board on Pinterest. Also, the Smithsonian Institute has an excellent BPP archive of black & white, documentary photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Sadie Barnette’s Do Not Destroy, curated by Alexandra Giniger, is on view at Baxter St now through February 18, 2017.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: The Black Female Self in Landscape, Forthcoming Photbooks by African American and Black African Photographers and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.
Earlier this month, noted art critic John Berger passed away. His death immediately sparked ripples of mentions throughout photography and art communities online. Though his writings may have been eclipsed by the more-celebrated musings of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Berger’s observations on the propagation of the photographic medium are nonetheless as crucial and still relevant today.
When I heard of his passing, I immediately looked for my copy of About Looking (Pantheon Books, 1980) which I happened to find years ago amongst a pile of books left on the street. The book is a collection of essays by Berger written over ten years which were all previously published in New Society magazine and The Guardian UK newspaper. About Looking not only discusses the act of looking at photographs, it is “a fascinating record of the search for meaning within and behind what’s looked at.”
Berger’s most direct critique of our lens-based medium is an essay titled Uses of Photography, in which he writes down “some of my responses to Sontag’s 1977 book On Photography.” Without publishing the entire essay, below I’ve highlighted select quotes that introduce and elaborate on Berger’s idea of “an alternative photography” to counteract the medium’s nefarious functions and realize it’s altruistic possibilities.
WARNING: The following quotes contain radical (or what could be considered socialist) views on photography’s historical role in modern, Western society. Proceed with a decolonized mind.
“The speed with which the possible uses of photography were seized upon is surely an indication of photography’s profound, central applicability to capitalism. Marx came of age the year of the camera’s invention.”
“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances.”
“A mechanical device, the camera has been used as an instrument to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a memento from a life being lived.”
“Has the camera replaced the eye of God? The decline of religion corresponds with the rise of the photograph.”
“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”
Upon (re)reading this quote I immediately recalled photographer/ethnologist Edward Curtis who made it his mission to document the North American native population because of his imperialist belief that they were “a vanishing race.”
“… the current systematic public use of photography needs to be challenged, not simply by turning round like a cannon and aiming it at different targets, but by changing its practice. How?”
“The truth is that most photographs taken of people are about suffering, and most of that suffering is man-made.”
Certainly this quote speaks to the historical and systematic utilization of ethnographic photography of native and indigenous populations around the world. In our globalized era, suffering is injected into (public and private) visual culture through images of war and illicit pornography which is a byproduct of modern slavery or human trafficking.
“It is possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.“
“The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.”
“The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.”
Next Berger argues that photographs are typically used in a “unilinear way… to illustrate an argument, or to demonstrate a thought…” Consider the way a forensic photographer records the initial appearance of a crime scene as the first encounter and experience it through their subjective perspective. Berger also cites a photograph’s more common, tautological use so that it only “repeats what is being said in words.”
Although Berger argues that memory is not linear and works radially, with an “enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.” This radial pattern of memory is compared by Berger as being like the spoke of a wheel, which is a bit simplistic with just a single radiating plane. In my opinion, memory’s radial pattern has multiple (perhaps intersecting) planes and instead mimics the fractal-like, radiating pattern of a dandelion seed head.
“If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory. We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.”
“A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.”
I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this profound “radial system” and ways in which it can be used in storytelling and to display photographs in physical locations (galleries, public sites, etc.) More importantly I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps Berger was signaling our use of the #hashtag as a descriptor and curator of images on social media.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party and The Black Female Self in Landscape.
A recurring theme within contemporary art photography has been the imperative to address the biased or unavailable historical representation of the Black, female body. Since the 1990s’ artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Renee Cox, Xaviera Simmons and now Nona Faustine, have used photography to recognize Black womanhood in all its unattested complexities. In the photographs shown below, each artist has settled their melanated bodies within their landscape of choice – sites that have witnessed unspeakable violence, marooned existences and/or enlightened encounters.
Arguably the most prolific in her use of self-portraits within landscape, Carrie Mae Weems’ elegant figure has crossed the lens of several different bodies of work starting with her 2001 Dreaming in Cuba series. Unlike the other artists discussed, Weems more often than not stands in opposition to the lens, as if leading a group behind her. Exaggerated by robes or gowns, Weems’ figure floats into the frame, inserting the Black, female body into spaces from which its presence was forgotten or previously denied entry.
Launching her art career after a two-year pilgrimage retracing the TransAtlantic slave trade with Buddhist monks, Xaviera Simmons’s concern with wilderness explores spirituality in art. In previous works, Xaviera has used photography to create (self) portraits in both constructed and natural environments that question African-American identities and their relationships to those settings.
Although all of these artist perform for the camera, Renee Cox’s work is most dramatic in its telling of the stories of Black female figures like Queen Nanny, the only female national hero of Jamaica. Taking advantage of the physical strength expressed by her own, muscular body, Cox is concerned with self liberation and challenging the predetermined roles imposed on Black women.
Continuing this photographic tradition, Faustine’s work brilliantly hits at the intersection of two major socio-political conversations of the 21st century: the #BlackLivesMatter and body size acceptance movements. Standing on sacred, scarred or political North American spaces, Faustine’s self-portraits ultimately function as archaeological documentation. In its robust form and stoic posture, her body is a blatant reminder of chattel slavery yet also channels (art) historical representations of the feminine – from fertility goddesses/Venus figures to ancient Egyptian statuettes.
Faustine’s use of poetic captions with each photograph is particularly unique as she educates the viewer of what lies beneath these commonplace landmarks and tourist attractions. As commentary on issues that haunt our past and present realities, the images in White Shoes and in Faustine’s follow up exhibition at Baxter St are timeless, visualizing the cycle of (our country’s) birth, (economic) growth, death and rebirth.
Nona Faustine’s solo exhibition, My Country, closes this week at Baxter St. You can also see her talk at the Brooklyn Museum this Saturday, January 14th.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party, The Black Female Self in Landscape and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.
I have developed a few exercises that I feel were very beneficial to my photography and to my understanding of the field. This is the first such exercise and I will post more in the coming weeks.
For this exercise, pick a favorite photographer and pick five of their images that you really enjoy. Write a short paragraph about each one. You may like a photograph because of how it strikes you visually, but you will always find that there is more there when you start to describe it, even to yourself. Writing about photographs is a great way to go deeper into the work of a photographer and to better understand their vision.
I picked Walker Evans and here are the five photographs and the short paragraph I wrote for each. Keep in mind that this is just an exercise for yourself. This doesn’t have to be scholarly or technical, it’s just to get us seeing on a deeper level and getting lost within the picture plane. There is additional information about Walker Evans at the end of this post. Enjoy.
This ramshackle tumbledown store barely ornaments a desolate paved and patched country road in the deep south of Alabama. The sidewalks are unkempt and unwalked. Unaffiliated chimneystacks litter the abutting barren field like monuments of failure. Rough-milled wood slat fencing ostensibly protects seemingly nothing worth protecting. You can feel the harsh sunlight beating down on the patchwork roof as it refuses to set. Advertisements for simple pleasures – sodas and circuses – adorn the shanty only slightly more effectively than a carving on a tree stump, only with not half the charm. The power lines visible in the top right corner of the photograph bypass the shack altogether, wholly negating the concept of refrigeration or any notion of electric lighting.
Belle Chase, Louisiana 1935
If ever an edifice could be crestfallen, it is this one. The Woodlawn Plantation house manages to embody a tired Stoicism, exhausted and undone by both nature and man. The fluted Ionic columns sag under the weight of a warping entablature. Successes are married with excesses and triumphs wedded with follies. Ceremonially and unnecessarily boarded and solemnly and necessarily forgotten, the slats of the shutters are giving up one by one along with the shingles, following a banister that relented long ago to the torture of abandonment. Ivy envelops the eaves of the front-gabled afterthought side chamber. Unsown crop rows insult a lawn that ought boast a bowling green and ornamental gardens. Street front property. Only one previous owner.
Iron barred windows of an upstairs jail. A sweltering holding cell for the town drunk or a mendacious transient, a structural crack spoiling the cosmetic stuccoed exterior of the mayor’s office starts the decay of this rural suggestion of a government building with the hand-lettered indication redolent of an old west ghost town. A fire has charred and colored the collapsing blocked concrete add on that adjoins the pseudo-monolithic structure, but has failed to engulf and overtake it completely. Repurposed train cars improvise livable spaces. A Model A Ford litters the adjacent un-mown field. A slanting horizon adds to the desperate unease and feeling of a slow suffocation. A puddled road halfheartedly reflects what once was.
Allie Mae Burroughs
Hale County, Alabama 1936
The photograph of this tenant farmer’s wife reads as a God-forsaken icon of The Great Depression. All of the evidence of a life hard lived lies in her elderly-from-a-young-age face and piercingly ignorant eyes staged before the simplest of wood sidings. The slightest patch of missing hair is further testament to hardship. Still, a non-frown is sometimes a smile, and we find contentment and appreciation despite penury.
Bud Fields & Family
Hale County, Alabama 1936
Pseudonym Thomas Gallatin “Bud” Woods
An homage to destitution, a malnourished cat lies under an iron bed by the dirt caked feet of the Fields family. A paucity of possessions is a photographic treasure chest. The dirt covers their clothing better than the wood floor covers the dirt. The unconvinced grandmother, in her stockings that aren’t worth pulling on, looks wary, but too tired to protest. Behind depleted faces remains a semblance of togetherness and contentment. The scarcely clothed toddler seems oblivious to the reality of his existence, while his slightly older sister stands where self-awareness selects detachment.
More on Walker Evans:
Walker Evans was born into an affluent family in St. Louis, MO in early November 1903. His parents’ wealth afforded him an education at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, and from there he proceeded to Williams College, where he studied French Literature before dropping out after his first year. Upon separating himself from formal academic studies, he traveled to Paris for a year, before returning to the states and settling in New York City, where he quickly befriended the most esteemed members of the art community. In 1928, at the age of 25, Evans got his first camera and began photographing in earnest. Only a few short years later, in 1933, he landed his first major assignment – photographing for Carleton Beale’s book, The Crime of Cuba, which documented the revolution aimed at overthrowing then dictator Gerardo Machado.
Evans’s next big appointment was shooting in West Virginia and Pennsylvania as a staff photographer for the Resettlement Administration, a project of The New Deal designed to relocate struggling rural families to planned communities. The project was renamed and reorganized less than a year later due to some members of congress alleging that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s endeavor in this sphere amounted to Socialism. The restructured program was called the Farm Security Administration, which, in part, intended to document the effects of The Great Depression, with Evans’s work focusing mainly on the rural south. Most of his work form this time was shot with a large format 8×10 camera.
In 1936, while still on duty for the FSA, Evans accepted a freelance assignment from Fortune Magazine documenting the lives of three white tenant families in rural Hale County, Alabama to complement an article to be written by James Agee. The magazine later scrapped the piece, but in 1941 the work was published in book form with the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The project was envisioned by Agee as a three-volume set, with each tome being “an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity,” but the two intended sequels never came to fruition. The photography in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a reference to a verse from Ecclesiastes, details rural poverty in stark detail. The wealthy landowners told their tenants the journalists were Soviet Agents in an attempt to dissuade them from allowing themselves to be photographed and reported on.
Evans continued to work for the FSA until 1938. That same year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited Evans’s work in it’s first ever show of a single photographer, while simultaneously publishing the catalog American Photographs. In 1945, Evans became a staff writer for Time Magazine, and soon after became an editor at Fortune, holding that position until 1965, when he become a professor of Graphic Design at Yale University. Shortly thereafter, Evans became the first professor of photography at Yale, teaching until his death in 1975. Lincoln Kirstein, General Director of the New York City Ballet and personal friend of Evans’s, said of his photography, “It is…the naked, difficult, solitary attitude of a member revolting from his own class, who knows best what in it must be uncovered, cauterized and why.” There is an understanding in his photographs that marries acceptance with incredulity, without ever feeling the crossing of a boundary or any personal imposition by the photographer himself. The images show a truer reality of the country than any before or since, and there is no better title for this collection of Evans’s work than American Photographs.
There has been a lot of discussion of late of artists’ and collectors’ rights following the Christie’s auction in March wherein William Eggleston sold reprinted editions of 36 of his iconic photographs and raised $5,903,250 for his artistic trust. The photos were 60” by 44” instead of his usual smaller print size and they were printed using a digital printing technology instead of his traditional dye-transfer printing technique. The complaint from collectors is that these reissues devalue their original investments in his artworks, with one collector, Jonathan Sobel, even taking the photographer to court claiming fraud was committed. The Eggleston Trust argues that artists should be able to make money from their works just as art dealers and collectors do and should be allowed to make “new editions in new formats”. While this is sure to be a precedent setting case, I am not attempting to enter the discussion on the issue. William Eggleston is my favorite photographer, but I feel somewhat pulled to both sides of the debate simultaneously. That said, this is simply a biographical introduction to the life and work of Eggleston.
Memphis is ugly. William Eggleston knows that. Yet throughout his life, Mr. Eggleston has continuously made extraordinarily beautiful and remarkable images of very ordinary, mundane, and even ugly places and people in and around Memphis, Tennessee, where he was born in 1939 and still lives today. Largely considered the father of modern color fine art photography, Mr. Eggleston has traveled the world creating his powerful dye-transfer photographs, but his photos of the American South are his most notable, and even his images from Japan, Paris, Germany and elsewhere seem to be drenched in Americana. He has often said that he is at war with the obvious. His worm’s eye view color photograph of a child’s tricycle on a suburban sidewalk which graces the cover of William Eggleston’s Guide perfectly elevated a ubiquitous and therefore ordinary childhood toy to an iconic status, turning it into a monument of sorts.
Eggleston spent most of his childhood on his grandparents’ plantation in Sumner, Mississippi, where he was primarily raised by his grandfather who took him under his wing, as he was the first boy born into the family. He was brought up in a well-to-do household and attended college, admittedly infrequently, at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. Eggleston never earned a college degree, but it was during his college years that he began photographing, acquiring his first camera in 1957, and his first Leica Rangefinder, the camera he is known for using almost exclusively throughout his career, in 1958.
After absorbing a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, Eggleston says photography finally “clicked” for him, though he was not only interested in photographing images that contained a decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson was, and, both expounding upon and somewhat disregarding that idea, he began to photograph images that he felt lasted longer than a defining moment or were at least less founded in that concept. Eggleston’s earliest photographs are black and white images that are certainly inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s, but also contain subjects and compositions that seem to linger and convey a subtly unnerving mood. He also introduced an unorthodox method of cropping the people in his photographs in unusual ways, often showing only parts of faces and bodies of passersby in his compositions.
It was in 1965 and 1966 that Eggleston began to experiment with color film. It almost seems unbelievable today that this was considered taboo in the art and photography worlds at one time, but it most definitely was. Black and white photography was the only photographic medium that could be considered fine art, with any deviation disregarded as amateurish and wholly denounced as mere snapshots. This all changed largely as a result of the work of William Eggleston, but certainly not overnight. Eggleston met the renowned photography curator of the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, by chance in 1969. Eggleston was carrying with him a suitcase full of “drug store photographs”, as Szarkowski later described them, but he recognized something special about Eggleston’s work and persuaded the photography purchasing board of the museum to acquire one of his prints.
Though William Eggleston is considered by most to be the father of color fine art photography, his recognition did not come immediately. It wasn’t until seven years after his first meeting with Szarkowski that his photos were shown in a major exhibition in New York, but the indefinable honor of having the first major one person show of color art photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York belongs to Mr. Eggleston. Curated by John Szarkowski in 1976, this seminal show was initially blasted by art critics, who clearly did not understand the importance of Eggleston’s work, as “banal” and “boring.” Eggleston claims that he was not fazed by the negative reviews, but instead felt bad for the critics; they were supposed to be modern art critics and they didn’t even understand modern art, he has said. Most of these reviewers have since apologized to the artist for their failure to understand and appreciate his photographs at the time. Many people did not value Eggleston’s photos until they noticed that he was having them printed using the dye-transfer process, the most expensive photographic reproduction technique available at the time, which forced art patrons, museum goers, and art critics alike to reexamine their viewing habits. Slowly, people began noticing the brilliance of Eggleston’s composition and framing, his unique vision of the world and his surroundings, and, most importantly, and largely for the first time in fine art photography, his use of color.
The dye transfer process is a subtractive method of printing that creates extremely vibrant, saturated colors with bright whites and rich blacks. Dye transfer prints were traditionally used as a proofing method for magazine advertisements, but Eggleston spotted it on the menu for a photo printing facility, and, after noticing that the option was the priciest the shop offered, he decided to test it out as an alternative printing process for his photographs. He loved the result so much that he subsequently printed all of his large prints this way until very recently, when the quality of digital printing finally exceeded the quality of dye transfer prints and beat the price as well.
While picking through Eggleston’s endless back catalog of prints for the MoMA show in 1976, one curator opined that all of the photographs seemed to radiate in a circular manner from the center of the frame. When asked whether or not this was a conscious decision, Eggleston without pause said that all of his photographs were based on the confederate flag. Eggleston famously all-but-refuses to talk about his photographs, instead leaving it up to the viewer to experience the photo for what it is, usually without as much help as a location identifying where it was taken or even what year, with the artist claiming that that sort of information is “not about photography”. He seems much more interested in talking about his photography, and photography in general, as a canon. Occasionally you may hear him talking about how he thinks the color red is at war with the other colors, or walk with him while he’s photographing and you may hear him say something like “God damn, that’s a good blue!”, but the particulars of specific images are basically off limits unless he decides to start talking about them and you happen to be there to hear. The list of Eggleston’s disciples is seemingly infinite, but one notable is Alec Soth. Soth once visited Eggleston at his home in Memphis to meet him and gain some insight into his photography, but left feeling perhaps even more curious as he had been when he arrived. It is up to each of us individually, as viewers, to appreciate Mr. Eggleston’s works for what they are: timeless color photographs of the familiar, the obvious, the beautiful, the ugly and the rest, or to borrow the answer Eggleston himself gives when people ask what he is photographing, “life today.”
I thought it would be appropriate to begin this series of posts for The Camera Club with a brief piece on Alfred Stieglitz, one of The Camera Club’s earliest and most influential members.
In studying the fractal history of photography, we frequently encounter myriad claims of invention and hear seemingly endless debates over true versus derivative ingenuity, but in the countless interwoven timelines and records of the field, Alfred Stieglitz stands out not only as the man credited with elevating photography to its current stature as an accepted and celebrated form of fine art, but also as the most instrumental and effective proponent of early modern art in America, helping to usher in an entirely new epoch in the history of art at large.
Born New Year’s Day in 1864 in New Jersey and raised in New York City, Stieglitz was an inspired academic from childhood, with his father, a Lieutenant in the Union Army receiving officers’ pay, taking a tremendous interest in the scholastic advancement of his first son. His father enrolled him in the Charlier Institute, the finest school in New York at the time, and later moved him to Germany to study during the last year of high school, fearing the school he was enrolled in was not challenging enough for him. In 1881, Stieglitz arrived in Germany and studied under Hemann Vogel, a chemist and leading researcher in the developing field of photography. It was about this time that Stieglitz bought his first camera and traveled around Europe photographing both nature and the peasant classes of Germany and Italy. At the same time, he began writing articles for the magazine The Amateur Photographer on the subject of photography and, more notably, aesthetics. After winning a Christmas photography contest held by the magazine, he gained even more notoriety.
Though he was making a name for himself and was quite content living in Europe, Stieglitz was still dependent on his father and returned to New York City after the death of his sister, but only under threat of losing his generous monthly allowance of $1300 a year from his father. Back in his good graces upon returning to America, his father bought him a small photography company called “The Photochrome Engraving Company”, hoping he would be able to pursue his interests in the field and make a living at the same time. It is safe to say that business was not Stieglitz’s forte, as his interests lay with the costly exacting perfection of the photographic processes and production techniques. This obsession combined with the generously high wages he paid his employees prevented the business from turning a profit. He began writing for The American Amateur Photographer and almost immediately was offered the position of co-editor of the publication, where he wrote of photography’s rightful place beside painting and other art forms, yet, illustrative of both his lack of business sense and his intermittent ethical stances, he refused to draw a salary as The Photochrome Engraving Company was printing the photogravures for the magazine and he did not want to seem biased.
Always one to adapt and accept with enthusiasm the evolution of photography and its tools, Stieglitz purchased a handheld 4×5 camera in 1892. This allowed him to shoot more frequently and without the encumbrance of a tripod, and it was with this camera that he made some of his most admired early images.
In 1893, Stieglitz married a young brewery heiress named Emmeline Obermeyer – not for love, but for “financial advantage.” He was both known to enjoy the company of young women and to be ambitiously determined, traits which would prove problematic not only in his first marriage but throughout his life. Working even while honeymooning in Europe, Stieglitz went out of his way to meet the top photographers in his travels and was eventually unanimously voted into Linked Ring, a British photography group whose principal purpose was to push photography as a legitimate fine art form. Upon returning to the US, Stieglitz quit his jobs and pushed to merge the two photography clubs in New York City, which he believed were outmoded and idle, eventually succeeding and combining the two as The Camera Club of New York in 1896. He chose to become the Vice President instead of President so that he could take advantage of the classes the club offered instead of wasting his time with administrative matters. Shortly thereafter, Stieglitz began publishing Camera Notes, which quickly became recognized as the finest photography magazine in the world.
Stieglitz then turned his attention to showing his own photography as works of art, producing the portfolio “Picturesque Bits of New York & Other Studies” in 1897 and exhibiting 87 prints in a one man show at the Camera Club in 1899. This show was followed shortly thereafter by a falling out with the old guard at The Camera Club, who thought Stieglitz was too controlling and eccentric. He was largely unfazed and even motivated by the fragmentation of the club, then focusing his energy on putting together a total photography show in 1902 called “Photo-Secession”, a name calling attention to the fact that photography was wrongly considered outsider art. The show opened to public and critical acclaim. It was around this time that Stieglitz met the photographer Edward Steichen and became fast friends with him, even opening a small gallery in 1905 in the same apartment building that Steichen lived in, calling it “The Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession.” The first show featured 100 prints from 39 different photographers, all chosen by Stieglitz himself. Soon after, he decided to showcase the watercolor paintings and drawings of Pamela Coleman Smith, which was a revolutionary exhibit simply for the fact that Stieglitz was showing accepted forms of fine art in a gallery of photography, a form of art yet to be recognized by the art world at large. This marked the beginning of Stieglitz as not only a promoter of photography, but of modern art in general.
In 1907, Stieglitz began experimenting with toning, waxing and drawing on his platinum prints. When he next traveled to Europe, he saw a demonstration of the Autochrome Lumiere color photography process, which he of course fell in love with and adopted immediately, making him one of the very earliest photographers to create true color exposures, not simply toned or otherwise colored photographs.
Due to his new costly experiments, and his lack of fiscal discipline in general, Stieglitz briefly had to close the Little Gallery, but reopened it shortly after in 1908 as “291”. The new gallery name represented a lot to Stieglitz and the art world at the time, symbolizing a shift from the photo-secession mindset as photography as outsider art and also allowing Stieglitz to do anything he wanted with such an abstract name, which didn’t conjure any thoughts of a specific art medium or even style. Bridging the gap between accepted traditional art forms and new media became his primary focus, and with great influence from Stieglitz, The National Arts Club hosted a “Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art”, which is recognized as the first major US show with photographers given equal stature as painters.
In 1909, Stieglitz’s Father died. He used his inheritance to keep the 291 gallery and his magazine Camera Work going as long as he could. In 1912 he broke new ground again, publishing a special edition of Camera Work devoted entirely to the modern art painters Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, without a single photograph printed in the issue. If the art world was going to be hesitant to accept photography as art, Stieglitz’s world of photography was going to turn the tables and fiercely appropriate modern art itself.
After being shown a portfolio of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work in 1916, he could not wait to display the pieces, hanging the actual pages of the portfolio without contacting the artist for the originals or even asking permission first. O’Keeffe eventually heard about the unsolicited show and paid Stieglitz an angry visit in his New York gallery. By the end of 1917, the two were writing each other all the time. The next year, O’Keeffe moved from Texas to New York to be with the still-married Stieglitz. His wife Emmy kicked him out after returning home one evening to find Stieglitz photographing O’Keeffe in the nude. From 1918 to 1925, Stieglitz made over 350 mounted prints of O’Keeffe, many of them nudes. Though their marriage would prove to be untraditional at best, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe wed in 1924 in a private casual ceremony at the Stieglitz family lake house.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts attempted to acquire 27 Stieglitz photographs in 1924, but Stieglitz refused to sell them, insisting instead on donating the prints to control which images they would receive. Stieglitz had by this time become known as the Godfather of Modern Photography, even granting Ansel Adams one of his first shows in New York City in 1936. At the end of his life in 1946, Alfred Stieglitz had mounted over 2500 prints of his own images and promoted the works of countless others, and while he was not without his faults and detractors, he will always be credited and lauded for elevating the medium of photography to the same respected level of fine art as painting & sculpture and for fervently piloting modern art to America’s shores.
Silver nitrates, the Brownie, Kodachrome film, the Polaroid, digital CCDs– the history of photography finds itself everywhere reduced to technological determinism: here comes some new technology, what can we make of it? If we include social, political, and philosophical developments in the history of the medium, they are mentioned as effects rather than causes. The birth of this Camera Club, for example, seems to follow from a historical boom in the availability of camera equipment and technological know-how to amateurs; and even this photography blog, born from the possibilities of digital optics and communications. As a writer and a curator, I’ve devoted my career to exploring the ways in which technology drives aesthetic innovation. I care a lot about the current role of technology in the arts and that’s why I’ve decided to try and destroy it.
What I mean is that I want reverse the way we talk about cause and effect in the photographic discourse. I want to figure out ways to talk about technology in relation to photography without falling back on technology to explain photography. How have historical social and political changes prompted the development of new tools and techniques in photography? How do certain social behaviors emerging today call for photography to innovate untold new aesthetic forms?
In running this blog for the next few months, my underlying premise will be that all of photography’s technological paradigms–all its tools, techniques, and ways of understanding–are generated by the contemporary habits of the community of artists, activists, and amateurs that use the medium, not the other way around. This goes as much for Nadar’s ingenious aerial photographs of 19th century Paris as for the public domain archives NASA maintains of its space photography program today. To invert a saying of the political philosopher Jacques Rancière, communities create forms of Art equal to themselves, no more and no less. People don’t suddenly stumble on a new idea or device like an alien artifact and then decipher its use–imbedded in every innovation is a human history of desire, struggle, and participation. Yes, technologies quickly outpace our intentions and expectations but only by being adapted through the ever-changing needs of its community of users.
In a sense, I think this means we have to stop relying so much on technology in aesthetics and beyond. I’m not asking for us to use less technology going forward–that would be like asking for less weather tomorrow–but I think we should stop imagining that technology and/or the experts who “invent” it magically supply us with everything we need to push the boundaries of Art, and our world. Instead, let’s work to create the type of community that is capable of imagining new tools and ideas, of calling forth forms equal to itself. On the one hand it means no one, specifically, will be responsible for inventing the future of photography and its place in the world; on the other, it means this future is already in the hands of everyone, regardless of if they realize it.
I didn’t invent this idea and below you’ll find some sources that convincingly argue for and against it. But I’m not worried about proving to you that my position on all this is original, or even the right one. My only goal is to try to use this chicken-and-the-egg question to temporarily bring the giant, unwieldy field of photography down to a level where we can explore the workings of its community, preside over its history and its future in equal measure, and find new ways of looking at and through the camera.
social, political, and philosophical histories of photography: