Diane Arbus – A Wasted Opportunity

The Louisiana Museum, Denmark – March 24, 2022 to…. Forget it.

I managed to get to Louisiana, an art institution in Denmark, which has for many years been at the forefront of staging excellent exhibitions of mostly 20th century art. The museum has a strong enough collection to lend and borrow and thereby attract the best.

I admit my expectations were high. Diane Arbus was why I got into photography in the first place. The very unstable looking kid in Central Park holding a hand grenade was my trigger to change direction from Renaissance Art to Photography. Reading that the first ‘major’ exhibition of Arbus’ work in Scandinavia was only half an hour up the road from where I was staying, was an opportunity too good to miss.

This past Sunday, I made the short journey and couldn’t wait to see something about this great photographer that was new. Maybe even a few images I had not seen before. Maybe a visit with some of my favourite works. Alas, I was deeply disappointed. 

The selection of work was limited – exclusively drawn from the Art Gallery of Ontario collection in Toronto – and the whole thing felt like a travelling road-show. It felt canned and hung because it was easy and fast.  The AGO collection is far from exhaustive and has large gaps.  The Louisiana Museum had many months to plan and prepare this show, given COVID and with our new knowledge of how to use tools like Zoom, or Teams, I see no reason why they did not take the opportunity and bring together something much more exciting. 

My main challenge, was placing the works in chronological order, which doesn’t really work with the Untitleds, which form such a major part of her body of work.  The subjects, which Arbus photographed in her many Untitled images, often have Down’s Syndrome, while others again are simply institutionalized ‘inmates’ with no voice of their own. These photographs are problematic in today’s context. Hanging them does not take into account critical issues around exploitation and the gaining of permission. Yes, the State may have allowed Arbus access, but that does not give her the right to shoot without permission, or does it? 

Diane Arbus: Untitled (1)

One of the early labels attached to an image I do not recall, quotes Arbus saying something like, and I am paraphrasing: “….. my style of photography and a short lens demand that I ask my subjects permission before photographing them.”  I do believe the Museum should have spoken to this when it comes to subjects that never had the choice, nor the voice. I presume by mixing in the Untitleds with the other works, the curator somehow thought he didn’t have to comment? 

The labels accompanying each photograph start out being plentiful in content, but virtually become title, medium, date towards the time when Arbus’ style was more fully developed (larger square format prints). There is no mention of the famous set of images of which she sold only a single set to none other than Richard Avedon (unless I missed it), nor was it clear which grants she did, or didn’t get.  There was a blown up low quality poster print of one of her applications glued to the wall – I think to the Guggenheim Foundation – which if successful should give hope to every aspiring photographer. It was rambling and poorly written, and certainly not terribly helpful for a jury to evaluate. The label did not say if she was successful in that particular instance.

Had the Louisiana curator and his team bothered to let it be known that this show was being assembled, there are experts abound who know Arbus and her work inside-out and backwards.  Where for instance were the reference works?  Where was Lisette Model’s Woman with a Veil, San Francisco, 1949, which so deeply inspired Arbus’ work.  Where are the contemporaries.  The Winogrands, etc. The Museum even had the recently published book from the seminal 1967 show in its bookshop, but it doesn’t show any examples. (New Documents – Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, MoMA 1967, curated by John Szarkowski).

Finally, Identical Twins hung on its own. A perpendicular short wall set up just for this image. Unfortunately, I am a little over this image. Over exposure perhaps, but it remains the cornerstone of any serious Arbus show, as it should. Identical Twins was – I think – printed by Arbus herself (I assume it was, as no Selkirk reference was given). It hung there in all its glory, but with a mat so tight to the image that you cannot see the border or framing at all. Anyone with any knowledge of Arbus and her work will know that she spent many, many darkroom hours working on how to use the edge of the negatives to create a frame around her work. The edge of the negative being part of how Arbus worked.

I have read many accounts of how Neil Selkirk – who printed for the the Arbus Estate under the direction of Arbus’ daughter – spent hours trying to copy the technique Arbus used to give the proper feel to each print. I do not understand why Identical Twins was framed the way it was. It makes no sense, as every other square format photograph in the larger size was hung in a frame with a mat that clearly showed the entire negative frame.

In the image below, which I grabbed off the internet, it is very clear what the border of an Arbus printed image of Identical Twins should look like.

Stephen A. Fran: Diane Arbus with her photograph Identical Twins, during a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970.

The Danish population overall is not well educated in photography, the history of, or even the names of some of the key masters of the art.   This is a great shame, given the role of photography in art today.  You need only go look at the ‘photography’ section at the only important auction house in the country, Bruun-Rasmussen, to see that there is no market, nor it seems any interest in Denmark.  Nobody is laying the foundation of knowledge, which is so disappointing. Louisiana’s has had a key role in bringing 20th century art to life and to the Danes. It had an opportunity with Diane Arbus to start doing so for photography, but chose instead to bring in a canned show with little or no context.

I looked into the curator, whom I understand is well respected. From my little and limited research online, he has the art history credentials, but with no, or very limited photography background. He is incidentally also the head of acquisitions at the Louisiana Museum, which again does not bode well for photography.  Incidentally, I happen to know a couple of the photography curators that used to work at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  They eat, breathe, sleep and dream of photographs.  At Louisiana…. not so much.

The Diane Arbus show was such a wasted opportunity for the Louisiana Museum, and for their second act, well, the second act is just shameful. This summer, the Louisiana Museum will have a show of Richard Prince’s work. I wrote about this appropriating, unscrupulous, so-called ‘artist’ in a recent post. Needless to say, I will not be going.

Harbel

Who’s Shooting Anyway?

Give the photographer credit where due.

When you see a photograph credited to a particular photographer, what do you expect?  The person held the camera, pressed the shutter, set the F-stop and exposure time?  Selected the lens perhaps? Created the set?  Dressed the model? Was in the vicinity of the studio, or set?

It seems so feudal when two dozen assistants work diligently to set up the shot and the maestro shows up for a second, or two and presses the shutter (or not) and takes all the credit.

Granted, in every discipline of work and play there are leaders and followers; prima donnas and blinded fans; kings, queens and serfs.  However, as a photographer, does this mean that once you have shown that somewhere in your past you could actually compose and crate a beautiful photograph that you can rest on those laurels for the rest of your life?

Case in point the photograph I saw online in a newsletter the other day, shown below.  I am showing the credit, as it was given in the publication, however, it is very clear that Testino is neither holding a wire release, or pressing the shutter.  Clearly, one of his 12 assistants makes this photograph (there are 11 in the photograph that I can see, so one behind the camera makes 12).  There is no ‘Testino’ in this shot, as far as photographer goes, only a set full of people milling about and a famous photographer – Testino – standing on some kind of box, or piece of furniture holding a camera as though taking photos of the ceiling, and trying to look cool.

Mario Testino – Mario Testino, New York 2011

Is this where we are?  Testino claims the work of one of his assistants and we are OK with that?  Probably the poor photographer that actually made the photograph is an unpaid assistant, intern or…..  Are we OK with this?  Really?

Has the profession of photographer rolled into the present age completely un-checked? Values such as honesty, truth, credit-where-credit-is-due…. sharing the wealth, accolades and triumphs with employees?  A slave by any other name is still a slave.

We all like new talent, because they do their own work, their own set-up, they press the shutter, make the decisions.  Leibovitz’s original work for Rolling Stone comes to mind, not the spliced together images in Vanity Fair magazine, or the portrait of the Queen that wasn’t even there.   We fawn over their skill and speak of their ‘raw’ talent, and then they become this soft in the middle, standing on a box, pretender.  Past prime and living off the work of those that are unknown, uncredited and forgotten.

I have an idea; let’s roll credits for photographs, just like we do for film.  We can see who did the screenplay, built the set, lit the place, and was the Key Grip (I still don’t know what that means, but it always rolls by in the credits), and perhaps the maestro can list him- or herself as the Executive Producer.  The one that doesn’t do anything, but sits on set in a comfortable chair and secretly cannot believe his, or her own luck.

Who’s shooting anyway?

Harbel

Ending Appropriation of Photographs by So-Called Artists

When the Marlboro Man met the hedge fund manager and his unscrupulous Art Advisor.

For a very long time, I have rejected the so-called ‘artists’ who appropriate and re-introduce someone else’s work as their own, which in turn, by way of the non-discerning eye of the opportunist art advisor, finds its way into the collection of a Wall Street hedge fund manager with more money to burn than a forest fire in Colorado.  A collection where bigger is better and expensive is an attribute.

For the past 30-odd years I have followed the ups and downs of the judicial system, which has interpreted a single word: ‘transformative’ in any number of ways with wins and losses awarded to one side, or the other.  More often than not, the victims have been photographers with great talent, but not so deep pockets.

There may finally be a glimmer of hope on the horizon.  2021 may well turn out to be a key year in the fight to take photography back from the copycats:

In August 2021, the photographer Lynn Goldsmith – probably best known for her portraits of musicians – was successful at the New York Second Circuit Federal Appeals Court, in her appropriation case against the Andy Warhol Foundation.  The ruling overturned a lower court decision and states that Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of Goldsmith’s 1981 portrait of Prince was an appropriation and was not sufficiently transformative.

Goldsmith, Lynn – The Artist Prince 1981 | Warhol, Andy – Prince

In December 2021, the New York art gallery Metro Pictures closed it’s doors for the final time.  The gallery was opened in 1980 by Janelle Reiring, an assistant to Leo Castelli, and a partner. Metro Pictures legitimized appropriation, mostly at the expense of photographers, who did not have a chance to benefit from the collectors who made Metro Pictures a huge success.  Not to suggest that the closing of a single gallery in any way changes what has been happening, but perhaps in a small way there is justice for the photographers who for years have tried to fight against overwhelming odds for their rights and their photographs.

Appropriation in the modern context probably originated with the ready-mades that the Dadaists exhibited.  A urinal, a metronome, an iron.  In the 1960s, things get a little fuzzy when Andy Warhol made Brillo Boxes and placed them in a gallery.  More fuzzy yet, when Marilyn Monroe’s studio portrait was turned into the now famous silk screen series, along side Liz Taylor, Mao, Elvis Presley…..  

I don’t know if it hinders or helps, but I think of ‘transformational’ as something more than taking a two dimensional image and changing it to another two dimensional image, where you can still recognize the original image.  I don’t care if you go from colour to black and white, or the other way around; add paint; frame it, or unframe it; enlarge it, or shrink it; digitize it; re-photograph it….  If a photographer who in most cases has a difficult enough time making ends meet cannot count on society to protect her or his work, where exactly are we?

On March 1st, 2018, Richard Prince tweeted, attaching a photo of one of his Instagram appropriations:  “Last night at LACMA. Artists don’t sue other artists. They get together, have a cup of coffee, argue, kick the can, hash it out, talk about Barnett Neman, and how aesthetics for an artist is like ornithology is for a bird.”  Maybe, just maybe, 2022 is the year where the appropriated laugh last.

In his commentary on the work of 100 photographers called “Looking at Photography” Professor Stephen Frailey writes of Richard Prince: “Richard Prince’s work as a component of the hollowing of cultural authority is particularly perverse and savvy; the transaction from yard sale into the ranks of high culture, with the resounding approval of the financial market place.”

I guess the market speaks and the lemmings follow. Be that as it may, but answer me this: Where does Norm Clasen go to get his just rewards.

Harbel

Paris Photo is back

After a hiatus in 2020, Paris Photo 2021 was back this November.  While I should have written about the event sooner, it is perhaps good that I have had time to digest and think about things before writing.

I was able to secure a hotel quite close to the new temporary venue at the south end of the Champ de Mars, where every morning and afternoon I was greeted by an uninterrupted view of the Eiffel Tower before entering and after leaving the exhibition.  This alone made it Paris Photo. 

Atwood, Jane Evelyn – Blind Twins – St Mande school – 1980

I was astounded by the ease with which traffic moved in and out of the venue.  The checking of COVID passes and the checking of tickets and badges was smooth and at least as good as it has ever been at Grand Palais.  Full marks there!

Once inside, the venue looked and felt very permanent.  There was nothing temporary, or cheap about the construction, or materials used to form the exhibition hall.  It was laid out as a giant letter T.  At the top, where one enters, there were rows of booths across, separated by main aisles.  Down the center column of the T there were first a few more gallery booths, and then the various ‘special’ sections and finally the books and a small stage area at the back.  The book section I found was well done.  I did not go to the show during any of the book signings, which may have created some serious bottle necks, but when I was there, the opening afternoon and evening and during the mornings later in the week, it was great.

I had an opportunity to revisit some classic images at the galleries.  There was a prominently centered print of one of my all time favourite works by Chris Killip (Killip sadly passed away in October 2020), among several of his well known works from the North of England in the mid-1970s. Of course there were superb works by several of the usual suspects: Penn, Avedon, Newton, etc., etc., but equally there was new work, and a few new discoveries for me, which is always wonderful.

Killip, Chris – Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside 1976

However, I did want to point out one booth in particular (You know who you are….); It was an exhibition of work by a single photographer (I understand this is one of the things that you get bonus points for when applying to participate in Paris Photo.  Why? I don’t know….).  I bring up this particular booth as it showed a mix of modern Estate Prints that looked to me to be printed on 30cm x 40cm paper and hung along side vintage prints some of which were the same size, some smaller.  The frames and frame sizes were almost identical throughout.  The exterior walls of the booth were predominantly hung with the Estate Prints. I seem to recall, priced around EUR 2000. 

I avoid Estate Prints like the plague.  They have no secondary market value to speak of, and I think they misguide the new and young collectors, who are dropping good money on something without any real chance of ever recovering even a fraction of their investment.  Estate Prints, particularly those that are not limited in terms of numbers are downright scary.  They can of course be nice decorative pieces, but so can posters.

In the case of the booth that I am speaking about at Paris Photo, I found deception in the air.  I think anyone who is new to collecting photography would be tempted by a price-point in the EUR2000s, for a photograph that they might well remember having seen in a book, or magazine.  Of course, the very tempting price point compared to other photographs that were hanging in the main aisles would perhaps have led more than one novice to make a catastrophic mistake.  I don’t think the majority of casual visitors to Paris Photo would know the right questions to ask.

Of course, there are exceptions to my Estate Print rule, such as the work of Diane Arbus, or that of Luigi Ghirri.  The latter because the colours in his vintage work have shifted so badly that they look worse than my 1975 family album in most cases!  In the case of Diane Arbus, the fact that she barely printed any of her work in her lifetime so sadly interrupted, and the fact that her daughter took charge with a master printer has over time proven to be a reasonable way of sharing Diane Arbus’ incredible images.

Perhaps an argument could be made for entry level collectors to have access to work by great photographers, but when you can go into the auction and secondary market and purchase work for under EUR 2000 that is vintage, or at least signed by the photographer in her or his lifetime, it is wholly inappropriate that someone should pick up a modern Estate Print with no real value at an event like Paris Photo.

When you attend an event like Paris Photo, the premier photography event of the year, there is no room for this kind of deception and the booth should not have been allowed to show the Estate Prints in the way they were shown.  It made me, as a collector and a photographer want to go wash my hands, if not have a shower.

I don’t think I saw a single Chinese gallery represented, which I found interesting, but of course given quarantine rules in China and Hong Kong, I completely understand that you cannot attend a show and then go home to endless weeks of quarantine.  Not good for business.

There were likewise several North American galleries that were not in attendance.  This I think was in part due to travel advisories (for instance in Canada) and perhaps common sense on the part of others not willing to take the risk of booking flights, hotels, and crate transport at great cost with the risk of having the whole thing cancelled.  As a result, there were several new galleries that were more ‘local’, some European, several Parisian, and these did their best to fit in and bring interesting work. 

Wood, Tom: Bus Odyssey 1986

Overall, it was great to see old friends and new galleries alike and it was in some ways like stepping back to a time when there were no worries and we could enjoy photography for photography’s sake.

I look forward to next year and again seeing new, old and exciting work. 

On a final note; I would suggest to the organizers that they find a supplier of modular partitions for 2022.  I walked by the event hall on Sunday night with my dog.  Tear down was underway, and there was way too much used drywall, and other single use materials that went straight into dumpsters and no doubt from there to landfill.  In today’s day and age, that is just not good enough.

Harbel

On Parr at the Villa Medici

After a long absence from my blog and from travel, I am extremely pleased to have been able to once again take in an exhibition.  I don’t know if the Martin Parr show at the Villa Medici was intended to be a show for COVID-times, or if it is merely a happy coincidence, however, the exhibition is a photography show in the open air.  I have rarely experienced these other than on the fence that runs along Les Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, which is OK, but a rather terrible setting, and the odd temporary things you meet on the road that are neither curated, nor usually very interesting.

The Parr show on the contrary is well thought out and placed in a corner of the Villa Medici gardens, high above the rooftops of Rome.  Using various formats from maybe 1.5 m tall by 4 m wide, to smaller 30 cm by 40 cm, a couple even smaller, and finally a few lawn loungers with Parr images printed on the seating fabric. The show offers various views of Parr’s work in an unusual setting.

Harbel: Martin Parr – Villa Medici, Rome 2021

This section of the Villa Medici gardens are laid out with a grid gravel path and tall hedges that make up large rectangular spaces of grass with a few architectural fragments, the occasional sculpture, but still quite formal.  You walk the path, get to an opening and step in.  There are ‘6 rooms’ in the show, closed off with fences and images on two ends.  The show takes up only a portion of the whole garden, and the balance is blocked off for those that pay for another ticket to tour the gardens.  Not cool, but at COVID times, I guess any museum is excused for gouging a little.  It has been a heavy drought in the money department for most all of them, the private ones in particular.

Unfortunately for me, I guess I have seen too many Parr shows in the past few years and found that most of the images in this show are retreads of greatest hits.  The scale of the images do nothing for quality, and the fact that they are set the way they are, exposed to the elements, it is perhaps understandable that it is more about the image than the quality of printing.  As prolific as Parr is, there is a certain disappointment – at least on my part – when you see the same lady on the beach with her eye protection, and the man with the hat not quite covering the bald spot.  But, I must say, I was happy just to be there and see photography once again.

Harbel: Martin Parr at the Villa Medici, Rome, 2021

Was it great?  No.  Was it worth seeing?  Yes.  Would I pay for it if I knew what I was going to get?  Probably. I was just happy to be among photographs again.

Harbel

The Albino – A Nino Migliori Masterpiece

I came across a photograph by the Italian Master Photographer Nino Migliori.  Like most other photographers, I have known Migliori only for a single image.  In fact, I will admit that I knew the photograph, but not the maker for many years.  I am of course thinking of his spectacular Il Tuffatore (The Diver) from 1951, which I always think of in the company of Kertesz’s Underwater Swimmer from 1917.  Both of which have achieved almost iconic status. 

Migilior, Nino – The Diver 1951

“The Diver” – shown above – is the result of a great eye, a great composition and a little good fortune, given the speed of film in 1951.  But, to my happy surprise, I ran into an auction catalogue, where I saw another Migliori image, which I had not seen before, and which I find wonderful.

Born in 1926, Migliori is closing in on his first century.  He has worked in what I would describe as an independent and slightly irreverent manner his whole life.  His work reflects a great love of his native Italy, while at the same time making images that are not necessarily geographically specific, but rather show the genius of a great observer.  I have previously quoted Eduoard Boubat, who noted that the difference between a great photographer and everyone else, is that “the wandering photographer sees the same show that everyone else sees. He however stops to watch it.”

When you stand in the window and look at the rain come down and your daily walk with your camera is messed up, because of bad light and rain, it takes a certain genius to see this photograph develop in front of you.  Add to that the great fortune that someone down there didn’t get the memo about the exclusive use of black umbrellas…..  The photography gods were clearly on the side of Nino Migliori.

Migliori, Nino – The Albino 1956

The photograph plays with scale. It takes a while to figure out what you are looking at, and to me at least, it has an almost botanical feel.   A close-up photograph of a pillow of perfectly formed dark flowers with a single bloom that is without pigment?  Or, with a smile on my face, I thought it could be the pope amongst his flock, but of course on closer inspection, the tightness of the crowd and their umbrellas throw you back to a time when people carried black umbrellas, wore hats, and suits and actually went to the office.  Now people sit at home thinking of a time when crowded streets and subway platforms were the norm, hoping one day to return.

It is time to look at more work by Migliori.  I look forward to it!

Harbel  

The Danger of the Artist’s Statement

I recently purchased a photograph by a young Greek photographer.  I really enjoyed the feel of the image and the mystery that he has achieved with what could either be simple analogue tools, or some heavy computer intervention.  I prefer to think it is the first!  Of course.

I did what I always do, ignoring the context entirely.  The photograph was in a selection by the photographer that showed up this morning in one of my photography newsletters.  I figure that given all the shows and exhibitions around the world that are suffering either from COVID-closure, or a very restricted audiences, that we owe it to the photography community to buy a piece here and there to keep everyone committed to their art in bread and water, if not steak and Chateau Lafite.

I may have made the purchase as a reaction to the news that for the first time in 20 years, I will not be attending Paris Photo, which was cancelled yesterday.   The Paris Photo organizers hung on much longer than they should.  My gallery friends said months ago that they would not take booths this year… that 50% of sales go to the United States, and given what is going on in the US, it would be unlikely that many, or any Americans would attend, or even be allowed to attend, etc.  Long story short; Paris Photo finally bowed to the increasing number of COVID cases in France and elsewhere, as well the recently imposed restrictions on the size of crowds.

Feeling my growing depression over not going Paris Photo, I was so pleased to see something I liked in one of my newsletters and jumped on the chance to acquire a super photograph.

But, I digress… the reason for today’s blog entry is for me to perhaps suggest that there is great danger in the written word.  Personally, I don’t like artist’s statements, nor do I like curator’s commentary most of the time.  I like to let a photograph speak to me on it’s own terms and having that impression help form my interpretation of what is happening in the image, and my response to it. 

The danger to me comes when the artist sets out on some kind of verbose rampage and completely messes with my feeling, or interpretation of a work.  There is a degree of risk here.  Because, if I see it, love it and want it, but then read that my reaction to the image is completely off side, relative to what the photographer says she, or he intended, one of two things happen:  Worst case; I turn around, shake my head and walk away, or best case; I buy it anyway and spend the rest of my life trying to dispel from my mind the statement made by the artist.

Karabelas, Nasos – Woman #101

The image here I love.  Beautifully executed, the image allows my imagination to go wonder, while the other half of my brain goes on to an internal dialogue about the technical aspects of the execution – utterly hoping that it is not all about software.

Here is a portion of the artist’s statement:

“…..  Each photo is an entity, which includes a certain mental condition. So, we are dealing with a variety of emotional loads within a world that is equally ambiguous with ours. The forms obtain a dreamlike dimension. Sometimes you can not easily understand their contours. Τhe exploration of the forms inside the photographs gives us the opportunity to discover the various aspects of our psychosynthesis.

In this particular case, I went ahead and purchased the photograph, because I really think it is a great photograph, but it was close.  I almost walked away.

The lesson here is to not overthink the work, or at least let it speak for itself, because paraphrasing one of my favorite Japanese photographers: If I could write, I would not be a photographer.

Harbel

Photography IS Art

– It is sinking in…. even among non-photographers!

Early this morning, I was walking through the Milano Centrale railway station.  For the most part you could fire a cannon in the place and hit nothing.  For an average Wednesday, it was a little sad.  No, very sad. COVID19 is still very much in play here in Italy and people are playing it safe.  Doing what they now call ‘smartwork’ which is the new term for working from home.

I passed a bookshop that was open early, maybe dreaming of selling a newspaper or two, and much to my surprise it finally happened……  The photography monographs were mixed in with the painting and sculpture monographs.  First, I was irritated, because seriously, who wants to go through reams of books to find the photographers.  But then, it dawned on me.  This is probably the first time I have encountered an art section, and not an art section, a photography section and an architecture section.  I realized that this might just be the wave of the future – finally – where books on Rembrandt sit next to books on Marc Riboud.  Martine Franck next to Helen Frankenthaler.  You get the idea. 

Mario De Biasi – Milano Centrale 1950s

It is perhaps appropriate that I discovered this in Milan and not some other city, because this month kicks off the 15th Milan Photo Festival, which runs from the 7th of September to the 15th of November.  Milan has always had a great crop of artists, chief among them Gianni Berengo Gardin – my personal hero – who turns 90 this year!  Galleries work hard, alongside auction houses to educate and bring great exhibitions to the citizens of Milan and those that come to visit from elsewhere. 

The photograph above is one from my collection, a small vintage print from a platform at Milano Centrale in the 1950s. More people then, than now, but nice to see that Campari was still a great drink then, as it is today! Mario De Biasi was a great photographer, not well known outside Italy, but worth a look!

Sound the trumpets:  Photography is art! 

Hard to believe after just shy of 200 years!!

Harbel

Is this really the Digital Photography Revolution?

I have been wondering….  If software keeps improving, and the young does and bucks of the photography world all shoot digital, what happens when the ideas run out for extra-large, fully saturated colour photographs….  When perfect focus from front to back is no longer enough.

Woudt, Bastiaan -Disk 2020

I am sorry to say that perhaps I have my answer in the work of a young photographer from Belgium.  His work imitates classic fashion photographs from a golden age.  Something a great photographer might have done in the 1960s. Sam Haskins perhaps, or David Bailey…..? Grainy fashion photographs that look very casual, but are actually the culmination of years of practice and skill in the studio and in the darkroom.  You can see these images in your mind’s eye.    

Haskins, Sam – From Cowboy Kate

What I find so troubling is that rather than honouring the skill and expertise in lighting and darkroom work of the Masters and putting in the work, the young photographer does what seems all too common, he takes an average photograph using his digital camera and goes in and fixes it on his computer.  He does what only a contemporary photographer shooting in digital might do, he disrespects those that paved the way and made his life possible by taking a digital photograph and fixing it to look like something from an age when true Masters of the medium showed off their skills in the studio, behind the camera, and in the darkroom.

Bailey, David – For British Vogue

In a recent quote the photographer said:

“I shoot digital but the inspiration of analogue photography is very important and I think I have found a perfect way of having all the advantages of shooting digital but with the complete aesthetics of the analogue photo.”

Woudt, Bastiaan -Halo 2019

I wonder if it is just being lazy, or simply a sign of the times.  A young-ish photographer – born in 1987 – would rather work on a computer using a digital file than setting up the studio and lighting properly and having acquired the skills to execute the perfect shot using the materials that define the medium.  For extra measure, he adds in the grain at the end to resemble a classic analogue photograph and ‘Bob’s your uncle’, as they say. 

Bassman, Lillian – Barbara Mullen Blowing Kiss

Instant gratification seems to be the new normal.  How quickly can I see the image. How quickly can I upload the file and get behind the screen to do my thing, before posting it on Instagram.  Coco Chanel said the highest form of flattery is imitation……but to make a dress and copy a silhouette still takes skill.  On an average computer you can do most things and I don’t find that particularly  flattering.  In fact, one might wonder; was there a studio, a model and a hat, or is the whole thing just a jumble of ones and zeros.

As M said: “God, I miss the cold war!”

Harbel   

The Strange Relationship Between Artist and Gallery

I have in the past lamented the gallery that forces a photographer, or any artist for that matter, to work in a particular way.  In addition to often resulting in series of photographs in a certain quantity, I also mean that the gallery has a certain lay-out, a certain amount of wall space and will organize its exhibitions based on the limitations dictated by said space.  The walls are the walls and an accommodation must be made to bring the art to the space, as opposed to the space to the art. 

And here we have the crux of the matter:  A gallery has an artist in its stable with a contract.  Perhaps even an exclusive contract.  It befalls the artist to work with the gallery to get an exhibition of their work.  If the average gallery has between 6 and 10 shows per year, and a stable of maybe 20, or 30 artists, it does not take a world class mathematician to figure out that on average you wait 3 years to have a solo show.  This assuming of course that the gallery does not play favorites.  Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that the artists might be forgiven for trying to get their work to fit the gallery space. 

Further, it stands to reason that the gallerist fancies him-, or herself a connoisseur and has great sway when it comes to the work of the artists in the stable.  After all, they picked the artists and brought the artist a certain standing by having gallery representation in the first place.  Of course, I am generalizing a little, but for most artists, this is their reality.

Given that the gallerist will decide what work is shown in their gallery, the work will be influenced by the gallery space.  I have heard several examples of where an artist presents new work to the gallerist, only to be told that the work is not suitable for the gallery, or will not sell.  Short of breaking their contract and walking away, with whatever consequences this may entail, the artist is basically destined to conform to the wishes of their gallery.

Galleries seem to have had artists over a barrel for the longest time.  Sometimes this relationship can be a fruitful partnership that encourages an artist to do great work, but sometimes it is the shackles that stifle creativity and evolution of artistic expression.  After all, it mostly comes down to simply economics.  Supply and demand.  If there is supply and no way to create demand (as in no gallery representation), the supply is no longer relevant, however great it may be.  Case in point:  Dora Maar, once the muse of Pablo Picasso, and currently showing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was a great artist.  Picasso blackballed her work by threatening all the galleries in Paris with his wrath should they dare to show or sell her work after their tumultuous break-up.  Great supply.  No demand.

Let me give you an example from a very well known gallery in Italy, which has in its stable one of the greatest living photographers.  Out of respect for both, I will not name names. The photographer one day came to the gallery with a whole box of 30 cm x 40 cm prints that he had just finished making in his darkroom.  Each photograph was wonderfully printed.  The tonal range perfect.  The photographs were timeless.  And they will never leave the box.  Why?  Well, the subject matter is drawn from a number of old and perhaps forgotten cemeteries, where tilted and fallen stones, exquisite sculpture and the undeniable fate that awaits us all is shown, as only a great photographer can present it. 

The fact that these photographs will never hang on the gallery wall, or be shown beyond the confines of a single box in a sea of boxes, is a reflection of the gallery having decided that this work is unsellable and under no circumstances can it be shown or hung in frames along the walls of the gallery.  Of course, the gallery may be entirely right.  Not a single sale could happen, were the gallery to hang a show of dead people and their memorials.  But, is the decision not to show the artist’s cemetery work the gallerist’s to make? 

In a world where the gallery reigns supreme, there is obviously only one answer to this question.  But with public spaces abound, is it the only answer?  Sadly, here too, the gallerists hold most of the cards. Art is hung in public buildings, museums, and the like, but most often with a gallery deciding what should, or should not hang.  In a word, the gallery is the filter.  I can understand this, as it is easier for a public service, utility or institution to go to a gallery with multiple artists and simple say that we want a show each month and can you do that for us.  Easier because there will be a variety of artists represented by the gallery and instead of having multiple artists to coordinate, there is a single point of contact. Working with artists who might have different ideas, different frames, different demands, or even a different esthetic may proved challenging.  Working with a gallery is above all else simple.

I write this entry as a response to what I read in the most recent issue of Monocle.  A gallery in Milan run by Massimo de Carlo – the article calls him ‘Milan’s most prominent gallerist’ – has moved to a new location.  A villa, constructed in 1936. 

Massimo de Carlo Gallery – Milan

The article goes on to say that: ‘The space is embellished with a rainbow of mixed marble and ornate wall decorations’.  De Carlo is quoted as saying: “Artists don’t want cold industrial spaces and cement floors anymore”, he continues “The future of art is in locations with personality and history that can stimulate the artists.”

Massimo de Carlo Gallery – Milan

And there you have it.  The space for the artist to show his or her work is no longer merely a blank canvas to serve as a neutral background for their work.  No, now the artist has to accommodate the quirks of a 1936 villa, designed and decorated for the use of a family, not as a gallery.  Built at a time, when the Fascists ruled Italy.   Now, the artist is expected, as per de Carlo, to be inspired by the space and produce art accordingly.  This sounds a little totalitarian, does it not?

Harbel

Alex Prager – In the Tradition of Eggleston, Arbus and Sherman? I Think Not….

In a rather flattering introduction to the new show at FOAM in Amsterdam, Alex Prager is described as being rooted in: “……. the photographic tradition of William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, each of whom mastered the art of freezing the indeterminable everyday moment.”  I am sure being in the company of those that most photography enthusiasts, and novices, recognize for their brilliance, will make lots of people flock to FOAM, Amsterdam. 

Eggleston is one of the early proponents of colour photography.  Arbus observed people, mostly on society’s margins, and Sherman is famous for her Untitled Film Stills.  All three are gods on the Mount Olympus of Photography, yet, each is known for a very different contribution to photography. I am not sure that you can find any overlap between the three, nor even with the best intentions any reasonable link to Alex Prager.

I might buy the argument that there is a bit of common ground between Sherman and Prager, but even there, I have trouble seeing the relevance.  In Sherman’s break through work Untitled Film Stills, she uses herself as a model to make photographs that could double for those we would have seen in the front lobby of any movie theater through the 1980s.  The genius of Sherman’s work is in the story she is not quite telling in a single black and white photograph.  Sherman says nothing.  There is no title.  She lets the viewer develop a story in their mind’s eye.  Different hair and make-up, different looks, different distances, different settings evoke different film genres.  There isn’t a Museum today that would not fall over itself to have a few Sherman Untitled Movie Stills in their collection.  The photographs are beautifully staged and executed in the standard 8” x 10” format that you would see at the movie theater.

William Eggleston made photographs that, one might say, broke the colour barrier in photography.  Serious photographers before Eggleston were black and white photographers.  Sure, others contemporaries shot in colour, but their success did not happen till much later when they were ‘discovered’.  Think Saul Leiter and Fred Herzog.  Eggleston uses saturated colour.  His compositions, which are often deceptively simple and sometimes by appearance, almost random.  Eggleston’s photographs are shot analog and printed with the best available materials, as dye transfer prints.

Diane Arbus, is the photographer with whom I have the most difficulty finding any common ground with Prager.  Arbus usually shot square format, full frame photographs of consenting people on the margins of society.  Portraits, one might argue. She showed those that were outsiders and often disadvantaged.  Always photographing in black and white, Arbus is best known for her posthumous 16” x 20” photographs, printed by Neil Selkirk.

Now, let us have a look at Prager.  She comes up with good stories, or suggestions of stories for her pictures, which are often helped along by a title (unlike Cindy Sherman, who did not title her film stills, just giving them numbers).  Prager then uses advanced computer graphics, takes a sometimes large number of digital photographic files and blends them to create the setting and background she is looking for.  She prints them in large sizes, in hyper-saturated colour.  One might say, that Parger is more like Jeff Wall than Sherman, Eggleston or Arbus, but maybe less cerebral? 

Prager, Alex – Susie and Friends – The Big Valley 2008

So my message to the person writing the infomercial copy for the Alex Prager show:  Colour by Eggleston.  Film still by Sherman?  What by Arbus?  I get that you need to get people through the door. I understand that: ‘Come and see Alex Prager’s oversize, saturated colour digital prints, made using advanced software skills, blending multiple digital files, made to resemble could-be-real-life situations…..’, might not sell, as many tickets. 

Let us call a spade a spade, and let us not invoke those that were trailblazers, to boost sales.  This is not fair to Alex Prager, and certainly not fair to Eggleston, Arbus and Sherman.

Harbel

Franco Fontana in Modena – Colour Photography Defined

“…the world you live in is colour: you must re-invent it in order to show, as the colour becomes the very subject of photography, it is not a mere recording…” – Franco Fontana

The work of one of my favorite colour photographers is on display in Modena.  After almost 60 years of work, Franco Fontana is given no less than two exhibitions across three venues.  I saw a retrospective of a reasonable size, maybe 100 photographs in Venice a few years ago.  But the Modena exhibitions are supposed to be the main event.  I hope to go there in the coming weeks.

At 86 years of age, Fontana keeps working, the quality and the eye remaining intensely strong.  In a recent interview by Paola Sammartano, Fontana talks about his work.  I found it enlightening.  As you can see from the quote above, making colour photographs is challenging, as what we all live and see is in colour – well most of us anyway – and in order for this not to be just another postcard, enter the magician’s eye for composition.

Fontana, Franco – Havana 2017

Fontana explains that what the colour photographer has to do, is turn the colour of the everyday into the subject itself.  To a photographer – me – who tries hard to see the world in black and white and shades of grey, this is profound.  Fontana does not look for a particular composition of everyday life, as I do, he looks to take colour and turn the colour that he sees into the subject of the photograph, not actually setting out to record the object or scene that is in front of him.  Fontana has a different way of seeing.

I first knew Fontana from books.  He has done a lot of books.  Still does.  A few years ago, I bought a Polaroid by him, which I proudly framed.  And more recently, I added a second photograph.  It is one of Fontana’s most famous photographs taken in the south of Italy. The rolling landscape and the single tree are brought together by clear lines of precise colour coming from each field. Note that there is no horizon and aside from the tree, which could be large or small, there is no indication of scale. It is a wonderful colour composition. It works.  Much better in colour, than it would have in black and white.  This is a photograph of colour, not a tree, nor a landscape. This is pure Fontana.

Fontana, Franco – Basilicata 1978

Fontana says that: “….what you see is colourful and has to be reinvented [by the photographer] because the colour itself must turn an object into a subject.  If it remains merely an object, then I think the film, and not the photographer, is managing the colour.”

To me this explains why in his most successful photographs, Fontana is not making colour saturated, beautiful postcards, but is using the colour that he sees to create compositions that are about colour itself.  Colour separate from what is actually before him when he takes the photograph. 

I think many would probably suggest that Fontana’s most successful photographs have an abstract quality to them, showing fields of colour that together with other fields of colour create a splendid composition.  Fontana is asking the viewer to think about colour for its own sake.  Some will seek to find, and in most cases can make out the original object of the photograph.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to understand the origin of genius.  It is to better understand what it was that Fontana saw, and reinvented, so well.

Among today’s hyperactive selfie-nation there are surely phone owners who can make Fontana photographs, either by chance, or by computer. But, I admire that Fontana with film, camera, lens and available light, repeatedly can produce profound statements of colour that are not only recognizable and in his signature style, but also represent the finest in colour photography.

The curator of one of the two shows in Modena, the one not curated by Fontana himself says that: “His bold geometric compositions are characterized by shimmering colours, level perspectives and a geometric-formalist and minimal language”, going on to say that: “The way Fontana shoots, dematerializes the objects photographed, which loose three-dimensionality and realism to become part of an abstract drawing.” 

I like what Fontana himself says a lot better, but then, he is only the photographer.

Harbel

Note:  See the exhibitions at the three venues in Modena through August 25th at:

Palazzo Santa Margherita, Sala Grande, Corso Canalgrande 103

Palazzina dei Giardini, Corso Cavour 2

MATA – Ex Manifattura Tabacchi, via della Manifattura dei Tabacchi 83