In light of yesterday’s decision by the supreme court in favour of Lynn Goldsmith, I wonder if there is a special hot place in the underworld for those so-called artists, who will now face an onslaught of lawsuits.
Lawsuits, which until yesterday’s US Supreme Court ruling were an uphill battle with limited chance of success. Lawsuits that are now very winnable and should finally drive a stake through the heart of those that appropriate photographs to remake them, silkscreen them, or make other two dimensional copies.
In case you have been living under a rock, the ruling everyone had been waiting for fell yesterday in the case between the Andy Warhol Foundation and the photographer Lynn Goldsmith over the use of a Goldsmith photograph of the artist Prince (see my blog: Ending Appropriation of Photographs by So-Called Artists).
The US Supreme Court ruling was 7-2 in favour of Goldsmith, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing in the majority opinion: “Goldsmith’s original works, like those of other photographers, are entitled to copyright protection, even against famous artists…”
Where does this leave Richard Prince and so many others who have no original ideas and simply change the scale, or rephotograph other photographer’s work? Do they file for Chapter 11 protection as a business (assuming a lot of these photographers have protected themselves behind some corporate structure), or do they declare personal bankruptcy in order to avoid the courts, legal fees and the now almost inevitable damages to be paid.
Does Gagosian drop Richard Prince as an ‘artist’. Do other galleries do the same for those that for too long have lived off the work of others? Does this ruling make the art gallery complicit? Considering yesterday’s ruling, art galleries can surely no longer pretend that they didn’t know, when they decide to represent a particular copy-cat artist.
And perhaps more interesting, given that collectors are fickle beings; will the market now finally speak and make the work of copy-cats unacceptable, or better yet unsellable? Could it be that to hang Richard Prince’s cowboys, or an oversized Instagram image on your wall and talk about your art collector sophistication becomes so gauche that the monied collectors finally take their losses and turn their backs on appropriation and theft. Is it time to send the copy-works to auction – if the auction houses will touch them – and take the inevitable financial bath?
I look forward to a few years from now walking into a non-descript local museum and finding a poorly lit, somewhat hidden picture, with a small cardboard tag that reads: “Here hangs a work by so-and-so, who used to be a somebody, but now is a nobody. Felled by the courts and art collectors for being no more than a copy-cat”.
It is a great day for Lynn Goldsmith, Donald Graham, Eric McNatt, Norm Clasen, Jim Krantz, and so many others, who have had their work stolen and abused with neither credit, nor compensation given.
I admit it. I am using Deana Lawson to prove a point. I am taking advantage of a well-known and highly respected photographer’s work to illustrate how the usually black-clad, face-less critics and gallery owners describe a photographer’s work. I aim to show how descriptions are nothing more than elaborate word-salad – a hopeless sequence of adjectives and expletives – assembled for the benefit of the writer, and seemingly meaningless to everyone else.
In the context of Deana Lawson, let me start by saying that I never stage photographs. I don’t ask people to stand or sit just so. I have only twice in my life asked a stranger whether I could take their photograph, and on both occasions I did not ask them to pose in a particular way, nor did I do anything but say ‘thank you’ after I made my photograph. As such, I really struggle with elaborate tableau photography with heavy direction and great control with nothing left to chance. By extension, I am not a great fan of Lawson’s work.
It is not that I cannot admire the skill of someone making such photographs, but I do find a more genuine approach by the photographer capturing a random moment in time through simple observation much more compelling.
Now, that I have revealed my bias, what I really want to write about is the way in which those that are in the business of displaying, criticizing, or selling art describe what is on display on the walls. This whole discussion started with a sentence I read in a newsletter announcing that the Gagosian Gallery is now representing Deana Lawson in New York, Europe and Asia.
I re-read the announcement twice and I still don’t understand what it means. Enter Mr. Google….. I did a search for Deana Lawson, I lifted the descriptive sentences found on the first couple of result-pages and dropped some of them in random order below, with the final entry being what started this whole process; the quote from the Gagosian Gallery press release.
In no particular order:
MoMA: “….saturated color continues to be a signature feature of Lawson’s practice, and in Roxie and Raquel the multiple yellows, whites, and blacks in the scene come together in a complex and compelling picture of family dynamics.”
Artsy.net: :Photographer Deana Lawson shoots intimate staged portraits that explore Blackness, legacy, and collective memory. Her pictures, which reflect both actual histories and contrived narratives, focus exclusively on Black subjects posed in richly detailed environments and interiors. “
Cat Lachowskyj for Lensculture.com: “These photographs contain multitudes — references to African diaspora, complex emotions, unspoken dreams, dignity, pride, love, visible scars, the trappings of household circumstance, the tenderness of generations.”
Wikipedia.org: “Deana Lawson is an American artist, educator, and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work is primarily concerned with intimacy, family, spirituality, sexuality, and Black aesthetics.”
Dodie Kazanjian for Vogue Magazine: “In her relatively brief career, Deana Lawson has become a Diogenes, a signifying truth-seeker of unviolated Black humanity and beauty.”
The Photographer’s Gallery: “Deana Lawson’s work explores how communities and individuals hold space within a shifting terrain of racial and ecological disorder.”
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: “Quoting Lawson: ‘Someone said that I’m ruthless when it comes to what I want. Maybe that’s part of it: I have an image in mind that I have to make. It burns so deeply that I have to make it, and I don’t care what people are going to think.’ Unfortunately, this kind of totalizing control isn’t good for anyone except Deana Lawson and the people who are making bank off it while blinding most of the art world to the consequences of this problematic artistic strategy.”
And finally, the Gagosian Gallery press release: “Lawson is renowned for images that explore how communities and individuals hold space within shifting terrains of social, capital, and ecological orders.”
I am finding the descriptions by the various institutions, websites, and critics really, really difficult to understand. I may not be a critic, and my command of the written language may be less evolved, but it is hard to imagine that the entries above are even about the photographs by a single artist!
I return to what I have said so many times in the past: Walk into a gallery, look at the photographs, make up your mind about what you are seeing, and only then read the labels, the gallery introduction, the catalogue, the critics. I know, this is not always possible if you are going specifically to enjoy something you have read about, or seen an announcement for, but try anyway, because we are so often pulled down rabbit holes that are not of our own making.
What we see and what we read in a photograph is deeply personal and has nothing to do with the intention of the maker, current trends, geo-politics, or anything else, or maybe it does for you. There should be no pre-judgement here. Simply enjoy the experience of seeing something and ‘reading it’ with your own lens and let others worry about where the work fits in the annals of art history, current culture, or artistic trends.
I guess the good news is that the Allen collection going up for sale at Christie’s this week contains seven photographs. Allen is by Christie’s hailed as a visionary collector, a self-made connoisseur, who took no advice from experts and collected with his heart, for himself, and on his own.
Yet, the only thing that made sense in all the hype I read, was that he was drawn to the pointillists and Jasper Johns because of their use of dots and letters and random words, which Allen could relate to from his time working with, and developing code. The rest feels a lot like one, or two of everything.
The stars are all here and of course, as a constellation, they are labeled by Christie’s as a visionary collection. It seems over a period of relatively few years, Allen was able to use his bottomless pot of gold to assemble a collection of art works, which as a whole has neither depth, nor much vision that I can tell, but which all share the same characteristic; the works are all ‘safe’. The artists are already in the cannon of art history. There are no flyers, no mistakes here.
Of course there is the possibility that Christie’s only picked the smooth, leaving the rough for the local North West auction house to sell. Yet, I wonder if this is the usual self-made person, turned insanely rich, turned art collector/patron, turned museum director darling, fundraising target…. One of those people who helps the art market, without really helping art.
Like the bored spouses of hedge fund managers with nothing to do, who are trying to make their own museum. This, in an effort to be taken seriously on the cocktail circuit and catch the eye of the museum director, in order to secure a seat on a coveted board of trustees. They collect to gain acceptance. They collect to be seen and to gain access. They bring nothing to the party, other than the frightening smell of eau des nouveaux riches.
I am of course being harsh, and probably overly critical, but doesn’t it always seem that museum directors spend their time collecting ‘patrons’ of the arts who 25 years ago wouldn’t have known a pie chart from a Damien Hirst spin painting? Patrons who with their money bought their way into a society, which is volatile and insecure, and entirely dependent on a bank balance at one particular moment in time, and of course a squeaky clean personal history with no suspect behaviour that has not been covered up properly. They carry the designer handbag, outrageously expensive fragrance, and single-use outfits worth as much as the annual culture budget of a mid-size town.
The problem is it doesn’t help. It is safe. It does not support the artists that need the help now, not when they are dead. The true visionary artists that are living in cold studios and who rarely benefit from their work until the obituary has been written.
Paul Allen – visionary – collecting visionary artists…. hardly. But let us for fun have a look at the seven photographs that made the cut and joined the Allen collection and are now on sale with all the hype that Christie’s can provide. The 7 are in order of catalogue appearance….. drum-roll please:
Edward Steichen: Flatiron 1904/5, acquired in 2001
Man Ray: Swedish Landscape 1925 (Rayograph), acquired 2000
Andreas Gursky: Bibliothek 1999/2014, acquired 2014
André Kertész: Cello Study 1926, acquired 2000
Irving Penn: 12 Hands of Miles Davis and His Trumpet, New York, July 1, 1986, year of acquisition not indicated
Paul Strand, Mullein Maine 1927, acquired 2002
Thomas Struth, Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail, Max Planck IPP, Greifswald, Germany, 2009, acquired 2015
It seems to me that there is neither head, nor tail to these seven; not in process, subject matter, period… they have only one thing in common, they are safe names and they are expensive. They are, like the rest of the visionaire’s collection, safe work by safe artists. This just goes to show that with deep pockets comes…. no forget it. Nuf said.
The New York Times published a story recently about a painting by Marc Chagall on the verge of being destroyed, because a committee of experts in Paris declared it a fake. The story should be a warning to all art collectors.
The story begins with the purchase of a water colour painting by Marc Chagall at a Sotheby’s auction in 1994. A couple of years ago, the buyer decided – in consultation with Sotheby’s – it would be a good idea to sell it again, as the owner had moved to a smaller house and no longer had room to hang the painting.
In 2008, Sotheby’s valued the painting for insurance purposes at $100,000.
When the decision to sell was made, Sotheby’s insisted, as a pure formality, that the painting should be authenticated by the Comité Marc Chagall. The Comité is a Paris based organization that appears self-appointed by ‘experts’, who include in their number the granddaughter of the artist. The comité was founded in 1988, and takes responsibility for the authentication of work by Marc Chagall. It is unclear to me on who’s authority they operate.
Assured by Sotheby’s that it was only a formality, the seller sent the painting to Paris. Surprise, surprise, The Comté Marc Chagall declared the painting a fake. And worse, the report stated that the heirs were requesting the French judiciary seize the painting, and that it be destroyed.
In short: Sotheby’s lists and sells the painting as a genuine Chagall in 1994. Sotheby’s reaffirms the authenticity of the painting in 2008. It recommends that it be authenticated by the Comité Marc Chagall and is sent to France. The painting is deemed a fake and is to be destroyed.
A happy ending: Sotheby’s apologizes for its error, admits that it got it wrong, not once, but twice, and pays for the shipping to France and the inspection by the Comité Marc Chagall, as well as refunding the original purchase price. Case closed….. but, sadly no.
The real ending: Sotheby’s claims it is not their fault, somehow the listing in their catalogue is not really a validation, or certification of anything, it was a long time ago, and therefore they are not liable any more. In fact, they claim that liability for when they do get it wrong is only five years from the date of sale, which of course is written in tiny font worthy of any insurance policy in the terms of sale.
The loser: The lady, who Sotheby’s assured was taking little, or no risk sending the painting to Paris for authentication, is out of pocket for the purchase price, the shipping and authentication costs in Paris, and it seems will even lose the painting itself to fire, or shredding.
The Lesson: Be careful, and be aware of the risk of buying and selling at auction.
The commitment, and what it really means
Where did it all go wrong? Everything of course – absolutely everything – comes down to provenance; the well documented chain of ownership from artist to gallery to the present owner. For true authentication this chain must be unbreakable and rock solid.
In the Chagall case, the breakdown is in part because very often there is no chain of custody available at an auction house, often because the seller wishes to remain anonymous and provides no evidence, nor, it seems, does the auction house demand it. The buyer has to rely exclusively on Sotheby’s say so. Anonymous means the chain of custody – the provenance – is broken.
The message here is that you should always try to make sure that the chain of custody goes right back to the artist and is papered as such. Does the gallery where you bought the work represent the artist? Do it work with the artist? Has it provided you with written documentation to this effect? Is the description of what you have bought complete? Is there a date of creation, description, title, signature, condition report, a date of sale, a signature, etc.?
All this is only second best. Best of all is to get to know the artist a little bit and buy with their knowledge, either directly form the artist, or through a gallery that they recommend. The gallery may go under and no longer exist, but anything you have from the artist directly discussing the work or describing it is gold – pure gold – when it comes to provenance.
Lesson I: Buy directly from the artist, or at the direction of the artist in a gallery of the artist’s choosing whenever possible, and get as much background and description in writing as you can.
Lesson II: If the artist is no longer alive, then get the same information from the family of the artist, or the estate of the artist.
Lesson III: Ask a lot of questions. A gallery that has a reputation to keep will answer all of them to the best of its ability. Only buy when you feel good about it and, of course, with as much paperwork as you can get.
Lesson IV: Print your emails, keep records, because when it comes to re-selling, proof of authenticity – as best you can provide it – will very much influence the price you will get for your work of art.
Be smart about buying art, be aware of the risk of buying and selling at auction. Keep all your records in case you need them one day.
(This blog may not be reproduced in full or in part without the permission of the author)
At the risk of yet again sounding like a broken record to those that read my blog from time to time, I cannot help it. This morning I was looking at the various newsletters that I subscribe to and came across the work of Lisa Kristine. A photographer, whom one can only admire with her commitment to end slavery and her desire to document the world, often of those less fortunately than ourselves. In the lead-in to her short answer questionnaire on The Eye of Photography, her first experiences in the darkroom with her uncle….. perfect…. I really want to love her work!
Normally not a super fan of colour work, Lisa Kristine’s colour images are both arresting and very strong. Her compositions are terrific and the impact is both hard hitting and beautiful, all at the same time. However, in the two black and white images that I found – shown here – there are some inherent challenges, which I think are symptomatic of the time in which we live.
Turning the real into the unnatural
Painters face an eternal question. When is the painting finished? The canvas sits there on the easel. The painting is fabulous. The painter holds the brush and is trying to make it better. The tiniest of brush strokes that will surely take the painting even further. The temptation is always there to do that little bit extra, correct that little something that you are sure everyone will notice, but only you can see. That little bit of magic that will forever change the work to your best. Some need others to say when enough is enough, when finished is truly finished and the work cannot get any better.
In the digital darkroom, the situation is much the same, but the temptation often overwhelming. I have written about Steve McCurry’s photographs and the choices of National Geographic Magazine, as well as several others who have taken it too far, under various guises. Knowing when to stop is equally as important to the photographer, as the painter.
I know my eye is sensitized to black and white photography, which I freely admit that I prefer. I won’t comment on colour saturation, or try to insert myself into what should or should not be done in colour work, but what I have trouble with is the excessive light and shadow in black and white work. The two examples here are in my view past the point of what one might achieve in optimal conditions with an analogue camera and film, or for that matter what one might see with the naked eye. I think this is at the expense of the message and the reality that the work tries to represent.
Am I really the only one that finds it hard to look at these super bright, hyper-unrealistic photographs that can only be born from software. They do not exist in the natural world and are purely the result of a need to make excellent impossibly better!
(may not be reproduced in full, or in part without the written permission from the author)
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.
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 Newman, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since I was a very young boy, I have been travelling to major sightseeing destinations around the world, mostly in Europe, but also in North America and Asia. Instead of making my own photographs, I bought postcards, because I knew that those that make postcards wait for the perfect weather, the perfect clouds, the perfect light and the perfect scene that represents the city, palace, church or temple. Usually these postcards are in colour. They are a standard size, and either in a vertical or horizontal format.
Postcards rarely show any people. I guess, people tend to place the photograph in time, and place due to the clothing that people wear, the haircut, or the handbag. This would impact the longevity of the card and reduce sales! Photographers also avoid cars for the same reason, as a particular model will tell the person looking at the photograph when the photograph would have been taken. As such, most photographs have no people in them, no cars and try to be as timeless as possible. In short, you sell more postcards if the image is perfect and there are no references to time. These photographic postcards survive year after year on custom metal stands that are rolled out every morning, and returned inside every night. But are they not dead?
I have always looked at these photographs as impossible. How do you get the light to be perfect, the clouds just so, with no people around and no indication of the year, month or day the photograph was taken? Of course this has gotten easier with time, as software now can remove undesired elements, but when I was a kid, I am sure the photographers waited for months for just the right circumstances.
To me, these photographs are interesting, but not real… or at least they seem impossible. I have over the years been fortunate to spend extended periods of time in several major cities and have wondered what might be possible. I still stand confused and in disbelief. If the clouds are right, the angle of the sun is not. If the angle of the sun and the clouds are right, then an irritating delivery van is parked in the wrong place, or a flock of tourists wonder across my frame. A poster advocates for a political candidate, or a poster for a movie. All are time stamps that just don’t seem to be there in the perfect postcards in front of the tobacco shop.
So, what can I do to take iconic images and rethink them? I thought that perhaps by going to black and white I could maybe do something. But that has been done before we had colour postcards, more than 120 years ago. But then it came to me that I could create movement around these well-known places by using a simple instrument. A bird or two to suggests that there is life in these places, that they are not dead, even though they may be devoid of people. Is this a new way of seeing? Surely not, but it is my way of rethinking the standard postcard, and I have been doing it for years. The confluence of good light, an iconic setting and a bird, or two does not happen often, but sometimes, you can get lucky…..
15 years ago, I bought my first photograph by Chris Killip. The photograph represents a time in history, where a committed, but impressionable 30 year-old Killip witnessed the bottom of an economic cycle in Northern England, when industrial manufacturing was dying, and poverty and despair were the order of the day.
I relate to the photograph in my own personal way, as I am pretty sure that the young man in the photograph is more or less my age. It is difficult to say exactly, as Killip has not said anything about his subject, other than naming the photograph: Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976. In 1976, I was 15 years old, much the same, I think as the young man in this photograph. My father always said that I should always remember that we do not pick where we are born. The Youth on the Wall grew up at a time when things were tough, factories shutting, unions being busted, and the industrial heartland of the United Kingdom gutted.
The young man is wearing a warn jacket – half a suit, I think, that has seen much better days – with pockets appear to have held clenched fists for a very long time, and perhaps a rolled up tweed cap. We can see a couple of stripes at the bottom of a sweater, which to me looks like part of a former school uniform. We cannot see what he wears under the sweater, but I would guess a not-so-white undershirt. His trousers are black and suggest that they have been worn a lot. Long wool socks connect the trousers that look shorter than they probably should have been at the time, with the massive worn boots, that seem impossibly big, or at least several sizes larger than what this otherwise gaunt young man should need. But what really grabs me, aside from the great photographic composition, are the clenched fists pressed against the young man’s forehead, and the lines emanating from his closed eyes, and across his forehead below the very short hair, no doubt cut quickly with a machine. It is as though the youth wants to will himself to disappear. To vanish from the trials and tribulations that form his seemingly endless reality.
The composition of the photograph reminds me of Ruth Bernhard’s nudes in boxes. It is as though the young man is making himself as small as possible to fit in a tiny space identical to the photographer’s frame. His clothes remind me of the grafters that would show up every day looking for backbreaking work in the docks of Liverpool, or Belfast. Men hoping to be picked by the crew bosses for a day’s work loading, or unloading ships by hand. Colin Jones’ work comes to mind. I can imagine that the youth has a rolled up cap in his pocket and could easily fit in among the thousands of day-labourers hoping to stave off the greedy landlord for another day and buy the basics for a simple meal for himself and his family. Of course, Killip’s youth is much too thin and weak to ever get called upon by the crew bosses.
Chris Killip passed away on Tuesday. He was 74. He is best known for his work in North England in the mid-1970s. He created a body of work that was collected in one of the most important photography books of the period: In Flagrante. Killip lived among his subjects, shared their loss and their despair and understood the context of his photographs – if not yet the importance – such that he was able to vanish into the background and show the raw reality of what was happening at a time in history that was cruel, hard, and for many an endless fight to simply survive.
I look at this photograph every day when I walk into my living room. It reminds me that I should take nothing for granted and should be happy to be alive, healthy and eager to take on the day.
Chris Killip (1946 – 2020) Rest in Peace, and thank you for the daily reminder.
Note: First published on The Eye of Photography: https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/in-memoriam-chris-killip-1946-2020-by-soren-harbel-dv/
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
When in the early 1990s, I finally went back to university to study art history with a focus on photography, there was no doubt that the female photographers dominated. This was in part because the school that I attended was a very pink school (I say pink, because when I was growing up, it was customary for the serious feminists to wear a pink-dyed headscarf, and for them to be referred to as being ‘pink’). In addition to being a university run by a strong group of feminists, it was politically quite far to the left of centre, and so one could argue that the pink became red and sometimes it was hard to determine the exact shade.
One thing is very clear: Female photographers were central to my first serious ventures into the world of photography. Add to this the egalitarian nature of photographing – after all, as Chef Custeau would have said, had he been a photographer and not a chef: “Anyone can photograph.” There is a level playing field for the photographer – any photographer – to create a good, or even a great image. Sure, there were, and still are, barriers to entry, from a commercial point of view, glass ceilings, and so forth, but the image itself is available to anyone. Back in the day, if you could lay your hands on a camera and some film, you could create. Today the average phone can do the trick. I hope that my time spent in a left-leaning school, in the company of women photographers has stood me well in my own work, trying to be humble and appreciate great work, whatever the source.
I have thought often about those days and all the images that moved from the projector to the screen, while the talking heads pointed out particular qualities and characteristics that were important to pass the upcoming exam. The list of female photographers; famous, well-known and less-well-known, was long.
Personally, I am drawn to work that has an ephemeral quality, where the photographer, the printing, the paper and the image come together in splendid whole, capturing an elusive fraction of a second in time. When this is successful, there is nothing like it. You can have long discussions about the technical aspects of all the steps that go into making a great photograph, but at the end of all this, only one thing remains, the gift that the photographer presents to you, or me, the viewer.
Photographs that really work have this extra quality that you cannot put your finger on. For me it is a whole movie with a great soundtrack condensed and concentrated into a single frame on a small piece of paper, brought to life by the vision of the photographer. There can be no lengthy description, no deeply articulated justification for the work. There is the work. The single image. The story that I get to write in my mind is mine, and mine alone, as I look at this humble piece of paper with blacks and whites and all manner of greys in-between.
I am drawn, in particular to a quote by Jürgen Schadeberg, who very smartly points out that: “there are certain moments we do not see unless we photograph them.” This goes hand-in-hand with what Edouard Boubat has said many times: “”The photographer sees the same show that everyone else sees. He however stops to watch it.”
I cannot pretend that these seemingly simple observations apply to all photography. Sometimes elaborate sets are constructed, lights are erected, timers engaged and subjects distracted by little birds on the end of toy fishing pole to encourage that particular smile, or a whole phalanx of assistants mill about eagerly anticipating the second when the maestro will press the shutter, before moving on to the next frame. But, this is not my kind of photography. It doesn’t speak to me.
When I really pay attention. When I really see. There are gifts everywhere. One of my all time favourite photographs, and yes, by one of those hardcore feminist photographers, is by Abigail Heyman. There is something very familiar to those of us who were around in the 1970s, who might have seen this exact scene play out any number of times, without really noticing it. But, as Boubat and Schadeberg both suggest, there is genius in stopping, watching and recording.
There is a time, a context, and a reality captured in this photograph, which on one hand is simply a 1972 snapshot at the supermarket, but there is genius in the composition, the generational play, the bleak future of the young woman in the foreground, who appears to be working on nothing more than becoming her mother, represented by the older ladies just behind her. A vicious cycle to be repeated over, and over again. But in this photograph I see a message of hope that the cycle can be broken. The photographer uses the mundane to put forward a new idea, a new vision, and a different future. There is a streak of defiance in the young lady’s eye, and a brighter flower on her dress. By pointing to the mundane and sad mediocrity of the suburbs in 1972, a simple message is delivered. We don’t all have to become our parents. God forbid. We can break the cycle. Make our own reality. We can change the world!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
A perspective on a Christopher Williams palm tree.
I attended an auction this past week. Sadly not in person. I enjoyed the familiar, and not so familiar images passing my screen, the sound of the gavel and the recognition that life still goes on, despite everyone being in their respective homes and having to share online. Yes, the atmosphere is not quite the same, but the excitement of the duel between the last two bidders standing and the teasing and cajoling by the auctioneer to squeeze every last penny from them is still real and exciting.
I was curious about a lot, shown below, by Christopher Williams. I will be the first to admit that I did not know the photographer, nor have I paid any attention to his work on past occasions, where I might have come across him at an auction or in some other context. But, I am drawn to this image, not because it is particularly good, nor because it is particularly well composed, but because it was estimated to sell for between US$15,000 and US$25,000. Pardon me? I took photographs like this when I got my first camera and went on holiday. This is a photograph from the beach, with a couple of little swimmer’s heads and a big palm tree shot in Veradero, Cuba. I seem to recall that Veradero is one of the main charter destinations in Cuba and as such, no doubt, this photograph has been done over, and over again using everything from colour film to digital photographs using traditional cameras and today probably an iPhone. This is not a great photograph! This is a postcard…… What gives?
I started to dig a little more, looked up Christopher Williams and started to understand that this wasn’t actually about the photograph at all, but rather a work by a contemporary artist who, as a student of John Baldessari, works in entire installations, using references, which require a lot of work by the viewer and is highly experiential. I found a reference in The Guardian newspaper archives, which described an installation at one of the leading galleries in London, the Whitechapel Gallery. The reviewer happened to be my favorite Sean O’Hagen, whom I have written about before. The knowledge he brings to this show, along with what he learned from the accompanying catalogue creates a deep experience for those that attend the show and embrace the homework required to fully immerse in the exhibition and the message from Mr. Williams.
So, why am I writing about this? Well, at the same auction Graziela Iturbide’s ‘Lady of the Iguanas’, perhaps her most famous photograph, sold for $ 5,000, including the buyer’s premium. You could also have bought Eve Arnold’s fabulous image, incidentally also from Cuba, known as ‘Bar Girl, Havana’ for $4,250. Or, you could have bought Robert Frank’s ‘Chicago Convention’ for the same price realized for the Williams palm tree. As a collector, but also as a photographer, there is absolutely no contest in my mind. A postcard versus key works by key photographers in the Pantheon of 20th Century photography.
I do not profess to know a lot about the photography resale market, but it is a reality that unfortunately, people buy names. Some buy photographs, but many buy names. This may well be the case here. Williams’ work has been taken out of an original context – an installation – where I am sure it made sense given surrounding images, colours of paint on the walls, the height at which the photograph was hung, the frame it was in, etc. I question whether a conceptual artist thinks this isolated palm tree photograph is an appropriate representation of their work?
I understand that prints of concepts and installations by Christo and Jean-Claude were sold to raise money to make the temporary installations happen. I completely understand that an Artist has to eat and make money. But what does a photograph mean that was once part of an installation, which on it’s own has no independent reference, or context? What is it worth? And how should we view it? And who should buy it?
Sean O’Hagen describes Christopher Williams’ installation in the following way: “…. to fully appreciate the layers of meaning and allusion at play here, one must be au fait with the postmodern art theory from which they emerge.” And later concludes: “How much pleasure you take…. may depend on how much prior knowledge of his work – and of art theory and of conceptual strategies in general – you bring to it.” While, I often struggle with photographs, where I have to do a lot of homework before viewing them, this is of course taking things to a level well beyond most audiences, including me.
When I enter a photography gallery, or museum exhibition, I skip the catalogue, any text on the wall usually located at the entrance, and go straight to the images. I don’t even read the captions. I want the photograph to speak to me. I want to enjoy the quality of the photograph, the paper it is printed on, and the feeling it gives me when referenced to the sensibilities and knowledge that I have accumulated over the years as a photographer and collector. Only after will I sometimes – not always – look at what the curator intended and why the show is hung the way it is. But, that’s just me.
I will conclude by saying that a colour photograph, a little larger than a piece of photocopy paper, 10 3/8 by 13 1/2 inches to be exact, printed in an edition of 10, showing a well lit palm tree on a beach, on a sunny day at a tourist hotspot that looks identical to a postcard that I might pick up at the tourist shop in the all-inclusive hotel that I would probably be staying in, makes no sense to me. I simply don’t get it. Outside a conceptual installation, how can I possibly look at this photograph and coolly drop $10,000?
Martin Parr made a book called Boring Postcards, which was exactly that; reprinted boring postcards. Need I say more?
One of the reasons I got into photography, both as a shooter and as a collector was Peter Beard’s connection to Karen Blixen, or as she is known in large parts of the world, Isak Dinesen, her nom de plume. Karen Blixen was still alive when I was young, she died in 1985. By 1991 her home, north of Copenhagen, had been made into a museum. I was on vacation in Denmark and went there soon after it opened. There were a couple of references to Peter Beard at the museum and I started looking into the connection. I was interested in photography and had read Out of Africa as a young man. The combination was irresistible.
As often happens to me, I went from one fascination to another. Blixen led me to Beard, which in turn led me to read and collect first books and then through a stroke of pure serendipity a few prints by the great photographer. I will not bore you with a biography of Beard, there are lots of obituaries around these days, and no doubt there will be lots of features in magazines and future retrospectives to come at museums and galleries around the world. But, suffice it to say that he was so enamoured with Blixen that he made his way to Africa by way of Denmark, eventually using some of his vast inheritance to acquire land next to the property, where Blixen so desperately had tried to grow coffee. He named it Hog Ranch.
In Kenya, it seems, Beard found his proper identity. He photographed, lived an explorer’s life, shooting mostly with a camera, as opposed to a gun, and capturing wildlife and the people that co-exist with them. He famously worked on a book, which he in 1965 presented to the White House as his last call for the protection of wildlife in Africa. Particularly East Africa. Beard seems to have been on a mission, I suspect one that he only realized was there once he got to Kenya in pursuit of the exotic and dream like qualities he had read about and had seen pictures of. With a healthy trust fund in his back, he could afford to live a lifestyle that most can only dream about. Though coming from near NY royalty, he seems to have been more comfortable living in a tent and walking around in a worn pair of shorts with a camera around his neck in the hills above Nairobi.
An explorer by nature, I think, he probably thought of himself as being born too late. Longing for a time when the Empire was in full bloom and Kenya an outpost of the British-ness. He probably identified with Finch-Hatton and all the other characters that would work their way through the hills from trophy to trophy, once in a while coming back to Nairobi to drink at the club and share war stories of what they had felled with a single bullet, and what got away.
Beard’s work is interesting
in that he really has only one body of work that anyone takes seriously, that
being made prior to the publishing of the 1965 book. There were the odd commercial projects to
follow, but he kept going back to what he was known for. Reworking and rethinking and retouching and
adding to the East Africa animal photographs that we have all come to love and
A family member told me that there were two major tragedies in Peter Beard’s photographic life. The first when his house in Manouk burned down with a lot of his prints and negs lost forever. This is well publicised. The second episode is not so well known…. Beard had been married to Cheryl Tiegs for a while and had apparently been given many, many warnings, but Peter was hard to tame and got home at dawn one day to find a smouldering pile of negatives on the front lawn.
One theory for why Peter Beard took to making his colourful collages and adding to the beautiful photographs that he had made in the early 1960s was that he needed to camouflage the fact that his photographs were copy prints from old photographs, because the negatives no longer existed. You can as a purist of course lament this, but you have to give credit to the creative and often beautiful way in which Peter Beard decorated his images. Using found objects, cut-outs from magazines, Polaroids, blood, sometimes from the butcher and sometimes his own, hand prints, foot prints, and so forth. He would draw little figures of animals and men, colourful images drawn from a creative mind that had been making collages and had kept diaries with cut-outs from an early age.
I only met Peter Beard once. In Toronto. He was there for an opening of a gallery show and had been given free reign on the normally white walls. I was the last visitor through the door the day after the opening and he happened to still be there. I said ‘hi’ and asked if he would sign a book for me. Peter was as usual in bare feet and covered in indigo ink. His feet were somewhere between black and blue. The black from walking around barefoot, the blue from ink. He decorated surfaces normally white with prints of feet and hands and little scribbles. Funny figures that reminded me of a children’s drawings. Colourful and cartoon like. He not only signed a book for me, he decorated the first couple of pages with hand prints, a drawing of an alligator, a speech bubble by the fetus of the elephant that he had photographed that was on the title page. A personalized greeting to a guy he had no idea who was, whom he took the time to create a little work of art for. He was kind, friendly and very comfortable in his own skin. Notoriety and fame did not seem to change him. He was focused on you, and while he had done his little show countless times over the days and weeks of exhibitions he had had in various places, he took the time to make the experience personal for me. I will never forget that.
Some time in the early 90s,
I bought an 11×14 print of ‘I will write when I can’ Lake Rudolf 1965. It is the classic Beard photograph that we
have all seen of him lying in the mouth of a huge crocodile writing in his
diary, looking all serious. There is a
hand drawn ink line – indigo of course – drawn to the open area below the
crocodile, where he wrote the title, signed it and dated it. It has been among my most treasured
photographs for a very long time. I have
shown 4 versions of this image in this entry, to give you an idea of the
versatility and creativity of Peter Beard.
Peter was 82, when a couple
of weeks ago he walked away from his home in Long Island. He was found 16 days later a mile away in a
forested area. Those that knew him had
been speculating and hoping – despite the odds – that he had gone on one last
expedition. And maybe he did. Rest in Peace, Peter Beard. King of the
As a lot of us are locked up at home. The World is holding it’s breath. Life as we know it is grinding to a halt. It is time for comfort, but also for escaping for a time to another place, or another time.
I have for many years bought many, many books of photographs. Books that fill book cases and book cases,
and… well, you get the picture. At a
time, when I am sitting here in my favorite chair with a cup of tea with lemon
and honey – it is too early to add alcohol – I have pulled a couple of books
from the shelf and have spent an hour looking at great images by masters of the
Personally, I have been working on two books of my photographs for a long time. I keep changing the sequence of the images, playing with layouts and wondering about which photograph should go on the cover. I wonder about titles for the images (those that have read a few of my blogs may know that I am not a big fan of titles), and what kind of an introduction I should have.
As I wonder about these things, it gives me pleasure thinking of the experience that people will have when leafing through my books. At least the 5 people that I will give the book to! I am not expecting best sellers, but I feel that photographs in a book are different than individual photographs in a frame on a wall. Also, books of photographs are a way of leaving a message. A footprint, when I will be nothing but dust.
Books of photographs are in their own right works of art. And we all know that art is of critical importance to us all. It enriches our lives and makes for a more bearable existence, particularly in times of crisis. We all see the horror, or sci-fi movies set in the future, where the set is deliberately made to look anonymous, walls plain with no decoration and wardrobes monochrome in the black/grey/white range. This is no coincidence. This is about taking away our humanity and turning us all into just beings in a maze. Like white mice in a medical lab.
We must keep our humanity and we must do so every day. A book of photography is about us. About our lives, our world, our time, and what has come before.
One of my favorite quotes:
Instagram is like frozen pizza, exhibitions are noisy – but a photo book is an act of analogue rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world. – Teju Cole
Makes me laugh every time. So true!
Stay safe. Make some tea, or pour yourself a whisky. Get a book of photographs from the bookcase, and if you don’t have any? Get some. Order books of photographs for home delivery! Escape for a bit. Think of another time, or another place. Transport yourself there. This is what a great book of photographs can do. Innocent escapism! Calm!
One of the stories that Paul told was of an evening at a Rochester roller-skating rink. Paul was at a performance by Erskine Hawkins and his minimalist Tuxedo Junction band. I have selected a few photographs from that evening below, but first, a word or two from Paul:
“The economics of touring with a 16-piece band forced
Erskine Hawkins to bring only 6 musicians, including himself on trumpet and
Gloria Lynne, vocalist, to play a dance in Rochester, NY. The performance was held at a converted
Mr. Hawkins and the players were in good spirits, and
supportive of my photographing the event.
The tenor player, Julian Dash, strongly suggested I stay with him on the
bandstand, when a ‘friendly shooting’ took place. A girl was most unhappy that her boyfriend
had brought another girl to the dance and brought a gun and fired a couple of
rounds – nobody was hurt.
This was a typical evening at this all-black function. At many of these events, I was one of the
few, maybe the only white person there.
There was no hostility, and many people were interested in what I was
photographing. This is a time that no
longer exists. Like Atget’s images of
Paris at the turn of the century, these images are a time capsule, a record of
a period in our history and in our culture, which we cannot return to.”
What I particularly admire about this photography event is the lack of photographs of the band. I find it infinitely intriguing that Paul spent most of his time on stage shooting the other way. Out, out onto the dance floor. It looks cold, along the walls, people are wearing overcoats. Must have been freezing. Those that worked the dance floor look a little more comfortable, for a time. Gloria Lynne pulling a cigarette from a package, surrounded by paper cups of coffee, perhaps spiked with a bit of whisky to keep warm. There is a wonderful mood in these photographs, a mood that is almost dreamy. Paul would often refer to these photographs as the Dream Dancing series. I got the impression that of all his work, these images rose to the top of his list. He was proud of these images. This was not Herman Leonard, or William Claxton. No cigarette smoke to set the mood. This was something entirely different. More real, more escapist perhaps, and definitely dreamy…..
It has been a little over two years since I wrote about
Monsieur Plossu and his photographs. I
was fortunate to purchase three of his photographs a few months ago. I immediately had them framed and hung them
in my livingroom. I sort of forgot about
them, in the way that you can do when something fits and becomes part of your
environment. Your atmosphere.
When I was in Paris last, I saw a book. Plossu
Paris(Textes d’Isabelle Huppert et Brigitte Ollier Éditions Marval, 448
pages, 29,90€). In French
only, unfortunately, but photographs speak.
And in this case, loudly. I
particularly noticed the book, because the front cover was one of the images
that I bought last year. And this
combined with a quote by Plossu that I made a note of, compelled me think about
his images in a different way.
I have always thought of Plossu as a ‘from the hip’ sort of
photographer. Someone who is not too
uptight about horizon lines being level, perfect focus and so forth. A little accidental almost. But then I read this, and it made me think:
“less good photos of
Frank bring more poetry than perfect pictures by Henri Cartier-Bresson.”
You have to think about
this a little bit. On the face of it,
coming from a fellow photographer, this is almost heresy. But does he have a point? When composition is perfect, lighting
perfect, triangles perfect, framing perfect, what else is there? You look at the image in admiration, but the
story is complete and there it is. Well,
I think this is where Plossu has a point.
If you look at Robert Frank’s work, there is a play, or whimsy about it
that is perhaps poetic. If you believe
the stories, his seminal book “The Americans” contained not his best
photographs from his 10000 mile journey across North America, but those that he
felt worked. Which means that like
Plossu – in perhaps not quite as exteme a way, but still – Frank has a few that
are slightly out of focus, perhaps not the greatest composition, or should I
say not conforming to the accepted rules of the game. There is the odd one that is askew. But Frank’s work has poetry. I think that is what made “The Americans”
such a hit, both with photographers, and-non photographers alike.
Poetry to me is a
language onto itself. As much said, as
left unsaid. A collection of words carefully
selected to communicate something, which is usually an emotion or feeling,
often atmospheric. But importantly, the
carefully selected words and what you make of them is founded in the economy of
the words. The few that say the
In so many ways, a well
executed photograph does the same thing.
I think often about discussions I have had with other photographers as
to whether photographs that you make should have a title, or description.
The argument for no
title: I don’t want to push what I saw onto the viewer. Just because I see something, doesn’t mean
that everyone else sees the same thing, and indeed a title will perhaps rob the
viewer of the opportunity to make their own story, seeing something entirely
The argument for
title: I have an intent with my
photographs and they form part of a narrative, or say something specific that I
want to convey. A title helps set the
stage, location, time, date, etc.
Either is of course fine,
though I must say I fall in the first category.
In a photograph what you exclude is often equally, or more important than what is in the frame. Take my second Plossu. To some it may simply be a few deck chairs in a rainstorm, or wet fog. To someone else it could be a poem about the joy of being alone, at last, maybe on a ship, away from everyone. A place to dream. To me ironically, it is about a smell. The smell of being on the water when it is misty and damp, but with hope, as there is enough sun to form quite strong shadows of the chairs on the deck. I can smell the salt water, the seaweed and the mist that only happens on the ocean. I love this photograph for the permission it gives me to dream and make up my own story.
Now, the question of
course…. Does it matter that Plossu titled it:
Deck Chairs on the QEII? Well,
not for me, because it affirms what I was already thinking, so no harm, no
foul. But, to someone else, I don’t
The cover shot of the book Plossu Paris is to me one of Plossu’s greatest photographs. It is too simple. Too easy. Yet, he did it, and it has a quality that I think is both exceptional and bold. The photograph is exposed in such a way that the tablecloth is all you see. The furniture all but disappears. The press-folds in the heavy white linen form gentle shadows. It is the consummate black and white photograph. But, not pretentious. Not in your face. It doesn’t show off. It is gentle, elegant and egalitarian. A café? A fancy restaurant? At home? It doesn’t matter. It could be everywhere and anywhere. But it is so beautifully elegant. It is delicious! And it let’s you make your own story. Poetic.
I remember sitting in Paul’s livingroom, or should I say office. Paul Hoeffler was a great photographer, who lived in a large, old Victorian house in Toronto. It was the biggest room in the house. Filled to the gills with files, photographs, reels of taped music… Jazz playing in the background. Softly. We were going through some boxes together and Paul was telling me stories. I liked to sit and listen, as he would hand me a print to look at. I would take in the circumstances that he was describing, while holding the resulting photograph. It added an extra layer to the conversation. Paul was a great storyteller. One story in particular, which he never actually dictated to me, so I will have to paraphrase, was about his photograph of Lee Morgan.
Paul described Lee Morgan as one of the very best trumpet
players he had ever heard. A promising
and rising star on the Jazz scene. I am
not a musician, so it is hard for me to recount all the superlatives and
capabilities as a musician that Paul described, but suffice it to say that he
was if not the second coming, at least destined for the stars.
Paul explained that he had been photographing a performance in 1958 of Lee Morgan playing in Rochester with Art Blakey. He had met him the year before in Newport. Paul took a great number of very good photographs of him that night. But the one that struck me, was an unusual photograph for Paul. Taken outside the venue, it is Lee Morgan after the concert. More portrait like, but also very atmospheric. He is holding his horn, as if about to play. His carrying case on the ground. Clearly Paul must have asked him to pull his trumpet out for the photograph. He never did quite explain how that came about. But, here is Lee Morgan in his overcoat, horn near his lips, fingers ready to go, his case on the ground in front of him, a little to his right. He is standing on what looks like wet pavement, with a scattering of leaves around his feet. But, what you immediately notice is the beaten up sign attached to the telephone pole. It reads: No Outlet. The photograph is from 1958.
This photograph Paul saw as a spooky premonition of what was
to come in 1972. He often singled out this
photograph when I was around and shook his head. Somehow feeling connected to a story that he
was not a witness to, nor had any part in, but which he somehow felt.
For those that don’t know, Lee Morgan got introduced to heroin by Art Blakey, during a time when he played with Art Blakey and his Messengers. The down spiral was hard and the heroin quickly took over. He met Helen Moore, who ran a kind of after hours gathering place for jazz musicians, doubling as a soup kitchen for down and out jazz musicians in NY. The story goes that she took pity on Morgan, got his horn back from the pawn shop, and helped him back from the edge.
They remained a couple for 5 years. Never got married. But might as well have been. Morgan came back with a vengeance and unfortunately, so did the bad behaviour; the booze and the womanizing, which Helen took badly, as the story goes.
Moore went to one of Lee’s concerts, at the same time as another woman that Morgan was seeing on the side, at the time. The two women got into a fight during intermission. Helen reportedly went home and picked up a gun and in a fit of anger shot Morgan in the chest during the second set. She was heard screaming: “Baby, what have I done!” as she ran towards the stage.
The joint was appropriately called: Slugs.
Lee Morgan was 33.
Note: I have previously written a blog entry about the great Jazz Photographer Paul Hoeffler. This is my second short entry about Paul.
I have spent a lot of time recently looking at Japanese photography from the 1960s through the early 1980s. There is a great depth of material. Photographers that are outstanding and so very different from what we are used to seeing in Europe and North America.
I am sure that we can come up with many reasons for
this. The end of WWII. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The devastation of a nation. The loss of a generation. Famine and malnutrition. Layer upon layer of pain and suffering. But the crop of photographers that are now
dying out, who were born during or shortly after the war, are sadly not well
known outside of Japan. They did
Often heavy and moody. Often a little, or even very sad. Contemplative. More often than not printed with heavy blacks. There is a feeling. An atmosphere that makes me pay attention. Often saying ‘Japanese’ well before I look at the label. It is hard to explain. But, very real. It is as though the Japanese idea of perfection is there, in terms of skill. Like a great sushi chef, who spends 10 years making the rice before being let near the fish, or a knife. Photographers in Japan of the postwar generation are like that to me. Skilled beyond most anyone, but being Japanese they perfect their skills and then they let a little wabi-sabi in. A little natural error. Beauty in imperfection. This is done with the harder blacks in the printing, the crop, or simply shooting from the hip without even looking, and saving it in the darkroom, as in the case of Moriyama.
I was recently able to view a show by Shin Yanagisawa. Now in his 80s. He frequented a particular train station in
Japan with obsessive regularity and produced a body of work. A wonderful book. And to my good fortune, a small show of
vintage prints in a small gallery in Paris.
In the print here, which I admire greatly, he has achieved a feel, a
mood and a story to be told by anyone who has ever seen anyone off at a station
or airport. Only 18 x 24 cm in size, the
black is deep as the darkest night, and the woman… well, what can I say. This is a photograph that is universal, yet,
so very Japanese.
In 2001, Shin Yanagisawa said: “…… I have always believed
that photographs express something that cannot be captured in words. If I were able to express myself in words, I
would stop working as a photographer.”
The lady on the train needs no title, no story. This may be the highest form of poetry.
One can only stand back and admire Shelby Lee Adams and his commitment to a full and honest presentation of the people of Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains. For nearly 40 years, he has been doing this with a large format 4”x5” camera, a heavy tripod and repeated visits that have made his sitters close friends, who look forward to his visits, and the photographs that he brings, as a gesture of thank you for letting him make their photographs.
I think of Shelby Lee Adams as a contextual portraitist. A photographer who includes enough circumstance and environmental content to not only portray the image of the person, but who also includes references to where the sitter comes from and what they are about. I could perhaps refer to this as the antithesis of the Irving Penn Worlds in a Small Room photographs. Where Penn photographed in his mobile studio against a neutral background, Adams works hard to include the references around the sitter to help the viewer better understand the subject of his photographs.
I understand that Adams walked and drove with his uncle, a retired physician, who after a year of retirement in Florida came back to Kentucky and in a WWII Willy’s Jeep did many years of house calls in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern Kentucky. Often riding with his uncle, Adams earned the trust of the many families he met, and one could say, earned the right to return with his heavy and cumbersome tripod and lights.
The photographs that Mr. Adams makes are of course anchored in a long tradition of great photographers. The list is long and you can no doubt come up with everyone from Disfarmer, to Evans, Dorothea Lange and so forth, but when you take the time to study Adams’ work, you realize that he is different. The Farm Security Administration set out to document migration and the lot of those that suffered during The Dust Bowl of the 1930s and started the slow move West. The mostly anonymous people in the FSA archive, who may from time to time be identified with a short description following a quick exchange with the photographer, before they moved on to the next shot, remain largely unknown. FSA photographs are documents, or proof of a certain suffering. Adams’ work is different.
Adams’ sitters have a glow in their eyes, an affection that comes across only when the sitter is a close friend, beyond just being a subject. Adams has spent many, many hours with the families, has shared meals, drunk good home made sour mash and enjoyed the company of these largely forgotten people that somehow the American Dream left at the doorstep. Proud, free and honest, often grounded in a strong Christian faith, the people of Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs come to life in a way that can only happen when you can feel an intimacy between the person with the button and the person in front of the lens. Adams says: “I can’t emphasize enough how vital a non-judgmental eye and sincere recognition is…. Kindness and empathy contribute on this journey. “
Shelby Lee Adams of course is also a master printer. His work comes across in beautifully toned prints on paper that is the best available. I am sure, he would have dreamed of having some of the papers that were available 50, or more years ago. There is a classic elegance to the work that would have been perfect on a warm 1930s paper. However, we live in the 21st century and we work with what is available and Mr. Adams does a wonderful job presenting his subjects in a manner that can only be described as timeless, reverential, but honest and true to the circumstances under which the people live in the Hollers of Eastern Kentucky.
When still available, Shelby Lee Adams worked with a Polaroid back for his 4”x5” camera and used to give the Polaroid to the subject of his photograph, before organizing himself for the actual exposure. Taking home the film and developing and printing the images in his studio at the very north tip of the Appalachian Mountains, Shelby Lee Adams returns a couple of times a year to visit and share the resulting images with his friends, who greet him with a smile and a hug.
You can feel Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs. This is rare and wonderful and justifies my nomination for the title the Most Important Living Photographer in America.
Robert and Fred died within a day of one another. Both hugely significant in their own right, and while one will always overshadow the other, it would be a great shame for one to be lost and not given the proper attention that he deserves…..
On Tuesday the September 10th, it happened. What everyone had been expecting and nobody wanted. Robert Frank, perhaps the most important photographer of the 20th century passed. I have a great passion for the type of photographs that Robert Frank made. Frank’s timing was not always perfect, his focus sometimes a little off, even his lighting was sometimes a little too hard, or too soft, but he captured images that forever changed photography and gave him almost mythical status. Among those of us who like to think we make photographs in a certain tradition that for all intents and purposes link directly back to him, he is a god.
Robert Frank had an uncanny ability to see things that captured the essence of our existence. I doesn’t matter if you look at his later work, which was more cerebral, or if you look at his break-through portfolio ‘The Americans’, it was always about capturing an honest, unembellished truth. The essence of an American town, a rodeo, a road leading to eternity, or a tuba. His images were not all individually outstanding, though many were, but they have an honesty and a virtual time-stamp that bring out the best in time, place and circumstance.
Robert Frank was Swiss, he
captured America with an open mind and an open heart, as only one from ‘away’
can, which leads me to the second thing that happened that week……
The day before, on the 9th of September, in Vancouver, a city known in photography circles mostly for contemporary work – some in large light boxes – the passing of Fred Herzog went largely unnoticed, except by those who either knew him, or admired his visionary approach to colour photography.
Vancouver in the 1950s was a backwater, a pacific port with lots of warehouses, ships coming and going and a departure point for those engaged in the mining- and logging industries. Not particularly refined, nor particularly pretty. With a setting between ocean and mountains it had a great canvas. But as only we humans can, it was a lot of front row industry, a busy, dirty and noisy port, lots of really bad neon, bars, wooden houses that looked ever so temporary, surrounding a couple of monumental stone buildings, that would eventually come to anchor what most will now agree is a world city.
Transience was the nature of the old wood houses that were usually no more than a couple of stories high, set in a tight geographical setting that over time would require much densification and endless high-rises. As such, much of what was around in the 1950s and 1960s has been erased. Virtually no evidence of the frontier town by the water remains. Thank goodness for Fred! At a time when colour film was slow as frozen molasses, and people still moved as quickly as they do today, Fred captured Vancouver in a way that is both local and global. He found qualities in simple new cars in an alley, a sea of neon lights, the interior of a barbershop, a window at the hardware store, and in people who look like they are from everywhere.
For most people these scenes are difficult to place geographically, other than it being somewhere in North America, but that is what makes them great. Herzog doesn’t dwell on the incredibly beautiful Vancouver setting with mountains, sea and sky, but on the urban. Often the slightly gritty urban. His head-on elegant use of colour and composition with people peppered in for good measure, always in just the right number and somehow perfectly placed, gives rise to his great eye and masterly skill, using tools that today seem almost impossible to handle well.
The Equinox Gallery in
Vancouver still has a great selection of Fred Herzog’s work. It is still attainable and exquisitely
printed from the original Kodachrome slides that in miraculous fashion have
survived less than optimal circumstances.
Fred’s work found its way to
Paris Photo a few years ago, the annual mecca for those, like myself who are
consumed by great photography. A bold
show of only Fred’s work took up an entire, large booth at the seminal event of
the year. It was a popular stop for
collectors, who found something new, exciting and rooted in photographic
Fred worked for the University of British Columbia for almost as long as I have been alive. He started the year I was born. He photographed in the name of science and in his spare time out of personal obsession the city he came to love from a very early age. Anecdotally, he came to Vancouver based on a single photograph in a geography textbook at school back in Germany, where he was born, during a time of great upheaval.
Fred came to Canada in 1952. He leaves a legacy, having captured a vanished time, but while geographically specific and significant, also of great universal appeal.
Ulrich Fred Herzog was born in Stuttgart, Germany, September 21st, 1930 and passed away in Vancouver on September 9th, 2019. He was 88.
Both Herzog and Frank were not from where their most famous work is made. Is this significant? Does the outsider see differently…? Save that for another day.
“I want to do a big project on America, and I’d like to apply for a Guggenheim grant. You would need to sign a paper for me, agreeing to publish a book with my photographs. I think that would allow me to get the grant.”
– Robert Frank to Robert Dalpire, 1954, Artist and Publisher ‘The Americans’
Much has been written about the photography book that defines the genre; ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank, published by Robert Dalpire. I am interested in this book for three major reasons. One; of course because it is a wonderful collection of photographs by a Swiss photographer seeing America for the first time. Two; the building of a book of images, none of which dominate the others. Three; the origin of the layout and how it came to be.
Let me address these three
points in order.
There is something wonderful about seeing a place for the first time. There is something even more wonderful about being a photographer and seeing for the first time. America in the 1950s was a place that experienced unprecedented growth. Prosperity and the development of the suburbs, grilling on the barbeque, big – no massive – cars with fins and all manner of chrome and engines so big, a small village could run for a week on the gas alone. There was advertising everywhere and progress looked like it would go on forever. Optimism was the American way in the 1950s.
Against this excitement of a new era, Robert Frank traveled to the United States and got in a car and drove, and drove, and drove and made pictures all along the way. One could say he looked behind the veneer of what appeared to be endless happiness, freedom and hope. He saw, as only an outsider can, which is what makes ‘The Americans’ such an incredible book.
On my second point, I have
written before about how when you make a book you cannot have one or two
home-run photographs, you need to have a balance of images that are complementary,
without a single stand-out image dominating.
There is a fine art to acknowledging that you may not want to take your
best photograph and put it on the cover of a book, because it has a tendency to
dominate everything in the book, to the point that nobody sees anything but the
incredible image on the cover. In short,
you need a different approach to making a book than making a photograph. Robert Frank understood this. He decided on one image per double-page-spread. Letting each image speak for itself, without
a context, or a story. Just an
image. No image dominates the others,
and no image stands out as being better, or more successful than the
others. There is an elegance and balance
here, which every book-maker and photographer could learn from.
On the third point; In an interview Robert Dalpire, Frank’s publisher, says that he and Frank laid out the photographs on the floor, with no pre-determined number of photographs. Dalpire is quoted as saying: “….There was no problem in terms of the selection. As for the sequence, we did it just like that, intuitively.” Dalpire and Frank ended up with 174 pages. What they did that day changed how photography books are made and has set a standard rarely achieved since.
Finally, I would like to address the critic. In ‘The Photobook; A History, Volume 1’ by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (Phaidon, 2005), there is a description of how ‘The Americans’ is structured around four segments, or ‘chapters’, as Parr/Badger call them. Each section introduced by the American flag. Parr and Badger say the book has…“an internal logic, complexity and irresistible flow that moves from the relatively upbeat pictures at the beginning to a final image of tenderness….”. To this Roger Dalpire responded: “I say it is non-sense. It is a very subjective remark that has no relationship to what we did.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat is quoted as saying: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” Yet, we place great emphasis on what is good and what is bad, according to a few people, who in many cases are powerful influencers, who can make or break a career. We cannot all be like Basquiat and not care, mostly because we all need to make a living doing whatever work we do. Artists are no different, they may work for themselves, or in collaboration with a gallery, but there are still influencers out there that can make or break their career with the stroke of a pen. A nasty review and the buyers and public stay home with their wallets tightly shut.
All this said, it is great to see now and again that the critic, who takes himself seriously and writes eloquently about photography, in this case photography books, is completely overthinking the work and is outright wrong, creating context that simply is not there. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
You travel the world, and while it is different everywhere
you go, certain things seem to remain the same.
Take for instance the presence of certain birds. It seems that wherever you go there are
pigeons, crows, seagulls – at least where there is water nearby – and of-course
the humble house sparrow.
In photography, there are a number of people that have focused on birds, as do I when I see the opportunity. At the moment there seems to be a bit of a wave happening. For instance, there is a French publisher, that has gone to a number of well-, or lesser known photographers and asked them to put together a book of photographs with birds.
The books are small collections of maybe up to 50 photographs, put together and sequenced by the photographer. Different photographers feature birds, others simply have birds as an accessory. All are photographs, where birds take on great importance, either by design, or accidentally, adding a certain instantaneous urgency to the photograph.
The sudden flight of a bird, or something as transient as a
bird temporarily sitting on a branch, or on the head of a statue, or flying
through the air just so, might make the difference between something wonderful,
or something very ordinary.
Cases in point are two photographs, which I judge to be the best of their kind. The first by Pentti Sammallathi, is a purely serendipitous composition, which in a photographer that does great work, time after time after time, is perhaps not a coincidence, but rather extremely observant. Or perhaps just plain lucky.
A tree devoid of leaves and looking like either the dead of winter, or death itself, comes back to life for an instant, when the plumage of leaves may be seen for no more than a fraction of a second, created by a passing flock of birds. The scale of each leaf, or in this case each bird, relative to the tree, lets the viewer contemplate for a brief second the splendor of a tree fully in its glory, at a time when in fact, it is either dead, or dormant. It is perhaps a metaphor for life itself.
The second, and equally as incredible photograph, is a much, much darker master-piece by Masahisa Fukase. A Japanese photographer, I will confess that I did not know well, until I saw a show of his in Amsterdam. He had a strange, photography obsessed life, where at the height of his career, where so many wonderful things could have happened, he fell down the stairs and spent the last 20 plus years of his life in a coma, on life-support, never regaining consciousness. The photograph may or may not say something about a photographic career, or it may say everything. Fukase worked on a project in the unforgiving winter of the north of Japan, where he made photographs, which resulted in a book that has achieved cult status, and fortunately was recently re-issued, called Raven.
This particular photograph is of a tree, where a large number of crows, or ravens have taken shelter for the night. The scene is dark, yet because the photographer used a flash to make the photograph, the eyes of the birds reflect the light and this is captured on the film, as white dots. It is as though the birds are all watching the photographer. There is something incredibly ominous about this photograph. Something very Hitchcock. I am usually not a great fan of flash photography, and never use one myself, but in this case, it works. The result is both scary and magnificent, all at the same time. The Murder of Crows, or the Conspiracy of Ravens.
Birds animate a photograph in ways very little else
does. Maybe that is why many
photographers like them in their photographs.
A simple fly-by can change the mundane to the inspired.
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
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.
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.”
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?
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?
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
“…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 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 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
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.
Note: See the exhibitions at the three venues in
Modena through August 25th at:
Margherita, Sala Grande, Corso Canalgrande 103
Giardini, Corso Cavour 2
MATA – Ex
Manifattura Tabacchi, via della Manifattura dei Tabacchi 83
I remember when in 1969 – at the age of 7 – I was watching a
small black and white screen at friends’ cottage. A small grainy picture. I had been playing most of the day and we all
gathered for the eventful moment when man – in the person of Neil Armstrong –
stepped off the bottom rung and planted his boot on the surface of the
moon. I didn’t speak English at the
time, so a quote would not be appropriate here, but I was very much aware of
the weird huge white space suits, the oversize motorcycle helmets and the super
awkward gloves that looked like they were completely useless at picking up
Over the years, I have had a lot of NASA photographs pass through my hands. I have kept a few, but mostly, I exchanged them for other things, because, I am not a great believer in the longevity of old colour photographs. But I digress…. I did keep two. One that I think proves beyond a reasonable doubt that actually, the moon landing never happened. It was all on a set in the Arizona desert. And to prove my point, when you go to the NASA library and look up this particular image number, it doesn’t exist!
I am only kidding, of course, but the man in the background does prove good fodder for what the conspiracy theorists all say. The wide 70s tie blowing in the wind and his high-waist brown pants and loafers. The hair. You have to love the hair. It reminds me a little of my dad’s hair at the time, along with the sexy mustache and the shades. He wasn’t really supposed to be in the frame.
Of course man landed on the moon, but this particular photograph is all about the simulation, in the heat of the Arizona desert. Can you imagine just how horrible it must have been? Unbelievably uncomfortable. I would imagine great relief among the chosen few, when finally they got on with it and landed on the moon, putting the strange suits to good use.
The second image I kept is usually referred to as the
‘Jumping Salute’. I will leave it to the
official description from NASA:
“Astronaut John W. Young, commander of
the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, leaps from the lunar surface as he salutes
the United States flag at the Descartes landing site during the first Apollo 16
extravehicular activity. Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot,
took this picture……”
Between these two photographs, I think I have found the two most humorous from all the NASA Apollo missions. Both are great fun, and both should be part of the celebration of what we can achieve as humans, while maintaining a smile on our faces. Don’t forget, it was all accomplished with the computing power of the average pocket calculator (for those that remember what they looked like).
It has been 50 years since the last time. Perhaps, it is time to renew the vision of man on the moon. Perhaps, looking back at the only planet we have, we can make sure we start to take climate change seriously!?
I read this morning that a body of work by Annie Leibovitz is being presented at Art Basel as a 200 cm x 100 cm composite of her Driving series from the 1970s and early 80s. While this on its own is not great shakes, it goes to the continuing issue of bigger is better. Instead of 63 images in a book, these have been assembled in a digital grid – 9 across and 7 down – unlike the original images, which were of course analog. So, how do we read this. Is it a means to an end, as in achieving a huge price point, for a work by Annie Leibovitz? I don’t get it.
Leibovitz’s gallery, Hauser and Wirth – a Gagosian Gallery in training – when announcing their exclusive representation of the photographer, said among other things: “…through a poetic body of far-reaching work Leibovitz has become an avatar of the changing cultural role of photography as an artistic medium”. I don’t even know what that means…..
Hauser and Wirth is a global super gallery that represents few photographers, a lot of conceptual artists, and I guess, now Annie Leibovitz.
I have a lot of time for Leibovitz’s work in her days at Rolling Stone Magazine, but sadly, I think she lost it a bit over time going to large crews, huge production and lighting get-ups and sadly more and more digital manipulation. The final straw for me was when I read that she shot Queen Elizabeth II for an official portrait and then decided it was better if she moved her outside, expect she only did that on the computer, so we have a photograph taken inside Buckingham Palace with perfect, controlled lighting and a completely fabricated background. Maybe she was thinking of Renaissance portraits that often had highly imaginative landscapes in the background, like the Mona Lisa?
All this to say that I am a great admirer of Leibovitz’s handheld, spontaneous and opportunistic photographs of artists and people driving cars, but she seems to have lost the plot and is now represented by a gallery that is playing with the price point of her work to create a new and different Annie Leibovitz, no longer a photographer, but some kind of conceptual artist.
Incidentally, Hauser and Wirth also represent August Sander, about whom they say “Sander is now viewed as a forefather of conceptual art…..” Serieux? The same August Sander that the gallery quotes on its homepage, just a few lines above, saying: “I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people”. I guess you will say anything to get your artists to fit within certain gallery parameters.
One has to wonder about the big global galleries (read super expensive) that are said to manage the careers of their stable of artists, and, I am told, unceremoniously dump them, if they cannot reach a particular price point within a certain period of time. These galleries usually will show a variety of artists; great masters of modern painting and sculpture, contemporary artists and the occasional photographer. They will include the photographer, because the gallery’s clientele is the super wealthy that will pay top dollar for art recommended by these galleries, and at the moment, photography is cool.
But how do you solve the price point? Bigger is better, seems to be the answer. Gursky’s huge digitally manipulated plexiglass mounted images, or Jeff Wall’s equally huge digital tableau prints and light boxes, help justify the price. Now, you can add Leibovitz’s 9 x 7 grid of drivers in cars.
One has to wonder, if clients are actually buying art, or are buying a gallery provenance. Do they say: ‘I bought this at Hauser and Wirth’, or ‘I bought a photograph by Annie Leibovitz’. A guess? …….Anyone?
Annie, the Avatar, as defined by Webster: “An electronic image that represents and may be manipulated by a computer user”. Appropriate? I am sorry Ms. Leibovitz has chosen this path. Her work deserves better.
Most of the time, I will have on my image glasses. These virtual glasses seem to place what is before me in a 24mm by 36mm frame. In other words, I am composing new photographs all the time. I think it comes from having seen a lot of photographs and having taken a lot of photographs over many, many years.
It is like an internal dialogue that
takes you through a series of steps, along these lines: “hmmm, interesting”, then “I wonder what I
could do with that”, to “hmmm, that is an interesting and good composition”, to
“now”, at which point I raise the camera, make my manual adjustments for speed
and F-stop, I focus and press the shutter.
There is a certain rhythm to this exercise and it happens over and over
again, as I move through a city, landscape or simply sit in my chair at home
and watch the light move past my windows, changing light and shadow.
I have always been preoccupied with the
single image. Film never interested me,
it was always about the single frame. A
small story in a single frame.
I came across a description of this
single image versus a series of images by Teju Cole in “Human Archipelago”:
“A single spectacular image has its
satisfactions. It is a self-contained thing, and part of its force comes from
that self-containedness. It functions like a haiku. It is an image in a hurry,
though it disguises that hurry somewhat.
Something else happens with images
intended for a series. These images are
like individual sentences in an essay. The essay as a whole is obviously what
matters, and spectacular individual sentences can go against the grain of the
whole essay, unbalancing its intention.”
This goes to the point that I have
raised before. When you go to an art
gallery and see an exhibition of a series of photographs on a topic or maybe a
location, one of two things very often happens, either there are no sold
stickers – often a little red dot – indicating that no photographs have been
sold, or there will be multiple dots under the same image, suggesting that
several prints of this particular image have been sold.
To me this suggests that the single image with all the dots has effectively stolen the show, as Cole says, a single sentence in the essay has spectacularly outshone all the other sentences. Hence, a single image with other images around it to form a whole that is either the result of a gallerist insisting that a series be provided for the show, or a photographer that may have spent too much time looking at their own work, and as a result perhaps lost a bit of focus and self-evaluation.
Not to say that series cannot work. After all, Life Magazine in its day was full of series made by very strong and very successful photographers. But as Robert Frank described at some point – I forget where – that in his seminal book The Americans, he did not necessarily choose the best individual photograph, but created a book layout. A different task, a different flow, and a lot of famous images, but perhaps not one single image that outshines all the others.
Perhaps this helps describe the difference between the story and the single image.
In a recent article, Agnes Sire, the Director of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson discussed the legendary photographer – by most collectors and enthusiasts of photography simply referred to as HCB – setting out to explain some of the magic that has surrounded the photographer for more than three quarters of a century. Here is my contribution:
HCB’s seminal book, in English called “The Decisive Moment” and in French
“Images à la Sauvette” (1952), HCB assembled a selection of his photographs of
various subjects, in a novel style that was made possible by a small, nimble
hand-held camera, in the hands of a master, who had a great eye and a classical
background in composition. The book has
come to be, perhaps, the most important book ever published in the field of
HCB paradox, in my mind is one of reconciling the idea behind the two titles of
his book. In English TheDecisive
Moment, in French translated into English Images on the Run. Arguably HCB did both, he found the exact
moment to take a photograph. He did so with great composition and great command
of light and shadow. However, the concept
of the decisive moment is based on perfect composition and perfect content, but
to make a photograph at the decisive moment, you have to wait for the decisive
moment. You have to be patient. You compose your image in the view-finder,
you set the graphic elements and ensure that the light and shadow elements will
work in the final black and white print, and then you wait. You wait for the right element to enter the
photograph, usually this is people, a dog, a car or another moving object and
you press the shutter when the moving element is in the perfect position in the
composition you have prepared for it.
This is the Decisive Moment.
good example is the bicycle rider in the 1932 image from Hyères in the south of
France. The graphic elements of the
staircase, the position of the photographer above the subject, and the stairs, walls
and building all round, create the perfect setting. The perfect light and shadow elements form the
perfect frame for the lone bicycle rider that comes along the cobble stones on
the road below.
on the Run, on the other hand, suggests that you lift the camera, compose the
image on the fly and capture the moving elements perfectly within the field of
the viewfinder. All in a fraction of a
second. This requires not only
incredible luck and intuition when it comes to the compositional, or graphic
elements, but also the moving elements have to be just perfect. While I would argue that this happens, it
does not happen often, and certainly not every time.
prime example of this would be HCB’s Behind the Gare Saint Lazarre, which
captures the jumping figure and his reflection in the standing, perfectly still
water, with a poster in the background of a circus artist in a strikingly
similar position as the jumper in the foreground. There would have been only a second or two to
anticipate this shot and certainly no time to prepare. Lucky?
Perhaps, but it still takes a great eye to make this come together.
contradiction in these two photographs is that in the first, the one from Hyères,
it is 99% sure that the composition was created, and the shutter pushed down only
when the bicycle appeared below.
Arguably, HCB might have seen a bicycle come across the field, followed
by him setting up the shot and waiting for the next bicycle, however, unlike
the Saint Lazarre image, where HCB could see in advance that the figure was
going to come across the boards and would perhaps jump, giving him time to
raise the camera and press the shutter at the perfect moment, the shot with the
bicycle could not be anticipated, as the bicycle would have come from behind the building to
the right at some speed, and there simply would not have been time to even raise
interpretation of the two book titles, perhaps illustrated with the two
examples above, creates part of the mystique around HCB. He nursed this mystique. It is said that he buried a small box of
negatives – individual negatives cut from whole rolls – in his garden before the
outbreak of World War II. The mystique
is augmented, as some of these negatives are among his most celebrated. They date from the 1920s and 30s and are in
many cases iconic. However, in saving
individual negatives only, as opposed to entire rolls of film, you cannot see,
if he took 30 photographs to get the one with the bicycle…. Perhaps there was one
with a pedestrian, one with a pram, one with a car, and so forth, and he
selected the one with the bicycle. There
is no way of knowing how the decisive moment was achieved. How many shots it took before the bicycle came along. It is more than likely that there would have
been several photographs from the same spot before the bicycle came along. We will never know, and I am convinced that
HCB liked it that way. The box of
individual negatives contributed greatly to the legend that he became and
cemented in his followers his incredible ability to compose every frame perfectly
every time. We will never know how many
photographs of the same scene would have appeared over and over again with
variations in the key moving elements, until the right one came along and the
decisive moment occurred.
is this important you ask? Well, I think
the majority of HCB’s iconic images are actually very carefully composed frames
with moving elements captured just at the right time. As opposed to simply lifting the camera at
the right second and by magic shooting at the same time as designing the
composition within the frame, as would be the case with the ‘photographer on
is by no means a scientific analysis of the master’s work, nor is it a critique
of the man’s incredible skill and his wonderful photographs, it is my interpretation
of how he nursed his own legend and at the same time suggested that
compositional, framing elements were everything, but that the fraction of a
second when the decisive moment happened was also everything and somehow the
compositional elements came together with the moving elements in a decisive
moment, in a spontaneous, not pre-planned fashion. This is pure fabrication. Perfect composition, lighting and the moving
elements do not just come together in the 1/125th of a second that
one might shoot in today, or the 1/50th of a second that HCB would
have shot at in the middle of the last century.
Yes, it can happen. Yes,
experience will help with the composition elements. But it is not something that happens over and
over again and just for HCB.
am not suggesting that HCB’s photographs are not mind-blowing and that the
sheer volume of his incredible photographs are not awe-inspiring for any
photographer, what I am saying is that a great number of his photographs are
carefully composed in advance and taken once the moving, critical element
entered the frame in exactly the right position and the shutter was
pushed. Of course, lots of HCB’s
photographs are absolutely taken on the run, but often the compositional
elements are not quite as strong, and the action, or the moving elements, as I
call them, tend to be a little more centered in the frame, as would be natural,
if you see something happening, you raise and point your camera, and press the
shutter, all in a matter of a split second.
In conclusion: HCB did both the well-composed decisive moment photographs and the images on the run photographs. So, perhaps it is appropriate that his collection of photographs published to such great effect in 1952, in a somewhat convoluted manner had both titles. The result is a collection of both carefully composed images, where behind the scenes, an entire roll might have been committed to get just the right moving element, and images that were a result of a split second decision to shoot, where a roll might actually contain 36 completely different photographs.
was superb at supporting his own legend, and had a reputation for harshly
critiquing mentees who broke his rules for strict composition and perfect
timing for the moving elements. He was a
great photographer, but the legend that all his photographs were split-second
decisions, where he just happened to be exactly in the right place, in the
exact right position, in the 1/50th of a second where the whole
thing came together in his view-finder just so, is entirely the stuff of legend
and a carefully nurtured legend at that, which HCB seems to have enjoyed
thoroughly. His writings, his
quotations, his legendary privacy, hatred of having his picture taken, all have
fed the reputation and formed the iconic legacy that he enjoyed during his
lifetime, and beyond.
of his more famous quotes reads:
“For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry – it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression”.
This is the stuff of legend, and for the average photographer the kind of stuff that makes the knees knock and the hands tremble. And while it can certainly happen, it is the exception rather than the rule, because as a rule with HCB, composition came first, and more often than not, the moving elements were the result of patience and multiple efforts before achieving the final result. The quote is revisionist, and designed to further fuel the legend.
It doesn’t diminish the value or the
incredible number of magnificent photographs that the master produced during
his long career, but it does make him human.
At least a little more human than the legend might otherwise suggest.
For a long time I have been subscribing
to Alex Novac’s newsletter. Alex sells
photographs and is a well-respected expert, particularly in the area of 19th
century images. He also takes it upon
himself to provide updates to his subscribers on a variety of current events,
and I paid particular attention to his summary of discussions with exhibitors
at Paris Photo, which I attend each November and have for years.
This year, he interviewed and quoted a
number of exhibitors who overall were very happy with the exhibition and
enjoyed the incredible attendance and the many sales, as well as seeing what
their colleagues are up to. Paris Photo
remains the key event in the calendar of anyone collecting photographs,
wherever they might be from in the world.
In 2018, one of the booths at Paris Photo was Peter Fetterman, one of the Grand Masters of the medium from his gallery in California. Peter Fetterman’s booth at Paris Photo was a wonderful display of what the French call ‘Humaniste’ photography, what I often translate to ‘The Human Condition’. I quote, as follows from Alex’s newsletter:
With regards to the photography market
generally, Fetterman commented, “If it’s great material and it touches
people, then the market is strong. I think people are more sensitive now and
can tell when an image has been created for a market rather than as a personal
statement. All these photographers in my booth, back in the day they never sold
anything. They did it, because they had to do it. Emotionally they had to
express themselves through their photography. But a lot of the work created
today is big prints about nothing, in an edition of three, and that’s supposed
to make it important? It’s manufactured, and I think people are catching on to
that. It’s a lot of hype. I think the real artists will always be successful,
and the here-today, gone tomorrow won’t. It’s Darwin basically, survival of the
fittest and the most talented. And I think market corrections are good.”
I have for many years been wondering how some of the modern photographs that we see commanding huge prices can possibly be set along side some of the masters of the medium. More about that another day, and hats off to Peter Fetterman. I share his views.
A most famous, smelly leather jacket recently sold for $147000. A remarkable amount of money for a remarkable garment. Levi Strauss & Co. made the jacket. They called it the Cossack. Originally sold in 1931, Levi Strauss & Co. bought the jacket back in 2016. Why you ask?
Albert Einstein purchased the leather Cossack jacket – a brown leather model with a small collar and a simple row of buttons. No embellishments. A simple, straight up and down leather jacket that would look modern today, as it would on someone like Steve McQueen or James Dean in the 1950s and 1960s. Timeless.
Ms. Lotte Jacobi had photographed Einstein in 1928 in Germany and returned to photograph him at Priceton in 1938. At Princeton, she asked Prof. Einstein to invite Leopold Infeld to join him in his office, so that she could photograph Einstein while in a conversation with the colleague. The resulting photographs show a relaxed Einstein wearing his now famous leather jacket with his signature hairdo. The photograph may well be the most famous image of the Scientist and Nobel Laureate, perhaps competing with the Arthur Sasse 1951 photograph of him sticking out his tongue at the photographer.
Einstein bought the jacket around the time when he was in the process of
becoming a US citizen, and continued to wear it for many years. He wore it frequently. There are several photographs showing him
wearing it, including an iconic April 4, 1938 cover of TIME magazine, a colour
illustration based on the Lotte Jacobi photographs from the session at
As a collector of photography, I often wonder what makes an icon, and what
best illustrates an icon. Is it a photograph
of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt over the subway grate by Bruno Bernard, is it the
Dennis Stock photograph of James Dean walking in the rain with a cigarette in
his mouth near Times Square? What photograph has that something that makes the
subject an icon, or indeed makes the photograph iconic? What makes it cool, and
why do these photographs continue to capture the imagination? I don’t know, but Einstein in his leather
jacket is the best, it is simply the definition of looking cool.
Einstein started work at Princeton University in 1933. He applied for US citizenship in 1936 and
became a citizen in 1940. A colleague at
Princeton, Leopold Infeld wrote about the jacket in his autobiography: “One of my colleagues at Princeton asked me,
‘If Einstein dislikes his fame and would like to increase his privacy, why does
he … wear his hair long, a funny leather jacket, no socks, no suspenders, no
ties?’ The answer is simple… One leather jacket solves the coat problems for
many years.” Thomas Venning, who works
at Christie’s added that the jacket was “an incredibly worn, rather pungent
leather jacket.” And added, “Einstein was an incessant pipe smoker and,
astonishingly, 60 years after his death, his jacket still smells of smoke.”
Levi Strauss & Co. will add the jacket to its archive, said Tracey Panek, the company’s historian.
Karl Lagerfeld, the ‘Kaiser’, fancied himself a photographer. I watched a documentary about his work some years ago and basically, a small army of assistants set up the shot and Karl stepped in, in his black driving gloves, high collar, skinny black tie, sunglasses and white ponytail and pressed the shutter. Did he have the vision? Probably. Did he do the work? Not really.
I am not sure I consider this the work of a true photographer, but I do have respect for Mr. Lagerfeld’s creative skills in many areas. The man had a great eye, there is no doubt. Watching him sketch, or in a decisive manner declare that a skirt should be one centimeter shorter, with 15 minutes to show time, was amazing to watch. He worked endless hours and without a doubt brought Chanel to new heights and likely had a great influence on how women have dressed over the past three decades.
I have seen a bunch of Lagerfeld’s photographs over the years and bought two for my own own collection about 15 years ago. I like the graphic feel of these images, while I am sure that he didn’t select the settings on the camera, nor arrange the lighting and so forth, he did design the black and white clothes, which suit Helena Christensen incredibly well. The look would not be out of place, even 30-odd years later. They were taken by Karl – at least nominally – and used for his Chanel campaign. I am not entirely sure what year, but judging by the cut, sometime in the late 1980s?
While I don’t think of the Kaiser as a great photographer, I do think of him as having a great line, both on the page and when asked in any number of languages for a comment. Speaking always at high speed, he delivered some wonderful lines over the years. My favorite quote, and an opinion that I share emphatically, particularly as a person who spends way too much time in airports, where perhaps the worst fashion statements are made, he said with his usual machine gun delivery:
“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” – Karl ‘the Kaiser’ Lagerfeld
Karl Lagerfeld (10 September 1933 – 19 February 2019) RIP
For many years, I have looked for a print of the famous war photograph that shows the profound sadness and despair among Frenchmen, not loyal to the Vichy puppet government. I finally found a press print.
Like so many other mystery photographs, this one is attributed to an anonymous photographer. Some sources I found, say the Associated Press. But always one for a good mystery, I started looking a little harder.
There is newsreel footage from a solemn time in Marseille (not Paris, as has been assumed by many) where a parade of French Regimental Banners left French soil for safe-keeping in Algeria, so as not to fall into the hands of the advancing German Army. The banners left France onboard ship, returning only with the Invasion by Allied Forces towards the end of the war. I assume this would have been in the fall of 1939. I have always wondered why no photographer ever took credit. Why no print was ever made that didn’t seem a little muddy. As though the only way to print this image was from a not-so-great inter-negative. Not an original negative. Not a first-generation print. I always thought the image was so good that the quality was perhaps secondary. Perhaps the image was so important that I should look for it even if it wasn’t in perfect condition.
But then, the great reveal……… I found this old newsreel on Youtube of all places. The link is here, posted by someone called “All is History”:
Here is a screen capture at 29 seconds:
There is no way that a photographer would have been able to take a photograph at the exact same angle, from the exact same place, at the exact moment. In other words, the credit for this incredibly important image goes not to a photographer, but to an unknown cameraman, covering the news. Part of a newsreel for everyone to see in the theaters of what little remained of a free Europe, before the feature film that would follow.
It is a mystery that has probably been solved. It is perhaps a little sad, as we now know that in fact there is no anonymous photographer, but rather a cameraman, who was in the right place at the right time. Of course, now the cameraman is elusive, but that is a mystery for another day.
The ‘photograph’ of the crying Frenchman has become legend. It has become the embodiment of so much pain and suffering by the occupied people of France. It has been claimed as showing a heart-broken spectator to the German army marching down the Champs Elysee. But the footage does not lie. The voice-over tells the story:
“Gone is the Republic of France. Gone is free speech and a free representative government. Gone is liberty, equality, fraternity. With their ears they listen, but their minds and their hearts are down by the Mediterranean, where the colours of the regiments are being taken to Africa, out of the Nazi grasp. The people weep, as their glory departs, but they don’t as yet know that France has hope, a rallying point. Charles de Gaulle, a soldier in the great tradition of France is not surrendering. He will continue to fight, gathering about him loyal Frenchmen from all over the World, who become the free French army. The fighting French. Yes, the people weep as they watch their colours go, not knowing that two years later these same flags would be unfurled in North Africa.”
Clearly, the footage is a mix of film from different locations and different times. The voice-over must have been added later. The mix of Charles de Gaulle footage and the footage of the banners leaving Marseille are not contemporary. However, the footage of the crowds and the banners leaving, I believe, are indeed from the same reel and as such, I can see nothing that would dispute either the origin of the photograph, or the ‘photographer’, the unknown cameraman.
Let me close by saying that I love the photograph. I don’t care that it is a single frame from a few feet of film. It is I believe a symbol. A moment in time. What a photograph can sometimes do when it is very successful. It stands as a testament.
It is France at a time of deep sorrow, captured forever in a photograph. A single frame.
I met him once. He sat in his café-cum-bar at a corner table by the window. He was the belle of the ball, the one that everyone in the know was looking at discreetly, or in some cases staring at wildly. A legend. A celebrity. A man who managed to capture the essence of Istanbul.
Sure, he claimed he was much more than that, when asked. He would talk about all his travels, where he had visited and photographed, how he was hand picked by Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum, but the legacy persists: He was the king of Istanbul, the pride and the living visual memory of the great city.
His photographs are atmospheric and truly sensitive to what it means to see Istanbul for what it is and what it was. The cross-roads, the cradle and the mystery that is the front door to Asia, the legendary city of sultans, the gateway, mysterious and wonderful. Any photographer would have given their eyetooth to make some of the photographs that Ara Güler so amazingly did over and over again, day after day. Orhan Pamuk’s words and Ara Güler’s photographs in many ways define Istanbul.
Ara Güler had a great eye and was an early riser. His photographs reflect some of the things you could only possibly experience when rising at dawn and making your way to the port, where your friends and people that you could relate to, allowed you to travel with them on their boats and make photographs of tough lives well lived, witnessed by someone who was there, but was also himself one with them. It seems to me he photographed like the invisible man, making photographs that bear witness and simply shows what daily life was like only a few decades ago in a city that has changed so much.
It always impresses me when photographers have a body of work they are famous for, as opposed to a single image or two. Ara Güler doesn’t have a signature image, at least not one that I would willingly identify as such. I recognize a lot of his images that I saw in his little gallery upstairs from the café in Istanbul, or in his several books. But unlike many of his peers, he created a feeling and an atmosphere with his photographs, which nobody else seems to be able to capture. Many have tried photographing Istanbul at various times over the past 100 or so years, but I always end up comparing them to Ara Güler and I always conclude that they are good, but not quite as good as those made by the King of Istanbul.
He who wanted to be remembered for so much more, will always be the one who photographed Istanbul: Ara Güler, the one who did it better than anyone else.
Ara Güler (August 16, 1928 – October 17, 2018) was fittingly born in Istanbul, and passed away in Istanbul, may he rest in Peace.
Having spent a few days in the United Kingdom, I came away both troubled and encouraged. I got to photograph one of my bucket list locations; Castle Howard. Located just north of York, it is a castle, anchored in my mind from the time the lavish production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews aired in 1981. Strawberries and Champagne….., need I say more. I had the grounds of Castle Howard all to myself for a full hour before the buses arrived, it was truly a magical time, despite the drizzle.
Having carried on to the great colleges of Cambridge, it was with some sadness that I saw galleries lining King’s Parade and Trinity Street, opposite King’s-, Trinity- and St. John’s colleges. None of them, not a single one offered photography. There was jewelry by local artists, sculpture in various media and paintings, even a couple of hyper-realist painting that could have passed for colour photographs. I say this because there was a time, when I thought that photography had rightfully taken its place along with the other fine arts. But alas, it seems there is a long way to go before the vox populi start to share in the enjoyment of a great photograph.
I figured that with design magazines and the occasional great photography museum show, it would be a matter of only a short time before everyone would want a great photographic image on their wall.
What does it all mean? Well, the half-full view would be that it is a great time to buy a photograph, the half-empty view that photography will never catch up and take it’s rightful place among the fine arts. But economics will tell you that it has been one of the greatest areas of investment over the past 20+ years, and there is no end in sight. When you compare what you can get for your money in photography versus in painting or sculpture, the choice is simple.
At the end of the day, you read this because you area interested in photography, and as such, I am preaching to the converted. However, there is no doubt in my mind that even compared to the stock market, photography is a great place to be. Much better to look at than a stock certificate, or a bond.
I don’t think I am wrong in saying that a lot of museums around the world are waking up to the fact that they forgot to collect photography and should be adding to their collections. Much great work is being purchased by museums and institutional collectors, driving up prices in the auction market. Museums rarely speculate, they want the sure thing, unless it is specific to their region, country or national identity, but they do want a collection that reflects the masters of the medium. You as the private collector have an opportunity to help set the market and identify great photographers.
It is a great time to be a collector and a great time to be a photographer!
In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed a Bill declaring the Yosemite Valley inviolable. Many agree that the reason this happened was the impossibly challenging expedition that Carleton Watkins made with his huge glass-plate camera to the valley in 1861.
It is agreed by most photography historians that the single most important reason for the protection of Yosemite, were the stunning photographs taken by Carleton Watkins and circulated in the House and Senate among congressmen and Senators, most of whom had never been west of the Mississippi. Lincoln himself never managed to get to California, hence never had a chance to personally see California, or visit the Yosemite Valley. But the photographs spoke.
I have just returned from the Memoria exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. Two floors of James Nachtwey’s photographs, virtually all representing his 40 years of covering human conflict with his camera. So close-up it is nothing short of terrifying. When you see so much pain, so much hatred, and so much human suffering, you stand very quietly and think how time and time again mankind loses its humanity causing untold terror and irreparable damage. This exhibition is so intense that many at the exhibition today simply left half way through. Saying nothing. They just walked away in disbelief.
Almost 200 photographs hung in small groups, each covering a particular human tragedy. Each photographed impossibly close up. Some in colour, some in black and white. The overall impression leaves the viewer stunned and in awe at just how much humans can inflict on other humans, usually imposed by leaders who are just moving the chess pieces around the board without ever seeing the results of their decisions.
Which brings me to the point of this blog.
Learn from Carleton Watkins. Hang 200 photographs by James Nachtwey in the corridors of power around the world. In the Kremlin, in Washington, in Beijing…. Show the exhibition at the United Nations and at the European Union in Brussels. Perhaps we won’t get a resolution to end all war and conflict, but we can perhaps rethink our humanity and bring home in spades what decisions made by politicians, and leaders of armies do to common people and the soldiers sent to do their dirty business.
Like the photographs by Carleton Watkins contributed to the creation of great nature preserves, so James Nachtwey must be given the stage to create a new reality for politicians and global leaders. Let the photographs speak.
In case you are in Paris, the James Nachtwey exhibition is an absolute must. It is so painful that only by seeing it can you consider yourself a person of knowledge. Knowledge of hate, knowledge of fear, and maybe with some luck knowledge of what to do next time you have a choice to make a difference in your country.
Unless you have been living under a rock – in photography terms – you will know that one of the great 20th century masters of the art is William Eugene Smith. The pained and often challenging character that has given us some of the greatest photographic records of all time. His work on display in a fantastic new show in Bologna, Italy. At La Fondazione MAST. MAST for short.
Should you find your way to this culinary paradise of a porticoed city, where food, learning and politics are always near, you must go to MAST. Located on the outskirts of town, an easy cab ride away, no more than 12 EURO from almost anywhere in the city center. Given that admission is free, think of the cab fare as your admission ticket. (they are happy to call you a taxi for your return, if you ask nicely at the gate).
The space inside is as though made for a walk through a collection of photographs. If you know anything about WES, you will know that his Pittsburgh project went from a short assignment to a near nightmare of 20,000 negatives and more than 2,000 prints. It is a documentation of a city in time and place like no other and remains to this day one of the greatest works of documentary photography.
Eugene Smith is one of the great printers of his time, he liked shooting in low light and at a time when film was slower than it is today. This was challenging, yet executed with such skill -both in the composition of the photograph and in the printing – that you simply have to applaud every single print. They are small jewels.
But it is also the space. The gallery. The Museum. The prints are hung up hill. Placed in a space, where white walls and ramps and small stairs move you through and up an exhibition. I cannot say that I have seen or experienced anything similar anywhere else. It is as though you are on a pilgrimage, working your way up ramps and stairs with each corner you turn and every simple wood frame you view, containing another revelation of skill and mastery.
I have been to many, many museums and galleries in my time. Nothing quite like this.
I hope to see many more exhibitions in this space. The setting is fantastic, and partnered with the right photographer, simple frames and white walls with well chosen quotes in English and Italian stenciled here and there, giving the photographs plenty of room to breathe, there is no better place to visit.
You should visit this great show, or at least keep an eye on what comes next. The space is fantastic and the food and wine in Bologna is not bad either…..
In a time of great anxiety over personal privacy, protection of identity, and the right to be forgotten, it seems only fair to question the photographs of Vivian Maier.
I was in Bologna last week and noticed yet another exhibition of photographs by Vivian Maier. During the same week the new privacy guidelines kicked-in in the European Union. Your right to privacy…..
The story of Vivian Maier has been told many, many times. Death. An unpaid storage unit. The discovery of thousands of negatives by the hitherto unknown photographer. The opportunity for great profits.
Vivian Maier lived in silent anonymity and is known only to a few, most of whom were only children, when she seems to have had one eye on them, and the other looking down and through her Rolleiflex.
Little is known about why or when she found the time to photograph and nobody that I have heard, or read about ever saw a print of her work in her own lifetime.
As a photographer, why do I care about the work of Vivian Maier? Well, I like some of it, and I even have one of the many books of her work. But my question is whether anyone has the right to print and sell her work, when there is no will, no relatives and only an unpaid storage unit.
Put myself in her shoes. I am dead. Maybe I don’t care? I have taken thousands of photographs in my time. I have maybe a couple of hundred – at most – that I think are pretty good, and only a couple of handfuls that I know are great, at least in my own opinion. Yet, here I am – 6 foot under – hearing all this fuss about my negatives and the modern, unauthorized prints made from them. Here I am with no control over which photographs are shown and which are not. Here I am with no control over the size of each photograph, how it is printed, silver gelatin or maybe platinum-palladium? Here I am with no say at all. None.
For a deeply private person should she not have the right to privacy. The right to her personal expression. The right to control her own work? Even after she is dead.
Which photographs we show to other people is a deeply personal choice. Case in point: Henri Cartier-Bresson, maybe the greatest of the greats from the 20th century. Before WWII, he cut individual negatives from his rolls of film and put these select, individual negatives that he was proud of, in a small box. He discarded the rest. Thousands of negatives destroyed. Gone. He buried the small box in the backyard and went off to war. The content of the box became famous. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s legacy.
Vivian Maier had no time to cut her negatives, select the frames that would remain her legacy after death. Instead a few people she has no connection to are selecting from thousands of negatives, which are to be her fame. Which are to be her legacy. Vivian Maier died in 2009. She was 83. She cannot possibly have known the kinds of dealers and speculators, both buyers and sellers who stand to profit from her work.
Do a few highly motivated dealers and entrepreneurs – or should I say opportunists – have the right to make decisions for Vivian Maier? Currently tied up in the courts and unable to sell a single print, the opportunists are raising awareness, publishing books, making documentary films, and organizing non-selling exhibitions to promote Vivian Maier’s great eye and great contribution to photography. I assume, all with an eye on a huge payday, should they win in court and be able to sell actual prints that Vivian Maier never saw, never agreed to, and never approved.
We know nothing of Vivian Maier’s wishes, we know nothing of her choices. What we do know is that in her lifetime virtually all her work was kept private and confidential. Like personal data: Private and Confidential.
I don’t believe anyone has the right to decide for Vivian Maier which of her photographs should be printed, shown, sold or given away. If any at all!
Perhaps a public institution like the Library of Congress could have a role to play in preserving the negatives that Vivian Maier made during her lifetime. I might even accept that academic researchers and scholars could have access to her work for the purposes of research and maybe occasionally publishing an image or two in the context of documentation and conservation of our past. But this should not be for commercial gain.
Respect the will of the artist. And failing the presence of a will, respect the rights of those that cannot speak for themselves any longer.
In continuation of my previous entry on the Vintage Photograph, here is Part II:
The case for giving special consideration to the vintage print is straightforward and logical. Consider that until only a few years ago, there were very, very few collectors and no photography market to speak of. Until very recently there was no reason for a photographer to print multiple prints of the same image? He might print a couple to swap or give to close friends, fellow photographers, or on occasion send out in lieu of a Christmas card.
Following the argument that the vintage photograph is as close to the original vision of the photographer, the vintage photograph is the panacea of collecting. Add to that the fact that there was no photography market until very recently, there are no more than a small handful of any given photograph. More often than not, vintage photographs will be small in size. They were easy to send, or give away, so the most likely size of a vintage photograph is 8″ x 10″ or smaller. This is the real deal.
The source for vintage material is often the photographer directly. But just as often the source is wherever a photographer might have sold his work, a commission for a magazine, a company, or a person sitting for a portrait.
It is not that long ago that a career photographer would simply send over a print with the original negative to whomever gave the assignment, and that would be it, as far as the photographer was concerned. As a result, many now-defunct publications and newspapers had filing cabinets full of original prints and negatives sitting in a dark basement or storage room. Some photographs are lost forever, known only from the magazine or newspaper where they appeared. Some were picked from the dumpsters by what now must be seen as very wise and foresightful people. Some were sold in bulk to junk dealers, antiquarians, or antique stores. Wherever they went, they never seemed to make it back to the photographer. These are the true vintage photographs.
Some large publications – which shall remain nameless – tried to sell photographs they had in their archives. With the market for photography going up dramatically over the past two or three decades, I am sure you can imagine the CFO getting wind of the goldmine sitting in the old filing cabinets in the basement. However, seller beware; a number of publications have been sued successfully by photographers for not returning material to them after use. So far, living artists have been more successful than estates in winning these types of cases, and I am sure many more battles will be fought before it finds an equilibrium.
Giving strength to the photographers’ claim to their rightful property is the famous Magnum Photos cooperative. The cooperative was founded by some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, and changed how photography is treated by the media. As a first, Magnum photographers retained the rights to a given image and licensed the media to a single use of a photograph by way of a contract, forever changing the value of the photograph and limiting its use. Magnum changed the balance of power between the publication and the photographer.
But back to the case for the Vintage Photograph….. The price of a vintage print by Edward Weston can go into the mid-six-figures, whereas the prints from the same negative printed by his son Cole will be in the four- or low-five-figure range. Edward Weston watched Cole print, he approved the prints, however to the purist, they are just not the same. There is no contest.
If you find a good image in a garage sale, flea market or antique store, give it a good look, see if it is stamped and maybe even has a scribble on the back, and you may have a small or even a large jewel for your collection. Always look for vintage first. It is the photograph in its purest form.
The much abused and maligned term Vintage Print is perhaps the most hotly debated attribution of all. But what does it mean? And perhaps more importantly, why does it matter?
My definition, which I think is probably accepted by most dealers and galleries is a photograph printed by the artist within 12 months of the photograph having been taken and the film developed.
But why does it matter? The argument goes along the following lines: A photographer makes a photograph, develops the film and makes a print, all immediately following each other without any real lapse of time. The hard core collector will argue that this represents the most authentic version of the photograph, as it is perhaps the best representation of what the photographer had in mind when the shutter was pressed and the image made.
The debate about the significance of vintage the vintage photograph will go on forever, but it is very much part of the vocabulary among collectors and dealers. Two collectors chatting will refer to a photograph as a ‘vintage Brassai’, as opposed to a ‘nice Brassai’ or a ‘great Brassai.’ Collectors value the term ‘vintage’ as part of their code and use it frequently, sometimes loosely. Think of it as a type of insider lingo that confirms that you know of which you speak.
The generally accepted rule seems to be as I have stated above, but what if a photograph is printed within two years of being taken, or maybe three? History has a way of compressing itself.
In historical terms, the Hundred Years War between France and Germany was actually not a war that lasted 100 years, but a series of wars that in combination took about a hundred years. In the same way, when our descendants sit in the classroom in a couple of hundred years’ time, the First World War and the Second World War will have become simply the World War.
Using the same logic, the definition of what is a vintage photograph becomes more fluid in the eyes of some dealers and collectors. If a photograph was taken in March of 1930, developed in March of 1930 and printed in April of 1930, everyone agrees that it is a vintage photograph. If it was taken in 1930, developed in 1930 and printed in 1933, the definition no longer applies, but the further we get away from the 1930s, the more compressed time becomes and the more tempting it is to regard the 1933 photograph as being ‘close enough’ to vintage that it enters the gray area that is termed ‘vintage’ by some.
Of course, another factor in dating photographs is that barely any photograph is stamped with a date, or dated by hand. As such, a lot of decisions become somewhat subjective and the materials and the visual inspection by experts starts to determine ‘vintage’ versus ‘printed later.’
Experts use a number of variables to judge whether they will call a photograph vintage or not. Provenance is of course a major factor. Provenance, as you will recall from my previous blog, is when you can prove by documentation the history of the photograph. This includes letters, receipts and other documents that show where and when you acquired the photograph and where it was prior to that. In the case of a weak provenance, other factors will help determine the classification of a given photograph.
In 20th century photography, the determination of ‘vintage’ versus ‘printed later’ can hinge on things like the paper the photograph is printed on and the appearance of a photograph in comparison to other work from the time by the same photographer, already known to be vintage.
It is a generally accepted fact that up to 75 per cent of the world’s Rembrandts are by other artists, contemporary to Rembrandt. There is a society that spends all its time and energy authenticating paintings by the Dutch master. On a much smaller scale, there are connoisseurs of photography that specialize and are regarded as experts on specific periods in photography, or specific photographers. In the case of Rembrandt, the sciences determine the age of the canvas, the pigments used, the solvents, the varnishes used, etc. X-rays will determine underpainting, sketches and other invisible secrets. But science can only go so far. The Rembrandt expert will look at brushstrokes, the particular way in which an eye is painted or a shadow laid down and from experience will look for all the secret identifiers that determine whether a work is by Rembrandt or one of his associates, or even someone completely outside the circle of the master.
In photography determination of authenticity and age is similar. Certain photographic papers were only made for a short time and analysis of the fibres in a photograph can often determine the age of a print within a range of a few years. In the same way as the Rembrandt expert looks for tell-tale signature traits of the master, the expert on a given photographer looks for specific things in a photograph.
A photographer will during a lifetime likely change the way he or she prints, but during a relatively short period, the printing method and appearance of the finished print is likely to be fairly consistent. The expert will look at similar prints in various collections, private and public, and will through comparison and experience lend his name and reputation to whether a particular print is vintage or not. Of course this is not an exact science, but the collectors give certain experts a lot of respect, and their say-so is good enough for most to accept that a work is indeed vintage.
There are some interesting variations on vintage. What, for instance do you do with a photographer who does not print his or her own work? But that is for another blog.
When looking to buy a photograph, there are a few things to consider and be comfortable with. In photographs, like most other arts, perhaps the term Provenance is the most important of all.
Provenance is the collective term for the chronology of ownership from creation to the present day of a work of art. In other words: Who made it, where has it been since it was made and, who has owned it along the way.
The ultimate provenance is a photograph obtained by you, directly from the artist. This is asserted by a receipt made out to you that says you own the photograph. The receipt must be signed, made out to you, dated and it should include a very specific description of what you have acquired. This might include a description or title, the image size, paper size, the print number, if it is part of an edition, and any other pertinent information. It should be a proper receipt, consistent with other receipts from the artist – preferably not written on a scrap of paper, or the corner of a napkin. The receipt together with the photograph itself is the ultimate provenance, confirming that the photograph came to you directly from the photographer.
If you know the photographer, or perhaps have enough presence of mind to ask while in the glow of the halo of the master, you can ask for the photograph to be dedicated to you. The dedication might read: “For Mary Smith, best wishes, Lee Friedlander, June 5, 2010.”
You should know that some collectors find a personal dedication a negative factor when buying a photograph. Some people don’t like showing off their photograph collection with dedications to people other than themselves, while others find any writing on a photograph, aside from a stamp and signature of the artist, to be undesirable. This is of course very subjective, but just be aware that some collectors will take issue with a dedication.
On a personal note; I have a photograph by one of my heroes, Marc Riboud. It hangs above me as I write this. It reads: “For Harbel, new best friends forever, Marc Riboud”. I asked that he write below the image, right across the front. I have framed it so that you can read the inscription. Of my entire collection, it is the only photograph that I have framed where the mat does not cover the signature. Usually, I find a signature distracting, but in the case of Riboud, I smile every time I look at it and read the inscription. However, I do acknowledge that it has probably deducted a few bucks from the value of the photograph. Not everyone likes a photograph dedicated to someone else. But I digress…..
Failing this direct provenance, we now move into progressively more gray areas. The best in a retail environment is a receipt from the dealer, or gallery representing the artist. A receipt from the dealer accompanying the photograph is usually good provenance, particularly if it is a respected dealer in the photography community.
If you are buying from a fellow collector, and that person can present a credible receipt together with the photograph, that is pretty good provenance.
But as the string grows longer – more owners, more galleries between you and the artist – the facts become harder to check. Auction houses, even the best ones, will have a long list of words that they use to cover themselves, like: “believed to be…”, “from the period…”, “property of a relative…”, “school of….”, etc. The bottom line here is that the more credible you think the paper-trail is, the better.
All rules have exceptions. Sometimes the provenance is less important. This sometimes happens when the previous owner was famous or had particular significance to the world of photography or art in general. This can change everything. An example would be a photograph that was owned by, let’s say Picasso.
Likewise, sometimes a photograph comes from the estate of a famous person, logic and even common sense, often goes out the window in this case. In the auction of Andre Breton’s estate, photographs sold for 10 times their high estimate, because they had belonged to Andre Breton, which begs the question whether it is still about the photograph at all, or about owning a little piece of Andre Breton.
Your tolerance for risk determines how you might feel about a photograph that you wish to acquire. But, always remember, if you love the photograph and know what you are buying, or at least are aware of any downside, should you wish to resell it at a later date, then by all means, go for it and enjoy! Sometimes passion is all that really counts.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. One of the world’s most expensive photographers, born of the German post-war tradition, Andreas Gursky (b. 1952) says with a straight face: “I only pursue one goal: The Encyclopedia of Life.”
Gursky is a child of the Bernd and Hilla Becher school, two masters who set out to show sameness and differences in buildings and industrial installations, cataloguing and recording them for posterity. In short, the founders of what has become known as The Dusseldorf School. How is it possible that one who shoots with a digital camera and admits to manipulating the digital files, so as to make them more pleasing and interesting to the eye – adding a couple of bends to a race course, or removing a large and unsightly factory from the banks of the Rhine, as in Rhine II – can be the maker of The Encyclopedia of Life. How is it that curators and critics quote and agree with this pretense? How can this graphic artist – I refuse to call him a photographer – even contemplate calling himself the maker of an “Encyclopedia of Life”?
It seems to me that yet again, we are having to question everything we see, every image, every movie, every piece of news, because not a single conveyor of knowledge or imagery can be trusted? Is that really the legacy we want to leave for the next generation, or the ones after that, who will never know the truth, because we in the present day knowingly allow it to be altered.
Andreas Gursky: Rhine II
Anonymous photographer: Rhine I
Is it photography when what is in the photograph does not exist in real life? Are we getting so accustomed to an alternative reality, where super heroes dominate the silver screen, zombies walk the streets and natural disasters are glorified though CGI, not because it is a great story, but simply because we can. When one can sit at home on the couch and virtually walk through a busy shopping area with a Kalashnikov and try to hit the bad guys, but if you take out an innocent civilian you lose three points. Is this to be our desensitized, pathetic legacy?
Do we have to check the raw file from every image printed to see if it is real? Do we have to physically travel to the banks of the Rhine to look across and see the ugly factory to know what is real and what is fake?
If Andreas Gursky gets to be the writer and illustrator of the “Encyclopedia of Life”, then it is nothing but a ruse, a badly written screenplay put to life in the form of a huge piece of brightly coloured paper, mounted, framed and carrying a million dollar price tag. One great big lie.
Most of my friends and fellow analog photographers (those that use film and manually develop the film and print by hand in a darkroom) have been speculating, whether the reason a digitally modified image is sold as a photograph, as opposed to digital art (a digigraph?compugraph?manipugraph?) is simply fear. The fear of facing a collector with the reality that the ‘photograph’ they have just sold is more computer than photograph. Fear….
I propose that what drives this fear is the vanity of the art market. Let me explain…… Many looking to buy art – more and more often with one eye on investment value – have dived into photography. Art advisors and many art-value indexes suggest that photography may be the place to invest, better than almost any other area of collecting.
The art market has in many ways been reduced to just another index ruled by nouveaux riches collectors shaping it with large amounts of money, which otherwise would sit idly in the bank making little or no interest. Massive bonuses prop up an overheated art market, reaching levels that are difficult even to contemplate.
If these new collectors had to think in terms of what a photograph represents, versus a work of art created from one or more computer files, manipulated by software programs, and printed by a machine, would he or she still pay the prices that photography commands?
Can a contemporary computer manipulated image by an artist that has barely arrived on the scene reasonably command the same amount of money as a hand printed silver gelatin photograph by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan or Henri Cartier-Bresson?
Perhaps it is time to embrace the digigraph, or the compugraph? Let the family tree of art sprout a new branch. A new discipline that can stand on its own, command its own attention, on its own terms.
Let the traditional darkroom photograph be. Stop the confusion. Stop the insanity.
A green stamp on the back of each of Gianni Berengo Gardin’s photographs reads: VERA FOTOGRAFIA.
Vera Fotografia, because he is saying that what you see in his photograph is what was in front of him when he made the photograph. It has not been manipulated, changed or enhanced with Photoshop or other digital editing software. It is made from an analog film negative and is printed by hand on fiber based paper, in a conventional darkroom.
It is a delight to see a photographer that lives in the spirit of observing life, upholding the standards of purity that I aspire to, and who boldly and confidently stamps every photograph he makes, warts and all. That is truly someone after my own heart, something worth aspiring to. And, as such, I have adopted the same approach, stamping my photographs with a like stamp, for the same reason and with the same intent. Vera Fotografia!
I don’t think of myself as particularly pure, nor innocent, but I do think of photography at a cross-roads. Let me give you three quick examples:
I have been a follower and admirer of Peter Beard for many years. In the early 1960s, Peter Beard took wildlife photographs in Africa from his base in the hills near Nairobi. He brought the world The End of the Game, a book, or record of the terrible future facing wildlife in the face of human encroachment, the ivory trade, etc. I would be curious to hear from Peter Beard what he thinks about Nick Brandt’s lion that appears to come straight from central casting, having just passed through hair and make-up?
For a long time Nick Brandt claimed that it was all done by hand in the darkroom and that he had taken a medium format negative and simply printed it. This was followed initially by whispers, then more loudly by an echo across the analog photography community: This is just not possible. Then in a response to a blog discussion on Photrio.com he came clean, well most of the way, anyway. Nick Brandt: “I shoot with a Pentax 67II and scan my negs. Photoshop is a fantastic darkroom for getting the details out of the shadows and highlights with a level of detail that I never could obtain in the darkroom. However, the integrity of the scene I am photographing is always unequivocally maintained in the final photograph. Animals and trees are not cloned or added.”
I am mildly amused that he refers to Photoshop as a fantastic darkroom, but I do feel woefully cheated when I look at his work. I don’t know what to believe anymore. Digital art perhaps. But a photograph? A representation of what was before him when he made the shot? Perhaps through rose coloured glasses, but not in any reality that I have ever seen.
At Paris Photo last year, I had a very enlightening discussion with a dealer, who claimed that a particular image shot by Sebastiao Salgado for his Genesis project had to be shot with a digital camera, due to the movement of the boat in Arctic waters. She explained that this was merely to freeze the moment. Digital had nothing to do with making the penguins pop out against a rather dull day. Penguins literally jumping off the paper. No, it was all about holding the camera steady on the boat in rough seas. Really?
And finally, my favorite… One of the most expensive photographs ever sold. You know the one, the belts of green grass broken only by the dull gray of the river and the sky. Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II. I understand there was an unsightly factory on the opposite bank. It got in the way of the composition. So Gursky simply removed it. Digital art? Art for sure. $4.3 million says it is. Photograph? Maybe not.
Three examples of what you see, may not be what was actually there. But, then I am not here to question other people’s ‘photographs’. Merely to suggest that perhaps there are different kinds of photographs, and it is time to think about this.
I for one have adopted the Green Rubber Stamp. My photographs now read “Vera Fotografia”, partly in homage to my hero, who took the bold step of declaring himself an authentic analog photographer, but also, to make a little, if tiny, point…
It used to be simple; photographs had a colour palette that went from black through the grays to white. Variations, such as the albumen photograph ranged from dark brown to light cream, and cyano-types went from an almost black marine blue to the palest of blue/white. However, throughout the history of the medium, most photographs were what we would call black and white.
Experimentation with colour started almost as early as photographs were stabilized on paper or metal. In the beginning, colour was simply applied with a brush to the black and white image. Early portraits got a healthy complexion with pink lips and rouged cheeks at the hands of the skilled touch-up artist. Later, a variety of methods were developed to show colour in photographs.
Unfortunately, most colour methods have not stood up well to the passing of time. Most have faded, colour-shifted, so that faces have turned from healthy to very sickly, and clothes, grass and trees turned to colours that are brown and muddy. Most older, colour photographs have simply lost their brightness and sharpness. Just have a look at your own family albums…. they look a little muddy and have that ‘old’ look to them, right?
I know of only two methods that are truly stable. One, the dye-transfer process, is no longer used because it became too expensive. Some great photographs were made using this method, but sadly no more. Ernest Hass was maybe the most consistent user of this technology. The second, is the Fresson process. Fresson printing a multi-step laying down of individual colour layers and is still done today at a single family owned lab in France. The closely guarded secret process has not changed in nearly a century. Sheila Metzner is a strong proponent of this printing method, as is the interesting French photographer Bernard Plossu.
Every so many months new inks are developed for new generations of digital printers, new and improved papers are developed. For many years, dating back to the 1940s, Kodak and Fuji went through many, many generations of ‘new and improved’, as have the print, ink and paper manufacturers that produce both the high-end commercial jobs, and the home-use printer you have sitting on the corner of your desk. But is it stable?
A 740 page whopper of a book, still regarded as something of a bible in colour photography, “The Permanence and Care of Colour Photographs” by Henry Wilhelm, is now more than 20 years old. But, it is still often referred to by those that are interested in colour photography. The book dives deep into 20 years of extensive research into the colour medium in photography and how it ages.
Published in 1993, this book describes in great detail all that has gone wrong over the years in colour photography, promises that were broken by suppliers of film and paper, only to be renewed with the next generation of printing technology. Perhaps a little surprising, Wilhelm, ever the optimist, too concludes that nirvana is imminent with new processes being proposed and new in-organic inks arriving on the scene that will change everything.
I am not sure what to believe. I have 5 colour photographs in my collection; One Fresson, two dye-transfer prints, two prints by the Saul Leiter of Canada, Fred Herzog. The latter two are modern digital prints. Don’t ask me what inks are used, or even what paper, but I have a document from the gallery that guarantees the images. The photographer, Fred Herzog is more than 90 years old and the gallery almost acts for him, so I am comfortable with my ability to replace my two images.
But, what if you are considering buying a terrific colour photograph? If it feels right, looks right and meets all the critical considerations that are important to you, as a collector, the obvious answer is to recommend that you buy the photograph. Love it. Enjoy it, but be aware…
Photography collectors have long suffered from chromophobia – the fear of colour. Many have seen fabulous work simply fade, colour shift, or virtually disappear in front of their eyes and are understandably cautious. But that may be the past. You, the modern day collector with no baggage, no prior catastrophes, may fell ready to take on the endless possibilities that colour represents.
Personally, I would make sure that when you buy colour work, the artist (even if you buy through a gallery) guarantees the work and will offer nothing less than a full refund or a replacement print, in the event of a small or epic failure. And do get this in writing signed by the artist, in the event the gallery where you bought the work should fall on hard times and disappear.
I only make black and white photographs, so thankfully have much less to worry about!
The world is a mess. Everywhere you look there is disappointment in leadership, pending scandals, international conflicts simmering, or on the full boil. Something that should be as simple as a conversation among fellow citizens around an independent Catalonia either inside Spain or on its own seems to be drawing out the worst in people with the potential to turn into 1937 all over again. It cannot be, and we cannot let it happen.
Barcelona is one of the great cities in the world. The only Olympic city that has managed to turn a 17 day party in 1992 into a lasting legacy with incredible staying power, great architecture, culture, food and above all else, people.
These same people, who make the city so special, are the people that remind me of a fun story that led to one of my better efforts with the camera. I was in Barcelona. It was April, late April, and the weather forecast was not great. I got in a taxi to go to my hotel and it started to snow. Big fluffy flakes. The roads quickly turned sloppy and wet, with traction starting to get difficult for the driver. On his dash, the cell phone that was doubling as a GPS rang. The driver’s wife told him to come home immediately and forget about driving anymore today, because of the terrible snowstorm. I convinced the driver to take me to my hotel, although he complained he would get in trouble with his wife. At my hotel, he dropped me at the curb and promptly turned the taxi sign on top of his car off, and probably made his way home.
I went to my hotel room, on the first floor of a mostly residential street. I was in a corner room at a typical wide open Barcelona intersection. I stood in the window with my camera, looking down at the street, where the local residents came out in their sandals with umbrellas to enjoy the freak April snow. It did not last long, but while it was still accumulating on the ground, there were a few choice moments. You can see the resulting photograph in my gallery ‘The Ones’.
Good photographs are memories. They represent time capsules and I often say that they allow you to forget, because the minute you revisit them, the location, situation and the entire scene comes back to life, as though you are right there, in the moment.
Diane Arbus wrote in a 1972 letter: “They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”
Leaf through a photo-album and you go on a trip that carries all kinds of emotions. Joy, happiness, sadness, despair, it’s all right there on the small pieces of paper.
When you make photographs for a broader audience – for other people – you try to take these moments in time and make them not only your own, but when successful, they are universal.
In the best case, a great photograph allows you, the viewer, to project your own memory or your own story onto the photograph. You make new memories or restores memories that you had otherwise parked, somewhere far back, way back in that seldom accessed lobe of your brain.
A few years ago, I was sitting on a plane en route to Madrid. I was reading what was then the International Herald Tribune. I tore out a review of a photography exhibition taking place at the time. I have had this review burning a hole in my desk drawer and it is time to discuss! Obviously, the review was written by an art critic that was not an expert on photography, as you will see from the quote below:
“The issue of whether photography can be art is an old one that dates back to the origins of the activity itself. Ever since the pictorialist photographers of the 1870s attempted to compete with painters, borrowing from their compositions and subject matter, photographers have never ceased measuring their own work against that of plastic artists. They have come up with chemical and lighting tricks, they have used collage and montages, superpositions and hybrids….”, etc., etc.
It is quite clear that some critics until this day consider the plastic arts — that would be your painting, sculpture, and so forth — far superior. To them photography is beneath them and more of a craft or a technical skill. This may be in part because not all university art history degrees incorporate photography? Mine did, but you could easily have avoided photography all together, as all the photography courses were electives and the introductory Art History courses mentioned virtually no photography or photographers at all. As such, the critic above is not equipped to have an opinion, other than one based in personal taste, rather than foundational knowledge (it is common knowledge, and generally agreed, among photography art historians that Pictorialist photography did not start until 1885 or 1889, and was very dead by 1920).
But, all this aside, what is it that makes the critic frown upon the photographer and his work? Is it because it involves mechanical equipment? The chemicals in the processing? The ability to make multiple images? Each of these activities can be found in a number of the plastic arts, yet that does not seem to matter. A sculptor’s foundry, a painter’s lithographs, Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, all have some form of tool kit, along with a base material, be it stone, metal, canvas or paper. So why is photography treated differently?
Perhaps the best thing is to ignore the critics all together. Or listen to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who said: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”
Alfred Stieglitz is one of the key names in the history of photography. Alfred Stieglitz set art photography back 100 years!
Alfred Stieglitz opened a gallery in New York called Gallery 291 in 1905. In his gallery, Mr. Stieglitz showed primarily photographs. He also published a magazine, Camera Work. An expensive, subscription only, publication dedicated to the art of photography. With these tools he managed to control and I would argue stall the development of fine art photography around the world. In Camera Work’s prime, photographers from across North America and Europe, mainly in the United Kingdom, would take out expensive subscriptions to Camera Work and would submit their amateur photographs to Stieglitz for approval and perhaps even inclusion in Camera Work. Stieglitz decided what was good and what was not. He was judge, jury, and executioner all in one.
Edward J. Steichen – Rodin
Stieglitz believed very strongly that two things needed to be present in a photograph to be an art photograph:
The first thing was a certain feel or mood, which for the majority of Stieglitz’ career meant a painterly feel, meaning that the photographer had to manipulate the negative using various chemicals, coatings, printing techniques, etc. to express a mood or feeling that imitated what one might expect to see in a late Victorian sofa painting, rather than a photograph. A straight photograph showing what was in front of the photographer, and printed without manipulation, was not art. Not to Alfred Stieglitz.
The second, it was not acceptable for a fine art photographer to be professional, to do commercial work. This meant that if you got paid, or made a living from photography, you were a lost soul. To belonging to the circle around Stieglitz you had to have independent means and do photography, because you thought it was a wonderful hobby and a suitable high-brow pass-time. (The irony here might be that for years Stieglitz struggled to make money with his gallery and his magazine, both poorly executed commercial disasters.)
Gertrude Kaesebier – le dejeuner sur l’herbe?
Many may disagree, but I believe the photography-world inherited two major problems from Stieglitz. Problems we still very much struggle with today. The first problem with Stieglitz, that took almost 60 years to fix, was that if you were shooting straight photography, meaning that you printed what you saw, no manipulation, but processed and printed with minimal correction or changes, this was not art. I would argue, that it was not until the legendary Harry Lunn started selling editioned photographs of Ansel Adams’ landscapes did this change. We are talking 1970s.
The second, some would argue has yet to be fixed, because many still very much believe that an art photographer cannot be a commercial/professional photographer, or have a job on the side. By way of an example, let me illustrate the mindset of a lot of gallerists: A photographer friend of mine recently returned from New York, where he presented his work to a dealer. The dealer liked his work, but did not consider him serious, because he had a job to support his photography. The dealer suggested he look at a photographer she represents, who has been shooting since he was 14. He shoots full time and is a serious art photographer….
Clearly, we have not passed the point where it is acceptable to be commercial in the sense that you support your art-photography with a full or part time job, or by shooting green peppers for the local super market chain to make ends meet. While there may be some hope on the horizon, as some fashion work and still life photographs are going mainstream as art, there is still work to do. Commercial photographers like Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn have helped break the curse.
I hold Alfred Stieglitz responsible for holding back fine art-photography from its destiny for the better part of 100 years. From the infancy of photography in the 1830s, until the painterly direction in photography that Stieglitz promoted started to dominate in the 1880s, it was perfectly acceptable to have a photograph of Rome, Venice or Athens hanging on your wall next to a painting. It took a full century, until the 1980s before this was again something you might see other than in your local pizzeria or Greek restaurant.
Stieglitz found straight photography again towards the end of his career, and in some ways his gallery did matter, bringing photography to an albeit select group of visitors in New York. But, he led photography down a blind alley, and the wonderful portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, or his Equivalent photographs do not make up for the damage he did. As a photographer, there is every reason to hate Alfred Stieglitz!
Lee Friedlander – Montana 2008
Photography – straight photography – has a place in the pantheon of fine art, along side painting, sculpture and the other fine arts. This is a fact. Even the naysayers will get there eventually…..No thanks to Alfred Stieglitz.
To see more visit my website: Harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are attributed to the artists identified and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.
What makes a great photograph? It is very, very personal. Books have been written, conferences held…. For me, I have learned that it can be a moving definition. It can change with time, but it is worthwhile to have a look at the process of becoming great.
I am going to turn to the French philosopher Roland Barthes. He wrote a book called “Camera Lucida.” It is a small book with a long philosophical discussion of the photograph. Barthes coins two terms that are worth remembering: ‘studium’ and ‘punktum.’
Pictures or images with studium are images that you notice. Think of all the photographs you are exposed to every day, ads on your phone, computer, television, billboards, photographs in newspapers, magazines, and so forth. Now, of all these impressions, which some now count as more than 3,000-5,000 a day, there is maybe one that you really notice. That image has studium.
A photograph with studium has the ability to capture your attention. It draws you in. It may play on your heart-strings, it may remind you of something, it may fill you with guilt, play with your mind. You may not like it; you may think it is horrible. Image creators know what works and what doesn’t (most of the time). Think babies, puppies, humour, sex, and so on. Studium you notice.
Punktum is when one of your studium images stays with you over time. These are quite rare. It is an image that comes back to you under certain circumstances, given certain stimuli.
You can probably think of images that you saw today that had studium, but probably not the ones from yesterday or last week. More importantly, you can likely think of images that have stayed with you and surfaced over and over again in your mind’s eye. They have punktum.
Let me give you some universal examples:
The dead migrant child on the beach in Greece; the Vietnam War photograph of the young girl running naked towards the camera following a napalm attack; the first man on the moon; the plumes of smoke on 9/11, etc. These are universal. I don’t have to show you any of these photographs; you have them stored in your mind, in full detail.
In addition to the universal images, there are punktum images that are particular to you. You know what they are. You may not be able to command them to appear before your inner eye, but given the right stimuli, they will show up, time and again.
Among my personal punktum images, none are news photographs. This may be because I look for a particular skill in the photographer. In the simplicity or minimalism of the photographs, which has a particular appeal to me. No accounting for personal taste.
Both my examples are of a single figure, a portrait of sorts. The Horst P. Horst Mainbocher Corset was one of the first photographs I scraped together enough money to purchase. Made in 1939, it represents to me a daring, superbly lit figure from a time in photography, which was starting to move from recording fact, through early experimentation and surrealism to the mainstream. Made by the master of studio lighting, Horst, the photograph represents a very sensual rear-view of a corseted woman, with the ribbon loose and laying across a marble surface and in part hanging over the edge, where it catches the light beautifully. Revolutionary for the time, the model is photographed from behind and skirting, if not crossing, the line of what was permissible in print media at the time. An incredible image, which has remained with me since I first saw it in an art history class. I look at it every day and continue to be in awe.
My second punktum image, is one that I call Boots. I am not sure what the proper title is. The photograph by Chris Killip, I first saw at the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles. It hit me as being an incredibly composed and lit photograph, but emotionally charged with what I believe is anguish and maybe desperation. To me, what hits home are the disproportionately big boots. I remember as a kid getting a shirt and jacket that were ‘to grow into’. These boots look like they are several sizes too big, maybe from a military surplus store. It is a photograph of desperation. I have seen many photographs of people that are down and out, but this boy, or young man is just too young to be this desperate. Every time I look at this photograph, my toes tighten in my shoes, I get goose bumps. I have had it hanging on my wall for several years now, and it still feels like a punch in the stomach every time I look at it. Punktum.
To address the idea that your personal punktum may change over time, I can say that Diane Arbus’ Boy with a Toy Hand Granade was the photograph that made me change my focus at university to Photography from Renaissance Art. The photograph had huge punktum for me, but has since lost its charge. Why? I saw the contact sheet from the shoot, and later read an interview with the boy in the photograph. In the Arbus photograph the boy looks like he is a person with a mental disability, which is very consistent with the outsiders that appear again and again in Arbus’ work. However, on the contact sheet, the boy looks like any other little boy playing in the park, and I do not like the fact that the photograph that Arbus selected from the roll, somehow misrepresents what was in front of her. It no longer resonates. It is like the Robert Doisneau photograph of the couple kissing at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, which I loved as the epitome of Parisian street photography, until I learned that it was staged with two actors…., but that is another story.
I must have seen millions of photographs in my time as a photographer and collector, and if you asked me to draw up a list of photographs that had punktum for me, I might get to 25 or 30. Some of these I have on my wall. Some I would dearly love to hang on my wall. Some I will never have, because they are either sitting in a museum and not available on the open market, or I simply cannot afford them. Others, despite their punktum, I don’t want. They might be gruesome, or too difficult to look at and live with. I am fortunate to have a few punktum images in my collection that I love and would never part with. This is the power of punktum.
See more on my website: harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.