Pumping and Dumping (the Art Marketplace)

Postmodern theory has proposed that all the questions that thoughtful photographers had begun to ask in the late 1950s and early 1960s — about the non-neutrality of photography, about lens-based observation and photographic seeing, about the tension in a photograph between its transcriptive, descriptive, translative, and interpretive aspects — were insignificant, and had in any case been answered satisfactorily.

T'ain't so, methinks. Those questions endure, still open, and such answers as we have for them — in the work of of Arbus, Friedlander, and Winogrand, among many others, along with the theories of Szarkowski and some of his successors — remain provisional, as perhaps they always will. Now that, in effect, all of those individuals have gained admission to the pantheon and all the results of their theory and practice have entered the canon, we stand poised at a particular moment of stasis: the pause between several generations that grew up with this work and its makers as living entities and those generations now to come, who will treat them as a distinct chapter in the medium's history and exemplars of an established tradition to either draw from or ignore. What they had to say to the last third of the twentieth century is in any case indelibly inscribed on the record. Let's see what the next century makes of them.

AMERICANSUBURB X: THEORY: A. D. Coleman, "Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander & Garry Winogrand at Century's End (2000)"

Coming of age as a photographer in the late 70s/early 80s, I was railed against postmodern critics such as Andy Grundberg and Peter Galassi (still do, in some respects). A.D. Coleman was a breath of fresh air, and reading his constant columns in Photo Metro and elsewhere, I had the feeling that I wasn’t completely alone in appreciating both a rich tradition and new frontiers for photography. I met Coleman at an SPE conference a few years ago, though, and I wondered how he could be so consistently luddite and backward about the future of photographic education. Mainly, judging from his web presence, I really don't feel like he "gets" the internets.


Posted by Jeff at May 31, 2009 1:19 PM

The Graphic Method

Etienne-Jules Marey’s graphic method wasn’t simply a replacement for observation with the senses, but also a representational method that sought greater insight into phenomena by non-linguistic means. While in San Francisco, I picked up a discounted copy of Dagognet’s A Passion for the Trace which, although flawed, really whet my appetite for looking into him. Past research on Muybridge was interesting to me, but ultimately didn’t go anywhere. I think looking into Marey may get me closer to understanding the struggle for redefinition of time and space in the late nineteenth century—Bergson, Husserl, et al.


Posted by Jeff at April 13, 2009 1:06 AM

The web that coheres the world

I watched Black White +Grey last night and was fascinated. It put a face on Sam Wagstaff that surprised me—I haven’t often considered collectors as thinkers. The root of aesthetics is pleasure, and Wagstaff is pleasure's poster-boy. The film makes it clear that he received great pleasure from photographs, and the short clip above defines that pleasure as private and non verbal—in exaggerated discomfort, he brands it onanistic.

The uncut interview was taken from a symposium at the Corcoran museum occasioned by the exhibition of selections from his collection in 1978, and the credits of the limited footage list a tantalizing line-up of commentators. Several sections of Wagstaff’s comments during this symposium fascinate me, not he least of which the profound separation between photography and A-R-T that is echoed and riffed upon by virtually every modern commentator after the photo secession. But I must save that for later; what interests me most for now is the relationship between photography and language.

Exploring the Sam Wagstaff papers online after the film unearthed a typescript titled “Pictorial Logic” from another speaker, photographer Fredrick Sommer that runs parallel to Wagstaff’s comments. It also deals with the relationship between words and pictures, deserving full transcription below the fold.


Posted by Jeff at April 11, 2009 10:41 AM

Thumbs Up

SABRINA HARMAN: I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hilla, and so whenever I would get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands… So any kind of photo, I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just — I just picked it up from the kids. It’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo, you want to smile. It’s just, I guess, something I did. (source)
bush thumbs.jpg
Obama Thumb.pngI'm not sure that this is a change I can believe in

Posted by Jeff at April 4, 2009 12:38 PM

San Francisco (belated comments)

I saw several shows when I was in San Francisco several weeks ago. It was weird to go to a city during a conference (CCCC) and not attend, but there has been very little of interest to me at that conference for several years. I’ve presented there many times, and while it’s nice to see friends I just couldn’t justify paying the fees just for that. My days as a composition teacher, I’m afraid, are drawing to a close. I might dig into that a little at a later date, but for now I wanted to talk about some of the shows that really bothered me. First up, at San Francisco Camerawork there was a video installation that sent me wandering out of the room quickly during the first piece I saw. The description of “Test Patterns: Recent Video From South Africa” seems interesting enough:

Video is a distinctly post apartheid medium. Artists in the United States began working with video in the 1960s, but South Africans hadn’t even seen television until 1976. The government had banned it previously, fearing it would expose the country to the dangerous ideas of the non-apartheid world. And it was not until the 1980s that television was available in any language other than English or Afrikaans. South African national identity under apartheid, as it was portrayed on TV, belonged strictly to the whites.

The breakaway of video from its exclusive use as a television broadcast tool and into the hands of activists and artists is significant in South Africa. If television had been the preserve of white national identity, video became a way to develop diverse narratives about South Africa’s past and to recalibrate contemporary ideas of citizenship and belonging in the post apartheid era.

The exhibition will be presented in two parts. Part One explores ideas of memory and identity under colonialism and apartheid. Part Two surveys post apartheid South Africa as it struggles to define a new national identity amidst the significant challenges of skyrocketing unemployment, HIV/AIDS, corruption, instability, migration and xenophobia



Posted by Jeff at April 1, 2009 1:56 PM

Nostalgia is Death


I was really interested in seeing this show when we passed through California. “New Topographics” was a pivotal influence on me (both as a show and as a movement). It’s waves were still rippling when I first studied photography in college all those years ago. As Colin Westerbeck recounts in his “On the Road and in the Street” essay in Frizot’s New History of Photography (1994), exhibitions can be seminal:


Posted by Jeff at July 22, 2008 12:10 PM

The camera is . . .

Julius Orlovsky, from the Robert Frank film Me and My Brother.

Posted by Jeff at July 18, 2008 7:57 PM

August Sander

Almost as remarkable as the photos themselves is the fact that this is the first ever solo exhibit by August Sander in the United States (the revered German photographer died in 1964). And for this, my fellow Minnesotans, we must thank Mr. Weinstein--because, at least for a few weeks, you don't have to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a Sander print. You merely need to make your way to Weinstein Gallery on West 46th Street (there is always parking right in front) and push open the door. Most likely, you'll be alone in the space and surrounded by the paper-people who Sander, so many years ago, labored to see "as they are and not as they should or could be." You've got until April 12th friends. It's always free. Don't miss this one.


We didn't, and we were alone. That makes it even more affecting. The most incredible thing was Sander's Christmas card from 1939, the centennial of photography.

Posted by Jeff at March 13, 2008 5:10 PM

Poverty Chic

Page from Children of the Poor (1892) via Google Book Search

What would it have been like to see the photograph called “I Scrubs” — Riis’s portrait of 9-year-old Katie, who kept house for her brothers and sisters — and know that she was living somewhere in the city, her life shrunken to little more than a sense of economic duty?

There is nothing that we in the 21st century can do for Katie except to wonder whether she was ever allowed to outgrow her premature elderliness. But to Riis’s audience, Katie was the living present, the very burden of their concern. What was she like? How did she sound? What could it mean to be 9 years old and so ancient already? These are questions it would have seemed natural to ask the photographer who had asked Katie to pose for him.

To us, of course, Riis’s showmanship would have seemed like intolerable distractions from the purity of the suffering his images convey. The last thing these photographs need, from the modern point of view, is an interlocutor, especially one who wants to tell moralizing anecdotes or characterize his subjects by race.

From the distance of 120 years, the mute testimony of Riis’s photographs seems eloquent enough. We stare at them and know that though times may have changed in Mulberry Bend, the camera does not have far to look to find suffering that is every bit as dire.

NYT Editorial

There is no mention of any sort of exigence for this odd editorial pronouncement. I find it particularly interesting because there are no illustrations for the article. The images are so pure (not re-engraved as book illustrations, nor hand-colored as website widgets as found here) that they are invisible to the general public. They only exist in the minds of the hyper-educated NYT reader who has of course seen this somewhat obscure image from Riis's second book that has been out of print since 1892, reprinted as an aesthetic museum piece. Of course the presence of the image as a component of an argument against poverty taints it as "mere rhetoric."

Posted by Jeff at February 12, 2008 11:31 AM

How do you know?

adams.jpgPhotograph by Eddie Adams, February 1, 1968

Eddie Adams offers his thoughts about the image.

The Axis of Evel Knievel reminded me.

Posted by Jeff at February 1, 2008 5:10 PM

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