Danny Lyon

Bleak Beauty

Went to a bookstore closeout sale yesterday and picked up a bargain—Danny Lyon’s Indian Nations. Pretty much the entire book is available for viewing on Lyon’s Bleak Beauty web site. But looking at a book is different. Thinking about the fact that only 2,500 copies were produced, and that only a limited audience exists for this sort of thing puts a spin on the experience. These pictures are sincere. I suppose that sort of thing is only apparent to those who have done this sort of work. Looking at the ragged edges of the Polaroid negatives, I can’t help but think of the dust and the smells of these places, and of the feeling of being an outsider which persists no matter how well people accept you as a person who takes the job of recording existence seriously.

Larry McMurtry’s introduction rings true:

Photography has flourished for a century and a half with only two real subjects: beauty, and bad news. Cameras have been at every war since the Crimean, and also at every court since Victoria’s, a great boon to those of us who like to know what historical eminences looked like. Thanks to cameras, we no longer have to depend on the chance existence of a Leonardo, a Rubens, or a Goya at the centers of power. In our time somebody—Avedon, Eisenstadt, Karsh, Beaton, Cartier-Bresson, Gisele Freund, even, in a pinch, Roddy McDowell, will manage to snap the great and glorious before they pass from the scene.

Most photographers will be lead by their own instincts either to beauty or to bad news.

Looking at the book, I couldn’t help but think of a wonderful duet by Steve Wynn and Johnette Napolitano, Consipracy of the Heart:

photographs fade easily
they need to be locked away
I don’t ask much of anything
but conspiracy
conspiracy of the heart
of the heart

The fragility of human life, and the way we represent it bothers me. Always subject to constant reappraisal and critique, even the most well-intentioned documentary workers fall under the lens of clever critics who tarnish the audacity of those who would dare to say—this was here, I experienced it. And yet we have to try to create these precious objects, records that say “I was here.” The only thing which seems reasonable to expect is sincerity, and yet that quality is the hardest to establish firmly as a matter of record. I admire the fact that I’ve never felt “duped” by a Danny Lyon photograph. I believe him, and I believe his heart. And I take him seriously when he says (in a postface to his series on the destruction of lower Manhattan to make way for the WTC) that there should be action to prevent the spread of pernicious ideology:

Photographers and journalists of the world, unite and fight. You have nothing to lose but your jobs. If you do not agree with the ideology presented along with your work, then take your work elsewhere. Present it yourself. Create your own magazines, your own networks and your own channels. Write your own text and captions and editorials. Do not serve the gods of war.



Followed a trail today. I noticed that Boynton linked to an interesting page: The Untitled Project. Following the link, there is a description of an exhibition/artist’s book which consists of digital photographs of urban scenes with all the text removed, or rather, transplanted onto a facing sheet. The central concept is that even with the text removed, we still are able to decode the visual presence of the corporate entities who have inscribed their message on the landscape. The images are eerie. I love them. I only wish they were available in a standard publication, because I’m not that rich.

But the question for me was—who did this? I followed the link that Boynton marked as originating it. It is a log of nothing more than links, which dump out at the same page. That page, if you trace it to the gallery affiliation at the bottom opens up in a flash-type window, leaving you with no context. But if you check the artists list at the gallery to locate the project name, eventually you can find that the referenced page is from a frameset within Matt Siber photography.

Siber’s other projects look interesting as well. I always feel more comfortable when I know a name. It’s part of assigning agency to creative works. I am uncomfortable with decontextualization that way. I like to know who is doing what, a process often denied by the nature of some web technologies. The web bothers me a great deal in that respect. An act, when no one performs it, is passive. That is one of the strange things about the protective maneuvers that attempt to shepherd access. Though they mean well (control of the surfing experience), the end result is that communicative acts become passive, and render us passive as readers. Just click, look, graze for content and move on.

It is a bit like watching TV with the sound turned down. Random visual bits, devoid of agency— an interesting aesthetic experience, but ultimately unsatisfying unless you dig more deeply to locate the controls.

Journal of the Public Domain

Chris Sullivan— “God Has Big Money For You” (1983)

The Internet is a wonderful thing. Thanks, Chris, for letting me know that you’ve got a blog.

Slight Publications deserves a visit from anyone who has an interest in art. I wrote about Chris a long time ago in my first blog. Anyone who enjoys trashlog as much as I do will surely enjoy Chris’s blog. I’m glad that The Journal of the Public Domain continues.