Photographs Not Taken and Photographs Stolen

There was an image that I did not take when I was in India this winter, but the image is burned in my memory.

I did not take it on purpose. It was the kind of photo that I would have felt unkind in taking, a moment that would have been nothing more than exploitative gawking. But the moment and its full context unfolding in front of me was just too overwhelming in an East-meets-West/cognitive dissonance kind of way.

R. and I were in the northeast mountains of India, in an area that you had to have a special permit to travel in, called Sikkim. We were visiting one of the famous Buddhist monasteries there, and this was the only monastery that we visited where there were armed guards with machine guns outside the gate (and for those not versed in things political in India, those guards were not there to protect the monks). The whole place had a very different feeling–repressed, strict, somewhat unfriendly–than any other religious site we had visited. We had walked around most of the grounds, and were about to wind up our visit and get back into a rented car for a multi-hour bumpy ride on roads-that-are-not-roads. We were headed back to the main gate outside the monastery when I saw the woman with the bamboo basket.

First, a contextual note: on roads winding up mountains we saw for miles and miles the same scene playing itself out. A slight woman or man–but most usually a woman–carrying a basket on her back with a strap that wrapped itself from the basket around the top of her head, with the basket’s contents almost certainly weighing as much if not more than the person. In more populated areas we would see the same slight frames carrying impossible loads of other people’s luggage, barefoot, up steep hills, all with the same strap around the back reaching to the tops of the bearer’s forehead. On the roadsides, the contents were almost always rocks the size of a human head, or dirt. People carrying dirt and rocks were doing so to actually make the roads as we were driving up them. Endlessly, for hours, we would see small collections of humans sitting atop piles of rubble, with small hammers in hand. They were making smaller rocks out of bigger rocks– literally making gravel to fill the road that they were seated on the side of. So. There were these women and men, and these baskets for carrying heavy things, using one’s head as a fulcrum.

Back to the monastery: there are three people. Two monks, clad in scarlet robes. Shaved heads, dusty, sandaled feet in the winter air. There is a young woman standing between them. She is maybe in her early twenties, maybe younger. In the mountain areas there is a tangible mixing of ethnicities, and it is not a given that everyone is “Indian.” Her wide face has the reddish complexion of Tibet, or Mongolia, maybe. In any case, she is there. With one of those bamboo baskets on her back and a strap wrapped around her forehead. Her basket is half-full. The two monks are filling it the rest of the way up, with the same contents as what was in it to begin with: rocks the size of her head. She is wearing flip-flops, a skirt, a t-shirt and a cardigan. Her cardigan was embroidered with the phrase, in cursive–I could not make this up–“Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” Her gaze was vacant, and enduring.

I didn’t take that photo, but here is one that I felt less bad taking, out the window of a moving car. It has one of those baskets in it that I described:

The stolen photograph was stolen two weeks ago. Not in the cheeky sense of a photo taken with the subject unawares–although it was that, actually. I mean in the literal sense. The photo that cannot be taken again was on a memory card inside a camera that was stolen from my house two weeks ago in a break-in. It was a photograph of my mother.

It was April, and I had gone to take care of her for the month while she was recovering from her second major abdominal surgery following an ovarian cancer diagnosis. That month was fraught with so many things and so many emotions, and most of what I felt during that time was just that of willful pulling through in a prolonged moment of crisis. It had been rough going. She was moody, afraid of eating and so not eating. Every day was a struggle between us, and I worried that she might die while I was there. Or shortly after I left. She slept all the time, though not well. She was exhausted, existential and shrunken. Truly a shadow of her former self.

The photo on the memory card was one I snuck of her while she was asleep. She was buried in her bed, cocoon-like under an avalanche of comforters and pillows. A narcotic-induced deep and restless sleep. Her shaved head with bits of black stubble growing back in, a strong oblong outline of her skull while she lay on her back. The covers had her obscured totally up to her neck, and she was clutching them to her. There was a small light turned on at her bedside. What was most memorable about that photo was that she was half-smiling, half grimacing, in a very pronounced way while she slept. Her expression and her mouth jutted out in a focused, deliberate manner. It was intensely private and intensely something that was just for me to remember of that time. And I had not unloaded it from the memory card before it, and the camera, were unloaded from my home.

I don’t have any other photos of that time with her, though I do have another stolen image (again: semantics) to act as a placeholder. This image I stole–again literally–when I fled the homestead at eighteen, full of righteous anger and purpose, but still feeling homesick even as I was leaving. So I swiped some meaningful photos. It’s my mother, at eighteen. The photos were taken by a lovestruck serviceman, who dabbled in photography as a hobby. He wrote captions in red felt-tip on the backs of all the photos. The first time I ever saw these photos, as a teenager myself, I was struck by the fact that I make this exact same exasperated face.

 

What May Come: On the Future of Photobooks

I’m jumping in at literally the 11th hour to add a few thoughts to this discussion generated by Andy Adams and Miki Johnson.

Point-the-first: I’m of the opinion that the photobook can be one of the most inviting, personal, revelatory and pleasurable of aesthetic experiences. When done thoughtfully, there is an actual conversation that can occur between reader-as-viewer and photographer/artist-as-storyteller. It is a one-on-one experience. There is no gallery wall, no bad lighting, no buyer’s sheet. Just you and an object and a whole lot of artistic intent.

Point-the-second: I can only address these questions (What do you think photobooks will look like in 10 years? Will they be digital or physical? Open-source or proprietary? Will they be read on a Kindle or an iPhone? And what aesthetic innovations will have transformed them?) from the point of view of an image-monger, and consumer of said photobooks.  Funny reading through some of the threaded posts to this question, as I share Dan Abbe’s sensibility of naming the books that made it through my bank account and into my home this year.  Because doesn’t this question also ultimately matter from the perspective of where we’re willing to invest our money?  Where we’re looking and why, what moves and motivates us to purchase what we do?

  • Bukubuku, by Masahisa Fukase via Photoeye
  • Drop of Dreams,  by Toshiko Okanoue via Nazraeli Press
  • Suginami, by James Luckett, via Blurb
  • Barakei, Eikoh Hosoe (re-issue), via Photoeye
  • Solitude of Ravens, (re-issue) Masahisa Fuksase via Dashwood Books
  • The Helsinki School: New Photography by TaiK(v.2), via Amazon
  • Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, by Kazumi Kurikami via Japan Exposures
  • Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey, by Nobuyoshi Araki, via Japan Exposures
  • Koshoku Painting, by Nobuyoshi Araki, via Japan Exposures
  • FUNICULI FUNICULA (Signed), by Asako Narahashi, via Japan Exposures
  • The House I Once Called Home, Duane Michals, via Photoeye
  • Aaron Siskind: Order with Tensions Continuing, via Amazon
  • Ralph Eugene Meatyard: The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater and other Figurative Photographs, via Amazon
  • Heavy Light, ICP catalog, ICP bookstore
  • The Model Wife, Arthur Ollman, via Amazon
  • The Dodo of Mauritius Island: Imaginary Encounters, Harri Kallio, via Amazon

Looking through my list over the past year-ish, I see a pattern that probably won’t alter anytime soon in my viewing/purchasing habits: I buy what I love, sometimes regardless of price (the two re-issues were most of my tax refund); I buy what I want to learn more about that at the time I only know in teasing/glancing ways (TaiK); I buy things that I know I should know more about, but feel a gap in my current knowledge (Meatyard); and I buy things that literally make me laugh, ache, or sigh with great or imagined feeling (everything else). I think that these variables of myself will always be present, informing and egging me on.  Stat-wise, I ran the gamut: small press, large conglomerate chain, two-person run online bookshop on the other side of the world, museum stores, small independent bookstores, directly from the artist (via online self-publishing store).

What I imagine and hope to happen within the next decade is that there will be a profusion of both so-called high and “low” forms (but by low I certainly don’t mean low-ly; quite to the contrary, I mean lo-fi, which has a kind of proletariat high-mindedness about it that I can really dig). It is my deepest hope that there will continue to be publishers like Chris Pichler of Nazraeli press, continuing to form close, evolving and loyal relationships with artists that allow beautiful collaborations like that of Masao Yamamoto, Michiko Kon, the one-picture-book series and many others. Actually, my deepest-deepest hope is that there will be more publishers like him (or that he manages to clone himself and his acute sensibility and produces 10x as many wonderful tomes).  I hope that there will still be wonderful pocket-sized editions like that of Photo Poche and Phaidon 55, in groupings and with well-written forwards that in themselves make me want to purchase them.  I hope that for emerging artistis the act of making photobooks from a good self-publisher will only get better, and cheaper, and more democratized. I hope that, in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s dictum of admiring useless things intensely that there are still people that hand make, hand-sew and tip-in photos, that the art of letterpress does not die.  That if anything does die,  I hope that it is the profusion of photobook clutter, in the manner of Barnes-and-Noble inspired coffee-table books with insipid themes that so bloat and overshadow what is really a quality photo book experience begins to see its first decline, in a decade when the rare, the ubiquitous and sublime all continue to find their place on my shelves.

One Thing Done Two Ways: Elijah Gowin and James Luckett on Making a Book

In 1982, Bill Moyers was conducting a PBS series titled Creativity, and in that year he did a 30-minute episode dealing with the working life of two very different photographers, Gary Winogrand and Emmet Gowin. Winogrand, being the larger-than-life character that he was, stole the show with what my old photo mentor Tom Arndt dubbed his “orgasmic” approach to photography, meaning that his mode of photographic production and practice derived from getting off on all of the energy that surrounded him, that he went into the world actively seeking this out, his own personal energy increasing at a rate directly proportional to that found in his environment. Winogrand was shown walking the streets of Los Angeles, his camera at his chest, and making photographs with what seemed at the time as an incredible sleight-of-hand trick: he’d snap the photo at chest or waist view, and then elaborately flip his camera-hand in the air, almost like he was waving at a friend just off into the distance. The segment on Emmet Gowin, in stark contrast, showed someone that worked in a decidedly more internal and deliberately careful and quiet manner, which throughout the video was sweetly offset by the sound of children running through the house, and voices of the family carrying up the stairs into his studio. Clips of the Winogrand interview can be found around the web. The pairing of the two photographers was a brilliant move on Moyer’s part, and regrettably clips of the Gowin segment are not as readily available (but for those die-hard Emmet Gowin fans, a wonderful interview he gave can be seen here).

This old video was brought to mind recently when another former mentor of mine, Elijah Gowin, touched base with me to let me know about his latest photographic endeavor, the self-publication of the monograph Maggie, a joint-project between himself and his father Emmet. Elijah had just recently been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and has subsequently founded tin roof press, of which Maggie is the first publication. Elijah was one of my first photographic instructors, and we became friends while he was living and teaching in Chattanooga, Tennessee (seemingly a lifetime ago for both of us). Around the same time that I was learning about the Maggie project, another friend and fellow photographic simpatico, James Luckett let me know that he was working on a print-on-demand book of a series of photographs he had taken while living in Japan. I’ve been a fan and follower of James’s sparse yet richly telling site consumptive.org ever since he founded it, sometime in 1999 or 2000. Consumptive often feels more like an electronic “commonplace book” than a blog about photography, and I enjoy the tapestry of thoughts, images, and things that are both public and personal that can be found there. Since then he and I have had a sporadic and varied correspondence, sending emails to one another on esoterica intermingled with the personal.

What I found intriguing, and worth posting here, was that between Elijah and James I had examples of the two extreme options left to the photographer interested in self-publishing an art monograph. Eljiah was going the whole-hog, no-expenses-spared, best press in the world, best paper, total authorial control route; while James is counted among the much more vast population of photographers casting a hopeful lot with one of the various print-on-demand publishers on the scene these days. I decided to talk with both of them about their projects and processes, fits and starts, and share what I learned here.

The Making of Maggie

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Maggie is a tribute book, a collection of images from two very differing sensibilities about a beloved matriarch of a family. She is someone that appeared in many of Emmet’s earlier images of family life from Danville, and Edith Gowin writes of her in the Introduction, “She is a strong woman from a family of strong women…Maggie is an interesting and unpredictable person, so it is not a surprise that both Emmet and Elijah saw something universal and magical in her.”

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© Emmet Gowin, Maggie, Danville, VA 1978

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© Elijah Gowin, Maggie and Orbs, 2001

The body of work of Elijah’s that is included in Maggie derives from one of his earliest projects, A Hymnal of Dreams. The images in this series are subdued with a quiet, seemingly just-for-you-dear-viewer magic realism that manages equal parts eccentric edge, witchy hot-pot, and a joyous fancifulness that never dips into saccharine sentimentality. Many of the images are taken in the Southeastern United States, and the disjointed narrative ranges everywhere from Danville, VA to the Howard Finster Gardens in Sommerville, GA to New Mexico to Savannah, Georgia. In our conversations together, Elijah divulged that as he was thinking about images for this project and began culling through this series, he realized that over 1/4 of the images from nearly 10 years of work were of Maggie herself.

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© Elijah Gowin, Bowl, 2001

Conversations sometimes don’t translate so serenely on the page. There are the issues of circuitousness, interruptions, brief epiphanies, long pauses. I had multiple conversations with Elijah about this book, and after one of them, I sent him a list of questions as a jumping-off point for our next conversation. I asked the obvious things: about working directly with one’s family as collaborative peers; Maggie as a subject that both father and son were drawn to for different reasons; the experience of following the entire book process from conception to printing to finished object; the experience of print object versus book object; the genre of self-publishing in general; his thoughts on the future of his newly founded press, etc. These provided some structure, but the delight of our subsequent talk was in his choosing what to address from what I’d asked, touching here, leaving off there, ignoring almost entirely, and then devoting tremendous energy and thought to something else over here. What follows are some of the highlights of our talks:

Elijah: The book idea was Mom’s as a kind of social object. She was the instigator; it was her mastermind (it’s her aunt). She played the central role in the family event of organizing and preserving; and it was her idea to honor this tradition with a book. It’s individual work [Emmet’s and Elijah’s) that has a little bit to do with each other and also with the notion of family work. The project was about talking, and going back to your parents, as well as having them being your collaborative partner. For some people, that aspect would drive them crazy; the parent thing can be kind of distasteful. It was a very good experience, working with my parents, but unlike other collaborations, they’re your parents and you can’t escape or get away from them like you could a peer.

Returning to this work in the form of a book was like visiting an old friend or a family member at a reunion. While I like this work, I could never make an image like this again; I’ve moved on. In that regard it’s bittersweet. The images are still good and they still hold something of the reasons I began, of why I set up this situation to solve something. They don’t embarrass me at all, so that’s a good thing.

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© Elijah Gowin, Goose, 2002

So why were we doing this together? Because of the subject matter, and because it was easier to do this project now that the work for both of us is older work. My images are 10 years old–it’s history already. The project came to be about following the pictures that had been made, and also of following someone who’s lived a long time. I mean, my aunt seems kind of a constant: she was old in the 60’s. She’s old now–she’s 98. That’s a couple of lifetimes. As a subject, Maggie is definitely a quixotic, funny kind of figure. I think she has a particular kind of openness and inquisitiveness–I think that she also likes the attention! She’s very playful and a unique subject. My grandmother–her sister–could never have been the subject of these photos. I realized that as I was pulling together the Hymnal of Dreams series, over 1/4 of the total images were of her; she had become a very important subject in that project.

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© Emmet Gowin, Maggie as Santa, Danville, Virginia, 1970

Dad and I decided to take one cook out of the kitchen in order to do the book to the high level that Mom envisioned: the publisher. No publisher would have put the money into it that we wanted to: the paper is some of the best paper in the world, the press [Hatje Cantz] is one of the best presses in the world. This book is an object that is made to last, a traditional high-end piece. I wanted to go through the entire process. It was a great opportunity to get in touch with the social project of distribution. The will of an individual can do things that a company just can’t or won’t do: through an email list, through a blog–things can be moved and synergized in a way that a company just can’t do. And when you have the book as an artist, they’re like these firesticks, and you can give them to people to start up other things.

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Emmet and Elijah Gowin at Hatje Cantz Press in Stuttgart, Germany, 2008


There’s a place for the artist outside of the gallery, in book form, in between the big commercial expensive print. My images now sell in galleries for thousands of dollars, but here, someone can have this very high-end reproduction, this object, for $50. I’m interested in following this middle ground.

Pieces that need grouping, narrative, an order–that’s something that the book brings. A focus is brought to bear that the galleries can’t show it all. We can build up a volume to get to the idea–that’s something that the book can do that the print-as-objects-in-a-gallery can’t. And what’s ironic about the book versus the print is that usually the object-as-print is supposed to inspire you; like the photo book is the equivalent of waiting for the movie version of a good book. But through this process I found often that the reproductions are so good, I can actually be disappointed in the object-as-print…in the original! Frederick Sommer, when involved in the process of making photo books, reportedly said that the reproductions had gotten so good, that they had become too good! They were interfering with the artist’s practice!

tin roof press was created with hopes that there would be a feeding circle that generates from this book project: the book will feed exhibitions, the sales from the book will feed and further future collaborations and publications. I might have become totally spoiled by the process of this book going to press, and being a part of the entire process. We paid for the press time at Hatje Cantz’s press in Stuttgart, and were able to see our images coming off the press as it ran. We were able to get a designer that Dad had worked with before, and a separator that we both knew and had worked with. We did a print run of 2000, and in the fine-art book printing world, this is a medium-sized run; and really if you’re going to go through all the trouble and expense we did, it was almost as much to publish 2000 of this as it was if we had done 1000.

This book was done for the family; it was for us. With the limited edition…we knew money wasn’t the issue, that we’d make it back through the sales. But getting back our time…that was the real issue. The website, the design, talking back and forth with the different presses and book places, pricing, materials–all of this was a good bit of time and work.

I think that there is room to be both a publisher and an artist in a way that doesn’t shut the art down. I want the press to serve the art–I don’t want it to become its own job. It should be a part of the art-making process, and ideally not take too much time and energy away from me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When artists take for their subject family members (or themselves), whether they are treated straight, with a formal and artistic twist (as in the case of Harry Callahan’s photos of his wife Eleanor, or Emmet Gowin‚Äôs early portraits of his wife and her family), or instead given a darker, more intangible imagining (such as in the case of Francesca Woodman’s self-portraits, Masashisa Fukase’s photos of his first wife Yoko, or Elijah Gowin’s Hymnal of Dreams series), a viewer can attach themselves, and become emotionally connected to, this mysterious play of intimacy that is both on display and withheld; a cast of characters that reappear over years in different scenarios, moods, states of yielding and withholding. We see them as the photographer wanted to imagine them for that moment, and we get hooked on this narrative. The character of Maggie, as seen and photographed by father and then son, is one such person. She is the sort of woman, a very special and particular Southern kind of woman, that has all but disappeared from our time and place. Simple, enormously generous, sparse with words but in possession of a quick and curious mind– she lived as an adult during the last Great Depression and the experience of it colored everything that came after, both in terms of caution and grace. The book-as-object is a magical little talisman of her, filled with familial love and wonder, without ever giving way to a deflating sentimentality. The printing is exquisite, and the different printing styles and tones between Emmet and Elijah can be easily discerned on the page. Both Emmet and Elijah contribute an offering in words as to why they chose to photograph Maggie over the years, but it is Edith Gowin’s forward to the monograph that is especially poignant and moving. I won’t spoil the story that she has to offer (which gives context to some of the more magical images that Emmet made of her in the 70’s), except to say that letting this character become part of your photographic family will not be cause for regret.

Maggie is available for sale from both the tin roof press site and photoeye (and was just nominated for Best Book of 2008 from them). An artist’s talk and gallery show of the work from Maggie will be on display in Richmond, Virginia at the Page Bond Gallery from January 9 until February 11th. In an interesting nod to the fact that both Emmet and Elijah have since been immersed in work far different from that seen in Maggie, both of them will also be exhibiting this winter at the Griffin Museum of Photographys in Winchester, MA from January 29th through March 28th. The show is titled Gravity, and will be showcasing Emmet Gowin’s geo-topographical images and Elijah’s recent project of constructed photographs from his series Falling.

Art, Photography and the Uncanny

I’m not sure exactly when or under what circumstances I first encountered James Luckett’s cabinet-of-wonders site, consumptive, but I’ve always counted myself fortunate that I did. It seems rather inconceivable now, but in the early pioneer days of personal websites and the first stabs at what would come to be unfortunately named as blogs, there really wasn’t much out there in the way of substance or interesting questions being asked, and what I was looking for at the time were the things James was and is writing about on his site. James Luckett is a much more–brutally and publicly–honest person then I or most people are capable of being (if you doubt the veracity of this, just check out what serves as his About page. It is the kind of dip-and-dive autobiographical detail that I can only have dreams and nightmares about producing, although it would probably serve as an interesting exercise). His site, which is equal parts words, pointed thoughts and images, reflect that.

Developer solutions, conversations, song lyrics (lots of Lou Reed), the occasional mp3, expertly culled poetry, many many images, bemused reporting from unusual things found on the web, stark and startling observations about himself or surroundings all in one of the cleanest, most spare web sites I’ve ever visited. James has been trained in the classic, respectable photographer ways, and since then has done the heaviest lifting of developing his voice, aesthetic and eye doing all manner of self-taught endeavors.

The book that he has completed and self-published through Blurb consists of a series of images he made in a neighborhood in Tokyo, while taking daily walks with his dog. You can preview the book at his website here. Like his website, like how he selects his books, his poets and teachers, the images in Suginami have a little of the ascetic in them, but they are also very generous. James possesses a beautiful formal eye, and in leafing through the book I imagine I can spot bits of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Manual Alvarez Bravo, André Kertesz, and all those ID grandfathers of modern photography that I am so sentimentally hooked on. It’s clear from the images in the book (and the few test prints that he’s kindly mailed me over time), that when he says that in the course of his work he’s become a master printer, there is no hyperbole or intended self-praise in that statement. It is just is how it is. The care he has taken in the edits of the book (I have seen two separate editing sequences) shows the process of working through visual questions-and-answers, and of either finding an elegant solution or claiming the right of the unsentimental tyrant in throwing photos from the previous IN pile OUT. He has also navigated the terrain of many of the various upgrades and offerings from the Blurb company, and is now armed with quite a bit of printing and trouble-shooting savvy as regards getting the most out of this print-on-demand service, and I hope he’ll share some of his continuing discoveries in the comments section. The last I heard from James he was getting a final-final proof from Blurb based on some curve corrections he had made, and after this the final book should be available for anyone to purchase, available in February. James lives in Ann Arbor, MI now, and some of that distance between there and his life in Tokyo is what made making Suginami possible. My interview with him is below:

Stacy: What is Suginami? Is it a glimpse of a version of yourself that you’re sharing with us, or something including and beyond that which you’re trying to communicate?

suginami_cover

 

© James Lucket, Suginami (cover and spine), 2009

James: Suginami is one of the 23 ku‚ or wards of Tokyo, an area in the city that I lived for five years and where nearly all the photographs in the book were taken. At the time I had a dog, and we’d go for walks a few hours every day, so I got to know that neighborhood very well….photographically Tokyo was overwhelming. The city is very dense, things crowd in upon, and on top of each other, it’s nearly impossible to photograph a subject without all sorts of other things pushing into the frame. What I saw looking through the camera didn’t make any sense. I remember walking through the city holding the camera above my head and making one or two second exposures, putting all my faith in the apparatus to put something together. Over subsequent trips and eventually moving and living in Tokyo, I got used to the alienation and with time the unfamiliar became familiar and the city became my home.

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© James Luckett, Shibuya, 1998

Stacy: How personal is this book for you? Do you want others to know that, or is the personal, you know, personal?

James: Prior to moving to Tokyo, for a lot of different reasons I’d fallen out of making photographs. Graduate school really threw me for a loop, stripped away a lot of idealism – which is good in a way, but not an easy process. After wards I moved to Chicago and right away got involved in the gallery system. It sounds naive to say it now, but I was entirely unprepared for the realization that art is a business and the experience made me very cynical about the gallery system for quite a long time. I’d also gotten a job working at night in a forensic photography lab as a master printer. Technically this was a great experience – I really learned how to make prints there – but after working 50 hours a week in a color darkroom simultaneously running different jobs on four enlargers plus a set of x-ray duplicates in the black and white lab, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was make more photographs. People always advise to do what you love, and I discovered pretty quickly that working professionally in photography wasn’t something I liked and had deleterious effects on that that I did love. The content of those forensic photographs didn’t do my mind any favors either.

So by the time I moved to Tokyo I’d pretty much stopped working in any sustained meaningful way with photography. Instead I turned my attention to cooking, teaching myself home style Japanese cooking. I got pretty good, cooking for home parties and even catering new year’s events.

After a few solid years of cooking I hit a wall. I reached a point where I needed to master the language if I was going to continue in any meaningful way, but there was something else too. I came to think that while I might be a pretty good cook, I knew that I wasn’t a creative one. I could plan elaborate meals and organize and execute the preparation, but I didn’t have a knack for inventing new dishes or imagining variations. Realized I wasn’t ever going to be a chef.

And so I starting thinking about photography again, as an area where I might be able to do something more than be competent. So during that last year living in Tokyo, walking the dog, I took along with me a little digital point and shoot and began learning to see again.

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© James Luckett, from Suginami (to be published February, 2009)

In some ways making photographs and cooking are not all that different, [though] there is one very big difference between the two though and that is that cooking is an immediate response. Put a meal on the table and right away you see people are happy and satisfied and nourished – but then just as quickly the evening is over, dishes washed, everything forgotten. With photography there is at least this seductive notion that I might make something that moves another in a more sustained or profound way than a dinner might. But its also just as likely that no appreciation will ever happen at all. Photography is much more difficult to follow through every day. The successes are of my own making, and the work often exists for my own selfish reasons. Its a hard practice to sustain. The reward is that, for example, Suginami won’t disappear with the guests stumbling in the night toward the train station.

So yes, this book is very personal. Its me starting over with photography, getting back to the beginning, learning to see again, rediscovering what photography was and now still is for me: a way to formulate my surroundings, to make sense of the world. Suginami isn’t just a place I lived, but a place made my own.

It isn’t necessary to know any of this to view the book. It’s a poetic, evocative, and I hope visually interesting series. I would be curious to know what others might make of it. What they might think or feel Suginami is.

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© James Luckett, Suginami

Stacy: What kind of initial, brutal editing did you do at the beginning? How did you settle upon your given tone, and what do you imagine that tone is?

James: The photographs first appeared publicly on my blog, which at the time was a different photograph or link or some writing that appeared every few days or so. My initial thought was that the book would be a collection of all of these photographs – the neighborhood and the allegorical tableaux plus the cryptic poetic writing I was doing. However, once I began looking over the material, it was apparent that I hadn’t written nearly as much as I remembered and most of that wasn’t very interesting or good. There was simply too much of a disjunction between the images to hold together.

So once it was clear the book would be of these walking around photographs then it was a process of going through the months and months of image files, looking and looking and pulling those photographs I felt were able to stand up on their own. There were about 100 of these. From there I imported the photographs into the Blurb book layout software and began sequencing.

full_book

© James Luckett, screenshot of book edit with Blurb Booksmart software, 2008

For me, personally, the photographs are considerably less about what’s in front of the camera, and much more about what’s going on with me, my eyes and brain. My concern with photography has always been with the internal process of what and how I see and conceive of the world. So what is interesting in the photographs is that which is in me, and not so much in what’s out there. My photographs are a reaction to events, to situations. I’m not a documentarian and the documentary is not an approach I’m creatively invested.

So a strategy I’ve often utilized to make it clearer that my work is about this internal process of seeing/thinking/feeling is to bookend the series with photographs that suggest the processes of representation. On a denotative level, I recognize that the photographs show what an area of Tokyo looks like, but again, this isn’t what’s important to me. I’m a little worried that the Suginami book might be misunderstood by some as a series about plants or trees or the urban landscape and this worry dictated the choices for the first and last photographs in the book. The first is of a spray painted stencil of a flower on a cinder block wall, and the final photograph is of the branches and leaves of a tree canopy reflected in a pool of water – both photographs showing two different ways of representation, clues that the book isn’t intended to be a document.

After the beginning and the end was in place, the next step in editing was to find pairs of images that would work well with each other on facing pages. Moving the images around in the Blurb software is really easy, and it becomes like working a puzzle trying all the different combinations and then bouncing those off each other. This way slowly the layout evolved. Certain threads and compositional elements began emerging and echoing through the book that I was really pleased to see. Then one night it all just fell in together. Stare at something long enough and it will eventually all make sense.

preview_suginami

© James Luckett, screenshot of Suginami Proof in Blurb Booksmart Software, 2008

The book, the physical support is meant to be a neutral carrier for the photographs. For me the images are not meant as a document of Tokyo or of a specific place and time. Rather they are about ways the world can fit into the edges of a frame, what happens to light inside a camera, and the space between the viewfinder and the eye. I started out in photography over 20 years ago, before photoshop and the Internet, before Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince were famous beyond New York, and when photographic books contained a lot of white space. I’ve always wanted to make one of those books — a marker I suppose of having achieved some level of success. Rather a conservative sentiment I suppose, modernist: “The Camera I”. With Blurb I don’t have to be famous [I think I just made up a slogan?]

As for the tone: I’ve no idea. That’s one of those things I don’t have words for. Suginami is a visual poem. I think it’s beautiful. But I don’t really know what that is either. Certainly something more than the sum of the parts.

stairway.jpg

© James Lucket, Suginami

Stacy: What about the process of putting this together has been surprising? Stupefying? Gratifying? Disappointing?

James: As always the limitations are the challenge. Even though I can craft a decent photograph, I’ve never been able to draw or paint or design with the same facility. My design strategy – whether a book or exhibit or website – has always been to cut out everything that isn’t necessary, which in the case of this Suginami book translates as white pages with very little descriptive text. In the past I’ve been criticized for being too hermetic, too pithy in the handling and presentation of my photographs. In more generous moments I like to think my lack of flexibility means I know what I want, but I wonder too if I’m afraid of taking certain chances. I’ve been trying to loosen up. I did put my name on the cover. [editor’s note: it has since been removed]

Also too I wish I’d photographed more, I wish I’d had more material to work with. At times when sequencing the book I felt really hemmed in by a paucity of choices. I wonder though if its not pushing up against what we lack that isn’t something like the negative space of a composition, that the final work is necessarily guided, defined by what I have.

Stacy: You and i have always shared the view that much of what is important in the practice of photography is in the editing. What has the process of editing been like for you? And what is it like to look at, sort through, meditate, process (and in some instances discard) images that are now of a former life and a former self? Does the psychic distance make the “work” part of it go easier, harder, make it an indifferent process?

James: Its always taken me a long time to do things. Answers do not often come to me quickly or in the moment. For example, it might be a week or more goes by before I have a response to a question or concern from a friend. Could be months or a year between announcing an intention and getting around to it. In some cases I do need to have more discipline or a more courageous “just do it” attitude, but its also true to say that a lot of my thought processing doesn’t happen so straightforward. It’s important that things have time to marinate.

So even though its been three years since I was walking my dog in Tsuykayama Koen or along the Zempakuji River, it doesn’t feel all that long ago. When I look at these photographs I recall quite clearly the moment of taking them. I see immediately what was exciting or interesting about the way everything was lining up in the viewfinder, what possessed me in that moment. In no way does it seem like another life or another time. Certainly living in Tokyo does seem like a dream, but these photographs, my creative life, didn’t go anywhere.

cat2

© James Luckett, Suginami

Perhaps I have two tracks going – daily moving and working and getting along in the world, and another entirely private inner life – and the two don’t necessarily work in tandem. So yes its true, over the past few years I’ve held several different jobs, ended and started relationships, moved halfway around the world, experienced a return culture shock, dropped a habit for alcohol, made a re-commitment to photography, but this other private internal world hasn’t changed much at all. It works outside the daily drama, and it works in sort of slow motion time. My life in Tokyo is very former, but myself is still the same, if that makes any sense.

Stacy: What is the book experience and the experience of making a book for you like as compared/contrasted to the printing experience? What is your idea of audience and intimacy in terms of each?

James: I’ve never had any real idea of an audience. I can think of about ten people – relatives and friends – who might purchase a hard copy of Suginami. Beyond that, its hard for me to imagine anyone wanting to own the book. It’s been about eight years since I’ve made any real physical object that might be of interest to another. Nearly everything over those years existed publicly only in digital form on the Internet, a fairly passive sort of dissemination. So if I do have any kind of audience, that’s what I imagine, people out there sitting at a terminal browsing the Internets staring at rastorized ephemeral bytes. To think of my work taking up space, as something to physically contend with, manipulate, is a little unsettling. I worry about the responsibility of sending things into the world.

Its only since returning to the United States two years ago that I’ve slowly put together a darkroom and begun to make physical things again, to think in terms of an object. Its been a long time. At this point it’s a fairly basic exercise: on the weekend I make some prints, a few of them are okay, and those go into a pile. I don’t really have a conception of what happens after that. They stay in the basement.

I usually print my negatives pretty small by today’s standards, about 7×7 inches, which [I’ve just now realized] is the same size as the Suginami book: just big enough for one person to look at. If they are any bigger it all gets cumbersome. I want the person to come to the work, to make the choice to get close to it, and to feel they are the only one that knows, that it’s theirs. 7×7 inches is about the size of a face; its a relatable scale.

I remember going to a Bill Viola retrospective and there was a huge, like ten or twelve foot tall, double sided vertical screen. On one side was a video of a silhouetted person emerging out of a fire, and the other side had the same person emerging from a waterfall. These were very powerful, archetypal, very moving images, but I couldn’t relate to the myth; I couldn’t fit myself, locate my place in these images. I remember thinking it’d help if they were pictures I could carry around with me, in my wallet, to pull out when I needed them. Its important, I think, to make art that’s proportional to one’s requirements. Giants don’t help me.

billviola2.jpg

© Bill Viola, The Crossing, 1996

Stacy: What didn’t you know about this book or your intentions or your own work that you understand now?

James: Some of the self doubt I had when starting to put together the book is gone. Its satisfying to see these photographs sorted and all put together. I seem to need to be reminded a lot and often that I can do this, make photographs, make art.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In a crappy economy, no one needs to be told twice that they need to be conservative, cut down on gratuitous spending, and in general wait for the next shoe to drop. I’ve been saddened and anxious over the fate of several friends, colleagues and peers that have either lost their employment, are still looking after many miserable months of continual looking and scrapping by, or are worried that they are the next ones to be booted out the door. I’m quite grateful that I still have my job, and that for the moment anyway, it appears to be stable. My feeling about how one is to be conservative and smart during these times depends necessarily on circumstances: I am still (fortunately) making roughly the same amount of money I was this time last year. I have taken a hard look at where I can cut spending, pay down debt, and begin to earnestly save money. But I am also aware that in a desperate economy the things that begin to disappear rapidly aren’t just jobs on Wall Street, some Starbucks branches, some bank consolidations, but things that we love and that make life more substantially felt. Galleries, favorite book stores, artists, and art suppliers wither and fall away too. When and where I can, I am still buying artist’s books, supporting the work of artists I admire, and paying full price when it makes a difference. If you are in a similar situation, please consider doing similarly. Buy an art book. Support an emerging photographer like James Luckett and get a copy of his first book, and/or own and enjoy the work of two enormously talented photographers in the work of the Gowin’s Maggie project. Get on Jen Bekman’s 20×200 mailing list, one of the best bets and art dissemination ideas ever, and buy art for $20. Look at it as an investment or as charity for the arts, but either way the act of purchase in this case is also one of sustainability.

Guilty Pleasures and Publishing, Part I: On Nazraeli Press, Asako Narahashi, Ando Hiroshige (and tea)

A certain confluence of circumstances created specific guilty pleasures that I delight in to this day.

On one of my first trips abroad, I was wandering around Prague’s uneven streets with a fellow photographer that suggested we duck into a tea house. Until that moment, I don’t think I ever thought about tea houses, or their atmosphere, or the kinds of tea that one could get in them. My tea knowledge to that point was limited to thinking that all tea came in bags. My companion ordered a cup of Kukicha, called “Japanese twig tea” because it’s made from the stems and stalks of the tea shrub instead of the actual leaves. A little embarrassed for my ignorance, I ordered the same thing. Small, handle-less cup in hand, I drank down the brown liquid: slightly nutty and slightly earthy, but in a very particular and pleasant way. A happy warmth spread through my palate and being. This was way better than Celestial Seasonings. A curiosity and love of this simple pleasure began. I now hunt down tea houses in the cities through which I travel, have a short-list of favorite online tea distributors (let me know if you want to know what they are), try to push good tea on friends and family as gifts, and several cups of tea are now part of my daily routine.

In my first year of graduate school, I was invited to a get-together at the home of one of the faculty members of the photography department. Another graduate student was house-sitting while the photographer was on sabbatical, and hosted a bbq complete with a view of the fireworks from (then) Comiskey Park. While the highlight for most people that evening was seeing the Flying Elvises jump out of planes, fully costumed, and onto the field, my stand-out moment that night was being glued to the same spot in front of that faculty member’s photography bookshelves. They were floor to ceiling, spanning the full wall length of a very long room and starting near the front door. I seem to remember a funny curtain made from thin fabric that pulled along a skinny steel wire, maybe that was to keep the books from getting dusty. But the books! There seemed to be everything there: first editions, monographs, gallery catalogs and it went on and on and on. Photographers I knew and loved, photographers I had heard of but did not yet know, photographers I had yet to ever hear their names uttered. I don’t remember pulling many books from the shelves that night. A fellow book lover, I know how ungenerous of spirit I can get when unknown characters start pawing my shelves, cracking spines, and leaving oily greasemarks on pristine pages. I remember thinking: this is a lifetime of love and learning. Of investment, trust and community building. The collection that I looked at that night could easily fetch thousands of dollars with just a small selection of titles going up for auction at Photoeye or the like. But what I came to recognize in that instant was the sensation of “sympatico” with the absent photographer/collector, and the knowledge that this too, would become a guilty a pleasure throughout my lifetime. That this love of looking and and learning through the imaginations and work of others would be something that I would most definitely want in my life.

And so what constitutes a guilty pleasure?

Any definition would of course be entirely subjective. I don’t know if other people have thought much about it, or share any of the same qualifications for it that I do. For one, a guilty pleasure is first and foremost Pleasurable. Even thinking about what the guilty pleasure is can be enough to begin a totally solipsistic reverie about what one loves about it, what else there is to know and discover, and what one wants from it next. And the guilty part? This may sound strange and contrary to language and definition, but for me the guilt comes from the fact that there is no guilt. I feel no guilt whatsoever in the (sometimes copious) amounts of time that I spend researching a tea vendor, poring through oolong varietal descriptions, scrutinizing the quality of the tealeaves shown in the online sample, or the community boards I’ve found that discuss high quality pu-erh teas at length (yes, they really do exist). Similarily, there is almost a joy handing over my money to the cashier at an art or gallery museum’s bookstore, or clicking “Submit” on any of the online publishing sites that I count myself a happy consumer. Maybe then what I’m describing is a kind of meta-guilt, one removed of the sting and pangs of conscience because it has to do with the largely cerebral conception of a guilt arrived at for not Really feeling guilty about the useless, unproductive pleasure in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about art publications lately, and art presses, publishing houses, the things that get made in them and the kinds of aesthetics and philosophies that get bundled between the pages and pushed along with the publication itself. Over the next few posts, I want to perform a kind of informal analysis of a few different variations and takes on this theme, but to begin let’s take a look at a long-standing favorite mover and maker.

One-picture-book series, the entire collection.

Nazraeli Press, I love you. You consistently produce some of the most varied, ground-breaking, nuanced and wonderful work in the world of contemporary photography, and I am a devoted and grateful consumer of your wares. I’ve been doing business with you since doing business meant rationalizing the purchase of a new release by a favorite photographer as an “educational expense” with student loan money. I’ve since continued giving you my business even when I could get a discounted price through Amazon or Photoeye, because I want to make sure that I’m always doing right by a press that has given me so much. You have long been championing work and artists that do not get much exposure in their own countries, and might not at all if it were not for your patronage. It is actually a pleasure to spend my money on what you have to offer.

This art publishing house first came to my attention because they were the first to publish the works of Masao Yamamoto, and I have been following them following him ever since his first book (A box of Ku) was published in 1998. One thing that I have been struck by in their attitude towards publishing is how they tend to “adopt” an artist, and create a relationship with them that seems a true collaboration of both artistic vision and commercial risk-taking. They have published works by Yamamoto in a traditional linen-bound book format, but have also produced works in full scroll form (the publication Nakazora, that I was lucky enough to jump on at the time, 18′ in full rolled-out length and complete with a lucite display box and a hand-made print by the artist), or as in the case of Omizuao (Pillowbook), a 14′ accordian-style book that is bound by two lacquered pieces of wood on either end.

© masao yamamoto, Nakazora

© Masao Yamamoto, Omizuao

Yamamoto is not the only artist that Nazraeli makes these kinds of arrangements with: Michicko Kon, long a favorite female Japanese photographer of mine, published a piece consisting of 40 duotone (and display-ready) 6.5×6.5″ cards, and Toshiko Okanoue, a relatively unknown and remarkable female Japanese collagist has a collection of works that are an off-set color printed portfolio of 13×16″ sheets. And then there is their classic and understated “One Picture Book Series” (shown above), a truly sweet feat of artist and publisher collaboration. If the traditionally understood artist’s monograph could be compared to the novel form of a literary author, then the One Picture Book series is the photographer’s equivalent of the writer’s short story. As Eleanor Jane Cardwell writes at A Good Idea on Paper:

Each book in this mouthwatering series of 5 by 7″, 16 page books contains an original print and around eight reproductions, there are 500 numbered and signed copies of each title. How amazing would it be to have the complete collection all lined up on your shelf?

I only wish that I had an unlimited budget to purchase so many of the other items that have languished on my “wish list,” many of which have since gone out of print.

Like a fine but modest-sized winery, Nazraeli Press makes small and short run publications of artists that are hard-sought and hand-picked, and they nurture and expand our knowing of these artists’ work off of the gallery wall. The experiential relationship of reader/viewer from the anonymous and sometimes sterile act of seeing work in institutional spaces as opposed to the far more intimate and personal experience of holding something of that artist in one’s hands is So Very Different, and Nazareli Press possess an inherent understanding of this fact. Aside from consistently producing ground-breaking work in the genre of artist’s books, I often stumble across my next artist-obsession in going through their catalog of works.

The most recent publication by Nazraeli Press that has been bowling me over, and to whom I had not been exposed to previously (though notably a few other favorite bloggers were already in-the-know: Tim at muse-ings , Miguel at [EV +/-] and Ferdinand over at japan-photo.info), is their publication of Asako Narahashi’s recent work Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water. The monograph is part of a series of books curated by Martin Parr, and in his introduction he gives away what delights and terrifies him about Narahashi’s work. It’s worth quoting from the publisher’s site in full:

These photographs make me shudder with fear. This is because I am a non-swimmer, and I imagine it is scenes like this that I might witness at the moment before my head finally goes under the water. One final look at the world. We are surrounded by water and land, and much of the history of landscape photography has used these two familiar ideas as a starting point. Yet I have never seen these two components put together in such a compelling way.

One of the shudder-worthy images that Parr might be thinking of when he looks at Narahashi’s work:

© Asako Narahashi. Zeze, 2005.

Her images immediately elicit a feeling of damn, I wish I had thought of that; a mix of professional awe and jealousy that characterizes well-seen and well-felt work. The images are at times vertiginous, an undertow-in-the-making, and others you can just feel the hapless sting of a few droplets of salt water reddening your eyes.

© Asako Narahashi. Kawaguchiko, 2003.

From the perspective of a floating body in the water looking out, we see lake sides and ocean shorelines of a country with a coastline that stretches over 18,000 miles long. Beach-bathers, swan-shaped paddle boats, blossoming cherry trees, a passing airliner and even Mt. Fuji are all within view in the tidal waters Narahashi places us within, buoying our water-filled bodies and blurring our line of sight. The printed monograph offered by Nazraeli includes 59 plates, and the tome itself is a hefty viewing size of 12 x13″. The first printing quickly sold out, and a second printing is available as of August. If you were lucky enough to catch either of her U.S. shows this summer, one at her first U.S. solo-exhibition at the Yossi Milo gallery or in her inclusion in I.C.P.’s summer show of new Japanese photography Heavy Light, you would have experienced large, 35x 53″ sized prints, enough to allow you to slip into a narrative of suspended disbelief, and become engulfed in the half-submerged point-of-view of her work.

The series itself was three years in the making, and Narahashi says that it began with a photograph taken of friends on the beach:

One day in summer, I went to the sea with my friends. While I was swimming, I happened to see my friends, who were having a party on the beach. That was the very beginning. Swimming backstroke like a sea otter, I took photographs of them from the water. After a year, I put the camera into the water more intentionally.

She shot the images beginning in 2000. Outfitting a normal 35 mm Nikon film camera with a waterproof casing, she floated chest deep into waters of her choosing and pointed the camera toward the shoreline, without looking through the viewfinder, often leaving the camera half-submerged in the water. While there is the constant element of chance in such a process, the images that are published and displayed feel honest and true to the experiences of an act that most people, regardless of nationality, have a memory and precise vision of.

The series also places her squarely in the camp of a Japanese tradition that appreciates as an art form the consideration of an omnipresent, mundane subject from varied and multiple views, such as the Edo-era ukiyo-e prints by Hokusai in his 36 Views of Mt. Fuji–the most famous of which, not incidentally to this discussion of Narahashi, is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa:

(part of Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fugi series created between 1826-1833)

Hokusai’s near-contemporary, Ando Hiroshige, found inspiration and immense critical success in his woodblock series describing the famous Tōkaidō road station series, The 53 Stations of the TÃÑoÃÑkaidoÃÑ (1833-1834) (which he followed up with later in his life with the 69 Stations of the Kiso Kaidō, 1834-1842). For those unfamiliar with the work, the Tōkaidō was one of the five main roads that connected Japan’s city of Edo with the then-capital of Kyoto, and travelers that were headed to or from the court city used this main road and its post stations (at which one could procure food, lodging and meet other travelers) as rest stops along the way. A kind of Canterbury road, or tale, except without the Christianity. These roads were very much known to all Japanese, and made up a kind of collective experience that if not directly shared by everyone, was at least alive in anecdotal tales told by people that had walked them, or in the trinkets and trade that circulated because of them. Hiroshige’s artistic breakthrough with the series was to depict the common and the everyday in this series, to illustrate the stories, the famous views along the station path, and to show these stations and the people that used them in every kind of season, weather and circumstance.

© Ando Hiroshige. Sudden Shower at Shono, #46 in the series of 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō

(n.b. I fell in love with this above image long before I knew anything about Hiroshige or this series. I found a second-strike of this print for sale the summer that I had petitioned for a divorce, moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone, and felt completely overwhelmed by forces and circumstances beyond my control. At the time, this image of travelers fleeing a sudden summer storm was the perfect metaphor for what I felt like I was experiencing. Only later did the context for its creation come, but for my whole life the context for my being drawn to it in the first place will be the one that I remember first.)

©Ando Hiroshige. Night Snow at Kanbara, #16 in the series of 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō

Narahashi’s Half-Awake, Half-Asleep series shares with these examples an emphasis on the subject from a variety of conditions, locations, seasons, views and distances. Like Hokusai and Hiroshige, the photographs also depict a readily identifiable, inherently omnipresent facet of Japanese life: its engulfment on all its narrow geography by water. Curator Michiko Kasahara, who included images from this series in her show “Kiss in the Dark” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, said of the work:

The title of the series […] is very cleverly expressed. Her works, while betraying the stereotyped images of resort areas, somehow make visible as a shared recognition the image of the sea that people embrace. Therein, an uncomfortable feeling like seasickness and a pleasurable feeling of floating and entrusting yourself to the sea lodge side by side.[…] They call forth an ambivalent feeling.

I have only been able to see a few prints in the ICP Heavy/Light exhibit over the summer, but she is currently in a solo show here in Germany at the Gallery Priska Pasquer in Köln, through Nov. 6th. The second printing of Half-Awake just went on sale at Nazraeli Press in the past month, and if I’ve learned anything buying art and artist’s books over the years it’s this: Buy It Now. Before the publisher decides to raise the price, before it goes out of print, before it becomes something that you have a severe case of buyer’s regret for not buying.

A Practice Without Center: the Work of Sophie Calle

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred. The destructive character is young and cheerful…it cheers because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition.
…The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always positions himself at crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of rubble, but for the way of leading through it.
The destructive character lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.

–Walter Benjamin, “The Destructive Character,” 1931

Before I got irritated and said, “It’s not true, I never said that.” I now rub my hands, when I’ve found something wrong. It’s another way of taking care of myself, a way of turning things around. Instead of being upset about being misinterpreted, I go looking for it. I hope for it, wait for it. It’s the right method: turning things to my advantage in order not to suffer from them. –Sophie Calle in an interview with The Guardian, June 2007
 

© Trong Nguyen, 2007

 

I have spent an inordinate amount of energy and effort trying to determine whether who I am about to write about is worth all or any of this time and effort. Usually I use this space to write about what is stirring me most, what is making me think, getting me to look. And really, Sophie Calle‚Äôs work accomplishes all of those things–but the stirring, the thinking, the looking that it precipitates has been of the order that leads by stellar negation of every guiding principle in art or raison d’être that I possess. In short, she represents everything I maintain to be totally, totally wrong with photography and, by extension, the artworld-at-large.

What I want to write about is messy, provocative, full of quasi-moralistic and ethical slippery slopes. It will undoubtedly end up revealing many of my own prejudices, biases, and weaknesses, but in exchange for that it is my hope that it begins a dialog concerning some if not all of the following questions:

–For what, and whom, and to what ends does one make art?
–How important is it the question of ethical responsibility in the creation of art, and how subjective can that terminology be?
–How important are questions?
–Art or art-therapy?
–What is the difference between making work that calls into question an accepted Establishment, and working in service to perpetuate and celebrate that Establishment; or worse yet, state that you are doing the first, when in practice and by critical reception you are doing the second?
–To what degree is the Artworld (with a capital A) complicit, if not responsible for, privileging and celebrating solipsism as an artistic concern?
–How important is it that the artist be aware of the further extended meanings of their output and oeuvre, and how what they create ends up extending or limiting a genre, a protracted way of thinking about things, or informing/influencing a culture and emerging artists whose only prevailing mode is to emulate and imitate?
–More important: intelligence or cleverness? How much has art let the latter be confused, mistaken for, the former?

To begin, I’d like to revisit a schematic I brought up in an earlier post, that of Photographic Character. This is what I wrote on it before:

Projects + Ideology + Temperament + Social Group + Psycho-biography

=

photographic character

 
to understand photographic character is to (1) enter a similar frame of mind [as the photographer’s]; (2) experience their photographic experience, and (3) understand it [them] in a total way. once you understand what a photographer would never do (e.g. walker evans would never make a nude), you can begin to understand the parameters of a given artist’s photographic character.

So given that, what is the photographic/artistic character of Sophie Calle? What is her art?

From what I’ve gleaned from interviews and writings on her, Calle would delight in the apparent failing of language to describe just what it is she does, as testified by the far-ranging terms and labels applied when critics write about her: documentarian, voyeur, writer, photographer, social detective, conceptual artist, installation artist, performance artist, provocateur.

Almost a decade ago, when I first heard her name, I was told about projects in which she followed people across streets and countries on a whim and documented it, or took menial service jobs in order to spy on the people she was hired to work for, or found an address book in the street and called up all the people in it to get a portrait of the person who owned the book (and published these various recollections of the address book owner in a 28-day spread in Liberation), or the time she got different people to sleep in her bed every night and photographed them. In every case of those who spoke about her, there was a sense of an ungainly crush: admiration voiced for her seemingly endless clever output coupled with a desire to dream up a project as neat, witty and as precisely orchestrated as one of Sophie Calle’s.

It would be years before I’d come across her again, and when I did it was through the intermediary of Hervé Guibert, who writes bitingly about her in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, giving her the not-so-graceful nom-de-plume “Anna-the-pain-in-the-ass.” Sleuthing around I discovered that the photographer he was referring to was Sophie Calle, and then I was stunned to find him cross-referenced by her–and in fact that entire earlier writing by Guibert reproduced, and then answered in turn, by Calle in Exquisite Pain. At the time I was pleased with the connection (and for having come to her by reading Guibert first; this first narration would become important later when I would be enmeshed in the complex and compulsive world of the self-editing that Calle does in her pieces). Exquisite Pain is the first Calle piece I’d ever seen, in the flesh–a seductive little object.

The first incarnation of this work was a book. A book that was fifteen years in the making, or, more precisely, fifteen years in the putting-off. in an interview with Bice Curiger in 1992, Calle was asked:

BC: Did you ever start a project from an obsession which didn’t work out, that you didn’t end up exhibiting?
 
Calle: There is a project I’ve been trying to do for five years. Every time I have a new idea, anything, I do the new one quickly to postpone this one. But I’m sure there will be a day soon when I have no ideas and I will have to do this one. It’s a project about unhappiness…There is a medical term called ‘exquisite pain.’ When you break your arm, if you put your finger where it was broken, they call the pain you feel exquisite pain. And I could put my finger just on the second of my pain. This was the thing that interested me.

The book itself is a refined little thing. red-foiled pages on the edge, narrow, novella-length. in what i would become familiar with as her typical reportage/diaristic writing convention, the “story” told is that of a count-“up” to and a counting-away from Calle’s unhappiest moment, that precise time at which the pain she felt was, to her estimation, “exquisite.”

She had won an art grant. She decided to use it to go to a place she would never normally choose to go, a place where she in fact did not want to visit. It was a three-month award. her lover at that time threatened that he could not be faithful for that long a separation, and that he would leave her. She made arrangements to meet him at the end of the grant at a hotel in New Dehli, India. She goes to Japan for the appointed duration, flies to India, and on the evening of their reunion she gets receives a message that he is not coming. When she finally reaches him by phone many hours later, she is told that he has met someone else.

The second half of the book is an exercise in revisionist autobiography. On the left side of each facing page is Calle’s recounting of her moment of greatest suffering, beginning with how many days ago the day of suffering occurred. Each recounting varies to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes telling more about the day, sometimes more about her personal history as it led up to this day. Each photo on this page of her describing her unhappiest moment is the same, the photo of the bed and the red phone on which she received her bad news. as the book nears its end, the text that is written by Calle about this day begins to diminish in tone, blending in with the black of the page. on the last day of her recounting, there is nothing there that is visible to be read. Contrasted with this repeated (with variations) narrative, on the adjoining page is the story of someone else, someone that Calle has found and asked to tell her: What in your life has been your moment of Exquisite Pain? Each of these narratives are different, and if pain were set on scales, the bias quickly becomes that the anonymous storyteller is oftener a tale of a weighter and more devastating degree. The act of placing the reader in the position of evaluating which pain is the greater, or even more precisely: that of presenting them on facing pages as Equal, is one of the central conceits of this project.

© Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain

I would later encounter this piece in installation form at the Powerplant in Toronto, and then learned still later of its next planned iteration and (possible?) final resting place as a collaborative work between her and Frank Gehry. Clearly, Calle knows how to get the most mileage out of recycled materials; the most bang for the buck.

And then, in 2007, would come her single most legitimizing art moment to date: Her inclusion–twice!–in the Venice Biennale, with the main exhibition curated by Robert Storr. She was also chosen to represent the country of France in their national pavilion. This last piece, “Take Care of Yourself” is another take of hers on the theme of the jilted lover, in this case she uses an break-up email she received from a recent beau, given it to over a hundred women to dissect and denounce, all according to their life’s work and craft, and then in turn documented by Calle. The press for this installation was overwhelmingly positive–shades of the glib artworld crush come back to haunt us here–and of everything shown at the Biennale that year, was arguably the slickest, most put-together of anything else on display.

Gender difference, female solidarity, humorous revenge and female empowerment are all cited as the artistic concerns of the project. Equally lauded is the unifying, collaborative effort that Calle used to create the piece, culling the reactions, responses and creative efforts of 107 women of varying nationalities, ages, backgrounds and occupations. Sounds good, right? At least good enough to be a successful Benetton campaign if not the selection for the French national pavilion. Speaking of advertising campaigns, one of the pavilion’s official corporate sponsors was Chanel, which, according to the press release, the venerable fashion house concluded that this latest work of Calle’s was: “…firmly rooted in a feminine universe that is passionately attached to freedom and daring, it is a perfect echo of the brand universe and the pioneering spirit of Mademoiselle Chanel.” But what of it: culture, commerce, sass and class?

Robert Storr had it right back in 2003, when he wrote in Art Press that she was “decidedly bourgeois rather than bohemian,” and moreover a “downright annoying…embodiment of the unreliable narrator” and finally, that, “Hers is a labyrinth with a walled-off chamber at its center, a maze of mazes without a core.” One of my (many) issues with Calle’s work (which Storr astutely refers to as overly preoccupied with her “sentimental education”) is her bullish confusion of universal experience with literary tropes. She has said that her materials are the banal experiences of everyday life, and that what she makes art out of is no different than the French luminaries that came before her, writing about their private lives: Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire. But, of course, there is a difference. What Calle loves is the general, of being without content. It’s the page itself she’s interested in, not the page as materiality, or the page as it exists, but the blank of it, the lack of it. She is not aware of this, and what she is working through is not the Lacanian “lack.” Her lack isn’t the white of the page, but the blur: what is indistinct. She is utterly solipsistic: in her work she continually refers to the self, and then mistakes and exhibits her experiences as universal feeling. Sophie Calle is the subject, a spectacle of generality, a tautology of never escaping the circle of the self.

Calle is the unhealthy art equivalent of the hegemony of shelter porn: frothy, light, easily digestible, clever and rich. She prides herself on being controversial and provocative, but who is she ever really at the risk of offending? Who in her audience is in possession of sensibilities, culture, education or tastes that are different from–or in opposition to–her own? Her artistic project overlooks the existence of difference or the Other, and using 107 different women to comment upon a a break-up letter she’s received doesn’t begin to address that all of those whose participation she sought she considers (perhaps unconsciously) her equals. She never examines the limits of her world-view, and has a complete myopic disregard for the social. Some people would claim that’s her charm. A wealthy, Europeanized, cosmopolitan audience is to whom her work is addressed and that which comprises her artistic boundary condition.

It’s my own conceit that art has an ethical responsibility not to manufacture experiences, but to manufacture thinking, what Walter Benjamin refers to as the “call” of the art work, i.e. to respond to the call of thinking. In my estimation, Sophie Calle is not an artist, but an editor. In an interview given about her project Exquisite Pain, she said that, “…when you edit things from your life, one moment becomes more specific than another. It’s all in the editing, not in the life.” While she edits, what she practices is an edit without questions, without premise, only formula. She calls the premise for her projects her ideas, says that she is full of ideas, but Ideas they are not; these are parlor questions. She frames herself through the references of repetition and disappearance, but doesn’t use them in an authentic or true way. What she does is manipulate these references to distill and create an affect. What she creates isn’t related to thinking; what she creates is affectation. As an editor, she is also a greedy one, taking and taking and taking. Instead of trafficking in ideas or thinking, she takes other people’s thoughts and experiences as her art supplies, and then calls it collaboration. Hers is ultimately a cynical view of the world, one in which we continually push one another’s buttons. She escapes the criticism of being jaded and cynical by couching the boundaries of her projects as a joke. Her notion is that the joke transcends the trauma, so that one is not owned or consumed by it, but healed in spite of it.

In terms of her artistic reception and acceptance, it discourages me greatly that the Art World is so charmed, so titillated, so utterly taken with her. There is little if any criticality, no questions–just a lazy acceptance/complicity to be entertained by her solipsism. What does Calle’s artistic project reflect back and say about the so-called Art World? That this is an entity in love with its own image, that flatters itself, creates affectations and deflects attention away from wondering why does one create affectations, and in so doing, deflects meaning.

I first heard Sophie Calle’s name while in an MFA critique when I was studying photography. My linking of her to established art institutions is intentional, as through my own experience of her and in my research of the available press on her demonstrates that she is at once everything that MFA programs teach their students to aspire to in their practice and also everything that people who have thought deeply on the matter believe is what’s intrinsically wrong with MFA programs today. In an important conversation about the state of art education today, Art In America published an exhaustive critique of its academic and studio traditions, written by its practitoners and educators. Following are a few excerpts from the May 2007 article:

  • We teach artists both a litany of names and the fashioning of individuality. Instead of working on a practice, it is the artist who is worked on, pushed to internalize the art world, to take it seriously and to produce an identity in its image. –Howard Singerman, Univ. of Virginia, Charlottesville
  • …students in American MFA programs are educated in an environment that all too often replicates our country’s debilitating isolation from global diversity and ideas. –Lawrence Rinder, Calif. College of Arts, SF
  • …everyone ignores the real need: to resuscitate a way of talking about art that recognizes the value of art as a theory in itself, a thing that is impractical and politically useless…the best art students…need to learn imaginative ways to step outside their own historicist subjectivity in order to understand the extent to which they are unwittingly trapped by it. –Laurie Fendrich, Hofstra
  • The European approach is entirely based on charismatic figures and the myth of “free education.” –Bruce Ferguson, Columbia Univ.
  • In the present moment, artists are better off training themselves at home and acquiring the benefit of a good liberal arts or art historical education. This, because the model for graduate art education, established in the early 1970’s by John Baldessari and others (myself included), is 40 years old and virtually obsolete. –Dave Hickey, Univ. of Nevada

The emphasis on selecting and committing to a critically appealing personal project that was, at least in my educational experience, the mantra of the MFA program, is the space that Sophie Calle inhabits totally, and in her example are the lessons that are internalized by those academies of artistic training. Where we should read a cautionary tale we are instead entreated to emulate and imitate, and where we should be creating work that compels thought we instead are told to come up with clever ideas.

Goethe once wrote that at the age of 18, German literature was as old as he was. And a century or so later, Walter Benjamin said that what Goethe was to German literature, he aspired to be to criticism. In his essay “A Small History of Photography,” (1931) Benjamin writes something that, in my reflections on the subject of Sophie Calle and by extension upon the notion of Photographic Character, is as bitingly relevant as ever, and is the thought I’d like to end this essay with:

The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyze the associative mechanisms in the beholder. This is where the caption comes in, whereby photography turns all life’s relationships into literature; and without which all constructivist photography must remain arrested in the approximate. Not for nothing have Atget’s photographs been likened to the scene of a crime. But is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passerby a culprit? Is it not the task of the photographer–descendant of the augurs and haruspices–to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures? “The illiteracy of the future,” someone has said, “will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.” But must not a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less counted as illiterate?
 

Art on the (not-so) Cheap: on friendship, wishful thinking and AIPAD

i have a friend that works for a prestigious photography gallery in manhattan. whenever we get together, i am regaled with tales of the unchecked purchasing power of the bourgeoisie, the wheelings-and-dealings of the owner (who for the purposes of anonymity i’ll just refer to here as “mr. burns,” but in reality we have made up a hip-hop alias based on his real name), and not least of all, we commiserate over the smack-you-in-the-gut intensity of some of the truly stunning images which pass through his hands, going on-and-off of the gallery walls.

mr. burns traffics in some of my most favorite image-makers, and i am usually quietly surprised by at least a few things that are hanging at any given time i have been able to make the trip. over a long dinner and a bottle of wine, we mused at what we would attempt to purloin from mr. burns, if money were no object and we could take anything in the collection. my friend asked me what my choice was and i said without hesitation: that roy decarava print of the dancers taken in the 1950’s. this one:

 dancers, 1956

roy decarava dancers, 1956

he said he knew that would be my answer, despite my loudly touted love for many of mr. burn’s other holdings, which include personal heroes bill brandt, harry callahan, aaron siskind and eikoh hosoe.

the qualifying event for what we would divest mr. burns of, in this conversation, was that it could not be an image that we wanted for “investment purchases” but instead for pure, unadulterated love of the image. it had to be something that truly knocked us out, something that maybe we couldn’t even explain. this was that image for me.

have i ever told you what i learned about that photo? i asked him, after naming my treasure (and learning that the going rate for this print by mr. burns was somewhere around 23K). he shook his head, said he didn’t know decarava’s work that well.

neither did i. before i saw this print i would have been hard pressed to identify an image of his in a famous-photographer-lineup. but this one immediately haunted me, and when i could i looked up information about it, stunned even more by what i found the photographer had said about this particular image:

This photograph was taken at a dance of a social club at the 110th St. Manor at Fifth Avenue. It is about the intermission where they had entertainment and the entertainment was two dancers who danced to jazz music. Thats what this image is all about; its about these two dancers who represent a terrible torment for me in that I feel a great ambiguity about the image because of them. It’s because they are in some ways distorted characters. What they actually are is two black male dancers who dance in the manner of an older generation of black vaudeville performers. The problem comes because their figures remind me so much of the real life experience of blacks in their need to but themselves in an awkward position before the man, for the man; to demean themselves in order to survive, to get along. In a way, these figures seem to epitomize that reality. And yet there is something in the figures not about that; something in the figures that is very creative, that is very real and very black in the finest sense of the word. So there is this duality this ambiguity in the photograph that I find very hard to live with. I always have to make a decision in a case like this– is it good or is it bad? I have to say that even though it jars some of my sensibilities and reminds me of things that I would rather not be reminded of, it is still a good picture. In fact, it is good just because of those things and in spite of those things. The picture works.

(interview published in Roy DeCarava: Photographs)

when i first saw this photograph, it haunted me without context. imbued now with the story of its making, i had all sorts of things to choose from among the many discomforts it elicited from me: complicities and complexities of racism in america, my own ignorances (which can be legion), the fact of my own participation in this by being drawn to an image of white people gawking at black people with a kind of garish nostalgia for something else that was never really there, never real at all. which is all just to say it made me love the image even more.

by happy circumstance, this two-ish day period i was passing through the city also happened to be the weekend of AIPAD, an international exhibition of many top-tier photography galleries peddling their wares. i have always wanted and intended to go to this event, but have managed to miss it year after year. i finally made it and i think i can safely say that for my purposes, AIPAD is almost all the gallery-going i ever need to do in a year–or at least the experience of all that rich photographic history in one place is so heady that it makes me feel that way. stumbling in an aesthetically drunken stupor from gallery exhibit to exhibit, i ran into so many beloved favorites which the delight i took in their viewing was matched only by the mind-boggling price tags affixed in discrete graphite handwriting on the backs of acid-free matte board. the first stunner was this nude by weston of his then-lover tina modotti, a veritable steal at $6000:

edward weston

(this has to be the hottest photograph weston ever made. while i love weston’s work, most of his nudes leave me totally, neurotically cold. that image of charis floating in the pool like a drowned ophelia…ugh! this photograph of tina modotti, however, has all the omph! that, say, john singer sargeant’s madame X had when it first was shown, with all the critics scandalized that the madam’s pink ears suggested an off-canvas flagrante indelicato with the painter).

then to be pleasantly surprised by this uncommon francesca woodman (image courtesy of james danziger over at The Year In Pictures–it was the only record i could find of this print):

francesca woodman

all angles and form, very crisp and unlike most things i’m familiar with by her. that pulling of flesh, a bent arm, bulging tricep and most of the body hidden from view. it’s very…restrained and taut at the same time. there is something both studied and sanguine about it, and all that negative space confuses my eye in a gracious and vertiginous way.

and while there were many others, that last one that made me step very very close into the space of the frame (in a misbegotten attempt to block the rest of AIPAD out while i communed with the ghost of harry callahan) was this favorite of his wife eleanor. taken in a room of peeling paint (check out that archway above the window) that only a photographer could love:

harry callahan, eleanor 1948

there was also one endearing conversation i had with a czech gallerist when inquiring about the work of vojta dukat, who laughed loudly and from the belly, telling me that it would be easier to get me the rarest of man ray’s prints than it would be to ever get a print from the infamously reclusive dukat. but, he conceded conspiratorily, he is a great photographer…

i talked with my friend of the experience of AIPAD, of the varied overheard conversations and agendas that are invariably present at such an event. while we can’t afford to own anything from that world, we both came to the conclusion that we are of that world. i said with a guilty conscience how much pleasure it gave me to see so much vintage work, and confessed that there were very few photographs taken since 1970 that matter to me as much as the ones mentioned above. getting to the bottom of our bottle of bordeaux, i worried aloud that photography wasn’t doing for me what other things were these days (more on that in another post), and as i continue to look, listen and make i have to ask myself for what, for whom and to what ends?

a return to writing (or: this time, with feeling)

nye_lo1.jpg
© stacy oborn, 2008

resurrection.

so i’ve been a long time away from writing, and in this and many other ways, a long time away from myself.

in the interim between the silence from the old typepad site to this moment at this shiny new wordpress site, some major shifts have been occurring vis-a-vis my internal view of photography and its place in the world and art, which i will attempt to define and articulate here. in the personal realm, i’ve also had a transcontinental move, and now write, listen & look primarily from the environs of Berlin, Germany.

there is much to share, much to discuss, and more than one new way for me to try and interact in this space. sometimes existence in the self-publishing realm undergos a kind of personality shift, as in the case of todd walker’s site recently (with his relocation from nyc to denver), and sometimes they go completely silent, as in the case of alec soth’s invaluable blog. one thing i have wrestled with here (as many others do, i’m sure), is reconciling the pleasure and satisfaction i get from writing with the self-imposed pressure to deliver some perfectly resolved and genuflected thing in its most finished and evolved state. i don’t know why i do this, but i do. in order to rescue myself from it, first this new space. like scrubbing down and repainting a room, it needed a good overhaul (the links listed have also been updated, to the right ==>). secondly, a re-conception about what writing and sharing here is for, and what else it can be like than what i’ve previously made it out to be.

for anyone out there that might be new to me: welcome. there is a pull-down menu of categories to the right, and it offers a good representation of my aesthetic whims, and how i attempt to get them out of my system and into the world. i should let you know, in the interests of full disclosure, what this site is not:

  • not up-to-the-minute reviews of currently exhibited work
  • not principally a place of massive linkage to other sites, artists or projects
  • not about a way to convince you of anything or an attempt to sell you something

what i have endeavored to do and will continue to do is to write and discuss topics that i’ve let percolate for some time, done some research and deep thinking about, and think interesting enough to put down for others similarly inclined.

it’s not all defined and worked out, nor is it probably ever meant to be. i’ve a long list of things i want to dissect and discuss, and hope you’ll follow me as i try out my new skin here at the-space-in-between.

the personal aesthetic

what do you mean when you think of the word “aesthetics?”

is it a detached, dry, intellectual word, something too often and too wearily encountered on yet another artist’s statement written by some anonymous gallery assistant? is it a rare and personalized form of sight that only “master” artists seem to posses? is it a convenient pivot-term that critics can hover upon when creating confining boxes to fit their arguments about an artist, their output and their psychology into?

does one learn aesthetics or does aesthetics learn you? meaning: is aesthetics a panoply of ideas and concerns one encounters in a ripe and meaningful fashion, something to add to an artistic arsenal that will further give shape and weight to work made–or is it a different kind of encounter, a shocking familiarity, when you realize that a fully articulated way of thinking about something is one that you have always had and always carried with you, unawares. until that moment of encounter.

are aesthetics something given to you from the outside, or is it latent potentiality, waiting there for you to recognize it as some part of your self?

what informs you? who cares about beauty and making and thinking in ways that seem important to you, that resonate? is it a process of thinking or making/doing, or, as new age and cliché as it sounds, a mode of being? and: who and what has embodied this notion for me?

the first photographer that turned my head was bill brandt.


soho bedroom, 1938

i was but a babe to photography, its history, practice–any and all of it. but when i looked at the work of brandt, something beckoned. whispered to me, compadre.

new as i was to the medium, certain rules were known “rules” and these would concern focus, shadows (and the ability to see deeply into them), varied tonal range, how-to-shoot-a-nude, how-to-shoot-a-documentary-photograph. the whisper inside me was gleeful and grateful because she recognized brandt as bucking all of those rules and the images, despite the break with what is known as successful image making, still managing to be strong, stand-alone, Moments With Which To Be Reckoned.

i think i saw his nudes first, before anything.

camden hill, 1947

these were not the cool, controlling, perfected bodies of edward weston. or the shamelessly direct and wondefully amateur turn-of-the-century erotic nudes i had also become aware of. these were…if they were like anything, they were more like nudes i’d see in paintings than in anything i’d ever seen in a photograph. elongated, mannerist limbs. skin tones so contrasty as to lack any perceptive familiarity i had of the notion “skin.” perspective shifted, skewed, on its side. was the photographer laying on the ground sideways to get this view? maybe. and the mood of them…sad like the nudes of edward hopper. enigmatic and a little dangerous like the collages of max ernst. or even better yet, like the representations of the feminine by his lesser-known and muchly talented wife, dorothea tanning.

you could not “see into” his blacks. he did not want you to. or did not care if you cared. sometimes the perspective was such that it looked like the photo was made through the fat end of a coca-cola bottle.


east sussex, 1953

what i was responding to but didn’t yet know was brandt’s capacity to show a range of emotion and form simultaneously. emotions both protracted and projected as if on a blank, white movie screen. his accounting for, or dismissal of, the added layer of projected meaning by a potential viewer. a practiced eye that liked to double the association of forms, to play with that psychology in his photos. a photographer who, for me, would give me a little (the image), but was more than content to leave much in the way of meaning or interpretation a blank.

i learned recently that brandt’s work was not only unappreciated in his working days, but openly ridiculed and reviled. in the great big book on brandt that i feel lucky to own, bill jay writes about the experience of having championed brandt’s work as a junior editor for Popular Photography. the editor, les barry instead found it, “…impossible to accept the concept that this collection of poorly printed, ineptly cropped photographs of badly posed, unattractive women is his idea of serious work.” talk about being misunderstood. jay asserts in his foreward that despite decades of being told that he was a bad printer, an inept portratist, a sentimental documentarian, a horrid seer of the nude form, that he went right on working and working. making images and printing them exactly as he saw fit. it seems impossible to imagine a working artist today not withering against such steady, constant negative critique. when i think how often an artist quickly finds a comfort zone in their aesthetic vision once it has been vetted by curators and commerce (are the two even distinguishable anymore?), and how oftener and oftener it seems that one does not toy with the ingredients of success once you’ve begun to grope towards it, bill brandt’s plodding example seems nearly heroic to me.

years after i first encountered brandt i found another artist-as-touchstone. by this time i had become more personally invested in photography; i had been studying it for a number of years, i had rented studio space and built a darkroom that i learned to fail and fail better in. my travel plans on a student budget consisted of trips to traveling gallery and museum shows in whatever blocks of time i could afford to pay to stay out of town for. i had met and become friends with some other photographers, and now an intersecting dialogue of ideas, approaches and aesthetics had come to inform and play off of my own.

at the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, i first encountered the work of japanese photographer masao yamamoto. i wasn’t quite prepared for what i saw there, or the reaction i would have to his work. again: the niggling sense of familiarity, of shared sympathies or concerns. the greeks had a word for it: anagnorisis, meaning literally a recognition of someone, not only of their person but of what they stand for and represent.


#960

the images, for those of you who have not seen them, are extraordinarily small. and variegated in size. some are 2×3, some 3×3, more often than not odd sizes. they are torn and worn and tea-stained. they are printed too dark to see distinctly and too light to see for certain. they are not treated or exhibited as precious objects, and the revelatory experience of seeing contemporary photography speak loudly through smallness and intimacy reinvigorated my sense of the range and possibility of the genre of photography.


installation view at the jackson fine art gallery, 2003


craig krull gallery, santa monica, 2003

i don’t know this for certain, but i think that yamamoto allows the gallery to decide how his work is to be shown, with perhaps a few sentences about his working philosophy and thinking. when i spoke to an assistant at j.f.a., she told me that the photographs arrived at the gallery minus any of the usual fuss and precocious preciousness surrounding the transport of contemporary art. they were stuffed unceremoniously into a box, all sitting on top and intersecting with one another. i imagined a cigar box stuffed to the brim with someone’s old and aging personal history, closed with a thick rubber band on the outside.

wabi-sabi aesthetics has always deeply resonated with me, and its precepts can be readily seen in yamamoto’s works. the tenets of wabi-sabi, if such a thing exists, would include some or all of the following:

  • a purposeful lack of hierarchy; de-emphasis on class or caste (with origins in the traditional japanese tea house, in which the entry to the tearoom is purposefully set very low, so that everyone, regardless of rank, would need to lower themselves to enter)
  • preoccupation with a watchful observance
  • an emphasis on economy, but without drifting into a kind of miserly-ness
  • an appreciation of evanescence, emphemerality, of fleetingness
  • leonard koren writes that things wabi-sabi are, “…unstudied and inevitable looking…[but] not without a quiet authority.”

to my thinking, wabi-sabi is an aesthetics of removed/impersonal vulnerability. what do i mean by that? that it is vulnerable and yielding to nature, events and circumstances beyond its control. that it shows its wear and tear on its sleeve but does not do so loudly. it is quiet and proud while being constituted from humble origins. is it an aesthetic of a new kind of puritanism? i don’t believe so. within wabi-sabi is a lack of fear or an expectation of any kind of reward.

after all of this disorganized meditation on the constitution of my personal aesthetic, i am no nearer to deciding whether or not aesthetics are something one does, or has done to one. i certainly experience a “simpatico” moment when encountering something that has managed to articulate something i know to be a deep personal truth, but then, doesn’t everyone? or are those answers and assumptions too pat? do the majority of art-makers and see-ers even give aesethetics a second-glance anymore, or have we all decided that it is the undisputed domain of a bunch of dead french continental philosophers? are aesthetics confined to the domain of form, art and making? is it something one lives (here i think of agnes martin, of richard foreman, even of anthony bourdain)? the one idea i keep returning to, the thing that i want to express here that matters to me, is that a certain self-awareness of one’s borders, boundaries, what one gives and what one keeps close to the chest, are all elements of art making that make the making Real to me, that i want to internalize like a mantra, that i wish were more present in the world around me and in those who happen to be in the business of making.

the limits of photographic character: images you thought never existed

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.
–diane arbus

so i lied earlier, when i said that photography hadn’t done anything for me lately.

i have seen quite a bit of art in the last year, and in several genres that are not my focus, especially: dance, performance, theater and new media. like my experiences with photography, some of it has been morbidly bad. some of it sublime (heiner goebbel’s eraritjaritjaka springs immediately to mind for the latter category). photography though, for all its hits and misses, is the mistress i return to, and will continue to write of.

there are images that once seen, you know will follow you; that certain ideas you maintain will be punctuated now by this new collective visual unconscious. that the word which sprung into your mind when you saw this image will be recalled by you whenever the image appears suddenly and unbidden. that such images are what form each of our highly personal and subjective inner galleries.

i would imagine that the images which fill my private gallery space contain a single continuous thread: those images which i’d like to imagine some other version of myself might have taken. which is not to say: images i wish i had taken or images that i wish i had the capacity to take. no, i mean the images which, given a different set of priorities or choices made, are those that i (perhaps delusionally) know are things i could have seen myself seeing. as if these images, when i encounter them, are an aha! moment of negated destiny.

alack and alas, we all choose (and keep choosing) who it is to be and who it is we want to become. and in the choosing, so many paths-not-taken fall to the side. this notion of self-identity and awareness of that self has got me thinking about a schematic construct i once encountered, thought was incredibly important, and over the succeeding years had nearly forgotten all about. considering my abiding interest in art, art-making and art-makers, it was alarming to me that it had nearly slipped through the cracks. i’ll get on more about it later, but as an initial tease-of-thought the idea i’m speaking about is that of photographic character.

it goes something like this:

Projects + Ideology + Temperament + Social Group + Psycho-biography
=
photographic character

to understand photographic character is to (1) enter a similar frame of mind [as the photographer’s]; (2) experience their photographic experience, and (3) understand it [them] in a total way. once you understand what a photographer would never do (e.g. walker evans would never make a nude), you can begin to understand the parameters of a given artist’s photographic character.

diane arbus. self-portrait, pregnant, nyc, 1945.

it seems like that at a certain age it is very fashionable to like the work of diane arbus. and that age would be a young, coming-of-age age, when her raw inquiry and love of a gritty new york–which arguably doesn’t exist anymore–finds in your impressionable youth a receptive and captivated audience member. if, as you age, you further develop an interest/practice in photography, the bell curve will complete itself and it will become equally fashionable to dislike the work of diane arbus. to claim her output as that of an exploitive, voyeuristic depressive, and to attribute her status among the art-elite as having something to do with how still, to this day, culture is intoxicated with the myth of the mad genius, the maker-of things. your attitude of her may fall within this framework, outside of it, or be of the persuasion to have simply never given the matter much thought.

my conception of arbus changed when i encountered the above photograph. i’d like to imagine that what i find in it goes beyond my own photograph-as-confession voyeurism, and that it isn’t simply the peak into the obvious personal that gives me pause. beyond my first flush of shock and thinking that this is a photograph i’d never imagined she’d make, i have come instead to see that this image is really a prelude to all the other photographs that i have come to know as arbus’s–touching, vulnerable, a little skewed–as if she made this one imprint of herself before she went out seeking the same in the world over the next twenty-odd years.

arbus is 22. pregnant with her first child, doon. her husband is in military service in india. it is 1945, and she is living with her parents. this will be one of a series of images that she will make and send to her absent spouse, and one of the only self-portraits of diane arbus that i’ve ever known.

the words that come to mind in looking at this image: tender. vulnerable. uncertain. firsts. spare. and that head of hers, cocked over to one side, as if in appraisal of herself, the fact of her first pregnancy, the oddity of taking a photograph of oneself naked in front of a mirror. as if in that look she gives herself she’s trying to get at some essential core, some thingness that differentiates her, or this moment, or herself in this moment, apart from all others and all other moments. this going within to extract and reveal something that will remain occluded, fantastic and a quiet secret. and i realized in looking at this that it’s the same feeling i get as her intention in any photograph that i had ever seen that she had taken of someone else.

Our baby is a girl…curious and even a little funny. I simply stare at her. I expected to feel a deep recognition but I don’t. She isn’t like either of us but lovely: very alive with very beautiful shoulders. I love our lack of connection: that she doesn’t feel anything towards me and i feel such an odd, separate way about her.

I expected great changes (first, I expected it from pregnancy, then when it didn’t come, I expected it from birth), but I’m glad I didn’t change or at least feel changed. I trust myself better as I am. It was very simple–I have forgotten most of the bad part because of the anesthetic–but I still know it was simple. I guess events are always simpler than people–which is good.
–letter from Arbus to Alfred Stieglitz

the retrospective show where I saw this image has been hailed as everything from landmark to overtly worshipful (“why are we in her panty drawer?” critic David Spiher wrote of the MOMA show). While I can appreciate the sentiment driving the latter criticism–that of turning the spectacle of photography into the spectacle of personality (or, more precisely, maximizing the dollar potential of the former by elevating the latter)–I believe that it is too easy to dismiss the value of the inclusion of the personal in a show such as this. Whatever the intentions of the curators–displaying cameras, collage-walls, notebooks and even a recreation of her studio–the inclusion does end up lending some insight to a particularly hard-to-get-at aspect of both the photographer and the critical process. having the ability to peruse this at leisure lends us fodder to contemplate arbus’s psychological biography, which in turn could further inform us about her work, processes, artistic project via her artistic boundary conditions. one could argue that the gallery or museum is no place for such inner critique, but i think that would be a mistake. for all that we have projected onto the work of diane arbus and what we think from that we can assume about her, having a sustained moment with her letters, diaries, jotted-down-dreams et al. lets her speak her psychology back at our projections.

it seems there has always been the argument of “appreciate the art and keep the artist out of it,” but is that really viable? to consider the character of any given photographer seems hopelessly outmoded, anachronistic, but i would argue for this practice in any genre where we would exercise a critical model or mode of thinking. even of (perhaps especially of) critics themselves.

douglas nickel‘s notion of photography and photo-history as being a discursive, social practice based on an entire set of discourses and commentaries in our lifetimes can serve as a basis for understanding how to approach the notion of photographic character. photographic projects should be viewed with these questions in the back of our pockets: what were they trying to do with photography here? what of their character is evinced in their photography–what have they put of their person in here? what was their attitude? what was their disposition?

where one points the camera is where your psyche pointed it. if a photographer does not deal with that thing the psyche is putting forth, the psyche will in turn relentlessly keep pointing them there. an artist that is aware of what they are doing and what motivates their actions are serving the rest of us with tasks and life-lessons to follow: Know Thyself. ideally: be able to speak cogently about what it is you do and why, without having critics and curators proffer meaning in your stead. often when an artist fails at this, it is motivated by two cross-purpose actions: deferral and denial: defer the meaning and realization of what it is being sought in the work, and deny the reasons why it is being done through photography. noble projects versus neurotic ones.

a noble project can simply mean one in which the photographer is self aware to the degree that she knows what her tastes and predilections are and why, makes no apologies for them, and makes images based on what conceptual visions interest her. sometimes this can involve an agenda, sometimes not. either way, the approach will be open-ended in terms of strategy, with no pre-conceived notion as to what the final product will be. ideally, the work will not be viewed as a “product” at all, but in terms of a means by which to better understand something.

the image above of arbus pregnant is not such an image. it is instead a photograph taken by someone so known to my image-repertoire that the existence of this image stretched my understanding of what i thought i knew about her work. it actually ended up expanding it. the pregnant artist is not the culminating work of an open-ended teleology or practice, but this particular image is, i would argue, the beginning of her starting to think like one who could posses such a thing.

that which moves and shakes

while trained as a photographer, and while i largely use this space as place to meditate on Things Photographic, truth be told i do partake of other genres, other modes of representation and visual thinking. in fact, there are many times when the spate of photography i take in, grouse and ruminate over will be like so much inelegant sputtering, a hacking cough of hackneyed notions and cobbled or predictable presentation, when compared to the quality of making, question-having and solution-seeking that i am blessed enough to stumble upon from time to time, often in genres that i have less of a frame of reference. is it ridiculous to feel like i’m cheating on photography when i find myself swooning over something that is decidedly not? does photography care that i’m ignoring it for a time, because it hasn’t done anything for me lately, and meanwhile i’m having drinks and long, meaningful looks in a corner with this something else over here?

one of the most influential mentors i have ever had was a drawing instructor . well, to be precise, he taught and knew how to do all manner of media and things–so much so that it scared the shit out of his peer faculty members during the faculty biennials, when he would exhibit finished, accomplished works in no fewer than five media while the rest struggled to pull something together in a month or so because they had failed to make much over the previous two years (that in itself was a kind of important lesson). but what he really excelled at in teaching was getting to mold minds at the “fundamentals” stage. help you unlearn preconceptions that you brought with you into the classroom haughtily, in ways that only eighteen and nineteen year old aspiring art students can. i remember that he had a universal ban on pencils of any kind, and taught us to use the magnificently messy vine charcoal and pastels instead; that we were never allowed to turn anything in that was drawn on less than 16×20″ size sheets (and that he encouraged us to buy big rolls of drawing paper); that he was a master at teaching our eye how to see and prioritize; that in drawing it became important to realize that the center is not everything and consequently everything outside of it of less importance–that instead intention and deliberate consideration should be given to every mark, to the weight of each line. through hours and hours of my drawing badly, i learned that drawing is done with the entire body, standing up: that you draw with yourself in a sometimes-dance, sometimes stand-off to your canvas, or torn off sheet of oversized paper. that there is relation and negotiated space between body, arm, instrument and media.

i am reminded of this formative, humbling experience, and its twin memory of being in proxy to a charismatic maker-of-things who cannot stop making, stop drawing, as i have been trying (for months now) to find the words to best describe the astounding work of artist william kentridge.

i wish that i could show you, in a
cupped hand, the single most moving piece of art i saw in the last
year. in a dark, hushed room in a cramped banking space; i wish i
could take you to the slack-jawed wonder that is kentridge’s black box .

I am interested in a
political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction,
uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending – an art (and a politics) in
which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.

and:

The drawings don’t start
with ‘a beautiful mark’. It has to be a mark of something out there in
the world. It doesn’t have to be an accurate drawing, but it has to
stand for an observation, not something that is abstract, like an
emotion.
–william kentridge, quotations from william kentridge by carolyn christov-bakargiev (1998), societ√© des expositions du palais de beaux-arts de bruxelles (with thanks to art throb) .

and one more:

I once did take some advice. I was told by many intelligent people who
only had my best interests at heart: “Do one thing only. If you do
everything you will always be a dilettante, unable to master any field.
Either be a filmmaker, or an actor or an artist, and you will do it
better.” For many years I tried to keep to this good advice. I sold my
etching press when I went to acting school. I stopped doing theatre
when I started working in film. It was through hard work and good
fortune that I escaped that advice.

kentridge is an artist who has found work-around solutions for many things that defy the logic of how things progress. what i mean by that is this notion that there is some prefabricated map or plan of way of getting to somewhere or something, of getting to become something, and that kentridge’s m.o. in life has been to do ten or ten million other things than those prescribed tasks, and arrive at That Place, whatever and wherever it is, with more authority and finality than most. his primary working media is drawing, specifically charcoal drawing, considered a “minor art” of the traditional variety. these drawings, while sometimes fodder for other things, do not exist solely as preparatory work for something Else, often they are the finished product. His drawings are huge, messy things with histories. his mark-making describes his subjects as having made choices, as things which move within the white space of the paper, and settle back down again. i don’t know that i have ever seen a drawing of his that did not show a characteristic pentimenti, traces of movement or suggestions of a previous movement that has been overlaid with another choice, another more final line.

drawing from Felix in Exile, 1994.

the son of lawyers, a student of politics and african history, and an artist who does not believe in sole, dedicated practice to one media or medium only (he has training in puppetry, theatre and film), kentridge is the living embodiment of getting to one’s destiny despite the good intentions and advice of everyone around you. kentridge actually gave some words of advice on the act of getting and giving advice. he said:

We do not hear advice. We do not want advice. We particularly do not want advice we haven’t asked for. The only advice we register is when something is said that we already know but need someone else to confirm…I am wary of advice. But more than that I am wary of the certainty that lies behind most advice. I am mistrustful of certainty.

which is not to say that kentridge puts stock into uncertainty either. his process, both in his writing and his visual work, is one that resists binarization. he prefers open-endedness, and his position, as has been ventured forth by some, is rather a non-position, a “negative critique of a lived and unresolved contradiction.” (ashraf jamal, co-author of art in south africa: the future present)

black box/chambre noire is a work commissioned by the deutsche-guggenheim and exhibited in 2005. the space in berlin is a smallish-gallery room housed in a larger building which is a bank. i was chagrined by my own expectations being subverted, realizing that i had come with a preconception of what a “guggenheim” space was supposed to be like. on the walls hung drawings that were used in the production of the finished piece, which was set in the center of the room, with a few small rows of chairs in front of it. the “black box” was a mini-theatre, like a puppet show box except that it had several (six, to be exact) receding tracks. and each layer was heavily worked, with drawings and media affixed and waiting for you to begin to unpack and absorb. when the lights dimmed and the “show” started, a projection began to play onto the theatre, and hand-made “puppets” began to move across the tracks through a rigging in the black box. music that at turns were 19th century recordings of mozart’s the magic flute were interspersed and overlaid with traditional namibian songs, and the “play” itself was at turns part history lesson, part cultural critique, part freudian psychoanalysis.

kentridge at work on black box/chambre noire in his studio in johannesburg

there are characters in kentridge’s piece, and their manifestation turns the viewer, no matter what the age, into a child learning how to make associations and meaning from the abstractions they see in front of them. kentridge has said of his cast :

The six characters are a Megaphone man
who’s the narrator; a transparent Herero woman defined by the
head-dress: she’s actually a spring with a piece of transparent gauze
on her head. A mechanical running man: a cut-out piece of paper that
runs; a pair of dividers, that’s the measuring arm, measuring skulls
and geography; an exploding skull that makes a brief appearance; and a
second Herero woman based on a German postal scale from 1905, a scale
for weighing letters.

and what of the content?

that is a little more of an involved answer, and one i will have to rely heavily on the artist to explicate. put simply, kentridge was commissioned by the deutsche guggenheim to produce a work of art which dealt with germany’s colonial history in africa. kentridge was given this commission as he was entrenched in a project about mozart’s the magic flute. part of the work he was doing involved a 1:10 scale of the stage setting for the opera, which he transformed and incorporated for the purposes of black box. the specific history that kentridge chose to deal with was the german massacre of the herero tribe in southwest africa, which is now namibia. the massacre, conducted by general lothar van trotha, was a retaliation for the tribe’s uprising against the increasing encroachment on their land, seizing of cattle and livestock, and the continual breaking of treaties. the herero had carried out a directed attack on the ruling germans, killing about 150 farmers and reclaiming their cattle. the german solution was to enact what some historians conclude was the first genocide of the twentieth century, nearly annihilating the tribe by killing over 75% of its population.

of the intersection of his magic flute project (which was recently on view at the marian goodman gallery) and black box/chambre noire, kentridge writes:

Transforming shadows, the early cinema, the vaudeville of the time, which was practiced throughout Europe and even in the United States–these are some of the forms I’m going to examine in Black Box. But I will consider these early forms with hindsight, looking back on them as if they were an Enlightenment project. I will ask: What knowledge do we have today, and what lessons have we learned–now that it is no longer 1791, when Mozart wrote his opera, but 2005? (from Kentridge’s forward to the exhibition text)

and of his specific sets of references and associations for the commissioned piece in berlin:

…I’m playing with three sets of associations in Black Box. The first is the black box of the theatre. The installation consists of a model of a theatre, which houses projections and characters. The characters are small automatons–mechanized (and not necessarily anthropomorphic) objects that perform, together with the projections, within the theatre space. So the first reference is to the “black box” of the performance realm.

The second association of the black box is the chambre noire–the central chamber of a camera between the lens and the eyepiece, into which light enters and where a kind of meaning is created. Here, the infinite possibilities of the outside world come in, but a single image is chosen, fixed upon the plane.

The third reference is the flight-data recorder that is used to trace the last moments before an airline disaster. And the disaster I will be referring to–although I will not necessarily describe it nor didactically enumerate its stages–is the German massacre of the Herero people in Southwest Africa.

…If The Magic Flute suggests the utopian moment of the Enlightenment, Black Box represents the other end of the spectrum.

the entire production was 20 minutes long. in one visit, i sat through it twice before the museum closed. and when i returned to berlin a week later, i attempted to see it again, banging on the closed bank doors like a… well, like someone who knew that the most extraordinary thing she’d ever seen was on the other side of that door and she was going to be fleeing 7,000 miles away from it without getting to see it again. that’s what it was like.

what was so extraordinary about black box was that it managed so many things that art usually so stupendously fails at dealing with: things that have to do with politics both past and present; cultural guilt and grief; memory and forgetting; the evocation of universal themes and then the subsequent questioning of what those themes are, what their validity is in the face of changed contexts, agency or audience; and it did all of these things while still managing to be startlingly, breath-gasping-and-all beautiful. it doesn’t try to do or invoke any of the above tropes or themes, but it fully realizes them all. seeing this piece set me about a mad rush to find, see and ingest as much of kentridge’s words and works as i could find.

what i found was a dearth of production that continually builds on its questions; a rare clarity of purpose and intent which belies an artist who is fully aware of his artistic project (and i don’t mean that in the same way that m.f.a. programs plague students with the assignation of a “project” that is to be their life-long noose) and his own existential boundary conditions. kentridge is wildly smart: well-read and with a wide berth of interests across the field of the humanities.

in a rather fabulous interview with bell hooks kentridge and she discuss race, history and particularity, with hooks asking poignant questions which elicit thoughtful responses from kentridge. an excerpt:

bh: I grew up in a small Southern town where there were certain places black folks couldn’t go. in fact, one of the lingering memories of my childhood is of this place that made wonderful hamburgers, but we knew black people would not be served there. and when we walked by as children, those burgers smelled so delicious, and the smell awakened longing, but as a black person you could not satisfy this desire. what’s interesting about the u.s. is, people have so quickly forgotten the intensity of that legislated apartheid here.
wk: that forgetting is already happening in South Africa, too. the system in South Africa is only four or five years old, and memory is gone. In many cases, it’s already difficult to hang on to what we were. there is sort of a willful amnesia, a refusal to accept accountability, that comes from the naturalization of outrageous systems in the world. but i’m more interested in the question of historical memory–of what happens when people forget so quickly.
bh: an intriguing aspect of your work is its immediacy: you use popular forms–cartoons or poster graphics–and defamiliarize them. at the same time the pain is more accessible. it becomes an intimate trauma. in the installation ubu tells the truth, a narrative of daily life unfolds that is ordinary and mundane, and then suddenly traumatic events happen, transforming the experience.
wk: a question i eventually ask is, how does one relate a private experience of a public trauma? for example, when we see images on television now, of people killed or starving, it’s not that they aren’t shocking, but that they fit into a sort of bank of images and are dulled. the hard part is to try to get back to the first sense of shock one had…the hard part is to try to hold onto that sense of outrage because that is the truest response. all the other ways of living with it dilute and normalize.
bh: a willingness to receive the truth of images has to be there as well. when i read about your childhood it was evident that actually witnessing cruel acts gave you a heightened sense of awareness. lots of other little white boys saw these things. what enables one person to resist while many other people collude?
wk: a whole constellation of facts. for me it actually has to do with the house i grew up in. i was raised to be aware of the nature of the society we were living in. kids i went to school with grew up in a world where hatred and terror were normalized. what are the things with which people blinded themselves to find all that acceptable?
bh: they have to construct a wall inside. your work exposes the layers of these walls. for example, there is a recurring image of someone turning their back. whether you are white or black, the demand of white supremacy and apartheid is always that one split oneself–to normalize. a white person like you, who resisted normalization, stands out.
wk: i always assumed that splitting was just the way one exists in the world.

something bell hooks says about kentridge in the preface to her interview sticks. she says that kentridge is always “…acknowledging that we are always more than our pain.” a major–and moving–theme of black box has to do with what one does with such pain. the narrator megaphone man rolls out into the stage area, with a torn-sheet placard affixed to it reading trauerarbeit.

the word refers to freud’s conception of grief work, conceived of as a necessary labor, a mourning one undergoes which has a finite endpoint (mourning and melancholia, 1917). with the introduction of this word and, indirectly, this historical peer working on these themes at the time of the massacre, kentridge opens up a dialog about what it is to be guilty, to be complicit, to be the inheritors of psychic pain. maria-christina villase√±or, the curator of black box, wrote that among kentridge’s questions are:

…does trauma ever really recede? can it be contained?…the history that looms largest in kentridge’s work is the complex, deeply intertwined relationship of between Europe and Africa, the rhino in the room, so to speak, a presence that can never be ignored…there is no standing outside in kentridge’s work. black box implicates us in our belief and disbelief, in our wonder and cool knowingness, in darkness and in light.

notably, after wwi, freud radically revised his work about grief in ego and the id, asserting that grief is continual and ongoing, a sisyphean labor without end.

with all the issues kentridge skillfully touches upon in his work black box/chambre noire, with his address and redress of western white history at the bequest of the penitent authors of such histories, kentridge has given us a work that is implication, absolution and everything in between. black box is full of pointed, unanswered questions; the practical realization that nothing can be done to recover or correct the excessiveness of a punishing past; that we are always more than our pain but never without it; and that, like the multi-part media chosen to depict it, history and its retelling is messy, overlapping, conflicted and consisting of multiple voices.

though his animated films are rare and hard to come by (shown mostly at festivals and rare museum screenings), a short 6-minute excerpt of the documentary art from the ashes can be seen here. black box/chambre noire is currently being shown at the johannesburg art gallery through july 9th. hopefully then it will tour to at least one of the guggenheims in the u.s. a production of kentridge’s full-length stage opera of the magic flute will run at the brooklyn academy of music in the spring of 2007.