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, 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?

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.


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
–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.

influences and confluences

to have the knowledge that you seek a particular vein of something is to be aware of not only your tastes, but what influences you, creates bias and division, separates one set of concerns from another. connoisseurship, perhaps, but also a little bit of greek wisdom: to know why you are drawn to specific things, people, situations or a kind of aesthetics is a form of knowing thyself.

i have been swayed by a particular kind of representation of birds. for years i’ve been made aware of this imagistic longing which i posses. it is very specific. when i say to someone, “i’m interested in making photographs of birds,” to the addressee that immediately creates some presumptions that become harder to correct if the conversation goes much deeper than this. “oh, so you’re into landscape photography then?” no, not exactly. not the way you perceive what that genre is, nor, probably, the way that i do.

when i search for ways to describe this, even to myself, the vocabulary comes up lacking. the best way i can find to describe what i mean and to describe it absolutely is to pull a photograph or a book from somewhere and physically give it and then in turn my meaning to someone. to you. my clumsy visual lexicon:

a certain awareness of grace:

camille solygua


michael ackerman

a love of form and play with space:

katsushika hokusai

masao yamamoto

smallness. delicacy:



jim dine : birds

from multiple sensibilities i become aware and attuned to my own. i define what bird is to my own eye, and i redefine each adjective i found to describe each form; meaning becomes expanded and at the same time compressed. i also define by negation what the image i seek is not. a healthy respect for both these image makers and what they pulled from within them begins to emerge within me. awe is balanced by fright which is balanced by play which is balanced by tea-stained memories that never were. the influences become confluences when i take my camera into a scene with a mind full of birds.

these were taken a much warmer season ago, in a much warmer clime than i inhabit now. before i left the south:

these are sketches of thoughts, really. the diet of one who intends to make more images which will evoke the lexicon she’s using to go by for the moment, and then expand the meanings she had previously described. more work in the works. both the written and the seen.

the thing of the thing

a blog is a funny thing.

in the beginning, it is a tabula rasa, a place where you can project onto all that has needed a very particularized and niched space to simply be. because of its newness, you are able to create and alter at will the tone, the subject matter, the seriousness and the obsessiveness of your own little piece of the self-publishing cyberspace pie.

given time and diligence, some of the reasons you carved out your little niche begins to come manifest: you receive responses to posts, emails and find through your statistical log that other people, other blogs, are discussing your posts. sending people your way. creating community, audience and critics in a seemingly fast amount of time.

it is when this above mentioned occurs that something about how you think about writing takes a subtle shift. before response, we’ll say, you wrote thinking that maybe somewhere someone might be reading, but it wasn’t a given. after response, you know empirically that people are, and you might even know, in that indirect way of the internet, who some of them are. it’s like heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: the observation of the experiment begins to change the quality of the actual experiment such that you cannot know if, or to what degree, the observation taints the experiment being observed.

i bring this up not because i have become stymied and inconsistent in my writing due to the fact that i know someone is looking, but because i find it worth mentioning that when one hesitates in the face of their experiment, and then when something outside of that niched out, projected-place she created fundamentally shifts–say, a job, a relationship, a move or all three–the blog is the first thing to go.

at least, that’s what introverts like me do. i become exhausted at the thought of producing the very sorts of things that it gave me great satisfaction to produce not for you (solely), dear reader, but for me. and like the garden in my yard which is slowly being prepared to weather the brutal winter that will undoubtedly be coming soon to my new locale, i have had to take a long meditative breath away from this space and communicating these things which i ponder on a greedy, constant basis. my neighbor is laying cardboard on the ground, and then hay on top of the cardboard, so that the ground underneath stays warm, moist and fertile through the frosty, biting winter. i feel i have been preparing myself much the same.

so, with renewed purpose and a clearer mind, i return to this too too neglected space. perhaps some redecorating is in order. since i would like to be more frequent in my musings here, it may be appropriate to open up the floor to writing that is not only the full-length artist psycho-biography–though i do adore that and will keep writing them–but some more fractured and fleeting writing. sometimes i forget about the gems that can be found in fragments; truer thoughts which rise so quickly to the surface because you imagine you care about them less.

speaking of fragments, i offer you this one. it swept all the art pretense from underneath my feet and knocked me sideways:

at the met this month i was rushing back and forth between galleries trying to get my one-day-in-the-city special exhibitions fix. i had gone to look at the the spirit photography exhibit that was showcased, and was excited as i’d never laid eyes on these types of photographs in the flesh. the show was packed with people, and i seemed to be eternally in line behind these two loud women that kept pointing and saying things like, how could anybody ever think these things were real, anyway?” over and over again. anxious to leave and visit another part of the museum, i rushed between the hallways which connected their photography wing to their painting wing. the hallway that has the oft-changed permanent collection of photographs, and, as you near the exit, a gallery of drawings. i almost missed it, and then i stopped.

it was a drawing of hokusai’s the great wave at kanagawa, copied by van gogh. his familiar ink stroke, those wobbly lines on yellowed paper. next to the drawing was an excerpt printed from a letter by van gogh, discussing it. the image of this wave, which has been co-opted by every new age purpose known to man, has been commodified to symbolize an experience of serene zen calm. it used to be the advertising symbol for a holistic health care place i worked for in grad school. to van gogh, however, it did not embody any of those fuzzy warm things. look at the foam, he wrote, you can see that they’re really claws, they’re clutches. and that they’re coming for the fisherman in the boat. i’m paraphrasing from memory, but that’s the gist of it. and it was astonishing to me. this ubiquitous image, this famous woodblock print that i’ve only ever glanced at, apparently. how could i have missed the danger inherent here? the vulnerability and tinniness of those wooden boats caught underneath the crest of that great–as in inspiring fear and awe–wave? those clutches?

i wasn’t even looking to catch a moment like that, and out of all of the ones i was seking in my art hiatus weekend, this was the most stunningly felt and realized.

perfect images, written photographs and the absolute

this picture has been lost and i will never again feel that same emotion…i suspect that [a] recomposed image will no longer please me in the same way, or with as much force, since it will have had time to make its way to my head, there to crystallize into a perfect image, and the photographic abstraction will happen by itself on the sensitized surface of memory, to be developed and fixed by writing, which i resorted only to free myself of my photographic regret.

—herv√© guibert, ghost image

i may know better a photograph i remember than a photograph i am looking at…ultimately–or at the limit–in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. “the necessary condition for an image is sight,” janouch told kafka; and kafka smiled and replied: “we photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. my stories are a way of shutting my eyes.”

—roland barthes, camera lucida

i often think of the image only i can see now, and of which i’ve never spoken. it’s always there, in the same silence, amazing. it’s the only image of myself i like, the only one in which i recognize myself, delight…

…so i’m fifteen and a half.
it’s on a ferry crossing the mekong river.
the image lasts all the way across.

—marguerite duras, the lover

there are photographers who are manic beings and photograph constantly, using the camera to mediate life and the experiences that cross the path of their lens. there are writers who do the same thing with words; as they are in the midst of an event–either mundane or profound–there is always something in them thinking of the most perfect way to describe the thing they’re experiencing that very moment, which word or phrase is not too heavy or too frivolous, in short, the sentence that goldilocks ate. for these writers and photographers alike, experiences somehow only become valid and real once described, and whether in words or in a cropped field of vision, experience and event are complete when treated and translated through their respective media. and for these types, there are always two experiences being had: the actual event that is happening that very moment, and the description/transcription of that event. to live with this duality is nearly an unconscious thing, it becomes second-nature, a non-event, and indeed is a more difficult thing to unlearn to do than to pick up and begin doing.

(in fact, when photographers and writers are “taught”, they are told to photograph constantly, record everything, write everyday, even if it’s nothing. that to practice this is a way to inscribe it into your life, to make it a natural extension of yourself and your artistic expression. i am reminded of the story “a pilgrim’s progress,” in which an earnest religious acolyte is bade to find a method to “pray without ceasing” and when he has done so, he will have attained enlightenment and peace.)

i happen to practice a very different method of both of these things. and the manic version (of which i have an internalized voice of one that lives within me) scolds me and calls it laziness, but i only think that this is partially true. the other method of experience and description views the manic’s method as anathema. the rapid fire of the shutter being able to capture moments at 1/3200th of a second, or in eight frames a second, becomes a vulgarity to both time, memory and experience itself. when one is already thinking of how something will look or sound or read before one has even looked or tasted or felt is to have a record and not a memory, a version without meaning. i read, listen and look widely. i believe instead that to experience anything, it must be felt and wrung through body and mind utterly before thinking about thinking on it. only when the moment has passed will i allow myself another new moment, the one that shuts me in a room alone and quiet to write about it.

of course, not carrying pen or camera around everywhere does leave you without the tools to sometimes finish seeing the thing you were open to and only you could see, or to remember all the details of something after the moment has passed. every writer or photographer, whatever their persuasion (and an infinite variety exist between the two points i have described above), know and have felt this. the lost moment. the perfect image gone forever, the beginnings of the great story lost to the overcrowded mind. i have been meditating lately on these lost moments, and wondering how they affect both memory and experience. are we nostalgic for these images lost to us, forever shifting details in our memory? are they made more perfect as we recount or remember them precisely for their not becoming document, and thus, concrete thing? are these imperfect moments more precise because of their changeable ambiguity? what is that ache we feel for what we did not encapsulate, this different memory we have, different from the kinds with contour and light and shade, made somehow unchangeable because of their definiteness, their recorded existence?

i have come and come again to herv√© guibert, roland barthes and marguerite duras, who all have much to say about memory, regret, experience and selfhood. i have visited them each differently for different reasons, but as i write here now i imagine a situation where they are all three in the same room together. i don’t imagine they all get along. but they are all sympathetic to one another. all of them go to great effort to articulate a particular lost moment, and what losing that moment does to their memory of it, and of themselves.

hervé guibert, self-portrait:

guibert wrote a tome (which i am forever indebted to james for introducing me to) of amazing essays on photography, ghost image. the book is a series of informal essays, conversational and diaristic, which treats fragments concerning photography, what it is to photograph, what it means to look. it has become one of my favorite meditations on the subject, and guibert’s voice is clear, lyrical and embarrassingly honest. in it, he describes his ultimate “lost” photograph, a moment he missed camera-less while vacationing on the island of elba. the image, that of, “four young boys stood in a row beneath the great foaming mass, a small distance from one another, facing the water, braving the waves that washed over them, allowing themselves to be rolled around by them,” was glimpsed for a few moments, enough to have had captured had he the proper equipment. instead, he looked out on it, noting its ordered perfection, ephemerality and particularity. he seethed in anger because as he watched this perfect image, unable to record it, he knew he would also watch its passing, the moment in which it, “decomposed and crumbled into pieces before suddenly transforming itself into a regret.” he has the passing flirtation with the possibility of coming upon the scene again the next day–the light will be the same, the boys may return to the water, but he soon abandons this for the only course that may do the scene justice: he locks himself in a room and writes about it. but with a difference. the writing for him does not do what was missed in the act of photography, it instead reminds him of the limits of the image and of memory:

if i had photographed it at once, and if the picture had turned out “well” (that is, faithful to the memory of my emotion), it would have become mine. but the act of photographing it would have obliterated all memory of the emotion, for photography envelops things and causes forgetfulness, whereas writing, which it can only hinder, is a melancholy act, and the image would have been “returned” to me as a photograph, as an estranged object that would bear my name and that i could take credit for, but that would always remain foreign to me (like a once familiar object to an amnesiac).

guibert asserts that if he had been able to capture the moment on film, he would have “owned” it, and it would have “become” his. added to the catalog of images, it would have been a pleasing visual arrangement, “the perfect image,” but, he admits, he would have not had the memory of the event had he not conjured it through writing, through trying to relive the image in his mind once deprived the relic of the photograph.

if photography provides the visual “proof” that we were there, and we saw what is depicted, does writing give us back our memory of the event lived, or at least a version that cannot be alluded to in images? if the photograph is evidential, is writing the emotional?

roland barthes and his mother:

roland barthes was not a photographer, nor even a maker-of-things, but he accomplished in his writing what every good philosopher aspires to in their thinking: he began to understand something of the thing itself, and for barthes that thing would be how images and the visual function, and how this intersects and necessarily affects the personal. in camera lucida, he spends a good portion of time parsing out both general assumptions concerning photography as well as his own very individual response to a highly charged and personal photograph which he will describe in great detail but in the end, refuse to show his reader. the photograph is one of his mother, referred to simply as “the winter garden photograph,” and she has just recently died and barthes is in mourning. he is scouring the image reservoir for an image, the image, that will give back some essential quality of this much-loved person to him, that will show him something that will signify as “real” visually for something that is felt “real” emotionally.

but it is a frustrating task. because photography is slippery. because memory second-guesses and doubts the veracity given in images. because what we see does not always correlate to what we remember, and barthes is wary of images becoming memory. he wants to reclaim his memory from the visual repertoire, not have it given him from it. while looking for the image that will inform memory, he writes, “…a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.” what he is searching for, instead, is something which causes a disturbance, something that will prick memory, wound it and him in some way. it is in this essay that he names the idea that became the namesake for this site, where he calls “punctum” that detail in a photograph which renders an image subjective and particular, that which pierces through what we already think we know.

he is in his mother’s apartment looking for a photograph. he does not know the photograph he is looking for, this is not a searching for something he has once seen and needs to recover. he will know what he is looking for once he has found it.

there i was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother…looking for the truth of the face i had loved. and i found it…
lost in the depths of the winter garden photograph, my mother’s face is vague, faded. in a first impulse, i exclaimed: “there she is! she’s really there! at last, there she is!” now i claim to know–why, in what she consists. i want to outline the face loved by thought, to make it into the unique field of an intense observation, i want to enlarge the is face in order to see it better, to understand it better, to know its truth. i believe that by enlarging the detail, i will finally reach my mother’s very being.

satisfied that he has found it, and perhaps drained by what he has come to understand because of the searching for it, he makes another confession: why what pierces him in this photo must, in order to continue to pierce him, remain private. he will not show us the winter garden photograph; he declines to make spectacle of his memory, or of contributing another “indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ordinary…it exists only for me…in it, for you, no wound.”

marguerite duras and her mother:

guibert, barthes and duras were all contemporaries of one another. guibert and barthes were social with one another (and guibert inhabited the same building in paris as another french luminary, michel foucault); barthes and duras sparred about one another in print; duras was arguably the most famous. her most famous novel, the lover, tells the semi-autobiographical story about the writer’s first love affair as as a fifteen-year-old girl, with an older chinese aristocrat, while growing up in french indochina. the book is sparse, selfish and spectacle all at once, and written in a signature second-person past conditional tense for which duras had become known. duras was also a film director, and her visual sense in that media spills over in descriptions in her novels; scenes are succinctly detailed but richly so, and images are described as complete visual realizations.

i found out some time ago that the working title for this novel was originally la photograph absolu. in interviews she has said that the origins of the novel began as a commission, when she was asked to comment on a family photo album. inspired by the images, she began writing the novel. but one image she returned to, as if in refrain. significant because it is the only image that does not exist, the image of herself before she would become the self familiar to her for the rest of her life. it is an image of herself on the mekong ferry, the day she would meet the man who would become her first lover.

i think it was during this journey that the image became detached, removed from all the rest. it might have existed, a photograph might have been taken, just like any other, somewhere else, in other circumstances. but it wasn’t. the subject was too slight. who would have thought of such a thing? the photograph could only have been taken if someone could have known in advance how important it was to be in my life, that event, the crossing of the river. but while it was happening, no one knew of its existence. except god. and that’s why–it couldn’t have been otherwise–the image doesn’t exist. it was omitted. forgotten. it never was detached or removed from all the rest. and it’s to this, this failure to have been created, that the image owes its virtue: the virtue of representing, of being the creator of, an absolute.

i remain struck by her insistence that this image is important because it never became “detached,” which i take to mean singled out and remembered as a photograph, a representation of an event instead of something which alludes to a specific memory. psychic event versus actual one. that the image of the image becomes more important than the fact of the image itself.

the above passage shows that duras is in agreement with barthes that photographs act as a block against memory, an aide in forgetting. perhaps if a photograph of this moment, of duras crossing the mekong existed, the fact in the photograph would speak against her memory of the event, and banalizing it, would diminish what without its existence, becomes seminal in the life of her personhood and as a writer: the moment she sees herself seeing herself–something which could not happen if she were actually able to do so in the act of viewing herself in a photograph. barthes had written:

not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes counter-memory…the photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed.

my thoughts on these three conceptions of absolute, or perfect images, are anything but precise. i think that more than the example of three articulate and well-spoken writers all reflecting upon their subjective, personal moments-as-image, i am concerned with the recurrent theme of memory-trumping-image, of the notion of taking back memory from images themselves. is photography the regret we have against experience? is it like the uncertainty principle, and an event photographed is an event interrupted, tainted, somehow, by its observation instead of its pure participation? does the act of “taking” the moment in a photograph “take” something from the moment, and the you having the moment, as well? is it nostalgia or regret that keeps us purveyors of images? are the two the same? i’ve been steeping in these thoughts for a couple of months now, re-reading texts that i’ve read under different circumstances, different versions of myself. i only arrive at more questions. there is no practical application to knowing the whether or why to any of what i’ve posed here. i suppose i am striving instead for an awareness: in what barthes has referred to as the “three intentions” of photography: to do, to undergo and to look.”


so it’s more of a visual thing than a lengthy-esoteric-discussion thing, but i’ve been most intrigued by the effect that the institute of design (and, more precisely, its golden-era mentors) have had on the aesthetics of early post-war japanese photographers. i know that yasuhiro ishimoto was studying with siskind and callahan during the heyday, and took his artistic armory back with him to japan, but i’ve just loved looking at the following homages made in respectful nods to callahan by nobuyoshi araki and masahisa fukase (i was certain there was a furuya one, but i think i was just hoping it existed):

the original:

eleanor, chicago, 1949

and those who wish to treat the matter through their own filters:

yoko araki, undated

yoko fukase, izu, 1973

in the introductory essay to anne wilkes tucker’s encylopedic tome the history of japanese photography, the author asserts that araki and fukase both became known to the japanese because they were the first to show the “intimate homelife and personal emotional state of their subjects.” as i read more and more about the environment from which contemporary japanese photographers emerged, i see (though as a westerner cannot fully comprehend) more and more how this work must have come as a shock to the viewing public. i also can’t help but meditate upon how, in absorbing eastern men reinterpret the tones of callahan’s portrait of his wife, they show something else of themselves, of the woman in front of them, and of east contemplating west. it’s amazing and a little humbling to consider just how revolutionary something so simple as an unguarded moment of one’s wife, captured on film, could revolutionize how an entire generation of photographers began to see, and it’s something i’ve loved thinking about ever since i came across these photographs.

good things in threes

three more for the gold-leaf album:

a few notes-to-self on future process:

*avoid 90# hotpress. it curls too much with the multiple layers of media, and often jams the copier.

*bristol board 2ply curls the least and has the easiest time in the copier, but we also like the radiant white of cold press. leave time to settle and flatten after coating with medium and before your date with the color copier.

*never never never use a foam brush to apply anything again ever. leaves ridiculous bubbles and you waste many dollars in gold leaf.

*kinko’s color copiers are better than the lamentable one at the library. and everyone leaves you alone. and you don’t feel bad if you break it.

*don’t ever think you can shit these out in a week (ever again).

all the pieces in the gold leaf album will be on view beginning saturday, december 4th at the blue ruin gallery in pittsburgh, pa. the fabulous tamara moore invited me to take part in their christmas show “unwrapped”, and i thought if the world could use anything this season, it would be a little more naked and a lot more gold.

the kids are done with their finals where i work, and home for the holidays, which means i’m going to have alot more time on hand to concentrate on looking, thinking and writing. cerebral stretching. and the perfect way to end and begin the year.

(further note to self: on the bright side: the ones that got jammed in the copier make nifty presents)

The Art of Losing Love, pt.2: Seiichi Furuya and Christine Gössler

To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed into a single still.–Alfred Stieglitz
The other person is absent as a point of reference but present as an addressee. This strangely warped situation causes an unbearable presence: You are gone (which I lament); you are here (because I am turning to you).–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.
The more one blows on a fire trying to put it out, the larger the flame becomes.
One stops blowing. The cold blue of the flame changes to a soft red.
Why is that I tried to extinguish that warm, gentle fire?–Seiichi Furuya, 1996

I wanted to write something about love and madness. About what it is to love when the futility of its expression is felt omnipresently, and how one’s ability to pour love into one so stricken mirrors the futility of love itself. The lover will always find a way to empty love from themselves and into the beloved, and the beloved will always take and take and take.

Is it compassion for something we are powerless to affect that drives love into futile places?

Is it a recognition of our collective vulnerability, a karmic reflection back to us that if we were to be so stricken, there would be someone there to love us unconditionally, to worry over us properly?

Is it just an emotional impulse to try and fix something that is broken?

(Or is it all of these things and more, and words further trying to articulate only mess it up further?)

The phrase stultiferous navis emerged in the middle ages when towns, confronted with a mad contingent, did not know what to make or do with them. Were they senseless and harmless, non-contributing members of society, or were they “touched” by god, therefore to be feared and/or awed? Hedging their bets, the townsmen would collect those so “touched” and load them onto boats that would leave their shores, unmanned. If god wanted them, then he would guide them to safe shores. The townspeople could view themselves as merciful, in that that they did not murder them directly.

Later the mad were isolated, and put into the space of former leper colonies, on the tops of hills–where their screams could not be heard, so distanced from the populous.

Their madness came to be viewed as a moral flaw, a willfulness of spirit that could be driven out by hard work and good examples. The institutions of Tuke and Pinel in the 18th and 19th centuries reflected back these beliefs.

Now, in the 21st century, we think we know that so-called-madness is chemical. We scoff at the notion of humoral pathology, wandering wombs and inherent moral flaws. We know that neurons misfire, that parts of the brain don’t receive enough serotonin, that we can mix together cocktails of things and with enough tinkering, nearly anyone can be made “well.”

Seiichi Furuya was a man haunted by an emotionally deficient past. his younger brother was left permanently mentally ill due to a childhood fever, and institutionalized for life. One night he was pinned under the chassis of a car because of the drunk driving of his father. He moved away from his native japan and settled in Austria, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Christine Gössler.

Christine had been through emotionally trying times as well. The year prior, her betrothed had called off their engagement, and she had plunged into a suicidal depression. In an effort to extricate herself, she had slit both her wrists and her neck, the reasons behind which she did not tell Furuya until years later.

Two wounded and circumspect found one another and buoyed each other’s spirits. Furuya began photographing her immediately, she became the center of his eye, and of his “I.”

If you consider the taking of photographs to be in a sense a matter of fixing time and space, then this work–the documenting of the life of one human being–is exceptionally thrilling…in facing her, in photographing her, and looking at her in photographs, I also see and discover “myself.”–seiichi furuya, 1979

The above words were written for the catalog of a show Furuya had exhibiting the images he had made of Christine over the first year they had known one another. later, of this same writing, he added:

…Rereading the translation again and again I feel uncomfortable, I find it somewhat difficult to believe that it is something I myself wrote. Since my proficiency in German at that time did not allow me to write it properly, Christine, herself the subject of the essay, corrected it for me, and this is probably the source of my irritation. Or perhaps it is due to the eighteen years that have passed.

His tone is cynical, like someone who has been overextended and who has fulfilled far too many uncomfortable requests.

Seiichi Furuya and Christine Gössler would soon marry, and they would later have a child, Komyo. Throughout their seven years together, Christine would plunge in and out of depressions and psychiatric institutions. And one Sunday in October of 1985, she would jump to her death from the 9th floor of their apartment building in East Berlin. Furuya photographed her throughout, to the very end. And this faithful and macabre portrait making would become his artistic and philosophical project.

Is death the manner through which others love?

I do not understand those for whom suicide and death is a great seducer…

What is it to be guided by a death-impulse (wish fulfillment) throughout one’s life, and what is it to be one in close proximity to it?

In an essay to the exhibition catalog of A Model Wife, Arthur Ollman writes:

She occupies the center of most of the pictures. Slowly and intermittently, over time, her intensity, seriousness, and depression emerge. The pictures, even the most pained, are shot intimately and at close range. Furuya’s distance to his subject is the physical distance of trusted family. This, then, becomes our viewing distance as well, and often it seems too close.

What if you believe that the greatest thing you can know–that can be known–is precisely what you cannot–that which is alien and final and unknowable–death itself?

How does one who loves someone else who is intoxicated–obsessed–with the idea of of their own death–how is that imbalance of drives and values ever reconciled? Do we pity the one who dies or the one left with loss (the one who was always left with loss–even when in the presence of the loved one–loss is ever present)?

Some time past noon on October 7, while she was supposed to be preparing lunch, Christine disappeared. While the parade commemorating the thirty-sixth anniversary of the founding of East Germany was being broadcast, and which I was taking photographs of while also watching after Komyo, I had a bad premonition. I hurried down the hall to the bedroom facing the living room but did not find her. The door to the flat was half open.
Running out of our fourth floor flat, I immediately headed for the ninth floor. As I was running up the stairs I heard a dull thud. It sounded like a bag of cement hitting the ground.
The ninth floor was inaccessible from outside, but there was a connecting passageway which enabled one to come and go between the neighboring residences…one time, muttering to herself, and perhaps making an appeal to me in a moment of crisis, she had said, “If you jumped from here, you’d definitely die, wouldn’t you?” I couldn’t help but recall that scene, and the sound I had just heard a moment before, when I discovered a familiar pair of rubber sandals at the flung open window.
“Ko-chan. Mama ist tot.”
“Papa, has du mama gettet?”
There is no way of knowing whether Komyo remembers that conversation. To this day I have regretted saying, “I killed her.”–Christine Furuya-Gössler Memoires, 1978-1985
…One after the other the images–one of the day we flew to Japan; of our wedding ceremony in Izu; of her ecstatically smiling face when she drew the best fortune at Izumotaisha shrine–appear and disappear. As I rapidly retrace the past, my memory becomes confused and fatigued and starting to blame myself, I gradually return to myself…by blaming myself i can find absolution. My awareness of my need to save myself probably comes from this idea.

I first came to Seiichi Furuya through his most famous image, the contact sheet that shows his wife’s suicide, or more precisely, shows him showing us his wife’s suicide. And then coming to him through all the questions which follow such a fantastically passive event. Is it mediation? Astonishment? A need to rely on something normal or everyday in order to understand, or assimilate, something unfathomable and out of time? Stop time in order to stop life from happening at that very moment?

And then there is this question: what is he trying to get at in exhibiting these final contact sheets? In mediating that moment amongst the others, mixing frames, choosing one version over another–what does an educated eye do when it looks at a contact sheet if not the most automatic of all things: it edits.

I have been reluctant to post on this photographer since I first knew I wanted to write about him. Because to write is to reflect, to know yourself through that which you ingest and infer, and the issues at hand in Furuya’s pscyho-biography and his philosophical boundary conditions are delicate and emotional ones. It is not that his photographs are the most artfully seen, or those most representative of an era’s way of seeing. It is that his photographs are both an image of a wound and its excision, that they are a compulsive need to live with and to exorcise the presence of something the photographer does not understand, cannot ultimately help to cure and is utterly terrified of living without. What would occur were Furuya to burn his hundreds of pictures of Christine, his thousands of negatives? Would he feel release or would it be unrecoverable loss? What does it mean to tie your identity as an artist to a memento mori project on your dead wife? What if all you have to hold on to memory and feeling is your connection to this loss, this absence and lack, and to divest yourself of it is a kind of personal heresy?

What I find myself most drawn to in my investigation of love, loss, Japanese photographers and eastern aesthetics in general is that the work often asks more questions than it answers. That there are fewer initial biases or prejudices to confirm, and that you as the viewer are often in the same uncomfortable, unknowable space as the photographer, and further: that there are no apologies tendered for the questions which fall in empty air, or the discomfort felt between the book and your hands, or the image on the gallery wall and the place between you and it.