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.

correspondences

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.

The Art of Losing Love, pt.1 : Words on Masahisa Fukase

It must be difficult to live with a photographer.

First, you must think you’re eternally being spied upon, trying to be caught unawares, that an eye waiting to catch the true-true-you is always present, and always watching. it is only later that you realize that it isn’t your essence that the photographer is trying to capture and distill truth from, it’s theirs. That each image pointed at you is really just a sublimated view of themselves, and that what they project when they point and click in your general direction is really just a reflection back of self, sometimes twisted and sometimes upside-down.

So it’s a perverse kind of attention: they look at you to get a better look at themselves. Didn’t you know that an essential piece of the camera is the mirror installed inside the casing?

Are all photographs made by photographers of those they love just a kind of extended visual autobiography? How much does our conception of the world hinge on how we love? Does the dynamic of our chosen relationship(s) begin to define our aesthetic, at least in relation to how we visualize it? And how do we choose partners? Do we choose one that keeps us in check by having a world view that complements (does not mean that it is the same as ours) our own? Do we choose one that will tear ours down, or constantly challenge it? Or do we choose one that we can only grasp for a little while, knowing that love and life (and photography, too) are ephemeral and fleeting?

I’ve been thinking about photographers in love, and the photographs they make while in that state. and also its shadow-twin: same photographer, making something out of a place of loss from that love. What is it to make a memory out of loss? To distill the precise ache of mourning? In photographs that become about loss‚ did the losing already happen before the photo? Did it happen in the course of it? Is the photo then a document of loss? Are these then the most documentary of all documentary images?

Masahisa fukase’s best known work was made while reeling from loss of love. After thirteen years of marriage, his wife Yoko left him. while on a train returning to his hometown of Hokkaido, perhaps feeling unlucky and ominous, Fukase got off at stops and began to photograph something which in his culture and in others represents inauspicious feeling: ravens. He became obsessed with them, with their darkness and loneliness. His photographs capture them mid-flight; crouched in trees at dusk with glowing eyes; and singularly and spectacularly depressingly dead, in cold deep snow. In the forward to the book published of this work, Akira Hasegawa writes, “Masahisa Fukase’s work can be deemed to have reached its supreme height; it can also be said to have fallen to its greatest depth. The solitude revealed in this collection of images is sometimes so painful that we want to avert our eyes from it.”

I have posted a few images of this body of work in other posts, and there are others available in other places, but below are a few images taken of what was his primary subject before the ravens, what can be said led directly to his more famous work of ravens: pictures of his wife Yoko:

Sarobetsu, Hokkaido, 1971

New York, 1974

Mastsubara Apartment, 1968

The body of photographs I’ve seen of Yoko show a multiplicity of moods, filled with both surface and subverted meaning. there are playful, joyous photographs, such as the first one above; sardonic commentary concerning perception, as in the second (the photo shows Yoko dressed in formal kimono, kneeling beneath photographs of herself at the opening of John Szarkowski’s curated show at MOMA in 1974 of New Japanese Photography, totally and utterly ignored by the hoi polloi coming to mingle around images made of her by her husband, whom the show, in part, is celebrating); and still there are those posed, Mastubara Apartment, which for all its premeditation, probably says more about power and projection than even Fukase could have imagined when composing it.

Yoko has said of that time that it was punctuated by, “…suffocating dullness, interspersed by violent and near suicidal flashes of excitement.” In a move meant to author more control over her own life, she left him in 1976. Fukase spiraled into a profound depression, made the work with the ravens over a period of years, remarried, divorces, and then in the summer of 1992, when descending a staircase at a bar he frequented, he fell. The fall was severe and caused considerable brain damage, and Fukase lives the next and the rest of his continued days in an institution, where he has no sense of photography, photographic history, or his place in it. Yoko, now remarried, visits him twice a month. She has said, “with a camera in front of his eye, he could see, not without. He remains a part of my identity, that’s why I still visit him.”

When I read about Fukase’s fate last week I was stymied. Struck with the realization that a photographer with such clear, articulated and felt vision was prematurely taken, and that whatever else he might have had to say was taken away not only from himself but the rest of the world to experience through him; then the aftershock that it is not the finality of death that has taken that away, but the murkier waters of the mind which has receded his thoughts and inclinations from both himself and anyone else. Fukase has no clue who the Fukase was before that made those photographs, or why, or what can be gained in the making. He has no care that an entire lifetime happened before he is where he is now; and further, given how tortured he was over the loss of Yoko (even despite the remarriage he reportedly never stopped mourning her), the now obliviated mind might be a kind of gift, a reprieve from too much knowing, too much sight.

stray thoughts, more words

the quote i read that sucker punched me this week:

I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no program, no style, no direction. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes or variations that lead to mastery. I steer clear of definitions. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, noncommittal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty.
–Gerard Richter

richter72

if artists were weather patterns, what would richter be? a plodding, thick, continual rain? tenacious and thick with mist?

and i learned this week that the japanese use large department stores as exhibiton spaces for photographic projects. it seems i knew that about miwa yanagi’s work, but had not applied it mentally across the board. this mode of aesthetic representation at once seems horrid and fascinating. more the latter than the former. and the department stores often have hired curators as well, to manage collections. i guess alot like corporate collections being managed here, except that in a department store all sorts of everyones will see the work. i like that better. the idea that one can be shopping for bras one moment, and then be displaced by art in the next, while never leaving the same space. shouldn’t that be a tenet of art anyway, displacement?

many stray thoughts this week. finished reading ghost’s image, and am seized with the desire to hear that voice once more. he has another book i’ve been told i’d like: to the friend who did not save my life, and i will order it in the coming weeks.

crow

i’m chastising myself because i went on a book-buying binge and am waiting for the avalanche to arrive. of everything i ordered, however, i am most excited about the copy of masahisa fukase’s the solitude of ravens that i found for a decent price. i cannot wait to see the whole project as he laid it out in book form, and i hope there is some writing by fukase in it as well. been a bit obsessed with the idea of photographers that integrated superstition or folk lore into their own representational personal psychology. emboldened by that find, i also looked into trying to find a copy of hosoe’s kamaitachi, which was a body of work produced in the 1960’s involving a country myth of a weasel-like demon that enters a village, charms the villagers, seduces ladies, and then lies in wait to steal children away with it in the end. an eastern pied piper? hosoe wanted to revisit the myth because the dancer he used to portray the demon was from the same place he had been evacuated to as a child fleeing the cities during wwii, seeking sanctuary in the countryside. the exotic expanse of the countryside fueled hosoe’s imagination as a child, and he remembered being haunted by this story while living as a refugee in a place that was so foreign to any context in which he had been raised. in any case, i entered bizarre territory when researching this book, finding only two copies both of which went for around $5000.00. my god, i thought, i’m entering the realm of the ninth gate! never before had i entered a book title in a search engine and generated a sales price into the thousands. sigh.

i would still love to see the complete folio one day, though. one i dug up just now that i’d never before seen:

kamaitachi

striking me: when you encounter work that, to borrow van gogh’s language, “hits the yellow high note,” it is at once made known to you that what you are responding to is an articulation of your aesthetic that you had yet to realize, something within that you are confronted with, and that once confronted you know that your task is to find a way to wrench it from your being and put it out in front of you. like that which you are looking at, but to have it come from you.

i believe that if my aesthetic were a character, its character notes would be that which was ambiguous, and a little bit darkly so.

birds on the brain

so happenstance, structures and strategies began as an attempt to understand an artist that i had admired very deeply since i was introduced to his work. masao yamamoto is a japanese photographer that works quietly, quirkily, and, i’d like to believe, quite happily. his work fulfills many aesthetic “musts” for me: it is personal without being preachy; it meditates on itself and outside of itself; it is idiosyncratic; it is intimate; it often makes me wish i made it myself. he does not title his images; he makes many prints of each and each is printed differently; he intentionally distresses them–but not too much–corners are often bent or rounded; they are stained in tea, they are little. and they are legion. this is one of my favorites of his:

swans

i first saw his work at the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, georgia. probably in 1997 or 1998. i was moronically mesmerized walking from one surprising image to another. they vary in subject matter, but maintain a tone, a way of seeing, that remains consistent. his consistent vision is what surprised me. that it was so constant, so there, in every image. there are photographers who have a “style” or a gimmick that singles their images out as theirs again and again, and if prompted it could probably be argued that yamamoto’s images are all small and tea-stained. but i would argue that his is a singular way of perceiving what he would like to show us, as if plucking something out of the world and depositing it into a mason jar, and then putting that mason jar on a shelf next to dozens of other mason jars with equally baffling and/or beautiful contents.

at the time that i saw these images, i was convinced i was going to be a famous documentary photographer (oh youth! oh youthful indescretions!). i was going to one day work for magnum photo, i was going to be a war correspondent, i was going to bear witness to the various sins and graces of which humanity was capable. i didn’t know what to do with these tea-stained jewels. but they stuck in my craw.

and one day in my last year of graduate school, with a documentary project going badly, my professor paul d’amato suggested a different tack. “why don’t you do a master’s study?” he suggested. i looked at him sideways. “isn’t that what i’m doing now?” “no, no: a master’s study, in the painting sense. pick a master, someone that you consider as such–someone you’ve always loved and not known why. find out all you can about how they worked, their technique and materials, and try to make some images in their spirit. at first it may look like imitation, but then you might discover something about your own vision that you would never have arrived at.” he said that, and i realized what he was giving me: the chance to make images i would never make otherwise, freed from the impending sense that i had to finish the uninspiring project i was undertaking. this was an opportunity to stretch, and see if i could see a fraction of the way that this little old japanese man did, bowling me over as he did so. i knew immediately who my “master” was. masao yamamoto.

i came back a week later sticking these tiny little tea-stained pictures to the wall. in repeating series, each a little varied in exposure, staining or size. photographs without any people in them. photographs of a city of 8.5 million people that looks like everyone just left the party. a hose wrapped around an iron fence. plastic hanging from a lamp post, flying in the wind. birds in a bare tree, looking like ornaments that had been carefully placed there. paul didn’t believe i took them, at first. “you?” he kept saying incredulously. “the same person who was photographing civil war re-enactments, you took these?” and then he straightened up. “these were always there in you, waiting to be made. this should be the work you do the rest of the time you are here.” and he was right and it was and i have never enjoyed photographs that i have made more, or the making of them.

making them in chicago was almost easy. a place with landmarks both easily recognizable and then others that become almost oddly personal. i had a rule: i only photographed in the area that was one mile in radius to my home or my school, the places where i spent most of my time. i wanted to learn to see what i saw everyday in new ways. in ways that were respectful and quiet and made mine. i photographed through the seasons, from fall into winter when the snow changed the shape and landscape of everything. i realized that my images would never be imitations of yamamoto, if only because i was not an old japanese man making images in japan, but me, myself, making images from the spaces in my head and in my own country, making my own particular sense of self and place. and that it would by necessity be different, unique and uniquely personal.

but moving to the south has daunted this body of work, and i have only made a few pictures that would begin to approach what i tried to do in chicago. i am afraid that the landscape–both regionally and city-wide–makes these images almost saccharine. the south is dilapidated, in that appealing, falling-down sort of way that makes photographers get all misty-eyed. and i’ve been worried about looking like a bad, tea-stained post card.

but, as the title of this post suggests, i’ve been thinking about birds lately. about the way they appeared in yamamoto’s pictures and in mine. how they suggest delicacy and autonomy; how their movements can’t be directed in a photo and are always out of my controlling nature’s control; and how birds will do what birds will do whether they are birds in chicago or birds in savannah. so i’ve been looking at the bird pictures i’ve made:

birds_in_tree

and then looking again at some more of yamamoto’s:

hands

and then even looking at some others:

birds

(the last was one from Masahisa Fukase)

and then thinking: i can do this here. and: i need a longer lens. and i need to be looking at some more birds. hopefully, in a week or so, some bird pictures will follow. in the spirit of them, and of me.