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:
© 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. That´s what this image is all about; it´s 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?