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, divorced, 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.

less talk, more looking

the manner i’ve been looking, lately. and what i’ve been looking at.

birdholes, chattanooga, tennessee

century plant, backyard, savannah, georgia

the house next door used to be a strip club, savannah, georgia

dog person pic, atlanta, georgia

cat person pic (or, the cat that loves me who will not go away), savannah, georgia

i’d like to go back and tea stain some of these, and that’s something i haven’t engaged in in a long while, anyway. it always seems like so much more of an overwrought process in my mind before i just actually go in and do it. come to think of it, many things are like that: taking photos, reading/writing for a thesis, having a hard conversation, making a meal. is growth really just learning to accomodate a will-to-action?

i took all of the above over labor day weekend, which was spent in part in three places: here, atlanta and chattanooga, tennessee. some i did are in color; i haven’t posted any of those yet. staring at so much black and white work of late, color has begun to startle me in an unsettling way.

and i entered two pieces in the atlanta photography group’s juried show only in 2004, juried by Anna Walker Skillman, the owner of the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, georgia. it is my favorite photographic space in the city: it is a tad more intimate than traditional gallery spaces–maybe this has something to do with its being a little cottage house situated on a quiet neighborhood street that you could easily imagine yourself living in. quiet and happy and lush with green all around. aside from that, she shows kick ass work. it was where i first encountered masao yamamoto’s work, and there’s currently a sally mann exhibit showing. she stages thoughtful shows, and you get the feeling she only puts on the walls things she cares about. i could (and probably am) be entirely projecting that sense, but for what it’s worth, that’s the sense when you’re there and when you return for a new show.

and reading. and reading. more posts to come about musings on more japanese photographers. one recurring theme that visited me today were these photographic elegies that seem to be composed about the relationships of wives and artists. masahisa fukase and yoko fukase, and their split that gave birth to his most known work the solitude of ravens; nobuyoshi araki and his wife (also named) yoko, pictures including their honeymoon, life together and her death; and then the strange strange work of seiichi furuya, who emigrated to graz with his wife christine gossler. i remember seeing his work in chicago, on a tour of the revco collection. the photos are so memorable because they horrifingly show the photographer–step by step–returning home one afternoon to finding an open window, with her slippers carefully placed beneath the sill. as you go with him to the window to look out, he shows you her very dead form on the pavement below, as he mediates his responses and actions through the camera. the pictures–or maybe, more precisely, the act of having not only lived the event but photographing it as one lived it–made me wonder if this was a kind of emotional photojournalism. what else could it be? or could explain the compulsion to photograph such a moment–when that moment is you, your wife, your loss, right now? i still haven’t waded through my thoughts on his images, and will sit down with some of them tonight.

and a big beaming thank you to those who’ve sent the assorted emails and comments i’ve been receiving regarding this site and my thoughts. it is astonishing to me that anyone wants to read what i’m processing in my head concerning photography and art, and gratifying to hear words and experiences and encouragement from those i’ve never met or had a conversation with. it’s wonderful that writing here becomes its own kind of conversation, and i like how it’s pushing me to think more fully about what i encounter, look at and read. i strive to be engaged in a full way, and i’ve found that writing here has been vastly fulfilling in that regard.

the philosopher and the trickster: daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki

moriyama: …but don’t you think that using a flash in the American fashion is also exciting?
araki: oh yes. using a massive flash, smoking a big cigar and living it up! a kind of brutality–your pictures are violent in that sense, aren’t they? don’t you think that it is necessary to have a sense of brutality in photography?
moriyama: yes. envy, possessiveness, and jealousy, followed by violence which is engendered by these emotions.
araki: scary…but this is, i believe, what photography is.
(from an interview moderated by akihito yasumi, shinjuku, tokyo, july 28, 2003)

i’ve been researching quite alot on two seminal figures of modern japanese photography, daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki. and i’ve been paralyzed in thoughts of writing about them here, because as i read and look and read some more, i’m struck with a familiar student’s lament: the more i know, the less i know.

at first i thought the two could not be more different and polarized in their approaches to photogrpahy and responses to the world within and around them. and i had prematurely written off araki as a borderline pornographer, which he still is sometimes, but he’s also much more than that.

as i read first about moriyama, and then coming across araki’s name here and there in that research, i wondered how the two were connected. they are not of the same photographic generation, per se; perhaps solely divided by how old they were while they experienced the end of wwii. moriyama’s photographs consistently evoke dark, struggling identity-in-the-making. they are grainy, full of contrast, and seem to be about the eternal underside of things. araki’s photos, in contrast, seem to be puerile, joyous reaction against such moribund thoughts, and there is a playfulness evident throughout that suggests a lightness of heart that moriyama lacks. not that either is better or worse for the comparison, but that they are just…different.

daido moriyama, fence, yokoto, japan, 1969

nobuyoshi araki

moriyama’s childhood memories are filled with visions of green jeeps from which chocolate and gum would be ejected into the air by passing GI’s; the smells of an abandoned rubber plant, to which he would clamber into alone and considered his thinking spot; and the “weary perversity” of the basetown that sat on the edge of his home, in which he would explore and form his own opinions about himself, japanese identity and the occupying army. his book memories of a stray dog includes not only his photos that he made when he returned as an adult to the (now abandoned) base towns of his youth, but wonderfully articulate and unforced writing about memory, photography and a desire to persist in the present–both through lived experience and through the language of photography.

people steadily lose the landscapes they have accumulated. it’s not likely that anyone can faithfully recall how scenes appeared ten or twenty years ago… i think people continue to live in the present because we forget most every little thing. the remembrances that sneak up on a tired soul may sometimes stir us, but there is no tomorrow in that… where in the world did the era beyond my memories and the people who lived in it disappear to? after time, which we can actually only see now in historical documents, there are memories we carry. after our time, what memories will be carried forth by the people who follow?
–memories of a stray dog

as i have been absorbing his words and his work, i find myself relegated to the most facile means at trying to breach cross-cultural understanding: compare and contrast. but still, one has to begin somewhere. how different is moriyama’s photographic project than such is conceived of by western minds! and not just in this body of work, not merely in this book or any other of his i may procure and read, but his life project, his set of philosophical questions he could no sooner undo or unask than he could change his dna. not to say that photographers in the west don’t have their own questions, but sometimes the questions are ignored, or heard/answered wrong, or that one gets distracted by other aspects of the art world.

for example: one is taught by practicing artists and in academia that it is extremely desirable to have a “project.” that you will, in fact, have many of them, and that they should be somehow connected. lauren greenfield’s girl culture; larry clark’s tulsa up through kids; joel sternfeld’s on this site, to mention a few that are well known. all of these works are polished and thought through, but where they fail is that that they are often not felt through and throughout. they become exercises, they become the finishing of a “project.” they are not chiefly concerned with discovery, but about confirming a bias or a prejudice, whether visual, cultural, psychological or all three at once. moriyama’s project is about exploring the gap between seeing and feeling, about a semantic divide that is both verbal and non-verbal. his is an investigation of self, but not for the reasons of western autobiography nor does it use its methodology. his questions and answers (and then the new questions that get asked in the face of those answers) are not of one book or project, but all of them: those made in the past, those being made now, in the present, and the ones that have yet to be asked, yet to be made.

i can’t help but think of rilke, and think it incredibly appropriate to apply to moriyama:

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. and the point is, live everything. live the questions now. perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer…

his photographs ask over and over again: who am i in relation to this event, or this person? how is this moment unlike any other i have ever known, or will ever know? what else exists outside this view, the frame i may select, the things i am not photographing? can a photograph ever pretend to know any of this? can i?

moriyama’s influences include shomei tomatsu, william klein, ni√©pce, wegee, warhol, nakaji yasui and novelist osamu dazai. from my point-of-view, his inky blacks and grain remind me of bill brandt’s documentary work; his manic shooting reminds me of winogrand (with the important exception being that moriyama sees deeply into the ingredients of things, and winogrand sports in the surfaces); his need to mediate experiences through the camera reminds me of warhol (who spent the last years of his life interacting with people via his tape recorder or camera, but not directly). in one of the better reviews of his work i’ve come across, leo rubinfien writing in art in america said that:

moriyama’s best work everywhere implies a trauma that must have occurred just outside the limit of our vision, just before we get to the scene, or just beyond the reach of our memory. we feel that what we are getting now is its residual radiation.

so how are these two, daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki, even remotely related? one is full of pensive thought and writing, the other full of laughable soundbites. one sees the world in a series of caught moments, another carefully stages his. one predominately in black-and-white, the other predominately in color. moriyama’s photographs in moments feel full of existential dread, while araki’s are full of…what? existential excess? perhaps one of the easiest ways in would be to examine a subject both of them have trafficked in: the nude.

araki first became aware of moriyama’s work through a short-lived magazine project called provoke. the group’s last issue showcased moriyama’s work, and was published in 1970. araki, who was working uninspired at an advertising agency at the time, saw moriyama’s nudes and felt jealousy.

at the time, i was also thinking “photographey=eros” and that images which did not embrace the erotic were not qualified to be photos. moreover, i had the idea that photography was unavoidably associated with the concept of death, therefore, and eros which did not contain aspects of thanatos could not be the photographic expression of eros. that photo of moriyama’s seemed to represent exactly what i was feeling.
–interview moderated by akihito yasumi, 2003

moriyama’s nudes were many things at once: careful, respectful, moody, intimate and distant simultaneously. while araki has become famous for his erotic photos, they look nothing like moriyama’s and yet it seems for that difference in thought and approach were all the more fascinating to araki.

on the bed I, daido moriyama, tokyo, 1969.

araki later questioned moriyama as to why his nudes were either blurred or did not show the face, claiming that a nude photo of a woman should always show her face. moriyama replied that it had something to do with a “samurai’s tenderness,” meaning that he did not intend to brag about romantic conquests. was it a chide to a younger colleague, then, a judgement of what araki’s photos of the same genre seemed to be saying?

if it was, it hardly needed to be said, because araki is a living, breathing extroverted oedipal urge extroidinare. he says everything himself, playfully, before you can come out and accuse him with knives in your voice. his ridiculous exuberance takes all the meanness from you:

I‘ve been taking photographs since I came into this world. I was no sooner out of my mother’s womb, than I turned around and photographed her sex! Photography is the first thing I shall do after my reincarnation!

and, on the subject of ropes (for which he is famed):

Basically, I have never been interested in tying up the body of a model. What I was aiming at was the female heart. That was what I wanted to lay in chains. In the course of time, if I can put it this way, the models have tied themselves up, have bound themselves to me … I work using my entire bodily presence, I reproduce in my photos the space and the time between my models and myself … The camera is a kind of seismograph here…

rope impressions, nobuyoshi araki

when i first encountered araki i rolled my eyes. i did not think that there was anything beyond his surface voyeurism, and at best i found myself caught between amusement and feminist outrage. but then i questioned: what is it that offends me about his work? is it the subject matter? or is it the fact that it is so commercially successful? or, beyond that, is it that araki appears to have no questions at all?

I have nothing to say. There’s no particular message in my photos. The messages come from my subjects, men or women. The subjects will convey what there is to say. I have things to photograph, so I’ve nothing to express. Right now, I’m showing my enjoyment of life rather than the sadness of death. Some people I know say that life is sad. But today I think the opposite. Death is sadder.
–from an interview with j√©r√¥me sans .

from his own mouth. but can he trust what even he himself says?

it may be hard to believe it to look at his photos, but araki was married. to a woman who became his favorite and most studied model. he made a book of photographs of their honeymoon together, which is now shown alongside with the pictures of her illness and death (yoko died in 1990 of cancer, at 42). if araki has questions to answer, or questions he is avoiding, it is resoundingly in these photographs:

from a sentimental journey, taken on araki’s honeymoon

yoko in the bath

in sharp contrast to the thousands of other photographs of women araki has taken, the study he made of his wife over the course of their relationship says something much more than can be carefully arranged with ropes, props, leering and provocation. it is a photographic conversation between two people, and it is a document of feeling and relation to feeling. and, more than that perhaps: the failure to completely realize love in a marriage. or of the failure of photography to communicate either love or lack of love. araki has said of this work and of his wife:

Maybe I only had a relationship with her as a photographer, not as a partner. If I hadn’t documented her death, both the description of my state of mind and my declaration of love would have been incomplete. I found consolation in unmasking lust and loss, by staging a bitter confrontation between symbols. After Yoko’s death, I didn’t want to photograph anything but life – honestly. Yet every time I pressed the button, I ended up close to death, because to photograph is to stop time. I want to tell you something, listen closely: photography is murder.

quite different from barthes’ assertion that death is imminent in photography–araki says that photography is death itself, and that the act of photographing is to cut oneself off from life… or at least, that seems to be what he is saying there. at that moment.

which leads me to question: which is more accurate? the photographer who asserts with halting questions, who is careful and deliberate in his thought and actions? or is it the one who is full of contradictions, denials, self-wrought conundrums? is it better to observe and keep the world at a distance, or is it better to insinuate oneself in the drama? better to know or to laugh?

so many questions. and i’m still reading and learning and looking. the fury of these images and concerns has been consuming, and i should learn to not be stymied by being stunned. writing more as i am learning more. and of late, i’ve been loving what i’ve been learning.

some books to check out:

memories of a dog, by daido moriyama

daido moriyama (contains the interview between araki and moriyama)

phaidon 55 series: daido moriyama (i love this series of books, and this is a great collection for cheap)

black sun: the eyes of four, by mark holborn (an amazing collection of four seminal japanese photographers: shomei tomatsu, eikoh hosoe, masahisa fukase and daido moriyama)

araki (supposedly the definitive work, weighing in at 600 pages and a mere $2000, take a gander if you can find a copy)

tokyo nostalgia, by nobuyoshi araki

viaggio sentimentale (an italian catalogue of a show araki did in prato, a good compendium of his life’s work, at a fraction of the “complete works” price.)

death: elegy, by nobuyoshi araki (i haven’t seen this yet, but i am dying to)

catch and other stories, by kenzaburo oe (this has been great companion reading while looking at moriyama’s photos of military bases)

Pt. 2, Thoughts on Chinese Photography (and other thoughts)

It’s simply a fact–there are only a few images left.

When I look out here I see everything is cluttered up. There are hardly any images to be found. One has to dig deep down, like an archeologist; one has to search through this violated landscape to find something. Naturally, there is a risk involved, one that I wouldn’t avoid. I see only a few people who take risks in order to change this misery–the misery of having no images left, none that are adequate. We desperately need images, those images that are relevant and adequate to our level of civilization–ones that correspond to those deep inside ourselves.–Werner Herzog, from Tokyo-Ga, a film by Wim Wenders, 1984.

i’ve been sitting on these thoughts of mine a good long while, waiting to see if they would turn and change into something else, have something more to say than just this. i saw the chinese photography exhibit at ICP while there a couple weeks back. i was greatly looking forward to it, and forward to it openly, meaning: i had no context for an expectation. i thought that this meant that i had no expectations, but, one finds, one always has expectations. the exhibit would be the first exposure i had had to contemporary chinese photography on any scale, and i was interested in what artists of the same generation as me had to say about the very different world they experienced from mine. what was it like to be a member of the largest nation in the world? what was it like to be living during a time in which long-held cultural norms were having to be redefined to fit in with a sometimes contradictory desire for cultural change? what about growing up as the first generation post-chinese cultural revolution? as the inheritors of that psychic pain? how would concerns of modern day china be addressed? what were the concerns of modern day china?

it began on a promising note. one of the first works you see at the ICP location (half of the multi-themed exhibit is being shown at the asia society) is this one by lian tianmaio:

lin_tianmiao

it is an immense and quiet piece, with threads piercing the self-portrait of the artist in the face, and coming out of the back to form one impossibly large braid, which then fizzles out to be wound as a single thread around a spool. much is made on the wall blurbs of the chinese penchant for large and monumental art, a graphic loved left-over from a life built up around oversized socialist art murals and public sculptures. but this is one of the few pieces in the show which manages to successfully weave the personal and the cultural aesthetic (if it can be called such), and to gracefully nod to a chinese tradition of intense and intricate craft. a self portrait that, in the pure sense of the term, actually reveals something of the maker. which to me is a kind of risk, that by extension, is inherent in any definition of mine concerning art. something which risks one’s vulnerability accomplishes this.

others not so much. others to which, in fact, i roll my eyes long and high towards the ceiling, imagining the first-friday cocktail conversations had in front of “the work.”

ma_liuming

(i tried here to imagine that conversation, but it was immediately so insipid i had to throw cheap champagne in viewer 1 and viewer 2’s face.)

part of what annoyed me with this work was that it seemed so obvious and easy of how this got into this show, and why this artist is popular with curators and those who write about art. exhibitionists almost always make good copy, or at least good gossip, and it helps too if the artist-as-model has a “startlingly stunning androgynous body” (an actual quote from a recent review of this show in this issue of Asia Pacific Quarterly–in what other context than one gay man talking about another gay man could this sentence even find its way into print in a serious review? can you imagine this same being said about an exhibiting female artist?). i am reminded of advice given to an attractive, charismatic colleague of mine in grad school that was having early success with his work, “the only thing that could make you more successful at this point and get you more high level recognition is if you were to come out and announce that you were gay.” (he wasn’t, and while it’s a cheap shot, it’s oftner than most would admit to a truer generalization than others.) another thing that bothered me was that it was so obvious. man walking naked along the great wall of china. and there’s an accompanying video of “the event.” what does it mean to walk naked along the wall? does it mean that a curator is happy his show is balanced because he got to include a “reinterpretation of a major historical site” (quote from the catalog)? if it is a reinterpretation, is liuming “reowning” the wall for his own personal use, or is he commenting upon the individual finally surmounting (and thus conquering) the political? i could go on and on, but i don’t believe for a second that it is any one of these off-the-cuff critical tropes. i think these are merely self indulgent self portraits that happen to include the great wall of china. it says nothing; it risks nothing; it is one of the many pieces of visual clutter that herzog spoke of in that quote.

another piece that baffled me was this one by artist (cum-masochist?) sheng qi:

sheng_qi

the image by itself isn’t so disturbing (except that it is, but the fact of it being so isn’t what i mean here). i had the reaction to this piece that i did to many in this show, in which i may have responded more positively to it if i had completely ignored any corresponding information that provided context, and merely let myself project meaning and intention onto it. without reading the text on the wall, i had looked at this image and assumed something unfortunate and horrible had happened to the artist who holds a picture of a young boy in his chinese cultural revolution outfit. maybe the terrible thing, one reasonably begins to assume, that happened was in fact the chinese cultural revolution. well, in this case that assumption is wrong. the terrible thing that happened to this artist was the artist to himself. with very little reason why, we are told that the artist, upon leaving china for where we are not told, presumably here, he severs his pinky finger and plants it into the bottom of a flower pot. and then takes this picture (and probably others, i mean, if you’re going to start severing body parts, you might as well go for a whole series). i’m not totally adverse to the idea of body-as-stage, i mean, i’m with orlan or chris burden, but this? was this worth a finger? if there was a point, or a deeper meaning, could it not have been conveyed somehow? what is the point that i am supposed to get? is this just throwing the assumption of the limits of cultural understanding in the viewer’s face? am i terribly declass√© if i admit my defeat and say what the fuck?

i suppose what was the most disheartning was the lack of attention to any of the questions i would have thought that contemporary chinese artists might have been addressing (see: expectations and assumptions always raise their head). that is not to say that they are not being addressed at all, but that they are not in this show, and not (with little exception) by these artists. divided into four “themes” that could be the theme of any show at any time in any gallery in new york, themes of “history and memory”; “people and place”; “performing the self”; and “reimagining the body”, what i gleaned was that perhaps china has learned too much from the west already, and perhaps all of it bad. our way of curating, marketing and exhibiting art is not the only way to do things, and i would be delighted to have our sterile and commodity-oriented manner of considering art to be challenged by something thoughtful and new, instead of something emulating something that pretends to be the ideal.

considerations in two parts: a love letter to caravaggio and some thoughts on chinese photography, pt. 1

this past weekend i kept a promise with my eighteen-year-old self and spent a few days on an art pilgrimmage in new york. when i was eighteen, i traveled to new york city for the first time. i was the kind of child that had always idealized the city, and had fed myself on a diet of writers that described, in doting and unaffected detail, growing up a child of new york. i absorbed unabashedly as many museums, galleries, people watching, language listening as i could, and vowed that i would return at least once, every year. i thought: though i don’t know what it is i am to do with my life, i know that whatever tasks i give myself, i want an awareness of things that this city makes you aware. i want to be fed on the art of this city, and to know it. and so i have made the trek, and kept that promise to me-at-eighteen, for most of the last decade.

and this weekend i was excited to go because the premise of this pilgrimmage was to view the not-often-travelling caravaggios that are on exhibit at the metropolitan museum of art. i have been a person who has measured optimal aesthetic experiences by how many times i have been able to stand in front of one of this man’s canvases. i have seen him in florence, in rome, dublin, paris and now in new york, and my count is at 23. his supper at emmaus was the one i was holding my breath for this time around, and it did not disappoint.

supper

there are two versions of this painting by caravaggio, but this one is the most moving to me. the image is spectacularly dynamic, and peter (it is peter, isn’t it, with the shell pinned to his shirt?) has his arms wide and i don’t know why–will he embrace christ in a moment or is he expressing surprise and awe?–and the other disciple is sitting down or standing up; i like being on the precipice of wondering if this is the moment christ has revealed himself as the resurrected to those in his company, or if it is the moment where it is realized before he says anything, and then having said it, vanishes (and thank you burke for the refresher on the story–a wonderful reference to have as i was actually looking at the painting).

i’d been reading leo bersani’s book caravaggio’s secrets prior to going up, and he has a section where he examines where the subjects of his paintings are looking, and what it means to rest one’s gaze where one does–and where one doesn’t. an excerpt:

it is as if everyone around the ambiguously centered christ of caravaggio’s work knew, as caravaggio himself seems to have known, that no one has the authority to center our gaze, to define its primary relation. that caravaggio knew that, and principally painted religious subjects in which relational primacy could not by definition be questioned, is immensely moving.

it is always difficult to tear myself away from such moments; it is a selfish wish of mine to be all alone and immensely quiet and reverential in front of such paintings. maybe this is why it is easier for me to view his work in places of worship. not because of the subject matter so much or that i adhere to the beliefs that commissioned the work in the first place, but because what i want more than anything in such a moment is to encounter it fully, personally and without distraction. i want to place myself in direct relation to the painting, and i sometimes will move around it, trying to find what spot i would have to be in to make a mark on that canvas. is this how far he stood to paint this ear? is this how close? there is no other painter i can think of that felt his paintings so thoroughly as he thought them into being.

i was lucky enough to be in florence at a time when two of his last (and largest in scale) paintings were brought to the city to be cleaned. before the restoration the city held an exhibition of just the two paintings, and i stood in the same space with one of the most moving images i have ever seen:

stjohn_malta

(shown here in situ, at the alter of st.john’s cathedral in malta.)

it is immense, even in the tall-ceilinged halls of the palazzo vecchio, where i saw it. 12 by 17 feet. i was moved because it didn’t look like a religious painting, that it looked like a common street killing. had he stolen a chicken? i was moved because the death of a common man set upon by those seeking vengence for a petty crime was as revelatory and meaningful in my looking upon it as imagining the subject portrayed as a saint or martyr. are we all of us saints and martyrs? is this one of caravaggio’s fractured fairytales? is either portrayal less valid than the other?

the only disappointment that i experienced was that one of the six paintings i had come to see had already been sent back the week prior, as it was coming upon the closing week of the show. but if one is to miss a caravaggio, then it is best that the one missed would be the painting that lives in the same country that you travel from to see them (i am speaking of his early painting, the cardsharps, which is housed at the fort worth museum of art in texas. yes, texas has a caravaggio painting. don’t ask me how).

and though i wanted to be full only of caravaggio (and leonardo da vinci’s beautiful little drawings of misshapen faces, also on display), it is hard to turn away from things at the met, and so also rushed through rooms full of rodin, chinese gardens, and stumbled, almost accidentally, on the stunning august sander exhibit that is there. and there were other galleries, and many photographs seen (writing on china coming up) but thoughts on photography will have to wait until the next post, because while i could not be full of caravaggio in that moment at the met, i reserve the right to do so here at the space in between.

spirit and making

i know it’s a pedestrian wish, but i wish weekends were longer. the space of two days of time to do with what i will is just enough to begin to return to myself, to have a sense of what i’d do with my time if all of it were mine. i plan and cook meals; i can read in good long stretches; this evening i went to the library and filled out endless interlibrary loan requests; and now i’m rolling around different stray thoughts on photographers and how they describe themselves (and the world) in my head.

i found this great article on eikoh hosoe, in which he is describing seeing gaudi for the first time in barcelona. about how he couldn’t even begin to photograph it then, he had to experience it first (and not first mediate an experience through camera) and then come back to it, thirteen years later. he’s describing some rocks that are arranged seemingly arbitrarily int he architecture, and then he realizes:

“i found that the order was not arbitrary. They were placed with cosmic order like the sun in the center of rotating planets…what gaudi was ultimately pursuing through his architecture was a zen spirit. maybe what i was looking for was not the design of the architecture, but a zen spirit hidden in his body of work.” (interview with darwin marable, history of photography, v.24., #1, spring 2000)

it’s this notion of someone’s work being imbued with spirit that’s interesting to me (nice dovetail to earlier in the article when they’re discussing hosoe’s shinto roots: his father was a shinto priest and he grew up in a shinto shrine). it was occuring all through the kawabata book i just finished, the master of go. in it, kawabata describes the playing of go by americans and europeans, and that how it is as if they understand the rules but nothing of the spirit of the game, of the deliberate dance and individual wills of the players involved. of how the tone of each move is answered in kind by the rejoining move, and that to not acknowledge this in a play can be insulting and “in poor spirit.”

have also been remembering a startling personality that slips from my memory for periods of time, and then my memory searches for his strange, exclamatory-sounding name. vojta! vojta dukat! i can’t dig much up on him on the internet, and i think he prefers his obscurity. but i found this:

vojta_contact

vojta was a guest lecturer at a short-lived program i attended several years ago in prague. the school was a documentary photography summer program, and it attempted to expose very western, very american young impressionables to some central european sensibility in the form of these guest lectureships of different (mostly czech) photographers. there were some more famous names of people i’ve seen in aperture and such since, but it was vojta (such a great name) that made the biggest impression on me. he came to the room not with the customary slides, but with a great (like two feet thick) stack of smallish photos tucked under his arm. he started putting them all on the table, one after another, like cards. each image was astonishing, simply and beautifully seen. he had magic light in nearly everyone, and the overall their tone was quiet, usually interaction between two or a few people. intimate. i remember thinking he was like what rasputin would be if he were a photographer instead of a sensate holy man, or that maybe in fact vojta was some sort of sensate holy man, able to insinuate himself into profoundly quiet moments without ever being insinuating.

the room was respectfully quiet while he talked and layed out his photographs. and then, as was custom, when he was done students volunteered to be “critiqued” by the guest. a girl, one of the more confident ones, started to bring out her photos. vojta picked over them, going through them faster and faster. finally he looked into her. “why did you make these?” he asked her, in all sincerity. “it’s as if you were thinking of nothing as you pointed your camera, that you saw nothing as you looked through the lens. arbitrary, messy and thoughtless. why make any photographs at all in this manner? why waste?” and there was more i think, that he said which i don’t remember, and she was more than a little startled. and it’s true that the workshop was comprised mostly of amateurs, hobbyists, and those looking for a little direction. but i think about how one is taught to make and make and make (especially in the beginning) as much as possible, to make in such a frenzy that precludes thought–and how refreshing it was to hear someone (with the image archives to back it up) that no, it is important to see, or to learn to see, before one goes on a manic making spree. my partiality to slowness comes, to some degree, from this memory.

starting and stopping

thesis
n. pl. theses (-sz)
1. A proposition that is maintained by argument.

2. A dissertation advancing an original point of view as a result of research, especially as a requirement for an academic degree.

3. A hypothetical proposition, especially one put forth without proof.

4. The first stage of the Hegelian dialectic process.

5. The long or accented part of a metrical foot, especially in quantitative verse.

6. The unaccented or short part of a metrical foot, especially in accentual verse.

i have begun to commit to the reality of (starting) finishing my thesis. the thesis is the final requirement for me to officially be conferred my m.f.a from columbia college of chicago. so far, even though i’ve completed course work, had an m.f.a thesis show, and walked the stage to accept an imaginary diploma (again: not conferred until thesis accepted) and an m.f.a “cowl” (the hoodie you get for advancing along the educational ladder), i am not technically a master until i write this goddamn paper.

it’s not as if i haven’t tried writing this. or that i necessarily have anything against writing it, per se.* or that the topic hasn’t transmuted from one worthy, insightful, groundbreaking topic to another. it’s just that i have yet to finish and complete. to commit to one train of thought. to ready myself for the discipline required to think about, flesh out, and write something that i’m proud of, that is relevant to things i will continue to think about, and that will hopefully dovetail into whatever i plan on doing next.

it’s this “next” that’s been holding me up.

whatever i chose to write about, i’ve wanted it to be something that could be used for whatever this nebulous “next” is for me. will it be a doctoral program focusing on art history and southeast asian studies? will i try to publish this somewhere? am i trying to break ground in a field of study-discussion-application that has not been much explored (yes)? can this be a stepping stone to there? can i still write cogently after being out of an academic enviornment for two years, after culling together a life after grad school that consists mostly of subsisting?

and so. these are questions and anxieties i’ve let hold me down and let me procrastinate further. fortunately, i do have at my disposal a fairly decent art library (at least it’s a start) at SCAD (where i currently work) and have embarked on merry photocopying of dozens of articles (to the dismay of the student staff that has to reshelve the oversized bound periodicals i’ve been manically pulling from the stacks), organizing my ranges of thought and rants, and ordering stuff via interlibrary loan. i want to write about japanese photography and eastern aesthetics in general, and use it as a springbroad for discussion about a wholly alternative method for making, valuing and thinking about images. i don’t want to put japanese photography up on a pedastel (thankfully, there’s nobuyoshi araki to keep me from doing that), or come out and say something simple minded and relativist like, “gee, the japanese sure do have a different way of doing things than us.” i do believe that the notion of making and the diligence of how to think about making while making is something that is different from a western/western european model. and i also don’t believe that consumer commodification has infilitrated the way images are made (though it is often commented upon), at least not wholly and not yet. and there have been some really radical and amazing things to come out of the photographer’s lens in the last twenty or so years. things that to my eyes are truly other, and i’d like to write about that, too. not just a tired, post-post modern discussion of “othering”, but instead a careful look at a western pre/misconception about eastern aesthetics, eastern culture, sex and gender reflect back–what? a lack? a wish-fulfillment?–i’m still thinking about that, actually. the hegelian dialectic as one definition of thesis? yeah, that too.

so anyway, while i’m reading and thinking and, hopefully, writing, i’ll be posting some of it here. but i’ll be sure to post lots of pictures so that you don’t blink out through all my pre-thesis, unmediated, photographic free-for-allness.

bought the following books today, because i remembered that reading good books is a good way to be good to yourself:

The Optical Unconscious, by Rosalind Krauss
Ghost Image, by Herve Guibert (who i first read about on consumptive’s site a long time ago)
Crisis of the Real, by Andy Grundberg (who used to be a NYT art critic)
On Being Blue, by William H. Gass

and two fiction adventure picks:

Eight Million Gods and Demons, by Hiroko Shawin (the title refers to the number of dieities in the japanese pantheon, and is about the space of time between the reign of the last emperor and the end of WWII–something i’m reading alot about now).

and Dear Mr. Kawabata, by Rashid Daif. The most adventurous adventure pick of all, this one depicts a mortally wounded lebanese soldier mentally reviewing his life while dying, and in the course of this mentally writes letters to yasunari kawabata, the japanese author–whom he remembered reading while at university.

i just finished kawabata’s the master of go, and his snow country is next. after the caravaggio book. and the million and one photocopied articles i have to read.

whoosh.

begin the beguine.
__________________________________________________________________________________
* oh, okay, i do get annoyed that it clearly isn’t anything that any faculty at columbia care about. there are no committee meetings, no fleshing out of written thesis ideas, no agonizing or rejection of thought. it’s just: turn something in, 40-100 pages long. no one reads it. no one cares. i know no one read my undergraduate thesis that i wrote (on margureite duras, incidentally), but at least i had to bother my committee on a semi-regular basis and had to defend it in a room full of intelligent, engaging mentors. in most m.f.a visual programs, your visual thesis is this: the thing you meet every week or every other week about. the thing you are told is wonderful one moment, crap the next. the thing you tweak and love and abandon and destroy, over and over again. and finally, you hope, the thing that reaches some sort of resolution (if for a moment) and which gets shown to people. that, to me, is the culminating moment of completing a thesis.

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.