Magnum Korea – a 2point8 Reader’s Response

Editor’s Note from MDM: I’m pleased to offer this examination of Magnum’s current “Korea” project, from a friend of 2point8 who lives in Asia. This reader spent a fair bit of time considering Magnum’s project, inside and out, and I’m glad I can share their perspective with you here. While it may not be customary to include content without a byline, I think it’s best that way, and hope you enjoy this reader’s insightful critique (which is also an appreciation of Harry Gruyaert) of a large-scale project that hasn’t received much/any press Stateside. As a companion resource, you may want to check out magnumkorea.com, but be warned, it’s flash-heavy, and doesn’t accept image-level links or I’d link-up all the pictures and photographers referenced below.

Got a chance on Tuesday to go and see Magnum’s Korea project, currently on exhibition in Seoul. They shot it over a year between 20 different photographers, though I think each photographer was only here for a couple of weeks. They were “invited” to do the project by a Korean newspaper and magazine company, which I think means Magnum did it on commission, but I’m not sure. There was work from some of the usual suspects–Erwitt, Parr, Webb–as well as from other Magnum photographers I’d never looked into very much. The front of the exhibition featured individual galleries of a few large prints from each photographer, and then as you worked towards the end they shifted to large grids of smaller prints, each grid organized around one of eight themes. At least one theme–religion–featured a few larger prints, as well, including a picture I wondered if they’d find, of churchgoers with their eyes closed and hands in the air at one of the more fervent Christian churches in Seoul.

The pictures making up the grids were almost universally forgettable and generic, like flipping through a Lonely Planet with higher production values–people throwing fish at the street markets, traditional Korean dancers, etc. Whereas the work in the individual galleries presented a unique viewpoint from each photographer, the grid images bled together stylistically, with two exceptions: the Webb pictures were easy to spot for their dogged determination to geometrically balance multiple figures in the frame; and the pictures that stood out all seemed to come from Bruno Barbey. Given how generic the imagery was, grids seemed a smart choice of presentation, for the way they subordinated the individual image (which, in most cases, wasn’t strong enough to stand alone).

If the grids were a wash, the rest of the exhibition–the photographers’ showcased prints–were a mixed bag.

Majoli had a short series of diptychs where the left panel was a b/w image and the right panel a minimal color image. It was interesting to see how well these worked and refreshing to see a bit more experimental approach compared to the completely uninspired documentary work in the grids…there was one of a squid on the left (I think…I can’t quite remember which subjects were paired with which others) against a portrait of a young man dressed in white and red on the right. The silver tones from the b/w picture and the dominant white in the portrait seemed to work together to set off the red accents.

Pinkhassov’s pictures were dark and beautiful. I stood there wondering how they managed to be so dark without being murky–dark without looking dark. More than almost anyone else’s, these pictures seemed to evoke the mood I associate with Seoul.

I remember two of DAH’s portraits–one in strong blue and the other in dslr-under-incadescent-red–and have forgotten the rest.

Sarfati’s portraits of young Korean women were among the more memorable pictures in the show.

Webb’s work was remarkably weak all over, both in the grids and in his showcased prints; at least one of the pictures was just pure bullshit. This is the second time I’ve seen Webb photograph on a short timescale and turn out such underwhelming work–the first instance was his Brazil story for National Geographic, and those pictures were at least a few levels above this Korea stuff (and made over a correspondingly longer timescale). This is not to smear Webb. It got me thinking that, while time is obviously important to all photographers, it is clearly more important to some photographers than to others. I think Webb’s best, most essential work–the pictures that define the apogee of his style–fight the odds more than most pictures do. Looking at his books and then at the Geographic and Korea work, it would seem that the only path to such pictures is through a sort of narrow stubbornness and many, many failures–‘failures’ being work that consistently gets 80% of the way there, but on a logarithmic scale of improbability–over a considerable period of time. Time (and persistence through that time) marks the difference between what we think of as Webb, and what appeared at the exhibition to be a lesser photographer imitating Webb.

“For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner” – Alex Webb

It was also curious that the A1 prints of Webb’s pictures looked the worst, on inspection, of all the exhibition work at that size. A1 certainly seems a pretty huge enlargement for 35 mm film, but there were other A1 prints in the exhibition that also looked small-cameraish and filmic, so maybe this reveals the limitations of Kodachrome? Do newer emulsions stand up better to enlargement?

(Incidentally, all the prints were ‘pigment prints’ off an HP DesignJet, on three different papers: Hahnemuhle smooth fine art; HP Premium instant-dry satin photo paper; and HP Advanced photo paper.)

Parr’s A4-ish prints of food–recalling Common Sense–looked uncannily 3D, and I couldn’t figure out what accounted for the effect. I’d never seen anything quite like this from a print. Immediately before Parr’s section, one of Ian Berry’s pictures had been made actually 3D, in the same way as you used to see on lunch box stickers in the 80s. The 3D-ness of Parr’s prints was so pronounced that when I first glanced them from 10-15 feet away, I thought Berry’s faux-hologram was introducing a new section of the exhibition, and that Parr’s prints were produced using some hybrid of this 80s lunchbox-sticker technology. On closer inspection they were just regular ink on regular paper, but I can’t overemphasize how the pictures seemed to pop off the surface of the paper when you stood a few feet back. We thought it might be some perfect storm of an ultra-sharp emulsion, narrow dof, and the drop-shadow effect the flash produced. It was weird.

Erwitt’s work seemed to show his age. It looked tired and in a 50s aesthetic, just in color now, as though someone had painted color into his early work. If it was an appeal to a sense of timelessness, it had opposite the intended effect.

Each photographer’s individual gallery had a laptop playing a kind of greatest hits slideshow of their total body of work. We spent as much time standing at the laptops as in looking at the showcased prints, and I was hoping, perhaps naively, that they might be selling a CD compilation of these slideshows, but no such luck.

It was thanks to one of these laptop slideshows that I came upon the greatest reward of the exhibition: the discovery of Harry Gruyaert’s work. His showcased prints were the most purely evocative of Korea, for me:

and he produced what was easily my favorite picture from the show:

which is even better in an A1 print, where you can easily read all the figures inside those tiny boats.

I can’t understand why no one seems to talk about this guy. His work contains veins of Webb, Manos, and Meyerowitz:

but he’s also capable of an entirely different direction of image, something that I don’t feel I’ve seen much explored in the context of small-camera photojournalism:

So why doesn’t anyone talk about him? Look at this stuff!

What was most striking about the exhibition total was how little journalistic intent seemed to lay beneath it all. It was surprising, for example, to see nothing about what the kids go through in the school system here (middle and high school students go to school all day and then to academies until late at night), or about the obsession with English education, or the US Army presence, alcohol abuse, etc. Instead, Magnum produced a–sometimes generic and sometimes stylized–cursory and superficial treatment of what Korea simply looks like, and then only what the pleasant bits look like. There were exceptions, as certain individual images seemed insightful, seemed to speak more deeply to the place and its culture (among them, Parr’s picture of four older women all seemingly reaching for the same last bit of food in a tiny bowl set between them), but generally there were no stories being told. It was as though the world’s top photojournalistic agency had been conscripted to produce an elaborate brochure. Or worse, the half-century late Korea entry for the Family of Man. Look, Koreans also get married. They also play with their children in parks.

Moreover, the mode was predominately honorific, the general tone strongly tilted toward flattery. No drunks, prostitutes, or homeless people here–even though Magnum members have variously photographed all of these subjects in Korea, with the photos available on their website.

No doubt Magnum needs to make money and do assignments, but it’s bizarre to see such uninvested, kowtowing photography in a project they’ve stamped as their statement for an entire country.

Civil Rights, Road to Freedom, The Race Beat, Barack Obama & Moving It Forward

In response to the Schapiro. Young, King and Lewis, Selma, Alabama 1965 40th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, there’s been a lot of great programming in Atlanta this spring/summer that revisits the Civil Rights movement. Which is fortunate for me, because the more I learn, the more I’m interested in this region’s history, and it’s all proving to be a pretty incredible experience.

The High Museum have led the way with an exhibit called “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968“, which takes a wide look at image-making during the movement, by press photographers, photojournalists, and people inside the movement itself. It’s stunning, not just in the visual presentation (there are many incredible photographs to look at) but in the sense that the exhibition has the capacity to S T U N you.

Road to Freedom @ the High Museum

And that’s rare. When Freed. Women Kneeling with Sign During Demonstrationwas the last time you were stilled and dumbstruck in a museum? There were a few moments during the media walk-thru of “Road to Freedom” where I thought I might not make it through. Where I needed to take a breather, stand in the middle of the room, and collect myself.

The images in the show are a perfect storm of content, execution, message, and style. Some are artful, some are pure fact, some edge into carefully constructed propaganda. But in their aggregation (curated with impressive insight and dedication by Head Curator, Julian Cox) the photographs pack a wallop that sustains, not just in the eye, but in the head and the heart.

Many from my generation (born in the early 70s) seem oblivious & carefree about our nation’s past, preoccupied as we are with the present, the future, and making our way through both. The genius of the show (which will head to Washington D.C. next year) is that it forces you to stop, look, listen, and possibly even reevaluate where you are, where you’ve been, and where the heck you (and our troubled nation) are heading.

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And then there’s this picture, from “The Race Beat“, taken by Matt Heron, of Bob Adelman, Steve Shapiro and Charles Moore, on the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. There’s a lot to like about the picture, which isn’t included in the exhibition, but shows three photographers who are big contributors to the show.

A lot of writing about the show, and the movement in general, talks about how tailor-made the struggle for Civil Rights was for still photography, and how still photography helped the nation come to terms with the reality of segregation in the South. (In large part due to Moore’s pictures of Bull Connor‘s dogs and waterhoses in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, which were published in an 11-page spread in LIFE Magazine.) According to “The Race Beat“, the motorcyclist on the march above was hired by Moore as a courier to ferry film back and forth.

Another of the main photographers in the exhibition, Danny Lyon, has launched a blog called Dektol, and gives his own personal insight into the show. (And yes, DL, it is “good to be alive in Obama time.”) The AJC has a fine review here, too. And last week, I had the pleasure of hearing Hank Klibanoff speak about his Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation“.

Klibanoff came to Atlanta to become Managing Editor of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, a paper with a spotty record on Civil Rights, at least on the issues surrounding Forsyth County in the 1980s, when both papers, the Atlanta Journal & the Atlanta Constitution, treated the situation with kid gloves or worse, according to Elliot Jaspin’s “Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America“.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the AJC published a “special section” celebrating Barack Obama’s nomination on June 8th. Their decision to include Obama’s middle name on the front page of the paper feels questionable at best, especially considering the AJC is the state’s biggest paper, and Georgia is currently tilting by 10 points to Mr. McCain.

The AJC's Front Page Republican Dog Whistle

All said, Klibanoff’s presentation during a panel discussion at the High was impressive and inspirational, and I’m currently knee-deep in “The Race Beat“. Klibanoff seemed to know every person on both sides of the issue (movement/segrationists & press/newsmakers) and told incredible stories about how the Civil Rights Movement becaume a national media story, which accelerated public awareness that helped push the Voting Rights act and other reforms forward.

A day or two after seeing “Road to Freedom”, I met John Lewis in the middle of the street. I’m always surprised by people who decry celebrity culture and the lack of role models for kids in this country, when there are people like John Lewis around. Here’s Lewis on the right, before being knocked unconscious in front of Haisten’s Mattress & Awning Company, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, in an image not included in the exhibition.

There’s a lot more to say about all this. One thing I’m sure of is it feels good to be in a place that in more than a conciliatory way, is committed to discussing its history with race — a place that in a small but significant way is turning its ear toward Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union“, which urged the country to take a deeper look at these issues.

That said, in the exhibition, I was walking toward the picture below (taken an unknown New York Times photographer) and a woman was looking at it and shaking her head. She stepped back and said to me, “look at this — it’s still true.”

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To close, I feel lucky that in the past year and a half, my path has led me on a “Race Beat” of my own, through Jasper, TX, to Jena, and Jim Crow Road. I may not have set-out to make pictures about race, but feel lucky to have had the chance.

To that end, let’s push this forward, America. It’s been far too long.

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(Top photo credit, Bob Adleman. Picture of kneeling woman, Leonard Freed. Picture of Barack Obama pushing it forward, Derek Powazek. The first two can be found in the catalog for Road to Freedom, which includes essays by John Lewis and Charles Johnson.)

Two Thousand Odd Words on Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

Thanks to Steidl & Distributed Art Publishers for facilitating this review of the 50th Anniversary of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, a new and definitive edition to be released May 15th, 2008.

If Robert Frank’s “The Americans” had a marketing launch in a parallel universe as a cinematic summer blockbuster, the trailer would begin in flat black darkness, with Hal Douglas intoning:

In a world where jukeboxes, drive-ins, and automobiles are more than just jukeboxes, drive-ins, and automobiles, Robert Frank drives a stake straight through America’s heart, revealing a world of unimaginable sadness, a country you’ve never known.”

Hollywood would sell it to death as a gothic set piece, and Frank would be the one-eyed man pointing to the sky, shouting about the apocalypse.

In a sense, that’s what the world has done with “The Americans“. The book (and Frank, along with it) rode the glass elevator straight to the top, in esteem, legend, and sales. For good reason. Frank’s work isn’t just a phenomenal gesture, it’s years of serious work forged into a single, unassailable art ingot that’s completely altered how people (photographers, too) see and interpret the world around them.

So?

So if this were just another review of “The Americans” that took a flat, factual look at the book’s history, then we’d never find ourselves down in the basement, during the rains, hoping the proverbial sump pump will kick-in. Which is where I found myself yesterday, thinking about Robert Frank’s scrotum.

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(From the 50th Anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans“)

Matthew Barney might say there’s something about how a sump pump works that has a dramatic, recoverable relationship with the muscle that raises a man’s testicles from hanging “mid-femur“, but it was less about the pump and more about the oily black water in my basement’s cement floor that got me thinking about Robert Frank.

The Vanity Fair article didn’t help. It’s not that it wasn’t good, it was too good, too close, too w i d e – a n g l e d. Frank was always front and center, especially when chillin’ in the buff in his hotel room, but the edges were splayed. His admirers; his wife; his Chinese handlers; even the author himself; all were bent toward and leaning into Frank’s gravity, which sucked everything toward his quiet stumblings in the center. Welcome to celebrity, please check your lens correction.

But back to the dark water. In it, I couldn’t see my reflection, nor the bottom of the hole. The more I looked, the less I saw. As the rains came and seeped beneath the house, I knew something was happening, but I didn’t know what it was.

The Americans” followed the crest of Kerouac’s triumph as spontaneous-poet-prophet, preceding Kerouac’s drunken disintegration and failure to change the world in the way that he might have with more discipline. And “The Americans” was years before Dylan changed the world in a way that could never have been achieved without discipline. Frank’s work was a bridge between beat hipster idealism, and Getting Things Done.

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(From the 50th Anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans“)

Which is one reason why it’s lasted. Because it was capital-W Work. While Frank’s actual journeys may have contained whim and the arbitrary, the selected photographs that comprise the edit are rock solid. Only the captions hint at a great scattering, a shutter blinking in Butte, Boise, Baton Rouge and beyond.

When facing the reflection of its own content, the book doesn’t turn away, and it never coasts. Frank’s pictures squarely confront power, the misuse of power, the failings of power, what power looks like when it’s been drained from the faces of men, how power can be contained by silence, how quiet jukeboxes can be when they contain all the great songs you’ve never heard, and how loud they are when they play all the bad songs you’ll never forget.

Two days ago, I left the city on a quick trip to find an old cheap chair. I was heading to a town far enough away to be country, but close enough to still be a day trip, and as I left the skyline behind I realized I was smiling, and had been, for about twenty minutes, because there was a road ahead, and I knew where the map said it was going, but I didn’t know what it looked like there, and hell yeah I was excited to find out.

On the way there, I pulled over in a small town called Between, because if a small town called Between is an actual town between where you live and the place that sells old cheap chairs, you’re required to pull over and see what it looks like and find out what it all might mean.

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Robert Frank’s explorations didn’t just try to find out what America might mean, it’s as if each picture had its own double-strand DNA of American Meaning built-in, and the nucleotides came and did their work, and the cell split to form a new page with a new picture wholly unlike the last, each page a generational rebellion, but with papa’s eyes, and mama’s voice. Pure visual fidelity; the perfect sound.

I never owned “The Americans” but it was one of those books that turned me away from sports and toward the potential of art in general, and I remember reading it in the public library in my town, in the room with the old wooden table where Robert Frost used to hold court and teach kids, and I’d sit and look at Frank’s pictures, and each time I looked, I I knew I knew nothing, but I was eager to get out there and find out what a new kind of learning might look like.

Even years later, in my first months in San Francisco, with Ferlinghetti’s handpainted signs still hanging on the walls at City Lights, I’d sit for hours in the rickety chair of the upstairs poetry room, and steal another look at “The Americans“, while pigeons visited the window, and the clotheslines of across-the-alley Chinatown fluttered their laundry on a breeze.

All of this has nothing to do with Frank, or his book, really. Writing about “The Americans” is like writing about air; if you try and define it, you end up saying nothing. Better to say nothing and see where you end up.

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(From the 50th Anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans“)

Yesterday in the basement, the Spring rains came and went and the sump pump held, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the final sequence in the book, the last eight pictures, and how they make me think Frank was a doctor, trying to take America’s pulse, attempting to diagnose if America loved anything at all, or if it was only in love with itself, and its love for being alone in an emptied picnic ground, for the blurred speed in which families have children, for the boxed-in comfort of cars, and how getting old is a walled-in comfort of its own, and how America loves to drive in two different directions when it comes to race, or how America’s love for religion is so strong it needs to be said twice, in case you missed it the first time, in case you missed it the first time you kissed, when you fell in love beside your car, which was the same thing as falling in love with your car, because your car enabled you to fall in love wherever you needed to, even if you were stuck without a date, holding only your dreams of what your wedding day at City Hall might look like, when your fiancee held you tight, until the day you were together, in balance, on paper, but still very much your own, two as one as two, as well, prepared for speed but looking backward, back at the car that held Frank’s own love, and the children he’d regret regretting, his first wife looking toward him and through him, looking at a man standing on the side of the road with a camera, looking back.

It’s simple, really. Reading Steidl’s definitive reprinting of “The Americans“, where the plates themselves have a true and tangible depth to their murkiness, I’m glad Frank didn’t do anything to clear the water. Sight is rarely well-lit and f22, and when it is, it doesn’t last. When we see, our retinas rarely hold foregrounds and backgrounds together as one. It’s mechanically impossible, the eye’s failing, and it’s another reason why the camera’s succeeded as a way of seeing. A bigger lens can see what we cannot. Which says nothing of our attention, and what we choose to focus on.

Much can be made about what Frank chooses to see, and what he puts into his frames. The overriding arc in “The Americans” is that the pictures feel as if they were made by a feeling, thinking human, rather than someone trying to make photographs that look like art for the Christie’s auction. There’s a quick mind behind the book’s main equation, which is this: how we see is less important than what is seen. The former are questions for a machine; which lens, which film, which speed, which, how, which. The latter includes the most severe and gut-wrenching choices for a dedicated, free-thinking artist.

42_Americans
(From the 50th Anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans“)

For a Swiss on an American odyssey, Frank’s imperfectly odd way of seeing is the book’s best asset. It’s both Frank’s way and the highway, with the roads of America yielding an infinite riff of possibilities, regardless of where the end is, and what the air sounds like there. Though the Great American Road Trip is quickly becoming a petroleum-based impossibility, when you look at “The Americans” you get the sense that there’s a wealth of pictures still out there. Unlike many photographers, Frank’s vision wasn’t exclusive – it isn’t cheeky, selfish, or desperate to please. Its inclusiveness makes you think America is still a place where looking and seeing deeply is still allowed, even now, in this parking lot era of Chik-Fil-A, big box stores, and Homeland Security.

Which means even though Christies tells us “Trolly – New Orleans, 1955″ is worth over six hundred thousand dollars, its real worth is far beyond what it costs to be caught with your paddle in the air last October. “The Americans” may have been the result of a man with a Leica and a Guggenheim, or it may have been something larger; a piece of art that asks more questions than it answers, that reveals less than it implies, that suggests more than it establishes, that loves more than it can.

Frank’s book reminds me to hope for more black water. For art that’s less didactic, less like advertising. For a world where artists spend years risking whatever they have to risk (careers, marriages, relationships) to see what might be down that well. It reminds me that someone’s always willing to go further to see what might be seen, and they’ll report back, and we’ll all be better for it.

There’s always a place between where you started and where you’ll finish. That place may be where you’re sitting right now, or it may encompass everything you’ll ever know. Robert Frank had a hunch, and he went out with his camera to track it down. Many have followed. The truth is that while this edition of “The Americans” is the last, and the printing was presided over by Frank himself, it may be his definitive work, but it needn’t be America’s, and it needn’t be yours.

If I glean one thing from the pages of “The Americans“, it’s the suggestion that the road is still there, and it doesn’t belong to Robert Frank, it’s mine and it’s yours, and we’re the only ones who’ll know what’s on it, so let’s go quickly, and soon, before our thoughts slow and stop wondering what the light looks like on an evening when anything seems possible, before the movie’s last reel and the credits unspool, before all the ideas are the same ideas, and especially before we start asking ourselves, “what if…?”

Thanks for reading. Here are other reviews on 2point8, and other mentions of Robert Frank on 2point8. Please see 5B4 for another (more complete) perspective on the book.

Stuart Hawkins’ “Blue Eyes”

Maybe I’m getting older and jaded, but it’s been a long time since I’ve opened a book and gone, “wow”, page after page. Last week, Bill handed me “Blue Eyes” by Stuart Hawkins. I hadn’t seen anything like it. I immediately thought, “why haven’t I seen these before?”

The book came out in 2006, has an introduction from Joel Sternfeld, and is unbelievable. Why? Because Hawkins’ portraits and streetscapes from Nepal aren’t your typical slice-of-life 3rdworld-through-westerner’s-eyes photographs. She collaborates with her Nepalese friends to achieve images that speak to globalism, worship for all-things-American, and generally tackle heavy, cross-cultural issues with a lightness, a wink, and an admirable sense of humor.

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There was a show of her work at Zach Feuer Gallery in NYC, who’s archived the jpgs on their site. Apparently she was part of a show at Quality Pictures in Portland this year, a gallery run by an ex-Atlantan, which is how the book ended-up in my hands.

Like anything, her photos suffer on the web. I find that each time I open “Blue Eyes” I see something new, something unexpected. Stuart also makes videos, apparently. Would love to see those.

If SH-disposablecamera06_b you think street photography is over and done or your eyes tire at seeing another picture that looks just like the last, take a look at Hawkins and guage what she’s doing to breathe life into the ordinary. She’s not afraid to stage things, and some of the photographs are partially staged, in which both parts reflect the other into a delightful mirror’d fun house kind of streetscape.

She doesn’t rely on the hyper-clarity of medium-to-large format cameras to deliver her vision, she creates the vision and hopes that the camera can keep up with her. It does, but barely. And that discrepancy pulls you further into her field.

I’m glad I’ve seen this work. It inspires. More, please. Thank you, Stuart.

slower.net, an Appreciation

There are lot of things I could say about Eliot Shepard’s recently mothballed slower.net, and a few things I could say about Eliot as a friend. Rather than drone on about both, I’ll just tackle what’s at the top of each list.

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Eliot Shepard, from slower.net

If it weren’t for slower.net, I wouldn’t have taken to photography when I did, or with such zeal. Eliot’s photoblog (back when photoblogs had pictures, unlike this text stuff) was a dependable, nearly-daily dose of a world I didn’t know, but one that seemed eerily familiar. It urged me to keep going when I didn’t know what I was doing, and to do something different when I did.

Eliot’s site was that dreaded word: inspiring. Watching slower.net was like reading a book backwards by holding it in a mirror. Or like talking to your friendly neighborhood alien who’s got a great personality (and such big eyes!), but you can’t understand a word he says. Slower was photography with a capital F.

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Eliot Shepard, from slower.net

A few years ago, I felt like I’d learned as much about what pictures could be from looking at Eliot’s fits, starts, and successes, as I did from looking at anything else. Slower.net was the ultimate work-in-progress; casual & friendly, frayed around the edges, but with a through-line of incredible drive and soul. And by being a loose, public edit, you felt like you got to know a bit about the brain behind the curtain; a mathy guy, quick to smile, eager for a chat with a stranger.

In a web of flash-based photographer’s portfolios, slower.net made sense with its simplicity, and wasn’t about the sell. Everyone wants to stand out with their new project(s), and show their toothy web facelifts, but what we all need are more sites like Eliot’s. Less style, more substance. Less sell, more surprise.

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Eliot Shepard, from slower.net

Thanks for keeping the driveway plowed, E. You kept the wheels clean, cleared the slush and even scraped the tarmac a time or two. I’m not the only one eager to see what next looks like to you. Good luck with the new direction(s)…

Links:
Slower.net archive starts here.
Keep-up with Mr. Shepard on flickr.
I think about the oddness of this portrait once a week.

Torsten Hattenkerl’s “Autoportraits”

Torsten Hattenkerl has just released a new book called “Autoportraits”, from Fotohof. It’s one of those rare, successful combinations of street & conceptual photography. The photographs may be posed, but they’re taken on the street, and while they’re stationary, they have the feel of a chance, brief (and perhaps illicit) encounter.

Plus, as a categorization of something/someone who’s still, rather than in passing, they accrue a formal power in their aggregate. Torsten doesn’t have a site up, and I haven’t found a place (online) where the book is purchasable in the US, yet, but it’s available in the UK. RamPub is the US distributor, and I wrote some text about Autoportraits for their catalog, which I’ve copied below.

Dörmbach (by whileseated)
from Torsten Hattenkerl’s “Autoportraits”

Silke (by Torsten Hattenkerl)
from Torsten Hattenkerl’s “Autoportraits”

Andi (by Torsten Hattenkerl)
from Torsten Hattenkerl’s “Autoportraits”

In a world of camera ubiquity and digital overload, Torsten Hattenkerl’s Autoportraits are a refreshing step forward for the European photographic tradition. A future of portraits. People in poses. Eschewing the exactitude of the current European affinity for large-format detail, Hattenkel’s portraits of car owners (with the object of their affection) have a warm familiarity while they propose a larger statement about a nation of one.

These 37 color plates of people standing in front of their cars are as modern as they are retro, while Hattenkerl’s subjects are as brilliantly individual as they are terrifyingly uniform. The pictures ask “Who are we?” while answering “Who are we without our cars?”

Seventy years after August Sander, the traffic of everyday life has moved off of the sidewalk and onto freeways, while the world of advertisements urges us to believe we’re nothing without our vehicle(s). Hattenkerl’s trained his sharp eye on the confluence of culture and cars while executing a brilliantly simple concept. If we are no one without our cars – who exactly are we?

MDM, for RamPub

Full disclosure, I helped edit the book’s opening essay, as well. And for you gearheads, Hattenkerl made the photographs with a regular old 35mm camera and Kodak 400NC film, which proves if you have a good idea, pursue it, shoot it, and get it out there, regardless of whether or not you have the perfect camera.

Bruce Davidson, Time of Change

The best part about the Annie Leibowitz exhibit at the High Museum (other than the John Ashcroft photo) was when I left and walked downstairs to the bookstore and spent half an hour looking at Bruce Davidson’s civil-rights era images in “Time of Change”. There are two images in the book that knocked me out completely, and most of the rest were similarly strong.

My favorite is the image that follows the one below. The next photograph (unavailable on magnumphotos.com) is of the same arrest, but from a vantage in which the demonstrator’s feet are right up in Davidson’s lens, and the two cops are obscuring everything but a portion of the young man’s face (and eyes) as they haul him off to jail. Davidson’s succeeded in completely abstracting the moment, and in doing so, he distilled the emotion of the event into something far beyond “another picture of a protestor getting arrested”.



Bruce Davidson, New York, 1964

By and large, it seems that the art photography establishment (!) can be pretty cynical about photojournalism (and vice versa – why the hate?), but from where I stand, great photography is great photography. Personally, I prefer work like Davidson’s to Jack and Meg any day, and I like the White Stripes.

Then again, museums are like ball clubs. A place like the High needs a marquee slugger to bring in the occasional fan, and the presence of Annie + the cache of Vanity Fair & Rolling Stone =’s gate receipts. The journeyman shortstop who hits, runs, and lets his glove do the talking isn’t going to keep people in the sky boxes.

If you’re looking for a photographic role model, and you’ve churned through a few, spend some time with Bruce Davidson. His pictures have integrity beyond passing fashion; in most of his books, it’s hard to find a picture that isn’t in some way tremendous. The guy’s got a pretty outstanding on-base percentage.

It’s all too easy to insulate ourselves from the world of politics and social change. Sometimes it seems that art (not just photography, but poetry and sculpture and painting and … ) is engaged in play that’s too cerebral to speak up, or too didactic to whisper. While Davidson’s pictures are political to a fault, they’re also pure documents, flat as the earth, exacting and well spoken. Here is the world; this is what I saw. A street aesthetic if there ever was one.


Bruce Davidson, Birmingham, 1963

Perhaps it’s because I’m beginning to meet people here in Georgia who could have been in Davidson’s pictures from back then, that the realness of what he captured is startlingly relevant, more than 40 years later. I do know that in this age of celebrity inmates, manufactured meta-fictions, and senselesswar, I feel lucky that a photographer has dedicated his career to meaningful work that has the potential to make a difference, regardless of the price tag, or if anyone will bother to stop and look.

Thanks, Bruce. You just might save us from ourselves.

Links:
Bruce Davidson on Magnum
Time of Change on Amazon
Limited Edition Time of Change @ Photo-eye
My two favorite Davidson books: Subway and East 100th St.
Review of “Time of Change” on Washingtonpost.com

William Eggleston’s 5×7

After roaming around San Francisco one day last year, photographing with a friend, we went to see a one-time-only screening of William Eggleston’s “Stranded in Canton“. It was the kind of experience that leaves you scratching your head, in the best possible way. Eggleston’s experiment (filmed on a PortaPak in 1973) was so ahead of its time it almost didn’t exist.

Fittingly, the film’s settled into memory as more of a hazy dream than a movie. There’s no story, no plot, no traditional anything – but it’s loaded with characters: real people playing themselves, as they might have, drunk and singing while an observant friend glided around them with an infrared video camera in 1973.

What I didn’t know was that Eggleston was making portraits with a 5×7 view camera around the same time, with help from one of his Canton friends on strobe patrol. Beautifully printed in “5×7” from Twin Palms Publishing, the 57 plates in the book speak distinctly where Canton mostly mumbles.

William Eggleston's 5x7
© William Eggleston, from 5×7

Referred to in Michael Almereyda’s expert essay as “the Nightclub pictures”, the portraits do more than describe 70s kitsch, they show what can happen when a photographer forces himself to step outside of his traditional working methods to photograph what’s familiar in an entirely new way.

Like most great work with big cameras, the portraits bely the complexity of their execution with simple, pictorial facts; a face, a feature, some fashion. And the fufillment of these facts sets the stage for a portrait that delivers more than your average picture. Meaning, these are extremely good portraits; in both style and expression, and they continue to yield surprises with each page flip. (Who’s the Chan Marshall doppleganger in Plate 10?)

As black and white pictures from a photographer well-known for his color work (the pictures were made well before Eggleston’s colorific MOMA debut in ’76) they feel like cousins of Lee Friedlander’s color-saturated portraits of musicians, in reverse. But the book doesn’t rely on having “black and white portraits by a color photographer” as its bait. There are outside pictures and still-lifes and color shots as well, including a few that have been previously published – and this one, of a familiar subject, Marcia Hare.

William Eggleston's 5x7
© William Eggleston, from 5×7

More correctly, these aren’t your typical good-time party pics. They’re incisions — slices of clarity, moments from otherwise foggy evenings held still by the strobe and fixed to the unforgiving five-by-seven frame. However captured, the portraits are never cold. Their clarity helps, but it’s Eggleston’s attenuation to what makes a moment perfect that makes the pictures come alive.

When Eggleston’s discussed, people often overlook the Cartier-Bresson connection. Even when photographing artchitecturally, Eggleston appears to be as much about the moment as anything else. (Why take two? Get it right the first time…) And it’s this taste for what’s passing (even if it’s stationary) that comes into clear view in 5×7.

William Eggleston's 5x7
© William Eggleston, from 5×7

Pictures can be anything, really, and good pictures can be everything else and all of the above. Or not. When I look at the Nightclub pictures, they seem to be a way for a photographer to say, “this is life, and this is how we lived it, and here’s who these people are and what they looked like and how we liked to spend our time.” It is what it is what it is. Simple, really. Good enough for a box under the bed.

Fortunately the pictures have been dusted-off and held-up in the good light of this book, so we can all look, not just at the wallpaper details in the background, or at the technique that went into such scans, but that we can see through the lens itself, as if Eggleston and the camera and the guy with the strobe weren’t even there.

William Eggleston's 5x7
© William Eggleston, from 5×7

It’s not an easy thing to take pictures that successfully fix a passing world. And it’s harder still to make photographs of people who are looking directly at the camera – and end-up with pictures that don’t feel like Pictures.

For this viewer, Eggleston’s 5×7 leaves me as if I were approaching a building with a screened front door that’s been left open. There’s music’s inside and a room full of friends — an extra chair at their table. A welcoming.

Thanks to Twin Palms Publishing for facilitating this review. More reviews on 2point8, and more Eggleston.

Rosalind Solomon’s “Polish Shadow”

In an age where flashy, photoshopped-to-the-gills pictures of doe-eyed children dominate the world of art photography, it’s refreshing to see that someone’s still whetted to the basics. Portraits in black and white squares. Silver gelatin prints.

Rosalind Solomon’s Polish Shadow shows that there’s still a lot of legs left in the traditional, and that the true variables of making a great photograph are found in subjects and composition, rather than post-processing.

Solomon’s pictures of Poland show a nation emerging from history’s shackles. The book begins with scene setters; grey pictures of farming communities, a man smoking on a horse-drawn carriage, two young toughies with their motorcycle and pistol.

While the backgrounds and landscapes in the book reveal a country still bruised by war, Solomon’s portraits describe a populace that’s regenerating itself into something entirely new. And the editing of the book traces this emergence, concluding with a series of pictures of teenage lovers.

But the meat of the book are portraits like this; a man in front of a wall of skulls, a woman at her desk, her back turned to a blank frame and neckless violin.

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© Copyright 2006 Rosalind Solomon

There are many ways in which a photographer can fail when photographing the wider world. The knife-edge of exoticization is perilous on both sides. On one is beautification for beauty’s sake, and the other looks something like blurry pictures from a warzone.

As a global portraitist, Solomon plays it right up the middle. The book feels like an open hand, one saying, “these people are Poland, in farms and cities, young and old.” The plainness of the pictures may soften the wows, but there are still fireworks here. Many of the faces feel found – from another age, yet somehow recognizable.

It’s these little explosions of recognition (of a face, of a tablecloth, of a kind of weathered wood roughly-hewn into a cross) that connect this book to something that actually exists, that’s real and true and unassailable, and that now, through Solomon’s lens and strobe, is just beginning to come out of the shadows.

Links:

Rosalind Solomon (.com)
Solomon on 2point8
Polish Shadow at Steidl
Polish Shadow (paperback) on Amazon

Mark Alor Powell’s “V.I.P.”

Mark Alor Powell’s first book “V.I.P.” hit my hands this morning in the middle of a tornado warning. Dark clouds blew in and the sky opened-up. A wall of water came down. I sat in a car, paging through Mark’s book, waiting out the deluge.

I don’t know what kind of metaphor was happening all around me, but the experience seemed perfect, a savorable kind of apocalypse. And now, trying to objectively write something about the experience, Mark’s work, or his new book, seems absurd.

Mark Alor Powell's "V.I.P" on 2point8

Which is fitting. It’s not that V.I.P.’s absurd, it’s that it runs patently against. Against what, exactly, I’m not sure. But if you’re looking for a book that will sit quietly on your coffee table and play nice with others, stay away from V.I.P. It’s not an angry book, it’s just that Powell’s pictures have the power to confound far beyond the typical “street ballet” shot of the Bressonian school. There are no quaint compositions, no easy treats; the more you learn, the less you know.

So how does one introduce something that seems to be going in a different direction from 95% of books I’ve seen in the last few years? Let’s look at what this book is doing.

V.I.P

* Proves that a good picture is a good picture because it reveals something about life (and preferably, the human condition) that you’ve never seen before, and the book achieves this repeatedly, with brief and beautiful pauses of stilled, colorful congruence

* Proves that Mexico City is another planet inhabited by the clear-eyed and the cloudy, and that men who wear baseball hats don’t all worship American sports teams

* Makes you believe that studying photography isn’t something that has to happen in a school, not when there are books like V.I.P. in your friends’ collection, and you can probably steal it from him when he sits down at his iMac to Google himself

* Shows what a sharpened eye has the capacity to see with an early, small-megapixel digital camera

* Depicts a Detroit-of-the-collapsing-infrastructure that somehow survives on the strength of the heartbeats of its own inhabitants

V.I.P. isn’t any of the words above or below. It’s not something I’ve seen before (apart from the galleys), and I can’t imagine seeing anything like it from any other photographer soon. I have a small sense of what went into its creation, and while the low-res noise of some of the images will make purists scoff, the clarity of intent, of emotion, and of the book’s execution will make people stop and stare.

V.I.P. is street photography and heart photography and hipshot photography and look you straight in your eye until you see me photography. It’s here, there, gone tomorrow, and everywhere you want to be photography.

When you get your hands on a copy you can look at it or flip through it or stay-up all night reading it until weird. You can lean back and say what’s the big deal I can’t stand this stuff and you’ll be having an authentic experience which is always something to look forward to.

Objectivity be damned.

Mark Alor Powell is making some of the best photography on the planet. When you get your hands on a copy of V.I.P., lock yourself in a car until the rain comes down and tornados touchdown somewhere. You’ve been warned.

Links:
Buy V.I.P.
Markalor.com
Mark Alor Powell on flickr
Discussion with Mark on 2point8
F’log on VIP

Update Link: V.I.P. has its own site now

Jason Fulford at Marcia Wood Gallery

fulford.jpgIf you live near Atlanta (or have had the pleasure of relocating here this fall, wink nudge) definitely make time for Jason Fulford‘s show at Marcia Wood. Here’s why:

* Fulford’s not a street photographer, but he likes to explore. (As a photographer, I prefer work made by other “exploring” photographers, though you can explore without leaving your backyard, I suppose.) In Fulford’s work, you get the feeling that his explorations aren’t about any place in particular. The image is the destination, rather than the place. All of this makes his feel feel like quiet, personal discoveries, writ large.

* Fulford knows the advantages of the frame, in his case, the Hasslebladian square. But there’s something about his squares that do more; it’s as if what’s inside his pictures are in direct conversation with the borders of the frame, and what’s beyond. The effect: pictures like icons, like chapter headings in an undiscovered visual encyclopedia. Or building blocks. Really fantastic building blocks, for adults.

* A back room at the gallery is dedicated to dual slide projectors, which crank through a random sequence of images side-by-side. If I’m correct here, each projector has the exact same slides, but the timing of the shuffle is off, so, like any good generative music experiment, synchonicities and echoes between images develop over time. Each viewing is different. Chaos (or at least chaos within the constraints of 30 or so images on similar themes) reigns.

* There are two walls in back dedicated to art from JandL books publications, and it’s there you’ll find two sparkling, handmade prints by Gus Powell. Gus spent some time here on 2point8 a few months back, and it was great to resume the conversation in real time last night. If you want to see what he’s been up to, check the Lost & Found portfolio on his site. Polaroid’r Mike Slack has a few prints up, and Christian Patterson has a well-saturated (and peopled!) landscape up, too.

* You can join the bidding war for the Beyonce drawing. Beyonce with fangs. Beyonce with fangs. Rawwr.

If you don’t live near, Fulford’s latest book is “Raising Frogs for $$$“. I’ve been looking at it consistently for the last six months, which means it’s a gift that keeps giving, if you’re looking for holiday gift ideas this year…

Pictures over here.

Boogie’s “It’s All Good”

Behind the big house on the cul-de-sac called “Documentary Photography” there’s a pool filled with every black and white photograph ever made of people in poverty, of people doing drugs, of people wielding guns and committing crime. A crowd clamors around the pool, scratching their chins, taking a look. In a flash, Boogie runs up the driveway, stiffarms his way through the crowd, and cannonballs a big splash, swamping the patio (and everyone’s shoes) with his new book, It’s All Good.

1-ItsAllGoodCVR_1

There’s some physical law they teach in high school about displacement. How you can’t fit another clown in the clown car unless one gets squeezed out the window. It’s All Good does just that; it moves a lot of less-interesting work into the spillover. It makes waves in the same way Bruce Davidson’s “Subway” said, “what does this really look like?”

That pool, that deep history of black and white photography that focuses on illuminating those struggling with less, is an abyss. People are attracted to dark water; they wonder how deep it goes. Others want to dive in and touch bottom. Some surface, some drown.

Writing in the back of the book, Boogie explains his need to photograph the three housing projects in It’s All Good as “an addiction”, and he’s not mincing words. Crack or photography or dope or photography. One man’s X, is another’s Y. But if you’re going to stay on task, and stay committed to a project, addiction is as good a pull as any for getting the work done.

1576873382.IN04_1

While there’s a tendency (in the genre) to over-dramatize subjects, to increase contrast of a particular composition to heighten “grittiness”, Boogie’s pictures have a uniform softness in print that make you feel like they’ve been taken by a sure hand. It’s the hand of a sure selector, not just of which photographs from his 300-roll project made it into the book, but of the situations that led to the photographs. In the chaotic world of guns and crack, it helps to feel like someone’s carefully leaving a trail of crumbs in case something happens along the way.

Feeling guided, not just by the book’s pace, but by the printing, is a pretty subtle touch. Less subtle, but equally effective, is the leavening of the photographs with quotes from the book’s subjects. Some are short, a few are lengthy, and each (in “oral biography” style) lets air into the book, and in doing so, brings the characters to life. They cease being subjects of smartly-composed photographs and begin being people. People you’ve seen if not known, up close or in passing.

And that, ultimately, is the achievement of It’s All Good. Boogie managed to negotiate and gain the friendship and confidence of people living on the knife’s edge of drugs and violence, but he didn’t return from the projects with an exploitative study of their stylized, stark beauty. By using their own words and providing quick quips about the backstories of each photo (in a great section called “Captions” at the back), Boogie shows he’s human, first and foremost, before he shoots a frame.

“It’s All Good” has been on my shelf, my floor, and my desk for the last week or so, its cover looking up at me, pointing a gun in my general direction. Menace sells, and this book will do well, glaring (as well as smiling) its way off the shelf. Some will pick it up only to set it down quickly, because it’s Not Their Thing.

But it’s everyone’s thing. The world of It’s All Good is Boogie’s and Tito’s and Diana’s as much as it is yours or mine. To not want to look is to not want to see that which is all around us. In pursuing the project from inception through book production (I recall seeing a few of these in Hamburger Eyes and on artcoup over the years), Boogie’s given his subjects the respect their lives deserve. As readers, as fellow photographers, we have a chance to sit back and take a look, and in looking; learn, reflect, and admire.

Thanks to powerHouse for facilitating this review. All pictures in this review are from IT’S ALL GOOD, by Boogie ©. Published by powerHouse Books.

It’s All Good is available on Amazon and at finer bookstores.

Martin Parr’s “Mexico”

In Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” James Stewart plays a befuddled mid-Westerner caught-up in a grand conspiracy he can’t untangle. The first half of the film takes place in Morocco, and there are scenes in which Stewart and Doris Day are shown winging around Marrakesh in a carriage, bus, or convertible, while a film of street scenes is projected behind them.

It’s an old Hollywood trick, one employed for years to cut costs of location shooting. But in Hitchcock’s case, the lighting’s wrong. Shadows fall to the right in the foreground and lean left in the background. The illusion is of a reality that cannot be believed.


(Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)

There’s a likeness between rear-projected scenes of car conversations in old movies and Martin Parr’s new book, “Mexico” (Aperture $40.00). All foreground and background, an absent middle.

Which is not to say Parr’s sandwich has no meat. Like Hitchcock, he’s a master at making you see exactly what he wants you to see. In fact, he may be the best at it, but it comes with a cost. As Parr’s career has developed, his hand has become heavier. As a photographer, I wonder what he’s left out, what uncomposed mess lurks outside the edges of his frames.

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
(Martin Parr/Magnum Photos)

Inside Parr’s crops, the light’s great, the subject’s been pinned-down, and whatever is happening in the background (if anything) further accentuates the primacy of the subject. With no middle-ground, there’s no grey area, no room to second-guess, get lost or reconsider. But technically, his pictures are faultless.

At least Parr’s conceit is clear. Mexico looks a lot like England and Africa and Japan. All have McDonald’s and Marlboros, and people tend to wear gaudy clothes, eat bad food, and worship American culture wherever they may live. This is not new news, but it’s a fight that needs to be picked. While other photographers at Magnum concentrate on how our differences make us the same, Parr seems intent on finding how our similarities smother us. How mass culture’s a brightly-colored curse.

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
(Martin Parr/Magnum Photos)

In Mexico, Parr found men who posed for portraits wearing ball caps from American sports teams. He found chocolate mice, pink doughnuts and iguanas. A man in a triangular rain tarp posed beneath a pyramid. Martin Parr went to Mexico and all he bought me was this lousy t-shirt.

Parr’s early work allowed his subjects a little breathing room, space to be themselves. Now, his inspection of gastrointestinal grotesqueries feel like substitutes for pictures of people. Many of Parr’s food photos (unlike the one below) read like family photos in which the kids have faces “only a mother could love.”

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
(Martin Parr/Magnum Photos)

It’s as if Parr’s become The Man Who Knew Too Much. He knows what he knows about globalization, about the culture of commerce, and is comfortable in his own certainty. Within that expertly created perspective, he’s able to find unique surprises, and his pictures contain little blessings that are to be admired. Ultimately, the pages of “Mexico” fly by quickly, as in a magazine. After the quick jokes, there’s no real reason to slow down, stop and linger.

My trouble with “Mexico” is the same trouble I have with television. You don’t have to watch it to know what’s going on. Inexactly, just because something’s expertly made doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. (I think I enjoyed the opening essay and the design of the book more than most of the photographs. I didn’t want to say that, but there it is.)

Parr’s capacity for irony is his calling card, and in Mexico he found plenty of ripe examples, juxtaposing cartoon characters, crypts and cellophane. But Parr’s ironic distance relies on creating the illusion that Mexico is exactly what he says it is. James Stewart and Doris Day may be having an important conversation about who kidnapped their kid, but I can’t keep from wondering why there’s a blurry film playing behind them. Same for “Mexico”. The foregrounds are so bright, so crisp and obvious, my eyes are drawn to figure out what’s happening in the blurred backgrounds.

In directing our attention (like a good advertisement) to what’s important, Parr misses out on the hallmarks of art photography; mystery, wonder, and the chance to truly stun. Parr’s “Mexico” ultimately feels like it’s more about Martin Parr than Mexico, which isn’t a surprise — the photographer’s name is on the cover 154 times.

Martin Parr's Mexico

“Mexico” is available on Amazon.

Thank you to Aperture for facilitating this review. There’s a little discussion about this review here, too.