Side trip within a side trip within a holiday.... New York in Lego
When Gursky was here at SFMOMA a couple of years back, he commented that he had met the CEO of K-Mart, who also had a (probably "real" and pricey) print of "99 Cent Store" in his office. It was left ambiguous as to whether the exec felt that the photo criticized or glorified its subject... a little less ambiguous in Stallworth's discovery?
I reminds me too of the days of ancient Pixar, before Toy Story, when advertisers would repeatedly approach the studio with what they considered their Big Idea: they had seen Luxo Jr. Their quick-reacting repitilian brains had smelled food and would Pixar please do another spot just like the one that Pixar had done for the Luxo company, only for product XYZ? They simply couldn't imagine that the film had been made for any reason other than to sell more lamps.
(I actually have no idea if it had any actual effect on the sales of real-world Luxo lamps, but that was not remotely the film's intent -- the only intent was to entertain, using Pixar's then-new pre-RenderMan renderer)
This idea of wrongly-perceived purpose opens a narrow window on a problem that seems inherent with any sort of mass media -- its existence automatically valorizes any subject, even when the intent of the maker may be to condemn (a situation not inherent in Gursky -- he is usually rather deliberate in his neutrality, at least when speaking about his images). Thus "anti-gangster" films like Scarface are idolized by gangsta wanna-be's, proliferating celphone videos of misogynist "honor killings" promote more of the same, books of war photos become promoted to politely-fascinating coffee-table items, or used as images not to prevent war but to foment and celebrate it. One man's horror made into another's grand circus.
Always the old twisting knot of intent and effect. Natchwey has said he feels compelled to make the very best photos he can, with every aesthetic tool he can muster, out of respect for the people he photographs and their situations. Salgado does the same thing and gets criticized for "aesthetic anaesthesia," that somehow presenting his subjects in a compelling way wraps them up in Too Much Art. How much is too much? Does less reduce the value to the subject? The more you wriggle, the tighter the knot gets. Andreas? Ed? Henri?
I have been picking, one by one, through the many many MANY unread blog posts that have been steadily accruing in my bloglines feeds. The numbers have been intimidating. Alec Soth, 65 posts. Ed Kashi, 28 posts. Joerg Colberg, 158 posts.... even a long backlog of What the Duck. And that's just the "Shoot Me" folder. It goes on and on. I haven't even dared to get started on the flickr feeds.
These things creep up on me because I want to read in detail and my circumstances so rarely give me time and focus for anything more than a glance. And then the lists grow and keep growing while I'm trying to make time for it.
The experience pricks at a notion I've been having about just how much really, really great imagery there is in the world today. There are ways of coping, like trusting in editorial vision, at least hoping that it will be grand. You can try to be your own editor, which was the point of the Bloglines feeds. But I worry that perhaps even the greatest work just really becomes a blur -- that even at the highest levels there gets to be so much great imagery that the human capacity for distinguishing great from greater is overwhelmed & the only thing left to distinguish anything is the depth and volume of its promotional machinery.
It's been likewise apparent to me that at many of the sites with the busiest posters, there are also many busy commenters, who often seem to be in a bum's-rush against one another to comment often and early. It leaves me curious about the dynamic of the whole enterprise, and the huge impatience of it seems so antithetical to the charters of photography and art-making in general. I have to wonder, for sites like, oh, Conscientious or Mrs Deane (or non-art sites like Corante), just how steep is the dropoff in readership over the first few hours? If today's post gets a hundred hits today, how many does yesterday's post get today? Two? And what about the post from the day before?
A lot of the posts Ive been reading tonight, from the last couple of months, are cross-links and opinions and reprints of obituaries of John Szarkowski. By coincidence, this morning while visiting my office I found a shrink-wrapped copy of his book The Photographer's Eye, a copy I had purchased months ago from Amazon and that had gotten buried under paperwork on my desk. The book hammers home to me the largely-unchanging and well-determined nature of photography itself, and makes me wonder what all the hurry is about. In his introduction, Szarkowski digs out a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables on making Daguerreotype portraits: "We give [heaven's broad and simple sunshine] credit only for depicting the merest surface, but it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even if he could detect it... the remarkable point is that the original wears, to the world's eye... an exceedingly pleasant countenance, indicative of benevolence, openness of heart, sunny good humour, and other praiseworthy qualities of that cast. The sun, as you see, tells quite another story, and will not be coaxed out of it, after half a dozen patient attempts on my part. Here we have a man, sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and withal, cold as ice."
Compare a century later: "Everybody has this thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that's what people observe... Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way, but there's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect." -- Dianne Arbus
I will be returning to San Diego on Monday, to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, Legoland, to re-visit the Callahan exhibit in Balboa Park and to have some fun with the family. Drop a line if you're around...
While this post has been lingering half-written for months, I was reminded of it this morning, as I came across this post from Suzanne Revy, and prodded with the notion that in fact this little rant has been curdling in my mind for my, much longer.
Suzanne is one of an undeclared informal group, the APUG B&W Child Portrait Society, a club that includes photographers like Cheryl Jacobs in the U.S., Nicole Boenig-McGrade in Australia, & Heli Huhtala in Finland.
In all these cases we see similar sorts of classic iconography being used to similar means: to reveal, or seem to reveal, a private world in which children are fully involved and which adults can only glimpse. Even then, the contents of that private world remains hidden -- only its existence is shown, and the rest is hidden through deep shadows and restrictive or soft focus (or even, as in Cheryl's current title-webpage image, both shadows and soft focus combined with a wire mesh screen between the child and the photographer).
As Jeff Curto describes well in his Podcast Lecture on Women in Photographic History (you can find his associated presentation slides here), these veins have been serving-up images of value almost since the dawn of photography. As Curto also mentions, they have been especially well-represented by women photographers, with few men making such leaps -- a bit like his parallel observation that there are almost no woman landscape photographers of note. The iconic photographers with similar visual flavor are certainly women: Sally Mann, Chansonetta Stanely Emmons, Nancy Rexroth, and of course Gertrude Kasebier, whom I've often felt was the first prominent photographer of this sort whose work was acclaimed to a degree because she delivered what was expected, following in the far larger footsteps of Julia Margaret Cameron (caveat: both made images approriate for their time, and I acknowledge that my reading is based on a potentially ignorance-inducing gap of over a century).
There are a handful of exceptions, particularly moderns like Keith Carter (is Ralph Gibson an adult alternative?), or stray iconic images like Elliot Erwitt's nursing mother or W. Eugene Smith's postcard perennial Walk Through Paradise Garden, pictures that are notable for not being the work for which those photographers are acclaimed, regardless of whatever commercial success those individual pictures have found (Erwitt has commented that his snap, made of his wife & baby daughter, essentially paid for that daughter's college education).
There are a few men approaching but skirting past this dream landscape. An obvious example and another APUG wanderer might be Napa's Michael McBlane, whose black and whites similarly revel in the beauty of children's clear faces in soft light but like most male portraitists seems a bit more formal, more distanced, more willing to work in the studio... dare I say a more results-oriented approach?
It's not hard to think similarly of Nicholas Nixon's family photography, which reveals its emotional core only through a formal approach and his relentlessly demanding mastery of large-format technique.
What then might be a typical male approach? Surely father love their children as dearly as mothers do. Is there a "typical" stance? And if so, what role does the gender of the photographer play, where are its strengths, its soft spots? I ask myself this while looking at pictures like the above, pictures I made when my children were small and when, as a newly-single dad, perhaps (perhaps) I had no choice but to me Mr Mom in practice and in spirit. Have my pictures changed since then, in a way that reflects more than just the greater age (and diminished patience) of these two beautiful subjects?
Conclusions? None. Then again, I prefer photos that are questions.
...day between Siggraph and XNA Gamefest. Happily it's tournament day for Arsenal, Isaac's team, first-seeded in the Redline League. The snap was from this morning's game, the final comes up later in the afternoon.
(Afternoon postscript, yes, won & "Arsenal" were declared league 2007 champions!)