I might be having a mid-life crisis. I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never had one before. Since turning thirty-nine last month, and then bending my mind in Amsterdam, I’ve begun to question the value of my contribution to the human race. Difficult stuff, but not that original, I suppose.
I’ve always thought that making art was a valiant way to transform the chaos of the inner workings of one’s mind into positive catharsis. And of course, art is ultimately the way we judge culture, from the future looking back. Basically, it’s a noble and high-class profession, despite the poor pay and surfeit of insecurity.
Part of the problem, I suppose, is that I’ve taken the last year off from teaching. (I look forward to picking it up again in the Fall.) Working with kids has always helped remind me of the power of supporting creativity. Art offers teen-agers (and the rest of us,) an outlet for their emotions, one that can improve self-esteem as well.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been wondering (aloud) in this space what we can do to make art matter more to the general public. Again and again, I’ve pondered the issue. But in my introspective, MLC mental space, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s not appropriate to pull a JFK. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Maybe the real question is, what can we do to make the general public matter more to art?
The last few weeks, I wrote about books that really dove into murky, dark problems in 21st Century society. The Mexican Drug War, the incarceration epidemic in the US, and then an uplifting tale of conquering addiction in Canada. (How’s that for a North American Trifecta. Boo-yah.) So I can’t exactly say that no one out there is doing the good work. I just feel like these projects should have a greater impact on society than they do.
Now that the boundaries between art and journalism have come down, maybe it’s time that the motivations mixed up a bit as well. Artists could use a bit more of the photo-journalistic sense of mission and responsibility to the public, and perhaps the PJ’s could use a tad more of artists’ facility with innovation and risk-taking in the creative process.
Personally, I feel a bit caught in between. My burgeoning MLC is forcing me to ask some hard questions about what I ought to focus on, and whether I need to prioritize other people’s needs before my own. Lacking that, art can often end up as just a cool diversion. We’ve all seen countless examples of pictures on the wall of major institutions, or in beautifully printed books, and said, “So what?”
“Dive Dark, Dream Slow,” by Melissa Catanese, published by The Ice Plant in LA, is just such a project. I’m not certain, but I’d bet that Ms. Catanese is trendy at the moment. The book has that vibe. (Of course I could be wrong, but you know I don’t google this stuff. It’s all about reacting to the info provided.)
The black and white images contained within are cool. They appear to be historical, and have the feel of archived material. (Which the end notes corroborate: from the collection of Peter J. Cohen. Along with a quote from Camus, of course.) People are diving into dark waters, ladies are lounging on the beach, or in the tall grass, explosions pop up in the ocean. That sort of thing.
Of course, there are a few pictures of boobs, (Boobs Sell Books℠)
the moon, waves crashing against rocks, waterfalls, a man in a tribal mask. You get the picture. (I hope.)
I don’t mean to be sarcastic about this. It is a cool book, and I spent a few minutes trying to figure it all out, before I gave up. Because it doesn’t mean anything. I doubt it’s even supposed to. Sure, the artist might say she was mining an archive, trying to present a metaphor for the way we mine our subconscious as artists. Or maybe the book is meant to represent the process of psychotherapy, wherein we “dive” into abstract dreams, dissecting, seeking deeper meaning. (Of course, with the Camus reference, it might just be a meditation on existentialism.)
Really, it doesn’t matter. As Roger Ballen mentioned in our recent interview, so much of contemporary art turns people off because it doesn’t ask real questions, tackle actual problems, or attempt to represent anything other than the whims of spoiled rich kids. (I’m paraphrasing. I don’t think he mentioned rich kids, but did speak of preferring Disney movies to most of what he sees.)
In a world of near-infinite photographic images, the rules have obviously changed. Getty pays photographers in decimal points, Instagram images are on the cover of the NY Times, and we’re all out there, struggling, trying to figure out how to create value out of what we do. It’s harder to make a living at our collective passion than ever before, and I’m not sure that’s going to change.
So I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t time for us to reach out the wider world a bit more, as they don’t seem to be coming to us. Everyone is a photographer now, that’s a given. People have fallen in love with our way of expressing ourselves, which paradoxically makes us smaller fish in an a bigger ocean. Something’s got to change, and I’m suggesting it might be us.
Because books like this one will not bring the masses around to a sense of art’s importance. Maybe I’m wrong to want that? Maybe a collection of smart-looking photos, bound together well, should be enough for me. I just not sure anymore.
Bottom line: Cool book, but is it enough to just be cool?
Am I ever brief? Seriously. Whether these articles ramble on for a thousand or two thousand words, they always go long. I know some people enjoy that, and others look at blocks of text and just tune the damn thing out.
Occasionally, I try to break the cycle, but rarely succeed. It’s almost as if verbose were my middle name. (Instead of Benjamin. My name has eight syllables. How’s that for symbolically appropriate?) Ironically, my wife just suggested that the metaphorical meaning of my horrendous, insanely painful, glass-shards-through-my-goiter sore throat might be that I should talk less. (Ought that translate to write less?)
Let’s try it, though. Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting the recently redesigned Photographers’ Gallery in London. It’s a beautiful building, with glass windows cut out in sexy places, like bits of fabric shorn from a flowing jersey dress. And all those floors dedicated to photography? (Or tea, in the café.) All good in my book.
There were several exhibitions on display when I visited, but the highlight was a show of new work by Laura Letinsky. Occupying an entire gallery, the large, minimalist prints were quiet, as was the room. (Silent, really.) Ms. Letinsky has moved away from her straightforward, food-based still lives, bathed in gorgeous light. Here, we see mashed-up, studio experimental still lives, on white tables against white walls.
The images contain some actual items, but also two-dimensional cut-outs of photos taken from magazines. I loved the picture of the crushed white paper cup, against the white on white, and the desiccated grapes were great as well. The experience was like looking at the classiest collages you’ve ever seen.
The light is of course beautiful in the extreme, and the photos appear to be digitally created, thereby compressing the sense of space. By now, we all know that digital images flatten out the picture plane, as opposed to the celluloid aesthetic, which renders three-dimensionality so well. Here, it did engender a double-take or two, as my eyes tried to read exactly what was going on.
I wasn’t blown away by the work, or seduced into a Zen, drooling-on-myself-kind-of-bliss, but I liked it. It’s certainly well-executed, and beautiful. Mostly, the show seemed like a record of a talented artist who was experimenting; pushing her own process in ways that kept her engaged, while staying within a general stylistic preference.
I picked up a nasty virus in Mexico the other day. No, not the Montezuma’s-revenge-type-thing. I’ve had that one before, though. Nasty business. Over the course of a twenty-six hour bus ride from Juarez to Mazatlan, I brazenly ate food from filthy roadside taco stands. The flies were buzzing around the fetid meat, which had obviously been sitting in the sun for hours.
Why would I do such a thing? I had a strong stomach and a small brain. I can handle it, I assumed. Over the course of a miserable four-day illness, I remember thinking how some lessons have to be learned the hard way. They say youth is wasted on the young, but really, if we don’t learn from our mistakes, what’s the point of it all?
Now, though, I’m struggling with an evil sore throat that feels like I’ve got an acorn back there. Every time I swallow, it’s like I’m rubbing sandpaper over my swollen squirrel’s treat. As it’s a virus, there was no tidy anti-biotic to quickly squash the little bugger. Instead, I’m hopped up on doctor prescribed percoset. (So if my ramblings are slightly less coherent today, please forgive.)
I paid for my poor choice of taco selection, but only for a few days. The suffering was brief, and the ramifications of my decision-making were not life-altering. Thank goodness. Because other youthful mistakes can be deadly. The alcohol-fueled cockiness that leads to drunk driving. The pent-up testosterone-rage that leads to violence. The foolish sense of immortality that allows for the first taste of forbidden addictions.
Honestly, I never want this column to be too dour. Sometimes, I like to write about light and fluffy things, but I’m at the mercy of the book-stack. I reach into the pile, and respond to the quality of other artists’ visions. (So if you crave a book on Easter eggs this week, I’ll disappoint.) But if you’re looking to see how an artist deals with one of the most serious social problems of our times, then today’s book certainly belongs beside Mr. Rochkind and Ms. Emdur’s offerings. (The two previous columns.)
“Live Through This”, published by STRAYLIGHT Press, is packaged smartly. I faced a plastic sleeve, sealed with a carefully placed sticker. Open it up, and there is a cardboard cover, secured with a single rubber band. There is no artist name, or any info beyond the title. I was intrigued. The first blank page features only the pencil signature by the artist, Tony Fouhse. Turn again, and you get a small story about Stephanie, and how she should have died, to make what follows a better story. What?
I’ll cut to the chase, and give you the crux of the narrative, as you don’t actually have the ability to slowly parse it out, page by page. (Unless you buy the book, which I would recommend.) Apparently, Mr. Fouhse was photographing heroin and crack junkies in Ottawa, and asked the young Stephanie MacDonald if he could take her picture. It’s the first portrait in the book, and she has a stunned-but-vacant look in her eye, a pock-marked face, and a staggering Eat Me tattoo just above her lady parts.
Thus began a relationship in which the artist offered to help Ms. MacDonald get clean. He intervened in her life, setting up a rehab stint, and stood by her when she had brain surgery, due to a dirty needle. The pictures throughout the book are accompanied by Stephanie’s own diaristic text, replete with bad spelling. (Who am I to criticize? I have typos almost every week.)
The pictures are certainly difficult to look at, but unlike those Meth-head billboards they have up some places, (I mean you, Colorado,) these images are not just meant to scare. They’re intimate and caring, while also representing a vision of reality that we don’t want to see, but should. Powerful stuff.
While I’m pretty sure Hollywood has not yet relocated to Canada, despite Vancouver’s sterling reputation for filmmaking, this book does have a happy ending. Stephanie cleans up, and even spent some time living with Mr. Fouhse and his wife. There is a cool little insert in the back that includes Stephanie’s entire narrative, the results of a drug test properly passed, and a signed portrait of her, post-addiction, with clear skin.
Drugs are a problem that will not go away. Despite being illegal, outlawed, the demand never dies. At present, the people reaping the rewards are often armed thugs, gangs of killers. So people push for legalization, which will bring tax benefits, and shift the profits elsewhere. Who will make the money instead? I’m not sure that’s been addressed.
But like David Simon demonstrated in his provocative “Hamsterdam” scenario in “The Wire,” even legalization will not tie a pretty pink bow on this intractable problem. People will succumb to addiction, do horrible things, and then die lonely deaths, either way. I had a cousin who went that way, despite seeming to have everything to live for. Demons often win in the end.
This book is a beautiful counterpoint to the misery, and a valuable lesson to us all. I know journalists are often in a position of having to tell the story, rather than intervene. That’s just the way it is. But here is a case where someone’s creative practice and generous heart made a difference in a young girl’s life. One less corpse to be discovered, and hauled off to the morgue.
Bottom Line: Difficult photographs of young woman’s climb out of addiction
We used to have a film festival here in Taos. It took place in early April each year. Everybody in town would get excited, as there were opportunities to see films to which residents would otherwise not have access. (Pre-Netflix, obviously.) The locals loved it, and the film-makers did too. I got to meet James Coburn, so that was cool.
I worked for the festival in 1997, as an overly confident twenty-two year old. All bluster and little experience, I was hired as the Volunteer Co-ordinator, meant to boss around dozens of older folks who were working for free. I was hired last minute, as the original VC was poorly-equipped for the position, and subsequently fired.
I was told to do whatever I saw fit with the volunteers, so my first act was to handpick an assistant. Why not make my job easier, I thought. I went through the list, and chose a middle-aged female attorney who’d recently moved to Taos. She seemed sharp, and ended up helping immeasurably.
Within a year, she’d been elevated to Executive Director of the organization. A few years later, the festival was defunct. (Not that I’m blaming her, mind you.) There was some debt accrued at the beginning that could never be dealt with properly, and the best of intentions are not always enough. Competence, across a broad swath of areas, is required to run a successful event over time.
So I was displeased, if not completely surprised, at my experience with the Format Festival in England over the last six months. It gives me no pleasure to write this article, and I’ve certainly given some consideration to why there used to be boundaries between artists and journalists. Ethically, the tale that follows seem important to share, as I know our readers look to us for helpful information about what goes on inside the industry. But I’ve spent many a moment wondering whether this will damage the “artist” portion of my career.
Here’s the breakdown.
I met the Artistic Director of the festival at FotoFest last year. She seemed nice, and I was glad when she wrote a few months later to say the submission process to Format ’13 was about to open. Cool, I thought. If she took the time to reach out, I assumed they must be interested in my work.
Like the many competitions that exist around the world, there was a fee involved in submitting work for consideration. Nothing huge, but still, it cost something. When I didn’t hear back a month beyond the original deadline for replies, I knew things were not efficient as one might hope. Still, I wanted it to work out, and was thrilled when my work was accepted. Having an international exhibition on my resumé seemed like a great career move, and I’m enamoured of the British photo community.
Foolishly, I chose to overlook the fact that the exhibition to which I was applying, “EXPOSURE,” required me to pay all the production costs for my work, as well as shipping fees in each direction. (I don’t believe that’s the case with every exhibition they put on.) The forms also claimed there would be a stipend offered, but that was the last I heard of it until I arrived in England. My inquiries into how much funding I might receive were not answered. (Nor were most of the emails I sent looking for information.)
As the festival approached, I was asked to submit a proposal for my exhibition design. I worked on it for weeks, scratching sketches and fiddling in Photoshop. Surely, I thought, someone will be impressed. They will wonder at the power of my creativity and the brilliance of my art. (They didn’t. I shipped the box off and hoped for the best.)
So by the time I headed to Derby last month, I was pretty put out by the whole thing. I’d spent almost $600, and was beginning to regret it. (Not including travel costs, or return shipping, which I also need to arrange on my own. They won’t schedule the DHL pickup, apparently.) I’m sure they’re all nice people, with so much to organize. I get that there is a lot of responsibility. I do.
At last, though, on a Saturday in early March, I caught the train North from London with my friend Hin Chua. He told me he’d participated in the 2011 version of Format, and had encountered some problems too. He chalked it up to biting off more work than they could chew, rather than malicious intent, and said that most of the people he’d spoken to had some issues as well.
Before I got to Derby, I’d been warned several times that it was a less-than-enthralling place. Basically, people laughed when I said I was showing work there, and confidently described the place grim. I assumed it was just the famous British wit, pushing my buttons and dampening my expectations. Surely, they’re exaggerating, I thought. (Alas…)
The city was bleak and gray; the air freezing cold and moist, sucking the joy from my soul. (What little was left, that is.) I’m not trying to denigrate this Post-Industrial city, which has obviously fallen on hard times, but it is what it is. Folks were surly and suspicious, and the ramifications of decline were rampant. (I saw two businesses closing down on High Street.) As we got off the train, the first two people we saw outside the station were muscle-head teenagers in rolled up T-shirts. Genius.
After that, we stopped in at the Quad theater to see the Erik Kessels exhibition. I know he’s trendy at the moment, and I loved and reviewed one of his books recently, but this exhibit was surprisingly limp. Appropriated family album photographs were everywhere, though most were not-very-interesting. They were blown up into graphics that covered the walls, and were also presented on foam core, in racks, meant to be flipped through like items at a poster shop. (Points for trying to break out of the box, I guess.) I queried some fellow visitors who were equally disappointed, and one described the show as “graphic design” and “cotton candy.”
Next was a brief visit to the “Photo Market,” a few photo related stalls mingled amongst the cheesemongers of the local indoor market. The air was stale, the mood depressing. I got to see a few cool photo books, as there were several major publishers in attendance. It was pretty quiet, though, and one participating photographer told me there was a public opening the night before, and ten people came.
From there, we headed into an industrial neighborhood to the “Chocolate Factory,” to see the exhibition in which my work was included. It was the hub of the festival, in that portfolio reviews were being held there that day. I knew of several friends who’d be in attendance, and was excited to finally have some fun. We walked in, and noticed the entryway was open to the elements. No doors at all.
Immediately, I bumped into a colleague, who asked if I’d seen my work yet. His voice trailed off at the end of the sentence, so I knew something was awry. “No,” I said, “I’ve just arrived. Is there a problem?” He paused. “Well, the pictures are in the back. Better you see for yourself.”
We headed in that direction, and I quickly stuffed my hands in my pockets. It was even colder in the Chocolate Factory that it was outside: barely above freezing. The place had been abandoned, and reclaimed by Format as an exhibition space. It was filthy, and reminded me of something out of a former Soviet republic. Given that the festival theme was “Factory,” I should add that the choice wasn’t pointless. It makes sense in theory, but was poorly executed. (If the festival took place in Summer, it would have been an entirely different story.)
My pictures were at the very far end of the venue, by the toilets. While the location would normally be considered unappealing, on that day, at least, I knew my work would be seen. People kept heading to the loo to use the electric hand dryer to warm up, because the entire venue had no heat whatsoever.
Photographers were shivering, jumping up and down to stay warm. (Except for one of the festival sponsors, who was dressed in a burly Swedish mackinaw and fur hat. He was toasty, and suggested I not take my treatment personally. They didn’t reply to his emails either, he said, because they’re always so busy.)
I was told that the reviewers were provided with hot water bottles, those rubber things that evoke the 19th Century, and hot coffee as well. The photographers, on the other side of the table, were not. One American photographer told me she hadn’t even bothered to go see her exhibition, elsewhere in town, because she was too worn down by the travel, the elements, and the expensive cab fares.
Another photographer, a friend who was also attending the reviews, ranted about it perfectly: “I’m a f-cking chump. I just spent £200 to sit in a f-cking warehouse freezing my ass off all day. Even people who work in warehouses get minimum wage.” He wrote to me thereafter to stress that he did have some very good experiences in the review meetings, so it balanced out.
Just as I was about to lose my mind and head back to the station to grab the next train South, I saw a friend from Italy, Michele Palazzi. Michele and I, along with his wingman Raphaele, started to crack each other up almost immediately. (Telling jokes about Berlusconi, arguing about who made a better spaghetti carbonara.)Then, Barry Hughes, the publisher of the excellent online magazine Super Massive Black Hole, turned the corner. We’d corresponded on social media, but had not yet met in person. Format brought us all together.
We stood there, the four of us, laughing, beginning to see the humor in the situation. The seratonin flooded back into my brain. This, I thought, is why I really came here. Nothing beats the camaraderie of hanging out with cool people from around the world. Sometimes, a little temporary suffering brings everyone closer together.
From there, too cold to go searching for more exhibitions to see, we headed up the street to the pub. My mood improved, and the strong dark beer helped me get back to myself. For hours, we laughed, talked about photography, and shared stories about our respective communities. If not for the festival, our motley crew would have been spread back around the planet.
To be clear, I’m sure the Format does good things for Derby, providing opportunities for locals to see art and and expand their understanding of the world. Its residents must benefit greatly. In a parallel universe, I had a great day in Derby, visiting the many exhibitions spread all over the city, and came away impressed by what I saw. Just the other day, a colleague wrote on Facebook that he saw lots of great work at Format, and called the city “cool.”
There are many festivals around the world, and countless opportunities to show one’s work. Frankly, I submitted to Format without having done any research, and relied upon some specious assumptions. That’s on me. If you’re reading this in the US, though, I’d probably recommend you start somewhere else on your quest for world domination.
The following anecdote is hypothetical. I am in no way claiming it to be true; only instructive. These things do happen, though. And mistakes can be costly.
I was in Amsterdam the other week. Such a great city. There are things there, certain things, that are legal. Things that might be illegal elsewhere. The great state of Colorado has also legalized some of the things to which I refer, but in the United States, Federal law still considers such things verboten.
I enjoyed the opportunity to sample the legal wares in Amsterdam. It’s fun. But I would never, ever take any of those things away from Amsterdam. Like on an airplane. Never, ever would I be that stupid. Leaving town at Schiphol, my friend and I actually saw a poor sap who thought he could get away with it. Bad news. I’m smarter than that.
It was so cold in Holland that I had on every piece of clothing I’d brought. Three sweaters, topped by a down vest, and then a leather jacket. Always, the leather encased my body like a cow-ish second skin, futily trying to keep out the wind. The jacket’s zipper got stuck on our last day in town, trapping the layers below. I only managed to fix it minutes before going through security, flustered. I flew back to London, and then left the next day for the United States.
So imagine my surprise when I reached into my vest pocket on the tube towards Heathrow, and found a tiny bag of something that would be considered illegal in the UK. It was in my possession the entire time, and I was blissfully unaware. (Again, this never happened.) But if it had happened, can you imagine what I might have been thinking?
I closed my eyes, and saw it clearly. The arrest in the airport. The lightbulb dangling from the ceiling above me as I was harangued in Dutch, asking why I would be so foolish. Then, the trial and sentencing. Ultimately, I’d end up in jail.
People like me don’t go to jail. I’m educated, middle-class, from a good family. I don’t even know anyone who is incarcerated. (Which is statistically unlikely, as there are nearly 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, as I hinted at in last week’s column.) But not me. It couldn’t happen to me. Right?
As my “fictitious” example proves, though, stupid mistakes happen. As I leaned against the train wall, I thought about how it would feel to not see my wife and children again. How would I tell them I’d been so careless, and was now trapped in a cell, unable to support them, or give them kisses and hugs? What would my wife say? How old would my baby daughter be before I saw her again? My pulse raced, and I came very close to crying. Which would have been a weird thing to do in public, but no one was paying attention to me anyway.
Fortunately, even in this “farcical” anecdote, I got away with my “crime.” Nobody knew what I had done, and whatever evidence was left, after I had munched a bit, ended up in an airport garbage bin. I might have watched a janitor empty the receptacle, just in case. The evidence, were we to call it that, would now be buried beneath hundreds of tons of English trash.
I was lucky. (Again, never happened.) But many people aren’t. Our jails are overcrowded, with so many victims burned in the wreckage of our mindless Drug War. As many prisons are privatized, there is a financial incentive to keep them that way. Some folks have gotten behind this issue with all their might, like fellow blogger Pete Brook, but I’m just visiting for the day.
Artists have also given to the cause. I’m thinking here of Alyse Emdur, the photographer and writer behind the amazing book “Prison Landscapes,” published by Four Corners Books in… you guessed it…London. I had no idea what lay beneath the plastic when I unwrapped this one, and what a surprise it was; among the smartest and most creatively powerful books I’ve come across in some time.
Ms. Emdur’s brother spent time in a New Jersey prison when she was a youth, so she’s lived with the reality of incarceration’s impact. (As opposed to my bourgeois fantasies.) She knew that in prison, all photographs are taken against painted backdrops- no realistic details allowed. (I only know of such photographic stylings from Jersey Bar Mitzvahs, not lockups.)
The book opens with an excellent description of the project, through which Ms. Emdur, via a pseudonym, became pen pals with inmates around the US, and had them send her photos of themselves, set against a number of paintings. They’d be absurd if they weren’t so poignant. Rarely is art this earnest, while still being gripping.
The book includes letters written by prisoners, including some that were were scanned, to show the penmanship. (Do we still use that word?) There are also photos that Ms. Emdur has taken of the backdrops in prisons, and the use of an artist’s good camera and formal composition makes a fantastic complement to the personal photos of hulking or average looking men, and gussied-up or plain-looking women.
There is also an interview at the end with a prison painter who did the cover image, taken from the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pennsylvania. If I can convince someone to let me keep this book, I will forever use the interview as inspiration to my students in the future. You want to know why art matters? Prisoner Darrell Van Mastrigt will tell you. (That name sounds Dutch. You know I love to bring these articles back around.)
If you’re a thinking person who has curiosity about the world, you should consider buying this book. It is the perfect example of photography showing us what we would not otherwise be able to see. I have no idea how many of these people committed heinous crimes, and “deserve” to be where they are. Whatever they’ve done, they’re people with families and friends. Their plight helps us realize that things are always more complicated than we’d like to think.
Bottom line: Brilliantly constructed book with an ambitious agenda
All we are saying, is give peace a chance. It’s a great chant, and a catchy tune. A little ironic too, as John Lennon seemed to be such a combative guy. (According to the documentary I saw last year.) Sure, it would be nice to give peace a chance, but I’d also love it if my fingernails tasted like white truffles.
I’m a pretty mellow guy, myself, far from the drunken lout that once smashed a dude’s head into a stone wall during a fight at Duke. I ended up on the ground, punching up, but told myself it was a draw. I can still hear the frat boys screaming for us to beat the shit out of each other. (Classy.)
I realize that I end up talking about violence a lot in this column, which is strange, given how little of it I see. I’m fortunate to live in a quiet place, in a country with a functioning legal system. (Of course, we have an incarceration rate that ought to give Barack Obama an ulcer, but he’s got enough problems, so I’ll leave him alone.)
Back in the early Fall, we brought you a gripping interview with Alejandro Cartagena, who spoke of the realities of living on the front lines of Mexico’s Drug War. I heard him speak the words, and then spent hours transcribing them, and still it was just an abstraction to me. I hope to never know what it’s like from personal experience, living with that degree of fear.
Fast forward six months, and everyone’s talking about Mexico’s impending economic miracle: a terrific growth rate, and a new President who’s more focused on busting monopolies than cartels. (Though I must admit, it does take some guts to go after Carlos Slim.) Alejandro and I discussed the possibility of misdirection, as there were signs that President Peña Nieto would leave the Narcos alone to import guns from, and export drugs to my blessed United States.
So the Drug War has been pushed off the headlines, and it seems as if the death toll is finally on the wane. In a piece about Mexico that I recently read in the Financial Times, the Drug War wasn’t even mentioned until the last paragraph of a very, very long article. Yesterday’s news, apparently. Making money is more appealing than digging up corpses best left to rot.
But I’m not the Financial Times. Hell, I’m not sure I’m even a real journalist. We’ll buck the trend, therefore, and take a look at “Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War,” a book by David Rochkind, published by Dewi Lewis in 2012. Here is your warning: this is not for the weak of will or stomach. Mr. Rochkind is a brave man, and he put himself at significant personal risk to bring back these photographs.
Truth be told, I met David at Review Santa Fe in 2010. I saw an early edit in person, and we’ve kept up since. That makes this the first book review I’ve done in which I was able to see a project evolve and improve. There are many photographs in the book I haven’t seen before, and the breath of the narrative has grown organically, and well. In a perfect world, photographic projects should get better over time, and a book ought to be the best-case-scenario. It is here.
This book was really put together with care. The size of the photos vary, with gorgeous full-bleed double-spreads popping up in just the right spots, and scale shifts keeping the viewer engaged. At one point, I did a double-take at the pairing of Evangelical parishioners in fervent prayer, across the page from a junkie mother shooting up. Escape, meet escape.
The use of color and tension is very strong, and enables the pages to turn, despite the graphic and tragic subject matter. Love, of family and God, even makes a brief appearance now and again. Thank goodness. It balances against visions of the dead, the dying, and the victims trapped in a loop of poverty and violence.
Mexico is an amazing country, with lovely people who deserve better. Obviously, we’re all hoping this phase of its history ends soon, and that the future is bright. It is possible. Let’s not forget, the Aztec founders of Mexico City were among the most bloodthirsty psychopaths who’ve ever lived. Fortunately, people persevere.
Bottom Line: Incredible photographs of a story most would rather forget
Roger Ballen is among the most talented and successful photographic artists in the world today. He was kind enough to agree to an extensive interview last month, and is also allowing us to publish images from two forthcoming books.
JB: Why did you choose to move to South Africa from the United States?
RB: When I was a young man in my early twenties, in 1973, it was a time of cultural revolution. I guess I was swept up with that. I graduated from University of California, Berkeley, and was quite restless. Previous to traveling from Cairo to Capetown in 1974, two important things happened. One is I got interested in painting for about six months, and the second thing my mother died in early ’73.
My mother had worked in Magnum photos, and also started one of the first photo galleries in the United States, with people like Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. I’d gotten a real introduction to photography, and had a passion towards the field by the time I was 23. Although at that time, I had a degree in psychology.
Then my mother died in January of ’73, and I began this trip that would take me four and half years, an overland trip from Cairo to Capetown. I got to South Africa, and spent some time here. Then I made an overland trip from Istanbul to New Guinea, and that was about a two and half year trip. During that time, I did
my first photo book, which was called “Boyhood.”
I got to South Africa that way, and then when I got back to America, in ’77 or so, I did a PhD in Mineral Economics at the Colorado School of Mines. Then, I came back to South Africa in ’82. This is an ideal place to practice the business of mining exploration, and anything related to the mineral business. South Africa and the surrounding countries are well-endowed with minerals.
Despite the political problems, I’d liked being here for the first time, and then married a South African lady and stayed here. I’ve been here permanently since 1982.
JB: I imagined it might have something to do with the natural resources. I was raised in New Jersey, in the shadows of New York City, and ended up living in a horse pasture, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in an old Spanish village, because I married a local. So I can relate.
But as far as South Africa goes, co-incidental to this impending interview, I recently came across some information about the place, and thought we could continue to talk about it for a few minutes. Some of the statistics are kind of crazy. According to The Economist, South Africa has the highest rate of income equality in the world, even all these years past Apartheid. I wondered if you might share what that’s like, on the ground level?
RB: South Africa, as you mentioned, is a First World and Third World country. You’re living in this schizoid environment. Where I am right now, speaking to you, could be suburban St. Louis, or Des Moines, or Chicago. With suburbs, shopping centers, and reasonable, suburban houses.
A mile away could be Zimbabwe, or Mozambique. People there are living in poverty and crowded urban conditions. Lots of immigrants from Nigeria and other African countries, mixed up. You hardly would ever see a white person in those places. You have this divided culture, which has been inherent here for two or three hundred years. It’s nothing new. I guess the only difference is, over the last fifteen years, you have a greater amount of very wealthy black people, as well as more middle class black people. But the population is increasing, so there’s still no substantial difference in the unemployment rates, which are still at 40 or 50%.
The gap is not something that’s closed because the government changed. It just hasn’t happened. It was the same before. Or worse before. Or maybe it was even better before? I don’t know.
JB: Do communities build up gates and walls and guard towers? Are places physically cut off from one another, then? Because the violence is pretty horrific, I’ve read.
RB: I guess so. I think most of the violence occurs in these areas that people like myself don’t go into on a regular basis. It’s the violence of people living in poverty, under stressful conditions. You know, you have this in America. You go to urban America and you find the same problems.
It’s really no different. These things are always exaggerated by the media. It’s not a War zone here by any means. You can live your life. There are walls around your house, and you deal with the problem of security. Johannesburg and the other cities have the same problems that any other Third World country might have. A lot of poverty, and a lot of people desperate to survive in one way or another.
I would say, the problems here, they certainly exist, but if you look at the rest of the continent, there are a lot of things that are more positive and dynamic than most of the places in Africa. I am in Africa, not in Europe. It’s relative. What happens here shouldn’t necessarily be seen in relationship to Europe or America. It should be seen in relation to the rest of the continent, which also has significant challenges.
JB: I was curious, because I’ve never been to Africa before. One of the things that I’d read that I thought was hard to fathom, and starts to tie into your work, is that there’s a murder rate of 99 people per 100,000 in the farming communities, in the rural areas, numbers that were off the charts.
I was thinking about the work you’d done in the “Platteland” series, where you were meeting people in the rural communities. I know it was a while ago. I wondered if anything had filtered back to you about people that you knew, of if these communities were now less accessible? If the people that you’d photographed had become victims to crime?
RB: Not really. The countryside is like America. You go down to the South, in the countryside, and things seem relaxed in their own way. The real violence occurs mostly in the urban environments. There are farm murders, but it’s nothing like what goes on in the cities.
Most of the violence here is in the townships, where people are living in difficult conditions. Probably eight out of ten of these murders here occur in these township environments, and most of it is probably related to drinking, and squabbles over women, and money and tribal issues. I’m no expert, but a lot of them have to do with tribal issues.
JB: Why don’t we move along…
RB: I think so, because the media has its own reasons for concentrating on certain places in the world. Somebody’s pushed down the stairs in Tel Aviv, and it will be on the headlines on CNN and the BBC. And if twenty five people are killed in the Congo, it won’t be on TV. It’s where the media is, and how they fabricate the world and create their own political dynamics based on their own ideology, which is based on maximizing their viewer network.
JB: Absolutely. But let’s move, and talk more about art.
I studied Economics in college, before becoming an artist. It’s easy to see the influences in your work, but I didn’t know until I did some research that you had been trained in geology, and worked in the resource extraction industry. I wondered, as you transitioned from that industry to your art career, if you had ever thought about the comparison between the market for precious metals, the way value is constructed for things like platinum and gold and diamonds, relative to the way the market has evolved for contemporary art?
RB: The value is like night and day, trying to compare those two. The value for commodities is very much derived from physical demand, and physical supply. It’s very much a proper market based on actual usage and material consumption. There’s not a huge aspect of subjectivity involved, like there is in contemporary art.
Really, the business of mining, and selling minerals is a much more clearly defined business, a much easier business in nearly every way than being involved in the art market.
JB: At what point in your career did you segue from having a day job to being able to focus exclusively on your art career?
RB: I never really sold any pictures, or offered any pictures in any real way until about 2000, 2001, when my “Outland” book came out. There wasn’t much of a photo market up until the early 90’s anyway. The thing that got the photo market to boil was the technology of large color prints.
The black and white business plodded on. There were some specific collectors who would buy vintage work, historical work, but the average person who wanted to put money into art really wasn’t so interested in photography. And then, somewhere in the mid-90’s, the technology developed to enable people to make larger scale color prints on a fairly regular basis.
Artists could find labs, and get them to produce this type of larger sized work with ease. This equipment started to proliferate, to the point where you can now buy printers, and learn how to print digital photographs in a short period of time.
As a result of this technological shift, large scale color prints then became available to the art market.
I did this purely as a hobby until about 2000. When my “Platteland” book came out in ’94, it caused a lot of controversy, and became a famous book. That gave me the initiative to continue, and from ’94 to 2000, I put a lot more time into photography, but it was still sort of a hobby; a half-profession. When “Outland” was published, it also became a renown book, and I started to sell a lot of photographs. I began to put a lot more of my time into photography, and to see it as a profession rather than a hobby.
JB: Before you were focused on selling prints, books were the final output of your photographic narrative?
RB: Yes, and they still are to this day. I’m much more focused on books. That’s really what interests me. Selling pictures is OK, it’s part of the business, but it’s not a goal in itself. The real goal in my career has always been geared towards making books. Most of these projects take about five or six years to do. I work on them that long, and try to define the aesthetic that comes to mind.
Now, I’m just about finished with a book called “Asylum,” that’s going to be produced by Thames & Hudson early next year. It deals with birds in a Roger Ballen world.
JB: What is it about the book form that is so fascinating to you?
RB: It’s a permanent thing. It’s like getting to the top of a mountain. You’ve actually taken the process through from beginning to end. You’ve made a statement that has a sense of permanency to it. An exhibition comes and goes. Living down here, I don’t spend much time at the shows, if any at all. I get a few newspaper clippings back, but I can’t read half of the newspaper clippings anyway.
And that’s all I get. You think you make a lot of friends during the show, and nine times out of ten, you never see the people again. A book, in a way, is part of you, like your own children.
JB: Of course. That makes plenty of sense. Last week, I was in Texas, and driving home from the airport, which is three hours away, I happened to listen to a Public Radio program called “Afro-pop.” They were focusing on Punk music in South Africa in the 70’s, during the Apartheid era. I didn’t know much about the disappearances, the murders, and the censorship.
The show talked about how Punk came along, and the musicians themselves would challenge the conventional notions, break the laws, and inspire change. Then I also saw that you have a foundation, promoting photography in South Africa, if that’s correct.
RB: Yes, that’s correct.
JB: I was wondering what you thought about the role of art in the 21st Century, and the place of art within culture? I’m not necessarily talking about political or social change, but certainly here in the US, visual art is marginalized compared to cinema and music, and other types of expression.
RB: It’s a good point. I think about it quite often, because I’m quite shocked what I see in the contemporary art market, whether it’s art fairs, or exhibitions. I really scratch my head in disillusionment at people’s choices. Most of the art that I see merely re-enforces what people already know.
I do the art only for myself. I’m not doing it for an audience. I’m doing it to learn more about my own interior. That’s the only purpose. If it weren’t that purpose, then I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather stick to mining, because then it’s just another business.
It’s my own journey into my own life. But if we take that as one point, and then look at the other point: what is the purpose of art for the third party? What do I want my art to do for the other person? To me, art should be making people delve inside. It should be a mirror for their own interiors, as I mentioned for myself. It should open them up from one part of their mind to the other part of their mind. It should be something that maybe even scares them, or gives them a jolt or shock.
Unfortunately, most contemporary art doesn’t do this in any way. The purpose of art is to expand the consciousness of oneself. It’s only through expanding the consciousness of the self that art can have any ultimate effect on a person’s condition.
If we look at art as a political tool, what should art be doing? Art should be liberating the self from the self. It should be helping the person break through his or her repression. I’m a Freudian in some sense. It’s only through liberating our repression do we have any chance of improvement in the world. I’m certainly not optimistic about that happening.
It’s a Freudian interpretation in so many ways. There’s so little art that deals with this. And 99% of the art I see is stuff I’ve seen endlessly before. I might as well go watch a Mickey Mouse film.
JB: I was just about to accuse you of being a Jungian, frankly.
RB: Jungian also. It’s the same sort of stuff. A psycho-analytic interpretation of the mind. It could be like Joseph Campbell. It’s an attitude; a way of life.
JB: It seems like that’s the root of a lot of the symbolic resonance in your work. I read some of Jung’s writings in graduate school, and of course at the time was very impacted by this idea that the Shadow, the dark side, obviously exists within the human condition. Cain killed Abel. Saturn ate his kids.
Jung theorized that when you deny the Shadow, when you repress it, that’s when it comes out in negative and destructive ways, like violence. I suppose others have put this forth to you, but it does seem like your work is a visual manifestation of that idea. Would you agree?
RB: I’m trying to delve into my interior, to mirror the dynamics of that, visually, in some way or another, through a photograph. It’s a process of going down to one’s own shadow zone with a camera and a flash, and once in that place, taking pictures.
I always tell students, on their first assignment, to close their eyes, turn their eyeballs around, and go out and take pictures that reflect what they’ve seen. That’s the sort of thing I’m interested in. These relationships are very complex; very hard to define in words. We’re so obsessed with words, but the better the picture, the harder it is to put a word to it.
RB: To go back into contemporary art again, most of the stuff you can put some silly word to it. I think with my most recent photographs, it’s almost impossible to put a word to it. There are contradictory meanings, there are meanings that there is no word for in the dictionary. The work stands on its own, and has its own essence that is unlike any other essence.
JB: Do you ever censor yourself? Are there things that pop into your mind, and you think, no that’s too hardcore. That’s too dark.
RB: No. My conclusion is the dark is the light. So to me, the darker it is, the more light shines. It means I got down further.
JB: You’ve been able to create the visions you have because, if it’s a part of your psyche, it’s OK?
RB: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a part of my psyche, or a part of anything else. What you see is what’s there. If it’s there, it’s there. If you walk across a dead person in the street, if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s dead, it’s dead. That’s the reality that I come across. It’s not good or bad. It’s reality as you deal with it, like death.
What is death? Is it good or bad? Is it dark? You die. That’s life. It’s not good, bad or anything. It just exists. I just come across things and take them for what they are. I don’t try make value judgements. I just deal with things in front of me, in my own emotional way. Sometimes it has a big impact, sometimes it doesn’t.
But I’m not trying to make political judgements. I feel I need to go further. There’s more to life than having to try to deal with the issue of morality. Life’s a little short for that. I’m not going to solve what’s right or wrong in this world, I can tell you that.
JB: Thank you for sharing. I’ve been wondering these things myself in my growth as an artist. Most readers would probably agree with you about the dearth of quality visions within the world of contemporary art. But whose work, what type of work, which media do you look to, beyond your own experience, for inspiration? Do you have any favorites?
RB: I don’t really work with inspiration. I’ve been working for fifty years, nonstop. I just keep working. It’s like brushing my teeth. If I had to say anything, the thing that inspires me most, by far, is the natural world. Whether it’s looking at the sky right in front of me, watching the sun go down, or looking at a rock in the distance, watching flowers and animals.
That’s why I love geology, because I experience the mystery of the planet and the Universe. To me, that has always been a tremendous inspiration; something that is beyond my own ability to comprehend. It always challenges me. I’d say what inspires me has always been nature.
To go back to art itself, I’m inspired by anything from cave art to the traditional art in New Guinea. And traditional African art is tremendously inspiring to me. But I like artists like Picasso, and some of the Abstract Expressionists. I have a full range of things that I like, and that have had some influence on me. I just take it one by one. If I like it, that’s fine, and it goes in my head somewhere. Maybe it stays there, maybe it falls out. Then I go on to the next thing.
But you know, when I try to make a picture, the key to making the picture can come from a memory I had when I was six years old, or something that happened today. My photographs are made up of thousands of little points. It doesn’t matter, really, that I’m inspired by this or that. I still have to go back to the camera and say, yeah, this picture’s about to come together.
JB: I know inspiration can be a bit of a cliché term, but mostly, I’m asking questions that I want to know. I was curious to see what, within the realm of Art History, resonated with you. I can make assumptions, based upon your work, but the benefit to this conversation is that I get to ask.
For instance, I was at the Menil Collection in Houston last week, and they have a room filled with artifacts from African and Native American art traditions that directly inspired the Surrealists. It was this dark room, all compressed. I was thrilled, as that type of work has had a big influence on me as well. Right outside that room was this incredible exhibition of Surrealist Art, with Max Ernst and others. It was fascinating to get to see the connection between one influence and the other.
RB: You get the jolt, which is what I’m talking about. The things that jolt you are what’s important. You can be inspired, like you said, but then you’re back to square one when it comes to creation. You have to filter what you see, and build on what you’ve done, and something else comes out of it. It’s really hard to know where all this stuff connects. Every time one creates a photograph, one starts from the beginning, like a painter with a barren canvas.
JB: You recently directed a music video for the band Die Antwood. What was it like for you, as an artist, shifting media like that, and collaborating with other artists? What did you learn from the experience?
RB: It was another challenge. It was interesting, I made these installations like I normally do every day. And then I integrated their music within the realm of the installations that I created. So it was a different experience. What I do in a lot of my exhibitions, I just had one in Durban yesterday, I try to make an installation as well as a photo show. I’m expressing my vision in other ways. When people go to my shows, there are not just photos on the wall, there’s an installation that mirrors the place of the photographs.
I think the music video, more than anything else, opened my mind to the size of that market, compared to the size of the photo market. We got 25 million hits on Youtube on this thing. Can you imagine 25 million people seeing a video? Compared to an exhibition, where in a month or two or three, you might have 25 or 30 thousand. But it’s nothing like 25 million.
It was an amazing thing to see the power of music. If you can integrate your work with other fields like that, it’s great, because it propelled what I did into 25 million people’s heads, most of whom would have never seen my work.
JB: That’s why I asked that earlier question. Speaking as a younger photographic artist, I often wonder what we can do to expand the potential audience for our work. I have a belief, as I’m sure you do, that when people experience art objects, that they have the same ability to create a powerful impression in the way that music or cinema does. But our audience has thus far been restricted.
You mentioned your practice earlier, and the rigorous manner in which you work. I was always struck by a quote from Andy Warhol that I once heard in a documentary film. To paraphrase, he said make as much art as you can, as often as you can, as many ways as you can.
I’m attracted to that idea that practice and execution, game-time, if you will, is how you grow. Is that how you came to work as often as you do? To keep the skills sharp and the mind open?
RB: It’s a good question. The first thing is a practical thing. I was fortunate I had another profession, because I never would have survived in this without another profession. That’s the first issue. In fifty years I hardly sold one picture. I had another profession, so I was able to support what I was doing.
If I talk to young people, they have to find the right balance. Because you can’t be expecting to become another Andy Warhol overnight. Your chances of success in this business are much less than almost any other profession as far as making any money. There’s not much of a middle in this business. That’s the first point.
The second point is that, like anything else, practice makes perfect. If you’re an athlete, or a lawyer or a dentist, the more you do it, the better you become at it. I gave a lecture yesterday, and said “What’s the best way of learning about photography? It’s just to do photography. You learn through doing. Furthermore, one needs to rigorously look at your own work and find the holes in it, and close the gaps.”
I don’t think this is any different than any other field. Unfortunately, probably more to do with the economics, a lot of artists can’t do it all the time, because they can’t survive in the business. They have to do other work. It’s not like being a dentist, and being able to get jobs all the time. This is the problem.
Also, it requires a focus on what you’re doing to find new areas to develop into. It’s really difficult. You’re really trying to extend who you are, and find new ways of expressing it. It’s not easy to get on the road and find the path…and stay on the path and disappear into the forest.
JB: Wow. I hate to shift from the metaphorical to the prosaic, but as I know we need to wrap this up, do you have any upcoming projects we can tell the audience about?
RB: The first thing is I’m giving a Master Class at the Palm Springs Photo Festival at the end of April. So maybe some people might be interested in that. And the second thing is I have a show at the Smithsonian Museum that opens on June 19th. It deals with the evolution of drawing and painting in my photography for the last fifty years. It will be up in Washington DC until February of 2014.
Prestel will be publishing a new book of mine in the Summer of 2013, titled “Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky,” and in early 2014, Thames and Hudson will be publishing my latest body of images, titled “Asylum,” that I have worked on for the past six years.
From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"
From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"
From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"
From the upcoming book titled "Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky"
From the upcoming book titled "Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky"
I got home rather late last night. The trip back from London took 22 hours, all told. I was lucky to avoid jet lag while in Europe, but at the moment it’s difficult to remember how to type. My brain is working slowly, like a magpie building a nest, one broken twig at a time.
So I hope you’ll forgive me if this column is on the short side today. Last week in Europe was brilliantly surreal, and I look forward to breaking it down in a series of articles examining the exhibitions and festivals I saw, and the many conversations in which I took part. Lots of coming and going: planes, trains, trams, buses, shuttles, subways, taxicabs, and rambles.
As photographers, we all love to travel. No news there. Visiting new places, with eyes keenly focused, is difficult to beat. Pay attention, and you really don’t know what comes next. For example, my travel mates yesterday included a Mexican vascular surgeon living in Germany, an English planetary scientist en route to a NASA conference in Houston, and a Cameroonian businessman seeking funding opportunities in Santa Fe.
But my travel tales are yet to come. Fortunately, escape, synchronicity, hope, and the joy of discovery are all themes depicted in “departures and arrivals,” a new book by Charles Harbutt, published by Damiani. If you’re desk-or-studio bound at the moment, this one ought to deliver a jolt of the travel buzz.
Mr. Harbutt is a fellow Jersey boy, and has spent much of his life traveling about. He was a journalist, and one time president of Magnum, so I’m guessing some of you might know the pictures. Black and white, and mostly grainy, they’re really excellent.
From the opening highway double-spread driving through New Mexico, a route I cruised just twelve hours ago, through Europe, Mexico, and beyond, the vibe is positive, and the compositions excellent. I was particularly impressed by his use of scale, as he’s always finding ways to frame small and large together to enhance the sense of mystery.
I could go into greater detail, but this a book of photographs that speak for themselves. I will now allow them to do just that. Enjoy.
Bottom Line: Excellent B&W photos from a life of exploration
I was walking near my house the other day. Looking down at the wet dirt before me, I saw a curious pile of reddish goop. Bear poop, I wondered? Too early in the season. Coyote vomit? Possible. Or maybe it was just something the dogs threw up.
I live in a place of wild nature. The creatures are out there, and many emerge at night. It can lead the mind into curious diversions. Earlier this Winter, for example, a somewhat-paranoid neighbor reminded me that there were mountain lions about. “Be careful,” she warned me, “and keep your eyes out.” (My five-year-old son was with me. I was scared witless, but he thought it was cool.)
The next week, as I tugged his fluorescent-orange sled across the frozen field to grandma’s house, we saw an enormous set of tracks on the fluffy fresh snow. They were big enough to give us pause, so we stopped to contemplate. “Dad,” he said, “is that… a cougar track?” Stress chemicals dropped in my blood. Fear sweat began to form on my well-buffeted skin. “I’m not sure, buddy,” I replied, “I’m just not sure.”
Trust me, there’s a big difference between knowing something is out there, and seeing the evidence for yourself. Within a few minutes, we had convinced ourselves what we’d seen. Speculation gave way to certitude, and then the gossip spread. Before long, that same neighbor called us up, seeking confirmation. Were we sure?
In the end, it was nothing but a big dog’s paw print. Mountain lions have retractable claws, and the dogs don’t. Crisis averted. Our imaginations had sped off into the distance, like a white-tailed deer running from a pack of wild dogs.
Speaking of wild dogs, I got a look at a new book this week, “Animal Farm,” by Daniel Naudé, recently published by Prestel. Cool photographs, I must say, and the book is very well-produced. If it were me, though, I’d have skipped the Orwellian title and the didactic explanations in the opening artist’s essay. The pictures are good enough on their own.
The narrative focuses on one of the artist’s main projects, photographing feral dogs in the South African wilderness. Big, majestic creatures, these. Most look like a cross between a bull mastiff and a greyhound. There are many portraits of the beasts spread throughout the narrative, and often they look the photographer in the eye, communicating gravitas.
The book follows Mr. Naudé’s expanding explorations, focusing on the relationship between animals, and the people who raise them. (In several parts of South Africa.) We see an enormous bull on a beach, a man riding an ostrich, the extruding feet of a calf being born, another man holding a clawless otter, a different bull urinating on the green grass, and goats and zebras and donkeys. (Oh my.)
The compositions are formal, the light well-rendered, and the captions give just the information required. No more. No less.
It might seem hard-to-believe, for some of you, that I manage to find things to write about each week. (I’m not that interesting, after all.) But the real pleasure of this job is that I get to rejuvenate my curiosity, at regular intervals. The joy comes when I see photographs I’ve never seen before: rectangular or square bits of new information. This book delivered. Enough said.
Bottom Line: Very cool photos of animals, and the people who love/eat them
Will Michels is the co-curator of the “War/Photography” exhibition that recently closed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The show will travel to venues in LA, DC and Brooklyn, so be sure to check it out if you can. Will was kind enough to speak to me in the exhibition space while I was in town earlier this Winter.
Jonathan Blaustein: Thanks for meeting me here, Will. I’ve never done an interview like this, in the middle of an exhibition, so forgive me if I nervously start at the beginning. What was the impetus for something this large and grand?
Will Michels: The impetus was that I’m a Houstonian…
JB: Born and raised?
WM: Born and raised.
JB: But you don’t call yourself a Texan?
JB: You do?
WM: I went to the High School for Performing and Visual Arts,and then went to Pratt Institute art college in New York Brooklyn. I graduated with a degree in architecture during the worst architectural recession in this country’s history. The job I found was project architect restoring the Battleship Texas. So this art guy got thrown into a military world by chance. I worked for the Battleship Texas for approximately ten years.
JB: Where is that?
WM: Thirty miles South of here. Between here and Galveston, Texas.
JB: So you graduated from school in New York, and then came back to Texas to work?
WM: Absolutely. I got thrown into the military world, and embraced it. I’m a photographer, and after many years, I began photographing veterans of the Battleship Texas, and military re-enactments that were all associated with the ship that I worked on. So that’s where military and photography mixed.
As part of my job, I had to look through pictures to help restore the ship back to the way it was. That’s where my interest in military pictures comes into play. I would read books, and would turn the page, and there would be a Robert Capa. Uncredited.
It drove me nuts. Just started making me think. Also, I’ve worked at the Museum of Fine Arts since I was 17. I’ve worked here for 28 years.
JB: People can’t see my facial expression, so let me go ahead and describe it as perplexed; shocked. I’ve heard of people starting in restaurant kitchens at 17. That’s not uncommon. But I’ve never heard that in a museum. Were you an intern?
WM: I started selling recorded tours for the “Kandinsky in Paris” exhibition in 1985. I’ve been on payroll ever since. I’ve only been full-time for seven years, but I’ve been either teaching or doing part time jobs since 1985.
JB: What about this particular show?
WM: A few years back, the museum acquired the Manfred Heiting collection, which included a copy of Joe Rosenthal’s “Old Glory goes up Mount Suribachi”. It is the first print ever made.
JB: This is from Iwo Jima.
WM: Yes, Iwo Jima. It’s a print made by the man who processed his film on Guam, named Werner Schmidt. It’s a remarkable little print. I assume you’ve already seen it. It was the research surrounding that photograph, and other photographs in the Manfred Heiting collection, that gave me the confidence to approach Anne Tucker, the primary curator, about doing a very small exhibition about War photography in a small stairwell gallery.
Her response was, “You know that’s only twenty pictures.” And mine was, “That’s all I want.” (laughing.)
JB: That’s funny, given where it ended up. Unfortunately, no one who reads this will be able to see this exhibition in its current format. So how many pictures are in this wing of the museum?
WM: Four hundred and eighty one pictures.
JB: It took me three full hours yesterday, and I think I got my eyes across everything. But retention wise…
WM: It’s hard to digest it in just three hours.
JB: Right, but…
WM: That didn’t really bother us much. We wanted it to be an all-consuming experience.
JB: Well, the exhibition is almost the size of a building, and I’m not exaggerating. From an audience perspective, this experience is overwhelming. It’s almost not designed to be seen only one time. Was that something that you and your colleagues took into account?
WM: I just want to say that this is a result of Anne Tucker and I looking. We had a great opportunity, because we had early grant money that allowed us to travel and look, with no agenda. All we did was gather pictures, and look at them. We started recognizing patterns. There are some things that happened in every conflict. The woman grieving at the grave is in every conflict, every War, no matter what size.
We started seeing this commonality that was happening, and it started driving us to think about the pictures. After that, we started editing, and in our natural conversations, things started breaking up into the categories. One of the last decisions we did was to make it be in the order of War.
The desire to have it in the order of War, that’s what drove the numbers. For us, it was not only about visitor experience. We were concerned about the people who serve, and the photographers who shoot pictures. We needed to include enough pictures to honor what they did, for visitors to be able to get what they did.
JB: It comes across as a comprehensive, informational record of a core human experience.
WM: One of the mistakes is to assume this a history of War photography. And it’s not. There are major, major pictures missing. It’s about the relationship between photography and War.
JB: I get that. At the same time, almost all the images in the show, more than 90%, come from the field of journalism, or from the military photographers themselves. And this is an art museum. So what…
WM: There are four types of photographers: military photographers, including amateurs, which is the soldiers by soldiers. The journalist. The commercial photographer, which includes portraiture. And the artist. So what was your question again?
JB: I wasn’t quite there. I was headed towards the fact that we’re standing in the middle of an art museum. From a standpoint of art, context is, was and will probably always remain a buzzword. The way we experience something has a huge determination on the impact that it ultimately has upon our brain and our soul.
The vast preponderance of images here come from the tradition of journalism. There are so many of today’s journo-stars on display here: Damon Winter, Peter van Agtmael, Yuri Kozyrev, Jonathan Torgovnik, Ashley Gilbertson and Tim Hetherington… I could keep listing, and maybe I’ll come back to it.
Did you want to make a statement about presenting journalism in an art context, or was it more that you didn’t feel that there was as much art that dealt with these issues?
WM: For me, a photograph is a photograph. I don’t care who took it. It’s not about journalism to me. It’s about amazing pictures. It’s about good compositions, good storytelling; the photographer being at the right place at the right time, and the choices that he or she made to get there. I think journalism is one of the most overlooked genres of photography because it’s just pigeonholed as journalism, and not amazing compositions.
One of our earliest conversations about this show was, Ann said, “This exhibition will fail if we are not true and make sure that every picture is an amazing picture that stands on its own.” We didn’t want it to become “The Family of Man,” which because of its tight edit, reduces everything to be about one thing. And War is very complex. Everybody brings emotional things to it. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t this oversimplified look at War.
JB: I think you unequivocally achieved that, both in the scope and the quality of images on display. I even stopped and asked a couple of people, who I noticed were in there as long as I was, what the hell they were doing. You wouldn’t think regular folks would have two hours in the middle of a week day. They were both students.
As far as the selection process, there was a three person curatorial team. How did you choose, amongst the three of you, which images were of a proper quality?
WM: First of all, let me say that Ann and I are confident that we looked at over a million pictures to cull it down to this 481. That includes playing cards, cameras…481 objects. So the process is we would go to the print room, and put up Xeroxes of all the photographs, and we would do it by trip.
The first thing we would do was peg them into categories. For example, we would move something that was originally categorized from our trip to Perpignan, and then put it in “Patrol.” Then we would spend a day, and just review “Patrol.” Then we would edit down. Each category is like its own exhibition, and we treated it as such. We wanted to make sure that each category was diverse in its time periods, in its subject matter, and in its photographers.
The final result was a vote of all three of us. If things got there three votes, of course it was in. If it got two votes, we argued and discussed it. If it got one vote, it was knocked out.
JB: A friend, who had been to one of the museum talks, told me that the most contentious argument in the exhibition was over Nina Berman’s “Marine Wedding.” Is that true?
WM: Absolutely. Because I can’t stand it.
JB: I’m not trying to put you on the spot here, but Nina was one of my first interview subjects. I saw that project at the tail end of the Whitney Biennial, and it moved me to push myself further as an artist. But since you said it so vociferously, why don’t you like that picture?
WM: (long pause.) I’m pretty well-spoken, and I can speak about photography well, but I have a hard time speaking on that one, because I can’t put my finger on why I don’t like it. One thing I wrote to her is that I do not feel like she took advantage of the people. That’s not what I feel.
I just don’t think it’s a good picture. I don’t like it as a portrait. And she argues that it’s not a portrait, it’s a picture of somebody having their portrait taken.
I’m just not compelled by it.
JB: So it’s not that you don’t like the emotions that it brings up in you?
WM: No. But clearly, it brings up an emotion that I can’t quite peg. But the reason why I can’t peg it is the reason why it’s in the show. Because it does spark a dialogue. One thing I told Nina, when she was here for the opening, she pulled me aside and asked me if I still felt the same way. I said, “Yeah, I still don’t like it.” And she said, “That makes me really sad.”
I said, “No, it shouldn’t. Any show, whether it’s War or Monet, if visitors like everything in it, the curators have done something wrong. They haven’t pushed boundaries.”
JB: Earlier, you talked about how important it was to you guys to do justice to the photographers, and the experience of War. I’m really curious at what point you started to consider the experience of the viewer, and what your hopes were for the impact of something this comprehensive on your audience?
WM: (long pause.) For me, it was a genre of photography that is seldom looked at. I would bring books back from Europe, and the festivals we would go to, and people would say, “How come I haven’t seen pictures like this before?”
JB: It’s not seen in the art context, for sure.
WM: It isn’t seen, period.
JB: Well, I’ve interviewed some of these War photographers, and they’re rock stars, within the world of photography. They sit at the top of the Pantheon for their bravery, and their seeming insanity, and their willingness to put their life on the line.
WM: That world is pretty small. And I don’t think people know that that world really exists. Your average everyday human. (pause.) Sorry, I forgot where I was going after that. Because you ask good questions.
JB: Thanks. You spent the better part of a decade of your life sifting through the darkest, nastiest corners of the human condition. We all know they’re there.
WM: I have always felt that people need to see this stuff. I agree with Ken Jarecke. (ed. note, in the exhibit, Mr. Jarecke has a photo of a burned up Iraqi soldier’s corpse.) There’s an amazing quote up that says, “If we’re big enough to fight in a War, we should be big enough to look at it.” I’ve never wanted to pull any punches about this. If you’re going to look at it, you should look at every part of it. Including things that make you uncomfortable. Like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.”
JB: I have it in my notes to ask you about that film. While I was walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking that it’s so quiet in here. Still photographs don’t have sound. I was mentally comparing it to what Spielberg did, which was so emotionally manipulative.
And just as I was taking that down in my notes, a police siren went by. My first thought was that it was part of the exhibition, but then I realized it was street noise.
WM: What is never a part of anything is smell. It’s the smell of War that nobody can comprehend, unless they’ve experienced it.
JB: When you’re using an inherently quiet medium to discuss an inherently overwhelming sensory experience…we’re standing in this huge room, and it’s so quiet. I wanted to know what you wanted the viewers to walk away with, or what you hoped they’d walk away with? I feel like you couldn’t have spent ten years, and then not had personal desires for that.
WM: There are two major groups that come to look at this work. The art world, and the military world. The military world, in general, just looks at pictures. And they want to know what type of tank it was, what the battle was like, and the insignia on the uniforms. They don’t have much interest in the idea that there was a photographer, or any idea of the craft that it took to make the picture.
Art people tend to want to make it have a bias. To make a statement. And they look at composition and mood, and put it in the context of history last. My hope was that the two groups would become aware of each other. And that the military people would be aware that the photographers are standing there, taking pictures as well. And vice versa.
But also that one is not more important than the other. They are absolutely symbiotic, and work together. I don’t think people in the past have looked at it in that context.
Every artist has been affected by War, in some way. Almost all of them have done pictures about it, in some way. One of the things I love about this show is that there’s a Robert Frank in it, and a Walker Evans. And a Diane Arbus. Most people don’t think of those as War pictures, but they are.
I’m interested in how War permeates into everything, whether you want it to or not. I was brought up, not Anti-War, but if I got a cap gun as a present, it quietly disappeared. Poof. It was gone. It was my Mom’s way of dealing with it.
And then, when I got to the ship, every stereotype I ever knew about War, and people who fight, was proven wrong. I took a step back, and gained a deep respect for it. Because I don’t understand War.
JB: That was one of the things that really struck me. I like to think big picture, so I spent a lot of time yesterday contemplating what I could take away from this. I don’t think I learned much about humanity that I didn’t already know. But it presents reality in a way that is impossible to ignore.
WM: We’ll go back a little bit. I think one reason why this is successful is that we never had an agenda. We wanted people to make their own conclusions, their own comparisons. People can look at every picture in here, but they’re only going to remember one hundred of them.
JB: If that.
WM: And for everyone it will be a different hundred. That’s what we wanted: people to be immersed in something that they hadn’t before. For them to be able to generate their own thoughts and conclusions about what’s happening. The end wall is kind of evidence of that, where people get to make their comments.
JB: I think you were extremely successful in that agenda. I looked very hard for a slant, and you’re not going to get one.
WM: You’re not going to find one.
JB: This show is about to move, no? It’s going to the Annenberg Center for Photography in LA, the Corcoran in DC, and then it finishes at the Brooklyn Museum.
WM: This is the only place where it’s going to be like this.
JB: I’m not going to push the “Everything’s bigger in Texas” narrative, but people won’t see this. They’ll see a condensed version of it?
WM: Right. We were able to build this space for it. One thing we are very pleased about, though, is that the catalogue exists, because it is even more complete than what is on view here in Houston. Because we’re an art museum, we have to have a physical piece to hang on the wall. There were a few occasions where we’d have something on the checklist for years, and when we requested it from the institution, they said no. So we have to find a substitute.
The catalogue, though, has every photo that we wanted to be in this exhibition, whether the loan was denied or not. There are four or five pictures in there that are reproduced as giant plates, but they’re not here. The catalogue is the most complete expression of the vision. At the Annenberg, they’re only going to have 150 pictures. That will be really whittled down.
JB: Where can people buy the catalogue? Amazon?
WM: I’m unsure at this time. I believe it’s sold out at Amazon and Yale, and that the only place you can get it right now is here at the museum’s bookstore. We’re working to get it re-printed. It’s been selling very well.
JB: There are a few contemporary photographs mixed in within everything else in the early rooms. There are pictures by An My Le and Luc Delahaye, both of which are really powerful surrounded by everything else. But then, in the last room of the exhibition, after a viewer’s brain is pretty well wasted, we see a group of contemporary art photographs exhibited only by themselves.
I don’t have much to criticize about this show, as it’s pretty fascinating. But I felt a little let down because, A. I didn’t really have the chance to give them their due, and B. they were less powerful by themselves than the earlier images that were interspersed. Why did you go that route?
WM: The difference is that with both the An My Le and the Luc Delahaye, that artist went to the front to take pictures, knowing that they were going to put them in an art context. The pictures in the last room are all done after-the-fact.
JB: You mentioned earlier that the exhibition is sequential, with Reconnaissance at the beginning, and the casualties at the end. So from a narrative structure, putting the art at the end was the choice to make?
WM: I had to initially argue to get the Remembrance section even considered. But we’re an art museum. To exclude a major genre in War photography would have been a travesty. I think people have a hard time going from documentary to interpretive art. They have a hard time making that transition.
But I think it’s a really, really, important genre in the idea of Art. I see no difference between this Luc Delahaye and the Walker Evans in the other room.
JB: There’s a good chance the artist (Delahaye) will be selling this picture of a dead Talibani soldier for five figures. $10,000? $20,000? Who’s to say?
WM: They were very expensive, in an edition of 3, and they were sold out immediately. We looked into purchasing it, but the edition was already sold out.
JB: From a standpoint of exploitation in art, this to me is a far more controversial picture than Nina Berman’s, and yet it’s given…
WM: It’s a better picture. Period.
JB: (pause.) It’s certainly compelling. I think it was the picture that elicited the strongest emotions in me. I hated it, pretty strongly, when I first saw it. I’ve learned that it’s best to take some space and then come back to something. Upon second viewing, I thought, I know this is an art photograph. And because it’s an art photograph…
WM: Why is it an art photograph to you?
JB: Why? The oversized scale. The use of what’s obviously a large format camera. The fact that I’ve heard his name as an artist. But I hadn’t seen his work before.
WM: A large format camera? The old Rosenthal is a 4×5.
JB: Sure, but even though this is an art museum, the journalistic images speak for themselves. Within the art world, we’ve been trained for the last 30 or 40 years, post Jeff-Wall, to question the veracity of a picture. So much staging, if you will. An informed art viewer is going to look at this photograph and say, “How do I know this is even real?” I can’t assume that this is a real, bearded, dead Afghan dude.
WM: I think it’s really a mistake to start pigeonholing the pictures like that. I’ve never done that. That is where people assume art has a bias.
JB: If I saw that in a gallery in Chelsea, I would have been forced to ask those questions. Context is key. I don’t think it’s a bias so much as a training.
WM: The bias has been trained.
JB: Why should I assume that he’s dead?
WM: Why should you assume that anybody in any of these pictures is dead? That’s my question. Why are you singling out that one picture to question it?
JB: Fair point. I’m not coming at this from a negative perspective. Anybody walking through here should be asking questions of themselves. I singled out a particular picture mostly because it was interspersed with everything else, as opposed to the art that was segregated. You gave a reasonable answer. Obviously, everything in this experience has been thought out and planned, and it shows. It’s a little sad that everybody who gets to see it in the other cities is not going to get this experience.
WM: I’m curious if you noticed, when you were going through the show by yourself, that the photograph next to it is of the same dead Taliban?
JB: No. Most definitely not.
WM: (laughing.) Luc Delahaye, (on the left) Seamus Murphy. (on the right.) They are two very different pictures.
JB: The second one that you’re alluding to is black and white, smaller, and has a more journalistic composition. (As opposed to deadpan.)
WM: It’s more about the landscape. Additionally, people who are used to looking at War pictures, when they look at the Delahaye, they look at it and assume it’s a pilfered body. He’s missing his shoes. His wallet has been pulled out, and is at the top of the frame. When a soldier falls on the battleground, one of the first things that gets taken is their shoes. They’re like gold. If they fit you, and his shoes are better than yours, you swap them out. So that’s what it implies in this picture.
In reality, he was shot while praying. And his shoes are still there. They’ve never been stolen. So they’re two very different pictures. This one (Delahaye) does reference painting, and the other references journalism.
JB: And you don’t have a problem with the degree to which this death was commodified as art?
WM: Absolutely not. What matters to me is that the photographer was there, and took the picture. As far as I’m concerned, he’s taking it for an audience that would normally not look at a picture like that. So he is doing journalism a favor by forcing the Art World to look at these pictures.
JB: Great answer. Some of the most successful photos for me, the ones that resonate in my brain, have a power and an ambiguity, outside of the caption. Like the dead arm jutting up through the grave dirt. Pancho Villa had someone assassinated, and they weren’t dead enough, so they tried to climb out.
Some of the pictures don’t need a caption. Were there photographers that you thought were so successful that they elevated above the rest of the meta-narrative?
WM: What was really great about the project is that we looked at all of the images without names in front of us. We just looked at them in terms of categories. Those mini-exhibitions, as I called them earlier. Pretty late in the project, both Ann and I separately panicked. Because we hadn’t looked how many Capa’s were in it, and such. We didn’t know how our weight was. So we shook the project, and everything percolated up to the top. The great photographers had the most in it. The most is Roger Fenton.
JB: The Roger Fenton photos were from 1855, and throughout the show, I thought they were consistently genius.
WM: He’s one of my favorites. He’s a brilliant, brilliant photographer.
JB: That was a broad question, but I came up with the same answer in my viewing experience. His great-grand kids have got to be dead by now, but let’s give him a collective shout out. The dude was massively talented.
Another surprise, given the World War II focus, was how little we see of Hitler. The ultimate “bad guy.” Because every good War story has to have a great bad guy.
Who did you think was the biggest monster in the show? There were a few that I’d take a free shot at, if I had one.
WM: I don’t know what you mean by your question?
JB: You know, straight up “bad guys.” You don’t see a lot of that in the exhibition, given the measured tone. People who when you look at the photograph, they elicit hate and anger. Like that Serbian soldier kicking the corpse he just killed. But I don’t want to give away my top choice.
WM: Laurent Nkunda. (by Cedric Gerbehaye, from the Congo.)
JB: Yeah, he was the Number 1 a-hole. He reminded me of Marlo Stanfield from “The Wire.”
WM: He’s a cocky, arrogant, evil man. That’s what he is.
Yesterday was a good day. I paid a visit to the high school in Taos where I used to teach. I’m working with a couple of my former students, helping them participate in the New York Times Lens Blog project that solicits visions of 21st Century America, seen through the eyes of high school photo students. It’s open to all who meet those rather broad qualifications, so be sure to spread the word. Needless to say, the kids’ excitement was infectious.
In addition, for the first time in my career, a museum curator offered me prime exhibition space, with the opportunity to do whatever I want. Immediately, I mentioned that I have a finished project, framed, and ready to go. “We can slap it right onto the wall,” I said. That’s right, my first thought was to go the easiest, cheapest route. I even referred to the artwork as “inventory.” How creative.
Her face fell. It was subtle, but I noticed. Her eyes lost a shade of their sparkling blue luster. “We could do that…” she said, her voice trailing off at the end. “Really, though, you should take some time to think about it.” She went on to explain that this was my chance to pull off my dream exhibition, the coolest thing I could come up with. Open your mind, she implied.
It’s harder than it sounds. As a nearly 39 year old artist, you’d think I’d have had a better vision of what said dream installation might be. Instead, I first reverted to the safety of what I already knew. It’s scary to contemplate that one’s ideas might not be as grand as previously imagined.
Fortunately, the final good thing that happened yesterday snuck up on me like a black-clad ninja in pink, padded socks. I reached into my book pile, and came up with an innocuous looking hard cover book called “Katalog/Catalogue.” It didn’t seem remarkable in any way, and then I looked at the artist’s name: Hans-Peter Feldmann.
Given that there are probably five people in the world who’ve read all of my APE articles, (including Rob, my Dad, and me,) I’ll give you a quick refresher. Back in 2011, I wrote a short piece about an upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, by the aforementioned artist. He had won the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, and, for the accompanying show, had chosen to exhibit the actual money, in the form of 100,000 one dollar bills. It was the epitome of a clever, conceptual hook, and I was sad not to see the results in person. (We get some installation shots in the book, thankfully.)
On the heels of my compare/contrast series looking at the way photography is exhibited in Art versus Photo World contexts, the timing couldn’t have been better. Now we get to revisit the classic “artist who uses a camera” versus “photographer” argument. Or maybe not.
I’ve learned that “conceptual” can be a bad word in the Photo World. Just last month, I was encouraged by a museum director not to even breath the term, if I wanted to have my work considered by the institution. Many times now, I’ve heard people confidently state that they don’t like any “conceptual” work at all. No matter what.
Why is that? I’d speculate that “conceptual” is code for the type of off-putting, intellectually narcissistic clap-trap that people see in Art Fairs run by condescending gallerinas who relish the opportunity to ignore. The exclusivity of the Art World makes almost everyone feel like a peon, and work that smacks of the “Art” vibe can bear the brunt of the understandable resentment. Especially as so many “concepts” described in art-speaky press releases are nowhere to be found in the objects themselves.
Which is why this book was so timely for me to see yesterday, and why I’m thrilled to share it with you today. I’ve written a lot lately about stereotypes, and this is one more to break. Yes, there’s a lot of crappy, pretentious Art out there. Just as there are millions upon millions of photographs that lack any imagination whatsoever. (You know it’s true.)
But occasionally, far too rarely, we get a glimpse into the mind of someone who is doing it for the right reasons. Someone who has figured out how to unshackle his/her creativity, and mine the brain for all sorts of crazy, witty and poignant material. This book provides just such an opportunity.
It was produced in conjunction Koenig Books, and the Serpentine Gallery in London, a public space that sits atop the Art World hierarchy. We can all bitch about the Gagosians of the world, and the dominance of hedge fund/petro dollars, but not today. Serpentine is open to the public seven days a week, and free. Its Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, Hans Ulrich Obrist, is among the most respected curators in the world.
There was an exhibition of Mr. Feldmann’s work there last year, and the book project reflects the survey nature of such a show, and the irreverence of the artist’s canon. It also contains some fascinating interviews with the artist, one conducted by Mr. Obrist, in which one’s depleted fount of idealism can easily be restored. Terrific, thoughtful stuff.
Mr. Feldmann has worked directly with photography for years, in a variety of ways. Some projects track small changes and movements over time: a woman opening the shutters of a window, a barge floating along a river, a seagull coasting through the sky. There are many other series included, like “Views from hotel room windows,” “All the clothes of a woman,” and “Car radios while good music is playing.” Some will find them witty and original, others dry and typological, I suppose. More random still, we see pictures of the contents of women’s handbags that the artist purchased, sight unseen. Or the photograph of Walker Evans’ bathroom sink, unchanged after his death.
There are paintings and sculptures, readymades, and appropriated imagery. One favorite was the series of old paintings that the artist purchased, and then altered, adding clown noses to stuffy portraits, or overpainting people with crossed eyes. We learn that he took ten years off from exhibiting his work, to get a break from the Art scene, and also ran a business selling thimbles. Yes, you read that correctly. Thimbles. There is more craziness than I can describe, so I’ll stop.
I spent another half hour with the book just this morning, and look forward to taking it for another spin. Already, I have some cool ideas for what to do with my blank-canvas-museum space. Even better, I’m no longer afraid to sit with the uncertainty. Opening one’s mind can be difficult work, indeed.
If you read this column each week, you’ll know that I often vacillate between being entertaining and preachy. Sometimes, I even do both in the same week. But I hope the photographers out there will accept the following advice in the spirit in which it’s intended: pick up a paint brush, a piece of charcoal, a video camera, a chisel, a pen, or a computer. If you try to do new things with your creativity, things that are certain to result in failure at first, you will get better at everything else that you do.
Bottom Line: A primer in creativity, taught by a Master
The day after my three hour “War/Photography” marathon, I paid a visit to the Menil Collection. It’s located on a beautiful little side street with grandiose trees and well-kept sidewalks. Tow-headed little Texan kids frolic on large public sculptures jutting up out of the grass-covered park next door. It was downright serene.
The Menil is an outpost on the global Art trail, like Marfa, so far to the West. (Or the Rothko Chapel 100 yards up the street.) Flip-flop free, the Menil attracts scarf-wearing bohemians, bespectacled intellectuals, and super-skinny hot chicks. I’ve been twice now, and noted both demographics each time. (So it must be true.)
Surprisingly, the Menil is free of charge. While it draws an elitist crowd, used to paying significant sums for the pleasure of viewing high art, it is open to all. In a perfect world, this would mean that everyone would know and go, but that’s not how it works.
There was a temporary exhibition on display, “The Progress of Love,” organized by the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos. (And the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. Odd mix, no?) The show featured work from and about Africa, and in true Art World fashion, mixed up all the different media together. Glaring neon sculptures sat beside paintings on cell-phone bills, installations on the ground, and gelatin silver prints on the wall.
It always comes back to context, no? Photography is typically ghettoized by itself, or occasionally seen as one form of expression among many. (Really, why have we grown so accustomed to our medium sequestered from the rest?) Personally, I enjoy looking at photographs in such environs.
Just outside the gallery, one confronts a giant Valentine’s style heart on a wall, made up of pairs of custom glass night-sticks. Upon first glance, they look like nun-chucks, but are really ceremonial police skull crushers. The heart and the fist. Sex and violence. Love and power. Get it?
There was a large contingent of photography on display, and all of it good to excellent. Early on, Kelechi Amadi Obi had two color light box pieces, each showing a female warrior Queen, on horseback, rocking a big sword. (Like Jeff Wall does the Arabian nights.) The Queen was in the company of men, a hard-scrabble bunch, but seemed to rule naturally. I was hoping it was created by a female artist, but alas…
On the two walls on either side, Lyle Ashton Harris was showing pictures from the “Jamestown Prison Erasure series.” We see colorful cell walls from inside thickly buttressed prisons. Decals were depicted, Jesus, of course, but also fancy cars. Then the same walls showed the discolored phantom where the decals once stood. Existence/non-existence. Life/death. Freedom of the imagination/the oppression of incarceration.
Contemplating severity, I looked up and saw a bright yellow Volkswagen bus. Not a model; the real thing. Life-size and shiny, by Emeka Ogboh, it was commissioned for the exhibition. The vehicle had stickers on the back, with sayings like “No Money, No Friend,” “I am afraid of my friends, even you,” and “No food for lazy man.” There was also a sticker for Arsenal Football Club, based in North London, where I’ll be next week. (Assuming they let me in the country, notorious as I am.)
The door to the van was open, and there were headphones on one of the seats. There were no signs to explain whether the piece was interactive, so I slowly reached my hands out, waiting to see if a guard would jump me. (I felt like a kid playing “Operation” for the first time, hoping I wouldn’t get tased.) I placed the headphones over my ears, and heard an African man dictating a personal ad to a sexy, high-class sounding British lady. I got bored after a minute or two, and moved on.
There were many other photographs on display, most dealing with varying takes on sexuality and desire. One diptych featured a transvestite, rocking the makeup in one photo, his face stripped stripped bare in another, by Zanele Muboli. In one photo, he stood just beyond a field of tall grass, his legs scraped up. In the other, he stepped out onto a roof-deck, waiting to party, or perhaps model for a photo shoot?
In the next room we see a naked man, on a bed, looking back at the camera, teasing with sexual ambiguity, by Samuel Fosso. I thought about how hard it must be to be gay in a continent in which some countries deal with it so harshly. (I mean you, Uganda.)
That room had music piped in, a repetitive refrain, “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” As many of the photographs included people in bars and nightclubs, and the theme was Love, it fit. If I were a museum guard working in that space all day, though, I’m sure I’d want to kill somebody. (Again, with the sex and violence. We’re hardwired to pay attention to both, said some guy on NPR the other day. And NPR is never wrong.)
Walking back towards the Volkswagen, I realized there was traffic and street noise blaring in that room too. I hadn’t heard it on my first time through, as I was too busy concentrating on the work on display. And, I suppose it didn’t surprise me in the least. Much as I wondered why there weren’t other sensory experiences in the “War/Photography show,” in a place like this, it took me some time to even notice.
This show, like exhibit at MFA,H, was absolutely worth a visit. When I mentioned it to my Photo World buddies around town, none had even heard of it. And most told me they hadn’t been to the Menil in ages. No surprise.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Art World experience is superior. It sticks to its non-traditional tropes as cleanly as the Photo World loves its traditionalism. Neither is better or worse. Just different. But as one who walks in both worlds, and never feels perfectly comfortable in either, I do wonder how much we’d all benefit if more people dipped their toes in unfamiliar waters.
Hello, Controversy. Como estas? We haven’t had a chance to catch up lately. How have you been? Keeping busy, I’m sure.
I’m well, thanks. I made it to Texas and back without getting hassled by the fuzz. It hasn’t been as cold here recently, so I don’t have anything to complain about. I’ve been trying to push the envelope as a writer, but some weeks I just don’t have it in me.
But what about you? I was thinking it might be fun to invite you into the column again this week. Sometimes, it’s tricky to predict your next visit. Like that RJ Shaughnessy dustup. Who knew people would get so worked up because I kinda-liked a book about pretty LA teenagers self-published by a commercial photographer?
Other times, though, it’s not hard to guess. Take Pieter Hugo, for instance. That guy courts you like a horny hedge funder sniffing around an ovulating supermodel. You and Mr. Hugo have dinner together every week, right?
Yes, Pieter Hugo is guaranteed to get people talking. But so is the idea of plagiarism. (Or copying.) Do people actually do that? Ideas are in the air, and everyone’s afraid of getting ripped off. Personally, I’ve never had the stones to ask that guy who did “The Poverty Line” if he saw my work before making his. Too unseemly. What? I just called him out? Shit.
But what about Mr. Hugo? Let’s deflect it back. His new book, “There’s A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” is compelling and taut, like everything he does. Super-well-made. It consists of photographs of his friends, made in color and then converted in the computer. He manipulated the channels to make the portraits reflect the damage done to skin by UV rays.
Which is almost exactly the same project done by Cara Phillips a few years back. (To be clear, she used actual UV photography, and he digitally altered. She photographed with eyes closed; he with eyes open.) What happened here? Who made the work first? Did he know of her project? (Or she of his?) If so, did he decide to proceed because it was his right to make whatever he wants to make?
Or is this just another instance of two people having a similar idea around the same time, and then coming to market separately? I’ve seen it before. At Review Santa Fe in ’09, Emily Shur showed me photos of cell phone towers masquerading as trees. The next month, I saw the same idea, done by a German photographer, published in Aperture. Did she abandon the project, knowing she was beat to the punch? I don’t know.
But the book, you say? Well, Controversy, it’s a good one. Super sharp, weird portraits. This guy is a pro, and really knows how to make a picture. The images definitely reference old school photography, like new school wet-plate-collodion. (That filter has to exist somewhere, right?) And some of the subjects’ eyes are totally possessed, referencing back to his Nollywood pictures. The dirty-ish faces also make me think of miners, which in South Africa is an apt reference.
But what about the Elephant in the room? Since these were photographed in Africa, ought we not mention the unmentionable? Mr. Hugo, as you know best, Controversy, is often lambasted for being a white guy who photographs black people, sometimes in unflattering ways. So I can’t omit the fact that in some of these pictures, it appears as if he’s painted his friends in blackface. (If I didn’t say it, someone else would have.)
Of course, I like this book. And I like the pictures. They’re raw and experimental and powerful. Did he cop the idea off of someone else? I don’t know. Am I accusing him? Definitely not.
But in the Internet age, it’s easier to steal or be influenced by ideas than ever before. We’re all inundated all the time. It’s often hard to know when you saw something, forgot it, and then it popped back up in your head later on. Nobody remembers every page they breezed through, or every status update they liked.
Take my Texas Roundup article series, for example. Did I steal the name from that recent photo event, the Texas Photo Roundup? Of course not. Had I ever visited their website? Yeah, a few months ago. Did I remember it when I came up with the name? No. Do I feel bad about it? A little. My apologies.
Bottom Line: Terrific photographs of a project you might have seen before
The “War/Photography” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston lured me into town. When I heard that Anne Tucker, the long-time chief curator and power broker, had spent the better part of ten years on the project, I figured that was enough of a reason to head Southeast. (On Southwest, ironically.) Political capital is scarce in this world, and I figured if she’d gone all in, the result would be worth my time. And it was.
As I entered the spacious gallery on a breezy Tuesday afternoon, my attention was pulled from the exhibition map by a strange clomp, clomp, clomping sound. I looked up, and saw a scruffy, messy college kid in a ratty t-shirt and gym-shorts. His flip-flops were slapping the ground like an obnoxious metronome. Rarely have I seen someone dressed like that in a fancy museum, but rarely have I been in Texas.
The show was daunting and grand, with galleries off-shooting a main hall, like capillaries stemming off a blood-filled artery. Pump, pump, pump. It took forever to make it out of the first big room, dominated by historical and contemporary journalism, and a multi-image panel of the second plane striking a Twin Tower, by Robert Clark. He got to the roof of his apartment building just in time, after seeing the first crash on television.
Other highlights: Roger Fenton’s horse drawn photo van from the Crimean War in 1855, and Ashley Gilbertson’s photo of a soldier watching George Bush’s apology for Abu Ghraib on TV. When I finally looked down said hall, it seemed to be 100 yards long, like a football field in a Texas High School stadium. (Side note: I once flew into Dallas and saw two full-sized High School stadiums on opposite sides of the same street. Different school districts.)
Calculating the distance, my spirit was crushed. So much violence, so little time. Three hours, all told, I spent in the custom-built-hanger space, filled with almost five hundred photographs that presented as categorical a photographic depiction of War as has likely ever been assembled. In the end, the nice Vietnamese guards insisted I had to leave, as the museum was closing. (Actually, they subtly suggested it, and as I didn’t get the hint, they got a bossy colleague to shoo me out the door.)
In the span of those hours, I slowly looked and contemplated. Death and destruction, bombs and ships, planes and slingshots, guns and swords, frightened boys and casualties of War. I thought of all the fat cats that designed these conflicts, plucking hicks from the sticks to use as cannon fodder to advance their greedy ambitions. There were decomposing corpses, burned-off faces, miserable rape victims, and even the goofy Diane Arbus dude in the silly straw hat. Ultimately, it was a joy to witness such sorrow, if that makes sense.
The show clearly lacked an agenda. No obvious “War Should Be Abolished” message here. If anything, it made me grateful to be an American, as we haven’t had to live with the horrific repercussions of grinding conventional War on our shores since the 19th Century. (Excepting Pearl Harbor, I suppose.) Too many others have.
As I crossed the threshold into the first side-gallery, I found myself lamenting the absolute silence in the room. War is the messiest, most sensory overloaded phenomenon humans have created. (See our previously published Ben Lowy interview for confirmation.) The show was so traditional in construction, created to highlight photos and wall text. I craved something to break it up.
No sooner had the thought popped into my head than sirens wailed about the room. Ah, piped in sound, I thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. Then I realized it was just an ambulance going by on the street below; a happy accident. In a more Art World context, (as opposed to Photo-World,) I noted, such things would be built into the experience. Not better or worse, just different. (Co-incidentally, a subsequent visit to the Menil Collection provided the perfect Art World counterpart. I’ll tell you about that one next week.)
As I walked in and out of galleries, back and forth, I appreciated that they were well-attended. People looked like average citizens, out and about, educating themselves. Suddenly, I heard the clomp clomp clomp again, and saw the kid who entered with me. I was impressed, as we’d been there an hour and forty-five minutes by then. I couldn’t help but query him, and learned he was a photography student, an intern at HCP, and was biding his time because he couldn’t afford see the show twice. (There was a surcharge on top of regular admission.)
When I asked him what impact the show was having on him, he grew silent, contemplative. I waited for him to deliver a reply, until I realized it wasn’t forthcoming. He just didn’t know. So I let him off the hook, politely. After all, he didn’t turn up expecting to be interviewed by a pushy fake-journalist with a bushy goatee.
I’ll spare you too many more details, because I was fortunate to interview one of the co-curators, Will Michels, and we’ll bring you that piece shortly. (Natalie Zelt was the third curator behind the project.) Will delved into the specifics of the decade-long process, so I’d rather not repeat. But one point I found incredibly salient was that the show was designed with two audiences in mind: museum goers, and Military viewers. (This being Texas, and not the coasts.)
That’s why it seemed to lack a typical liberal agenda. Personally, I don’t know anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s easy to demonize the evils of war, lacking intimate knowledge of the experience. What do I know about the pride of proper execution, a job well done? Like it or not, violence is embedded into our human operating system, and wishing it away comes to naught.
The show closed in the beginning of February, so this review comes to late for you to check it out. Thankfully, a condensed version of exhibition travels to the Annenberg Center in LA, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC, and the Brooklyn Museum as well. If you can, go see it. It’s worth the investment of time, money and precious brain space. You’ll probably feel bad for a while, but in a good kind of way.
I’m addicted to Project Runway. There, I said it. Since the beginning, I’ve been beguiled by the tangential relation to the fashion world. So close, and yet so far.
To make matters worse, a few years ago, my wife began subscribing to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Which means I can now recognize Michael Kors style from Burberry. And as to the models? It’s pathetic that I can name drop Karlie Kloss, Lara Stone, Karmen Pedaru, and more. My good friend Melanie mocked when I correctly recognized Karen Elson in a photo she shared on FB.
The industry may be leagues away from my little horse pasture, but the fantasy and feast of consumerism still make sense. This is America, after all. Selling fancy clothes is not that much different than selling beer. Like everything else, it’s all about the Benjamins.
Lately, the worlds of art and fashion seem closer than ever before. Exhibitions laud both, and the upper class consumers that buy one luxury good often buy the other. What has that got to do with us?
Well, I just had a look at Viviane Sassen’s new book “Roxane.” (It took me three glances to realize it was spelled non-traditionally. Thereby depriving me of any jokes about putting on the Red Light.)
The book is cool, no doubt. And it doesn’t really make any sense, in a narrative sort of way. Which is not a problem to me. It just adds to the off-putting vibe that so many fashion mags court anyway. Feel bad about yourself for being too fat or poor, and then buy this Hermes scarf to feel better. (Ah, capitalism.)
The awkward poses are straight off the runway, as are the clothes and the strange-but-hot heroine. Throw in the natural landscape locations, and the obligatory Paris reference, and you’re good to go. Sarcasm aside, though, I do like the photographs very much.
The poses are sculptural, and the mood is almost surreal.
Ms. Sassen is in demand these days, from MoMA to the fashion houses. And the last-page-thank-you notes, which name drop Celine, Nina Ricci, Maison Martin Margiela and a few others, leave no doubt about that. No Marchesa, though. Pity. A few pictures of Georgina Chapman would have definitely put the book over the top.
Everybody loves a good idea. The best are often simple and elegant. What if we could build a machine to let people fly like birds? What if people could fit their entire music library in the palm of their hand? What if we could all share tiny bits of information, for free, with anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world?
Good ideas would not exist without their counterparts: bad ones. The worst are often genius, in a bad is good kind of way. (i.e., the mullet.) Most often, though, they’re just plain bad. For a while, my favorite bad idea occurred when I was hired to photograph the bloody slaughter of some local New Mexican cows. My client was a restaurant that wanted to use the snuff pictures to market hamburgers and steaks. Not surprisingly, they are now out of business.
As high as that one might rank, though, while driving from Houston to San Marcos, Texas the other week, I witnessed the granddaddy of all horrible ideas. El numero uno. El jefe. The boss.
I was headed NW on Highway 80, between the little town of Luling, and San Marcos. En route to the Texas State campus, I was excited to see Kate Breakey’s new exhibition, Las Sombras/The Shadows, at the Wittliff Collections.
While carefully minding the speed limit, as I was reminded many times that Texas cops are best avoided, there it was, just off the road to the East. I saw the wrecked plane before anything else. Like the car crashes I mentioned in last week’s column, plane crashes, while less frequently seen by the side of the highway, are equally riveting.
The plane had a crumpled nose, mushed into the dead grass. (Well, sir, you have my attention.) Next, I saw the sign next to it… for skydiving lessons. The hanger loomed in the background, like a kid at a soccer game, ashamed of his dad for berating the ref. Shall I summarize? A company that sells sky-diving lessons thought it wise to advertise said services with a plane crash. I have to nominate this as the worst idea of all time. Anyone care to disagree?
Without bad ideas, though, there would be no such things as good ones. (Yin, yang, etc.) And Kate Breakey’s exhibit was the perfect antidote to the ridiculous wreckage. Should you live anywhere in Texas, or plan to visit Houston, San Antonio, or Austin before July 7th, I’d recommend that you drive to San Marcos to check out the show.
I’d seen an installation of Ms. Breakey’s work at the excellent Etherton Gallery in Tucson back in 2010. I was intrigued. The taste whetted my appetite, and was the impetus for my 3 hour trek through Texas.
Speaking of appetite, I was fortunate to stop at Luling City Market for some of the best Texas barbecue on Earth. It’s so good, when I pulled up outside the joint, a fat man jumped out of a still-moving mini-van next to me, so excited was he to stuff his face. The sealed smokehouse in the back of the restaurant offered some seriously brilliant meat. Cows and pigs, which I rarely eat, called out to my rumbling innards, and insisted they make their way inside my belly. Mission accomplished. (What would a Texas series be w/o at least one George W. reference?)
I’ve always been fascinated by the dichotomy between animals and meat. Alive, they’re animals. Living creatures. Sentient beings. They moo and oink and quack and baa. Dead, they’re food. We don’t call them animals anymore. But if you don’t want to eat them, or kill them, or sell them, there are yet other ways to enjoy a good carcass.
A few years ago, Ms. Breakey got the great idea to pick roadkill and other dead things up off the ground, and turn them into art via the simple, direct process of a photogram. (Talk about preservation technique.) The resulting images do justice to the realities of nature: death is the inevitable conclusion to the cycle of life. And it also perpetuates the food chain, in each and every ecosystem. Bug eats grass, lizard eats bug, bird eats lizard, bobcat eats bird.
There are over two hundred images on display, in different sizes and random vintage frames. Save mountain lions, wolves, bears and humans, the biggest predators around, we see as categorical a display as I can imagine of life and death in the mythical American West. Snakes and birds and mice and rats and frogs and javelinas and foxes and leaves and everything in between. (Including the ominous vultures, which were everywhere in Texas.)
The exhibition map gives all the specific names, but dead, in shadow and repose, there is no way to tell the difference between a yellow-billed cuckoo and a black-throated sparrow. They all just look beautiful, and a little bit horrible as well. The basic human fascinations with collecting, categorizing, preserving, memorializing, and fetishizing are all interwoven.
Some animals repeat, but I was told no two prints are alike. The vultures are huge, as are the coyotes, but the bald eagle is the picture guaranteed to grab your attention. (Like a crashed plane by the side of the road. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Apparently, the eagle photo was the most difficult to obtain, as bald eagles rarely drop dead in front of roaming photographers. But strings were pulled, and there you go.
The group of photographs, which I enjoyed in a large, empty gallery, with the subtle sounds of the air conditioning unit in the background, is absolutely fantastic. As a resident of the Southwest, I can attest that the fascination of living in the midst a raw and dangerous natural world is real. If you bump into the wrong creature on the wrong day, you might just end up dead yourself. But the ability to communicate those feelings via art is extremely difficult.
I’d heartily suggest that those of you who can see the show do. There are a few parking spaces reserved for visitors to the Wittliff Collections, in a parking structure under the college library. Kids on skateboards will whizz by you, daring you to hit them with your tiny rental car. (I came so close.) The gallery is on the seventh floor of the library building, and the entry way welcomes you with classic Southwestern decor, including a Saltillo tile floor.
One installation in said entryway was a particular favorite. An eagle, a snake, and a cactus were brought together again. Otherwise known as the sign that led some bloodthirsty Aztecs to found Tenochtitlan so many years ago. (Now Mexico City.) Of course, this wouldn’t be a good story if I hadn’t seen an eagle with a snake in its mouth fly over my shrimpy rental car on the way out of town. Is this true? Do you have to ask?
Last week, I wrote a column that tried to tell it like it is. The world we inhabit, one that revolves around photography, is painfully un-diverse. Here in the United States, those in the profession are very, very likely to only interact with others of a similar background. (And skin color, sadly.)
While I left room for the exceptions, the fact that there seem to be so few is troubling. How do we change this? Whether it’s people complaining about all-white competition-jurys, all-male Superbowl commercials, or writers like me scrambling to review books by women and minorities, the numbers are obviously skewed. What to do?
The only answer I’ve been able to glean is to do some boots-on-the-ground style outreach. As I’ve said before, I spent seven years teaching photography to at-risk minority youth. I’ve done the work, and seen how easily art concepts can become embedded in young minds of any color or gender.
Another tried-and-true methodology is to honestly examine one’s own biases, and then try to challenge them. Most of us have a hard time admitting to negative preferences or stereotypes. Not a pleasant conversation to have with oneself.
Looking inward, I had to admit I was biased against Texans. (Here in New Mexico, it’s a state passion.) As I mentioned in a column a month or so ago, after years of seeing Texan plates on personal Tour Buses towing Hummers, it was easy to get angry. Throw in the bluster and big belt-buckles, and I can honestly say I was proud of the hate.
Whether geographically, racially, or gender-based, it’s not OK to dislike people en masse. (Obviously.) So I was thrilled to spend a little time in Houston last year, and realize that my pre-conceptions were off. I didn’t hate Texans, just the folks in the Dallas to Amarillo corridor. And even in Texas, that seems to be an established sentiment. (Yes, I am now mostly joking.)
As much as I enjoyed last year’s taste of Texas toast, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to re-visit H-town last week. I even planned a little road trip up to Central Texas for a quick visit to über-hip Austin. (Did I listen to some country music along the way? You bet I did. KNRG, the Renegade, is all Texas music, all the time. The first three songs I heard were all anti-urban. (Including a hysterical mockery of the aforemetioned Dallas.))
To be clear, this article is but an introduction to a series, like we did with San Francisco late last year. (How’s that for polar opposites?) I saw some fantastic art exhibitions, met with some intelligent, friendly and unpretentious art professionals, and ate some truly amazing food. Basically, I had a great time. From Texas hater to convert in 10 short months.
Before I leave you, though, I want to share one of my thin-sliced-stereotypical observations. I can’t take advantage of it myself, being chained by mortgage and blood to this extraordinary piece of rural paradise I call home. But some of you can. So here it goes.
Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States. The three cities above it, NYC, LA, and Chicago, are famously expensive. Houston is not. They are also known for exclusivity, and make it difficult to break into established networks, lacking the proper school connections and/or friend lists. Houston is extremely open and accessible, from what I’ve seen. (And the FotoFest Biennial provides entry to all comers.)
Beyond that, Houston has the kind of financial and cultural resources that exist in very few places in the world. Its economy is booming, and ought to continue to grow, as the energy sector is unlikely to wither. The port, connected to the city via the shipping channel, is also thriving. (And global trade is not going away any time soon.) The unemployment rate is below 6%, and the median income is over $70,000 per year. (Thank you for the statistics, Houston Public Radio.) Essentially, the place is leaking money.
The city is vast and diverse, with massive immigrant and minority communities, including Vietnamese, African-American, and Latino. It’s like a Texan Los Angeles in scope, minus the mountains and oceans. (Of attitude.) It’s the perfect place to encounter those from backgrounds different than yours: a city where biases go to die.
I noticed vacant commercial real estate everywhere; storefronts just waiting to be turned into artist-run galleries or commercial photo studios. I also spoke with an artist/curator who produces art shows for those downtown mega-corporate-skyscrapers that I mentioned in last year’s article. While state funding for the arts has been cut, (it is still Texas,) the public-private combination seems to offer insane amounts of cash and opportunities for the local community.
In the parlance of economics, Houston is an undervalued resource: a city just waiting for a fresh round of hipster-style-gentrification. And if you doubt me, you can trust Forbes magazine, which listed Houston as the coolest city in America in 2011. I’m not sure what their criteria was, and it’s likely to be very different from mine. (As Forbes itself is actually uncool.) But you can bet there will be a proverbial gold rush of 20-something energy-sector/hedge-fund yuppies who’ll rush down there due to Forbes’ blessing.
Who are they to you? Will they be your new friends, if you move to H-town? Probably not. Would you find them “cool,” in their khakis and button down polo shirts? It’s unlikely. (Again with the stereotyping.) But might they make up the bulk of your collector base, or client base, for decades to come? Now you’re getting the picture.
We’re all middle class, aren’t we? We, the creative class, were reared to have options. Here in America, at least, if you’re reading this, you’re probably white, and you likely grew up comfortable. (If you were upper class, you’d be reading Frieze, and planning to jet off to Dubai to take some sun.)
In case you’re wondering, I am aware that one of these days my penchant for stereotyping might just get me into trouble. But until then, I will endeavor to keep it real. If you grew up with enough education to become a photographer, or an editor, or an art buyer, it’s unlikely that you come from a dirt poor rural spot of nothing, or a gritty inner-city ghetto.
I believe our respective middle-ness is a big driver for the need many photographers have to visit emerging nations to document poverty. (And violence. And misery.) The obsession with “The Other” is well-worn. On the flip side, our mission to share truth and reality with the wider world, through our respective media outlets, often comes from noble roots.
Seriously, how many of you have a colleague who rose up from nothing to become an artist? Or a journalist? Of course it’s possible, but I’d suggest that for those with little or nothing, the desperate need to ensure survival supersedes the desire to make pretty, or important pictures. Given how much I believe in the power of Art, would that it were different. But class matters, as does one’s home turf.
I got to thinking about this, having just put down “Steel Work City,” a new book by Rikard Laving. (Journal) If bleak beauty is your thing, this is one to buy. If you love a peek into how the other half lives, those who toil thanklessly in dirty industry to make the cash to buy food, pay for gas, and perhaps have time to fish a bit on the weekends, then this one is for you as well.
The slim volume opens with a lovely poem by Mattias Alkberg, in Swedish, and then English. To be fair, you don’t know it takes place in Sweden until the end notes. The initial viewing provides a generic, cold, Scandinavian experience. Sitting here in New Mexico, it could have been Finland, Norway, or Denmark for all I knew. (It’s funny that some neighboring countries have internecine rivalries, but all look the same from the other side of the planet.)
But Sweden it is. The narrative is based at the Swedish Steel AB compound in Oxelösund, and the surrounding areas. (It employs 54% of the local population.) Lots of billowing smoke, modernist institutional architecture, and gray light. In the wrong hands, the material could easily be bland and banal. Instead, I was hooked.
This book is a great example, (as was last week’s,) of what happens when everything comes together. The production quality, the text, the graphic design, the use of suspense. (Where is this? What’s going on?) I loved that each image was allowed to breathe on the page, and that the titles gave me the info I needed just below.
The subtle color shifts communicate cold, and even boredom. The school children pictures truly surprise, as we see that diversity has hit this sleepy little area. It’s not just a bunch of little Aryan kids. Who knew?
I’ll readily admit that bleak beauty doesn’t do it for everyone. Some folks prefer otters and ocelots. Cacti and chameleons. Boobs and bikinis. Why not?
But I love the experience of opening up a photo-book, and being reminded how lucky I was to be born with options, in spitting distance of the most powerful city in the World. (Here’s your shout-out, NYC. Enjoy the mantle while you’ve still got it.) It’s a big part of why I worked so hard for seven years to share the power of Art with kids less fortunate than I was. The other reason, unsurprisingly, was that the bills needed paying. I’m a working stiff too. Thankfully, though, my fingernails are clean, and my hands are as soft as a baby’s belly.
Bottom Line: Lyrical, bleak life in a Swedish Steel town