Saturday, September 6, 2008

Dirty Books (are not Freedom).

Off the beaten track, down a few stops from where the last of the tourists leave the train, Berlin is still quite a good place to be. The neighbourhood that greets us as we leave the U-Bahn tunnel may not be as monumental as the Unter den Linden, but it makes up for it in human interest, and simpathy. This is a place where it would be affordable to rent a place, and quite possible to have a good life.
We got here following instructions found on the internet, we are on a quest to find one of those legendary English language bookshops that scatter the earth wherever some expat felt like opening one and succeded. Think of the parisian Shakespeare and Co as a reference, but not as yet so well known nor so grandly situated.
On paper, or better, off the screen, this other place would seem to have all the right credentials though. A cultural establishment surely, but mostly an alternative one with more than a tinge of anarchy and very idealistic, boasting a range of activities that include the free loan of books and also film evenings, and the capacity to serve drinks and nuts. Now, you must be NUTS to actually drink or eat there.

From the outside the shop looks OK, promising. A rough kind of bench would accomodate the accidental reader, when the weather is fine, and the window is picturesque and enticing. It’s the smell that hits you as you cross the door that suddenly spoils the dream. Quite horrific. All the shelves, the books, the furniture, the walls, everything is greasy, dusty when not mouldy, in short dirty, including the owner who greets us with a pleasant enough demeanour and an unforgettable smile made of gaps and rotten teeth. Call us petit bourgeois if you want, I will not disagree, but the atmosphere is more oppressive than free. As we cautiously visit the place I find it hard to like it. The books are a vague mix of esoteric deep, strange and trivial, quite absurd as a whole. A copy of Isabella Beeton's Victorian Housekeeping rules next to some culinary tosh from the sixties for example. You may find something good, if you dug hard enough through the grime. The place is a sorry junk yard of paper and leftist gadgetry, unconvincing and unsincere, literary pretentious in a way, utterly self-indulgent.

Downstairs – where the air really is completely unbreathable– a huge section dedicated to pulpy science fiction fills the shelves, around a filthy table where the empty wine glasses of past evenings are scattered, and half full bowls of left over nuts are refilled from huge bags in what looks like a hopeless rotation of germs and grease. Our host looks like a fallen angel, rather a Hell’s Angel who got thrown off the bike by some of life’s vicious turns and took refuge in this self made dump, never to venture out again. Now and again the same dynamics would bring visitors around, we even witnessed young women seek some advise from this unlikely source (maybe very knowledgeable, depending on what one were looking for) and also enter the joint lured by the easy and fast free access to the internet. He looked like a spider in his net when he spoke to them: hairy, sticky and devious.

Sure, it is bourgeois to get mad at a place like this, but why should ideals of freedom entail a complete disdain of hygiene, this utter surrender of personal dignity? Let’s have a revolution, by all means, but please let’s keep washing our feet.

For obvious reasons I will not mention the name of the place. Rest assured that your very own nose will warn you if you find it.

As chance would have it, back in Amsterdam, I ventured in a bookshop that seemed in many respects the exact opposite of the Berlin dump, and still felt very ill at ease. This other place was, well, too clean! So, might it be so that the appreciation of books, not unlike some fine bottles of wine, benefits from the thinnest layer of fine white dust?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A (for Antwerp)

A merely two hour drive from Amsterdam, the fair city of Antwerp is the fastest way to feel on holiday abroad for us, with the added thrill of being able to speak and understand a somewhat common language, while enjoying the differences in tones and expressions. Off we were on this last weekend of August, to stroll along the promenade on the river Schelde, having paid a visit to Rubens’s house, after a good lunch, vaguely in the direction of the museum of Photography –was it over there? How far? Can’t remember but I seem to recognize this parking lot. –

A fine building on the Vlaamse Kaai, with the sort of clean white grey interior that is becoming typical of photography museums all over it would seem, causing a sense of potentially weary familiarity in the otherwise happy displacement of travel. Obviously the lay out, the glass walls, the huge elevators, are all very practical, expedient and good looking, so it stands to reason that they should be generally adopted. True international style really, but the collection surely will be different? Well, yes and no.

This museum struck me many years back as being very good at giving an idea of the history of photography and also a basic understanding of the medium, with a collection of old cameras, and working models of camera obscura boxes and other gadgetry for visitors young and old to fidget with, while having a very solid show of vintage prints by all the great masters. Then on the ground floor, a huge space, contemporary photo shows were put up regularly. Martin Paar was on when I was there for the first time – young, enthousiast, embarassingly thin by todays standards –twenty odd years back. I had enjoyed the visit immensely and regretted that no such institution was to be found in my home town. Now in a way it is, and isn’t.

It seems as if in time the two cities have grown closer, the three cities rather as I would like to count Rotterdam in the number of prominent photo museums. They have much in common, so much that there is a risk of blending them in one relatively uniform experience. This is strengthened by travelling photo exhibitions that move from one location to the other making it possible to land on the same place over and over – photographically speaking – if you happen to plan your visits wrong. – Guy Bourdin? Again? - I guess we could call this globalization too.

Some sense of place could be kept by a few local authors, or maybe a specialization in some aspect or other. Acquiring the Agfa collection is bound to produce an impressive display of old cameras once fully organized, in Antwerp, that can hardly be matched by others even if they should want to. The first pieces on show already fill a large floor and are more than I could cope with in one session. Still I hope that this museum will absorbe some of the typical aspects that make this city and all the Flemish culture so interesting, charming and unique. It can only be through their own distinct politics of aquisition and display, and the original use of whatever floor or space can be spared from the more commercial travelling shows that seem unavoidable in todays international photo retail mass exhibitions crowd pleasing tit showing market.
With talents like Stephan Vanfleteren around, Belgian directors have more than a fair chance to succeed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Me, Brizzi, At Pigozzi And The Paparazzi

Kristiane F is pulling at my sleeve. In the otherwise perfectly friendly city of Berlin, at the back of Zoologischer Garten Station, she is one of the few exceptions. A man openly urinates across the gated fence of the local courthouse, two overweight policemen chat with each other - unconcerned or unnoticing - further down the street and a group of homeless people quietly wait at the door of a shelter. The doors to the Helmut Newton Foundation (HFN), or Photography Museum, are right between these two as yet unrelated moments of street life, in a way that would have possibly caught the eye of a talent like Weegee, if not necessarily of the German master himself.

A huge text on the facade reads: Pigozzi and the Paparazzi. A smaller list of names under it: Salomon, Weegee, Galella, Angeli,Secchiaroli, Quinn. Check check check check check check... but who the hell is Pigozzi? Eager to find out, I cross the treshold between Berlin and some other place inside. “YOU ARE LEAVING THE REALITY SECTOR” could have made perfect sense on this treshhold from the street to a red carpeted, white walled, well lit-out grand space, under the watchful eyes of at least three prussian gards - wide bellied guys in white shirt black tie kits - and a prussian lady wearing a black tailleur, black rimmed spectacles, black hair tight chiffon, and excruciatingly high heels, horse whip at hand, friendly smile. Now a few of these details could have been imaginary, evoked by prenotions or expectations, as I am distracted by a raw of huge black and white prints towering on the monumental staircase in front of me. They seem fashion photographs from the seventies, but with an almost gravitational Newtonian twist: the beautiful models are statuary, tall and on heels, sternly looking in front of them, crisply sharp, stark naked.

Newton was one of those unsofferably happy, few, highly successful photographers to have defined their style, and thus becoming rich and famous, by shooting the rich and famous (or less famous but very beautiful) women, often naked and infused in his own particular brand of eroticism – a mix of sadomasochism and other isms that only experts and psychiatrists could correctly put a name to. But let us make no mistake, Newton was neither crazy nor a fool. He consistently got away with things that could easily turn ugly in less proficient hands, and produced images that are provocative, but still glossy and very commercial. He was totally unapologetic, and easy to hate as a character as much as his work is strongly appealing, though possibly for feticistic reasons rather than artistic ones. He probably didn’t care either way.

Undoubtedly many of his images are memorable. Personally I like Elsa Peretti wearing a Playboy bunny costume on a New York rooftop, to name one. But in front of the huge nudes I am divided. What am I looking at? Is it the women? Am I supposed to be oedipically shrunk by these huge godlike venusses, or sexually aroused by their mega, sharp, model-perfect nudity? Is the oversize print to enhance their supernatural beauty or simply the better to be admired from a distance in the architectural space?

Some instinct is wary as I cross the door to the groundfloor exhibition dedicated to Newton’s own work and a few possessions, because it all looks too grand and cultural in its set-up for something that as clever as successfull as it has been, surely isn’t serious art, is it? Even if I had been completely convinced by his work at the deepest level, I would find the display of his personal clothes quite irrelevant and strange. It smells of a somewhat macabre attempt at selfdivinization. Even one of his cars is on show, a ridiculous custom made contraption that he used in LA and in which he was to die, heart struck, in traffic stuck. Surely all this is beside the point in a serious photography collection? Istrionics may be very expedient in life but are potentially absurd in death and tend to fog the issue of one’s real worth and legacy.

High time to find out about Pigozzi, whom I have never heard about, and the paparazzi – but what do they have to do with Weegee and Salomon? – on the upper floor. Not so fast...
Traditonally, at Cannes film festival a miscellanious crowd of lens men (for want of a better name) frenziedly feast on topless unknown starlets laid about along the beach at appointed times and places. Quite surprisingly HN wasn’t above all this but joined in, from a ladder - let it be said - to get his very own angle on the proceedings. Some large rooms are devoted to the resulting shots, an overkill all around in my opinion.

At last the inner core of the show, the revelation of Jean Pigozzi (a fellow Italian, business man, socialite, photomaniac, with a collection of snapshots in the company of assorted glitterati and celebrities, a funny not unlikable southern levantine kind of guy, big face, nice interaction; the series is amusing to look at with the accidental little giggle here and there). Then the hard stories of Ron Galella’s and the other real paparazzi, the fights, the indiscretions, the tireless probing with huge lenses on a stretch of the French riviera - that is little more than a shooting range for sitting golden ducks, and could easily be avoided if celebrities were anything short of very eager to be caught with their pants down in the sun. They need each other, go about their respective business, we suck the results on printed paper.

As HN himself occasionally would shoot celebs out of their pants, although by appointment, explicit consent and probably in five star secluded locations, a connection if flimsy is established. Furthermore some of them knew him personally, met at parties possibly – them shooting, him mingling – and he had developed a fellinian interest in the phenomenon. But what has all this to do with Weegee or Salomon? They had invented serious photojournalism, to the point of art. Weegee shot unknown people producing masterpieces, while paparazzi trash celebrities into pulp, mostly. They are almost opposites.

One truth if anything seems to transpire from their work: much mondane fame is randomly bestowed by chance on occasionally undeserving persons. We would do better not to be so interested in them.

HN wasn’t undeserving, he was very talented. At some point he probably had a choice about what to do with his talent and went for the good times. All you see about him, his very attitude, is both provoking and guiltless.

To put things into perspective, in all fairness to the great city of Berlin, one could hop on the U-bahn and go to the Gemaldegalerie, to name one, where the same entrance fee of eight euros will let you in on a fantastic endless collection of paintings, very serious art indeed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Church of World Press Photo.

The Old Church, at the centre of Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District, is the location of the yearly World Press Photo exhibition. A very nice building, to me the most beautiful church in town, and certainly an ideal place to visit especially when the late afternoon sun filters through the windows and adds to the already quite suggestive interior. Quite sobering in fact: apart from the nordic white washed walls, the gothic columns and arches, one is in fact walking on grave stones. The whole floor is actually an ancient grave yard, and one can’t help a slight uneasiness at the thought of being disrespectful albeit reassured by the fact that nobody seems to care. Some of these stones are engraved with family arms, or even with images, skulls and skeletons and such like. All are very worn out and can be treacherous to one’s foot hold. Quite the place to indulge in vanitas meditation, I have personally grown fond of it to the point of adopting one of the graves as my favourite and visit it every time that I happen to come. Call it piety, if you will, or hysteria, I find it soothing to be there from time to time.

Old churches have a feel of permancence about them, of unchanging eternity. So does the World Press Photo. Spectacular as they always are, the photographs leave you with a feeling of having seen them before, or at least of being vaguely familiar, or maybe it’s the feeling that they awaken that is familiar and make the experience somehow repetitive. How can it be? Can human tragedy, terrible misery and distress, extreme natural beauty, dramatic action caught at the millisecond, ever become familiar or – banish the thought – boring? It is one of those conclusions at which we do not want to come for fear of being cinical, so a form of self censorship kiks in at the bare suggestion of the feeling. Or maybe it is my age: having seen this over and over, at 45 I have lost sensitivity, while younger people will benefit from the experience therefore making it worthwhile to repeat exactly in the same way.

As it happens a row of computers makes it possible to visit the present and past years of WPP, virtually bringing to the present about forty years of news photography. Truth is, were it not for this wear of the emotions, seeing so much photographs of tragedy would be nothing short of maddening. Nothing seems to be getting better in the world. No matter how many photographs are taken nor how well, matters aren’t improving. So it is unavoidable I guess, that one explosion looks like another, scars are the same, the haunted look on the face of the victims closely related to a common destiny. I can’t decide whether this should be a reason to stop taking photographs, or for future jurors to look differently upon the material that has been sent in, so that the exhibition somehow evolves in new directions. Maybe not, maybe they are right to keep hammering at the same point, hoping ever to make an impact.

I understand the problem of the jury all too well. Next to war and death, everything else feels and is bland and shallow by comparison. So the winner has to be a violent and tragic shot, and other nominees, taken from other kinds of editorial photography, like fashion, must in comparison be regarded as futile and do come across as quite trivial, edonistic, self indulgent, silly in fact and unworthy. It really takes all the soothing that the old graves can give, the sanctity of the place, to balance the crude impact of many of the photographs and help us through and out of the exhibition somehow enriched and willing as opposed to helplessly sad or hopelessly indifferent.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

No Pictures at Magnum 60 years!

Apparently, and most of all ironically, if you are caught taking photographs at the Magnum 60 years exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum you are likely to incur in serious sanctions, ranging from verbal abuse up to immediate expulsion from the exhibition or indeed the prohibition of ever visiting the museum again. I am of late increasingly angry at the growing photo prohibitionism that seems to be spreading out over the country. More often than ever security people of all kinds approach me and prevent me from doing my work - perfectly innocent unobtrusive architecture or city views in large format - on some legal pretence. Needless to say, such an attitude would have made most of the Magnum photos on display impossible, maybe even mean the kiss of death for all candid photography and photojournalism. You can't have it both ways: either you accept photographers and let them go about their business and get the pictures or you don't and put a blindfold on the medium. You can always punish the "bad guys" later. If you feel that some photographs shouldn't be published take the authors to court, by all means. But now there is a witch hunt atmosphere out there that I find very frustrating, worse than any censorship: we are prevented from working to start with, presumed guilty by suspicion. The camera, especially when on a tripod, is a thorn in the eye of the security man. Now I think that the very censors would be hard put to name what evil exactly could we perform with our photographs, but this doesn't seem to quench their thirst for regulations and limitations nor sooth their rampaging paranoia.

Of course I am aware that the point of the prohibition at the museum is to prevent visitors from taking unauthorized reproduction shots of the work on display, and is therefore meant as a protection of the author rights. Still there is in that respect nothing in there to reproduce, because in a way there are no pictures at the exhibition (!).There are no fine or vintage prints on display, but the all set up is more a multimedia style presentation on huge screens, with beamer projections that could be rewarding in the size of the image, were it not for the clearly visible pixels that make up the photos. Furthermore anyone can see or download every photograph on the Magnum site from his PC at home, much of the work is so well known and widely published that most of us are likely to own a copy of each photograph in some art book already. No, there is nothing to shoot in there, but maybe the visitors, or parts of the set up, or some funny combination that would be interesting and perfectly in the spirit if not at the level of the very Magum heroes that are being celebrated.

Magnum is an institution, part of the history of photography. As Martin Parr puts it, it is a temple (one that he has rocked with his work, being at the same time proud to be a part of it while allegedly himself an agent of its decadence). Problem is, temples are places of worship, and worship is by definition not critical while progress is always to be found in a challenging attitude of research and renewal. Capa and the other founding fathers were in their time adventurous, I suspect nowadays it is a form of conformism that motivates photographers to join. They want to be sacred and established, while I am convinced that young photographers should found their own new agencies and move on boldly. Do not constantly look for granddad’s approval, not even when he was called Cartier Bresson. Respect the past, and move on.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Blurb (deliver me from the evil of rejection, but don't lead me into temptation)

A publisher recently rejected my proposal to reprint my first and only photo book, and it hurt. Even though I thought I had equipped myself with the necessary relativist attitude before approaching the man, when the “no” call came it found me as soft bellied as ever. Other than turning to meditation, sports, heavy drinking or other remedies for the disappointment, I have recently discovered the bliss of being my own publisher – actually seeing my name in print - without any red tape or excessive cost. This is essentially what some companies are offering, and I am presently hooked on Blurb, to name one. Make no mistake about it, the risk of becoming addicted is serious.
Like many other habits, this one can be as innocent or bad as you make it. Depending on the frequency with which you indulge, and your attitude. Right from the start I had been aware of this, and decided that in no way this new hobby was going to distract me from trying to reach real publishers, and get real books on the real market. Tempting as it may be to go one’s way without the need to have social intercourse with the ever unreliable and unpredictable “others”, so prone to let us down and be unappreciative of our talents, it is still necessary to reach out and understand that we are not alone, no man is an island and blah blah blah, as a far better alternative to any kind of avataric “second life” the web might seem to provide us with. In true there is only one life, and each minute is precious.
So this is my Blurb plan: I will enjoy the free software to design dummy books that may serve me well to organize my thoughts and churn out presentable copies, very few copies, of my work in progress. These I can give away to potential clients, if I can afford to, and show to publishers as a presentation tool, sort of 3D power point slides with a plus, of a concept. Possibly this could also be a healthy way of getting some ideas out of my system and onto the paper, so as to free my thoughts for other things. The bound volumes fit nicely on a shelf and hold much less space than the assorted shoe boxes and plastic crates that make up my archive at the moment, slowly invading the whole studio . Also they are a lot easier to show and carry around. Allow me, if you will, to make them available to the public on the internet, at a minimal price, so that the flimsiest of chances of actually selling some may sustain me morally on the way to hopefully far richer publishing deals.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Neo Neorealismo: a Call to Arms. (Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam)

Enrica ViganĂ² has convincingly put together an exhibition of Italian photography from the thirties, forties and fifties that establishes a clear link between post war cinema – the famous Neo Realismo school - and the work of many talented photo reporters on the streets who successfully attempted to capture the essence of their troubled times and of a poor country at war and trying to rebuild and reinvent itself after the mayhem had passed. They are deeply moving documents, an impressive collection of images. As no single author is contributing more than a few pieces to the whole, the result is collective and choral, thus a more eloquent expression of a time and place than any individual oeuvre could ever hope to be. Each had his own style, all were quite good, much was shared in their vision.

Film posters and fragments add to the atmosphere, bringing us back in time, as well as showing how the dramatization of film sets stands in relation to the authentic photographs taken in the real world. Arguably movie makers used these photographs as a source of inspiration, the closer they could keep to them the better. To me photographs are best, and it all acts as a powerful reminder of the strength of the medium in its purest form. This is why I found the exhibition to be a call to arms for present work and not just a historical revue. Get out there and shoot the real. Time for a New Neorealismo.

Handy Stedelijk

The slightly unpronounceable Stedelijk Museum is to Amsterdam what the MOMA is to NYC or the Tate to London: our local modern art place. Due to a long renovation project of its building on the monumental Museumplein, it is temporarily hosted in a former Post office, an international style kind of block on a strip of land next to Central Station, that is in the process of being developed into a striking and quite dramatic Miami look a like, with a Northern twist. Also in its choice of Art it is more than anything American influenced, having historically hosted a wide array of transatlantic artists including some controversial names like Dennis Hopper. Andy Warhol is on the agenda now.

Before entering the actual exhibition, one crosses the museum shop area, that has been renamed – presumably only for the duration – Warhol’s shop. A number of white panels hang from the ceiling, with quotations from the master himself. This I found quite handy because, having read them, I felt enough was said and nothing was left to do other than literally quote them on my blog and let the reader connect the dots and draw his or her own conclusions.

In casual order:








Handy and all, but who needs Andy?