Thursday, December 31, 2009

Andrew's Fault.

Ever since his series on the Italian Renaissance, I have been following Andrew Graham Dixon with unflinching devotion on the telly. Be it a short appearance on the Culture Show, or some other programme, I lock on to each and every word of his. The Art of Russia was no exception, but it left me disappointed on the second and third part, especially on one issue: the abstract.

After a glorious first part, AGD wading through a snowstorm in a grand landscape of mother Russia – not nearly dressed warm enough - to make sense of Russian Religious Art and succeeding to the extent that I became an overnight enthusiast of imagery that had previously left me pretty cold, the sacred Icons, he seemed to lose power progressively as he approached the Revolution, eventually to fail in his interpretation of Abstract Constructivist paintings. This is of course only my most humble opinion, but to approach a constructivist painting expecting it to be a stylized version of a symbolist figurative one, is tantamount to missing the point completely.

Dots are dots, colours are colours, and shapes are shapes: abstract ones. It means that they do not seek to represent something, but owe their shape, position and colour to the role they need to play in relation to the other elements of the composition or piece that they are part of in order to achieve a feeling. Nothing more, nothing less. It is utterly liberating, pure painting that sets out to create an emotion and not a representation, however unconventional, of identifiable items. So to hear him compare an exquisite composition on yellow by Rodchenko, as similar to the lines drafted on a wall by a convict counting down the days of his detention was a bad moment, only to be made worse by his describing another perfectly balanced work of tiny colour dots on black as if every dot was meant to represent a soviet citizen. Not really. On Malevic he didn’t fare better, identifying the suprematist black square as symbol of doom and a comment on society. Far too obvious, and not true. Look at the square well enough and you’ll find that it is, well, not square. So in the complex of the work, a subtle tension is created between its ever so slightly imperfect shape and the beautiful whitish (not white, but a finely painted surface of many shades) space in which it seems to float suspended. The suprematist cross is not religious at all, but the perfect way to animate the format on which it stands with compositional tension. It has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with vectors. This is what Suprematism stood for and was about, the geometric forms as an end to themselves, the total rejection of representations and symbols. This capacity and indeed freedom of abstraction was rightly seen as revolutionary, and eventually anti totalitarian – though elitist - to the extent that it had to be forbidden by the stern logic of Proletariat Dictatorship. The short lived beautiful spring of Majakovskij, Rodchenko and the others ended in bitter repression, suicide, compulsory public self criticism, and for millions in the deadly winter of the GULAG.

AGD did extremely well in condensing as best he could so complex a history in three visually compelling well-researched episodes. It just feels puzzling that abstract painting seems to defeat his otherwise great insight and clarity of description.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mini Sumo.

Should you happen to get out at the wrong side of Tiergarten Bahnhof in Berlin, you might fall prey to the temptation of visiting Helmut Newton’s Museum and grasp immediately the magnitude of this half baked fetishist ego-trip in front of the famous four large nudes that tower on the entrance hall. Somebody other than himself took his work very seriously and grundlichly runs the institution – typified by a grandeur that vaguely echoes Leny Riefenstahl’s Olympia with a much heavier and blatantly laid eroticism - as smoothly as a Mercedes Benz drives. The master dead, here lays the memorabilia.

We all enjoyed the party of his life while it lasted, although the greater majority of us was confined to the humiliating role of paying voyeurs, barely allowed to peep through the holes that his photographs provided into a forbiddingly exclusive – if in any way real – glamour world of luxury and classy sexual deviation, mostly in brilliant black and white. But now that it is over, as he was struck at last by heart failure in the midst of murderous LA traffic at the wheel of a ridiculous custom made car, surely the time must have come to look at his legacy in earnest. But it isn’t.

Monumental celebrations of his oeuvre were well on their way in his lifetime. His good friend Taschen published a huge book called with typical Newtonian logic SUMO, collecting the best of his beautiful and most titillating photo provocations. The book was prohibitively expensive and came with its own display table, designed by Philip Stark. The lot, I was lucky enough to flip through the book daringly placed in the reception area of an ad agency shortly after publication, was actually a little wobbly. The sheer mass of paper would have called for even a larger base, an iron structure by Eiffel springs to mind as possibly adequate to compensate for this other Newtonian (no relation) force of attraction, that of Gravity. Anyway, a big book in many respects.

Let us all rejoice, a smaller but still substantial version of Sumo is now available at a fraction of the original price and weight. Should you feel a little scroogey and obnoxious after the sweet overwhelming goodness of Christmas, you could buy yourself a copy and feel a little naughty and quite sophisticated.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


You would be excused for thinking that I was on the payroll of Polaroid after reading this shameless declaration of love for the PoGo printer, but it is even worse: I am not. So my penchant for the rainbow coloured box, the shiny metallic logo on the sexy black plastic, the trepidant expectation of the little prints to be extruded from its sleek wallet like body with a soft purring noise, and my eagerness to avail myself of their self adhesive backing and stick them all over the place has no excuse or logical explanation other than my gullible taste for it. It was designed to be appealing, and I am attracted to it.

Polaroid and I go back a long time. It is an excruciating tale of largely unreciprocated love, with me on one end spending a lot of money on their films, backs, and cameras, and them duly overcharging me happily for each and every item. There were highlights: three of my photographs made it into the Polaroid European Collection and more has been published in their P professional magazine. In exchange for the irreplaceable originals of my best work Polaroid gave me a box of film apiece, which I received with the unquestioning eagerness and total submission of an addict. If only it were possible to train my clients to be so dependent on me!

As long as things were analogue, this state of affairs lasted unchallenged. Even the advent of a Fuji alternative didn’t really spoil it, they smelled different and I was enslaved to the Cambridge brand for life. It was digital photography that did them in eventually, and I had to go cold turkey as the market for them disappeared. Slowly but surely the range of types narrowed to a trickle, and now I hold on to the last boxes, keeping them for who knows what. They will probably dry up unopened. Equally sad, my camera closet is full of camera backs and developing apparatus for emulsions that are no longer available. The junkyard of a junkie.

But digital photography, as clever as it is, has this problem of being quite virtual in many of its manifestations. You look at it, but don’t hold it. It is instant, in as far as you get to see a preview on your camera display split seconds after the take, but this is just a glowing icon of the image, its fruition often marred by things reflecting in it and its insufficient brightness in daylight conditions. Polaroids were about direct positives, within minutes, in your hands. This is exactly what the PoGo printer promises to do, converting potentially any digital camera or telephone (not your iPhone though, for some reason) into your good old Polaroid camera fondly remembered from happy days gone by. And it is a great gimmick for kids too. Well, if it sold then, why not now?

Admittedly the product could be improved. Maybe a second version made a little larger – prints twice the size – and a larger battery for enhanced capacity would make it more appealing to the professional market. Possibly the quality of the prints can improve too. But even as it is, the PoGo is a great toy with serious potential.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Midwinter Afternoon's Dream.

Afternoon naps are not a commodity that I can normally afford, not just for lack of time but for fear of being overtly distracted from my daily concerns by these short and potentially unsettling trips into the subconscious and the oneiric. Much like Hamlet, I am not worried about not being, but fear bad dreams. On awakening these will be remembered or not, but definitely affect my mood for the rest of the day in unpredictable ways. On Christmas Eve, by exception, I have the habit of laying down for a bit with a book after lunch, a postprandial practice that quickly leaves me unconscious or dozing on the edge. Some kind of Proustian phenomenon or shamanic trance must then occur, because when I eventually come by my head is full and I start to write. And this I must do almost immediately, on pain of forgetting everything otherwise. These pieces usually fit the format of private letters to my Dad, and generate a few variations and re editions to suit my other epistolary seasonal needs: Letters to My Family, Letter to my Best Friend, my Not So Best Friend, all the way down to the messages to other more utilitarian acquaintances, i.e. my business contacts. Never up to now have I blogged any of this material on the web. Take it for what it is -a momentary vision- and make what you like of it.

Pagan Photography.

A photo’s true value must by definition transcend the intention of the maker/taker. It is phenomenological in nature. Any photographic meaning results from the image happening, and not from it being made. Anything intentional could have been produced by other means and is thus not truly, purely, photographic. Anything that couldn’t be produced by other means is partly unintentional, accidental, a gift of the process itself and of chance. Chance only works when it is left enough room to happen, so the best photographer is not someone who seeks to be most in control, but the one who knows how to let things run their course and happen in photogenic conditions of his choice, leading to the unexpected and the unusual: a revelation of sorts. He or she will be rewarded with the best shots, not to feel proud about them but grateful. Given the framework of intentions and will, the discipline of hard work and the long hours put in, the technique and the knowledge of light, nothing interesting really happens without a measure of happy chance/divine intervention. This you could call the Ghost of Photography and imagine it maybe as an hermaphrodite angel with silver wings, a pagan deity – half thief half creator – whose presence fills all those in the know with longing and awe. We can all court its favours, be occasionally bestowed with some of its magic, but never really possess it.

photos: Paris Louvre, Istanbul, Antonio Canova (Amore e Psiche).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Normal Art in Abnormal Reality.

Gloomy a location as Amsterdam’s Berlage Stock Exchange is, it hosts an Art Show that sets out to depict things Niet Normaal (yes, you understand Dutch, it means not normal), thus defining the normal and seeking to excite thoughts about norms in society, genetic design, conformism, beauty, and human behaviour. A selected group of artists has put up a winding labyrinth of projections, sculptures, installations, photographs, machines and the polished or less polished paraphernalia that we have been trained to accept and indeed even expect from a contemporary art exhibition.
Herein lies one first problem: the “not normal” on show fails to excite more than a bemused curiosity because we as a public are broken to a high degree of weirdness by this widespread and almost uniform way of producing “art” which is by now predictable and trite. The attitude of these artists is blatantly complacent and naughty; they are the spoiled children of excessive sponsoring and bad education. Quite normal really, and, well, boring. Their jokes have worn thin.

The boundaries between installation and city, meaning and randomness, are as murky as can be. How to distinguish art from reality, when the former is made up of often-readymade pieces of the second, poorly put together with very ugly results? These works are repulsive if anything at all. You want abnormal, face reality as it is, especially so in Amsterdam within inhaling distance of rows of coffee shops and the quirkiness of the red lights district. Really you have to do better if you want to challenge the displacement and confusion that this place can bring about as it is and make one feel even less normal than that. Even Madame Tussauds beats them hands down, and the rest of the place borders on the hallucinatory if you just keep your eyes open. So taken in the package deal of this part of town, the visit actually blends in seamlessly, and the pieces are an integral if incoherent part of the whole. The only boundary being that they were meant to say something, and are thus less disturbing than the rest. At least every piece comes with a reassuring explicatory tag, while items in the world outside will at best carry a price, keeping their darker void deceptively and dangerously hidden.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Photography and Painting.

Every so often one hears people admit to have taken on photography because they couldn't paint. In this they reveal not to have understood neither photography nor painting. Unsurprisingly these characters indulge in fruitless pictorialism, or cliché’ realism, and produce work of little if any interest. This could be left unchecked, were it not for the presumptuous and polluting airs that these same authors happen to take on, to the extent that their admission becomes not so much a self deprecatory confession of weakness but a proud mission statement delivered as if it were a brilliant find. Well, it isn't.

Even though the camera can be used in such a way as to produce photographs that remind one strongly of visual formulas and effects typical of painting, it inherently lacks the direct intervention of the human hand applying the paint. Realistic as it may seem, a painting derives from an observation from a keen eye, a mental elaboration of the visual, paint and a canvas, and the skilful application of one on the other by a trained and sensible hand. This neurological connection between brains and hand results not only in an image, but also in a work of art if done by a talented person on a good day. A painting inescapably carries the trait of the maker. So photography is hopelessly handicapped if it is to be used merely as a recorder of picturesque themes, and needs quite a different approach, mindful of its peculiar phenomenology, in order to produce interesting or indeed artistic results.

Let us compare four images of a well-known personality: His Sanctity the Pope. One was made by Diego Velazquez and is a portrait of Pope Innocent X, one by Francis Bacon as a reinterpretation, and the other two are photographs - by two deservedly anonymous Vatican photographers - of respectively John XXIII and Benedict XVI.

It is immediately evident that Velazquez brushes are not only capable of realistic likeness but of great psychological insight, not to mention the strength and beauty of the whole image. It is expressive and powerful within the constraints of the times and conventions that dictated the brief to a painter of the age (1650). The photographs of John and Benedict are merely popular icons, barely adequate to depict all the superficial gilded glory of the papacy to the visually uncritical faithful masses but devoid of any depth and character. What Bacon does on the second painting is bring all the contained emotional power of Velazquez’s portrait to explode on the canvas. Something that he could afford to do some 300+ years later without having to fear the trials of the Inquisition (it is my educated guess that Francis would have been bonfire material had he been born in the wrong century) and not having been directly commissioned by the Vatican. In so doing he is successful in producing a great work of art, while the two photographers are left miserably wanting in their formally static and prudent approach.

It is perhaps telling (banish the thought that I would criticize the Vatican's modern iconography, but still) that a quick search on the web did not produce any photograph of the Pope that was truly artistic, in order to corroborate my theory as to the right way of going about it with a camera. But I did find quite a few of his Sanctity the Dalai Lama, of which I would like to show two notable examples made by an author who needs little introduction: Cartier Bresson.

So here you have it. Poignantly Bresson's example almost fits the mould of Velazquez's set up, the seated Sanctity, and has the same depth in psychology plus some of the dynamic strength of Bacon. It is the snapshot of a master, its slightly off balance composition that only makes it stronger and spontaneous. It rings authentic, every detail telling. Whether this work can be considered art as a painting is, seems to me completely irrelevant. The image is great anyhow.

In a time when many issues around photography are clouded even further by the relative ease of digital retouching, that often turns a photograph into a photo realistic illustration, it may be important to reflect humbly on the importance of a honest photograph. Meaning one that doesn't seek to attain any importance by trying to be anything else than what it is. If it looks like a painting, it probably looks like a bad one.

Of course a straight and simple approach to photography is not a guarantee of truth or art. I’d like to close with an example of how photographs can be deceiving, providing a slice of frozen time that is typically a photographic effect, but neither necessarily telling nor true.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Regarding Theo.

Photo Theo Niekus
Some time ago Amsterdam street photographer Theo Niekus acquired temporary notoriety for being arrested by the police as he stood in a doorway on Dam Square. When asked about his business by the patrolmen, he simply answered defiantly: "I am just standing here". Off they took him to the nick, and eventually to court. Probably it was the camera that made him both conspicuous and suspicious. By the time he reached judgment a huge crowd of support had gathered as a general outcry was made from many sympathizers of civil liberties and the rights of photographers on the street in particular. He got off with a light punishment, albeit the judge complained about the unnecessary commotion around his seemingly simple case. Things had been drummed up a lot needlessly. Theo simply should have known better than addressing nowadays stressed and thinly spread law enforcers like he did. That was the underlying message. Off the hook for this time, he went back to his usual work with renewed energy.

Photo Theo Niekus
Street photography is what he does. One would be almost tempted to call it one street photography really, as his favourite haunt seems to be that stretch that connects Central Station to Dam Square, maybe half a k long, called Damrak, and Dam Square itself (where he was arrested). My personal encounter with Theo happened on a different spot, a bridge on the Oude Waal close to his home, where I was photographing the city with my view camera and he was photographing me – completely undetected – from the other side of the bridge. The shot taken, he walked over and we had a congenial chat. He also gave me some sheet film holders he wasn’t using any more. Later I bought one of his books, and have recently subscribed to the first number of his magazine.

Damrak is a busy place, the first street every tourist or commuter has to negotiate arriving by train to the city, lined with restaurants and cheap hotels, snack bars, money changers and souvenir places. Even the Erotica museum. It is noisy and crowded, chaotic and my least favourite place in town. Ideal for Theo, for he has an uncanny ability of looking at the noise and confusion, and selecting these slices of reality in which things seem to make some kind of absurd statement if not sense. I would imagine it takes exceptional speed to capture these very fleeting instants on camera. More than that, even intuition of how things will develop. To react is not enough, he needs to anticipate in order to get the shot that you and I merely see flashing by helplessly, frustrated at being unable to catch it.

Photo Theo Niekus
Sometimes reality is so quick and fascinating, that you would wish for a camera inside your eye, so as to record everything with no delay and unfailingly. Theo seems to have such a camera, but of course he doesn’t. Don’t know his secret yet, but find the results both intriguing and soothing. Because should we have a camera in the eye, we wouldn’t do better than him, and now at least we can see what we are missing if not claiming paternity of the results. What do you get by being so fast?

Photo: Theo Niekus
Actually Theo’s work is maybe to be compared with photographic Tourette’s syndrome: a compulsive collection of often sexually tinted or vaguely obscene hints, human interactions, allusive objects and texts, the random kaleidoscopy of life suddenly falling into some kind of rough pattern, with possibly a peculiar kind of sarcasm as a result, maybe a darker meaning. It derives its legitimacy from being completely honest and authentic. It would be tragic if it were the product of a lunatic, sad as the fabrication of a psychopath or worse – a conceptual artist –. But it is neither. Theo is perfectly sane; all he does is raw photography of raw reality at exceptional speed. Unretouched, direct, unhibited, confronting as the incoffessable truth about what we look at and how we see it. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to develop this unique approach, original, very Amsterdam, slightly anarchistic as I suspect Theo’s sympathies may lie in politics and which could account for his attitude towards the cops who interfered with his photo stalking. I don’t see anything wrong with what he does. There are cameras all over, especially on Damrak. If you are there you should be aware of it, and are fair game for photo shooting, in my opinion. As long as the work isn't used dishonestly or unfairly. How to define fair? Relatively simple: no mystifying captions and no commercial use. He does neither, leaves his photographs be what they are, to be judged on their merit alone on the pages of his self produced magazine. It takes guts to do that and usually doesn't make one rich.

Photo:Theo Niekus
I like Theo because I see him as a success in uncompromising dedication to his vision. Also I think that his attitude and choices are rooted in a historic rebellious side of Amsterdam that is now lost. The city of tolerance, of protest movements, again a place where a measure of anarchy would be possible even though it occasionally lead to widespread self indulgence and excesses. He is a survivor of a bygone era, an active positively hard working one at that. So we should subscribe to his magazine titled “report”. It’s a small contribution to make in exchange for intriguing if at times vaguely disturbing images. If someone has to do it, and I believe it to be the case, I am more than glad that Theo is out there doing it instead of me. He does a great job at it and I don’t have to feel sorry or inadequate for not having a camera in my eye any more. I can look at his pictures from time to time, a healthy catharsis of potential street frustration, the better to focus on my own - admittedly quite different - work.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Baker's Wife.

Every so often I buy a piece of bread for the sole purpose of photographing it, and bring the result to the backer’s wife to show her how it turned out. I know for a fact that she will be a stern critic, a demanding public, and only what she and her husband like will end up briefly on the wall of the shop. Furthermore, while I freely give her a complimentary print of the shot, she always charges me for the loaf, brötchen or croissant in question, implicitly stating that my photographing bread may be an interesting pass time occupation, but her baking it is dead serious business.

My wife mused that, had these bakers lived in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, they wouldn’t have built up a collection of modern art exchanging pieces (made by starving masters) for meals, as they value the latter far above any creations of their clients. Or maybe the baker’s wife keeps the issues of aesthetics and those of making a living totally separated, and in this she may have quite a strong point. Be it as it may, I know her judgement to be totally unbiased either by profit or by personal sympathy. Were she not to like a picture, it wouldn’t come to hang. For sure.

So I take particular pride in showing you the last shot to have passed her scrutiny.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Unavailable Light Photography.

Given the new possibilities of last generation digital bodies, the ISO values have rocketed up to 25000 and more, a whole new range of subjects is now within easy reach. Before embarking on yet another costly purchase, I wanted to try my hand at old-fashioned reportage work on film one last time. So I took three analogue cameras from the seventies for a last spin in the dark, loaded with 3200 ASA Ilford Delta, to see how they and I would perform in the punishing environment of a scarcely lit church interior at night. Subject matter was to be amply provided by a happy and dynamic group of teenagers, all cadets of the local youth circus Elleboog, who use the place – emptied and decommissioned – as their rehearsal studio.

We are talking moving subjects in a large dark hall, lit with four 500 ws floodlights shining from the four corners of the ample floor in merciless direct light, contrast through the roof and very low light output when measured at the centre. Three cameras, two FEs and a F2 photomic, and the following lenses respectively: 50/1.4, 85/1.8, 180/2.8. My plan was to use the FEs on auto exposure, and was worried about the Photomic light meter needle being unreadable, as its window is lit from the top of the photomic by ambient light. One little gadget took care of this problem, a little lamp that fits right on top of the finder making it even more cumbersome looking but doing a perfect job at making the meter readable.

In practice it was immediately evident that even 3200 asa wouldn’t suffice, and after a painstaking read of the dimly and very tiny processing instructions printed on the inside of the film box I chose to push both my luck and my film to 6400 on the faster lenses and 12500 on the 180, so as to shoot at 125/1.8 and 125/2.8. Light reading was also not necessary, given the situation to be fairly constant throughout the floor, if dim, the same setting applied to all the photographs. Next problem was the viewfinder being quite dark on the F2, slightly better in the FE’s. We are talking manual focus here, at full opening, and it proved quite tricky (as in next to impossible).

The kids were running and bouncing all over the place, meaningful patterns and funny expressions flashing by in constant unpredictable chaos, noise and confusion, no time at all to shoot as they instantly dissolved. As I couldn’t interfere with the rehearsals, it made sense to stay out of the way and use a long lens, so the 180 did practically all the 100 of so shots of the session. By the third film I called it a night, my trousers drenched by a heavy squall that caught me on the way in, unheated church with leaking roof adding to the discomfort and ominous shivers going down my spine in the tell tale symptoms of an upcoming cold.

The films were processed in DDX, 15 minutes at 24 degrees for the 12500 and 9 minutes at the same temperature for the 6400 and they were fine, with a fairly acceptable grain that makes it thinkable to try a push to 25000 asa on another occasion. As for the pictures, they were slightly better than my gloomy expectations of total failure. I did get some funny expressions, a little of the atmosphere, some of the emotion and most of the shots were reasonably in focus and not too motion blurred. But if you are a professional you need better than that, with guaranteed results.

In the old days photographers were very good, very quick, and also probably allowed themselves a lot of time to do reportage. Think LIFE magazine, with photo reporters being embedded in a situation for weeks or months on end, and a ferocious editing that boiled the story down to a few exceptional pages, or non at all if the story was scrapped for other editorial priorities. Now the cameras are very good, which maybe raises the stakes higher and higher for pictures to stand out in a climate of improved standards and over saturated media exposure. They really are impressive tools – fast, reliable, good – these latest cameras. They come at a price though, with the added drawback maybe of their weight and bulk. A reflex with a long lens and a flashgun requires arms of steel to be hand held all day long. (I wonder, will this account for the fact that modern reportage is more butch than sundance? Mark my words, there is a future for digital hi end range finder slim bodies).

All in all you’d be mad to face a reportage job in difficult light with anything less than the best, state of the art modern gizmos. As a hobby – when competition and standards are not factors – it is quite exciting to go about it on film. To paraphrase JFK’s famous speech on the moon exploration, you do it not because it is easy but because it is hard. And as it is hard, it gives quite a buzz to get the odd picture almost right.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nobody (and Nothing) is Perfect.

High expectations being the source of bitter disappointment, any company that claims to be aiming for perfection is doomed to have its product fail. At least philosophically. They are saved by the forgetful nature of the public, and can keep renewing their deceitful slogans at every launch of a ‘new improved’ version of something. The very existence of improvement inherently exposes the defects of the former ‘perfect’ thing, but nobody seems to take notice or mind.

Perfection is an absolute word, and absolutes are abstract concepts with no correspondent in reality. Reality is where we are, luckily, for as long as computer game designers and TV producers will allow us to be. Virtuality is where our minds like to wander if unchecked, understandably given the often-unyielding nature of life to conform to our wishes. It is a pliable multimedia and multi sensorial experience that allows many to play with their avatars, hooked on hard and software in their homes, while few make millions and roam happily out there in the sun.

Yet how often are we confronted with the word perfect, even in relation to apparently common things, like cooking a meal. I watch a lot of TV, with an inexplicable penchant for food shows. Not a gourmet in the RW (real world), I pretty much eat anything put on my plate with the exception of chicken liver, the sight of chefs at work competing with one another or showing techniques mesmerizes me. And can feel very passionate about the choice of the jury, or the judges, probably not unlike those soccer fanatics that never actually kick a ball in the field or even in a park but dream about sleeping with the referees’ wife when their team loses. Michelin stars are the ultimate firmament. For a man to have five (yes, there is such a GOD and HE is French) – given what it takes to get one - I’d expect him to induce gastronomic orgasm simply by looking at a person briefly. But put in the larger scheme of things, can even the best of food ever be called or indeed be PERFECT?

Can a camera be that? NO, not even a Swiss or Swedish made one.
They break eventually, they fail, they are improvable, and they get obsolete, and are replaced. Can a photograph be perfect? NO. So all this stress on perfection really is misplaced.
Why do I mind? Because claiming perfection to be possible leads to a painful sense of inadequacy in every sensible intelligent person.

Wouldn’t it be better to use good enough or quite adequate? Or even to insert an element of obvious imperfection in everything we do, something unfinished, a statement of how we, like any other thing, are not perfect. By doing so willingly we will not only avoid the neurosis of inevitable failure but rejoice in the acceptance of our imperfect human nature and celebrate some spontaneity. Although I probably want my car designer or my surgeon to be a perfectionist, I surely would like photographers to be rather human.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


It strikes me as self-evident that much of modern art, lacking a definite set of rules, owes much of its value on the trust, or confidence, of the collector’s market. This to the extent that conceptual pieces bear market logic as an integral part of their ‘raison d’être’.

You wouldn’t be hard put in finding evidence of this at top level. At street level, or in the perspective of what is likely to be the direct experience of art for most of us, confidence still plays an important role. When visiting a museum on a Sunday afternoon for instance, it feels increasingly like a retail venue rather than a temple for cultural enrichment: not an alternative to working days pragmatic toil but its natural continuation. Apart from the cafeteria’s that have grown in size and product range, adding calories and cost to the deal, the museum shop seems to be paramount to the survival of institutions and is run on the shrewd principles of any tourist venue: the exchange of cash for kitsch.

Seeking solace in art galleries and artists’ studios will not offer respite. Hidden by a thin layer of wilful delusion, the ugly facts of market economy lures under the surface with open jaws to swallow the unwary and part him/her from his hard earned dollars/euros/pounds/yen. Punters buy into the idea of being collectors: either idealists or investors, they want value and status. Artists want status. Gallerists want money. Roughly.

If you happen to be personally involved with an artist, either in a transaction or in life, you have to recognize a few facts. To start with most artists are self-proclaimed. There is no definite way of identifying the real deal from the decoy; no degree or qualification really stands to prove anything. It is an exercise of will and self deception in many cases – this belief of being an artist - and can cause a behavioural latitude loosely related to a mistaken notion of superiority. This is not only morally wrong, but dangerous as it leads to a grey area on inconsistencies, discrepancies and bohemian depravation, on top of being detrimental to the making of good work.

Those who feel superior lack a sense of honesty and obligation to the others and are thus inherently not trustworthy and incapable of true friendship. They will feel knowingly or unknowingly entitled to beg, borrow, lie, cheat or steal to get what they want. You have been warned.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Triggers the Shot 2.0.

After having had both my ego and my iPhone deftly stroked by my new friend and reader Willem, I was ready to accept positive feed back and constructive suggestions on my latest blog entry: what triggers the shot.
Far from having exhausted the theme, of course I knew it to be susceptible of both deepening and expansion. So here are a few avenues worthy of further enquiry: death, memory and the wish to fix the ephemeral in life, it being almost everything really.

Poignantly, photographs were easier to obtain than to preserve, at the beginning. Once painstakingly discovered or invented (I am not sure which) and at last captured, the photograph simply kept developing itself from nothingness tot meaning only to be subsequently swallowed by murkiness and eventually total darkness. It turned black.

Going through the pages of one glossy imported photo magazine – one that I only flip through at the newsstand as I find it both aloof in tone and prohibitive in price – I came across a technique that could bring us back to that primitive emotion: Photograms on black and white out of date paper.
Place some nicely structured translucent object – like a leaf (or kinky lingerie) – on a sheet of photo paper and leave it in full daylight until the paper turns brownish in the most exposed parts – those not covered by the object – thus revealing an image. It is something like a shadow, albeit a negative one, of both outline and inner structure. A sepia roentgen if you will, of simple or intricate little things.
Left alone in the light, after removing the objects, the print will slowly keep discolouring and darkening until the image is lost. So it needs fixing if it is to be retained for some time.

By trial and error the first alchemists of photography at last came across hypo, a solution of sodium sulphite that preserved the image by removing the unexposed silver from the emulsion. Rinsing in water and drying were the last steps to a durable print. Once easily available, hypo is again something that you need to look for as digital photography made it unnecessary. But it is out there, and at least you know what to look for.

I have drifted a little from the original theme, yet I think that experiencing the pains and pleasures of the dark art of analogue printing will induce another motivation for taking photographs, although maybe a secondary one: the curiosity of seeing how they will turn out on paper.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What Triggers the Shot (subjective or unusual realities).

As many pant their painful way through this year’s Amsterdam marathon I leisurely witness their stress from a vantage point on top of a bridge. All around me and along the track many cheer and many take pictures, thus setting me to think about what actually moves people to want to take pictures of this or that in the first place and whether their motivations can be at all fathomed or indeed classified in clear and general guidelines. Thirty years into my personal obsession and profession I have taken photographs for all the right, and probably most of the wrong reasons, which somehow should qualify me to tackle the question, also given the fact that on this particular moment I don’t feel like shooting at all and much rather sip on my paper cupped cappuccino and lose myself in abstract thoughts as I am wont to do in the presence of mass hysteria of the sportive kind.

Individual motivations are either typical or unfathomable by definition. Actually I guess the typical is by large more frequent and likely than the original. As the typical has this way of appearing original to the beholder of the thought in question, any attempt at mass investigation or statistics is doomed from the start. So trust my own instinct on this one. If my guess is as good as anyone’s, surely on the same account it is not likely to be any worse than yours, should our opinions differ, and perfectly all right, should they coincide.

Boldly split, the motivation for taking photographs is either evolutionary procreative sexual bodily or aesthetic cultural entertainment and human curiosity (the superior capacity of being captivated by anything other than feeding, procreation and survival). In short: beauty or the beast. Take any picture and you will find that it fits into at least one or more of above-mentioned classes. Whether a picture is more or less effective in ticking its intended box is the measure of how accomplished it is, regardless of any judgement on the legitimacy of its goals and subject matter. The motivation for looking at pictures can be roughly classified in exactly the same way as the taking, thus completing the cycle.

The taking of pictures easily fits into the profile of a species of hunter-gatherers, as an activity. Left to his or hers own evolutionary devices, this is what people do with photography when spontaneous and free. Of course much goes on in photography which is neither, and professionals in particular are able to toggle with many elements at will in perfect awareness and next to perfect technical prowess as to where they want the picture to go and what it needs to say. Then there are the intentions of those who do not control the process but still try to, leading to poor imitations, stereotypes, and boring pictures in general. Bad pictures constantly happen, but boring ones are mostly made intentionally.

As my fellow humans below push on their podistic endurance quest I am for once perfectly at ease with not taking pictures and mildly amused by the unexpected serendipity of my recent thoughts. Of course I have merely scratched at the surface of the problem, but it kept me from the worst indulgence of all in taking pictures: mindless automatic compulsion.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Shape Of Things To Come

Maybe befittingly to a city that gave birth to a philosopher and scholar better known for his Praise of Folly, Rotterdam is a striking mix of rational and flamboyant modern architecture. Since its near total destruction in WWII, the stage was set for a number of experiments in design that ranged from the kubus houses, literally cube-shaped buildings that seem to defy gravity and, most of all, common sense by being tilted on one corner by 45 degrees, to much uneventful rationalistic suburbia. This attitude has most notably blossomed in recent years to produce many very exciting buildings and a centre that has been revived from catatonia into youthful vitality. Rotterdam is futuristic, especially so along the river Maas, next to the Erasmus Bridge, where among other things the Holland’s Fotomuseum is based in the charmingly named Las Palmas. Lured by possibly one of the last days of decent weather, my wife and I hit the road on a round trip to see the present exhibition on Brazil.

If your preconceived notion of the South American juggernaut state is that of a sex packed crazed metropolis, you’ll find confirmation in this multimediatic show of photos, graphic design and videos, plus one highly enjoyable interactive gimmick that allows one to be videoed in real time and instantly played back on a mural screen, combined with apparently random but very funny cartoonesque characters and elements. Maybe it defies description, but some kind of caption to the works could have helped our understanding of what otherwise is left as a chaotic symphony of tropicalistic nonsense. Vital and sexy, sensationalistic sensuous, vaguely titillating and intellectually void. It’s almost an amusement park in museum format, games included.

Interactive stimulation continues as we dive into an exhibition of young talent from some award or other: visitors are eagerly invited to judge the works and put their preferences either in a cardboard box (for the analogue minded) or patiently typing in a submission form designed to be possibly the slowest software of the world. Since almost nobody took the trouble of fine printing their work, many images are on plain inkjet paper and are pinned to the wall by long steel nails, providing a provisional and ephemeral impression far from that of fine art photography. Maybe this is for the better, because the level of the images is more often than not even lower than that of the self-evident explicatory captions by the authors. A few of them manage the arousal of a faintly benevolent smile from the discerning spectator, and would find one almost sympathetic were they not presented in such a presumptuous manner and a lofty – although in the basement, still a museum - location.

Two floors up more gimmicks: a thermic paper camera that doesn’t work – a combination of an overhead projector and a scanner, by the look of it. To paraphrase the old slogan, “you push the button and it doesn’t do anything“ but whirr and purr and emit some heat from the slot where the print should pop out, according to the instructions printed on the front of the box. Previous visitors had been both more lucky and less accommodating, judging by a stack of discarded prints left on top of the apparatus. I settle to pick up one of the most mysterious images of the stack as a souvenir. It’s a silhouette, a kind of digital silkscreen of a bold headed man: a black matted sheet of paper vaguely smelling of graphite that I immediately and unceremoniously fold down the middle to prevent it from taking on the aura of a print. Very comfortable chairs further on provide solace to the feet, as a joystick allows browsing some photographs accompanied by a sound system that whispers a testimonial on the images softly and almost confidentially right behind one’s ears, a feeling not altogether pleasant but vaguely threatening, as it is unfamiliar to most people.

I feel both excited about the potential of this museum and disappointed by its present exhibitions as we move towards the exit, past an impressive display of cakes at the shiny coffee counter. Manned by a slightly reluctant and absent minded bearded youth, it serves a cappuccino that is as pleasing to the eye as poor to the taste budds: almost an allegory of a place that seems so far to deliver more appearance than substance. Epiphany strikes as a bolt of lightning when I come across a book on Gerda Taro in the luscious museum bookstore. You may have encountered her name while reading about Robert Capa, and this book reveals a great talent and a very courageous person on her own right. As her premature tragic death proves, she took chances and real combat photographs in a conflict that may now look primitive and weirdly photogenic but was nevertheless crude and deadly for those directly involved.

A measure of this kind of dedication to photography and panache is needed here, I think, and taking some risks. The infrastructure seems absolutely fine.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Looking For Lost Instants, Polaroids Regained.

The genius of Mr Land, the founder of Polaroid Co and inventor of many things ranging from a sighting system for tank gunners to a system for producing good sun glasses but mainly known for his instant photography, lay in the understanding that the process and indeed the pleasure of remembering needed no delay to be savoured, nothing like a lifetime or the span of many years and not even the few days or hours needed to process a negative and make a print, but instants would suffice. Not only that, but that this pleasure would prove to be enough of a kick for many and almost an addition for some to support a huge worldwide industry, even though the price per print was quite steep and the cameras definitely not cheap. Filmpacks held 8 prints each, and produced an amazing amount of garbage as so much metal and plastic was thoughtlessly discarded with the packaging.

All this is history. Indulge if you will in the many pubblications and find more out. Polaroid has produced many booklets through the years, always keen to keep track and document its corporate history, if somewhat doctored to their PR needs. I have been a sucker for the rainbow boxes since I found out about them, advertised indirectly through a program on Andy Warhol, a prolific – almost compulsive - instant shooter. As soon as I could afford to I joined the number of those professional photographers that used instant films for proofs, shooting many as we zeroed in on the final lighting and composition, then to be sparingly exposed on a few Ektrachrome plates. Maybe a side effect of the inebriating fumes of the developing gel on the fragrant and shining prints that one confidently peeled apart from the sticky negative in one swift motion, many photographers ended up liking their looks on their own merit.

Polaroid produced many different kinds of film, and they all had their own distinct personality and a complement of sexy processing machines and gadgets to go with them. Color or black and white, different speed up to the then staggering 3000 ASA (!), formats from 35 mm all the way to 8x10 inch and larger – although limited to very few professional rental outlets - a 20 x 24 inch camera . Quick to spot commercial opportunities and lavish in the promotion of their material, they supported the concept of Polaroids as professional “final art” material, and published a beautiful P magazine devoted to showing the best of creative photography on their material complemented by a large own photography collection that could mount exhibitions. The one I saw was thrilling, by far better than any competitor.

Some films allowed for unorthodox procedures to obtain unusual results, an approach that came to be known as creative techniques. It involved anything from almost boiling the prints to detach the emulsion layer, to printing the peel apart negative on watercolor paper, wood, metal and anything else that could hold it, cutting SX 70’s open and inserting colors in the underlaying layers or pushing their dyes around with blunt instruments during development thus giving it a painterly effect or warped shapes. So on we played, pulling and peeling up to the day when digital photography put an end to it, almost overnight. Those like me who were not quick enough to see the end coming are stuck with the relics of that gone by era: the processors and holders for films that are no longer available. And boxes full of prints.

Recently I have been asked about creative techniques again. Much to my surprise there seems to be some slowly creeping interest in analog photography among the younger art directors, maybe a wish to find out what they may have missed out on. Oblargingly I embarked on the painstakingly Proustian effort of digging into the archive and produce some evidence of what we were up to in the nineties, when Polaroids were still all the rage if in decline. The common joke on the sixties applies to this later period as well as far as I am concerned: if you can remember them you weren’t there. As I flip through the tiny prints slowly memories and emotions pop up, not all bad actually. The gusto and playfulnes of those experiments with instant is something that digital photography somehow doesn’t stimulate. I think digital is brilliant, but always on the verge of being virtual and immaterial until robustly photoshopped upon, which is an act of sheer will power and comes from a conscious plan and the inner self of the maker. Playing with polaroid was a dialogue and often a debate with the material: one tried things and got results back, also surprising ones, within seconds. You could fool around and stumble on some great stuff, or be serious and dead boring. Part of the fun was taking chances, and it didn’t ever matter because it was “only” a Polaroid.

If we can’t revive the production lines, or stop history, maybe something of the spirit can be kept alive by different means. Either find ways of being playful and experimental with digital means – buy the way, cameras built in phones are becoming far too sharp and good to be interesting – or take a detour and find other avenues to explore. Sometimes I feel one possible way forward could be one giant step back to a time before polas: rewind and replay the analog tape, let’s say from 1950 on? This would be holding back in a way, some (Sally Mann) are actually starting over from 1850 and making great things. It will be hard though to find ways that are as effortless and fun as polaroid was, they really were the short cut to visual emotions.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Now I Am Officially Mad.

Dear friends, at last I have joined the club of those who actually find it worth their time to correspond with large corporations. Herewith my first effort at the "customer sulking" genre. Faithfully yours, E.

Dear Eileen at B....,

In response to your mail about pricing, I must say that I find your choice of investing in Europe questionable, especially in the present economic juncture. More so in light of the fact that you are raising the prices, thus expecting us - customers (or fellow b...erati as you oddly call us) - to shoulder the bill. Much as I am in favour of companies paying their taxes, as we do, I don't see why I should rejoice in paying them for you, in Europe or anywhere else.

Your prices were never cheap, actually they are as high as can be. If you compare them to the prices of other books on the market, the printing cost to the author is so high that there is no room for profit. People simply wouldn't buy a digitally printed book at a higher price than what they are used to pay for ordinary books.

Modern technology has enabled everyone to become one's own publisher, which is great. It also means that it is possible to produce a single book at a relatively low cost, and on this fact you have thrived placing the price as high as you could. If your recent moves do not reduce costs, but rather increase them affecting the price, then by all means you shouldn't have made them.

As a result of the present recession negotiations are harder than ever and a constant bargain hunt is on. Probably many of your cherished fellows will be now pushed to look around for other sources, winning that natural laziness that goes for "customer loyalty".

Let me end with a constructive suggestion: wouldn't it be better to improve the software further, maybe add new formats to the options, and do what it takes to keep the prices as they were? That would make a positive statement, a good signal of goodwill quite different from yet another of those "we are sorry to inform you that due to circumstances beyond our blah blah..." that we get far too many of lately.

If you'll do that, we'll order.

Best regards,

Emilio Brizzi

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Emotional Printing.

What makes a photograph? Is it an image? A thing? An emotion? When it comes to fine art photography the issue is clear to me: all of the above and most importantly a photograph is A PRINT.

According to Dorothea Lange the print is not the object, the object is the emotion the print gives you.

Be is at it may, what kind of print actually is best suited to convey emotions? That is the question that has kept me busy lately.

It depends on the kind of image obviously. Most photographs simply benefit from a straight technically correct approach: one that will deliver a “good” tonal scale with blacks and whites and an interesting array of greys or colors in between. A glossy surface is sharper and has a wider tonal range, and there are rules that relate the format of the print to the distance at which it will be observed in relation to the angle of the lens used to take the photo, so that perspective can be experienced naturally. But when it comes to creative photography the aim is not to be natural but to be suggestive and inspiring. If Roland Barthes can be right in stating that the photograph as an object is invisible, as it is merely the carrier of the image that is what we are looking at, on the other hand the experience of the print as objet d’art, coexisting armoniously with the images it carries and maybe even with its blemishes, curls, and frame, enhances the final result to greater effect. So finding the right way to the “perfect print”, the most effective for the picture at hand, is not simply a matter of technical prowess but requires a deeper approach and sometimes many trials and errors along the way.

A failure to recognize the necessity of trials, and the unavoidability of errors, can lead to maddening frustration: these matters can take time to clear, both in one’s mind and in one’s darkroom. Printing is often a sobering tale of fatigue, pain, exaltation and potentially cruel disillusion when we turn on the white light, or look at the prints the following day and find that what we thought of as a successfull session has been a complete failure, goes in the bin, needs to be done over. If we are lucky, we can learn from it and eventually nail the result. Much can go wrong, as only printers know.

Not all photographers are print makers. In fact the smart ones stick to taking pictures, possibly out and about, to hustling their models and counting their dollars, and leave dark matters – and digital retouching – to the mostly unsung and underpaid heroes of photo finishing. Still I believe that the really dedicated photographer can not be but very concerned with post production matters, ideally to the extent of doing his or hers “dirty work” as a necessary part of the process. Definitely so if they want to call themselves artists. Only direct experience can teach us how difficult it is to do it all, and will change our way of looking at fine art photographs forever.

Print making is mostly a lonely endeavour, and trying to find somebody to help us with it a very sensitive matter. Confronted with a huge series of 97 11x14 inch negatives I have started to seriously doubt my own strength in ever getting to the bottom of the printing process. Not only is it a daunting amount of creative decisions to take (finding people to chat about those is not very hard though, on a rainy day and if your coffee is good, but you need to be selective as to which advice to follow because these were given as freely as often unthoughtfully) but of very hard physical work. Hard meaning downright painful. So I went to look for a possible brother in arms, to break the spell of loneliness and share some of my thoughts and problems.

Behind an unassuming glass door on one of Amsterdam’s central canals I have met Wim Dingemans, a fellow photographer and a printer. His place is congenially old fashioned, it screams ANALOG from every corner but is as soft spoken as Wim himself. The quiet familiar darkness of the classic photo studio, lit only by the light boxes that shine on our spectre like bleak faces from below, and a few desk lamps, intriguing bits of equipment glistening all around in the shade. We start talking about our business, about printing and about our lives, finding much common ground as we amicably share anecdotes and information that range from developer recipes to sore feet and evening claustrofobia remedies. I leave one 35 mm negative behind for Wim to try, some prints to spot, he’ll call some time next week.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The French Collection.

Nostalgia is an incurable disease, maybe even a personality trait or an acquired taste for that peculiar emotion of pain and pleasure, almost a sense of hopeless longing, when confronted with things from the past. This feeling seems to me to be at the core of much appreciation for art, literature, and poetry and of course, Photography. Probably present in most human cultures, I venture to suspect that this emotion is best described by the Portuguese word “saudade”: melancholy, spleen, and heartache. All these can be induced by the sense of smell and by hearing old music and sounds for instance, or by looking at paintings, drawings and especially photographs. Even those from a time long before we were born.

Far from being an antidote to the passing of time, photographs are the perfect way of inducing nostalgia and saudade because they are, more than paintings and drawings, a tangible and phenomenological trace of something that was undeniably there: they are proof of what the world looked like. In this, as in the very working of memory, they are instruments capable of inherent poetry. Photographers who feel this, and are confronted with the quick pace of a changing world, can fall prey to a sense of urgency in trying to record all things fading before it is too late. Stephan Vanfleteren mentioned something like this in an interview about his Belgian oeuvre, I humbly felt this in my years long series on Amsterdam – many locations now irretrievably lost – but no one must have thought so more than the greatest witness of urban change in the history of the medium: Eugene Atget.

Of course it would be reductive, very limiting to see this master’s life achievement merely as a document of the passage of times, although documents is exactly how he himself would define his images. Through the years I have been fascinated by his work, and bought every book about it that I came across thus ending up with something of a collection, not only of his photographs but also of how different editors and scholars have chosen to represent his work. These two things need to be kept distinct; least the second aspect would cloud our judgement of the first, which is the only true issue. So let us try to split the appreciation of an Atget in its basic components, regardless of what critics would have us think.

Pick any Atget and look at it.

Technically it looks old, somewhat faded, warm in tone, one or both upper corners incidentally vignetted by tilting the lens too far, the lens slightly wide angle, the skies burnt, the shadows black. Not a perfectionist, no technique for technique’s sake, and working with the tools of the 19th century.

The composition is always masterly, never dull, at times surprising, modern, playful, engaging, and deep.

Subject matter are the streets, the buildings, the interiors, landscapes, typically with very little or no people in them. He would include them or let them accidentally be there, or maybe avoid them, who knows. Policemen seemed to have had a penchant for being in the picture, as they are usually quite sharp when in the frame, while other passers by are motion blurred by the slow exposures. This would suggest their vigilance to have been, like today’s, a mostly static and boring occupation with the difference that they took being photographed probably like a welcome diversion or maybe even a compliment. Nothing like taking unauthorized pictures of cops today to feel the pang of years gone by from then. When shooting people on the streets, like on the Petit Metiers series, he seems to be looking for types other than being interested in individuals, and his approach seems as sympathetic as totally unjudgmental. His lens would take in life on the street as it stood before it, be it represented by a street vendor or by the fleeting couple of a soldier and a prostitute standing in a door way, both posing calmly, moving witnesses of dignified humanity. His vision is as democratic as can be, maybe even revolutionary . “He knew that those who really know how to look scarcely feel the need to say anything” (Jean Claude Lemagny – Atget the Pioneer) He didn’t leave any written explanation of his work.

An Atget print is never what you expect it to be. It looks like 19th hundred but was probably taken in the twenties of the 20th. Allegedly meant to be a document but being very poor at that and so much better at being something else that you can’t really point your finger to.
Combining all these apparently non cohesive aspects, you end up looking at a very powerful mix, mysteriously so as it may have been partly unintentional, like the effect of time, albeit obviously the work of a genius. All these layers combined concur to the creation of an unmistakable feeling of depth and meaning, if not didactic and obvious in its message, still extremely eloquent. Each and every print carries with it not only the description of its subject but also the very soul of its maker, of its time and place and that of photography itself. There is no better school or term of comparison or higher challenge than trying to emulate (not imitate) this, for us modern photographers, regardless of all the means at our disposal.

His real personality is shrouded in the mystery of another time and sensibility, the old France, when unaffected ness would be considered the subtlest form of politeness (Jean Claude Lemagny – Atget the Pioneer - Prestel). This didn’t prevent him from being obsessively productive, rather the opposite in fact. An estimated 10.000 photographs, on glass plates 18x24cm, representing a whole new vision of the world. By being humble and self effacing, and very hard working, he achieved what many of his contemporaries, lost in the meanders of fruitless pictorialism and their thirst for artistic recognition and personal success, utterly failed to accomplish: an original photographic vision and ultimately true greatness. Of course the rewards of all this were late in coming: after his death it took forty years of toil and dedication by another selfless talent, Berenice Abbott, finally to gain any recognition for this by now undoubted master. But it took her a lifetime, almost killed her in the process, marred her own career, and for very little reward. As the Moma was left with this great collection that she had saved from oblivion, taken over for a few dollars to nurture a sequel of publications and derivative profitable products that continue to this day, her struggle is witness to the unspeakable blindness and inner cruelty of cultural establishments, and it is no accident that this should ring true even now. One can only guess at the number of unknown masters left out by sheer negligence, laziness and lack of judgement on the part of those that should know better and be more adventurous and daring in their curatorial well-established high profile jobs. Of course there are no clear guidelines here, but wishing to play it safe is more damning than any mistake taken in the pursuit of meaningful work could be.

If his great contemporary Marcel Proust is anything to go by, surely we must agree with his idea that originality is, by its very virtue of being ahead of its time, bound to be misunderstood, and that it is not ambition and a yearning for honours and money that produce a masterpiece, but the habit of daily hard work. Maybe this is something that we, modern shamelessly self-promoting braggers, should bear in mind more often. Not only when we work, but also when we judge.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Prude the Obscured.

In the past months I had decided to obscure my blog, unsure whether this was to be a temporary or a permanent measure. As to the reasons I’d rather not comment.

Possibly it is slightly more interesting to notice that I have come back, the titanic struggle between paranoia and exhibitionism having turned out to the advantage of the latter. Statistics will show how and if this will be welcomed and to what extent.

Much is being said at the moment about the freedom of opinion and expression. One’s thoughts are of course one’s own, up to the moment when they are shared and made public. Then, if they are noticed at all, they may or may not solicit a reaction and even in some cases set in motion a chain of events that may prove to be either good or bad, possibly even damning. Generally speaking widespread indifference is the key safeguard of our freedom of expression: whatever you may say will probably be largely ignored by its very lack of poignancy, thus go unnoticed and unchecked. Just for the best really, because should it have some point to it, this would probably come over as controversial to some. And nowadays open debate is not always a sheer battle of words and arguments but can turn very nasty and even downright bloody.

Old idealists like George Orwell thought highly of freedom, and went as far as to say that they were ready to give their life fighting for the right of expression, including that of ideas that they didn’t agree with at all. Quite a statement. How many would do so today? I really don’t know, probably wouldn’t myself and suspect that the numbers of those noble spirits are dwindling. It’s not so much ideologies that are deserted, you are just as likely to be beaten up or worse for your ideas as ever by fanatics of all sorts, but tolerance and the capacity to allow for the existence of a different point of view than yours. So caution, intimidation or pragmatism make it expedient to check one’s expression in a form of self-regulation that is tantamount to self-censorship. Even countries that were traditionally known for their libertarian attitude to free speech seem to be pondering on the issue.

Speaker’s Corner, London, is a symbol of western liberties and the right to speak one’s mind in public. Albeit exercised by many a ‘nutter’, mainly to an audience of idle curious or fellow basket cases to no consequence whatsoever, it still stands for something. Quite marginalized it seems really, for why shouldn’t every corner be speaker’s corner? And this is possibly what blogs are to people: a chance to shout, divulge, and share with the world at large from their little corner. Let us give each other if nothing else at least this licence to speak freely. A few basic rules should suffice to weed out the unacceptable and create this playground of thoughts and even jokes. Why take offence? It’s only a blog!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Fall of Comnudism.

Banish the thought that we should revert to leftist sympathies whilst in the grip of a capitalist recession, BBC is airing a stale documentary (hardly new as stated, having been out for ages on the history channel) on life in the DDR – GDR for the Anglophones – as a stark reminder of the alternative life behind the by now truly crumbled away Wall.

Although the title would suggest the scope of the programme to include all of Eastern Europe, it actually focuses only on Eastern Germany and is lavishly illustrated by many family movies cuttings that bear witness of a peculiar penchant for nudity and home made eroticism in the relative (STASI probed both with sound and hidden camera equipment) intimacy of their private – although state owned – abodes and also in the full sunlight of communal Baltic beaches. Who would have thought? MY MY.

Of course if one looks in this new light at the whole regime, it appears increasingly to have been inspired not so much by the bearded philosopher Marx but by another bearded thinker, could it be? Yes, Freud. Sexual innuendos all over the place, galore. It all looks as if it had been designed in the spirit of the photographers duo Pierre et Gilles, albeit on a tight budget and with faded out of date colour film.

Hugely titillating: a whole state run on voyeurism - allegedly one half of the population was spying on the other half – sadist repression with dark sexual undertones – but also women liberation, equality, emancipation and a positivist attitude as opposed to religious inhibitions. They were blessed children of the system, unaware of life at large, of the world’s problems and doubts, blissfully at play in the fields of the State. Chief of State Honecker leading the way, French kissing Breznev on May the first, shooting game compulsively on weekends, blessing parades that would include not only the best of German youths marching the goose step but also naked girls carted along on beds on wheels. Then, in the privacy of their palaces, the party chiefs would indulge in every possible vice, watch state approved Love Workers perform strip tease routines, drink and eat forbidden fruit, like bananas (these being completely absent in a normal DDR diet).

I fail to see how this approach will add anything interesting to our understanding of the period, other than an almost pornographic interest and a quite superficial propaganda effort, needless as the shooting of a corpse. Wouldn’t it be time to take a hard look at ourselves and see if we can at least try to redefine a few of our own huge problems? If the communist universe was an alternative one, still it did not escape the realities that bound all human societies. This is not a revelation. Communism wasn’t defeated by a superior West, but by its own inherent - wishful or maybe hypocritical -denial of a basic Darwinian truth of Nature: the selfish gene will prevail. This even though it would seem at times as if our economic system, loosely based on an essential lack of ethics other than the need to survive and win the weaker, will eventually endanger the existence of our whole species. Amiable Charity simply isn’t good enough a replacement for Social Justice, or will self-discipline and restrain of the polluting rich or the starving masses safe the environment.

Many sources of information seem to suggest that present day Russia – once home to world Communism - is still stuck in its tragic past: a Tsarist system of power with few rich Boyars and many serfs, a gilded beautiful Faberge’s egg glistening in the light from afar, full of blood and tragedy on closer inspection. Really a sorry state of affairs for people that always deserved much better and endured the unthinkable. As the recession bites the West, we too at last are being Balkanized. Will nudity bring solace? Feel free to try.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Another Country.

In a crisis stricken economy one of the telltale signs could be a renewed interest in immigrating to far, sunnier and possibly richer shores. So it is hardly surprising that a trade show dedicated to showcase different countries and opportunities was a busy venue to spend a midwinter Saturday afternoon at. Twenty years into our own emigrating experience, from Italy to Holland, it was curiosity or maybe a sense of nostalgia that lead us to join the crowds, cough up the outrageous entrance fee of 10 euros and find out what was on show. I was especially intrigued to see which countries would be represented and how they went about the business of recruiting the “right” kind of people or make themselves interesting to them, not to mention how they would filter out the “undesirables”.

First of all I had assumed that young people would be mostly sought after, and somehow felt that ‘white’ European types would make the majority of the visitors. I was right, although the closest to home destinations were keen to accept older applicants. France was present with a cluster of stands, three in total, as each region represents itself and most weren’t there at all. Rural locations do not mind settlers who can invest their capital in some old barn, maybe even a castle, in order to enjoy a slower pace of life and maybe a happy retirement in 10 years of so. While a nice enough man was churning out figures and facts about Limousin, bearing patiently with my accent – an absurd parody of the Italian – as I was putting up with his garlicky breath (amazing how life often adheres to commonplaces and stereotypes) we both reached high peaks of boredom stopping barely short of yawning. Auvergne did a much better job of it, a generally very convincing case but for the lack of a coastline – essential to us and hopelessly absent on the mountainous Massif Central -.

Many European countries are joined by one organization split in different desks. Is it me, or do Germans and Austrian representatives still have a vaguely guilty look about them? Their counter went largely ignored. The very exciting places: China and the far East, were not present but for Japan, in an ill conceived plan to attract business investors with a stand manned by a fairly unpleasant advisor at a venue designed to attract the ordinary public. The man looked down on us, figuratively of course, as I doggedly refused to be brushed away easily and kept hassling him with questions, as if I really had had a few millions too many. At last he had to give in – benefit of the doubt probably– and I could extort his business card for my fascinating collection of Eastern Stationery. The Romanian corner was empty, but for a large bottle of laughing gas used to inflate promotional balloons for Finland.

Much as the promotional material tends to look surprisingly like a holiday brochure, economic concerns are obviously on everybody’s mind. With a worldwide recession nobody is likely to get away unscathed simply by moving abroad, but there seems to be countries where labour, and maybe some specific qualifications, is in demand. As we were congenially chatted up by a representative of Nova Scotia – incidentally she came from Slovenia originally and had only lived in Canada 10 years – I decided to try my chances by stating my profession as commercial photographer. The commercial bit was meant to sweeten up the deal a little, as I have developed that sixth sense of knowing that creative professions are looked on suspiciously by just about everyone and not only while we are still young, by our prospective parents in law. Predictably I could instantly feel her gaze go cold and icy, a very convincing imitation of the yearly onset of the artic winter on her new home island, as she brutally fit me into the losing category of artists. One would think that there is no shortage of those, anywhere on the whole exhibition floor. But then, as Oscar Wilde had it, all art is utterly useless. Besides, anyone can take photographs.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Genius of Photography and the Ghost of Misrepresentation.

BBC’s series on photography – The Genius of Photography - is packed with interesting images and thoughts, albeit burdened by some less than interesting observations by assorted experts of the field. This combination makes what promised to be a feast to the eye, a maddening source of potential frustration as well.

It is at times a parade of the blatantly obvious, a gallery of well established figures some of which, given the chance to speak their mind, frankly do not match the expectations we might have had given their fame. A far cry from the refreshingly revealing book “A New History of Photography” by Michel Frizot, this series is a confirmation of cliches, preconceived notions, and a reflection of art market interests especially highlighted by folks with a strong American accent. If it is a truism that photography was invented – or discovered as some would say – in France and England, Americans were quick to adopt it as a quintessentially New World art form, possibly like the movies. Not only did Americans take the lead in its industrialization (KODAK) and popular diffusion, they also seem to have established the very canons of its appreciation as true ART with their legions of academics and scholars. Quite a feat, considering that despite this domination photography always was practiced worldwide at very high standards, so that no country in my opinion could claim first place. But these experts were also quick to bring photography in close connection to MONEY, and in this they can rest assured that supremacy of sorts is firmly established on the basis of the American Dollar. Quite surprisingly it is from the mouth of an art dealer, Mr. Kraus of New York, that the most inspired comments on early photography are to be heard: an appreciation of the beauty of the negative as an almost abstract object. Having met him in Paris I had the pleasure of being allowed to take some free cards, charming reproductions of early 19th century British photographs, the best deal you could get on the whole Paris Photo. This even though it was obvious that I wasn’t a wealthy collector but merely a dollar less European enthusiast. As to the why of this generosity I can only speculate and be grateful.

The problem with scholars is that they may tend to trust their intuitive intellects above direct experience. So on meditating about the image on the ground glass of a field camera, one argues that its image being upside down is actually helping the photographer in the perception of abstract compositions when dealing with the subject. Now, I don’t know about you, but having worked with plate cameras for years I can assure you that the upside down thing is completely forgotten, to the point of being hardly aware of it. In real life one gets used to it fairly quickly, while if anything it is the size of the ground glass that matters. An 8x10 tends to look like the final prints for the sheer size of it, it’s practically a contact print (in colour) of what you are going to get. When in the course of one programme you get to hear a few of these misconceptions, delivered from intimidating authoritative looking men in tie, you lose heart on photography ever being truthfully represented. The only thing scholars should speculate about is the way scholars themselves react to the images, or they could quite simply ask the photographers, and elaborate on their answers and other collected facts. And this they do to an extent, but maybe they ask the wrong people, or the wrong questions, or they are simply out looking for a confirmation of rather than a challenge to their own thoughts. At the same time photographers that have enjoyed recognition, partly through the endorsement of these experts, seem to be careful not to cross them. Let’s hope a time will come when those who practice the medium and those who comment on it will blend in unbiased synergy.