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.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Empty Mail.

Since the installation of a new computer some of the noises have changed. When looking for recent e-mails, my old machine ticked in disappointment at an empty mailbox. Now it gives a thud, like a guitar string being pinched while kept under some pressure with the palm of the left hand, or a tennis racquet hitting the ball weakly, possibly into the net. Since I have become emotionally sensitive to these signals, I would like to change them into more encouraging ones. After all, much depends on the way things are put. Is it bad to have an empty mailbox? One could construe it as a good thing, a lack of disturbance, and freedom from the need to reply and even a lucky break from spam. If only the machine were to give a happy chuckle of relief instead of the muted sound of missing out on something. Having gone through the built in options I have decided to go for the “ping” as the least bad one. As one old proverb goes, when I am sad my ping sounds sad...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

20th Century Histrionics.

In a labyrinth like display at the FOAM at last the Avedon retrospective has opened, after a well-orchestrated media campaign. An exceptionally busy gala night – I have this from a reliable source, being myself at work as the event unrolled – preludes to many more visitors for the duration of the event. People flock through the gates by the hundreds.

Pushing through a Freudian split in the somewhat forbidding black curtains that shape the entrance, the visitor is immediately directed upstairs, past a huge portrait of the master - with his trade mark intense gaze and luxurious hair wave - and into his first fashion work, 40’s and 50’s. Then on to the portraits, the celebs, the unknown in the American West, sidelined by “the family” series on powerful Americans in a small raised gallery, almost an afterthought in the installation but definitely worth the climb. More celebrities, one needlessly huge print of Andy Warhol’s friends at the Factory, on to a room of his father’s senescent close ups, down or up (?) a narrow flight of stairs to the last quite poignant self portrait series in 2002. His hair gone completely white, his gaze for once subdued and inward looking, possibly a premonition of his impending end. Through the split again, outward onto the street as financial self-preservation instinct keeps me away from the lavish display of huge hard cover books, I am left to ponder on my recent impression.

As most of the photographs are very well known, the added value of this latest exhibition must be looked for in farthest corners, and the few surprises. So as a rule one should look at the smallest prints best, since they are usually likely to be vintage, and thus most revealing. The larger they get, the more they become ads or interior decorations, often digital, not always good in fact. They are just spectacular, but not insightful. Where is all the obsessive perfection that the master notoriously exacted of his printers in black and white? So many prints are hopelessly burned out in the highlights, hands and heads eaten away by the white background, surely not what they were meant to be? I am puzzled. Photography from the 20th century is largely analogue, and its modern translation through digital means, albeit a legitimate – even commendable - effort must be attempted carefully. Especially now that the master isn’t here to guard the quality, we shouldn’t cut corners but work rigorously on the best tonal rendition possible.

A tiny room inside the room in the first section reveals some of the most surprising, modern and exciting images of the whole show, things he took on the streets of Italy in the forties. They seem to contain, condense and express all he was about to become: a primitive yet incredible departure from all photographic convention before him. Possibly the starting point to which all artists instinctively long to return after their parabolic exploration of their medium at the realization that innocence and perception were the greatest gifts, ultimate perfection being unattainable. They are doomed to look for the impossible, while longing for what they have left behind.
So it would seem it was in desolate post war Italy, in the ruins of Sicily, that Avedon comes in contact with the theatre of the streets: the loud, desperate, human histrionics of survival as expressed by these quintessential dramatic actors, the Southern Italians. All this he captures in stunningly rough black and white, wonderfully oblivious of technique, the action caught with split second accuracy. Their intensity and facial expressions seem to me to affect all he did later on. A sense of drama that was to befit well a world of iconic people – artists, actors - that didn’t seem to shy away from poses that would nowadays feel possibly quite presumptuous. These people either took themselves really very seriously or had achieved a natural iconicity that allowed them and Avedon to get away with it, creating a larger than life graphic universe.

Look at the fashion, the first fifties things. The models are not that different from other contemporary photographs, it is the setting that breaks the mould. Street artists again, elephants, pyramids and camels, I find myself focusing my attention more on the surroundings than on the model and least of all on the clothes. So I suspect he was a subversive at heart, but a very cunning one. A young genius, a rebel at heart but not the confrontational kind. Rather the handsome well groomed boy, duly respectful of these older ladies, the fashion editors of Harper’s, who were to usher him into the world of High Paris Fashion, and also make him a lot of money. Still he wasn’t to forfeit his talent to the needs of the market but to nourish it for a very long career, making his style bolder and bolder as far as he could afford to in the different stages of his life and parabolic career. It isn’t at all about fashion, or anything else but his own photographic vision. This is essentially black and white – no colour on the whole show, quite rightly in my opinion – and very graphic. He knew how to use both motion blur and crisp sharpness, shape and compositions and a very special mastery of the frame, made more evident by the edge of the plate printed with some images. The placement of a figure in the picture is eloquent in itself, a very discrete yet powerful way of expression that really is his Avedon’s own. Also purely photographic is his understanding of focal length in close up portraits, how he would allow wide-angle distortion almost to creep in unnoticed and yet enhancing. What he got was control on the perception of depth, either by using white backgrounds to cancel it or grey to enhance it, while limited depth of field would make the subject almost pop out of the surface of the print like in Marilyn Monroe’s portrait for instance.

As to the psychological aspect of his portraits I don’t think Avedon had any more insight in his subjects than the next guy, nor would he have cared for it. A photograph being by his own admission a registration of the surface, his eyes were all he needed to do what he wanted: powerful photographs. So we may chose to see what we want in their expression, much of our feelings are imparted to the image by notions that are not inherent to it. Most look uneasy, some puzzled, some anxious, it is the process of photography and not the photographer that has psychological insight. Those who recognize this and surrender control to the medium take the prize: revealing pictures.
None more so than the “family” series. Here they are, in their prime, some of America’s most powerful people. Familiar as they may have become later, it is daunting how most seem to show what was to become of them, and I am not sure it is all down to suggestion. Quite rightly, when he is dealing with neither models nor show business people, Avedon let the subject express itself subtly, thus truthfully.

As I watch the colourful crowd that parade along the pictures, some so histrionic themselves that it seems as if they have been dressing up to be a part of the show, I wonder about which if any legacy is to be imparted from the master other than his photographic purity of intention. His graphic signature is otherwise so strong that attempting to drink at the same well is highly at risk of becoming a meaningless citation of style. After all he was a man of the last century, and we must move on.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Problem of Exposure.

Photographers are usually familiar with the term exposure, meaning the amount of light given to film or sensor in order to take a photograph. Once left over to guess work and experience, later to be made easier by light meters and then effortless by automatic systems built in the cameras, the problem of exposure seems a thing of the past. Still it isn’t, particularly not in another sense of the word: that of getting exposure for our work once the images are finished, printed and ready to hang or publish.

Easy enough to put them on the Web, but then it is rather difficult to ensure that these sites we make will be visited a lot. For those who feel that their work should be experienced as a print the problem is even worse because they need walls: well lit spaces visited by acquisitively minded wealthy collectors, in short, galleries. The talent of getting your work accepted by a gallery is arguably more important than that of making great pictures when it comes to making it in this difficult world. Some seem to stream without delay from the art college to the art gallery and even museums, others toil for a lifetime in the sidelines, hanging their work in cafes and restaurants, cultural institutions or anywhere else, sometimes at their expense and with little or no reward. After a while this effort can become both daunting and discouraging, one tends to lose heart.

Far from having cracked it myself I have become something of a collector of both success and toil stories, anecdotes, and theories. Most success stories are second hand though: somebody else’s rendition of the facts while those who make it seem to be understandably secretive and evasive as to the reasons of their success – other than their great personality and talent that is, more implied than openly stated for the sake of modesty-. My good friend Mrs. G. swears by socializing at gallery openings and art fairs and names the capacity to take huge amounts of alcohol on board without incurring in loss of speech or dignity as a major asset. This approach involves a lot of traveling, since art fairs are all over the place, so nothing short of a Paris, Basel, Miami via New York triangle will do, better make it a pentagon to include Tokyo and Peking really. Oh, and spread it over a season lasting at least six months. In the time left the artist is to recover his sanity, revolve back to his photographic endeavor and work, in between AA meetings I might add. It may work, but it’s obviously not for everyone. Even when you have made it as far as getting your work under the nose of some influential person you are likely to find their response cautious and rather neutral. This happens for the simple fact that as an unknown photographer, it is a risk to support you, a liability to one’s reputation as an expert should you prove uncool, a commitment not worth making.

So I find it highly commendable that photographers who have been through this devilish mill for years find the energy, dedication and enthusiasm to land their prints on a good wall in a public building, albeit being aware of the staggering odds stacked against them. I also believe that the best honest work is produced without any hope or thought of success, beyond that very way of reasoning and being, but purely for the sake of it. Christopher Regis has done just that, and from the 5th of February to the end of March you can see a selection of his nighttime Amsterdam work, beautifully printed on fiber base and framed as good photographs should be, in the OBA (the capital’s central library). Since I have known Christopher for years I have no fears in vouching for his integrity. As for the pictures, they speak for themselves.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Annie and Cecil.

I am a sucker for photographers’ stories, diaries en memoirs. Old manuals also, and books entitled “modern photography” and published in 1936 are irresistible to me. So I couldn’t have missed Cecil Beaton’s diaries, and Leibovitz’s latest volume: Annie at work. Some similarities, but also huge differences between these two legendary photographers’ bundles. They have both enjoyed a great career, on both sides of the Atlantic although starting from opposite ends, and both have had the privilege of photographing the British royal family and Queen Elizabeth II in particular. Cecil Beaton was probably more at home in the palace, a son of the Empire, as intimate as you could get to the family as a photographer short of being part of it, like Snowdon was. Leibovitz is American, so, to put it as she did, she could afford to be reverential (?). I don’t know if this was the case at the shoot, the BBC filming of the session would suggest otherwise, but the pictures are surely very classic, sumptuous and utterly regal. Were they not the real thing, one could mistake them for a digital Hollywood reconstruction. Leibovitz produced images that are so European and pictorial as only an American would and no European would dare nowadays. They are sleek and clean like high quality ads, a feast of digital perfection, a celebration of order and beauty, very, very formal. In a way they do resemble the compositions of Beaton’s work with the Queen Mother, although he was working in black and white, and retouching, although very proficient, was still a brush and knife business far from present possibilities available to a star photographer at top prices. They are pictorial more than photographic, and this seems to be the way forward in stardom photography.

Annie at work is a page-turner. As one eagerly dips into the story trying to learn useful tips and techniques, absorb insights in the glitterati and the rich, decode the secret of a meteoric success and possibly learn what kind of person it takes to perform under the daunting pressures and challenges of dealing with the top and being expected to deliver the best, while being reminded of her very famous and some less known pictures, a sense of climax leads on and on ultimately failing to fulfil. Compared with Beaton’s confessions - his prose colourful and intimate, ironic and delightful if at times excessively histrionic - Leibovitz’s words are sober, sometimes hard and businesslike, prosaic. We are being left out, lead around the tour of the official version of events, given the Authorized Version. There is a matter-of-fact inevitability in the succession of events in her career that doesn’t sound lifelike, maybe there is simply too much connective material missing for the story to be credible. At this point in her life Annie Leibovitz has reached a notoriety that easily matches or exceeds that of her subjects in the pages of Vanity Fair. She is subjected to the same laws, and lead down the same path of PR and commercial exploitation of her persona as any other star. Quite possibly she is in control of the situation, with great awareness of what it implies and how to deal with it. A movie, books, the making of a myth.

As a member of the public, a reader, most humbly a photographer, I think it hard to find this promo material nourishing. Maybe she is too far up for her experience to have any resonance in my life, and I am slightly too old to buy in and believe in the story simply and thinly as it is told. Best thing to do is leave the text for what it is and study the pictures, where the real worth lies. Because Annie Leibovitz is a photographer at heart, a sensitive one, finding her way as she goes and doing many different things. Regardless of her success maybe, she should be valued for her off the beaten track images and her willingness to experiment, risk and find new things out. If other photographers should be remembered for their hearts, eyes or souls, maybe Leibovitz stands out for her guts.