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.