Sunday, July 18, 2010

Unusual Suspect.

It is with a pained if fleeting look in their Prussian blue eyes that the utterly proficient guides at Castle Doorn meet our confession – upon their eager inquiries - of never having been to Potsdam. One could be excused for being out of one’s bearing in these woods, just East of Utrecht, of tall trees and shaded paths, punctuated by patches of sandy dunes, clearances and little villages including one very oddly named Austerlitz. A few k’s down a silent winding road - only between my hears is the roar of cannon deafening as I look in vain for Bolkonsky’s position during the battle of the Three Emperors of Tolstoian memory - lies Doorn and the grounds of its castle, notorious for having been the exile residence of the late Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and for the exorbitance of luncheon prices charged by the Orangerie next door. Still, surely, this is the Netherlands? Of course it is, the ‘real Austerlitz’ is very far and away.
Nobody in his right mind should plan a visit, but if you happen to be here it is well worth a quick peek inside, especially since our National Museum Year Card affords us free entrance. As it soon turns out, the place is not geared for people to quicken through the sumptuous memorabilia of historical meaning light heartedly, but is scattered at every floor and almost every room with school teacher types, briefed through and through, all too ready and set to educate us at the slightest nod of our heads. Before we know it we are lavished a tremendous amount of notions in non stop torrents of words, and it is hard/impossible not to meet it with a benevolent smile of gratitude and at least a mild attempt at picking up some of the content.
Skipping on all the important stuff, memory fixes on trivialities and a few meaningful numbers obscurely telling if cryptic in their significance. Let’s mention a few:
Kaiser Wilhelm fled from his headquarters in Belgium, Spa to be precise, in November 1918 on news of the internal political meltdown of Germany in the closing chapter of WWI, and applied for asylum at the Dutch frontier where he was kept waiting three days whilst suitable accommodations were hastily sought for. W. was an embarrassment of tremendous proportions for the neutral Dutch government, but he was family of the Queen and simply had to be let in. After all any royal abhors the very thought of regicide on principle and could never sanction or concur to one taking place. Privilege breeds solidarity.
Given a place to put up for a few days in Castle Amerongen by a fellow Chevalier of the Maltese Order, he outstood his welcome by one year and a half, at last to find permanent residence in Castle Doorn, a property that he was to buy with money eventually released by the Weimar Republic and part of his former Imperial Estate. He used to keep 60 palaces, now he was down to one house - fairly large on our standards but definitely petit on his – in which to house 59 railway carts of furniture and other personal possessions that came over the border. Matching these numbers with my perception of the rooms, I conclude that much has disappeared down the funnel of history but a general impression is still left for us to behold. The place looks and feels as if the man is about to enter any minute – quite frightening a thought actually, judging by the marble torsos and the paintings his gaze is not one that you would ever enjoy crossing not to mention the rest of his persona – but for a faint telling smell of the many decades gone by.
The display, although well kept and eagerly presented, suffers fatally from a chilling sense of historical amnesia, hopefully not so much a wilful attempt at deception but nevertheless a sin of omission. It is as if his responsibilities in the huge tragedy of WWI – which he himself sternly refused to admit to in his lifetime – and consequently WWII are to go practically unmentioned if not downright forgiven. Many thought that the man deserved to be put before a firing squad, there were even attempts at his life in the early twenties, but the gilded cage would hold until 1941 when he was to die in his bed, not without having had a taste at Germany’s revenge in the conquest of France and Holland itself. It would seem as too little retribution for this after all unsavoury character, the last of the Kaisers, whose fierce fixed look of aggression bordering on madness seems strangely similar to that of the other Fuhrer, Hitler.
So I would like to volunteer a concept for a piece of land art. If the bust of the Kaiser is to be kept standing at the head of the lawn in front of the castle, the rest of the field all the way to the gate house should be filled with the same crosses that mark all the war cemeteries in northern France, in remembrance of the inherent murderous madness of the values that he proudly embodied and that brought such unfathomable misery to so many. Only, I fear, few would have a stomach for lunch or imperial chinaware’s after such a walk.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Silence of the Limbs.

When temperatures soar into the thirties ºC any northern European capital plunges into tropical debauchery. Leave is taken from an otherwise stern working ethic and any dress code of decency, producing a particular brand of mindless street nudity and a tendency to drift towards shady parks, unguarded fountains or, in some cases, art galleries with airco.
On such a day I was to visit two museums in a row, partly for their being conveniently placed in front of one another but mostly upon invitation of Mrs. B. who wanted to introduce me to the work of one of her fellow artists on show in one place and catch another thing in one swift movement, allowing a sideways step in between for her customary 12 o’clock cappuccino and bagel.
Blame it on the heat, I was least inclined for pugnacious art criticism and of a somewhat subdued mood wich affects me still as I write about it the following morning, in the lofty greenhouse of my flat on the fifth (floor, not Avenue) , suspended between the lush park below and a perfectly radiant sky above. No potentially libellous ranting but a wish to find beauty and good on my path, to the point of knowingly chosing self delusion rather than self exertion. Set on not letting anything raise my temperature I do what any sensible soul does and let things roll over me with the least resistance because that would generate attrition which invariably turns into more heat. If this feels brainless, so be it.
Almost a parody of Dante and Beatrice, MRs. B. and I walked through the spires of a complex installation, narrow alleyways lined with impossibly large prints, steep staircases, down the pit and up, to end in the cool limbo of two rooms with a display of vintage prints by Karl Blossfeldt. Around us a delicate array of detailed close ups, botany specimen mostly, on seamless cream white.
With the crystal clear discipline of a Neue Sachlichkeit photographer, KB reaches a deep level of abstraction and poetry that may have exceeded his prior intentions but is too consistent to be put down to mere if blessed serendipity. Slighty mellowed by the stains of time and the occasional tiny tear at the edge or dust spot, his prints speak volumes.
I would define still life at this level as the genre that focuses on letting things reveal their hidden eloquent meaning, ie talk to us. It may seem a tall order, by why settle for less?
The same can be applied to all other genres in photography, like landscapes, portraits obviously, and the human figure. Unfortunately much imagery seems to do just the opposite: making things that are most eloquent often appear totally silent.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Impossible Instants.

A few former employees of Polaroid are running a plant in Enschede making and marketing instant film, under the name Impossible Project. Having spent some time on their site I ended up ordering two boxes of film and am now looking forward to testing the material, albeit with mixed emotions.

Polaroids were not only expensive amateur films, that traded instant gratification (or disappointment) for a steep price per print, but also unmissable testing material - when most professional work was done on the notoriously demanding colour transparencies -and a play ground for experiments that benefited from almost immediate results and their typical colour or grey tone scale. Their peculiar characteristics were well exploited by the corporation in promoting their brand and the use of the films as final art. By this they meant to encourage professional photographers to consider the Polaroid take as the original with no need for a final exposure on conventional film. The concept was promoted by publishing a beautiful magazine called P to showcase the best of the submitted professional Polaroids, and a photography collection from which exhibitions could be mounted. It was a very creative and open-minded approach unmatched by any other film company. The pictures were impressive.

Since the advent of digital photography all that and the Polaroid Land Corporation itself came to an end. Amateurs seem to me perfectly happy with their new handy cameras and LCD screens on which to view the pictures as they are being taken. The Polaroid brand lives on in the hands of another corporation with new digital products.
As for professional photographers, they have changed with the times, not so much adapting but enthusiastically embracing the ease and enormous potential of digital backs and digital postproduction. It is simply a different world. Kids don’t know any better. So, who’s missing out? Well, some creative spirits maybe.

Navigating on the Impossible site one feels taken back in time, and shown beautiful photographs with an aura of charm and creative potential. It reeks of alchemy, maybe even as alluring as that rarest of things in life: a second chance. Not only for the team of experts to salvage their jobs and expertise from oblivion, but also for us photographers who have held on to old cameras on the odd chance that a forgotten batch of film might come our way, to actually go at it again and shoot those special pictures that only Polaroids can give.

Released from any other raison d’être, Polaroids - as well as other analogue photography techniques and materials – belong now only in the realm of experimental and creative work. Whether the demand of this tiny branch of the market is enough to sustain an industry, it’s a gamble that some have been willing to take. In a way Impossible reminds me of Lomography. They both promote an approach to photography that is more emotional than technically exacting, marketing products that owe most of if not all their appeal to a combination of fancy advertising & design and nostalgic imperfection. In both cases it seems to me that a latitude in quality has been allowed in processes that used to be very precise, and that the prices are quite high. Lomo cameras are bad – unreliable, unsharp and leaking light – and the new Polaroids would probably have been discarded by the late inventor Mr Land as not good enough. They can deliver enchanting images though, because beauty is not necessarily technical perfection.
Hence the mix of emotions: I can’t quite decide whether this second chance is a God sent opportunity or simply an expensive and needless ride down memory lane. I guess everyone has to make this one out for themselves, judging from the results they get. Personally, I can’t wait to try.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nude Photography Workshop.

Now and again I happen across an invitation to join a NPW – or nude photography workshop -. Although so far they have failed to enrol me, my childishly giggling side has forced me to read some of the alluring texts that typify them.

We are talking the serious stuff here, meaning that which pretends to be legitimate while riding roughly the same commercial wave as the less serious stuff, by defining a thin but surely obviously distinct line between porn (not done) and erotic/artistic (well done). What we want is guilt free libido: a hard act for most to accomplish and more the stuff for psychoanalysis than for a photo course I fear.

Anyway, prompted by the latest one that I got from a local association, I thought I’d write my own guideline for aspiring nude photographers which I will then share with you not even at a fraction of the cost but absolutely free.

First of all let’s define nudity: the state of the body in which parts are shown that are usually clad in clothing. A notion that is of course culturally defined by local habits: so a topless of a native African in the 19th century provided ample emotion in defiance of the strict codes of propriety of the age, but got away with it because it went under the cover of true ethnicity whilst the bare ankle of a white lady would have called for public outrage.
Many, many years ago I used to take snapshots of my dog as he used to lay on his back shamelessly, legs spread apart, and title them: dog nudes. Still they were completely innocent images. Actually if you want a dog to look obscene, you need to dress it up.

In order to do nude photography the basics are:
A camera in working order (with film or a memory card in it)
A willing photographer
A willing nude model past the age of 18
Sense and sensibility
Somewhere suitable to house the session.

Given that most aspects of photography are exactly the same whether one is shooting a nude or say a pear, and the basic principles of light could be taught just as well if not better with a still life or a portrait, we must conclude that the sole specific purpose of a dedicated seminar must be to focus on those aspects that are not only typical but rather unique to the genre incidentally providing a glimpse on a simulated session from a voyeurs point of view, albeit a justified one. Crudely put, students are paying to watch nudity.

Stay clear of all that, even a serious teacher will only prompt you to imitate his or her results. You don’t need it. If all the above conditions are met there will be nothing in the way of finding your own way and style about it. Maybe it won’t be a great result the first time around, but then trial and error is always the way to original imagery.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cupio Dissolvi

Recently I have discovered the pleasure of deleting. I write something, and then I make it shorter and shorter. I get rid of the long words, look for the shortest possible way to the point and leave it at that.

It feels like a cleansing of the soul. Rewarding.

With e-mail it is the same thing, but I hold back for fear of being rude. Wrong.

Best of all is to delete the lot. No copy saved. Nothing.

This piece escaped by a wisker. Pity.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Photography Is a Joke.

TEDx Amsterdam was graced with a confident lecture delivered by Hans Aarsman in a playful tone and broken English to a selected sympathetic audience. He sets out to make a case for unpretentious photography, and lands in a proclamation of his own work, although maybe a reluctant and ironic one. Aarsman's photos end up in international magazines without him even trying, he says. And that is the core of his theory, one shouldn't. Authenticity derives from a laid back almost not giving a damn attitude: the importance of not being earnest.

Photography can't be pretty without looking like a painting, thus all pretty photography must be kitsch. In order to be interesting, it suffices to be a collection of data or information that an inquisitive eye can analyze intelligently in order to draw conclusions or some practical use. It is not about the image but about the subject, literally. Aesthetics usually get in the way of clarity, and should as such be abandoned or at least not knowingly pursued.

As theories go this one is scattered with contradictions and limitations, which is probably just as well for it would mean nothing short of a ravaging iconoclasm if it weren't. All fine photography up to this point goes in the bin; crude utilitaristic imagery takes its place on the walls of museums and collections.

Delivering it like a joke makes for a welcome distraction from more conventional possibly yawn inducing speakers, still some implications should be given thoughtful consideration. For if it is important not to take something too seriously, surely it should be the photographer who needs to be humbled and not the medium.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Germans.

[Foto Bernd und Hilla Becher]
At my local bookstore - while trying to steer my eyes away from the hard core distractions of the lavish display of soft porn photo titillations by the likes of La Chapelle Testino Newman Olaf and so forth and so on - I got my nose stuck between the pages of a lucid book on the works of the Düsseldorf School of Photography, starting from the soothing and consolatory stern cooling towers by Bernd und Hilla Becher. I am not saying that the Ruhr Valley is the landscape that I love the most, but that the rigours of objective photography (Neue Sachlichkeit) can be at times a much-needed refreshment and the way to go for a project.

Somewhat to my surprise the moment found me peculiarly perceptive for the German look on things. Furthermore I had to think of my own work and recognize that at least part of it is related if not directly connected to it, at least to the same extent as the work of Atget is. I won’t go into the reasons why, but find that in general the Teutonic side of our personality is not one that we most easily admit to. Still it is there, we might just as well use it and learn from them instead of playing with our Airfix Spitfire replicas in the endless and utterly fruitless commemoration of glories that weren’t even ours to start with. Mittel Europa is far closer than we think, and better.
The dam busters were New Zealanders (and Jeremy Clarkson is allegedly an idiot). The surviving “Crauts” had to amend, rebuild from the rubble and their offspring now pays for the Euro while carrying the cross of past guilt indefinitely, at our pleasure, while being occasionally laughed and sneered at.

[foto Massardo]
It’s enough to grow resentment even in the most saintly and repentant soul, and I playfully suspect that the German revenge is in fact subtly taking place in the form of a race to excellence that can’t be matched by other Europeans, not on their terms at least. Industrially, commercially and artistically. With an at times maddening penchant for logic thought and hard work, plenty of money and an eagerness to do well, Germans excel in every field. May I be excused for finding it very irritating when I hear that Andreas Gursky’s photographs are selling at astronomical prices (in excess of a million dollars)? Admittedly, they are SHARP and BEAUTIFUL but still it reeks of blatant excess in market manipulation. His prints are industrial products, to be reproduced in the thousands if one so wished. I mean: he must have an ego the size of a Zeppelin, and where does that leave the rest of photography? I don’t think he cares and would find my query a petulant squeal to sneer at, if take notice at all if he got wind of it.

Benedikt Taschen is another character that I would like to mention, because we owe him so much in improving the availability of art books. Huge fat volumes full of colour reproductions of anything at all are now provided by this omnivorous publisher at a fraction of former prices. It feels at times as if Taschen is out to publish EVERYTHING. So as absolutes go, this one as well will not be attended in full, but it sure gets close.

Last thought that I would like to share with you on the subject is one that will make them endearing, because in fact much of this Grundlichkeit is actually an illusion, as any other preconceived notion is. Once in a while news of some monumental or minor cock up crosses the border to reveal that maybe things aren’t as perfect as they would have us believe. Far from undermining their worth as a nation, this fact actually allows for the idea that they may, in exchange for human fallibility, possess more of the qualities that are traditionally allocated to other people. So we can open up to the notion that not only there is a little German somewhere within our souls, but that the Germans themselves host quite a bit of us. Auf Wiedersehen.

[foto Massardo]

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Doing Virtually Nothing.

Computers are great at keeping us busy doing nothing. Powerful tools they may be, still many applications seems to be meant to entertain, distract or otherwise leave us as long as possible in that state of almost ineffectual existence that is virtual reality. Our bottoms leisurely sunk in whatever chair, futon, bench or sofa we may have chosen, our eyes fixed on the monitor, our minds engaged in this highly addictive surrogate of life. Lab mice, given the choice between activating their brains pleasure cells by hitting a button or eating, starve themselves to death. So would we.

The only way to keep track of our lives, and establish whether our computing habits are healthy or worthwhile, I guess, is to keep track of the input and output in analogue or real terms. Easy enough if you are at the office or workplace, and use the machine for work. Useless as the product of your job may seem at times, your computing toil generates at least your monthly income in very Real terms. Some applications are also easy to grade in this respect, as they directly control the physical world, such as flying a plane, or operating an instrument or a manufacturing machine, some scientific or medical apparatus. The information relates to the physical actual world and is as such relevant, the machine just a clever and efficient way to deal with it. Virtual reality, as applied in computer models to simulate phenomena and processes is in itself a good thing and a cost saving environment. But can it be trusted completely? Let’s leave that to the experts.

Two areas strike me at first glance as dangerously virtual, in the sense that they can be a great waste of time and have a tendency to excite delusions: computer games and internet social networks. Gaming seems to me a self-evident risk, social networks less so. A surrogate of real life they may not be, but it is tempting to connect with others in this apparently unobtrusive way, and alluring to “score” as many connections as possible, regardless of the depth, interest and frequency of the contacts. We are living in a time of economic crisis, and many are left unemployed or under employed. Often joining an Internet network is seen as a way to try to break the isolation that this state of affairs implies, and maybe get another job. Is this wishful thinking, or is it the way to go to establish contacts? Phone calls obsolete – after all we are all too busy computing and can’t be bothered to answer – e mails flooded with spam or limited to trusted acquaintances by draconian filtering, only the window of facebook, linkedin, twitter and the like is left ajar for strangers and friends of our friends to approach us. And can be readily shut too, creating a new and potent “cyber snobbing” effect, such as denying an invitation to join or ignoring incoming messages thus causing all too real offence and frustration.

I welcome the development if it is to deliver us from the hell of having either to receive or perform cold calls on the phone. Still it is troublesome that we should be encouraged to become socially inept without the machine – technology doesn’t seek to expand our lives, but to make us dependent - and worrying that spam makers and other even worse evil doers constantly infiltrate the chat boxes with bad intents. Again, input and output are the key words. Processing is just a tool.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Edificatory Art.

To Rodchenko and the other Russian artists of his generation, Art wasn’t an end to itself but it needed to serve a purpose, i.e. to help the Construction of the USSR. The creation of the first world socialist utopia state was a daunting task, an impossible one has it eventually proved itself to be, but a very exciting one and they took to it with panache and great talent. Normally one tends to consider most endeavours more or less unworthy of the effort, especially in Art where things have a tendency to feel quite arbitrary, individualistic, not essential, or as Wilde would have it, utterly useless. But surely the creation of a fair society is the ultimate goal for each generation. At least they did get a chance and tried their best to make the most of it. They can hardly be blamed for what happened next – neither Stalinism - nor can their failure to beat the impossible odds stacked against them be a measure to judge the honesty and goodness of their ideals. It strikes me that avant garde culture never really becomes main stream, but stands in history as an attitude that beacons us further into actual progress, which itself moves at a much slower pace and to different actual results. Experiments were never meant to become widespread reality, but they are the test ground for unlimited creativity.




The twenties in Moscow were for a while as close as it will ever get for avant-garde artists to put their ideas straight from the studio into general practice, both in editorial and advertising use. The poet Majakovsky was writing ad slogans, the painter Rodchenko had turned multi media. Abstract paintings turned into daring graphic design, new typography – to us westerners made even more exciting, possibly, and exotic by its being based on the Cyrillic Alphabet – the photo collage and photography itself applied in new and refreshing ways taking full advantage of a new handy format and a tiny camera completely new at the time: the 35 mm Leica. They were after dynamic images, and accomplished them both by photographing objects and people in motion or by using the diagonal as a dynamic element of their compositions. Even static buildings, or stone columns, seem to soar or progress through the image, in motion.

If we could slice the building of the FOAM museum in Amsterdam right now, we would have kind of a cross section of present and past avant-garde. The lower floor and one room at the top displays a selection of young Dutch talents, the bulk in between houses an exceptional exhibition dedicated to Alexander Rodchenko with many as of yet in the west unseen photographs, all the very famous ones, and many collages and graphic art. The size, amount and quality of the prints is staggering. They are all vintage, unusually large for the period – most western photographers of the twenties didn’t print as large as Rochenko did – and they are very beautiful. So in a way we are forced to make a comparison if not hold a competition between the Now and Here, and the Then and There, and maybe feel invited to look for similarities and influences. Well, there aren’t many of those. We live in very different times, and young artists cannot but reflect a very different approach. Personally I feel a lack of originality and ideals in the modern work. It feels like a gimmick, motivated more by personal ambition than by any ideal beyond it. Using Photoshop as a random generator of images rather than a super clever tool for image editing seems to me one of the signs of almost fatalistic total cynicism, if not laziness. It’s all about the result (read Success) but don’t be mistaken, the resulting image is as unemotional as the chip that produced it. Can they be blamed for it? Probably not, very few people escape or transcend the limits of their times.
If there is a legacy that we could profit from in the Exhibition of Rodchenko, other than the sheer joy of looking at the work, it must be the lesson that great results can be obtained with little means, when talented people are motivated by noble ideas and work hard.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Heritage at the Hermitage along the Amstel.

When things got on top of her and she felt like spending some time on her own, Catherine the Great of Russia found refuge in a palace that she had had built next to the Winter Palace, in St Petersburg, namely the Hermitage. There she would enjoy among other things her notable Art Collection. Fast forward some 3.5 centuries, shift focus from Russia to Holland and zoom into Amsterdam’s Amstel riverside, sprinkle a little snow on the pavement and the flimsiest dusting of it in the air and join me, if you will, on a quick visit to the newest Museum to have opened its doors around here: the Hermitage aan de Amstel.

Put into the perspective of a city where two of the main museums are partly or completely closed for extensive renovations that will last years (Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk) and the centre itself gutted in the middle by the North South Metro Line Works that promise to last much longer than planned and overshoot the budget by a mind numbing number, the success of the HaA is very good news. Almost a year after its opening, the amount of visitors has risen to double the estimates. Deservedly. The infrastructure is well designed.

Theme of the present exhibition is a choice of clothes, costumes, uniforms and precious objects from the court of the Tsars. Pivoting around a central hall, the Throne on one end and a central isle filled with the costumes and uniforms, a sequel of smaller side rooms hosts a series of displays dedicated to different aspects of Court Life, such as Religion, Marriage, War, and so on. A corner projection room gives one a black and white impression of early 20th century St Petersburg streets through a non-stop compilation of vintage films. Then a few photographs to top the lot.

The scale of the building and of the show is quite right, enjoyable and fresh, instructive without being overwhelming. Maybe a little thin on the historical perspective, so that if any well informed person can find it impossible to feel nostalgia for such a sorry state of affairs as the Tsarist Regime actually was, the display of so much gilded glory and fine craftsmanship could induce in a more casual visitor a state of blissful amnesia. Selective memory could be construed as being as misleading as outright lies, when history is concerned, and I fear that a modern agenda is at the heart of this as other choices concerning this exhibition. Far out of my scope to fathom exactly what this hidden purpose may be, I can only welcome the Cultural Exchange that will benefit my city and hope that future exhibitions will bring more of the enormous Hermitage Collection within our easy reach. Were I given the privilege of some curatorial say in the matter, I would call for more paintings and Art in general.