Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Revving up.....

Getting my ducks in a row.....

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Creative Treatment of Actuality: A View From Two Perspectives

OKAY, HERE IT IS.  Only the first 2 photos are in the body of the paper.  She asked me to include all of the photos for her, so you're getting them, too. The others are talked about in the footnotes.  

What is a documentary photograph?  Can a single picture constitute a document, or does a picture need a thousand words?  Can we comment on social injustice without linguistic and cultural contextualization? For Eugene Richards the answer is yes.  For Allan Sekula the answer is no.  This paper will begin to compare these two contemporary photographers and their paths to what John Grierson called “the creative treatment of actuality.”[1]

Photo I Eugene Richards
It is a snowy day and a dead deer lays in the right foreground in what appears to be an endless prairie, eviscerated and bloody, legs akimbo, head intact, dead eyes seeming to look back toward an abandoned farmhouse barely visible over the crest of the hill, and possible safety.  Taken in color and low to the ground, it is the angle the deer would have seen in life.  It is a bleak world, one that needs no words for Americans to piece together a story that we know all too well about rural American life.[2]

Richards, who was a student of Minor White at MIT, calls himself a “social realist” and works in the modernist tradition.  He opens the door to the world of his subjects, presenting us with unmediated narratives that are probably fairly close to what he is experiencing at the moment.[3] His written commentaries, where they exist, adhere to the experience at hand, and although we can interpolate his social politics based on his subject matter, he does not emphasize this, or any other motivation, other than “becoming obsessed”[4] with what he sees, and following it until he is satisfied that he’s gotten enough to tell the story.  Visually, he tells his stories of social dislocation by disrupting the plane, bisecting images, or placing markers for meaning so tightly in the foreground that they become the disfunction he is witnessing.  

His powerful photo essays include his first wife’s death, drug addiction, insane asylums, emergency rooms, aging hippy communes, and his home town of Dorchester, MA,[5] as well as the more lyrical, if equally bleak, Blue Room.  He has won a Guggenheim, nearly every photojournalism award, and a few more “arty” ones as well.  His ability to convey chaos, turmoil or tragic changes that are inherent qualities of many of his subjects is done entirely in the camera.  He has numerous books, works with The Nation Institute (a left wing online journal), conducts workshops, publishes his work in books, periodicals and online, and is largely ignored by the academic art world.

Photo II Allan Sekula
Bloody tire tracks in bloody snow crisscross the foreground.  The blood is the same color as the roof tiles and the painted window frames of the half-timber middle European farmhouse that dominates the photo. A blue tractor, obviously not American, is dwarfed by farmhouse and blood-soaked snow.  The only sign of “life” is a skinned and bloody animal carcass hanging from the raised front forks of the tractor, although it takes a minute to see it and then realize what it is.[6]

While many of Allan Sekula’s images could possibly stand alone, they are not meant to. Working squarely in the postmodern tradition as a Critical Realist,[7] Sekula is driven as much by his politics, his reading of history, and his sense of social justice as by his visual aesthetics.  The calm, collected, often scripted images are usually crisply in focus, and except in rare instances, his subjects are posing and facing the camera.[8]  He tends to stand apart and at some distance from his subjects, whether people, objects or landscapes, and many of his photos would feel trite[9] if they were not meant to be viewed as parts of sequences or allegories for deeper realities.  That distance between what Barthes calls the “operator” and the “spectator,”[10] stands in stark contrast to Richards’ visceral approach and makes contextualization an essential component for Sekula.  Referring to the photo with the carcass, he said, “Should I tell you anything more specific about these small glimpses of  [East] Germany?  Is it important to know that two photographs were taken on opposite sides of the same street...or that the border was a tourist attraction although a nearby Nazi labor camp was unmarked and seemingly unremembered?”[11] 

The answer is, of course, yes.  It is the only way for us to know that the picture is about the banality of life in a place once pierced by terror, and not about animal rights, for instance.[12]  

Sekula’s work, which is almost always shown as installations, is widely acknowledged in art and academic circles as perfect examples of Critical Realism, with Sekula himself considered its foremost living practitioner. He has won a Guggenheim, countless awards, is a beloved teacher at Cal Arts, has numerous books, shows in museums and galleries throughout the world, and is himself the subject of enthusiastic academic inquiry.[13]

What accounts for the difference in how they are received?

From its inception, photography was a medium born to document the immediate.[14] Despite the avant-garde’s desire to push the envelope in new directions, inexpensive cameras were marketed to ordinary people as tools for documenting family life, priming ordinary Americans to think of the documentary as important and truthful.[15] The Family of Man gave further legitimacy to the genre.[16]

Later, as painters were deconstructing the surface, art photographers were struggling with the mechanical relationship between shutter and lens,[17] which led in the 60”s to “a revival of interest in the radical [Marxist] theories and methods of the…avant-guarde.”[18]  Documentarians who did not engage in these discussions, or who made a specialty of other people’s misery were accused of exploitation.[19] 

Unfortunately, Eugene Richards fell into both categories.  Sekula, on the other hand, relished the new forms of inquiry, juxtaposing seemingly benign or banal imagery with strong political critiques.[20]  His continued interest in leftist theory, putting into his art ideas that are reflective of his social politics, still make him interesting to others grappling with questions of meaning and context in art-making.

So, is one path better or more valid to “the creative treatment of actuality?” Richards wordlessly commentates on difficult subjects with disturbing candor, achieving a “discordant complexity,”[21] which makes the unstable worlds of his subjects visible to all levels of society —and visibility is often a game changer for the powerless.[22]  Whether or not a linguistically, politically driven artist like Allan Sekula—who constructs narratives for educated audiences—can effect change in that way, the significance of his work may lie in how, by rearranging “actualities” in intellectually and visually interesting ways, he advances in his analytical way the same important discussion of the dilemma of the artist’s role as cultural commentator.

[1] First used by John Grierson in a review of “Moana” the first intentional documentary, about Samoa, in 1926.  He later elaborated on the term in “First Principles of Documentary:”  We believe that the cinema’s capacity for getting around, for observing and selecting from life itself, can be exploited in a new and vital art form. The studio films largely ignore this possibility of opening up the screen on the real world. They photograph acted stories against artificial backgrounds. Documentary would photograph the living scene and the living story.” quoted from “Imagining Reality:  The Faber Book of Documentary,” Faber & Faber, London, 1998.  p.97 
[2] Richard, Eugene. The Blue Room. Phaedon Press, New York. 2008, p.30.  Those pictures were so successful that people in North Dakota felt it portrayed their state unfairly, making it look like the whole state was abandoned.
[3] See “Final chemotherapy treatment, Boston, 1979, included in accompanying photo sheets. This single image of Dorothea is one of the most poignant photos of loss and longing I have ever seen, needing no words.
[4] Richards, Eugene. “The Blue Room.” Slideshow. No date. http://www.foto8.com/movies/EugeneRichards_blue/index.html
[5] See the accompanying photo sheets for this and other photos by Richards and Sekula, some mentioned in the body of this paper some not, for different treatments of the same basic subject.  The photo of Richards’ dying wife has no parallel in Sekula’s work.
[6] Sekula, Allan.  “Sketches for a New Geography,” in Dismal Science. University of Illinois Press, Normal, IL 1999.  p.164.
[7] Although Critical Realism is a philosophic discipline associated with the nexus between science and religion, for artists it also includes a willingness to engage in critical dialogue (from a leftist perspective) around social and political issues that affect people’s economic, social and spiritual well-being. 
[8] Two photos worth mentioning in this regard are “Masculine/Feminine Life In The Suburbs 1973” and worth a closer look for the way that Sekula creates subtle commentary. In the Masculine picture, a young man on a patio is sitting on a low chair, legs splayed, bent at the knees, his moustached, goateed face partly obscured by the newspaper he is reading.  He is wearing sunglasses and has socks on but no shoes, and there is something vaguely unattractive about him.  To his left, on the ground, is a phone on its cradle.   In the Feminine photo, a young woman is lying on her back talking on the phone, on what appears to be the same patio.  Her two arms are raised seductively to her head, one holding the phone, the other playing with her hair. Her eyes are closed and she is obviously in conversation.  The allegorical signposts are everywhere, but to fully understand the critique implicit in these photos, one must also know the title of the book that they are in: Performance Under Working Conditions.  Copies of these photos are on the separate photo sheets.
[9] A rare and lyrical exception to this are the four street scenes from Geography Lessons Canadian Notes. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.  1997.  pp.22-23.  See attached photo sheet.
[10] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Hill & Wang, New York. 1980.  p.10
[11] Sekula.  Op cit. p.174
[12] Speaking in another context, he says, “I wanted to construct works from within concrete life situations, situations within which there was an overt or active clash of interests and representations. Any interest that I had in artifice and constructed dialogue was part of a search for a certain "realism," a realism not of appearances or social facts but of everyday experience in and against the grip of advanced capitalism.” “Photography Against The Grain,” in Dismal Science. University Galleries of Illinois State University.  1999.
 P.151 Interestingly, Sekula will often insert sections of photo essays that are taken from others of his books into new works, enhancing the experience that he is always looking at the plight of workers from a global perspective.
[13] Baetens, Jan & van Gelder, Hilde, eds. Critical Realism in Contemporary Art Around Allan Sekula's Photography Leuven University Press, Belgium. 2006
[14] Wall, Jeff. “Marks of Indifference”: Aspects of Photography In, Or As, Conceptual Art.” Jeff Wall: Works and Collected Writings, ed. Michael Newman. Poligrafa Ediciones, Barcelona, 2007.  p.341.  The essay was first published in 1995.   
[15] This has continued up to the present time, becoming more and more accessible, not only through increasingly sophisticated video cameras and recorders, but through the advent of YouTube and other social media, allowing some artists to happily blur the line between popular culture and high art, some to erase the distinction all together, some to continue on in the classical and modernist pursuits of beauty, and some to continue to grapple with art that is meant to be a political and social critique of it all.
[16] Steichen, Edward. The Family of Man. Maco Magazine Corporation, NY. 1955. First mounted at MoMA in 1955, it was meant to show, according to Edward Steichen who created the show, “that the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and of explaining man to man.”  Taken from the Introduction
[17] Wall, Jeff. Ibid. “Photography cannot find alternatives to depiction, as could other fine arts.  It is in the physical nature of the medium to depict things. In order to participate in the kid of reflexivity made mandatory for modernist art, photography can put into play only its own necessary condition of being a depiction-which-constitute-an-object.” p.341
[18] Wall, Jeff. Ibid. p.343.
[19] “Documentary testifies, finally, to the bravery…manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combination of these, and saved us the trouble.” Rosler, Martha, “In Around and Afterthought,” in 3 Works, Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, 1981. p.308
[20] “We know now that actors can make politics.  The next question to be asked is this: How do governments—and the actors who speak for governments—move cargo? How do they do it without stories being told by those who do the work?  Could the desire for the fully automated movement of goods also be a desire for silence, or the tyranny of a single anecdote?”  Sekula, Allan.  Fish Story. Richter Verlag, Germany. 1995, p. 32.
[21] Interview on YouTube.  “Eugene Richards—The Compassionate Eye.”  He attributes this ability to the use of wide angle lenses and shooting close enough to touch his subjects as well as his sense that there is no such thing as a defining moment, that everything is always in flux.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR26B3Fws7w.  No date
[22] Exploding Into Life made the world of breast cancer treatment visible, helping to change the way women were treated as patients.   The commentary in The Body At Risk (Carol Squiers.  “Eugene Richards: Emergency Room.” The Body At Risk.  New York: The International Center For Photography. 2005.  pp.134-149) is a perfect example of how direct imagery can be the first step in highlighting difficult social issues.  And even though the Governor was upset, photos of abandoned homes in North Dakota highlight for a wide audience the difficulty of living in rural America.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Back from Montana.  Operating on two levels, artist and scholar.  Scholar first.  I think I'm supposed to be connecting the dots--reading, looking at the work of Eugene Richards, about whom I am doing my first paper, reading (and did I mention reading)--but I'm not sure where the dots all are.  Postmodern commentary and the kind of very direct work Richards does don't seem to be part of the same picture (even though Richards' book, "Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue," was mentioned in a New Museum survey of work young artists have found influential).  So I feel like I'm trying to impose the ideas of modern art practice on someone whose work doesn't really resemble the type of work amenable to that kind of imposition.  I was looking at the wonderful little clip from Gillian of Janine Antoni's tightrope piece and thinking how that's the kind of work that latterday art criticism is meant for.  How to do all this is making my head spin, especially if I then add the second level, which is my own work.  How does it fit into the contemporary art scene?  Well, on the East Coast, it doesn't.  When my book came out I was often asked who my audience was, and I said anyone interested in the American West.  But now I think that my audience is anyone with the cultural context to appreciate the ordinary lives of rural American Westerners.  It's a slight shift, but I think that I understand it better now than I did even a few weeks ago.  Still, it's a stretch to try to critique Eugene Richard's vision (as well as I can understand it at this point), when everything that he is doing is an attempt to let his subjects tell the story.  Yes, he is visible through his choice of subjects and his camera angles, but he takes hard subjects and presents them dispassionately enough for viewers to still be able to form their own opinions even as they enter the dark worlds of his work.  This is completely contrary to the personal story style of artists like Antoni who are creating their reality from whole cloth.  To turn the old hymn on its head, I once was found, but now I'm lost.  Luckily there are a few guideposts, but I'm feeling more like Hansel and Gretel, or perhaps Dorothy, following an uncertain road.

Sunday Morning: Worshipping At The Shrine of the Inland Nereus

Friday, February 5, 2010

Rime-ridden icy morning, like living in a Christmas card, each branch, every surface covered with rising spirals of layered, sparkling crystals.  I once did a sermon about belief, and opined that the ability of snow and crystals to pile themselves into dizzying, gravity-defying forms was to me the very essence of faith.  And so it was yesterday, and again today. Only today the cold is biting and serious. Time to hunker down and investigate the left brain. 

Photographed a whole lot yesterday, some with my normal self in charge, wordless, intuitive, and others with my New Brain go-here-move-there-oh-that's-the-kind-of-thing-I-need-to-take Dialog With Self that I'm not used to having.  Enlightening in some ways, like learning to function with my dominant hand tied behind my back. 

Then I send it all to a photographer friend who comes right back at me and says that she likes my Right Brain stuff the best, of course, but that The Other Stuff reminds her of Studs Terkel, which is a complement I accept with humility, because of my endless admiration for Terkel's work.  And also because it brings me from the 30's, where I seem to have been born visually, up to the late 60's and early 70's, a leap of about 40 years.  Not bad for a day's work.  In 1970 I briefly met Terkel in a neighborhood bar and learned of his work for the first time. I was living in Chicago, my first child was a year old, and I was working with Saul Alinsky's group of socialist labor community organizers.

Studs knew the current penchant for exposure but chose to remain on the side of gentility.  This gave him access to truths about his subjects, whether actual or metaphorical, that still allowed them to retain their dignity, even as the country was tilting away from labor and laborers, sensing, perhaps, the explosion a decade later of automation in every field, including machines that premix animal feed, turning a skilled laborer into a formulaic button pusher.
This is what I wrestle with as well.  Yesterday these men were fine with me nosing around, though, moving in and out, putting the camera inches from their faces or over their shoulders.  Even the short order cook at Spud's, Kim Miller, gave me permission to catch her in motion, her dignity intact.

Ah, to have it meld together, the lovely and the not, and make Winter out of it all.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Montana.  Five below.  Ice fog.  On the way to the airport on Tuesday our cabbie was someone who had done, as he put it, a lot of living.  Long filthy fingernails; dirty long gray hair not combed for a long, long time; teeth broken and a southern drawl inflected with years of hard, probably violent use.  Said he spent much of his life driving truck all over, as he put it, "these 48 states." 72 years old, raised by a grandmother, never knew his mother or heard her name uttered by a soul.  He felt dangerous and a bit frightening.

And I thought of how easy it would be to stick the camera in his face, how he probably wouldn't even object, and that following him for a day would yield the type of distorted, sad, lost look that occupies much of current documentary work that curators, and by extension, the cognizati, find fascinating.  Why is this culture, so very materialistic and driven by possessions, so interested in life's losers?  What's that about?  There but for the grace?

There was a review in the NYTimes of "Leopards in the Temple," at Sculpture-Center in Queens, basically a pan, which included this:  "The show includes a wide range of artists, from young, emerging New Yorkers to internationally known figures like the recent Turner Prize nominee Lucy Skaer and the veteran, anthropologically minded conceptualist Lothar Baumbarten.  But here it looks as if they might have graduated recently from an M.F.A. program that favors semiotic sophistication over the fashioning of compelling objects."

This is exactly what I'm afraid of.  Everything in me worries that proximity is substituting for intimacy in our culture in general.  So when we call strangers on facebook friends, say that messages written for us are on a wall, as though a greeting were being inscribed in a Vietnam-style memorial, I worry.  I'll try, but not if all it yields is "semiotic sophistication."

Anyhow, here I am in Montana, where there are losers for sure, but also people who are just going along, all their teeth in situ, hair combed, words coming from them from a deep place of hard work but general acceptance of life as it is, which shows on their faces.  No pall of the prison.  No exotic tinge of the dangerous.  And I can't imagine violating their personal space like I would have done with the cabbie, without even thinking about it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

J.D. Salinger died, and after reading his obit in the Times, I've been thinking about the difference between solitude and being solitary and that I should probably be more social and do some thinking out loud here every day.

My friend Ida sets up her easel every morning in the same place in her studio and paints the same view from her window on a daily basis. She's been doing it for 20 years. No two pictures the same.
I notice the same thing about my images of Hockey Pond, even though I do not go there on a daily basis. It is my place of solitude when I feel like there is nothing else locally that fits my skin, and a place I look forward to coming back to when I'm out west.

Which is where I'm headed in 5 days. My tasks now include gathering in the threads of January and weaving them into what I hope will be some kind of recognizable cloth that I'll be able to pick up and use when I return in a month. So I'm doing rather than contemplating--finishing the paper due on March 1, and looking at art made by others, reading, researching, putting words in my mouth and images in my brain for the spring to come. Every fiber of my being now only longs to be where I can switch gears from current theories of artmaking to currently making lots of art.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tonight I am beginning my contribution to the plethora of words floating like autumn leaves through the unseen universe. Perhaps some of them will find themselves tumbling along the equally unseen ground, pressed against a chain link fence along with other discarded and unread words, rearranging themselves with the help of the wind to spell something new, perhaps. Or possibly they may get caught in tree branches and shred themselves into individual letters, where untethered, they will be free to recombine in their own way. At any rate, I set them all free, as Prospero did Ariel, to do their work.