Review – Downtown

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Downtown
Richard Koci Hernandez
Out of the Phone, 2013
96 pages, hardcover, 6.5″ x  9″
$75

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

If Henri Cartier-Bresson had instagram he might have posted a collection of photos like those of Richard Koci Hernandez. Photographically, Hernandez’s work is firmly situated within the “decisive moment” aesthetic – that ideal of a perfect instant when the world is frozen into a statement. A man jumps over his own reflection, a passerby is caught in irony or contradiction in front of a street sign. The foreground comments on the background. The shadows betray the figure.

This is an aesthetic well suited to the rangefinder camera, requiring as it does some discretion, mobility and very quick reflexes. As an aesthetic it dominated the world of popular photography for a long time and it continues to make up the bulk of black and white postcard and poster sales. It was perhaps, easier to practice before clothing was taken over by designer logos. And one can more-or-less date the popularity of the movement by the popularity of the fedora.

The rangefinder might have been discrete, but the mobile phone camera is almost invisible; both because of its compact size, and its sheer ubiquity. Although it is perfectly suited for street photography, the dominant aesthetic of instagram, that warehouse of contemporary mobile photography, is necessarily vernacular. This is my lunch. This is my car. This is my dog. This is my friend. This is my family. This is me.

And so by bringing these two aesthetics together Hernandez (or Koci – his instagram handle) has positioned himself at the crossroads. He is the classic art photographer practicing with a social media mobile device. As such he has for many (especially those over forty) redeemed the instagram platform. Can instagram be used to do serious photography of the kind that we associate with Cartier-Bresson and his ilk? Indeed it can – Koci is doing it.

But the serious photographer often feels the need to tether his or her work to something less ephemeral than an instagram feed. And so it is that Koci has released Downtown a photobook of black and white street photography. A slim, minimalist volume, printed with attention to detail (tritone black, exquisite paper, linen cover). Downtown is every inch the art book. The photos are of a similar quality – they could have been taken by Alvarez Bravo or Walker Evans on the subway.

Unlike other books of mobile phone photography, (Chase Jarvis’ 2009 The Best Camera is the One that’s With You comes to mind) Downtown has all the hallmarks of art photography done in the new medium. The numbered first edition is limited to 600 copies. There is even an even smaller edition of the same book limited to 30 copies and printed in photogravure.

The copyright page tells us that, “All the images in this book were made with a mobile phone.” While the identification of technique may be necessary to understand the work, it is announced at a cost. That cost is the valuation of the work itself. Are the photos good – or are they merely good for photos taken on a mobile phone? While photographers love to know what gear was used, the purist in them hopes that the photos will stand outside of how they were taken. They should live on as great photos without any proviso.

It’s a bit like playing some new music by J.S. Bach and telling people that you made him compose it on a toy piano. The circumstance of composition has the potential to get in the way of the music. I suspect this is the opposite of Hernandez’ intention.

It is difficult to think of a satisfying analogy from the realm of photography. A book of polaroids (the classic SX70 type), is close, perhaps. But with the SX70 the film and camera are the limiting condition that makes the results so interesting. Like giving 10 great directors the same Super-8 loaded with one roll of film. In contrast a mobile phone is one of the most quickly evolving and changing devices we know.

In his introductory note Richard Koci Hernandez states:

The psychological, emotional, and physical presence I experience when wandering downtown is addictive. Mixing with humanity, on the streets, capture device in hand, I am one, wholly and fully present.

Hidden within the pages of this analog artifact are my photographic visions unleashed in real time, created in the digital universe and now materialized, presented and preserved on ink and paper. From the matrix of zero and ones, these projections have finally found a proper home.

There is something unsettling in Hernandez’ prose beyond his peculiar use of “capture device” for camera and “analogue artifact” for book. He seems to betray or not understand his media. A book reveals nothing in “real time” it is entirely reader specific. Its revelations come when the reader decides to turn the page – this is arguably its greatest virtue. But what is one to make of the notion expressed in his concluding line that “these projections have finally found a proper home.”

Seeing Hernandez as a prescient artist working in the new world of social media photography it is surprising to read that he thinks the “proper” home for images is the printed book.

Perhaps this is being too critical. The book is certainly a beautiful home for these images and when looking through the pages, one can simply enjoy the photography.

This is the essence of what I appreciate about Koci’s work – both in book and instagram format. Photography as an art form spent several long decades worrying about its relationship to the past. Was it like painting? Were its essential qualities mechanical or human? Should it mirror the aesthetics of the other media or define its own?

These concerns are reproduced on the instagram platform – where cell phone photos are uncertain as to their aesthetic. But now the comparison is not to painting or drawing but rather to earlier forms of photography. The application of filters easily gives them the instamatic look, the sepia tone etc. The same question arises – should instagrams (if one may call them that) take on the aesthetic of earlier photographs? (The application of filters is easy, moreover it compensates for the poor quality of most images) or should instagrams define, and be comfortable with, thier own aesthetic.

What will be, in the end, their “proper” home?

Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown Richard Koci Hernandez - Downtown

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