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Fabric of India

The Fabric of India
Rosemary Crill (editor)
Hardcover, 248 pages, 11.5 x 10″
V&A Publishing, 2015
$75 Cdn.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

“Today the V&A’s holds the greatest collection of Indian Textiles in the world. As Director Martin Roth points out in his introductory notes to The Fabric of India, it is surprising, therefore, that there has never been a major exhibition of them, nor has there been a comprehensive volume such as The Fabric of India . . . 

Read the full review here: tmcl.ca

Deeper_than_indigo
Jenny Balfour Paul
Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer
9 x 6” 320 pages, hardcover
Medina Publishing, 2015
$50 Cdn.

Reviewed by Tim Mclaughlin

Thomas Machell. Self Portrait

Thomas Machell. Self portrait in Arab dress. Thomas had his father endorse the drawing: “Thomas Machell after his return from India, Arabia & Egypt – and very like him it is.” British Library

I must leave off for the night, the Rain has filled the house with insects, I am covered with them and with grasshoppers of all sizes and colours which are swarming over my paper, hopping on my pen, filling my nose and eyes, worrying in my hair and whiskers […] the insects get into the inkpot and cause you to blot your paper when they are brought out impaled on the end of your pen.

History delights in the near miss—the manuscript decaying in the attic, rejected by its author is later published and held to be a work of genius. Negligent executors famously ignore the author’s final wishes. The publication of Virgil’s Aeneid is perhaps the most well-known example of the cultural benefits of author betrayal. The fact is, no one can control their writing after death.

We keep our journals. We write down words; trace our days and mark time. Like photography, or taxidermy, we attempt to preserve something for later. We can never know who in the future might read us … if we will be read at all.

If we could imagine an ideal reader—it would have to be Jenny Balfour Paul. A woman who not only read the journals of Thomas Machell (written between 1840 and 1862) but who retraced his journeys, visited his childhood home, located his grave, connected with his descendants, and imagined the details of his life with clarity and great sympathy. No, indeed, went further than this: fell in love with him, defended him, championed him … and in a strange way became him.

Text and illustration from Thomas' 1847 journal that records his arrival in Muscat, Oman.

Text and illustration from the 1847 journal that records Machell’s arrival in Muscat, Oman. British Library.

Jenny Balfour Paul is recognized internationally as a leading authority on indigo. Her doctoral thesis, Indigo in the Arab World, recorded traditions that had almost completely vanished (in 1983, the year of her first visit to Zabid, Yemen, indigo studios had dwindled from over one hundred in the 1960s to only two). She popularized this famous blue dyestuff with her book Indigo, (first published by the British Museum in 1998) a work that set the benchmark not only for craft research but also for engaging writing. The book is complemented by excellent photography much of it taken by Balfour Paul herself on location throughout the world.

Jenny is voraciously curious. When I first met her it was the quality that most impressed me. Highly intelligent with a precise memory and the ability to piece together disparate bits of information, Jenny’s questioning is almost predatory. One feels that in different circumstances detective work might have been her calling. Already thoroughly immersed in the history and culture of indigo, when she was led to the journals of Thomas Machell the inevitable happened, she began to investigate him and reconstruct his life. Originally she only wanted to publish an edited version of his journals, but her own explorations combined with an uncanny set of coincidences led to the present work.

machell_03

A page from Machell’s journal with text and an illustration of the Baghlah, a large deep-sea dhow. British Library.

Thomas Machell’s personality drew her in. He seduced her from a century and a half away. He was observant, articulate, and possessed a gift for compelling prose. A disability kept him out of the Army and gave him empathy for the cultures that his compatriots were colonizing. He was an eyewitness to the first Opium War as the East Indiaman in which he served, the Worester, was commissioned to bring troops and supplies to Hong Kong. Thomas Machell was at times a sailor, a Bengal indigo planter, a Kerala coffee planter, tutor, a professional writer, and more; but he was above all, an adventurer.

Thomas became a student of languages. The son of the Reverend Machell, Thomas was as openly critical of Christian missionaries as he was of the effects of the colonial project and the transgressions of his fellow countrymen. He was equally wary of fundamentalist Islam (Wahabism) which he encountered while travelling on an Arab Merchant ship, the Hamoody. For five months Thomas donned more comfortable Arab dress and introduced himself as “Sheikh Abdullah el Hajji.” Going ashore Thomas felt “rather bashful as I passed the first English Gentleman I had seen since I assumed the Oriental dress but I was relieved to hear him remark that I was a fierce looking dog.”

While still a teenager and on his second voyage, Thomas arrived in the South Pacific. In the Marquesas he fell in love with “a little savage girl, daughter of a cannibal.”

I felt as if all I saw must be a fantastic dream, but was roused from my trance by the touch of a delicate brown hand on my sleeve, and raising my eyes from the decks I encountered the laughing gaze of a pair of brilliant dark eyes whose glance darted through my whole frame like an electric shock. “Ti ho,” said the little Gypsy laughing in my troubled face, “Ti ho Whyheva moutakee?” And again laid her delicate tattooed hand on my arm. What could I do? From that moment I was the slave of the dark eyed Whyheva, daughter of a savage Chief.

Thomas illustrated his Journals with drawings and water colour paintings. The works have a delightfully innocent, folk-art style. They take the reader immediately into Thomas’ world in a way that would be difficult using a more polished technique. On more than one occasion the drawings guide Balfour Paul in her search for Thomas’ Bengal (and now Bangladesh) plantation houses.

Thomas visits the town barber of Suez.

Machell visits the town barber of Suez. British Library.

As rich as it is, Thomas’ life is only half the tale of Deeper than Indigo. The second half, the mirror image, the echo, will be Jenny’s tale. Taken together they are anima and animus (to use the entirely appropriate Jungian terms for gendered complementary elements). An intrepid traveler herself, Jenny will be the equal of her muse in exploration, journal keeping, and illustration. For example, in 2010 Balfour Paul will book passage on the freighter CMA-CGM’s Coral—the last freighter to take passengers from the UK to India. Like Thomas before her, the four-month journey will take her through pirate-infested waters.

machell_02

The only photograph of Thomas Machell, taken in 1862, the last year of his life.

When Jenny takes her adult daughter Finella to Madhya Pradesh to find Thomas’s grave, elements of life and biography merge into accomplished travel writing. The search has great purpose, yet is frustrated by petty officials, road works, and inevitable temple visits. Through all this Finella provides wry asides to counter the desperate search. The results are witty, humorous, and thoroughly engaging.

Deeper than Indigo is a unique work. It is part biography, part autobiography, part history, part genealogy, part travel writing, and part fiction. Balfour Paul writes the text to complete the last two of Thomas’ missing journals; an act that permits her to include the first Sepoy Uprising of 1857 (also know as the Indian Mutiny) and the subsequent Blue Mutiny in Bengal (British coercion had already let to widespread famine in the area). These were perhaps the most important events of the century for Anglo-India relations and as a former Indigo planter, Thomas would have been at the centre of them.

Deeper than Indigo may hint at comparison to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Both Sebald and Balfour Paul combine an inner dialog formed while travelling with expansive historical excursions. Both works, for example, visit the first Opium Wars, and both works follow writers (for Sebald it is Joseph Conrad, for Balfour Paul it is Thomas Machell) and are brought up against the colonial enterprise. But while Sebald’s voice is thoroughly steeped in an exacting melancholy (and just as exacting sentence structure), Balfour Pauls is pellucid—with great veracity but also with a conversational lightness and occasional bathos.

Deeper than Indigo is ultimately a heroic undertaking—both in the lives of its protagonists and in the composition of it pages. It explores many lives and organizes them into a universe of connection. Using poetry, quotes, maps, family trees, illustrations, paintings, photographs, Deeper than Indigo is a symphony of a book. It is a work that vividly evokes a time now lost, and yet clears a window to show how the past is always directing the present. In its investigations it has gone further than most dare go. It has plumbed strange depths that are indeed, deeper than indigo.

Copies are available in the Maiwa Handprints Bookstore.

Sketchbook of H. Craig Hanna

 

H Craig Hanna
Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna
8.5 x 12″ 232 pages Hardcover
Editions Somogy. 2008
$72.00

 
Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 

 

 

 

 

 

His portraits are […] diptychs where, on the one hand, the absolute of a substance or color takes the place of the gods of old, and on the other, the figure has lost the hands of the prayer.

Laurence Lhinares

 

These reviews usually focus on photography and photobooks. However, it would seem that the best photography owes it’s power to the ability to represent something which portrait artists, working in traditional media, accomplish much more naturally. Attempts to define, even vaguely, what this “something” is usually fail, but the attempt itself can be interesting. It is this ‘something’ that separates draftsmanship from art, and it is precisely this elusive nature that makes one return, again and again, to an image in an attempt to feel what it is that tips the balance.

In the Sketchbook by H. Craig Hanna almost every page has this inexplicable quality. The images don’t represent the world, they reconfigure it. Hanna has taken his refined, renaissance skill and then backed up a bit, distressed the image slightly, and through his manipulations amplified the power of these works to communicate both as portraits and as artifacts on paper. One is caught as the face forms out of marks made by the hand. The result is a masterful play between technique and visage. As Laurence Lhinares states in the introductory essay to the book:

Craig Hanna opposes or approaches, we don’t quite know how, pure painting and a taut description of the figure. The counterpoint can play with the opposition of a face in front of two parallel lines, or of a naked body with a simple flower in front of the striations of a wooden panel, a material that the artist overtly displays.

Sketchbook contains the pages and traces of an artist’s life. The spiral rings of the original are just visible and show the edge of the territory. Some pages are filled with Hanna’s scrawl, a writing that unlike his images, has no sense of beauty. As if the image exhausted him and he could not bring himself to control the letters. Some of the work is deliberately loose, as if Hanna were holding back his considerable ability to delineate the objects of the world. The tension between skill and looseness hints at a dramatic power struggle, perhaps one that take place between different parts of the same man.

Hanna’s work is widely exhibited in the art centres of Europe. He earned a commendation in the 2001 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London. And his work is on regular exhibition at Laurence Esnol Gallery in Paris. Sketchbook is available there or online from the usual sellers.

It is rare that one can call a book unreservedly brilliant. This one is.

Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna
Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna

 

PofI_cover

The People of India

Edited by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye
Published by W.H. Allen and Co. between 1868 and 1875
468 Albumen prints in 8 volumes 13” x 9.5”
Long out of print.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 
 
 

 

What we have is both an example of the interplay between photographs and text, and a fascinating insight into the mind of the British Raj. The photographs are, for the most part, conventional studio-type portraits of individuals, though there are some fine group studies. It is the texts that are the most revealing: a mixture of gossip, ethnography and military intelligence report, with little attempt at distance or objectivity.

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger – The Photobook: A History volume I

 

PofI_002

From Volume I “Mishimi Hill Tribe, Assam”

In the beginning of the nineteenth century the British found themselves in direct control over much of the Indian subcontinent. Vastly outnumbered by their subjects and facing a bewildering array of religions, languages, customs, tribes, and castes, the British Raj sought to define (and hence regulate and control) the inhabitants of its Indian territories. If, as Foucault suggests, knowledge is both an effect and instrument of power,1 then the project of understanding the myriad facets present in India culture was also a project of recutting that particular gem in the imperial crown in order to let the light of justification and reason shine on the British Raj.

The “definition” of the Indian peoples took place before there was much in the way of either theory or practice of anthropological study. The project of identification and description filled hundreds of volumes. It was made manifest in the census (and accompanying reports) that began in the early 1870s. It formed a substantial part of a series of gazetteers (generally, one volume for each district) and the administrative manuals to various areas. As British officials with an interest in ethnography began to collect and compile accounts, the project of classifying India’s people took the form of a series of “Castes and Tribes” books for different regions. These were heafty multi-volume works. In terms of such publications, the project could be said to start with Edward Balfour’s 1858 Cyclopaedia of India and close with the 1928 four-volume set Mysore Tribes and Castes.

Within the imperial purview, the need for accurate ethnographic information was made acute by the 1857 rebellion. There was a sense among administrators that lack of cultural knowledge could be fatal.2

The project of understanding the Indian cultural landscape was in no way a small one. It was, in fact, the type of project that could only be undertaken with the resources and urgencies of an empire behind it. In the end it would reveal as much about its authors as it did about its subjects. At its worst the classification system sought to announce a theory of racial types. Certain groups were categorized as criminal tribes or castes. Individuals in these groups were thought to be so addicted to crime that it was a defining characteristic of the group (as opposed to crime being a reaction by individuals to economic or social circumstance). Children who belonged to these groups would necessarily display criminal tendencies when they came of age. As part of the classification project, the Criminal Tribes Act was implemented in 1871. Members of a group so classified lost basic human rights and were required to register and report to police on a regular basis.3

At its best, the project was a formative compendium of ethnographic detail completed by sympathetic and intelligent observers who sought to understand the cultures they were living among. While it was true that it was formative anthropology with a heavy bias, it still managed to preserve a wealth of invaluable detail.

Into this massive endeavour, the photograph brought a new documentary authority. The Peoples of India brought into play a number of diverse (and sometimes contradictory) influences and desires. The book itself is the result of multiple authors and photographers. The photographs “were produced without any definite plan, according to local and personal circumstances, by different officers; and copies of each plate were sent home to the Secretary of State for India in Council.”4 On the most superficial level, the eight-volume set was the result of a desire by Lord Canning (Governor-General of India 1855 – 1862) and his wife to have a photographic souvenir of native Indian people.5 After the events of 1857 the project became an official government study. As official publication it sought to communicate the ideology of the British Raj:

This increasing systematization of caste was intimately connected with the development of photography. As much of the effort of ethnological classification was directed by a search for ‘scientific’ precision, the recording of ‘exact’ images by photography logically complemented the compiling of statistical information. Insofar as a photograph of a ‘typical’ member of an ethnic group could be used to identify the precise characteristics, of physiognomy, dress, and manners, that defined the group as a whole.6

Even given the cumbersome nature of early photography equipment it was lightweight compared to other methods of ethnographic recording. The Schlagintweit brothers, commissioned by the East India Company in 1853 to explore and survey the Himalayas, made a large collection of plaster casts of Indian heads.7

If the transport of life-size plaster casts was difficult, it was probably nothing compared to bringing back the actual people. This was a colonial prerogative from the time of Columbus, but toward the end of the eighteenth century it was done in the name of anthropological science. Franz Boas himself helped to orchestrate the Anthropological Hall at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 where fourteen Kwakiutl were displayed.8

The Peoples of India occupying as it did an uneasy position somewhere between exhibition curiosity and colonial administrative manual was, apparently, largely ignored by the public.9 Many of the photographs are dispassionate, a cross between police line-up and family portrait. They are, of course, remarkable for what they depict and the time they were taken. Many of the group poses are unusual – showing individuals sleeping while leaning up against each other. It is impossible to tell if this was a natural state or a romantic notion on the part of the photographer. There are some excellent portraits in the collection, however, on the whole the photography lacks the impact of a unified vision or an emotional attachment to the subjects. Despite its failings, a photographic project of the range and scope of The People of India would not be undertaken again. The apparatus of the State would switch to photographing individual criminals, and the public’s interest in diverse cultures would be satisfied by professional photographers and travel writers.

The photographs collected were destined for the London International Exhibition of 1862 but, according to John Falconer in his essay “A Passion for Documentation” through lack of time and organization, most of the material arrived too late for inclusion in the exhibition.”

From Volume I, Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar

From Volume I, “Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar”

1. I owe this concise statement of Foucault to Nicholas B. Dirks who stated it in Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of Modern India, published in 2001 by Princeton University Press.

2. From the British perspective the Indian “Mutiny” was largely explained by a failure of cultural knowledge:
“The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. These rifles, which fired Minié balls, had a tighter fit than the earlier muskets, and used paper cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges included tallow derived from beef; which would be offensive to Hindus, or lard derived from pork; which would be offensive to Muslims.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Rebellion_of_1857

3. Criminal Tribes Act. 1871

4. Preface to  The People of India, the full title of which is The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations with Descriptive Letterpress of The Races And Tribes Of Hindustan, Originally Prepared Under The Authority of The Government of India and Reproduced by Order of The Secretary of State for India In Council.

5. Charles Canning was not disinterested in culture having served on the Royal Commission on the British Museum (1847–49).

6. Thomas R. Metcalf 1997 The New Cambridge History of India. Volume 3, Part 4, Ideologies of the Raj, pg 119.

7. “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography” John Falconer in India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911 ed. Vidya Dehejia, Charles Allen 2000 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. pg 79.

8. “The Visual in Anthropology” David MacDougall in Rethinking Visual Anthropology ed. Marus Banks, Howard Morphy 1997 Yale University Press p 276.

9. “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography” John Falconer in India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911 ed. Vidya Dehejia, Charles Allen 2000 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. pg 82

 

 

Volume1p60 Volume1p92 Volume1p97 Volume1p111 volume1p148 Volume1p180\

 

silent_warriors

 

 

Silent Warriors
Eric Klemm
Steidl 2009
256 pages Hardcover 9.5 x 11.5″
$45

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 

 

Photography is all about perspective. This is both literally and figuratively true. At the end of a photographer’s career this may be the single quality that amplifies or detracts from the images themselves. In a photobook we read the photographer just as much as the photographs. It is this quality that makes a deeper understanding possible. We hope that our notion of what is happening in a book moves beyond “Yeah, that’s a nice picture.” The work may be arranged to grapple with ideas, struggles, individuals, cultures and the question of what is important and what is real.

Take, for example, the work of Edward Curtis. Today, his work is widely regarded as one of the most ambitious and impressive photography projects ever completed. It is also widely acknowledged to be fundamentally flawed. Its flaw is that it sought to document not what he found, but what he wanted to find –  a romantic, Eurocentric idea of the North American Indian as alone, in traditional dress, preferably on a horse, distant, aloof, spiritually aware, and above the worldly materialism of western culture. Edward Curtis didn’t just seek to record history, he sought to manufacture it. The informed modern viewer cannot see the Curtis’ photographs without also seeing his perspective. And tragically, this perspective worked against the very thing Curtis sought to accomplish. Today his work is still very impressive – but it is seldom viewed as an historic record. It is mostly viewed as what it is: a staged romance, a beautiful fiction.

What if someone today once again took up the project of photographing the first nations of North America? How might that look? There is a good chance it would look like Eric Klemm’s Silent Warriors.

To begin with, my intention was to photograph my participants immediately wherever I met them – passing on the street, at a supermarket, at a ceremony or sporting event, to capture that moment just after the eyes meet, that moment while the recognition and acknowledgment of a shared humanity was still in our eyes before the guardedness of difference darkened it.

Klemm’s project was to make three-hundred photographic portraits of “men and women in a style that is contemporary, straightforward, and vital.” When he was finished he had 312 images of individuals from 122 different Tribes, Bands, and Nations. Klemm then worked with the founder of Steidl (Gerhard Steidl) to select the 149 images that appear in the book. The final images are equally partitioned between Canada and the United States. Klemm is careful to avoid saying more than this. “My photographs are not by any means meant to be a comprehensive representation of the images of the North American Indian people.”

The book contains a short description of his encounter with each individual in the back. All but one. Photographing in the centre of Yellowknife, Klemm relates:

A group of natives had gathered around the spot where we had set up the camera. I photographed about 30 different people, and one of them was a drifter called Quinn. He took off his black baseball cap and for a split second his grey hair stood up high, and that was it. Then all hell broke loose. A drunken guy (not a Native) came and yelled at me: If you don’t stop photographing I shoot you in the head. One of the bystanders shouted back: Don’t speak about it, do it. Chris and I took off as quick as we could and that’s what Quinn did too, he disappeared into thin air. In the confusion of the situation we never got his name and address.

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm working in Whispering Pines Reserve, Kamloops, BC, Canada. Photo Chris Taylor.

Working with a simple white backdrop and medium format camera on a tripod, Klemm’s methodology was similar to that Avedon used for In the American West. There is a tragic thread that runs through both works. Avedon completed his work in 1985, the next year he received a letter stating:

I am sorry to informed you that my brother Benson James has passed away in the month of July 1980. The mother of Benson James, (Priscilla James) did not know that her son’s photo was being drawn and was sold to be published in a book that she had received. […] Benson was stabbed about 40 times behind a Cedar Hills grocery store in Gallup, NM. The police had no evidence to this, but the murderer turned himself in, in Vancouver, Washington. (1)

In Klemm’s case he also receives bad news when he mails out a print to one of the subjects, Raymond Eagle. The print went to his mother’s address. She wrote back:

I am writing this note just to let you know what happened to Raymond & thank your for the print. He never wanted to get his picture taken, this is strange … Things haven’t worked out for Ray. He got beat up on Aug. 3/06. He has been in a coma since.

These are the stories that stay with you. They are as powerful as the faces that look out of the pages. But it would be wrong to use these stories alone to give context to the book. There is also youth, optimism, and a steadfast strength. There are photos of individuals who are just off from work, people caught in the midst of daily life, stopping at the grocery store, on the way to meet someone. Many of the people were simply asked to be photographed and they agreed. There are no stylists on these shoots, arranging hair and fixing clothing. There are also a number of portraits taken at ceremonial gatherings in regalia. It is important to remember that in both the United States and Canada, despite official claims of religious freedom, traditional first nation ceremonies were illegal for many decades.

Klemm hopes to pick up Curtis’s project, seventy years later, without the romanticism. He hopes to photograph ordinary people. “People who refused to give up. Because of the scale of the devastation to the North American Indian people and their culture, the mere act of surviving, no matter how desperate the personal or communal conditions, was transformed into an heroic one.”

Silent Warriors has been well received, images were included in the 2007 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the project was awarded 1st prize at Prix de la Photographie Paris.
Eric Klemm currently lives on Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada.

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

1. The letter is reproduced in Avedon at Work: In the American West by Laura Wilson. University Of Texas Press. 2003.

Editor’s Note: On January 2, I posted a critical review of Jimmy Nelson’s “Before They Pass Away.” When I put it up I contacted Jimmy Nelson through his website and offered him the opportunity to respond. He took me up on that offer. What follows is posted exactly as received.

I extend my appreciation to Mr. Nelson for taking the time to send these comments.

Jimmy Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

Tim

Good Afternoon.

Thank you for taking the time to write an article about “Beforethey,” for your blog.

I must compliment you on your observations and your ability to write. A talent that I am afraid I do not have hence why I generally just try and make photographs.

Initially I would like to say that what I have produced is a very personal document which has grown a commercial skin. It goes without saying that producing projects of this scale require enormous investments hence the somewhat pompous way it which it presents itself.

That is not to say that what I see and have experienced is disappearing very quickly and I find it enormously sad. Change is inevitable and the discussion we have here is a healthy way to learn how to progress forward.

Thank you for taking the initiative in contacting me and helping me continue to learn by having to answer your very good questions.

It would be my pleasure to reply to your review.

Culture is a slippery business. It is easy to find yourself authoring of a kind of patronizing determinism – especially when what attracts you to a subject is exotic, distant, and other.

Indeed it is. But not too slippery dare to discuss and yes using the exotic, distant and other, makes it more immediate and attractive to a wider and perhaps originally uninterested new audience.

This is the unfortunate case with Jimmy Nelson’s massive project “Before They Pass Away.” The anthropological assumptions of this project are so heavy handed; are in fact, so loudly announced on the promotional web site, Nelson’s talks, and the book itself, that what might have been a short aside when discussing Nelson’s photographic work demands to be addressed outright.

You are right in saying that my anthropological observations are loudly announced. This is very deliberate, as to cause a stir and to act as a catalyst for discussion . Just the same as the title of the book , Before They Pass Away.

To identify a culture with it’s appearance, and to equate a change in this appearance with the end of a culture, is to make a fundamental mistake. The Scots did not vanish when the kilt went out of fashion. Inuits persist even without beaded mukluks and dogsleds. If North American native peoples do not look as they do in the photographs of Edward Curtis, this does not mean they have “passed away.”

What has “passed away” is a romantic idea of a culture. A fiction.

I believe that culture and appearance are directly linked. This belief has been developed and evolved over many years of me, living, cohabiting and photographing these indigenous cultures. The aesthetic authenticity of their appearance will “Pass Away,” very soon. At the same speed with which the recent digitization of the world has arrived. What is disappearing is not a romantic idea,  it is the essence of our cultural origins and individuality. The Homogenization of the world will spell the death of authentic cultural creative expression.

This romanticism is formulaic. It begins by constructing a dichotomy. There is a fundamental difference between us and them. We are first world. They are tribal. Once this separation is established, the others are described with the values one wishes to project: they are noble, original, true, and pure. Ignore such universal realities conflict (inter-family or inter-tribal) and say that they have a sense of peace and harmony that we have lost.

As far as I am concerned there is already a dichotomy, which is the essence of what I present in my book. You are right when you say there are some universal realities which are ignored. But as I am not a studied anthropologist, I am purely communicating what I have seen and have experienced first hand. More often than not academic criticism and syndical assessments are directed by non objective sources who may not have had first hand experience.

This romantic fiction is disconcerting and not a little bit troubling. It’s a form of reverse discrimination. Instead of portraying tribal peoples all as backward, savage, uneducated, and primitive; portray them all as noble, egalitarian, peaceful, pure, and honest. It is still discrimination – it still ignores the reality of the people. Moreover, once you have isolated them as “original” (existing in a kind of idyllic garden before the fall) you can add the tragic narrative stinger – that they will all soon be gone forever.

Yes it is a reverse observation not discrimination, to bring them to our attention to the fact that their ” Idyllic Garden of eden will definitely soon fall.” It is also tragic narrative portrayed in a romantic non fiction because it is fact. I find it no more troubling that the way we present ourselves in all our developed the worlds printed commercial media. True or false, it is the way we like to perceive ourselves and be perceived accordingly.

It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have  been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant. (3)

Imagine a meeting with a member of these tribes who does not look like the pictures in the book. Imagine meeting a Maasai man in Kenya, out of traditional dress, working, perhaps, as a night security guard. Is he no longer a Massai? That would seem to be the implication – that you didn’t meet him in time, and that the Maasai, like the rest of the cultures in the book have “passed away.” Perhaps also, during such a meeting, the man is not able to teach you about “love, respect, peace, survival and sharing.”  Obviously it was too late.

The Massai working as a Night Security Guard is still a Massai. Much the same as a Cherokee Indian working in Mc Donalds. But what they are both not capable of teaching us “Love peace, survival and sharing as perhaps they used to when they lived, acted and dressed in their traditional settings. What they now teach would be an applied set of lessons. Lessons adapted to a very different world to that from where they originated. Lessons which would definatley not be traditional.

Indeed, in Nelson’s mind it is already too late for North America, where “the tribes haven’t fully retained their heritage the way others have.” (4)

Indeed it is too late for the Cherokee working in McDonalds . Not only have they not retained their heritage but they have lost all relative respect and pride.  Both of which are still to be seen in the tribes and cultures which I documented.

I began this review wanting to praise the photographic beauty of Nelson’s portraiture. The photographs are exceptional, carefully positioned with delicate light and a direct intimate closeness. I like the formal precision of them and it does not worry me that the subjects are carefully placed and posed. By all accounts Nelson’s interaction with individuals from the various groups was considered and time consuming. I don’t suspect that he exploited individuals and it is not surprising that “Before They Pass Away” is a commercial project. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pictures of people, tribal or otherwise, provided the interaction is honest. Photographs, after all, are a common method of investigation, discovery, and representation.

There are many ways this project could have been staged and presented: as a series of portraits; as a showcase of regalia and costume; as a catalogue of remarkable people. Or better still, let the people speak for themselves.

Thank you for the compliment and yes the photography is very time consuming and as I have communicated at length, this project is still in its infancy. Production is in place to return to all the subjects in question and present them with the book and their photographs. A process which will be documented on film and give the people the voice to speak for themselves.

But I cannot get beyond the patronizing marketing material and the imperial posturing of the project. The title says everything. To be included in the book is to be an exotic other who is doomed. Peter Blaise, author of the anthropological introduction to each group, states:

“Because they are the last original humans, we must give them as many chances as we can to let them co-exist in modern times. This will not happen without intelligent plans. We are invited to organize their continuity, to paint their souls for posterity, if we don’t, they will indeed disappear forever and an essential part of us will disappear with them.” (5)

What?

What Mark Blaisse , the author to the introduction states is 100% correct in his statement.

With his talk of “the last authentics” and “pure sources,” one almost expects Nelson to start talking about eugenics.

 But who decides what is authentic and how?

 Is this judgment, in fact, not about cultural integrity at all, but rather about entertainment? That is, a judgment about visual representation: about Jimmy Nelson’s idea of what it means to be culturally real. Perhaps it would be more “authentic” for Nelson to speak personally, and simply state that he finds the Maori photogenic – the Navajo, less so. He is certainly free to photograph whom he pleases. But making pronouncements about the authenticity of a culture betrays an incredible cultural arrogance.

In this case as well as in the production and sale of the book, I state at length that what I have seen is photogenic. I state at length that my representation is one of positive discrimination.

I have decided from personal experience, which is anything but culturally arrogant that what I have photographed is my personal vision and designed to create debate.

Before They Pass Away” seems to have the ghostly hand of Edward Sheriff Curtis directing it. Both Nelson and Curtis seem to share more than just their flawed romanticism. Both projects attracted financial backers with deep pockets. For Curtis it was J.P. Morgan (who put up 75,000 dollars in 1906), for Nelson it was Marcel Boekhoorn (who put up an initial contribution of 400,000 euros). Both photographers have put out extremely expensive, rare book editions of their photographs.

The similarities are of no coincidence as I used Edward Sheriff Curtis as a inspiration.  Curtis 30 year document can be perceived as romantic yes but as flawed?

“Taken as a whole, the work of Edward Curtis is a singular achievement. Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession. These photographs comprehend more than an aboriginal culture, more than a prehistoric past — more, even, than a venture into a world of incomparable beauty and nobility. Curtis’s photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place. In the focus upon the landscape of the continent and its indigenous people, a Curtis photograph becomes universal.

Edward Curtis preserved for us the unmistakable evidence of our involvement in the universe.”  N. Scott Momaday

For Nelson it was one, massive, oversize book measuring 42 x 59 cm containing 464 pages and selling for 6500 euros (aprox 9000 dollars). (9) This may seem expensive, however, Curtis’ 20 volumes (completed between 1907 and 1930) of ethnographic text and photographic images (over 2250 photogravure images were included in the final edition) stands alone not only as the most “photographically accomplished and influential record ever produced of Native cultures in the United States” (9) but as “the largest, the longest, the most ambitious and the most expensive photographic project ever attempted in photography.” (11)

It is especially odd that, working today and knowing the criticisms leveled at Curtis, Nelson did not temper or recast his project. It is perhaps equally odd that, knowing that Curtis had completed such an ambitious ethnographic mapping (the largest photographic project in human history – the scope of which Nelson could never hope to match) he still judged the North American tribal cultures as having “not fully retained their heritage.” By Nelson’s own peculiar standards, Curtis’ work failed in the cultural preservation that he so fervently hopes his own exposures will accomplish.

With all Grand artistic cultural statements, both positive and negative criticism ensues. Edward Curtis received both but the in hindsight large majority of contemporary critic is positive and admirable for the monumental undertaking he achieved.  As I have only just begun my project Beforethey it seems very difficult to make an direct immediate comparison with Curtis’s extraordinary ethnographic mapping. Let alone to judge me for my own peculiar standards on a result of an undertaking which is far from finished let alone to be applied to long term cultural preservation.

 Yes, cultures are rapidly changing. Yes, many are endangered (UNESCO estimates that by the close of this century approximately half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will no longer be used). Yes, many cultures are remarkable, possessing attributes, customs, and attire that redefines and expands notions of human ingenuity and creativity. And yes, a well-executed visual record is an invaluable document.

A photograph is neither true nor false. It simply is. It is what we say about the photograph which will stand as honest or fabricated. Hence it is disappointing to read a book that had the potential to be one of the most beautiful books ever produced, and find that, instead of speaking about these very real cultures and the challenges they face with an expanding modern culture, Jimmy Nelson has forced them to play a part in a colonialist myth – the myth of the noble savage.

The book which was intended to be one of the most beautiful photographic books ever produced is only the first step on a long journey of cultural documentation and dialogue to the challenges we all face in an ever expanding modern world . With this initial visual statement of the Beforethey book , I hope to learn with active discussion how to broaden my knowledge and better communicate that many cultures are remarkable and that continuing with my well intended and executed visual recordings I can provide further invaluable documentation and continuing debate.

Kind Regards

Jimmy Nelson

 

 

Before They Pass Away Cover

Before They Pass Away
Jimmy Nelson
XXL Edition 464 pages, 42 x 59 cm, 6500 euros
Trade Edition 424 pages, 29 x 37 cm, 128 euros

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn of their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future.

Edward Curtis (1)
Photo Caption

In 1830 when the American President, Andrew Jackson, fulfilling an election promise to his western and southern supporters, pushed the Removal Act through Congress, he did so in order to get rid of thousands of Indians — particularly the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles — who were not dying and not particularly interested in going anywhere. 

These were not the Indians that Curtis went west to find.

Curtis was looking for the literary Indian, the dying Indian, the imaginative construct. And to make sure that he would find what he wanted to find, he took along boxes of “Indian” paraphernalia — wigs, blankets, painted backdrops, clothing, — in case he ran into Indians who did not look as the Indian was supposed to look.

Thomas King (2)
The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative

Edward Curtis - Sioux Chiefs

Edward Curtis – Sioux Chiefs

Culture is a slippery business. It is easy to find yourself authoring of a kind of patronizing determinism – especially when what attracts you to a subject is exotic, distant, and other.

This is the unfortunate case with Jimmy Nelson’s massive project “Before They Pass Away.” The anthropological assumptions of this project are so heavy handed; are in fact, so loudly announced on the promotional web site, Nelson’s talks, and the book itself, that what might have been a short aside when discussing Nelson’s photographic work demands to be addressed outright.

To identify a culture with it’s appearance, and to equate a change in this appearance with the end of a culture, is to make a fundamental mistake. The Scots did not vanish when the kilt went out of fashion. Inuits persist even without beaded mukluks and dogsleds. If North American native peoples do not look as they do in the photographs of Edward Curtis, this does not mean they have “passed away.”

What has “passed away” is a romantic idea of a culture. A fiction.

Jimmy Nelson Before They Pass Away

This romanticism is formulaic. It begins by constructing a dichotomy. There is a fundamental difference between us and them. We are first world. They are tribal. Once this separation is established, the others are described with the values one wishes to project: they are noble, original, true, and pure. Ignore such universal realities conflict (inter-family or inter-tribal) and say that they have a sense of peace and harmony that we have lost.

I’m not making this up. This is exactly the copy that fades in and out of the “Before They Pass Away” web site:

“Jimmy Nelson’s vision connects us to the purity of mankind.”

“Tribes teach us aspects of humanity such as love, respect, peace, survival and sharing.”

“A reminder of the harmony between man and nature that once was.”

“The tribes in Nelson’s book demonstrate the essence of life.”

“An example of pure and honest living.”

“The tribes achieved a harmony with nature that we can only dream of.”

This romantic fiction is disconcerting and not a little bit troubling. It’s a form of reverse discrimination. Instead of portraying tribal peoples all as backward, savage, uneducated, and primitive; portray them all as noble, egalitarian, peaceful, pure, and honest. It is still discrimination – it still ignores the reality of the people. Moreover, once you have isolated them as “original” (existing in a kind of idyllic garden before the fall) you can add the tragic narrative stinger – that they will all soon be gone forever.

It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have  been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant. (3)

Imagine a meeting with a member of these tribes who does not look like the pictures in the book. Imagine meeting a Maasai man in Kenya, out of traditional dress, working, perhaps, as a night security guard. Is he no longer a Massai? That would seem to be the implication – that you didn’t meet him in time, and that the Maasai, like the rest of the cultures in the book have “passed away.” Perhaps also, during such a meeting, the man is not able to teach you about “love, respect, peace, survival and sharing.”  Obviously it was too late.

Indeed, in Nelson’s mind it is already too late for North America, where “the tribes haven’t fully retained their heritage the way others have.” (4)

Jimmy Nelson Before They Pass Away

I began this review wanting to praise the photographic beauty of Nelson’s portraiture. The photographs are exceptional, carefully positioned with delicate light and a direct intimate closeness. I like the formal precision of them and it does not worry me that the subjects are carefully placed and posed. By all accounts Nelson’s interaction with individuals from the various groups was considered and time consuming. I don’t suspect that he exploited individuals and it is not surprising that “Before They Pass Away” is a commercial project. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pictures of people, tribal or otherwise, provided the interaction is honest. Photographs, after all, are a common method of investigation, discovery, and representation.

There are many ways this project could have been staged and presented: as a series of portraits; as a showcase of regalia and costume; as a catalogue of remarkable people. Or better still, let the people speak for themselves.

But I cannot get beyond the patronizing marketing material and the imperial posturing of the project. The title says everything. To be included in the book is to be an exotic other who is doomed. Peter Blaise, author of the anthropological introduction to each group, states:

“Because they are the last original humans, we must give them as many chances as we can to let them co-exist in modern times. This will not happen without intelligent plans. We are invited to organize their continuity, to paint their souls for posterity, if we don’t, they will indeed disappear forever and an essential part of us will disappear with them.” (5)

What?

It may come as a surprise to the Tibetans, the Maori, and many others in the book that their cultural integrity depends on Jimmy Nelson’s photographic project.(6) Moreover it may be a shock to learn that their culture is public property, and that the world (presumably the first world so lacking in harmony and balance) has been invited to organize them for posterity.

We are invited to paint their souls?

In an interview posted on Time Lightbox Nelson claims “We’re out of context, that doesn’t mean we should reset to tribal living, but instead create a dialog with the last of the authentics to see where we went wrong; to learn from the purest source what they’re doing right and to take that with us into the future.” (7)

With his talk of “the last authentics” and “pure sources,” one almost expects Nelson to start talking about eugenics.

In his 2003 Massey Lecture, “The Truth About Stories” author Thomas King talks about the difficulty in presenting himself as a North American native when speaking publically. In particular, if he dressed as a native and spoke as a native he was seen as “entertainment.” Interesting, but not to be taken too seriously. If, on the other hand, he dressed as a white (western suit and tie) and reasoned like a white he was no longer either authentic or native and had no authority to speak on behalf of first nations. There is no escape from the authenticity trap.

“When I was going to university there was an almost irresistible pull to become what Gerald Vizenor calls a “cultural ritualist” a kind of “pretend” Indian, an Indian who has to dress up like and Indian and act like and Indian in order to be recognized as an Indian. […] We dressed up as the “Indian” dressed. We dressed up in a manner to substantiate the cultural lie that had trapped us, and we did so with a passion.” (8)

These are the very real difficulties of appearance. Maori are authentic (they get into the book) while Navajo are not – “they have not fully retained their heritage.” Neither option is very empowering. As blogger Scott Hamilton has pointed out when talking about Nelson’s portrayal of the Maori “For scholars of history and sociology, the noble savage myth recycled by Nelson is an annoyance; for indigenous artists, though, it is a serious threat.” (9)

But who decides what is authentic and how?

Is this judgment, in fact, not about cultural integrity at all, but rather about entertainment? That is, a judgment about visual representation: about Jimmy Nelson’s idea of what it means to be culturally real. Perhaps it would be more “authentic” for Nelson to speak personally, and simply state that he finds the Maori photogenic – the Navajo, less so. He is certainly free to photograph whom he pleases. But making pronouncements about the authenticity of a culture betrays an incredible cultural arrogance.

“Before They Pass Away” seems to have the ghostly hand of Edward Sheriff Curtis directing it. Both Nelson and Curtis seem to share more than just their flawed romanticism. Both projects attracted financial backers with deep pockets. For Curtis it was J.P. Morgan (who put up 75,000 dollars in 1906), for Nelson it was Marcel Boekhoorn (who put up an initial contribution of 400,000 euros). Both photographers have put out extremely expensive, rare book editions of their photographs.

For Nelson it was one, massive, oversize book measuring 42 x 59 cm containing 464 pages and selling for 6500 euros (aprox 9000 dollars). (10) This may seem expensive, however, Curtis’ 20 volumes (completed between 1907 and 1930) of ethnographic text and photographic images (over 2250 photogravure images were included in the final edition) stands alone not only as the most “photographically accomplished and influential record ever produced of Native cultures in the United States” (11) but as “the largest, the longest, the most ambitious and the most expensive photographic project ever attempted in photography.” (12)

It is especially odd that, working today and knowing the criticisms leveled at Curtis, Nelson did not temper or recast his project. It is perhaps equally odd that, knowing that Curtis had completed such an ambitious ethnographic mapping (the largest photographic project in human history – the scope of which Nelson could never hope to match) he still judged the North American tribal cultures as having “not fully retained their heritage.” By Nelson’s own peculiar standards, Curtis’ work failed in the cultural preservation that he so fervently hopes his own exposures will accomplish.

Yes, cultures are rapidly changing. Yes, many are endangered (UNESCO estimates that by the close of this century approximately half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will no longer be used). Yes, many cultures are remarkable, possessing attributes, customs, and attire that redefines and expands notions of human ingenuity and creativity. And yes, a well-executed visual record is an invaluable document.

A photograph is neither true nor false. It simply is. It is what we say about the photograph which will stand as honest or fabricated. Hence it is disappointing to read a book that had the potential to be one of the most beautiful books ever produced, and find that, instead of speaking about these very real cultures and the challenges they face with an expanding modern culture, Jimmy Nelson has forced them to play a part in a colonialist myth – the myth of the noble savage.

About the author:

In addition to critical writing, Tim McLaughlin is a photographer and designer who has been working to help document traditional craft techniques for over ten years. At times this involves working with tribal cultures (mostly in India). He has worked as the designer on the museum exhibition “Through the Eye of a Needle” documenting the tribal embroidery of the Kutch desert in India. He also edited the documentary film and co-authored the book of the same name. In 2005 he helped bring two of the tribal embroiderers to Canada for the Maiwa Textile Symposium. More recently through Maiwa he has been working with embroiderers from the tribal Banjara community.

Notes:

1. Edward Curtis’ photo caption is quoted in: The wrongheaded obsession with “vanishing” indigenous peoples by ELISSA WASHUTA. http://www.salon.com/2013/11/24/americas_wrongheaded_obsession_with_vanishing_indigenous_peoples/

2. Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Massey Lecture Series 2003. Available as audio from CBC radio: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey-archives/2003/11/07/massey-lectures-2003-the-truth-about-stories-a-native-narrative/

3. Within this conversation it is important to keep in mind that many interests (from governments that must honour treaties, to corporations who work in resource extraction) see indigenous cultures as holding rights to territory and status that are a hinderance. There is often a vested interest in eliminating tribal status. If tribal status is interpreted to be the equivalent of visual appearance (or an idea of a tribal people as not modern) then it becomes easier to deny a group status. This is the goal of much government legislation which states who is native and who is not.

4. Portraits of the Authentics: Photographing Ancient Cultures Before They Pass Away – LightBox http://lightbox.time.com/2013/10/31/portraits-of-the-authentics-photographing-ancient-cultures-before-they-pass-away/#ixzz2pGy08mxP

5. Before They Pass Away. Trade Edition Book. “Painted Souls: The Beauty of our Origins” by Peter Blaise.

6. At least one Maori has blogged about the unusual experience of discovering the book. Jay Dizzle “We’re Not Dead Yet.” Posted November 11, 2013 http://jdhq.blogspot.ca/2013/11/were-not-dead-yet.html

7. Portraits of the Authentics. See (3)

8. Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Massey Lecture Series 2003.

King’s comments on Edward Curtis are worth quoting at length:

Curtis was fascinated by the idea of the North American Indian, was in fact obsessed with it. And he was determined to capture that idea, that image, before it vanished. This was a common concern among many intellectuals and artists and social scientists at the turn of the nineteenth century, who believed that, while Europeans in the New World were poised on the brink of a new adventure, the Indian was poised on the brink of extinction.

In literature in the United States, this span of time is known as the American Romantic Period, and the Indian was tailor made for it. With its emphasis on feeling, its interest in nature, its fascination with exoticism, mysticism and eroticism, and its preoccupation with the glorification of the past, American Romanticism found in the Indian a symbol in which all these concerns could be united. Prior to the nineteenth century, the prevalent image of the Indian has been that of an inferior being. The romantics imagined their Indian as dying. But in that dying, in that passing away, in that disappearing from the stage of human progress, there was also a sense of nobility.

I probably sound a little cranky – I don’t mean to. I know Curtis paid Indians to shave away any facial hair. I know he talked them into wearing wigs. I know that he would provide one tribe of Indians with clothing from another tribe because the clothing looked more “Indian.”

So his photographs would look authentic.

And while there is a part of me that would have preferred that Curtis had photographed his Indians as he found them, the men with crewcuts and moustaches, the women in cotton print dresses, I am grateful that we have his images at all. For the faces of the mothers and fathers, and aunts and uncles, the sisters and brothers who look at you from the depths of these photographs are not romantic allusions, they are real people.

9. The noble savage and the Toilet Club. Posted November 9, 2013 on “Reading the Maps” a blog by Scott Hamilton. http://readingthemaps.blogspot.ca/2013/11/the-noble-savage-and-toilet-club.html

10. Beforethey.com Nelson’s work is also offered in a more conventional format, measuring 29cm x 37cm, containing 424 pages and four gatefolds. It is a behemoth that requires a table to support it and sells for approx. $150.

11. ‘Art-Science’: The North American Indian (1907-30) as Photobook. Shamoon Zamir. published in The PhotoBook from Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond ed Patrisia Di Bello, Colette Wilson & Shamoon Zamir.

12. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History. Vol 1.

Eric Antoine
ensemble seul
At the Laurence Esnol Gallery
October 18 – November 30, 2013

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

All photos stop time, but it is true that some of them arrest its flow in a more profound way than others.

The photos of Eric Antoine, on exhibit at the Laurence Esnol Gallery until November 30, 2013 are images of this type. Produced through t the wet plate collodion process with vintage lenses, Antoine’s images bring us face to face with a haunting darkness. The frames on the wall contain ghosts and their shadows that have been pulled out of time. It is as if, forsaking reality, Antoine has managed to photograph memory itself.

Eric exhibit

Some of this effect is due to technique. The preparation of the plates by the artist’s own hand gives these photos a crafted, artisan quality. With the collodion process the photographer coats a glass plate with the light-sensitive emulsion. The plate must be exposed before it dries. The resulting negative, when viewed by reflected light against a black background, appears as a positive. Most of the works on exhibit are ambrotypes – made by coating the glass negative itself with a black varnish. Like a painter who has learned to grind his own pigments, Antoine has taken control of the entire mechanism of image-making. The results are a set of extraordinary, premeditated art objects.

His subject matter is as considered as his process. Most of the images have been taken in the bucolic setting of a single house in the French countryside. There are pure moments: a hand on a book, a woman on a swing, the same swing alone and vacant, two hands grasp the trunk of a tree covered by ivy. And yet, inexplicably, the images have something of the contemporary world about them. It could be that the artist is a modern man – and so even though the images are timeless, he himself is still present.

Eric Antoine from the exhibition at the Laurence Esnol Gallery

Ambrotype by Eric Antoine from the exhibition at the Laurence Esnol Gallery

Eric Antoine was born in 1974. For over fifteen years he worked as a professional photographer publishing in magazines and moving quickly through the vast centers of Europe’s capitals. His embrace of antiquarian processes is a very conscious decision both aesthetically and in terms of lifestyle. As he states in his biography:

The soft and unique aspect of the photographs shot with the 19th century lenses reinforce the romantic and mysterious atmosphere. These are just a few organic glass plates against an endless flow of digital images. Everything is shot as it was 150 years ago, in no rush, with long exposures but in a modern way, in a place just a little remote from the actual world.

It is now eleven years since Lyle Rexer’s anthology Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes. The same motivation for the photographers in Rexer’s anthology is present in Antoine. A concern with the history of the medium, a need to manipulate materials by hand, and a fascination with the qualities of images made through the photochemical process. Like Antoine, these photographers have used the process itself as a catalyst to access a new depth of personal connection to their work.

Comparisons will also be inevitable between Antoine and Ian Ruhter, the American photographer who converted a van into a very large format camera (mounting the lens in the back and making the entire compartment of the van the inside of the camera). Antoine and Ruhter have gone in opposite directions. Antoine residing in one place and exploring it intimately; Ruhter driving across the United States and working large format, both photographically and geographically.

The Antoine exhibit greatly rewards a visit. And the Laurence Esnol Gallery is the perfect space to mount this show. The gallery is best known for featuring the work of master portraitist H. Craig Hanna. In this exhibit Hanna also appears in the muted tones of one of Antoine’s images. For me, it is Antoine ‘s portraits that have the most vital force – and the pairing with Hanna is a complementary one as both artists reconfigure the individual through the genius of their work.

Ambrotype by Eric Antoine from the exhibition at the Laurence Esnol Gallery

Ambrotype by Eric Antoine from the exhibition at the Laurence Esnol Gallery

The Ambrotypes of Eric Antoine are also the subject of a short film by Willem Vleugels.

danwinters_cover

 

 

Periodical Photographs
Dan Winters
Aperture, 2009
156 pages, Hardcover, 9.5 x 11.5″

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 

 
 
It came as some surprise to find that my copy of Periodical Photographs, if I wanted to buy it new again, would set me back over four-hundred and fifty dollars. The book, published in 2009, has become an instant classic.

Which is understandable, as the book shares many of the qualities of Dan Winter’s photography: considered, balanced, richly detailed and with an edge of the odd and strange. The primary attraction for me, when I first encountered Winters, was his portraiture. His signature look consists of a saturated background that contrasts with the muted, slightly washed-out colours of the face. His subtle, carefully sculpted lighting enhances the effect. The style been highly emulated by photographers seeking to capture the power of his photographs.

The distinctive look of a Winters photograph is the result of his approach to colour. Winters, who has an eclectic background including photojournalist for Thousand Oaks News Chronicle was forced to shoot colour and to come to terms with it. In Lynn Hirschberg’s introduction to Periodical Photographs, Winters is quoted as saying:

The front page was colour, and I hated it. We all hated it. But I had to make my peace with color. I came to see it as my mission to give color photography the same power as black and white.

Portraiture for Winters involves consideration of the subject and the frame, high key lighting, and a wide depth of focus. In colour work the depth of focus is a mechanism to control the colour palette. In his 2009 interview with Ibarionex Perello1, Winters explains his approach:

Out of focus backgrounds work great in black and white but unless you’re very careful they can fail miserably in colour because you start to get that out-of-focus colour and you’re not really sure what the palette is, but if you’re sharp you can really discern what you’re looking at.

In response to the influence of his style, Winters has emphasized that: “Its more important to develop a sensibility, rather than a style.” He claims that style is the set-up, such that if you reproduced the set-up you would have the style. While sensibility is a far more abstract notion.

Sensibility for me would be: you formulate an opinion. You form an opinion about your surroundings and the way you respond to your surroundings and it starts to transcend the tools you use.

I think a lot of my portraits are really odd sometimes, you know, in kind of a good way. But I also feel like they’re reverent. I try to be flattering and, at the same time, make something that’s genuine and sensitive and reverent. I like the word reverent for portraits. I think its … I think we need more of that reverence for people and for their own experience, their own path and the way that they’re represented.

A sensibility, an opinion, opens up the possibility of a conversation. Photographs are always about more that what they show. And for Winters one of the things that he attempts to make his photos about is a person’s character. Speaking about digitally retouching photographs to be more pleasing, or to conform to an industry ideal of beauty, winters claims: “I’m not interested in that kind of digital enhancement. I find it diminishes character, and character is why we are fascinated by these people in the first place.”

That Winters can maintain his artistic sensibility when shooting celebrities is remarkable – especially given the number of personalities who have a stake in how the image reads: editors, publicists, agents, stylists, managers, marketers, etc. The stakes are high and something as ephemeral as a photographer’s sensibility does not always carry the day.

The portraits dominate Periodical Photographs so strongly that it is possible to overlook the fact that of the 86 images in the book 34 are not people. Instead they are buildings, abandoned cars or a variety of movie props including the hand of Kong (the stop-motion animation armature from RKO’s original 1933 production of King Kong), the prop from Rocketship X-M, and the alien’s head from This Island Earth.

In comparison to the portraiture the objects and landscapes are documents: Neat and clean but lacking the force of the portraits. Instead they are windows into the personality of Winters himself, they are portals into his interests and fascinations — his collector and archival tendencies – and his inquisitive, scientific mind. Some are practically illustrations and it comes as no surprise to learn that Winters is also a professional illustrator.

Periodical Photographs is the first Winter’s monograph. Subsequent books include Dan Winters’ America: Icons and Ingenuity and Last Launch: Discovery, Endeavor, Atlantis. As of the writing of this review Dan Winters has a new book available to pre-order Road to Seeing. Ibarionex Perello is listed as a co-author.

—–

1. The Candid Frame Podcast #85 – Dan Winters by Ibarionex Perello. Blog summary available here: http://thecandidframe.blogspot.ca/2009/11/candid-frame-85-dan-winters.html

I was first led to Winters by a mention in David Hobby’s Strobist Blog – yet another good reason to follow Mr. Hobby.

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Richard Avedon - In the American West Cover

 

 

In the American West
Richard Avedon
Harry N. Abrams, 1985
174 pages, Hardcover 11″ x 14″

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

 

Considered by many to be Avedon’s magnum opus, the work was controversial when it was published for depicting marginalized subjects. To a public used to a romantic notion of the west, Avedon’s work was thought distopic. It was also felt that Avedon, firmly established in New York City, was voicing a critical opinion of the American West. The book retains its provocative qualities to this day.

It is difficult to separate the publication from the project of making the photos and from the exhibition of the completed work at the Amon Carter Museum in 1985. Fortunately, photographer Laura Wilson, who worked as an assistant to Avedon and wrote the “Background” essay in the book, has also given additional valuable information about this project in her own book Avedon at Work: In the American West.

The book itself follows the model of previous Avedon books. Large format, 14 x 11 inches, with 103 plates and a three-page gatefold. In contrast to the groundbreaking design of Observations (the work of Alexey Brodovitch) In the American West is all about the photos. The typeography is pristine and understated. But, as elegant as the presentation is, it gives no indication as to the far-reaching scope of the project or the resources that went into it. Avedon worked for six years, from 1979 to 1984, visiting 17 states and 189 towns to do 752 sittings. He was working with a Deardorf 8 x 10 view camera. At today’s prices the cost of film alone would have been close to $70,000 for the 17,000 sheets he exposed. All but 123 of the negatives were intentionally destroyed when the project was completed. The 123 remaining negatives are in the collection of the Amon Carter museum, with the photographer’s directive that they never be printed from again.

The portraits are remarkable. As with much of Avedon’s work it is difficult to state exactly what the qualities are that make these images so arresting. Each day, as we go through the world, we encounter individuals. Most of us are naturally curious about them. But it is impossible to stop a stranger in the streets and say to them, “Hold on just a moment, please. There is something about you that is striking to me. Can you just stand here for a bit while I try to get a sense of you … while I attempt to discover who you are?” Of course it is a voyeuristic enterprise, but it is also an entirely photographic one—executed by a master.

At the heart of the book’s controversial reception are two ideas. The first is the most complex: by focusing on oil-rig drillers, abattoir-men, drifters, ranchers, and carnie-workers is Avedon exploiting his subjects or complementing them? Thirty years after the photos were taken, both answers are equally valid.

Established as perhaps the most famous fashion and celebrity photographer, many saw Avedon’s work as placing the working class and marginalized on a stage usually reserved for the talented and beautiful. In the context of the mid-1980s, when television was controlled by networks and conglomerates dictated the content of most mass media, Avedon elevated the subjects and showed that they were also worthy of interest and attention.

Some critics, on the other hand, clearly saw the subjects as victims. As Max Kozloff stated:

The blank, seamless background thrusts the figures forward as islands of textures of flesh, certainly, but also of cloth. Nothing competes with the presentation of their poor threads, nothing of the personal environment, nothing that might situate, inform, and support a person in the real world, or even in a photograph. At the same time, the viewer is left in no doubt about the miserableness and tawdriness of their lives- for their dispiriting jobs or various forms of unemployed existence are duly noted. An ugly comparison is invited between all these havenots and Avedon’s previous and much better defended “haves.” It is one thing to portray high-status and resourceful celebrities as picture fodder: it is quite another to mete out the same punishment to waitresses, ex-prizefighters, and day laborers.1

It is clear that Avedon understands the role of art. And, no matter how much he would control the shoots, the negatives, the retouching, and the final presentation, he does not attempt to control our interpretation of the subjects. We are free to think them heroic individuals or hapless victims. Kosloff is correct in this much: Avedon will not provide a setting that explains the portraits. We look into the face of another individual and we must provide our own interpretation. It is this facet, more than anything else, that makes the work uncomfortable, but also invaluable.

Avedon’s relationship with the subjects is not a simple one. At times he maintains that his subjects are to him what clay is to a sculptor. Ten years after the book was published, Avedon returned to connect with some of the subjects. Sandra Bennett was twelve when her portrait was taken. Six years later she was eighteen and on the cover of the book. When they reconnected Bennett maintained that the photo was not who she really was. Avedon is lucid in his response:

You can’t say you weren’t in the picture—that’s what’s so confusing about photography. You can’t say you weren’t there. But you have to accept that you are there and the control is with the photographer. I have the control in the end. But I can’t do it alone. You have a lot to say, and by that I mean, the way you look, the way you confront the camera or the experience, whether you’re trusting or not trusting. In the end I can tear the pictures up, I can choose the smiling one … or the serious one … or I can exaggerate something through the printing. It’s lending yourself to artists.2

This tension is familiar ground for Avadon. Anticipating some of the criticism to come, the book contains what is today his most famous quote. It is worthwhile giving the entire short paragraph:

A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in photographs. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.3

The second objection to In the American West when it was issued is more easily dealt with. The book is not representational of the West. Fair enough. It’s  not representational. Shoots done with U.S. Olympian Sis Wigglesworth, were not included and Wilson states that “Dick never used her portrait—he felt her privileged world set her apart from the other people he’d photographed for his project.”4

Avedon was clear that the project was not journalism or reportage. It was his opinion and it was no more an objective truth about the west than John Wayne might be.

It is worth considering for a moment Avedon’s approach to “exaggerating something through the printing.” The prints produced for the exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum were produced by traditional photochemical means. It would be another five years before photoshop 1.0 was released and many additional years before digital processing could handle the scale that Avedon needed. It would have been common practice to lighten, darken, (dodge and burn) areas of the photo and to increase or decrease contrast through the selection of film and paper stocks. Today’s digital photographers are sometimes under the misapprehension that film shooters did not alter images, but in fact almost nothing would have left Avedon’s studio without detailed manipulation.

Richard Avedon Evidence

We are fortunate that Avedon himself published some of the printing notes in his book Evidence.5 The image above does not represent a set of instructions from Avedon to the darkroom. Rather it is a dodge and burn map made by Ruedi Hoffman, as he laboured with David Liittschwager to produce the effects Avedon requested.  According to Wilson:

Ruedi and David started with a set of 16-by-20-inch prints. Dick rejected them all. He felt that the tone was heavy; they were too black and had too much contrast. In reprinting Dick’s directions were rarely technical. He would say simply, “Make the person more gentle,” or “Give the face more tension.” This unconventional advice forced Ruedi and David to try to understand the emotional content that Dick sought in each portrait.

Once you have seen the dodge and burn map and looked at the finished portrait, the manipulations are visible. The face of Billy Mudd for example, acquires a strange mask-like quality which seems to be the result of intentional lightening. It is a peculiar flaw in an otherwise immaculate body of work.

Billy Mudd

The final prints are huge. Most were printed at a size of almost 4 x 5 feet. With ten printed even larger at 5 x 7 feet. The effect of the size and the detail of the 8 x 10 view camera combine to make a formidable image. “But really, I feel that these people are so powerful. When you look, really look, they say such varied things with their faces and their bodies. Its almost as if there was no photographer. I’m out of it. I feel the work now belongs to the people themselves. It’s between them and you.”

1. “Richard Avedon’s In the American West” by Max Kozloff. Originally published in Art in America (January I987). Accessed at: http://www.zonezero.com/magazine/articles/kosloff/pagina1Avedon.html

2. American Masters Series (video). Richard Avedon: Darkenss and Light. 1995.

3. In the American West Richard Avedon. Harry N. Abrams. 1985.

4. Avedon at Work: In the American West Laura Wilson. University Of Texas Press. 2003

5. Evidence Richard Avedon. Whitney Museum of American Art Exhibition Catalogue. 1994

 
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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?

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19th Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada
On exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta
June 29 to October 6, 2013

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

But when he saw himself and his whole family fastened onto a sheet of iridescent metal for all eternity he was mute with stupefaction. That was the date of the oxidized daguerreotype in which José Arcadio Buendía appeared with his bristly and graying hair, his cardboard collar attached to his shirt by a copper button, and an expression of startled solemnity, whom Úrsula described, dying with laughter, as a “frightened general.” José Arcadio Buendía was, in fact, frightened on that clear December morning when the daguerreotype was made, for he was thinking that people were slowly wearing away while his image would endure on a metallic plaque.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

For the past several months I have been reading Beaumont Newall’s History of Photography. It does what any good history text should do – it locates the developments of photographic technology, personality, and style within a grand arching narrative that progresses through time. Innovation is tied to personality and the zeitgeist of the era. It is well illustrated with plates depicting what have become the essential hallmarks in the canon of photography.

The Haystack - Henry Fox Talbot

The Haystack – Henry Fox Talbot

If you wanted to see these very photographs, you could do no better than the current exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta: 19th Century British Photographs. The exhibition is selected from the collected photographic prints held by the National Gallery of Canada. Fox Talbot’s salted paper prints are here as are works by Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and many others. The draw of the show is not just the opportunity to see some of the first photographs ever made, but to see them in context and beside early examples that clearly demonstrate the beauty and power of the medium. Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s “Two Daughter’s of the Photographer” is a particularly striking example, as is John Benjamin Stone’s “Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament.”

Also present are works that were controversial in their day. Toward the close of the nineteenth century a hot debate emerged around the idea of the amount of sharpness that was proper in photography. Peter Henry Emerson, a champion of the photogravure printing process, reasoned that because human vision is only crisp at the centre of the field of perception (an area of the eye known as the fovea centralis) and is blurred (or at least less crisp) elsewhere, that photographers should make their exposures slightly out of focus. The argument seems to be not just an advocacy of shallow depth of field, but rather a more abstract notion:

Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and its outlines fade gently into that something else, often so subtly that you cannot distinguish where that something ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lies all the charm and mystery of nature.

Emerson’s most famous work, “Gathering Waterlilies” is present under glass as it appeared in his book Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. The print in the edition on display is a platinum print.

Ever since its inception photography has suffered from an identity crisis: not knowing if it was an art, and if it was an art, incapable of locating the nexus of artistic genius; is it in the camera operator, the choice of subject, the technique, the editing, the printing, the retouching … where? The problems of artistic intention are compounded through the multiplicity of objects that photography and film create. Walter Benjamin’s landmark essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction pointed out not just the fracture between earlier media and “modern” ones, but the increasingly problematic nature of defining just what qualified as an original and what was a reproduction when dealing with the new technology.

One photographic object that sits somewhat outside this distinction, however, is the daguerreotype. Its iridescence, how the image becomes clear and then vanishes as the plate is tilted in the light, the fine detail, and the mirrored finish, all make the daguerreotype nearly as miraculous as the invention of photography itself. There is no way to reproduce the specific nuance of such objects in a book or catalogue and so in this instance, the installation of the daguerreotypes in the Art Gallery of Albert are particularly worth seeing.

Outside the exhibition hall, I encountered this sign:

Entrance to 19th Century British Photography - Art Gallery of Alberta

Entrance to 19th Century British Photography – Art Gallery of Alberta

Setting aside for a moment the confusion the public must feel about what is and what is not appropriate to share on one’s instagram feed  (the gallery offers no reasoning in this regard, simply a “we’ll let you know when its OK.” position) the instagram signage seems like a last minute thought to make the show accessible to a wider audience. The notice has something of a ghee-whiz flavour.

It could be that the subtle distinctions between salted paper prints and those made with an albumen coating fade like a poorly fixed photograph when compared to the massive decentering brought about by instagram and its ilk. It could be that there is simply not enough room in any gallery to wade through the ramifications of such technologies. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that something could have been offered up – for or against – that would throw some light, however rarified, on the subject. Standing in a room with one of the first photographs ever made just inches from my nose, I felt that if I could just listen hard enough I could hear Henry Fox Talbot, and on the other wall Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, trying to whisper something over the desperate silence that filled the room.

 

Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s "Two Daughter’s of the Photographer"

Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s “Two Daughter’s of the Photographer.” Taken on my cell phone.

John Benjamin Stone’s "Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament."

John Benjamin Stone’s “Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament.” Taken on my cell phone.

cover_penn
 

Worlds in a Small Room
By Irving Penn as an ambulant studio photographer
Grossman Publishers 1974
Out of Print

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

To this day, one of the most influential photobooks ever made is Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room. It is noted for the photographs, which show Penn’s immaculate, premeditated style, his concern for geometry, and the balance of light and dark elements. But it is equally monumental for the profound way in which the photographer attempts to engage the world.

The elements of this engagement are present in Penn’s first project. Wrapping up a 1948 photo shoot for Vogue magazine in Lima, Peru, Penn chose to continue on to Cuzco while the rest of the crew flew home for Christmas. After three days in bed with altitude sickness, Penn woke on the forth day with renewed energy. Walking the streets in the centre of town he encountered a photographer’s studio with sheet glass for a roof and open on the north side, a daylight studio. Penn paid off the owner and rented the studio for three days. In an important reversal, Penn photographed the studio’s clientele, but rather than take money from the subjects, he paid them to let him take their photographs. The results are a powerful, evocative engagement with an unfamiliar culture. Edward Steichen has said the photos “richly render the timelessness and human dignity of a people.”

The advantages of a studio are isolation and control. What you can exclude, all the distractions of walls, trees, shadows, and clutter; and what you can introduce; controlled lighting, a sense of stability and intimacy. But there are other things that take place within a studio that are subtle, and they have everything to do with the relationship between photographer and subject.

The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words—by only their stance and their concentration—were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds.

In his early trips Penn would locate daylight studios such as those he found in Paris, New York, and London for his series “Small Trades.” During a 1964 trip to Spain, while working with a band of Gypsies, he tried to improvise such a studio in a barn:

I rented a barn from a nearby farmer and set up a daylight portrait studio; when the farmer found out who the subjects were to be, he was not at all delighted with the project, On the day planned for the photographs, I noticed that all the domestic animals had disappeared from sight—the farmer had locked the goats, the chickens, and even the cow in the house.

The gypsies’ response to my invitation was predictable. They whined and wheedled and made it seem that coming to the studio a mile away was a strenuous journey. We finally agreed on an exorbitant price, and a small steam of family groups presented themselves to be photographed.

As I had hoped there was a remarkable transformation in the relationship between us, which had been so tense and unpleasant during our negotiations at their encampment. I this makeshift studio, strange to both of us, I noticed for the first time in my experience with gypsies that I was treated by them as a person somewhat like themselves. The qualities of their own family relationships began to be visible for the first time. I was surprised at their consideration even tenderness, for each other, but most surprising to me was that some of this softness was allowed to go out to me. It was a revelation that fulfilled my hopes more than my expectations.

Over the years, Penn continued to take his ethnographic work further and further afield. His trips were commissioned by Vogue and took place in the golden years of magazine photography. He finally perfected a portable outdoor natural light studio with a custom built tent. This structure was 11 feet high and had a 10 x 18 foot floor. He augmented the set-up with an 8 x 12 reflective screen. Made of aluminum poles and nylon it was reasonably portable, could be set up quickly by a team of assistants, and could fit on the top of a jeep. On his photographic expeditions, Penn took five Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras and a compliment of close-up lenses.

It is this set up that leads Penn to call himself an “ambulant studio photographer.” He used the tent to make what are perhaps his most famous photographs, the Makehuku men from the village of Mandow, known generally as the mud men of Asaro, New Guinea.

Photographs, it seems, never appear without a notion of truth attached to them. In the essay on Penn in Time-Life’s volume on “The Studio”, the writer indicates that when the subjects entered the studio, the became their true selves “On its neutral ground they emerged as their real selves, human beings possessed on innate dignity.” Although Penn repeated emphasizes the transformative qualities of the studio, he is careful not to claim that the studio is any more “real” or “true” than the space outside. The difference is in the change in environment and a formality and seriousness the studio creates. Interestingly, it was the space outside the studio that was “real” for other photographers. Walker Evans, when he embarked on the New York subway with a hidden camera, claimed: “The guard is down and the mask is off … People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.”

Much time has passed since these portraits were taken. Irving Penn died in 2009 at the age of 92. Worlds in a Small Room contains travels to meet people from distant places and photograph them under ideal conditions. For Penn, the ideal conditions required the natural light of the north facing sky. It is a light with “sweetness and constancy” a light “of such penetrating clarity that even a simple object lying by chance in such light takes on an inner glow, almost a voluptuousness.” Penn’s vision for his project (a vision imagined in his New York studio almost seventy years ago) has come true:

These remarkable strangers would come to me and place themselves in front of my camera, and in this clear north sky light I would make records of their physical presence. The pictures would survive us both and at least to that extent something of their already dissolving cultures would be preserved forever.

Irving Penn - Worlds in a Small Room Irving Penn - Worlds in a Small Room Irving Penn - Worlds in a Small Room Irving Penn - Worlds in a Small Room Irving Penn - Worlds in a Small Room Irving Penn - Worlds in a Small Room Irving Penn - Worlds in a Small Room Irving Penn - Worlds in a Small Room

Women Are Heroes

 

Women Are Heroes: A Global Project by JR
JR
Harry N. Abrams, 2012
40.00
 

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

Arriving in Sierra Leon, Liberia, Sudan, or Kenya, I realized that the men were holding the streets and I would have to confront them … they would be the curators of my exhibitions.

Sometimes a photo is more than a photo.

Sometimes it is a statement of place, sometimes of identity, sometimes it can be a process for interaction, and sometimes it can be a solution. Sometimes, even if it cannot change the past, it can act in such a way as to be a mechanism for hope and a handle on the future.

The anonymous French artist known as JR started making his marks when he was fifteen. He worked as a graffiti artist and was drawn to rooftops and underground spaces of the Paris metro. “Each trip was an excursion, was an adventure, it was like leaving our mark on society.” A chance discovery of a cheap camera in the metro led him to start documenting the activities of both himself and his friends. He then printed these photos, posted them, and tagged them. His graffiti work was now an ad hoc sidewalk gallery. He dubbed it Expo 2 Rue.

The city is the best gallery I could imagine. I would never have to make a book and then present it to a gallery, and let them decide if my work was nice enough to show to people. I would confront the public directly – in the street.

This is the essence of JR’s work: flyposting photographic portraits (with neither official permission, nor corporate endorsement) on a large scale, in the public space. The protean nature of paper makes the postings behave like an environmental sculpture, slowly disintegrating over time. Power washers also quickly remove them. Like much street art, JR’s work contests the ubiquitous incursion of adverizing and corporate interest in the built environment. As defiantly stated by Banksy:

Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you.

After the 2005 Paris riots JR’s subject matter quickly became political. He went into the housing projects to photograph youth. He used a 28mm lens. “It was the only lens I had at the time, but with that lens, you have to be as close as 10 inches from the person. So you can only do it with their trust.” These images were blown up and pasted in the more affluent areas of the city. A year latter the city itself got behind the project and the images were put up as part of Murs de la Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris.

JR had an epiphany when he saw how images of youth from the housing projects, vilified in the media during the 2005 riots, could be repurposed in the public space. “The subjects could regain control over their own images. That’s when I realized the power of paper … and glue.” The series was called Portrait of a Generation.

Women Are Heroes documents the third project in the 28 Millimeter series. The second one, Face2Face involved pasting huge portraits of Palestinians and Israelis side by side on the Security Wall in Jerusalem. The Ephemeral nature of paper is an important part of the work. “You know, when you paste an image it’s just paper and glue. People can tear it, tag it, even pee on it. The people in the street are the curators. The rain and the wind will take them off anyway – they are not meant to stay.”

With the third project JR has enlarged not only his portraits but his geographic coverage. He sought out women in Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Kenya, Brazil, India, and Cambodia. These are complex interventions involving a deep level of engagement with the community. In the favela of Morro da Providência, a shanty-town within Rio de Janeiro, JR worked with groups of children on small scale work, getting locals to take photographs and then past their own cut-out portraits. Once trust was established he moved onto his principle project – taking portraits of the women of the favela and completely covering the sides of houses with their faces.

The book provides an explanation of how the work was carried out in the different countries. In Kibera, for example, (a section of Nairobi that contains the largest shantytown in East Africa), vinyl was used and the portraits were put on the roof, thus providing both art and a valuable building material. In India, where posting images was almost certain to be stopped by the police, they put up white sheets with the images printed in a sticky adhesive. The dust of the road (or the coloured powders of the Holi festival) made the portraits appear much later, once the paper hangers had left.

Women Are Heroes also contains the original portraits of the subjects and their stories. Told in the first person, the stories are a catalogue of life similar to that presented in Fazal Sheik’s Portraits. The narratives are difficult and painful, yet as the title of the book suggests, there is an inspiring resolve to live.

Although Jr is now one of the most famous artists in the world (having won the 2011 TED prize, and commanding gallery space in most major cities), he continues to see his art as a way for communities to recover their own identity. He refuses to sign, or author the work and he insists that it cannot have any corporate affiliation whatsoever. His TED prize wish (Inside Out) was to complete another project in which he removed himself as photographer from the production of portraits. Instead people sent photos to him, which he printed and sent back to be used in a series of orchestrated installations all over the world.

Other street artists to make it big have not been so idealistic. Shepard Fairey (of Giant: Obey, and the famous – and later controversial – Obama HOPE poster) was always a guerrilla for hire. As far back as 2000 his company Black Market Inc. was offering up the stencil and the sticker to the likes of Pepsi, Hasbro and NBC. (PRINT May/June 2000)

What JR has shown, and what Women Are Heroes so clearly details, is that the concept of photography and gallery can be exploded to the point where exhibition space can be anything from a Parisian bridge to the boxcars of a Kenyan train. But maybe, if the gallery is the world, the only appropriate thing to do is hold up a mirror – showing just a few of the millions of women who quietly endure adversity to live life with determination and stoic heroism.

 
Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR Women Are Heroes JR

 

Disclosure – A copy of Women Are Heroes was purchased in a bookstore. All quotes from JR appear in his TED talk: JR’s TED Prize wish: Use art to turn the world inside out

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet Cover

 

 

Ballet
Alexey Brodovitch
Reissued by errata editions, 2011
$39.95

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

 

 

Tragedy can befall books just as it does people.

In 1956 a fire destroyed source material, negatives, prints, layouts and virtually everything that had gone into making Alexey Brodovitch’s first book of photography Ballet. With a perverse tenacity a second fire consumed the few remaining copies of the book in Brodovitch’s possession some years later.

What was lost to the flames was a completely individual work that stood well outside of the photographic tradition of the times. Or, as expressed by Christopher Phillips, Brodovitch’s photographs, “spat in the face of technique and pointed out a new way in which photographers could work.

Ballet was shot between 1935 and 1937. The first two years of the famous Farm Security Administration’s documentary photography project. The FSA employed the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to create what are now some of the most well known images in the history of photography.

But while Evans, Lange, and their colleagues were outside in the bright sun with professional equipment and the clear purpose of documenting the lives of the American dispossessed, Brodovitch was working in the gloomy backstage lighting of theatre halls with newly invented 35-mm film and a Contax camera. He had no lights other than stage lighting and he had slow film. He could barely hope to get a clear image. But, as it turns out, Brodovitch could do more with these shadows and luminous ghosts than most could do with their razor sharp imagery.

Alexey Brodovitch is best known as a masterful innovator and luminary of publication design. For 25 years he was the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, a position he used to rethink the relationship of image to text within the setting of the two-page spread. It could be argued that it was Brodovitch that gave us the magazine as we recognize it today. In 1933 he founded the legendary Design Laboratory, a nexus that, over the years, brought together such notables as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Lisette Model and, of course, Richard Avedon.

If one is familiar with Avedon’s work, Ballet provides the missing link between his hallmark portraits and his blurred, street work done in Italy during the 1940s, at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and in other environments where he abandoned his studio technique. Avedon’s work makes sense as someone working in a “Brodovitch” style. But when Brodovitch make his photos he was attempting something entirely new. As Edwin Denby states in his introduction to Ballet.

When you first glance at them Alexey Brodovitch’s photographs look strangely unconventional. Brodovitch, who knows as well as any of us the standardized Fifth Avenue kind of flawless prints, offers us as his own some that are blurred, distorted, too black and spectral, or too light and faded looking, and he has even intensified these qualities in the darkroom. [… ] What he took, what he watched for, it seems, were the unemphatic moments, the ones the audience does not applaud but establish the spell of the evening.

The Errata re-publication of Ballet is a very welcome book. It reproduces the pages of the original, yet it cannot really be considered a facsimile edition. In fact, the layout is somewhat awkward as the standardized size of Errata’s books is at odds with the dimensions of Ballet. One wonders what Brodovitch himself would have made of the new housing for his work. It is a minor complaint, however, as the text of the original has been re-set and included at the back. Also included are some of the only surviving contact sheets of Brodovitch’s 35mm negatives. The Errata eddition clearly communicates the genius of Brodovitch’s design and image manipulation.

It is worth noting that Errata editions were “… inspired by the frustration of not being able to access the content of many of the important photobooks the medium has produced. We find it distressing that these bookworks are no longer available to students or new generations of photographers.” Errata are dedicated to bringing out those volumes that will never be reissued in their original form.

Ballet was first published in 1945 by J. J. Augustin of New York. There were 104 photographs produced in the gravure style. The edition was 500. Additional information on the history of this influential book, including the quotes mentioned in this review, can be found in the Phaidon publication Alexey Brodovitch by Kerry William Purcell.

 

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Disclosure: A copy of this book was purchased online.