Archive

Review

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.

winters_01

winters_02

winters_03

winters_04

winters_05

winters_06

winters_07

winters_08

winters_09

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

 
 Richard Avedon - In the American West West_02 West_03 West_04 West_05 West_06 West_07 West_08 West_09 West_10 West_11

HP_FOC_1-285x285

 

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

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his introductory note Richard Koci Hernandez states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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