Photography is a marvelous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, an art that has excited the most astute minds—and one that can be practiced by any imbecile … Photographic theory can be taught in an hour, the basic technique in a day. But what cannot be taught is a feeling for light … It is how light lies on the face that you as artist must capture. Nor can one be taught how to grasp the personality of the sitter. To produce an intimate likeness rather than a banal portrait, the result of mere chance, you must put yourself at once in communication with the sitter, size up his thoughts and his very character.

Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon)

Quoted in the biography Nadar by Jean Prinet and Antoinette Dilasser

 

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

It really does allow my work to stay in … I would say, semi-anonymity. When I started, it was because graffiti is illegal – you get arrested. And then suddenly when I started pasting other people’s portraits on the street it was as if I was writting their name – so why would I put my name up? And then I guess I realized it became easier to stay in the shadow of the work.

JR interview with Kristie Lu Stout.

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

And at the same time, when something happens, you have to be extremely swift. Like an animal and a prey — vroom! You grasp it and people don’t notice that you have taken it. Very often in a different situation, you can take one picture. You cannot take two. Take a picture and look like a fool, look like a tourist. But if you take two, three pictures, you got trouble. It’s good training to know how far you can go. When the fruit is ripe, you have to pluck it. Quick! With no indulgence over yourself, but daring. I enjoy very much seeing a good photographer working. There’s an elegance, just like in a bullfight.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Living and Looking
from a recently discovered 1971 interview by Sheila Turner-Seed

Following the blurring of his first photographs Brodovitch might have turned to any vaiety of flash techniques, including Dr. Harold Edgerton’s recently introduced electronic flash, as did Barbara Morgan and Gjon Mili in their own dance photographs at this same time. But Brodovitch has no interest in arresting motion; he knew that the animal vitality and the suggestive power of the dancers’ movements were at the very heart of ballet’s unique stage atmosphere. In a leap of imagination, he suddenly saw the “mistakes” of his first photographs not as irredeemable defects, but as intriguing new possibilities. instead of eliminating them, he determined to push them even further.

Christopher Phillips
“Brodovitch on Ballet” American Photographer (December 1981).

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.

By the 1950s, Jones and his wife were still living in Lincolnshire with no electricity or running water. He was a Victorian outcast who could not reconcile himself to the realities of living in the modern age. His children were shocked to find that for many years he did not claim his rightful old age pension. Always a proud man, he considered it charity. He died at age 92 on November 15, 1959. These would be the salient events of a seemingly solid, unassuming, yet useful life except for a discovery made twenty-two years later.

Robert Flynn Johnson
Introduction to Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones

Charles Jones

 

Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones
The Outsider Genius Saved from Obscurity by Chance Discovery
Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson
Preface by Alice Waters
Thames and Hudson, 1998
$40.00

Reviewed by Alan Sirulnikoff

 
 

Charles Jones is so much an “outsider” that it is safe to say that virtually no one was aware of his passionate photographic pursuit until a chance discovery by Sean Sexton (a photographic historian and collector) who found a trunk of Jones’ prints at an English market in 1981. Through Sexton’s luck, we now have this eloquent record.

The images in the book are detailed with a warm hue — reproduced from the original gold-toned gelatin silver prints. None of the original glass-plate negatives are known to have survived. In fact, his grandchildren reported that near the end of his life, Jones used his glass-plate negatives in the garden to protect young plants.

Charles Jones, the son of a master butcher, was born in England in 1866. He trained as a gardener and took various positions on private estates in England. It is thought that a number of the prints featured in the book were probably made between 1895-1905.

Though not much is known about Jones or his formal photographic training (if any), he clearly had a ‘good eye’ and a thorough understanding of the technical side of photography. Sadly, there are no notes, diaries or writings to reveal his inner thoughts or what inspired him to produce such a superb portfolio of the plant world. This beautifully produced book, put together by Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson, is one that I gladly return to frequently.

Interestingly, Jones chose to pose most of his subjects against a variety of neutral backgrounds rather than within nature. Vegetables and fruits are lovingly displayed with great attention given to lighting and composition. For this very private man, these creations were a display of passion through the medium of photography.

Was Jones influenced by other photographers of the day? One of his contemporaries was Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). Blossfeldt’s hugely popular book Urformen der Kunst was published in 1928. However, where Blossfeldt believed that “the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure” Jones’ relationship appears to have been more intimate and personal.

Though I knew of Blossfeldt’s work, my own “chance discovery” of Charles Jones occurred in the renowned Portland bookstore, Powells, 14 years after the book was first published. Upon entering the art books section, “Plant Kingdoms” was one of the first books to catch my eye. I quickly became immersed in the images, the story, and the coincidence of finding this book at the same time as I was working on my own Still Life series.

Recently I attended an exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery by the contemporary photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. Naturally I was drawn to the still life images that were on display. An accompanying gallery description noted:

He observes the objects with deliberate slowness, treating figs, eggplants and lemons as he would people in his portraits, allowing them to gradually “reveal” themselves to him – a mere inanimate thing – a “nature morte” – becomes a “still life.

This description could equally apply to Charles Jones.

Jones’ images are often poetic; sensitive; and very finely composed. “Bean Runner” (pp. 26, 27) are two of many examples that exhibit a life beyond their simple title. Looking at Sugar Pea (p. 33), I can almost feel the leathery texture of the pods and the smooth pearl-like peas.

A memorable image will transport me or evoke lateral thinking. “Celery Standard Bearer” (p. 40) is one such example. A lone stock stands bound in front of a simple white background, creating the vision of a condemned man about to be executed. The adjacent photograph “Celery Wright’s White” (p. 41) — starkly lit against a dark background — exudes a tension and mood that extends far beyond its simple caption.

“Radish White Icicle” (p. 75) is a further example. Standing, seemingly balanced on their ‘toes’, the radishes huddle tightly together as if discussing an important secret. Are they discussing what an unusual and exceptional man is this Charles Jones?

Today we have endless and immediate options for inundating ourselves (and others) in a flood of often banal imagery. Jones clearly revered and contemplated his subjects and most surely loved the medium of photography.

Yet, so little is known about this man whose prints – since Sexton’s discovery of them – have been added to private and public collections and enjoyed a measure of fame: exhibited at The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musée de Elysée, Lausanne.

There is a joy in the mystery around Jones, especially in a time when we have become so used to having everything revealed with a simple click. Charles Jones died in Lincolnshire on November 15, 1959 at the age of 92. And though he may have taken most of his inner-most thoughts with him, he did leave a beautiful and poignant legacy for us to ponder.

charles_jones_01 charles_jones_02 charles_jones_03 charles_jones_04
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Alan Sirulnikoff is a photographer living in Gibsons, on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada. See his Still Life photographs here.

Pierre Gonnord

 

Pierre Gonnord
PHotoBolsillo
5.25 x 7, 112 pages, softcover
La Fabrica, 2012
$20.00

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

I have this funny thing which is that I’m never afraid when I’m looking in the ground glass. This person could be approaching with a gun or something like that and I’d have my eyes glued to the finder and it wasn’t like I was really vulnerable.

Diane Arbus

If Rembrandt were a photographer instead of a painter, and if he were drawn to the margins of society rather than to himself (and his other subjects) he might have produced works very much like those of Pierre Gonnord.

With their dark backgrounds and characteristic lighting, these images are sculpted with an exacting attention to detail. They are, in fact, so painterly that they invite the viewer closer, encouraging a careful examination of the shadows and highlights in an attempt to perceive their true nature. In the book the images are the size of a postcard and so it is easy to mistake them for paintings. In his exhibitions, Gonnord displays the images much larger than life – sometimes four feet high, and so I expect, the effect is quite different.

The subjects and the images are timeless. The clothing gives nothing away: an overcoat, perhaps a scarf; sometimes there is no clothing, only a naked shoulder.

The portrayed are European punks, transients from Eastern Europe, Venetian Jews, Spanish and Portuguese peasants, Japanese geisha and yakuza, the Gypsies of Seville … There is beauty and there is a brutality – often combined in the same face.

I choose my contemporaries in the anonymity of the big cities because their faces, under the skin, narrate unique, remarkable stories about our era. Sometimes hostile or distant, almost always fragile behind the opacity of their masks, they represent specific social realities and another concept of beauty. I also try to approach the unclassifiable, timeless individual, to suggest things that have been repeated over and over since time began.

Born in France in 1963, Gonnord moved to Spain in his twenties and taught himself photography. He has been widely exhibited in Europe and in 2012 the French Consulate in Atlanta invited him to complete a residency and a series of photographs, using local American southerners as his subjects.

In the essay, “A New Perception of the Real” by Lorena Martinez de Corral (which accompanies the volume) Gonnord states:

The camera has been like a lifejacket for me, an opportunity to go towards the rest, to approach the Other, to overcome the limits of my shyness, of my loneliness, of my condition and also my taboos.

This sentiment is the echo of Diane Arbus’s relationship to her subjects, but where Arbus was uninterested in technical finesse, Gonnord has clearly perfected not only the art of photography but the painterly use of lighting to convey a specific conception of portraiture.

PHotoBolsillo publishes a series of monographs on “the most important Spanish photographers” in an “instructive yet readable format.” The books are similar to the popular Photo Poche series started by the Centre National de la Photographie in 1982 (and brought into the English-speaking world in 1989 by Thames and Hudson under the title Photofile).

Despite the PHotoBolsillo motto, the English translation of Lorena Martinez de Corral’s essay is not very readable, it is, in fact, awkward and a little painful. A minor complaint, and the only one I could make in the light of the pristine nature of the rest of this book.

The tiny volume on Pierre Gonnord is an excellent introduction to a masterful and provocative photographer.

 

Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review
Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review

Disclosure: A copy of Pierre Gonnord was purchased online.

Patrick Faigenbaum
Vancouver Art Gallery
March 9 – June 2, 2013
Co-curated by director Kathleen S. Bartels and artist Jeff Wall.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

Patrick Faigenbaum, Famille Frescobaldi, Florence, 1984—2010 silver chlorobromide print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Famille Frescobaldi, Florence, 1984—2010
silver chlorobromide print

On a rainy evening half-way through May, I walked to the Vancouver Art Gallery and took in the exhibition of Parisian photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. As I entered the gallery, there was a portrait visible from the main floor rotunda of the gallery. I am unable to resist an exhibition that works with the human face, and portraits comprise a major portion of Faigenbaum’s photographic practice. He is perhaps best known for a series of black and white group photos of the Italian aristocracy. Some are nothing but shades of dark grey, as if the light of the modern world could not penetrate the dusk of generations of family affluence.

The exhibit is co-curated by Jeff Wall, most famous of the “Vancouver School” photographers. But Wall also has an academic background in the arts – as assistant professor (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), and associate professor (Simon Fraser University). His writing and teaching helped define the “Vancouver School” and positioned a number of his peers (Vikky Alexander, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham) within it.

The works of Faigenbaum comprise the fourth exhibition in this series intended to introduce internationally acclaimed artists to a North American audience. The curatorial text positioned at the entrance to the exhibition said as much, and I would repeatedly encounter the term “international acclaim” in relation to these portraits of Italian bluebloods. What I would not encounter was the explanation of the acclaim. Was it just the difficulty in gaining access to them? What made these different from any other family portrait? The wealth that adorned the end tables? I found that the pictures had begun to be treated like the idea of aristocracy itself. It was all in the adjective: one should feel a certain privilege simply to be in their presence. However, many of these family group sittings have a casual, almost careless composition and I found neither narrative nor poignancy in them. Which is odd given the months of planning necessary to set up the shoots. It is also peculiar given the prominence of this series in Faigenbaum’s oeuvre.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Citrons, Santulussurgiu [Lemons, Santulussurgiu], 2006 silver chromogenic print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Citrons, Santulussurgiu [Lemons, Santulussurgiu], 2006
silver chromogenic print

Faigenbaum’s still life photographs recall his early ambitions as a painter. Curators and critics have also been quick to point out a painterly approach in his portraiture: “Faigenbaum’s use of chiaroscuro—strongly contrasting passages of light and dark—places him in a line of “old masters”, from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to Georges de La Tour to Rembrandt van Rijn.” (Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight). As with a sitting in front of an artist working in traditional media, Faigenbaum likes to take an extended period of time in order to let a feeling of quiet and calm develop. This feeling is evident in his strongest works.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Dr. Karel Černý, Prague, 1994 silver chlorobromide print Collection of Marin Karmitz, Paris

Patrick Faigenbaum, Dr. Karel Černý, Prague, 1994
silver chlorobromide print

It is also the feeling that is conspicuously absent in Faigenbaum’s street scenes. The shift from portraiture is not just a shift in content, it is a disconcerting change in approach and style leaving one feeling that one has missed something. Indeed, we have missed something, the shift from the aesthetic-based portraits to the “conceptual art” basis of his other works. Yet this transition goes unannounced, despite the fact that co-curator Jeff Wall is arguably the best person to make such an announcement.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Avenue Vinohradská, Prague, 1994 silver chlorobromide print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Avenue Vinohradská, Prague, 1994
silver chlorobromide print

In the world of contemporary photography some images are so distinctive that only one person could have made them. The majority of Faigenbaum’s work seems almost unauthored, as if it could have been made by anyone. There is no signature lighting, no angle, no mood, no vision or subject matter to identify his genius.

I stood in an exhibition of photographs that were part quotidian street scenes and part formal sittings. I faced a large wall that held only one image. It depicted two people sitting at a restaurant table, their faces blackened by deep shadows, the table held general daily clutter, it could have been there, it could have not been there: a carton of cigarettes and a lighter; detritus. With the faces obscured and the visible content mundane, I asked myself why this image was hanging here.

The gallery copy tells me that “Patrick Faigenbaum creates a compelling ambience that isolates a moment outside the incessant flow of time, prompting the viewer to acknowledge the impossibility of fully understanding the complex narratives that extend beyond each image.” Yes, but what of the narrative within the image?

In a review by Shawn Connor of the Vancouver Sun, Faigenbaum mentions being drawn to photograph in Prague, citing an affinity for one of his favourite authors, Franz Kafka. “It’s this strangeness,” Faigenbaum said. “I always think about this when I look at my work: why is this going on?”

I could not reconcile the often beautifully still portraits with the other images in the exhibit. I could not answer “why is this going on?” And so I left the exhibit moved by the stillness of his portraits, and joyous before his lemons, but ultimately disappointed: with an inexplicable feeling that the artist’s best work (or some information vital to the understanding of his imagery) had been held back.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Hanane Ksouri, Saint-Raphaël, 1999 silver chromogenic print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Hanane Ksouri, Saint-Raphaël, 1999
silver chromogenic print

References:

An Interview with Jeff Wall on Patrick Faigenbaum
by Here and Elsewhere
March 5th, 2013

Patrick Faigenbaum brings the flavours of Europe to the Vancouver Art Gallery: Painter-turned-photographer captures stately portraits of aristocrats, lively street scenes
by Shawn Connor, The Vancouver Sun
March 8th, 2013

Patrick Faigenbaum’s photographs place him in line with “old masters”
by Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight
March 12, 2013

In the 19th century, the portrait resembled a small, private stage play. The subject of the portrait got ready, dressed appropriately, and set off the photographer’s. Once there, he entered the studio — which, with its plethora of props and necessary items such as chairs, armchairs, drapes, pictures and statuettes was reminiscent of a small stage — and was fitted into this grid of accessories. The background and furnishings were chosen, the pose and attitude rehearsed — “Wouldn’t you like to be holding a book in your hands?” — and finally the lighting was set up.

Urs Stahel
Afterwards: “After the climax” as a focal element in Rineke Dijkstra’a portrait photography

Fazal Sheikh

 

Portraits
Fazal Sheikh
6.75 x 8.25, 304 pages, hardcover
Steidl, 2011
$65.00

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

A portrait almost always carries the weight of a story behind it. That is, I think, what separates the successful portrait from the others. It might even be what separates a portrait from a mere image (if we are talking about photography) or a portrait from a mere likeness (if we are speaking about painting or illustration). A successful portrait has a story and a voice that speaks through the image, wanting to tell it.

The story behind the portraits of Fazal Sheikh is one of displacement and dispossession. It is not a pleasant story, for human nature is often unrelenting in its violence. Conflict can destroy the very landscape, and where there is no habitation the local population will become refugees. Once driven from their homeland the migrants will loose what little entitlement they may have had.

But this is not really the story behind the portraits, rather it is the circumstance under which the portraits have been made. The story, that weight of narrative that rests behind the image, is much more personal. It is, we suspect, much more profound, terrifying, and tragic than could be expressed in words. Yet despite the circumstance of the portraits and the stories behind them, these are humane pictures. There is a kindness in them, almost a tenderness, and a sense that even in the face of hopelessness there is a fundamental human dignity. There is respect and, evidently, a collaboration between the subject and photographer to tell a story. Some of the photographs are quite beautiful. Many convey a disconcerting intimacy.

Each of the portraits is accompanied by a short text. Sometimes it is just a name and location and sometimes it is a more complete story— the result of interviews conducted by Sheikh.

The book follows Sheikhs work over almost twenty years. He first visited a series of Kenyan refugee camps in 1992. The camps were set up to accommodate those fleeing wars in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. There were additional camps in Malawi due to the war in Mozambique and after the genocide in Rwanda large refugee camps were set up in Tanzania. The text in Sheikh’s early book A Sense of Common Ground (Scalo 1996) explains the origins of his method of working:

Fazal Sheikh worked among these refugee communities and began to learn about their experiences. It was here that he first witnessed the lightning visits of international photojournalists, who grabbed their stories and left in less than 24 hours. ‘I remembered watching them working and feeling a sense of unease, an inability to follow along and make the expected photographs,’ he said later. He decided to remain in the camps for extended periods, asking the elders for permission to invite their people to sit for a portrait. The portraits he made in those first months in Kenya established a way of working that has remained fundamentally the same ever since: a simple, direct, respectful rendering of one person, or a group, in front of the camera.

In addition to Sheikh’s photographs, Portraits also contains the essay “Trees, Hands, Stars, and Veils: The Portrait in Ruins” by the eminent Princeton scholar Eduardo Cadava. An Associate Member of the Department of Comparative Literature and a teacher in Princeton’s English Department, Cadava is also the author of Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History and the editor of Cities Without Citizens. He is on familiar territory with Sheikh’s photographs and at the outset he sets up the fundamental crisis in human rights that underpins the book:

The crisis within human rights arises from the fact that, with the appearance of the refugee, the presumably sacred and inalienable rights of man are shown to be entirely alienable, to lack any protection or reality at the very moment in which they can no longer be understood as rights belonging to citizens of a state, or to members of a particular political community. In other words, it is precisely when the non-citizen appears, when the human is divorced from citizenship (even if it citizenship itself that often defines the human) or forced to move from the place that grants him or her citizenship, that rights are lost.

Cadava also provides an introduction to Sheikhs work, giving the scope and location of his various projects over time. Yet the rest of Cadava’s essay seems uneven. His contemplation and reading of the photographs, presented in the style of an academic essay, is at odds with the direct simplicity of the photos themselves. I welcome the political and historic context, but I cannot help but imagine that the subjects would have little use for such erudite prose with its emphasis on (for example) the postmodern tussle between “the multiplication and proliferation of the archival traces which simultaneously constitute and deconstitute her face …”

One passage in particular troubled me, even after repeated readings:

What is at stake in the encounter with Sheikh’s photographs is not simply the possibility of seeing and understanding what cannot be seen directly within them but also the necessity of bearing witness to what history has silenced or sought to conceal (which nevertheless has left its traces on their surfaces), to what, arising from the days and nights of memory that are inscribed within them, haunts us, and encourages us to think about the loss and dispossession for which we remain, still today, responsible.

It seems to me that what is at stake with Sheikh’s photographs is not the amorphous agency of history, nor a tenuous culpability that can be attributed to the reader, but rather a notion of dignity and perseverance. What is at stake is this: in spite of the inventiveness of human cruelty and the caprice of fate, the dispossessed do have an identity. They have a name, and a face, and through these portraits they have a story.

 

20130514_109_TM

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Disclosure: A copy of Portraits was purchased in a bookstore.