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.

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).