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The People of India

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

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 
 
 

 

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

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

 

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From Volume I “Mishimi Hill Tribe, Assam”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Volume I, Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar

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

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

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

3. Criminal Tribes Act. 1871

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Jimmy Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

Tim

Good Afternoon.

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

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

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

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

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

It would be my pleasure to reply to your review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

 But who decides what is authentic and how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kind Regards

Jimmy Nelson

 

 

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.

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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.

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

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

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… photography has become a household word and a household want; is used alike by art and science, by love, business, and justice; is found in the most sumptuous saloon, and in the dingiest attic—in the solitude of the Highland cottage, and in the glare of the London gin-palace—in the pocket of the detective, in the cell of the convict, in the folio of the painter and architect, among the papers and patterns of the millowner and manufacturer, and on the cold brave breast on the battle-field.

Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, from her 1857 essay on photography.

Richard Avedon - In the American West Cover

 

 

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

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Avedon Evidence

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

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

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

Billy Mudd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his introductory note Richard Koci Hernandez states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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