I still find myself being fascinated by how the mediums of painting and photography co-mingle. Portraiture is where things really get interesting. I am drawn to photographic portraits that capture an expression on a person’s face or that seem to represent something about the subject’s personality. I like the idea of portraying the unique sensibilities of human beings. Of course their are many other types of photo portraits, but I like those in which I feel some connection with the subject. Painting ,with the advent of photography, largely abandoned portraits which attempted to realistically capture a person on the canvas. Now there seems to be a return to the painted portrait, but they are largely influenced by the photograph. Which makes for some very compelling work. I found this painter’s work recently, Frank Bauer, and it caught my attention. I quite like the nuance of the moment and the expression he has captured. The male gaze is largely absent from these images, the artist is giving these women a voice in the paintings. The history western painting does not have such a good record in the representation of women. Bauer has women who are not fantasies nor are they repulsive. They are women with unique personalities which are evident despite the similarity of their surrounding. My first body of work, was portraits of women, where I also attempted to subvert the male gaze, by allowing the women to photograph themselves after I set up the camera. Or to attempt to create an image which would not be about what they looked like. It is nice to see an artist confronting this issue. I think it is an important and difficult challenge for art makers.
Have you ever had a photo idea milling around in your head for a while, or done some preliminary shooting but have not quite gotten it right yet, only to step in to a gallery or open a magazine and see your idea realized by somebody else. So goes the world of photography. Sometimes you get beat to the punch. I shot a lot of stuff at salons and spas when I began my project, but it was during my technical training wheels period, while I learned 4×5. I have been planning to re-visit some of the sites to re-shoot. But low and behold, I opened up my NYMag this week and Elinor Carucci had a picture that has been in my mind for 2 years. And it was good! Damn her!
While the pictures are un-mistakenly her style and are designed to capture a very different mood, it brings up an interesting question. How do you deal with originality in photography? Is it enough to shoot with your ‘eye’ and apply it to any subject matter, even if it has been covered by someone else, or do you need fresh subjects? Or do you need to be innovative in your form & content. The current NY Times review of New Photography 2007 at the MoMA brought up this question. The review mentions what is a fantastic show of work from the permanent collection, which you must past through on the way to New Photography. The reviewer was at first confused and thought the Stieglitz & Co was the exhibit, only to be disappointed upon seeing the derivative nature of the newer work.
A consistently strong point of the “New Photography” series, including this edition, has been the international array of artists. But so far it has been weak in showcasing new developments and contextualizing contemporary photography within the collection, which helps explain the jarring transition from Stieglitz & Company to the current crop. You hate to be the spoiler, the insatiable art viewer constantly demanding that rush of something new. But when a show is called “New Photography 2007,” you feel within your rights.
In many ways I very much agree with Martha Schwendener, a lot of photography out there is uninspiring. While the work featured in the retrospective show really captured the pioneering and creative spirit of photography, much of the new work out there seems like a retread, of a retread of someone else’s image. The interesting question is why is photography recycling itself so much right now or focusing on process-driven work. I have a hunch that it the evolution of photography from an emerging art form into an institutionalized art is at fault. When most young photographers are going to the same 2 or 3 schools, get MFA’s and then work as assistants to established artists, is it a surprise that their work suffers from the weight of the photo cannon. I think it is unfair in a way to expect them to transform the medium, but perhaps photography will only start to grow when it is free from the art market and education system that is currently sustaining it. I often feel hindered before shooting, that I must deliver a fully realized project at bat, but maybe it is the willingness to fail that makes art move forward. We are not in a culture that embraces failure, but rather feeds on success.
In the midst of this confusion on original vs. referenced art, Tanyth’s Berkley’s employing the Arbus method of capturing societies outsider’s I think can be seen as an update on who is considered a “freak” in our current culture. While in Arbus’s time, she sought out people who were outside society by choice or by dramatic mental or physical difference, Berkley photographs people who our outside the current standard of beauty. Why I am personally uncomfortable sometimes with how her photographs make people even more ‘freak-like” I think she is trying to show the viewer their own prejudices about physical appearance. Much in the same way Peter Hujar made people confront their feelings about gay culture and lifestyle in the 70’s and early 80’s. And in that context, her referencing of Arbus makes sense.
I stopped by Gallery 303 over the holiday weekend along with a few other galleries to catch up on the Chelsea scene. I was not disappointed with Lynne Cohen’s show. Her work is complicated, yet her images are formally quite simple. And it was nice to see small, black and white images on the wall. There were a few large prints, but I was not quite sure why the particular images were blown up. It is an interesting question for an artist, what is the right size for an image. It is something I am currently grappling with. Some images do need to be big, while other are better small. Some work is great at any size. I guess it is more about how you want the viewer to experience the image. Thomas Demand’s show is very much about perception, but in another way. The images are large, in order for the viewer to see the detail of the paper recreations of the subjects. If they were printed smaller, it would be more difficult to see that there is something not quite right. The resulting images are unsettling. They do not quite look like photographs, nor do they look like anything else. The subject of the exhibit is the political obfuscation that was used as justification for the Iraq war. This is really a concept that cannot easily be photographed, so Demand re-created ‘scene of the crime.’
Yellowcake consists of a series of 9 photographs about the location where this story, and its ‘smoking gun’ originated. Adding further intrigue to this saga, is the consideration that there has never been any photographic documentation that could illustrate these events and news as they came to light — no one had gained access to Niger’s Embassy in Rome. For Yellowcake, Demand –who has traditionally based his practice on existent imagery – had to access the source site on his own. Demand entered the apartment-cum-embassy and conversed with the embassy staff, and through these visits and interactions built his own memory of the place. Based on these recollections, Demand reconstructed the embassy site in his studio in order to create the images that make up Yellowcake.
The photographs are rather beautiful to look at, and I think it is an important subject. We expect the documentary photograph to portray the ‘truth’ in the same way we expect our President to tell the truth, but by creating these fiction/truths Demand is questioning the both of these cultural assumptions. Perhaps we are so jaded, that we have moved past the idea of actual truth, the only truth can be found where there is no pretense of it. These are very interesting ideas, but Demand creates such a distance between the event and his interpretation of it, that my reaction was 100% intellectual. In the current American political situation, it seems like work that provokes people’s hearts and minds is needed. We are rarely driven to take action from our intellect, which is unfortunate but true. But I do respect him and the intelligence of his work. And I think creating imaginary ‘documents’ is probably a closer representation of the ‘reality’ inside the current administration then any straight photograph could capture.
William Eggelston to me, captures the magic, i.e. the suburban travails of the Holiday season better than anyone. While his pictures are not expressly about being home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, they somehow represent the experience. So I would like to say thanks to Mr. Eggelston and let’s all try find some irony & humor in our upcoming family scenarios, whether you will fight over the last piece of pumpkin pie or why Daddy loves your sister more than you, or how you have never forgiven your parents for not giving you a Ken doll on your 8th birthday. My divorced parents have spent all of their Holiday’s together so I am very familiar with ‘holiday horror shows.’ What makes his work so great is that he makes the insanity of suburban life seem normal. So we all revert to our 8 year old selves once or twice a year, at least now we can have some alcohol make it all go by in a haze. In Eggelston’s case perhaps this has not worked out so well. But despite the critique in his photos, their is an underlying love. And I think we can all relate to that.
I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for their comments and encouraging words. I am very committed to my work, but I guess still trying to develop a confident voice. By that I mean, to discover the best method to communicate my ideas. It is easy to get caught up in the conceptual, but it is more important to be willing to fall flat on your face and take risks. I think it is time for me to do more of that. Whether people like 100% of what I do is not important. How the work helps me grow in my ability to express myself is much more valuable.
And a special thanks to Christian Harkness for passing on this quote from a painter:
He was asked for his definition of a successful artist and he said something like this, ‘any artist who is doing what he wants to do is a successful artist.’
I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.
Also, a word about an artist who absolutely has everything together. Lynne Cohen has a retrospective up at Hasted Hunt Gallery. I remember vividly after I started my beauty project, when my photo teacher Joel Sternfeld, first showed me her work. I did not take a picture for a month afterward. She not only has an incredible visual sense, her work has political and conceptual depth. But there is subtly and beauty in all her images. I am so happy to see her getting some attention. I often find it strange that she does not have more of a presence in the photo cannon. If you are in NYC, I highly recommend you go. She is one of my photo inspirations.
HASTED HUNT Gallery
529 West 20th Street, 3rd Floor
New York, New York 10011
11 AM – 6 PM Tuesday – Saturday
I had to take a break from blogging to clear my head a bit. I have been trying not to get disheartened with the whole trying to get my work out there process. All of the support I have gotten online has helped – so thank you to everyone who has sent a kind word my way. I think it is more difficult when your work is very personal. When I began my project, I started with spas, hair salons and places that represented ‘beauty seeking.’ But as it progressed, it became clear that the plastic surgery offices best represented the level of pain at the source of female self-hatred that I was interested in finding. This self-hatred can manifest in many forms, it can be mild to severe. It is reflected in the sheer number of women with eating disorders and who have accrued terrible debt to get the clothes, shoes, beauty products, that might help them feel less inadequate. There is instant online financing for plastic surgery, you just click on a button on The American Society of Plastic Surgeon’s website and you can borrow perfection. For me, the machines and chairs represent the enormous pain I have inflicted on myself and the endless pursuit to be “good enough.” Much of my life has revolved around these pursuits and they left their mark. By making these photographs, I have an outlet to fight the thoughts and beliefs that hinder me. And more importantly to find value in myself for more than what I look like. Models & actresses are held up to women as the cultural ideal of female beauty. They have to struggle to achieve the perfection expected of them. But I am sure they many of these beautiful women, would like to be appreciated for more than their looks. It does not surprise me that many former models have stepped behind the lens: Lee Miller, Tierney Gearon, Helena Christensen, & Ellen Von Unwerth.
So in the midst of my own dark thoughts, yesterday I had a conversation with another photographer about galleries and success and I realized that the ‘why’ of my work is what is most important. If I focus on the other stuff, I lose sight of why photography has changed my life. Taking pictures and exploring the places & things that scare me is where I find freedom. If one person gains a better understanding of what it’s like inside the mind of a women struggling with body issues, then it is worth it. This is why I am somewhat disappointed by the current trend towards ‘process’ driven art. Work that uses process to stand in for something else can be very powerful, but to me a lot of stuff seems empty and more about style. The same way much of the big color typology trend does. Or the work is so personal to the artist that it is inaccessible to the viewer. Perhaps my work is not formally groundbreaking, but I don’t believe that work that is psychological and a reflection of its time should ever be dismissed. There should be room for different types of expression. Yes, the large repetitive print model has been overused. But in a world where women are being given the same large circular breasts, and equally plumped lips, straight and narrow hips and thighs, is it a surprise that the artists have also employed this form. So, I am going to embark on making more work, and try not to feel so negative about the state of photography. Like anything else, what is one day scorned is someday praised.
All right I am not ashamed to admit it, I want to be ‘found’ – don’t we all? Why else we go through the horror of making promos, websites, calling strangers, etc, and risking rejection, humiliation and criticism. So I want my work to be discovered. That’s right – I am saying out loud. So thank you A Photo Editor for making me come out and ask. I see you have added a new device for people to upload links to their sites. I fear you be so inundated with links that you will have stopped looking by tomorrow. But I am posting some of my commissioned work on the blog, and I guess I will start putting of more of my own work. I just don’t want it to become the All About Me & Pictures blog, I kind of hate those. But I hope you take a look. And yes, feel free to tell your friends, you know the ones who also hire photogs.
November 14th, 2007 There is nothing better in this business than finding and hiring new talent and getting back an amazing shoot. Nothing. Conversely there’s nothing worse than a failed shoot from someone you just hired for the first time. Ahhhhhh the highs and the lows. I probably hire 2-8 new peopleevery issue… whaaaaaaaaaa, 2-8 N.E.W.? That’s right people, a regular shooter gets 2-4 assignments a year, that’s just how I roll. The proces or finding someone new can get a little “CSI.” The method that requires the least amount of effort is to poach someone from a magazine I respect. That’s too easy, so if I really want to earn my paycheck I put together a case based on available evidence that tells me if a photographer is able to deliver the results I’m looking for. It all starts the first time I see a photograph I like taken by someone I’ve never heard of (this is actually somewhat rare). I write the name down on my list and begin collecting evidence. A name can go on the list and it could be years before I’ve built enough evidence or found the right project that triggers an assignment so there’s a lot of names in various stages of case building.
Hey I am all for an editor who will look at my work and pay me money to do what I love