There's a great comment thread going on over at Alex Soth's blog regarding the Jeff Wall profile in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. I suspect this piece is going to stir up a lot of conversation. The comments are even leaking over into my blog (thanks Mike).
It’s official. Big productions, casts of dozens, staged scenarios, the photographer as director—this is what fine art photography is now. The New York Times says so, in two features on photographers, one on Jeff Wall, which is the cover story of today’s NYT Magazine, the other on Justine Kurland in the Arts section.
You could take meaning from Wall’s work in two ways. One, considering his background in art history, is that his work is grounded in the messages and reach of the great historical epochs of painting, and he has been a major figure in catapaulting photography to major league status in the art world. The other, less charitable view, is how urgent it is for an ambitious artist to be attentive to current thinking in art theory and criticism, and to swim with the current. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Wall’s work, which I think is remarkable, mostly, it’s aimed at the Dusseldorf movement imitators and the Gregory Crewdson wannabes. There seems a lot of self-consciously ponderous, highly produced, didactic imagery out there.
The other artist anointed by the NYT is Justine Kurland in a fetchingly titled piece, "So They All Get Naked and Play, Like Mom Did." Not surprisingly, she’s a former Crewdson assistant, though the fantasy life she creates for her photographs is a lot more appealing than his. Crewdson photographs scenarios of alienation and despair. She puts tribes of naked women in the wilderness. The work is consciously referential to landscape and genre painting of the 18th and 19th century.
I am of at least two minds, maybe more, about these developments in the photography art world. It seems like a kind of return to the Pictorialist era of the turn of the last century, where photography tried to shoehorn its way into the art canon by imitating the art that was already there. Yet I applaud work that is, at the least, informed by art history and has an urgent, contemporary meaning. But the trends are not looking good for the work I do—deeply grounded in an earlier era, the mid 20th century, primarily about the photographic encounter with the world as it is found, and exhibiting an individual vision from that encounter. This is old school formalism, and it is way out of style. So says the New York Times. Oh well. Hasn’t stopped me yet.
I’m driving to the airport, waiting at a downtown stop light. A silhouette in the air catches my eye—not a pigeon, says the piece of my brain that registers such things. Quick, steady wingbeats, long tail, round wings, and tiny: a Sharp-shinned Hawk. It wheels around and passes over me again, level with the roofline of the 10 story buildings. I crane my head to look up through the windshield. The light has gone green, and the driver behind me patiently waits for me to gather my wits and move along. Were this New York and not Baltimore I would have unleashed an orchestra of horns behind me.
An hour later, and I’m waiting for my connection. The sandwich shop in the Newark airport has as its ambient soundtrack a kind of music I can describe only as "Grey’s Anatomy" style: plaintive, repetitive lyrics about loss and yearn, in a mellow minor key, backed by piano, suggestive of meaningful looks of ambivalence in the characters’ eyes during the closing minutes of the episode. It seems to be the common music of public spaces these days.
Darn. It used to be that you could cop a free wireless signal outside the Continental President’s Club on Concourse C. No more. Now it costs $8 to log on through Boingo, anywhere in the airport. Regarding wireless I turn into one of those obnoxious computer libertarian types who think all content and access should be free. Of course, they seem to avoid considering how the content providers (I’m one of them) get paid or how the infrastructure gets built. But dammit, $8 to check my email and post a blog entry is too much.
I started this post about birds because it seems indicative of a necessary quality for a creative professional. The work doesn’t cease when you’re off the client’s nickel. What I bring to bear that my clients value is a depth of attention and the ability to respond instantly to what I see. You don’t turn that on or off—it needs to be cultivated. My birding is probably symptomatic of that attentiveness—no matter what else I am doing, if I am outdoors I am noting what bird sounds I’m hearing, or what is flying by, and identifying it. Walking across Mt St Mary’s University the other day with my minder, I mentioned how her campus is full of Downy Woodpeckers. I’d heard a dozen of them that morning, and seen several. "What? You’re kidding! We have woodpeckers?"
Right now I have an hour in Newark before I board my flight home. I need a Daily Photo—maybe it’s here. Or perhaps I’ll see something on the flight. At any rate, it’s a useful motivator to keep my eyes open.
Here are some photo tips for travel that I’ve gleaned over the years.
The best camera bags are from Think Tank Photo. I’ve been using their Speed Freak bag, with two modular belt pouches. For travel I can stuff two Canon 5D bodies with lenses attached (70-200 and 24-105), a 16-35mm, a 15mm Fisheye, and two Speedlights. It’s really too tight a fit to keep both bodies in the bag, and I’m going to try the next size up, the Speed Racer. The extra pouches and like on the bags make total sense, and I’ve never owned a bag so compact and comfortable. Robin regularly pokes fun at me regarding all the camera bags I own, but this is the brand I have finally made a long term commitment to.
There are a variety of wallets out there to hold your compact flash cards. Most of them have too much Velcro for my taste, and are hard to open when you need to get to a card fast. My favorite is the Lowepro wallet because it zips. It is important to replace these wallets when the card slots begin to stretch, as the cards can fall out.
I have all my cards numbered, and I use them in sequence. I have 20 cards, ranging from 4 to 1 gb. I’ve yet to fill them all in a day, but I’ve come close. When a card is full, I turn it over in the wallet (an assistant pointed out to me that I flip my cards in the reverse way than every other photographer she works for. How was I to know? I just made it up.) Lately I’ve taken to keeping the cards for each camera body in separate wallets so I know which card came from which camera. I also have the wallets tethered to the camera bag.
How do I know which camera body is which? One has a patch of gaffer tape on the prism.
I do not clear my cards until I have the data transferred to my computer, as well as to two external back-up drives. When the images are in three different places, then I format the cards. If it’s a multi-client assignment, I’ll burn DVDs between jobs and FedEx them home, just in case.
I have just learned that, if you travel with more than one camera, you should bring more than one battery charger. Getting up in the middle of the night to change batteries so that they’re all charged for the next day is a drag. Double check that the outlet you’ve plugged in your charger is not a switched outlet. A lot of hotel rooms turn off the wall outlets when you turn off the light switch by the door. The bathroom outlet is usually the best bet, but I’ve been stung there too.
A power strip can be a good idea to bring along. Stick in a couple of 3 to 2 prong adapters in it—they can be useful to stack battery chargers and other DC converters that take up all that real estate on the strip.
Join AAA. Most motels give you a discount, and you can stop in any office and pick up free maps. You go through a lot of maps on a trip.
Get to bed early, and eat a big breakfast. Talk to your spouse at least once a day, preferably more often. Up the minutes on your phone plan before you go. Let them know how excited you are, and let them talk about their day. It really helps reduce the re-entry conflict. But know that you’re going to have it.
I'm snowbound in Williamstown, MA, which is hardly a disaster. I'm not stuck at an airport, and I don't have to be anywhere until Monday, I can hole up in my room and work on files, and take breaks and wander through this winter wonderland of the foot and a half snowfall that has closed the roads leading out of town.
I'm on another tri-college tour, first Barnard, now Williams College (which is delighted to get snow scenes to scare off their California applicants), next Mt. St.Mary's in Maryland. Robin and I have exchanged gushy emails and cards today (mine I left with a Do Not Open Until Feb 14 note). Her's concludes with a reference to a favorite New Yorker cartoon ("Sure, what the hell, I''ll take a little more marriage.") that is on our fridge: "So after deep consideration I've come to the conclusion that we should have some more marriage. What d'ya think?"
I have a new post on Art and Perception, for which I am a contributing writer. It's about my "Stick Pictures" process. I try to not double-post, so that there is fresh content for readers who hit both sites. A&P is a very active site, and worth bookmarking if you are interested in the process of artmaking.
The Chelsea gallery guide lists 248 art galleries. Most of them are in an 8 block stretch between 10th and 11th Avenues. Despite this density (or, more accurately, because of it), it is impossible to get more than a glimpse of the contemporary New York art scene.
There is such a wide variety of art in these buildings that it is easy to find work you hate, as well as work you love. I used the scanning methodology that I use in museums to guide me—if I saw something through an open door that drew me, I let myself be drawn in. If what I saw repelled me, I didn’t stick around to find out why.
Despite this tactic, some of the best work was around the corner and in the back of the back room. At George Billis, out of sight from the front, were precious, elegant paintings on sculptures by Russ Harvard, of the East Texas forests in winter; it was the best stuff in the place. In the back of Phoenix was a show of small works from the Textile Study Group of New York, completely delightful.
In the front of Nancy Margolis is a great set of porcelain sculptures by Soo Kuo Yuh. Whimsical German expressionism meets a kiln, if that could make any kind of sense. They’re at first delightful, then a little creepy, then you see the virtuosity.
Much of the work I saw was high concept, completely cerebral, or took itself way too seriously. The antidote to this was a hilarious send up of pharmaceutical advertisements at Daneyal Mahmood, by Justine Cooper. It’s a series of print and broadcast commercials for an imaginary drug, Havidol, tagline, "When More is Not Enough." More at havidol.com.
Regarding photography, it is not news that the most interesting work these days is coming out of China. I saw two shows from Chinese photographers, heavy on conceptual attitude, but with tremendous aesthetic appeal and really interesting ideas. Check out the 798 Avant Gallery site.
My one target in Chelsea was the Henry Wessel show at Robert Mann. Wessel is one of my photography heros, and he had a big impact on my sensibility when I took a workshop from him in 1977. There’s a second group of his work around the corner at Charles Cowles. Not only is he a master formalist, his best work often has the cool irony of Elliott Erwitt with the rigor of a Paul Strand. Seeing the prints live, I realized he is working in a dynamic range that digital cannot begin to capture. His prints have detail from the deep shadow of an entryway to the white stucco sunlit wall. Maybe in my lifetime there will be a digital equivalent to Tri-X, but don’t count on it.
My companion for the afternoon, Josh Wand, turned me on to a great lunch spot for when your feet get weary: the Half King at 10th and 23rd. Check it out when you’re in the neighborhood.
I seem to find myself at the Whitney Museum every time I’m in New York. I should think about a membership—it would probably save me money. It is sized to the perfect scale for a museum, big enough to carry a substantial presence, but small enough for me to take it all in with a single gulp.
On the Modernist floor my eye was drawn to an unusual landscape by George Bellows, whom you probably know from his monumental boxing ring paintings. It was a winter landscape, river, hill on the opposite bank, trees, but done in a way that flickered between a document of a felt scene and the abstract expressionists that were to follow 20 years hence. Marsden Hartley does the same thing to me, holding both attibutes of paint-as-window, paint-as-paint in equal tension. Seeing the Edward Hopper work in the flesh reminded me again that he is not the illustrator we think he is from the ubiquitous posters, but a complex and rigorous painter. At scale you see the six or more colors, separate brushstrokes, that he uses to make a skin tone.
I hiked to the Whitney across Central Park, after first taking the 1 line to the approximate latitude. Here was a veritable "stick picture" wilderness surrounding frozen lakes within which I framed Minor White lookalike images. The birds were abundant, and I regretted that my binoculars were in my camera bag, which was in my hotel room closet, and not on my shoulder. The sparrow flocks were White-throated, not House, a Red-bellied Woodpecker flew into a nearby tree, and crested Cardinals and Tufted Titmice sang and flitted, respectively. I came across another photographer, with an ancient 4x5 Crown Graflex on a fat Gitzo tripod, and taping closed his exposed film holders. "Two days ago I was here, and the ice was grayer and more even, without the sheen it had this morning." Someone else using a camera to deepen his attention to a place.
It’s an acronym I have heard used here, and it stands for Strong, Beautiful, Brilliant Barnard Women. This is the third women’s college I’ve photographed within a year.
I walked into a science classroom just as the professor was taking a photo of one of her students with a little point and shoot camera. She turned around, saw me with two 5D Canons draped around my neck, and exclaimed, "Wow, your cameras are a lot bigger. I think you should do this."
My instant reply: "Just because they’re bigger doesn’t mean I’m dominant."
Her instant retort: "We’re Barnard. We know that."