Photography – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Thu, 15 Mar 2018 20:47:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Photography – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Robert Mapplethorpe: Another Perfect Moment Tue, 29 Mar 2016 18:02:33 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A two-museum retrospective in Los Angeles highlights Robert Mapplethorpe’s enduring oeuvre and legacy.

Robert Mappletorpe, Orchid 1987

Robert Mappletorpe, Orchid 1987

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Robert Mappletorpe, Shoe (Melody), 1987 Robert Mappletorpe Robert Mappletorpe, Self Portrait Robert Mappletorpe, Ajitto (1981) Robert Mappletorpe, Orchid 1987

In the majority of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, sex is casually or rather blatantly present. In his black and white floral close-ups—such as Calla Lily (1988)—which are reminiscent of the studio portraits of Irving Penn or Richard Avedon, flowers have the supple sexuality of bodies. Photographs that depict nude bodies—such as Lisa Lyon (1981)—which harkens back to the Neo-Classicism of 19th-century Pictorialist portraits, take on the delicacy and unselfconscious beauty of flowers.

Yet others, such as the artist’s series “X Portfolio” on the underground BDSM scene in late 1960s and ’70s New York, or those depicting homoeroticism or simply the relationships between gay men, such as Larry and Bobby Kissing (1979), depict sexuality explicitly. The artist even depicted himself as a sexual fetish object, as in Self-Portrait (1980), where he is seen sitting in front of the camera, smoking and leather-clad, wearing the hairstyle of 1950s teenage rebellion: the pompadour. Photographs from the “X Portfolio,” which were on view in the 1988 exhibition “The Perfect Moment” at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, led to the indictment of the museum and its director, Dennis Barrie, for obscenity by the city of Cincinnati (the jury ultimately found Barrie and the CAC not guilty), and the eventual cancellation of the show at its next planned stop, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Additionally, Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1990, is often associated, not only with the AIDS crisis but also with the culture wars of the 1980s and with gay life in general.

Yet regardless of content or cultural associations, Mapplethorpe strove to express the totality of his vision as an artist—to direct and capture images of what he found visually appealing: the slick sheen of leather, the glistening smoothness of musculature, the satin-like texture of flower petals. Beauty, with an emphasis on self-directed perfection, was Mapplethorpe’s ideal—an aesthetic that seemed to reach an apex in the art world of 1980s New York.

In Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids (2010), the author and musician recalls a day in the ’60s when she and Mapplethorpe, her boyfriend at the time, found sketches by Touko “Tom of Finland” Laaksonen among some used paperback in Times Square. The sketches, which showcased leather-clad, physically fit young men atop motorcycles, left a lasting impression on Mapplethorpe. Though he studied art at Pratt and was exposed to photography early on by his father, an amateur photographer, Mapplethorpe was not enamored of the camera or the photographic process. Born in Queens, N.Y., and coming of age in the New York of the ’60s and ’70s, Mapplethorpe was drawn to Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg—not only to the former for his fame and persona or the latter for his glamour-meets-grunge lifestyle, but to both for their use of the photograph in works that were not necessarily about photography. In his early work, such as Leatherman #1 (1970), Mapplethorpe used found images from gay porn magazines and scrap materials to create collages. The artist and filmmaker Sandy Daley lent Mapplethorpe a Polaroid camera in 1970. This was a pivotal moment in Mapplethorpe’s art-making process. With the camera, he effectively stepped into the role of auteur, conceiving of images and producing them to his standards of perfection rather than finding them and piecing them together.

“Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium,” a major retrospective co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is now on view at both museums through July 31. “Mapplethorpe’s motive for art-making was not about medium, but about his idea of perfection,” says Britt Salvesen, curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at LACMA. “He said that in another era, he could have been a sculptor. However, our title addresses photography being the perfect medium for him.”

LACMA and the J. Paul Getty Trust made a joint acquisition of art and archival materials from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in 2011. Along with a joint gift from the foundation that same year, the acquisition privileges both institutions with the ability to stage the most comprehensive survey of Mapplethorpe’s work to date. Says Getty director Timothy Potts, “The rich photographic holdings in the Getty Museum and LACMA, together with the artist’s archive housed at the Getty Research Institute, make Los Angeles an essential destination for anyone with serious interest in the late 20th-century photography scene in New York.”

Further contextualizing Mapplethorpe’s work, “The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs,” a concurrent exhibition at the Getty (also until July 31), puts on view the collection of Sam Wagstaff—Mapplethorpe’s partner and an accomplished collector and curator. Wagstaff’s photography collection, which was acquired by the Getty in 1984, has served as one of the backbones of the Department of Photographs at the museum. Boasting classic works of photography such as an albumen silver print of Gustave Le Gray’s The Great Wave (circa 1857), an albumen silver print of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (1867) by Julia Margaret Cameron, and a gelatin silver print of Philippe Halsman’s Dali Atomicus (1948), Wagstaff’s collection is a veritable history of photography.

Mapplethorpe, who did not print his own images but felt strongly about the photographic object, most certainly reveled in the quality of Wagstaff’s vintage prints. While Mapplethorope “wasn’t always forthcoming,” as Salvesen puts it, with his photographic influences, Wagstaff’s cache of prints by Man Ray, Edward Weston, and Roger Fenton were in his purview. In particular, the Boston-based 19th-century Pictorialist photographer and publisher F. Holland Day (whose photographs Wagstaff did collect) comes to mind when looking at Mapplethorpe’s portraits throughout the ’80s. A paragon of dreamy Neo-Classical portraits and the dandy lifestyle, Day has multiple examples of the African American male nude (or partial nude) in his oeuvre.

Like’s those of Day, Mapplethorpe’s photographs, such as Thomas (1987), Ajitto (1981), Ken Moody (1983), and Derrick Cross (1983), which all appear in the Getty’s iteration of “The Perfect Medium,” idealize the black male body as Greek sculptors did the bodies of athletes during the Classical period. Mapplethorpe, who had a fascination with black skin, used three models of different racial backgrounds in his 1985 photograph Ken and Lydia and Tyler (also on view in the Getty show) to evoke the ancient mythological trope of the Three Graces. Shot in black and white, as the lion’s share of Mapplethorpe’s photographs are, the gradation of skin color highlights not only the beauty of the three unique bodies but also the tonality of the image.

Mapplethorpe’s interest in highly developed bodies is well documented. His long-time muse Lisa Lyon, with whom he created 184 portraits over the course of six years, was a female bodybuilder Mapplethorpe met at a party in 1979. Of Lyon, the first woman to win the International Federation of Body Builders female competition, Mapplethorpe is quoted as saying, “I’d never seen anybody that looked like that before. Once she took her clothes off it was like seeing something from another planet.” Mapplethorpe’s work with Lyon culminated in the 1983 photography book Lady, of which multiple images can be seen at LACMA’s iteration of “The Perfect Medium.” Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s other female muse and of course his longtime companion, could not be physically more different than Lyon. (Though both women were androgynous in their own way, Lyon was muscular, Smith lanky and soulful.) Portraits of Smith, such as Patti Smith (1979), not only capture the close relationship between the two artists but also chronicle their life in the still-heralded, bygone days of Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, and the gritty, exciting downtown New York scene. In the LACMA show, the two short films Mapplethorpe made are both on view; one, titled Still Moving, stars Smith, the other Lyon.

Smith has had a lot to do with Mapplethorpe’s legacy, especially in recent years. “Patti Smith’s book reopened peoples’ eyes to Mapplethorpe and why he wanted to be an artist,” says Salvesen. “It is an honest portrayal of a young man who believed he had something to say and how he was going to do that.”

Though both museums certainly want to place the quality of Mapplethorpe’s work over content or controversy, the artist’s legacy as a social figure undoubtedly factors into “The Perfect Medium.” “We now have some social distance from the time period from which he was working and making statements about his lifestyle and life,” says Salvesen,” and the situation in our country with gay civil rights is totally different now, but it’s good to look back and recall those different circumstances. For younger people who weren’t around when the culture wars played out in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s important to remember that debate about freedom of expression.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Kim Keever: Fluid Dynamics Tue, 29 Mar 2016 17:08:05 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Photographer Kim Keever exploits the properties of paint and water in his enigmatic creations.

Kim Keever, Abstract 10166, 2014;

Kim Keever, Abstract 10166, 2014;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Kim Keever, Abstract 13307b, 2014 Kim Keever, Abstract 10166, 2014; Kim Keever, Abstract 7824b, 2014 Kim Keever, Abstract 6196, 2013. Kim Keever, West 38g, 2007;

For nearly 177 years, photography and painting have been engaged in a complicated but ultimately fruitful relationship. They started out feeling threatened by each other: Painting wondered, will photography put me out of a job? Photography wondered, will the art critics ever take me seriously? Today, those questions are, if not resolved, at least less urgent, and the two media have drawn so close that they often seem to merge. We have paintings that look like photographs and photographs that look like paintings. Among the contributors to the contemporary art world’s boundary-breaking experimentation in media, Kim Keever has hit on something truly unique—a photographic art in which paint itself is both the medium and the subject.

The New York-based artist’s latest series of large-scale C-prints depicts amazing microcosms of swirling color and form that could just as easily be abstract paintings as abstractions found in nature, like Stieglitz’s “Equivalents.” The color combinations vary from soothing consistency to outrageous contrast. Contemplating Keever’s pictures, the viewer may see flowers blooming, landscapes above or below the sea, mushroom clouds, or storms in the atmosphere of another planet. The overall impression is one of vastness—aided by the fact that the photos are printed large, on glossy sheets 44 inches across—but actually, as Keever is happy to disclose, the action all unfolds inside a tabletop fish tank. The artist pours paints into it and, using a digital Hasselblad camera, photographs the pigments as they diffuse through the water, interacting with each other in countless, ultimately unpredictable ways.

Keever has control over the choice of colors, the lighting, and of course the moment of exposure. He also has created a mirrored backdrop inside the tank on which he can make marks with paint before the water goes in. Other than that, though, he relinquishes control and lets the laws of physics go to work. Sometimes the clouds of suspended paint come together to form something wonderful; other times, nothing much gels. Keever delights in the unpredictability. “It’s all random,” he says. “There are just so many possibilities. It goes its own way, and I have no control once I’ve poured in the paint. You can’t stir it or it just goes to mud.” When the paint is “flowing nicely,” he says, he’ll keep up a steady pace of shots; the day I visited his studio, in an East Village walkup, the shutter clicked about once every two seconds for a minute or two.

In general, Keever approaches his work with the wide eyes of an explorer. “There’s a dialectic in this between solid form and randomness, and you can get this ‘how the hell did that happen’ effect. These forms are so strange, which is what I’m always after. They’re mesmerizing to watch.” Not surprisingly, Keever has scientific training; he got his degree in thermal engineering and briefly practiced the profession before becoming an artist. He thinks about what goes on in his tank in terms of the science of fluid dynamics (the physical laws that govern how liquids behave) and Brownian motion (the random motion of particles suspended in a liquid, caused by collisions on the molecular and atomic levels). But if the behavior of his raw materials is random, the choice of which configuration to isolate and turn into an artwork is anything but.

At first Keever was a painter, concentrating on landscape, a genre to which he feels a deep connection (born in Manhattan and raised mainly in Chicago, he lived on a farm on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for a few formative years as a child). However, he says, “I got bored with painting and was surfing around in my mind, trying to find something else. I started making tabletop models of landscapes, but couldn’t get any atmosphere. Everything looked like Mars.” A friend of his was throwing out an old tank, and that gave Keever an idea. He thought back to something his father showed him when he was a little boy—the way Carnation condensed milk behaves when poured into a glass of water. “Suddenly it made sense to me to take it all and put it in the tank,” he recalls. “The water disperses the light in a way that a landscape does. Water is compressed vapor, which is what we see when we look across the landscape. Maybe I’m compressing all that space and moisture into those two feet of the tank.”

After the tank-immersed landscape dioramas, Keever made some geology-influenced constructions, such as a mountain that eroded over time under water, which he photographed in progressive stages of decay. He then did the same for a sculpture of a human head, which perished similarly. Lately, he’s been experimenting with placing still life elements in the tank and letting the paints swirl around them. One of these was recently commissioned by The New Yorker, as an illustration for an article about edible seaweed. “They brought this big bag of seaweed from Connecticut,” says the artist, “and I just put it in the tank.” The result looks like the “forest primeval” displaced to the floor of the ocean. Keever also did a record-album commission last year; he did the design and illustration for indie-rock neo-folk musician Joanna Newsom’s Diver, which includes several tipped-in miniature versions of Keever’s most recent series of paint photographs. His works also appear in Newsom’s video for the album, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (of The Master and Boogie Nights fame).

Keever’s work has often been compared to that of the Hudson River School and German Romantics such as Caspar David Friedrich, but he is more inclined to cite Cindy Sherman and Roxy Paine as influences. He accepts the comparisons to classic landscape painters, but says, “It was more accidental; they just came out that way. My work basically came out of my own head.” He recalls, “When I was a kid, I would draw and sometimes copy things, and my dad would sort of shame me and tell me not to copy. I always wanted to make something new, and once I started working with tank, I felt I had reached the point where I was.”

By John Dorfman

The Medium is the Magic Tue, 24 Nov 2015 19:42:32 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A show at LACMA puts the fantastical aspects of photography on display.

Harold Edgerton, Bullet through Jack of Hearts

Harold Edgerton, Bullet through Jack of Hearts 1960, printed later, gelatin silver print.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Portrait of 3 Unidentified Men, circa 1850 Eugène Atget, Eclipse, 1911 Lucas Samaras, Photo Transformation 8/19/76 Harold Edgerton, Bullet through Jack of Hearts

In his 1987 book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Ioan P. Couliano discusses society’s interaction with technological development: “Magic and science,” he writes, “represent needs of the imagination, and the transition from a society dominated by magic to a predominately scientific society is explicable primarily by a change in the imaginary.” Couliano’s point could guide a reading of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it was written 20 years later. Márquez’s novel, arguably the best-known example of magical realism, describes the Buendía family’s foundation of the fictional Colombian town of Macondo. Various extraordinary occurrences befall the family and the town, while simultaneously, new technologies, such as the automobile, cinema, and the daguerreotype are slowly introduced, disrupting Macondo’s highly spiritual and somewhat fantastical way of life. The daguerreotype camera is met with confusion, if not mistrust—it’s easier for the family to comprehend their own belief system than a new-fangled machine that captures human likenesses. (Once the technology is embraced, however, one family member sets out to capture the image of God.)

Historically, the members of the Buendía family are not photography’s only reluctant sitters. A machine that could automatically turn a moment or experience into a tangible object seems like magic, until, as Couliano suggests, the imagination accepts it as a scientific reality and not a fantastical illusion, or something entirely more sinister. However, photography’s history as an artistic medium is punctuated by illusion. Photographers are able to create pictures that seem at once to be reality and fantasy. “The Magic Medium,” a current show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (until February 7), puts 19 works from the museum’s permanent collection on view. Spanning 150 years, the exhibition explores how photographers have used process, composition, and the decisive moment to conjure spells and perform tricks.

Dhyandra Lawson, curatorial administrator in the Wallis-Annenberg Photography Department at LACMA and the curator of “The Magic Medium,” says that magical realism was an entry point for the show and that she reread One Hundred Years of Solitude in preparation. Lawson cites Untitled (hallway), a 2008 coupler print by Los Angeles-based artist Matt Lipps as an example of a “mystical moment.” Part of Lipps’ 2008 “Home” series, Untitled (hallway) depicts a puff of smoke in the artist’s childhood home. In this series, Lipps affixed cut-outs of Ansel Adams’ photographs to cardboard backgrounds and propped up them up on a table in front of multi-tonal images of his former home, taking a photograph of the standing collage. The result is a combination of the familiar and normal with the unknown and spectacular.

Similarly, William Eggleston, whose photograph Untitled [Building with strange cloud] (circa 1974) is in the show, has an uncanny ability to turn ordinary aspects of life into alluring images. “It’s about finding magic in the ordinary,” says Lawson. “Looking at the roof in this photograph is a valuable endeavor.” A photograph by Eugène Atget shows revelers crowding together on a city street to see something extraordinary—an eclipse. The photography, appropriately titled Eclipse, was taken by the French photographer in 1911, with this silver print printed in 1956.

Harold Edgerton’s Bullet through Jack of Hearts (1960, printed later) features a magician’s prop (is this your card?), but showcases a photographer’s trick. Edgerton captured the bullet sailing through the air, just after it punctured the card, by using ultra-fast stroboscopic lights. Whereas Nic Nicosia’s gelatin silver print Love + Lust #5 (1990) pulls off another form of trickery: the two lovers seen caught in a passionate kiss are hired actors. Says Lawson, “This print in particular is my nod to the cinema.”

This exhibition marks the first time that examples from LACMA’s daguerreotype collection will be on public display. Portrait of 3 Unidentified Men (circa 1850), a daguerreotype plate secured in a four-bracket preserver and leather case, shows three men posing closely together, while Untitled (circa 1850), a daguerreotype with a scallop brass mat, shows a woman regally sitting for her portrait. Daguerreotypes, which were exposed in the dark and developed with the vapor of mercury onto a sheet of silver-coated copper, are reminiscent of the purest crossroads between magic and science: alchemy.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Alvin Langdon Coburn: A Man of Mark and Mystery Wed, 26 Aug 2015 20:48:54 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Alvin Langdon Coburn, a master of Pictorialist and modernist photography, has been less widely known than he deserves, but a comprehensive traveling retrospective aims to change that.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Station Roofs

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Station Roofs, Pittsburgh, 1910, gelatin silver print, printed circa 1958.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Alvin Langdon Coburn, Station Roofs Alvin Langdon Coburn, New York from its Pinnacles Alvin Langdon Coburn, Fifth Avenue from the St. Regis Alvin Langdon Coburn, The Steps to the Scott Memorial Fannie E. Coburn, Alvin Langdon Coburn at the Grand Canyon

The photographic career of Alvin Langdon Coburn appears before our eyes like a brief time exposure through a fast lens. The shutter opens, showing a decade and a half of brilliant achievement and equally brilliant fame, and then snaps shut again as the artist stages his own disappearance from the art world. From the first years of the 20th century until the end of World War I, Coburn made some of the most innovative photographs of the era—a transitional time when late 19th-century Pictorialism was yielding to modernism. (Coburn, who always had one eye on the history of his medium and the other on its future, was comfortable with both approaches and produced a body of work that in many ways unified them.) Not only that, he was a public figure in London, a leader and propagandist for the new photography who gathered a circle of disciples around him even though he was only in his twenties. Coburn was also in demand as a celebrity portraitist—cultural luminaries including George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Auguste Rodin, and Igor Stravinsky trooped through his studio, glad to let this young émigré from Boston have his way with their likenesses. He eventually compiled the results and published them in a book titled Men of Mark (1913).

Coburn was very much a man of mark himself back then, but for a variety of reasons—beginning with, but not limited to, his vanishing act, about which more later—he has been overshadowed by his peers Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand. Today his name is little known outside the tight circle of vintage photography enthusiasts, though some of his images have been fixed in the public mind via their use as illustrations on book covers. However, the time is ripe for a Coburn revival, and a major exhibition is poised to bring his name back to the prominence it deserves, revealing the full scope of his work through unprecedented loans. Organized by the Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid, Spain, and the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., “Alvin Langdon Coburn,” debuted in Madrid last winter and will be up at Eastman House from September 19 through January 24. It brings together, for the first time, photographs from Coburn’s vast personal collection, which he donated to Eastman House in 1962, four years before his death; another group that he gave to the Royal Photographic Society; photographs in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and a collection of works principally acquired from the artist’s godfamily and owned by Janet Lehr, a private dealer in New York. (This collection, which includes some striking paintings, was exhibited in Madrid but will not be in the American version of the show. It is, however, represented in the comprehensive, beautifully printed catalogue, which also contains a valuable long essay by exhibition curator Pamela Glasson Roberts.)

No scholarly or technical study is necessary to experience the uniqueness and power of Coburn’s photographs, but it may not be immediately clear, without some historical background, just how far ahead of their time they were. Take, for example, The Octopus, Madison Square Park. This photograph enters the realm of abstraction without in any way forsaking naturalistic representation. Instead of manipulating the image, Coburn relies on an unusual vantage point and composition—he looks down on the snow-covered park and its radiating footpaths from the window of a tall building across the street. This was made in 1909, a decade before avant-garde Soviet photographer Alexander Rodchenko perched on Moscow’s balconies and rooftops to get a new view of the new Russia. And the way Coburn makes the park—familiar terrain traversed by millions every year—resemble a tentacled being with a life of its own anticipates Surrealism by more than a decade, as does the inclusion of the slightly eerie shadow of the Metropolitan Life building, which conspired with the photographer to fall across the left side of the

In The Bridge, Venice (1905), space is flattened out—a key modernist tactic in many media—and the lone figure mounting the stairs is overwhelmed by the water beneath, which takes up most of the frame and shimmers with abstract, possibly non-Euclidean geometries. The Great Temple, Grand Canyon (circa 1911), one of Coburn’s series of wilderness landscapes, rather than prefiguring the vast vistas of Ansel Adams, concentrates on the opportunities in the canyon’s pitted stone surfaces, again compressing the space and making the eye wonder whether it is looking at natural erosion or some kind of strange script incised in the rock.

Many of Coburn’s photographs, however, especially those made before 1917, are strongly redolent of Pictorialism, a school of photography that has been pretty consistently out of favor since its eclipse around 1920. The fact that Pictorialism has been used so often as a swear word makes it difficult to define precisely, but at a minimum, it can be said that it was an attempt to gain acceptance for photography as a valid medium for fine art at a time when it was being seen as a whiz-bang mechanical marvel useful mainly for making records of things, people, and events. If the art world was uncomfortable with the fact that photographs were machine-made, well then, the photographers would emphasize the touch of the hand, using complex processes to tone prints and manipulate their textures. To subvert glaring realism, Pictorialist photographers turned to so-called “soft-focus” lenses, blurring the outlines of objects and putting haloes on light sources.

At their worst, Pictorialist tactics tended to make photographs look like second-rate paintings or etchings, causing the medium to be untrue to itself. But at its best, they could be a way of stretching the limits of the camera, breaking away from slavish adherence to reportorial accuracy, and simply creating beautiful objects—and in today’s world of digital images it is easy to forget that photographs are objects. The proportions of eye, hand, and machine can vary, but all three need to be present to make a photograph, a fact of which Coburn was acutely conscious. His Pictorialist-type pictures are almost always in perfect taste, using the toolbox of special effects to convey inner perceptions. In photographs like the blue-toned Waterloo Bridge, London (1904), the tri-toned Place de la Concorde, Paris (circa 1904), The Flat-Iron Building (1910–11), or Fountain Court, The Temple, London (1907), Coburn takes us into a visionary world in which we see, simultaneously, things and the emotions they engender. In The Tunnel Builders (1907), which depicts workmen in silhouette engulfed in what looks like steam, he merges Pictorialism with modernism’s enthusiasm for industry, endowing these sandhogs with heroic dignity.

Some of the reasons Coburn has somewhat fallen through the cracks of photo-history have to do with his background and with the way the photography art world was organized at the beginning of the 20th century. Although he lived on into the Pop Art era, Coburn was born in the Victorian—or at least its American equivalent—in 1882, in ultraconservative Boston. His father was well off, a partner in a garment manufacturing business, but he died suddenly, when Alvin was nine. The boy and his mother, who were left with plenty of money, went to live with relatives in California, where an uncle gave him his first camera, a 4 x 5 inch Kodak. Coburn soon mastered the device and began spending long hours in the darkroom practicing printing techniques. His other ruling boyhood passion was stage magic, which he credited with giving him the manual dexterity needed for operating complex photographic equipment quickly under pressure. One can also detect a love of mystification and illusion in the young magician, qualities that stayed with Coburn for his entire photographic and post-photographic life.

His introduction to the artistic side of photography took place in and around Boston, where he and his mother had returned in 1893. It so happened that Coburn’s cousin F. Holland Day, who lived in nearby Norwood, Mass., was a great photographer with considerable importance in the emerging avant-garde scene, as well as a fine-art book publisher and general Mauve Decade decadent. In Day, young Coburn found a role model and mentor who taught him literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and composition, as
well as showing him that one could live a life uncompromisingly devoted to the arts—provided, of course, that one had enough inherited wealth, as both Day and Coburn did.

But in other ways, Day was a bad choice of role model, in that he was a divisive figure and not the most effective organizer or publicist for his own cause. In 1900, his publishing business having just folded, Day was pulling together a major exhibition, “The New School of American Photography,” which he planned to show in London under the auspices of The Linked Ring, a secessionist group that broke off from the conservative Royal Photographic Society. Before the show could launch, Stieglitz, who was a member of The Linked Ring, told the British members not to accept Day’s show, claiming that it was unrepresentative of American photographic efforts. In a sense it was, in that it did not include Stieglitz’s work! The 375-photo exhibition ended up being mounted at the RPS, where it ran for about a month, but the damage had been done. Stieglitz, not Day, emerged as the leader of the American photography art world. Day, while a great artist, lacked the ability to rally people together under his banner, an ability that Stieglitz, no matter how abrasive he was, definitely had. Coburn did not fight with Stieglitz, but he did not become a member of the Stieglitz circle, a decision that doubtless caused him to receive less exposure in the U.S. and ultimately affected his standing for posterity.

Another way in which Day was a bad example for Coburn was that within a few years, disappointed that he could not lead a movement and depressed by the loss of much of his work in a fire, he withdrew from the photography world. In fact, he withdrew from the rest of the world, too, spending much of the last quarter century of his life in bed, occasionally receiving guests and hosting house-party dress-up weekends but doing little if any creative work. While Coburn’s activities in retirement were quite different from his older cousin’s, Day undoubtedly modeled the reclusive stance that the younger man later adopted.

But in 1900, nothing could have been farther from Coburn’s mind. He was excited and eager to conquer the London art world, having crossed the Atlantic in the company of his domineering mother and Day. Except for a few trips to the U.S. over the next several years—including the Grand Canyon expedition and period spent studying with the painter and printmaker Arthur Wesley Dow—he would spend the rest of his long life in Great Britain, never returning to his homeland (another likely cause of his relative obscurity in later years). Coburn soon adopted a style of dress that recalled his fellow American aesthetic expat James McNeill Whistler, affecting a top hat, tails, and a cane and large jeweled rings on most of his fingers. Coburn was shy and averse to public speaking, but his drive and some kind of intangible magnetism allowed him to make a strong impression and push himself forward in the competitive photographic world.

His work began to be featured in specialist periodicals, and by mid-1906 he was ready to have a one-man show, which was held in Liverpool. True to form, he organized it himself, overseeing every detail. George Bernard Shaw wrote the catalogue essay. The show was a smashing success and launched the 23-year-old Coburn as a major figure on the English photographic scene. Soon he was accepting commissions for portraits, magazine work, and book illustration. One of his best efforts in that line was a suite of photographs for H.G. Wells’ collection of weird tales, The Door in the Wall, published in 1911 by Mitchell Kennerley. “Coburn is a man of whom much will be heard, if he does not kill himself meanwhile,” said an article in the Photographic Monthly for March 1906, referring to the photographer’s punishing work pace. Coburn also found time to go on a photographic tour across the European continent with Henry James, making pictures for a multi-volume edition of the author’s novels, teaching photography, writing critical essays, and even doing product endorsement—a 1914 ad for a soft-focus lens made by the Boston firm of Pinkham & Smith featured a lengthy blurb by Coburn.

Coburn’s photographic career prospered, and the extremely high prices he was able to charge for his work enriched him even further; while he certainly did not need the money, the high prices seemed to serve as some kind of validation of worth in his mind. Then in 1917, amid the turmoil of World War I, something changed. Coburn hit on an idea radical enough to leave even his admiring public behind—the Vortograph. This was his term for a photograph taken through a rotating three-prism device mounted in front of the camera’s lens. The result was completely abstract, a transformation of the external world into a set of geometric forms and light values. Coburn, always sensitive to the relationships between visual art and literature and music, was inspired to do this by Vorticism, a Futurist literary movement spearheaded by Ezra Pound, a friend and photographic subject of his.

Unfortunately, however, Pound failed to appreciate the Vortographs—even though he and Coburn had initially worked on them together—and wrote a brutal review that minimized their value and their connection to his movement: “Vortography stands below the other vorticist arts in that it is an art of the eye, not the eye and hand together.” The criticism rings particularly hollow because of Coburn’s longtime emphasis on the role of the hand, but it must have stung anyway. It must also have stung Coburn to hear Paul Strand heralded as the first photographer to make completely abstract images. Not only did Coburn get there first by several years, but Strand’s early abstractions were still based on “straight” photography of real scenes, while Coburn’s were made of pure light and shape, optically generated. “Why should not the camera also throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried?” wrote Coburn in 1916. “If it is not possible to be ‘modern’ with the newest of all the arts, we had better bury our black boxes.” The gallery-going public and the critics alike did not take up his challenge; they were simply puzzled rather than inspired by the Vortographs, and in the ensuing disappointment Coburn began his withdrawal from professional photography.

Perhaps he had said everything he had to say with photography, precociously packed a lifetime of experimentation and achievement into less than 20 years. Regardless, he had other interests that had been preoccupying his mind for some time, occult, mystical, and religious in nature. With his obliging wife, Edith, Coburn moved to Harlech, Wales, a country retreat befitting the life of contemplation he was planning for himself. He became a Freemason and eventually founded an esoteric group called the Universal Order. Until the mid-1950s, the Order and kindred studies took up most of his time and energy, but during a trip to Madeira, Portugal, he was inspired to start taking pictures again, this time with a small 35mm camera. (The Eastman House exhibition skips this period—except for one image—on the grounds that Coburn never made formal prints of his Madeira negatives and that modern prints would not truly convey whatever the artist may have had in mind.)

In the early 1960s, Coburn began to think seriously again about his photographic legacy, and in collaboration with the photographic historians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, he produced a memoir that, while far from complete and accurate in its recollections, does place his life work in the context of his philosophical beliefs and personal history. It was very important to him to see the book finished, despite his failing health, and he got his wish: On November 11, 1966, Alvin Langdon Coburn Photographer: An Autobiography was published; 12 days later, its author died, with the book in his hands.

Night Scenes: After Dark Fri, 22 May 2015 22:40:42 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The allure and challenges of rendering the night in paintings, prints, and photographs are spotlighted in an innovative survey of the American nocturne.

George Bellows, Outside the Big Tent, 1912

George Bellows, Outside the Big Tent, 1912, oil on canvas;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) George Tooker, Dance, 1946 Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nicodemus, 1899, John Leslie Breck, Santa Maria della Salute by Moonlight, 1897 Albert Bierstadt, The Burning Ship, 1871 George Bellows, Outside the Big Tent, 1912

“Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860–1960,” an extensive exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Me. (June 27–October 18), is the first major survey of American night scenes. Curated by Joachim Homann, the show begins with moonlight and gas lighting, documents the electrification of city life and the impact of migration and photography, and ends in the 1950s, with abstraction and the beginning of the Space Age. At every stage, social and technical changes created new forms of nocturnal perception, and as the exhibition shows, those perceptions made night scenes central to American modernism.

The bookends of the exhibition are works by Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth. Both depict a boat at night, and both explore the workings of light and water, but their moods are totally different. Homer’s Fountains at Night was a response to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, where Homer had exhibited his seascapes. The “White City” was the first large-scale public space to be electrified at night. Homer was impressed not just by the Fair’s architectural grandeur and mock-Venetian waterways complete with gondolas but also by the lonely splendor of its waters at night. In this painting, gondoliers propel two passengers on a private tour of the Grand Basin, the giant central pool. As they pass the floodlit Columbian Fountain, with its statues of rearing, fish-tailed horses and a Classical rider, we see an early reflection of electric lighting upon water. The churning waters are incandescent white, the gondoliers strain at their oars. The night is becoming modern, the United States rising on waves of power.

Wyeth’s Night Hauling, an early tempera work from 1944, is haunted and anxious. A solitary fisherman has rowed out to sea and is drawing up lobster traps to steal other men’s catches. There are no stars and no moon; the sky is a black ground. The only illuminations are the flecked lights of the shore, a weak lantern in the boat, and the phosphorescent algae in the water. As the thief lifts a trap, he turns to check that he is unseen. A torrent of translucent water pours back into a glowing maelstrom of the sea. The light source is inverted—the algae in the water glisten like starlight. The night becomes a private, interior experience. There is something Promethean about this theft: is he after the lobsters, or a divine fire? Wyeth’s father was the popular illustrator N.C. Wyeth. In Night Hauling, the theft of food suggests the theft of knowledge.

Night thoughts can be dark thoughts. Art is a lonely profession, and the modern artist is often marginal to society. But as secrecy and solitude reverse the polarities of everyday life and social convention, they liberate individual expression. Several of the key pieces in “Night Vision” are by women artists—Georgia O’Keeffe, Marguerite Zorach, Lee Krasner, and Berenice Abbott. The African American painter Beauford Delaney turns the cityscape into a bare dreamscape in Untitled (1944); devoid of people, the forms of the buildings are the skeleton of civilization. In Delaney’s Jazz Club (1950), we see liberated energy, the temporary kinship of nightlife, and universality in shared human experience.

Not all the humans in the modern city know that they are sharing in the experience. The voyeurs of the Ashcan School make a virtue of their dislocation into the shadows. John Sloan’s “night vigils” describe the stolen intimacies of the dreaming voyeur. In The Cot (1907), a woman disrobes next to a messy bed, its sheets a creamy grey and white. Those same tones recur on the dresses of women entering a theater in The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue (1907). The artist is a stranger, passing unseen and experiencing his own strangeness. Lyonel Feininger returned to New York in 1937, having been away for 50 years. The city had changed, but a few surviving elements reminded him of his childhood. In City Moon (1945), Feininger rediscovers his origins as he discovers the new topography of the city.

Electricity changed the night and how it was perceived. But the first nocturnes predate electrification. The original School of Night was a group of atheistic scholars and scientists in Elizabethan London; they included Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, and Thomas Harriot. Artists, notably Caravaggio and Rembrandt, depicted night scenes, too, but the interior moods of the modern nocturne are a Romantic legacy, with roots in the brooding Gothic. Chopin created his first “nocturne” in 1827. Whistler, who emphasized the affinities between music and painting by calling pieces “arrangements” and “harmonies,” created his first nocturne in 1866.

The artist’s nocturne was born in the age of gas lighting, the smeary, blurred light sources of Whistler. But it grew in the age of electrification, when the night was carved by hard whites and yellows. Yet Whistler’s shadow falls on these later nocturnes, sometimes as an inspiration, sometimes as a challenge. In the early 20th century, Whistler’s aestheticism seemed antithetical to art that was socially or politically engaged: Raphael Soyer’s Bowery Nocturne (1933) drags the nocturne into Depression politics. On the other hand, in 1944, when Alfred H. Barr organized a joint retrospective of Feininger and his friend Marsden Hartley at MoMA, he praised Feininger as a “modern-day Whistler.” Feininger and Whistler had both lived abroad, and they shared an affinity for the nocturne.

That 1944 show, staged in the year of Wyeth’s Night Hauling, also evoked another founder of American modernism, Albert Pinkham Ryder, the other titan of the 19th-century nocturne. For Marsden Hartley, Ryder had made possible a uniquely American nocturne. “Night Vision” traces this lineage forward into the 1950s and abstraction. Louise Nevelson’s boxlike Untitled is all black shadows. But Nevelson also collected the figurative work of Louis Michel Eilshemius, whose work is in the Colby show and who was a peer of Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock. The nocturnal theme runs across styles and schools, and 19th-century sensibilities are woven into 20th-century expressions.

The unnatural, abstracted light of electrification also spurred artists to turn away, in search of the softer tones and indeterminate states of the authentic night. In Scare in a Pack Train (1908) and Moonlight, Wolf (circa 1909), Frederic Remington looks outside the city and toward the frontiers of society and vision. In the Orientalist narrative Nicodemus Visiting Jesus (1899), Henry Ossawa Tanner seeks the Biblical night of the Holy City. In 1897, four years after Winslow Homer explores an electrified night at Chicago, John Leslie Breck paints Santa Maria della Salute by Moonlight. Balsassare Longhena’s masterpiece floats in the Venetian blue like a ghost ship, timeless and lonely.

In 1843, when gas lamps were lit in the Piazza San Marco, Ruskin complained that Venice now resembled industrial Birmingham; he did not witness the electrification of Venice’s street lighting. Today, those gas lamps seem themselves to be “historical,” essential to the atmosphere of Whistler’s Venetian nocturnes or Henry James’ novels. Famously, Ruskin disapproved of Whistler; ironically, his disapproval stimulated Whistler’s creation of the modern nocturne. In 1879, bankrupted by his Pyrrhic victory over Ruskin in the law courts (a libel suit provoked by a harsh review), Whistler accepted a commission to draw 12 etchings in Venice. Traditionally, a night scene uses a limited light source and experiments with its effects; the sublime catastrophe of Albert Bierstadt’s The Burning Ship (1869) is lit by what the Old Masters called “moonlight.” But Whistler embraced the nocturnal and explored the dark.

Whistler’s modern shift was a Romantic move: Romanticism prizes individual perceptions and dark interiority over shared illumination and the light of reason. In an essay in “Night Vision”’s excellent catalogue, Daniel Bosch addresses Eliot and Baudelaire and the relationship of Symbolist poetry to the nocturne. Yet the exhibition focuses more on the technical challenges of art than on intellectual inspirations and Prufrockian precedents. The night demands technical creativity. The Romantic experience of Nature includes visual experience, and this can only be translated onto canvas and paper through a unique vocabulary.

“We’re creating a dialogue between different interpretations of the night,” explains Joachim Homann, the show’s curator. In “Night Vision,” that dialogue between Romantic individuality and technical innovation is embodied in the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her Black Abstraction (1927) is a rendering of a near-death experience she had while under anesthetic on a hospital trolley. “She felt that the world was receding from her,” Homann says, “which is perhaps the ultimate Romantic experience.” A year later, in 1928, O’Keeffe painted New York Night. “She was living with Alfred Stieglitz in an apartment in the Shelton Hotel, and when she looked up Lexington Avenue, she could see all the city lights around her.” Together, these two works, painted at almost the same time, express the nocturnal dialogue between individual perception and technical experiment.

Photography captures light in a different way and in a different quantity. The camera’s vision created a new kind of nocturne. The most remarkable photographs in “Night Vision” are rarely exhibited as art. Seneca Ray Stoddard’s The Antlers, Open Camp, Raquette Lake (circa 1889) is one of the first campfire photographs, as well as one of the first photographs to be taken with a flashlight. A group of hunters sits by a fire in an Adirondacks wood. This is an ancient scene—the hunters and the dogs, the deer strung up by firelight. Spontaneous and crude, it contrasts superbly with the Pictorialist effects and electrified city in the images of Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.

Stieglitz applied Whistler’s aesthetic, the capture of night in the city, to photography. Like his friend Steichen, Stieglitz creates a beautiful confusion of painterly and photographic effects. Steichen worked in both photography and paint, and “Night Visions” juxtaposes his works in both media. In the oil painting Shrouded Figure in Moonlight (1905), Steichen explores the most traditional of nocturnal lights. In The Flatiron (1904), the ocean liner-like form of a quintessential urban figure is misted in fog. Instead of finding its reflection in a pond, like the trees in the photograph Moonlight: The Pond (1906), the Flatiron Building is reflected in a thin puddle of rainwater. A cabbie and his horses float across the surface of the water, kin to the waiting hackney carriages in Stieglitz’s rainy Reflections–Night (1897) and modern heirs to the Classical wrangler and symbolic equines of Homer’s Fountains at Night.

This dialogue between photography and painting continues in the encounter between O’Keeffe’s New York Night and Abbott’s Night View, a bird’s-eye photograph of Midtown Manhattan in the ’30s. Cleverly, Night Vision ends without closing the conversation; deliberately disrupting the artificial divisions of genre and generation, the show pursues its theme into the present. In 1943, Steichen selected Ansel Adams’ epic Moonrise: Hernandez, New Mexico for publication in U.S. Camera magazine. Adams’ photograph concludes the exhibition, but an adjoining gallery presents a recent film by Michel Auder.

“Auder positioned a video camera in an apartment building in New York and captured what was happening in the apartments around him,” Homann says. “It’s a really poetic, richly textured view of the urban night.” Auder exhibited his film, Untitled (I Was Looking Back to See if You Were Looking Back At Me to See Me Looking Back At You), at the Whitney Museum’s 2014 Biennial. In its voyeurism, Auder’s film echoes the work of John Sloan, Edward Hopper, and their contemporaries. It also recapitulates the themes of this intricate and articulate exhibition—modernity and the changing experience of darkness, the role of art as a medium of personal expression, and the technical challenges of expression. These are present themes, and with night vision becoming an increasingly rare commodity, they are also part of the future of the night.

“We hear about preserving the night sky over the National Parks, or about switching off electronic devices at night to create a rhythm to our lives,” Homann observes. “So we know that people are increasingly conscious of the value of the night. A time of darkness is a time of reflection. It needs to be protected, and to be cherished in its own right. This exhibition shows the roots of that conversation, and it joins it too. It’s a richer conversation than people might expect.”

By Dominic Green

Sebastiao Salgado: The Eye of the Heart Fri, 10 Apr 2015 16:22:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Sebastião Salgado’s visually stunning photographs accord equal respect to suffering humanity and primal nature.

Sebastião Salgado, The Grand Canyon

Sebastião Salgado, The Grand Canyon, with the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado rivers seen from the Navajo territory, 2010;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Sebastião Salgado photographing. Sebastião Salgado, coal mining in the Dhanbad Sebastião Salgado, The Grand Canyon Sebastião Salgado, A group of Waura people fishing Sebastião Salgado, Iceberg Sebastião Salgado, Garimpeiros Sebastião Salgado, Garimpeiros Sebastião Salgado, elephant

The photographer Sebastião Salgado isn’t used to being on the other side of the camera. For the past four decades he has traveled the world, documenting war and famine in East Africa, the genocide in Rwanda, indigenous communities in his native Brazil, and most recently wildlife and wild landscape in zones ranging from the tropic to the Antarctic. But in 2013 he consented to being the observed instead of the observer, as the subject of a feature-length documentary film about his life and work, The Salt of the Earth. Directed by Wim Wenders, the German filmmaker known for visionary works such as Wings of Desire, and made in collaboration with Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the Oscar-nominated film shows the photographer at work in the field and at home with his family, supplemented by face-to-face interviews and a montage of Salgado’s black and white photographs spanning his entire career.

Those photographs, as voluminous as they are visually stunning, are instantly recognizable, byline or no. The Vietnamese boatmen pulling their launch onto a beach glassy with the incoming tide, set against a sky almost black with rainclouds; the view down into a gaping hole in the Brazilian mountains filled with subsistence gold-miners so numerous that they look like ants rather than human beings, while in the foreground a worker pausing to lean against a pole suddenly resembles Christ on the cross; the straining, oil-drenched firemen in Kuwait in 1991, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, forcing their blackened bodies down on a burning gusher to quench it; the Bombay railway station in which the masses of people, their motion blurred by the camera, seem like a living river flowing around and through the unmoving train cars; a close-up of the blackened faces of Indian mine workers, their eyes shining and the picks on their shoulders gleaming—all of these share certain qualities that reveal the unique eye of Salgado.

He favors wide-angle compositions, unusual vantage points, a deep frontal gaze in portraiture, and a long tonal scale with an emphasis on rich, almost glowing darks. His pictures, although they are 35mm shots (recently digital) made in a basically photojournalistic mode, can resemble the painstakingly composed large-camera work of an Ansel Adams or an Edward Weston. In his most recent project, Genesis—contained in a massive book of that title published in 2013 by Taschen—Salgado took a turn away from the subjects he covered for most of the rest of his career, in projects such as Workers and Migrations, and focused his lens on nature and on people living in close harmony with nature. In these photographs, the print values, the contrast of lights and darks, take on a more lyrical, poetic quality than ever before.

Some of these pictures were taken from a helicopter, as shown in Salt of the Earth, which gives the photographer an almost trans-human point of view. In Genesis, rivers become ribbons of glittering mercury against a background of black earth, the Grand Canyon becomes a striped geode seen from afar, an elephant is glimpsed through a scrim of haze in a sun-stabbed rainforest, and an Amazonian tribesman seems to merge with a tree as he hangs from it with both arms. The pictorial values of these photographs, while astonishing enough in themselves, for Salgado are a way of communicating something to the viewer. Looking long and carefully at the images is one way of understanding what that something is; another is to look at the arc of Salgado’s own life.

Born on a farm in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais in 1944, he was the only boy in a family with seven girls. In this rough and remote region, his father, also named Sebastião Salgado, was able to provide a decent standard of living by dint of incredibly hard work. In Salt of the Earth, the father, age 96 at the time of filming, makes an appearance, and his wizened face under a straw hat seems to match the landscape of his desiccated farm. The damage to the land, caused by irresponsible development by industrialists in the area, weighed heavily on the son. Over the past 10 years, he and his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, have embarked on a major project, called Instituto Terra, to revitalize and redevelop not only the farm but the area surrounding it, which they have helped convert into a national park.

Photography was not Salgado’s first career. His father had wanted him to be a lawyer, but instead he became an economist, in which capacity he traveled to developing countries all over the world, gathering statistical data for the London-based International Coffee Organization. In 1968–69, he and Lélia joined the leftist protests that convulsed Brazil, then controlled by a military dictatorship. When the protests failed, the Salgados went into exile in Paris, where they spent the next 10 years, with Sebastião continuing to pursue his economics work. Around the time Juliano was born, in 1974, Lélia bought a camera, just to take family snapshots. Sebastião picked it up and found himself using it far more than she did; before long he felt he had discovered his true calling.

In 1975, he quit his job to become a full-time freelance photographer. He recalls going from magazine to magazine, asking what they needed, willing to do anything at all as long as he could make a living taking pictures. For a while he accepted any assignment he could get. Ironically, some of his most-reprinted photographs come from a news assignment: In 1981 the New York Times Magazine sent him to follow Ronald Reagan, and Salgado happened to be on the scene when the president and several others were shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley in Washington, D.C. By then Salgado had already joined Magnum, the prestigious photographers’ cooperative founded by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and George Rodger in 1947; previously he was affiliated with the France-based Sygma and Gamma press agencies. In 1994, Salgado left Magnum to found his own agency, Amazonas Images.

Beginning in the mid-’70s, Salgado returned to the embattled places he had once visited as an economist, this time with a camera in hand. He has referred to this work as “documenting the human condition,” but his pictures are more than just documents; they are calls to action. While the gaze in his pictures is unflinching, it is never unfeeling. Salgado puts his intense emotional reactions into the images, and the way he uses composition and light enables the viewer to take them out again. He recalls the way he felt when he first saw the miners at the Serra Pelada gold-prospecting site: “When I came to the edge of a huge hole in the ground the size of a soccer stadium, with 50,000 people in there working with no mechanical tools, only their hands, and this sound came up from their instruments digging, all the hairs on my body stood up. It is probably the strongest thing I ever felt in my life.”

In Salgado’s work, the emotional is inseparable from the graphic. Like his good friend, the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, he strongly favors black and white because it simplifies matters, cutting away the inessential. “I completely lose my concentration when I photograph in color,” Salgado says. “The influence of strong colors inside a photo for me is disturbing. Of course black and white is an abstraction, but it’s one that allows you to concentrate only on your interest point—the personality, the movements of the person, not the shirt they are wearing.” His favorite photographer is Bill Brandt, a master of black and white and avant-garde composition whose concerns were very remote from Salgado’s. He also loves the Mexican Surrealist Manuel Alvarez Bravo and the Peruvian Martín Chambi, who worked in obscurity in the Andean town of Cuzco. However, he says, “I cannot say that they had any influence on my photography. In photography there is no influence; it’s a way of life. You photograph with your family, with your life, with what you bring from inside of you.”

Some critics have objected that Salgado’s photographs are too visually impressive, too cinematic for the subject matter. In a 2002 New Yorker essay, Susan Sontag—a critic notably uncomfortable with the very nature of photography—wrote, “Sebastião Salgado, a photographer who specializes in world misery (including but not restricted to the effects of war), has been the principal target of the new campaign against the inauthenticity of the beautiful.” For Salgado, though, there is nothing inauthentic about beauty, especially because in his conception of things, the beauty emanates from within his subjects, both human and non-human. Wim Wenders has answered Sontag’s objection by saying, “When you photograph poverty and suffering, you have to give a certain dignity to your subject, and avoid slipping into voyeurism. It’s not easy. It can only be achieved on condition that you develop a good rapport with the people in front of the lens, and you really get inside their lives and their situation. Very few photographers manage this.”

Juliano Salgado, speaking on the same question, has said that his father “needs to create a relationship with the person he’s going to photograph, and says that it is the subject who ends up ‘giving’ him the photo.” Salgado himself puts it this way: “It’s very difficult when you go to photograph something. You must concentrate and receive from what you are photographing. You must deeply give yourself to what you are doing. You are taking the image and representing it to someone, which is a very complicated situation. A very, very special thing is happening to you. You are no longer the same person.”

The fact that Genesis is largely about planet Earth itself and its non-human inhabitants might make one think that Salgado has changed his priorities or is looking for a different mode of experiencing the world. But he sees total continuity: “All my pictures are inside nature. I grew up on a farm. Nature is inside me. In the end, to photograph a tree or a mountain is not different from photographing a human being. You must respect the tree, understand that someone alive, with a personality, is in front of you. Some trees are 2,000 years old. You are in front of an authority, and you must respect that authority.”

There is also total continuity between Salgado’s photographic work and the conservation work that he and his wife have spearheaded. In the Salgados’ optimistic vision, it is not too late to return nature to its original condition. Instituto Terra has planted 2.5 million trees on the former Salgado farm and another million on the surrounding land. Salgado proudly points out that there are now 170 distinct species of birds living there, and that even the jaguars have returned to the area.

Salgado’s outlook is fundamentally Romantic, in the 19th-century sense of experiencing nature as the primary source of spiritual renewal. In a way he is a kindred spirit of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and Frederic Edwin Church. And like the Romantics, he believes that it is possible for human beings to live in complete harmony with nature. Of all the people he has interacted with in some 35 countries, his favorite are the Zo’é of the Amazon rainforest, whom he photographed for Genesis. A tiny tribe of 300, they live a subsistence lifestyle, isolated from most outside influences. “When I met them,” says Salgado, “they were living in paradise. It’s an incredibly beautiful land. They have incredible health, you cannot imagine. They have no gods, no religion, no chiefs, no property. They hunt naked with arrows and bows. They know everything; they are fantastic. They are real, real people from the beginning.” Hearing him talk this way, one cannot help thinking of his fellow Brazilian, the early 20th-century writer Euclides da Cunha, who referred to the Amazon as “the last, unfinished page of Genesis.”

The Eye in the Wild State Mon, 29 Sep 2014 00:37:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art searches for the surrealistic touches in photography of the 1920s through ’40s.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, The Crystal Ball (La Boule de Verre), 1931, gelatin silver print, toned.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, The Crystal Ball (La Boule de Verre), 1931, gelatin silver print, toned.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)

Art dealer and filmmaker David Raymond began collecting Surrealist and modernist photographs in 1996, when he noticed that many fine examples were readily available on the market. In just 10 years, Raymond had amassed hundreds of rare, high-quality photographs—more than his New York City apartment could hold. Looking to lighten the load yet wanting to keep the majority of the collection intact, Raymond approached a dealer but didn’t end up reaching an agreement. In 2007, Tom E. Hinson, the founding (now emeritus) curator of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s photography department, flew to New York and bought a large selection from Raymond’s cache. The following year, Raymond donated more of his photographs to the museum, increasing Cleveland’s newly extensive collection. “David didn’t think of the collection as something he owned,” says Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography at the museum, “but rather something he was the trustee of.” He wanted the imagery to be enjoyed, preferably in one giant bite, rather than a few little nibbles here and there.

Beginning on October 19, viewers of the exhibition “Forbidden Games: Surrealist and Modernist Photography” will be treated to a hearty forkful of early 20th-century photography. On view (through January 11) will be 165 photographs—snapped by 68 artists from 14 countries in Europe and the Americas—two photobooks, and six short films, which will play on loop. The exhibition is broken up thematically into 14 categories, such as the body, the city, the natural world, abstraction, advertising, nightlife, and the avant-garde portrait; as well as three brief one-artist surveys, dedicated to Marcel Lefrancq, George Hugnet, and a special favorite of Raymond’s, Dora Maar. Other photographers in the exhibition include Man Ray, Brassaï, Maurice Tabard, Roger Parry, El Lissitzky, and László Moholy-Nagy, to name a few.

Raymond chose his prints based on quality and rarity, but also looked for breadth of subject matter. “Within the Surrealist movement, the same figures come up over and over again,” says Tannenbaum. “David wanted to broaden the canon and also show that artists all over Europe were making images that had a surrealist sensibility.” In his Surrealism and Painting (1928), André Breton, the movement’s central theorist, wrote, “L’œil existe à l’état sauvage,” or “The eye exists in the wild state.” Raymond came to use this phrase as a sort of collecting thesis while searching for photographs from the 1920s through ’40s. He wanted to find images that exuded surrealist qualities—whether they were taken by a Breton-ordained Surrealist or not. In fact, in the course of his collecting, Raymond found that any number of different kinds of photographs, whether discovering or documentary or something else, could have surrealist qualities, and discovering these was just as important to him as snapping up works by “name” Surrealists. “He was looking to find oddness,” says Tannebaum, “the surreal in the real.” As a result, Raymond’s collection is an unlikely yet enlightening mix of images.

The Surrealist movement used the camera as a device to pervert reality. Playing with unorthodox angles and perspectives, exaggerating light and shadow, or futzing with prints in the darkroom could create images that mimicked the dreamlike qualities of Surrealist artworks in other media. However ceding control to the camera also simulated the Surrealist practice of automatism, which strove to eliminate the burden of conscious intention during art practice. Raymond’s collection shows an unlikely correlation between this Surrealist practice and the practices of more formalist modernist photographers. Striving to capture objective truth—whether material or socio-political—through the lens, the modernists hoped to abandon emotional or historical prejudice when creating photographs. The images that resulted from their formalism were just as capable of exposing an eerie, unfamiliar sense of place or time as those of their Surrealist counterparts. The French photographer Brassaï, whose work is featured in the Cleveland show, explained that his goal was to show reality, “for there is nothing more surreal than reality itself.”

Some artists featured in “Forbidden Games,” such as Dora Maar, show varying degrees of surrealism within their oeuvres. Cleveland boasts 23 photographs by Maar, which is thought to be the largest institutional holding of the artist in the U.S. Known primarily as Picasso’s lover and muse, Maar was a successful commercial and fine art photographer in Paris, as well as a contributor to various Surrealist journals, prior to her tryst with the artist. She developed a keen eye for oddity and illusion, even in her glamorous fashion shots, such as Fashion Study (1934), which features a woman sitting with her back turned to the camera, draped in a gown and wooly shawl, with uncanny squares of light painting the photo’s background. A trip to Barcelona in 1933 yielded many seemingly straightforward street snaps that often depict the disenfranchised or the blind (blindness and sight were ripe themes among the Surrealists), such as Beggar Woman, Barcelona; Blind Musicians; and Blind Street Peddler, Barcelona. Children Playing (1933), shows its subjects rolling in the street. Maar used a cutout of one of these children in her 1935 photo-collage Forbidden Games (the namesake of the exhibition). An example of her most surrealist work, the collage shows a scantily clad woman in a rather buttoned-up looking parlor, straddling a man’s back while the aforementioned street urchin looks on from under a desk. While living with Picasso, Maar created Double Portrait with Hat (circa 1936–37), another ambitious surrealist image. Using a negative from a fashion shoot, the artist cut, painted, and re-photographed the image of a woman in profile, creating a fractured, nearly Cubist, re-imagination of the glamour shot. By 1938, Picasso had convinced Maar to drop photography and paint instead—she was institutionalized soon after and never made a photograph after 1940.

Other highlights of the exhibition come from unfamiliar artists working far from Surrealism’s epicenter. A photograph by Argentinean-born, Bauhaus-trained artist Horacio Coppola, Royal Wedding (1934), captures some artfully cut scraps of newsprint taken from the daily stock listings of a London paper and layered over an image of the crowd awaiting the Duke of Kent’s marriage to Princess Marina of Greece—an event highly publicized by the British monarchy in order to distract the public from the Great Depression. Another lesser-known artist, Emiel van Moerkerken, became one of the leading surrealist voices in Holland after meeting Man Ray, Dalí, and Brassaï on a trip to Paris in 1934, when he was only 18. Mixing the Freudian themes that interested Dalí and other Surrealists with an inclination toward the performative possibilities of photography, van Moerkerken teamed up with sculptor Chris van Geel to make the series Surrealist Act with Chris van Geel (1938–41). In one of the images, van Geel resembles a proto-Freddy Krueger-esque character. Leaning into some sort of a cage, he wears a menacing grin, dark hat, and rubber gloves while he grabs the neck of a doll head with spiders painted on it.

On the topic of dolls, Hans Bellmer’s freakish and beautiful photobook The Doll (1934, printed in 1936) will be on view. An essay written by the artist—printed on pink paper—accompanies the erotic images of the life-size female doll he created and posed. The book is one of 100 in a French edition that was compiled by Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. A portrait of the photographer Lee Miller, an art crush of Raymond, will also be in the show. Taken by Man Ray in 1930, Miller is seen upside down, with her face placid and eyes closed, while her shimmering hair curls like the capital of a Corinthian column.

Moving Pictures Fri, 28 Mar 2014 22:50:39 +0000 Continue reading ]]> With a historic acquisition The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston stages its first Pictorialist photography show in decades.

J. Craig Annan, Fred Holland Day, c. 1900-01, platinum and gum bichromate combination print.

J. Craig Annan, Fred Holland Day, c. 1900-01, platinum and gum bichromate combination print.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) J. Craig Annan, Fred Holland Day, c. 1900-01, platinum and gum bichromate combination print. F. Holland Day, The Seven Last Words, 1898, seven platinum prints in original frame; Edward Steichen, Solitude (Portrait of F. Holland Day), 1901, platinum print. Gertrude Käsebier, Harmony, 1901, platinum print with hand additions to negative; Rudolph Eickemeyer, The Lily Pond, 1916, gelatin sliver print, toned.

In 1898, Boston-based photographer, publisher, and aesthete F. Holland Day began creating photographs that had religious themes. He called them “sacred studies.” Not unlike the Catholic scenes he sought to recreate, Day’s images married elements of flamboyant pageantry with ascetic pathos. He created arresting prints of himself as a gaunt, shrouded Christ, some shot as dramatic close-range portraits, others with his body appearing nearly lifeless while suspended on a large wooden cross. This series was so in line with the aesthetic of the church that members of the clergy were known to keep resized versions of the photos in their offices. However, this exploration of iconic spiritual imagery was not an exploration of personal spirituality. It was a concentrated effort to imbue his photographs with the majesty and gravity of the themes found in Old Master paintings, of which he was a collector. His images aspired to be high art and became some of the most important works of the Pictorialist photography movement, which was at its height between 1885 and 1915.

At the turn of the 20th century, photography was still a fledgling medium, considered more of a technical advancement than an art form. Its egalitarian nature didn’t help—unlike those who were blessed with the ability to use a brush or a chisel with precision and grace, couldn’t anyone pick up a camera and click? Painting had, over a very long period of time, developed a dialect and a set of standards for its own importance. Devotional imagery, for instance, as it had been commissioned by the church for centuries, relied to a certain extent on spectacle and its own sense of artistic Creationism. A motif in a painting, even if it represented something that existed in reality, had to be created from scratch, whereas the scene inside the frame of a photograph was simply a recording of what was or had been there. For early photography, truth was its burden.

Pictorialism, as a theoretical movement—the first one centered around photography—sought to merge the technical possibilities of the camera with the traditional themes and aesthetics of painting, drawing, and engraving. Often employing a soft, almost Impressionist-like focus and printed in a range of grays, browns, and blues with the platinum and gum bichromate processes, Pictorialist images were designed to blend the artist’s imagination with visual reality. More than anything, though, the movement sought to carve out photography’s place in the pantheon of fine art, a pursuit which may seem ridiculous to the contemporary viewer but which was essential a hundred years ago.

Last year the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston purchased The Seven Last Words (1898) by F. Holland Day from the Norwood Historical Society in Norwood, Mass. The piece is a series of seven platinum prints depicting Day as Christ and set in a frame of the artist’s own design. Each print represents one of the last phrases spoken by Christ before his death. There are two other known versions of this work. One is in the Met but does not have a frame designed by Day, and one is owned by a private collector and has an altered frame. In general, work by Day is extremely rare. A fire destroyed most of his studio in the early 20th century, and after that, the artist gave much of his remaining collection, including pieces of his own work and pieces by friends, to the Library of Congress. He kept only four works for himself. The MFA now proudly owns those and is looking to show them off. Because a recent exhibition at the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass., focused on Day’s role as an eccentric promoter and creator of the arts in late 19th-century New England, the MFA decided to forgo a Day solo show. Instead the museum opted for an exhibition about Pictorialism, the movement for which Day was a central figure.

“Truth and Beauty: Pictorialist Photography” (the title is a nod to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn) will run at the museum from April 17 through February 16, 2015. The show will include about 50 photographs and will highlight the museum’s collection, which it has been amassing for years (Incidentally, in 1924, Alfred Stieglitz donated 27 pieces of his work to the MFA, making it one of the first museums to collect photography). Anne Havinga, the MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, notes that the show will have a wide breadth. “It will explore many of the themes of the moment,” she says. “There will be Symbolism, religious themes, people, landscapes and urbanscapes, some early photographs of urban grit with an emphasis on tone, seen through smoke and lights. There’s a group of pictures that are about intimate moments, and then there’s a section about reading—because the Arts & Crafts movement made all of these angled nooks for reading.” The MFA photography collection “is known for many things,” says Havinga, citing its collection of Modernist photography, “but we like to show what happened before that.” This grouping of images is pivotal to photographic history. “It took a long time to accept photography as an art form, but Pictorialism advanced it,” she says. “The next stage is not about soft focus and atmosphere; instead they wanted high contrast and sharp lines and a different kind of truth, but they couldn’t have done that without this movement.”

The central figures of this movement are all present here, including Day’s rival Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Clarence H. White. Among the non-Day-related works is Rudolph Eickemeyer’s The Lily Pond (1916). The toned gelatin silver print captures a windswept, slightly overgrown pond that would be right at home next to a Sally Mann landscape. George H. Seeley’s Apple Tree and House (1914) is a platinum and gum bichromate combination print that explores the Tonalist nature of daytime light and shade.

Included in the museum’s acquisition, and also on view, are three portraits of Day. The Solitude of F. Holland Day is a platinum print made by Steichen in 1901. It features a reclining, contemplative Day in a black velvet smock, matching hat, and pearl ring. Clarence H. White’s portrait F. Holland Day and an African Model, shot a year later, shows the photographer posed in profile in a floor-length robe, with the image of a male model he used for his photographs receding faintly into the background. The portrait by James Craig Annan is a dark platinum and gum bichromate combination print. Day, who gave out cotton and wool sailor-suit sets to each of his guests at his house in Maine, had a flair for dressing up, and incidentally posed for many prominent photographers and friends. His jaunts in front of the lens leave a healthy visual record of an artist who, although influential in his own time, fell into obscurity during the 20th century—due in large part to the loss of his archives in his studio fire and a feud with Stieglitz that made him shrink from the art scene later in his life.

Despite the photographic eye candy, the arguable highlight of the exhibition is not, technically speaking, on view. “In this acquisition, we got the crown of thorns that he wore in the photographs,” says Havinga, referring to Day’s Seven Last Words. “I just really wanted to keep the crown of thorns together with the picture. It has two-inch-long thorns—I think it’s hawthorn branch, but I’m not certain. To me, having that brings the act of making the picture to life.” When asked if the crown will be viewable, the curator noted that it is too delicate.

Eugène Atget: Capturing the Essence of Paris Wed, 01 Aug 2012 04:02:36 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Pigeonholed as a mere urban preservationist or a naïve proto-Surrealist, Eugène Atget imbued his photographic “documents” with a distinct style and a melancholy vision.

By Dan Hofstadter

This article originally appeared in the Summer issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “The Poet of Paris.”

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)

About 20 years ago, in the midst of a long sojourn with Henri Cartier-Bresson in Provence, this writer often heard the great photographer and enfant terrible proclaim that Eugène Atget was “boring.” That Cartier-Bresson was left cold by his illustrious predecessor, who lived from 1857 to 1927, is understandable, given Atget’s rather vague, and, from the story-telling viewpoint, slightly distanced pictures of street life, a genre at which Cartier-Bresson excelled. But this judgment (and one, mind you, coming from a French photographer!) ran directly counter to the settled conception of Atget in the entire photography world.

Atget’s photos of old Paris, its buildings, decorative art, shop-fronts and tradespeople, and of the Ile-de-France, with its palaces, parks, rustic villages and canals, were introduced to American audiences by the photographer Berenice Abbott, who, as Man Ray’s studio assistant, knew Atget in Paris in the late 1920s. Her conception of him, not only as a great artist but as a founding pioneer of his art, was shared by Beaumont Newhall, MoMA’s first curator of photography and an influential historian on the subject, and there is, of course, much to be said for it. What Cartier-Bresson’s remark reminds us of, however, is the peculiar fact that Atget would not have been regarded as an artist by almost anyone else in Paris in the ’20s; that he did not regard himself as such; that his intentions were purely documentary; and that all he wished to achieve—outwardly at least—was an encyclopedic visual record of the imperiled French architectural patrimony. It was intended to serve as a kind of photo archive or “swipe file” for the use of illustrators, artists and designers.

It is therefore of great interest that the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the city of Paris, housed in a structure redesigned by Mansart in the 17th century and inhabited for 20 years by the celebrated letter-writer Madame de Sévigné, should present an exhibition of Atget’s work. The handsome, extensive show, which contains 230 prints and other materials, some of which have not been on view before, puts Atget’s work squarely in the context of its function as a record of Parisian material culture. Here the viewer is also free to compare Atget’s images with the museum’s vast holdings of minor but often very fine French paintings illustrating the history of Paris during Atget’s lifetime, an extremely transformative era for the city’s physical fabric. And as if that were not enough, the Marais, the largely unspoiled quarter surrounding the museum, is one that Atget himself occasionally photographed.

None of this is coincidental, of course. The Musée Carnavalet has the greatest Atget collection in the world, comprising approximately 9,000 prints,2,300 of them bought directly from the photographer between 1898 and 1927, as well as 18 of the albums he made to advertise his image bank, acquired between 1906 and 1927. Atget archived his photographs, printed from glass plates, in bound volumes, with titles like Intérieurs Parisiens or L’Art dans le Vieux Paris; several, displayed here, have covers lettered by Atget himself in an old-fashioned “secretary hand.”

The reconstruction of France since 1945 has dimmed memories of the wholesale destruction of the country’s architectural patrimony between 1853 and 1918, a period that saw the leveling of everything from magnificent cathedrals to ancient stone-built cottages. This process began under Georges Eugène Hausmann , who, as Napoleon III’s Préfet de la Seine, gutted large parts of Paris, especially between the Hôtel de Ville and Châtelet, in the heart of the city, and replaced them with modern quarters and spacious boulevards. A new form of devastation appeared during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, when Paris was besieged and bombarded by the Germans, and again during the week-long, bloody civil strife between the adherents of the Commune and the troops of the Versailles government—the so-called semaine sanglante—of May 1871. During these engagements the Communards, embittered over the summary executions of their comrades, burned one of Paris’s architectural glories, the Hôtel de Ville, as well as the Palais des Tuileries, much of the Palais-Royal, the Cour des Comptes and the Palais de Justice.

Since Atget moved to Paris from Bordeaux in 1878, much of this happened before his time, but Hausmann’s urban-renewal project, left incomplete in 1870, was continued under successive Paris administrations. And as a constant reader of historical writing and of the republican, left-leaning daily press Atget certainly understood what had happened, and in any event the physical and psychological scars of the hostilities had had little time to heal. Then, during World War I, a lot of the housing stock in several populous areas to the east of Paris was flattened by artillery, and the great Gothic cathedral of Soissons, among other treasures, was virtually destroyed. In 1919, all of the city’s fine, encircling fortifications, which had proved futile and which Atget had photographed, were razed. In the light of this ongoing catastrophe, Atget’s archive has to be seen largely, if not exclusively, as a self-sacrificing, even patriotic attempt to preserve an all-encompassing record of a material culture headed largely toward oblivion.

The hagiographic approach to Atget, which tends to ignore his preservationist role and makes of him the Saint Peter of the church of modern photography, has never been especially convincing. Many of his images are not very pictorial, and when they are plentifully exhibited, as in the Carnavalet exhibition, you can get a little bored, like Cartier-Bresson. You notice that your feet hurt and your neck has gotten stiff. But if you compare his rendering of Paris to, let us say, that of Charles Marville (pseudonym of Charles François Bossu, 1813-79) who made an excellent, officially commissioned photographic record of the city before Hausmann’s urban-renewal program got fully under way, you begin to see how quietly charged with emotion Atget is. Marville is analogous to Atget in that he gives us pre-Hausmann Paris just as Atget gives us pre-World War I and—20s Paris. The difference, however, is that while Marville presents crisp documentation tout court, Atget, though proposing no more, finds his way toward a rich, warm urban sensibility, which though often wanting in typical pictorial effects— engaging anecdotes, striking lighting, powerful compositions—is persuasive as a cumulative visual response and capable, above all, of pointing out a vast number of things a civilized person would wish to see, if only they hadn’t been destroyed.

Atget’s custodial approach to Parisian civilization, with its insistence on a middle range of tone and its struggle for sharp detail, is aided by the very same equipment that restricts any rapid registration of street life, of social bustle—the large-format (18 x 24 cm) view camera. The upshot—given the naturally overcast, often rainy weather in the Ile-de-France and an obvious preference for shooting when no one is present—is a melancholy, rather dark, often damp and mostly empty Paris, a Paris that never existed and is really a reflection of Atget’s solitary, meditative temperament.

It is often forgotten that Atget was only one of more than a dozen photographers, including those in the Union Photographique de Paris, pursuing the documentary objective of capturing the essence of Paris. Yet his work retains its unique appeal when juxtaposed with that of a somewhat similar contemporary. The Carnavalet show has devoted a room to 17 prints (and a few postcards) by Emmanuel Pottier (1864–1921), a sometime member of the Union and a talented amateur who sold several score photographs of the city to the museum between 1899 and 1905. These photos are smaller (13 x 18 cm) than Atget’s and have an excellent print quality; what’s more, not only does Pottier follow the same procedure as Atget, he can also be observed arriving earlier at some of the very same locations and, in a few cases, selecting virtually the same view. A wall text describes the duplication as “troubling,” but without elaboration, so one doesn’t know what is being implied. Plagiarism? A copycat mentality? Surely only a mistaken conception of Atget’s and Pottier’s intentions would lead one to be troubled by such resemblances. Both were documentarians; they were not striving to “brand” themselves, as we might say today. It is only that they might arrive coincidentally at the same spot, under similar lighting conditions, and take the same picture, or almost. And actually Pottier’s work, as shown here, does not really look like Atget’s. That comprehensive, melancholy vision is lacking.

It is always dangerous to celebrate any visual artist as a forerunner of some later movement or development, as so many critics have done with Atget, because one ends up stressing aspects of the images that were not present to the mind of the creator or central to the period. Man Ray, who detected a Surrealist element in Atget’s work—his collection of 43 prints receives a room in this show—requested four photographs for inclusion in an issue of the journal La Revolution surréaliste; Atget agreed, but only on condition that his name not be used, since he regarded himself as a documentarian. Abbott, and many others following her lead, championed Atget as an artist, but the unguarded ease with which they drift into discussing the content rather than the style of his pictures drastically undermines their case. In response to this confusion, Edward Weston wrote, “Atget was a great documentary photographer but is misclassed as anything else. The emotion derived from his work is largely that of connotations from subject matter.” This is brutally accurate, up to a point. It is true that much of Atget, especially before 1910, is a very special sort of photography of architecture and design that demands respectful acknowledgment of the vanishing French crafts and manual trades that he recorded, from stone-carving to iron-forging to shopfitting, and most American photography enthusiasts have not been prepared to concede this. But Weston’s stricture is also too sweeping, and, in that sense, it is wide of the mark.

Atget’s abortive career as an actor probably conditioned much in his future approach to photography. Maria Morris Hambourg, in a sensitive essay devoted to the few remaining records of his early life, discovered a talented young drama student dreadfully thwarted by five years of military service that ended up destroying his hopes for a profession on the stage. As an alternative métier, documentary photography, ill-paid though it might be, freed Atget from the weight of all overseers, all bosses; Hambourg notes that he always spoke scornfully of the army, kept a complete file of press clippings about the Dreyfus Affair (which pitted the officer corps against liberal critics), and except for one instance declined to accept commissions from anyone, including from well-disposed municipal bodies like the Bibliothèque Nationale. Extremely well-read, especially in theatrical classics, a close reader of the daily press, a collector of cartoons aimed at the authorities, Atget, was a solitary autodidact—proud, brilliant, self-disciplined, opinionated, fiercely argumentative.

When he developed stomach problems and was advised to take only milk and bread for his midday meal, he touted this repast to others as the only salutary form of nutrition. We say that if life gives you lemons, make lemonade, but Atget’s devotion to the sweet uses of adversity had something contentious, something obdurate and retributive about it. One is tempted to conjecture that the idea of “possessing” all Paris—the word is his—was at bottom a pugnacious, “I’ll-show-them” attempt to turn fate on its head. What a pity that he did not live long enough—a few more years would have sufficed—to experience the tremendous acclaim his work would receive, especially in the United States.

There is this paradox about Atget: he achieves fabulous documentary completeness because of the encyclopedic volume of his output, but within this admittedly “boring” prolixity, if you look carefully, you find a limited but solid quantity of highly expressive images that reveal Atget the stylist.

Look at the many “picturesque” old courts that he captured, for instance. Despite Atget’s early training as an actor, in these photos one observes a general lack of similarity between his handling of spatial recession and the advanced stage design of the early modern period: Atget was not a modern and did not seek after modernist effects. What you do not see, most noticeably, are long slanting cast shadows or any strong divisions between light and dark that might heighten drama at the expense of visual information. These pictures prefer to register local values as seen in grey weather, and thus convey the details and patina so important to the history of building types and the appreciation of the picturesque. But it isn’t as if his vision doesn’t add up to something persuasive in its own right, especially if you stick to his best pictures—like the Ancien Collège de Chanac or the unusually stagey Cour, Rue Broca, with its hidden, watchful figures, or the numerous door-within-door exercises, in which portals are shown leading to farther portals, usually dark and forbidding. This is a vision of the city as a collection of spaces that always lead somewhere else, but often via prohibitive passages, tempting but forbidden.

In the street scenes, multiple vistas appear, and narrow notches disclosing lanes leading away into the distance, although some of the secondary lures to one’s eye—the open door at the side of the alley, the watery depths through the murky shop window—are at first barely noticeable. People are spied at a distance, just leaving, or lurking behind closed windows, so that a sense of the unknown hovers. The conviction that commercial establishments are theaters of mystery harks back to Watteau’s masterpiece The Gersaint Shopsign, whose principal figure turns her back on the viewer and whose action defies interpretation, and permeates Atget’s many pictures of facades, whether of cafes, shops or, quintessentially, brothels. Faces are blurred behind glass or averted, though in the late, frank pictures of prostitutes, as in those of destitute rag-pickers, many of which are shown here, Atget achieves the rank of a commanding social observer.

And so it is that one grows aware that curiously enough, at one time or another, Atget, whether despite his program or because of it, could do almost anything that is possible with a view camera. He did not enlarge; he did not always print perfectly, but when he did, the result is spectacular. The Carnavalet’s print of the Parc Delessert, a photograph of a vanished botanical garden laid out by a great Protestant industrial family in Passy, at the western confines of Paris, is a little miracle. Allot a good quarter of an hour just to relish this tiny piece of paradise.

Fashion Photography: New Exhibition of Photographer Herb Ritts Thu, 05 Apr 2012 06:14:56 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition of Herb Ritts’ iconic commercial work proves that fashion photography isn’t just posing as fine art.

Herb Ritts, Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990

Herb Ritts, Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Ready for His Close-Up”.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)
Herb Ritts, Wrapped Torso, Los Angeles, 1989 Herb Ritts, Versace, Veiled Dress, 1990 Herb Ritts, Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Naomi, Tatjana Herb Ritts, Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990

You can argue whether Herb Ritts’ Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Naomi, Tatjana, Hollywood (1989) belongs in a leading American museum, but there’s little point to the exercise—the black-and-white photograph that captures a quintet of nude supermodels has already graced the walls of two. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston showcased the picture in the notorious and successful 1996 exhibition Herb Ritts: Work, and the image appears at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, which opens there this month. The Getty is the second major U.S. museum to devote a solo show to Ritts, a Los Angeles native who shot album covers for Madonna, celebrity portraits for Vanity Fair, fashion layouts, music videos, commercials, and sensitive depictions of tribal Africans before he died in 2002 at the age of 50. But it makes explicit an idea that was implicit in the Boston show, and implicit in Ritts’ short but spectacular career: The line that separates fine-art photography and commercial art photography is not just irrelevant, it’s an illusion.

Ritts’ nudes, fashion photographs and celebrity portraits receive attention in the exhibit at the Getty, but curator Paul Martineau acknowledges that some images suit more than one category. Stephanie… technically fits all three, but Martineau placed it among the nudes. It’s one of Ritts’s most famous photographs, occupying the first through fourth places in his top 10 best sellers at auction. He took it in 1989, before the peak of the supermodel era, and it gathers many of the women who dominated it: Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz. The picture is a good representative of Ritts’ work in that it looks almost effortlessly beautiful and doesn’t hint at the toil and finesse required to produce it.

Martineau notes that Ritts included in the composition of Stephanie… a subtle reference to one of his photographic forbears: The twined limbs of Tatjana and Naomi recall the pose of a 1936 Edward Weston nude of Charis Wilson. “This is one of the great things that Herb was able to do,” says Martineau. “He had an amazing visual memory, and he was able to incorporate influences of people he respected into his work without making it seem like he was copying. To be able to do that and create a style that is distinctly one’s own is extraordinary.”

The starkest statement in the Getty Ritts show comes in a section that Martineau packed with images of athletes and dancers and dubbed “Art and Commerce.” “I talk about the history of the bias against commercial photography,” he says, “and the people who came before him who address that, and how Ritts didn’t make a distinction between the two things—he approached all his work with the same level of intelligence and creativity. I pose a question and ask people if they can tell the difference between the photographs that were created for his personal projects or for commercial commissioned work.”

While Martineau asks the question in the context of the “Art and Commerce” display, he says it can apply to the entire show. Stephanie… is a case in point. Ritts had been assigned to shoot four models for a May 1989 Rolling Stone swimwear story. One of them—it’s unclear who—mentioned that Christy Turlington was in L.A. that day, and maybe they should call her and ask if she could join them. Turlington said yes, and Ritts arranged the five and fired away. So, not only did he possess the ability to make the world’s leading supermodels comfortable enough to strip naked, cram themselves into the narrow patio hallway of his Hollywood home, relax, and hug each other like sisters rather than the rivals they were—they liked him enough to tell him that another rival happened to be in town and suggest that he include her in the frame, too.

Herb Ritts: L.A. Style is only the latest example of how the fine art photography–commercial art photography divide is fading. Fashion photography, a category of images that is inherently commercial, is gaining respect from curators, dealers and collectors. At a Christie’s Paris sale in November 2010, an oversize print of Richard Avedon’s 1955 classic Dovima with Elephants became the first fashion photograph to break the million-dollar mark at auction, and last year, the Gagosian gallery—the global behemoth whose stable includes contemporary superstars Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, and Takashi Murakami, to name a few—began representing the Avedon estate. (It had previously been with the venerable Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, a photography specialist.) Last year, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston hosted a show based on three books by the late fashion photographer Helmut Newton: White Women, Sleepless Nights, and Big Nudes. British photographer Cecil Beaton, who captured the fashions and faces of the early to mid-20th century, was honored with an exhibit at The Museum of the City of New-York that closed in February. London’s Victoria & Albert Museum intends to mount a Horst P. Horst show after 2013.

Rising interest in fashion photography has brought fresh attention to artists who otherwise might have remained obscure. The death of Harper’s Bazaar stalwart Lillian Bassman at age 94 on February 13 might not have made as many headlines if the hundred-odd 1950s-era black and white negatives that she ruefully tucked into garbage bags and hid in her Manhattan home had lain undiscovered. Fashion photography historian Martin Harrison visited her in the early 1990s and located the stash, an act that snowballed into a late-in-life career revival for Bassman. She accepted commissions from the New York Times and German Vogue and embarked on what she called “reinterpretations” of her vintage photographs, working closely with a darkroom technician to release a total of 100 of her pictures in editions of 25.

The discovery also led her to Peter Fetterman, a Santa Monica, Calif., gallery owner who offers Cartier-Bresson, Horst, and Hoyningen-Huene and who fell under the spell of the Bassmans shown in Harrison’s 1991 book, Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945. “I saw her images and was totally seduced by her—her as a person and her work,” says Fetterman. He was readying a new Bassman show that emphasized lingerie when he received word of her passing. While he says he might change the name of the show, he does not expect to alter its content.

Like Bassman, Ritts was heavily involved with the production of his limited editions, which number more than 500 and were typically issued in series of 25 plus three artist’s proofs. Though half his lifetime output is in color, anyone who attends the Getty exhibit, views the catalogue of the MFA show, or visits the galleries that offer him will encounter only black-and-white images. Ritts was an ardent photography collector who cared deeply about the quality of prints of his work, and chose to stick to black and white out of dissatisfaction with the available color processing techniques. After he died, his foundation decided it would not issue posthumous editions and thereby ensured that his color images would never appear for sale.

Ritts began his professional career in the late 1970s. Like many of his predecessors, he was self-taught, but for him, the divide between commercial art and fine art simply didn’t exist. His ability to stride forward, indifferent to a debate that had simmered for decades, owes much to when, where, and how he grew up. Ritts was the son of a prosperous and privileged Los Angeles family who lived next door to actor Steve McQueen at the height of his fame. Ritts somehow achieved the near-miraculous feat of living at the epicenter of the film industry and working with its hottest stars without turning catty or cynical.

“In all my years with him, I never heard him even once whisper something that could be considered negative or cross. He was a complete optimist,” says Mark McKenna, who joined Ritts as a photographic assistant in 1989, stayed with Ritts until the AIDS-weakened artist succumbed to complications of pneumonia, and now leads the Herb Ritts Foundation. “No matter what he was doing, he liked to find this glint of beauty in everything he saw.”

His relentless embrace of beauty provides fodder for his critics, who relished picking apart the MFA show. After dismissing Herb Ritts: Work as “a collection of beautiful faces and perfect figures flaunting themselves,” and Ritts’ oeuvre as “all fun, all style and little substance, slick and seductive,” in her October 1996 Boston Globe review, Christine Temin couldn’t resist returning two months later, once the show was a confirmed blockbuster, to pen a disapproving article titled The Malling of the MFA.

MFA director Malcolm Rogers, for his part, has no regrets. “Wherever I go, people come up to me at parties and thank me for two things,” he says. “One is opening the Huntington Avenue entrance of the museum [which had been closed due to budget cuts], and the other is the Herb Ritts exhibition. They were both very festive, welcoming things to do in totally different ways—open the doors, and open people’s perceptions to a world of photography that previously perhaps hadn’t been featured in museums, but which was delightful.” The final attendance number exceeded 250,000.

Martineau shouldn’t face anything like the opprobrium that Rogers did, and not just because he’s shrewdly paired the Getty’s Ritts exhibit with Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity, a historic centuries-spanning survey of celebrity portraiture that draws on the museum’s archives and starts and ends on the same days as Herb Ritts: L.A. Style. Things really have changed in the last decade and a half. In 2011, Edwynn Houk Gallery became the New York representative of the Ritts estate and marked the acquisition with a retrospective of the photographer’s work. College age admirers of the MFA exhibition were prosperous young collectors by the time of the Houk show and helped make it one of the gallery’s top 10 best-sellers by volume.

Houk avers that prior to 2011, he might not have admitted Ritts to his stable. “For a long time, there’s been prejudice against work done on commission. It extended to reportage, fashion, and portraits. Over time, it has broken down,” he says, adding, “There’s been obviously more respect for people who have done creative work for the printed page. Collectors and museums respond more nowadays.”

He credits contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman, who relies on photography, for speeding the erosion of the barrier. The first photograph to break the million-dollar threshold at auction was Richard Prince’s 1989 image Untitled (Cowboy), which fetched $1.2 million at Christie’s New York in November 2005. Since then, Prince, Andreas Gursky, and Sherman have all set fresh benchmarks for photographs at auction. Gursky’s Rhein II sold for $4.3 million last November at Christie’s New York, snatching “most expensive photograph at auction” honors from Sherman’s Untitled #96 from 1981, which had earned $3.9 million at the same venue six months earlier. Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) now ranks 11th on the all-time most expensive photographs at auction list, just ahead of Avedon’s Dovima. “It’s ironic, really,” says Houk, “that there was this great historical body of fashion photography that was not universally accepted until contemporary artists started changing the perception of what photographers were.”

Though celebrity portraits comprise only part of Ritts’s work, the media often reduces him to that particular aspect. In its initial Internet breaking news piece on the Herb Ritts Foundation’s 2007 gift of $2.5 million to the MFA for a photography gallery that would bear Ritts’s name, the Boston Globe staffer still called him a “celebrity photographer.” Moreover, Ritts is hardly the first prominent photographer to shoot A-List Hollywood stars for Vanity Fair. No less a photographic god than Edward Steichen accepted commissions from Condé Nast. His iconic 1924 portrait of the actress Gloria Swanson veiled in black lace appears in the Getty’s Portraits of Renown exhibit. Steichen is also credited with doing the first significant fashion shoot in 1911, when the French magazine Art et Décoration asked him to showcase dresses by the designer Paul Poiret. (Sadly, neither negatives nor high-quality prints survive.) Incidentally, Steichen holds fourth place on the ‘most expensive’ list, earned when his 1904 image, The Pond-Moonlight sold for $2.9 million at Sotheby’s New York in February 2006, making it the record-holder at that time.

David Fahey, of the Fahey/Klein gallery in Los Angeles (which, in addition to Ritts, handles photographs by Avedon, Horst, Irving Penn, George Hoyningen-Huene, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Man Ray, Bruce Weber, and Helmut Newton), had the unique pleasure of meeting Ritts as a photograph collector in the late 1970s before hanging his black-and-whites on the gallery walls in the mid-1980s. “Ritts was a master of capturing people in their pop culture moment,” Fahey says. “He didn’t just take pictures of Madonna, he took the picture of Madonna. If you think of Madonna, you think of that True Blue cover.”

There will always be some who insist on dismissing Ritts as fluff. But as time passes, it becomes clearer that Ritts had a talent that few can match: His best images please the eye without sliding out of the mind. “The proof is in the fact that there are so many pictures that Herb did that are impossible to forget,” says Martineau. “You see Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage and you will never forget that picture. It’s so fantastic.”