Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Last Photographic Heroes by Gilles Mora

The notion of ‘photography’s heroes’ was brought up indirectly in a recent lecture at the NY Public Library with the photographers Paul Graham, Tod Papageorge, Katy Grannan, Danny Lyon and Mitch Epstein attempting to discuss ‘truth’ in photography. The conversation started off with Papageorge and Graham discussing their views of the medium and stressing the importance of Winogrand and Szarkowski as attributable influences on themselves and the course of the history of the medium since the sixties. The discussion quickly sidetracked off topic and fireworks erupted when loose cannon provocateur Danny Lyon, sitting grimacing and wincing at the mention of praise towards these two legendary individuals, spewed forth with an interruption of incoherent self-congratulatory bitterness with the intent to discredit and de-mystify.

Now generally I like to hear from people who do not naturally tow the same line of thinking as everyone else as it offers at least the possibility of further enlightenment, I just wish it hadn’t come from Lyon. His views seem seated firmly in his hostility towards the New York 1960’s art world and perhaps towards those who he sees, stole his spotlight. His argument shook loose from reality when he started criticizing Lee Friedlander for taking photos of ‘boring people’ (while praising his own photos of ‘interesting’ types like black transvestites), his perception that Winogrand didn’t (or couldn’t) edit, proclamations that Stephen Shore is a horrible photographer, that Szarkowski’s contribution shouldn’t be considered so important and that Robert Frank was a photojournalist. (His opinions are as valid as anyone's but the last one made me consider that maybe Lyon doesn’t understand the work of everyone he mentioned including his own hero, Frank. Wasn’t Frank the guy who rejected the notions of photojournalism and ushered in an era of suspicion towards literal photographic truth? Didn’t his work employ a language and approach that was full of subjectivity and 180 degrees from inherent photojournalistic principles held firm by the likes of Eugene Smith? Or am I the one who doesn’t understand? Maybe the definition of photojournalism can be twisted like a pipe cleaner into many different forms.)

Anyway, this opinionated battle over these two photographic heroes proved to be the most entertaining part of the lecture. It also leads me to a new book from Harry N. Abrams called The Last Photographic Heroes: American Photographers of the Sixties and Seventies.

In this book, Gilles Mora explores the well trodden subject of how photography in America enjoyed two decades of intense creativity and birthed a new understanding to the potential the medium holds. I had seen a pre-press mock-up of this book at the NY Book Expo earlier this year and have been eagerly awaiting its publication date. Unfortunately, upon seeing the final result, it disappoints more than it excites in almost every way.

The first problem is that the history of this period has been recounted so many times that its telling in this new book may ultimately be pointless. This book’s failure is that it adds little, if anything new, to the subject. It is the same cast delivering the same lines etc…etc.

Secondly, although the design is functional, the reproductions are terrible. Terrible in a…the photographers or the estates of the photographers should sue, kind of way. It really looks like a major technical screw up took place like the pages didn’t make enough passes through the press. Very few of our heroes escape with their dignity intact. For a book that starts as a celebration, this does its best to disgrace and, for some viewers, may be tantamount to sacrilege.

Tina Cameron is credited as the production manager on this book. She was also the production manager on the Books of Nudes that I just featured and with that title she did a fantastic job. There she proved herself capable of taking the helm but here with The Last Photographic Heroes, something went terribly wrong. The production crew is the same, the only difference I can see is that the nudes book was printed in France and this one was printed in China. (China may not be great at keeping making pet food but they sure are great at printing art books). So I am very confused as to what happened to make this book look the way it does. Did she succumb to bad Chinese food? Lead poisoning?

The only value I could have seen in this book is for photographers or students who do not know the importance of this time period in American photography, but due to the poor production work, that seems pointless as well.

The notion of ‘hero’ is a curious one. No doubt hero-worship occurs and I have not escaped such feeling when considering those who have caused me to think in more complex ways. (When my own work is crap I often light a candle in honor of the ‘photo-gods,’ Timothy O’Sullivan and others who had to jump through hoops just to take a single photo). The biggest ‘hero’ for many was Winogrand, who probably would have shunned the title for didn’t he say that, ‘once the work exists then the artist is irrelevant’? I tend to think that Winogrand’s thought, as truthful and ego sacrificing as it may have been, is not viable for many photography enthusiasts. The separation of artist from the art is exceedingly difficult to do when the myths are reaffirmed and disseminated to the point of being equal to, or a justification of, the work itself.

Book Available Here (Last Photographic Heroes)