Friday, February 1, 2008

Frank Paulin: Out of the Limelight

Photography for me is a medium that seems to propel along like a car that is perpetually running out of gas. In fits and starts, surges of energy and inertia, I will have a year where I am one and Zen-like with the world and then the next year I am out of sync like someone who has spent all of their karmic savings in one moment. This is a year when I am out of sync.

This is not a phenomena that is entirely my own. If you look through any artist’s work you will see good and bad years of production. For photographers who venture out into the street in which to mediate their experiences, a bad year may mean always being one step away from where you think you need to be standing before your prey decides they need a Starbucks and betrays your intuitive moment. These difficulties in navigating the world compounded by its non-cooperation with your needs as an artist is the simplest explanation as to why there are not many photographers still working in that manner. Revelation requires spending lots of shoe leather and depending on how big the revelation, possibly even knee surgery.

I raise this thought because there was something going on in New York in 1955 and 56 that seems uncanny. Perhaps the stars were aligned, or maybe more appropriately, if you added up all of the ages of the dead photo-gods the total was 1955.56; whatever it was, New York cooperated with its street photographers in those years.

Frank Paulin was out there wading into the flow of sidewalk traffic (maybe even passing William Klein slugging his way through Times Square) and a new book by the Silverstein Gallery called Frank Paulin: Out of the Limelight sheds light on this relatively little known photographer’s work.

Paulin grew up in New York and Chicago and studied photography with the likes of Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and Harry Callahan in the mid-1940’s and later attended the classes of the legendary Alexey Brodovich at the New School. Like many of the photographers at the time, there was no commercial means to an end beyond pursuing his passion and keeping the spoils mostly hidden away in boxes. One of the few outlets to show this genre of photography was Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery in Greenwich Village which survived due to its coffee customers rather than print collectors. In 1957, Paulin had his first solo exhibition at the Limelight and even drew some admiring reviews from The New York Times and The Village Voice.

Getting back to the mysterious goings on in 1955-56 in New York City, of the 89 photographs in this book, more than half are made within those two years, and for me, they are the gems that make this book a welcome addition to my shelf.

The sequence carries us through resonant moments in the streets as day shifts into the neon lit Times Square night. It is then that the staple subjects of street photographers come out of the wood work. A blind accordion player, burdened by the weight of his instrument, plays for pennies while sailors on shore leave hope for female accompaniment only to find themselves unsure of where to look and feeling the rapid slip of time. Amongst the movie goers and couples figuring out how to navigate relationships, Paulin’s camera grabs at this world set against the movie marquees and the brightly lit theater entrances that once made Times Square seem to glow from the inside out.

The power of some of Paulin’s observations place him well with in the ranks of the more recognizable names who were also drawn to the same streets and corners where brief one-act plays change with the traffic lights. Those who have reveled in Louis Faurer’s Times Square images from a decade earlier will be left to wonder where Frank Paulin has been hiding all of these years.

Perhaps it is the slight tug of 1950’s New York nostalgia (for which I have no first hand experience) but when the sequence shifts us down south to Louisiana or briefly into Cuba, it is within just a few photos that I am homesick and longing for his return to the city again. These brief forays into different territory leave me surprisingly impatient. It isn’t that I think the photography is bad, it is just that the world does not cooperate with Paulin in the same manner as it does when he can work his subjects unnoticed. Although there are a handful of great images bracketing those white-hot years, the edit itself represents one of the great missed opportunities that keeps this book simply good as opposed to great. This could have been a stunning book of 50 photographs whose cohesiveness would have been hard to top.

The book as an object I feel is sadly the other missed opportunity. It was designed by the prominent graphic designer Massimo Vignelli but for the most part, I find it treads over the work instead of celebrating it. The major problem in my opinion is with the choice of format for the book. The elongated horizontal trim size is oriented to favor the majority of horizontal images but this always creates a difficult design problem when dealing with vertical images, of which, Paulin has plenty in the edit. So while the horizontals get the lion’s share of page real estate, the verticals seem far too small for the weight of their imagery and additionally, they get shifted to either meet the gutter or the page ends. The result is disconcerting expanses of white that seem to push the verticals even further into the gutter.

Max Kozloff lends a fine introduction and discussion of Paulin’s work and of the time period in the New York photography scene of the 1950’s.

The title, Out of the Limelight is apropos as it has dual meaning, referring both to Helen Gee’s refuge for young photographers, and by describing the common working life of most of artists then and now. There is little limelight for most. It is the passion and self discipline that sustains one during a process that amplifies your failures. Paulin was out there working and that fact has been well hidden for the past few decades. Thankfully now this book exists to wedge his place within the collective lore of what was happening in the streets of New York and Chicago in the 1950‘s.

Book Available Here (Out of the Limelight)