Monday, August 31, 2009

Capitolio by Christopher Anderson



Early into Christopher Anderson's Capitolio we are faced with a horned demon exorcised by a cross held aloft over its head. It is this one image which metaphorically sums up the presidency of Hugo Chavez and the polarized nation of Venezuela. The poor tend to see Chavez as a saint while the wealthy few - the four hundred year old elite - paint him as the anti-Christ.

Caracas has become the murder capital of the world and Anderson ushers us into this violent street life filling the journey with a tension that lingers through the book. Guns are drawn and a sidewalk becomes a smear of blood, hoods are lined against a wall arms spread - the dark shadows impenetrable and threatening.

Anderson allows some breathing room with a short parade of architecture and the general populace, less threatening and full of life - sexuality and sensuality perhaps providing the relief from the day to day pressures. Industry is nationalized and the petro dollars that used to flow freely become the source of Chavez's New Deal, Bolivarian Revolution but portrayed by Anderson, the industries seem run by incompetents. It all has the tenor of waste and unprofessionalism. One sleeps on some torn cardboard while the machines sit idle; another man seemingly gets swallowed by the truck he repairs.

Anderson tends to portray Chavez as some type of creeping, dictator-in-waiting who has two faces - one a populist president, the other a demon in sheep's clothing. One spread compares a portrait of Simon Bolivar opposite a stencil of Chavez's face over which someone has written 'capo' - meaning mafia leader. The politicians presumably in his cabinet fair no better as one tugs at his pants wearing a suit which seems to be far too constricting. By book's end Chavez is shown with the same horrific relish as a monster in a B movie - a Tor Johnson of Latin America whose base instincts of greed and gluttony cause his eyes to roll into the back of his head.

Anderson owes much to predecessors like Klein and Alvermann for the way he has constructed his journey book-wise. The photos bleed across double page spreads and are chopped and diced to make graphic layouts with dynamic results but for all of the visual excitement I feel the content relies too much on their trickery. Anderson tries his hand at using the same image in cinematic ways by blowing it up in stages to create a zoom effect. One spread that does work wonderfully of a streetcar and its chanting passengers is a visual delight.



Capitolio's political editorializing seems unexpectedly right-wing and at worst, propagandistic. Is this simply representing the opposing views? If so, why does the last "chapter" before villainizing Chavez describe hoards of soldiers in the streets resembling a scene from Pinochet's playbook. This closely followed by a stencil saying: "Men are like stars, some generate their own light while others reflect the brilliance they receive." The pages that follow are of Chavez enjoying mass public adoration.

Capitolio's bright communist red cloth covers are certain to get attention, as is the elegant presentation and printing which is finely acco
mplished with a great looking matte lustre. Capitolio was published by Editorial RM out of Mexico City.

Anderson has said "I sometimes imagine Caracas as a living breathing animal. Obscured by the darkness it appears both violent and sensual, but perhaps it's true nature will only be revealed at the moment it devours me." Those contradiction abound in Latin America but it seems to me that what has devoured Anderson is his own bias, which seems evident throughout most of this book.

32 comments:

Sean said...

This is a very interesting review for the simple reason that it is overtly political, re: its renounciation of anti-Chavez sentiment and an acknowledgement of 'the four hundred year old elite'. And yet it is overtly not pro-Chavez - merely recognising 'vested interests.' (Is there any similar work in regard to Honduras?).

Rehabilitation of of the (latin-American) Right continues. See my recent comments at:
http://pentimento.squarespace.com/journal/2009/8/24/collectors-tip-or-how-to-praise-dictators.html

Many thanks again for the review, all the best, Sean.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this review is really interesting. I wish that Christopher Anderson reads this review and shares his opinion with us!

jeff ladd said...

Sean,

Thank you for your comments.

In the article you cite the first unattributed comment is about Pinochet bringing economic stability to Chile after the coup. Although this is true, much of the instability came with sanctions and a general hostility to Allende's movement to the left and social concern. From what I understand, Allende was making huge progress until the powers that be, like in the US now, stepped in and set the country on the typical free-market shock treatment instituted by the Chicago boys. Nixon who was deeply disturbed by the election of Allende and his nationalizing of industry was famous for his move to make Chile's economy "scream."

Christopher Anderson said...

Mr. Whiskets,
Thanks for the review. I found it fascinating. Really. Mostly due to the fact that even on a blog that is devoted to photography/ art books, the review is pre-occupied with what is perceived as(this is my favorite part)"right wing bias" and other card-board cut out cliches of left and right. Wow, the Bush-Cheney years really did do a number on us, didn't they.

Anyway, I am a little confused: you didn't like the book because you perceived it had a "bias" or because you perceived it had a bias you disagree with? Which do you prefer, books with no point of view or only books that seem to have points of view you agree with?

At any rate, to clear things up:
those aren't Pinochet's soldiers, they in fact belong to Chavez. And that is not Chavez at the end of the book (interesting that you associated all by yourself). It is someone else who sort of represents (metaphorically) a continuing cycle of fear and exploitation that is, unfortuantely, a universal theme in much of Latin America, no matter who is in power at any particular moment...left or right wing.

This book was never intended as a polemic or a factual "reporting" of the place. I am not writing an editorial about Chavez for the NY Times. In fact, the reason I put Chavez at the end of the book is to make sure I am not saying Chavez is responsible for all of these ills of Latin America. If anything, I am saying that all these ills make the rise of a controversial, charismatic, populist leader like him possible.

The book is intentionally ambiguous. I am uninterested in didactic commentary or "story". It is a portrait of a time and place seen by a stranger as if from a passing car in the night. It is an experience of encounters, observations, and fears sometimes completely out of context. In many ways, this book could be about anywhere...it just so happens that it is Caracas. It is not right or left wing propaganda, it is NO wing propaganda. It is not anti Chavez. It is not anti-anything. It is just an experience that I had.

I am more curious to know what you think about the book as an object from a photographic and artistic standpoint. But instead, this review was "devoured" by your need to define things into political boxes. Too bad, you miss the point.

jeff ladd said...

Chris,

Thanks for the comments.

As for me missing the "point," I thought any type of book, art or otherwise, is left for the reader to decide what it means to them. Especially a work that has no text. Sorry to inform you but once something leaves your hands, what you intended does not matter. Are you here in my living room to look over my shoulder to tell me what I am looking at?

I perceived this as being a metaphor of sorts, that wasn't in question. It is the sequencing that sparked my thoughts on the political leanings. Yes I weighed heavily on what I read as a bias but that is what the book is partly about for me. You are welcome to be critical of me for that...OK...so what? That's what I thought about while looking at your work.

And yes I know they are Chavez's soldiers and not Pinochet's since we are supposedly in Caracas and not Santiago. What doesn't seem clear is the sequencing and editing leads in the direction representing an oppressive force in the streets - especially with your attempt to expand the number of soldiers on the page by cropping and reproducing parts of the same image to make the police force larger. Is that just a design trick or is there meaning behind that? Again I read meaning.

One isn't going to read into the politics of a book from Caracas, especially one structured like this? Instead of being so defensive I would think it would be interesting for you to hear a view (albeit just one view) of how your book is perceived.

As for the object, it is beautifully produced but your photography is much less interesting on its own without the design. I believe I said as much in my review.

Perhaps I should have just rewritten the press release and not really give my thoughts on what I experience looking at your book.

best,

Jeff

PS: Next time try your best not to be condescending to me. It just reads as insecurity.

Anonymous said...

That cropping/duplication of police does speak volumes

offensive

thanks Jeff, great job again calling this out

Christopher Anderson said...

Dear Jeff,

I think you have misunderstood me again. When I wrote that I found it fascinating, I was not being sarcastic or condescending. I really did. I apologize for sounding otherwise.

It is very interesting to me that the book would be viewed (and reviewed) as such a political object. Sure, I am not naive enough to think that it wouldn't spark a political discussion, but it really didn't cross my mind that it would be viewed as a political statement. At least not in a forum that is supposedly about art and photography. I was surprised by that. And even pleasantly curious at the different ways that the book can be perceived...it is fascinating to me.

An you are right, when it leaves my hands, it no longer belongs to me. One may read it as a diatribe on soda pop flavors for all I care.

In this case, you are reading into it something that is not there. Of course it is fine for you to read it however you like. And even whether or not you like it or think it is good or bad makes no difference to me. You could even say that my pictures are the worst you've ever seen. I don't mind that criticism at all.

But, ya, as someone who is decidedly not right wing, to be called "right wing" because of what you are projecting onto me does make me react. Maybe slander is a bit strong, but in a public forum like this it might be taken as an attack on my character. Which you are also free to do, but it's just weird.

If your critique had been that the book sucked because you don't like the pictures, fine. I wouldn't give it a second thought and I would have never posted. But you say basically that you don't like it because you think that you don't agree with my politics. And I am just pointing out to you that there AREN'T any politics. As much as you may believe it to be so, this book is not ABOUT chavez. Chavez is in the book, but he is just a character.

Anyway, one of your posters explicitly hoped I would weigh in. And I decided to. Am I not going to explain the true intent of the book (which is at odds with what you have written)or give my opinion on how I think you got it wrong? In this day and age, via this blog, I sort of AM in your living room, looking over your shoulder, and you just finished looking at the book, and you look up at me and say, "This book is about soda pop flavors," and I say...

"no it ain't"

yours,
Christopher

I do apologize for offending you. It was not my intention to be condescending

jeff ladd said...

Chris,

Thank you again for the comments.

I suspect there is a blurring taking place in this discussion between "real life" outside of the book and what the book reveals if one keeps solely within its parameters. I am of the school that once a work exists, that's all there is...the reality of the artist's life, their intention, or even what were the actual real life context of the photos, is mostly irrelevant. When I look at a book I accept it on face value and do not make assumptions easily because for me photos are fictions which twist reality and "truth" in surprising ways. A room full of people will see different things based on their life's experiences and project all sorts of things. This is why the medium is so fascinating to me.

Stepping into real life, I think I could safely bet without you telling me, that you are not right wing in your politics but that again is irrelevant. I was reflecting purely on the sequence. The chain of images and their interplay with you as the author left me thinking of what I wrote.

Sensing a bias that is politically opposed to my views is NOT why I would like something or not, that surprise is actually why I think it IS interesting and merited some words. Even a person far to the left of Marx could arrange a group of photographs to betray their politics. That is what I am interested in, perception of the images alone. What do they add up to and, whether the artist intended it or not, what does this mean to me.

Thanks for making me think and for the interesting comments.

Best,

Jeff

Anonymous said...

What would Eggleston's books be without his character and view on life. You cannot separate the artist and his work. In fact knowing the artist's thoughts will change your view, make it more real (photography is, after all, highly dependent on reality) If we can read anything we like into a work, life itself might as well as be a fiction, we might as well bullshit through it, all the way to the deathbed.

jeff ladd said...

Anon,

Thanks for the comments but I strongly disagree.

That to me is ridiculous. I couldn't care less about what Eggleston was thinking when he made any of those pictures. If photos were dependent on a photographers thoughts then why make photos at all. Write it down. If you knew Eggleston's approach to the medium at all you would discover that he would say the same.

All that matters is within the frame of a photo, the real life context is irrelevant. You could tell me that all the people in Garry Winogrand's photos were walking backwards or that each photo was set up, but what the picture is ultimately about, is determined by what it describes. All else is simple conjecture. I am not interested in conjecture or back story. I am interested in photographs.

Anonymous said...

So let's go all the way and ask photographers to forget about putting, by 'Photographer'(replace author with any photographer you wish) on their books.

Anonymous II said...

I think that 1:49am Anonymous is on to something...

Anonymous the Photographer has always been one of my favorite artists. It would be a treat to see more of his/her work in print.

It certainly tends to wound the pride of the photographer-ego to try to consider the fact that photographs on their own can often be far more interesting than the people who try to live their life defined by the career of making them.

Facebook has been a wonderful example of this for me- there are albums which pop up into my feed full of fantastic photos which are wittier, funnier, and more intelligent than their creators sure were 10 years ago back in high school.

Anonymous said...

just have to say that this is a great debate about the nature of photography and the intent of the photographer. i'm going to show it to my students. i'm sure they'll have alot to say. thank you, jeff AND chris, for putting it out there.

jeff ladd said...

Anon 1:49,

I was initially thinking "here is another of those extremists who in order to prove their point jumps to absurd conclusions" but after a little thought I do actually think there is something in what you say.

Of course a photographer that makes a picture is the author and like any other creator should take credit. BUT, the photographer's name is also irrelevant and in fact, I would argue pollutes how you look at the photo. If you love a particular photographer's work, I bet you would be more willing to "like" something about a bad picture taken by that person. If that same photo had a miscellaneous name attached to it, you'd then think it was crap.

I have seen some pictures which at first I think are by, say, Robert Frank later to discover that they are by Joe Nobody and my view of them shifts. It may be a slight shift but it shifts. Anyone else have that experience?

SO...maybe we should approach looking at photos with absolutely nothing but the picture so the power of influence doesn't poison what you see.

Also, stop reading this blog because just in writing about these books I am spreading poison left and right.

Thanks,

J

Stuart Alexander said...

If Joe Nobody consistently made good photographs, he would become Joe Somebody.

Look at Atget. He claimed to be a journeyman photographer. Those were his intentions as far as we know. But so many photographers, artists, writers and others have found his work to be so much more intriguing and inspiring than the simple documents that he claimed to be making that he has been raised up to be one of the most important Joe Somebodys the medium has ever known. If he made consistently boring and uninteresting photographs he would have remained Joe Nobody.

Anonymous said...

anders petersen has taken a photograph of two people dancing in a mental institution. he says "this picture is not about dancing. this picture is not about a mental institution."
so what it is this picture about?
the answer is left to the reader/viewer.
the reader of a novel reads between the lines.
the same should apply to photography books.
pictures are not about pictures.
it is jeff's right to interpret christopher's work and argument about his interpretation.
thanks to christopher for his excellent pictures and to jeff for his interpretation.
i cannot say if he is right or wrong, since i don't have the book, but christopher should consider seeriously this interpretation into account.
a succesful and world class photographer can produce an excellent book, which can be interpreted as a "failure" by someone else under a certain point of view.
this is not bad.
this is a present.
this is the kind of feedback that every photographer should wish to get.
lemon

jeff ladd said...

Stuart,

If you saw a mediocre photo of Paris taken at the turn into the 20th century and didn't like it. Then you read the placard next to the image and it had Atget's name, would you give the photo a second look and maybe like it a little bit more than if the placard said Fleuret DuBois?

Christopher Anderson said...

Dear posters,
My point in my post was not about how photos are viewed. As I said, you can view my photos any way you choose.

My point was about the nature of critique and how photos are spoken about. Mr Whiskers was not saying what the photos meant to him, he was making a declarative statement about my intent in making the photos. He has every right to do so, but doing so doesn't make him right. (Jeff, please don't be offended, we are having an interesting discussion)

I am free to read into Picasso's Guernica many things about how the work makes me feel. But if I were to write a critique in which I claim that the artist's intent was to depict a wild party, it doesn't make me right just because the work no longer belongs to Picasso but to the viewer.
(no I am not comparing my work to Picasso, just using an easily recognizable example.)

Artist intent is crucial for understanding the work. That's why we have artist statements. That's why we have conceptual art. The concept is more important than the physical existence of the work. Artist background and experience is also important. It adds legitimacy and authenticity to the work.

Having said that, I intentionally did not put captions in the book. I wanted the book to remain ambiguous. I didn't want the experience to be bogged down in something didactic. I play with the language of revolution using symbols and imagery that reference this. But I do this to add to the confusion and ambiguity of the place, not to push an agenda. Nuance. Nothing is all bad or all good. Yet we shout each other down at down hall meetings on health care.

Anonymous said...

Reading work through psychobiography or the imaginary projection of intention becomes a problem when it circumvents looking and thinking about it for oneself. (This can reach chronic proportions: relaying Van Gogh's paintings through his severed ear, Nan Goldin's photos through her black eye or Diane Arbus's through her death clearly domesticates the difficulty of the work. What the hell does it mean to YOU to be looking at that photo of the boy carrying grenades? Diverting your difficulty through the psyche of the maker is usually a cop-out, which is why contemporary culture is full of it.

The conceptual turn in art and the advent of the 'artists' statement' gave rise to slightly different forms of supplement. Photography has always had textual supplements of one kind or another. When it is not there however, when it is withheld, then we must withold the desire to invent it by projecting intention upon it. When we invent intention, when we ascribe motivations to it on the basis of what we are looking at, usually it is a defence against our own interpretive doubt and insecurity. That we live in culture, particularly a photographic culture, so dependent on biography, artists' statements and declared intentions in the end says more about those who need them in order to look than it does about the images or those who made them. I recall remember that hilarious character in Whit Stillman's film 'Metropolitan' who declares pompously "I don't read literature, I just read literary criticism. that way I get the literature and the debate all in one. and quickly too."

John Cage used to use the neologism 'response-ability', pointing not to the responsibility of the maker but to the responsibility the audience must take on to respond for themselves. Nobody said it would be a picnic.

Breaking Bad said...

I just wish I was that fucking grenade...

Anonymous said...

Taking the photographers name away still won't take away the photographer. His/her identity will remain all over the pictures, whether it looks like a Robert Frank or not. What it will take away though is the incentive. We have to ask ourselves now, whop represents extremist thinking.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:49 who is also 2:59 was being sarcastic, after all, ultimately that was what Jeff might as well have suggested in his post prior.

Now even anonymous poster is starting to have a character without a name!

Stuart Alexander said...

Jeff,

Cetainly, I would look again at the photo. But it would not make me like it a little bit more. Unless on the second look I noticed something that would make me like it more that I had not noticed the first time. But I often look again at anonymous photos too so don't say it was the name that made me look at it again.

Perhaps the photo was wrongly attributed to Atget instead of to Fleuret du Bois.

In the 19th century, many photographers hired other "operators". Most celebrated among them was Mathew Brady who had good and not so good photographers working for him. The good ones really stand out by their work. Some went on to make a name for themselves, most notably Alexander Gardner. Same thing with the German, Giorgio Sommer who worked in Italy. But we still don't know the name(s) of the best operator(s) who worked for Sommer. But even in the literature of the time, a critic noted that one of Sommer's anonymous operators made consistently good pictures.

There are many mediocre photos by Atget. It doesn't make me like the photos any more. And it doesn't make me like Atget less. But I can't help but noticing that Atget consistently made a larger percentage of good photos than Fleuret du Bois.

shutterstutter said...

Jeff,
It seems odd that anyone would want to remove a work of art from its cultural context in interpreting its merit. Such a reductionist approach denies the richness of the art. I suspect that you are overstating your position to stumulate discuss on this forum. Your own publications with Books on Books are after all rigorous in their commentary of place and time.

Knowing the provenance of a photograph is essential for an appreciation of the photographer's development and sense of purpose in their profession. I would agree with you that a photograph can be appraised in isolation, but the richness of interpretation and emotional content is lost. For example, would Dorothea Lange's work have been quite to moving if date and location were unknown? Perhaps with abstract photography your thesis holds, but not when photographs are about the human world.

jeff ladd said...

Shutterstutter,

Thanks for the comments.

I am happy you wrote because it has forced me into a clear way of describing what I mean and your example of Lange is perfect.

No I am not overstating my position to stimulate a dialogue although this has been a good thread. Take for instance Lange's Migrant Mother. That image is now so fully synonymous with the Depression era that it is hard to view it without not only other pictures from that time and context also coming to mind, but newsreels, movies and stories as well. That is one way of looking at the picture, with all of that stuff swimming in your mind. That extra stuff has little to do with what is REALLY depicted in that photo though.

That photograph for me is about a look on the woman's face and the connection with her child.

Now, if that photo had been found TODAY in an archive with no caption or title it would take us longer to place it in history if we could at all based on its information. For all I know from what is actually described, the context easily have been just of a homeless woman. Or a woman sitting waiting for a bus. Or a woman from Eastern Europe. Thus we might view the photo as what I describe above without the baggage of the "Depression era" context as "a photo of a look of concern and the connection to her kids". I argue that that is the essence of that photo and it has little to do with the depression.

Some would surely argue this reductionist viewing, which is very hard to do at times, lessens the meaning or it "richness" but for me it is a way to get to a photograph's essence. One made in the human world or the abstract. Looking at what a photo actually describes is very difficult for most of us to do since we always logically want to know the context to understand it. That is what captions do, not photos.

By the very nature of the medium, photography separates a photograph from its context. That is why Elliott Erwitt's photos are so absurdly odd and why Robert Frank's can be so meaningful.

jeff ladd said...

Stuart,

I made up the name Fleuret duBois.

Stuart Alexander said...

Jeff,
Wow, you really had me fooled. Even the "duh" in the name didn't give it away!

Anonymous said...

...brother of Florette duBois

Jan Vandemoortele said...

A bit off-topic but around 1880 there was an Austrian photographer called 'von Frankenstein'...

Years ago I bought some rather large but very boring views of the Vienna World Exhibtion just because of the photographer's name (they were only 1 euro a piece...).

dR said...

Jeff,
I have to say also that ahead of reading these comments, I felt that your reaction to the book was driven by your political leanings alone, as opposed to the photography. In essence, "this book makes Chavez into a villian and the editing must mean that it is right-wing photo bias because Bush also villianized Chavez..."

I do realize that you have expressed to Chris that this is not the case and that you are simply expressing how you "read" the book, based on sequencing, etc. and that you wanted to be honest in your interpretation of meaning... or "reading".

Just letting you know how I also perceived it, right away, ahead of diving into these reactions and comments.

Best,

Doug

J. Karanka said...

Seems to me that if you removed the photographs of Chavez, or had some of him that implied that he was any generic South American leader of dubious reputation, the problem would have been averted. Was it just that the abstract content of the rest of the book was broken by a piece of concrete, real imagery?

KSH said...

Jeff,

Talking about judging things without context: If I didn't know that you are Mr Whiskets, I don't think I'd ever have guessed, in particular, that the review of the book and your comment of 8 September are from the same person because I read the comment to be a complete refutation of the way in which the review is written. Your review begins by giving the context of book, how and where it was made. It constantly talks about how "Anderson" does this and that. And it says hardly anything about what you think is the quality of the pictures. You are free to do so, but that's not how I understand your post of 8 September.

For my part, I also believe that a work of art should be judged without biographical background of the artist. But for me it is not desirable to strip the work of any context; nor do I believe that this is possible, at least not in a photograph that itself gives hints of its context, such as "Migrant Mother". Is it really, for you, only about connection of mother and child? Is it irrelevant how they are dressed, or whether the mother looks haggard and hungry or relaxed and well-dressed? Further, if we consciously strip away what we perceive as the context of the picture, what happens? I don't think we are viewing the picture without context, we are just giving more room to our own context, e.g., our notions about connection of mother and child, which have been formed by our thoughts, which have been informed by what we have experienced, our context.

For me, your approach is taking things too far - which, of course, does not mean that it is wrong, illegitimate or anything of that sort. But I feel, my appreciation of art would be overly narrowed impaired if I followed your approach.

Thanks for the thought-provoking review.

Karsten