Thursday, October 7, 2010

Der Rote Bulli and Eyes Look Through You

This year I was invited to contribute a couple essays to books that are currently available. Since blogging is more or less pressure-free, I accepted these challenges with great apprehension but I'm fairly happy with the results. You be the judge.

The larger of the two is a brick-like catalog from the NRW Forum Dusseldorf called Der Rote Bulli: Stephen Shore and the New Dusseldorf Photography. This is an exhibition curated and edited by Christoph Schaden and Werner Lippert on the occasion of Dusseldorf's Quadrennial 2010 that examines the generations of photographers that have studied at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf under Bernd and Hilla Becher. At its heart, is the transatlantic dialogue between Germany and the United States that rose due to the influence of Stephen Shore's work that would appear in his landmark book Uncommon Places.

Der Rote Bulli - The Red Bully - refers to the red Volkswagon van that appears in Stephen Shore's photograph Church Street and Second Street, Easton, Pennsylvania, June 20, 1974. This image was made on the first day Shore used an 8 x 10 camera that he had been given by the influential Metropolitan Museum curator Weston Neuf after Shore set off to the industrial regions of Pennsylvania. He had made only one previous photograph before setting up his tripod on Church street, a straight on portrait of Easton resident Nicholas Bader wearing an unbuttoned pink shirt. In that image, Bader stares directly into the lens with a questioning gaze, presumably a mirrored reflection of Shore's own expression as he was depressing the shutter - figuring out how this new tool would greatly shift his approach to photographing.

In Schaden's book and exhibition, the Church street image becomes an important marker that would connect the German and US dialogue on current practice. One year after the Church street picture was made it appeared in the legendary New Topographics show in Rochester. The Becher's, who were the only European photographers to have work in the show, had seen the image and eventually purchased a print of it for their own collection soon thereafter. Whatever the presumed attraction they might have had to that particular image, one superficial link is interesting to note, they had also owned an identical red VW van in which they had logged thousands of miles documenting industrial architecture until Bernd's death in 2007.

In examining Shore's influence on the Becher students of the Art Academy in Dusseldorf, Schaden has chosen a smart edit of images from the expected stars (Gursky, Struth, Ruff, Hutte, Hofer), but more importantly, from unexpected or less familiar artists like Volker Dohne, Wendelin Bottlander, Tata Ronkholz, Andi Brenner, Claus Goedicke. This is an important inclusion since the Becher's taught almost 80 masters students between 1976 and 1998.

Several texts accompany this 344 page book, including essays by Christoph Schaden, Maren Polte, Gerald Schroder and mine on the reception of the Becher's work in the United States between 1968 and 1991. My essay is based on, and indebted to, the in-depth two year research by Christoph Schaden on the various ways the work was perceived here in the US which often ran in opposition to how the Bechers saw their work.

The exhibition in Dusseldorf will be on-view at the NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft in Dusseldorf until January 16, 2011.

The other book I contributed to is Eyes Look Through You from the Brooklyn-based photographer Ted Partin who was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Kunstmuseen Krefeld, Germany.

For the last decade Partin has been photographing his friends and extended tribe in Brooklyn and elsewhere with the lush description from an 8 x10 camera. His subjects, mostly thirty-somethings around the age of Partin himself, persuade us to see their individualism in these intimate portraits. Neither completely real (Partin often directs his subjects) nor consciously conceived fictions, his pictures sit within a territory where the dividing line between the innocent and perverse, reality and fantasy, is often blurred.

His subjects aren't fearful of presenting their personal idiosyncrasies to his camera or the larger world in general. They tattoo their bodies and modify themselves in the hopes of shaping their personal identities. In the image that graces the cover, a boyish-looking young woman lays on a table as the tattooist's gun, barely perceptible, works on her shoulder. She gazes as calm as if simply deep in thought. Pain has become a commonplace experience that is endured, perhaps even invited. This is one thread which links many of Partin's photographs; life is full of discomfort, arm yourself and adapt, get used to it.

Partin acknowledges that sitting before a camera creates a level of discomfort for most of his subjects, so why not work within this emotional space and use the effect to the picture's advantage? This sentiment is felt by noticing how many of Partin's subjects find themselves posing upon uncomfortable looking surfaces. Tabletops, asphalt rooftops, sidewalks, iron gratings echo of the world's hardness.

What do we ultimately take away from Partin's pursuit? His pictures persuade us to see individuals, giving them volume and weight. Beyond age difference, tattoos or clothing we enter a common human exchange as if meeting someone face to face. Their image is to be considered and though photographs do not allow us to fully "know" these people in any real sense, we draw a resounding connection through their poignancy, in hope of knowing just a little more about ourselves through their presence.

Eyes Look Through You is hardcover and includes two essays and a transcript of an interview between Partin and Sylvia Martin, the exhibition's curator.