Monday, June 25, 2007

Eve Noire and The Island of the Fisherwomen

Since the age when cameras were made portable and didn’t require entire caravans of supplies a'la Francis Frith to create images, photography and travel have gone hand in hand. Photography was often the only way for many people to experience any sense of the world’s many far away lands. It readily brought different cultures into the living rooms and salons for entertainment or examination and study.

Within this genre of photography and cultural “exploration,” nudity has played a role in the imagery. Often photographers found their way amongst cultures that had different attitudes towards nudity, bodies and modesty.

(An interesting discussion that I heard once on the radio was centered on the different instincts of modesty women around the world display. For instance, the instinct of American women, if intruded upon while naked, is to cover their breasts with one hand and genitals with the other. Muslim women may cover their faces with their hands. Certain women in Africa will cover only their knees leaving everything else exposed.)

When photographers find themselves amongst those cultures where nudity is the norm one could imagine the various intents when making images. Are the images made for ethnographic or anthropologic interest or does the photographer have other motives? Aside from the fact that National Geographic was one source for adolescent boys to get that elusive and coveted clear view of naked breasts, it may be quite clear in that publication at least, the intent seemed true and clear. Other books however seem to pose as an anthropological study but in reality are an early form of soft-core pornography. They represent the kind of very soft-core material that could live up on the shelf next to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The first book I am talking about in this post seems…well… suspect in its motives. Eve Noire (Black Eve) by Bertrand Lembezat published by Hanns Reich Verlag in 1953 is one title that caught my attention and spurred these thoughts.

The book opens with an essay that may confess that the book’s content is less anthropological and more of an appreciation of beauty. Even so, there is something about it that may strike the viewer with a wave of discomfort.
In that essay written by Bertrand Lembezat (the photographer) he starts by writing:

How could anyone possibly be black and live entirely naked? And in addition how could anyone find this beautiful? Isn't it just repulsive? Because it's completely different from our conception of how things should be?

He goes on to write:

Nothing but feelings of vague eroticism mixed with simple minded curiosity occupies their minds when they see a naked black girl or a women undressed in pure nudity. Criticism nothing but criticism enters their brains: 'These androgen masks, these shaved circle shaped heads above edgy angular shoulders...these thin skinny legs, abominable tattoos...’

Despite any criticism, their beauty cannot be denied .You just need to look at their shiny muscular bodies coming from their daily bath illuminated by the hot African sun. At dusk they balance jugs of water on their shaven skulls to the deep fountain (a cultivated waterhole); pearls of water shamelessly touch their soft skin, slowly rolling down their slender bodies.

The eternal Eve comes to the mind of the beholder. An Eve before her fall from grace. Nudity and shame do not know each other yet. A jolly innocence, an innocent happiness. We envy her for her calm naiveté, we envy her for her peace, we envy her for her lack of knowledge about shame.

A black Eve? - So what? Let us remember the verse:

"I am black, so lovely, you daughters from Jerusalem..."

Hasn't a dark beauty been the inspiration for one of the oldest and most beautiful love poems of all time?

Even Gide once said (admitted it): "The Mudang women are usually completely naked; some of them are very beautiful." And he continues: "certain women whose voluptuousness (Aristide) Maillol would have loved."

His description about their huts could be used as a description of them: "Certainly the Masa huts are unique and incomparable. They are not only strange but strangely beautiful. I like them for their beauty I don't like them because they are strange."

The essay ends there. This is Bertrand’s reasoning behind what follows which is frame after frame of nude African women and girls with exposed breasts and airbrushed pubis.

Even though they seem far removed from modern life, the subjects are often aware of what photography is, as some follow an inherent instinct to smile at the camera. The odd photos involve a form of modeling from the subjects. They are posing openly but since nudity is the norm, it may be safe to say that they are not considering what I sense to be the obvious veiled aspects of their collaboration.

Remarkably, there are some really well made photos included among the 64 plates (otherwise what would be the point of talking about it?). This is by no means a good book but it does feature beautiful and rich gravure printing and the somewhat wacky essay in German was worth my $15.00 dollars. Although Bertrand Lembezat is credited as the main photographer, there is another name credited with some photos, a Robert Carmet. There is not much to distinguish in style from one to the other besides Carmet seems more drawn to the dances and daily rituals.

Another title that was brought to my attention is The Island of the Fisherwomen by Fosco Maraini published in an English edition in 1962. This book is subtitled: An enchanting tour of an unspoiled island paradise where modern Japanese mermaids dive below the sea’s surface to wrest a living from the depths.

It features a full story in text about a “student of ethnology’ traveling to a secluded Japanese island in quest of “mermaids.” He finds them, and describes their way of life in both text and photographs. They are known as “Ama” women and they are Japanese women who dive nearly nude for mollusks to earn a living. The written story is not without its own doses of titillation and open double entendre.

The flap copy paints the tone: In the perceptive, witty text and beautiful photographs of this beguiling book, he (Maraini) reveals the charming innocence of a simple way of life, uncorrupted by the trappings of our civilization, with neither automobiles nor television nor, indeed, feminine attire.

This title goes a bit out of its way to avoid being perceived as anything less than an adventure story and ethnological study by taking its time to get to the nudity. It features both black and white and color photography. The underwater shots are entirely cast in aquamarine color. The black and white are in nice gravure.

It features some rather funny captions to the photos that come across as the equivalent of ignoring the one ton elephant sitting in the room. The caption for the second photo in from the right-side of my composite above reads: “These goggles are worn under water.”

Again, there are some nice photos and the text is actually a fun read that reminds me of a Hardy Boys adventure story (with breasts).

My point being that in certain circumstances although the subject is described in words as “uncorrupted” it was eventually corrupted. Not by automobiles or television but by photography. Perhaps unknowingly, they were all trapped by our civilization in the end.

I would like to thank Patrick Becker for his translation of the German essay in Eve Noire and also to Charlie Rhyne for loaning me his copy of The Island of the Fisherwomen.

Book Available Here (Eve Noire)

Book Available Here (Island of the Fisherwomen)

I Love Boras! by Lars Tunbjork

If Lars Tunbjork’s book Office (Journal 2001) showed us the behind-the-scenes workings of capitalism in white collar offices around the world, his new book I Love Boras! shows us the fruits of those labors as they appear in the landscape of Boras, Sweden.

Made within the same time period of his project Landet Utom Sig: Bilder fran Sverige (Country Beside Itself: Pictures from Sweden) the content of I Love Boras! may seem familiar. On the Steidl website, they describe the images in I Love Boras! as not used in that first book because “they didn’t fit, they were too ugly, too beautiful or too silly. Together they show a darker and more hysteric view of modern western society…”

The book begins with rampant consumerism literally smothering people with its products, colors and language. Tunbjork stifles us with claustrophobic frames that may make you feel the need to take a machete to your local Walmart just to navigate its overflowing aisles. In Tunbjork’s hands, this world is exposed for all of the gaudiness and saccharine flavored superficiality that separates us from our money. Like children we are drawn to desire things due to their color and appeal of design (or its appeal to the subconscious).

As mice in a running wheel get occasionally flipped upside down, so does the populace of Tunbjork’s I Love Boras! as he seeks out moments of awkwardness to make his point. All of what he is photographing is part of contemporary European (or American) life. The work, leisure, and consumerism in his pictures add up to a vision of purchased “happiness” with little else gained. We have become what we own. The work in this book, although by the title is site specific (Boras, Sweden), speaks of the larger machination and adaptation of it into our vacuous modern lives.

Although this has been a thread that has run through Tunbjork’s work, what is vastly different is the package of that message. Journal, who published his other titles, created a sleek and clean design that left the images some breathing room with each page lined with white borders around the images. In I Love Boras!, the designer Greger Ulf Nilson has accentuates the themes of the book by the use of a larger trim size and images that bleed to the page edge. This creates an even greater attack on the senses. This is the form that suits the photography.

From the front cover board on which is the first image is printed and into the endpapers which are other images in the sequence, we dive right in an only occasionally do we come to the surface. When Tunbjork has switched camera formats, we are then given a strip of white filler on the page that provides a small break. Although this was unavoidable without cropping the images to fit the page ratio, I do find it slightly distracting.

The book contains 164 photos and like consumerism itself, it is appropriately overdoing it. For a book that describes that culture, it certainly has learned its lessons of marketing down to the lemon and cotton candy colored slipcase that boldly announces its presence on the bookshelf.

There is no essay (one wasn’t needed) but it does come with a caption booklet which I question whether that was necessary either. We don’t really need to know place and date as it is not important to the book’s content. It does however provide the colophon for the book so I guess its inclusion was unavoidable. Or, since the only words that appear on the actual book are on the spine, they could have printed it there.

Does Lars love Boras? Perhaps the strongest critique comes from love. I know there must be a reason that the book is designed with a photo of a family loaded down with junk food on the front cover and a dog’s behind on the back. (Lars…do you not have a photo of a horse’s ass?)

I guess that’s close enough.

Buy online at Steidlville

The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings by Kaylynn Deveney

When Kaylynn Deveney relocated from the United States to southern Wales, she would have no way of knowing she was moving into an apartment across the street from the subject of her first book, a Mr. Albert Hastings.

The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings published by Princeton Architectural Press is a combination of fine photography by Kaylynn Deveney and text and drawings by Mr. Hastings. As the title suggests, the book offers a look into the domestic rituals and routines of an aging Albert Hastings whom at the time of meeting Kaylynn Deveney, was 85.

It opens with an image of a garden pathway covered with greenery as if to suggest (like so many great photobooks) we are venturing into a secretive, secluded world. Mr. Hastings’s world is mostly hidden from view; his garden seems to be the buffer between the outside world and his day to day chores. His days are spent cooking, gardening, feeding pigeons, drinking his cup of tea (“My cuppa”), all of which seem to be the pleasure centers around which his life revolves. The outside world, though seemingly calm when it appears in the pictures, is referred to by Albert as the “Rat Race.”

Kaylynn’s photography is warm and respectful. As photographers, some approach a subject knowing that it is full of potential to make “good pictures.” Others approach a subject because of an interest in learning something through the process of picture-making. Deveney seems intent on using the medium to bridge a generational gap and befriend her seemingly charismatic and warm neighbor. Photography may have invoked the friendship but after looking at the pictures, it seems to have taken a back seat to the importance of the relationship in both of their lives.

If it were just a book of photographs alone, we might read Mr. Hastings as simply a stand in for a representative portrait of an older Wales everyman, but through his participation in the project, by captioning the photographs, we decipher his personality due to his choice of words in describing the photographs content. They often display, not only humor, but also a directness that comments on his perception of himself and photographs.

Under one photograph of a hat he writes simply “Size 7 1/8

Under one of him near a golden lit window he writes, “I’m not talking to a ghost, I’m opening the curtains.”

His concern for the things around him is felt with warm regard. Deveney photographs a “Wind broken Daffodil” which is held upright in a tea cup due to the ingenious use of a rubber-band. He speaks of the pigeons he feeds outside of his apartment as if they have a concern with being photographed. One caption reads: “Feeding pigeons, net curtain in the way. We were quietly getting birds accustomed to camera.

The book also contains drawings by Mr. Hastings of clocks, which in another context might amount to nothing but a shopworn metaphor for the passage of time. But here, since they are drawings done by his hand, they also reflect the control and order he exerts over his day.

There are several old photographs also reproduced of Albert’s wife who passed away in 1958. Oddly, there is a tone of melancholy that runs through the book that is felt not from Deveney’s photographs of Albert but mostly from the inclusion of these vintage photographs of his wife. These photographs, beyond Kaylynn’s presence which is felt, are his companions as well as memories. When Deveney photographs Albert with his pigeons, there appears a photograph of his wife feeding pigeons on the facing page.

The book is very nicely designed and is appropriately small in trim size. It seems precious like the relationship between Deveney and Hastings. The handwritten texts (Albert’s) create a sense of the photographs as objects. The sequence is good and is broken into sections by occasional photographs of the garden, perhaps as an attempt to break the book into different days. There are seventy-five photographs and although Deveney has included a handful that are repetitive and could have been left out, it is in no way burdened by length or many superfluous images. The printing is well done.

In her essay that begins the book, Deveney writes; “This work is sited where Bert’s autobiographical vision, based in life experience and feeling, meets the eye of a stranger. Together our visions and versions of his day-to-day experience sit side by side to create a new tale. At the end of this project Bert and I, of course, maintain our individual perspective, but I think we are richer, too, for being informed by one another. I know I am.”

Perhaps through this small, unassuming book, we too can be a little more informed.

Book Available Here (Day to Day Life of A. H.)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Robert Frank's Me and My Brother

As a part of Steidl’s 5 year plan of Robert Frank releases, they have just published a book to accompany the film Me and My Brother.

First the book:

The book is fantastic. Period. It has a lo-fi production feel, made to look like an aged film script. In keeping with Frank’s aesthetic, it is an assemblage of typewriter written pages and hand trimmed photographs hastily pasted into place by rubber cement.

The text is the entire script of dialogue from the film originally written by Robert Frank, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. The photographs are mostly stills taken directly from the film but I did see several images that were either production stills or frames taken from footage that hit the editing room floor.

The printing fits the tone of the book (and film) perfectly. The choice of materials and book construction is also without flaw. The real bonus with this book is that in a plastic pouch on the inside of the back cover is a copy of the film on a DVD in both NTSC and PAL formats.

Now the movie:

Robert Frank has been known as a seeker of truth. In photography, his pursuit led to the creation of arguably the greatest book to grace the medium. Me and My Brother was his first feature length film and it too broke from traditions and set off to establish its own cinematic storytelling language and form.

As a viewer I always wonder how much one might want to read into a film or body of work. In Me and My Brother I found a wealth of topics that I picked up upon after a few viewings. Admittedly, the first time I saw this film I left the theater a bit stunned, excited and bewildered by the 85 minutes I had just experienced. There seemed to be so much content but it is presented in way that was temporarily beyond my comprehension.

What I am about to describe might be better left to read after you view the film for yourself if you have not yet seen Me and My Brother. These are my readings of what the film ultimately represents so in the possibility that you do not want me to poison the well of your thinking (so to speak) with my interpretations and observations, go buy or rent the film and see for yourself. I will only say that it is a great film experience when given the patience it deserves.

For those still reading…here are some things in the film that prompted thought.

The story is centered on Julius Orlovsky, a catatonic who is being cared for by his brother Peter. It is a film within in a film that uses both black and white and color. Color is the choice when describing the false reality of the film that is being made within Frank’s black and white film. Frank’s main interest is questioning the nature of truth and his relationship to truth as a filmmaker. Can film ever really show truth?

Throughout the film Frank shows how we are always “acting” in one form or another. Having a “style” is a form of acting. Having “personality” is in essence, a form of acting too. For Frank, Julius (the real Julius), seems to be held up as a representation of pure truth. He is a man stripped of all artificial personality and intellectual self creation.

Frank comments cinematically on this difficulty with dealing with reality. In the beginning of the film, an actor is introduced to play the part of Julius because according to the director, Julius is too difficult to work with. He doesn’t want to act or perhaps cannot be easily directed. Therefore, since the director cannot distort the reality of Julius in the manner he wishes for the film, he brings in an artificial reality to portray actual reality. Enter Joseph Chaiken, who in the color sequences of the film plays Julius. The director is portrayed by Christopher Walken speaking with the dubbed voice of Robert Frank. (Interesting fact: Me and My Brother was Walken’s first film role)

This questioning of the role reality plays in film is reinforced at many points. In a scene towards the end of the film, Chaiken playing Julius, faces the camera because he has “run out of things to say.” Just as Frank directs him off camera to “say something to the camera”, a baby in the room starts crying loudly. Chaiken, faced with the reality of the crying baby momentarily tries to comfort the infant and when he fails, he leaves the room to inquire about what role he is to play next.

This is an interesting moment as we witness Chaiken the actor, when faced with reality, cannot deal with it and instead, redirects his attention towards finding a different false reality to work within. This avoidance of reality is one of the main themes of the film. As Frank mentions on the cover of the book, “At times most of us are silently acting because it would be too painful not to act and too cruel to talk of the truth that exists…”

Although I am not sure that this wasn’t part of the script, the scene I just described seems so spontaneous that I think it was a bit of real life slipping into the film. Frank’s instincts have been honed enough to allow these moments happen and to create their own meanings. In essence, it starts as an idea and the result winds up transcending that idea into something greater and more meaningful. (Interesting fact: The photographer Ralph Gibson was an assistant on this film and one image from the set appeared in his own body of work as seen below)

Similar to the scene above, the notion of redirection of attention or distraction from reality is also expressed in a scene where the real Julius remembers accompanies a young child on a trip to an aquarium and the seashore. First they are caught up in examining how the world works according to nature with observation of the fish and the shoreline of the beach. Then their attention is diverted by symbols of how the world works according to man through the fascination with a snow-globe by the child and a dollar bill for Julius.

Frank takes a poke at several issues relating to acting and even documentary photography.

Chaiken playing himself and commenting on actors relates his distrust of his profession.

As a separate comment on the distrust of actors, Frank also seems to prod at Lee Strasberg and the Actor’s Studio practice of teaching “method acting” as in one scene, an actress dons an Actor’s Studio t shirt while off the film set and in her everyday life. Perhaps again, commenting on the inability for actors (or people in general) to escape some kind of acting even in their everyday lives. That would, after all, be an example of method acting carried to the extreme.

In terms of symbols, John F Kennedy makes several appearances in the film as his face is embroidered onto a small blanket or throw rug that gets unfurled at two different moments in the film. John Kennedy is perhaps the example of an image that is created mostly in the minds of the individual that remember him. He was one of the first presidents that the cameras and television loved in terms of his image. His assassination seemed to create a sense of mythic stature of his image, character and memory.

The topic of documentary photography gets address (and trampled) with footage of Roscoe Lee Browne “shooting a documentary” of the Orlovsky brothers and Allen Ginsberg while a woman off screen states: “OK, you’re a documentary photographer. Or maybe you’re like a reportage photographer. You know – that’s a strange thing, you know, because like some guy is killing a woman right in front of you – and like – you’re taking a fucking picture of it. You’re not helping a woman save her life – you’re getting a story. I mean – where’s your one to one relationship? That’s what I want to know. You’re a creep. You are some blackmailer. Wow. Because you’re always watching the privacy.”

I found it interesting that Frank does not take a swing at television. Considering that TV was still young yet very influential. Perhaps, beyond the numbing qualities of TV, Frank identified with its power of influence in matters relating to the Vietnam War which by 1968 (the year the film was finished) was raging and appeared nightly in the homes of viewers. Or maybe it is too obvious a subject at which to line up his sights. Regardless, its presence is never felt in the film.

There is one segment that does seem to be a small tribute to image making, cinema and in particular, the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. It is a series of shots taken on the street of intersections busy with cars and some pedestrians crossing in front of the camera while the voice over of a woman says: “Forget the film – throw away the camera – just take the strip – wouldn’t it be fantastic if you didn’t have to have a piece of celluloid between you and what you saw? If the eye were its own projector instead of its own camera? I am a camera. That’s a beautiful title – I am a camera too.”

In a 1923 manifesto, Vertov wrote "I am kino-eye, I am mechanical eye, I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you."

In fact, if there is precedent to the cinematic language Frank is engaging for Me and My Brother, Vertov would be that precedent from his own use of montage and nontraditional means.

“Kino eye uses every possible means in montage, comparing and linking all points of the universe in any temporal order, breaking, when necessary, all the laws and conventions of film construction.” – Dziga Vertov

Franks cinematic approach and camera work is rough. He virtually pushes and shoves the viewer into scenes and jump cuts seemingly to confound. On first viewings this film is difficult and exhausting. It challenges you to tease out its meaning while at the same time tripping you up to easy conclusions. In fact, he starts the film with a Do Not Enter sign that flashes a preliminary warning.

This is perhaps the only way he could make a film that is about questioning the notions of image reproduction and reality. Had he followed traditional filmic ways, it would have been a pointless endeavor.

Interestingly, the avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas in a 1969 review of Me and My Brother complained about Frank’s editing and the film’s final form by writing: I found Me and My Brother too clever, like trying to tell something, and play five records at the same time, and maybe stand on your head, and wiggle your toes, and do a few other things at the same time – instead of doing it plainly and to the point.

In the same article he declares: No filmmaker really shows us life as it is: all filmmakers show us their inner states.

Frank was obviously quite aware of the reaction this film might receive and pokes fun at the film and perhaps himself as during the opening titles, he shows an audience at a film screening yelling at the screen and ultimately walking out before the film even starts. Only a couple people stay seated and one man turns to the camera and states excitedly: “This is a wonderful movie. It’s great. I really like it.”

It is safe to say that I do not know enough about cinema or experience cinema on a complex enough level to challenge Jonas Mekas on his statements. But for me, in my world, I second the notion of the man in the theater that turns excitedly to the camera …

“This is a wonderful movie. It’s great. I really like it.”

Maybe you will too...

Book Available Here (Me and My Brother)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Electa Editrice Portfolios

In the late seventies and early eighties, the Gruppo Editoriale Electa in Milano, Italy published a series of portfolios of some great photographers. These are known as the Electa Editrice portfolios.

In 1979 there were 6 portfolios published, one each on the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lewis Hine, Diane Arbus, Nadar, Tina Modotti and Robert Capa.

These six were published to correspond with the Photography: Venice ’79 (Venezia ’79) exhibition. The show and book (Photography: Venice ’79) provided a view of photographic trends from the past century.

In 1980 - 1982, they also published portfolios of Man Ray, Eadweard Muybridge, Henry Fox Talbot, Lewis Carroll, Erwin Blumenfeld, Cecil Beaton, Gianni Berengo Gardin, and Fulvio Roiter. In 1986, they published one portfolio by Francois Gillet.

I first encountered a few of these portfolios when they were selling at the Strand Bookstore here in New York City in 1987. I bought three of them. One Lewis Carroll, one Eadweard Muybridge, and one Henry Fox Talbot. They were $4.95 per portfolio. I think they also had a Lewis Hine portfolio for the same price but I passed it up because…well…I was young and stupid. There couldn’t possibly be any other explanation.

These portfolios were printed in editions of 1000 and are made up of 12 loose prints on 11.5 X 15.5 inch heavy weight paper with a sheet of protective tissue paper on each. Those 12 prints sit in a black four point enclosed paper envelope, and that envelope slips into a hard, glossy paper slipcase with the title printed in bright orange on the cover. Each portfolio comes with a folded information sheet that gives a short artist biography and an explanation of the work alongside thumbnails of each of the plates. Daniela Palazzoli was the editor for the three that I have (perhaps she was for the entire series) and she contributed an essay to the Eadweard Muybridge portfolio.

From her text: “Woman throwing shawl on her shoulders (plate 11) plays on the contrast between the linear nakedness of the body and the baroque folds and volutes of the cloth. Woman spanking a child (plate 12) is a delightful subject movingly executed. It seems to be the only plate in Animal Locomotion in which the action is feigned. The illusion of movement is here created by the slow rotation of the camera around the subject, but Muybridge refrained from getting the mother to spank the child really.”

These portfolios are additionally nice in that each print is removable and suitable for framing. I have seen these reproductions described as being Heliogravure but on further study, they cannot be. Heliogravure is an etched plate process where the ink left in the recesses of the plate transfer the image onto paper and upon close inspection, they do not reveal any dot or line pattern common to offset, letterpress or rotogravure. These images definitely have a halftone dot under inspection with a loupe. Besides, I have heard that the last major publication to use Heliogravure was Paul Strand’s Mexican Portfolio produced in 1932.

For the most part, the printing is good but the process tends to block up the lower range tones and the highlights are somewhat sacrificed. They have a nice feel for a framable object but they are definitely made for the consumer market. I would guess that they originally held a retail price of $20.00 to $25.00 when they were originally published. Online, the Henry Fox Talbot and Nadar portfolios can still be found cheaply at $65.00 - $125.00.

About eight years ago I saw the Diane Arbus portfolio at Caney Booksellers in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and I recall it being around $300.00 dollars. If my memory serves correctly it contained the Disneyland castle image, the Christmas tree image, The Vanderbuilt baby head image, Brooklyn family image, the grenade boy image and…I can’t remember the rest. If any one out there owns this Diane Arbus portfolio and wants to contribute the plate list to the comments section, I’d be interested and thankful. The same goes for the Robert Capa plate list as I have not ever seen that portfolio.

By the way, do you know who the Vanderbuilt baby is in the Diane Arbus photo?

Anderson Cooper from CNN.

A special thank you to Andrew Cahan for fielding some questions regarding these portfolios.

Conversations with Contemporary Photographers

Often when a photographer speaks publicly at a lecture or during an interview, the promise of something meaningful to be learned is strong. This promise is even stronger if the artist happens to be of legendary status within the medium.

There often is an air of hanging onto the artist’s words so tightly that it is inevitable that it slips into disappointment or at worst, outright boredom and seat rustling. Generally artists do not seem to have much to say publicly or are not willing to reveal much beyond basic process and a good side story. Or perhaps the expectations of the audience are too grand. After all, if words were so important, they would be writers and not visual artists.

They can be very entertaining though. Recently during a talk with William Klein and Max Kozloff at the International Center of Photography, a woman in a front row seat left after the first ten minutes of the interview and Klein proceeded to call after her, playing the part of an injured ego to much laughter from the audience. When a second woman in the front row, who was wearing a dress that barely contained her voluptuousness, got up to leave, Klein introduced her as “Ms. Cleavage of the ICP.” Beyond those few humorous moments, Klein mostly ignored or tended to not understand Kozloff’s line of questioning and the interview drifted slightly towards the embarrassing. All that I can remember, besides the “Ms. Cleavage” incident, is a story about Chris Marker and another longer winded one about Alain Resnais buying comic books for outrageous sums of money in the 1950’s.

An extreme example of the disappointment one can experience, was when the New York Public Library held a talk between Robert Frank and Howard Norman. After seeing the end result, there was perhaps a collective wish from the audience that it had just been cancelled.

The book Conversations with Contemporary Photographers published by Umbrage Editions in 2005 brings together nine interviews from a surprising range of contemporary artists who are forthcoming on a variety of topics. Joan Fontcuberta, Graciela Iturbide, Max Pam, Duane Michals, Miguel Rio-Branco, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Alex Webb, Bernard Plossu and Javier Vallhonrat all discuss their art, backgrounds, and experiences with different interviewers.

Each conversation is lengthy and usually weighs in at approximately 30 pages of small sized type. Due to the length, the interviewer and subject are allowed to digress into tangents that fall outside the norm of a formulaic interview. These are conversations that ebb and flow and allow for a more interesting read, allowing for the personalities of the artists to surface.

Duane Michaels has his moment sparring against what he perceives to be the pretentiousness in much of recent contemporary photographic art. P.L. diCorcia discusses the demands of the art world and being labeled a mid-career artist. Graciela Iturbide shares memories of assisting Manuel Alvarez Bravo and discusses cultural differences in attitude towards photography in the countries she has photographed.

These interviews have many moments of insight into the medium that promotes further discussion or thought. At other times though (perhaps I am cynical) I feel that some of the process of any interview is spent with the artist creating an image of themselves. In fact, that is what is separately interesting to me about this type of book. How artists speak, and how they have developed the way in which they speak about their art and process. To me, this often reveals what I perceive as their comfort level with their relationship to the medium and their work.

In the end, I think Philip-Lorca diCorcia indirectly expressed this best at one point in his interview when he says: “The deepest motivation for a lot of artists is obviously the one they all share: Their great fear they are a fraud.”

Book Available Here (Conversations)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Catalogs On the Work of Robert Frank

The work of Robert Frank has been the subject of many books and exhibitions. Many words have been spent on his actual books, so I thought I would take a look at some of the small catalogs that have been published over the years.

From March 29th to May 10th of 1985, the Alfons el Magnanim Institute of Studies and Investigation in Valencia, Spain held an exhibition of the work of Robert Frank in their Parpallo gallery. In addition to exhibiting the work, the Institute published two wonderful catalogs and a brochure to accompany the exhibition.

The more common of the three is the catalog called Robert Frank: Fotografias/Films 1948/1984. This book covers Frank’s career much in the way that any catalog might and it includes about 11 images that Frank aficionados may not recognize. At 175 pages it is substantial; the reproductions are good but not great.

This catalog contains several essays in Spanish. The first is by Jno Cook who in 1983 released his own translation of The Americans as a coloring book. The Robert Frank Coloring Book is comprised of line drawings of each of the 83 photographs that appear in The Americans.

Other essays are by Vincent Todoli and Martin Schaub. There is also a letter to Robert Frank from Gotthard Schuh who was one of Frank’s teachers. All of the texts are in Spanish.

The second object from the Valencia exhibition is a 12 page pamphlet called Por La Carretera Hacia Florida (On the Road to Florida). It is about the trip that Robert Frank and Jack Kerouak took in 1958 to pick up Kerouac’s mother in Florida and move her to Northport, Long Island. The story, written by Kerouac, was published in the Evergreen Review in January of 1970. That text can be found on page 38 of Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia.

One curious little note is that the diner that Frank and Kerouac “stopped in for a snack” may have been (I reiterate, may have been) a place that was called Earl’s in New Castle, Delaware. That actual diner was later moved to Sommerville Massachusetts and is still in business as Kelly’s Diner.

In 1940, John Vachon while photographing for the Farm Security Administration also stopped by to make some photographs of Earl’s Diner. Unfortunately he was photographing at night so the actual building is under lit. He managed to photograph the interiors of other diners further down highway 40 but not inside of Earl’s.
(LOC Call # LC-USW3-018222-D)

OK…back to the catalogs.

The most interesting of these three Valencia publications for me is a small catalog called Robert Frank: Sobre Valencia 1950 (On Valencia 1950). This is a catalog of only 24 photographs and two contact sheets but to my knowledge, none of the images have appeared in any of his previous books. The work is accompanied by his “Black and White Are the Colors of Photography” statement.

Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected. Most of my photographs are of people; they are seen simply, as through the eyes of the man in the street. There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough--there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph. It is difficult to describe this thin line where matter ends and mind begins. -Robert Frank

The work in this catalog is divided into two sections. The first is photographs of daily life in Valencia and then after a center spread of a couple reproductions of contact sheets, we are treated to small photo essay on young bullfighters in training. The last photograph is of a young fighter seemingly about to enter the ring for the first time.

This is a wonderful small catalog but I fear that it is very difficult to find.

For those of you who are interested in connecting the dots of the work of Robert Frank, Stuart Alexander’s obsessively detailed Robert Frank: A Bibliography, Filmography and Exhibition Chronology 1946-1985, is the source book that will become dog-eared in no time. This title is still available through the Center for Creative Photography and is $25.00. (

As crazy as it may sound, this book is actually a fascinating read in that it is probably one of the most complete sources of a working life one could provide just short of a diary. I think Frank’s career is generally thought about in the post-publication of The Americans era but this book details all of the freelance photo jobs he took in those early years.

Warning: There are no photographs reproduced in this book, it is strictly for the scholar or a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome who has Robert Frank in their sights.

One fairly common catalog is from the Akron Art Museum entitled Robert Frank and American Politics. This book includes work by Frank from 1955-56 and 1984. In 1984 Frank was assigned by California magazine to photograph the San Francisco Democratic National Convention by Harold Hayes who was a former editor at Esquire. 28 Years before, Hayes had worked on a layout for Esquire of Frank’s Chicago Democratic Convention photographs but after seeing the critique the images cast on their subjects, Esquire killed the essay.

“Robert’s photographs were strong. It was a powerful layout. Esquire tried in those days to stay away from one side or the other of politics. This layout, when we looked at it, was so strongly cast against the subjects, we never ran it. It was one of the greatest omissions of my time at Esquire.” - Harold Hayes

In September of 1984, fifteen of Frank’s photos from the convention ran in California magazine.

In 1979 the Sidney Janis Gallery exhibited 112 photographs in a show called The Americans and New York Photographs. This thin booklet contains 12 images and about 9 are rarely seen. It is nice but I am sure that book dealers charge a bundle for this as Sidney Janis was an important figure and his catalogs were popular. So at the current prices, it probably isn’t worth the effort of tracking down a copy.

The next catalog is from a show that was in Lisbon, Portugal in 1988 simply called Robert Frank. It reproduces 19 photographs and Polaroid works that span Frank’s career.

A letter from Frank in the beginning of the catalog states:

Dear Albano
33 fotos – Pepe is OK – The weather too.
I don’t know why I do this exhibit
maybe you sound OK on the phone
maybe it will be good.
Please call when you get the photos
it’s a selection of what I had left
here in the house – please treat them
carefully as I don’t print anymore –
It’s the past – and it continues…
Salud R.

I like the tone of this letter as it seems to convey the demand on him and his reluctance to exhibit the work. “It’s the past – and it continues…”

This catalog isn’t much to write home about besides that it reproduces three images that are fairly uncommon; a girl in Paris looking up at a Charles Chaplin mask, a group of Parisian gypsy children standing on the running board of an old automobile, (both are reproduced in the DU Part II magazine) and a portrait of a black man at Coney Island holding dolls which could be prizes from an arcade. If you get to see this last image in a respectable reproduction, the description of the man’s shirt is amazing.

The last catalog from 2003 is from an international symposium called National Literature Today – A Phantom? The Swiss Imagination and Tradition as Problem, which was held in Zurich, Switzerland. This was a symposium of writers, poets who were debating whether a noticeable Swiss ethos exists in literature and art. I’m not sure what the outcome was, but during the debate and between coffee breaks, they had an exhibition of 24 Robert Frank photographs.

Out of the 24 images featured here, I had not seen 19 of them before. This is a nice small format booklet that reproduces all of the images the same size and oriented vertically on the page to follow the format of the booklet. Therefore, to properly view the horizontals, you have to turn the booklet sideways.

Frank abandons the captions to the photos and says to “just look at the photographs.”

Because of this, it seems that perhaps he edited and sequenced these images for the exhibition and booklet unlike many other catalogs that are done without the artist’s attention. There does seem to be a metaphor being presented to us as there are lots of photos that include people looking at spectacles, children and many that include barriers of sorts.

The preoccupation of the symposium begs the question…Is there something identifiably Swiss about Robert’s photographs?

Book Available Here (Me and My Brother)

Book Available Here (Moving Out)

Book Available Here (Hold Still Keep Going)

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Three books by Pierre Verger

Pierre Verger is probably known to most photographers today as “that third guy” whose work was featured in From Incas To Indios alongside Robert Frank and Werner Bischof. And, unfortunately, many have not done further research into this remarkable artist probably due to some short sightedness from having little name recognition. Regardless of the reason, I would challenge that in that book, Verger proves himself to have produced the most interesting work of the three. One thing is for sure, Robert Delpire wouldn’t have had a book without Verger’s contribution to the project. Verger, after all, has more work reproduced in that title than the other two more famous photographers.

Born in 1902, Verger turned to photography in 1932 after being taught by Pierre Boucher. After the death of his mother, he realized his wanderlust and for the next 14 years he traveled the world making a living as a photographer.

In the late 1940’s, Verger studied African religions and became so immersed in the subject that the French Institute for Black Africa requested details his accounts during his travels for their own studies. This association with anthropological study would unintentionally become his life’s passion. He was the author of many books and his photographs have been used to illustrate well over 100 titles. He died in February of 1996.

One title that has come to my attention is Indians of Peru published by Pocahontas Press in 1950. This is an interesting title for many reasons. Firstly, the photography featured is fine in its variety of approach and ability to convey a sense of a culture.

What is also wonderful about this book is the sequence. It is a sequence of photographs that introduces us to the landscape and population as would a film or an extended photo essay. Although the book is broken into five sections that relate to different regions of Peru, all connect to a central flow of images from page to page. Beyond being simply a cold ethnographic study or a tourist’s observations, Verger seems to be one of the pack and is accepted as such.

On a different note however, the production of the book has its own curiosities. Mainly that in the credits, Walker Evans is acknowledged as assisting in the preparation of the book. It isn’t said that he designed the book or specifically what assistance he gave, only that he assisted in its production. This is a curious fact, because if you compare Indians of Peru to Evans’ American Photographs, they are the exact same trim size. The fonts of the title are the same as the fonts used for American Photographs and the layouts of the text are similar although American Photographs uses blocks of text broken into two columns to a page.

The main difference comes in the way of the page layouts for the photographs. American Photographs, as we know, has one image to a page. In the Verger title, the layout is a much more energetic, with page spreads harnessing several images at a time. There are even several images bled to the page edge. This, on first glance, may seem like too much of a departure from Evans’ design style unless you consider the following. Since the book was made around 1950, one might make the connection that Walker Evans had been working at Fortune magazine for several years where he was experimenting with page layouts and the handling of several images in arrangement as was necessary for a magazine format.

One very interesting similarity is, when Walker Evans designed American Photographs it is believed that he, in a way, paid homage to Atget in his choice of the first image in the book by using the “Photo Studio building” image with its doorway and hand painting pointing towards the entrance. Atget had used a similar image as the introductory image in his Weyhe book from 1930. Walker had reviewed that book for a publication and was very familiar with Atget, even citing him as an influence. Both images offer the image of a doorway as if serving the metaphoric invitation of the viewer to “enter the photographer’s world.” Much like these two predecessors, in the Verger’s Indians of Peru, the first image is of a stone portal that begins the journey into the book.

I may be reading too much into comparisons with this next statement but the second picture in American Photographs is the photo studio window image that features all of the tiny portraits of Americans and the second image in the Indians of Peru is of a stone wall. Both images were made with the camera square to the subject and both segment up the image into essentially 12 parts. Both of these images work in the same way but arrive at obviously different meanings. Unless of course you take into consideration that the wall Verger is pointing us to would have taken a multitude of people to construct.

The last similarity is a simple one, both American Photographs and Indians of Peru contain the exact same amount of photographs. 87.

It is because of these similarities and moments in history that one might assess that Evans had a strong hand in the design of the book. Some of the other names in the “acknowledgements” section that Evans is mentioned are the financial backers of the book that Evans may have known. This is potentially how the project might have landed in his hands.

Another curious note is that Robert Frank knew of this title as well. To a friend he identified it as, “that book with the red endpapers.” (Unlike American Photographs, this title has beautifully saturated, blood red endpapers.) Whether Frank was familiar with Pierre Verger’s other title published in 1945 Fiestas and Dansas En El Cuzco Y En Los Andes before making his own trips to Peru in 1949, is not known.

To create even more of a mystery, a friend of mine actually met with Pierre Verger in Bahia, Brasil and asked him some questions about this book. Turns out, that even in the early 1990’s, Verger didn’t seem to know who Walker Evans was. He stated that he purposely did not look at a lot of photography during his pursuits so as not to be influenced negatively in regard to finding his own voice.

That does pose the question, if Walker was the main design influence on this title, wouldn’t Verger at least know who was responsible? One theory is, Verger was either so invested in his studies, or perhaps he was so difficult to get a hold of for those years, that when he would agree to do a book, he would just send the work to his publishers in Paris and be done with it.

It should be said though that regardless of whether Evans had a hand in the design of this book or not, it is a fine example of work by this underrated yet accomplished artist. The work does not require the validation of Evans to be seen in its own right. This small investigation just adds to the history and connection of this work to a wider wading pool of acknowledged fine artists.

Fiestas and Dansas En El Cuzco Y En Los Andes was published in 1945 by Editorial Sudamericana Sociedad Anonima and a second edition appeared in 1951. This may be one of the few books that Verger actually had a hand in putting together beyond just being the photographer. The publisher was in Buenos Aires, Argentina which was at least close to his home in Brasil. The dedication is to “A Monsieur Et Madame Jean Menil” the couple behind the famed art collection now housed in the Houston-based Menil Collection museum.

As the title suggests, it is a study of the festivals and dances of Peruvian and Andean culture. Verger seemingly moves freely around his subjects and for the most part is ignored even when he moves in super close filling the frame of his Rolliflex with a face. It is a book filled with variations of costuming and masks that often show a blending of cultures due to the influence of the outside world.

This influence is acknowledged as one caption reads: “Chileans, too, appear in some of these dances; they are usually cattle-drivers and traders, and in their company usually appears a personage in frock-coat and top hat who is easily recognizable as the lawyer; and here are the Argentines with their ponchos and muleteer’s lassoes.”

The book is nicely designed and is letterpress printed. The reproductions have a nice quality but aren’t particularly rich. The paper stock is nice and heavy making the whole book feel nice and substantial. This title, like many other early Verger titles, is very inexpensive and relatively easy to find. Be sure to do your research though as he has images in over 100 titles and some have only a few images. There is a great bibliography of Verger at .

Giving credit where it is due, the fine photographer Edward Grazda is the person who brought most of the similarities between these two books to my attention. We should all gratefully acknowledge his scholarly insight into this fascinating connect-the-dots approach to widening the understanding and history of this medium.

Book Available Here (Fiestas and Danzas 1951 2nd ed.)

Book Available Here (Indians of Peru)

Book Available Here (Incas to Indians)