Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Frank Aspesi catalogs

Most artists need to find ways of paying the bills and this usually involves stepping outside of their immediate interests. Unless, of course, they were born into wealth and the day to day search for money is unnecessary. I have the notion that good art doesn't naturally spring from that environment but I only have to point to Cartier-Bresson or Godard to look foolish making a statement like that. Having money has the positive effect of freeing up time to create but does the lack of day-to-day struggle for one's existence have an effect on the work as well? I'd like to think so but perhaps this is simply because I belong to the group of people that hang from paycheck to paycheck. As I've said before I make my living as a printmaker and my work week generally exists of two days worth of jobs. If I worked full time, I would never be a photographer (let alone spend the time to write about books) but yet I think if I had all the money that I needed then perhaps I wouldn't need to make photographs because there would be less at stake if I didn't. That said, I'd probably give it a go, if just for the experiment.

Robert Frank is not generally thought of as an editorial or commercial photographer but when he first arrived in the United States from Zürich that is exactly what he fell into. In fact, to find proof of this all you need to do is look through Stuart Alexander's bibliography of Frank published by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and you will find listings of all of the fashion shoots that he worked on. In 1947, after showing Alexey Brodovitch his handmade book 40 Fotos, he started working for Harper's Bazaar in July and by the end of the year he had done 39 published shoots for them. He seemed to work steadily for Harper's and Junior Bazaar until 1952 completing around 120 separate jobs as a fashion photographer. From 1952 onward one sees the gears of the art world being set into motion in regards to Frank's career with fewer and fewer entries regarding commercial work and more entries concerning his appearance as a young artist.

This posting is about three fashion catalogues from designer Alberto Aspesi, Milano which feature photographs by Frank that were shot in the late 1980s and the mid-1990s.

The first is 44 pages and features 19 photographs of shirt designs from Aspesi in 1989. Photographed in Polaroid positive/negative in the streets around his home near the Bowery he catches the models in states somewhere between posing and spontaneous interaction. The blurry urban backdrop and rough Polaroid edges provides a nice moody atmosphere of fashion meeting lower east side reality. This elegantly produced softcover is covered in thick black French-folded cardstock and the inner reproductions are on a decent paper stock typical of artbooks.

The second is a 44 page hardcover catalog of 24 photographs of jackets offered from Aspesi's Fall/Winter line of 1995-96. This time around Robert has hauled everyone up to Mabou, Nova Scotia where jackets would be put to good use. Here he mixes the obvious models with locals and even June Leaf shows up in a few photos. Since much of Robert's "art" with the Polaroid has been done up in Mabou several elements within the landscape that he re-uses in these photos will be familiar. A local man in flannel jacket and trucker's cap holds up a piece of glass upon which Robert has etched the word 'Jackets' (scratched into the negative) while in the foreground the clothesline from his famous 'words' photograph now holds up jackets and not photographic prints blowing in the winter wind. In other photos he uses newspapers and people holding up found objects as props to infuse the pictures with the sense of an added beyond the clothing.

Besides this book being hardcover the quality is much the same as the softcover described above.

The last catalog called Ideas was published in 1999 and it combines three of the campaigns including one of collages made in 1997. This was available for a while through SCALO but nowhere in the book do they have any credit on production or distribution. Where as the others were not publicly available, this one had a much larger printing and seemed made for more public consumption as a Robert Frank item of interest beyond the fashion aim.

The first two sections are most of the photos described from the series above (the individual books contain a few photos that do not appear in this collection) and the last section are the collages made in Zurich in which the featured products are light jackets. The collages include photographs in both black and white and color and other elements of film frames and scratched Polaroid negatives. To me these are a bit less interesting as the photographs alone are not intriguing like in the other series, it is the collage and surrounding support material that makes them something to pay attention to.

For what these are, these books are interesting items with good photography and nice design. I like many of the individual images even though they sit in the comfortable arena of risk-free fashion photography. It is clearly commerce and not art but it does hold some of Frank’s air of cool intelligent framing and the sense that there is more behind what meets the eye.

Note: For a different take on artists being hired to photograph campaigns that get published as a book take a look at Terry Richardson’s work for the Japanese company Uniqlo advertising their large line of t-shirts. Some of their shirts have featured Araki and Daido Moriyama photos and Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. That book called T-shirt Love is available in Uniqlo stores for $50.00.

Note to note above: Did I just call Terry Richardson an artist?