Thursday, March 31, 2011

Films by Paul Graham

The debate years ago on whether film was "better" than digital ruffled a lot of feathers. The old guard held tight to their precious rolls fearing for their eventual disappearance. The argument was framed in technical details but the simple fact is, it is photography either way and making a lasting image is no easier with digital as it was with film - you just don't have to get your hands wet. Ironically, the negative health effects of photo chemistry is probably about the same as digital if you edit and process files with your radiating "laptop" laying across your groin.

As a printmaker for most of my adult life, I maintain a love for film and the process of developing and printing. It is not "magical" for me nor has it ever been watching images form in chemistry under amber safelights. I simply love the way light reflects off of the paper and sensing the chaos of grain that has built the image. Paul Graham's newest book from Mack books Films is an homage to that basic component of grain which is not so easily mimicked by pixels.

Graham has scanned small portions of his negatives and enlarged them to reveal only the grainy color dyes. These large color fields are as minimalist as he could get away from his usual approach to picture making. Some might be confounded by this book after his celebrated A Shimmer of Possibility but for me, this work fits into a continuum as I see most of his books not only exploring the social landscape but the basic make-up of photography. His books A1 and Troubled Land could been seen as examples of the optics, the precision and depth of field we might expect from large format work. His book Beyond Caring is more reliant on the speed of the shutter to still the goings on in DHSS offices. His book End of an Age embraces the variety of color balance from many light sources as he circles his pirouetting figures. His book American Night amplifies the role of the aperture in his description of what we want to see and what we might be willing to overlook. And now Films brings the microcosm of the physical material to light. As Graham has said of this work, it is a "negative retrospective" of his practice.

Films is beautifully printed in a high-gloss paper stock to mimic the sheen of celluloid. In a few plates I sense he is also employing a bit of Gaussian blur to create cloud-like alternates that one might see if they have not critically focused the enlarger - a potential human "mistake" in the process which digital certainly has put to death. Those small flaws for me translate into a feeling of something crafted by hands from an imperfect medium. Dust and scratches, unevenly aligned enlargers, a tong mark at the edge of paper - maybe those will become new photoshop filters that can be applied at the stroke of a keypad.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kiss the Past Hello by Larry Clark

The idea is to put all these fucking teenage boys in one place and just finish it there. just put the whole obsession with going back in one book and maybe it will be finished, maybe I can do something else. - Larry Clark interviewed by Mike Kelly

Larry Clark's latest is a book titled Kiss the Past Hello which was published on the occasion of his show at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and it has one promising quality, if you missed out on Tulsa, Teenage Lust, Punk Picasso or the Los Angeles 2003-2006 Volume 1 then this would be a book to fill a gap on your shelf. If you have any of those aforementioned books then this will seem nothing more than a reshuffling of the same deck of cards. Seems putting the past away is much harder for Mr. Clark since he spoke to Kelly in the late 1980s.

No doubt Clark has produced a few great books over his lifetime and this is no small task as most suffer a sophomore slump and fade quickly. Clark obsession with youth and specifically boys comes from, in his words - a desire of wanting to "go back" and "be them" and not possess them - has remained the motivating factor in making new work in both still images, collage and films. An honest and sad confession that has made his work worth following.

As he shifted from the drug scene into describing narcissism the pictures became looser and less edited (reminding Kelly of action painting), the next logical step for Clark was to move into film. The difficulty is, with exception of his first film Kids, the way Clark approached film has sucked some of the spontaneity out of his process with contrived plot lines and action.

So in a way, Kiss the Past Hello is the return to his youthful, confessionary truth that he seems to partake in every few years but no matter how many times work can be recycled, the need to republish it in a book turns him into a franchise.

Kiss the Past Hello will be hard for fans of Clark to resist. It comes in a box, has a nice design, a poster and a supplement booklet with several essays and the interview with Kelly. The book is fairly cheaply printed and seems like it is the quality of on-demand production even though it was printed in Antwerp. It was produced in an edition of 2500.

If you haven't had enough of kissing the past hello you will no doubt also hear about Clark's Tulsa Reader 1971-2010 which is an 'artist book' of interviews, articles, press releases, gallery memos, letters to the editors - surrounding Larry Clark's controversial photo series, Tulsa.

I thought at first this would be something worthwhile and it might be for someone, but the content looked much less interesting than it sounds. The presentation is a thick xerox book perfect bound (basic unsewn glue binding) with floppy materials. The 'collage' aspect that seems to be touting an artist book flavor seems a stretch but I guess that is cutting it too close to defining what an 'artist book' can be. Past or present this seems like shelf filler to me.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Andy Warhol: Photographs

The only show of Andy Warhol's photographs ever exhibited during his lifetime closed three weeks before his death in February of 1987. It was not a showing of polaroids or photobooth pictures, it was an exhibition of 70 black and white prints sewn together in small grids of identical repeating photos. The grids ranged from four images to twelve with the strands of thread linking them hanging loosely in the center. Robert Miller Gallery who showed the work also published Andy Warhol: Photographs and I think its damn good - not just good, damn good.

The central motif of repetition in Warhol's screen prints is obviously present here as are the subjects of celebrity and the mundane. In a few he directly references himself; one with a four image grid of a man opening his jacket to reveal a t-shirt with a portrait of James Dean rendered in the style of Warhol, and another where he has rephotographed a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong.

The book's order and facing pages are paired to link or contrast the immediate subject or to formally play off of one another; stacks of photo prints are paired with shots of leaves, lines of cars in a parking lot faces a grid of venetian blinds, a grouping of skyscrapers and porn theater posters, ceramic plates and a muscular statue, clouds photographed out a plane window face a white fur coat, the modesty of a young chinese soldier matched with a lingerie clad woman's back.

The act of looking is challenged as our eyes fight to draw themselves from the middle of the grids to see the "whole" and at the same time the individual. The tug and pull of these images makes our focal point dart around the grids searching for a comfortable point to rest - which can be nearly impossible.

The book itself is cleanly designed and edited by John Cheim who ten years later would start the gallery Cheim & Read. The printing is decent but be aware of the binding. After 25 years, the glue in most of these has dried out and the signatures have a tendency to split apart from one another.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Archeologie de la Mine by Didier Vivien

I cannot read French so I am probably missing some of the nuances of Didier Vivien's Archeologie de la Mine published by Marval in 1994 but it is compelling both in its photography and layout.

Archeologie de la Mine is about a major coal mine that existed in the northern region of France bordering Belgium from 1720 until its closing in 1990. It was the main source of employment for the surrounding towns which prospered because of the richness of the coal seams. It was also the site of Europe's worst mining disaster when on March 10, 1906 an explosion killed 1100 miners.

Vivien photographed the mine and its surrounding area in a fairly non-romantic tone considering the history and expected depictions of miners as heroic men working under miserable conditions. This is a colder view more akin to the authorless topographic-style especially when Vivien moves out of the mine buildings and into the landscape of shale heaps. The book ends with images of the transition into a suburban neighborhood complete with big box stores.

Book-wise, the layout of Archeologie de la Mine is very well conceived. Simple full bleed square images - many on facing pages that create dynamic spreads. The printing is a decent, open rendering of a full range of tone but to the attentive viewer it can be seen as slightly inconsistent throughout the book. Archeologie de la Mine includes a short essay by Eric Wawrzyniak.

I hadn't heard of Didier Vivien nor this book before discovering it by chance and I would be curious if anyone else out there had known of it. It seems like an overlooked gem to me.