I/Eye: On Photography

Local Treasures, March 15 — May 11, 2014: Berkeley Art Center

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on March 21, 2014

 

Left to right: J. John Priola, Klea McKenna, Linda Connor.

Left to right: J. John Priola, Klea McKenna, Linda Connor.

A reception for the artists represented in the Berkeley Art Center’s Local Treasures show, curated by Anne Veh, will be held on Saturday, 3/22, 6–8:00pm. The show includes work by Linda Connor, Hiroyo Kaneko, J. John Priola, Unai San Martin, Klea McKenna and Richard Whittaker.

I remember seeing Unai San Martin’s prints at Kala about a year ago; I left with a case of printer’s envy for the subtle grays of his photogravures and the slight residual footprint of  the copper plate. I look forward to seeing more—and to seeing the others’ prints.

The Berkeley Art Center is located at 1275 Walnut Street, Berkeley; phone: (510) 644-6893.

 

Bill Cunningham

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on September 25, 2012
Untitled (catwalk) 2012 © Sheila Newbery

Untitled (catwalk) 2012 © Sheila Newbery

I went to see Bill Cunningham New York (again) at the Townsend Center for the Humanities last night on the UC Berkeley campus. The film is a documentary about the life of New York photographer Bill Cunningham, who at 80+ years of age still travels the streets of New York on his Schwinn bicycle to scrutinize and photograph — with seemingly unquenchable delight — what people are wearing. His findings are published in the New York Times.

He’s been at it for decades.

You come away from this movie convinced that Bill has made New York a better place: his utter lack of interest in money or celebrity (his own or others’), his nose-to-the-ground persistence, unshakable ethics, and commitment to independence inspire those who come to know him. He is wholly devoid of snobbery, and genuinely egalitarian; he’ll pay a top designer exactly the same compliment he’d bestow on a woman in the street: if he likes what he sees, he’ll hoist the camera to his eye and push the shutter button. Doesn’t matter who you are. And if he’s not interested in what you’re wearing, it still doesn’t matter who you are (Catherine Deneuve?). The camera stays down.

Bill’s New York is both more glamorous and more innocent than the actual one. David Koch can be directly in view at a power-broker soirée (the kind of gathering that’s very much Bill’s beat) — and his gravitational force is as nothing on Mr. Cunningham, who offers a deflecting smile, then turns away. In his idiosyncratic meritocracy, Koch is simply … uninteresting.

Finale (2012)  © Sheila Newbery

Finale (2012) © Sheila Newbery

Writings about photography

Posted in Other Photographers, Uncategorized by Sheila Newbery on September 6, 2012
Departure (2011) Sheila Newbery

Departure (2011) Sheila Newbery

Here’s an interesting piece by Brian Dillon (writing for the London Review of Books) on John Stezaker, winner of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. Dillon’s is a vivid description of Stezaker’s art and he takes a wry delight in the artist’s  ‘incisive’ technique, which involves introducing shards of imagery (sliced with a scalpel), or indeed whole photographs, into other photographs. As Dillon notes, there has been some complaint online (bitter tweets, etc.) that Stezaker is not an actual photographer. But unlike many contemporary photographers, Stezaker remains devoted to the physicality of prints — In which respect he’s refreshingly old school. (For Dillon’s review of the artist’s extensive 2011 show at the Whitechapel Gallery, click here.)

Adam Bell on Mrs. Merryman’s postcards

Posted in Other Photographers, postcards by Sheila Newbery on September 3, 2012
Train passing (2011) © Sheila Newbery

Train passing (2011) © Sheila Newbery

Adam Bell writes a beautiful review of Anne Sophie  Merryman’s Mrs. Merryman’s Collection, featured in photo-eye magazine. This is a book of postcards, framed  in the manner of a nested, magpie ‘travelogue’: the postcards are collected not because they relate to a voyage made by the author, but because they suggest many and strange voyages — especially those of the imagination made possible by pictures small enough to touch and shuffle. There are the primary journeys (those of the unknown senders of the cards or the photographers who made them), the secondary ones of the imagination (made by the collector), and the tertiary—those of the author, whose selection  revisits the acquisitive enchantments of all prior sets of hands.

The animating impulse of Mrs. Merryman’s ‘collection’ might be seen as the ephemeral, late echo in our photographic age of the magnificent 17th-century  wunderkammeren — rooms of wonders — which were essentially arrangements of objects (whether by system or caprice)  of natural and manmade origin collected during aristocratic voyages of discovery.   Such collections functioned as tactile encyclopedias of experience, or “mirrors of  contemporary knowledge”. They were meant to educate and amaze — and to bring the visitor face-to-face with the bizarre or the inexplicable.

As aide-de-memoire or a whetting of the imagination, what is the postcard — a nineteenth-century invention — but a printed stand-in for the emotions of discovery unlocked by the cabinets of curiosities?  Postcards are the Every Man’s studiolo or galleria of experience. They are the places we’ve been; the things we want to see.

Vanishing Act: Gary Nakamoto

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on September 2, 2012
Spykids 3D, Orinda Theater, 90 minutes © Gary Nakamoto

Spykids 3D, Orinda Theater, 90 minutes © Gary Nakamoto

I first saw one of Gary Nakamoto’s pictures a few years ago at the Berkeley Art Center; it was a large, arresting print: an interior scene carefully composed, rendered with dramatic clarity from a large format negative, the human subjects in the image looking a bit like ghosts caught in the act of vanishing at dawn. My interest was piqued.

I took note of his name and later found out that his work focuses almost exclusively on the practice of time exposure — longish ones. Nakamoto is one of a number of photographers who’ve worked with time exposures in more than just an experimental way: one thinks of Hiroshi Sugimoto (the seascapes and theater screenings); Michael Weseley‘s photographs of urban transformation; Matthew Pillsbury‘s sumptuous, monochrome tableaux; and Chris McCaw‘s prints — burned, literally, by the sun.

Nakamoto’s work is as concentrated in intent as these, yet different for his focus on specific events that occur (by calculation) within the span of the shutter’s opening, whether these be hospital operations, religious services, movie screenings, or the intimacies of sex and birth.  While it is a commonplace to think of the camera as arresting points in time — from which we, the viewer, are always distanced and traveling inexorably onward, Nakamoto’s work synthesizes and collapses these points, so that people are rendered, inevitably, as smudges or shimmerings of fleshy transparency.

Orchidectomy, 29 minutes © Gary Nakamoto

Orchidectomy, 29 minutes © Gary Nakamoto

In contrast to an artist like Pillsbury, say, who sometimes makes of his blurred masses of people a quasi-natural force (like wind or water) that swirls around and through majestic architectural interiors, Nakamoto is uninterested in pitting our evanescence against grand constructs.  Rather, he sets up his camera in ordinary spaces — the kind we must all pass through at one time or another — and photographs during the span of events we all experience. He is not interested in the spaces merely, though he represents them in exacting detail; he’s motivated by the fact that someone is in them, something happens, and then that something is over. As the camera renders it, this sequence of events becomes a  synthetic vision in which the person or persons are simultaneously there and not there; the ‘moment’ the camera records is a past-in-present — one of the still camera’s native ‘tenses’, we might say.  Despite photography’s uniquely powerful ability to inscribe images of  instantaneity in our collective memory, then, Nakamoto has been devoted to this deliberate mode of visual articulation—a kind of seeing through people and events. What does it add up to exactly?

One way to think of his work might be to see in it an arc of return to photography’s origins, when an entire streetful of people might vanish into the voracious lens (Daguerre in 1838), leaving only a man who stands long enough to have his boots blacked. What was once a technological necessity — the long exposure — is now revisited precisely for its capacity to dissolve. Certainly this idea isn’t irrelevant if we respond to Nakamoto’s images as photographic explorations of time and memory: his premeditated insistence on leaving the shutter open until the end, forewarns us of the absences that await in his prints. The resulting ‘ghosts’ connect us (pictorially) to the synthetic, backward-reaching motion of memory. Too, the way he situates his photographs in relation to collective or universal experiences indicates a fundamental commitment: his pictures are devoid of the comforting fictions of transcendence — there aren’t even any recognizable individuals: his is an art of compression, inevitability.

Nakamoto’s photographs don’t root into our mind’s eye the way photographs with clearly delineated emotional states will often do. They are too disciplined in intent: too taken up with the problem of simultaneous raveling and unraveling of perception, too patiently observing of an unseeable thing: the irreducible inertia of time. We grasp this even from the titles: Orchidectomy, 29 minutes; Spy Kids 3D, Orinda Theater, 90 minutes.

Viewed in this light, the interiors of these photographs, which seem substantial by comparison to their disappearing occupants, and which ensconce the fleeting insubstantiality of all that happens within, begin to look themselves a little less solid, a little more likely to disappear — if we stick around long enough.

Cheap partly-constructed houses lacking water and sewage

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on May 30, 2012
 (Lockland, Ohio)  Carl Mydans

(Lockland, Ohio) Carl Mydans

Image source: click here.

Fireworks

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on March 13, 2012
Fireworks over Spasskaya Tower by Jan Lukas (Moscow, 1963)

Fireworks over Spasskaya Tower by Jan Lukas (Moscow, 1963)

From Moscow; a book of photographs (London: Spring Books, 1963) by Jan Lukas.

Algimantas Kezys

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on March 12, 2012
Chicago, Illinois (1966)

Chicago, Illinois (1966)

From Photographs: Algimantas Kezys, S. J. (Loyola University Press, 1966).

Santa Fe photo book workshop with the Webbs at Radius Books

Posted in On the street, Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on October 6, 2011
Cables on the Bay Bridge (San Francisco, 2011) © Sheila Newbery

Cables on the Bay Bridge (San Francisco, 2011) © Sheila Newbery

I’m back on the road again — this time on my way to the Netherlands; more on that later… It’s been a busy month: in late September, I went to the intensive photo book workshop organized by Alex and Rebecca Norris Webb in conjunction with Radius Books, and took along my book-in-the-making Los Caprichos (after Goya). The workshop is invaluable for anyone who’s interested in the specifics of photo book production: we were able to see the evolution of one of the Webbs’  projects, Violet Isle (Radius Books, 2009) from the early mock-up through the final design by David Chickey, and to hear about decisions at every level of production: from sequencing and materials to marketing. On Sunday, Radius co-founder Darius Himes flew in from San Francisco to attend the presentations, gave feedback on each participant’s project, and even at one point gave an animated, impromptu description of a four-color press, converting one of Radius’ walls into a giant, imaginary machine and describing its operation — with some evocative arm waving.  This was a propos of being on press, which we learned from Alex should never be undertaken, unaided, by the neophyte….

On the second day, we also heard David Taylor talk about his important book, Working the Line, which posed unique design challenges owing to the sheer scale of the project. Chickey and Taylor talked about the solutions they devised to handle the task of visualizing a monumental project (renting a large warehouse to get adequate elbow room and a sufficient visual sweep), and about the unique concept of the large accordion fold-out (comprised of photographs of the US-Mexico border markers) that would help readers intuit the stark intent and magnitude of the wall’s construction.

The workshop was demanding — I’d recommend it to anyone at work on a book-length project — and an extraordinary opportunity to see the making of books from the inside: from both the photographer’s and designer’s perspective.  As an art form, the photo book is beautiful and flexible  — it’d be difficult to exhaust its potential in a lifetime of publishing.  What struck me in listening to the Webbs and to Taylor talk about their projects was the nature of their collaboration with the designer — David Chickey, in both cases. This is where the “value added” lies in photo book publishing: in a designer’s ability to work in concert with the material and with the individual photographers.  Particularly where the approach of the publisher is one that emphasizes the book proper as object (not merely as generic coffee table “brick”), the designer’s role is vital. In the most competent and inspired hands, it’s a brilliant disappearing act: the designer makes it possible for us to fall in love with the book, all the while making us think that its felicity is inevitable or effortless.

Having seen Violet Isle now as both mock-up and limited edition volume, I look forward to seeing Rebecca Norris Webb’s new project, My Dakota, forthcoming from Radius. I’ll also be interested to learn how each of the projects presented at the workshop develops: Linka Odom’s portraits of travelers; Sheri Manson’s Beard Watching; Mary Hobbs’ photographs of childhood; Susan Berger’s Martin Luther King Way project; and Andrea Tese’s Inheritance.

The readiness is all

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on September 9, 2011
Battery Chamberlin © Ryan Hendon

Battery Chamberlin © Ryan Hendon

At the suggestion of a photographer friend, Ryan Hendon, I went down to the David Brower Center a couple of weeks ago to see Hello Tomorrow: Bay Area Artists Envision the Future (which ran from June 16–Sept. 2, 2011). For those who don’t know, the Center was founded to honor the memory of David Brower, prominent California environmentalist (Berkeley native) and founder of the Sierra Club Foundation, the John Muir Institute for Environmental Studies, Friends of the Earth, and other organizations. The Center includes a temporary, ground-floor-level exhibition space open to the public, and in its short history has already mounted solo shows of work by the likes of Sebastião Salgado, David Maisel and Chris Jordan.

Hendon had a piece in the show I saw: one of his photographs of abandoned gun mounts in World War II-era coastal defense installations. The photo projects the future of human controversy as an inevitable silent swallowing by the land and its (non-human) life, yet its minimalism of form contrasts scales of reference in such a way that we end up seeing a blooming lushness of understatement where at first we were struck by a resolute austerity.

Kirby Cove no. 1 © Ryan Hendon

Kirby Cove no. 1 © Ryan Hendon

Each image in this series (printed, impeccably, from large-format negatives) confines the viewer to the basic geometry of the coastal defense — a circular base, in which the massive gun once rested, and the concrete battlement itself — which is a notched wall bearing all the signs of weather corrosion. There is an intimacy in this confinement: the concrete structure seems on the one hand to take as its mission the protection of the weeds and grasses now rooting in the base. And the weedy occupation of the base, in its turn, seems a wry nod to the domestic mission of the houseplant  — as living ornament. In this latter vein, one could fail to recognize the purpose of the architectural elements in the photographs, but not the effects of nature’s ornamentation, its “improvement”, of these bald constructions. And so you could say there’s an unobtrusive joke at the heart of each image.

But taking the time to read about the function of the defenses in Hendon’s statement unlocks another level of the joke: we see that the invaders have already arrived (viz. Cavafy, Waiting for the Barbarians) — and in the deliberately compressed depth of field of the photos, each of the images also seems a kind of mug shot of their wholly unthreatening aspect: the invaders are the weeds, of course. It’s they who’ve penetrated our once vaunted defenses. And it’s they, paradoxically, who are now manning the battlements: ‘volunteers’ (the word has a botanical meaning) that they are. This last bit may be taking the joke too far, but that’s what occurred to me as I looked at the straggly, unprepossessing lot who’d laid claim to the bulwarks in these quietly beautiful photographs.

Kirby Cove no. 2 © Ryan Hendon

Kirby Cove no. 2 © Ryan Hendon