Thursday, 22 December 2011

Separated At Birth

Dorothea Lange: The Road West / Highway to the West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Robert Frank: U.S. 285 New Mexico, 1955

“Robert Frank walked in with a couple of boxes of his work. for several years he’s been going around the country taking photos for a book he planned to call The Americans. He was hoping to convince Jack [Kerouac] to write the introduction. He asked me if I’d like to look at some of the pictures. The first one i saw was of a road somewhere out west - blacktop gleaming undeer headlights with a white strip down the middle that went on and on toward an outlying darkness, Jack’s road! I thought immediately” 

Quoted in Sante; Looking in: Robert Frank’s The American’s, Steidl/National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2009, p.204

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Eugene Atget: The First Street Photographer.

With the work of Eugene Atget, the photographic sub-genre of street-photography could be considered one of the very first uses of the art-form outside of still-lives, portraiture and of course, pornography. Atget, forced to make a living on the fringes of society, found beauty and inspiration in turning his camera inward toward the people who were unseen or misrepresented. He started a lineage of outsider photographers, weirdos and misfits, not to mention perverts and the clinically insane, who obsessively photographed the streets on which they lived: from Daido Moriyama, skulker of late-night alleyways

and brothels in 1960s Tokyo, and Angelo Rizzuto, whose voyeuristic, images of women on the streets of 1950s New York reflect a tortured, lonely soul whose only friendship was with his lens, to Michael Ackerman in the present day, throwing his camera around and defying all the rules of photography, finding beauty in pain and sorrow, death and escape.

Atget’s inclusion at the beginning of this anti-list of the most veritably excluded, disenfranchised and excommunicated of photographers, is not happenstance. Starting his career first as a sailor, then an actor and entertainer before moving on to street photography, Atget was never a part of the mainstream or the developing bourgeoisie like so many amateur or jobbing photographers of the late nineteenth century. Working at a time when photography was still largely considered a ‘hobby’ by those that could afford both the time and money to make it one, Atget sold his images on the very streets which he photographed, selling quaint images of Parisian life to local artists as source material for paintings. However, it wasn’t until the city and the Carnavalet Museum employed him to document the older buildings of Paris due for demolition, that he found his true calling.

With the sense of order of an obsessive collector, Atget lugged his equipment around the dying slums of Paris. His life-project was in turning his camera to those most like himself, capturing the fading traditions and various self-employments of the lower classes occupying and plying their trade on the street. Atget saw the terrible effect the demolition of old Paris was having on the lives of the people who made their living on those same streets:

flower-sellers, rag-collectors, prostitutes and organ-grinders, all living, breathing and disappearing under the streets of Paris. Atget saw it as his duty to document these lives before they were swept under the tide of social reform and emergence of big business along with the very buildings which sheltered them.

Working at the time of Proust, Atget was a flaneur, an urbanist historian, a psycho-geographer and more. He created a life- long body of work that represented an obsessive attention to a mapping of the city through historical, social and pictorial means reminiscent of Henry Darger’s hallucinatory, lifelong fever dream In the Realms of the Unreal, yet with a clarity and intensive sense of self-purpose that would not be seen again in a photographer’s work until the advent of 35mm film. If Iain Sinclair had written about Montmartre in the 1890s instead of Hackney in the late 2000s he might have collaborated with Atget.

Never having earned much money through his employment by the city, Atget’s archive was discovered by Berenice Abbot in the 1920s when he had a studio next door to Man Ray. Abbot introduced his work to Alfred Steiglitz, and it went on to influence Walker Evans and the social documentarians of the New Deal. Having spent 40 years arguing for Atget to be included into the canon of Masters of Photography, Abbot finally sold his archive to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. In 1981 MoMA completed its stunning four book release collecting his Paris archives, which coincided with four separate shows of his life’s work

A new book, Eugene Atget: Paris 1898-1924 has been published by TF Editores to accompany an exhibition, organised by the Fundacion Mapfre in Madrid.

As published in the paper edition of Vignette Magazine.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

This isn't a film history blog but...

I know this isn't really a film History blog but my interests and intentions do run towards social history and media, particularly as it relates to American History so when I heard a session by Lydia Ainsworth on Dark Night of The Soul with Julie on WFMU I thought it relevant enough to post here. Ainsworth is a very modern composer, mixing samples of her own voice with found sounds and various classical instruments. Here she has scored a short piece for some footage filmed just mere weeks before the Great San Fransisco Earthquake of 1906 and I think it does a lot in such a short time and beautifully encapsulates the rush of modernism on a Victorian city.

Check her out at for more of her beautiful scores.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A little note about this blog:

Hi there, if you are reading this and Hi there, even if you aren't. I created this blog over a year ago as I was preparing to go into a Masters in photographic history at DeMontfort University in Leicester, UK. At that point the course had only been running for one year so I was due to go into the 2nd year of operation, as it were. I might write a bit about my experiences on the course - good and bad - but in the meantime I just wanted to say that most of these posts below (as well as a few due to follow) generally start from me knowing very little about photo-history and some are now quite embarrassing to read back. AMazing how much one can change in a year. Anyway, what then happened was that I went to go back on this blog after spendinga few gruelling months writing my thesis only t o find I couldn't log in/had forgotten my password. So, I've created a new blog and just copied and pasted the older posts into it. Most are just little things I thought were funny or interesting, some are portions of things i've written (and being portions may not make a huge amount of sense to anyone, including me) and some are starting points for things I would like to write further on. So in this sense the whole thing should kind of act a bit like a cork board with lots of pictures cut out of magazines, scribbled notes and post-its and all sorts. If there are any photo-historian's out there who want to get in touch I would love to hear from you. We seem to be such a tiny breed, we need to stick together....

Un Art Moyen part one

This is part one of an exciting series of slides I found in a Junk Shop I used to frequent in Glasgow. I haven't really got anything to say about the series at the mo besides that it was fairly strange to find such a large grouping of groups of Scots staring out at me from the past.

Looking Past

From 'Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures 1941 - 1943', Maren Stange, NY, The New Press, 2003

Russell Lee, Family On Relief, 1941
Jack Delano - Ida B. Wells Housing Project, 1942

'looking past’ suggests a complexity of perspectival positions or a multiplicity of layers that endow photographs with an enormously greater complexity than that which they are usually credited. The photograph ceases to be a univocal, flat, and uncontestable indexical trace of what was, and becomes instead a complexly textured artefact (concealing many different depths) inviting the viewer to assume many possible different stand-points – both spatial and temporal – in respect to it” Christopher Pinney, introduction to 'Photography's Other Histories', Durham, NC,  Duke University Press, 2003.

Russel Lee - Girl listening to music at a dance, 1941

“The Future Belongs To Ghosts”

– Jacques Derrida, Ghost Dance, Ken McMullen (1983)

In the early days of Memorial Photography – I dislike the term ‘post-mortem photography’, too clinical – photographers were faced with what was essentially a new sub-genre of portraiture within a medium that was still completely brand new and were utterly unsure of how to approach something that would have required such a sensitive touch but at least was not as sanitized and taboo as it is today. Many families – middle/upperclass & white – presented the bodies of their deceased family members in the parlour of their homes; a room that was, in a very sly and cynical move, eventually co-opted by the burgeoning ‘Funeral Parlours’ of the late Nineteenth Century and replaced with the ‘Living Room’ which we are familiar with today. The photographer arrive at the home and would set his equipment up in the parlour and photograph the family of the deceased sitting around with the deceased person as if for a normal family portrait, for many this might be the only portrait they would have as a family or of the deceased individually.  Many early Memorial Photographs featured the deceased sitting upright in a chair, often strapped in to ensure that it would not keel over.

Summing up his Essay ‘Photography and Fetishism’ saying that photography is capable of becoming a fetish, Christian Metz describes ‘the timelessness of photography which is comparable to the timelessness of the unconscious and of memory” (Metz, p.83) and it is with this idea that I intend to investigate various strands of Mourning Photography through the ideas set forth by Freud and Lacan and reinterpreted/discussed by Metz, Bazin, Kaplan et al through a photographic framework.

Denial is a reasonable response to the death of a family member and the commission and ownership of a memorial photograph could serve as a replacement of the person and as “preservation against extinction” as in another’s death we are reminded of our own mortality. “The survivor seeks in the work of mourning a psychic detachment from the dead and from death” (Kaplan, p.232) but (using Metz’s idea of ‘suspension of disbelief’ as a mourning tool through the practice of Memorial Photography) the survivor could be capable of using the photograph as a fetish also; Freud believed that “mourning has a quite specific task to perform: its function is to detach the survivors memories and hopes from the dead” (totem and taboo, 65) but it could also serve as a ‘turning away from reality’ as he put it in Mourning and Melancholia, towards a ‘hallucinatory wish-psychosis’ where the photograph itself could become a replacement for the missing ‘Love-Object’ conserving the photograph as what Rickels calls ‘living dead’ – “Between the living and the mourned dead, we find an amalgam of telecommunications and canned and manufactured goods conserving itself as living dead.” (Rickels, p.21) The object-libido of the mourner wishes to accompany the deceased in death but the ego-libido claims the right to live. A compromise is made wherein the mourner chooses to love the fetish object (the photograph) as a replacement, “making a compromise between conservation and death” and the mourner can return once more to life.

The notion of the Fetish in Freudian terms is constructed in the mind of the child at a young age when it sees its mothers naked body for the first time. The lack of the same  genetalia in the mothers body creates fear and anxiety in the child, who tries to stop the look by focusing on something else in the room; generally a piece of clothing or an undergarment. The fetish is related to death through the terms of castration and fear and is used again to stop the look when fear and anxiety arise later in life.

Although Metz, in his essay ‘Photography and Fetishism’ likens the ‘cutting off’ of the fetish to what is unseen off-frame in both the cinematic and photographic space I think that this can also be linked to what is unseen in Memorial Photography, that that which is not captured in these ‘anti-portraits’ is that which is there but not there, and in order to do this I wish to extend this thought process to include that other most famous of Freudian theories, that of the Uncanny or Unheimliche; The more exacting translation; Not-At-Home-ness being a more suitable synonym/simile in this case: There is an image before me of somebody who appears at first glance to be alive but upon closer inspection there is something not quite right. This person is Not At Home. Neither within the space that they occupy nor within themselves: “We have indeed heard that many modern languages cannot translate our expression “ein unheimliches Haus” other than through the reinscription – a house, in which “it spooks.” (Quoted in Kaplan, Louis; The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, p.222 Translation by the author) The notion of es spukt (it spooks) comes as – for lack of a better descriptive term – a sub-notion of the notion of The Uncanny, and again a term which in its translation brings metaphysical problems for Derrida in Specters of Marx “Everything is concentrated then in the German expression es spukt, which translations are obliged to circumvent. One would have to say: it haunts, it ghosts, it spectres…The subject that haunts is not identifiable, one cannot see, localize, fix any form, one cannot decide between hallucination and perception.” In other words; It is not there. These Photographs are Unheimlich because “they expose familial photography to the estranging and defamiliarizing forces that haunt the house of being” (Kaplan, 223)

In Lacanian terms this lack represents that which is symbolically missing from what Freuds description of the castration fear is signified/triggered by the childhood trauma of discovering the difference between men and women, that which is essentially lacking. This fear can also be said to exist in a fear of death which can be attributed to the fear caused by a reaction to The Uncanny; That which is Not-At-Home (that which is lacking) stirs an ingrained fear of death (of castration) and a turning away which is exemplified by a seeking solace in fetish so that the photograph of the deceased could be said to embody the fetish itself as a replacement for what Freud calls the ‘Love-Object’.

Death is More Perfect Than Life: Larry Clark Vs Margaret Durow

I thought I had posted this ages ago but it seems that I didn't. Margaret Durow is in my opinion the best new young photographer coming out of the states right now and it amazes me that hardly anybody seems to have picked up on her work perhaps its that she is still so young and has (so far) had no formal training. Our buddy's over at doubleplusgoodbooks will be putting out a book of her work sometime this year, a fact which, i have to admit i am jealous to the point of murder. Larry Clark's early work, particularly the book Tulsaseems to be a massive jumping off point for Ms. Durow, inherent in the nihilistic death/youth beauty of these images is a sort of stoned perpetuity, that these images could come from almost any part of America in the last 40 or so years, unchanged.

The surroundings have enough about them to remind me of the starkness inherent in the empty buildings of Francesca Woodman's work but where Woodman and her performers displace this starkness, successfully capturing that point just before puberty kicks in then Durow's images represent the other side of the coin; when the darkness sets in. Retaining none of the youthfull abandon and sheer joy at having ones life set out in front of them which Woodman's figures show, Durows characters seem instead to be soaked in the atmosphere of their surroundings, serving more as a psychic extension of their feelings, imbued more-so with the nihilism inherent in Clarks figures.

That is not to say, however that these are not good pictures. Like Woodman, Durow has been 'dicovered' at a very early stage in what could be called her 'photographic career'; should she wish to pursue it - it seems she is studying for an entirely unrelated degree - her work could become incredibly good. Obviously there are many avenues work like this can go down, and I wish her the best of luck with wherever she chooses to take it.

Margaret Durow

Larry Clark

Francesca Woodman

Margaret Durow

The continual repositioning of the past in relation to the present.

Golly. i haven't been on here in a while. Should try to use it to get my straights thoughtened out. Been forced to think a lot about ethnography within photography lately. Applied for a Fellowship at the Smithsonian. Had to make up a lot of gumf about stuff I don't really know anything about. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the Future. Fear of the Past - all filtered through photography. The eye on History.

Anyway, some thoughts;

Buckminster Fuller

The Pease Dome Company of Hamilton, Ohio

Geodesic Domes
Futurism - positivism

A geodesic dome made out of pictures of geodesic domes?

Latin – American architecture

Italian futurist/fascist architecture
Wichita Grass House 

R. Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House.

Moms that time forgot

Not that anybody reads this thing but, apologies for lack of posting lately, been getting on with my essay to get into my masters. Anyway, the wonderful blog momstyleicons is something I was wanting to write about but the essay (nearly done!) ended up only being about one aspect of the original plan. Kinda like the myth that Tarantino originally wrote lots of his films as one giant screenplay, or something. Anyway, i love this blog - OK, I'm a guy and this is essentially a fashion blog, but thats why i like it; Because its actuallya receptacle of memory posing as a fashion blog. I find it interesting what the internet - and, particularly blogs - are doing to our notions of memory. Anyway, thats for another time and, evidently another essay. But for now enjoy a few of my favorite images frommomstyleicons.

Lets hear it for Hot Moms!

Found Cameras and Orphan Pictures

Although I like the premise of the blog site ifoundyourcamera it essentially fails on two counts; 1) That no one is taking pictures with analogue cameras anymore and neither as is made evident on this blog are most people stupid enough to actually lose their digital cameras so that this site should really be calledifoundyourmemorystickwithallyourshitonitandafewphotos 2) That digital has made modern vernacular photography really, really dull. The two photos shown are the only ones of any real interest as they were obviously taken during the '80's but just as most of us who were old enough to live through it thought that everything during the '80's and 90's was pretty crap maybe we will be able to look back in twenty or so years and see that yes, in fact everything was awesome.

The Hid Vs the Hop

Goddammit boys, I love Todd Hido AND I love Edward Hopper; especially his darker, more perverse stuff. The stuff that people talk about when they talk about David Lynch and Blue Velvet and all that.

Imagine my surprise when going through some articles to discover the similarities between these two images...

It struck me today the similarities between this picture taken from Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy and that of the work of Leon Borensztein. Borensztein was a portrait photographer during the 70’s and early 80’s and at some point decided to ‘step back’ from the traditional portrait frame and, asking the sitter not to smile would take a single shot for himself. What results are pictures that tend to be ‘truer’ representations of the sitters than that which they are intending to put forward or portray through the image that they are paying to have taken (an image of a woman who looks exactly like the dog she has on her lap is both hilarious and sad and, unfortunately not relevant here).  Sometimes backing up just enough so that that part of other peoples lives – the slightly musty home-furnishings, the unwanted children – show through.

Borensztein’s work manages at once to be a fascinating semi-vernacular anthropological exercise  and at the same time posits ideas of personal image Vs public image (or intended Vs actual image) “He at once captured a part of what people wanted to present of themselves, but also recorded the reality of where they were” says Todd Hido in his introduction to Borensztein’s work in Witness number 7 which Hido curated. 

The above image from Lesy’s first book Wisconsin Death Trip does something similar. It would appear that the photographer has pre-empted/anticipated Borensztein’s bold move (by around 70 years) by framing his picture a few steps back from the subject: that of a recently deceased child. Such an image would have been used to a very tight frame, cropping out almost any furniture while the casket would have been layed with flowers, emphasizing the ‘Not Dead But Sleeping’ approach, not only to memorial portraiture but also to funeral practices of the time. It is most likely that this image has been taken before the body would have been presented to the family and mourners. As was the custom, the bodies of dead children would usually have been presented in the parlour surrounded by wreaths and flowers. But, what this image shares with the others here is whilst seemingly being posed for images supposed to be used as memorial photographs – albeit in utterly opposing terms – the subjects unwittingly find themselves part of a larger, more anthropological picture. The formal regulation of portraiture is for an instant, shirked of in favor of something more utilitarian and anthropological by nature "….almost as if in the gap between their poses and posturing, and the incongruence of these environments, is where the truth actually lies”

For Witness Number 7 Published by Joy Of Giving Something inc click here