In my time, taxon has moved towards complexity. Class has turned into identity. It is harder and harder to generalize or predict on the basis of common ideas. Critics and writers are hard-pressed to focus on a rising tide, and curatorial influence has ebbed over what the crowd will see as beautiful, or meaningful. The effort to influence, when accomplished, makes one think the victory is pyrrhic, at best. Nevertheless, I wanted again this year to show the books that affected how I think about photography.
Talking with photographers reveals much, and it is a privileged position I have to be able to do so. One of the most illuminating discussions I have had is with the great Terry Munro about his time under instruction with Henry Wessel in California.
Have you ever read anything that seemed to come to you at a critical time, so that it felt rather like it had been written for you? That page after page, you find confirmation? “Old Fields” by John Stilgoe is a transformational book. I’ve read nothing else like it.
If you want to make your pictures fit into the flow of words that go along with the prestige of photography, you will find someone to write something to relate the pictures you have made with one of these essays. There is a weird effect to this, it feels echo-chamber-y, as though there is an institutional confirmation bias in critical outlooks on photography. “Old Fields” stands out as a completely independent piece of sustained writing and thinking. Despite the title, I think many readers will feel the shock of the new. Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, “A Little History of Photography”, Roland Barthes “Camera Lucida”, and Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” make up the repeated titles that you come across in essay after essay that begin photography books.
On July 6, I went out with Scott Malo and Alvin Paringit to photograph the streets of Calgary, and the exhibition grounds of the Calgary Stampede, along with a group of others who were interested to learn, and go out in a group to shoot. We started out stymied by a voracious Alberta storm, so in good spirits tucked into a neighbourhood pub for an excellent butter chicken, and a good talk about street photography. The photographers began first in our shop, showing images that they have produced at the Stampede. Both using many of the same techniques to capture, they went quickly through their images, concentrating less on the varieties of different cameras, lenses, or shooting styles, but focusing more on editing, and selection.
The ancients had their ancients too. I think it is funny that when people think about the past they think that the people living there did not understand that they also lived in a continuum of time. The more you learn about it though, it seems that the boundaries of space and time were and are more fluid culturally speaking that we give credence. I think an especially good example of this is the archaic cultivar of Kouros in Greece. These statues served many purposes, but the best argument I have read proposes that they were used to commemorate and worship youth, or more specifically, to mark the values that went along with ‘rites of passage’; from a book on the Palaikastro Kouros from the British School at Athens: “The one universally attached class of rituals which pertain specifically to age and gender, and, at the same time link the social and religious spheres in society is known generally as “rites of passage”.
Describing what I was thinking about writing on this to a friend, I made a comparison to advertisements of eternal youth and beauty. My fantastic (and long-suffering) editor asks me to get an image of the kind of ad that soaks the fashion industry especially… And there was an interlude as a result… I go out with three young friends, all with cameras, into the city, into the night. We walk for hours, talk loudly in a group, quietly with each other. I am neither as fast nor as daring as they are and yet I come home with as many keepers, maybe as a
result of knowing where to look? I describe photographs, tell stories, make images with words (which can seem like magic). We walk along the banks of the river and I imagine what the landscape would look like without bridges and roads. I come home to read an abstract about Dionysus and tragedy misconceived as ritual (profound and moving, since I let myself make the same mistake), and another abstract on Dionysus as Jesus in a second-century novel. Listening to “The Doors”. I make a long exposure of a peace lily that I have managed not to kill, which has bloomed a single flower, that I photograph with the aid of only the light of a new moon. Another friend texted in the morning, auto-corrected sublimely “I hope you are not too Hunt over”.
The only image I keep from the mall is of a translucent man. A picture made for the advertisement of forever, looked on by a human being, bound by finitude. A line from a half-remembered poem? “We devour each other like two mirrors set apart”? (Jim Harrison?) How many commands do these domestic gods make on us? How much of what we are has come about through the mimetic process of seeing ourselves? Far be it from me to write a critique of idolatry.
The supposed barriers between the distant past and the present are more porous than we expect. That Kouros were harbingers of Egyptian meanings, which were linked to other ancient meanings in Babylon, and Sumer… What is Thomas Mann’s book? “Joseph and His Brothers”… I remember the first eighty pages or so of that book being revelatory in a sense of understanding the transmission of the past, or its progress. When an author bemoans in the same book on Kouros, “Unfortunately, many of the rituals are no longer practiced, having been prohibited by European colonists and Christian missionaries who replaced traditional tribal customs with European Christian values”, one wonders about the colouring of the word “unfortunately”. I am not convinced that history allows us an opinion versus things as they are. For the sake of argument though, within the domain of photography at least there have been more recondite treatments of so-called ethnographic subjects, but as I have written here before, there have also been very poor, confused, and insensitive applications of the medium as well. Yet, a good example came recently called “Restricted Images” by Patrick Waterhouse, where the photographer invited his Warlpiri subjects to do traditional dot paintings on top of the photographs that he had made of them. The book is delightful, the images have texture and pattern and colour that are pleasing.
Looking at Bill Henson’s new monograph is disorienting without context. The introductory epigrams by Michael Heyward give some clue to what is being alluded to in Henson’s photography, and I find Heyward an interesting figure in his own right. I could digress a long way here to write about a culture of censorship in Australia, where both of them are from. This leads to a slew of associations that are so fascinating, and learning about what is called “the Ern Malley” hoax… (Heyward wrote a book on the subject, this is a tangent, but I loved learning about it so much I am writing about it here for the interested reader.)
I think Henson’s work is carrying a hefty semantic weight as it is, so I digress… That he photographs an ancient sculpture called “Boxer at Rest” and in the same book we have (twice) a photograph of Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son”, it leads to associative tangles what I can’t untwine in a couple hundred words, and I am not certain even with no limit that I could decode what is a reference to experience that one needs to feel, over and above think…. A feeling about the many deaths in life, the transitions we undergo, and how letting things die that can’t live is part of survival.
One viewer of Henson at the shop pointed out how smart Henson was to use high ISO digital photography to create noise in areas of modelling in his subjects, often younger people, to make them look like sculptures. A reference to liminal transitions seems chosen down to the look of modelling from digital noise. Bill Henson’s work is without question Romantic, theatrical, and at the same time severe, and sometimes oppressive. The challenge of some photography is to see past the complications. Viewers I have shown this book to were impressed by the coldness of Henson’s vision — he is trying to take the tone of night and turn it into day. As a production “Bill Henson” is impressive to behold, from stitching to printing it is a fine object.