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.
As I am writing this, I am a few weeks out from mediating a talk on street photography. What I have been thinking lately is why does one photographer get the appellative “artist” versus another. Bill Cunningham gets all kinds of love now, but back in the day, he was not regarded like Gary Winogrand. Now, I am not sure whose photographs are more valuable inasmuch as art claims are less interesting to me than the evidentiary value of a photograph that fulfils the “silent history” of gestures that the very great Jay Maisel took careful note of. Because Cunningham was in the world of fashion, he was arbitrarily left outside the canon that photographic taste limited due to ideological correction. Good to see that change.
The Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco has published two anniversary volumes. I don’t own this one yet, but it is great. The sequence of W.H. Auden by Avedon back-to-back with a Diane Arbus photograph of a little girl has a touch of genius like John Szarkowski’s sequence in the “Photographer’s Eye” with Ezra Pound, also by Avedon. I love how the Fraenkel Gallery has always sought to combine the great names of photography and put them alongside vernacular pictures.
Since Taschen has always published giant names in photography, this book of vernacular pictures is a great find. I love how the use of Kodachrome shines through as a portrait of an era, but at the same time, there is no sentimentalism here. Echoing something pointed out in the intro, I wonder if the ‘look’ of the past will be seen through so many Insta filters. Bare life is shown here. It is magic.
In September I wrote: “Stilgoe’s insight to land, fantasy, the aerie “world-turned-upside-down” affects that one experiences viewing the world through the mirror of a camera, or the ground glass of a Rolleiflex, or large-format camera, his dazzling capture of the critical language of photography operates behind the scenes as he writes in hand-crafted, unduplicatable prose, bespoke, it feels reading it, for me.”
Working for 15 years in Omaha, Nebraska, Gregory Halpern’s collects the quotient, the quotidian that philosophy calls “the everyday”. What is so challenging about Halpern is he in no way reduces that to a simplistic category, quoting him here: “…it is said that photography is uniquely suited to ‘reflect’ the world around us, but what if our surroundings are complex to the point of being visually and verbally indescribable?” Halpern is one of the favourite working photographers amongst the staff at the Camera Store. We love him.
I got the initial copy of this book during a high-school visit to the store. Young people learning photography in a class making a field trip to see our bookstore and some of the exotic glass we have in the shop, and asking questions about paper, chemistry, etc. Gossage’s treatment of the question of environmental change focuses on a series of portraits of young artists, personalizing the question of climate change, and directing it humanistically to the generation who will feel the direct impact of that change should it be as dire as some predict. Gossage is always oblique, he never hits anything on the nose, instead, he leaves the viewer space to feel and think. This is a beautiful printing, as well.
I wrote last month about Terry Munro’s excellent “Mezozeric Park”, and Henry Wessel, who taught Munro: “Munro’s skeptical realism harkens my mind to the realism of the fabliau. A paradox: By estimating what is fake, Munro, and I would add his teacher Wessel, force the viewer into their minstrelsy, into the territory of the Jongleur. I’d wager that this is not too far from Wessel’s approach to his car works in “Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide”, or the work printed in MACK books recent “A Dark Thread”. In it, three short stories inspired by Wessel’s photographs, written in French, compliment four of Wessel’s wry concoctions of reality, as such, and are printed beautifully on postcards (suitable for framing). I am slowly working my fractured grade three French through Alexander MacLeod’s “La Parade Des Assumption Purple Raiders”, which, as far as I can tell, illustrates my point beautifully: A visitor to California, LA-LA Land, witnesses baton twirlers in the Rose Bowl Parade, catalyzed by a particular “Tanya, Tanya, Tanya”.
I’ve been making arguments against the commercial versus fine art divide in photography for some time. While I believe they separately exist for completely different purposes, I think this book tells us a huge amount about twentieth-century mentality in North America. One of my colleagues challenges me, “Why would anyone want to look at a book of ads?” It is a matter of seeing through the lens how consciousness is shaped to serve the purposes of acquisition, consumption, and avarice, and to see what to avoid, in a way. Richard Avedon is an enigma to the viewer. He had a perspicacious vision like the poets he photographed, yet his portrait of his dying father struck me always as teetering on manipulation. His “In The American West” tends towards the transcendent, and then he mimed it for a batch of CK ads. Either way, there is so much to be learned through the pages of this book, especially for commercial photographers trying to see how trends have changed, and observe the technical grammar of photography that recent photographers like Roe Ethridge have been mining in the form of nostalgia.
Actually from 2018, this came to TCS this year. Fletcher used a large format camera to make reductions, an inverse of the tableaux images of Jeff Wall, but no less imaginary. Melancholic, dark, there is a tendency towards melodrama that also makes a path to performativity, as the art-critical language goes. I can’t explain it, this is the strange magic stuff that draws me to it against my nature. The section of Kristy Bell’s excellent essay on “demotic drawing” could just as well be a typo, but the insight that she repeats from Arthur Danto on Cy Twombly, and the marks of childhood that integrate consciousness before we’re totally aware of what we’re doing, and the burden of representing that kind of conscious unlearning of taste goes a long way to defining the best kind of artistic expression.
This book is sublime. DeCarava’s tonal mastery is beyond words. Total mastery, beyond words.
A late addition, this has just arrived. For years, I discounted fashion photography as a genre. Glaring error. And it took the passing of the great Lindbergh to convert me to glamour. In an interview in “The Unknown”, entitled “Wonder is the Beginning of Wisdom”, Lindbergh talked about his beginnings following a minimalist art tendency, Laurence Weiner, all that. And how his brother was an analyst, an academic, interested in personality types, and how he early saw a departure to a psychoanalytic portrait of the subject, akin to cinema. He said he stopped being an artist at roughly the time that he advanced this combination in his practice, and what he became is more akin to visionary, at least to my eye. I was happy to get to see a maquette of this book while under a non-disclosure this summer during a visit from Taschen in LA that I wanted to show to E V E R Y O N E. So good!