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.
Wessel taught him a simple but incredibly powerful method for creating a longer tonal range in darkroom photos by overexposing the negative by a quarter stop and then developing the print over a stop. The result is a dramatic, steely image, with deeper shadow variation.
This “shop wisdom” as historian John Stilgoe refers to it, is the oral component of working in photography that is so meaningful, it is impossible to overemphasize it, and is worth more than its weight in gold.
In “Mesozoic Park”, Munro began the investigation of the hyperreal built environments, the simulacrum of reality that he later pursued, and published in his first title “Empire of Illusion”. Like Las Vegas’ decadent and deplorable environment, Munro turned his lens onto Calgary’s Zoo, when it constructed a dinosaurland phantasy. The result is stranger than fiction.
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”.
Is this all contra glamour and fantasy? This withered west-coast cool is a shape as much as my recent fascination with Tim Walker’s over-the-top phantasmagorias in “Shoot the Moon”, and “Wonderful Things”, or Floria Sigismondi’s “Eat the Sun”. Is limitless photographic imagination an intervention into the real?
Either tact is productive of meaning, and is fine, but both run counter to the puristic Foucauldian vantage of the photography critic John Tagg, who once offered the diagnosis “mindless photography”, what he saw as “machinic enslavement and the hard-wiring of the body into the circuits of a mindless assemblage through a machinery of vision”. What bliss.