One of the few true pleasures in life is the lift that comes with inspiration – that palpable leap of the insides that occurs at the very moment when an idea bubbles and pops within. It’s probably impossible to plan or to count on, but you sure can court the opportunity. Last month, I grabbed a fat book and took the long train ride from Brooklyn up to the Columbia Medical Library at 168th street, in search of just such a thing. The occasion was a lecture entitled Ink and Silver: Medicine, Photography, and the Printed Book, 1845-1880 by Dr. Stephen J. Greenberg of the National Library of Medicine. The lecture itself was small and rather dry, as it happens, covering the parallel and interlinked technological histories of photography and printing for books, much of which I already knew. I was glad to have come anyway. There were a lot of snacks, and plenty of wine, plus the unsurprising appearance of Dr. Stanley Burns of the Burns Archive (from whom I had borrowed some medical photographs for my show last year.) I think the basic idea of the evening was to show how photography changed the way medicine was depicted and sold in the 19th Century, and not just to the professionals of the time. However, there were a couple of little things mentioned that eventually clicked into place for me, and gave me new insight into my own work.
My photographs have often mimicked the look of these sorts of images – bodies shown as if on display for the camera, many bearing the signs and symptoms of (fake) diseases. I believe I just assimilated without criticism this blank and centered look, along with a range of other stylistic tics, from the artists that first inspired me: you can see it in Francis Bacon, in Joel-Peter Witkin, even a little in Meatyard and Arbus. I see it still in Saul Fletcher and Michael Borremaans, whom I follow today. These are images that pretend to be objective documents of a sort, however constructed, while containing the blunt acknowledgment of being seen and photographed. One is tempted to call this type of photograph a tableau, a term that became almost synonymous with the rise of the large constructed photographs of the 80′s, 90′s and beyond (Crewdson, Wall, et. al.)1 However, there is a distinction to be made between the images that seem to live in their own fabricated world without knowledge of the viewer (what Michael Fried calls “absorption”2) and those that demand the viewer’s participation, often as acknowledged voyeur. What to call this, exactly? “Display Aesthetics”? “Theatrical Objectivity”? And why does this tiny change in position – the inclusion versus the exclusion of the viewer – mean so much to me?
Here’s Adam Gopnik on Francis Bacon in the New Yorker (from February 26, 1990):
“A didactic white arrow is superimposed on the left-and right-hand panels, pointing almost sardonically at the dying man. (These arrows, Francis Bacon’s favorite distancing device, are sometimes explained as merely formal ways of preventing the viewer from reading the image too literally. In reality, they do just the opposite and insist that one treat the image as hyper-exemplary, as though it came from a medical textbook.) The grief in the painting is intensified by the coolness of its layout and the detachment of its gaze. It was Bacon’s insight that it is precisely such seeming detachment–the rhetoric of the documentary, the film strip, and the medical textbook–that has provided the elegiac language of the last forty years.” (emphasis mine)
What I realized from Dr. Greenberg’s lecture was that this language of presentation increases the strength of the photograph’s true power – what I like to call “Belief” (although I guess I mean “Verisimilitude”.) It is the Belief in the truth of a photograph – even when we know it is a lie or a fake – that makes it different from a drawing or painting. (Think of the difference in feeling from a photograph of a dead body versus a drawing of one.) By its assumed stance of objectivity, medical and scientific photography hews to the lie of Truth even more, thereby increasing our innate attachment to the image. In addition, our empathy with the person depicted is not erased by this stance; it is, as Gopnik points out, “intensified”. These fragile and broken bodies only increase our visceral response, allowing us, even daring us to stare.
As for me, I steal this, all of it. I want my photographs to catch you in the gut before your brain catches up. Even as I alter my images by hand and push them gently backwards in time (another trick to give them the weight of Evidence), I am grabbing every bit of Belief that I can, if only to say: Go ahead, Look.
2Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.)
Invented in the late-nineteenth century and renowned for its use by the 20th-Century Pictorialists, the Gum Bichromate process is capable of a wide range of effects, from subtle tonalities to broad painterly colors. Despite its simplicity, the blunt physicality of the process has known to cause quite a few frustrations, too. Through careful consideration of all the possibilities and pitfalls, this workshop is designed to show the full potential of the process while ensuring that the difficulties are kept to a minimum. In addition, we will be discussing ways to further enhance the Gum print through painting and drawing on the finished print. Students should come prepared with at least one negative for contact printing (8″x10″ or so is preferred), and any favorite art materials, such as paints, pencils, brushes, etc.
f295 is always a blast. See you in Pittsburgh…
Most images seen on whoworeitbetter.info.
“I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up, or someone tries to schedule me for a project or a drink, is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.
Furthermore, Google glasses probably aren’t going to spring pastel-coloured bubbles on you that say ‘It’s May Day! Overthrow tyranny,’ let alone ‘Don’t let corporations dictate your thoughts,’ or ‘It would be really meaningful to review the personal events of August 1997 in the light of what you know now.’ That between you and me stands a corporation every time we make contact – not just the post office or the phone company, but a titan that shares information with the National Security Administration – is dismaying. But that’s another subject: mine today is time.”
- Rebecca Solnit, in the London Review of Books, August 2013. Read the rest here.
“One of the reasons there’s so much talk about money is that it’s so much easier to talk about than the art.”
- David Zwirner, in the recent profile in the New Yorker
0 to 60: The Experience of
Time through Contemporary Art
Pratt Manhattan Gallery, 144 West 14th Street, 2nd Floor
November 22, 2013 to January 25, 2014
Gallery hours: Monday–Saturday, 11 AM–6 PM; Thursdays, 11 AM–8 PM
Opening reception: Thursday, November 21, 6-8 PM
In busy days like these, I’ll take any bit of sanity I can, any way to get my brain thinking about “smart” things (Art, Time) instead of “dumb” things (Money, Objects). Therefore, I was happy to take a much-needed break from a mind-numbing job last week to sit at lunch with photographer Jason Langer. He and I had been emailing back and forth about galleries and the current state of the photography market – as we’ve been experiencing it anyway. Discussing it in person, we kept up a quick volley between Jason’s very reasonable frustrations with the way things are changing and my stubborn (and probably rather unreasonable) optimism in the face of it.
Without a doubt, the art market is changing to reflect the polarization of incomes in the general economy. (You know, that 99% vs. 1% thing you may have heard about.) The “mega-galleries” are expanding and squeezing out the mid-size dealers (see here or here for more on this), while artists scramble to find new ways to make a living. If you are not fortunate enough to be an artist already in the top tier, there is suddenly much less support for your career. Fewer galleries can afford to take a chance on building an artist’s career over time, especially when that artist, if successful, will most likely be jumping ship to a bigger gallery the first chance she or he gets. Meanwhile small galleries are in direct competition with each other for more and more artists, and new models of selling work – especially online – are undercutting all of them. I have certainly seen a difference in my own career, noticing that the smaller collectors (i.e. the ones who buy relatively inexpensive work like mine) are now often saving their money only for bigger names on not buying work at all, but that’s just me. However, I have had a similar discussion with other artists several times in the last few years, well before Jason and I started in on it. Fact is, it’s just tougher for the little guy.
So, what is to be done? Jason identified a couple of artists he knows who have used the so-called “social media” to sell work. One artist he knows has sold quite a few prints to universities and museums, without having any gallery representation. Another sells tons of prints directly through his own website, often quite inexpensively. But I don’t think either of these options is a viable strategy for a long career. The former has her work well-placed, but no real exhibition record or other support, while the latter must sell his work at low prices without much investment (intellectually or monetarily) from his collectors. My question to Jason was, What is your definition of Success? Simply selling more prints, no matter how or how cheaply, doesn’t seem to be the point. (At least not to me.) However, it appears there is less interest in smaller contemplative work (like mine and Jason’s) that demands a little more time, perhaps. Hell, there just isn’t “a little more time” anymore.
For me, success is about Time and Attention. That means Time to stick with a long career, developing work and ideas over many years; and enough Attention to have one’s work and ideas taken seriously, by critics, curators, collectors and the public. Yes, I want it all, but I don’t need it all from everybody. One could easily argue that I am overly tied to the old model – that uncomfortable dance between Commerce and Content that defined the “old” art world. I mean, it’s not like there were never popular artists who sold meaningless things before, nor plenty of more heady works that no one would buy, but it does seem like slowness, smallness and a meditative pace are qualities that can’t survive in this climate. There is a very strange conundrum within all this: a more Egalitarian art world – something many would agree is a good and necessary thing – seems to lead directly to cheap populism; while the old, bad Elitist model may have been the last best chance for individual content and contemplation. More artists selling more work for less money means simpler ideas and more purely decorative work – easier to like or just more “sensational” and easier to notice. This is just the math of the many: the lowest common denominator of ideas, as compared to a discrete group of works and the people who get them. Meanwhile, the frustratingly closed Ivory Towers of yesteryear at least supported some more difficult subject matter, including, at times, a real critique of the system that paradoxically supported it. One might be tempted to think that the old model is still in place, just moved up a tier. But the mega-galleries can no longer afford to have a show that is difficult or doesn’t sell, and collectors are following the money. As in Hollywood, the blockbuster movie model is at play: you spend a lot of money producing big work that gets a lot of attention to sell for a lot more money. There are no small blockbusters, so smallness is out. They can’t afford it.
My own answer is the lesson I learned as an adolescent punk rocker – “build your own scene,” as we used to say. I am going to stand by what I think is important, and do my best to proselytize where I can (especially through teaching and lecturing.) I am not going to tie my work to the economy, nor change what I make in order to sell more widgets. I don’t need the adoration of millions, nor a million dollars. At some point, perhaps I will have to let go of the dregs of the old model, but meanwhile I have the support of a few good galleries, and opportunities to talk and teach all over the country (and sometimes in others…) Still, I guess I’ll have to keep the day job. Maybe I can’t get away from Money and Objects afterall, but I can make the work my way, and show it to those who care, no matter how few or how many.
Yes, some changes are afoot… and more are ahead. I’ve left my old site and server, for new territory and a simplified layout, in order to concentrate on one of the two reasons I started this sporadic blog so many years ago: the writing. (The other reason was to learn some web design; I’m still unsure which headache is more painful.) Obviously it’s going to take some time to get everything back up and properly formatted (one post at a time!), but meanwhile, here are a few of the things I’ve been working on, which led me to the change.
There are, in fact, a few pieces of writing coming out soon. One is an essay in the upcoming book, Photography Beyond Technique: Essays from F295 on the Informed Use of Alternative and Historical Photographic Processes. I also have another essay on my work and my own views on Time, called “A Brief History of the Future”, coming out in a journal from New Zealand called Scope: Contemporary Research Topics. In addition, I’m working slowly but surely on a bigger piece for the fascinating folks at The Developing Room, to come out next year
Meanwhile, if you’re anywhere near Charlotte, NC next month, come hear me speak on a few of these topics at the Southeast Regional Conference for the Society for Photographic Education, where I will be the keynote speaker on the evening of October 19th. An exhibition of related work, including my Nine Symptoms series and other works, just opened at the Center City Gallery downtown.
If you’re in Atlanta and want to heckle me sooner, I’ll be doing a panel discussion next week at SCAD Atlanta, for the opening of Manipulated: contemporary conceptual photography at Gallery See. Moderated by Curator Alexandra Sachs, I will be speaking with the amazing Radcliffe Bailey, Art History Professor Dr. Emily Webb and artist and Professor Elizabeth Turk.
I also have work up for another week in Remains to be Seen, a group exhibition at the Susquehanna University Lore Degenstein Gallery in Pennsylvania.
Then there’s Poland, and New Zealand, and all good things… Stay tuned.