14 December 2008

Polaroid a la King

From "The Sun Dog":
When Kevin loaded the camera, the red light came on. It stayed for a couple of seconds. The family watched in silent fascination as the Sun 660 sniffed for light. Then the red light went out and the green light began to blink rapidly. "It's ready," Kevin said, in the same straining-to-be-offhand-but-not-quite-making-it tone with which Neil Armstrong had reported his first step upon the surface of Luna. "Why don't all you guys stand together?"

If one had not known the odd circumstances of its taking, the picture would hardly have seemed to warrant such close scrutiny. Like most photographs which are taken with a decent camera, good film, and by a photographer at least intelligent enough to keep his finger from blocking the lens, it was clear, understandable...and, like so many Polaroids, oddly undramatic. It was a picture in which you could identify and name each object, but its content was as flat as its surface. It was not well composed, but composition wasn't what was wrong with it--that undramatic flatness could hardly be called wrong at all, any more than a real day in a real life could be called wrong because nothing worthy of even a made-for-television movie happened during its course. As in so many Polaroids, the things in the picture were only there, like an empty chair on a porch or an unoccupied child's swing in a back yard or a passengerless car sitting at an unremarkable curb without even a flat tire to make it interesting or unique.

His eyes hurt, caught between what they should be seeing and what they were seeing, and in the end the only handle he could find was a very small one: it was as if someone had changed the lens on the camera, from the normal one to a fish-eye, so that the dog's forehead with its clots of tangled fur seemed somehow to bulge and recede at the same time, and the dog's murderous eyes seemed to have taken on filthy, barely visible glimmers of red, like the sparks a Polaroid flash sometimes puts in people's eyes.

The camera did not moan or whine this time; the sound of its mechanism was a scream, high and drilling, like a woman who is dying in the throes of a breech delivery. The square of paper which shoved and bulled its way out of that slitted opening smoked and fumed. Then the dark delivery-slot itself began to melt, one side drooping downward, the other wrinkling upward, all of it beginning to yawn like a toothless mouth. A bubble was forming upon the shiny surface of the last picture, which still hung in the widening mouth of the channel from which the Polaroid Sun gave birth to its photographs.

From King's prefatory note on the story in the collection Four Past Midnight:

About five years ago, my wife, Tabitha, became interested in photography, discovered she was good at it, and began to pursue it in a serious way, through study, experiment, and practice-practice-practice. ... In the course of her experiments, my wife got a Polaroid camera, a simple one accessible even to a doofus like me. I became fascinated with this camera. I had seen and used Polaroids, before, of course, but I had never really thought about them much, nor had I ever looked closely at the images these cameras produce. The more I thought about them, the stranger they seemed. They are, after all, not just images but moments of time ... and there is something so peculiar about them.

--Stephen King. Four Past Midnight. New York: Viking, 1990.

12 December 2008

Bea Nettles

How many artists have you admired from afar? For much of my time at Minnesota Center for Photography I had in my mind that I wanted Bea Nettles to come and lecture, lead a workshop, run a program with Minnesota Center for Book Arts, meet with local artists, talk with students at MCAD, the UM, and CVA, etc. Colleen Mullins, our gallery director back then, and a fine book artist/photographer in her own right, was a big fan of Bea's. I'd known her through her books, which advocate a very intuitive, organic, hands-on approach to creativity--a cross-disciplinary, craft-oriented approach that probably set her outside mainstream photography. Having produced a survey of alternative printing methods with a title like her 1977 Breaking the Rules: A Photo Media Cookbook, it was clear, at least to my Ivy-covered eyes, that Nettles was a kind of self-reliant, fashion-be-damned visionary and iconoclast.

Now, I read on her blog that the unique, original tarot deck she created in the early 1970s (with the artist herself posing as the Queen of Stars, above), the first photographically-illustrated tarot (with a Three of Swords image that was acquired by Bruce Springsteen for his album Magic--maybe Boss fans will recognize the shirt, below), has been acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library at Yale, where it joins extensive holdings by Stieglitz, Plowden, and other mainstream masters.

Wait long enough, and those you admire will show up in your own backyard, or at least help you reassess your alma mater.

Here's Nettles' note on her web site about the Mountain Dreams Tarot going to Yale, with links to 2 YouTube videos in which she speaks about the project (done "way, way before Photoshop") and the tie to Springsteen.

06 December 2008

... and crossing Camp

From my bed in room 901 of the International House Hotel I can look across Camp Street to the building where the PhotoNOLA reviews take place. It's a quick jaywalk from the hotel across to the annex, and up to the second floor where a score of reviewers have made themselves available to several dozen artists from Louisiana and beyond.

Today, each of us on the receiving side of the table saw 12, and each of the artists presented to four or five of us. I'm not sure who's job is harder, but the day proceeds with unpredictable rhythms. Some photographers are more eager than others for the exchange to be revelatory; some just want a key that will open doors, whether to new opportunities or new self-awareness. 

These meetings are like speed dating (or what I imagine of that phenomenon), in that you go away with impressions that may or may not prompt further connections; I tend to dwell on work more than personality. Nonetheless, the chance to add faces, voices, and energies to the images is so valuable; today I met two people whose work I'd seen recently in Critical Mass and IRevelar, and though I'd admired the images in both cases, today I enhanced my appreciation for their personal stakes in our medium. 

In an age of electronic reproduction and virtual lives, the face-to-face still holds value. Even established and emerging cyberspace mavens like Joerg Colberg (Conscientious), Andy Adams (Flak), David Bram (Fraction), and Melanie McWhorter (photo-eye) are making analogue connections, in the ballroom across Camp from the International House and in other meeting rooms in the real photo world. 

05 December 2008

James R. Dean

James R. Dean, A wild buffalo near Bismarck, ND, Fall, 1978

I sold "Deaner" a Leica M4 a few years ago, and I am sure he's putting it to good use making new pictures. But I also sense he's something of an efficiency nut, and doesn't hesitate to reuse previously published work (of his own). The calendars he's distributing for 2009 are the same ones he made for 1998; he's just run a big red marker x through the earlier year and inscribed the new year besides it. Why not? There were extras left over, the months and days all line up again, and the images haven't spoiled.

James R. Dean, Dip, Avon, MN, October 16, 1999

We've never met face-to-face, though I'd know him in a crowd, having seen many images of him over the years. In 1974 and 1975, the twelve-months when he was 26, he made a photograph of himself every day, and pasted it next to a headline from world events. The chronicle, which Dean published a couple of years ago, is dry, dopey, and entirely fascinating, perhaps because of the glaze of distant decades, perhaps because this sort of self-portraiture has rarely been done by a Red River valley iconoclast and part-time architect--a man, no less--who creates self-portraits in the style of Angelo Rizzuto and whose 98/09 calendar includes notes about Frank Zappa, Charles Bukowski, Robert Doisneau, Bob Dylan, and Elliott Erwitt, along with a cryptic note on Saturday, February 28 that reads "Last Call, 1 AM, 1991"--sobriety thereafter?

His most recent biographic note includes the following itinerary:
Discounting numerous hotels, motels, and floors of friends, he has lived in one house in St. Louis Park, Minnesota; two apartments in Fargo; one VW bus in Europe and northern Africa; another apartment in Fargo; three apartments in Bismarck; two apartments in St. Paul; and one rented cabin in rural Stearns County, Minnesota. He has been arrested twice and married once.

Like this self-narration, Dean's photographs are concise, witty, poignant, and loving, and imply worlds beyond the edges of their frames. Even if I'd had the 2009 calendar a decade ago, I wouldn't mind seeing the photographs again next year. It may not be the big seller that calendars by Michael Kenna or Ansel Adams are, but it, and Dean's photography overall, rings with truth and clear vision.

James R. Dean lives in Avon, Minnesota. See his web page here.

Polaroid terror

No, I'm not talking about the recent state of the instant photography company, despite the financial and legal perils of its most recent owner, Tom Petters, CEO of Minnetonka, MN-based Petters Group Worldwide ("Petters Arrest Won't Change Polaroid Plans"). I'm talking about the examples I've run across of Polaroid film and cameras being used as plot devices within horror stories.
  • The title character in Stephen King's short story "The Sun Dog" (from the collection Four Past Midnight) is a rabid canine that is provoked and comes to life within, and ultimately escapes from, the pictures made by a Polaroid Sun 660 camera with a mind's eye of its own, given to a 15-year-old boy as a present then co-opted by an unscrupulous New England antiquities (junk) dealer and loan shark, whose comeuppance is the story's denouement
  • Episode 4 of the first season of the Showtime series Dexter, in which the Ice Truck killer taunts Dexter, first with Polaroids made to echo, in gruesomely truncated fashion, pictures from Dexter's family album, and then with a picture boldly snapped of Dexter in the company of the man kidnapped by the ITK to serve as the source for the severed limbs in the first pictures (Dexter's burning of that last image gives a good, if massively subdued, visual to illustrate the Sun Dog's escape from its two-dimensional world. Have anyone ever burned a Polaroid? Do they always bubble like that?)
  • The "Unruhe" episode of The X-Files (season 4, #4), which posits a killer whose use of the instant camera creates pictures of people tormented by "howlers," menacing spirits visible to the killer and his camera but otherwise unseen, whose presence provoke the killer to take action to "ease the pain" -- the disquiet, or unrest, of the episode title translated from German -- of individuals, including Agent Scully, as in the illustration at the top ("Unruhe" was selected as one of the most "nightmare-inducing episodes ever" of this Fox series--see number 6 on this scroll.)
There is something eerie about this material, isn't there? I've got to haul out some of King's verbiage; although the climactic scene is over the top, it doesn't lack for vividness, and he does a good job of articulating the uncanny quality of the self-developing universe within those high tech envelopes. Let me know of other examples of Polaroid terror.

Crossing Lake Pontchartrain

Flew into New Orleans this morning, low over Lake Pontchartrain, thinking about broken levees and industrial canals and waterlines, the big sucking sound of the lake rushing back into the low-lying areas of the Crescent City after the initial storm surge. Also recalled taking Amtrak's Southern Crescent, across the lake on a track bed so narrow you could only see water out both sides of the car. That was in 1985, after graduation--used travel money from my parents to go from New Haven to New Orleans. Europe without a passport, and a friend's apartment in the French Quarter to make it even more reasonable and attractive. This morning, the big lake sparkled under a clear sky, and a nearly inexplicable line of shadow Xed the railroad tracks; the shadow cast by a jet contrail, seemed unlikely given altitude but as the plane passed under the trail I could see the shadow reach down from the vapor and touch the lake. Magic. Almost as good were the big river's oxbows, first in Memphis then again on the descent in NOLA, the wonder of rechannelled flow and the stilled waters of the old course, and Mark Twain's observations about the shortening of the river.

I'm back in New Orleans for the second year of portfolio reviews run by PhotoNOLA as part of its photographic mois. The city seems brighter this year, and there's an international art festival taking place. But the shuttle driver narrating our way from the airport to the International House Hotel mingled desperation--the litany of "FEMA trailers, wind damage, bad activities, it's gone, they took it out, the abandoned hospital, water lines"--with eternal NOLA spirit, you enjoy your good times and pleasures. Dance in spite of it all, because of it all.

Back at the Napoleon House, a half loaf of muffuletta and a Dixie longneck in front of me, I yearned to recall more about 1985. I'm twice as old now as I was then. I've been to Europe, and China. I've been divorced. My friend in the French Quarter moved to New York to pursue professional goals, forsaking the Big Easy for the Big Apple. I have four children in my life, and emotional complexities and nuances, in a stream both sweet and tart that reaches as far as the Mississippi from the Twin Cities all the way downriver to New Orleans. I am still compelled by photography, and I still find wonder in the streets of the Quarter. The sandwich is still warm and tangy, the beer still as plain and respectable a product of Louisiana as a Grain Belt would be in Minnesota. It's true, you can't step in the same river twice.

27 November 2008

David Maisel

Lake Project 22

The photographer foremost on my mind this Thanksgiving morning is David Maisel. I first connected with David in a very crowded vehicle going to and from the Quaker meeting house in Houston, a structure that is graced with one of James Turrell's "skyspace" installations. As noted on the meeting house site, the view is only available during clement (if that's a word, the opposite of inclement) weather. That morning, and it was an early morning, shortly after sunrise on a March day, was damp, and our ostensible purpose in schlepping out to the House was thwarted--we sat, semi-recumbent on the meeting house benches, and stared at where the sky would have been, a square recess in the ceiling lit indirectly as a kind of replacement view.

During the commute to and from, David and I compared notes. We're about the same age, and were both seasoned by East coast scholar/artists before departing for points west. As it turns out, the experience of (not) seeing Turrell's framed sky was an apt overture to David's work. He was showing the aerial views of poisoned lakes at the time, which resulted in the book The Lake Project (Nazraeli, 2004). The prints were on display in Houston, as part of Fotofest 2004, and I'd seen and marveled at them prior to meeting David; they have a magical combination of attraction, abstraction, and repulsion. I horned in on another reviewer's free-time session with David to get a better sense of the work and the worker. Between that exchange and the Turrell trek I was impressed by David's generosity and his sincere passion for exploring human nature through symbolic means.

Library of Dust 1454

David's newest book, Library of Dust (Chronicle, 2008), turns the tables on The Lake Project and its successor, Oblivion (Nazraeli, 2006). Instead of an unspecified distance, which gives his aerials a woozy, vertiginous ambiguity, this new material puts a premium on intimacy and the (fallacious, ultimately) impression of accuracy. Each of the canisters he depicts, almost life-size on this book's oversized pages, contains the ashes of patients who died and were cremated in a psychiatric hospital, and their remains were unclaimed. Over years, the minerals in the ashes have interacted with the copper urns and created otherworldly patterns that echo the fascinating, inexplicably real imprints David found in the lakes. In the "library," though, the texts are written by orphaned souls, rather than irresponsible industrial waste disposal practices. In these works, conceptual simplicity blends with a surreal sense of life after life, all under an institutional umbrella that leaves us both amazed and appalled.

My Thanksgiving note, the inaugural entry in this new blog venture, goes out to David Maisel, for his elegant provocations and his gorgeous presentations. Not unlike Turrell's work in that Houston meeting house, except that he allows a more rewarding use of one's imagination.

Click for David Maisel's web site and its Library of Dust section.

03 April 2008

April 3, 2008

April 3, 2008

Headless brides. Do I hear a series?