29 January 2009

Tom Arndt's Home

OK, OK. Let the shameless self-promotion begin. No better excuse for it, though, than the fact that an essay I wrote on Tom Arndt's photographs in Minnesota introduces this glorious, newly released monograph from the University of Minnesota Press. It's a book that all involved can be proud of; it reflects Tom's unique qualities as a person and an artist. It's really an all-MN production, too--printed (with intense skill by Shapco--Tom was apparently at every press check, too; it shows) and bound here in the Twin Cities, with a statement by Tom's old friend Garrison Keillor inserted, it is truly a major accomplishment and a long-due tribute to an artist whose vision celebrates us all, Minnesotan or not. Please check it out.

Also note:
The book anticipates and supports the February opening of a retrospective of Tom's work at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Not an exhibition catalogue per se, but a very compelling adjunct to the show. If I may say so myself.

24 January 2009


What is it good for (WIIGF)? And how does photography account for it, or tell the story of war?

Lots of assorted threads come to mind, and I'd like to start a string of posts that deal with war and its intersections with the image world I encounter. I've been mulling this over ever since PhotoNOLA last December, when I asked Bruce Davidson about shooting war, and he said that the Civil Rights Movement, Brooklyn gangs, and the NYC subway had been war-like enough for him, that he'd never felt compelled to go into combat zones despite other great photographers who had and had emerged with some profound photographs (Don McCullin, James Nachtwey, etc.). Apparently the Magnum war bug never bit him. That is, he'd never felt compelled to go into war in search of an image that would capture not just news, not just details, but an image that might summarize man's plight, an image that might cause the end of wars.

Bruce Davidson lecture, Historic New Orleans Collection, December 2008

He was fairly emphatic about it. I was a bit surprised to hear that he hadn't done any war photography, but his humanitarian, pacifist side seems to survive well in his photographs nonetheless. For a New Yorker, he's surprisingly low-key. A survivor, of sorts.

Here's a guiding, or framing, quote to kick off this series of posts:

War isn't a matter of routine. What it involves is the disruption of routine. War "breaks out," it signals its appearance, it demands the declaration of its beginning and end. For an event to be considered a war, it must be relatively isolated, take place within a limited time frame, and express the pretension to victory of at least one of the sides. When events are prolonged beyond a reasonable time frame and appear to be incapable of resolution, we have recourse to the term war of attrition, meaning the mutual attrition by either side of the other side's strength. War is one expression of an economy of violence. It takes place between states, focusing on their armed forces. An armed conflict between at least two sides is a condition for war. Occupation is another expression of the economy of violence. The suppression of the occupied side's power and the negation of its ability to fight (its ability to manifest its power) are conditions for occupation. In war, the physical territory is divided in such a way that the front turns into a stage on which the campaign is enacted. In the case of occupation, the entire territory serves as a stage.

--Ariella Azoulay, Death's Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy (MIT Press, 2001), p. 220

Wendel A. White

Wendel A.White, from the series "Small Towns, Black Lives"

I'd been aware of Wendel A. White for several years before he sat down across the review table from me in New Orleans in December. Some time ago I followed a link to a 2002 New York Times review of his admirable, restrained, and moving web project (solidified into a book by Noyes Museum of Art in 2003), Small Towns, Black Lives, which was the opening chapter in a series of projects investigating concepts of community in African America. Wendel has received a Guggenheim artist fellowship, among many other awards, and he's a professor of art at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, so I was aware of him in the academic world through the Society for Photographic Education; another friend in that context, William E. Williams, had mentioned Wendel to me, and their works are complementary (Willie has done a lot with Civil War battlefields and locations along the Underground Railway). I like what Wendel has brought to a survey of historical and contemporary African American culture in New Jersey; his work has provided important insights for me.

The Times writer described Wendel's images as "restrained rather than theatrical," and they do approach quietly, respectfully, as though aware of their cultural gravitas but relying on a viewer's extended attention and questions to fully animate them. During PhotoNOLA Wendel showed me work from "Schools for the Colored," the third and newest portfolio in the series. Here's an example:

Wendel A. White, from the series "Schools for the Colored"

Sometimes, the buildings themselves are no longer standing:

Wendel A. White, from the series "Schools for the Colored"

Sometimes they've been swallowed up in larger structures:

Wendel A. White, from the series "Schools for the Colored"

The photographs employ a very simple device (masking, using lighter density for the surrounding environment) to memorialize structures that symbolized segregation but also provided shelter, education, and community for children in the "Up-South," the Northern "free" states along the Mason-Dixon line. Wendel ties the visual trope to a memory by W. E. B. DuBois, who wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that when he was growing up he felt "different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil." In Wendel's photographs, the veil dims the world outside the buildings, which take on vividness such as they must have had to those who utilized them in the 19th and 20th centuries--they were oases, distinct from a world that was at best seeing African American lives through a veil, dimly.

Wendel A. White's website