14 December 2013

Book of the Year: Anatomy, by Malerie Marder

In November I saw a PDF version of Malerie Marder's new book, published by Twin Palms. On screen, and when I received the finished book, it made a deep impression, both intellectually and viscerally. It has lingered and haunted me since. No other book this year, or in several years, has had such an impact on me.

Marder's work is provocative, and she has refined her skills to a point of dramatic simplicity. The women she has photographed, Dutch prostitutes, embody and stir desire as a way of life. In this heterosexual male's opinion, however, they are repulsive, anything but attractive; there is not a figure, a face, or a bodily pose that draws me. Except that Marder has photographed these women, singly and in staged groups, in ways that prompt consideration of them as objects of allure--colors, settings, costumes, lighting, focus, all tuned to radiate sensuality. And the women, a dramatis personae largely uncostumed, are complicit, clearly engaged in a collaborative effort to simulate...what? Sexiness? Seduction? If anything, a somber self-awareness seems the operative mode.

The antitheses to these disaffected tarts would be the images E. J. Bellocq made in New Orleans' Storyville bordellos, of prostitutes jiving the photographer, caught in between-session settings with little on their minds or bodies but a benign sense of play. There's no play in Marder's work, even in friezes that resemble ill-wrought takes on Greek tableaux. But there are occasional twists of irony, of the artist tipping her hat, that hint at a subversive willingness to tweak and tease, to remind us that the optical is the central allusion here.

"It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph," Robert Frank wrote. I believe the same holds true when looking at photographs, individually or collected in some form--one's reaction in the moment of encounter constitutes a lasting, meaningful take on that image, no matter what meta-detail is appended later. One must watch oneself watching photographs--the viewer, like the prostitutes in her images and Marder herself, must remain conscious of his or her own circumstances while regarding this work.

Vision runs amok in these photographs, never clarifying where one should look for meaning. And I'm afraid my writing can't offer much, either. Georges Bataille's comments on the insufficiency of writing as a tool for describing lives, compared to prostitute's bodies, is inscribed on the jacket-less cover of the book.* I can't testify to the truth of this. What I do know is the deep sense of disturbance these photographs create in me. Writing to Twin Palms' publicist, I expressed the following, feeling scarcely coherent after just viewing Anatomy in PDF.
I need to cleanse my brain after looking at this work. Deeply troubling. I'm not sure how I would write about this book. It really pushes my buttons. One thing that contributes to that is the shifting alignment of the pages, from the horizontal arrangement to the vertical. It's a big book, according to the description below, and that re-orienting might be easier to accomplish with the book than with my laptop. Actually, at 18 x 13 one might be able to reorient simply with the head and the eyes.
The bigger challenge is conceptual, reorienting to Marder's vision of the bodies in front of her. And to the self-conscious presentations that these women are creating. This collaboration really digs into some complex psycho-space. Exploring my own psyche, I am compelled to say that I find almost nothing sexy about this work, though there is a lot that is sexual about it. Anatomy is a cold and fitting title--not strictly physical anatomy, which is there but takes the shotgun seat next to the driver, a less tangible assessment of the shape of desire--men's, women's, photography's.
The photography itself is seductive. Marder's images destabilize the illicit qualities of her complex subject, which fluctuates between social commentary, analytical fetishism, and psychological portraiture. At once beguiling and stand-off-ish, the virtuosity in her work and her edit makes me reconsider this big book again and again. And I remain repulsed, and fascinated by my repulsion. Someone's desires must be channeling through these enactments; but who, why, how? This is Marder's most significant accomplishment--enacting desire by rejecting its most overt expression.

I think it's hard to name books of the year. Short of a receiving clerk at photo-eye, who can really see enough of the shelves-full that are published annually to arrive at a sufficient judgment? All I can do is respond to myself, to the books that have crossed my visual field, and say that Marder's Anatomy has poked, prodded, and provoked me like no other in many moons.
* The excerpt, originally in French, is from Bataille's essay "The Problems of Surrealism" and appears, in a variant translation by Michael Richardson, in The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, published by Verso, 1994.

The book on Twin Palms' web site

05 October 2013

WIIGF? The Aftermath Project

From theaftermathproject.org home page
What is war good for? Unfortunately, it has given us a lot of significant photography. I say unfortunate, because most war photographers would say they'd like to be out of a job. Sara Terry, whose work as founder and artistic director of The Aftermath Project has been going on since 2005, might express the same wish.

Terry is an established photographer. Her multi-year project Bosnia's Long Road to Peace brought home to her the need to continue attending to locations of conflict long after headline news has turned its focus elsewhere. She guided the evolution of the project until 2012, when managing director Gretchen Landau joined the team. Together, the two oversee the grant program (deadline for 2014 funding is this November 11 link), the publications, and educational outreach for the non-profit.

It is useful to visit the project web site and review the work that has been done under Aftermath's aegis. It is critical to recognize that this is not combat photography. One must keep in mind Brady and O'Sullivan on Civil War battlefields, or Fenton on the Crimean Peninsula, in that there is no war currently happening in these photographs. (Those mid-19th century photographs would exemplify the most immediate kind of "aftermath" images.) The projects supported reflect not only geo-political and ethno-cultural range, they also move way back in time. In some cases, armed aggression ended decades before the contemporary photographer arrived. The effects of conflict may endure beyond the lives of firsthand witnesses. The suggestion is implicit; there may, in fact, be very little life on this planet that does not qualify for attention as life impacted by war

I am one of two people who have written about The Aftermath Project in conjunction with their annual publications of award winners and finalists titled War is Only Half the Story:
  • Volume 4 (2011; GS review published on photo-eye blog 9/10/2012)
  • Volume 3 (2010; Joscelyn Jurich review published on photo-eye site 4/11/2011)
  • Volume 2 (2009; GS review published on photo-eye site 11/24/2009)
Volume 1 was published in December 2008 and featured Jim Goldberg's 2007 series "The New Europeans"; volume 5 was released last December. All volumes are listed as available through the project's web site; a link to the bookstore can be found in the banner on the home page.

Those awards are given each year to "working photographers worldwide covering the aftermath of conflict." As I see it, the more such work gets noticed, the more the negative effects of armed conflict are imprinted on our species, the less likely we may be to think that war only affects those nearest to it, or that war actually solves anything. The more warlike we behave, the less human we become.

Link to 5-minute video about Sara Terry's work in Bosnia


27 September 2013

Two books by Lewis Koch

Former Walker Art Center Librarian (my one-time boss, now, sadly, deceased) Rosemary Furtak working on the artist files in the museum's renovated and expanded library.
Seems like another lifetime, twenty years ago, when I was a library assistant at the Walker Art Center. One of the great things about that job, aside from the remarkable history of modern art that sat on the library’s shelves and in its drawers, was that from time to time I would be asked to meet with visiting photographers. Because I’d been pretty involved in the medium, could talk and listen well to photographers, even then as the 1990s were hitting their mid-decade stride, and I liked to entertain myself thinking there might be a future for me at the Walker if only they’d allow a curator to concentrate on one medium as I had on photography.

Well, that was not to be. I got distracted by medium-specific projects, including editing a quarterly journal for pARTs Photographic Arts and curating a couple of exhibitions there, above the body shop on Lyndale and 28th, before the organization relocated to Lake Street, the decade ended, and pARTs became the Minnesota Center for Photography. And we all know what happened in 2008. Well, a few of us do.

One meeting I recall vividly was a discussion with Madison, WI-based Lewis Koch (b. 1949), who brought his portfolio in one day. We met in the Print Study room (hey, what was that about no medium-specificity at the Walker?) and spent a good hour looking at his Totems, vertical stacks of finely printed black-and-whites that combine social, cultural, natural, and linguistic tropes in what might be called piled psycho-typologies. Lewis struck me as a very thoughtful artist, very smart in a post-modernist way, but also a very fine photographic craftsman; his chops were all in place and appealing to the emerging esthete in me.

Accordion-folded totem by Lewis Koch, published by Nexus Press, Atlanta, 1993

Somewhere I have a copy of his publication Double Caution Totem (Nexus Press, 1993). Or maybe it stayed in the Walker Library, which would have been better. Foldouts of three of his treatments of streetlights and other vertical markers of the automotive landscape. Clearly, this is work meant to be experienced ensemble, single prints merged into a whole greater than its parts.

There’s an organic, almost effortless turn to make here into books, more conventional volumes that nonetheless reflect a collective. sequenced interest in images. Lewis recently sent me a couple of his independently published books, to update my awareness of his work and to forward along to Larissa Leclair and the Indie Photobook Library. There is Touchless Automatic Wonder: Found Text from the Real World (Borderland Books, 2009) and Bomber: A Chance Unwinding (Areness Press/Blurb, 2011).

Soda advertisement, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India, 1996. From Touchless Automatic Wonder by Lewis Koch

Touchless recalls both the glories of duotone vision (reproduction almost as good as good silver prints) and the intrigue of reading text as both strings of letters and photographic grain amassed into light and shadow. Koch shares a page with text recorder Nathan Lyons (almost 20 years Koch’s senior), though Koch’s work sings more clearly to me, bittersweet and rich like Franz Schubert’s musical Lieder. These are funny works, more strange-funny though than ha-ha-funny. They are straight-faced yet they elicit something uncanny, poignant, and acutely responsive to both contextual and optical vernacular.

From Bomber: A Chance Unwinding by Lewis Koch

Bomber, coming later and setting itself apart from Touchless and the Totems, is an intriguing evolution of Koch’s work. The book sets itself one subject in one place; the photographs Koch made are color, largely lacking text, and all from a rubble field atop Bomber Mountain in the Cloud Peak Wilderness, Big Horn National Forest, Wyoming. The mountain was named for a B-17 that crashed here in 1943; evidence of the crash, the tangled remains of the plane, are strewn across a site that is eminently undistinguished aside from the wreckage. Each fragment speaks of the betrayal of myth—whatever magic (Bernoulli effect, bah!) keeps planes in the air failed here, and the penalty was harsh. 

Koch’s photographs in the modest volume are sequenced with archival Air Force images, bombing maps, and Koch’s own concrete poetry, which weaves a thread that figuratively draws the pieces back together again. It is an elegiac and enlightened bit of work that shows a great deal of daring and personal commitment; making the photographs alone, which he did on two trips, was an ordeal in a very inhospitable place where there were, Koch writes:
Gleaming shards
on a field of stones—
rubble on rubble
and clouds, clouds
in every direction
including down,
There is something reflective in the Bomber project, signaled perhaps by its subtitle, A Chance Unwinding, which is an elusive yet provocative phrase. I feel the photographer unwinding, looking back, casting this arbitrary and indifferent landscape as a metaphoric field where he has operated for years, spotting and capturing moments of twisted brilliance lodged in between the mundane earthen boulders and the ethereal yet expansive clouds. A nice symbolic self-portrait of the artist as visual poet/alchemist, turning dross and jetsam into significant texts.

26 September 2013


I am always intrigued by fictive portrayals of photographers and the narrative or symbolic use of photography in various contexts. Being a student of the medium and an admirer of its great practitioners, I like to encounter constructed versions of it by others.

I just enjoyed watching a Brazilian/Argentinian/French film titled Found Memories, directed by Julia Murat and released in 2011. I have to hope that the Portuguese title suffered in translation; the English version doesn't do justice or attract sufficient attention to the unique, exquisitely visual nature of this film. It considers the impact Rita, a young photographer, makes on a remote mountain village she discovers, almost by chance. The village is bound in time by its rituals. Roles are set, life proceeds in repetitive fashion. Days don't progress, they simply repeat. Rain is always coming, the coffee is always bad. Murat's pacing is slow and deliberate, allowing us to absorb details in a multi-sensory way. The point of view varies, from day to day, so we know we are seeing the moment fresh, even if the actions are effectively identical from sequence to sequence.

The photographer's arrival makes everyone see things anew. She asks questions. She doesn't accept silence or conventional answers. She pushes into new spaces. Her vision takes us--villagers and film viewers alike--into physical and psychological terrain we were previously kept from entering. She refuses to accept the "entry prohibited" sign on the church burial ground.

In order to effectively portray this character, someone had to take real pictures. And this is where my interest really gets piqued. It's like in a novel, one of those fictographic ones I sometimes quote from, when I read the acknowledgments and learn who inspired or informed the author about photography. In Found Memories, the photos come from someone whose Flickr page is called "Quito sometimes Marcos." They are pinhole photographs, and some seem to be made directly from locations in the movie.

The chiaroscuro effects of the pinhole images are the perfect echo for the simplicity of darkness and light, shutters open or closed tight, that seems to characterize the village prior to Rita's arrival. And in the end of the film, we are left to speculate whether her photographs will take on new shades of gray as she contemplates an extended future with the community. It's a gorgeous film, and I recommend both it and the photographs that informed it.

Found Memories link to (distributor) filmmovement.com
"Quito sometimes Marcos" on Flickr link

13 March 2013

WIIGF? An exhibition in the Bronx

I hope someone can visit and tell me about the Bronx Documentary Center. The show opens tomorrow evening and runs through April 19.

Link here for the full press release. Includes screenings of several films including bio-pic of the late Tim Hetherington on April 20.

photo: ©The Diaries of Lt. Timothy McLaughlin USMC

14 February 2013

From the Collection: A photograph by Elaine Mayes

Photograph by Elaine Mayes from the exhibition Framing the Field
Elaine Mayes (b. 1936)
Pegasus, 1972
Gelatin silver print
7-7/8 x 11-7/8 inches
This is the earliest work in the show, in more ways than one.

When I saw this photograph in the collection of Minnesota Museum of American Art, I knew that despite its gaseous aspect it meant something solid. It signified that my intuition about the collection, my inkling that I would be finding work of merit, was correct. It became the first photograph in Framing the Field, before I had the title, before I even knew what the show was going to be about. It was the buoy, the photograph that enabled the rest of the work now hanging in the C. G. Murphy Gallery to rise to the surface and become visible as I scanned the ranks and files of images in the museum's collection over the last year in preparation for the show.

Organizing a show like this is like three-dimensional chess (remember Star Trek?) plus a fourth dimension, which is knowledge of axes x, y, and z over time.

In this photograph I see hard facts become myths, and myths dissolving. I see a backlit corporate emblem, not quite so recognizable anymore, become a full moon and a backdrop for a misty, mystical winged horse, the spirit of American mobility leaping out of a driver-less convertible. I re-experience cool nights at way stations between somewhere and somewhere else, and the casual, transient comfort of the well-lit counter inside. A chill comes over me again as I imagine the gasoline crises that would set in within a year or two, signaling the beginning of the end of the freeway free-for-all, the automotive imperialism that so many Americans still cherish as a national birthright.

My knowledge of Elaine Mayes and her work predated my engagement to curate a new photography exhibition from the MMAA's permanent collection. I knew that she had spent time in Minnesota, teaching at the University of Minnesota with Jerry Liebling in the late 1960s. I remembered a couple of gorgeous, open-hearted portraits of Haight-Ashbury residents that she made circa 1967, shortly before coming to Minnesota; Ted Hartwell acquired these for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and published them in his book, The Making of a Collection (Aperture, 1985).

And I knew that this photograph, made on I-87, the New York State Thruway, in the early 1970s, was part of a show I'd seen earlier at MMAA, not long after it was acquired in 1990 as part of a portfolio titled American Roads. It was a fortunate acquisition, as far as Framing the Field is concerned; also included were prints by Joel Sternfeld and Steve Fitch that are in the new show.

That's one thing a curator does--shuffles the deck and lays out a new hand. Faces up. Then rearranges, discovering which pictures are most compelling. Here's one.

On Mayes' blog, you'll find Pegasus in the section "Black and White, 1972 - 2009" link

28 January 2013

From the Collection: A photograph by Jerry Mathiason

Hay Bale/Cedars, 1984, by Jerry Mathiason
Jerry Mathiason (b. 1947)
Hay Bale/Cedars, 1984
Gelatin silver print
14 x 14 inches

My most recent curatorial project, Framing the Field: Photographic Terrain in the Collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, is on display from February 4 to March 28 at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. The show includes 39 works by 36 artists. All the photographs were made within the last 40 years, since the time I started junior high school in the Twin Cities.

The show is not about landscape as a visual genre, nor does it consist entirely of photographs of land and nature. Rather, the framing devices of "field" and "terrain" focus attention on the entirety of a collection and the ways in which it maps the contemporary evolution of photographic art.

There are many pieces in this show that I have admired over time. Some of which I owned for a while, then donated to the museum (MMAA for short) in recognition of a former director who was a friend and a great supporter of photography.

This image, by Minneapolis-based photographer Jerry Mathiason, was given to MMAA by Mathiason in 1989. It is full of genius loci, or spirit of place. I don't know exactly where this place is. And I don't really care. The photograph itself, its tones, shapes, textures, the synthesis of its component parts, is the place. A range of grays implying a world. The universe in a grain of sand--or a blade of grass.

I can linger in this place, I can enter it or view it whole. I can reach in and feel the amassed, aging hay. I can hear the grasses, swishing from wind and my boots, yet to be transformed into hay. I can almost smell the cool cedars, see the fibrous bark that, shaved and scraped into cottony wads, makes for excellent fire starter. I can fear the fire that might take this whole scene into another, darker spectrum.

As I stare my vision goes soft and the slouching bale becomes another structure, of Indian derivation, using cedar bark and branches to fashion a structure bulging roundly from mother earth. Whether wigwam, waginogan, or wickiup, I squint my eyes a bit and see it there on the prairie, the dark line of cedars a trail of smoke from the cooking fire inside, an interior further suggested by the dark hole admitting entrance.

The grand scale of this space is evident from both the depth of the focused field and the gradations of light across the dried grasses. The ground makes a screen large enough to capture the variable glow projecting from the sky above.

When my vision sharpens again I revel in the infinite variability of lines drawn on film by both the hewn and uncut foliage. Deepening my focus I consider the energy invested in baling this hay, the attempt to bind and thereby retain the nutrition latent in the grasses. And then, the release, letting that bale soften, lose its focus, return to the soil. A puzzle in that, the invested energy going to waste. Maybe another story about why. And the eternal story of cycles, of will and neglect.

In the show, nearly every photograph has three subjects. First, what it shows--its content. Attached to that are formal issues, which extend to its place within the entirety of the exhibition. And finally, each photograph relates another topic, somewhat theoretical, philosophical, or symbolic in nature; that would be its implications. What does the photograph tell us about what we can't see, what can't be shown? This, to me, is photography's most wondrous terrain.

Link to Jerry Mathiason's site
Link to exhibition on Catherine G. Murphy Gallery/St. Catherine University web site
Link to Minnesota Museum of American Art

20 January 2013

GREENER | Carolyn Monastra, The Witness Tree

I'm not sure how I first found Carolyn Monastra's blog, or when. She writes that she started the blog in September 2011 as a component of a new photographic project, The Witness Tree, dedicated to images of landscapes affected by climate change.

One of Monastra's images of felled trees along a beach in Tonga.
Although she maintains a fairly conventional web site, she made a smart decision by chosing the blog format, which allows her to include conversational narratives about her search for these impacted landscapes. (If one wanted to create an itinerary for a global adventure or two, the blog offers a number of tempting suggestions, including local cuisine.) The flora, fauna, and humans of a particular biome, after all, suggest the effects of change, and the stories they tell often lend themselves to words. It is landscape, however, that offers visual evidence, and the way things blend with each other and within the photographic frame create perspective, push us into appreciating, maybe even having, points of view.

Carolyn Monastra, Coconut trees being killed by rising sea levels (in Tonga)
Coconut trees being killed by rising sea levels. By Carolyn Monastra

Monastra's photographs are not harangues, nor artificially strident. They are eloquent, honest, and often disturbing testimony to the damages being wrought on ecosystems around the world.

From Monastra's photographs during a trip along Rio Negro and the Amazon rainforest.

She received a MFA from Yale, coming to it after being in social work for a number of years. Not the typical background for a photo-world insider. The combination does, however, make for an interesting blog that is also worth looking at, and has resulted in appealing photographs worth reading about for their implicit meanings as well as their surface pleasures and technical accomplishment.

(I should note, too, that I am strongly affected by trees, and Carolyn's use of trees as symbols of climate change has great resonance for me. I wonder if she's ever seen Jeff Krueger's study of trees that have witnessed historic events? Or Janelle Lynch's "portraits" of tree stumps in her Akna project (in her book Los Jardines de Mexico (Radius, 2011) and soon on display at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, FL)?)

Carolyn Monastra's blog, The Witness Tree
Monastra's web site