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