Selected Texts

 

Para-Phrase: Gideon Barnett & Peter Baker

(The following text is part of a collaboration with artist Gideon Barnett and is better viewed with reference images at Der Greif )

Growing up in Jasper, Tennessee – The alien concept of pursuing art – An onslaught of tourists eager to catch a glimpse of the Hope Diamond – The sheer enthusiasm & simultaneous consternation of testing hi-res digital cameras & more recently, an interest in debased, lower quality forms of photographic reproduction – Institutions & public space as artist studio, such as museums, libraries & the streets of cities themselves – A confined stretch of Miami’s South Beach – Xerox machines in the age of Photoshop – The changing nature & responsibilities of archiving – Vandalism & the intimate photographs of Edith Gowin by her husband Emmet – The IBM photocopy work of artist & writer Pati Hill – Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan’s Evidence – The relationship between photographing out in the world & carefully selecting from a random array of images to re-appropriate – The green blackboards of grammar school – Evaporation — Deafness in Dogs — American Sign Language – The Rings of Saturn & The Hundred and One Dalmatians

While engaging the assortment of disparate images posed to us in Gideon Barnett’s most recent work, one calls to mind the novels of the late German writer W.G. Sebald, wherein small, curious pictures accompany passages of text in both direct and ambiguous ways. These images function as a kind of subtle guide to the narrator’s consciousness, blurring our notions of fact and fiction, memory and history, loss and desire. By employing these images, whose origins are shrouded in mystery, Sebald magnifies a pathos that connects the reader to that which has become all but forgotten, made faint by the parallax of time. By immersing himself in the microfilm images archived in various university libraries under the heading “The History of Photography,” and enlarging said images with the library’s default Xerox printer, Gideon Barnett is exercising a similar transpiration, one that invokes in the viewer a sense of strange beauty and subdued malaise.

Considering such devices are designed to contain and condense large text catalogs, documents and newspapers, the use of microfilm to archive photographic materials is an almost comic prelude to failure. By recognizing this fact and finding delight in transforming these dubious processes into large-scale objects, Barnett is drawing from modes of image-appropriation that seek to scrutinize the nature of its own production. Historically, we have seen artists explore such methods to question and criticize the underlying effects media images have on the culture. In this case, however, the result is how a particular set of images are stored, chronicled and essentially forgotten. While sifting through these images the artist likens the intuitive selection process to that of pressing the shutter while photographing out in the world, as it were. Once selected and printed we are confronted with a sort of resurrection of pictures, some familiar, others inscrutable. So that when we see what appears to be an inverted commercial advertisement for Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey, targeting some susceptible consumer society of the past, we dismiss it as old-fashioned, defunct, and, emptied now of its aim to sell us something, it reclaims an innocuous form. Perhaps then, for the first time, we see it for what it is: an arrangement of glasses, liquid and ice, reflecting light, forming shadows, and placed accordingly by an invisible prop-stylist, for the three-quarter camera angle positioned by one of countless anonymous photographers, whose life’s work, by mere happenstance, wound up in this peculiar burial place. If we were to take Sebald’s cue that “the greater the distance, the clearer the view,” one could imagine looking back reproachfully at our habit of being unable or unwilling to discern this phenomenon in the present, as inconspicuous algorithms work to send us advertisements based on our search histories, texts, likes, location, and most disturbingly, voice recordings.

After making the Xerox print, Barnett frames the images with a green background, meant to evoke the blackboards used in elementary & high schools. Framed around images whose meanings evade us, this gesture hints at the loss of innocence that evaporates as we begin to question what we are taught as pupils. Oddly enough, I can remember now the streaks of chalk-dust left on the board after erasing it, followed by the sensation of washing it back to black with a damp sponge, noticing how quickly it dried, which, upon reflection, is how I came to learn the meaning of the word evaporation in the first place. Additionally, it reminds us that institutions of learning are equipped insofar as private and public funds support them, so that inevitably the apparatus of such places will range from state-of-the-art to, in the case of the microfilm archive and its Xerox counterpart, haplessly archaic. Not to mention, how the staff employed there and the unknown persons whose job it was to undertake such a task, remains as puzzling as the pictures themselves and how they came into existence.

While we can comprehend the purpose of the Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey image, the others in this body of work are less clear and create mysterious associations:

A snake on a branch — An orange on cloth – a pair of pills with the letters BL V2 — A group of figures in protective suits prepared for some unfathomable hazardous condition — A bronze sacrificial wine vessel — Variations of knots — A portrait of a nude woman concealing her face — The harsh landscape of snow-covered mountains — What appear to be two frostbitten feet — A faint sun setting over a field that can be anywhere — An older man holding a joint while exhaling smoke from his wrinkled face.

Could it be possible that the torso of a black body split in half is an advertisement for an exercise machine as suggested by its title Soloflex? What exactly are sub-globular microsclere spicules? And what are we to draw from the pill-identifier that informs us that BL V2 is the antibiotic penicillin v potassium to be taken orally? Who made these pictures and for what purpose? These are just some questions you may find yourself asking.

However, for some reason I find myself returning to the half dozen Dalmatians sitting for their portrait. The six of them sit ghostlike in front of a black backdrop, as the tops of their heads catch the light. It is unknown whether such contrast is the result of poorly exposed film or perhaps more likely the crass limitations of Xerox printing, but one can’t help but find some minor amusement in these black and white spotted hounds as the perfect study for contrast in photography. What we do know is that roughly one in three Dalmatians suffer from deafness in one or both ears, a fact unknown to early breeders who confused the dog’s unresponsiveness with a lack of intelligence, before later coming to learn that, due to the absence of melanocytes, deafness is frequent in piebald animals and other creatures that share a propensity for light pigmentation. Looking at this picture, and drawing from my own experience from working on sets with animals, it is almost certain that in addition to the photographer, a dog wrangler is standing just side of camera. And while we might be tempted to imagine her commanding the dog’s attention with a treat of some variety, as is the ordinary custom for rewarding our well-behaved companions, a certain lack of eagerness from the six canines, particularly the two withdrawn dogs sitting in the back, leads me to surmise that they are responding to the American Sign Language symbols to freeze and watch the wrangler, which the ASL training center for dogs tells us is communicated by extending one’s thumb and pinky out while tucking the three middle fingers in and making a firm thrusting motion of the hand slightly down.

Deaf dogs are capable of learning upwards of fifty hand signs, but what I find most astonishing is that deaf dogs are prone to higher sensitivity to human facial expressions, so that in addition to comprehending sign language, they will respond to the pleasure or disappointment of their owners gaze. Upon learning this fact I dreamt again of Sebald and his most enigmatic book, The Rings Of Saturn, wherein a nameless narrator takes an aimless walking tour of the coastal county of Suffolk, England under the sign of the Dog Star. Going back to Sebald’s curious archive of pictures one could, with minor effort, see this image of Dalmatians accompanied by a story about the nameless narrator coming across a stray dog, with the uncanny suspicion that this dog could sense the melancholy air about him by looking at his face. When it was brought to my attention by Gideon Barnett that a note of text suggested to him that this photograph was made for the promotion of Disney’s film adaptation of the children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians, I decided to conduct my own library search for a copy of the book in order to confirm my vague remembrance that the ninety-seven puppies kidnapped for the intention of skinning them for their spotted fur, were discovered and eventually rescued by their Twilight Barking heard from a great distance away. But when I read that the dogs were found in Suffolk, England, I became convinced, against my better judgment, that it was Sebald’s nameless narrator who came to their rescue. And, at the very least, the remedy for accepting that this of course was not actually the case, is that Gideon Barnett rescued these images from what otherwise would have been their permanent captivity.

-Peter Baker

Ellen Brooks: Screens

(The following text was written in conjunction with Ellen Brooks exhibition Screens and can be read with reference images at Lord Ludd )

"I’ve never liked ‘nature’ photographs." – Luigi Ghirri

Since the onset of photography we have seen nature depicted profusely, from the earliest glass plate negatives, to pristine silver gelatin prints, to postcards, calendars, automotive ads and the like. Even the naming of Fuji film, after Japan’s largest volcanic mountain, implicitly tells the customer what they might want to take pictures of; that ultimate Other, impenetrable, sublime. It has been a staunch subject for tourists, hobbyists and artists. In fact, perhaps the reason Ghirri never liked nature photographs is because the history of images has in many ways been an ongoing document of the erasure of nature. Apple’s generic wallpaper image of El Capitan, one of the highest peaks in Yosemite National Park and the namesake of its now universal operating system, is a particularly perverse attempt at conciliating our desire for nature, while evermore engrossed by screens. 

In her latest body of work, Ellen Brooks’ Screens puts to use an image of nature that is at once a rather debased reproduction, yet functions reliably in the wild. I’m referring to the transparent camouflage nets the artist uses to obscure, abstract and inevitably transform into another image altogether. While taking in the world of these beautiful and densely detailed photographs, the natural inclination today is to assume ostensible layers in Photoshop being applied and painted throughout. However, Brooks’ process is all done in-camera, as it were, in the confines of her studio in Brooklyn, that distant terrain beyond the river from Manhattan, where she had worked in several modes for many years prior. 

Like many artists of her generation, Ellen Brooks came of age at a moment where questioning and critiquing the various uses of images in media, entertainment and advertising, became a wellspring for expression and empowerment. Growing up in Los Angeles, Brooks was obsessed with all kinds of magazines, but was especially interested in how nature was presented. Various publications like House & GardenBetter Homes and Gardens, and other shelter magazines, tapped into a new market for gardening as a form of hobby, as well as showing off how the wealthy could surround themselves with the best sense of nature money could buy. The canyons and hills of Los Angeles display this concept perhaps more evidently than any other place in the country, in terms of the artifice of nature bleeding into the sprawl of the city. Manicured lawns abound, while more environmentally conscious homeowners use Astroturf to save water and receive a tax rebate to boot. Consider the palm tree, an emblem of the region, is not even native to Southern California, but rather, was transported from Mexico (fan palm) and the Canary Islands (date palm), and planted throughout the city purely for aesthetic and decorative purposes. As the life span of the original crop of palm trees from the 1930’s comes close to its end, questions about sustaining and planting new palms come under scrutiny, since they provide no shade, and the urban heat island effect of Los Angeles has increased significantly since. Projecting this kind of aspirational version of nature onto the landscape informed the work of many photographic artists, from New Topographics, which drew from the sober gaze of vernacular real estate images, to social landscape photographers who saw what was posed as the real world as kind of curious figment. Meanwhile the artists that became known as the Pictures Generationundermined idyllic cultural tropes by appropriating or re-presenting magazine and advertising pictures, to use it against itself. Many of these ideas bring to mind Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which argued that to navigate our contemporary culture is to more often than not, find ourselves immersed in a reality of copies without an original. Or, that nature is receding, copied, confined and commoditized. 

By appropriating camouflage netting as a veil to enhance the picture plane, Ellen Brooks has adopted a remarkably cunning strategy. The process itself is fairly straightforward. The artist drapes the screen in front of the camera and proceeds to explore the amalgamation of objects and other bodies of work within her studio. For an artist who identifies as a conceptualist, it is somewhat amusing that Brooks insists she does not alter any of the objects in the studio for the making of the picture. Things are how they are. The only intervention is the thin material obstructing the view. It is relevant to note that this material can be found easily online or at outdoors supply stores. Among the various uses by customers who reviewed the large camouflage tarps, were World War II celebrations, going away and coming home parties for soldiers in the Army, tailgating, home decoration, and mostly hunting, namely, coyote, deer, wild turkey and waterfowl hunting. To do an image search of this thing is to delve into a masculine realm of weekend warriors, exceedingly decked in camouflage, intent on conquering some aspect of nature that eludes most of us in our daily lives. That a woman artist has decided to use the same material to investigate the apparatus of her life’s work is both sharp-witted and gratifying. But lets take it further. Camouflage itself may very well be the lowest echelon of quality in terms of image reproduction, while achieving the maximum level of deception in the world. It is a constructed image that enters and plays along with nature, an image attempting not to represent, but to pass as the real, with deadly consequences. 

A customer review written by the artist herself as to how and why she is using this material might look something like this: “I was looking for a mass produced, synthetic, see-through image to mediate ideas of nature and concealment and elaborate on the innate illusory characteristic of photographs. The screen became a kind of veil one must pass through in order to discover the environment of my studio.” What resulted are a series of large scale, chaotic photographs, where within the image of nature, we can discern fragments of a studio and remnants of other bodies of work by a prolific artist. In his essay The Vanishing Point, Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri writes of the experience of looking at photographs that evokes the sensation of viewing Ellen Brooks’ Screens. Its “as if there were a gossamer-thin sheet of film between us and the landscape we observe, between the world and its representation – one which, paradoxically, does not stop us seeing clearly but, on the contrary, becomes the point of balance between vertigo and precision, time and space.” An unmistakable orange extension cord runs through the frame of an image, mimicking the frenzy of blurred, brown branches. Among the array of other objects, some clear, some abstract, is a shopping cart, wire fencing, a magnifying lamp, painter’s tape, the blue light of dusk through a window, and an inflatable yellow ball, like the one a child goes searching for deep in the woods, before finally giving up and letting it join the ever growing image of nature.

—Peter Baker

Ellen Brooks (b. 1946, Los Angeles) lives and works in New York. She has shown internationally, at galleries and institutions including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Centre Pompidou, Hauser & Wirth, Roth Gallery, Barbara Gladstone, Leslie Tonkonow, and Gallery Luisotti among many others. Her work is in the permanent collections of the MoMA, the Whitney, SFMoMA, the International Center of Photography, the National Museum of American Art, the Getty Museum, and the Albright Knox Museum among others.
ellenbrooks.net

A Brief Digression in Appropriation: 1157 Wheeler Avenue, Bronx, New York 10472

These photographs have been appropriated from the real estate sites Zillow and Trulia. They were part of a listing to sell a multi-family home in the Soundview section of the Bronx in early 2016. Each picture is printed at 100 percent of the size in which it was taken from the site. The sizes are 4x6 inches at 72 dpi. The poor quality in part suggests they were made with an early low-resolution digital camera or shot on the lowest settings. I have titled each image simply the necessary information provided in the listing: For Sale: $599,000 (7 Beds, 4 Baths, 3,360 Sqft) 1157 Wheeler Avenue, Bronx, New York 10472.

1157 Wheeler Avenue was the home address of Amadou Diallo and his family, who settled in the Bronx, having emigrated from Guinea in West Africa. In 1999 Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by four plain clothed NYPD officers at this location. You may remember the story. The officers approached Diallo as he entered the vestibule of his building, claiming he fit the description of a serial rapist. Police allege that as they advanced toward Diallo he reached into his pocket and pulled out what they believed to be a gun. The four officers infamously fired 41 shots in total, 19 of which fatally struck the 23 year old. As it turned out Diallo was unarmed and had been reaching for his wallet to show identification. He was heading home after working as a street peddler in Union Square, where he sold VHS tapes, hats, gloves, socks and the like. Officers Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon and Kenneth Boss were charged with second-degree murder and found not guilty at a trial in Albany a year later.

I was 18 years old at the time and having grown up in the Bronx remember the moment marked by heated debates and demonstrations around the city. I remember my uncle, who worked nights at the 44th precinct, describing how decisions of life and death are made in a fraction of a second. I remember Pat Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association calling to boycott a Bruce Springsteen concert because he wrote a song memorializing Diallo. I remember reading in the Daily News how The State Fraternal Order of Police president called Bruce a "dirtbag" and a "floating fag" for performing the song at Madison Square Garden.  Diallo's parents were in attendance. I remember chants of "Its a wallet, not a gun" from thousands of New Yorkers marching through the streets of lower Manhattan after the officers were acquitted. I remember his mother, Kadiatou Diallo. How she held it together while speaking of her son. How she thanked the crowd and pledged to devote her life to social justice and unity. A pledge she continues to keep. 

I remember the feeling of dejection the next day when the protests received little coverage by the press. Mostly, I remember Rudy Giuliani vehemently defending the officers and condescendingly reminding the public of the decreased overall crime statistics during his term as mayor, seeming to imply that this was collateral damage, a tragic anomaly with no reasons to ask questions about racism, profiling or standard police tactics. Seventeen years later, due in large part to the omnipresence of built-in video cameras in cellular phones, we continue to see incidents involving the killing of unarmed men by police. The victims are disproportionately black. The consequences for the police in question have been null. As I write this a cop in Baltimore has just been acquitted in charges related to the death of Freddie Gray.

What led to me finding these images? I recently discovered that in 1992 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art commissioned the photographer Lewis Baltz, an artist I admire greatly, to produce an archetypal view of the Los Angeles cityscape. Baltz, a native of Southern California known for his grids of impeccable black & white landscape photographs, responded by making a 48 x 96 inch Cibachrome photograph of what appears to be an ordinary intersection in the outskirts of Los Angeles. The photograph 11777 Foothill Blvd, Los Angeles 1993, is the exact site of where Rodney King was brutally beaten by the police, which upon release of the video footage, famously ignited riots across the city. This discovery, along with a string of recent events involving Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddy Gray, to name a few, invoked a curiosity to look back at the incident which occurred in my own home borough, at a time when we were all asked to give the police the benefit of the doubt, that this was an aberration. The first result in a search of Diallo’s address was a New York Daily News article from 2009 about a tour guide bringing buses full of European tourists to the place of Diallo’s death. The next several results were real estate sites like the aforementioned Zillow and Trulia listing the building for sale. To be certain it was the same building I matched a photograph I found of Diallo and his brother in their home with the same painted window frame as the interior bedroom picture on Zillow. Another picture I found of several police officers in beige trench coats confirmed the exterior of the building. I came to these pictures knowing what happened there. Needless to say, there was no mention of the incident in the listing. 

Real Estate has always been a major industry of New York, but it has never been more incongruous, if not altogether perverse, to the vast majority of its citizens than it is today. Vernacular real estate images, crime scene photographs and appropriated pictures, respectively have all played a role in the history of art photography. Here we see a somber affiliation of all three. Finding these pictures provoked several emotions and questions about value, progress, and the fact that someone bought the building despite what could only be described as the failure of the photographs. The house sold for $565,000 and the listing has since been taken down. 

After several months of having these images with the listing info on my website, I was contacted by a film production company who mistakenly took my appropriation of these images for an actual Real Estate listing. Mistaking me with the owner of the building, they inquired how much it would cost to rent the location for a virtual reality film of the shooting. 

Los Angeles Plays Itself: Anthony Hernandez at SFMOMA

(The following text was published at American Suburb X and can be read with accompanying images here ASX )

It often said that Los Angeles is the most photographed city on earth. It’s not true. It is also said that nobody walks in LA. Another lie. Or at least, in line with the nature of the city itself, its pure deception. The latter statement really means to say that the wealthy and privileged don’t walk. The former statement refers to the endless supply of still images made on or for the sets of Hollywood films, as well as B-roll; the dubious in-between footage in movies, television and news media used to create visual narratives or a change in geography. In “The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory,” Norman Klein writes that while it may be the most photographed, the inadequacy of b-roll imagery is in part why Los Angeles is also the least remembered city in the world. After all when one summonses to their photographic memory the vast archive of still imagery representing city life and the urban landscape, they likely find themselves on a crowded street corner in Manhattan, or the back alleys of Paris, at night, sometime last century. The inaugural exhibition at The Broad museum boasted of many major artists like John Baldessari, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha, who made LA their home and are associated with the city. Ironically, the only work in the show that alluded to Los Angeles, the place, was Ed Ruscha’s 1979 minimalist text painting that reads, “Hollywood Is A Verb.”

The first LA picture that comes to my mind was made by Garry Winogrand, a photographer inextricably bound to New York and the work he made there in the 60’s and 70’s. You know the one, Los Angeles, 1969, where three silhouetted women walk toward the corner of Hollywood and Vine, met by a boy in a wheelchair, head bowed and all merciful. If you want to see Los Angeles, playing itself, as it were, in a range of photographs that span the past half-century, well, you have to go to San Francisco. There, at the new and improved San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (or in the beautifully produced catalog), you will find the career retrospective of Anthony Hernandez, an artist to remember.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Anthony Hernandez grew up in Boyle Heights, a working class neighborhood east of the LA River and downtown, which has recently seen new art galleries met by anti-gentrification protests. In the 1960’s, however, Hernandez had no exposure to art. The event that changed his life, pulling him out of a street gang and doing drugs, was his best friend giving him a photography manual published by the navy, which he found in the men’s room at East Los Angeles College. He would later take classes there working in the darkroom, the extent of his formal education.

While Hernandez made pictures in Europe, as well as Vietnam, where he served in the United States Army and had issues of Artforum mailed to him, his strongest work is that which scrutinizes the complex and often elusive social dynamics of his native Los Angeles. In 1969 we see a 22 year-old Hernandez, and protégé of Winogrand’s, successfully employ the language of the street photograph in downtown LA. That same year he ventures out to the west side beaches, where he finds his subjects sundrenched, fully dressed and sprawled out on the sand, as if washed up onto the shore, not by the rollicking waves of the great Pacific, but from the unrelenting tide of the city and country beyond it. Nowhere in sight are the Hollywood hills, its faint sign, nor hints of the eminent socialites murdered by the Manson family that summer. Nowhere in sight is the glitz and glamour, the myth of Los Angeles perpetuated by countless films and dollars. Nowhere in sight is the counter-culture of Dennis Hopper’s LA pictures, not to mention “La La Land.” No, Anthony Hernandez’ sober look at his hometown reminds us that Los Angeles is not the most photographed city in the world, but rather, one of the most culturally, economically and racially divided places in America.

Hernandez claimed that part of the reason he moved away from the 35mm street aesthetic to a large format 5×7 camera, was because he felt in order to thrive making work in that mode, one had to travel to various cities and he couldn’t afford to do so. Another reason could have been that the amount of blocks clustered with pedestrian traffic in LA are few and far between. One of the marvels of Winogrand’s work, for example, is what happens when unlikely pairings of people share the space of his frame. But, the streets of midtown Manhattan back then were a kind of crossroads for every type of city dweller. Los Angeles is physically undemocratic, by both its natural and built landscape. Not to mention, the pace of the city is exponentially slower. This is part of why Hernandez had to employ different ways of working, and travel to different parts of the city, to investigate its social textures. We see workers amongst damaged vehicles in car body repair shops that occupy much of LA in his Automotive Landscape series. In this work, the move to the 5×7 camera serves the photographer well in describing with greater clarity the physical presence of the landscape. One looks at Automotive Landscape #41, of a man working on a truck engine outside an auto body shop, taken slightly from above, and is reminded of Jeff Wall’s An Eviction, 1988/2004 taken from the same vantage point, looking down an ordinary neighborhood street (Its no surprise Wall has championed Hernandez’ work for some time). We see people waiting for the bus on the blighted boulevards of his Public Transit Areas pictures. We see office workers on their lunch breaks sitting in the confines of manicured corporate headquarters. Then he takes us to Rodeo Drive to see where the other half goes to walk the streets, spend their money, see and be seen. This is Hernandez’ first work made in color, giving a pedestrian quality to the prosperous. Red lipstick, gold signage, and various shades of blonde hair materialize. I looked at Rodeo Drive #34, 1984 for several minutes trying to decipher if the subject in the center of the frame was a real woman or a mannequin, before eventually conceding that she was real.

The Rodeo Drive pictures are made on the streets of self-conscious passersby. The work sets up the necessary and stark juxtaposition of Hernandez’ later color pictures, Landscapes For The Homeless. In this work in the late 80’s and early 90’s Hernandez photographs homeless encampments around the city. Homelessness and homeless people makeup part of the vernacular of the landscape of Los Angeles like no other city in this country. Entire blocks and nooks under the freeway are occupied with tents and tarps tied from tree barks to fences. Not to mention the allocated streets downtown known as Skid Row. Hernandez looks at the scraps of land the homeless claim until they can’t, and what little belongings they keep there. What we find are landscapes of cigarette butts and makeshift furniture, the few clothes available and old magazines that drifted in like artifacts from the straight society from which they’ve been evicted. The strongest in the series Landscapes for the Homeless #29, shows a belt, some razor blades, and an uneaten apple, as if proof that God doesn’t exist, that Eden was going to fall either way. The strength of these pictures has much to do with the fact that they are devoid of people. This was an apt yet far from obvious choice by Hernandez at the time. By photographing the spaces the homeless rest in without the people themselves, they avoid the easy clichés and tropes of pseudo-sympathetic photography, and rather function like crime scene photographs. The crime here being the obvious reality that in one of the largest cities in the most developed nation on earth, we accept that tens of thousands of human beings live around us without shelter. From the time Hernandez made these pictures to now, it has only gotten worse. In a conversation with Lewis Baltz which accompanies the series, Hernandez notes the obscenity of the term, “’The Homeless,’ as if they were an organized group with rights, a group you belonged to.”

Baltz then asks Hernandez what he thought of the perceived notion that Atget photographed Paris as if it were a crime scene. “Hard pictures to make,” Hernandez replied. Could we say that about Atget’s pictures? Was Paris worth photographing? Could I look at my own pictures and say ‘was it worth photographing?’ The answer is yes, because nobody else was looking.” Yes, Anthony Hernandez is the Atget of Los Angeles, and it’s a small crime that his career retrospective has no plan to travel to the city it so beautifully and shrewdly examines.

Work In Progress

"Peter Baker's pictures take us in the city where snippets of greenery in midtown New York and downtown Los Angeles appear to be as fake as astroturf and streets become stages where people stumble upon each other, forming haphazard, momentary, and disjointed relations. By defying traditions of street photography, he confronts us with the sanitized anonymity of office buildings and non-places to challenge the mythological identity of New York as a space of one-of-a-kind urbanity. The smoking figure in his Untitled (Anonymous Blue Facade) New York 2014, speaks to ordinary exclusions that govern communal spaces and confound boundaries of private and public. As the random adjacency of bodies in Men, Baseball, New York, where not only bodies but perceptions of movement and stasis also interact, Baker's straight photographs induce ambiguous sensations of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, and address issues of social anxiety and public space.

Baker, Slovenc and Sziladi all expand on the the traditions and the particular esthetic of snapshot, portrait, and street photography to make pictures that are visibly marked by the post-photographic era's inherent doubts about the medium's representational apparatus. Whether they are shot "as is," staged, or reworked as image files, their pictures blur the dichotomy of real and unreal, fact and fiction, analog and digital to prove that being aware of make-believes does not obliterate our need to have them. Their photographs generate varying degrees and kinds of attention. Paying attention, however, does not simply entail the detection of narrative prompts and wonderment over the discrepancies they engender, nor does it only involve an openness to be touched by the Barthesian punctums. What we are required to do is recognize that photography, as Ariella Azoulay put it, is "about the gap between world and picture." A difficult invitation, one which asks us to see the photographs not merely as summations of fragmented facts and fractals of the real to be pondered, but as vestiges of a world which, no matter how senseless, still burdens us with a sense of accountability."

-Agnes Berecz (excerpt from Division Review Quarterly on the Photographs of Peter Baker, Hrvoje Slovenc and Monika Sziladi)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Agnes Berecz teaches modern and contemporary art history. She is Associate Professor at Christie's Education and lectures at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her writings have appeared in Art Journal, Art In America, Artmargins, and the Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin as well as European and US exhibition catalogues.

Photography, Or The Writing Of Light by Jean Baudrillard

The miracle of photography, of its so-called objective image, is that it reveals a radically non-objective world. It is a paradox that the lack of objectivity of the world is disclosed by the photographic lens (objectif).2 Analysis and reproduction (ressemblance) are of no help in solving this problem. The technique of photography takes us beyond the replica into the domain of the trompe l'oeil. Through its unrealistic play of visual techniques, its slicing of reality, its immobility, its silence, and its phenomenological reduction of movements, photography affirms itself as both the purest and the most artificial exposition of the image.

At the same time, photography transforms the very notion of technique. Technique becomes an opportunity for a double play: it amplifies the concept of illusion and the visual forms. A complicity between the technical device and the world is established. The power of objects and of "objective" techniques converge. The photographic act consists of entering this space of intimate complicity, not to master it, but to play along with it and to demonstrate that nothing has been decided yet (rendre evidente l'idee que les jeux ne sont pas faits). "What cannot be said must be kept silent." But what cannot be said can also be kept silent through a display of images.

The idea is to resist noise, speech, rumors by mobilizing photography's silence; to resist movements, flows, and speed by using its immobility; to resist the explosion of communication and information by brandishing its secrecy; and to resist the moral imperative of meaning by deploying its absence of signification. What above all must be challenged is the automatic overflow of images, their endless succession, which obliterates not only the mark of photography (le trait), the poignant detail of the object (its punctum), but also the very moment of the photo, immediately passed, irreversible, hence always nostalgic. The instantaneity of photography is not to be confused with the simultaneity of real time. The flow of pictures produced and erased in real time is indifferent to the third dimension of the photographic moment. Visual flows only know change. The image is no longer given the time to become an image. To be an image, there has to be a moment of becoming which can only happen when the rowdy proceedings of the world are suspended and dismissed for good. The idea, then, is to replace the triumphant epiphany of meaning with a silentapophany of objects and their appearances.

Against meaning and its aesthetic, the subversive function of the image is to discover literality in the object (the photographic image, itself an expression of literality, becomes the magical operator of reality's disappearance). In a sense, the photographic image materially translates the absence of reality which "is so obvious and so easily accepted because we already have the feeling that nothing is real" (Borges). Such a phenomenology of reality's absence is usually impossible to achieve. Classically, the subject outshines the object. The subject is an excessively blinding source of light. Thus, the literal function of the image has to be ignored to the benefit of ideology, aesthetics, politics, and of the need to make connections with other images. Most images speak, tell stories; their noise cannot be turned down. They obliterate the silent signification of their objects. We must get rid of everything that interferes with and covers up the manifestation of silent evidence. Photography helps us filter the impact of the subject. It facilitates the deployment of the objects's own magic (black or otherwise).

Photography also enables a technical perfection of the gaze (through the lens) which can protect the object from aesthetic transfiguration. The photographic gaze has a sort of nonchalance which nonintrusively captures the apparition of objects. It does not seek to probe or analyze reality. Instead, the photographic gaze is "literally" applied on the surface of things to illustrate their apparition as fragments. It is a very brief revelation, immediately followed by the disappearance of the objects.

But no matter which photographic technique is used, there is always one thing, and one thing only, that remains: the light. Photo-graphy: The writing of light. The light of photography remains proper to the image. Photographic light is not "realistic" or "natural." It is not artificial either. Rather, this light is the very imagination of the image, its own thought. It does not emanate from one single source, but from two different, dual ones: the object and the gaze. "The image stands at the junction of a light which comes from the object and another which comes from the gaze" (Plato).

This is exactly the kind of light we find in Edward Hopper's work. His light is raw, white, ocean-like, reminiscent of sea shores. Yet, at the same time, it is unreal, emptied out, without atmosphere, as if it came from another shore (venue d'un autre littoral). It is an irradiating light which preserves the power of black and white contrasts, even when colors are used. The characters, their faces, the landscapes are projected into a light that is not theirs. They are violently illuminated from outside, like strange objects, and by a light which announces the imminence of an unexpected event. They are isolated in an aura which is both extremely fluid and distinctly cruel. It is an absolute light, literally photographic, which demands that one does not look at it but, instead, that one closes one's eyes on the internal night it contains. There is in Hopper's work a luminous intuition similar to that found in Vermeer's painting. But the secret of Vermeer's light is its intimacy whereas, in Hopper, the light reveals a ruthless exteriority, a brilliant materiality of objects and of their immediate fulfillment, a revelation through emptiness.

This raw phenomenology of the photographic image is a bit like negative theology. It is "apophatic," as we used to call the practice of proving God's existence by focusing on what he wasn't rather than on what he was. The same thing happens with our knowledge of the world and its objects. The idea is to reveal such a knowledge in its emptiness, by default (en creux) rather than in an open confrontation (in any case impossible). In photography, it is the writing of light which serves as the medium for this elision of meaning and this quasi-experimental revelation (in theoretical works, it is language which functions as the thought's symbolic filter).

In addition to such an apophatic approach to things (through their emptiness), photography is also a drama, a dramatic move to action (passage a l'acte), which is a way of seizing the world by "acting it out."3Photography exorcizes the world through the instantaneous fiction of its representation (not by its representation directly; representation is always a play with reality). The photographic image is not a representation; it is a fiction. Through photography, it is perhaps the world itself that starts to act (qui passe a l'acte) and imposes its fiction. Photography brings the world into action (acts out the world, is the world's act) and the world steps into the photographic act (acts out photography, is photography's act).4 This creates a material complicity between us and the world since the world is never anything more than a continuous move to action (a continuous acting out).

In photography, we see nothing. Only the lens "sees" things. But the lens is hidden. It is not the Other 5 which catches the photographer's eye, but rather what's left of the Other when the photographer is absent (quand lui n'est pas la). We are never in the real presence of the object. Between reality and its image, there is an impossible exchange. At best, one finds a figurative correlation between reality and the image. "Pure" reality -- if there can be such a thing -- is a question without an answer. Photography also questions "pure reality." It asks questions to the Other. But it does not expect an answer. Thus, in his short-story "The Adventure of a Photographer,"6 Italo Calvino writes: "To catch Bice in the street when she didn't not know he was watching her, to keep her in the range of hidden lenses, to photograph her not only without letting himself be seen but without seeing her, to surprise her as if she was in the absence of his gaze, of any gaze...It was an invisible Bice that he wanted to possess, a Bice absolutely alone, a Bice whose presence presupposed the absence of him and everyone else."7 Later, Calvino's photographer only takes pictures of the studio walls by which she once stood. But Bice has completely disappeared. And the photographer too has disappeared. We always speak in terms of the disappearance of the object in photography. It once was; it no longer is. There is indeed a symbolic murder that is part of the photographic act. But it is not simply the murder of the object. On the other side of the lens, the subject too is made to disappear. Each snapshot simultaneously ends the real presence of the object and the presence of the subject. In this act of reciprocal disappearance, we also find a transfusion between object and subject. It is not always a successful transfusion. To succeed, one condition must be met. The Other -- the object -- must survive this disappearance to create a "poetic situation of transfer" or a "transfer of poetic situation." In such a fatal reciprocity, one perhaps finds the beginning of a solution to the problem of society's so-called "lack of communicability." We may find an answer to the fact that people and things tend to no longer mean anything to each other. This is an anxious situation that we generally try to conjure away by forcing more signification.

But there are only a few images that can escape this desire of forced signification. There are only a few images that are not forced to provide meaning, or have to go through the filter of a specific idea, whatever that idea might be (but, in particular, the ideas of information and testimony are salient). A moral anthropology has already intervened. The idea of man has already interfered. This is why contemporary photography (and not only photo-journalism) is used to take pictures of "real victims," "real dead people," and "real destitutes" who are thus abandoned to documentary evidence and imaginary compassion.8 Most contemporary photos only reflect the "objective" misery of the human condition. One can no longer find a primitive tribe without the necessary presence of some anthropologist. Similarly, one can no longer find a homeless individual surrounded by garbage without the necessary presence of some photographer who will have to "immortalize" this scene on film. In fact, misery and violence affect us far less when they are readily signified and openly made visible. This is the principle of imaginary experience (la loi de l'imaginaire). The image must touch us directly, impose on us its peculiar illusion, speak to us with its original language in order for us to be affected by its content. To operate a transfer of affect into reality, there has to be a definite (resolu) counter-transfer of the image.

We deplore the disappearance of the real under the weight of too many images. But let's not forget that the image disappears too because of reality. In fact, the real is far less often sacrificed than the image. The image is robbed of its originality and given away to shameful acts of complicity. Instead of lamenting the relinquishing of the real to superficial images, one would do well to challenge the surrender of the image to the real. The power of the image can only be restored by liberating the image from reality. By giving back to the image its specificity (its "stupidity" according to Rosset),9 the real itself can rediscover its true image.

So-called "realist" photography does not capture the "what is." Instead, it is preoccupied with what should not be, like the reality of suffering for example. It prefers to take pictures not of what is but of what should not befrom a moral or humanitarian perspective. Meanwhile, it still makes good aesthetic, commercial and clearly immoral use of everyday misery. These photos are not the witness of reality. They are the witness of the total denial of the image from now on designed to represent what refuses to be seen. The image is turned into the accomplice of those who choose to rape the real (viol du reel). The desperate search for the image often gives rise to an unfortunate result. Instead of freeing the real from its reality principle, it locks up the real inside this principle. What we are left with is a constant infusion of "realist" images to which only "retro-images" respond. Every time we are being photographed, we spontaneously take a mental position on the photographer's lens just as his lens takes a position on us. Even the most savage of tribesmen has learned how to spontaneously strike a pose. Everybody knows how to strike a pose within a vast field of imaginary reconciliation.

But the photographic event resides in the confrontation between the object and the lens (l'objectif), and in the violence that this confrontation provokes. The photographic act is a duel. It is a dare launched at the object and a dare of the object in return. Everything that ignores this confrontation is left to find refuge in the creation of new photographic techniques or in photography's aesthetics. These are easier solutions.

One may dream of a heroic age of photography when it still was a black box (a camera obscura) and not the transparent and interactive space that it has become. Remember those 1940s farmers from Arkansas whom Mike Disfarmer shot. They were all humble, conscientiously and ceremonially standing in front of the camera. The camera did not try to understand them or even catch them by surprise. There was no desire to capture what's "natural" about them or "what they look like as photographed."10 They are what they are. They do not smile. They do not complain. The image does not complain. They are, so to speak, caught in their simplest attire (dans leur plus simple appareil), for a fleeting moment, that of photography. They are absent from their lives and their miseries. They are elevated from their miseries to the tragic, impersonal figuration of their destiny. The image is revealed for what it is: it exalts what it sees as pure evidence, without interference, consensus, and adornment. It reveals what is neither moral nor "objective," but instead remains unintelligible about us. It exposes what is not up to reality but is, rather, reality's evil share (malin genie) (whether it is a fortunate one or not). It displays what is inhuman in us and does not signify.

In any case, the object is never anything more than an imaginary line. The world is an object that is both imminent and ungraspable. How far is the world? How does one obtain a clearer focus point? Is photography a mirror which briefly captures this imaginary line of the world? Or is it man who, blinded by the enlarged reflection of his own consciousness, falsifies visual perspectives and blurs the accuracy of the world? Is it like the rearview mirrors of American cars which distort visual perspectives but give you a nice warning

- -"objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear"? 11 But, in fact, aren't these objects farther than they appear? Does the photographic image bring us closer to a so-called "real world" which is in fact infinitely distant? Or does this image keep the world at a distance by creating an artificial depth perception which protects us from the imminent presence of the objects and from their virtual danger?

 

What is at stake (at play, en jeu) is the place of reality, the question of its degree. It is perhaps not a surprise that photography developed as a technological medium in the industrial age, when reality started to disappear. It is even perhaps the disappearance of reality that triggered this technical form. Reality found a way to mutate into an image. This puts into question our simplistic explanations about the birth of technology and the advent of the modern world. It is perhaps not technologies and media which have caused our now famous disappearance of reality. On the contrary, it is probable that all our technologies (fatal offsprings that they are) arise from the gradual extinction of reality.

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

 

1. A Translation of Jean Baudrillard, "La Photographie ou l'Ecriture de la Lumiere: Litteralite de l'Image," in L'Echange Impossible (The Impossible Exchange). Paris: Galilee, 1999: pp. 175-184. 

2. There is here a play on the French word "objectif." "Objectif" means objective (adj.) and visual lens (subs.) at the same time. 

3. This term is in English in the original French version. 

4. An unsatisfactory translation of "la photo 'passe a l'acte du monde' et le monde 'passe a l'acte photographique'." 

5. Capitalized by Baudrillard in the French text. 

6. "L'Aventure d'un photographe," in Italo Calvino, Aventures [Adventures]. Paris: Le Seuil, 1990. Calvino's Adventures (I Racconti in Italian) have been published in several different books in English. For example, "The Adventure of a Photographer" was published as part of Calvino's novelDifficult Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1984), pp. 220-235. 

7. Translation borrowed from Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves, trans. W. Weaver, p. 233. 

8. I use the term "real" (in quotation marks) in front of victims, dead people and destitute to render Baudrillard's term "en tant que tels" (which literally means "as such"). 

9. Possibly Clement Rosset, author of La Realite et Son Double (Reality and Its Double), Paris: Gallimard, 1996; and of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 

10. In English in the French text. 

11. In English in the French text.

 

 

Reflections On Streetwork by Philip-Lorca diCorcia

These reflections were written by Philip-Lorca diCorcia between the months of November and December 1997. They came about as the result of a series of theoretical questions posed by the editor (Alberto Martin, Center for Photography at the University of Salamanca, Spain) concerning the Streetwork series. Therefore, these passages are the author’s responses to that specific request for reflection on his own work for the purpose of publishing them in this book.

 The elements, which call into question the normal relationship of appearance to truth in photography, are, for most artists of my generation, tools to enrich the experience of the work rather than ends in themselves. If anyone were to tell me that what interests them most about my work is the questioning of the norms of photography, I would answer that they had missed the point. It is also tiring to continually see the work as having cinematic characteristics which influence the interpretation rather than becoming another element in the compositional array: there is no “plot” –the plot, as such, is generated by the realities at play at the moment, which include subjective states, objective observations, the interpretation of the sociopolitical dynamics at work AND the desire to give all these elements unprejudiced freedom from the predispositions that photography naturally creates.

I try to leave the meaning as open ended as possible, both as an acknowledgement of my own inability to “define” what we see and the realization that reductive analysis is boring and overly determined. The pictures are “non-events” both because I see that as interesting and because I want to remove photography’s biggest attraction – the offering of second hand experience.

Only the deeply deluded maintain that objective reality can define what is “real”. I don’t propose my work as an advanced definition of reality. I know as little as anyone about it. If the pictures stimulate interest, it is probably the subliminal recognition of the confusion we all face when confronting “reality”. I am only sure that what we see in this world is deceptive, especially in the media. I work on the assumption that nothing is new and nothing is real. That skepticism underlines my strategies as much as the search for any objective truth.

In the sense that the part represents the whole I am interested in society at large. . . The most consistent conclusion I have drawn in my travels is that no one really knows what’s going on –it is apathy and self-preservation, which define the sociopolitical aspects of the cities and their societies. Subjectivity becomes a comforting trap. It obsessively focuses on the self as a standard for an exterior reality. which exists only in the mind. Psychology is reality for many people. I try to show this. It may not, in fact, be the actual psychology of the subject that I portray, but it is played out in the image and the projection of that psychology into the surrounding space. The street does not induce people to shed their self-awareness. They seem to withdraw into themselves. They become less aware of their surroundings, seemingly lost within themselves. Their image is the outward facing front belied by the inwardly gazing eyes.

Unfortunately, the conclusion most often drawn about the people in my photography is that they are alienated. I do not speak to any of them, so I cannot substantiate that. Obviously, urban life is alienating, especially for those with little choice. But, since I choose the elements within my images, maybe it is more me that feels the need to express my own view of the pathos which rules the average life. My work has helped me to formulate that viewpoint and continues to inform it.

Meaning finds you when you put yourself in meaningful situations. One of the least meaningful situations I have found myself in is the professional Art world. I have never directed myself towards that world, but rather worked as a professional photographer since leaving university. I have been as influenced by working in the media as I have by contemporary art. I refuse to practice the job of Art. I have never described myself as an artist – when people ask me, I say I am a photographer. Those that describe themselves as “artists” seem to me to make a presumptive assessment of their worth, and they claim the same moral higher ground that photojournalists do. I have problems accepting either claim to moral authority.

Reality, as I witness it on the street, is a humbling thing. Maybe that is why artists escape into the realm of “subjectivity”? Photographers seem to escape it with the reductive “objectivity”. I would like to give each its measure: the process of finding the proper proportion continues still.

I feel that there are conclusions to be drawn from the work, but I do not start out seeking to explore sociopolitical issues. I feel that that would prejudice me more than I already am. For me, the desire to be right is a form of prejudice- I am not attempting to prove anything and I am far too misanthropic to care about altering people’s perception of their world. That is not to say that I am some sort of back –door formalist. I am conscious of making an aesthetic object that I want to stand on its own without the necessity to be viewed with other images; one that reveals its meaning over a long period of time, both in form and in content.

The content may criticize the media or the state or the history of photography, but I would be disappointed if the work were reducible to any one of those things. The world is too elusive to pin down in a photograph. The image has to create its own world, hopefully self contained, an analog of reality, not a mirror of it. Issues raised in the images are part of their content. That there should be more questions than answers should surprise no one. The strategies involved are too mutable to be given credit for the end result. The exploded view can be imploded to the tiniest of rooms, the most arcane and idiosyncratic of spaces, which intersects the world at large only when excessive focus is directed toward it. That is what I do. I focus excessively and dramatically on that which was never really hidden, but rarely is noticed. My motivations are analogous in the sense that they are small –they only enlarge under the scrutiny of hindsight, which is usually a distortion.