Thursday, April 30, 2015

Amnesia Vivace

Back in the early days of B one of the first posts I wrote was an open inquiry about a photo I'd seen somewhere. I couldn't remember the source, so I asked for help. This was back when I would write short posts every day no matter how inane, like this lost photo alert:


It only took eight years but someone finally dug up the source. Federico Rubio in Uruguay sent me a note last week telling me to look in Sally Eauclaire's New Color / New Work (Abbeville, 1984). I pulled out the book and sure enough there it was, the photo I'd been wondering about all these years. To tell the truth I'd forgotten all about it. But Bingo anyway.


New Color / New Work (photo by Federico Rubio)
As the original post suggests, this photo lives a hermetic existence. As far as I can tell it only exists in this one place, tucked away in an old book. It's not in any other monographs by Meyerowitz, including Cape Light and Redheads which he was compiling contemporaneously. I don't think it belongs to any print collections. It doesn't exist online. If it weren't for Euaclaire, all public evidence of the photo might vanish. And I'm guessing that would be fine with Meyerowitz, because the subject matter is sensitive. It shows his daughter Ariel naked, wearing knee-high disco boots, and standing happily on a shore wall. She looks about 12. 

Ariel Meyerowitz is now an art dealer. I have no idea what she thinks of the photo now, but I'm guessing she is just as happy to have it remain out of circulation. So I won't post here. But if you want to see it, look in your copy of Euaclaire, page 166. If you don't have that book, please buy it already. Heck, buy the trilogy. It's an essential reference.

People say things live online forever, and it's often true. But in this case it's the opposite. This photo has no online presence. It's been preserved only in physical form. It's an ironic twist and a reminder of the long tail of history. Only 10 to 15 percent of published books are still in print. Recorded music has a similar legacy, as do human beings. Only 6.5 percent humanity's history is alive today. The past contains most of what's been created. Sometimes it clings to material quite tightly, offering it to the present in unpredictable chunks. 

That's a potential problem for children posing nude. Maybe Ariel Meyerowitz was fine with her photo as a kid. Maybe she no longer likes it. Or perhaps the opposite of both presumptions is true. Either way it's not going to disappear so long as copies of that book are out there. In the Internet age most people are aware that potentially compromising images can linger and are generally circumspect about what goes online. But back in 1984 the photo world was more naive. It could be compartmentalized and nerdified, and not many outsiders were tuned in. A nude photo of a kid might be exhibited one month, or tucked in a book, then pass into history unnoticed or unremarked. Or so people imagined.

Few people are more aware of these issues than Sally Mann, whose children are the main subject of Immediate Family. If you don't have that book, please buy it already. A new edition is about to be released and copies should be easy to find. "It is to photography what William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor are to Southern fiction," writes Mike Johnston, and I'm with him. I consider it a landmark, and, as with many such books, it wasn't published without controversy. Only a small portion of the photos showed nude children by they were enough to get folks excited. No, I'm not talking about those folks. Forget the sickos. I'm talking about general prudish society. Immediate Family's initial publication in 1992 created an uproar and sent Mann's life through the public ringer, along with her children. Perhaps seeking to head off attention raised by the new edition, her extraordinary essay a few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine (presumably excerpted from her memoir Hold Still due out May 12th) discussed the book at length and put the photo world on alert. Not only was she a world class photographer. She was a damned good writer and very thoughtful parent. And, like some of her best photos, she was invigorated by her flaws. 

I read the Times article with great interest because I too shoot my kids, sometimes in potentially embarrassing or disturbing situations, and sometimes nude. Childhood includes a healthy dose of all three, at least in my home. It's not a kid smiling with a puppy. To me it looks more like two boys throwing rocks at their helpless younger brother. I find that interesting, so I've documented my family along with most other things around me. And like Mann I've wrestled with what to do with these photographs. I don't mean to put myself in her class as a photographer —although one of my sons is named Emmett— but I think all parent/photographers face similar questions of consent, publicity, our sometimes conflicting roles as parent and photographer, and how all of these factors might change over the course of all our lifetimes. And good parenting is sort of like good photography. Neither one usually offers clear answers.
Woodward Cover Story, 9/27/92

Mann might say her troubles started with Richard Woodward's essay on Immediate Family. That was the review that galvanized national attention, some positive and some negative. But what about her decision to create the book in the first place? All parents photographs their kids. Very few put them in books. She could've stored the photos in a box or album, but with the step to public authorship Mann consciously thrust her children into the spotlight. 

It was a big step and I think that decision weighed on her. Maybe it still does. She expressed ambivalence at the time, initially choosing not to publish the photos. According to the Woodward article it was the kids who changed her mind, demanding that she reconsider. And so she did. But even as she proceeded to publication it was with the expectation — false hope?—  that the book would have minimal distribution. This was 1992, before the Internet, and it was still possible for photographs to vanish without a trace. Many photo books were market flops. Her previous book had taken a decade to sell through its run. With luck maybe this one would fade quickly into the out-of-print bins. She even hoped to keep it out of Lexington bookstores and confined to the rare-book room of the local library. 

Basically I think Mann suspected she was about to unleash Pandora's box and was torn about the way forward. She fantasized about having it both ways. By shoving the book aside after publication she could gain the accomplishment of a major monograph while sheltering her vulnerable subjects. Or so she imagined. But that dream was more cognitive dissonance than reality. The book did not disappear quickly. It became a breakout hit and made Mann's reputation. In some ways that was the best and the worst possible outcome.

In her recent essay, Mann seems to deflect partial responsibility for publication onto her children. Her kids were "visually sophisticated, involved in setting the scene..., and in editing them...I gave each child the pictures of themselves and asked them to remove those they didn't want published." I agree they share some of the burden for what followed. But it's an open question if young children can understand the dynamics of that situation or give informed consent. Most kids want to see their faces on TV. A book? Sure. Great. It might exciting at the time but they may not be thinking about how those images are perceived in 30 years, or how they might come to define their identity. 

For me it's similar to the issues faced by parents of Hollywood child-stars. At what point does a child gain decision making power over their life, image, and identity? I'm sure Mann has thought long and hard about these questions, as have the parents of Shirley Temple, Harry Shearer, Fred Savage, Macaulay Culkin, etc, not to mention Richard Woodward. Sometimes it works out fine for child actors. Sometimes it doesn't. What's the best answer? Damned if I know. 


Jessie's Cut, 1985, Sally Mann

Mann's internal logic was to separate her roles as mother and photographer. "Taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering," she writes, and several images in Immediate Family support her. To shoot a bloody nose, a wet bed, or your daughter being stitched in the hospital requires a remove from maternal instinct, or at least an objectification of it. "The fact is that these [pictures] are not my children," she wrote recently. "They are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind, and shade." 

It's the old photographic credo: A photograph does not equal reality. I get it. But untangling the roles of mother and photographer is not as simple as she lets on. If it were, then it would be no trouble to splash a photo of your youngest on the cover of Aperture. After all it's just an image, not a child, right? And if the Wall Street journal later came along and drew crude bars across its bare flesh, they'd be doing to it a photo not a person. But Mann's infuriated reaction suggests she knows the line is not so clean. People in photographs feel the weight of being represented. And when it's a kid that weight can be unpredictable

How might that weight might change over time? For me that's the $64,000 question. "What [will] Emmett, Jessie and Virginia think about these photographs and about their mother, if not this fall, then in 5, 10, or 15 years?" asked Woodward in 1992. It's now 23 years later and by most accounts the photographs have had little negative impact on them. The Mann kids are well adjusted young adults. They like the book. But how could Mann know that at the time? An interesting comparison is to Larry Rivers, whose nude photographs of his young children became a torment to them later, causing real emotional damage and endless legal headaches. The photo of Ariel Meyerowitz mentioned earlier is another example. Or the case of Michael Northrup, whose wife consented to his photographs of her as they were made, but later opposed their publication. 

The future is uncertain for everyone, but with kids even more so. All directions are open. They go through incredible changes on the way to adulthood. Who knows how they'll think of the photos later? Shooting children is fraught with moral hazards. Mann has negotiated them probably as well as anyone could hope, but that doesn't negate the fact they're there.

I'm glad Immediate Family came out when it did. I don't think a book like that could be published today as original material. It came during the only cultural window available to ti. As Mike Johnston notes, the book seems more like a capstone to the 1970s than an influence on what would follow. I think that nostalgic feel, which keyed on Mann's own childhood —"The land was still wild where I grew up, a feral child running naked with the pack"— was responsible for some of its success. I can relate. My childhood in 1970s felt pretty similar. On hot summer days, a mass of local hippies would gather at the pond or river. Everyone stripped their clothes and swam naked, adults and kids together. No one thought twice. It was idyllic but that world is gone. When Mann asks, "How bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark?" it roots her work firmly in the past. Not only would kids be wearing suits now, they'd likely eschew riverplay for screentime. 


Napalm Girl, April 30th, 1975, Nick Ut

By 1992 the spark of the seventies had been snuffed and the culture wars were heating up.  Nudity was politicized, and Immediate Family became a touchstone for broader preconceptions. But as prudish as society was in 1992, it's become even more vigilant now with regard to the privacy of children. A casual photo-op of unknown kids nowadays is enough to spark World War III. Could Nick Ut get a candid nude of a crying girl published today? I'm not many papers would be brave or foolish enough.

That's a good thing in some ways, since images can sometimes proliferate in unwanted directions. But the flip side is that helicopter parenting has eliminated an entire category of images from our visual culture. We see virtually no nude photographs of children in books, magazines, or newspapers today. They're certainly not on TV or film or social media. The one outlet in which they might be shown and rationally interpreted, fine art photography, has largely eliminated them as subject matter. Alain Laboille is an exception, along with a few others. But looking back now, 1992 seems like the glory days. An alien observing earth now through satellite signals might wonder, do children here posses skin or bodies? But forget aliens. The more pressing problem is future humans. They're sure to wonder too, and also about what other categories might be missing.


The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, Sally Mann

I'll leave that for future generations to decide. Personally I'm mostly done shooting nude kids. My children are older now and they no longer roam naked as they once did. They're usually clothed, and they'd generally rather not be photographed at all. I often get a hand in front of my lens or a back turned toward me or an "Oh, dad" sigh. Whatever. I was a preteen kid once. I know parents can be irritating. So that project's window has probably closed. I'm guessing Sally Mann faced a similar situation as her kids grew older. The title of her photograph "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude," suggests an ending point, capped by his defiant gaze.

Not the last time Emmett modeled nude, 2008


I'm done making those photos. But now what? In one way I'm just like all parents. I'm sitting on a large stash of unseen kid pictures. But it's with the extra caveat and possibly deluded notion that others might find them interesting. Forget the subject for a moment. I feel strongly about some as unique photographs, just as I'm sure Sally Mann felt strongly about hers. But I'm less confident than her about the decision to release them into the world. There are a few —maybe my favorites?— I'm certain I'll never show anyone beyond immediate family. Some are nudes. Others might be embarrassing in other ways. I think photographs which pry a subject open lay it bare are often the best, and by that logic some of these are quite good. But to pry open and expose my kids? Hmmm. 

In the end I'm left I'm hemming and hawing, and admiring Mann's fortitude. To release her photos into the world couldn't have been easy. But she did, and I've been enjoying them very much since.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

City Of Tiny Lites

Only a few more days until Photolucida portfolio reviews begin Thursday in Portland. It's usually a fun weekend. I've seen this event from all sides over the years, as reviewee, reviewer, volunteer helper, and detached observer. That's my role this time attending some of the events. If you're visiting from out of town, please say hi. Here's a recent portrait to help you find me. 




Of course I won't be dressed in overalls. I'll have the yellow silk suit on just like all the other locals. My "big city" suit. 

There are many photo shows up around Portland during Photolucida. It's a true visual smorgasbord. I wish it were like this every month, but alas, in another week the city will return to normal. So take advantage now.

If you don't want to chase down shows, the portfolio walk at PAM Thursday evening brings hundreds to one location. The buzzline is: "See more photography in one evening than most people see in a lifetime." I'm not sure if that's true but I will verify it's a ton of photos. I can usually absorb photographs until my eyes bleed but by the end of portfolio walk I'm pretty fried. And ready for a beer. If you are too, please get in touch.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Key

Thanks to everyone who submitted replies to Quiz #31 a few weeks ago. Sorting out the answers was more involved than I'd expected, because I received many varied responses, and some of the questions turned out to have multiple correct answers. Also, one of my reference sources (this book, which is good for many things but apparently not dates) led me to a few inaccuracies in the quiz. Sorry, my bad. Taking those factors into account, I was generally lenient in grading the answers, and gave respondents the benefit of the doubt where ambiguities were involved. 

The winner, with 43 out of 45 correct, is Alexandros Konstantinakis-Karmis of Greece. Alexandros is a quiz-answering machine, having also won the last two album cover quizzes on B. Congrats, Alexandros, and stand by to receive your lovely prize package. 

I appreciate all the responses. Hope it was fun. Below is the answer key with my intended answer first (followed by acceptable alternatives in parenthesis).


1. Tina Modotti, Lotte Jacobi
2. Minor White, Imogene Cunningham
3. Jamie Livingston (Boris Ignatovich, Chris Marker)
4. William Claxton (P.H. Emerson)
5. Fritz Henle (J.D. Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere)
6. Jeanloup Sieff (Peter Lindbergh, Tazio Secchiaroli, Charles Beijer, David Eustace, David Doubilet)
7. Pierre Boucher (Gilles Bensimon, Hal Gould, Don Ornitz)
8. Abbas Attar
9. Gyula Halasz
10. David Szymin
11.  Mike Meyer
12. Edward James Muggeridge
13. Yasuhiro Wakabayashi
14. Israelis Bidermanas
15. Keresz Andor
16.  Emmanuel Radnitzky
17. Gaspard-Felix Tournachon
18. Arthur Felig
19. Rober Capa and Alberto Korda
20. Nobuyoshi Araki and Tim Page
21. Alfred Steiglitz (Massimo Vitali
22. Graham Nash (Max Vadakul, Arnold Hardy)
23. Arnold Newman (Glen Friedman, Johan Persson)
24. William H. Jackson (Johan van der Keuken, Jack Cato, Max Dupain)
25. Alex Webb (Roger Mayne, Robert Vano, 
26. Clarence H. White (Scott Kelby, Bruce Hudson, Francis Browne, Bruce Conner, Robert Demachy)
27. Brassai
28. Daido Moriyama (Julius Schulman, Thomas Rusch)
29. Carleton Watkins  (Sam Haskins
30. Ihei Kimura (Tom Kelley)
31. Paul Strand
32. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
33. Berenice Abbott
34. Ilse Bing
35. Weegee
36. Walker Evans
37. Philippe Halsman
38. Yousuf Karsh
39. David Seymour 
40. Werner Bischof
41. Eugene Smith
42. Helmut Newton
43. Ernst Hass
44. Tony-Ray Jones
45. Lars Turnbjork

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tax Season

I hadn't been to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum for a while so I stopped by yesterday to see what was new. I was surprised to see this photo prominently displayed near the entrance to the second floor galleries.


Phantom, 2013, Peter Lik

That's right. It was none other than Peter Lik's photograph Phantom, the very one which had sold for a record $6.5 million last fall and sent the fine art photo world into a tizzy. Despite the public outcry, his photo had made it into a museum after all.

I gotta admit the print looked pretty nice. It was fairly large, about 5 feet wide by 3 feet high, mounted regally behind glass in a gigantic black frame. The print was on metallic paper with bright spaceship tones, signed at the bottom Peter Lik 1/1.  Nearby was a label with a brief paragraph by Lik describing how he made the record-setting photo. One minute his Native American guide was flinging sacred dust into a light well, next thing he knew the Guinness Book was calling. Aw shucks, it was nothing. Just f/8 and be there. Plus a lot of Photoshop.

Phantom hung on the wall between two other Lik photos, neither of which I'd seen before. They were similarly printed and framed, and each one signed the same: Peter Lik 1/1. Reading the museum captions I realized they were Eternal Moods and Illusion, the two photos that had sold alongside Phantom to the same buyer (for $1.1 million and $2.4 million, respectively). I was looking at the record-busting trifecta. Ah, I thought, so that's what ten million bucks of pictures looks like. 

But what the heck were they doing in Eugene? 


Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, Francis Bacon

Avoiding taxes, that's what. I'm no tax expert and this article explains the loophole better than I can. The upshot is that Oregon is one of a few states which can lower the tax burden due on recently purchased art. Display it in a public museum here for three months and the taxes are reduced. After that it's yours to do as you wish in your home state. For expensive art like Lik's, this can result in significant savings for collectors. The other states are New Hampshire, Alaska, Delaware, and Montana, none of which has a major art museum. So Oregon it is.

It's the same loophole that brought Francis Bacon's triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud to the Portland Art Museum after it sold for a record $142 million in 2013. The paintings were there for three months and attracted huge crowds. I drove up to Portland with my parents to see them. Special trip. Special bullet proof glass case. As for the art? I don't know. I guess they looked ok. Showed me what a hundred million bucks of pictures looks like.

The Bacon and Lik loans are just two examples. We see all sorts of stuff in Oregon that has no business being shown here. Bacon should've exhibited in New York or Paris, not Portland. Eugene gets its fair share too. In fact the JSMA has an entire wing devoted to tax-avoidance. Of course it's not called that. The official name is Masterworks On Loan, but it amounts to the same thing. Expensive art gets hauled here from around the world for three month tax sheltered stints. Masterworks On Loan is where the Peter Lik photos were hanging yesterday, alongside Albers, Lichtenstein, Richter, Frankenthaller, Modigliano, and whatever else sold at auction last Fall. If you live in a major city you might laugh. But hey, we'll take what we can get, and it's often pretty good.


JSMA Tax Shelter (Wikimedia Commons)

It was kind of fun to see the Lik photos in a museum, even if it's just temporary. Those photos caused such a shit storm last year. Remember? They're not art! They're not investment grade! He's a snake oil salesman! Boo hoo, he's not in our club! How dare an outsider subvert the auction houses!  

Yes, Lik cleverly manipulated the market to inflate speculative value, then convinced rich collectors to invest. In other words he did exactly what every successful art dealer does. But he did it without an art pedigree, and that pissed people off. I love it when art snobs get their tighty-whities in a bunch, so for me the Lik sale was a golden moment. And now the photos were in a museum. This was even better! Artforum and ARTnews just threw up a little in their mouths. I'm guessing the show will not get a write up there, nor in the local Eugene press because very few people here pay attention to photography. (*4/16 addendum: Bob Keefer wrote about the show today.)

I'm not defending the content of Lik's photos. I think all three at the JSMA are boring. But a lot of boring stuff winds up in museums. Why not these? Curatorial judgement is not always about aesthetic merit. It's also about careers and taxes and influence and all sorts of factors. And if a lousy photo in a museum upsets people and makes them question their preconceptions, isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what art is supposed to do? 

But don't listen to me. Check it out firsthand. Attention photographers (and/or accountants) in the Willamette Valley. The Lik photos are on display at the JSMA through June. Come see for yourself what ten million bucks of tax-free pictures looks like.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Selfie Stick Alternative Uses

Fencing Match Documentation Aid

Personal Mustache Groomer

Smartphone S'more Stick

Fake Kite For Calm Days

Canine Pole Vault Pole

Surprise Purple Laser Attack On Capitol

Vanity Mirror Extension

Unibrow Parasol

Personal Space Enforcer

Film Camera Disposal Tool

Humility Detection Probe

Kitten Spear

Hula Hoop Training Scaffold