Saturday, April 13, 2013

Nineteen to One

The phrase "photographer's photographer" gets thrown around a lot. In the case of Ken Josephson I think it's quite applicable. His photos aren't so much about documenting the world or some conceptual premise. They're about messing with the form itself, playing with ideas in front of the camera just to see what happens. What's real? What's represented? Where is the line? Yeah, I know it's Photo 101 stuff. But Josephson ain't a beginner. In the current show at Hartman, his mastery is indisputable. I think most photographers will find his images just plain entertaining.
Ken Josephson, Chicago, 1959

I think what I find most intriguing is that he turns the emotional requirement of photography on its head. There's a common preconception that the way to make lasting photos is through the heart. You've got to feel something. And express that. And hopefully the viewer feels it too. Again and again, that mantra is drilled into photographers. Find your passion and create photos with emotional resonance. 

Well fuck that! At least some of the time. I've never made photos like that and I don't usually react to them that way. My own photos are 95% mental, and maybe 5% heart. That's just how I'm wired. And judging by his photographs, so is Josephson. His images are more intellectual exercises than tear-jerkers. As I said, he's a photographer's photographer. It's about the image, not necessarily what's in it.
Ken Josephson, Michigan City, Indiana, 1989

It's the type of photography which had a wave of exploration in the Chicago Institute of Design, but which is now considered passé. The Hartman show pulls from Josephson's early career when he was steeped in that aesthetic. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it feels like a bit of cover for us non-emotional types. It's a nice soft blanket of approval saying "It's OK. Don't worry about heart. Make all the mind-fuck pictures you want!" That's a message I don't hear too often.

One of the pitfalls of curating a group photography exhibition is artistic baggage. There is a certain model for how art photographs should look, and it's one that curators too often slip into. Fifty years ago smallish b/w prints were hot. Lately it's been large well composed wanna-be-paintings. Early Works, currently showing at Newspace, cleverly subverts that dynamic by showing photographs which hold no pretense to being art. The authors are simply kids having fun with cameras.
Roger Ballen, Man, Dog, and Bird, 1969, from Early Works

The mixing of high and low is a hot field now, with various troves of found photos and online archives being reconsidered and recycled. Maybe there no longer is any high and low? What sets the Newspace show apart from your average found photo collection is that many of the photographers have gone on to establish careers in the field. The show offers a peek at their early development. It doesn't take much imagination to connect these primal visual impulses to later work. A little more imagination completely severs them. And yet still more imagination brings up a blue donkey smoking a cigarette in a diner, at least in my mind.

Each photo is accompanied by a few paragraphs from the photographer explaining the background. Kid versions of What Was He Thinking? Many of the stories are quite heavy, involving divorce, death, and other memorable childhood experiences. They serve as emotional counterweight to the casual snapshot. Just when the viewer is lulled into a false sense of infatuation with photos as cold documents, these pictures remind one that it's emotion that counts in photography more than intellect. Photos are 95% heart and 5% mental. That's just how they're wired, regardless of what you might read elsewhere.
Michael Jang, Willie Mays, 1960, from Early Works

The actual pieces are small reproductions of old snapshots dug out from albums. Tears, folds, and tack-holes are reproduced as faithfully as the rest of the image. Even though these aren't the originals they have a nice tactile quality. Since most photographs are no longer physically printed, this type of show will be impossible to curate 40 years from now. Or at least it will look very different. This is the first curatorial collaboration between Photolucida's powerhouse Lauras --Moya and Valenti Jelen-- since they joined forces in 2012. It's an early work and a promising debut. 

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