Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Field notes

Browsing one of Northampton's many used book stores yesterday I stumbled on an interesting title, Xiu Xiu The Polaroid Project, a 2007 book of photographs made by the band's manager David Horvitz during three of their road tours. I'm not familiar with Xiu Xiu's music. Apparently they're very experimental and avant grade, and some fans fawn over them. I can't comment on that one way or the other. But I've developed a bit of a soft spot lately for Polaroid images. A big soft spot actually. More and more the Instax has become my Go-To camera. It's so primal. Just shutter -> print, with no other process or thought involved. Good, because mediation often fucks things up. Not always, but often. So on the odd occasions when I see Polaroid projects tucked into a bookshelf I am drawn to them.
Page Spread from Xiu Xiu: The Polaroid Project

The photographs in Xiu Xiu aren't half bad. They kick butt on Mike Watt's tour photos, to take a music-related example. But they're not on par with, say, Mike Slack. Some show the band. Most are vernacular scenes. Horvitz's style is very loose and casual, and uses a wide variety of locations and subjects and lighting conditions, enough to stay surprising throughout. I'm not saying they're masterpieces. Actually that's part of their charm. They're snapshots.

But what really sucked me in was the backstory. Horovitz shot these while on tour, then offered them up for free at shows to whoever requested one. That's a pretty special thing to do with any photo but especially a Polaroid. They're friggin one-offs! I can't bring myself to part with my good Instax photos. They're sort of precious. But Horvitz did, then took it one step further. If a fan brought him their own Polaroid film and SASE he would shoot the film, then mail out the prints. Before giving anything away he made scans. Otherwise there would be no book. As for the originals? They're scattered around the world. So three cheers for that project. In one fell swoop Horvitz subverts pretentiousness, collectibility, galleries, and most expectations. And he's not even a photographer! Maybe that's why he succeeded.

I'd skimmed the whole book and was set to buy it when yet another bonus sealed the deal. Tucked into the back cover was a CD of field recordings made by Horvitz while on tour. I'm always searching for weird stuff to play on my radio show and as far as that goes, field recordings are the gold standard. In the right context they can be quite jarring.  I've written about how mixing dates can impose variety subconsciously. The deliberate mixing of production standards can have a similar effect. And since many field recordings are lo-fi and primitive, they combine well with just about anything made in a recording studio. I think they go especially well with disco, house, and, well, just about any pop music made in the past 10 years.

If you're a fan of Redheaded Peckerwood you already know this. Many of the images in that book are basically field recordings. Notes, evidence, documents, crime photos, etc. Patterson combines these smartly and jarringly with slickly produced images of indefinite origin. You have no idea what's coming next, and in today's planned world that can be a wonderful outlet. Of course Patterson isn't the only one. Wolfgang Tillmans, Ari Marcopoulos, Roe Etheridge etc. These guys are half Alan Lomax and half Quincy Jones. 
A field in Park City recorded by Lewis Baltz

I like to think of Polaroids as field recordings. They're often primitive and uncontrived, and a lot can go wrong with them. All of those traits confer a sense of purity. Believability. Maybe it's an illusion but it's there. I think Ruscha attempted to make photographs which were field recordings. And Baltz in his less formal stage. And maybe Shore at one point. And Rickard, Rafman, and the GSV crowd. And all of the recent found photo curators. I think all of these folks were looking for the same thing Alan Lomax and Harry Smith were. What is that thing? Who knows. It's hard to define. It's hard to even look for. But I usually know it when I see it in a used bookstore. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I will say, that the recent Taschen book by Tillmans, knocks the socks off anything any of the other said Photographers could ever deliver , both Photographically and as dialogue. Possibly one of the best books of 2012-2013