Thursday, September 11, 2008

1000 words worth?

As a follow up to the gasoline picture post, Ben Levine sent me this one by Walker Evans which I was unable to find online

and one by himself, which makes a nice comparison to Elaine Mayes' photo.

Thanks, Ben. (Pitchertaker also linked to an image but the link appears broken)

In response to my recent Mona Lisa Smile post, Nick said, "I don't see what your point is," a valid statement since I didn't include any supporting text. I wanted the photos to just tell their own story at first before I gave them any interpretation. But since you asked...

The Mona Lisa series follows on the heels of Gasoline Pictures which was spurred by a Winogrand quote. Winogrand got me thinking about Frank pioneering the gas station image and I started wondering, well just how many people have explored that idea? I began searching for gas station images and found that I couldn't stop. I think it's quite fascinating to compare how different photographers have approached similar material, some on their own, some with the knowledge in their head of what others have done. And the look of gas stations is very closely connected to specific historical time, so this subject seemed a natural topic.

Putting together the Gasoline Pictures was so fun I decided to repeat it with some other subject. I bumped around a few topics but nothing seemed quite right. It was around then that I saw the current Mark Stienmetz show in Portland, which included the image I posted. I was really taken with the photo. Her pose, her hand, the metal spirals, everything about it was very classical. But it was her face which really sank into my brain. It seemed both expressive and unreadable. What's more it seemed an obvious reference to the Mona Lisa. What was Steinmetz tapping into here which was universal, which perhaps also explained some of the Mona Lisa's power? I started poking around for similar images and that became the next subject.

Looking for Mona Lisa images was like a treasure hunt. Of all the portrait work done over the centuries by photographers, it's amazing how little of it shows anyone smiling. It's as if the smile has been banned from art, relegated to the birthday snapshot, dismissed as unserious out of hand. Finding this particular smile was even more difficult. Pursed lips, the slightest curl at one side, knowing eyes. I looked at a ton of photos and it was always a nice flash of recognition to see these things, to know I'd found one.

Nick's criticism is in some ways accurate. "So far as I can see," he says, "the only Mona Lisa smile here is on the face of the Mona Lisa. The rest may or may not (in some cases) be vague echoes, but all have their own individuality, thank goodness. There are no copies here!" Of course with such a wide range of subjects and photographers this is true. No one is the same and no moment is the same.

But I think the smile does tie together these images. Perhaps it's similar to the Bechers' industrial studies. The fact that every refinery has its own unique character doesn't negate their commonality. In the case of Mona Lisa it's even more interesting because that image is so ubiquitous. There are very few photographers living or dead who don't know that face, and so it must've been there as a reference on some level, either before the act of creation or afterward. Given the history of that smile, I'm really interested in how photographers have reacted to and interpreted similar ones.

Sooo...long story short I plan for this to become a regular series and I'm open to suggestions for future collections. The web has opened up an entire new frontier of personal curation. It would've been impossible to collect or present these images outside of the internet. Acquiring publication rights alone would've killed any such project. Now we are floating in a sea of photographs and one task is to edit them into something coherent and new.

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