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Monthly Archives: May 2008

Walker Evans, “Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,” 1935 from New On the Wall at the Portland Art Museum

Holly Andres, one of Portland’s most talented and popular young photographers, returns with new work from her Sparrow Lane series. I’ve been critical of Andres’ staged dramas before: Her unnaturally posed and dramatically lit narratives of suburban adolescence often strike me as too mannered. Visually, they recall about a million contemporary photographers (particularly from a graduate program whose name rhymes with “Yail”) and they’re extremely well crafted. But I have rarely been able to discover anything beneath their admittedly impressive veneer that spoke to me. Portland does not have a surplus of hardworking, sophisticated young photographers, though, and of those who live here, Andres is one of the best. My overall lukewarm response decidedly leaves me in the minority here, and I have no trouble seeing why other people like her work so much. I’m eager to see the new work, and remain ever-ready to change my opinion. QPCA already has the show online (like a good gallery should), and I dare say this could be the show that wins me over. I’ll definitely post a review later in the month. (Of course, Roger Ballen continues through June 28.)
Quality Pictures, 916 NW Hoyt, Tues-Sat, June 5-Aug 2.

The art museum’s New on the Wall: Recent Acquisitions comes to an end this month. Visiting New on the Wall is a lot like going to an auction show at a photography center: plenty of good photographs to see, but they’re all ripped out of context and exhibited with no concern for the meanings and origins on the work. There are some great inclusions, particularly a pair of Mars-scapes from NASA, a stellar Walker Evans, a lovely, mysterious Jo Whaley “Natura Morte,” and a commanding Simon Norfolk that shows the “controlled destruction… of US cluster bombs dropped in error dropped on the civilian village and orchards of Aqa Ali-Khuja… north of Kabul.” Of course, it would have been great if that information could have been found in the museum. Instead, I had to find it online. That’s the kind of show New on the Wall is.
Portland Art Museum, 1216 NW Park, Tues-Sun, through June 15.

Chris Rauschenberg‘s last show at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery included my favorite photographs of his that I’ve seen so far. A veteran shooter in the best sense, Rauschenberg is absolutely a skilled cameraman, but his last show, which was sort of an “odds and ends” collection of well-composed and witty snapshots had a degree of spontaneity and playfulness that I don’t see in his other work. Anybody in the Portland art world can attest to Chris’ genuine and spontaneous sense of play and humor, and his knowledge of photography is amazing, so it was great to see these qualities come together in his art. The new exhibition is called Recent Wanderings, which leads me to think it’ll be his more carefully crafted large-format work. We shall see…
Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 NW 9th, June 5-28, Tues-Sat.

Portland art stars Jo Jackson and Chris Johanson (OK, they were already stars when they moved here from SF a few years ago) have curated Every Story Tells a Picture… Or is at Least a Picture at small A, featuring the work of a dozen photographers—most famously, Terry Richardson and Ed Templeton. The installation shots look intriguing, and it’s not everyday that Jackson and Johanson do big projects in Portland.
small A projects, 1430 SE 3rd, Thurs-Sat, through June 28.

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Ron Galella, “Exclusive—Woody Allen and Mia Farrow Heading for Dinner in Greenwich Village” 1980

The Tate Modern’s new exhibition of more than 350 photographs, Street and Studio, is founded on one of the silliest premises I’ve heard in a while. “It presents a fascinating history of photographic portraiture taken on the street or in the photographer’s studio, looking at the differences between these two key locations in which photographers work.” Of all the strategies by which a major museum can organize a history of photographic portraiture, “street vs. studio” has to be one of the most tepid and unenlightening. The thesis reminds me of something from an illustrated children’s book. “Some photographers prefer to make portraits in their studios, where they can arrange backdrops and carefully control the lighting and poses.” (turn page) “Other photographers like the hustle and bustle of the street, where lively action can result in unique and sometimes humorous portraits!”

TATEetc., the museum’s glossy journal, ccommissioned an essay on Street and Studio by Max Kozloff, and they’ve put the entire piece online. Kozloff argues that the line between the two genres blurs more often than not: Studio portraiture is rarely as carefully controlled as the photographer would hope; both “yield a voyeuristic outcome, constructed within an imaginary space”; street photographers such as diCorcia (the Heads series) and Leon Levinstein strive to make personal and up-close portraits in the street that recall classic studio work; etc.

Yet, even in the nineteenth century, viewers would have been familiar with some degree of overlap among various photographic practices. In developed countries, an ethnographic representation of non-Western tribal life could have tourist overtones. Cartes-de-visite were not just calling cards, they frequently operated as early fashion plates. This doubling function has spread so far nowadays that it’s hard to speak anymore of the genre system as a set of monocultures, each with its targeted clientele. Some fashion work, such as Richard Avedon’s, was affected by sports photography. An impassive, self-conscious work of art by, say, Thomas Ruff might well be intended to mimic a mug shot. Within the miscellany of an urban scene, an individual might stand out, cast as the inexplicable centre of attention of a portrait. Without asking so much as the viewer’s leave, photographers have deprogrammed the genres and tossed media in a juggle of unexpected meanings.

(Thanks to MK for passing the essay along.)

Stephen Berkman, “Obscura Object,” Engraving

Stephen Berkman’s installation at Blue Sky, Predicting the Past, signaled an ambitious leap for the non-profit, who has only recently begun to exhibit properly framed work on a regular basis. An exhibition of prints, sculptures, and video is a change of pace that merits a round of applause for the traditional-leaning Blue Sky. Predicting the Past would have been the ideal show to inaugurate their new gallery space last summer, rather than the abbreviated version of Mark Klett’s Third View we got, as Berkman’s crowd-pleasing camera gags operate as great primers to some of the principles and histories of photography, and would have let Portland know that Blue Sky had some interesting plans up their sleeves for their handsome new home.

Berkman ardently loves the proto-photography optical devices of the 19th century—camera obscuras and lucidas, as well as issues that arose for the earliest wave of photographers, including the challenges of monocular vision, the alchemy of the new medium, the contradictions of techno-vision in the Transcendentalist age, and, more flatly, what exactly, the role of the photographer should be. Berkman touches on these issues with varying degrees of success in his humorous works, which reveal an almost fetishistic affection (or affectation) for antiquity.

Charmed by the marvelous diagrams and illustrations of camera obscuras throughout the ages (1), Berkman cleverly reimagines these technologies as anthropomorphic tools of vision—surrogate, almost cyborgian eyes to replace man’s own. It’s an astute interpretation of the effects that cameras have had on the act of looking, and Berkman’s engraving the the Dress Obscura is realistic and silly enough to work.

Presumably his obscura objects of this sort are all female because it’s too hard to climb inside a trouser leg. Searching for gender significance beyond that pragmatism—the image of the child disappearing under his mother’s dress, the lens casting a somehow “female” vision, the sexual titilation of disappearing underneath a dark cloth—all lead to unsatisfactory stretches, and one realizes that it’s probably best not to overthink these pieces, which is hardly a happy realization in an art gallery. I’ll not spend too much time wondering, then, why these objects have lifelike hands extending from the dress sleeves, or for that matter, what Berkman is trying to express with these, besides creating well-crafted, quasi-educational art history gags.

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Bill Jay is one of my favorite photography writers: Fiercely smart, grumpy and enthusiastic in equal measure, and ever-eloquent, Jay was the first editor of Creative Camera and author of countless essays about photography. Recently retired from Arizona State University, where he founded the Photographic Studies program, Jay has graciously archived more than 100 essays at his website. [Part One, Part Two]

Be sure also to check out his fully archived PDFs of Album, Jay’s fantastic 1970 photography journal that introduced England to the likes of Les Krims, Elliot Erwitt, and countless other young faces.

From Why Weegee Was Not a Westerner (PDF):

Suffice to say that photography, like pornography, is subject to community standards. The golden rule out West is this: if you do not generally see it out a car window, it is probably immoral or illegal; if you can see it out a car window, that’s what the local photographs will look like.

From Photography, God, and the Devil (PDF):

Incidentally, The British Journal of Photography in 1896 reported a controversy in Germany over whether or not a signature claimed to have been made by the devil was genuine. A Roman Catholic newspaper claimed that it was impossible to secure a genuine signature of his Satanic majesty; the Catholic Director of Feldburg stated that such opinions were untrue to Catholic teaching and traditions. The journal did not take sides in the dispute but recommended to photographers that a picture of the signature would be good business.

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Weng Naiqiang, “Reading from the Quotations of Chairman Mao,” 1966

The May/June issue of ART PAPERS came in the mail yesterday, with my review of FotoFest’s Photography from China right there on pp. 48-9. The review isn’t online, but if you have plenty of time to kill, you can read my longer, three-part writeup at Glasstire. [Part 1, Part 2, Part 3] Or, of course, there’s the option of picking up a hard copy of the magazine.

Aside from a rundown of the mostly incredible work, here’s the nutshell version of my piece: Trying to understand contemporary Chinese photography (or anything else) without knowing about its history is like hearing a poem in a foreign language. You might pick up on pleasant-sounding words, but you won’t have any real idea what the person is talking about. Unfortunately, our culture is marked by unrestrained consumption at the moment, and our demand for the most novel and nubile of everything has resulted in a pandemic, unhealthy disregard for history.

As my friend Jon wrote, “To hell with the New… It’s getting clearer all the time that most of what passes for the New is just a way of forgetting what really matters.”

Wu Jialin Yunnan Province, n.d.
Christopher Rauschenberg Washington DC, n.d.

My deepest condolences to Portland artist and tireless champion of photography, Chris Rauschenberg, whose father passed yesterday.

Leann Hitchcock, “Big Sur,” at The New Antiquarians, Chambers Gallery

The incomparable Roger Ballen shows at Quality Pictures, with nine(!) new images making their US debut.
Quality Pictures Fine Art, 916 NW Hoyt, Tues-Sat, through June 28.

The New Antiquarians spotlights five contemporary photographers who employ archaic technologies in their work. (Sadly, the curator failed to include any Polaroids.)
Chambers Fine Art, 205 SW Pine, Wed-Sat, through May 24.

Blue Sky breaks out of their 2-D mold with a show by Stephen Berkman, who shares my fascination with pre-photographic history, lens-based vision, and camera obscuras.
Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th, Tues-Sat, through May 31.

The Portland Art Museum still has their recent photo acquisitions hanging at New on the Wall. Read my less-than-generous review from the Portland Mercury here. All grouchiness aside (however legitimate), there are some nice treasures to be found.
Portland Art Museum, 1216 SW Park, Tues-Sun, through June 15.

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