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Monthly Archives: July 2008

Film still from I’m Not There, dir: Todd Haynes, dp: Edward Lachman

Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There isn’t “photography” in any strict sense, but (as evidenced by these stills) the 2007 film is a gorgeous work of art: intellectually provocative, hugely ambitious, moving, and frequently hilarious. But there’s no point in trying to encapsulate my thoughts on Hayne’s film here: I just added “Beyond the Six-Actor Conceit: Why I’m Not There Matters,” a feature I originally wrote for the Portland Mercury, to That’s a Negative’s Selected Writings page.

It is, I strongly feel after only one viewing, one of the smartest, most innovative, and beautiful films of this era. It’s as if Haynes has taken full ownership of the varied approaches to filmmaking that he’s cultivated since Superstar, and orchestrated them into a densely hypnotic tapestry, where styles and signatures melt into a continuous spectrum.

I’m Not There synthesizes cues from Italian neorealism and surrealism, Richard Lester’s Beatles films, cinéma vérité, Wong Kar Wai’s early sensual experiments with celluloid manipulation and debasement, Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, Douglas Sirk’s tearjerkers, contemporary “talking head” documentaries, and other innovations that feel entirely new. Haynes’ cinematic deconstructions of Dylan songs, like the “Ballad of a Thin Man” interlude, constitute unforgettable and mesmerizing short films unto themselves. Somehow, this all coheres into a fantastic, complex vision that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, although it shares a creative kinship with the best films of Gus Van Sant, Peter Greenaway, and Chantal Akerman.

Film still from I’m Not There, dir: Todd Haynes, dp: Edward Lachman

Film still from I’m Not There, dir: Todd Haynes, dp: Edward Lachman

(To read more about cinematographer Edward Lachman, check out “Deconstructing Bob Dylan. Film stills taken from the Times‘ insightful “This is Not a Bob Dylan Movie.” )


Stephen Spurling III, “Logger’s Bend, Gordon River, Tasmania,” 1906, silver gelatin print

The National Gallery of Australia created a wonderfully thorough site for Picture Paradise: Asia-Pacific Photography 1840s-1940, which opens this Friday in conjunction with Vivid, Australia’s first National Photography Festival. In 2006, NGA Director Ron Radford announced his intention to build “the first museum collection dedicated to representing the history of photography across Asia and the Pacific.” In the two intervening years, they acquired nearly 10,000 photographs, with an emphasis on Indonesian, South and Southeast Asian, and Australian images, ranging from 19th century colonialist documentary work to high Modernism. “This exhibition,” reads the website, “will be the first survey of the history of photography from India and Sri Lanka through Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific to the west coast of North America, from the formative decades of the 1840s to 1860s to the early 1940s and advent of the Second World War.” The National Gallery has 99 images from the exhibition on view, as well as a ton of supplemental material, including a fine short history of Asian-Pacific photography by curator Gael Newton.

Francis Chit, “‘Golden Mountain’ Inside the Palace on the Occasion of the Ceremonial Haircut of the Heir to the Throne,” 1891, albumen print

Charles Scowen, “Nutmeg,” 1895, albumen print

Charles Shepherd, “Afreedis,” c.1862, albumen print

J.W. Lindt, “Body of Joe Byrne, Member of the Kelly Gang, Hung up for Photography, Benalla,” 1880, silver gelatin print

Olive Cotton, “Papyrus,” 1938, silver gelatin print

Lillian Louisa Pitts, “Pretending I was making the animals at the zoo,” from My Summer Holiday at Merrigum, Victoria, c.1915

“He calls me over by himself (recalls Gere)… and we’re looking at a picture and he says, ‘This is really poor quality.'”

The first thing you will do as a photo critic is ask yourself two basic questions of each and every photograph that you view:

•Is the photograph a technically perfect image?

•Is the photograph an aesthetically pleasing image?

If the image cannot meet these two basic requirements—technically perfect and aesthetically pleasing—you should stop the critique. Any photographer who cannot create a technically perfect and aesthetically pleasing photograph should not expect to have his or her work exhibited to the viewing public.

Enroll now: Photo Criticism School

Melanie Bonajo, from (Our) Nature Has No Boss, published in Foam Magazine #15

Big thanks to 2point8 for steering me to, my favorite time-waster of the week. Billing itself as “somewhere between a blog and a directory,” combines the best elements of Useful Photography, Evidence, August Sander, bad product photography (my Achilles heel of campy delights), Google Image, and Yahoo Answers for a clusterfuck of un-self conscious, web 2.0 vernacular giddiness. On your visit to the “Billboard Charts for gadgets,” be sure to check out Ghost Particle Detectors, DIY Frankenstein Lab Items, Drug-Smuggling Submarines, and, of course, the Walls of Death.

Although it might not have the initial sexiness of other free online photo mags like Seesaw, Purpose, and 1000 Words, one would be remiss in not checking out Volume 1, Issue 1 of Photographies, a new biannual journal from Routledge that “aims to open up a forum for thinking about photography within a trans/disciplinary context, open to different methods, models, disciplines and tactics.” Sure, it’s an academic journal, but I think it’s about time that academics and artists/enthusiasts declare a working truce, as we’re all in this for the same reasons, although our “methods, models, disciplines and tactics” may differ. I’d suggest that scholarly writers begin to reign in some of the impenetrable jargon, and to consider putting those massive brains to use for an audience beyond their fellow conference-goers, just as I’d urge the academically adverse to be a little more open to theoretical writing , for the sake of being exposed to some frequently mind-blowing propositions. Give and take, give and take. And since Photographies is giving it away free, that seems like a good place whence to start taking. May I recommend “Traumatic Images” by Jessica Catherine Lieberman, “Blessed be the Photograph” by Juha Suonpää, or “Digital Imaging Goes to War” by André Gunthert? (via the slightly cryptic pentimento/polarama)

This some slipped under my radar until I was penniless and book browsing the other day, but Geoffrey Batchen has penned a monograph on Henry Fox Talbot for Phaidon, which looks gorgeous and is officially at the top of my summer wish list. Batchen is perhaps the leading Talbot scholar in America these days, and his short essay on “The Latticed Window” in Singular Images is one of the most extraordinary short works of photo history I’ve ever read. Until I get my hands on the new Phaidon book, I’ll have to content myself with The Correspondence of Henry Fox Talbot, and unbelievable collection of nearly 10,000 letters to and from the Wiltshire genius.

Although I have yet to see a hard copy, the new issue of Foam looks like another winner, with fascinating-looking work from Melanie Bonajo, Moira Ricci, and Toshiko Okanoue all standing out. These three artists only contribute to my recurrent but entirely unscientific belief that women are completely kicking guys’ asses in contemporary photography. I’m not willing to defend this to the death just yet, but when I think about whose work I really love these days, women tend to dominate the list. (On further reflection, I might be going overboard at the expense of some of my other favorites.)

If, like me, you hadn’t scraped together enough frequent flyer miles to make it to PhotoEspaña this year, We Make Money Not Art was gracious enough to fill us in on the good times and even better photography that we missed in two mustread blog posts. There’s enough new work in these reports to keep me busy all day. (via Page 291; image at left is from To Russia With Love by Monica Menez.)

Nan Goldin, “Jens’ Hand on Clemens’ Back, Paris, 2001,” cibachrome print

I just added a review of Nan Goldin’s massive collection of post-Ballad photography, The Devil’s Playground, to the Selected Writings page. This review originally appeared in SPOT, Fall 2005.

Fans of Goldin’s work have had nearly 25 years to watch her career skyrocket and lull, and through her photographs, to watch her and her extended family grow. It is more than a little depressing, then, to see her continue to struggle with her drug addictions in these recent works. After all these years, it feels as if we are seeing reruns, or at the least, a destructive cycle set in an endless spin. Even Brian, the abusive villain of Ballad of Sexual Dependency, makes a few appearances The Devil’s Playground; and it is impossible not to feel a disappointment that his presence lingers in her life. If in art we look for redemption and solace, we might yield to the title of Goldin’s new book. As romantically tragic as her photographs are, more so than ever before, the artist and her subjects remain trapped in a purgatorial playground where they cyclically reenact the same pleasures and the same pains while the audience watches on, devastated by the presentation but hungry for progress.

I just added a tabbed page to That’s a Negative that will host a selection of my published pieces about photography. I will add essays and reviews gradually, and am kicking things off with a creative piece from many lifetimes ago, called “Proposals for an Imaginary Photographer.” I don’t plan to run these older pieces in their entirety here, but am making an exception for “Proposals,” which I wrote in that faraway year of 2000. This was originally published two years later in Glasstire, reprinted here exactly as it first appeared, minus a few typos/formatting errors.

Proposals for an Imaginary Photographer

Pretend aliens have landed on Earth. Document their presence. Look for clues. What ceases to be suspect? Can you be sure? Convince me.

Make 36 religious photographs that make no overt reference to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other organized religion.

Anonymous, “Human Jigsaw by an American Unit,” c. 1925

Show me a storyboard of failure. In reverse, does it spell success?

Please imagine, just for a day, that you are a dwarf. Nobody looks at you but your children. You can not drive, get a job, nor earn your father’s love. You have never been kissed on the lips. What does today look like?

Would you like to be an action painter? A physicist in repose? An actor between jobs or a Tejano musician at 1:30 Saturday morning? What time would you wake up if you worked the press line for a major newspaper? How many earplugs would be on the front seat of your car? Where are you going on that plane overhead? What did you do fourteen years ago? Fifty years from now?

Herbert Bayer, “Self-Portrait Before a Mirror,” 1932

In a boutique, I saw a bar of soap with a photograph inside of it. What picture would you clean yourself with?

What does a low-rider photograph look like?

Show me a cycle. Now a tri-cycle.

Anders Petersen, from “Nobody Has Seen it All,” n.d.

Take vacation photographs without changing your daily routine.

Please pinpoint, in one photograph, the midpoint between sex and death.

What is the strangest picture you know? Whatever pops into your head, re-photograph it.

Arno Minnkinen, “Self-portrait with Daniel, White House Overlook, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona,” 1995

Propose a condensed historical view — of your life, of language, of art, in a suite of photographs. Does it have a soundtrack?

Do you ever think about God?

What is the closest you can get to a barking dog or a naked senior citizen?

Please make a picture for someone you miss.

Richard Avedon, “W.H. Auden,” 1960, bromide print

This fall I’m teaching a six-week class about art-writing at PNCA, and in preparing last night, I found this wonderful passage from Auden.

What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:

1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

—W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand, 1963

Reproduced in A Short Guide to Writing About Art (5th ed.), Sylvan Barnett

Harry Gruyaert, from TV Shots, c. 1972

Last night I discovered Guy Lane’s sporadic but impressive blog at Foto8. Among the posts was Do Not Adjust Your Set, a solidly written article about Harry Gruyaert’s TV Shots of the early ’70s, which I was entirely unfamiliar with. From Lane’s post:

Gruyaert’s subject – back in the early 70’s – was television, photographed at the moment of its ascendancy when radiant colour began to replace monotone black and white. TV Shots comprises a series of stills from sitcoms, dog shows, news bulletins and movies, ad breaks and interviews; Come Dancing and the Apollo flights; Coronation Street and the Olympic Games. The result is a sustained barrage of shockingly inconsequential visual noise in which moon landings and terrorist attacks are served up alongside game shows and costume dramas…

The photographs remained a controversial body of work even a decade later when Gruyaert was admitted to Magnum. “Some people were flabbergasted when they saw it and said “Jesus, we can’t take in a guy like this.” I made it in to the agency, but some were very much against my admission because they worked in that tradition of black and white, socially involved photography. But I think TV Shots is socially involved. I wanted to give a message; I don’t know if it worked.”

Harry Gruyaert at Magnum