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Category Archives: Photography Books

peterbrown4lPeter Brown, “Snapping Turtle Sunning on the Road, Sand Hills, Nebraska,” C print, 2005

The Fall/Winter issue of SPOT arrived today, sporting a cool cover from emerging Houston artist Ariane Roesch. The Houston Center for Photography‘s twice-yearly mag is a critical and sentimental favorite, so I’m pleased to be included in the new issue with a review of Peter Brown and Kent Haruf’s collaborative ode to the High Plains,  West of Last Chance. The review has been added to the Selected Writings section of this site, but I encourage everyone to hunt down an actual copy of this handsome photography magazine for themselves.

While West of Last Chance never set off to be an encyclopedic record of the region (the Midwest’s penitentiaries, army bases, cookie-cutter suburbs, and migrant workers are among the absent), Brown and Haruf depict a sort of lyric taxonomy in their subjects: Hand-painted signs, pickup trucks, superhighways and gravel roads, Wal-marts, grain elevators, crosses, high school mascots, diners, swallows, post offices, cattle, and mechanics all coalesce into an ambiguous geography of unequivocal alone-ness. In one lonely Nebraska highway scene, Brown presents a suitcase-sized tortoise, camouflaged by the baked sandy asphalt of the roadway he paddles across, like a holdover apparition from the Plain’s Paleolithic era.



One of my favorite books of the past year, Sleeping Beauty by John Sparagana (1, 2) and Mieke Bal, is at the center of an enviable launch party in Chicago Saturday afternoon. Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery is hosting the official release, which is set to feature a short concert by Glenn Kotche. Best known as the drummer for Wilco, Kotche also performs and records as a solo percussionist; at the Sleeping Beauty event, he’s scheduled to perform two pieces by Minimalist composer Steve Reich. Sparagana’s work will be on view, and he’ll be there to sign books, but the press release I have encourages early arrival at this free event.


Sleeping Beauty is the first publication in the Project Tango series from University of Chicago Press. Project Tango is described as “a new series of experimental collaborations between artists and writers,” and if future titles sport the creative integrity of the Sparagana + Bal pairing, they’ll quickly become essential acquisitions. [Disclosure Alert: I have known John for nearly a decade, and although we’ve never been close friends, we keep in touch sporadically, and I’m a longtime fan of his work. This mildly embarrassing piece I wrote in 2002 includes a short review of a great show he created that year for FotoFest.]

Having collaged, altered, and otherwise obscured images from popular magazines since the late 1990s, Sparagana has spent the past several years “distressing” images of desire, glamour, and wealth, as he dubs his signature technique. At its most reductive, “distressing” is another word for “crumpling,” but to call it that would be a gross oversimplification. Sparagana rubs, wrinkles, and weathers his carefully-chosen images until they’re as frail as ancient texts, and one imagines that they could turn the whole work or art to dust by breathing on it too hard. In the artist’s hands, the paper’s inky coating cracks into a dense latticework of crystallized webs, draping the original images in blankets of crackled gauze. As Mieke Bal writes in Sleeping Beauty, “The act of destruction is reiterated, so much so that, at some point, the sheet of paper becomes soft, voluptuous to the touch, flexible like a fabric such as satin. The image loses its predictable aspect. It becomes enigmatic, hard to read as what it was, novel and unheard of.”

sleeping-beauty-12While it’s tempting to read this process as a simple, if violent, metaphor for media critique, this interpretation doesn’t account for the countless hours of tender attention Sparagana spends on each work, nor does it address the erotic allure of his primary imagery. These elements are made clearer in later works, where the artist collages distressed images with their pristine orginals, creating—as Bal rightly points out—”interventions” in the manufactured seduction of the fashion spreads. These disruptions jolt our attention, scattering our attention onto three simultaneous fields of meaning: the glamorous pull of the original image; the fragile tactility of the distressed areas; and the startled awareness of the original’s complex visual and cultural coding. It becomes a visual experience whose closest analogy is the short moment when, awakening from a dream, one tries to fall back asleep so that the rewards and riches of our slumbering fantasties might manifest themselves completely.

Corbett vs. Dempsey, 1120 N. Ashland Ave. 3, Chicago

Saturday, January 31, at 4pm

Alex Webb, “US/Mexico Border (San Yisidro, CA),” c-print, 1979

I eagerly awaited the premier issue of Photography & Culture for so long that the new journal—edited by longtime favorites Val Williams, Alison Nordstrom, and Kathy Kubicki*—completely slipped my radar. The $40 price tag** also prevented me from pestering my local bookseller about the impending release date. This morning I was excited to learn that Berg Publishers has made the entire journal available free online, and my early impressions are very favorable. In their introductory letter, the editors state their intentions to “challenge the traditional language and mind-set of art history,” while fostering “new investigations of photographs.”

Photography has never been more interesting than it is today. Regarding this medium as it enters a state of flux, we are equally transfixed by the possibilities and implications of its technological advances, yet constantly refer to its past as we contemplate the ever renewing fascination with the archive. Photography & Culture will look at photography as an integral part of our contemporary culture, asking questions about a medium which, more than any other, illustrates our world, as well being a conduit for our imaginations, a provider of evidence and information and, at times, a kind of magic. It may also be a destroyer of illusions and a purveyor of horror.

Highlights from the table of contents include Shinrei Shashin: Photographs of Ghosts in Japanese Snapshots by Richard Chalfen, archival photographs of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated crew, and Geoffrey Batchen’s review of Dutch Eyes: A Critical History of Photography in the Netherlands. Hopefully, the editors will be able to maintain a critical tone that is academically rigorous yet vigorously readable, so that these rich topics germinate outside the confines of museum and university libraries.

*Kubicki probably doesn’t qualify as a “longtime favorite,” as I just heard of her this morning. I can, however, attest to the professional company she keeps.

**The per-issue newsstand price is $40, although non-institutional subscriptions are only $65. Volume 2 will be published this November, and then it goes to thrice-yearly in ’09.

Jindrich Štyrský, “Untitled [Bez názvu], from the series The Movable Cabinet [Stěthovací kabinet], 1934, photomontage

The catalog for Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 is one of the richest and most impressive historical surveys I’ve received in ages. If, when asked who your five favorite photographers of the 20th century are, five American names leap from your mouth (*bashfully raising hand*), put down your copy of Uncommon Places and check this book out. If you’re not so native soil-leaning, pat yourselves on the back, and then check this book out. (BTW, Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson count as honorary Americans in this exercise, because of their Yank influence and towering stature in stateside photo history courses. My blog, my rules.) In addition to familiar names such as Sudek, Renger-Patzsch, and Maholy-Nagy, Foto features countless mind-blowing photographers who get virtually no play in America, and whose working styles are so wonderfully divorced from our realist tradition. DC, NYC, and Minneapolis have all had an opportunity to see Foto (please leave a comment about the show if you caught it); the exhibition is in Edinburgh now, and Adrian Searle was thoroughly impressed. “Our culture seems so homogeneous by comparison. Even the word ‘experiment’ feels hollow now. What a killer show.”

Back in the boring old USofA, Page 291 has a very unboring review of Sage Sohier‘s equally unboring show, Perfectible Worlds, at Foley Gallery. (PW was shown at Blue Sky last year, and Portland’s Photolucida published Sohier’s monograph of the same name.) Sohier’s portraits of people who become singular deities over microcosms of their own creation are startling, funny, and deeply humane. They don’t succeed for me every time (visually or conceptually), but when they hit, they’re like bottom-of-the-ninth grand slams on Hot Dog Night. Megalomania should always be so fun..

We’re having a lot of fun here, folks, but if we can get serious for just a minute, it’s time to talk about depictions of abject human suffering. (Effortless segues like that are what keeps That’s a Negative so popular and profitable!) No Caption Needed analyzes photography in ways that nobody else online is touching; the authors don’t come from art-photo backgrounds, and their takes on photojournalism are always as surprising as they are insightful. For example: This recent post about black & white reportage begins with what sounds like a rather clunky generalization, but Robert Hariman tightens his argument until we are forced to consider monochromatic images in light of “our own deficiencies.” (Of course, the recurring Sunday feature that directly precedes that particular blog entry does not do much to support my endorsement of No Caption Needed’s customary intellectualism.)

Lastly, Pentimento/Polarama turned up my favorite photography story of the week. I just really hope that widow doesn’t somehow find that blog and recognize herself (literally and figuratively). How come every time I go to the Goodwill, I just find musty sweaters and barely humorous tchothckes that I carry around for half and hour before deciding to leave empty-handed?

Thumbaniled photos, from the top:
Sage Sohier, “Man applying tanning lotion before a bodybuilding competition, Worcester, MA,” 2003, c-print
Erno Berda, “Hand,” c. 1931, gelatin silver print
Farooq Naeem, “Student Praying in Islamabad,” AFP-Getty Images
Anonymous, untitled, n.d.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, untitled from Thousand, color Polaroid

Early this year, I reviewed Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s doorstopper of a Polaroid collection, Thousand (Steidl), for the Portland Mercury. I’m a lifetime fan of P-LdC’s work, but was getting a little burnt out on his recent fashion images, and felt ready to see a new side of his work. Thousand provided just that by handing over years and years’ worth of outtakes, preparatory shots, and assorted unclassifiable Polaroids from throughout the photographer’s career. DiCorcia’s strategy for sequencing the book was unconventional, but unlike many, I found it to be a very beautiful gesture.

Early reviewers are howling at a truly unorthodox approach the artist and publisher took in laying the book out. In photography monographs, image sequencing is everything—it’s how visual stories are told, and how meaning and significance are implied. Sequencing is sacrosanct. But after untold attempts to order the 1,000 photographs, diCorcia assigned a number to each image, and let a computer randomly dictate their placement in the book. Purists reacted as if diCorcia was torching a first printing of Robert Frank’s Les Américains, and they’re missing the point entirely. By relinquishing the storytelling impulse as much as possible, diCorcia has indeed disrupted the traditional role of book arts. Instead, he’s handed us the closest thing possible to an enormous box of old Polaroids, allowing us to sift through it as we wish.

My review of Thousand has been added to the Selected Writings page.

Thousand makes its exhibition debut as part of LACMA’s diCorcia retrospective, on view through Sept 14.

Watch a short film about Thousand here.

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.

Taryn Simon, “White Tiger (Kenny), Selective Inbreeding, Turpentine Creek WIldlife Refuge, Eureka Springs, Ark,” from An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar

I always enjoy it when blogger Joerg Colberg takes the time to flesh out his thoughts about photography at Conscientious, and wish he’d write more often. Yesterday, however, he authored a post about photographer Taryn Simon that was so puzzling, I feel moved to respond.

In an attempt to loosely define what sort of photography he enjoyed, Joerg pitted himself against photography that contained “an element of entertainment,” singling out the young photographer, whose two books, in my opinion, demonstrate exceptional depth and vision. My contention isn’t simply that Joerg shortchanges Simon’s powerful photography—much of the work that’s championed on Conscientious leaves me cold, so there’s obviously a difference of personal tastes at play—but that his take on her projects is uncharacteristically shortsighted.

Joerg begins with a dismissal of most street photography, writing that the genre too frequently relies on simple visual gags that makes him feel as if he’s watching an episode of Friends. This allows Joerg to broaden the common denominator of his displeasure to the vague “entertainment” factor. “I have noticed that the entertainment element appears to be quite common,” he writes. “Providing visual thrills, and then being left with (a feeling of)… ‘been there, seen that,’ and now we have to move on to see something even more exciting—because, after all, what would be entertainment without excitement?” At this point, I’m interested, but not quite sure where Joerg’s going with all this. The last place I expected him to arrive, though, is at the doorstep of Taryn Simon.

Taryn Simon, “Larry Mayes, Scene of the Arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary Indiana,” from The Innocents

Simon, just one depressing year older than I am, is a hugely successful photographer in both the art and editorial worlds, with an exhibition at the Whitney, a Guggenheim Fellowship, representation at Gagosian, and spreads in publications like the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker under her belt. Moreover, I feel like she’s one of the rare hotshots who truly deserves the accolades. I became a fan with the publication of The Innocents, in which Simon made extraordinary portraits of more than 80 men and women who had done time in prison for crimes they were later exonerated of. Rather than systematically clicking off uniform headshots of them all, as so many contemporary photographers would have chosen to do, Simon brought the ex-cons to the scenes of the crimes they supposedly committed, and made dramatic, narrative images of them in these spots, accompanying the photographs with brief accounts of their injustices. (She occasionally photographed them at the sites where they were arrested, rather than at the crime scene, resulting in unforgettable portraits such as the one of Larry Mayes, who pathetically tried to hide between two filthy mattresses in an empty hotel room in Gary, Indiana.)

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James C. Richardson, from “Cascadia: Living on Fire,” May 1998, National Geographic

Yesterday we made one of my favorite day trips to Mount St. Helens—a journey that manages a pitch-perfect harmony of natural beauty, horrifying evidence of destruction, and late capitalist kitsch. The drive to the Johnson Ridge Observatory just near the volcanic crater (a visitor center perpetually overrun with tourists, in a scene that looks exactly like James C. Richardson’s photograph, minus the polarizing filter) culminates in a recently re-envisioned, cracked-out educational film about the eruption, which ends with the screen lifting and the curtain parting to reveal the hissing crater just outside the window.

This dramatic finale is a fascinating play of reality and representation; the presentation and framing of nature; and of interior and exterior spaces. The enormous window that overlooks the mountain is even partitioned into a grid of thick black squares, as if it has been prepared for a public lesson on perspective drawing. When I first visited several years ago, I had the uncanny experience (for which I don’t believe there’s a name) of having walked into a familiar photograph: namely, Rick Dingus’ spot-on panorama of the theater, which I had studied long before ever setting foot in Washington State. [Dingus is no stranger to the application of framing devices onto popular views of the sublime. His major 1978 discovery as part of the Rephotographic Survey Project about Timothy O’Sullivan’s artistic liberties created a sizable ripple on the scholarship of 19th century landscape photography.]

Emmett Gowin, “Mount St. Helens, Washington,” 1980

The area of devastation (and the souvenir/tourist industry that’s sprouted in its wake) is ripe for a new wave of younger landscape photographers to cover. Just off the top of my head, I’d love to see what Jason Fulford, J. Bennett Fitts, or Jungjin Lee would do with a hillside residency. Emmet Gowin made a number of photographs of the mountain decades ago, but only the image of the downed tree and warbonnet stump stands out in my eyes.

Frank Gohlke, ” Aerial view: downed forest near Elk Rock. Approximately ten miles northwest of Mount St. Helens, Washington,” 1981

And then of course there’s Frank Gohlke, whose Mount St. Helens photos re-entered my life yesterday in a most lovely and unexpected way. Browsing the first of a half-dozen gift shops, I stumbled on a cache of still-sealed copies of the monograph that accompanied Gohlke’s Mount St. Helens MoMA show of 2005. Sweeter still—they were all marked down to $14.95, and Christine bought me a copy before I could even protest. When I got home, I was disappointed to learn that the book didn’t contain a proper essay about the photographs, even though John Szarkowski selected and sequenced all of the images. There’s a typically dull introduction by Peter Galassi, brief endnotes on the photos by the artist, and an essay by two scientists about volcanoes (adopted from a chapter in The Earth in Turmoil), which doesn’t even touch in Gohlke’s photographs. Rather than complain about it, I will try to organize a few thoughts about why Gohlke has succeeded in capturing the sublime horror and beauty of the eruption’s aftermath better than any other photographer in a short essay later this week. In the meantime, however, I have a big project to prepare for, so I will leave you with my favorite photograph of May 18, 1980, taken by Robert Krimmel for the US Geological Survey.