Skip navigation

Category Archives: Selected Writings

untitledImplosion_smJim Kazanjian, Untitled (Implosion), Archival Pigment Print, 2009

Aberrations, an exhibition of Jim Kazanjian’s hallucinatory photo-composites are on view at 23 Sandy through the end of the month. Kazanjian’s images are pretty amazing, and I was happy to pen a short essay about his work, which can be downloaded here (PDF). Aberrations is on view through Saturday, May 30.

Chen QuilinChen Quilin, from the Garden series, 2007. From China Urban at Reed College.

Readers of the Oregonian might have spotted a few of my reviews in the paper last month. This new gig is particularly exciting to me for two reasons: I haven’t penned local reviews on a regular basis in a few years, and the O is the only daily I’ve ever written for. So far, they’ve been great editors and have been more than generous with their creative allowances, so I’m excited to help the paper expand its critical presence in the local art community.

The three pieces I’ve written so far can be read by following the links below:

Review: Susan Seubert at Froelick Gallery

In its best moments, Seubert’s balancing act of horror and beauty yields artworks that are exquisitely tense and captivating. At other times, though, the two qualities work against each other, creating the sensation that the photos want their proverbial cake and to eat it, too.

“Science/Fiction,” Seubert’s sixth show with Charles Froelick, walks this tightrope with a lighter touch than we’ve come to expect, and employs an array of techniques and strategies to explore notions of home and family, scientific achievement, natural beauty and — just to keep things interesting — mass annihilation.

A Short Editorial Recap of Photolucida

While the Portland nonprofit has garnered a stellar national reputation for serving the needs of its conference attendees, Photolucida is still figuring out its relationship to the local community. While early incarnations of the biennial emphasized citywide exhibitions and public photography events, the increasing popularity of its portfolio reviews has made it even harder for the small organization to organize broader programming.

Review: China Urban at Reed College

Chen Qiulin’s video cycle and color photographs bear poetic witness to the demolition of her hometown, which was flattened and flooded to make way for the [Three Gorges] Dam. Beginning with “Bei Fu,” Qiulin intersperses footage of Wanzhou’s destruction with operatic vignettes of costumed characters engaged in their own destructive dramas. Subsequent videos continue this blend of documentary and performance practices, casting the regions’ drowning death as the central arc of Qiulin’s epic Chinese opera. The artist’s most recent video, “Garden,” follows two migrant workers as they haul cumbersome vases of artificial peonies by foot on an all-day journey through the dense, hazy city. However unnatural, their pink floral arrangements are bright explosions of color in the dingy landscape of overpasses and narrow alleyways.

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.

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.

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.” )

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.

Bill Thomas, “Rats and Syringes,” gelatin silver print, 1992

Last Fall, X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly out of Los Angeles invited me to contribute to its column, “One Image One Minute.” I was free to select any image I wanted, and to hold forth on said picture for 150 words—the rough equivalent of 60 seconds of speech. I knew immediately that I wanted to write about Bill Thomas’ fantastic suicide photograph from 1992, “Rats and Syringes.” What I hadn’t counted on was how quickly 150 words would fly by. I crammed as much as I could into those 150 words, and even worked in a Peanuts allusion for good measure.

X-TRA is available at Barnes & Noble, as well as plenty of bookstores across the country. Check out my piece online, and hunt down a hard copy in support of artist-run journals. Thanks again to Micol Hebron for inviting me to participate in “One Minute…”

(Sadly, Bill Thomas has virtually zero online presence except for an old, old gallery at Zonezero that is of such low quality that it’s not worth linking to. I’ve been in talks with a really fine publication about doing a longer piece about Thomas’ suicide photographs this fall, in hopes of reintroducing these amazing works. Keep your fingers crossed.)

[Edit: Evidently the Utne Reader enjoys “One Image One Minute,” as well as my “straight-forwardly analytical” style.]