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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.

I’ll skip the groveling and self-flagellation that usually follow stretches of blog blackout to say that paying gigs and personal sanity (rightfully) took priority over all of my passion projects, including That’s a Negative, although I remain dedicated to developing this site. The past six weeks or so found life too overcrowded for everything, so blogging had to take the backseat for a late summer break. (As did blog-reading; my Google Reader overfloweth.)

Out of necessity, my original goal of reviewing each of these shows was revised to the idea of having one long essay that somehow encapsulated all of the exhibitions. Unfortunately, that ship has already sailed. For the sake of wiping the e-slate clean and unshackling myself from the burden of reviews not yet written, here is a roll-call of everything I have intended to write about during this period of inactivity. In many cases, I really regret not being able to expound on my notes and thoughts, but I’d be working on this post until the Obama victory if I took the time to do so. I’m still on deadline and desperately short on time, but circumstances are conspiring to give me a little more blogging time very soon. Here, then, are the things I would have reviewed in a more perfect world.

In Portland:

Emi Anrakuji: IPY at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

Andy O’Brien: “Star Maps: (l-r) Spike Jones, Nicolas Cage, Don Johnson” at Newspace’s Annual Juried Exhibition (Full disclosure: I bought the Nic Cage piece)

Melody Owen: Alexandria, I’m Waiting at Elizabeth Leach Gallery

In Seattle:

Isaac Layman: Photographs from Inside a Whale at Lawrimore Project. (My favorite show of the season; I must write about Layman soon.)

Gregory Blackstock: Vernacular Photography at Garde Rail

New Photo: Richard Barnes, Martin Klimas, and Fred Muram at Howard House (Fred Muram, “One Day I Will Learn to Build Things” pictured)

Ask a Banana, Baby: Swedish Contemporary Video and Photography at Howard House (Annika von Hausswolff, “A Given Moment in the History of Coming into Being” pictured)

Smoke & Mirrors at the Seattle Art Museum (through Nov 9)
A really well curated group show from the museum collection, exploring depictions of and experiments about ephemerality in photography, featuring Muybridge, Sugimoto, Nagatani, and many others. Titled for Eileen Quinlan’s photos of smoke and mirrors—many of which I like very much. (Quinlan, “Smoke & Mirrors #10” pictured)

Mark Soo “That’s That’s Alright Alright Mama Mama,” c-prints, 3-D glasses, and angled wall at Western Bridge‘s You Complete Me

In San Francisco:

The Art of Lee Miller at SFMOMA (through Sept 14)

Double Exposure: African Americans Before and Behind the Camera at the Museum of the African Diaspora (Roy DeCarava, “Couple Dancing” pictured) (through Sept 28)

Amy Stein: Domesticated at Paul Kopeikin Gallery

Gillian Wearing, from Trauma, 2000

At 8:30 pm tonight, TJ Norris and I will present Masked Men and Virtual Identity, a rapid-fire meditation on deceit, camouflage, identity, cover-ups, and duality before the camera. It’s part of a Pecha Kucha hapening, described as “creative people talking about creative things,” wherein everybody shows 20 images and speaks on them for 20 seconds each. If you’re in town, I hope you can make it. The event flier can be seen here.

34 NW 8th (8th & Couch), 8:20 pm, sliding scale

Eadweard Muybridge, Plate 700 from Animal Locomotion, 1887, collotype at Charles Hartman Fine Art

Coming off of a better-than-average month of photography in the city, summer’s dog days aren’t a particularly rewarding time for photo enthusiasts in Portland. Next month’s Wild Beauty at the art museum should be a pretty big deal, particularly with a visit from historian/curator Martha Sandweiss on October 22. (Don’t bother searching for the lecture or exhibition on PAM’s website. Their Upcoming Exhibition page yields “no records.”) For the next 30 or so days, however, Portlanders will just have to get their photo fix tapas-style: a nibble here, a taste there, wishing they could just get on with a full course already.

Charles Hartman‘s collection of vintage Muybridge collotypes from Animal Locomotion is a notable exception, however. Muybridge’s motion studies are perfect 19th century endnotes, with their deconstruction of natural phenomena into mechanical processes, slippage of the still photograph away from autonomy and toward motion pictures, the dandyish gentleman’s wager of the series’ origin, and the silly exuberance of the later images in the guise of scientific inquiry. (“Hello, Governor Stanford? Could you please send over two naked handmaidens, one baboon, and a crippled child for tomorrow’s shoot?”)
Charles A. Hartman Fine Art, 134 NW 8th, Tues-Sat, through Aug 30

Of the two Blue Sky shows this month, I’m most looking forward to the work of Toronto-born, Kiev-dwelling photojournalist Donald Weber. He’s showing work from two series: Bastard Eden, which profiles the people living in the woods and abandoned apartment buildings—against strict orders—in the Exclusion Zone that surrounds Chernobyl, as well as The Underclass and Its Bosses, a portrait of Dneprodzerzhinsk, where the fall of Socialism “created a moral vacuum” that enabled rampant criminality, corruption, and violence.

Additionally, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (of TV’s ER and CSI!) exhibits his Boda Boda series, which depicts the bicycle delivery men of Uganda. Their dilapidated bikes are used to haul enormous loads, but aside from this curious exoticism, I’m not really seeing the strength of this work so far. Based on the jpegs, it seems that Mwine’s photographs don’t actually tell us anything about the boda boda men (in a journalistic sense), nor do they possess the arresting visual strength of, say, Pieter Hugo. (Perhaps it’s not a totally fair comparison, but it’s entirely inevitable, and not altogether unfounded.)
Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th, Tues-Sun, through Aug 31.

The lionization and mythology of the 1970s New York underground scene is perpetuated in Bande à Part at Augen Gallery. The traveling exhibition features photos of NY’s creme de la cool, as seen by Billy Name, Marcia Resnick, et al. Perhaps I was born at the precisely wrong time, or more likely, I’m just in the wrong phase of my adult life to get even remotely excited about mediocre photographs of Basquiat, Warhol, Reed, and the rest of the Nico-through-Blondie years.
Augen Gallery, 716 NW Davis, Tues-Sat, through Aug 28.

Chicagoan Ryan Zoghlin exhibits work from his NIMBY series at Newspace this month. Said photographs “focus on the eerie margin where suburban and industrial areas meet.” Not to single out Zoghlin here, but jesus christ, can we come up with some new themes to exploit and explore, please? The collective work of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, and their Nü Landscape contemporaries ranks among the best unofficial photographic movements of the 20th century, but I’d be more than tickled not to see another bland, rehashed, large-format color photograph of a parking lot, generic warehouse, airport, suburban home, dirtbike track, unbuilt neighborhood, or abandoned shopping center until at least 2013.
Newspace, 1632 SE 10th, Mon-Sun, through Aug 31.

QPCA’s group show, Urbania, continues through the end of the month with the complex photo-constructions of Gerald Slota. Using every tool at his disposal except Photoshop, Slota de- and re-constructs nearly indecipherable scenes of post-human realities. Using copy negatives, collage, negative deterioration, re-photographing of images in situ and other manipulative techniques, Slota creates some of the most digital-looking analog photos I’ve ever seen.
Quality Pictures, 916 NW Hoyt, Tues-Sat, through Aug 30.

Noel Rodo-Vankeulen, from the series Nocturne, 2007-8

Gentle readers,

My apologies for the leaden dearth of activity on That’s a Negative; freelance life is in overdrive at the moment, and I haven’t had the opportunity to compose anything substantial for the blog. My “to post” backlog is enormous, with half-written reviews of great shows in Portland and Seattle, previews of exhibitions in both of those cities, thoughts on several new books, and other tokens of photo-miscellany. Normal posting should return by next week; in the meantime, a few quick thoughts:

If you’re in Seattle, Isaac Layman’s show at Lawrimore Project is a must-see. There are a few aspects of the work I still harbor reservations about, but rarely do I have an ongoing mental argument with a show for this length of time. It’s as smart and bold as any gallery show I’ve seen in Seattle, and Layman is clearly an artist who has given the nature of photography a lot of consideration.

Next Tuesday, August 12, artist TJ Norris and I are co-presenting a mini-slide jam at a Pecha Kucha event, to be held at the corner of NW 8th & Couch. I’ve never been to one of these, but participants show 20 slides at 20 seconds apiece, so at eight presenters, it should be a wham-bam, visual overload of a free event. (Other participants include the project manager of Maya Lin’s Confluence Project; bike advocate Meghan Sinnott; and a former curator of the Harvard Film Archive.) TJ and I curated a jpegshow (formerly slideshow) that zigzags from Klansmen to Trekkies to hot air balloons. Hopefully we’ll figure out how to tie it all together by next week. (Event is Tues, Aug 12, 34 NW 8th, 7:30 pm [starts at 8:20], sliding scale.)

Noel Rodo-Vankeulen’s Nocturne series strike me as the antithesis of every tedious trend currently being played out in contemporary photography. I’ll defend my position soon enough, wishing all the while that I was able to check out his prints on view next week at Brooklyn’s Bond Street Gallery.

Lastly, what’s happening San Francisco? If a particular photo enthusiast were passing through in a week or two, what would said stalwart be foolish in missing? I’m planning on catching Amy Stein at Robert Koch; Double Exposure at the Museum of the African Disapora; RongRong at SF Camerawork; Lee Miller at SFMOMA; and perhaps Edwin Hale Lincoln at the deYoung. Have I missed anything fantastic?

Jim Lommasson, from the series On the Road, c. 2003

Photolucida’s Northwest Summer Portfolio Reviews—a smaller, localized version of the nonprofit’s biennial reviews—are happening in Portland this Saturday and Sunday, July 26-7. The reviews themselves are only open to registrants and reviewers, but a free event on Saturday night gives the public a chance to scope out all the artists who signed up for the reviews, as well as the work of 11 Oregon shooters selected by the Photolucida board. In addition to Jim Lommasson, keep your eyes open for these other invitees:

TJ Norris, “Rabbit Test on the Moon,” 2006

Alexis Pike, “A Teton, St. Anthony, Idaho,” 2004

David Paul Bayles, “Severed Limbs #1,” c. 2002

Bruce Hall, from the Portland Grid Project, 2006

Heidi Kirkpatrick, “Rose” from the series Botanical Photograms, 2005

Sika Stanton, untitled, tintype

Blake Andrews, from the series Big Pink, 2002

Ann Ploeger, untitled, c. 2005

Angela Cash, untitled, n.d.

Bob Gervais, untitled, n.d.

Photolucida’s Portfolio Walk happens at the Art Institute of Portland, NW Davis & 11th, Sat, July 26, 6-9 pm, free

Daniel Barron, “A Numb Hinge, #55,” digital c-print, 2008

A relentlessly cheerful treatise on grotesque post-human fantasies, Daniel Barron’s A Numb Hinge is one of the most provocative, sly, arresting, and sensual photography shows I’ve seen in Portland. In a remarkably conservative photography climate (local and national) that continues to favor “straight” photography (in color and with a 4×5, please), Barron’s abstract, digitally-assisted creations of fleshy pink cavities, wet eyelids, broken blood vessels, and bubbly glycerin tubes push the medium toward new aesthetic and technological territories.

The statement that accompanies A Numb Hinge indicates that technology is at the fore of Barron’s artistic concerns. But his interest isn’t in Photoshop’s ability to create fantasies that look, by all measure, strictly photographic, as his do. (I am not privy to how the images in A Numb Hinge were made, nor do I think it’s a particularly relevant question.) The artist is interested in the unemotional nature of scientific advance; how the beneficial effects of penicillin on bacterial infections and the destructive reactions of nuclear fission are, in and of themselves, entirely impersonal. Technology, by this way of thinking, can be seen as “an emotionally unresponsive, indifferent device on which subsequent events depend”—e.g., a “numb hinge,” which, unscrambled, reveals itself as “human being.”

Daniel Barron, “A Numb Hinge, #57,” digital c-print, 2008

Rarely, however, has cyborgian impassivity been so fun: If the soulless detachment of a post-human future has typically been imagined as fatalistic outcome, whether by Phillip K. Dick or Aziz + Cucher, Barron takes a different tact. A Numb Hinge envisions our fleshy future, in which bloodshot eyeballs occupy meaty knuckle sockets, as a consumerist idyll-a technological advance that can be beautified, photographed, and marketed like a Prada handbag.

“A Numb Hinge #55” exemplifies Barron’s gleeful, pop aesthetic approach to these quasi-scientific, disquietingly graphic subjects. With unflinching verisimilitude, “#55” depicts a fleshy object of Barron’s photo-digital creation: A human eyelid (though not attached to any larger skull), opens itself to accommodate a shimmering tube of ice, which slides into the orifice almost pornographically. (Pubic hair, however, has been replaced here by dew-y eyelashes, which are photographed with immaculate clarity.) The eye-socket aperture is presented as a cropped fragment of a larger whole that we can’t discern, although one can see that another similar eyehole exists at an unnatural 90 degree angle to the first, like a fleshy, pink, elbow joint. An un-readable attachment protrudes from the left side of the object, connected either by a honey-colored resin or a natural sap. “#55” is a speculative vision of mad science at play-the human body as a purely mechanical system that can be genetically and physically adapted to accommodate oblique, inhuman purposes.

Daniel Barron, “A Numb Hinge, #52,” digital c-print, 2008

It’s not the subject matter that makes “#55” so remarkable, however: It’s Barron’s treatment and presentation of the material. If and when the artist’s vision of all-out post-human anatomical modification is realized, we can be sure that the idea will be sold to us (subconsciously) as a technological advance capable of ensuring that we (a) never have to die, and (b) have a good shot at getting laid. The skin in “#55,” as in all of the pieces in A Numb Hinge, is flawlessly nubile—pink, blemish-free, unwrinkled flesh that evidently repels water so that it beads up and cascades off, like a Man Ray teardrop or an opaquely shellacked D’Anjou pear, coated in a light mist of water before the catalog photographer shoots it. Whatever they may graphically depict, the real messages of A Numb Hinge‘s body parts are “sex” and “youth.” If the throbbing penetration of the wet tube into the tight, slippery opening of “#55” was too subtle for audiences, the small protrusion of a lapping, curved flesh-mound attends to the base of the shaft like a tiny tongue. (The bubbly, icy tube, all the while, looks like the sum manifestation of Wilson Bryan Key‘s hysteria about subliminal images erections and skulls allegedly being airbrushed into beverage advertisements in the 1970s.) If any doubt should linger about Barron’s advertorial approach, “#55’s” background of hazy, candy-colored stripes promises a bright, carefree future that carries the aesthetic hopes of both psychedelic transcendence and an afternoon of retail therapy at the mall.

Daniel Barron, “A Numb Hinge, #52,” digital c-print, 2008

These strategies recur throughout A Numb Hinge. “#52” shows the “head” of a meaty flesh-worm, whose slippery surface is closer to the lining inside your mouth than the flesh on your palms. The center of the slimy, pink tube nestles a strange, flecked, yellow and green ball that could be both a citrus rind and a diseased eyeball. Repulsive on one hand, the form’s oozy tactility begs to be poked and fingered. In the background, we can make out slightly unfocused, similar forms, included in the photograph as if to assure viewers that scarcity is no issue, and that there’s enough for everybody, including you. As with many of Barron’s pieces, there is a large portion of the composition left mostly blank, which good editorial and commercial photographers know, is always appreciated by picture editors and art directors who need a spot to include the sales pitch.

Formally and technically, Barron’s attention to detail is meticulous. When one of his watery, glycerin tubes penetrates a bodily orifice, the tonal reflections of the skin are rendered in the bubbly with impeccable, rippley precision. These images withstand the closest scrutiny, and never betray their digital seams or in-camera trickery. The photographs’ uncanny realism is responsible for the squeamish response they invoke, but it’s the artists’ use of ultrasoft lighting and tender chromatics that make the images in A Numb Hinge so undeniably seductive. Barron’s beauty is of the repulsive variety, and he’s adept at teasing out the carnal elements of grotesquerie. These fantastic subjects may indeed be numb to the banalities of their own applications, but Barron is too deftly attuned to our propensity for novelty and our evolutionary mechanisms of desire to allow us to remain unmoved by the numb hinge of progress.

A Numb Hinge is on view at Pushdot Studio, 1021 SE Caruthers, Mon-Fri, through July 25.
Daniel Barron dot com

Richard Billingham, “Untitled,” c-print, 1995

The British artist Richard Billingham photographed his family—his alcoholic father, large mother, and unruly brother—in their council flat in the West Midlands, England, between 1990 and 1996, producing the photo book Ray’s a Laugh (1996). It departs from the typical images of wedding/new baby/graduation/birthday family photographs, revealing the artist’s rough childhood surroundings and life in a council flat. The photo book was an immediate success. Widely debated in the 1990s, it produced two types of interpretations. On one hand, it read as a political documentary targeted to the upper middle-class audience and addressed the working-class poverty of 1990s Britain following the years of conservative government. On the other hand, with the 1990s witnessing a rapid expansion of reality-television culture, Billingham’s series was also interpreted as an entertaining reality drama, satisfying a never-ending appetite for confessional revelations. Although neither of these interpretations were intended (nor was political art or reality-drama entertainment of primary concern to the artist), this article, based on an interview with Billingham, revisits these earlier readings and examines how they might reflect the spectator’s interests and position within our culture.

Continue reading Outi Remes’ Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh” Series

The University of Texas’ archive of more than 8,000 Texas border photographs by Robert Runyon from the early 1900s constitutes one of the most remarkable visual histories imaginable: Runyan (1881-1968) was a commercial photographer in Brownsville, Texas who tirelessly shot Masonic parades, bull fights, prize-winning cabbages, executions, grapefruit (and rattlesnake) farms, impatient iguanas, and the local militia in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Northeastern Mexico. When the Mexican Revolution reached the Texas border in 1913, Runyan was ready with his camera, and made invaluable photographs of military operations and soldiers’ camp life alike. “As with popular subjects such as bullfights and Mexican Revolution casualties,” reads his bio, “Runyon sold many of his Fort Brown views as postcards to the soldiers and to Valley residents and tourists.” After the Revolution, Runyan flourished as a studio photographer, and eventually turned his interests to botany (which is evidenced in his photographs of native plants) and an unsuccessful run at the Texas House of Representatives before his death in Brownsville at the age of 87.

The digital archive contains thousands of photographs, which are helpfully divided into categories such as Aeronautical accidents (Texas), Executions (Mexico), Sports (Texas), Birds’ Eggs and Nests (Texas), Funeral Rites and Processions (Brownsville), Pancho Villa, Women Soldiers (Mexico), and Fairs (Texas). Happy hunting.

Robert Runyon, “Copy Photo: The grave of a federal officer executed in Juarez”

Robert Runyon, “Armadillo”

Robert Runyon, “Abel Garcia and wife”

Robert Runyon, “Landscape around Point Isabel Railroad”

Robert Runyon, “Rio Grande Snake Farm, Joe Guerrero”

Robert Runyon, “Agricultural fair, display of heads of cabbage”

Robert Runyon, “Oil well near Loma Alta, February 24, 1920”

Robert Runyon, “Copy Photo: Hanged man, February 13, 1912”

Bruce Conner, “Teardrop Angel,” gelatin silver photogram, 1974, 89 x 38″

Bruce Conner, “Butterfly Angel,” gelatin silver photogram, 1975, 89 x 38″

To create these, Conner’s body was placed between a large sheet of photosensitive paper and a light source. Because the photograms are, in effect, photographic negatives, the area in which Conner’s body blocked the light from reaching the paper is seen as white, while areas where the light struck the paper without interruption came out as black. In the earliest examples, which were exposed to the light source for a relatively brief amount of time, Conner’s figure appears as a stark white silhouette against a jet black ground. Eventually, he began exposing the paper to light for longer periods of time. In these, his form is seen as a gray silhouette, but any point where he was actually touching the paper—thereby blocking out all the light—glows bright white. In those in which the paper was exposed to light for the longest period, the silhouette is blacked out entirely and all that can be seen are the points where his body touched the paper, as in “Flame Angel,” 1975.

In these photograms, Conner’s figure seems to be made of pure light as it shines out from the blackness around it. He appears as a radiant evanescence—spirit rather than flesh—hence the title of the series. But the figures’ associations are not just angelic; they are also distinctly Christlike. The impression of the full figure on the paper calls to mind the Shroud of Turin, where the image of Christ’s body has supposedly been burned into his burial cloth (it does not hurt that Conner’s shoulder-length hair and beard can be clearly seen in a number of the images).

Peter Boswell, from “Bruce Conner: Theater of Light and Shadow,” 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II, (Walker Art Center) 1999

Bruce Conner, “Enfolding Angel,” gelatin silver photogram, 1974, 36 x 33″

More of Conner’s Angels here

Anon, “Le Laboratoire de Satan,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard (detail)

When Parisian optician Jules Duboscq introduced the stereoscopic viewer in 1850, few could have imagined the raging success stereo photography would enjoy internationally for the remainder of the century. By 1858, the London Stereoscopic Company boasted of having over 100,000 images for sale, and in 1901, New York’s Underwood & Underwood claimed to manufacture 23,000 stereocards a day.

Anon, “La Torture en Enfer,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard

Stereographs do not lend themselves well to long, contemplative viewings in the same way that photographs of the era by artists like Baldus or Le Secq do. Stereoscopy is built on novelty; the stereo image reaches its “climax,” as Ian Jeffrey puts it, “when depth was grasped or focus achieved.” Once the photographs pop into three-dimensional illusion, viewers are typically more interested in repeating the phenomenon with new slides than studying the palm-sized pictures. These viewing habits, combined with the wild popularity of the form, and the relative low cost of production resulted in thousands upon thousands of mostly unremarkable stereoscopic slides in the late 1800s.*

Anon, “Satan Malade,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, hand-tinted stereocard (detail)

Certainly the most remarkable body of work made for stereo viewing, however, was Les Diableries, a suite of 72 cards published anonymously in Paris, 1861. Produced during the rise of the Second Empire, Les Diableries‘s sculptural visions of satanic torture and merriment would have meant swift imprisonment for the artists under Napoleon III’s authoritarian rule. The photographer of these wonderfully macabre tableaux remains anonymous, although several of the sculptures appear to have signatures carved into the plaster, leading many to conclude that Pierre Adolphe Hennetier (1828-1888) was responsible for creating most of the tabletop dioramas.

Anon, “Conference par Mlle. Satan,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard (detail)

The artists most likely wished to remain anonymous for reasons beyond the profane: Les Diableries was a vicious satire on the Second Empire and Napoleon III, who was dubbed “Napoleon the Small” by Victor Hugo and mocked by Karl Marx. I haven’t studied the stereoscopes (or French history) enough to analyze them through this political lens, but a New York Times article from 1856 gives us a general list of grievances that may have been on the anonymous artists’ minds.

The state of things revealed there reminds us forcibly of the days of Louis XVI. Put a plebeian Emperor in the place of the legitimate old King and the aristocracy of wealth in place of the aristocracy of blood,… the stern unbending mind of Louis Napoleon in place of the soft, wavering, pliable heart of Louis Capet, and all the other features of both epochs—fraud in the higher, disgust in the middle, and want in the lower classes, blindness in the ruler, inanity in the clergy, impotence in the press, levity in literature, scandal in the theatres, debauchery in morals, cynicism in ethics, and depravity in society—all will with some slight modifications be found to be the same.

(It does feel safe to assume that “Visite du Soleil à Satan,” pictured here, represents an imaginary meeting between Napoleon III and Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” who was widely regarded as one of the country’s great historical rulers.)

Anon, “Visite du Soleil à Satan,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard (detail)

Regardless of its political underpinnings, Les Diableries mesmerizes on countless levels: the macabre charm of its handcrafted anti-Christs, the visual richness of its miniature scenes, the subversiveness of its anonymous origin, the way it presages unforgettable photographs and films by Jan Svankmajer, David Levinthal, Hans Bellmer, and Lori Nix by a full century (70 years in Bellmer’s case). But most of all, these images arrest us because of their exclusion from the historical canon: Who among us was taught that photographs like these circulated the streets of Paris during the decade of Le Gray and Disdèri? Given the lack of scholarship on Les Diableries, I’d guess very few.

Anon, “Le Loterie Infernale,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard

Pockets of political and aesthetic eccentricity like these remind me of an interview with Malcolm Daniel, Curator of Photography at the Met. “It remains one of the things that’s so exciting about photographic history, that there’s so much there to discover and also to present for the first time to the public and have them feel that same sense of discovery,” he says. “In photography, there are artists of absolutely the highest tier about whom little research has been done. We think the person’s already been done if there’s a catalog on Gustave Le Gray or Édouard Baldus. They’re not. There are many great photographers about whom there’s a single book or no book. So that’s exciting. It’s exciting as a curator, as a researcher, as a writer.”

Anon, “Le Jour de l’An en Enfer,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard (detail)

The most comprehensive online resource about Les Diableries is unquestionably Early Visual Media, although it leaves a lot to be desired, both in terms of visual documentation and scholarship. In 2004, Portland’s own Stereo World (“The World’s Best 3-D Magazine”) published “Classification of Diableries” by Robert Schrieber, and the only book devoted to the anonymous series is an extremely rare French volume entitled Diableries: La Vie Quotidienne Chez Satan à la Fin du 19e Siècle (Satan’s Day-to-Day Life in the Late 19th Century). Additional images from Les Diableries can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

*While most stereocards are indeed unremarkable (as are most photographs of any form), there are boundless exceptions to this generalization. A fraction of them can be found at these fine websites.

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.

Fireworks and freedom interfered with Newspace‘s normal opening reception schedule this month, so the gallery’s juried exhibition (which contains a generous helping of strong photos, I must say) will be celebrated tomorrow night with a reception from 7-10 pm.

But that’s not all that’s happening tomorrow night: I just got word that Michael Burnett is having an exhibition and book release party at Cal’s Pharmacy (15 NE Hancock) from 7-10 pm as well, with live music by Yes Father. Cal’s website says that “Most skateboard types who pay attention will know Mike as the driving force behind Thrasher Magazine over the last 5 years or so.” Presumably, everyone reading this has been paying attention, didn’t need the reminder, and is psyched to check out his new book of photos taken on tour in China and Russia, The Outskirts of Awesome. (The cover photo is pretty great.)

Also happening Friday evening: Apart from That makes its Portland debut at Living Room Theaters (across from Powell’s)! Directors Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin made this truly independent film in Mt. Vernon, Washington (better known as B.F.E.), and despite critical raves, they found themselves with a completed feature on their hands and zero distribution. So Walker and Shainin produced a gorgeous book to accompany the DVD, and have been hitting bookstores and hosting special screenings around the country. The film is fantastic; click one of the linked reviews for a synopsis, or just soak in these influences that the directors cite online: Uta Barth, Raymond Carver, John Cassavettes, Jim Jarmusch, William Eggleston, Edward Albee, and Daniel Johnston. All together now: *swoooon.*

Apart from That runs Fri-Tues at Living Room Theaters (film times here), but Friday’s 7:25 screening is the one to catch, as Walker and Shainin will be in attendance.

Zhuang Xueben, “Yaks in Mountains, Sichuan Province, Xikang Region,” 1937

Last month, Raul at Mexican Pictures asked if anybody knew about the Chinese photographer Zhuang Xueben, who created an extensive and beautiful record of Western China’s remote outreaches in the 1930s. Nobody has chimed in with anything too definitive yet, so I’ll add what I know. FotoFest mounted a sizable exhibition of Zhuang’s photographs in Houston this Spring, and I spent a lot of time with the work. His story is pretty incredible, as are his photographs. Infuriatingly Unfortunately, all of my notes were stolen when I returned to Portland, but here’s what I’ve got:

(The FotoFest catalogue features 14 of Zhuang’s photographs, and a biographical essay by Zhu Qi, which is where most of my information comes from.)

Zhuang Xueben, “Woman of Naxi People, Yang Ming County, Yunnan Province,” 1934

There are two crucial contexts to bear in mind when looking at Zhuang’s photographs: the state of Chinese photography in 1934, and the prevailing attitudes at the time within China about Tibetans and other indigenous people of the remote borderlands.

In an illustrated lecture about the history of Chinese photography, there was one unmistakable divide that preceded the Sino-Japanese war: photography before Zhuang Xueben, and photography after. China was very slow to adopt photography (and Modernity in general). It remained a culture steeped and shrouded in its own traditions, and its recent encounters with colonialist Westerners didn’t exactly get the Chinese excited to adopt their latest technological apparatuses. When photography did eventually catch on around the turn of the 20th century, it was used to create what were essentially traditional Chinese paintings, and camera clubs and periodicals at the time were filled with static studio portraits and woefully maudlin, faux-Pictorialist scenes of birds on tree branches and tranquil ponds. (It’s easy to find coffee table books and websites that show photography from China at this time that would initially seem to contradict this assessment, but a quick check will usually confirm that—like so many photography books being published about China today—they are Western views of the foreign country.) Quite simply, there was nothing in the Chinese history books that could have prepared anyone for Zhuang’s clear-eyed, steady vision; in Western terms, it would be like leapfrogging from amateur imitations of PH Emerson scenes to August Sander’s “Young Farmers.” In this sense, Zhuang was a true visionary.

Zhuang Xueben, “Tibetan Buddhist Monk, Living in Heaven and Giving Light to the Soul, Yu Shu County, Qing Hai Province,” 1937

In the 1930s, the Tibetan regions of southwestern China existed on maps as an enormous expanse where few ventured. Popular imagination held that the mountain-dwelling minorities were enormous, barbaric people, “slandered as uncivilized savages,” recalls the Zhuang’s son in an unpublished interview, “with disheveled hair, dressed in leather, eating raw meat, and sleeping in open wild fields.”

In 1933 Zhuang Xueben set out to make the 2,700 mile trek—first on foot, then on camel—to photograph these monstrous, cannabalistic tribesmen. It wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought.

Part two will be posted this weekend.

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.