Falseness close to kin
The picture necessarily fails both its maker and its subject matter. As painful as that sounds, it's actually ok: as a new thing in the world, the photograph is not to be judged by fidelity to mind or referent, but by its own internal standard of usefulness.Read more
While walking with Mark Steinmetz
Who better to roam the French capital with than Mark Steinmetz, author of Paris in my time? We started our conversation over breakfast in a bustling café in Montmartre and then made our way to the Place de Clichy, with Mark all the while making pictures (listen closely for the shutter) for an ongoing project. We talked about Atget and Cartier-Bresson, light and weather, punks and tennis. About Winogrand and exceeding yourself with a camera.
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On hopePast experience (the self) and the current moment (the world outside the self) come together in a creative moment that only exists because of our hope, because we realize the possibility of bridging self and not-self and making it communicable to others in the future.Read more
I lost itA moment of unexpected loss is accompanied by a Lucinda Williams song . . . which invokes Vic Chestnut . . . who then summons Wallace Stevens and his "fabulous blackbird / Of thirteen stages." After that it's not too far to Lee Freidlander, Andrea Modica, and Mark Steinmetz, and the beauty of inflections and innuendoes.Read more
While walking with John Gossage
A couple months after our publication of John Gossage's A Dozen Failures, we talked with John about that title, some of his previous projects, and the history of photobooks running from Atget to Evans and Frank to Baltz and up to today. The conversation was edited into “A Walking Conversation with John Gossage,” for SPOT magazine, published by the Houston Center for Photography.
And that failures book he talks about? You can get your own copy here.Read more
The photographer's non-photography syllabus: Alec SothI reflected for a long time on this request to name five non-photography books I would put on a syllabus for other photographers to read. As the months went by, I began to question my procrastination. Was I afraid my list wouldn’t sound smart enough? Or did I not believe I was worthy of giving meaningful recommendations?Read more
The forest for the trees
I’d always thought of the title of William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest as a sort of mischevious redundancy. Left to its own devices, a forest is a model of democracy, and it can hardly be otherwise. It takes human intervention in the form of monoculture to strip the diversity from the woods, making them more easily exploitable but less able to survive in a challenging environment on their own. In its recent and weighty Steidl expansion, Eggleston’s forest has suffered just such an intrusion. And to similarly ill effect.Read more
The beauty in what remainsRaymond Meeks’s work challenges us, at those moments in our lives where a cycle comes full circle, to look for the beauty in what remains. Because only in that beauty can we find the reasons to move forward once again. “My fear,” Robert Adams once said, “is that we in the art world are not consistently and ardently enough addressing that old traditional job of art: to reconcile us to life.” The openheartedness, the integrity, and the dignity with which Meeks continues to do this in his work, is hopeful.Read more
Intuitions of unity
My copy of Beauty in Photography is pretty heavily underlined throughout, and nowhere more than in the title essay. But with all the marks and margin notes I’ve made, there is only one instance of double underlining:
Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering without meaning.
There’s much to unpack in that short Q and A.Read more
Some things I really liked this year and one I didn’t
Books are fun. Music is fun. People are fun (lots). Pictures are fun. Lists are fun. This past year was fun, for the most part.
Here are a few things that gave me hope in 2015.Read more
On photography and generosity
Somewhere around the end of last summer, I posted a photograph on Facebook. It was a rather unknown black and white photograph by the late Saul Leiter of his sister Deborah. It was made in 1947. I posted it after writer and lecturer Jörg Colberg had written a piece on his blog about the “gestures” of photography. “The age of innocence is long over in photography,” Colberg writes.“There have been way too many photographs made for anyone to be able to innocently take a picture anywhere.”
So when I posted the photograph of Deborah on Facebook, I wrote: “Let's pretend there still is some innocence to it. Let's pretend it can be somewhat pure, even though it probably never was – not even in 1947.”Read more
I remember writing these words, from the play In the Park by Edgar Oliver, in my notebook immediately after I saw him perform the piece last summer:
Longing is the only magic of which we are capable
I remember how I felt when I heard the first few lines of Edgar’s play:
I am a hesitant man. It seems to me that I have spent my life half lost in some rapturous dream I dreamt as a child from which I have never awakened. Perhaps I don’t want to wake up. If I woke – I think I would find that I have failed to live. I think that I died as a child. Well – some part of me stopped. But some part of me kept going. I keep on wandering.
I remember when some part of me stopped. At least, I sort of remember.Read more
The spirit of the case
Judy Fiskin says that Walker Evans succeeded where his FSA boss Roy Stryker failed "because Evans settled for art. Stryker succumbed to the false promise of photography, strove to represent literally the world’s profusion, and inevitably produced a body of work whose scope seems puny compared to its model." Evans worked in a "more condensed, allusive, and circular manner."
Flannery O'Connor calls it "distortion," and TS Eliot says that it's "pressure" that distinguishes art from experience, and creates a new thing in the world. And in fact, it's this artifice that, according to Michael Chabon, "makes explicit... the yearning... to analogize the world, and at the same time frankly emphasizes the limitations, the confines, of [our] ability to do so.”Read more
Mark Strand, the late Poet Laureate for the Library of Congress, once wrote about the passionate feelings engendered by family photographs, noting that, in contrast, "When confronted with images of the world, we are rarely stung into revisions and reassessments of ourselves in relation to it.”
If that statement were even close to true, neither you nor I would be here right now. May I suggest that in fact Strand describes precisely the reason that you and I and our like-minded friends commune: because we are so often stung into revisions an reassessments of ourselves in relation to the world by photographs of that world.Read more
Miles from our home
"[The photographer's eye is] a dreaming eye: quick to seize the instant in which the fortuitous dance of forms reveals the essential truth, the ineffable thusness of the object. Only in such moments can the photographer be said to have conquered his medium, as the poet conquers language, to have tricked light and shade into telling the truth which is beyond themselves (and the photographer, too)," wrote Michael Gregory in Aperture in 1961.
In a song called "Miles From our Home," Cowboy Junkies make the same assertion for life and love.Read more
The photographer's non-photography syllabus: Mark Steinmetz
TIS is happy to present the second installment of “The Photographer’s Non-photography Syllabus,” for which we asked a number of folks to share with us the five or so books that they would recommend to other photographers. Fiction or non-, novels, plays, poems, whatever (even records or films) – the only rule is NO PHOTOBOOKS.
This syllabus comes courtesy of Mark Steinmetz, whose latest book, The Players, was recently published by Nazraeli.Read more
Auto care, sincerely
"Personal and historical associations, irrational attachments and affections, to take their place as legitimate elements of the aesthetic experience,” wrote Dr. L.A. Reid in "A Study in Aesthetics." Last summer, the exhibition of Justine Kurland's project "Sincere Auto Care" gave me an opportunity to embrace some loaded, automobile-related personal associations and attachments, rational or not. And then an experience with the artist herself upped the ante.Read more
The dog who catches the car gets killed, sometimes
When I moved to the Kensington section of Philadelphia, I was shocked by what I saw going on: drugs, sex and violence were openly sold and exchanged on the streets, and while the police had no apparent interest, I was curious about all of it. But I was afraid to get close. I was afraid to engage with the people in the neighborhood.
But then I started using photography to find my “limit” and test my boundaries. What was too much? What was too close? What made me uncomfortable? How did that affect the work? All excellent questions. But inevitably they lead to others: What happens when you do cross that threshold? How far is too far?Read more
A round and about
"You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story . . . I myself prefer to say that a story is a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person – that is, because he shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation."
So saith Flannery O'Connor, and so it is. Some thoughts on resistance to "aboutness" in photography.Read more
The photographer's non-photography syllabus: Christian Patterson
Today we very happily launch “The Photographer’s Non-photography Syllabus,” for which we asked a number of folks to share with us the five or so books that they would recommend to other photographers. Fiction or non-, novels, plays, poems, whatever (even records or films) – the only rule is NO PHOTOBOOKS.
Our first contributor is Christian Patterson, whose new book Bottom of the Lake will be published in a trade edition by König Books later this summer.Read more
All apologiesSo I bought a book of tour photographs taken by Andy Summers, the guitarist for the Police. I did it because (a) I’m a Police fan and (b) I think they’re one of the cutest, most adorable bands ever. But then something really weird happened: I started to appreciate it as, like, an actual photobook.Read more
Of all the gifts my father has given me, which are considerable indeed, the greatest may be that of close, direct attentiveness (the “natural prayer of the soul,” according to Benjamin), at least on a few rare and wonderful occasions.
Here's what trainwatching in central Illinois with Dad has taught me about attentiveness and boredom and luck, with the help of regional literary heroes William Maxwell, David Foster Wallace, and Langston Hughes.Read more
Verse chorus verse
“Most artists make art precisely because they feel some sort of absence or incoherence in their lives. It seems not simply inevitable but necessary that the art they produce in some way seek to contain or heal whatever is missing or wounded or wrongful in them,” writes Christian Wiman in an essay called “An Idea of Order.” Wiman explores often and beautifully this absence and containment in relation to form in poetry, but this particular essay has been on my mind lately because of Wiman’s focus on familiar or classic forms – the sonnet, for example – and my enduring interest in the standard pop song.Read more
Natur vs Nurtur
Michael Schmidt always looked at the world uncompromisingly, painfully, even brutally. In his final book, a restless mind finds some measure of peace, confident in its status as a mind, as a unique self in the world. As such, it is not only a photographic, but also a literary, achievement.Read more
Mysteries of the unexplained
Interesting photographs typically raise more questions than they answer. And sometimes those questions are utterly unanswerable – not because they are murky issues of opinion or interpretation, but rather because they point to some sort of historical “fact.” As in: “What happened here?” and, much more beguilingly, “Why?”
So let’s take a trip down the wormhole of the photographic puzzlement.Read more
When I first saw some pictures from Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters” – probably almost 20 years ago – I dismissed the collective as a gimmick. I thought just about anyone could come up with that idea: photographing the same set of friends or relatives, arranged in the same way, on a regular basis. But boy did I ever get “The Brown Sisters” wrong. All wrong. The recent MoMA show and book of the entire 40-year set finally sealed the deal.
I had to wonder why my opinion changed so drastically. It pretty simply comes down to the devastatingly obvious: 1) the Brown sisters are getting older, and 2) so am I.Read more
The heart is attached
The photographer John Myers once said: “The world is not beautiful – it is there.” The part of me that took a Zen Buddhism class back in college – and learned of non-attachment – couldn’t agree more. Yet the photographer part of me is so often overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. How to reconcile? Or at least exist happily in the contradiction? Keats to the rescue?Read more
Artifacts and moments
Last summer, a concert by The National totally recontextualized the songs on the band's latest record, and made me hear the music in a new way. I got to wondering if photobooks are photographers’ versions of LPs (the artifact) and exhibitions or installations are our equivalents of live shows (the moment). And that perhaps our independent experiences of the artifact and the moment can modify each other and lead to a new conception of the work.Read more
The World Cup is boring. Novels are boring. Baseball is mostly boring. Anything that's not a constant highlight reel is boring.
So let us now praise these and many other things uneventful. It's when nothing very much "happens" that some really interesting stuff is given the chance to actually happen. On those occasions when the source of our attention doesn't offer up easy surface pleasures, the viewer must actively participate in the making of meaning. And when that occurs, it’s no longer “about” the thing experienced; rather, it’s about the viewer. It’s all interior. Which is a weird and thrilling place to be.Read more
Victoria Williams, photographer
“Whitman has the photographer’s eye, but no camera,” says Wright Morris in his essay “In Our Image.” The (vastly vastly underappreciated, in my humble opinion) singer-songwriter Victoria Williams has the photographer’s eye, too, and in spades, but even better I think she has the photographer’s heart.Read more