Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on Aperture.org. In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to aperture.org/blog. Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.
In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.
In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.
“I want to keep the images on a precipice but it’s not one I can easily explain with words.” So says Laura Letinsky, the Chicago-based photographer with exhibitions now on view at the Denver Art Museum and the Photographers’ Gallery in London. I interviewed her for aperture.org; the conversation can be found here.
Several weeks ago I interviewed curator Okwui Enwezor about “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” an exhibition he organized with Rory Smith for the International Center of Photography in New York. The show remains on view through Sunday, January 6. We discussed the exhibition, the relationship between the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, and about how this exhibition aligns with other shows he has presented in New York institutions. Click here to read the edited transcript.
During the mid- to late 1960s, photographer Danny Lyon chronicled the “slum clearance” required by two enormous infrastructure projects in New York City: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center. The results were solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings, the men responsible for bringing those structures down, and, in interior scenes, the accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. After the violent obliteration of the Twin Towers in 2001, renewed attention to Lyon’s project, evocatively titled The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, was perhaps inevitable; indeed, it has enjoyed quite a renaissance. In 2005 PowerHouse republished to wide acclaim Lyon’s original book of the photographs. The series was also the primary inspiration for the 2010 Mixed Use, Manhattan exhibition at the Reina Sofía in Madrid, which surveyed artists’ interactions with postindustrial New York’s buildings and spaces. Finally, last summer and fall, the Princeton University Art Museum presented The Life and Death of Buildings, which curator Joel Smith was motivated to organize after a collector donated to the museum a complete set of Lyon’s pictures.
Smith’s curatorial effort, drawn largely from his museum’s collection, was a meditation on the role photographs play in granting us access to pasts no longer extant. Buildings and photographs are both artifacts that can be located in history, Smith notes, but each embodies a different sense of time. Buildings accumulate pasts, which shadow every encounter one has with them in the present. (Certain examples even make explicit their history, like the Bundestag in Berlin, the redesign of which deliberately left its walls pockmarked with World War II–era bullet holes and covered in the graffiti of Russian soldiers.) Photographs freeze a specific moment, excise it from its context, and make aspects of that moment accessible at a later date. To analyze these differences, and to focus viewers’ minds on the concept of time, Smith deployed his copious material, which ranged across the entire history of photography and several continents, in a somewhat unusual manner. He intentionally disavowed the divergent aims of the photographers included in the show—amateur and professional alike. Everything, then, became more or less “documentary.” Similarly, because no building appeared repeatedly, and we were thus denied a full understanding of its “life,” each skyscraper or cathedral represented the category “building” as much as or more than it represented itself.
Though at first I chafed at this selective curatorial framing, Smith’s criteria gave coherence to his expansive selection. Under such constraints, formal connections suggest themselves immediately, as between a detail of thirteenth-century brass work on a door of Notre Dame cathedral, captured by the Bisson Frères circa 1854, and the foliate handiwork in John Szarkowski’s Corner Pier, The Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York (1951). But unexpected links revealed themselves as well. The surface of walls was given close scrutiny in a section labeled “The Sentient Wall,” which featured midcentury abstractions depicting buildings ravaged by time. In these works, by Aaron Siskind, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Doisneau, and others, the “sentience” accumulates after the building is erected. Yet this arrangement prompted in me a reconsideration of the decorative patterning in the Bisson and Szarkowski photographs as a kind of sentience of its own. (Think of John Ruskin’s description of Gothic builders as free to creatively employ their talents; the resultant walls literally embody their craftsmen’s knowledge.) If, as this thought suggests, the lives of buildings begin before they are completed, evidence abounded in this exhibition that it likewise extends beyond their deaths. Richard Misrach’s White Man Contemplating Pyramids (1989) and Philip Henry Delamotte’s 1856 picture of the dilapidated cloister at Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey both remind us that a structure’s affective potential can far outlast its original uses. So, too, does Tim Davis’s witty photograph of nearly two dozen tourists’ cameras resting on the pavement, their viewfinders displaying just-snapped shots of the Colosseum in Rome.
What did this collection of pictures suggest about time? A basic lesson came insistently to mind: time exposes the frailty inherent in all human endeavors—even the grandest and most secure-seeming ones. In some instances that frailty was evident in the images themselves. The first gallery included century-old photo-postcards depicting homesteaders posing with their ramshackle homes. “BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE…” reads the ironic handwritten inscription on one, its sender surely aware of the insecurity of his perch on the plains. In most cases, however, the recognition that what is depicted no longer exists imparted the same message. Though both life and death appear in its title, the general drift of this exhibition was toward ends, toward ruins.
Many of photography’s earliest practitioners, such as Delamotte, had a Romantic predilection for photographing ruins; it’s as if the awareness of death upon which Smith focuses is encoded in the medium. But this is perhaps fitting, as an additional level of melancholy inheres in the recognition that photographs themselves are extremely fragile. Those early photo-postcards are rare survivors from an era that saw the creation and delivery of millions just like them. Photographs possess a rare power, granting us something akin to the capacity to time-travel, but that power lasts only as long as does the ability to read their surfaces. Thomas Ruff’s jpeg co01 (2004), in the show’s final gallery, draws together these themes. The wall-size print depicts the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, the iconic structures enveloped in a haze of smoke, ash, and dust. Yet because Ruff made the photograph by scaling up a compressed JPEG file, pixelization further obscures its ostensible subject. The momentous event, the erasure of the towers that had replaced what Danny Lyon so carefully captured on film, recedes from us ever further.
Sara VanDerBeek’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 2009 exhibition was A Composition for Detroit, a quartet of photographs made that year. Like the photographs she had been exhibiting for the previous half decade, it is made up of images of images: each panel depicts a geometric scaffold, erected against a dark backdrop in the artist’s studio, to which she affixed reproductions of other photographs, including ones by Walker Evans and Leonard Freed. Unlike her earlier works, however, A Composition for Detroit also includes images VanDerBeek herself shot while visiting Motor City. Some of these component parts are in the background, obscured by the scaffolding or a painted pane of glass hung on it; others are depicted whole. VanDerBeek has said that the idea for the work came from a bank of broken windows she saw in Detroit, and the blank spaces in her composition—both within and across the four panels—deftly evoke that inspiration and give the work a syncopated rhythm. A Composition for Detroit is a threnody for a place laid low by the mid-century flight of manufacturing and its middle-class tax base, a place now grappling with the additional traumas of the current economic recession. With its inclusion of careworn photographic reproductions and its spacing across multiple panels, the work is also, more broadly, a meditation on time and entropy.
The photographs for which VanDerBeek first became known were, like the piece exhibited at MoMA, created in the studio with techniques borrowed from sculpture and collage. Most feature a single, somewhat rickety construction, laden with both photographic reproductions and talismanic objects—feathers, necklaces and chains, ribbons, and the like. The pictures are themselves invocations, calling forth the spirits of modernist precursors, from Constantin Brancusi and Alexander Calder to László Moholy-Nagy and Max Ernst; of classical cultures and historical figures; and of the artist’s father, the experimental filmmaker and artist Stan VanDerBeek, for whom the canny juxtaposition of images was second nature. Sara VanDerBeek brought together items ripped from the pages of art-history surveys and mass-market magazines or extracted from her father’s archive or from her own collections, placing them in exquisite if somewhat precious arrangements that she bathed in dramatic light. The resulting photographs, with evocative titles like A Different Kind of Idol, Ziggurat, and Mrs. Washington’s Bedroom (all 2006), are long on atmosphere and rich in allusions: each fragment is a keyhole into another world. Everything is suspended within shallow, anonymous spaces. These images, while possessing the qualities of a dream, are also commentaries on the erosion of boundaries in today’s media environment and on the instantaneous retrieval of historical information made possible by modern technology. They present history as image, or as a palimpsest of images. VanDerBeek makes calculated use of light, shadow, color, and the boundaries of the picture plane. Yet the prints are unusual in a distinct way. Each image is a one-to-one-scale replica of its subject: that is, a tabletop arrangement of twenty-by-sixteen inches results in a print of approximately the same dimensions. Each photograph is not only an index of something that once existed in the world; it is a direct copy of that worldly presence.
Having developed a unique pictorial language, VanDerBeek spent several years honing it, a process that first entailed the stripping away of extraneous elements and later the near total exclusion of photographic reproductions. The busily referential works she exhibited in 2006 gave way to a series of increasingly spare compositions, such as Eclipse I (2008). In that image, two photographic reproductions of ancient sculptural figures are affixed to a vertical, white-painted wooden pole. Also affixed to it is a thin metal ring from which emanates a series of string “rays” (likely the source of the work’s title). Subtle details animate the composition, reminding viewers that they are looking at a sculpture in space, not a flat image composed on a screen: one of the classical reproductions is affixed to the side of the pole and one to its front face; the entire arrangement is not perpendicular to the lens but slightly off-kilter; the “rays” slice diagonally downward, while the shadows the construction projects onto the white backdrop canter off in the opposite direction. After (2009) achieves a similar complexity without recourse to other images, relying instead on the play of angles and simple washes of paint over plastic and glass for incident.
In more recent works, color too has been drained from the image—VanDerBeek shoots with color film but prints in black and white. Caryatid (2010) is one example of this technique. A column of six cast-plaster forms rests on a sun-dappled wooden floor between two windows. The light streaming through them washes out the upper corners of the composition, leaving an inverted T to offset the thin vertical presence in the center of the image. Mirrors resting on the floor reflect VanDerBeek’s caryatid, hinting at Brancusian endlessness. Such a simple figure seems to aim for the impassiveness and iconicity of an architectural column or a totem pole, yet the handmade quality of VanDerBeek’s construction remains evident. Here is something stark and timeless, yet expressive of an individual maker.
VanDerBeek’s series of reductive gestures approaches an endpoint with images like Treme (2010). Two blocky forms, white over blue, rest against a neutral gray and white background; they too are cast in plaster, and have been painted in simple vertical washes. Despite its reticent minimalism and its genesis within the walls of VanDerBeek’s studio, the picture has a real-world referent: its juxtaposition of colors mimics the stairway outside an abandoned modernist schoolhouse the artist encountered in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
Treme is part of To Think of Time, the three-part suite of new photographs (all 2010) comprising VanDerBeek’s first solo exhibition in a museum, presented last autumn at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. In advance of that show, VanDerBeek returned to the field, this time visiting two new sites that lend themselves to meditations on past and present: New Orleans, which was then about to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and Baltimore, the artist’s hometown. The locations symbolize VanDerBeek’s attempt (begun with the work created after her foray to Detroit) to examine how both private and public memories are encoded in the physical environments we inhabit. Inspired by the observational acuity and sensitivity of Walt Whitman, from whom two of the exhibition’s photographic arrangements draw their titles (Song of Myself and Sleepers), the roughly three dozen small-scale images present fragments, whether captured in the field or constructed in VanDerBeek’s Brooklyn studio. In the image Treme School Window, one windowpane opens to reveal a metaphorical black hole at the center of the composition. Another, Baltimore Window, depicts an antique leaded window, exhumed from dusty seclusion in the basement of the artist’s childhood home, resting in a slot carved into a rectangular block of plaster; a narrow shaft of light cuts through the window and falls directly behind it onto the wall.
Such resonant images, gathered into a halting frieze around the Whitney’s first-floor gallery, were punctuated by nearly abstract photographs of building foundations in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. The concrete slabs carry evidence of the houses they supported, such as rust-caked holes into which rebar once slotted, and the scraps and gouges left behind by the storm. As VanDerBeek told exhibition curator Tina Kukielski, “I felt when looking down upon them for the first time that these foundations retained in their surfaces the entire history of our civilization. They reminded me of early pictographs, and with their pale fragments of color and texture, they echoed the images of fractured frescoes or ancient Greek and Roman art.” The works’ grayscale tones are joined by hints of dusky blue or sunrise pink, indicative of the natural light in which all the images, whether shot inside or outside the studio, were made. The light itself is a subtle indicator of time’s passage. Reading the installation from left to right, the amount of light in each image gradually rises and then dissipates. It would be easy to extrapolate from this sunrise-to-sunset narrative a tragic tale of decay: urban infrastructure enters into terminal decline, its only remaining function to bear noble witness to the lives lived in its midst. But to do so would be to neglect an idea that the generative, studio-based half of VanDerBeek’s work speaks to: around the corner there is always a new dawn.
It is not hard to see how the Great Plains might have driven early American pioneers to agoraphobic distraction. Photographer Joe Deal hails from this empty region, and after several decades cataloging the interaction of people and landscape, often in the farther American West, he has returned here for his new series West and West. At first glance these square-format black-and-white photographs, twenty-three of which were installed close together in one room of this exhibition, appear relatively characterless, their uniform horizon line encircling the space. But, like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ostensibly simple photographs of open seas, upon closer inspection Deal’s images reveal a landscape full of incident. The land is threaded with streams, or is interrupted occasionally by a knotty rock formation. Small hills calve and fold. A random tree punctuates one scene like an exclamation mark.
Deal has compared the camera’s imposition of a frame on this environment to the mechanical act performed by surveyors. Yet early rationalist grids—such as Thomas Jefferson’s proposed division of the land west of the Appalachians, or the Kansas-Nebraska Act—caused speculators to disregard the landscape’s variety. Deal’s camera, by contrast, lovingly catalogs its diversity. The startling incongruity from picture to picture is highlighted by a trio of images hung close to one another in the show: Wash, Red Hills (2007), in which a shall natural depression reveals stratified layers of rock; Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains (2005), in which thin clouds hover just above a featureless black expanse; and Flint Hills (2006), which is strewn with lunar-looking rocks. The tension Deal achieves between strict regularity and variety, between grid and ground, is in large measure the source of these photographs’ power.
On another level, the minimalist compositions of West and West—each print is perfectly bisected by the horizon line—comment on what constitutes “landscape” to the human eye. A swipe of sky and swipe of ground: it’s as simple a definition as an artist can deploy. That Deal may have such abstract questions of representation in mind is underscored by the pictures from another recent series, Kars and Pseudokarst, installed in a second room. In this project, which takes its name from the two often indistinguishable types of caves it depicts, Deal has chosen to shoot both from the inside and the outside of the caves, resulting in two very different types of prints. When he peers in, the allover compositions give the impression that the cave mouths, whether dusty and rocky or fringed with green, allow passage through the surface of the print, literalizing the cliché about representational pictures being a “window onto a world.” Even more striking is the sensation, felt when looking at the images taken from within the caves’ dark interiors, that one is positioned inside a camera lens as it admits the light of day. In these two series, Deal, an integral part of the New Topographics cohort, subtracts the signs of humankind’s incurions into the “natural” landscape, which he is well known for recording. Yet he does not sacrifice the complexity of his meditations upon that landscape—upon not only the land itself, but also his particular means of representing it.
Many variables structure the exchange between cameras and dancers, including whether the lens captures a still image or motion, whether the camera itself is static or moving, whether the performers acknowledge the camera’s presence, and whether the camera aims for a synoptic overview or fragmented details. The small first gallery of “Dance with Camera,” an exhibition and screening program organized by Jenelle Porter for Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, includes work that vary these characteristics like reels in a slot machine. In the process they offer a succinct introduction to the show’s catholic approach to its subject. Elegantly composed photographs by Christopher Williams and Kelly Nipper suggest the passage of time from mobile and fixed vantage points, respectively. A video of Eleanor Antin’s ungainly attempts to assume ballet poses for a male photographer belies the elegance of his pictures of her, which hang on the wall nearby. Mike Kelley’s static eight-and-a-half-minute video of two dancers performing on a laboratory-like stage set seems like unmanned CCTV footage. In contrast, Charles Atlas’s Fractions I (1977) alternates black-and-white and color footage of Merce Cunningham’s company dancing a work that was intended to be recorded: as each camera tracks the performers, it passes before monitors displaying what other cameras are recording, creating a kind of picture-within-a-picture.
Round the corner into the museum’s main spaces and Cunningham himself appears, in another Atlas recording (included in a “video kiosk” highlighting inspirations for the show) and in a 2007 film by Tacita Dean in which he gives a majestically reserved performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. Yet “Dance with Camera” is by no means limited to artists recording professional dancers. A pair of recent videos by Oliver Herring document the stout painter Joyce Pensanto acting out choreographic fantasies with younger male partners. Two generations earlier, Bruce Nauman tapped his way around a square marked off on his studio floor, and Bruce Conner captured Toni Basil’s delirious gyrations against a black backdrop, a piece that rhymes nicely with Joachim Koester’s 2007 film Tarantism, in which a group of young men and women convulse uncontrollably in a similarly featureless environment. In his 2007 film Untitled (Agon), Elad Lassry deployed suggestions outlined in Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to position his cameras for the documentation of the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Lassry’s film is one of the few included here to offer not only exquisite compositions but also, with its close-up views of the dancers’ faces in between performances, some sense of just who is in front of the camera.
The plethora of filmic components in this presentation inevitably creates minor problems, such as sound bleed and distractions in one’s peripheral vision. But unlike many surveys that rely on time-based media, “Dance with Camera” is admirably well programmed with works that are varied in their approach but of relatively short duration. A two-hour visit neither exhausts a viewer’s patience nor leaves one with the sinking feeling of having missed great swaths of what was on offer. The exhibition successfully presents dance as a profitable frame of reference through which to understand anew collaboration, narrative propulsion, the body, and other topics artists wrestle with today.
Two other notes: First, the catalogue for the exhibition, designed by Conny Purtill of the Purtill Family Business, is wonderfully put together. Not only does it feature an impressive (and impressively long) essay by Porter, but it includes choice reprints that span several decades. These texts reflect upon both specific artworks in the exhibition and the general issues it raises. It’s a lovely object, one well worth having in your library if the issues addressed by the exhibition interest you. Second, as my interest in photography grows it has been a pleasure to contribute to Aperture, and this issue includes a plethora of articles I’m looking forward to reading, including Geoffrey Batch’s review of “The Pictures Generation,” Tim Davis’s review of the new “New Topographics” exhibition, and my talented friend Alan Gilbert’s essay on Walid Raad’s art.
Seen one at a time, Jochen Lempert’s black-and-white photographs of the natural world and its inhabitants do not make great claims upon a viewer. Some have artless compositions; others seem out of focus or to have no subject at all. Encountered in aggregate, however, as in Field Work, the first major survey of Lempert’s photographs presented outside his native Germany, they possess a quietly mesmeric force. This exhibition, organized by Miguel Wandschneider, was an unforeseen revelation. Its scores of images, printed at modest scale on thick paper that the artist allows to warp slightly as it dries, were presented unframed, either singly or in rows and grids according to subject. These arrangements collapsed the distinctions between documentary naturalism and lyrical Conceptualism, the two contemporary photographic genres into which one is tempted to slot Lempert’s work. That Lempert’s silver-gelatin prints look more like charcoal drawings than they do conventional photographs further accentuates the artist’s singular achievement.
Lempert trained as a biologist before embarking upon his work as a photographer in the early 1990s, and the scientist’s rigorous avidity was one of this exhibition’s leitmotifs. He pursues his (mostly avian) subjects intently, finding them both in the field—whether urban or rural—and in the natural history museum. One series of images, each printed smaller than a sheet of letter-size paper, depicts lone cormorants moving gracefully through various urban environments: one is silhouetted against the sky between an imposing skyscraper façade and the delicate filigree of tree branches; another hovers just above a river’s surface at the bottom of a picture dominated by an apartment tower and a bridge. Still others register the concentric ripples set off by the birds’ feet as they flap across unknown waterways, evoking Adam Fuss’s tranquil studies of splashes. Several other series, arrayed in grids, depict the heads and beaks of various taxidermy specimens in a uniform style, calling to mind not only the presentations in natural-history museums but also Richard Prince’s collections of women extracted from advertisements and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial censuses.
A vein of romanticism counterbalanced these quasi-scientific investigations—and not every photograph has as its subject a bird or birds. One series, A Voyage on the North Sea (2007), includes six images of roiling waves cropped so that each presents the same horizon line. The quixotic nature of the endeavor—how could one document the sea in a systematic manner?—belies the uniformity of the presentation. In another gallery, five pictures of “photosynthesis”—lovely images of sunlight streaming through trees—were juxtaposed with a photographs of fire: depictions of the production of energy were neatly counterbalanced with depictions of its consumption. Lempert’s most abstruse and poetic collection of images, Symmetry and Architecture of the Body (1997-2005), was presented in the final gallery. Here one encountered photographs of coral, a flamingo, the back of a man’s head, a goat, a goose, and a tattoo of a bat on a woman’s shoulder, among other subjects. Rendered in the same unselfconscious style as many of the other photographs included here, the esoteric links between these images—they cohered visually but the logic of the juxtapositions remained elusive—further stressed what had become increasingly apparent as one moved through the show. Far from being mere “nature studies,” Lempert’s photographs are evidence of an artistic sensibility compelled to wrest order from circumstance, and, through the tight control of progression, variation, focus, scale, and exposure, to make of this order something enchanting.