Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Eugene Atget, Trianon, Versailles, 1923-24

Eugene Atget photographed what he saw. His intention was to earn a living - which he did mainly by selling prints to painters seeking guides to a particular subject or scene - while preserving some record of a Paris that was vanishing before his eyes. In both temperament and intent he was a realist.

How is it, then, that so many of his photographs are so surreal?

L'Air, St. Cloud Eugene Atget 1901

Eugene Atget, Route, Amien (before 1900)

A paradox, heightened by the fact that when Atget made these pictures, Surrealism as an art movement barely existed. Andre Breton did not write the Surrealist Manifesto until 1924, three years before Atget's death. Nor, though The Interpretation of Dreams had been published in 1900, were Freud's ideas the common currency they are today. Some Surrealist painters - Ernst, Kandinsky, DeChirico - were active just prior to World War I, but if Atget was familiar with them there is no sign of it in his work.

Eugene Atget, Fete du Trone, 1904

And unlike theirs, Atget's surrealism was neither literary nor labored. It derived not from theory or even intent but from some unintended transmutation of dreams into art.

How might that occur? Is there, perhaps, something in the nature of photography that inclines it to the surreal? Susan Sontag, for one, thought that photography is the only art that is inherently surreal, a quality she located precisely in its capacity for verisimilitude: "Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision."

Maybe. Certainly dreams inhabit a duplicate world, narrower but more dramatic than waking life. But not all photographs attain that status. Not all photographers would want to. Atget expressed no interest in dreams. Yet there are his pictures, as dreamlike as they could be.

Monday, January 29, 2007

San Francisco

Even then there were among the rich those sufficiently emboldened to fly for all to see their true colors.

(Or whatever.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna, Lone Tree, Bibaushi, Hokkaido, Japan, 2004. Copyright M. Kenna.

Tilting the camera up a little is, of course, as much an aesthetic stance as it is something you actually do with a camera. The Pictorialists, many of whom never saw a piece of gauze they didn't like, were the prime adherents of this stance. Among their modern disciples is Michael Kenna.

I don't think I have ever seen a Kenna picture with which the word "beautiful" could not reasonably be associated. Is this a good thing? It depends, I suppose, on what is done to attain beauty, and on what is neglected.

Kenna typically photographs scenes in which natural imperfection is obscured in one way or another, whether by the enveloping presence of snow or mist, by the less natural smoothing effect of long exposures on clouds and water, or by frank manipulation in the darkroom.

Nothing wrong with any of that. Or is there? I think maybe there is. Implicit in every Kenna photograph is a statement that the world as it is just isn't good enough. That it can be improved upon by stratagems such as cottony skies and weirdly smooth water (tricks that, regrettably, have spread well beyond Kenna to become ubiquitous among a certain class of "artistic" photographer.)

(Worse still - in my view at least - this impulse has a more than passing relation to the yearning for a better world elsewhere that is at the heart of most religions. (For a possibly impolitic rant on this subject, you may or may not want to scroll back to December 25, 2006.))

No question that most things could by improved upon, but I think it's also pretty clear that art based on an exclusionary principle of beauty is never as strong as art in which beauty, if there is to be any, arises from the honest inclusion of elements that may not themselves be beautiful.

Take Kenna's Hokkaido pictures, like Lone Tree, above. They're beautiful, but is there any truth in them?

I prefer Daido Moriyama's Japan:

Daido Moriyama, Stray Dog, Misawa, Aomari, 1971. Copyright Daido Moriyama.

Or Eugene Smith's:

Eugene Smith, Couple Fishing, Minimata, Japan, 1971 Copyright Heirs of E. Smith

Or that of Masahisa Fukase, whose ravens are also from Hokkaido:

Masahisa Fukase, Ravens, Hokkaido, 1983 Copyright Masahisa Fukase

Anyway, you know what Keats said.

Kenna's new show was touted recently over at The Online Photographer (amidst ads for the likes of Alain Briot and Tasteful Nudes. ) On Tim Atherton's blog, which has an interesting discussion of Kenna, one reader noted what may be the best thing about him: he prints small.

In San Francisco, Kenna is represented by
Stephen Wirtz.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Georgie sez . . .

Happy Birthday, Laurie!

Friday, January 19, 2007


Speaking of Ansel, I certainly had more respect for the guy before I tried to photograph in Yosemite myself. What most impressed me, back then, was his apparent ability to arrange for the private viewings that enabled him to depict the place without its characteristic people, cars, and garbage.

Then I discovered the secret: just tilt the camera up a little. Et voila!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Edward Weston

How fortunate was Edward Weston?

Edward Weston, Nude, 1936 Copyright Estate of Edward Weston

Aesthete. Photographer. Poet of light and form. Lover of hot women like Charis Wilson, here. And portrayer of vegetables par excellence.

Edward Weston, Pepper, 1930 Copyright Estate of Edward Weston

That said, though, wouldn't you agree that Weston was just a little boring? I mean, not Ansel Adams boring, but still . . . ?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Candidate Shrugs

From Saturday's New York Times:

"The senior Pentagon official in charge of military detainees suspected of terrorism said in an interview this week that he was dismayed that lawyers at many of the nation’s top firms were representing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and that the firms’ corporate clients should consider ending their business ties. . . .

"The same point appeared Friday on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, where Robert L. Pollock, a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, cited the list of law firms and quoted an unnamed 'senior U.S. official' as saying, 'Corporate C.E.O.’s seeing this should ask firms to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists.'"

A rare public expression of the Administration's confident expectation that corporate America will join it in suppressing any undue exercise of Constitutional liberties, in this case the right to counsel and the presumption of innocence.

Not surprising, perhaps, but chilling nonetheless.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Presidio

When you wonder how property came to be our most cherished value, it helps to remember that this country was founded by men who owned slaves, a form of property they and their descendants would kill to keep.

As we are reminded today.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Candidate Shrugs

From an article in today's Times about U.S. escalation in Iraq:

"Pressed on why he thought this strategy would succeed where previous efforts had failed, Mr. Bush shot back: 'Because it has to.'”

What an idiot.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Two Pictures

Ralph Gibson, Shiela in Car, 1969 Copyright Ralph Gibson

Ralph Gibson published The Somnambulist, from which this picture comes, in 1970. He had spent the preceding couple of years living in the Chelsea and hanging out at Max's Kansas City, and it showed. As he has said of those years: "The camera was leading me to other dimensions, to expressions of entirely new feelings. The images took on a decidedly surrealistic overtone. I didn't understand what it all meant, but I continued to follow this tone. Eventually it occurred to me that I had been photographing a dream state."

Dorothea Lange, Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, 1936.

Dorothea Lange, for whom Gibson would later work as an assistant, took this picture for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. I've seen no statement of her intention in making it, but, knowing just a little about her, it's easy to imagine her standing in the dust by the side of the road as the cortege passed, recording what it offered.

Two women. Two black cars. Two pictures.

How is it that we know, when we look at the first of them, that if what we are seeing is real, it is real only in the way a dream might be, while, when we look at the second, we know it is as real as death and regret and everything else in it?

No qualitative distinction is intended; I like them both. But it is hard to imagine two more different pictures, even of different things. Two more different pictures of the same thing would be inconceivable.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

John Szarkowski

John Szarkowski, Matthew Brady in the Back Yard I, 1952
Copyright 1952 John Szarkowski

Interesting comment from John Szarkowski in a recent interview with Holly Myers:

"Some photographers think the idea is enough. I told a good story in my Getty talk, a beautiful story, to the point: Ducasse says to his friend Mallarmé — I think this is a true story — he says, 'You know, I’ve got a lot of good ideas for poems, but the poems are never very good.” Mallarmé says, “Of course, you don’t make poems out of ideas, you make poems out of words.' Really good, huh? Really true. So, photographers who aren’t so good think that you make photographs out of ideas. And they generally get only about halfway to the photograph and think that they’re done."

Kind of like naming your dog Matthew Brady, if you didn't actually have a dog. (Avoidance of which might make a pretty good New Year's resolution, generally speaking, whether you have a dog or not.)