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Criticism

From "Exile on Main Street" to "Exit Through Gift Shop": The Rolling Stones "Exhibitionism" Review

A. D. Coleman

"Exhibitionism -- The Rolling Stones," the internationally touring show of Stones memorabilia, has just opened the U.S. leg of its itinerary in New York City. "Delivered by DHL," staged at what the press release refers to as "the iconic Industria in the West Village," with "the U.S. dates proudly sponsored by Jackson" (Jackson National Life Insurance, a leading provider of retirement products), this extravaganza represents yet another item in the Stones' extensive product line. Moreover, it is in itself both a product -- with tickets priced at $37 -- and a marketing mechanism, accompanied as it is by a store selling Stones merchandise at a wide range of price points. Thus it charts the Stones' trajectory from "Exile on Main Street" to "Exit Through Gift Shop."

The promo describes the show as an "interactive & immersive music exhibition." That's not the impression it made on me. This show has very little to say about the music and music-making of the Rolling Stones: their songwriting, vocal and instrumental techniques, differences between live and studio performance, the evolution of their music over time. In a brief video near the outset, the present-day Stones pay tribute to the black music they appropriated for their early success, and honor some of the musicians who made it. There's a gallery full of guitars and amps, and a recreation of one of their early recording studios, both of which I think will interest no one save musicians. The simulation of a scruffy, nondescript "green room" has a certain poignancy, until one remembers that the Stones have enjoyed much more lavish backstage digs for most of the past half-century. There are handwritten set lists by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, fanzines and fan mail, the sleeves of 45s, a miniature drum kit in a suitcase that Charlie Watts used for hotel-room rehearsals, and more. But none of it illuminates in any way the creative process from which the music emerges.

On the other hand, the show excels at tracing the band's move from club rock to stadium rock, and the corollary transition from pure music-making to image-making to spectacle. Indeed, there's a case to be made -- implicit in the evidence this show provides -- that the Stones' genius for the spectacular, and not their ability to produce new and urgent music, has kept alive and thriving a group that otherwise relies for its drawing power on its repertoire of golden oldies.

Granted, it's a spectacle (and an image) that has music at its center, as one wall label insists. But the show quickly dispenses with its musical component in order to concentrate on the trappings that have come to surround it: the creation of the Stones' instantly iconic logo (those fleshy lips and broad tongue), the images of the Stones themselves as constructed through photographs for album covers and tour posters (overseen mostly by Jagger and Watts), the garb they wore in live performance and videos (dozens of costumes on mannikins), the various films about them (excerpted in a separate screening room, with narration by Martin Scorsese, who made one of those films himself), and the ever more elaborate structures and accoutrements they subsidized for their indoor and outdoor stage sets.

And this is where the show becomes of particular interest to those of us concerned in one way or another with photography. By 1960, photographers had been making pictures of musicians of all stripes for well over a century, first portraits and staged moments where they pretended to play, then in actual performance. And the music industry had used those images in various ways to promote the musicians and the music. Yet, with the notable exception of some images of jazz musicians in clubs and recording studios, these images themselves did not become grafted onto their audiences' perceptions of these artists.

That changed, starting in the early 1960s, and the musicians most responsible for that shift -- the ones who assertively involved themselves in the construction of their visual identities -- were the young Turks of rock & roll. And none of those performers could have done it without the willing cooperation (and often the prodding) of a cohort of photographers, many of them also young, eager to push the envelope with unusual images -- not to mention a generation or two of consumers prepared to accept such imagery as consistent with, and a visual extension of, the music they loved.

The Stones weren't alone in this, of course, but they were in the vanguard. The care that the Stones have taken from their beginning till now in crafting their individual and collective images becomes immediately evident in the costume galleries -- where we see them quickly abandon the matching hound's-tooth jackets in which manager Andrew Loog Oldham outfitted them in favor of silk scarves, gold lamé jackets, edwardian tunics, and other colorful, flamboyant, idiosyncratic options. We see this also in the section devoted to album covers. Perhaps more than any other musicians of that era, the Stones not only constructed their own unique fashion "looks" (with Mick's gender-fluid wardrobe and persona surely the edgiest and most influential) but collaborated actively from the outset with photographers, cinematographers, and eventually videographers to embed their bad-boy personae in the public consciousness. Toward that end, they worked with picture-makers as diverse as Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol (who designed the notorious zipper cover for Sticky Fingers) and photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank, whose gritty feature-length film Cocksucker Blues they would end up censoring.

More than any band before them, and arguably better than any band since, the Stones understood and profited from carefully calculated strategies of branding. Surely it's no accident that Jagger studied business as an undergraduate at the London School of Economics, and, though he never got his degree, became one of its most successful alumni, having managed the Stones himself since 1971. In that regard, the show has much to teach contemporary artists in any medium, along with professionals and aspirants in arts management, product design, marketing, rights licensing, and related fields. I see those as making up the show's true constituency; were I overseeing this project, I'd concentrate some of my outreach there.

There are countless collections of rock photographs, of course, anthologies and monographs by individual photographers. But this project serves as an object lesson in how one enormously successful group of performing artists structured their visual self-presentation to the public over the course of half a century. Surely there's something here for photographers to learn from.

The show will run Nov. 12 - Mar. 12 at Industria, 775 Washington St. You can reserve tickets online at the "Exhibitionism" website, www.stonesexhibitionism.com. If you can't get to the show, there's a comprehensive catalog.

All text and photos © Copyright 2016 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, imageworld@nearbycafe.com.

 

Book reviews: Project Lives; New York: A Photographic Album; Humans of New York

A. D. Coleman

Serendipity had me mulling over "Can photographers restore their devastated business?" by "writer & strategist" Danielle Jackson while stopping by my neighborhood branch of the New York Public Library to pick up some books I had on hold.

Jackson, co-founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, published this analysis of the current state of professional photography at Creativz on May 6, 2016. As I wrote to Ms. Jackson in an email on May 9, "Pleased to see your confirmation of my ideas and rewrite of my 1978 and 1989 lectures ... Coincidentally, I'd begun posting those comments online at my blog, Photocritic International, on May 1 (May Day -- seemed fitting). ... Perhaps if people had listened to me back when you were just a wee tot we'd find ourselves in a different situation today. And while I'm charmed by your belated call for photographers to organize, I'm afraid -- for reasons spelled out in those lectures -- that's a pipe dream."

The serendipity mentioned above manifested itself in the fortuitous presence, as part of a prominent display arranged by my library's young staffers, of a cluster of photo books about life in New York today. These included Brandon Stanton's 2013 Humans of New York (St. Martin's Press, 2013); New York Non-Stop: A Photographic Album, "packaged" by Gabriela Kogan (Universe Publishing, 2015); and Project Lives: New York Public Housing Residents Photograph Their World, edited by George Carrano, Chelsea Davis, and Jonathan Fisher (powerHouse Books, 2015). Seeing in them a way of demonstrating, by example, the anachronistic naïveté of Jackson's proposals, I promptly checked them all out, took them home, and spent the next several weeks browsing them while considering their implications.

Among the buzzwords currently in circulation, you've certainly heard increasing use of disruption. Uber disrupts the traditional taxicab model. Airbnb disrupts the traditional hotel model. Amazon disrupts the traditional publishing and bookstore model. And so on. In place of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" we get "If it can be disrupted, it should be." All very exciting if you're one of the disrupters, with no investment in what you're transforming, but less enjoyable if you find yourself among the disrupted. The attitude of the former, who invariably use the term with approval, asserts forthrightly that disruption is inherently a good thing in every area, and that those who object automatically identify themselves as old and in the way -- Luddites, standing in the path of progress, which aims to roll right over them.

Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon deprofessionalized taxi driving, hotel management, and bookselling, respectively. The web, computers and word-processing programs, and digicams have deprofessionalized what nowadays gets called "content production," including the acts of writing, of photographing, and of publishing the results thereof. Consequently, those involved in these activities -- newcomers no less than older professionals -- cohabit a condition that has a new name: precarity. This identifies a precarious existence, lacking in predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare. The social class defined by this condition has been termed the precariat.

Welcome, then, to the precariat. And the books I mentioned above strike me as excellent examples of what photography made from within the precariat looks like.

Stanton's 2013 Humans of New York is, arguably, the single most successful current example of deprofessionalized photography. Stanton, a 32-year-old former bond trader in Chicago, had no professional experience in photography before he set out on his goal to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and post the results online -- a simple cataloguing project. With his digital SLR he makes the same picture over and over again: a close-up portrait done wherever he comes across his subject in the street or else in their own living space, with the subject most commonly front and center, the face always in sharp focus.

There's no style involved, no personal way of seeing, just this ever-growing, taxonomic accumulation of faces, which breaks down into small, easily digestible bites, one person and a few paragraphs of prose in their own words. Inexplicably, the project has gone mega-viral -- celebrated worldwide, used to raise millions of dollars for worthy causes, 45 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, some of that in the No. 1 slot.

New York Non-Stop: A Photographic Album contains 362 color images by 60 photographers, effectively crowd-sourced by graphic designer Gabriela Kogan. For it she drew on images -- many of them made with cellphones -- by friends and colleagues in the design field (plus a few of her own). Crowd-sourcing here thus means, more narrowly, images made by Kogan's own personal crowd; presumably, given the demographics of the graphic-design field, that's a white middle-class yuppie-bobo cohort of "creative professionals." She has augmented those with pictures obtained through Creative Commons. Safe to say that little money went into picture rights for this project. However, the images strike me as no worse than what I see in similar gatherings of work by professional photographers.

Project Lives: New York Public Housing Residents Photograph Their World gathers images made by residents of housing projects run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Almost by definition, these people know more about "precarity" than most Americans, certainly including Stanton and Kogan and her circle. Trained in a free 12-week program that eventually spanned 15 housing projects around the city, using disposable point-and-shoot cameras donated by Kodak, these volunteers show us what matters in their own lives that they want the world to see.

The cumulative result functions as an insider's document of project life, yet feels more like a family album, in part because the comparatively primitive cameras these picture-makers used limited the technical quality of their work. With that said, many of these pictures could slip into both Stanton's project and Kogan's. Which is to say that even a group of absolute beginners can generate images capable of standing alongside the work of other amateurs with better equipment and more grounding in visual communication, and that all of those can compete with trained, experienced professional photographers. These three handsomely designed and produced coffee-table books attest to that.

Add to this the facts that people are now asking their friends and families to create their wedding and confirmation and bat mitzvah photos, that companies use photos by their employees to illustrate their annual reports and images by their customers in their ads, that art directors and picture editors now crowdsource illustrations, that picture agencies either get gobbled up by Getty and Corbis or else fall by the wayside, and you have a working environment in which fewer and fewer photographers can make a living.

This will only get worse. My answer to Danielle Jackson's question -- can photographers restore their devastated business? -- is a regretful "No." As a writer who shares their fate, I bear sad tidings: Unless they, each and every one of them, can come up with a genius clickbait idea like Stanton's, they can consider themselves permanently disrupted.

Book review: SPE: The Formative Years

A. D. Coleman

With classes over, the academic dust settling, and several thousand new photo BFA and MFA degree holders dumped en masse on the job market in the U.S. alone, what better time than commencement season to ponder the origins of the multi-million-dollar industry that post-secondary photography education has become?

And what better way to do so than to read what Nathan Lyons calls "the enabling documents" of the 1962 conference from which sprang the Society for Photographic Education (SPE), initially and for some years a professional society and now the largest organization of college-level photo students in the world? Or to watch Jessica S. McDonald -- then recently appointed the Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas -- deliver a keynote talk on that 1962 conference at the SPE Northeast Regional Conference 2012, followed by a panel with McDonald joined by Nathan Lyons and photographer-teacher Kenneth Josephson? Or both?

In addition to Lyons, who called that first conference at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and Josephson, the conferees in 1962 included Clarence White, Jr., Aaron Siskind, John Wood, Jerry Uelsmann, Henry Holmes Smith, Walter Rosenblum, and a bunch of others, most of whose names anyone familiar with mid-20th century photography will find familiar. Lyons has gathered those documents together, and the Visual Studies Workshop has made them available in SPE: The Formative Years (Rochester: VSW/SPE, 2012; $20, ISBN: 978-0898221428), a slender softcover volume that should prove of interest to anyone seriously involved in or otherwise concerned with photo education. (To order a copy go to the VSW website.)

Because this book comprises formal documents -- papers submitted in advance to the conference, reports summarizing the group's responses thereto, steering committee proposals for future action, and such -- the book has a somewhat formal tone. (Photos of the event, shown in McDonald's accompanying slides, show the participants dressed in jackets and ties, befitting what they saw as the occasion -- or maybe they had a dress code back then.) But not by any means pedantic. Though they had all grounded themselves in the history of photography (as it was then understood), and such related disciplines as visual communication, media theory, and perceptual psychology, these pioneers -- most of them teaching artists -- wore that learning lightly, writing (and, presumably, speaking) colloquially, with a minimum of anything resembling jargon or shoptalk.

McDonald's presentation (45 minutes), and the dialogue that she engaged in with Lyons and Josephson immediately thereafter (1 hour), prove equally accessible, adding details and filling in a number of gaps. If you prefer your input in oral/aural form, these provide a basic introduction to the subject. (She also reveals that audiotapes of all the 1962 conference sessions survive in the GEH archive.)

In their pedagogical relation to the medium the conferees all had interdisciplinary yearnings, though perhaps insufficient experience with the territorial imperatives of academe to recognize the futility of attempting long-term multi-departmental collaboration. (In 1969 Lyons would leave GEH to found VSW, in part for that reason.) Yet their vision of teaching photography as not only a craft, and one with a capacity for the poetic, but as a complex communication system with immeasurable power in culture and connections to just about every field of thought, did eventually materialize in some form within the photo-ed system as we know it today -- perhaps this cohort's most enduring legacy, above and beyond the specific academic programs they founded or expanded.

 

Reading through this collection of individual and group statements, it becomes clear that SPE's founders saw SPE as a professional organization. Membership beyond the initial invitees required recommendation by other members. No students participated in the first conference; this gathering emerged from a felt need on the parts of post-secondary photo teachers -- at that time a small cluster of stalwarts, most of them marginalized within their institutions -- for intimate, intense dialogue with their colleagues.

None of them expressed concern over the absence of students from their sessions. Certainly they could not have imagined that, half a century later, photo faculty at colleges, universities, and art institutes throughout North America would have contractual obligations to chaperone gaggles of students through the national conferences of an organization the majority of whose membership would consist of students. I suspect they find it disheartening to know that, for all their efforts to create one, no organization today enables teachers of photography to meet and talk with each other without crowds of students around.

In the half-century of its existence SPE transformed itself from its original form as an unofficial, photo-specific splinter division of the College Art Association into something akin to photography's equivalent of the Audubon Society: $20 plus an interest in birds gets you in -- and they'll waive the interest in birds. Speaking as one who maintained SPE membership for many years, functioned as a goad within it, served on the organization's board of directors, chaired one of its committees, received a lifetime achievement award from it, and wrote about it frequently, I consider its current state a devolution. (The vast majority of its current members disagree -- or, even if they agree, either don't care or actually approve.)

It will require another, much longer book to track just how SPE got from where it started to where it is today. The book at hand, by design, annotates only its origins. Yet it asks, implicitly, what would have happened if the founders had not opened the doors to student membership circa 1968 but instead had hewed closely to their original vision of SPE as a support system for photo teachers and others with an educational relationship to the medium: curators, conservators, historians, critics, theorists. If someone started such an organization today, would it find a constituency to serve?

Lyons has thoughtfully included useful appendices, such as an early membership survey and a 1966 membership list. My only complaint about the book concerns the inept proofreading it received. The frequent typographic errors scattered throughout make it hard to know whether its editor replicated mistakes present in the original materials (for the sake of historical accuracy) or simply couldn't bother to clean up the texts once digitized.

The book does solve an enduring mystery that has long puzzled me: Where did the ungrammaticism embedded in the term "photographic education" come from?

The standard definitions explain the use of the adjective photographic thus:

1. Of, relating to, or consisting of photography or a photograph.

2. Used in photography: a photographic lens.

3. Resembling a photograph, especially representing or simulating something with great accuracy and fidelity of detail.

4. Capable of retaining accurate or vivid impressions: a photographic memory.

No matter how hard and long you study photography and how well you do in your courses, even graduating cum laude will not make your education light-sensitive. When you get a degree as a teacher of art or music, your degree is in "art education" or "music education," not "artistic education" or "musical education." In these situations we specify the discipline by using a second noun (art, music, photography) to modify and particularize the more general noun (education).

The fact that our ears have become habituated to this awkward locution simply shows us how careless usage, when allowed to go unchecked, seeps in and degrades the language. To be resisted as much as possible, by my lights, even when that means pissing in the wind by going against the familiar but mistaken usage. Because he started all this, and variants of that usage (including "photographic educators" and "photographic instruction") appear in his introduction to this volume as well as on its back cover, I feel confident in attributing this to none other than Lyons himself. Now we're stuck with it, just as we're stuck with SPE in its current incarnation.

Intimate Subtleties On Some Photographs by Justin Lane*

George McClintock

A beautiful woman is rolling around on a bed, sheets and pillows pushed aside, her black curls wild around her head.  Who is this woman?  A tumblr tag names her Wren Blanco.  Naked underneath an untied peignoir she is pulling off, her eyes are closed, her knees up, her thighs opening....  Suddenly Wren smiles with voluptuous abandon, her forgotten robe revealing her torso and the triangle of her joyful sexuality.

This diptych exemplifies many of the fine photographs in Justin Lane’s nude and portrait portfolio on his well-known tumblr, A Subtle Likeness.  Shot a few inches above the action, the tight framing accentuates both actual and allegorical movement: the photograph on the left captures Wren in motion as she welcomes her erotic encounter; the photograph on the right shows us Wren in the stillness of her sweet repose.  As we view these pictures from left to right, their graphic force hastens us in the opposite direction.  From right to left the upward thrust of Wren’s body returns us to the unseen space between her legs.  Is the composition an allegory for intercourse occurring between the two images?

As we linger over these photographs, we may be tempted to believe that the untitled diptych depicts a raw sexual performance that we are invited to experience vicariously, like voyeurs peeking with impunity through an anonymous window.  Be that as it may, to see only eroticism at play is to strip these pictures of their suggestive significance.  Whatever the pleasure Wren is feeling and however strongly we may feel a seductive pulse, the warm, almost sepia tone of the monochrome, like the gentle contrast of her smooth skin against her wrinkled bedclothes, transforms an erotic tale into an intimate narrative. Wren’s desire may be aroused in one image and consummated in the other, but together these photographs integrate cinematic motion and ardent emotion to portray eroticism as a catalyst.  Rather than imply an imaginary seduction, Justin’s diptych transcends representation and conjures the veritable subject of these photographs: sensual euphoria.

“Most of my personal work,” Justin writes on his tumblr, “is done an a collaborative trade basis … You should be comfortable with nudity, it’s a primary element of my photography.  It’s not always polite, pretty, or demure.”  As we have seen, Wren does not appear meek, unassuming, or shy; her ecstatic sensuality inflames her passion as she performs for the camera.  Although this performance is key to Justin’s aesthetic, his photographs do not appear to be staged.  Seeking spontaneity, the photographer provides little or no direction other than to encourage rapid, even chaotic motion.  I asked him about the apparent lack of staging in many of his photographs.  “I have taken some aspects of performance art, such as exaggerated gestures and movement, and started using them as a device to break away from the standard poses that happen with figure photography,” Justin replied. “It’s a way to depict people in ways that feel more natural, dynamic, and spontaneous because they are, in a sense.”  His portrait of Meg illustrates beautifully this theatrical approach, contrasting the shades of her electric blue dress with the light oranges of her skin against a deep black background while Meg, a free spirit in impetuous motion, playfully lifts her skirt to offer a glimpse of her naked body.   

As he composes his photographs, Justin’s integration of mercurial movement into the composition frees both the photographer and his model from limitations they may impose upon themselves.  What are these constraints?  Many models wish to control how they appear in photographs in order to establish their brand with a limited number of expressions that they show to the consumers of their image.  Justin acknowledges this commercial reality (and his competitive nature) in one of his posts about Erica Jay, with whom he has created a body of work spanning several years and who is now “one of the more prolific art models out there, which has pushed the drive to depict her in ways that diverge not only from what’s behind us, but also from all the other artists she collaborates with.”  Bodies in motion do not have time to gaze at their likeness in the mirror of their imagination, thus they cannot project their default look into the photograph.  Justin’s accelerated exposure sequences capture a much greater range of emotions than his models reveal in static portraits.  This approach has its drawbacks, Justin explained, “hundreds of unusable, potentially embarrassing images, and for every handful of successes more rigorous editing is necessary.”  Perhaps, but unpredictability inspires improvisation leading to unique and powerful photographs.  In the diptych below, entitled “erica, precipice 052913,” Justin employs selective focus and blur, as well as the tonal transition from lighter greyscale to darker selenium, in order to narrate Erica’s metaphorical dive off the edge into the void.

A model’s desired brand and a photographer’s need to compete in the marketplace are not the only impediments that may prevent artists from achieving their unadulterated vision when photographing the nude.  Art history also plays a significant, perhaps unconscious role.  “For the most part,” writes Max Kozloff, “nudes in photography are depicted as a kind of living sculpture, solid in its graceful gestures, and molded to show the topography of physique.  The statuesque is a metaphor, useful as an allusion to the purported artistic intent of the image, which was associated with the idealized statues of antiquity.” (i) Given his formal studio arts education, there is no doubt that Justin has absorbed these lessons.  Several sculptural nudes will be found in his nude and portrait portfolio.  For example, “Castaway,” the black and white photograph below, presents two nudes, a man and a woman, stylistically posed in a T formation on jagged rocks above the sand.  The man is lying on his stomach, his arms outstretched, with one hand touching the woman, as if to make an emotional connection.  The woman rejects this show of affection, sitting with her back to him, leaning forward away from him.  Although the play of light and shadow defines his muscular body as much it softens her skin, this tonal representation of gender roles is muted by the contrast of both bodies against the deep blacks and grays of the rocks.  The tenderness displayed by his futile gesture is forgotten as we admire the expressive elegance of these figures.  Underscoring the inability of this traditional composition to reveal more than what can be seen on the surface, a note underneath the image tells us, “it’s about form, and there isn’t much more to it….”

Immediately following his treatment of conventional beauty, Justin posts a black and white diptych of remarkably unconventional beauty entitled only by a date and a name, “081814 yucca.”  Above a mons Venus we see dark shadows cast by the pointed leaves of a yucca tree over her torso.  Exploding from a deep black spot between the woman’s body and the frame, this leafy ejaculation is defined symbolically by the swirling cloudscape in the adjacent photograph.  Although each of these pictures exposes tremendous graphical strength as shades of gray interplay between extremes of fathomless black and blinding white, the diptych is greater than the sum of its two images.  If the woman’s genitalia symbolize the site of sexual pleasure, if the surging clouds epitomize eternity, the juxtaposition of these two photographs provokes a quiet climax, between the images a symbolic orgasm.  

Although erotic symbolism seems apparent as we study these images, it is unlikely that the photographer was thinking of this narrative when he made the photographs.  As Justin explained, “The initial draw in ‘Yucca’ had to do with the way the patterns fell across her torso, the wrapping contours and sharp edges.  The opposing sunlit cloud is my way of referencing the act of photographing, a very literal cause and effect of the harsh light source casting the shadows while giving it a sense of place and building a curious tension, moving beyond what otherwise felt (at the time) as an indulgent exercise in graphic design.”  What Justin is describing, perhaps fortuitously, is a judicious deconstruction of art school dogma.  To reference the photographic act in a photograph – to make photography self-referential – is to synthesize the production of art with the exigencies of academic critique.  This concept has become the lingua franca of contemporary fine art photography and criticism.  Like Narcissus and his reflection, both are drowning in each other’s pulchritude.  As A.D. Coleman explains, “Conceptually … the vast majority of photography projects … seem to represent some welling-up of archetypes from the collective unconscious of the academically indoctrinated.” (ii)  Rather than suffocate in this aesthetic quicksand, however, Justin uses the conceptualist self-referential photograph, first to highlight qualities specific to both images, then to surpass the conventional requirements for successful composition in favor of something hidden, unknown.  “Allegorically,” he admitted, “I don’t know what I’d attach to this diptych, and in that regard, it’s open to interpretation.”  

In another compelling diptych entitled “elena, luminous 070213,” Justin acknowledges the self-referentiality of his artistic endeavor.  Elena’s face almost fills the left frame as a shaft of light shines across her right arm and spotlights her right eye, leaving her left eye in shadow.  The triangular shape of the shining light is repeated in the right frame, gently losing its luminance as it shimmers across the wood floor, over Elena’s nude body, and up onto the wall behind her.  No doubt Justin designed this astute arrangement of compositional elements in order to emphasize the essential role of vision in these portraits.  And yet… do we perceive what Justin may be challenging us to see?  We first behold Elena staring at us blankly, if not coldly, in a dynamic close-up; then the camera moves back and she looks away, aloof, as if to dramatize her emotional distance.  Are these photographs about perception?  Or is blindness their ultimate significance?  Are photographic portraits merely a reflection of the photographer, revealing nothing about the subject and unable to give an accurate impression of the subject’s character?  Or does Justin’s portrait discern an individual personality, demonstrating intuitively what Susan Kismaric calls “the uneasy relationship between artificial surface appearance and inner psychology in many portrait photographs and self-portraits”? (iii)

Most photographers present nudes and portraits in separate portfolios; while nudes are often portraits, portraits are seldom nude.  Although the integration of portraiture with figure studies may be seen as an attempt to refine the definition of the traditional portrait, this refinement is a merely a felicitous consequence of Justin’s photography.  Indeed, his nude and portrait portfolio is both experiment and exploration.  As Justin experiments with compositional structure using movement, spontaneity, tone, focus, and color in single and multi-image formats, he is exploring photography’s potential as a medium for the discovery of intimate human relationships.  

Nowhere is this emotional expedition more evident than in his portraits of Meg, who appears frequently in A Subtle Likeness, dressed and undressed, serious and playful, in a photo studio, in her apartment, and at various locations around New York.  In the diptych above, Meg stands in her underwear, first at the entrance to her scantily furnished living room, then in the hallway across from her kitchen.  Her gentle curves and soft colors of white, gray, and gold resonate with her sensitive presence as she looks at the camera.  Although Justin’s design directs us from Meg down the hall and through an open door to her bedroom, the scenario is not one of erotic fervor.  As Meg gazes at us with quiet intensity, is she revealing her vulnerability, or her empathy?  Lest we lose ourselves in what we imagine to be a shared emotional space created by these images, a collection of instant photographs tacked to the door frame on the far left returns us to the bittersweet reality of the photographic act, a “vulnerable openness conjoined with aesthetic distance.” (iv)

Photography is a high-risk art form, triumph or tragedy in a split second.  Whether using motion to trace a precarious trajectory from eroticism to intimacy, or synthesizing structural elements with an intuitive sense of their graphic power, Justin creates photographs that are elegant and ambiguous.  The elegance of his compositions draws us in while their ambiguity encourages us to share in his creative act, to write the narratives he outlines in his cinematic scenarios.

“It’s always difficult for me to see through the actual circumstances of the shoot,” Justin mused as he questioned my interpretation of one of his works.  His muses acknowledge no such difficulty, confirming the positive results of his photographic theory and practice.  “I had a fantastic shoot with Justin,” Wren told me after her first experience posing for the photographer.  “His method of photography I haven’t encountered with other photographers.  It was very fast-paced and I think he got some gestures and expressions I’ve never done before on camera.”  After more than 50 photo shoots with Justin, Erica described the psychological impact of performing for his camera.  “His photographs made me see the human form in a different way.  Being naked isn’t vulnerable; the women in his photographs are empowered and look strong, and that's how I came to view myself after he took my photograph.”  

As Justin’s most consistent collaborator and muse for the past several years, Meg understands the raison d’être of his aesthetic search to portray friendship, one that is both genuine and uniquely fragile.  “Posing with Justin is always more of an organic experience than just posing for a camera,” Meg said.  “I never feel like I have to pose formally when we're making pictures.  Being friends for so many years, our photos have evolved with our friendship.  I feel pretty lucky to have that body of work to look back on and to continue making.”

Justin Lane was born in 1975 and raised in upstate New York.  He began making photographs in his early teens.  He was educated at the Alfred University School of Art and Design, graduating in 1997 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography with significant work in video and electronic arts.  A master of digital imaging processes, Justin has worked for the past fifteen years at Chelsea Photographic Services, one of the finest custom photography laboratories in the country.  As Chelsea Photo’s senior retouching artist, Justin has been instrumental in adding a wide range of state-of-the-art scanning and printing services to the lab’s superb chemical darkroom production.  

Justin is also a member of Barbara Livingston’s elite team of horse racing photographers who create many of the beautiful images of the Triple Crown, Breeder’s Cup, and other important national races for the Daily Racing Form and other publications. In addition to his fine-art work, Justin works freelance, assisting actors and models with their portfolio development, as well as accepting commissions for portraiture and editorial photography.

Justin’s tumblr can be accessed at http://subtlelikeness.com/.


Notes
*  I would like to thank Justin Lane for articulating his thoughts about his work as I wrote this essay.  In response to my many questions, Justin’s commentary was always perceptive and timely.   
i.  Max Kozloff, Saul Leiter Early Black and White I. Interior, Steidl / Howard Greenberg Library, 2014.
ii.  A. D. Coleman, Photocritic International, July 5, 2012, found online at http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/2012/07/05/trope-the-well-made-photograph-1/.
iii.  Susan Kismaric, Florence Henri, Jeu de Paume/Aperture, 2015, p. 184.
iv.  Klaus Kertess, Peter Hujar animals and nudes, Twin Palms Publishers, 2002.

George McClintock is a photographer, musician, and writer based in Greenwich, CT.  Formerly a literary correspondent for the Franco-German journal Lendemains, McClintock maintains two obscure tumblrs, Dordo Speaks! and Submerging Photographers, as well his website www.GeorgeMcClintockPhotography.com.  He can be reached at gdmcclintock@yahoo.com.

Text © copyright 2015 by George McClintock.  All rights reserved.  Photographs © copyright 2010-2015 by Justin N. Lane and reproduced by permission.  All rights reserved.

Exhibition Review: "For a New World to Come: Japanese Photography"

A. D. Coleman

Daido Moriyama (b. 1938), From Asahi Camera, 1969. Gelatin silver print, 7 3/8 x 10 1/2 in. Tokyo Polytechnic University, Shadai Gallery. © Daidō Moriyama / Courtesy of Tokyo Polytechnic University, Shadai Gallery and Taka Ishii Gallery

   The decades following World War II -- 1945-1975 -- remain the least examined and least understood phase in the history of photography. So we have to cherish projects that help to fill in the blanks, like the exhibition "For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979" and its accompanying monograph, currently at the Japan Society and New York University's Grey Art Gallery.
    In 1974 the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Photographs mounted the group show "New Japanese Photography," the only such survey undertaken during the 29-year tenure of John Szarkowski, and indeed (if you exclude Eugène Atget) the only time he turned his curatorial attention to photographers from outside the U.S. So, especially given the influence of MoMA, this show mattered. But it had drastic limitations. As I wrote in my April 7, 1974 review for the New York Times, summing up the overview proposed by the show,

New Japanese photography is exclusively black-and-white, entirely unconcerned with the investigation of straight color, manipulated color, applied color, and the technology of modern color press printing. New Japanese photography is only glancingly involved with the nude and with the explicitly erotic; it is rarely concerned with any exploration of the staged event. Multiple imagery, mixed-media imagery, collage and other photographic techniques are not a part of new Japanese photography. Though it sometimes refers, quite painfully, to World War II and the atomic holocaust, new Japanese photography is never anti-Western and certainly never directly political in intent. New Japanese photography is restricted almost exclusively to the boundaries of that territory we loosely label "documentary." Moreover, by remarkable coincidence, New Japanese photography looks almost exactly like the photography which has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for the past 10 years.  
All these, I believe, are undeniably logical inferences drawn from the exhibit and its accompanying catalogue. All these are also inaccurate at best and in most cases utterly false. This would be immediately apparent to anyone even superficially familiar with the Japanese magazines and photography annuals, the books which come from Japan, and the portfolios by Japanese photographers which have been published in European and American magazines. But this material has not been disseminated widely even among American photographers, much less among the general public. Thus it may not be easily visible at first glance that this show has been cut along the specific bias of a severely tailored curatorial esthetic.

Jirō Takamatsu, Photograph of Photograph (No. D–2401), 1972, gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Bettie Cartwright and Michael A. Chesser in honor of Yasufumi Nakamori. © The Estate of Jirō Takamatsu, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

    Two figures, Daido Moriyama and Sh mei Tomatsu, appear in both the MoMA survey and this one; otherwise, there's no overlap. So, four decades later, "For a New World to Come" proves my point. Not that it's the first project to do so. Over the intervening 41 years, photography from around the globe has circulated much more widely that it did at that time, via traveling exhibitions, books, periodicals, photo festivals, and (since 1995) via the internet. Specialists in photography and the medium's general audience know much more about Japanese photography than they did in 1974. No curator today could get away with presenting such a narrowcast slice of the activity within a given territory, at least not without a convincing rationale for its many exclusions and single-minded focus.
    "For a New World to Come" demonstrates that Japanese photographers and artists of that era mirrored in their work many of the concerns of their western counterparts. The severe limitations of the medium's flimsy communication system at the time suggests that they weren't parroting their U.S. and European peers, most of whose experiments received precious little critical attention even in their own countries and would thus have remained largely unknown to the Japanese. Think of these as parallel universes connected by a few wormholes through which bits and pieces leaked.
    The most significant influence of western work on the Japanese photo scene came from the books of Robert Frank (The Americans, 1959) and William Klein (New York, 1956; Rome, 1958; Moscow,1964; and, of course, Tokyo, also 1964). From these examples the Japanese took strategies of framing, small-camera handling, selective focus, surreptitious grab-shooting (Frank) and aggressive, confrontational engagement with the subjects (Klein), as applied to what Lee Friedlander dubbed the "social landscape." They absorbed Klein's use of high-contrast development and printing, along with his flair for dramatic layout on the page, and turned some of the consequences of the ways in which these two photographers worked into an esthetic they dubbed are-bure-boke ('grainy, blurry, out-of-focus"). They also embraced Frank's and Klein's use of the printed page as a primary vehicle for series, cycles, and suites of images -- important in a country with few traditional museum and gallery spaces available for the display of photographs. (Some very significant Japanese exhibitions of art and photography were held in department stores during that period and after.)

Shōmei Tomatsu (1930-2012), Protest 1 from the series Oh! Shinjuku, 1969, printed 1980. Gelatin silver print, 9 7/8 x 13 7/8in. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the S.I. Morris Photography Endowment and Morris Weiner, 2011.765. © Shōmei Tōmatsu – INTERFACE

    Japan had its own equivalent of what we here called "the counterculture," and much of this work qualifies as specifically political, coming out of and addressing the protest movements of that time. Other projects deal more broadly with the profound reconfiguration of Japanese society in the post-WWII era. Still others engage with questions about the related mediums of still photography and film themselves: the implications of lens-based imagery, the relationship between the subject matter and the photograph thereof, the effects of photography on individual and cultural memory. The photographers and artists represented here (no one back then used the term "photo-based art") created not just bookworks and extended spreads in photo and art magazines but photocopier pieces, projections, assemblages of vernacular imagery, pinhole photos, negative prints, installations, and performances -- as wide a range of ideas and forms as those involved with the medium elsewhere.
    For someone like myself, at that time observing activity within the medium and the expansion of its field of ideas mostly in their U.S. and western European manifestations, this is familiar ground. To find it traversed in Japan as well indicates that a certain irreverent, challenging attitude toward photography and the conventions that had governed it through 1945 bubbled up spontaneously in different parts of the world thereafter, a commonality of thought and consequent action meriting much more attention than it has received.
    Because the show only samples the oeuvres of those it includes, rather than single out individuals I commend it to you as a whole. I think that's how its curator intends it -- not so much an awarding of prizes for individual accomplishment as recognition of a multivocal, uncoordinated, yet collective push at the boundaries of the mediums under consideration, indigenously Japanese yet unquestionably related to what others were doing elsewhere at that moment.
    It makes me yearn for something even larger, impossible except perhaps as a web-based version of André Malraux's imaginary "museum without walls": someplace I could go to see this show and then move on to a comparable selection from North America, then South America, then western Europe, eastern Europe ... so as to observe, decade by decade, how the medium evolved, how those working with it understood its history and premises and field of ideas, absorbed and utilized the technological options available to them, grew on their own and interacted with their peers.
    Yasufumi Nakamori, Associate Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, curated "For a New World to Come," which tours under the auspices of MFAH. The show's two partnering New York venues have divided its contents roughly in half lengthwise, so to speak, so if you visit either one you will get a complementary version of the shared infrastructure. The half at the Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East) will close first, on December 5, so if this interests you get there soon. (Admission is free.) The Japan Society's section will run through January 10 at 333 E. 47th St.; admission is $12.
    An excellent, extensive monograph accompanies the exhibition as its catalog but goes far beyond that function, including as it does 13 essays and additional images (274 total) contextualizing the materials on view, with a list price of $75.00. It will become a central reference on its subject. Alas, though published in February 2015 it has already gone out of print; I'm told MFAH has no plans to reissue it. You can find copies for sale online, of course. Perhaps MFAH will consider releasing it as an ebook, to make it more widely available.


A. D. Coleman is an internationally known independent critic, historian, and curator of photography and photo-based art. His work has been translated into 21 languages and published in 31 countries. Coleman's widely read blog, Photocritic International, appears at photocritic.com.


© Copyright 2015 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, imageworld@nearbycafe.com.