Friday, January 30, 2009

Candida Höfer, Philadelphia @Sonnabend

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 large scale color C-prints, framed in blond wood frames with no matting, arrayed in the entry and two rooms in the rear of the gallery. Images range in size from roughly 60x64 to nearly 70x100. All of the negatives are from 2007. (Installation shots with significant glare at right and below.)

Comments/Context: German photographer Candida Höfer has spent the better part of the past 30 years making huge deadpan images of public architectural spaces around the world. She has captured museums, hotels, banks, libraries, and palaces of all kinds, always devoid of people and often lit with pure daylight. Her current show at Sonnabend displays a group of new pictures taken in some of Philadelphia's most ornate Federal buildings.
Höfer is, of course, one of the group of highly successful students of the Bechers at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, and her work shares their clinical approach to picture making. The images are all taken from a rigid square frontal position, the subject matter has variation within an overall sameness, and the prints are made with a high degree of technical mastery.

Despite all of the over the top ornamental flourishes found in these rooms, the interiors are chillingly vast and empty, like tombs that have recently been unearthed and opened to anthropologists. While there are frequently subtle effects resulting from the placement of the light, for the most part, the images are dry and emotionless, in contrast to the clear hopes for grandeur and awe of the builders.

We have often seen Höfer's work in the pages of glossy design magazines, her images hung on the walls of flashy apartments and newly redecorated lofts. It seems they often serve as stand ins for a dreamed about library or ballroom, a symbol of decorative luxury just out of reach. For us, there seems to be something absent, a missing connection that would normally draw us back to the images again and again. While Höfer has pointed her camera at a vast array of amazing places, there doesn't seem to be anything new, fresh or memorable going on, and over time, the images become surprisingly interchangeable. And in a mind bending twist, perhaps that is just the point.

Collector's POV: Candida Höfer's work is readily available in the secondary market, in a range of sizes from small to gigantic. The pictures in this show are priced between 40000 and 50000 Euros. At auction, the smaller pieces can be found well under $10000 (often in editions of up to 100), while the larger works (perhaps more representative of what she's trying to do and printed in much smaller editions, usually 6) seem to range between $20000 and $50000, give or take a few outliers on the high side.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Candida Höfer, Philadelphia
Through February 14

Sonnabend Gallery (artnet page here)
536 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Thursday, January 29, 2009

More Chinese Photography Info

Here's a solid group of recommendations for further study of contemporary Chinese photography I received from an expert on recent Chinese art:

Exhibition catalogues
Between Past and Present: New Photography and Video from China (2004 ICP, site here)
Foto Fest China 2008 (site here)
China under Construction (Amazon link here)
Zooming into Focus (UCLA Asia Institute 2004, site here)

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (site here)
Called "the most important place for photography in China". I can't vouch for that, but it is surely a strong endorsement nonetheless. There is a show of Ai Weiwei's photographs from New York in the 1980s and 1990s on display now.

Book publisher
Timezone 8 (site here)

Luisa Lambri, Photographs @Luhring Augustine

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 black and white Laserchrome prints, framed in white and minimally displayed in the entry, main gallery, and one back room. The images are of three different sizes (29x25, 30x36, and 48x37) and are available in editions of 5. All of the negatives are from 2008. (Marginal installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: Italian photographer Luisa Lambri makes architectural images in the buildings constructed by the masters of modernity, and instead of documenting the triumphant vision and bold details that we have seen so many times before, she interprets the spaces in more personal ways and finds introspective moments of meditative quiet.

This is perhaps the subtlest show of photography I have seen in quite a while. On one wall, a grid of six images taken in the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea in Galicia, Spain (built by renowned Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza) are displayed, spread widely on a large blank wall. At first glance, these images appear identical, and are vaguely reminiscent of stairwells photographed by Tina Modotti and Charles Sheeler. As you contemplate these images, minute variations in the light in the images present themselves as slight tonal gradations and color shifts, so small as to be nearly imperceptible. The other images in the exhibit are also grouped to highlight these ethereal permutations.

These solemn and quiet abstractions grew on me over time and I started to appreciate a bit more their tender intimacy. I came around to seeing these images as sensory exercises in light, less about realism and more about minimalism. If however you are wound tight and moving quickly when you see this show, you will have little patience for these delicacies and will likely leave mystified.

Collector's POV: These images will, of course, appeal to the all white, open and airy, minimalist crowd. The images in the show are priced at $9000, $10000, and $12000 based on size. Lambri's work has been virtually absent from the secondary markets for photography, so retail is likely your only avenue for acquiring her work in the short term.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Luisa Lambri, Photographs
Through February 7

Luhring Augustine
531 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book: Wang Qingsong

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2006 by Albion and Hatje Cantz, in conjunction with an exhibit at Albion in London. 136 pages, with an essay by Zoe Butt. Includes large plate images, as well as a comprehensive list of works as thumbnails (with sizes and editions). (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: To Western eyes, the high points to the storyline of China's transformation in the past few decades have become predictably well known: unprecedented and explosive economic growth, staggering new construction projects and radical urban change, an increased openness to and embracing of Western culture, and a much larger and more powerful position on the world stage. It is not surprising that amidst these changes, and in concert with a gradual relaxation of central censorship, artists have begun to examine the changes going on all around them and to ask hard questions about how China is being recast.

Wang Qingsong is a contemporary photographer who uses sarcasm, irony, satire and humor to expose some of the undesired consequences and unintended effects of the country's modernization on the collective psyche of the population. Beginning in 1997, Wang has made theatrical images that have centered on the quiet war between traditional Chinese culture and the encroaching Western lifestyle. His early work was dubbed "Gaudy Art", for its garish colors and not-so-subtle surrealistic kitsch. His 1998 work, Prisoner, shows Wang trapped inside prison bars made of Coke cans; Thinker, also from 1998, has him seated on a lotus leaf in Buddhist prayer, with a huge McDonald's logo carved in his chest; Requesting Buddha no. 1, 1999, (at right) has the Buddha's many arms filled with a variety of consumer products. These and other images all parody the materialism of the West and how it has invaded the minds of the Chinese people. Instead of worshiping self denial, fulfilling every desire via consumerism is the new norm.

Unlike the heroic and patriotic battle scenes from propaganda films, Wang's series of images entitled Another Battle highlights the clash going on between the traditional and modern cultures, and shows Wang as a defeated and bloodied commander, lost among the razor wire decorated with soda cans. (Another Battle no.8, 2001 at right.) Other images show the battlefield complete with McDonald's trash cans and road signs. These images have been elaborately staged, and have the feel of film stills.

Wang's more recent output has evolved into elaborate and monumental tableaux, with large numbers of actors and painstaking stage sets, in the end becoming massive, scroll-like photographs, some more than 20 feet wide. While in approach there may be valid comparisons to Gregory Crewdson or Jeff Wall, Wang's images are firmly rooted in typical and traditional Chinese artistic forms and metaphors and make no pretense of their careful manipulation. The image at right, Romantique, 2003, shows both a small detailed section on the top, with a thumbnail version of the entire work below (impossible to see I realize). Here the world is a confusing, fabricated mixture of Chinese and Western allusions and symbols, full of staged snippets from famous paintings by a wide range of recognized masters, from Botticelli and Raphael to Manet and Matisse.
Wang's exaggerated work brings home many of the subtler challenges posed to China by such rapid modernization. As traditions are exchanged for Western consumerism, his work points to continuing social questions about what lies ahead for this giant nation. This monograph is almost like a catalog raisonne, as it has a complete set of all Wang's images and other detailed print/negative information. As such, it is an excellent reference resource on this innovative Chinese photographer.
Wang Qingsong's artist website can be found here.

Collector's POV: Wang Qingsong's work has become increasingly available in the secondary market in the past few years. Most of the images come in at least two sizes, and are in editions of 6, 10 or 20. Smaller single images have been priced starting at around $10000, moving upward toward $100000. Only a few of the large tableaux have come to market, and all have sold in the six figure range.

Book: Zhang Huan, Altered States

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2007 by Edizioni Charta and the Asia Society, in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the Asia Society. 180 pages, with essays by Melissa Chiu, Kong Bu, Eleanor Heartney, and Zhang Huan. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: While Zhang Huan's images can routinely be found in photography auctions around the world today, to call him a photographer would be to grossly misunderstand his art. His photographs are merely documents of his performance art - sometimes further labeled as "body art" or "endurance art", as many of his performances involve testing the limits of his body and mind. This book provides a retrospective look at all of his performances and installations, going back to 1993. Each and every performance is an opportunity to watch from the sidelines as Zhang explores the depths of his own history and personality or reacts to his environment.

Not surprisingly, some of Zhang's performances work better as photographs than others. He has sat covered in flies in a public toilet; he has suspended himself in midair and had some of his blood drained; he has lain naked on blocks of ice; he has worn suits of bone and meat. Two of his earlier projects To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995 (below ltop) and To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997 (below bottom) both lend themselves well to being captured as a single moments. Both works document Zhang measuring himself (with the help of others) against the natural world.

In Foam, 1998 (below left) and Family Tree, 2000 (below right), Zhang tackles the issues of his own personal identity. In one, he holds the photographs of family members in his mouth (is our history inside us, or can we swallow it?); in the other, he disappears under the layers of stories written on his face by Chinese calligraphers.

Most of Zhang's works are subtly infused with traditional Chinese values and Buddhist teachings and these ideas provide the framework and backdrop for his autobiographical explorations. His performances seem to find the just the right balance: surprising without being gimmicky, earnest and stoic without being pompous, real and meaningful without being contrived. Overall, Zhang has generated a significant number of highly memorable and thought provoking moments in his short career; this book provides a valuable one-stop summary of his output.
Zhang Huan's artist website can be found here.
Collector's POV: Zhang Huan's images have become mainstays of the auction circuit. Most are large chromogenic prints (often 40x60, but generally in various formats), in edition sizes ranging from perhaps a handful to as many as 25. Prices for single images have ranged from $10000 to over $100000, with larger groups of pictures (like Family Tree) selling for $150000 to $250000. Even though his work is often found in photography auctions, it has clearly crossed over to the "contemporary art" price schedule.
(Aside: Blogger's handling of embedded images is frustratingly quirky, so please excuse any unexpected odd formatting or white spaces you may encounter, especially likely if you are using a reader.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Mystery of Chinese Contemporary Photography

Our ignorance about Chinese contemporary photography is a deep, dark, massive abyss. Truth be told, we hardly know anything about the artists, their work, their influences or their ideas. We lack even the simplest framework for making sense of what is going on. Perhaps we are just dumb Americans, but we like to think we know a little about the world of photography.

If you look in the auction records over the past decade, you will find a startling pattern. There are a few 19th century Chinese photographers who made mostly panoramic shots of large Chinese cities, and then almost nothing for over 100 years, until the arrival of the new group of young artists a few years ago (nearly 50 new Chinese photographers at auction in the past three years). Very few of these artists have any New York gallery representation.

This poses many questions for us. Where did these artists come from? Where were they trained? From whom did they learn? Where did all the photographers from the previous 100 years go, if there were any? Were they all suppressed during the Cultural Revolution? What is the context of this new movement? Who are the important figures to be watching?

In tomorrow's book reviews, we will try to wrestle with some of these questions (at the most basic level possible), with reviews of books on Wang Qingsong and Zhang Huan, two of the anointed stars of this Chinese invasion.

If you are a person out there listening who can add something to our education, whether it be in the form of broad background, a key book or article to read, or the narrow information of a single photographer who should be on our radar, please leave the information in the Comments or send us a direct email. Help us develop some perspective on a key trend in contemporary photography that has not, to our knowledge, been explained well to collectors at large.

Auction: Constantiner Collection, Part II, February 12th @Christie's

While the snow keeps coming down, there is no surer sign of Spring than the arrival of the first major photography auction catalogues. The 2009 Spring auction season begins with Part II of the Constantiner Collection, a lower-end sibling of the sale that set the record for a single owner photography sale at Christie's (over $7.7M) last December (original posts for preview here and results here), despite coming to market in the worst of times. (Catalogue cover at right.)

As a reminder, the Constantiner Collection focuses on fashion and glamour images, with a heavy dose of Helmut Newton and Marilyn Monroe. This second part of the sale follows this same pattern, with 26 pictures by Newton (including an enlarged pair of contact prints from Sie Kommen which probably belonged in the first part of the sale) and 39 more lots of Monroe imagery. Here are the statistics for the auction:

Total Lots: 155
Total Low Estimate: $1143000
Total High Estimate: $1734500

Total Low Lots (high estimate below $10000): 113
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): $523500

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between $10000 and $50000): 38
Total Mid Estimate: $771000

Total High Lots (high estimate above $50000): 4
Total High Estimate: $440000

While there isn't much to tempt us in this particular bunch of pictures, I think this second selection helps to tell a more rounded story of this collection. While Part I was filled with iconic pictures, scarce portfolios and trophy lots, this sale shows the hallmarks of the passion of the collectors. There are plenty of lesser known photographers and outlier images. This is evidence that these collectors were consistently looking at the images themselves, and not just the names and the prices. They had a certain eye for what they found of interest, and were willing to pursue unheralded pictures (by unfamiliar artists) and add them to their collection over time, even if they weren't recognized masterpieces. And they continued to add depth to the collection, long after they had achieved critical mass. This kind of amazing collection is only built with single minded, relentless pursuit over many years.

Since the economic climate is perhaps even gloomier than when the first sale occurred, it is extremely difficult to predict how this sale might fare. The first sale was proof that the demand for fashion and glamour imagery is broader and deeper than many had imagined. This sale will test the edges of that demand a bit, and might give us some clues as to the evolving nature of the overall market for photography this year.

February 12th

20 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10020

Monday, January 26, 2009

Aaron Siskind: Recurrence @Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): 101 black and white gelatin silver prints (mostly vintage), displayed in the back two rooms of the gallery. The main room has a dark wall, while the smaller room in the far rear is white. The images span much of Siskind's career, from 1940s work in Gloucester to 1980s images of tar dripped roads. (Mediocre installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Taking on the estate of a recognized master who had previously been represented by one or more other galleries has its own special challenges. By and large, these kinds of estates have been "picked clean" by the preceding representatives, the best of the early and influential work skimmed off and sold years or decades earlier, often leaving behind a grab bag of later and less well known work that doesn't seem to have an audience among collectors and museums, unless someone is looking to build a comprehensive sample of the artist's career.

Bruce Silverstein seems to be willing to dig through these estates in search of diamonds in the rough. Starting with the Kertesz estate, and now with the Siskind estate, his job has been to sift through what remains and try to make sense of it all. Most importantly, he has brought a fresh pair of eyes to work that has been overlooked and under appreciated.
This show is built around the insight that Siskind's work is best understood when seen the way Siskind took the pictures: in series. Long before the Bechers developed their typologies, the ID in Chicago was teaching students to shoot in multiples, to make projects of a single subject matter observed in detail. This exhibit is then groups of pictures rather than a gathering of single images. There is a cluster of reeds, some broken windows, a group of wall stones. There are pieces of driftwood and swirling strands of seaweed. There are building facades, close ups of paint on walls, and divers soaring through the air. All are displayed in groups of 4, 6, 9, 12 or even 16 pictures; there are few single pictures hung in isolation.

What is striking about this exhibit is that it shows, regardless of the subject matter, and over nearly 50 years of taking pictures, Siskind was ultimately interested in lines, patterns, color contrasts, and the beauty of simple forms. Over and over again, the groups of images show him meticulously exploring a subject, in search of interesting compositional relationships between the lines. Siskind seems to have been intrigued by both the sharp and geometric, as well as the rounded and swirling. While some of his work does have a formal rigidity to it (the building facades with grids of windows for example), most of the works have a more fluid, gestural quality, more in tune with the prevailing ideas in the world of Abstract Expressionism. As he got older, these gestures seemed to get looser, with the paint splatters and tar ribbons of the 1970s and 1980s becoming larger and more like calligraphy.

What I like best about this superb exhibit is that it puts all of these different projects into a larger context. Seen as single images, isolated from the rest of his work, some of these pictures don't hold up particularly well. But seen in groups, riffing on the same ideas as their neighbors, the pictures have a much stronger resonance. I think the show does an excellent job of showing that Siskind continued to make thought provoking pictures in his own unique style his entire career, not just in his 1950's heyday. Siskind's artistic approach across his lifetime was remarkably consistent, and the later works merit more attention and praise than they have heretofore received. This show does a good job of forcing us as viewers to think about the quality of his entire output, rather than just his greatest hits. Every single group in the gallery is worth some patient looking. In our view, this is a show worth going out of your way to see.

The Aaron Siskind foundation website is here.

Collector's POV: There are plenty of superlative prints in this show that would fit perfectly into our collection. Prices range from $3500 on the low end to $30000 on the high end for single images, with some prints sold only in groups with larger total prices. Siskind made a large number of later prints in his life, and as a result, the market for his work has gotten muddied and confused. Vintage prints of his most famous images are hard to come by, but vintage images of variants in any one series are often much more reasonable (and available). We already own several Siskinds (here), but we still found many things to tempt us.
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
Through February 21st
535 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10001

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dutch Photographer Gerard Petrus Fieret Dies

We picked up the news on the Internet that Dutch photographer Gerard Petrus Fieret (1924-2009) apparently died yesterday. We became aware of his work via a catalogue/show that gallerist Deborah Bell (site here) and private dealer Paul Hertzmann (artnet site here) collaborated on several years ago.

Fieret made a number of nudes in the 1960s that seem emblematic of those times. They are warm, grainy, and real, sometimes strange and chaotic, complete with his bold signature and address stamp prominetly placed, often right in the middle of the image. (See Untitled, ca 1960s at right.) The pictures are unlike any other nudes we have seen. Fieret's vision was indeed unique: informal, shadowy, personal and full of life.

Christoph Gielen, Arcadia @Cooney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 large scale color Cibachrome images, framed in white and displayed throughout the small gallery. Prints come in two sizes (22x28 and 40x50), in editions of 7. Negatives are from 2004-2008. (Installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: Over the history of the medium, aerial photography has evolved its own distinct subculture, buried inside the larger frameworks of various commercial and artistic endeavors. Starting with Nadar back in the 19th century, people have been fascinated with pictures from the air. We have used aerial pictures for cartography and topography, overhead surveillance, and a never ending array of glossy travel books named things like Above the Pyramids or Over Indianapolis. In the realm of aerial art, photographers like William Garnett and Ed Ruscha set out the playing field, to be followed by artists like Marilyn Bridges, Emmet Gowin, and more recently David Maisel and Gerco de Ruijter (among others).

Christoph Gielen has stepped into this tradition with the images in his first solo NY exhibition, Arcadia, now on view at Daniel Cooney. Gielen has focused his attention on the human built environment, from tangled freeways to dense suburban subdivisions and housing projects, in locations spanning Berlin, Shanghai, Kowloon and southern California. Most of the images have no horizon line, reducing the subject matter to geometric lines and patterns.

Gielen clearly shares a viewpoint with the New Topographic photographers of the 1970s (Robert Adams especially), who highlighted the downsides to suburban sprawl, both in terms of its damage to the environment and its life sapping monotony. While Gielen's images have a simple decorative beauty, the not-so-subtle message is that these things we have built are more than a little scary. The show's ironic title (Arcadia being the essence of a serene, classical place) is another reminder that while we may have designed these worlds with the best of intentions, they haven't turned out to be the paradise we envisioned.

The artist's website can be found here.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are retailing for $1800 and $3800 based on size. While Gielen's images are well made and often striking, they haven't moved the ball forward much in terms of aerial photography. While we have seen much of this kind of thing before, there are a few images in the show that point to a continued evolution toward a more abstract approach, further drawing out new and subtle societal impacts resulting from the aging of these built environments. I was particularly interested to note the changing details of the faceless developments, as the trees grew bigger and broader and the inhabitants had time to begin to personalize their plots. Perhaps the chaos of humanity and nature will one day drown out the perfect geometries of the designers.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Christoph Gielen, Arcadia
Through January 31st

Daniel Cooney Fine Art
511 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lecture: Inside the Met: The Curatorial Departments - Photographs

The three Photography curators from the Met will be giving an overview of the department and its history on March 11th at 6:00PM. Here's the synopsis from the website:

"Although an independent Department of Photographs was established only in 1992, the Metropolitan has collected photography as art since 1928, when Alfred Stieglitz donated twenty-two of his own works, including portraits of his wife Georgia O’Keeffe. During the intervening decades, and especially since the mid-1980s, the photography collection has grown to encompass the full history of the medium, from its invention in the 1830s to the present day. Malcolm Daniel traces major steps in that expansion, including landmark acquisitions from the Stieglitz Collection in 1933 and the Gilman Collection in 2005; Jeff L. Rosenheim discusses the extraordinary archives of American photographers Walker Evans and Diane Arbus, acquired in 1994 and 2007; and Doug Eklund presents the department’s recent activities in the field of contemporary photography."

Tickets are $23 and can be purchased here.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book: PICTORIALISM: Hidden Modernism. Photography 1896-1916

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2008 by Georg Kargl Fine Arts and Galerie Kicken Berlin, in advance of an exhibit on display now and running through March 14, 2009. 63 pages, including 43 images. Essays by Monika Faber, Wilfried Wiegand, and Elizabeth Pollock. (Poor cover shot at right.) Photographers represented include:

James Craig Annan
Robert Demachy
Hugo Erfurth
Frank Eugene
Hugo Henneberg
Theodor and Oskar Hofmeister
Gertrude Kasebier
Rudolf Koppitz
Heinrich Kuhn
Rupert Lovejoy
Elise Mahler
Karel Novak
Erwin Raupp
Edward Steichen
Alfred Stieglitz
Anton Josef Trcka
Hans Watzek
Clarence White

Comments/Context: As a collector, there is something truly wonderful about receiving an unexpected photo book in the mail. Gallery owners and dealers should be reminded that these small gestures really do build meaningful goodwill over time. Over the years, the folks at Kicken Berlin have sent us a few of their well produced catalogues, and we are always very thankful to be included. This slim volume arrived in time for the holidays and got us thinking about Pictorialism again in new ways.

To be perfectly honest, we haven't spent much time exploring Pictorialist photography, as most of the images we have been exposed to previously were of the soupy, soft-focus variety that were a mismatch with our particular collecting plan. And while Pictorialism was summarily discredited and almost entirely abandoned just after World War I, this exhibition shows that underneath the self-conscious workmanship of these images, the beginnings of more modernist sensibilities were indeed percolating.

The show itself is a superb primer on the entire movement, as it has strong examples from all of the major photographers of the times, covering a broad array of subject matter (domestic scenes, nudes, landscape and nature scenes, portraits, still lifes, and architectural studies). It also provides some excellent specimens of a variety of nearly obsolete photographic processes, including gum bichromate (in various colors), bromoil transfer, carbon, and platinum prints.

While we haven't seen the show in person, the reproductions in the catalogue are good enough for us to reconsider our previous view of Pictorialism a bit. There are some quite beautiful photographs here, where the interplay of special high quality papers and meticulous control of light sensitive materials have led to some exquisite objects. To our eye, among many terrific pictures, there is a fine nude by Heinrich Kuhn, and the zigzag of the reflected shadow in the cover image by Erwin Raupp is quietly wonderful.

Another takeaway concerns the relationship of Pictorialism to today's contemporary photography. Surprisingly, both the rediscovery of some of these antique processes by photographers who want to control their image making more directly and the new found freedom to manipulate images enabled by digital technology bring us back to some of the art-making ideas of this movement. Whether overt manipulation as a vehicle for creating new kinds of work will be more readily accepted the second time around remains to be seen, but it is interesting to consider some types of contemporary work through this historical lens.

Galerie Kicken Berlin's website can be found here.

Collector's POV: We don't currently have any images in our collection that would fall under the umbrella of Pictorialism, although we do have a handful of pictures from this time period which are a bit more modernist in their approach. Perhaps a perfect bridge picture in the Pictorialist mode will someday appear that will help fill our hole between the 19th and 20th centuries.

Book: A.D. Coleman, Critical Focus

JTF (just the facts): Subtitled Photography in the International Image Community. Published in 1995 by Nazraeli Press. 179 pages. Includes 47 essays, created between March 1989 and November 1993. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: If there is one thing that writing this blog on a regular basis has done for us, it has made us far more attuned to the quality and quantity of photography reportage and criticism out there in our media sources. We notice with much more care what shows Vince Aletti is covering for the New Yorker and how he is writing about them; the same can be said for Jerry Saltz in New York magazine, or the team of folks covering the arts for the New York Times. From there, it's a pretty sharp drop off to regional and international newspapers, to photography and art magazines of various kinds, and more recently, to the blogosphere. The unfortunate reality is that, save a few bright spots, the overall state of the world of photography criticism is pretty underwhelming on the whole (this is perhaps a myopic, New York centric view of the world I realize).
Given this situation, it is with significant pleasure that I have been going back and working my way through the photography criticism of A.D. Coleman. This volume covers a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and shows Coleman actively trying to expand his horizons beyond the traditional American photo scene. While his essays are primarily rooted in New York, he travels to Prague and Lausanne, Arles and Amsterdam, Jerusalem and Goteborg, as well as all over the United States, in search of interesting photography to write about. He visits fairs and expos, large museum shows and out of the way galleries.
While this particular period in history includes the various scandals surrounding the work of Mapplethorpe, Serrano, Sturges, and Mann (all of which he dissects masterfully), the book centers on the parade of exhibits and shows of those years, featuring Sherman, Sugimoto, Misrach, Witkin, Goldin, Winogrand, Boltanski and Wegman, among many others. There is also the palpable sense that photography had quickly become much more international, and that artists from all over the globe were now garnering well deserved attention. While at one level, Coleman's essays paint a picture of a remarkably stable universe of photographers of merit (many of these are still the ones we're talking about today, twenty years later), at another level, exposure to the broad base of the medium internationally was clearly widening. So while a few of the essays have a time capsule feel to them, the majority have a continued freshness and relevance, regardless of their age.

I have thought quite a bit about what it is that sets Coleman's criticism apart from the rest of the field. It cannot be that he was the first to report anything, that he got the scoops or exclusives, or that his description of the facts was particularly more detailed or thorough. My conclusion is that he paired a high standard for the craft of his writing with a true and genuine commitment to the medium of photography. While all criticism is full of opinions, his were built on the twin foundations of thorough and meticulous analysis and deeply felt enjoyment of pictures of all kinds. What I particularly admire is that he is able to be honest and unmerciful, to take a stand without degenerating into name calling or overly clever potshots. This is a solid collection, well worth your time.

A.D. Coleman's website, The Nearby Cafe, can be found here.

Collector's POV: For many of the years we have been collecting, we didn't read much photography criticism, likely because we were quickly tired of the pompous, art-speak that drags down a large percentage of monograph and exhibition essays. Coleman's columns were like a breath of fresh air for us. If you have been wary of reading photo criticism (assuming it would be dry and boring) or haven't picked up a book of essays for a decade or more, we highly recommend choosing one of Coleman's collections. You'll find you like critical writing more than you thought.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Louis Stettner, Tresor Des Rues @Benrubi

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 images, in a mixture of formats and sizes, displayed in the entry and main gallery. Here is the breakdown of the show:

  • 9 8x10 or 11x14 black and white gelatin silver prints, some negatives/prints from the period 1949-1951, others more recent (1991-2001)
  • 3 larger 40x40 gelatin silver prints, again a mixture of early and later negatives
  • 3 wall sized (48x60) digital silver images from early negatives
  • 4 iris color prints of images from the late 1990s

All of the images are from Paris. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Louis Stettner has spent a lifetime capturing eloquent, real life moments in the streets of Paris and New York. The current show at Bonni Benrubi is a kind of sampler of his Paris work across the years.

The early works (from the late 1940s and early 1950s) are intimate contact prints that chronicle sidewalks, tree lined streets, cafes and shop windows, rain and shadows. There is a romantic familiarity to these images, capturing what some might call the essence of Paris, complete with its ordinary, working class routines. We have been across this same ground with Atget, Kertesz and Doisneau, but it's still an evocative ride.

A second small group of color images from the 1990s are also on display, where Stettner explored abstraction more fully, within the confines of Parisian subject matter (cafe chairs and neon signs). There are echoes of Callahan's dye transfers in this group. That said, these were a little hard to mix in with the other black and white material, and perhaps would benefit from of a show of their own where they could be explored in more depth.

Filling out the exhibit are a number of larger prints of mostly older negatives. These big, beautiful prints amplify the subtleties of the small negatives (they have a definite Wow! factor). This is a mixed blessing however, as romance on such a grand scale walks a thin line between nostalgia and kitsch. I think they fall just short of the "too much" line, and as such are successful, but I can also see how others might react differently.

All in all, this work is a fond, and somewhat sentimental, reminder of why Paris is like no place else.

The artist's website can be found here.

Collector's POV: The images in this show range from $2800 for the small contact prints to $15000 for the wall sized enlargements. While we don't have any Louis Stettner images from Paris, we do have two more recent pictures from New York in our collection, which can be found here.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Louis Stettner, Tresor Des Rues
Through January 31st

Bonni Benrubi Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Gabriele Basilico, Intercity @Cohen Amador

JTF (just the facts): 12 black and white pigment prints, hung in dark grey frames throughout the gallery. The works come in two sizes (approximately 29x37 and 53x42) and are printed in editions of 15. The images were taken in a variety of locations (Naples, Moscow, San Francisco, Monaco, Barcelona, and Bari) during the period 2004-2007. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico has been making careful studies of cities, urban environments and architecture in Europe and in other locations around the world for nearly three decades, and yet he remains a bit of a mystery to audiences in the United States. Except for the show at the SFMOMA last year and a relatively recent relationship with Cohen Amador, Basilico has been virtually absent from America.

Basilico's images of densely built habitats are neither wholly abstracted exercises in lines and planes, nor are they wide documentary views of architecture in the context of its surroundings; they lie somewhere in the middle, giving the structures some larger situation, while playing with the relationships of space and pattern inherent in their design. At first glance, some of the images can seem a bit dull, but upon further inspection, the complexities start to reveal themselves and the pictures become more intriguing.
An example of this is a set of three images from Monaco, hung together in the back of the gallery (image at right). When I first saw these pictures, I wondered why three pictures which were so obviously similar had been chosen for the exhibit, when they were not designed as a triptych. And yet, as I stood and looked at these images more carefully, it became clear to me that each image had its own subtle variations in pattern as a result of the changes in camera angle. The sinuous street down in the valley of the buildings was entirely different in each image, and the relationships between the structures had been altered just enough to create varied compositions. Each picture could easily stand on its own, and the triptych effect created by their installation together simply highlighted their differences.

Basilico's works merit this type of patient looking. These are silent, almost introspective pictures, that encourage standing and thinking awhile. His work asks questions about our built environments, but it does so without shouting or overt critique. The images are simply put forth, to be read in a multitude of ways. Focus can quickly shift from the interplay of the planes and tones of a dense warren of buildings, to harder questions about how or why they evolved to be that way in the first place.
In sum, this small show is certainly worth a visit, particularly if you aren't familiar with this important photographer.
Collector's POV: Basilico's work makes an interesting contrast to a variety of city and industrial photographers throughout the history of the medium, from Abbott, Callahan, and the New Topographic photographers, to newer voices (Struth, Opie, Kanemura and others). His work is solely represented by Cohen Amador here in the US (I believe), and is virtually absent from the secondary market, so there aren't many options for acquiring his prints locally. The images in this show are retailing for 8000 and 11000 Euros, based on size. Vintage works from the 1980s and 1990s are also available (although not part of this particular exhibit).
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Through March 6

41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022
UPDATE: We have been reminded by another collector that Basilico also had a solo exhibition at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2004.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Josef Schulz, Form @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 large scale digital C prints, displayed without frames throughout the main gallery. The images come in three sizes (39x51, 47x63 and 47x106) and the negatives range from 2003-2008 (part of two separate series: Formen and Sachliches). The prints are made in editions of 6. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: If there is a pattern to the work of students of Bernd and Hilla Becher (and more recently Thomas Ruff) from the Dusseldorf Art Academy, it seems to be a shared respect for large format photography, overlaid with an often strict intellectual/conceptual framework. Polish photographer Josef Schulz' pictures, now on view at Yossi Milo, have all the hallmarks of this educational approach.

The subject matter of Schulz' photographs is familiar ground: factories, warehouses, storage facilities and other industrial forms. We have seen plenty of these buildings over the past few decades, particularly from the German photographers. What is different and thought-provoking about these pictures is the theoretical inversion that Schulz is playing with. In his pictures, Schulz takes large format images of these industrial structures and then digitally strips away all the contextual information (signs, windows, aging, landscaping, location etc.), leaving behind clean, simple forms of corrugated steel and concrete. He takes the real buildings and breaks them back down into their elemental blocks, leaving them looking like simple architectural models.

These pictures have an eerie silence to them, as if the super perfect futuristic world is still being put together and the people have yet to arrive. (When they do, they'll certainly all have matching jumpsuits and haircuts.) If you step back from the works as grounded in some kind of reality, they become almost abstract exercises in color, form, shape and volume - design concepts rendered in a CAD software program. Each work travels the same path: the viewer's mind begins by trying to invent or add back some details of context to make the image "make sense"; when this fails, the viewer is forced into an examination of the building as a generic, and often surprisingly beautiful, form. If you like your photography cool and intellectual, this is a show for you.

The artist's website can be found here.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $10000 and $16000 based on size, which seems a bit high for a first solo show in New York, even if the works are physically quite large. Given the string of stars that have been produced by the Bechers, perhaps this pricing is just a "provenance" effect.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Josef Schulz, Form
Through January 31st

Yossi Milo Gallery
525 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

UPDATE: More Schulz at Conscientious, here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Course: History of Photography @MoMA

Starting in February, Diana Bush will be teaching an eight part evening series on the History of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. This course is part of the larger series of adult academic programs offered by the museum. The class synopsis is below:

"Moving from its beginnings in the 1830s to the recent projects of contemporary artists, this course introduces participants to the history and historiography of the photographic image. A primary interest of the course is visual literacy, and, drawing on the exhibition The Printed Picture, class discussions take shape around the complex and diverse functions of graphic and photographic objects in specific historical contexts. At the same time, in the context of The Museum of Modern Art, we discuss the challenges of writing the history of photography, both within and outside of greater histories of modernism and modern art."

Given the text above, the approach looks to be different from a traditional chronological slide lecture. The fee is $415 ($355 for members).

Further information on the course (and links to registration) can be found here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Book: Edward Burtynsky - China

JTF (just the facts): Published by Steidl in 2005. 148 pages, including 81 color plates and essays by Edward Burtynsky, Marc Mayer, Ted Fishman, and Mark Kingwell. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: Coming to grips with the prevailing view of industrialization, particularly in the developed West, has been an ever shifting and evolving topic for photographers of all kinds, for at least the past century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries (right up through the 1930s or so), the exploits of man, in the form of skyscrapers, factories, railroads, dams, and steel mills, were bathed in a romantic glow, as we stood in awe and pride at our accomplishments, as the molten steel poured from the furnaces and the smokestacks rose into the sky. Many great American photographers, including Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Charles Sheeler, and even Edward Weston made inspiring images of our new industrial power. (EO Hoppe didn't call his 1920's book of photographs from across the country Romantic America by accident.)

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, this glow was beginning to fade, and the secondary and tertiary impacts of our industrialization (on our society and on our environment) began to become more apparent. Photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz were starting to ask hard questions about how our never ending consumption and growth were affecting the world around us, and the answers weren't romantic or beautiful, they were harsh and dispiriting. At the same time in Germany, Bernd and Hilla Becher were taking a different approach to this industrialization, carefully and systematically capturing the seemingly endless variety of industrial structures that we as humans had built. And while there was beauty to be found lurking in these buildings, it was cool and disaffected, in a clinical and anthropological way. Recently, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has continued this wave of more intense scrutiny of the realities of industrialization, making pictures that ask penetrating and complicated questions about the impact of our manipulation and destruction of the environment around us.

While Burtynsky has taken surprisingly beautiful photographs of industrial sites and wastelands all over the world, this group of pictures from China is particularly arresting, in that we are able to see the same movie we saw during our own industrialization over the past century, played again in fast forward and at a larger scale. Some have called what has gone on in China since 1949 "hypercapitalism", but even this world fails to truly describe the staggering pace and scope of the industrial transformation that has gone on across China in the past few decades. To become the place where nearly everything the world needs is made, the very fabric of the nation has been (and continues to be) torn and rewoven.

The book itself is divided into separate sections based on the specific industrial activity being photographed (Three Gorges Dam, Steel and Coal, Old Industry, Shipyards, Recycling, Manufacturing, and Urban Renewal), and together, they create a compelling and interrelated portrait of just what is going on. Massive new industrial and manufacturing facilities are being built to meet world demand, causing new trickle down requirements, particularly for energy and labor. Literally millions of (anonymous) people have left the hinterlands and migrated to the coast to work in these factories, triggering a host of new pressures on the already overrun urban areas, including housing and waste disposal.

Burtynsky's pictures are meticulously composed to highlight patterns of color and line that are found in these man-made environments. The images are taken with a large format camera, and as a result, are filled with exquisite detail. The result is an unsettling contrast between the singular beauty of the compositions and the underlying dysfunction that we all know is just beneath the surface. This tension between the technical quality and the ominous (and sometimes awe inspiring) undercurrent of the subject matter make the pictures work, especially when they are printed large (often 40x50). And even though the reproductions found in the book are relatively small, they are successful in giving the reader a sense for the craftsmanship of Burtynsky's prints.

The artist's website can be found here.

Collector's POV: In the past few years, Burtynsky's work has become more available in the secondary market, fetching between approximately $5000 and $35000, depending on the image and its size. Burtynsky is represented in New York by Charles Cowles (site here). While we can imagine adding a Burtynsky image to our collection, our challenge is that the work wants to be large and we generally prefer (and need) the prints to be small. We'll just have to keep looking for just the right piece.

UPDATE: More Burtynsky at MAO, here.

Book: Sebastiao Salgado, Workers

JTF (just the facts): Subtitled An Archaeology of the Industrial Age. Published by Aperture in 1993. 400 pages, with 350 duotone images, taken between 1986 and 1992. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: We have a relative who visits us perhaps once a year, and he is a photographer who has spent much of his life traveling the world making photographic portraits of indigenous peoples. Every time he comes to our home and sees the photography crowded on the walls, his first question is always, without fail, "Do you have any Salgados?" Since we don't collect portraits or documentary photography, I am never ready with a very good answer. But his question has kept me thinking for many years, about why of all the photographers that one might fall in love with, he had been smitten with Salgado. So this year, when asked about which photo books I might be interested in for Christmas, I mentioned that it was about time we had a book on Salgado for our library. Lo and behold, one arrived under the tree on Christmas morning. Thus the reason for today's review of a book published more than 15 years ago.
Of course, the reason our relative admires Salgado is that their work shares a similar passion and interest in the overlooked and forgotten peoples of our world. Workers is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the hardships and dignity of the manual labor that underlies our industrialized civilization, even in today's technology-driven information age. Over a handful of years, Salgado made pictures in 26 countries, spanning the globe from India and Bangladesh to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, and from Brazil to China. He investigated the production of sugar and cocoa, the mining of coal, oil and gold, and the building of automobiles and ships. He went on fishing boats and to slaughterhouses, and visited steel and iron ore plants and textile factories. He witnessed the massive construction of dams, tunnels, and canals. His images show a thorough and detailed understanding of how these various industries get their work done.
What he finds is that regardless of the specifics of any of these labors, the work is nearly always dangerous, dirty, and wearyingly difficult. The working conditions can be appallingly tough. There is brutality and exploitation. And yet within these hellish environments stand the workers themselves, time and again, getting the job done in the face of tremendous challenges. Salgado shows these workers in the worst of humanity's jobs with honor and nobility, deserving of our respect and thanks for doing the ugly things that need to be done to make our world a place we can live in. These are not blandly objective documentary images, but a concerned and potent voice pointing out what we may have missed.
Nearly all the images in this book have a sense of motion, a visual feeling that the work continues all around us, even when one individual has been singled out for a moment of attention. These are not static shots; things are being done. And even in the shipyards, mines and oil rigs of the largest scale, most of the jobs look small (and often tedious), tiny cogs in the massive machine.
The images in the book have been carefully grouped and sequenced, and the total effect is powerful. One quibble I have is that all of the horizontally oriented pictures have been printed across two pages, burying the center of each image in the valley of the book's spine. While the larger size of the images increases their impact, the images have a chopped up feel that makes them more difficult to fully appreciate. But overall, this body of work is consistently well crafted and tremendously effective in opening our eyes to the realities of the difficult labors that still go on all around us. It is still completely relevant, 15 years after its first publication.
Salgado has his own Paris-based press agency, Amazonas Images, site here.

Collector's POV: Salgado's images of the gold miners in Brazil and of the train station in Bombay, among many others, are often available in the secondary market, in various sizes. Prices range from a few thousand dollars (for later prints) up to the $15000 range for vintage prints of the most famous images. While it seems unlikely that we will add a Salgado to our particular collection in the near future, the book has a bold spine with large lettering that will stand out on our library shelves, perfect for grabbing the attention of our once-a-year Salgado fan. Having now spent time absorbing these images, we will now be ready for a much deeper conversation about his work.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Christie's Plans Job Cuts

It shouldn't be particularly surprising that Christie's and the other auction houses will need to do some staff reductions to get their costs in line with the new economic environment. What these cuts will mean for our friends in the Photography department is still unknown.

New York Times article here.

Martin Parr, Parr-O-Rama @Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 images (3 black and white and 33 chromogenic color prints), in various sizes, ranging from 7x10 to 50x60. In editions of 10, 25, 33, or open, depending on the specific image. The show contains a mix of vintage and later prints, with work from the early 1970s to the present, displayed in the main gallery. (Installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: The photographs of Martin Parr take some getting used to. Many of the images seem indistinguishable from snapshots, the colors are often blindingly vibrant and flashy, and the point of view lives somewhere between sarcasm, mockery, and wry wit. At first glance, they're a lot to take in, but given some patience, most reveal additional layers of thought-provoking ideas about our societies and cultures, consumerism, and modern existence.
The mini retrospective on view at Janet Borden spans nearly all of Parr's career, including at least one work from a significant number of his picture projects (Think of England, The Last Resort, Common Sense, Small World, Luxury, Bad Weather, Signs of the Times, The Cost of Living, Food, Dubai, and Japanese Commuters Asleep are all represented). Seeing all of the images together, Parr's consistent "eye" becomes more visible: close-ups of objects not usually paid much attention to, but which become striking when enlarged, and careful juxtapositions (accomplished with vantage point and framing) that highlight the ironic and ridiculous in the everyday that surrounds us and often passes unnoticed.
Not many photographers have tackled humor with as much success as Martin Parr. For the most part, his work has accomplished the tricky task of intelligently highlighting the subtle comedy of life's situations, without falling into the trap of the jester or the jackass. His pictures aren't necessarily guffaw-inducing, but more the type that cause you to smile with the knowledge that he has observed something quite surprising that you likely missed.
This show isn't exactly a "greatest hits" exhibit, although some of his best images from Think of England are indeed included. It is more of a sampler, showing off a variety of approaches, although not always with the most striking of the images from any given series. As such, it has a bit of a "hit or miss" quality to it. Overall, however, it is a strong reminder of Parr's place as an important chronicler of our modern existence.
The artist's personal website can be found here. His page at Magnum Photos is here.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show range from $1500 to $15000, based both on size and popularity. Given the fairly strict boundaries of our particular collection, we will need to do some more homework exploring all of his various projects to find one image that would fit just right (perhaps one from his Flowers book).

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Through January 31st

560 Broadway
New York, NY 10012