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Jaime Johnson Stephanie Jung Timothy Pakron Ruben Brulat Maxine Helfman Beth Dow
Issue 4 Spring 2015
Don't Take Pictures Issue 4 – Spring 2015
Looking Through the Skull Decay and the “Mysterious” Jaime Johnson
2 Roger Thompson
We Cannot See the City The Dizzying Cityscapes of Stephanie Jung
10 W.G. Beecher
Book Review: Photographers’ Sketchbooks Stephen McLaren & Bryan Formhals 10
Timothy Pakron A Studio Visit
24 Jen Kiaba
30 Ben Street
Summertime Maxine Helfman
32 Diana H. Bloomfield
Fixing Photographs New York University’s Conservation Center
Founder/Editor-in-Chief Senior Editor Staff Editor Designer
Publisher: Don’t Take Pictures 129 Joralemon St., Brooklyn, NY 11201
18 Kat Kiernan
On a Human Scale Ruben Brulat
Transcending Time In the Garden with Beth Dow
40 Joe Brenan 42 Ellyn Kail
Kat Kiernan Roger Thompson W.G. Beecher Union Jack Creative
Butterfly Maxine Helfman
love the internet as much as the next person. It is a wonderful tool that has revolutionized so many things, photography included. Of all still media, photography is perhaps the one most at home on the computer screen; reproductions are crisp and digital photographs are beautifully rendered. Yet by scrolling and clicking, clicking and scrolling through an infinite number of websites, blogs, and social media posts, the time spent examining each photograph can often be less than the time it took for the shutter’s release. For all that is gained by the ability to find photographers with a few clicks of a mouse, much of the grandeur and magic of their artwork is lost when viewed in slideshows, as thumbnails, or as part of an endless stream of “tiles.”
Presented across printed pages, I invite you to engage with the art and writing in this issue of Don’t Take Pictures at your own pace, turning paper in your hands instead of moving a cursor. Without pop-up ads or flashing notifications, you can escape into words and images that will take you through urban jungles, into studios and formal gardens, and to laboratories where physical photographs are preserved and restored. It is hard to find time for anything in our modern hectic lives, art included. I hope that you find the time and space to experience this issue’s rich visuals and writing; and when you are done reading, I hope that it finds a place on your shelf so that you can revisit it at your leisure. —Kat Kiernan
Looking Through the Skull Decay and the “Mysterious” Jaime Johnson Roger Thompson
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Johnson’s work, while aligning with a certain vein of Southern gothic, ascribes a delicacy to death that invites more than frightens.
t was little surprise to her friends and family that Jaime Johnson’s series Untamed explores death, wilderness, and decay. Years ago, one of her sisters opened a jewelry box and discovered that Jaime had stored two dead grasshoppers in it, and in recent years, more than one friend remarked upon a pile of bones that she kept in her car trunk. Her sisters have more than once quipped, “That’s Jaime with a dead thing.” Not long ago, a friend called Johnson to give her a dead bird. Apparently, her fascination with death is no secret. Speaking with a soft, lilting Southern drawl, Johnson might seem to be a stereotypical “Southern gal” were it not for her morbid predilection. Johnson’s work, while aligning with a certain vein of Southern gothic, ascribes a delicacy to death that invites more than frightens. She readily embraces the notion of herself as a “Southern” artist, but her work both indulges and undermines that label. Untamed centers on the swamps and woods of Mississippi, a place where the decay of the natural world—perhaps as clearly as anywhere—illustrates the relationship between life and death, growth and decay. For example, “Animal Tracking” captures the shifting waters and soils that spread out through the damp Southern forest. Johnson grew up in this world. When she was young, her family moved from New Orleans to rural Mississippi, allowing her to venture into the outdoors with her sisters and twin brother, poking around ditches and turning over tree stumps. Even today she spends at least an hour each day wandering the outdoors.
Johnson and her brother left home at 16 to become boarding students at the Mississippi School of Math and Science in the north of the state. It was there that she discovered photography. She soon found herself making photos of anything she could find, one summer focusing exclusively on the lizards that scurried around her parents’ Poplarville
home. While at boarding school she learned that her father had been a photographer years earlier. He had pursued his own artwork, but left the hobby behind when the family moved out of Louisiana. Untamed is presented as a series of teatoned cyanotypes. Johnson drifted into cyanotype printing while working on her MFA, but was dissatisfied with its traditional blue tints. Washing her prints in tea, a process that begins to break down the paper, she found a testament to the natural processes that she was trying to understand and describe. The exquisite Japanese rice paper she uses makes printing each one a challenge. For every print that survives the delicate process, ten are lost. The close, almost studious, attention to detail in Johnson’s work likely owes something to her years in the science curriculum, but her turn to art suggests the limitations of science to explain the entirety of the natural world. Despite her images’ clear grounding in the place of her youth, they rise at times toward archetype, suggesting some cycle or unseen story behind the facts in front of us. For example, in “Rest,” the image of a dead brown thrush contrasts with our traditional idea of rest only if one takes death to be final. The bird may be forever stilled, but its body and its energy will be broken apart and consumed by nature, permitting new life to rise up. The thrush in “Rest” looks as peaceful as a bird nestled down to sleep, and the image’s power is in the realization that this peace can only be harbored by such a dark certainty. Johnson’s use of bones in many of her images speak to this continuity between life and death, peace and darkness. In “Mask,” a figure peers out over the waters of a swamp. Holding the skull of an alligator like a mask over her face, she looks out between the teeth in the skull. Despite this, the image remains oddly relaxed and contemplative. The woman crouches as though taking a mo-
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Bone Dress 2014 Opposite
Animal Tracking 2014
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ment to reflect on the scene, and she looks through the skull as though they were a pair of binoculars. Similarly, in “Bone Dress,” the stereotypical southern belle dress is transformed into a pile of bones, a startling (if also darkly humorous) reimagining of the Southern woman. In this image, just as in “Mask,” the signs of death become the very objects that animate the scene. The woman in each—either holding or wearing the signs of decay—takes possession of the very thing that might undo her. Repurposing the deaths of other creatures so that she might live, this woman simultaneously recognizes in death, she too will be repurposed and consumed by the earth. Untamed was partly influenced by the story
of a feral woman in the book Women Who Run with the Wolves. These images illustrate a power that derives from a loss of self to a natural cycle. The feral woman here is one who embraces the impermanence of the world, not in order to acknowledge the looming end of our lives, but to suggest that by looking through the skull, we can see the landscape around us with unexpected clarity. Johnson says that she has been “accused of being mysterious.” While the comment may have been made because of her self-proclaimed intense need for solitude, the same accusation might be leveled at Untamed. To do so, though, would miss her thoughtful engagement with both medium and subject. Johnson’s images are not “mysterious” in that
they resist discovery; nor are they simply overwrought ruminations on the worn-out trope that “life comes from death;” instead, they articulate our capacity to decay as a marker of our identity. When we do, we gain clearer vision and more sure footing, even if some of our own edges tear away in the waters.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.
Water Snake 2014 Opposite
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Maigo desu II 2010
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We Cannot See the City The Dizzying Cityscapes of Stephanie Jung W.G. Beecher
e look at the city, but we cannot see the city. It shimmers and shifts, incapable of being fully seen or understood. Its daily bustle is an impossible tangle of relationships, creating an energy that is unique to each location and time of day. Stephanie Jung walks through this city, making photographs that capture its complexity and vitality. She accentuates these qualities with dizzying digital manipulations, making each image a jumble of buildings and streets. From this confusion we are rewarded with a new view of time, of mood, and of the city’s complexity. Growing up in a small town in south-west Germany, Jung learned the craft of photography from her father, an avid amateur. Now living in Berlin as a freelance photographer, she revels in the opportunity to travel around the world in furtherance of her art. Camera in hand, she walks through each city that she visits, waiting to find the right moment, the right light, and the right atmosphere. Jung’s images are unplanned, but never haphazard. She usually finds what she is looking for in the warm tones of evening: a view, a lonely side street at dusk, a sidewalk crowded with pedestrians. Her earlier works were of flowers and nature, but these have since given way to a purely urban focus. Her distinctive digital post-processing technique is at once delicate and aggressive, carefully layering duplicates and subtle shifts of perspective upon the image. Despite its striking impact, this process is less demanding than her pursuit of the right moment. In “Potsdamer Platz,” the skyline and the buildings that define it blend into one another, distinct yet impossibly interwoven. Cars, buildings, and pedestrians pass through each other in the late afternoon traffic. Similarly, in “Shibuya,” the photograph depicts the famous bustling energy of Hachikō Square as no other still image can. The throngs of pedestrians and garish advertisements mesh in and out of one another. Many photogra-
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phers, amateurs and professionals alike, have sought to depict the energy of this famous Tokyo landmark. Such photographs, no matter how skillfully made, freeze the buildings and passers-by in place and time. In each attempt, there are a fixed number of people crossing the street, forever frozen mid-stride, waiting to be counted and measured. Jung’s “Shibuya” denies us this satisfaction, forcing us to instead confront the impossibly complex world as she sees it. Though alive with urban energy, Jung’s images themselves are of ordinary street life and daily routines, devoid of specific interactions or stories. In these images, the city’s own identity is secondary. Her photographs build no relationships with their subjects, leaving the cities unaware of and indifferent to her camera. Jung savors this urban anonymity, harnessing it to show the collective mood of the moment. To more directly engage her subject would taint the ephemeral qualities that she seeks to capture.
Recognizing the futility of the freezeframe, Jung moves in the opposite direction, destroying visual clarity in pursuit of something greater.
The purest form of Jung’s craft is found in her series Maigo desu. This collection of five images is the most visually troubling to the ordered and structured parts of the mind, but it is where Jung’s visual layers find the most freedom. The series presents Tokyo’s urban landscape unadulterated by nature, humans, or even a horizon. Buildings and roads pile atop one another, weaving together ad infinitum. The title roughly translates from the Japanese as “to get lost,” and it is easy to see how Jung or her audience could lose themselves in the interminable sea of buildings. The result is a powerful series of semi-abstract cityscapes. We often think of photography as a medium that reduces the complexity of the world, pulling clarity from chaos. Jung proves that the reverse is equally possible. The urban scenes that she photographs are too mercurial and inchoate to be distilled into in a fraction of a second. Recognizing the futility of the freezeframe, Jung moves in the opposite direction, destroying visual clarity in pursuit of some-
Berlin View 2011
thing greater. Through digital manipulation, she reminds us that there is more to a moment than can be captured in a simple photograph, or ever fully known at all. Her chaotic layers and distortions forsake lucidity, permitting the mood and character of the scene to scintillate from behind its veil of abstraction.
things themselves cease to matter as discrete objects or individuals. When we stop fighting the urge to see clearly, the ambient energy comes more fully into view, extracted from the confusion. By letting the details slip away, the harsh meter of time fades from each photograph.
One might argue that Jung’s work is difficult to look at. The clean lines and sharp edges of modernity are made indistinct. It is not that they have blurred or faded away, but rather that they appear so multitudinous that we are overwhelmed by the resultant visual noise. Faces, cars, the text of street signs, even the leaves on trees, lose their distinctness in the tumult. It is not that we cannot see them— they have been repeated again and again— but rather that they are too interwoven for the mind to fully process. In this chaos, the
Some photographers challenge the notion of “the decisive moment” in photography by making images that capture moments of no particular significance. One can debate the decisiveness of Jung’s scenes, but her talent lies in her pursuit the opposite tack: making images that seem to blur one moment into the next until the sharpness of the shutter’s eye is completely lost. We are left instead with the mood of a late afternoon in Paris, or the rush hour traffic in Berlin, or the electric glow of Tokyo’s lights in the early evening.
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The focus remains undisturbed, but the moment is prolonged past the point of recognition. Rather than isolate a fleeting moment, Jung reminds us that all moments are fleeting, and that a moment, and the mood that accompanies it, blurs with the next until we can no longer tell when one begins and another ends. W.G. Beecher is an Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. He lives in the dense urbanism of New York. Below
Potsdamer Platz 2011
Another View of Paris 2010 Opposite
Maigo desu IV 2010
Photographers’ Sketchbooks Stephen McLaren & Bryan Formhals Thames & Hudson, 320 pp., $60
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The elongated tome is itself an encyclopedia of inspiration. Over 300 illustrated pages contain reproductions of personal sketchbooks, a term that has been expanded to include a wide range of materials. From the traditional Polaroid to the more contemporary iPhone test shots, on-site documentation is just the beginning. It includes found photos, contact sheets, diary pages, and collages of various inspiring imagery that all funnel into the creative process of bringing an idea to fruition. More than just a series of preparatory steps towards a final image, each sketchbook is presented as a work of art in itself.
featured photographer, followed by the photographer’s own words about their creative methods and relationship to the medium. Some are intimate stories, revealing more than could be inferred from the sketchbooks alone. Others are philosophies behind image making. Encompassing a broad range of photographers, the book includes legends such as Alec Soth and the late Saul Leiter, as well as up-andcoming photographers like Laura Pannack and Robin Cracknell. The combination of text and imagery offers an unfiltered look into the mind of each photographer. Magnum photographer Trent Parke describes his conflicting needs to both photograph on film and review each day’s photographs. “When we travelled around the country on the Minutes to Midnight trip, I had a 35mm scanner and a small postcard printer in my tent I would use to print out the pictures every day. Narelle, my wife, shot Polaroids of all my film hanging on clotheslines, in trees, by the beach—wherever we were, all around the country. It’s important that I see everything I do that day, because I am fascinated with the subconscious and why I am drawn to photograph certain things.”
In addition to the visuals, each chapter begins with a short description of the
The book arrives at a time when the role of the photographer as artist and business
he mechanical nature of cameras often creates the perception that photographers are “button-pushers”; that they have a keen eye and sense of timing, but that the artistry begins and ends there. Photographers’ Sketchbooks, a new book by Street Photography Now co-author Stephen McLaren and LPV Magazine founder Bryan Formhals, provides a behind-thescenes look into the thought processes of 49 photographers from around the globe.
person is hotly debated. In its introduction essay McLaren writes, “The most forward-thinking photographers are also curators and documenters of their own work, constantly probing new possibilities for publishing and exhibiting.” The book’s four essays incorporate both the early history of photography and the influence of the modern digital environment. Photographers’ Sketchbooks concentrates on documentary photographers, those artists who traditionally have the least studio time involved in their image-making. This unacknowledged decision prevents the book from presenting a broader spectrum of photographers—conceptual photographers are almost entirely absent, leaving us to wonder what their own sketchbooks might reveal. Given the authors’ backgrounds, however, this bias can be appreciated. Those who view photography as a “click-and-print” medium will be fascinated to see the steps involved in the realization of an image, while practitioners of photography will delight in comparing and contrasting their own methods with the “studio practice” of these photographers.
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A Studio Visit with
Timothy Pakron Kat Kiernan
ew York City is always changing, or so I am told. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, once a rough-and-tumble community, is now a safer area of converted artist studios at the leading edge of Brooklyn’s gentrification. The buildings on Stewart Street, where I met Timothy Pakron, feature striking graffiti murals that suggest a different purpose than the machine shops and warehouses of years past. Pakron too is not who he first appears to be. Initially, I was surprised that this artist who creates delicate and emotive portraits would be of such an imposing stature. But like his artwork, his demeanor is more sensitive than his looks. “Striking” and “minimal” are the first adjectives that come to mind when viewing Pakron’s work. By using a refined “selective development” technique, he strips each portrait of its background and most of its detail to reveal the essence of his subjects. Large, white sheets of paper are interrupted with delicate drips, revealing elegant and powerful portraits. Surprisingly, his studio space contains none of these qualities. Shared with three other artists, the large paint-splattered loft is packed full of objects and works-in-progress, and overflows with energy. We move into Pakron’s corner of the studio, separated by temporary walls he built himself, and take refuge in the quietness of his work. Oil paintings occupy the walls. Pakron explains that he considers himself a portrait artist, and primarily a painter. This connection is easy to see as we spread the photographic prints across the floor, each one a unique object like the paintings around us.
Untitled 11 Right
Timothy Pakron Photo by Kat Kiernan Featured images by Timothy Pakron made 2010–2012.
After developing the film, Pakron carefully studies each negative, combining his knowledge of his subject and the truths revealed on film about their emotional state. After enlarging the negatives, Pakron uses a variety of paint brushes to apply the developer chemical to the paper. Mindful of its fluidity, he maneuvers the developer tray to control its path down the paper until a face begins to emerge. After several attempts at sketching with developer, the original photograph gives way to the final product, a one-of-a-kind silver gelatin or “silver drip” portrait. Pakron is left with a photographic print that shows a distorted version of the subject that might easily be mistaken at first for a line drawing. It may show the eye or mouth from the original negative, but through brush strokes and clever use of negative space, he transforms the subject’s facial expression. This new portrait is one that shows the true identity of his subject as he saw it in the moment the photograph was made. Though he now resides in Brooklyn, Pakron grew up on the coast of Mississippi. His work is represented by Castell Gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, and he received his BA from the College of Charleston in South Carolina,
“The portraits,” he explains, “are a different kind of painting.” Much like a painter will sketch his ideas before picking up a brush, Pakron too begins with a sketch. The initial portraits of his close friends and relatives were shot on 35mm black and white film. He photographs their faces in harsh, natural light for high contrast, using a fixed lens that requires intrusion into their personal space.
Timothy Pakron in his studio Photo by Kat Kiernan Opposite
Untitled 5 Following Page (from left)
Untitled 10 Untitled 7
where he focused his studies on painting and photography. As is evident by his studio walls, he often combines mediums to find new ways of depicting the human form. His style exists at the intersection of portraiture and abstract work. A portrait artist at heart, Pakron simply uses whatever materials he can to create them. His use of painting—the act, if not the medium—allows him to selectively bring forth the image rendered in film. The choices that he makes to create a photographic portrait, while simultaneously rejecting the traditional use of photography to establish “reality” as an unbiased representational medium. When asked about this process, he said, “I have always been fascinated by portraiture. Instead of creating a realistic, straight-fromfilm portrait, I am more interested in exploring how the original image can be brought to the surface in alternative ways.” A successful portrait has presence. It has weight. As we look through his prints, Pakron
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lifts them tenderly, pausing to look at each one as though he is seeing it not just as an image, but the person it represents. I remark that there is an element of melancholy in the work. He is quiet for a moment before mentioning that many of the portraits were made during a difficult time for his family, when they were being impacted by addiction. This hint of background opened up an entirely new perspective for me. I began to see the images not just as outlines of faces, but as expressions of anguish formed from the silver gelatin, of faces being physically and metaphorically pulled down by the drips that look like tear-stained pages. In most instances, Pakron has left the eyes intact. He draws much of his inspiration from this one feature, altering expressions with the chemistry in order to accentuate the emotion he finds in their eyes.
archive what is in front of the lens, whether as moments, faces, or experiences. Because of Pakron’s unique method of printing, his images are one-of-a-kind. “My job as an artist,” he says, “is to challenge the viewer. To make [them] see differently, think differently, and most importantly, feel differently.” I sit on the concrete floor of Pakron’s studio, surrounded by unknown faces emerging from their white voids, and I cannot help but think that, like the studio and the artist, each portrait contains more depth than is apparent at first glance. It is amazing that these images, largely devoid of information, can evoke so much emotion. Leaving the studio together, we walk past the graffiti-covered warehouses and talk about his next project. He will turn his attention to painting for a time, while always keeping his camera close at hand.
Photographers have an inherent desire to preserve. The traditional role of the camera and the photographic print is to record and
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures and a recent Brooklyn transplant.
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ruben brul at on a human Scale Jen Kiaba
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Au temps disparu, Bromo, Indonesia 2012
he work of young French photographer Ruben Brulat draws the viewer into immense textural landscapes that often seem desolate and alien. One might suppose that these landscapes are uninhabited, until the eye catches the instinctually familiar shape of a human body in repose on the terrain. The figures, always nude, become an anchor point for the photographs and help to reinforce the monumentality of the landscapes that engulf them.
extinguished something of themselves to land. Brulat describes this sacrifice as being rooted in the meditative experiences he had while making self-portraits. He would walk until he found a place where the light and texture of the environment compelled him stop and experience the land directly. He would feel compelled to “go with [his] bare body, run down and lay in this place, seeking that moment where all stops and is suspended in time.” Such a place, he says, is where everything is at peace.
Brulat became interested in photography in 2008, and quickly began to investigate larger formats. “I was exploring different ways to work in the medium; I was amazed by the way it worked, its relation to history, but mainly the sense of bringing the details up to light.” The human form and its transactional relationship with the world around it featured heavily in Brulat’s prior self-portrait series Immaculate and Primates. In his latest series Paths, the human figures become part of the detail within the landscapes, and the questions of history and scale become an integral part of experiencing the work.
There is, of course, a price for the peace that Brulat describes. In laying one’s body down to the land, there is danger and pain. The act that inspired Paths manifested from a subconscious urge rather than any predetermined course. And it was through feeling—his body beginning to give into the cold with near-overwhelming pain in his limbs— that Brulat says he was able to find a sense of tranquility and surrounded by an inner calm.
The scales by which we measure ourselves as individuals, as a species, and the time frame of our existence are all questioned within Brulat’s work. Made during a 14-month journey to the Middle East and Asia, Brulat wanted to explore the idea of time on what he describes as a “human scale.” He chose to eschew air travel, and instead traveled almost exclusively by land. “At first I traveled some months to Patagonia, Nepal, and India,” he says. “But the wish of a longer journey came to me: a journey where I would be able to experience and go deep within and through the land laying East, in the Middle East, and in Asia.” Paths chronicles the idea of giving oneself away to nature and the symbiosis that can occur within that act. That, according to Brulat, is the crux of the project. The poses of his figures often seem prayerful, and yet chillingly inactive, as though the figures have
If Paths was merely a continuation of his previous self-portrait work, it would be riveting enough. Several images in this series feature more than one figure, however, making it clear that that Brulat has invited others to experience his uniquely intense exchange with the land. In fact, each of his models was a stranger that he encountered in his travels. “I simply wanted to invite them to give themselves away to nature. I would meet some people, we would a have wonderful time together … [and] after a while if the moment was right I would talk to them about the project.” Initially, Brulat found that his new friends were hesitant to pose nude for fear that the photographs would be too intimate. But sharing a small book of his previous work often broke through that hesitancy, and people became excited about being a part of the project. Then they would travel together until circumstances lined up for a photograph to take place. If they came across a place where the power of the landscape urged interaction with it, he would stop and make a
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picture. “But if there was a place but no person, or a person but no place, there would be no picture and I would just keep on traveling until everything would come together.” Only a few frames are exposed on Brulat’s 4x5 camera during a session, with each photograph serving as a memento of a person’s bonding with nature. Though the connection with the land that Brulat photographs is an intimate one, he sets up his camera at a distance from his subjects. The result is a beautiful and humbling reminder that our moment on the land, both as individuals and as a species, is finite and fugacious. The landscape, compared to human lifespan and even human history, is standing still. As Brulat states, “[I]t is accepting us passing through even if truthfully, as a species, we do affect it.” When he left Paris with all of the unknown ahead of him, Brulat says he was spurred on by questions of how we live as a human race, as well as the simple but universal ques-
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tion of “why am I here?” Though nothing remained constant in his journey—neither landscape nor language, custom nor culture—the one answer that he found was that he could continue on if he so wished. “I was walking, and sleeping anywhere towards the end, only my pack on my back,” he says. “It was simplicity; I looked ahead and I understood that I could go on living like this, one step after the other—simply living.”
Above (from left)
Racines recherchées, Gobi, Mongolia 2012
Emportez nous, Altaï, Mongolia 2012 Opposite
Patiences, Goreme, Turkey 2011 Previous Page (from left)
Douces brises, Kiketi, Georgia 2011
Once his journey was at an end, Brulat traveled back home to Paris by train from Siberia. “The circle was finished,” he says. “At least some questions were answered.” Going forward, he plans to explore even more questions. Though the territory and elements are not yet known, there is no doubt that in these explorations Brulat will ask us to investigate even further what it means to be human.
Jen Kiaba is a photographer and writer based in the Hudson Valley, NY.
Cimes aux pas subtiles, Tilicho, Nepal 2011
Bad Language Ben Street
ust as it’s expected that rock bands rail against the machinations of the music industry, and indie filmmakers lament the hollowness of Hollywood, it’s a condition of those working in or with art that the ‘art world’ be berated as something lacking in the authentic dedication to art, beauty, ideas, etc. to be found, presumably, in the practice of the speaker. Further, it’s a condition of those working in the art world that the phrase ‘art world’ be used to denote something intrinsically different from the speaker’s own position. The ‘art world’ described by these people (let’s call them “us”) is exactly consonant with that of the ‘art world’ described in various media outlets: a religion with its own iconography (large things, shiny things, dead things), its own clergy (the international curatorhood), its own sub-cults (“Gallery Girls”, Twitter); its own missionary practices (art fairs, biennials), pilgrimage sites (art fairs, biennials) and sainted dates (art fairs, biennials); its own creation narratives (Duchamp, Warhol, Sherman), its own internal structures of unchecked, hush-hush ethics (the art market, the gallery system), and, most contentiously of all, its own liturgy (press releases, catalogue essays, magazine pieces), which is Biblical, not Talmudic, meaning that it’s the text, not a text.
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We self-loathing art-worlders love to snort at the semantic loop-the-loops of the bad press release, with its clunky phrasing, like “semantic loop-the-loops”, or protracted and labored analogies, like comparing the art world with organized religion. But bemoaning the art world’s singular approach to language—which is fun, obviously—means something different for those who of us who actually work within the ‘art world’, regardless of how quick we are to disassociate ourselves from it. Implied within our sarcastic quotation of press release banalities (‘problematic’, ‘discourse’, ‘space’, ‘practice’, ‘dialectic’, ‘abject’, ‘tension’, ‘radical’, ‘subversive’, and all possible permutations of intra-parenthesised polysyllables) is the idea that the art itself is actually pretty straightforward and can be encapsulated in a clutch of simple words. Why over-complicate it? It’s the intellectual equivalent of the suited square in the classic Ad Reinhardt cartoon, snarking at an abstract painting with the line, “Ha ha—What does this represent?” to which the painting angrily responds, “What do you represent?” The square is us. It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate: it takes guts to actually explain what the hell contemporary art is all about. Laughing at the
art world’s lax approach to semantics throws the onus back upon the laugher: Okay, so the language is absurd, but no more or less than the art it purports to describe. We scornpourers presume that the language is inappropriately used, but don’t seem willing to propose a better, more accurate or efficient kind of language to replace it: so we laugh, and retweet, and moan, implying that we understand, and possess the right language to address the art. But we don’t. Or if we do—and this is worse—we won’t use it. The thing is that contemporary art and the way it’s discussed—in press releases, dissertations, text messages and speed dating banter—are one and the same thing. The professionalization of artistic practice, with its emphasis on artists’ statements and the academic blitzkrieg of the crit, has bound the act of making with that of describing, so that many works of contemporary art seem to enter the world backwards, text-first. In a sense, the dead clauses of the press release are mere continuations of discussions that began before the thing was made. Or retroactively begun, by artists looking to elbow their way into the art world; regardless, the use of press release art-speak in your statement is no different
than complying with a dress code. Its use is a way of showing you get the parameters of the party. That you—and your work—are willing to participate in society, be it in the form of a white tuxedo or a polyurethane sculpture of the eBay logo. What the work looks like is secondary. The question posed by Triple Canopy in their article on ‘IAE’ (‘International Art English’, the authors’ term for ‘artspeak’)—“Can we imagine an art world without IAE?”—doesn’t go far enough. We ought to ask, “Can we imagine art without IAE?” Can we imagine experiencing a work of contemporary art free of the veils of language that clutter visual experience? Is contemporary art even possible without a carapace of agreed-upon intellectual jargon? Can it exist? Insecurity, of course, is behind it all. Fear that
what we’re doing might be useless or frivolous has defined some of the crucial artistic positions of the last century, from Pollock’s shoot-first public persona to Matthew Barney’s sombre camp (notice how much his college football background is mentioned by pale, bird-chested curators eager to hang out with the popular dudes). The art world’s use of complexly conjoined adjectives is of a piece with this anxiety: it’s a supreme conceptual act of self-elision, language that multiplies itself in order to say less, to say nothing. This language literally occupies the intellectual space of engaged and thoughtful critical analysis: it takes up the space of other words. For contemporary art to be free of the labored language that has clogged its comprehension for the last 20 or 30-odd years, it has to stop acting like contemporary art. This requires accepting the parameters of what contemporary art is, and acknowledging the long shadow that a
professionalized art language has of late cast over the making of art. That grimly serious language—born of insecurity about the frivolity of the creative act (an anxiety that, let’s not forget, fails to trouble Tom Cruise, or Beyoncé, or the Blue Man Group)—might shrivel once it’s amputated from the act of making, like a vestigial wing or thumb for which we can’t remember ever having found a use. This article first appeared in Big Red and Shiny Volume 2, Issue #1. Ben Street is an art historian, lecturer, museum educator, curator and writer. He lectures on art old and new for the National Gallery, Tate Modern, Christie’s Education and the Royal Academy, among other places, and runs his own courses in contemporary art in London. Ben is a freelance art writer and the co-director of the independent art fair Sluice.
Ad Reinhardt “How to Look at a Cubist Painting,” P.M., January 27, 1946 (detail) © 2015 Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
Maxine Helfman: Summertime Diana H. Bloomfield
nstinctively, almost magnetically, we are drawn to beauty, or at least our perception of it—in people, animals, places, objects, design, and even in ideas. And so it is with Maxine Helfman’s Summertime, a series of photographs that, at first glance, seems all about that subjective and elusive concept. Admittedly, the sheer beauty of these seductively rich color images provides the initial attraction, yet this is not what ultimately maintains the viewer’s attention. These mysterious images read like narratives and offer so much more than first meets the eye. To look closely and fully appreciate their ambiguous and multi-layered richness takes time. But it is precisely those narrative layers, wide open to interpretation, that keep us looking—inviting us to stay and search—to unearth yet one more clue that might help unravel these intricately woven stories. This is what gives them their strength and their staying power. “Butterfly,” one of Helfman’s more intriguing images, presents a woman in tonal shades of deep blue. Even her dewy black skin appears cast in blue. She sits sideways, but her head is turned to the camera as she stares at us from behind what looks to be a transparent gauzy scrim. In fact, Helfman used a simple screen, the kind used for screen doors, which seems to work both as a light diffuser and as a subtle nod to that staple of hot, humid Southern summers. More importantly, perhaps, the screen’s visible tactility suggests a veil of sorts—for protection or for camouflage—the reasons unclear. Plum-colored lips, slightly parted, this unsmiling woman in the image looking back at us appears both questioning and all-knowing. Removed from any context, she sits proudly against a dark
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background, softly lit from the back and side. She wears a blue and white polka-dot dress, her face framed by its wide white collar. The dress could be from the early 20th century or of a more recent vintage. We see her only from the waist up, but both the dress and she appear timeless. Most striking is the large delft-blue, black-edged butterfly that seems to float incongruously in mid-air, just concealing her left eye. Is this gossamerwinged creature simply a mysterious counterpart to this equally striking and mysterious woman, or is it also a statement about seeing, being seen, or yet another device which allows this woman to remain partially hidden from the gaze of others? The fragile and ephemeral butterfly offers a fine contrast with the strength that this woman projects in her unflinching gaze. The butterfly, of course, symbolizes transformation, but it is also the ancient symbol of rebirth—the ultimate promise of resurrection. This interpretation circles back to Helfman’s series title, Summertime. DuBose Heyward’s lyrics, most often connected to the opera, Porgy and Bess, nearly always come to mind when hearing the word. Both the lyrics and Gershwin’s composition were inspired by early African American spirituals. These particular lyrics seem especially meaningful, given the butterfly and its metaphorical offering of hope, transformation, and resurrection: “… One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing … And you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky …” Influenced by the South of another place in time, Helfman says her initial goal was to “visually describe summertime in the South, to capture its beauty, emotion, and mystery.” Although she grew up in Miami and now
lives in Texas, Helfman has no real connection to the South she envisions, other than the heavy influence of music, books, and interest in its own multi-layered, conflicted history. Helfman states that she “works from the gut and never has a deep seated plan”; rather, she simply starts with an idea and allows process to take over and grow, organically. “The meaning itself grows afterwards.” Helfman gives away little as to her own meaning with these images, except to say that she has always been interested in the South and a revisionist history as it concerns race. Rather than a lengthy explanation as to her meaning, she prefers viewers to connect through their own experiences and ways of seeing. This allows the images to remain dynamic and fluid. In “Sisters,” a compositionally stunning image, two young women, facing forward, lean in towards one another, heads touching, arms intertwined. Their shapes and clothing echo the perfect symmetry and rainbow hues of yet another iridescent-winged creature—whether real or invented is unclear— suspended over their lightly touching hands. Again, the ephemeral insect offers the multiple connotations of hope and renewal, fragility and impermanence. Summertime partners Helfman’s portraits with quietly rendered and equally rich still life imagery. Inhabiting the same color hues and tone as her portraits, they borrow from early traditional still life paintings. A surprising and odd juxtaposition, perhaps, but for Helfman, to show them together seems a natural process. Admittedly, Helfman likes to break the rules and construct images
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Butterfly 2014 Right
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Sisters 2014 Above
that she finds “interestingly jarring.” She prefers to make photographs that look like paintings—“to pose people in the way that painters paint people, not in the way that photographers photograph people.”
Certainly, showing the portraits and still life imagery side-by-side illuminates the painterly quality of Helfman’s work. Making that “interestingly jarring” pairing also brings a fresh and nuanced awareness to the portraits, allowing the viewer to experience them in a whole new way. The women, quietly placed in their unmarked surroundings, seem—at once—a notable presence, and yet so much a part of their environment that they become one with it. Placed behind vases of red geraniums or large-leafed plants, they begin to appear strangely like still life objects themselves. Questions emerge about the role of these women of color, both in these contemporary images, and historically.
Helfman divides her time between commercial photography and her widely exhibited fine art work. “Each feeds into the other,” she says, which keeps her work fresh. Although a self-taught photographer, Helfman’s background as a set designer and stylist also informs her work. Her images, consistently realized in-camera, do not rely on extensive post-production adjustments. An accomplished and thoughtful body of work, Summertime poses questions and does not simply offer answers to what we already think we know. Helfman gives us the space to view this work on our own terms, to see anew, to ask our own questions, and to begin a dialogue. Diana H. Bloomfield, a native North Carolinian, is a photographer, independent curator, and writer. She currently lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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Plum 2014 Right
Transcending Time In the Garden with Beth Dow Joe Brenan Temple, The Courts 2004
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ike the garden designers of the 18thcentury, Beth Dow’s series In the Garden summons some universal, even spiritual power, presenting brilliant garden design with her contemplative vantages and a masterful control of photographic composition and tonality. Dow’s images explore the urge to exult the natural world while simultaneously bringing it to heel. She presents these ideas as they have been harmonized in the elaborate and symbol-laden gardens of 18th-century England and Italy. Her images succeed independently from the gardens they depict because, atop this tension between man and nature, she is able to compellingly layer European history, neoclassical fascinations, and formal photographic concerns.
ing with collections of antiquities and art. The lush and flowing formal gardens intimated, to their minds, the virtues of the Classical world. The Grand Tour, a rite of passage for any landed and educated 18th-century man, was generally a trip through France and Italy to see (and acquire) the finest art and antiquities of the ancient Roman Empire and, perhaps, to be shaped by some worldliness as well. Few journeyed as far as Turkish-controlled Greece, though most saw Rome, Venice, and Naples. The collective experiences of these men would shape Western Europe’s taste in décor, fashion, and as Dow so brilliantly illus-
spaces were carefully embellished with architectural elements or some whisper of the ancient world, creating a constantly evolving temple for solemn reflection and aesthetic contemplation. The English painter J.M.W. Turner was no stranger to this gardening aesthetic and obsession. He once observed that “To select, combine and concentrate that which is beautiful in nature and admirable in art is as much the business of the landscape painter in his line as in the other departments of art,” and Beth Dow, like an 18th-century gardener whose opus she depicts, masterfully chooses which elements to juxtapose. For example, in “Temple, The Courts,” the viewer is suspended in a timeless recognition of spiritual ritual. Like a dream, we are exposed before the symbol of some ancient rite and judged before its obscured pristine glow. Dow draws our journey by placing us in the middle of an approaching path, our exit or distraction limited by the walls of moving, breathing plantlife on either side. Confrontation with the temple is unavoidable. The viewer is pushed to connect to the legacies of spiritual constructions.
Like an eighteenth-century gardener whose opus she depicts, Beth Dow masterfully chooses which elements to juxtapose.
Dow creates, as she puts it, “pictures that have a meditative quality to reflect the spiritual urges that inspired the earliest gardens some six thousand years ago.” Beautifully manipulating and reimagining formal English and Italian gardens, her work provides a glimpse into the historical tradition of garden-making while also offering an examination of “historical concepts of paradise.”
Dow’s own form of “gardening” present to us some important moment in the composition. Time stops, and we are held, by the artful employment of light and form and shape, in some transcendental limbo. We feel both exposed and welcomed, and we are made vulnerable enough to participate in the scene before us. There is a feeling of the universal in the work; something spiritual that animates it and becomes immediately recognizable when we immerse ourselves in the images. In her selection of gardens, Dow draws us into a rich tradition of garden architecture, highlighting the formal gardens of England and Italy where 18th-century gentry, returning from “The Grand Tour,” exhibited their learn-
trates, garden-making for nearly a century. William Kent (1686–1748) was perhaps the most famous and important garden designer of the period, but Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783) is the movement’s most colorful and revered figure. Capability Brown’s ability to create John Constable-like juxtapositions of naturalistic perfection profoundly impressed the late 18th-century estates. In keeping with the art and literature of the time, these English garden designers sought to relax the formality and release some of the pressure of past gardens. Open
This sanctifying introspection is especially apparent in works like “Young God, Sissinghurst.” In this image, grey mist floats like a wave through the silent ovation of two rows of trees. Hibernating, they bow gently before a solitary form, a stone deity who, from his pedestal, conducts a sermon for the trees. As viewers, we observe him from a broad grassy avenue that opens before him, and feel vulnerable. We are transported and transformed, having witnessed a new episode in the Sisyphean struggle between permanence and impermanence, between our ambitions to tame and our ultimate submission to the natural world. William Wordsworth’s reflections in “Tint-
Young God, Sissinghurst 2003 Opposite
Snake, Sezincote 2004
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ern Abbey,” illustrates the inevitable, if also bucolic, splendor of nature reclaiming human creation, and his words illustrate the sentiment governing Dow’s garden series: … For I have learned To look on nature, not as in the hour Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity, Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power To chasten and subdue. And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. … (89–103) In The Garden, then, highlights the serene,
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meditative quality of 18th-century formal gardens while pointing us toward transcendence—of time, place, and form. With her camera as a trowel and spade, Dow cuts a path to revelatory communication between the viewer and those who strode among the hedgerows and follies three centuries prior. Each angle creates a unique moment in timeless garden architecture, a moment that exists in Dow’s viewfinder even as the scene inevitably transforms in front of her. Dow’s images both honor the masterful crafting of these old places while, in pursuit of serenity, liberate the viewer from history.
Joe Brenan is an artist/collector working at Sotheby’s as a Union Property Handler. He lives with his wife, baby girl, and chihuahua in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
Suryaâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Temple, Sezincote 2004 Right
Hillside, Waddesdon Manor 2004
Benches, Blenheim Palace 2004
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Fixing Photographs New York University’s Conservation Center Ellyn Kail
hen we think of a photograph, we often associate it with longevity, taking for granted the fact that the captured image will outlive our own unstable recollections. This illusion of permanence belies the profound fragility of photographs, objects that remain intact only with careful and routine conservation in museums and collections around the world. As we move into an increasingly digital world where images are scanned, shared, and forgotten, the future of historical photographs—made on paper, glass, and metal plates—hangs in the balance. In the modern age, photo conservators are arguably more crucial than ever before, becoming guardians of a cultural and artistic heritage that is in danger of slipping from our fingers.
ter with backgrounds in laboratory science, studio art, and art history, each of which will play a key role in their education and career. Students learn a range of conservation treatments in the program, from cleaning and mending to constructing safe housings for fragile materials. To choose the right materials to use in their treatments, Brost and Panadero are being trained to identify any conceivable photographic process. Holding a daguerreotype from her own study collection in her hand, Brost called my attention to the metallic sheen of the image and the tarnish marks that run along the borders of the frame. Characteristics like these help conservators determine the chemical process used to create an object so they can take appropriate steps to preserve it. Microscopes too are used to examine photographs. For instance,
in a salted paper or platinum print, the metallic image material is embedded in the paper fibers. These fibers are clearly visible under magnification. On the other hand, in a silver gelatin print, which includes an intermediate layer of barium sulfate (also called baryta, the compound responsible for the photograph’s bright white tones), the baryta layer will mask such fibers. Looking for paper fibers under magnification is one way to distinguish between these two photographic processes. In addition to visual examination, photograph conservators can use scientific instruments to aid their analysis. For example, pointing a handheld device called an XRF (which stands for X-ray fluorescence) spectrometer at a photograph can determine which metals are present within the image. Common ones are silver, platinum, and palladium, but some
I visited the Conservation Center at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and had the opportunity to go behind the scenes with Laura Panadero and Amy Brost, second- and thirdyear graduate students respectively with a concentration in photograph conservation. The program, explained academic advisor Kevin Martin, is the oldest of its kind in the nation, and graduates receive both a Masters in Art History and an Advanced Certificate in Conservation. Students arrive at the Cen-
Tintype by Amy Brost Photograph by Ellyn Kail Right
The Conservation Center at New York University Courtesy of Amy Brost
pigment-based photographic images have no metals at all. In those cases, it is the absence of a metal that provides a valuable clue. Determining the technique used to create an image is a critical part of the process, and will often inform the treatment of a photograph. Introducing humidity may be a viable option for treatment of a curled or distorted gelatin silver photograph intended to lay flat. On the other hand, applying any amount of water to a 19th-century albumen print may be a dangerous game, exacerbating microcracks in the albumen (a binding agent made from egg whites). “Conservation is all about understanding how artwork is made and how it’s manufactured. It’s not primarily about ‘What does the imagery mean?’” Martin reminded me. He mentioned that someone with a back-
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ground in science could easily mistake many of the Center’s rooms for a science lab. But the role of the conservator, though clinical, is colored most by a deeply felt sense of human and artistic heritage, and every technical move is carefully calibrated to preserve that object’s cultural value. American conservators must follow a set of ethical guidelines as established by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, but one photograph could doubtless inspire divergent treatment proposals, each of which is based on equally moral lines of thought. Panadero asked me to consider, for example, a photograph that has been in a fire and fringed with a layer of soot. Where one conservator might clean it for aesthetic purposes, another might suggest there is historic value in the ash itself. For this reason, the most ideal treatment is one
that is reversible or re-treatable. Meticulous documentation during treatment enables future conservators to understand what was done to the photograph in the past. Students in NYU’s conservation program must catalogue each step in the process of conserving a photograph, recording everything from the instruments used to the reason for undertaking the treatment. The Center has a digital photo studio, where conservators-in-training record the object at various stages throughout each treatment. During my visit, Brost was working on repairing a print that had been ripped entirely in half. To mend the tear, she used water-soluble adhesives like gelatin and wheat starch paste, applying a minuscule amount beneath a microscope. Her instructors will notice even the smallest error in repaired tears, pointing out a loose paper fiber that needs
19th-century daguerreotype from Amy Brost’s study collection of photographs Courtesy of Amy Brost
The field of art conservation has transformed alongside photography itself. Where students at the Conservation Center once turned first to microscopes to identify unknown pigments, they can now use other instruments, such as the XRF spectrometer. The microscopy room, Martin said to me wistfully, is now mostly used for guest lecturers.
seen hundreds of daguerreotype images on my computer screen or projected on a wall, and yet the tender image of father and child that Brost described as “flea market quality” will be more deeply imbedded in my memory simply because it was a real, tangible object that lay before me. Emerging conservators like Panadero and Brost are preserving not only 175 years of human history, they are also safeguarding the exquisitely basic material quality of photography, a function that continues to delight us regardless of whether we are visiting a museum or leafing through a family photo album.
As I walked out of the building to hail a cab, I realized that this was the first time that I had ever seen a daguerreotype in person. I could have touched it, given that it was protected by a layer of glass (daguerreotype images can be easily damaged by any abrasion). I have
Ellyn Kail is a photography writer and Editorial Assistant at Feature Shoot. She lives in Bronxville, New York with her wonderful husband and beloved pit bull mix.
to be tucked into the mend. Every single element of the photograph must be protected to preserve the integrity of the object as a whole and the image that it depicts.
The Conservation Center at New York University photo by Ellyn Kail
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The Boston Marathon draws runners from around the world every April to make the 26.2-mile trek from Hopkinton, MA to Boston. The course is legendary – the ladies of Wellesley, the hills of Newton, the gauntlet of BC spectators just over Heartbreak Hill – and the experience is one of a kind. Printed offset on bright white, archival stock, this train roll style poster commemorates each of the towns runners encounter along the route of The Marathon. 15”x24”. $20 shipped. Ships loosely rolled, USPS Priority Mail. Looks equally sharp matted and framed (not included). For more images or to purchase, visit shop.unionjackcreative.com.
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Untitled Timothy Pakron