Sunday, November 22, 2009

W. Eugene Smith and The Jazz Loft Project

W. Eugene Smith at 4th floor window of 821 Sixth Avenue (ca. 1957).
(W. Eugene Smith © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith)

By far the most exciting bit of photographic detritus that has lately washed up on our cultural shores is the Jazz Loft Project:

"From 1957 to 1965 legendary photographer W. Eugene Smith made approximately 4,000 hours of recordings on 1,741 reel-to-reel tapes and nearly 40,000 photographs in a loft building in Manhattan's wholesale flower district where major jazz musicians of the day gathered and played their music. Smith's work has remained in archives until now. The Jazz Loft Project is dedicated to uncovering the stories behind this legendary moment in American cultural history."

From these archives, a ten-part radio show has been compiled by Sarah Fishko for NPR. The seventh episode played today on "Weekend Edition." Check your local listings for the last parts. The introduction and the first seven episodes can be found here. Needless to say, there are all sorts of extra visual and aural bits and pieces from the project that can be seen there on the website as well.

In addition, in conjunction with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Knopf is releasing a book of photographs by Smith with snippets of transcribed audio. The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 by Sam Stephenson is just fantastic and a hell of a lot of fun. The book features Smith photos of the jam sessions that seemed to be going on virtually every night through morning (it was considered rude to show up before 11 pm.) It seems that just about anyone connected with the jazz world in the late '50s showed up and Smith incessantly photographed them all and the environment around them.

(Left) Thelonious Monk and his Town Hall band in rehearsal, February 1959.
Zoot Sims (ca. 1957-1964).
(W. Eugene Smith © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith)

Further, Smith seemed to have photographed everything that passed by his window as well. Half the photos in the book are ones shot from his window on the fourth floor--life drifting by, caught and pinned to the tarmac backdrop by Smith's telephoto lens.

White Rose Bar sign from the 4th floor window of 821 Sixth Avenue (ca. 1957-1964).
(W. Eugene Smith © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith)

Not his best work certainly, but add to the mix reproductions of the reel-to-reel boxes of every imaginable manufacture covered with Smith's notes and indexing (one reel labeled: Hard, Grim. A dope tape, stereo), pawn shop tickets, letters and album covers as well as reminiscences by people who passed through and you start to get a remarkably detailed document of a thin slice of American life and culture at a very specific time.

The tapes (The Center for Documentary Studies)

And then, there are the tapes. They include legendary musicians talking shop; Smith discussing photography; Smith and other residents arguing living conditions; contemporary radio shows and tv mulling the concerns of the day; music live and recorded music re-recorded; junkies, hop-heads, dealers, thieves, drunks or walk-ons from the street talking shit; and, apparently, hours of nothing but the building breathing. The transcribed conversations provide a microscopic view of a fascinating subcultural community during a period of creative upheaval.

"Christmas Eve, 1959
Zoot Sims [saxophone] , pianist Mose Allison, saxophonist Pepper Adams, bassist Bill Crow, and others in the loft:
'Come on, Mose, one more tune, just one more.'
'I have to make it home. It's Christmas Eve.'
'It's actually Christmas Day now.'
'We won't have a piano player if you leave.'
'One more, come on, just one more.'"

These are the tiny shards of life that usually end up in the trash bin of history--shards that when assembled can transport you into another time and place with such vivid resonance that you could fool yourself into thinking that all these are your own memories.

Loft interior, fifth floor (ca. 1964).
(W. Eugene Smith © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cindy Sherman shoots Fashion for Harper's Bazaar

For the May, 1993, issue of Harper's Bazaar, Cindy Sherman was given her choice of clothes from the year's spring collection and let loose.

The New Cindy Sherman Collection
The artist photographs herself in a selection of '93 Spring designs, once again creating a cast of unconventional characters. By Jim Lewis

For this month's Bazaar, Cindy Sherman was offered her choice of clothes from among the Spring collections and invited to photograph them in any manner she chose. The results, which appear on these pages, are not fashion photographs but artworks that treat fashion like a dream, with a dream's strange logic and air of allegory.

It's not the first lime fashion and art photography have confronted each other; they make a natural pair, with each seeing in the other a reminder of itself. Both, after all, are fictions that acquire power by disguising themselves as facts--about beauty, about truth, and, above all, about desirability. Each incites the other to tell ever more mannered stories, holding out its own power of illusion as a goad. On the whole, then, the less constrained and more daring the artist's imagination, the fitter the match; so Surrealism, in particular; found a likely subject in the world of high style. At its height, Man Ray and Lee Miller were shooting fashion layouts, and both Joseph Cornell and Jean Cocleau published illustrations in this magazine. From the other side, Elsa Schiaparelli was designing clothes that matched the efforls of her art-world counterparts for drama and sheer eccentricity.

Sherman has a somewhat different aesthetic, but no artist of our time is better equipped to face the designers. It is not, after all, the first time she's taken a common form of picture making and turned it into something unfamiliar, by bringing to the surface everything that the original slyle repressed.

In the beginning she produced whal she called Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), a series of black-and-white photographs that staged scenes of women in imaginary melodramas, with Sherman herself made up to fit the various roles. They were tense, charged images, wilh an uncanny capacity to invoke half-remembered late-night movies.

The Stills had a powerful charm, and they established the artist as one to be reckoned with. But their beauty was so enigmatic and ambivalent that it was hard to tell whether they were meant as comments on cliches of femininity or examples of them. Sherman herself now says that she's uncomfortable with them: "They came too close to the real thing," she allows, and she was after less-conventional forms of visual pleasure. In fact, she says, she was "much more interested in what isn't beautiful, and finding beauty in that." So Sherman began leading her views deeper into the profound and difficult psychology of sexuality, decay, and the grotesque

At first she simply photographed herself in various monstrous guises, wearing a pig's snout, say, or with a massive, ruby-red tongue hanging from her mouth. Then, in her History Portraits from the late '80s, she reimagined Renaissance portraiture in photography, emphasizing the ugliness that the original painters had excised from their canvases. The body of work that followed was at once less pointed and more visceral: She started rooting through medical-supply catalogs, sending away for the artificial body parts upon which doctors-in-training practice surgery, and using them to create unsettling scenarios of dissolution and dismemberment. It was as if she'd taken her studies of the way the body is used to stage a persona and had broken it down into its constitutive parts, an arm's gesture here, a dissociated facial expression there: They were anatomies of fear, desire, disgust, and ecstasy.

The project presented here seems to draw upon everything Sherman has learned to date. To bring out the beauty behind the beauty we see in magazines, she's returned to impersonation; the women on the following pages are all played by Sherman herself-padded, bewigged, made up, and posing before a mirror that she sets beside her camera. The result is a series of tableaux vivants drawn from subconscious memories of movie shots, fashion trends, elements from the history of painting--that mass, consensual hallucination of Western culture that we all carry around in our minds

Sherman's eye for archetype is so sharp that the pictures look right at first. Anyway, one can have a good deal of fun trying to sort out the influences (is that Susie Wong? a Kewpie doll? Medusa?). And then, of course, they look quite wrong: One spots the dirty feet and blackened teeth; the expressions and postures of exhaustion, satiety, or suspicion; the bruised legs and protruding bellies

"I wanted to twist people's minds and then make them question their reactions," Sherman says. So in a way they're fun-house mirrors: Every viewer will bring to them his or her own beliefs about femininity and see them reflected back distorted and transformed, to the point that any approach to beauty seems possible. If the artist is after something more specific, she isn't saying. "I'd rather risk misinterpretation than hit people over the head with a message." The purpose of the pictures, after all, is to allow people to think for themselves: The context is fashion, and the medium is photography, but the goal is a freedom more basic and real than either.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Henri Cartier-Bresson in American Photography, 1947

Henri Cartier-Bresson Takes It On the Chin

Here is a review of Henri Cartier-Bresson's first book. The critique ran in the July, 1947, issue of American Photography magazine. For those of delicate sensibilities, it's not pretty so precede at your own risk.

But first, some little historical context.

HCB by Unknown; Self-Portrait; George Hoyningen-Huene

Quick recap of the first half of HCB's life:
Born outside of Paris in 1908 into a typically bourgeois French family; first became obsessed with painting; studied art; met the Surrealists; 1931, went to Africa for a year to make a living shooting animals and selling the meat to the locals; contracted blackwater fever (really bad move); recuperated; discovered Munkacsi's work and decided to give up painting and hit the streets with his camera; worked in film as an actor, cameraman, director alongside Jean Renoir; WW2 broke out, he joined the army, was captured when the Germans swept through France, his third attempt at escaping succeeded and he spent the rest of the war working with the French underground.

Slipped in here and there were exhibits of his work. His first exhibition in NYC was in 1933 at the Julien Levy Gallery. His second show was also at Levy's space only this time it was work of his, Walker Evans' and Manuel Alvarez Bravo sharing the wall space.

Invite for the Evans, Alvarez Bravo and Cartier-Bresson show
at the Julien Levy gallery, 1935.

Julien Levy (1906-81) was an interesting figure, prominent in the modern art world, and a modernist in the sense that he found visual pleasure not only in the 'high' arts but also in fields as wide-ranging as fashion, film, the decorative arts, performance and cartoons. He was a big champion of the surrealists and is probably best remembered as the host of the first exhibit of surrealist art in NYC.

Julian Levy by Jay Leyda c. 1932

He also had an especially strong affection for photography. In fact, his inaugural show at his first gallery space in NYC in 1931 was an homage to Stieglitz that included work by Mathew Brady, Gertrude Kasebier, Charles Sheeler, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Clarence White and Stieglitz. Over the next year, he presented solo shows of work by Man Ray, Bernice Abbot, Lee Miller, George Platt Lynes as well as a dual show of work by Nadar and Atget. Despite being the preeminent dealer of modern art in New York throughout the 1940s, he found photography a hard sell and gradually lost his enthusiasm for the medium.

HCB by Arnold Newman, 1947; Ernst Haas; Lisl Steiner, 1961

Toward the end of the war Cartier-Bresson's death was reported in the U.S.A. The Museum of Modern Art, NYC, started to prepare a posthumous show of his photographs. When his death was found to have been greatly exaggerated, he was invited to New York to work with MoMA on what would be his third US show and his first museum exhibit. (February 4-April 6, 1947.)

This book was published in conjunction with the show. American Photography reviewed it in their July, 1947, issue. They didn't like it.

What follows is the text of the review and at the end of this post are the pages from the magazine themselves.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, text by Lincoln Kirstein and Beaumont Newhall, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1947. 56 pages, 41 plates, stiff paper bound, $2.00.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is said to be the leading European exponent of a group of contemporary photographers who are united towards formulating a new approach to deliberate photography. The qualifications for membership in this super-artistic movement consist of a peculiar assortment of personality traits, a profound lack of knowledge of photographic techniques, a distaste for so-called "salon" photography and a naive, egoistic-motivated willingness to be a party to the obtuse rantings of associates of The Museum of Modern Art. The photographs of Cartier-Bresson include a number of emotionally appealing examples that speak well for his artistic insight. Sprinkled among these are many common-place, unimpressive pictures that only add confusion to any serious attempt to understand his style. But an approach to the understanding of his work is certain to be less confused if based on a study of his pictures, rather than on the explanatory texts written by Messrs. Kirstein and Newhall. It is a sad commentary on the development of modern photography when promising young amateurs are exposed to such superficial, arty statements like, "Because Cartier-Bresson has developed technique to the point of almost instinctive reaction, he cannot tell you the film, lens and shutter settings, and other technical minutiae of each photograph he has made. In judging the exposure which is to be given he uses the film speed recommended by the expert laboratory technicians who develop his film. In this way maximum quality of shadow detail, contrast, and fineness of grain is assured." This is so utterly ridiculous that there is no wonder that sensible photographers question the sincerity of the so-called modernists. Continuing, the text includes even more far-fetched statements. "When it comes to making the final print he works in the darkroom. He alone is able to recreate the tonal values which he visualized at the time of exposure." Such drivel shows a total lack of understanding of the photographic process. If the modern trend for straightforward photography is to survive it had better rid itself of the uninformed charlatans who attempt to make it something that it is not.

Now, for fun, contrast that with a review of a book they did like:

AMERICA'S WILLIAMSBURG, by Gerald Horton Bath, photographs by Wendell MacRae, published by Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., Williamsburg, Va., 1946. 48 pages 7 by 8½ inches, many illustrations printed by Photogravure and Color Company, price 65 cents, postage included.

This is a most attractive booklet which tells why and how the historic capital of Virginia has been restored to its eighteenth century appearance by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. There are photographs on every page, with explanatory captions, and there is the story of Williamsburg as it was when it was the capital of one of the most influential of all of England's thirteen American colonies--as it became later, during the Revolutionary War, when the capital was moved to Richmond - and as it is now, after its restoration. There is a lot of very interesting subject material for the enthusiastic amateur photographer to be found in and around Williamsburg, and anyone who has not yet visited this unique Southern city should by all means make an effort to do so as soon as possible. Its main street, Duke of Gloucester Street, was described by the late President Roosevelt as "the most historic avenue in all America." Those who are interested in architecture will find in restored Williamsburg a perfect exhibition of painstaking research and skillful technique. For garden lovers it is an unparalleled delight. Artists and photographers will see it as an opportunity that is often hoped for but seldom found, and for those who are interested in antiques it is an adventure of a lifetime.

Here are some pages from the Williamsburg book, as I just happen to have a copy.

The pages from the American Photography, July, 1947.

The page preceding the Cartier-Bresson review? A Leica ad of course.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Photographers Have to Make a Living Too, Part 6

Evans, Weston, McGinley and Meyerowitz
In Advertisements for All Sorts of Stuff

Joel Meyerowitz for Epson printers
PDN, October, 2005
You can find more examples from this campaign here and here.

Ryan McGinley by Jurgen Teller for Marc Jacobs
Details, March, 2009

Details, January, 2009

Edward Weston for freezers?

Walker Evans images in an advertisement
For Checkered Past Records

Communication Arts, 1999 Advertising Annual

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Roy DeCarava Passes Away

Roy DeCarava, 1996 By Sherry Turner DeCarava

Roy DeCarava died last Tuesday. I was working on a post of ephemera from his career but had not written a bio for it. Now, I'll just refer you to the New York Times obituary and run the ephemera.

DeCarava's first major museum show was at the Studio Museum of Harlem, NYC. His first retrospective was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, in 1975. What follows is the publication released in conjunction with that show. It's 76 pages so I haven't scanned the whole booklet.

Stiff wraps, 8.5 x 8.5 inches, saddle-stiched, 76 pages, 1976

The show that brought him the attention of the larger audience he deserved was the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, in 1996. There was a nice catalog published to accompany the exhibit and this was the brochure handed out at the museum.

5.25 x 8.5 inches, accordion-style fold unfolds to 26.25 x 8.5 inches with 5 panels per side, 1996

You can see an interview by Charlie Rose here with DeCarava around the time of the MoMA retrospective.

And again, around the same time, he did an interview with NPR.

Postcard, 6 x 4.25 inches, 2004

Card stock, 5.75 x 8.5 inches, unfolds twice to produce a 17.25 x 8.5 invite, 2006

Glossy photo-printer paper, 4 x 6 inches, 2006

In 2006, Roy DeCarava was awarded a National Medal of Arts by then President George Bush.

Caption that accompanied the above photo: 2006 National Medal of Arts recipient and photographer Roy R. DeCarava accepts his award from President and Mrs. Laura Bush in an Oval Office ceremony on November 9, 2006. Mr. DeCarava's citation reads, "In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, his revealing work seized the attention of our Nation while displaying the dignity and determination of his subjects." White House photo by Paul Morse.