Category: Photography

Vanishing Act

Deborah Levy for Tate Etc.

For Tate Etc‘s Summer 2018 issue, Deborah Levy on Francesca Woodman’s photographs and the inspiration they have served for Levy’s writing:

She is an art student, 20 years old, and she has booked a studio for a number of hours. She will have studied the corners of the floor and walls, where the windows are positioned and how she is going to make the light work. I’m guessing she has a few plans about how to proceed, but she’s also just going to play around.

She is her own subject, but she is embodying many other subjects.

Look at her. There she is. She is all there, but she’s always trying to make herself disappear – to become vapour, a spectre, a smudge, a blur, a subject that is erased yet recognisable. Sometimes she disappears into the wallpaper, or is pinned naked underneath a door that seems to have spectrally fallen from nowhere, or hides her mouth behind an upturned umbrella – sculpturally exposing its starfish shape, the geometry of its interior. Woodman knows we know she’s there and by constructing techniques to make herself vanish, she knows she makes herself bigger. She makes herself bigger because we are searching for her. The artist, Francesca Woodman, has given us something to find. It’s a dance, a theory (perhaps a Lacanian theory: ‘la femme n’existe pas’), a performance, a provocation, an experiment, a joke, a question.

I know she is art directing everything, working out how to do her trick. She is alert, supple, aligned, poised. If she’s making herself present by making herself absent then that is an equation easier to figure out with math or physics, but she’s doing it with art.

The boots are there to land this ethereal image. It’s so important to have a grip when we walk, as we have been societally taught to perform, into the frame of femininity – and as we step out of the frame too, into something vaguer, something more blurred. Francesca Woodman, the artist, can move freely in these boots, but they also pull her down. The image would suffer without their presence. Actually, I am wearing boots that are quite similar as I write this. In about five minutes from now, I’m going to switch off my computer, lock the door of my writing shed and walk to the tube station.

I think about Francesca Woodman’s inspiring images every time I write a female character and begin to embody her (make her present) in the world of my fiction.


Triptych: Texas Pool Party

Namwali Serpell for Triple Canopy

A three-part fiction on the 2015 McKinney, Texas, pool party incident, in which a white police officer was filmed tackling and restraining a 15-year-old black girl.


Easy does it, do it easy. It’s summertime. The bell rings, school’s out. The weather’s fine. The summer’s a natural afrodisiac. The guys are out hunting, the ladies are wearing less, checking out the fellas, deciding who’s next. The kids are flirting, too: the boys messing round with the girls playing double dutch, girls giggling like their bodies are full of bubbles. Even old folks are dancing, reminiscing on bliss, talking about the growing-up days, the first one they kissed. The smell of the barbecue, the tilt of the sun can spark a flash from the past—just like that. Yeah, you already know.

Meat grilling. DJ spinning. It’s a birthday cookout at the park across from Tatyana’s spot in McKinney. Everybody rolls up looking real fine, fresh from the barbershop, fly from the beauty shop. Bright T-shirts, jeans dark and crisp, sneaks so white they squeak on your eyes. Dudes standing around, still as ice. Girls shaking all over, moving to the music, tossing their braids, talking all coy over their shoulders. I’m gonna make you tremble. I’m gonna get you shook. The heat rises up, sings against the skin. Clothes fall off, swimsuits blossoming from beneath, in colors as neon and elaborate as the sunset to come. We dance and we dance. All of this beauty, all of this rolling, dipping brown flesh, like desert dunes in the shadow or desert dunes in the sun.

When we say dime or honey, we mean silver and gold, because summer is conspiring to make everything glint like coin. Sunshine adorns our lip-glossed lips, our bare shoulders and brows. We shine. You can see tracks glisten in the thick of that weave, you can see sweat mingle with the vaseline on those edges. Flashy phones in our hands like accessories or weapons. Chains bright enough to dazzle. Belt buckles and rings. Bottles sitting in crushed ice like broken glass. Bottles and bottles. Ice on ice. You want a splash? Wanna spark up? Snip, ftz, flame, lit. Damn, I’d hit that. (I want to kiss you on your collarbone.) Yeah, he kinda cute. (I want you inside of me.)


Will London Fall?

Sarah Lyall writing for The New York Times, photography by Sergey Ponomarev

Writing for The New York Times, Sarah Lyall explores London’s future as a multicultural capital in the wake of Brexit:

London may be the capital of the world. You can argue for New York, but London has a case. Modern London is the metropolis that globalization created. Walk the streets of Holborn, ride an escalator down to the Tube and listen to the languages in the air. Italian mingles with Hindi, or Mandarin, or Spanish, or Portuguese. Walk through the City, the financial district, and listen to the plumbing system of international capitalism. London is banker to the planet.

London is ancient yet new. It is as much city-state as city, with a culture and economy that circulate the world. London manages to be Los Angeles, Washington and New York wrapped into one. Imagine if one American city were home to Hollywood, the White House, Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Broadway. London is sort of that. 

Modern London thrives on the idea that one city can be a global melting pot, a global trading house, a global media machine and a place where everyone tolerates everyone else, mostly. The thought is that being connected to the rest of the world is something to celebrate. But what happens to London when that idea unexpectedly falls away?


Luigi Ghirri’s Brilliant Photographic Puzzles

Teju Cole writing for the New York Times Magazine

Author and photographer Teju Cole delves into the illusionary world of Luigi Ghirri for his New York Times Magazine column, On Photography:

I look at Luigi Ghirri’s work daily: There’s a postcard reproduction of one of his photographs on my fridge. It depicts four women, turned away from us and toward a mountainous landscape. They could be taking in an actual vista — the perspective is correct — but the mountains and their intervening lakes have text superimposed on them, and so we realize the women are standing before an image of a landscape, either a poster or a mural. Ghirri took the photograph in Salz­burg, Austria, in 1977. I find it reassuring, amusing (that slight stutter in parsing it), simultaneously simple and complex in ways that are difficult to explain.

Luigi Ghirri was one of the outstanding photographers of his generation. His work was largely made in Europe, and most of it focused on a small area of northern Italy, the region of Emilia-Romagna, where he was born and where he died, in 1992, of a heart attack at the too-young age of 49. Today, his work is in a peculiar posthumous phase, both celebrated and elusive. Perhaps no Italian photographer of the 20th century was more influential: There are traces of his gentle, lucid, cerebral style all over contemporary photography. As of a few years ago, I had seen his images in articles and exhibitions, but information about him was hard to come by. I bought several books dedicated to his work that were in Italian, a language I don’t read. An English-language collection, published as “It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It … ,” was in print but scarce.

Ghirri’s pictures are calm and mysterious — just a bit out of reach, like his books. His constellation of favored themes is distinct: maps, landscapes, windows, still lifes, interiors, fog, the seaside, the objects in artists’ studios, people obscured in some way and many images that test the divide between the world and an image of the world (murals, miniatures, postcards), often bearing an ironic gleam. You feel that in each picture there’s more than meets the eye, but the feeling remains unresolved.

Ghirri’s work is in full color, like that of William Eggleston, the American photo­grapher with whom he has the strongest kinship and who admires him greatly. But Ghirri does not share Eggleston’s intense hues, the angry reds and livid greens that Eggleston hunted down in unspectacular everyday subjects. Ghirri’s favored palette is pale, soothing, often tending toward pastel, as if the images did not wish to speak too loudly or overassert their presence. Contrary to the current trend in art photo­graphy, his pictures are printed small, sometimes no bigger than the size of a snapshot. On a gallery wall, even at such modest scale — or because of the scale — they are remarkably effective. In a group show, they stand out like brilliant individual lines of poetry amid the undifferentiated prose of much larger pictures.

The recent publication of “Luigi Ghirri: The Complete Essays 1973-1991” (Mack) enriches and complicates our sense of Ghirri’s achievement. Right from the beginning of his career, he wrote frequently and with great intelligence about his own work and the work of other photographers. “The Complete Essays” comprises 68 texts, most of them brief, in which he presents an allusive, fragmented and recursive account of his photographic philosophy. Some of his arguments can be abstruse, and rarely does he give interpretations of individual pictures. But at several moments, he produces lines of epigrammatic clarity that echo the lucidity of his photographs. “Every part of the landscape, from the roofs of houses to signs on walls, seems to await recognition via his loving eye.” The sentence, which appears in an essay on Walker Evans, applies very well to Ghirri himself.


Geoff Dyer on Garry Winogrand

In the LRB

Anybody visiting Paris between now and 8 February 2015: go see the Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Jeu de Paume. And read Geoff Dyer, possibly the only critic who gets away with not going to see shows he chooses to write about, on Winogrand. It’s the same show, and Dyer almost certainly hasn’t seen its Paris incarnation either, so this piece is fresh as ever:

I didn’t make it to the huge Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco but if the very large catalogue is anything to go by the show was obviously … not nearly big enough! How could it have been? Winogrand is inexhaustible. There’s probably more to look at in a Winogrand photo than in one by anyone else (part of the attraction of a wide-angle lens was the way it enabled him not only to get more people in the picture but also to cram the frame, so to speak, with the space between them) and still we want more photographs. He shot more film than almost any other photographer, so much that he was unable to keep up with the editing, gradually gave up trying to do so and, by the end, had pretty much stopped looking at – or processing – what he’d shot. The much quoted claim that he photographed ‘to find out what something will look like photographed’ became, effectively, ‘to not bother finding out what something will look like photographed, to photograph for the sake of photographing’. Or – this was the high-stakes wager – had he so internalised what photography did to things that he no longer needed to look? John Szarkowski, then the head of photography at MoMA in New York, considered the man he had championed so enthusiastically (‘the central photographer of his generation’) wholly profligate in his last years: a profligacy that was also a symptom of a desperate loss of direction. As the curator of the new show, Leo Rubinfien, points out in the main essay in the catalogue, we can’t properly speak of a late period in Winogrand’s work; he became ill and died too suddenly, at the age of 56, for that. If he had lived longer would what we regard as his last work have proved to be a phase through which he passed on the way to a properly developed ‘late’ period? Or should one speak of terminal overproduction in the way that one speaks of terminal illness?

Part of the idea behind the show is to reconsider the work made in Winogrand’s final years. The enormous deck is reshuffled, the cards are arranged in a new way and the verdict is more nuanced, but the conclusion is not so different from the one Szarkowski came to in the 1988 retrospective: a much smaller number of successful pictures resulted from a larger reservoir of images. And our response remains fundamentally unaltered too: we wanna see ’em anyway! More from the early years, more from the mature period, more from the last years even if much of it’s not worth seeing. Winogrand, the photographer as addict, is the addict’s photographer. The more you feed the Winogrand habit the more Winogrand you crave.

Partly this is because of the sheer quantity of data amassed by Winogrand, the mind-blowing amount of information he provided about the social landscape of America in the 1960s and 1970s: suits, dresses, jackets, lapel widths, hairstyles, body shapes, faces, drinks, food, cigarettes, architecture, airports, pets, cars – everything. But it’s far more than the thoroughness and extent of this animate inventory that makes Winogrand so important. Taking his lead from Georg Lukács, George Steiner wrote of Balzac that when he ‘describes a hat, he does so because a man is wearing it.’ Granted, in photography hats are forever being verbed – worn, carried, tipped – but it’s helpful to see Winogrand as a visual novelist whose work was a sprawling human comedy. Or perhaps as a dance to the stilled music of photographic time, with a cast of thousands, that stood no chance of ever being completed. (Winogrand admired Norman Mailer, rivalled him in scope, energy, ambition – and in a disdain for any internal system of brakes. As it happens, he photographed Mailer at his fiftieth birthday party in 1973, on the receiving end of a finger-wagging lecture from a guest, so that the picture seems silently captioned by the Winograndian imperative: ‘Look!’)

Winogrand turned the canyons of midtown Manhattan into a white-water flow of people, rapids of entanglement giving way to pools of unexpected calm. But he wasn’t simply a New York photographer-novelist. Convinced that Robert Frank had missed out on the real story of America in the 1950s – the story of the suburbs – he made his way across the country, and his travels put him in an entirely different relation to photographic and physical space. He left New York for good, settling first in Austin, Texas, then Los Angeles.

So you look at this wonderful, sumptuous catalogue and feel simultaneously replete – and curiously short-changed. Where, for example, is the colour work glimpsed in the book put together by Trudy Wilner Stack, 1964, the year Winogrand was on a roll, driving through the States on a Guggenheim Fellowship and making brilliant image after brilliant image? Wasn’t there more colour stuff in the vaults of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson? (How fitting that Winogrand’s archive ended up there, as if only the vastness of Arizona could accommodate the sheer mass of material.) If there’s colour work in the show, how come it’s not in the catalogue?

It’s inevitable but slightly disappointing that many of the pictures that are in the catalogue are already familiar. Naturally, in a retrospective we expect to be treated to an artist’s greatest hits. And part of the reason for the moreishness of Winogrand is that there’s always more to see in – and learn about – an image that one already knows well. Szarkowski’s claim that Winogrand’s best pictures were ‘not illustrations of what he had known, but were new knowledge’ holds good for the viewer too. A few years ago, I wrote about a picture of Winogrand’s in which a hip young woman is putting coins in the cup of a blind and deaf African-American on a crowded street in midtown Manhattan in about 1968. There’s a lot going on in this picture, and I felt pretty smug about having noticed so much of it. Then the photographer Tod Papageorge – an informal pupil of Winogrand who became his friend and who has contributed an essay-memoir to the new catalogue – pointed out that I had failed to spot one very striking thing: the woman is the actress Ali McGraw, a couple of years before she broke the world’s heart in Love Story. So this picture is, along with everything else, a celebrity portrait. Winogrand papped Ali McGraw! (Thus alerted, I went celebrity-stalking through Winogrand’s pictures. Although his face is partly obscured, the guy kissing his girlfriend at an airport – location and date unknown – on page 51 of the posthumously compiled Arrivals & Departures – looks incredibly like the young Bob Dylan. He even has a pen in his shirt pocket! During this deranged phase of research I was also struck by the way that Winogrand himself looked, for a while, rather like Dave Eggers.)




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