Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Joel Sternfeld, Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, 1982.

I first saw this photograph in 1992 while flipping through one of those ubiquitous "History of Photography" books at the Emily Carr reference library. I was searching for photographs by artists I then associated with serious photography (Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Cartier-Bresson) and so would have skipped over most of the colour work. "Colour" according to Walker Evans, was "vulgar."

But something in this image made me stop and look. The set up is obvious enough, an elephant has broken loose from the zoo? circus? (it could only be one of the two) and has collapsed in exhaustion on a quiet rural road, where it has been surrounded by police, onlookers and a representative from the zoo/circus who is hosing it down with water. A standard surrealist scene, all too common in american photography from the 1970's. But why does the composition seem so plain? And why has the photographer not gotten closer? Why are we so removed from the action? All the photographers I knew would have been right in there, capturing the expressions on the onlookers faces, the splash of water on hot pavement, the general 'pathos' of it all. Instead, Sternfeld presents the scene from a distance, and quite a distance at that. It is probably 100 yards to the elephant itself, and 50 to the nearest human player in the scene - the sheriff in his car. Sternfeld has also climbed some sort of hill or embankment to remove himself even further from the scene, giving us a semi-aerial view of what is transpiring on the road. And what exactly is transpiring?

A large semi truck, strangely equivalent in tonality and colour to the elephant, has been placed directly behind it (to block its escape? To transport it back to captivity? Probably the latter, but we don't know for certain.) Formally, the semi reads as a flat, monolithic slab hovering over and behind the animal, a wall that it cannot penetrate. It eliminates the upper portion of road from consideration by the viewer, and hangs over the elephant like a guillotine. (This may seem like an extreme reading, but imagine the photograph without the semi, and notice how the space opens up to a shocking extent, in a sense 'freeing' the elephant and altering our interpretation of the scene.)

The elephant is also flanked by a variety of human onlookers whose reactions to it's predicament read in sharp contrast to each other. The family peering cautiously from their driveway seem to percieve it as a threat, the man with the hose is providing physical relief to it in the form of water, the teenagers on the bank are amused by it, and the sheriff? We can't say. All that shows of him is his pant leg, stretched casually out in his cruiser as if he were taking a nap. There is a silent, unsettling authority to the form of this man and his cruiser, sitting comfortably at the bottom right of the image. A final blockade against any ideas the viewer might have of further action about to take place. The action is over.

It's over because the animal is exhausted. Sternfeld has tipped us to this in the title. He has also chosen to expose his negative at a moment of intense degradation for the animal, a moment of physical contortion and defeat that feels like exhaustion. On it's knees, on hot concrete, surrounded by human beings and vehicles and police radios, the animal is as far from it's natural environment as an animal can be. We don't know how far it has travelled since it's escape, or even from which direction it came. All we know is that it will go no further, the game is up. Escaped into a world it has no understanding of, no recollection of, no connection to, what else can it do but admit defeat? It must accept the meaning that this alien culture has given it, which is that of entertainment and spectacle. No matter where it runs, the same shocked/frightened/amused faces will be there to greet it. It creates the circus that surrounds it simply by existing.

My interpretations of what is happening in this photograph (and the meanings I derive from it), are a direct result of Sternfelds placement and framing of the scene. Taken any closer to the action, and the larger meaning of what is happening would be lost, any further away and the ability to feel empathy for the animal would be muted. This is what is sometimes called the "house of cards" theory of art, where the displacement or removal of even the tiniest element in a scene will cause the whole structure to collapse like a house of cards. The dirt road in the lower left of the image leads our eye over to the cruiser, which points us towards the elephant. The telephone line in the upper left points us to the elephant again. There is even a tree on the right bank of the road whose branches form a diagonal line pointing directly down at the elephant. The semi, the cruiser, the onlookers are all elements working in conjunction with each other to get our eye back to that animal, and in that regard are irreplacable.

A black and white image of this same scene, shot in close with a wide angle lens so as to maximize the heady surrealism of the animal on the pavement, would not convey the same density of information or scope of meaning. It would be equivalent to a sentence's worth of information. Sternfeld has given us a paragraph instead, and I think, a deeply moving one.

Note: Despite all this, I've yet to read a description of this photograph that doesn't applaud Sternfeld for his "witty" or "humorously ironic" take on the scene, so maybe I'm just crazy. Write me and tell me what you think. Is this a funny picture for you?
(Apologies for the terrible reproduction of the image. It was the best I could find on the web. Sternfelds book "American Prospects" is available at most public libraries if you want to see a large, accurate reproduction of this image. I highly recommend it.)

Monday, February 27, 2006

Stephen Shore - El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5th, 1975 .

"...photography isn't really pointing, it's framing. There's something about it that's like pointing, but it's pointing with a frame.

One image I have in my mind is, what if I was to go into a blackened room, no lights on, with a flashlight that projected a rectangular beam. Everything in that beam is equally illuminated, so I'm pointing with it and exploring with it, but it's not a flashlight where there's a hot spot in the center and then it peters out, it's this rectangle of light, all equally illuminated.

...one of the bigger problems of people starting photography... is that they're thinking of photography as pointing and not framing so they're looking at an object and their field of perception kind of dissipates as it gets to the edge, like the way a rock song fades out ... (laughter). It's avoiding the decisiveness of saying "Here's the last note." In a photograph, there is always a last note."

-Stephen Shore in conversation with Noah Sheldon and Roger White.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

"Mr. Knotts plainly stole stuff, and other comics didn't mind lending him material. He was wonderfully unthreatening to other male comics, all of whom could think of themselves as one step closer to leading men than Mr. Knotts was. It's hard to think of an actor, in fact, who got more helping hands than Mr. Knotts in his early days. Male actors were forever offering him parts, trying to get him to join their acts. Sharing the stage with this skinny, spazzy guy could only make them look more commanding.

...One by one, Mr. Knotts mocked the pretenses of the comic actor who often has his eye on nobler pursuits. In the nervous man, he reveled in the discomfort that most comics tend to pass off as indignation or savoir-faire. As Barney, he satirized swagger and self-importance. Finally, on "Three's Company" in the late 70's and 80's, he sent up the comedian's hypersexuality, which is often his pride. Mr. Knotts, over and over, was willing to play the desperate, pathetic low-man-on-every-pole. He did it so well — never forsaking his persona and trying to seize the lead, as nearly all major comedians do these days — that his talent for abasement became a source, paradoxically, of great authority. By revealing but never indulging these pretenses, he enlightened everyone he worked with, and his audiences.

And once in a great while he even got to be the hero. On "The Loaded Goat," a winning episode of "The Andy Griffith Show," it's Barney who saves the day. Playing an achingly melancholy song on his harmonica, he leads a dangerous goat, which has swallowed dynamite, out of town."

-from today's New York Times.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Jim Affinito writes to remind me that I'm a dumbass and that Fargo is actually in North Dakota, not South Dakota as I implied in yesterday's post. He's right. I am a giant dumbass.

While we're on the topic of South Dakota though, here's an amusing little puzzle to try and solve:

A woman who lives in Watertown, South Dakota has chosen to have an abortion. There are two clinics that she can choose from in which to have the operation, but the woman does not own a car, and will have to take the bus in order to get there. Which of the two available clinics would be the more affordable choice for her, in terms of bus fare?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

South Dakota dives off the deep end.

(Anyone wondering what kind of state would be so stupid as to attempt something this short-sighted and unconstitutional should re-watch their old vhs copy of "Fargo.")

Saturday, February 18, 2006

John Baldessari

Terms most Useful in Describing Creative Works of Art
1966-1968 acrylic on canvas

He forgot historicize, intentionality, problematic and vis-a-vis.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Overheard this morning at the neighbourhood breakfast joint:

I was really sick a few months ago and my girlfriend said she was going to pamper me. So she comes home from work one day and she's got this giant package all wrapped up in wrapping paper and bows and stuff. And inside is a Sitar.

A What?

A Sitar. It's an indian instrument. Yknow, the beatles used one.

Oh, right. So, why a Sitar?

I have no idea.

But you'd played one before?

I'd never seen one before in my life.

I don't understand.

Neither did I. She told me later it cost her like 600 dollars.

Wow. So have you been playing it?

Well, there is a guy at my work who plays one, so he's been showing me how to play a little. I'm still not very good, but I feel like I should at least try to learn.

Monday, February 13, 2006

So long, Pete. The real world consequences of your most famous work were obviously not lost on you. Thanks for trying so hard to turn it back around.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

My vote for best video of the year: LCD Soundsystem's Tribulations.
Not that I've seen a bunch of other videos this year to compare it with. Or any videos at all, really, now that I think about it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Abandoned Store, Bishop, California. 2006.

This photograph is featured in the new issue of Doppleganger magazine, with a short essay by my friend and fellow photographer, Christopher Brayshaw.
Thanks Chris!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Three Containers, Harrison, B.C. 2005.

And yes, yet more new photographs up on the site. Sorry if the turnover rate seems a little fast and furious. Right now it's functioning more like a virtual studio than a stationary archive.
A conversation between me and some guy I'd never met before in 1998:

Him: Did you know that Lucas has promised at least two action sequences in "The Phantom Menace" to rival anything in the first trilogy?
Me: I don't really know anything about all that. I just hope Lucas manages to make something good.
Him: Well, I saw an interview with him, and he said that he still considers himself an independent filmmaker. He's not going to let anybody interfere with his vision of the new trilogy.
Me: Listen, George Lucas is not an independent filmmaker. I can't believe he is trying to pass himself off in that way. The amount of money at his disposal to do whatever he wants with is beyond our ability to even imagine. If you want to see the work of an independent filmmaker, watch Larry Clark's 'Kids.'
Him: Oh, I didn't like that movie. I didn't understand it.
Me: But, what's not to understand? It's utterly straightforward.
Him: I didn't understand what that movie's target audience was supposed to be.
Me: Target Audience? Target audience? It's target audience was human beings.
Him: No, sorry. I don't think the people who made 'Kids' knew who their target audience was. It's not very clear.
(a moment of stunned silence on my part)
Me: I have no idea what to say to that. I guess you would make a good producer.
Him: Oh, thats what I want to be.
(more silence)

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Some of the worst B.C. weather I've ever seen, piled on top of a cold that won't quit, has kept me pretty much housebound this last week. Thank god for the public library (and an apartment located two blocks from it's main branch.)
Here's what I've been spending time with, with some highlights.

How You Look At It-Photographs of the 20th Century.
Edited by Thomas Weski and Heinz Liesbrock.
An overview of the work of some of my favorite artists of all time, including Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Robert Adams and Stephen Shore. Shore seems to get special attention here, with a hefty amount of colour plates and lots of essay time.
Gerry Badger's introductory essay "The Art that Hides Itself" puts perfectly into words so many of my own convictions about photography that I just kept shaking my head as I read it.

"So what exactly do I mean by the term "quiet" photograph, or 'quiet' photographer? It is a difficult notion to define with any exactitude, partly a question of style, more a question of voice. To begin with, it means essentially what it suggests, that the photographer's voice is not of the hectoring kind, that his or her artistic persona from first to last is modest, self effacing. The egotistical mediation of the determinedly expressive 'auteur' is politely shunned. The quiet photographer focuses upon modest rather than determinedly grand subjects, eschews quirky tricks of technique or vision, and (perhaps crucially) presents the work in a modest way. It is difficult to consider a photograph two meters wide to be a 'quiet' photograph, no matter how calm, meditative, unadorned or quiet its subject matter, no matter how much it meets the criteria in other ways. The American Photographer Lewis Baltz defined the principal criterion when he talked of photographs that appear to be "without author or art."

Herzog on Herzog.
Edited by Paul Cronin.
One of the funniest (and most inspiring) books of interviews I've ever read. Herzog's artistic convictions are like massive, immovable boulders - each as steadfast and solid as the last. His rant on money in filmaking should be mandatory reading for film school students everywhere.

"If you want to make a film just go and make it. I cannot tell you the number of times I have started shooting a film knowing I did not have the money to finish it. Financing of the film only comes when the fire ignites other fires. That is what happens when you are into filmmaking. It is a climate that you have to create, one that has to be there otherwise nothing is going to happen. I am not into the culture of complaint. Everyone around the world, whomever I meet, starts to complain about the stupidity of money. It seems to be the very culture of filmmaking. Money has only two qualities: it is stupid and it is cowardly. Making films is not easy; you have to be able to cope with the mischievious realities around you that do everything they can to prevent you from making your film. The world is just not made for filmmaking. You have to know that every time you make a film you must be prepared to wrestle it away from the devil himself. But carry on, dammit! Ignite the fire. Create something that is so strong that it develops it's own dynamic. Ultimately, the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with it's tail between its legs."

Afterglow-A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael.
by Francis Davis
A short interview with Pauline Kael recorded shortly before her death.
Kael hated most of my favorite films from the seventies (Badlands, Don't Look Now, Star Wars!) but she was always so good at telling me why that I didn't care. She also understood, on a very profound level, the absolutely essential role that good criticism plays in culture.

"It's painful writing about the bad things in an art form, particularly when young kids are going to be enthusiastic about those things, because they haven't seen anything better or anything different. I mean, if you were writing about 'The Perfect Storm,' you would have to consider that for many kids it's the first time they've ever seen something like that, and they're all excited about it, and all of their buttons have been pushed. They're going to be very angry if they read a review by someone who doesn't respond to it. I got a lot of that kind of mail from young moviegoers, high-school and college kids, who couldn't understand why I wasn't as excited about things like 'The Towering Inferno' as they were. And there are 'Towering Inferno's coming out all the time. The people on television who got excited last week about 'The Patriot' are getting excited this week about 'X-Men,' and they'll get excited about something else next week. But if you write critically, you have to do something besides get excited. You have to examine what's in front of you."

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Tow Truck, Las Vegas, Nevada. 2006.

14 new photographs up on the site, most of them from my recent trip to the states with Christopher Brayshaw. You might have to hit refresh a few times for them to show up, don't know why.