Monday, July 4, 2011

Chip Simone. Walls and Pages

It is likely that the thoughts of a photography enthusiast, at one time or another, go to the optimum way to view a body of work. It is difficult to deny the appeal of thoughtfully-placed art on the enveloping walls of a major museum or gallery exhibit. Likewise the tactile sensation of holding a well-bound photography book in your hand is an undeniable pleasure for many of us.

It is clear that each of these photography media choices have their own shadows and highlights. Let’s take the occasion of Chip Simone’s just-opened exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta to talk about each. If you are reading this posting you are likely to already know of The Resonant Image exhibit. Perhaps you walked around the hallowed halls with Chip the afternoon of Saturday, June 18 as he discussed his work. Maybe you were even fortunate enough to take home a signed copy of Chroma, the exhibition book published by Nazraeli Press to accompany the exhibit

The Exhibit

In relating the feel of these two ways to view a collection of photographs, let’s begin with The Resonant Image exhibit. I won’t reiterate Chip’s long-term history in Atlanta or the tale behind how the exhibit came to be. You can read and view these facts in a well-done interview by Atlanta Celebrates Photography in conjunction with ArtRelish and in an accessAtlanta writeup.

What is our first impression when we round the corner of the downstairs gallery at the High to see the exhibit? It is the massive deep red wall with three of Chip’s photographs. It is not so much the subject matter of the three images that we first note. Rather it is the splashes of brilliant yellow leaping from the images. We then see “The Resonant Image” in large lettering on the red wall, perhaps read a sentence or two from the wall text and then return to the three photographs. Now we finally take the time to see the yellow wall adjoining the deep purple house, the fragmented yellow sign, and the yellow tarp-like object draped over a classic piece of Chicago architectural detail.

What do those first dozen steps into The Resonant Image accomplish? They show that Chip and Brett Abott, High Curator of Photography, have achieved the creation a memorable visual experience that goes beyond the impact of the images themselves. On a single wall they encapsulated three key characteristics of Chip’s brand of street photography: color - often brilliant primary color, camera-to-subject distance that is rarely less than sidewalk wide and rarely more than street wide, and most definitely urbanity – hardly a tree and never a green hill in sight.

We round the corner of the red entry wall to its reverse side. We are immediately drawn to a grouping of four images. We chuckle at the two men on the wooden bench, and then the woman slumped over on the park bench. Then we get it: all four images are of seated individuals. Did Chip intend to acquire images of people on seats? Likely not, but the curator saw the relationships within the group of over a hundred candidate images for the exhibit and installed them together. We enjoy the juxtaposition and the added feeling of synchronicity that we perhaps would not experience if we saw each of the four images in isolation.

We see therefore that one of the major attributes of the carefully curated exhibit is sharing the curator’s eye in finding relationships among images that we might not have otherwise seen ourselves. If we are of the school that it is only the content of the isolated image that is important, then this attribute will not ring true with you. However if you take a more holistic view of art and believe that it is about larger meanings that encompass the interrelationships between subjects, disparate artists, and time periods, then the thoughtfully assembled exhibition is for you.

Now let’s step around the corner again and glance over the small wall with the block of cobalt blue. All we see from a distance is blue and white. As we step closer we begin to recognize the outline of a trailer. Finally, standing immediately before the image, we see that it is a pickup bed mounted on wheels, sitting on a white snow-covered parking lot, against a background of a white building in front of a blinding white sky. As we peer even closer into the image, we see the smears of the snowflakes against the black trailer tire as they pelt the photographer. We could almost shiver at the thought of standing before the trailer trying to fumble with the camera dials with our frigid fingers. We’re alone in a cold white world with an inexplicable brushstroke of blue. Who could resist capturing this image? Chip couldn’t. In fact this was, after decades of black and white work, his first color photograph.

The blue trailer illustrates another positive characteristic of viewing art in a gallery. Seeing a photograph from across a large room shows us a broad ill-defined expanse of color, form, and light and shadow. It gives us a sense of the spirit of the image without the encumbrance of the detail. Is this a good thing? For those valuing the holistic view, yes. For the enthusiasts of the isolated view, stepping close enough to the image to see the wind-driven snowflakes gives the pleasure of becoming one with the scene, almost being there in body.

Coming back around to the red title wall, few who know Chip would believe that the fact that all three images portray exactly the same shade of yellow is a happy accident. It is as if each were squeezed out of the same tube of Winsor & Nelson Medium Cadmium Yellow Artist’s Colour. For Chip, subtle tweaks of color and perspective here and there are an acknowledged way of implementing the artist’s vision.

The Book

Let’s walk out of the High with our copy of Chroma in hand. Recall that this is the title of the Nazraeli Press book produced in conjunction with The Resonant Image. It is not a true exhibit catalog of the 64 images in the High, but rather a snapshot of 35 of Chip’s recent images, most of which are in the exhibit.

As we open Chroma to its frontispiece, we see our blue trailer again. While the color and the overall blue-on-white sensation matches that of the image on the gallery wall, it is somehow not as alive as what we saw in the High. We’ve lost all but the merest hint of the blowing snow, separating us from much of the sensation of coldness and isolation that we have standing in front of the original. Yet, we are holding a good approximation of the original in our hand while seated on our shaded patio with our morning coffee just an arm’s reach away. We can’t take our Starbucks into the High, and we can’t drag along our lounge chair, and we can’t sense the breeze wafting over the jasmine in the garden. In short, the book of Chip’s images is portable, accessible, and if we so choose, always with us. We can enjoy its treasures again and again over decades.

Chroma, like the majority of photographic books, is short on words. After all we bought the book to see, not to read, right? Perhaps. But perhaps we’re missing something as well. As we discussed in Random Radiance last year it is often the backstory that makes the photograph. Those of us who have heard Chip talk about his individual photographic pieces know that his highly articulate exposition adds volumes to our appreciation of his art. However we also know that Chip is also a proponent of allowing the art to speak for itself. He chose that minimalist approach for Chroma.

While Chroma is not the best case of combining words with photographs, there are a myriad of examples out there that do make the argument. A favorite of mine is One Thousand Moons by Eddie Soloway. Call them essays, or call them memories, but the words of Mr. Soloway are just as pictorial as the images. A great photography book can offer this; exhibitions cannot.

While we’re on the topic of books, what do you notice when you thumb through Chroma? First, after you note the images themselves, you see that there are no titles to the photographs. Then you notice there are no page numbers. If you don’t have titles, then you don’t need an index, and if you don’t have an index then you have no need for page numbers. It all holds together.

But why are there no titles? I can venture a guess. Of course I would not have to guess. I could just ask Chip and get an accurate answer. But it’s more fun to put our own spin on the question. Those of us who have heard Chip talk about a thing or two know that he often goes against the flow – but always for good reason.

Title. What do titles do? They give a tiny piece of interpretation: a sort of micro artist’s statement about the image. Some say that this is a good thing. Some leave the interpretation to the viewer. It’s not often we can have it both ways, but Chip has succeeded. Chroma has no titles; The Resonant Image does. Decide for yourself which is the most effective.

Personally, I find it fun to have just enough information in the title to pique the imagination. For example, go to the gallery and find Chip’s photograph of an astonished woman behind a guy with his fingers in his mouth. The title says “Birdman”. What story does your imagination tell you about what is going on? Without the title, the image is humorous; with it, it tells a story in miniature.

Final Words

You say I’ve forgotten several choices of media. Books and galleries are so ‘yesterday’. What about online galleries, or web sites, or e-books? Of course these have their place, but this article is not intended to be a critique of all the ways of viewing photographs, but simply a few observations of a few emotions that may come to the surface in viewing a particular exhibition and the book that accompanies it. We’ll save a discussion of e-media for another time.

So you’ve noticed that this articles has lots of words but no images of Chip’s photographs. No, I didn’t forget to attach them. Most of you reading this probably reside in the Atlanta area. If you’ve not done so already, show your membership card at the desk at the High, walk the exhibit, and buy Chroma in the museum shop on your way out the door. Can’t do this? Then order the book from Nazraeli. If you are reading Random Radiance, you are an enthusiast. Go and act on your enthusiasm and take Chip’s photographs home with you, either in your head or in your hand.

All text copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Appropriation in Photography: III. From Many, One

It is only fair that we begin the third chapter of our journey into the appropriation theme with a Walker Evans photograph. After all, we spent the entire second chapter looking over Sherrie Levine’s and others’ use of Evans’ images in their own art. Today we flip the coin to the other side, studying one of several times that Evans appropriated other artists’ images in his own.


Look at the Penny Picture Display image below. Now imagine yourself on a Savannah street in the 1930’s. Passing a photographer’s studio, you see a window with filled with tiny portraits, probably not thinking much of it. If you were a typical citizen of the times, you would be seeing what was quite commonplace for the period. You may not even have slowed your pace as you moved from the bright shimmering summer heat to the next patch of cool shade beneath the oaks in one of Savannah’s many urban squares.


Penny Picture Display, Savannah, Georgia
Walker Evans, 1936 (1)
Walker Evans however saw what most did not: that the window was its own thing, a compilation of the life force of some 100 individuals compressed into a single inanimate package. Capturing the collective images brings the many into one.


As the ultimate observer John Szarkowski said of the image in his seminal book, Looking at Photographs,
“It is an unabridged catalog of American physiognomy, costume, and style, a kind of composite self-portrait bearing on the questions of who Americans thought they were in 1936 – and a humorous tribute to the unintentioned honesty of the photographer and his sitters. It is also a remarkable and original picture, unlike the photographer’s window, it demands interpretation.” (2)


Certainly Evans appropriated the work of the anonymous studio photographer whose window he so memorably captured. The spirit of what he did however would seem to have been much different than Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Evans’ classic pieces.


An excellent preamble for the next several examples of From Many, One comes from a surprising source: a 1989 book, Mindfulness, by Ellen J. Langer. We read,
“I recently attended a lecture by photographer Joel Meyerowitz. To my surprise his lecture was about mindfulness. He did not call it that, but to me his talk was a lesson in how to stay open to experience…Meyerowitz also described the amateur photographers who flock to the Grand Canyon. Arriving at the rim of this famous landmark, they shuffle about, searching for a sign that says "shoot here." With one pre-set image labeled GRAND CANYON in their minds, blinding them to what lies below, they search for the one and only "right" spot to stand. In advising his audience that there is no such spot and that they could search instead for whatever was "meaningful" to them, Meyerowitz was encouraging a mindful approach applicable to far more than photography.” (3)


Most of us who say we pursue photography as an art form go out of our way to find the unique perspective on what we see that makes what we capture an art photograph rather than a snapshot. Not everyone however has that intent. Just go to Flickr and search for images of the Taj Mahal. How many of them appear to have been taken from exactly the same spot? The scene may as well have a big yellow and red sign with a Kodak logo that says “Picture Point.” It is as if one image has been replicated hundreds of times, with the only differences being the details of the sky and the focal length of the lens.


Noting this lemming-like behavior, Corrine Vionnet has taken advantage of all these images of essentially the same scene. She appropriated dozens of images from Flickr taken by different individuals at popular "shoot here" spots. She then cropped and scaled them to similar dimensions and created a composite in Photoshop.


From the series Photo Opportunities, 2005-2010
Copyright Corinne Vionnet (4)






Perhaps you saw the exhibit of Vionnet’s Photo Opportunities series at the Wm Turner Gallery’s final show last October. Here is what Jerry Cullum had to say in BURNAWAY about Vionnet’s Mount Fuji image,
“In one of her compositions, the distant Mount Fuji glows like an image from a Hokusai print, while a swarm of ghostly, hypothetical foregrounds float dimly in the image’s lower third, creating a dream-like gestalt of all the Japans that Fuji has symbolized.”


Migrate now to Vionnet’s website and seek out her image of the British Parliament and Big Ben. Look under Photo Opportunities. Found it? It is easy to imagine yourself in a JMW Turner painting with the requisite Turner atmospherics. We feel comfortable with the Vionnet composites partly because they have a distinctly familiar Turner-esque feel to them. Partly, too, they are agreeable because they are of well-known scenes but are just mysterious enough to merit a second look.


Turner did indeed paint the Houses of Parliament, but his focus was on the incandescent orange of the flames of the disastrous 1834 fire that destroyed the buildings. For a more sedate comparison of Vionnet’s Parliament creation, find Monet’s early 20th century series of the same subject. Several of the Impressionist works have the same sense of warm, enveloping fog that Vionnet assembled into a cohesive whole from disparate parts.


Four views from four times and one shoreline, Lake Tenaya, 2002
Copyright Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe (5)
In the High Museum’s current Point of View exhibit, curated by Danielle Avram who we met in Random Radiance a few weeks ago, we find an interesting twist on the “shoot here” syndrome. Rather than forming a single mosaic from multiple tiles, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe have taken a different approach. They have a large body of work in which they capture panoramic views of well-known Southwestern and Western vistas. The “well-known” label is crucial to their concept, for they intentionally walk the steps of giants that have gone before them. These giants – Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and the very early Western landscape photographers - captured the initial iconic shots that the crowds in Meyerowitz’s “shoot here” scene have tried so diligently to emulate. Klett and Wolfe overlay their contemporary panoramas with classic images appropriated from the masters, giving a sort of fruit cake of jumbled images identical in place but separated in time, capture medium, and artist’s interpretation. They provide us with a unique mélange of the contemporary with the classic.


By the way, if you’ve missed the Point of View exhibit, a visit may be worthwhile before it closes in early June. While classical favorites from the High’s collection are there, I found a few pleasant surprises from lesser-known artists that piqued my interest. It would have been nice though to hear or read more details about the links between the images on the wall that allowed their assemblage into a Point of View. Danielle Avram tells me that wall space for explanatory text is limited by museum policy and that a lot had to remain unsaid. Too bad.


Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, 2006-2011
Copyright Penelope Umbrico (6)
Penelope Umbrico, in an ongoing series begun in 2006, also uses the seeming inexhaustible well of Flickr. She assembles massive numbers of images of the sun into single monolithic prints. She dips deeply into the cloud of the Internet to grasp the pedestrian and mold it into the unique. She says,
“I think it's peculiar that the sun, the quintessential life giver, constant in our lives, symbol of enlightenment, spirituality, eternity, all things unreachable and ephemeral, omnipotent provider of warmth, optimism and vitamin D, and so universally photographed, finds expression on the internet, the most virtual of spaces equally infinite but within a closed electrical circuit. Looking into this cool electronic space one finds a virtual window onto the natural world.” (6)


The Aperture Foundation says that Umbrico’s approach addresses issues of “whether or not the growing volume of images we view online fosters a critical visual literacy.” Aperture has indicated their approval the new literacy that Umberto has illuminated by releasing a newly published monograph of her work.


Perhaps you could use the term “anonymous appropriation” for Vionnet’s and Umbrico’s work. From a Fair Use standpoint Vionnet succeeds because her overlap procedure renders each individual image inseparable from the whole. Umbrico’s approach effectively skirts appropriation issues because the suns are usually only a small portion of the original image and are so similar that it would be difficult to trace any individual sun back to its original image. These examples would seem to be almost the exact opposite of Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Walker Evans’ Allie Mae Burroughs portrait we saw in our last journey into appropriation.


So you want to try your own hand at starting with many and ending up with one, but don’t want to crank up Photoshop? Try going here for a fun few minutes merging many faces into a single generic one. Or, if are in a rather anthropologic mood, see the difference between perceived beauty in the 1940s and now. Both of these sites have academic science roots, so it is instructive realize how science and art come together in the composite images we are considering.


We’ve learned through the examples in this article that not all appropriation in photography has the confrontational, in your face, character that we saw for Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine in the first two articles in this series. An anonymous, benign approach can create appealing images that draw you in rather than push you back.


Text other than direct quotations copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger. All images are published within the author’s understanding of the Fair Use policies of their source.
  1. Source: www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/collection_database/photographs/penny_picture_display_savannah_walker_evans/objectview.aspx?page=1&sort=6&sortdir=asc&keyword=penny&fp=1&dd1=19&dd2=0&vw=1&collID=19&OID=190017339&vT=1&hi=0&ov=0
  2. Szarkowski, John. Looking at Photographs. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973, p. 116
  3. Langer, Ellen J., Mindfulness. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1989, pp. 117-118
  4. Source: www.corinnevionnet.com/index.php?/photo-opportunities
  5. Source: byronwolfe.typepad.com/klettwolfe/yosemite
  6. Source: www.penelopeumbrico.net/Suns/Suns_Index.html

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kael Alford Speaks: Five Years of Earth Days

As I write this, I am reflecting on Earth Day, April 22. To me, celebrating our Mother Gaia only one day a year seems like short-changing her. To Kael Alford though, honoring Earth Day has been an almost daily homage for the past five years.

Many of you will know Kael, or know of her work as a distinguished photojournalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, and other leading news sources. She was a key artist of the four representated in the 2007 Unembedded exhibit at the Atlanta Photography Group gallery. Or you might know her from her former teaching position at SCAD.

Alternately you might have sat, glued to your seat, at the Atlanta Photography Group Speaking of Photography session the evening of April 21, Earth Day Eve. Chip Simone, in another of his “Conversation with …” series, talked with Kael for a fascinating 90 minutes.

Kael is no stranger to recognition. We will see later how the High Museum is honoring her as the next recipient of their “Picturing the South” commission series. In 2008 Harvard University, too, acknowledged her vision as a preeminent photojournalist when they offered her the prestigious yearlong Neiman Fellowship for Journalism. Likewise, only a few weeks ago, Kael received the highly sought Knight Luce Fellowship from the University of Southern California School of Communication and Journalism. The Atlanta photography community is indeed fortunate to be able to count Kael as a friend.

“It’s news”

We will get to Kael’s five years of Earth Days a bit later in this article. But first we will learn Kael’s perspective on the field of photojournalism.

A portion of the evening with Kael and Chip focused on Kael’s role in reporting with her camera on human side of conflicts in Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Iraq. Knowledge of this work is important for you to understand. Go to the Unembedded website to immerse yourself in the results of putting ones life at considerable risk as a photographer in a war zone.

The depth of the circumstances surrounding a conflict photojournalist was brought home to all of us during Kael’s talk when we learned that Chris Hondros, one of the photojournalists fatally wounded in Misrata Libya just a few hours before, was Kael’s good friend and compatriot. Likewise Kael had been scheduled to meet with Tim Hetherington, the other journalist casualty in Misrata, in several weeks. Conflict was brought home to us that evening in a very real, very tragic way.

Knowing of this tragedy made Chip’s initial question to Kael all the more poignant, “Why would anyone in their right mind go into photojournalism?”

Kael’s response was definitive. Explaining how she began to choose her life’s career, she said, “Photojournalism…was so immediate. It promised that I would get directly into the world and begin to document very big, important things.” Most who hear Kael’s story agree that her career goals are certainly being met in a highly influential way.

Many of us relate photojournalism to the Robert Capa-style coverage of war. Kael succinctly explained why we see so many photojournalistic depictions of conflict, “It’s news.”

That being said, Kael pointed out that international news is news in the United States primarily if U.S. foreign policy is involved. Conflicts that do not have a direct pipeline into U.S. interests often do not get the attention that they perhaps would merit on a purely humanitarian level.

Chip noted that recent photojournalism has a pictorial quality trending toward beauty rather than the raw nature of earlier work. He wondered if photojournalists think that this trend is perhaps dangerous in some way. Kael’s response was,
“Maybe…You can’t just put beautiful [war] photographs on the wall and ask people to come in, have a glass of wine, and send them away…Yes, I think it can be dangerous to show people beautiful pictures and not give them something else. But at the same time it is also dangerous, perhaps, to show them horrible pictures and turn them away.”
So, an effective photojournalist is always walking the fine line between showing the camera’s version of reality and showing something with the appeal to draw us in to see, hear, and feel the rest of the story.
“I always look for stories that are underreported, underrepresented. There is humanity in all sides of a story, so I am looking for that humanity and I am looking for stories that might violate our prejudices...I try to allow myself to feel where I am and then try to respond to that in my photographs that will reflect what I am experiencing as a human being, because I think that what I feel and what people around me feel are similar.”
Chip, offered, “You can’t be objective, can you?”
“I shouldn’t be...A good journalist will consider what is outside the frame. That’s our job. Our job is to know that story as well as we can, backwards and forwards, and give our readers a sense of that story as well as we have understood it.”

Speaking loudly by being quiet

Photojournalism is, according to Kael, “…events unfolding in front of the camera…Photojournalism usually isn’t very quiet. It tends to be loud.”

Kael, understandably weary of living loudly with man’s inhumanity to man for years at a time, has for the past five years changed the focus of her photojournalistic work to man’s inhumanity to nature. We will now focus on Kael’s current project rather than her well documented conflict photography.

Drawn to New Orleans to cover post-Katrina events, Kael took a day off from her journalism to see, for the first time, the homeland of her Native American grandmother on the very edge of the Gulf Coast. What she found in the two communities of her ancestors, Isle Jean Charles and Pointe Aux Chenes, has become her quiet focal point for the past five years.

Copyright Kael Alford, 2007 (1)
What drew Kael in to such an extent to change her life for half a decade? See for yourself.

Here is one of Kael’s photographs of the coast. Seems idyllic, doesn’t it?







Now observe two other images below, not by Kael, but from orbiting satellites.

The left hand satellite photograph, from 1990, shows the southern end of Pointe Aux Chenes, on the Gulf south of New Orleans. This is the jumping off point for the shrimp boats that have traditionally provided the livelihood for Kael’s relatives. The shrimpers leave from a marina on the upper right side of the image. Note the small spit of land at the tip of the arrow.

Pointe Aux Chenes, 1990, 2007 (2)
Now glance over to the right hand image, of the same area in 2007, at the same position and the same scale. The arrow is in the same position, but now points to open water of the instead of land as in the 1990 image. The comet tail shape at the tip of the arrow is a boat, leaving its wake where there once was land 17 years earlier.

What has happened in only 17 years? The change has been the rapid subsidence and erosion of the Gulf Coast. Beginning in the 1930s, the practicalities of oil and gas production in the exceedingly abundant coastal fields have not been kind to Mother Earth. To allow easy access to the near-shore wells, canals were cut into the salt marshes that line the coast. The canals have allowed both the fresh water emptying into the Gulf from the Mississippi and the seawater from the frequent storms and hurricanes to gradually gnaw away at the tenuous hold that the marsh grasses have on the land.

Copyright Kael Alford, 2010 (1)
Much of the petroleum from early drilling existed directly beneath the marshes. Pumping the oil and gas resulted in the subsidence of the landmass. The combined effects of ground subsidence, erosion from the canals, and damage from hurricanes have had the net effect of the Gulf shore moving continuously northward, submerging land that was formally used for agriculture and residence.

The effect of the changing sea on a small slice of humanity is what has drawn Kael to coastal Louisiana. Her images are still of war, but of the quiet war of two small communities of Native Americans against the relentless onslaught of the ocean caused by our reliance on petroleum products for energy. What has been Indian Land for centuries is rapidly becoming the land of the fishes.

Kael’s project has been to document the vestiges of a vanishing culture that is, literally, in her own blood and to bring public awareness to the plight of those that are being displaced by man-made activities.

There is plenty to say surrounding the plight of the Gulf Coast and of the Native Americans who live on its edge. There is, too, a volume of descriptive words that documents how Kael is immersed in her current Louisiana project. My words though cannot hope to give justice to Kael’s developing story of the struggle against sea and bureaucracy. Kael's final phase of her odyssey to the Gulf is to capture the residents' own words to give an enduring substance to their story. I therefore will allow Kael to speak of her quest in her own words. Please give yourself five minutes and go here to hear Kael tell you about what she has found at the edge of the Gulf.

Several years ago when Julian Cox, then the Curator of Photography at the High Museum, heard Kael’s story about the Gulf subsidence and saw her initial images, he arranged for Kael to be the next recipient of the museum’s “Picturing the South” series of commissions. Kael and the High’s new Curator of Photography, Brett Abbott, are currently exploring the details of a forthcoming exhibit of Kael’s commission work scheduled for July of 2012.

Whether you are observing Kael’s loud Iraq images or her quiet Louisiana studies, you are likely to have gained a new respect for the social messages, the craft, and the art of photojournalism. We will see you are Kael’s High exhibit next year, and don’t forget to celebrate Earth Day with Kael tomorrow, next week, next month, and again and again until we get it right.


Text other than direct quotations copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger. 
  1. Source: http://www.panos.co.uk/stories/2-13-1176-1682/Kael-Alford/Bottom-of-da-Boot/
  2. Source: Google Earth. Annotation by Richard Ediger. The 2007 image was originally in color but was rendered in black and white to match the tonality and contrast of the 1990 image.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Makers and Takers

If you were sitting in the audience at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery the evening of April 7, you would have appreciated many portions of the panel discussion entitled “Female Photographers. Is There a Voice?” The evening was moderated by Brenda Massie, the Director of the gallery.

At one point Michael David Murphy, Program Manager of Atlanta Celebrates Photography and one of the five panelists, commented, “I like thinking about who takes pictures and who makes pictures, and is there a difference.” He was pointing out that some of the artists’ work represented in the Hagedorn’s current Spring Group Show exhibit on the surrounding walls demonstrates varying degrees of hand crafting or post-processing rather than a straightforward display of what was recorded by the camera.


Neither Michael nor others involved in the discussion made any judgment of the relative merits of taking versus making – just that there were differences in approach. But the delineation between making and taking brings on some interesting observations.


Before we go much further into this exploration, think for a minute about whether you, as a photographer, believe that you are a Taker or a Maker. Do you usually represent what is normally thought of as reality, or do you put a twist or two on what the camera sensor provides to you before you put your print on the wall? For the sake of this thought process, you might consider yourself a Taker if the images you display are largely as they were captured by the camera; what you show is what you got. Call yourself a Maker however if darkroom machinations, digital or otherwise, have a significant role in allowing you to express your vision.


After the Make or Take discussion at Hagedorn, it was instructive to reflect on the prologue that Brenda Massie presented prior to the panel discussion. She showed a concise but well assembled slide show of work by noted female photographers from Gertrude Käsebier to the contemporary era. In hindsight many of the examples might be considered to be on the Take side of things. Many of you would agree, for example, that Margaret Bourke White was predominately a Taker. In other words she was primarily an observer rather than commentator.


What about Diane Arbus: Maker or Taker? Her representation of her subjects was unadorned and perhaps, to some, too realistic. But Arbus showed us a highly selected version of the reality of the New York City streets. Reality, yes, but one that tweaks the discomfort nerve in our brains. She indeed was a documentarian, but one who chose her subject matter to makes us feel something we don’t usually sense. In this aspect she was a Maker of the first degree.


While we certainly could assign a Make or Take label to each of the photographers that Brenda showed, let’s instead fast-forward another 24 hours to April 8 and the opening of Still Life at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in its new West Side location. While all the images in the exhibition were Takes when they first came out of the camera, by the time they were 

presented on the wall they were definitely Makes, but to varying amounts.

High Dive
Copyright Julie Blackmon, 2010
A casual glance at Julie Blackmon’s new work, a continuation of her well-known Domestic Vacations, gives the impression that these charming snippets of domesticity are happy captures of the innocent foibles of young children doing what children do in kitchens and back yards. By the second glance however you see the picnic table is set with bowls of fruit that look suspiciously like something you saw in Art Appreciation when you studied the Dutch Masters. Likewise the positioning of the kids and grownups in the scenes seems somehow just a little too perfect. You begin to have suspicions that these are not necessarily candid shots, although many certainly have the feel of what real life feels like.

Your suspicions would have been confirmed if you were at Ms. Blackmon’s artist's talk the next morning at SCAD. Co-sponsored by Jennifer Schwartz and SCAD, and introduced by Amy Miller of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, the talk was an enlightening tour through one woman’s journey from stay-at-home mom to internationally acclaimed artist. Ms. Blackmon likes nothing more than to travel the streets of her Springfield Missouri home seeking intriguing backdrops for her tableaux of Middle America motherhood. What we see in Julie Blackmon’s images is not a document, but perhaps near-historical fiction. The Make can appear subtle at times but it is always there.


Ms. Blackmon told us, “I’m trying to tell the truth about my life, but in a fictional way.” To tell this truth, she carefully selects location, point of view, and lighting. However her use of these cinematic tools has a soft touch on her images that blurs the gap between story and reality. Photoshop is certainly in her tool chest as well. We heard that it “is a technological aid that allows me to tell the story I want to tell...I couldn't do what I want to do without Photoshop.”


Returning to the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, you have only to glance sideways from Julie Blackmon’s pieces to see Make in one of its most extreme implementations. While Ms. Blackmon takes what is basically a believable scene and lightly amplifies it, Maggie Taylor starts with bits and pieces of both vintage and current photographs and assembles them into a fantasy that is  believable only if you have followed the rabbit down the hole. Ms. Taylor  graced Atlanta with her work during last year’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography extravaganza. It was a real treat to see her work so soon again, this time on the walls of the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.


Swamp Dwellers
Copyright Maggie Taylor, 2010
The juxtaposition of the work of Julie Blackmon and Maggie Taylor illustrates that the characteristic we have termed Make is a continuum. There are many stopping points between Ms. Taylor’s wildly imaginative scenes and Ms. Blackmon’s believable, minimally adapted narratives. Both artists are storytellers extraordinaire and both are highly skilled practitioners of today’s digital tools for making photographic art.

Just so you don’t think that you have to be a Photoshop Queen to achieve highly narrative, high-order photographic art, just flip the pages of this blog back to December 11 of last year. Dorothy O’Connor’s Crocheting the Ocean tableau is every bit as fanciful as one of Maggie Taylor’s images, yet not a pixel was harmed in the process of making the photograph. Ms. Taylor told us in October that her images are composed of as many as 60 Photoshop layers that take weeks to assemble. Likewise Dorothy’s scenes are constructed from hundreds of bits of flotsam and jetsam that take weeks of hammer, nails, and glue to come together to make the final story that is captured on film in a mere 30th of a second.


There will be those of you who think that these recent art pieces are an indication that contemporary photography has gone excessively down the Make route. Perhaps you yearn for the good old days where real men just took pictures rather than made them. If you are as much as a purist as you think you are, then you certainly took the trip up to the Booth Museum in Cartersville last September for the Ansel Adams exhibit there. You might have parked yourself in front of the massive Monolith. The Face of Half Dome print, marveling at the incredible detail and the unquestioned realism before your eyes. Now here is a Taken photograph if you’ve ever seen one.


Now be honest, do you really think that those black skies in Monolith existed naturally? Then you missed reading Adams’ book "Examples. The Making of 40 Photographs." The discussion on Monolith says,

“I saw the photograph as a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distant sharp white peak against a dark sky. The only way I could represent this adequately was to use my deep red Wratten No. 29 filter, hoping it would produce the effect I visualized.”
Adams was not pre-visualizing reality. He mind’s eye was seeing a revised version of nature that expressed his artistic intent.

Surely you have seen the ubiquitous Adams quotation, “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” Certainly Ansel Adams created some of the most exquisite photographs ever to be pulled from the developing tray. But as Wikipedia says, “Ansel Adams elevated dodging and burning to an art form.” His prints are the summation of world-class artistic vision, an uncanny understanding of the technology, and hours and hours of darkroom toil. In short, Ansel Adams’ classic work was made, not simply taken. For a more extensive discussion of the making of Monolith, go here.


At least Edward Weston took, rather than made, his photographs, right? Most of his classic images were first printed as contact prints. Therefore he did not have Adams’ penchant for playing God with the print in the darkroom by using creative dodging and burning. Weston printed what the negative gave him. But how did he get the negative? Consider the image that some consider the absolute pinnacle of photographic art: Weston’s Nautilus, made the same year as Monolith. In his Daybooks, Weston told of the challenges in finding an appropriate background for photographing Nautilus.

“I wore myself out trying every conceivable texture and tone for the grounds: Glass, tin, cardboard, –wool, velvet, even my rubber rain coat!”
He ended up putting the shell on top of a barrel.

Weston worked with low sensitivity film and small apertures, necessitating exposures as long as 4 1/2 hours. His journal says that he worked with the shell under different lighting conditions for days to achieve a negative that met his standards of clarity and luminosity. Finally, at long last he had his negative. Given the above description, many of you would probably say that he made the sumptuous Nautilus image, rather than took it. Even Weston was a Maker.


By the way, I intentionally did not include the Monolith and Nautilus images themselves into this article. You already know both of these images well enough to visualize them in detail in your mind's eye any time of the day or night. You do indeed know them that well, don't you?


Philip Gross and S. L. Shapiro, in their book “The Tao of Photography. Seeing Beyond Seeing,” make the Maker point quite clearly.

“A quick consideration of some of the factors a photographer can vary to create countless images of the same subject illustrate the constructive nature of photographs: composition, lighting, lenses, filters, f-stop, shutter speed, film type, and speed, processing. All these factors contribute to the meaning of the final print. Although the constructive nature of photographs is most evident when the artist indulges in digital editing…traditional photography is no less constructive.”
The term “reconstructing reality” is used by Gross and Shapiro to highlight the fact that no matter how much we as photographers intend to portray reality as it appears to be, we all use our own choices to construct our art, and these choices yield a reality that is alternate to what is really there. This unavoidable reconstruction however gives us an enormous dose of freedom in communicating our intent to our viewers. Even if you consider yourself a photojournalist or street photographer who intends to report only what you see, the Make sneaks in around the edges.

So, are you a Taker or a Maker? If you can’t decide, just recall what Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”


Text other than direct quotations copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger. All images are published within the author’s understanding of the Fair Use policies of their source.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Danielle Avram Speaks. How to Sing Your Song

Some of us consider ourselves emerging photographers. As such we should have two priorities: 1) get good, and 2) get known. If you were among those gathered for the Atlanta Photography Group Speaking of Photography discussion with Danielle Avram on “Building a Portfolio” on March 16, you heard about one of the prime ways to achieve both these goals. Danielle went into just the right amount of detail on how to prepare a formal portfolio of your work and then how to have your portfolio critically reviewed by experts who are knowledgeable about what good photography looks like.

Danielle is indeed in a position of knowledge. She had, until recently, the position of Curatorial Assistant for photography at the High Museum and she played a major role in assembling the current Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition there. Danielle also curated the Point of View exhibition that is currently on exhibition at the High. She’s also reviewed portfolios for Atlanta Celebrates Photography and the Society for Photographic Education, and will review at Photolucida in Portland in April. More details of Danielle’s experience can be found on her Linkedin page.

So, you want to get good. For most of us it is pretty difficult to improve our art without feedback, both positive and negative. This is what a portfolio is all about. We need to assemble our best work into a cohesive package that we can share with people who, like Danielle, are in the know. Our portfolio is our song and the individual images are our notes. Our song is ready for others to hear if the notes come together in harmonious chords and if the chords join into a score that is pleasing to the senses.



Why compose the song?

Danielle told us that our portfolio has multiple purposes.

  • It is our introduction to the artistic world, saying who we are and what our art is.
  • It is what defines us, artistically: what interests us, what processes and genres we are pursuing, and how we choose to present ourselves.
  • It is the primary way we illustrate that we know how to use our artistic tools. 
  • It shows that we have a good idea of what our work represents and that we can tell others about what it means to us.


What is between the pages of the score?

It is clear that we need more than a few notes to create a complete song. Danielle made the following points.

  • A proper portfolio used for review is typically comprised of 15 to 20 high quality prints. The prints alone though are not the complete portfolio. We also need to provide the following.
  • A formal resume or CV (curriculum vitae) of our photographic activities needs to be associated with the portfolio. This presents a list of academic experience, exhibitions in which we’ve shown our work, any periodicals or books that have included our work, and other activities that relate to our artistic endeavors. 
  • Anyone who is looking at our portfolio with a critical eye benefits by knowing more about us. The artist’s biography is similar to the resume but is less formal and written in paragraph form. It says how we came to create our photographic art and our recent successes in singing our song. 
  • We then need a paragraph or two about what our song says. This is the artist’s statement that some have difficulty writing. If we think we take pretty pictures but cannot let others know why we took them, then they are just pretty pictures and not a song. 


What king of song are you writing?

We heard Danielle tell us that there are three different types of portfolios.

  • It is usually expected that our portfolio is comprised of a single body of work that is held together with a consistent idea that we can describe. It is the track we download from iTunes.
  • Now, if we create an album, or even a multi-disk set, we have a continuing series. Some artists work on closely-related themes for years. Danielle used the example of Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos, a lifetime epic of man’s place in his environment. The portfolio can represent exemplary work from this extended series.
  • For artists who have been doing their thing for decades and who are well known for many separate but complete bodies of works, a portfolio might contain an overview of selected pieces that define key songs or albums from a historical perspective. These “greatest hits” portfolios probably do not apply to most of us. Most of us are happy to just get one song on the charts.
Danielle set the stage, so we now have a better idea of what our portfolio is. However, a song played to an audience of none has little meaning. We need ears to hear us. And this is where Danielle’s six years of expertise in curating photography exhibitions and reviewing portfolios comes in. She and others like her are who we are auditioning for.



Who are you performing to, and why are you playing your song?

When the Black Eyes Peas played to 100 million Super Bowl viewers, they didn’t have to worry about knowing the tastes of every member of their audience. You do though. When you open your portfolio in front of a reviewer like Danielle, you would be advised to know a little about who is on the other side of the table. A museum curator will have a different point of view than book publisher, and the gallery owner will look at a body of work in a way that an academic does not. Learn about each reviewer prior to the review and think about how you are going to address their individual interests.

While you have prepared your portfolio and arranged a review to receive feedback on your artistry, you also need to think about just what you want to do with your work. Do you want a gallery to represent you as an artist? Do you want to work with a publisher to see your hard efforts published in a book? Are you thinking about going a more commercial route and are presenting your portfolio to a potential client. Be clear about you intentions and communicate them effectively to your reviewer.



Now it’s time to audition

You’ve prepared your images and you’ve prepared yourself. Before you perform to an audience, you need to perform for the reviewer. Danielle told us that she has a few likes and dislikes for the portfolio review.

  • Your entire series for a given topic may contain dozens of images but keep the number you bring to a portfolio review to 15 or 20. More than that becomes too unwieldy. Plus, you will probably have only about 20 minutes to show and discuss your portfolio.
  • Don’t bring anything but what you believe to be your best, exhibition-ready prints, even if your series is a work in progress and is not quite complete yet. Danielle said that any size between 8x10 and 16x20 inches is fine to bring in. If you do 30x40s, leave them home. Also, leave your prints unmated. Danielle likes to move the images around the table to see what fits with what and matted images are just too cumbersome.
  • So you just put down $600 for a shiny new iPad. Don’t be tempted to use it to do your portfolio review. Unless you have a multimedia project, galleries don’t display your work by electronic means. So leave your toy at home. 
  • You are using the portfolio review to gain advantage from the reviewer’s expertise. Use it. Ask questions, take notes, find out the why and why not. Although Danielle didn’t mention it, other artists who are experienced with reviews tell me that it is a good idea to bring thumbnail prints of your portfolio images for your own use to take notes about comments of a specific image either during or immediately after the review. 
  • Be prepared to talk. The portfolio is not just about your work. It is also about you. The reviewer will want to know what you think about your art. Help them along on why you took the approach and what it means to you. 
  • Not everything you will hear from the reviewer will be “Gee, I really like this.” Frequently you will hear “This just doesn’t work for me.” Get over it. You are there to learn to get good. Carefully consider your reviewer’s advice. Of course we’ve all heard the horror stories about the reviewer that relishes in destructive, rather than constructive, criticism. They don’t have to like your work, but they should be able to tell you why. If they don’t tell you, ask.
  • How many portfolio reviews in an organized review event such as Atlanta Celebrates Photography lead directly to a show? Not many. Rather look at the review as a networking opportunity. Reviewers and gallerists talk to each other. Word of good work gets around.
  • Leave something of yourself behind for the reviewer to refer to later. In a large reviewing event, a reviewer may see dozens of portfolios. The ‘leave behind’ will help them remember you. A business card, a well-executed mini-image, a resume with your contact information – they all work.
  • Follow up. You should always thank a reviewer for their time by email or personal note after the review. Remember, it’s all about networking. The courteousness of a thank you goes a long way to keep the network active.


You’ve prepared, you’ve auditioned, and now its showtime.

So you’ve gotten good, and you’ve gotten an exhibition. In most galleries the show is not yours; it is the curator’s. You provide the score. The curator directs the orchestra. Here are a few things that Danielle says that the curator, or you if you are directing your own show, needs to consider for the exhibition.

  • How large should the images be, and should they all be the same size? Size depends on the available space and the opinion of the curator. Sometimes consistency in size works. Other times it is boring. There is no fast rule, but all options need to be considered.
  • How should the work be matted and framed? This depends on both taste and current trends. I’ve noted lately that many galleries use classical white mats and black frames for black and white work but often go without a mat and with a white frame for color work. 
  • There are three primary styles of display on a wall: single side by side images, a grid where the images may be stacked, or salon style. Salon style is a seemingly casual random placement of different sizes and different positions. I say “seemingly casual” but be assured that a lot of curatorial work goes into what piece goes next to what other pieces. Ryan Nabulsi used this style very effectively for the Life Support Japan silent auction held March 19 at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery. Be flexible with your curator’s choice on what work best in the wall space available. (By the way, there are a few of the 70 images originally in the Life Support Japan auction still available. They are just waiting for the right benefactor to come along and buy them, supporting a very worthy cause and getting a fine piece of art to boot. Go here to read about the auction and to see the remaining available images.) 
  • Do you see your work in a book? You might think about it, but photographers I know who have gone that route say that a lot of Work, with a capital “W”, should be expected before it is done. My guess is that very few bodies of work are large enough or consistent enough to be considered for the book format. But, if it can be achieved, the end result is often beautiful.
  • Major exhibitions are often accompanied by ephemera relating to the prints. These might be published magazines, letters, or bits and pieces that tie closely to what is on the wall.
  • Danielle told us of the effectiveness of non-traditional ways to display our work. She sites Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, done as a slide show set to music, as being a particularly meaningful example. 

Have you forgotten the finale?

Danielle left us with a few “Don’t forgets” – tips and hints that will make our performance a memorable one.
  • It’s all in the print. If you have a first-class image but you can’t effectively render it on paper then it will go nowhere. If you print yourself, learn to do it well. If not find a first class printer. Danielle told us that to a curator it matters little if you or a third party does the printing, as long as it is high quality.
  • Edit, edit, edit. If the print is not of the highest quality, don’t put it into the portfolio. Is it in focus (or obviously intentionally out of focus)? Is there sufficient detail in the shadows? Are the highlights burnt out? 
  • Aren’t iPhone apps and Photoshop filters fun? They may have a place in a few galleries but most often, not. Be careful about contrast, saturation, and using overworked fads in processing. As Danielle said “The best work is a combination of expert technical execution and solid critical thinking.”
  • Yes, wall-sized images are impressive. Don’t assume though that the curator will choose the largest size you can arrange just because it is big. There is something to be said for intimacy.
  • Be flexible. The curator has the experience to know how your images will look best. Go with their flow, even if your opinion may differ somewhat.

Before you take the final bow…

Danielle Avram told us to be aware of where you are in the grand scheme of things. If you are in photography for the sheer fun and approach your art and your craft casually, be happy with the fun but don’t be surprised if your work doesn’t get onto the walls more often. However if you want to get good and to get known, put the hours into it, prepare your portfolio with diligence and care, and approach a portfolio review with enthusiasm and with an open mind.

After digesting Danielle's talk, you might also want to peruse the Photolucida guideline document for portfolio reviews. 

Thank you, Danielle for an enlightening evening and for the advice on how to make beautiful music from our photographic art.


Text other than direct quotations are copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Appropriation in Photography: II. Whose Is It, Anyway?



Riddle time…who is the artist that produced this image?

Probably ninety-five percent of you will say “Walker Evans of course.” The other five percent, observing from the title that this is an article on appropriation, will sense a trap and respond knowingly with a slight smirk “Sherrie Levine.” Great guess! But you are wrong. What we have here is a Michael Mandiberg. 

Here is the caption for the image.

Michael Mandiberg
Untitled (AfterSherrieLevine.com/2.jpg), 2001 (1)

You may recall the first sentence of the first article in this series on appropriation is  “It’s complicated.” This description certainly applies to authorship of the image here.

We will unwrap the riddle about whose photograph this is later on in this article. But first we need a quick review of Fair Use, or what is legal in using others’ creative output, and what is not.

A thorough discussion on Fair Use can be found in Richard Stim’s book Getting Permission.  Alternately the short story can be found at the Stanford University Copyright and Fair Use website.

An even shorter crib sheet on Fair Use  are these questions to ask when considering if it is legal to copy someone else’s work.
  •  What is the purpose and use of the copy? Using it for purely educational purposes (such as within this blog article) is generally acceptable.
  • Is it transformative? From a Fair Use standpoint, appreciably changing the nature or context of the material increases the chance of the copy being accepted as being legally permissible.
  • What is the nature of the original? If the copied material is already well known, oft-quoted, or is documentary in nature, a greater degree of fair use is implied.
  • Art in public places is usually fair game unless you have been told that it is off limits.
  • How much of the original material has been “borrowed”? The more used, the more liability there is. Copying a complete image and adding nothing to it is considered bad karma.
  • What is the effect on the potential market of the original material? If it can be shown that the original owner has been subjected to actual or potential loss of revenue because of the copy, then it is more difficult to claim Fair Use.

Relax. This article will not turn into a dissertation on Fair Use. But I needed to point to some of the issues here. Aspects of these bullet points are in play in the Walker Evans/Sherrie Levine/Michael Mandiberg story. You should remember though that something is legal or illegal only after being judged to be so in a court of law. The courts, not bullet points in some list, are the final arbiter.

Let’s start at the beginning of the saga of the image above. Well, almost at the beginning. We will detour around the well-traveled history of the 1936 Walker Evans photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of an Alabama tenant farmer. Many of you may have understandingly misidentified the image at the top of this article as this photograph.

We will instead start at a New York photography exhibition at the Metro Pictures Gallery. It was 1981 and the appropriation fad was running rampant in photography. Taking advantage of the public’s apparent appetite for the phenomenon, Sherrie Levine photographed a group of Walker Evans photographs from a book and blatantly exhibited them with titles such as “After Walker Evans. 4.” Probably the Sherrie Levine image that received the most attention was one of Allie Mae Burroughs that looked exactly like the one at the top of this article.

Ms. Levine, participating in the postmodern ethos of the time, was raising questions about the meaning of originality. She challenged the notion that a copy of another artist’s work is any less a piece of art than the original. Taking up the feminist tone of the era as well, she was also poking a stick at several of the towering male photographic icons of the 20th century:  Walker Evans, Edward Weston, and Eliot Porter.

Understandably, the Walker Evans heirs took offense at Ms. Levine showing direct copies of classic Evans images under her own signature, even if she did attribute the original to Evans.  Therefore after legal wrangling the Levine images in the exhibition left the hands of Ms. Levine and ended up being owned by the Walker estate.

You might think that Sherry Levine would have gone away suitable admonished. Well, that’s not quite the case. She took lemons and made quite a sweet batch of lemonade from them. More about that will come in a few paragraphs.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had for many years exhibited Walker Evans’ work, achieved quite a coup when they acquired the Evans archive in 1994. This was a major accomplishment for Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan’s curator of photography whom you met in an earlier article in Random Radiance. Mr. Rosenheim went on to publish numerous books on the Evans portfolio and mounted a major Evans retrospective in 2000.

Given the Metropolitan’s legal and intellectual ownership of the Walker Evans archive, you might imagine that the museum leadership would be somewhat punchy about Ms. Levine’s copies of the Walker Evan’s images. Apparently though they let bygones be bygones. They even accepted gifts to the museum of other After Walker Evans prints from Ms. Levine that were produced from her original negatives. This seeming generosity turned out to be a stroke of either luck or genius on Sherrie Levine’s part, for the Metropolitan honored her and other key appropriation artists of the ‘70s and ‘80’s with a 2009 exhibition of their own. The museum went out its way to give lauds to the Levine images of Walker’s work, stating, “Far from a high-concept cheap shot, Levine's works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.” (2)

New York Magazine, in reviewing the Metropolitan exhibition, put a glossy coating on the whole appropriation genre.

Appropriation is the idea that ate the art world. Go to any Chelsea gallery or international biennial and you’ll find it. It’s there in paintings of photographs, photographs of advertising, sculpture with ready-made objects, videos using already-existing film. After its hothouse incubation in the seventies, appropriation breathed important new life into art. This life flowered spectacularly over the decades—even if it’s now close to aesthetic kudzu. (3)

Aesthetic kudzu. Don’t you wish you would have come up with those words to describe appropriation? It is certainly an apt way of putting it. And this is doubly true for Sherrie Levine’s treatment of her “original” negatives of the Walker Evans 1936 pieces. During the interim between the 1981 exhibit at the Metro Pictures Gallery and the 2009 Metropolitan Museum of Art show, she twisted her kudzu tentacles all over the Walker Evans Allie Mae Burroughs tree. Note the following creations of hers.

Sherrie Levine
Barcham Green Portfolio No. 5, 1986 (4)
Here we have a photogravure made from the Allie Mae negative on rose-colored handmade paper produced by a noted English papermaking family. Unlike the After Walker Evans silver gelatin prints, these are produced with a different printing process, at a different size, on a uniquely toned paper. Referring back to the Fair Use bullet points, we might have the opinion that this image in indeed transformative, and therefore well within the Fair Use guidelines.












Sherrie Levine
Untitled (After Walker Evans Negative) #3, 1989 (5)
But Sherrie Levine was not done with Allie Mae, by any means. She produced a negative print from the original 1981 negative, giving the image seen here. Again, the atmosphere of the original Walker Evans portrait has been dramatically transformed. A platinum blonde Allie Mae with eerily luminous eye shadow? This could be a page from a recent issue of French Vogue.










Sherrie Levine (b. 1947) 
Untitled (after Walker Evans: positive) #3, 1990 (6)

One more Sherrie Evans kudzu vine remains. Here we see Allie Mae back as a silver gelatin print, but one that is much larger than the previous Levine prints and that is incorporated into a wooden frame. The artwork is not the photograph but the entire assemblage. You must hand it to her: Sherrie Levine is inventive.















Whew, we’re done with Sherrie Levine - but not with Walker Evans. Evans produced hundreds more negatives than have been ever printed. Evans’ sponsor at the Farm Security Administration that commissioned his Depression Era field work took the negatives that did not meet his purposes and “killed” them. In other words he punched a hole in each one so it would never be rendered as a positive print.

Lisa Oppenheim
Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans (Small Foot), 2009 (7)
These killed negatives languished in the Library of Congress until some of them were resurrected by Lisa Oppenheim. She printed some of the negatives, with their holes, side by side with prints that were entirely black except for what she imagined would have been in the original scene in the killed area. Take a look at the pair of images here, noting the black area to the left of the left foot. That is the hole what was supposed to kill the print. Now mentally superimpose the printed area on the right print upon the original. Kudos go to Ms. Oppenheim for the creative kudzu.

Had you forgotten about Michael Mandiberg? So where does he come into this mess? If you will, please navigate to this website. I’ll wait a minute. 

Tick…tick…tick.

I am assuming you’ve done this and are back now. Now you know where Mandiberg is coming from. He is using the notoriety of Sherrie Levine’s copies of the Walker Evans photographs to direct traffic to his own website, where he is offering copies of the Levine images owned by the Metropolitan to whomever wishes to grab them – along with certificates of authenticity. Levine is appropriating Evans, and Mandiberg is appropriating Levine. Wired Magazine, in 2001, published a discussion of the Mandiberg website. You might want to read their take on it then decide if you think that Mandiberg’s ploy is art or is an inane stunt.

So, who is the author of the image at the top of this article? Is it Mandiberg, or Levine, or Evans? And what is there to learn here?

The main take-away is that much of appropriation is interpretation – the legal interpretation of Fair Use laws, the interpretation of whether a particular case of appropriation has significant artistic value and is worthy of being displayed in a major art venue, and your own interpretation of whether a copy of a copy is even art.

I told you it is complicated.

Text other than direct quotations copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger. All images are published within the author’s understanding of the Fair Use policies of their source.
  1. http://aftersherrielevine.com/images2.htm
  2. Sherrie Levine: After Walker Evans: 2 (1995.266.2), Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1995.266.2#ixzz19KjwdCIQ
  3. New York Magazine, May 18, 2009. http://nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/56585
  4. http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?from=searchresults&intObjectID=5035945&sid=bd912dfe-3ab1-411e-b9fc-d76ffa8341ee
  5. http://www.sothebys.com/app/live/lot/LotDetail.jsp?lot_id=3W8KR
  6. http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?from=searchresults&intObjectID=4004386&sid=5791aa05-16c1-493b-92a7-d82f7c263c13
  7. http://www.harrislieberman.com/lisa_oppenheim/lisa_oppenheim-2008-18.html