Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Therapy for Control Freaks. Holga Night at Jennifer Schwartz

We had already seen the Fantastic Plastic exhibit at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery shortly after it had opened. But someone had just published an article on Listening to the Artist so my wife Jill and I were anxious to follow the suggestion in the article and attend the artist talks for the exhibit on November 3.

Plastic, in camera talk, often means Holga or Diana. These ridiculously cheap, ridiculously constructed cameras have a ridiculously tenuous appeal to some highly professional and technical photographers. Why in the world should this be? Well, plastic also means pliable and even unpredictable. Call it a breath of fresh air. In a world where $3,000 full-frame digital camera bodies and heavy 300 mm lenses are pains in the wallet and the shoulder, there is something about a $35 camera that uses a film format invented in 1901 for the Kodak Brownie that is at once really, really retro and really, really post‑modern.

Those molded plastic lenses and those pieces in the camera body that barely fit together result in the allure of the Holga and its brethren. Say hello to blur – sometimes a lot of blur. Learn to love vignetting at the edges of the frame. And if you are really lucky and have the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) Holga, your photographs will have light streaks from one end to the other. All those together make the wonderful, adorable, and sought-after quirky Holga image.

These cameras also are often termed toy cameras. I beg to differ. In the hands of the artists in the Fantastic Plastic show, the results are hardly toy-like. Holgas are genuine sources of creativity for those who are sufficiently skilled to avoid, or to exploit, their unusual characteristics. Give one of the cameras, patched and taped so that it does not have light leaks, to an accomplished artist and it is simply an extension of their usual artistry. The plastic camera is just another tool in their toolkit to present their vision – albeit a tool that produces softer-than-usual images with those characteristic vignetted borders.

Spring Deer
© 2003 Christian Bradley West

One Holga-is-not-a-toy artist is Christian Bradley West. He often works with a classic Mamiya 645 medium format camera that uses the same film as his Holga, but is more sophisticated by a light year or so. Yet in Christian’s hands the Holga gives images that have the same strong visual impact as his other work. Fairy tales abound with what you find during a walk in the dark woods. Finding a deer, seemingly asleep but not breathing, Christian plucked a nearby tiger lily and silently placed it on the deer as a memorial to a magnificent creature whose life had departed. The Holga captured the moment in a loving way we can all feel.

At Chilmark 4
© 2009 Corrine Adams
Corrine Adams, too, uses her Holga not as an occasional fling with a toy but as a partner in search for discovery. Corrine, a co-founder of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, was deep in Appalachia with her hammer Thursday night on a construction project for a family that needed some help. Therefore she was not available to talk the group in the gallery. Yet she shared with me later what her relationship with the Holga really is. Corinne says that, “…the Holga is a more intuitive approach to photography – less thinking, more feeling.” She follows her intuition knowing that, as she says, it will lead to something magical. “It is definitely a slowed-down way of photographing…I like the forced delay, the look and feel of the film, the contact sheet.” Corrine frequently scans her negatives and further processes them with software. “It’s a nice partnership. Old and new, Intuitive and analytical – working together toward some hoped-for positive end.”

Gare du Nord
© 2008 Sandy Hooper
Now the Holga is a plastic camera in more ways than one. You can dig into it and make modifications that change the shape of the negative, to make double exposures, or to create two side-by-side images that overlap on their edges. Sandy Hooper is one who had the good fortune of using the Holga in France in the overlapping image mode. (Although she whispers that this was not intentional but was one of these happy accidents that photographers love to experience.) Her images from that time are twins joined hip to hip. The one of the Gare du Nord in Paris here is a good example. Sandy's co-joined images, taken one after another, were not necessarily intended to show similar design elements but they often do. Note the arching roof in the far distance on one half and another arching roof just a few steps away in the other. And her “Piano Fingers” image takes this happy accident occurrence to the extreme. Find it yourself on the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery website linked in the first paragraph, double-click on it, and see what I mean.

Kodak Moment
© 2010 Mary Anne Mitchell
If Sandy Hooper’s images are happy accidents, some of Mary Anne Mitchell’s are happy catastrophes. Those in the Fantastic Plastic show the quirky (love that term) side of the Holga. And of those, the Kodak Moment shown here is over the top. An amateur photographer would have thrown it away. A true artist would proudly show it in a gallery. Of the five artists that spoke Thursday evening, Mary Anne was the only one who had a Show-And-Tell. Out of her green grocery bag she brought her Holga, her underwater camera, and her juice box. Her juice box? For that friend of yours who has been flashing that Leica M9, the perfect holiday gift can be found here.

Dorothy O'Connor's work, seen in the exhibit website, is a great example of using a Holga double exposure to excellent effect. Many of us know her wedding dress portraits and her trees but her Holga work creatively combines them. Now we know what to do with all those magnolia leaves that litter the yard, or those left-over Easter eggs, or that pesky moss that is growing in the wet shady spots in the back yard. 

What good is owning a gallery if you can’t grab the floor now and then. Jennifer Schwartz took the opportunity to share with us that she, also, is a newly-minted Holga fan. The camera is a way for her to slow down and capture images more intuitively without the imperative of getting everything exactly right to the nearest 1/3 of an f-stop. Jennifer, a self-confessed control freak (she said it, I didn’t), finds the Holga to be a welcome step back from her usual way of working. Call it therapy if you will. Forest McMullin, another artist in the exhibit, expressed an almost identical sentiment. The Holga is a way to break out of the control mentality. Step back and let intuition take over.
© 2010 Jennifer Schwartz

Jennifer relates her own experiences with the Holga in her blog. In summary, “The moral is that fantastic images can be created with a plastic camera.  Just not by me.” Some might debate this last statement of hers. After most of the crowd dispersed, Jennifer shyly brought out some of her Holga pieces for a few of us to see. Thank you, Jennifer, for agreeing to share them with Random Radiance. We anticipate seeing more.

So, when you tire of 21 megapixel images taken at ISO 3200 and processed to death in the digital darkroom, take a walk on the wild side and try a Holga. It just might be good therapy - after, that is, those first ten rolls of film and those six-packs of gaffers tape.

All images are published with the explicit permission of the artist.
Text other than direct quotations copyright 2010 by Richard Ediger.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Backstory. Listening to the Artist versus Listening to the Photograph

Have you ever walked through a photography exhibit, picked out a particularly arresting image, and wondered, “What was the artist thinking?” Much of the time those of us who enjoy the printed image are in a vacuum about the artist’s intent when they created the piece. There is a school of thought that this is as it should be. It states that we derive the most value from an image by letting it speak for itself and that knowing the thoughts behind a photograph, or its backstory, only contaminates our own appreciation of the intrinsic beauty of the work.
I can subscribe to the Listening to the Photograph theory much of the time. But then there are other occasions when I have found that listening to the artist, after listening to the photograph, provides the most complete experience. Here are a few cases in point.
My wife Jill and I enjoyed the opening reception of the new Angela West exhibit, Trigger, at Jackson Fine Art on October 29. Intrigued particularly by the images of what could best be termed “dead birds on a wire,” (my apologies to Leonard Cohen) I understood where the name Trigger came from. Or at least thought I understood.

© 2009 Angela West
The next morning Angela West, coffee cup in hand at the artist talk for her exhibit, informed us that the name Trigger originated from discussing the series with a friend, when the term was frequently used in describing how considering one set of images triggered an interconnecting link to another group of photographs. Oh. So much for my own (mis)conceptions about the artist’s intent for the name of the portfolio. What initially appeared to be obvious was in actuality more subtle.

I was still wondering what an artist who developed a following through poignant portraits of 16-year-olds is doing with someone’s dead birds. And what was the point of putting red dye on their breast feathers to emulate blood? Then, after a few careful questions to Ms. West afterward, I found the answer to my question. They were her birds, taken with careful aim of her firearm, a day before they were captured by her 8x10 view camera. So much, too, for thinking that the red coloration was dye.
What listening to Angela West did for me was to enormously increase my understanding and appreciation of her art. There is a deeply personal connection between the portrait of the quail and the artist. Like Ms. West’s working life portraits of her father, her Trigger portfolio is an intimate glimpse into the richly varied life of the artist. Seeing the images alone without listening to the artist would have excluded much of their total value to me.
One of the more intriguing events of the immensely full ACP 12 agenda was the October 16 Portfolio Walk, where the Grady High School lunch room tables were full of prints from over fifty artists. Of the many excellent pieces, those of Lisette de Boisblanc were among those that stopped you in your tracks in your winding path around the tables. One of her stunning photographs of X-rays of toys is currently hanging the Atrium of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta Photography Group’s Airport Show.

Interview with the Ward
© 2009 Lisette de Boisblanc
While the images are certainly very well executed, the genre of X-rayed dolls is not unique. The curiosity to learn more led me to Lisette’s website and to her artist statement.
As a New Orleans native, five years ago I felt the tragedy of hurricane Katrina as my family was profoundly affected by the storm...After finding my grandmother’s ruined doll collection, leftovers from her personal belongings, I began to x-ray them for documentation and curiosity. I am shocked with my findings; nails and pins pierced their bodies below the surface. Suddenly, the doll has an aura that is almost human, with internal workings that chronicle a life lived, an internal spirit, sometimes with strength, and others with a broken heart. I discovered that these x-rays reached beyond documentation and physical deterioration; for each, a story emerged, some sense out of my loss.
Copyright © 2009-2010 Lisette de Boisblanc
Suddenly the black and white photographs of doll innards became much, much more than the thin veneer on the print. They transformed the paper into a statement of lives interrupted, then continuing where they left off. It took the artist’s statement to give them life, and I as the viewer and reader, benefited immensely from it.
Taking the image as life story experience a full step farther, consider Jennifer Shaw's Hurricane Story exhibit at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery that opened in July of this year. Taking a single image out of the exhibit context gives you a beautiful photograph that says “really well-done differential focus image of a toy horse.”

We drove further north to the farm
© 2006 Jennifer Shaw
The mental attributes I had assigned to her work changed by a mile however the moment that Jennifer Shaw began to relate that the entire portfolio is an autobiographical narrative relating the experience of her family fleeing New Orleans immediately before the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. The saga became even more touching after hearing that Ms. Shaw gave birth during the evacuation. Seeing one image or even two or three from a portfolio such as this gives very short shrift to the realities of the artist’s experience. Again, as for Lisette de Boisblanc, I needed to listen as well as see.

It is not that we, as artists, have not heard about the importance of artist statements. Susan Todd-Raque, during a discussion at the Atlanta Photography Group Speaking of Photography series in June of this year, emphasized that the artist statement gives "insight into the thinking of the artist and enhances the visual communication offered by the portfolio.” But sometimes we just don’t appreciate as well as we might the value of verbally or textually expressing ourselves as artists to enhance our visual expression. One of the key teachings from moderator Chip Simone at the monthly critique sessions of the Atlanta Photography Group is that even a 30-second elevator speech about the small group of images the artist has just put on the wall is crucial for the maximum appreciation of the work by those viewing the work.
Sometimes, too, we miss out on a little fun when we don’t find the time to listen to what the artist has to say. Those of you who attended Paul Hagedorn’s artist talk for his Peachtree Battle exhibit at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery at the end of September know what I mean. Mr. Hagedorn’s humorous recitation of his neighbors’ anguish as he blew up toys in his backyard over a period of 353 days lightened the day, as did his chuckle that many of the toys he blasted to bits were his brother’s. As he states on his website for the Peachtree Battle portfolio, “The family is still finding fragments of the boys’ army figures throughout the yard. Seeing the look in their little faces when poor, old GI Joe’s blackened body part was found is priceless!” It was refreshing to hear a serious artist have a hearty laugh about his art and its circumstances. Listening to the artist, again, adds a third dimension to the art that simply looking at its two-dimensional surface does not provide.
The artist has many means available to expose the backstory of their art. We have artist talks, artist statements about a particular series, and dedicated websites such as the one for Paul Hagedorn’s Peachtree Battle image. Blogs, too, are a powerful vehicle for the artist to communicate, as exemplified by Anne Berry’s Menagerie blog referenced in an earlier posting in the blog you are reading now. The Lumiere Gallery in particular makes excellent use of video in preserving the artists’ illumination of their own work. A video clips by Al Weber for example provide a very human view of hia art that you would not get standing before a photograph hanging on the off-white walls of a gallery somewhere.
This article then is a plea to listen to the artist. By all means first give ear to what the photograph has to tell you. Your own interpretation provides that crucial, memorable, initial impression. But do not forget to hear from to the artist if you wish to derive the most from the art.

I’ll look forward to seeing you at the next artist talk.

All images are published with the explicit permission of the artist.
Text other than direct quotations copyright 2010 by Richard Ediger.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Peach Trees on Peachtree

You must be kidding. There really are producing peach trees on Atlanta's Peachtree Road? You had better believe it. See, here is the proof. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to discover where exactly those peach trees are on Peachtree Road. If you find them though, don’t bother telling me. I already know.

© 2010 Richard Ediger

You say that the peaches in the image don’t look like the gorgeous ones in the farmer’s market only feet away from the peach trees on Peachtree? (Oh, I think I’ve given it away. It won’t be much of a contest now to find the trees.) Let’s get honest. Most of our gardens look nothing like the images in the seed catalogs we pored over last January. Turn our backs on a garden for a week and Mother Nature inevitably has Her way. Green becomes yellow, smooth turns into tattered, and wasps bore tunnels into the sweetness of the figs.

The photograph here is part of my The Garden After Eden portfolio. It is a celebration of the innate beauty of the reality show that really goes on in our backyards and orchards. This portfolio backs away from presenting the pristine fiction seen on glossy magazine pages. But it also chooses not to relish in decay. Rather is exposes the vibrant, but perhaps somewhat soiled, underbelly of what feeds us. A little dirt does not mean dirty, a tomato with a slug on it is still a love apple inside, and peaches gathered from the ground can still go into the pie if you get there before the squirrels.

The portfolio has just been honored by being awarded a place in the Atlanta Photography Group Portfolio Show that opens December 4. Half a dozen pieces will go on the walls. You can see the full portfolio on my website. Look for “The Garden After Eden.”