Ilse Bing and the Past

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ilse Bing. Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931. 

A particular thought has been milling disquietingly around in my head today:

Every photograph of me is of when I was younger. 


Margaret Bourke-White

May 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Margaret Bourke-White. Hats in the Garment District, 1930. 

In 1927, after the death of her father, a failed marriage, and an increasing disinterest in her career as a herpetologist, Margaret Bourke-White, 23 years old at the time, wrote the following line in her diary:

“I want to become famous and I want to become wealthy.”  

She went on to become one of the leading photographers of the 20th century. She was the first female photographer hired at Life magazine. She was the first staff photographer for Fortune magazine. A pioneer in photojournalism, Bourke-White was the first female war correspondent and in 1930, was the first photographer allowed in the Soviet Union. She remains uncontestedly one of the most famous female photographers in history.

Mission accomplished. 

From His Window

April 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Alfred Stieglitz. From My Window at the Shelton, West, 1931.

I’ve been thinking about this photograph all day. Stieglitz was 67 years old when he made this, looking out onto a world that was rapidly changing, a world from which he was increasingly secluded. 

That white spot in the center is the loneliest white spot I have ever seen. 

On Stieglitz

April 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Alfred Stieglitz. Equivalent, 1930.

I work at the Carl Van Vechten Gallery which houses a large portion (97 items to be exact) of Alfred Stieglitz’s collection of European and American modern art. Thus I have the rare privilege of living amidst the Stieglitz legacy every day. Essentially, this means that I, too, in some diminutive way, play a role in the history of Alfred Stieglitz. 

It is a unremitting challenge to wrap my head around the scope his life. He was one man involved in a vast sea of projects, relationships, art initiatives, and cultural movements. Turn-of-the-century America was a phenomenal era that produced equally phenomenal artists and it was Alfred Stieglitz who was the fulcrum of the American art world.

I often wonder how his fecund 82 years allotted for it all. Then again in his later years, Stieglitz was still vibrant and as active as ever at an age in which many begin to wind down. 

Alfred Stieglitz. Equivalent, 1925. 

In regards to art, Stieglitz was boldly open-minded and unceasingly embraced the forefront of what was new in artistic thought and practice. He was not one to deny a fresh and progressive aesthetic, even if it negated the doctrine with which he hitherto aligned himself. What strikes me as odd about Stieglitz is that for a man so deeply absorbed in all things photographic, I have not found any evidence suggesting that he experimented with moving photographs, motion pictures. He apparently never made a movie; however, it seems only natural that he would. 

So my question moves on to this: Why did Stieglitz refrain from experimenting with motion pictures? 

We know that he had the desire to make at least one movie. He had a grand dream of it for over twenty years. His serial portraits and Equivalents were an attempt at realizing his dream.

In 1931, Charlie Chaplin visited Stieglitz’s Madison Avenue gallery, An American Place. Bystander Herbert Seligmann gives an account of a conversation between the two:

“Stieglitz told Chaplin that the prints he had seen were really only a prelude to an idea which he had had in mind for twenty years: of a movie of a woman’s eyes, their changing expression, the hands, feet, lips, breasts, mon veneris, all parts of a woman’s body, showing the development of a life, each episode alternated with motion pictures of cloud forms on the same theme, always re-sounding the main theme, all without text, without actors, sprung from life, as Stieglitz’s photography had sprung.”*

Where is that movie? Stieglitz had the wealth to try his hand at film, and certainly had the energy to attempt it, so why didn’t he make it?

Alfred Stieglitz. Equivalent, 1930.

*Weston Naef, et al. In Focus: Alfred Stieglitz, photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Malibu, California: Christopher Hudson, 1995. print.

Aesthetic Distance

April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

 Vesna PavlovicSearch for Landscapes. Found photograph. 

“A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.”

-Susan Sontag, On Photography

Collecting the world

April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images. To collect photographs is to collect the world.”

-Susan Sontag, On Photography

Vesna Pavlovic’. Search for Landscapes.

I visited Vesna Pavlovic‘s studio at Vanderbilt yesterday to discuss her work and upcoming exhibit at the Frist. I will hopefully be able to write and publish an article about her this summer.

While at her studio, I had the opportunity to view some of her found travel slides (1960-80) on an old slide viewing machine. The slides are a part of her project Search for Landscapes. It was nothing short of magical. Like staring down a tunnel directly to the past. The illumination of that machine is incomparable to that of a computer screen. The images on the slides had a wholly different aura, they were a different experience when viewed on that machine. Interesting to thing of the viewing process as equally crucial to the image as the camera and photographic process.


April 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Izis Bidermanas. Homme aux Bulles de Salon, 1950.

When critically assessing French humanist photography, understanding the term “humanist” as it relates philosophy is fundamental. Once we comprehend the principles of humanism as a philosophy, we can begin to look at the ways in which humanist photographers embody and demonstrate those philosophical principles, and thereby earning their title.

In 1949, precisely when French humanist photography was among its golden age, Corliss Lamont published Humanism as a Philosophy. The book is dedicated to presenting the the scope of the philosophy of life known as humanism. In the first chapter, he establishes a simple definition:

Humanism is a constructive philosophy that goes far beyond the negating of errors in thought to the whole-hearted affirmation of the joys, beauties, and values of human living. (p. 39)

It is through this notion, this lens, that we can look at the ebullient photographs by Lartigue, Ronis, Izis, and Boubat as essentially humanist. 

Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Mr Folletête (Plitt) et Tupy, Paris, 1912.

Lamont continues:

Humanism definitely places the destiny of man within the very broad limits of this natural world. It submits that men can find plenty of scope and meaning in their lives through freely enjoying the rich and varied potentialities of this luxurious earth; through preserving, extending and adding to the values of civilization; through contributing to the progress and happiness of mankind during some hundreds of millions of years; or through helping to evolve a new species surpassing man. (p. 134)

According to Lamont, the philosophy of humanism comprises eight central propositions:

I. “Humanism believes in a naturalistic cosmology or metaphysics or attitude toward the universe that rules out all forms of the supernatural and that regards Nature as the totality of being and as a constantly changing system of events which exists independently of any mind or consciousness.”

II. “Humanism, drawing especially upon the proven facts of science, believes that man is an evolutionary product of this great Nature of which he is part and that he is an inseparable unity of body and personality having no individual survival beyond death.”

III. “Humanism believes that human thinking is as natural as walking or breathing, that it is indivisibly conjoined with the functioning of the brain, and that ideas, far from existing independently in some separate realm, arise and have reality only when a complex living organism such as man is interacting with its environment and is intellectually active.”

IV. “Humanism believes that man has the power and potentiality of solving his own problems successfully, relying primarily on reason and scientific method to do so and to enlarge continually his knowledge of the truth.”

V. “Humanism believes, in opposition to all theories of universal predestination, determinism or fatalism, that human beings possess true freedom of creative action and are, within reasonable limits, the masters of their own destiny.”

VI. “Humanism believes in an ethics or morality that grounds all human values in this-earthly experiences and relationships; and that holds as its highest loyalty the this-worldly happiness, freedom and progress — economic, cultural and ethical — of all mankind, irrespective of nation, race or religion.”

VII. “Humanism believes in the widest possible development of art and of the awareness of beauty, including the appreciation of external Nature, so that the aesthetic experience may become a pervasive reality in the life of men.”

VIII. “Humanism believes in a far-reaching social program that stands for the establishment throughout the world of democracy and peace on the foundations of a flourishing and cooperative economic order, both national and international.”

Henri Cartier Bresson.