“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

With this quotation by Ansel Adams, I want to propose a little historic perspective and some contextualisation. Quoting extensively from Art Historians and photographers, I would like to take the opportunity to share my admiration and love for them.

“The invention of photography provided a radical new picture making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection … But he (the photographer) learned also that the factuality of his pictures no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself. Much of the reality was filtered out in the static little black-and-white image and some of it was exhibited with an unknown natural clarity and exaggerated importance. The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so. This was an artistic problem not a scientific one…”

John Szarkowski The Photographer’s Eye The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966

“Embracing the vernacular as a model, Walker Evans dispensed with the sophisticated markers of craft that distinguished the artistic photograph from all others and swept away the barrier that had encircled modernist photography’s privileged subjects. For the first time, the photograph as-a-work-of-art could look exactly like any other photograph – and it could show us anything, from a torn movie poster to a graveyard overlooking a steel mill. The photograph’s claim of artistic distinction relied solely upon the clarity, intelligence, and originality of the photographer’s perception.

This profoundly radical idea more than the example of Evans’s work itself is the wellspring from which later flowed the very different work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. For them, neither the choice of what to look at, nor the way in which to look at it, nor the sense of what it might mean to look at such a thing in such a way was dictated by a pre-ordained rule.”

Peter Galassi American Photography 1890–1965. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995

“… Szarkowski called them “documentary photographers” and believed them motivated by “more personal ends” than those of the preceding generation, sharing “the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorising” (qualities that also suggest William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, and Nicholas Nixon, among others)

At the time when the practice and history of photography were making their way into academia, Szarkowski stubbornly defended an anti theoretical and non academic approach, which he described – betraying a taste for provocation – as “the easiest of the arts”: “Putting aside for today the not very mysterious mysteries of the craft, a photographer finally does nothing but stand in the right place, at the right time, and decide what should fall within and what is outside the rectangle of the frame. That is what it comes down to.”

Quentin Bajac. In Photography at MoMA: 1960–Now. The Museum of Modern Art, 2015

And, if I may add my own “pinch of salt”as the French would say, I will venture that the reason why these choices made by photographers (moment, light, framing), are interesting for us to discover and admire, is that they are guided not only by their brain, but by their soul. And some people have been graced with the talent to let the direct link to their soul express itself by producing, what we commonly call, Art.

 

In Praise of: Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973

Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973“Transcendent documents” is how Walker Evans explains the way a photograph can simultaneously describe the place (what we see) and the nature of the people that live in it (who we are)

In 1972, native New Yorker Stephen Shore, a young and successful photographer, starts a series of road trips across America inspired by Walker Evans and Robert Frank’s earlier work.

Color Photography was mainly used in fashion or advertising, and, for the burgeoning group of scholars and aficionados of photography as fine art, the use of color was akin to sacrilege. How garish and “untruthful”,  emotion could only be achieved with black and white.

In reference to the transient aspect of his encounters, the project  was named”American Surfaces”. Keep in mind that a photograph had to have a meaning, a purpose, a story to illustrate. Photographing the daily banalities surrounding one’s seemly aimless voyage was quite new. Still, with the brilliant work of  Stephen’s contemporaries, William Eggleston, William Christenberry, or Joel Meyerowitz, vernacular color photography was taking ground.

Saddled with Watergate and the never ending Vietnam war, conveying a sense of identity was not expected of an artist, nonetheless these pioneers of color were expressing, in their own quiet way, their love for the simple and perfectible things that constitute America.

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap,” Stephen Shore once said. “But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.”

And with that in mind, we have Stephen to thank for our own, everyday, teetering attempts on Instagram : )

 

A Stephen Shore retrospective is currently exhibited @ C/O Berlin 

Art Rant: Ai Weiwei’s intellectual shenanigans

(Art Rant: because sometimes you just gotta vent!)

Ai Weiwei has the jovial face of a Chinese Santa. Albeit a slightly creepy one. Then again aren’t all Santa’s a bit creepy ? Ai Weiwei’s trade is to denounce. Denounce the way the Chinese government treats dissidents, denounce the way ancient Chinese art is used for political propaganda, denounce his own country’s unyielding rules to the point of becoming a martyr of his own game and getting arrested. That in turn becomes more material to make very effective grand installations, successfully exhibited in important art venues around the world.

True, giving the finger to the (painted) face of one of 20th century’s biggest murderers, or photographing a nymphette (wearing Birkenstocks no less) showing her white undies on Tiananmen square must feel quite good. Denouncing the abuses of a totalitarian regime, even by using shrewd visual effects, is not exactly new and it hardly constitutes the premise of sustainable art. But we, Western society bombarded by narcissistic vacuousness eagerly and greedily want it to matter.

ai-weiwei-study-of-perspective-tiananmen-1995

Shameless self promotion is not exactly new either, recent examples abound; Tracy Emin (oh sister, please !) Damian Hirst, (don’t get me started!) Jeff Koons (whom I happen to adore). Are we to assume erroneously that because Ai Wewei is Chinese he would be a little more crude and insensible ?

But wasn’t Marcel Duchamp, the chic looking, pipe smoking chess player of Cadaquès, the ultimate provocateur ? Wasn’t he the one who got this whole mess started with his exquisitely funny LHOOQ, and Rrose Sélavy. To say nothing of his pissoir or bicycle wheel, thus throwing a series of extraordinarily stupefying bombs in the face of early 20th century convention. The French humorous contrarian was onto something. Something that has sustained the test of time and free our minds to question.

Why, pray tell, do we put Ai Weiwei’s eruptions into the “art” department ? Because, merci Monsieur Duchamp, we have now been trained to understand that when you take a common/usual element, fact or event and bring it out of its habitual context, we accept that it can be considered in a different manner, a new interpretation process is awakened. Dear Marcel started it more than 100 years ago, so the concept has had time to become accepted as natural in our minds. This way art performs its own transubstantiation. (had to use that word!)

So, where does one draw the line? apparently nowhere as Mr. Weiwei seems to tell us in his use of little Ilan’s tragic death. To denounce Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis, Mr. Weiwei has himself photographed face down on a beach just as the little boy from Syria was horrifyingly found.

I suppose after the tepid and lovely bourgeois pleasing renditions of Chinese dragons at Le Bon Marché in Paris, (Aah, the mellifluous lure of LVMH millions!) he needed to get back in the media circus with something more in tune with his idea of self relevance.

And so, again, he has won, in shamelessly raping an atrocious personal and public tragedy for his own promotional purposes, Ai Weiwei is back in the news and Google algorithms everywhere percolate his name to the top of the list…

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ad Maiorem Corii Gloria

In 1983, I was working as a trainee at Christie’s in New York in the Modern Paintings department. One of my duties was to be on the exhibition floor making sure clients inquiries would be attended.

One particular winter morning I see, from behind, standing intently in front of a Magritte, a perfectly coiffed blue rinse bouffant. As I approach to offer my help, I notice a frail heavily bejeweled hand clasping a small alligator bag against a fluffy white Lynx coat.

” May I help you, Madam?”

“Madam?! “ Alexander Iolas screeches, “Oh not Madam yet Darling!”

Alexander Iolas was a Greek art dealer who had made a very good life for himself selling, among many other classics, late Picasso’s to Greek shipping tycoons with Swiss residencies.

Albeit our awkward beginnings, I spent a lot of time with this ageing “Grande Dame” of art dealing prone to peremptory sayings:  “A Great work of Art is Always equally very simple and very sophisticated, mon Chéri !” 

The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was at Le Palace in Paris in the winter of 1980. A very grand and very chic party was held in the “it” place of the day. Do remember that the idea of a “Gay only” disco was just not in style yet…

A slide show of the X Portfolio was projected on the immense screen above the stage. Golden showers, fist fucking and many other intricate delicacies were glanced sideways by smoking luminaries, granting a Gallic shrug at what was to become a seminal work of contemporary photography.

Andy Warhol had introduced me to Robert at a “kids” lunch at the Factory in early 1979.  I, blond Park Avenue cutie part of Andy’s “chickens” was simply of no interest to this sexy, energetic, intense looking, leather clad, ambitious waif from Long Island.

But, as chickens tend to follow roosters, we arranged to meet Robert for a late dinner followed by a visit to one of his favorite places TheAnvil.  Andy left early, others, bewitched, bothered or bewildered, did not.

The essential image: “Man in Polyester suit”, just imagine the sheer terror or delight this image conveys! The manifest crass cliché it implies: primal and poor black men in polyester suits will rape our wives and molest our boys with their huge cocks!

The Political implications of the image in Ronald Reagan’s America as in Barack Obama’s are manifold. In simply taking a photograph of what Robert loved and knew intimately (Milton Moore, one of his trysts), he threw a spongy bomb in the face of all the prejudiced, racist, homophobic, and fear mongering prophets.

Ultimately, Robert created an image that fits the standards of a great work of Art; simple in its “raison d’être” and concept, formidably sophisticated in the interpretations and ripple effects they cause.

Also, time has proved, it had staying power, historically and economically. Did Robert know he was making great art? He certainly always intended to.

Robert used all that New York can give with gluttony. Re-invention; by meeting all the right people, loosing those along the way that are no longer profitable, and quickly becoming the “Enfant Chéri” of the Uptown swells, photographing pretty flowers and making portraits of their children.

He reminded me of Lou Reed’s brilliant evocation of an earlier down town:

“Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”

In 1987, I went to one of his last shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. An emaciated, leather clad old man, looking at me through eyes clouded by malady, flashed his carnivorous smile at me, his slow burning and wiry intensity still glowing softly.

Robert’s generation, such as Peter Hujar or Lynn Davis, with the help of their dealers, were pivotal in the transformation of the Photography market, from an infinitely reproductive process into the controlled and limited edition Fine Art we know today.

His images can be interpreted as staged, cold, manipulative, pornographic, violent, too classic, scary, and gross or boring, but they are crucial. For Photography, for LGBT studies and for a global understanding of the mortiferous mendacity of the eighties, Robert is an undisputable and unavoidable icon.

XYZ, the current show at Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris is an absolute must see!    (Three Portfolios were made, X for SM sex, Y for floral still life and Z for African-American male nudes)

A masterful selection of the portfolios, show beautifully printed images that are powerful, raw and disturbing.  Exactly how Robert should be remembered.

Oh, and last but not least, the Ropac exhibition is curated by Peter Marino, über Architect of the grandest fashion names and 21st century’s living representation of the glorification of leather!

 

Written for and published on UK’s most read Photography Blog SMBHMag            (warning: seriously “Not Suited for the Meek” images on there)

All images ©ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION 

Pierre “Fatumbi” Verger: le désir de l’autre

En 1957, à la demande de Théodore Monod, Pierre Verger publie “Dieux d’Afrique”, étude “Ethno Documentaire” sur les cultes religieux d’origine Yoruba. Dans ses notes Pierre Verger nous révèle:

“A partir de ce moment là, j’étais perdu pour la photo. En effet j’étais obligé de rédiger et d’essayer de comprendre les choses…Ma vie jusque là était détendue, je ne cherchais pas à analyser ce que je voyais. Je me laissais aller à mes impressions, je passais sur le déclic de mon Rolleiflex de temps en temps. Pas d’explication, les explications ne m’ont jamais intéressé. Ce que je voulais, c’était voir les choses et jouir de la beauté des choses”

C’est donc ce qu’il a fait avant 1957 qui est intéressant, tout ce qui est, non pas le produit d’une commande, mais le fruit d’un esprit libre et curieux.

Pierre Verger naît à Paris en 1902 issu d’une famille de grands bourgeois, il participe à la vie de l’entreprise familiale (imprimeries) et mène dans les années 20 la vie d’un jeune dandy aisé.

L’année 1932 est décisive, il acquiert son premier Rolleiflex, puis au décès de sa mère, décide d’assumer son plus ardent désir, celui de devenir un voyageur solitaire. Depuis la mort de son père et de ses deux frères, sa mère était son dernier parent, une personne qu’il ne voulait nullement blesser par le choix d’une vie errante et anticonformiste.

De Décembre 1932 à Août 1946, ce sont quatorze années consécutives de voyages autour du monde, au cours desquelles Pierre Verger vit presque exclusivement de la photographie. Il négocie la vente de ses images avec des journaux, des agences et des institutions.

Quand Pierre Verger entreprend son premier grand voyage, il traversera lentement d’immenses territoires. Il a pour but Moorea en Polynésie Française, sur les pas de Paul Gauguin dont il admirait le parcours et l’oeuvre.

L’Europe et la Russie des années trente sont sous le joug de régimes totalitaires qui imposent une représentation figée d’elles mêmes. Volonté de puissance et d’ordre, l’architecture même reflète ce désir grandiose de conformisme mortifère. Les premières images de Pierre Verger en sont souvent imprégnées. Construites et composées, habitées par des lignes droites, des angles, des carrés.

Au fur et a mesure qu’il se dirige vers des pays chauds, ces lignes seront brisées par des courbes, des personnages en premier plan, le désordre, la vie.  Au fil des années, ce qui est rond, langoureux et sensuel prendra toute sa place. Magnifique hommage à une habitude hélas oubliée, les impudiques dormeurs de sieste à Bahia seront un beau reflet de ce nouveau vécu.

Une photo est le résultat d’une série de décisions, conscientes ou inconscientes; on choisit un point de vue, un cadrage, une lumière, ce que l’on voit, ce que l’on espère transcrire.

L’objectivité n’y est pour rien, le choix du cadrage qui en soi réduit ce que l’on voit strictement à l’instinct du photographe, peut être encore transformé au moment de l’impression du tirage. Dans la chambre noire on peut encore recadrer, recouper, jouer avec intensité de la lumière et ainsi renforcer ou alléger le propos.

L’invention de la Psychanalyse à la fin du 19ème siècle s’intéresse à expliquer l’idée du conscient et l’inconscient, le moi et le sûr-moi. Toute création est le produit de ce mélange. Equilibré ou déséquilibré, peu importe la raison du doux mélange, le résultat en est l’émanation.

Au 15ème siècle, Cennino Cennini, peintre Florentin, sera le premier à évoquer de manière simple le processus de création. Ainsi, lorsqu’il demande à deux élèves de son atelier de dessiner un cercle sur du papier, il constate que même en s’appliquant du mieux qu’ils peuvent, il est impossible que ces deux cercles soient parfaitement identiques. Cennino Cennini en conclut que la main n’est pas dirigée par l’esprit mais par l’âme.

Pendant quatorze années d’errance, porté par le désir, Pierre Verger va nous inviter à partager son regard pudique sur le monde à la découverte d’émotions qui le transforment. Le reflet d’une âme en paix avec elle même, libre et curieuse, s’intéressant à l’autre, au lointain, elle ira même jusqu’à devenir l’autre.

La fascination de l’Asie; son mélange de rigueur et de débrouille, il se rendra notamment au Japon, en Chine, au Vietnam, au Cambodge et au Laos.

L’appel de l’Afrique; particulièrement le Golfe du Bénin, ses peuples divers, ses croyances et ses rituels dont il sera le témoin privilégié et le principal divulgateur.

La révélation du Brésil enfin, ou son âme trouvera refuge à Salvador da Bahia. “Baie de tous les Saints”, point d’encrage de Pierre Verger de 1946 jusqu’à sa mort cinquante ans plus tard. “Baie de tous les Saints” enivrant et goûteux mélange, parfait reflet de ses désirs. “Baie de tous les Saints” métissage de couleurs, de religions, de musiques, de chaleurs et de chaleur humaine.

 

(Extraits de la conférence que j’ai donné pendant l’exposition: Pierre Verger: Oeuvre Photographique, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2005)

All images copyright Fundaçao Pierre Verger 

Guy Bourdin est essentiel

 

Guy Bourdin est à la photographie ce qu’Andy Warhol est à la peinture, un iconoclaste incontournable qui changé notre façon de voir. Bourdin est le produit d’un esprit Français,  éclairé par Laclos, Voltaire, Zola, étudiant le monde et ses acteurs en artisan averti. Son art en est le reflet; juste, fort, certainement pas dupe. Un regard à qui l’on “ne raconte pas d’histoires”. Un regard qui nous séduit en étant plus malin, plus inventif, un peu troublant.

Bourdin est aussi le reflet d’une société en pleine ébullition, en pleine révolution. Les chocs de Sartre, Beauvoir, Genet, Vian, Barbara, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, les Rolling Stones, la guerre au Vietnam; mais aussi le féminisme, une nouvelle idée de la sexualité, de Mai ’68 à Mary Quant, de Cacharel à Paco Rabanne et Yves Saint Laurent.

Ses images se lisent sur plusieurs plans, ont toujours une histoire dans l’histoire, plusieurs degrés de lecture. Premier degré, agréable, aguicheur, drôle, beau; deuxième degré, un peu douloureux et certainement coquin. Qu’est qu’être coquin? être drôle, spirituel; simplement réaliste, le contraire du romantique. Bourdin n’aime pas édulcorer, il met en lumière, il met en “couleur” le sentiment humain. Il a besoin d’inventer, changer l’idée du chic, en redéfinir les normes.

L’intelligence et l’humour de Duchamp, l’inventivité de Man Ray, le formalisme structurel de Rodchenko, la modernité du Corbusier et les aplats de couleurs de Nicolas de Staël sont plus proches de sa vision. Révolutionner la photographie en introduisant la couleur pure, violente, insolante, fondamentale à la structure et à l’équilibre de l’image.

Le contraire absolu de l’école d’Henri Cartier-Bresson qui nous raconte des histoires simples, lisibles au premier degré, imprimant sur le papier jusqu’aux marges marges noires du négatif pour nous expliquer que “ceci est une photo”. Bourdin casse tout cela et nous dit “ceci est une image faite de lumière et d’aplats de couleur, comprenez ce que vous voudrez”. En faisant cela il transforme à jamais la photographie, lui permettant d’exister non seulement par le fond, mais aussi par la forme, ouvrant ainsi la porte à un produit de l’esprit, à l’Art.

(publié dans le magazine Best, Paris, Juin 2003, à l’occasion de la retrospective Guy Bourdin au Victoria & Albert Museum, Londres)

All images Copyright Guy Bourdin Estate