Visual Culture

Why New Jersey?

Copyright © The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation / Magnum
Copyright © The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation / Magnum

In 1975, Henri Cartier-Bresson came to the United States to photograph, of all places, New Jersey, at the invitation of Jaune Evans, a producer for “Assignment America,” a television show on the public-broadcasting station WNET. Looking back on the experience, Peter Cunningham, Evans’ partner and Cartier-Bresson’s assistant for the project, recalls his impression of New Jersey at the time: “It was a no-past, no-future state of existence.” It’s an apt description that resonates with my own memories growing up there, navigating the gravitational pull between Philadelphia and New York.

Writing for the New Yorker celebrating the re-emergence of Cartier-Bresson’s New Jersey photographs nearly fifty years later, Zach Helfand points out:

Down the shore that month, Bruce Springsteen was agonizing over what would become “Born to Run.” The two artists conjured a similar mythology: asphalt and steel, operatic death on dirty streets, traps and escape. Cartier-Bresson also found humor—two men wearing the same suit, a gaggle of disembodied mannequin heads. By coincidence, Cunningham had been working as a photographer for Springsteen. “In a way, this year, 1975, was Jersey’s birthing year,” Cunningham told me.

I don’t know if 1975 was New Jersey’s “birthing year,” but I appreciate the image of Springsteen and Cartier-Bresson driving the same highways and rural routes, breathing the same salty air, and thinking about and documenting the State of New Jersey, an overlooked and unassuming microcosm of America.

(via Jason Kottke)

Like a Blanket in the Rain

Image courtesy of MACK Books
Image courtesy of MACK Books

Alec Soth reflects on his latest book A Pound of Pictures:

For me, photography is fundamentally tied to the physical act of recording. I leave the house and drive into the world. Through the lens of my Honda Odyssey, I watch light bounce off of a million surfaces. One of them catches my eye—the girthiest sycamore in Michigan, let’s say. I park the van, pick my spot, and set up the camera. It’s a simple tool and there’s so much it can’t record. We can’t hear the birdsong nor the crabby farmer who reluctantly gave me directions. My slow shutter can’t even catch the butterfly fluttering near the trunk. We might intuit the tree’s two-hundred-year-old history, but we only see bark, not rings. But, oh, the bark! The film’s emulsion soaks up its reflections like a blanket in the rain. Printing the picture, these reflections coalesce into a body. We hold the weight of a giant in the palm of our hand; flattened and miniaturized, yes, but not a VR genie. Each negative weighs .6 oz.

Further Retreats from 2020

The "Pope of Trash" and "Filth Elder" John Waters offers a "hilarious," "glorious," "boldly retro" poster design for the 58th New York Film Festival."Retro digital oasis," (via Daring Fireball).A retreat and a "redo" all in one: this December, on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, a new, "vindicating" cut of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather: Part III (1990) will be released (in theaters 🤞) and retitled Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.

August Sander, Three Farmers, 1914

August Sander, Three Farmers, (1914); Copyright: (c) Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2017. / Photo (c) Tate
August Sander, Three Farmers, (1914); Copyright: (c) Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2017. / Photo (c) Tate
A picture about not knowing.

- John Green, “The Art Assignment,” PBS Digital Studios, February 28, 2019

"Paris through the Eyes of Willy Ronis" by Carole Naggar for New York Review of Books

Willy Ronis, The Lovers of the Bastille (1957)
Willy Ronis, The Lovers of the Bastille (1957)

Carole Naggar on Ronis:

In France, Ronis’s work is much loved, with its focus on ordinary people and ordinary life, its sense of humanity, empathy, and grace—the anti-sensational, as it were.

Stephen Shore @MoMA

All clips here are worth exploring, but I was struck in particular by Shore's thoughts on Instagram and global photo-based communities and how the iPad, like a view camera, mediates the act of picture making.

Between Then and Again: Peter Funch’s “42nd and Vanderbilt”

Peter Funch, 2012.07.03 09:09:07 / 2012.07.17 09:09:43
Peter Funch, 2012.07.03 09:09:07 / 2012.07.17 09:09:43

What to make of this collection of images taken over nine years at the same intersection in New York City, comparing individuals (separated from the crowd) walking by on different days?

In his New York Times review, Teju Cole's reference to Walker Evans is helpful, but his famous and groundbreaking subway portraits are much more surreptitious. Evans wasn't as interested in the ritual or the remembering of a particular yet insignificant intersection of time and space but rather sought the truth that photography alone seemed to be able to conjure: the unguarded, unrehearsed version of a person that emerges within the presumed anonymity of public spaces in large cities.

Likely Funch wants us to be impressed by the discipline of nine years going at something, and the unique fruits of that particular labor, and for the most part I'd say we are. Time, that much of it, gives the project weight and a lens through which to look at difference, perhaps the best way to recognize (and predict) patterns.1 But as with any project, “42nd and Vanderbilt"2 is also very much the result of curation. How many shots didn't make the cut? How many days did his commuters not turn the right corner? These images, and the moments they point to, are no longer unremarkable or transitory, as a natural consequence of their choosing. In this light, Douglas Coupland's mention of Warhol makes sense, given his exploration of (the paradoxes of) unedited phenomenon.

To my eye, it seems Funch is trying to paint the routines and mundane patterns of everyday life here in the most flattering light possible. Unlike Coupland, I’m not as preoccupied with the limited wardrobes these images betray. Nor am I as struck by the “remembering” the project evokes for Cole, perhaps because New York is not my home.

Rather, these images, despite their careful curation, composition, and exposure, function in a much more abstract and less personal or sentimental way for me. The isolation of these subjects in terms of framing, focus, and lighting, within a context (a street corner in New York!) that is anything but isolated, pushes my attention more to the blurry bits in the background where others (often partially) enter the frame. Those stories, and the potential intersections and geometry they represent (through happenstance or otherwise), pique my interest as much as the day to day differences and similarities Funch seeks to reveal.

1. Though it is worth noting intervals between photos of a given subject, at least for those I’ve been able to see online, typically span days or weeks not years. Perhaps the full collection goes further. As well, likely for practical reasons, most if not all exposures occur between May and August.

2. I haven’t done the research to discover if there is a significance to this particular intersection, other than its proximity to Grand Central Station, and therefore the increased chance of spotting commuters coming and going.

“The Superhero Factory: An Unauthorized Corporate History of Marvel Comics” by Paul Morton

Paul Morton, reviewing Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

Howe notes that the first issue of Fantastic Four, while it did not resemble any superhero comics, did resemble the horror comics Lee produced with Kirby and Steve Ditko. A fear of the uncanny and of what it can do to the human body would inform a new line of heroes, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. These heroes were as self-loathing as they were self-confident and it’s tempting to imagine these artists hunched over their boards informing their heroes with their own bitterness and insecurities.

“For Amusement Only: the Life and Death of the American Arcade” by Laura June for The Verge

Must-read for anyone who has ever dropped a quarter (or token) into a video game or pinball machine.

Memory, Reason, Imagination

Great conversation here discussing how the Library of Congress, the largest library on the planet, is encouraging folks to use their digital resources and data sets in innovative ways as part of a general rethinking of the cultural role of libraries today.I was particularly struck by Kate Zwaard's thoughts on how the notion of ephemerality is changing in the age of Instagram,mobile, and cloud computing:

I think the other thing about the ephemerality of the material as far as the young people think about what they create. It think actually they don’t think about it as ephemeral. They actually trust the world to keep it. So they don’t think about their photos as disposable but they don’t think about storage. They’ve actually abstracted that, right? That’s someone else’s problem. And to me that’s actually very good. I think reconstructing an archive from someone’s cloud services is very possible.

Magritte the Puzzler; "Mystery of the Ordinary" Survey Exhibit at MoMA

Holland Cotter's back-handed review which wouldn't deter me from going if I could:

As it turns out, “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” which opens at MoMA on Saturday, is good solid fun, because Magritte is solid and fun. There’s no mystery about why he’s so popular. His paint-by-numbers illustrational mode reads loud and clear from across a room — a good thing, as the exhibition galleries are sure to be jammed — and reproduces faultlessly, even on a cellphone screen.

Paolo Ventura's Winter Stories

Paolo Ventura, Winter Stories

Paolo Ventura’s much-anticipated Winter Stories has arrived. A departure from what I am typically drawn to in photography, it is Ventura’s depiction of the details of the everyday that really wins me over. The gun metal bed frame and smoky mirror, the muddy puddles, the smudged window panes, all give his imaginary tableaux a rumpled yet vibrant lived in-ness.

The artist discusses his process here. And if you are in NYC, his work is at Hasted Hunt Kraeutler through January 23, 2010.

Terra Incognita

Rod Coover - Voyage Into The Unknown

For as long as I’ve known Rod Coover, his web-based media projects have regularly gone against the grain of convention and often, almost by definition, pushed the limits of modern browsers. With his latest publication, Voyage Into The Unknown, it seems he is still pushing those limits, as he warns on the landing page:

Voyage Into The Unknown is designed for 1024X768 or greater. If you have a small screen please go into FULL SCREEN viewing mode in your browser. You are entering a very wide landscape; if you have a smaller screen size you will need to scroll more to travel into the landscape–use all the space you can get!

Rod’s project got me thinking about how landscapes stand in for a kind of knowledge of place and one’s brief time in it — as Rod points out, we might name anew a bend in a river, but how many names may have gone prior, or after? We think of unknown territories as somehow a thing of the past in the age of Google Maps and GPS positioning and we can easily forget that today’s maps are not the territories to which they point and can only, at best, approximate (even with street-level photographic evidence).

What Makes a Great Portrait?

"Ansel Adams, Dorothy and Cole Weston at Home , Ca. 1940
Ansel Adams, Dorothy and Cole Weston at Home, Ca. 1940

With the recent arrival of my now 2 1/2 month old son, I’ve been struggling with this very question, especially a “portrait” of someone that is just figuring out who he is, at best, and who is changing so dramatically from week to week. It’s as if the metamorphosis itself is what I am trying to capture when I press the shutter. It’s really made me rethink my approach to taking pictures, and the results thus far have been more the product of sheer chance than any kind of skill. The experience has led me to appreciate portraiture all the more.

Timothy Archibald:

Trying to really pinpoint what makes a great portrait is almost like trying to figure out why it feels good when someone smiles at you or why it is disturbing when someone yells at you.

Jörg Colberg posed the question to various photographers, curators and bloggers. Their responses, including example portraits, are definitely worth a read.


Leica Legacy

Andreas Feininger, Dennis Stock, 1951
Andreas Feininger, Dennis Stock, 1951

Anthony Lane on the cult of Leica cameras for The New Yorker.

Cara Barer's Ephemeral Evolution

Cara Barer

Houston-based Cara Barer makes striking photographs of books altered by exposure to water (via For me, the photographs evoke both a sense of natural beauty and transformation and also prick my hard-to-shake belief in books as sacred, immovable objects, despite all my training and evidence to the contrary.

From her site:

My photographs are primarily a documentation of a physical evolution. I have changed a common object into sculpture in a state of flux. The way we choose to research and find information is also in an evolution. I hope to raise questions about these changes, the ephemeral and fragile nature in witch[sic] we now obtain knowledge, and the future of books.

Tom Vanderbilt, "Small Worlds"

On the peculiar appeal of model, small-scale cities, including a reference to Paul Auster’s Music of Chance.

Fun Designs by Liesl

Hydrant Dog and Crabalicious

A quick plug for friend and artist, Liesl Lavery, who has just announced that her CafePress storefront is now open for business!

You can choose from a number of her unique, colorful designs and print them on just about anything, from t-shirts to tote bags to... infant creepers? So click on over and tell ‘em that Joe sent ya.

Metropolis Coffee Company

© 2011 Google
© 2011 Google

Metropolis Coffee Company is my new favorite coffehouse in Chicago. Anyone who has brought up the subject of coffee during the past year has had to listen to me go on (and on) about why Metropolis is the bee’s knees in my book.

A welcomed relief from the by now generic coffee culture cultivated and branded by Starbucks and others, Metropolis focuses on great coffee (they roast several great blends) and a relaxed eclectic scene that attracts everyone from local artists and musicians to far-flung yuppies and students alike. On any given day, you’ll overhear conversations about organic farming co-ops in the making, recent gallery openings, winning Scrabble strategies, or a hundred other everyday stories.

And now there is one more reason to make the trek up to 1029 Granville: Daniel Teafoe’s U2/3D. On exhibit through June 19, this collection of 3D photographic images gives you the rare pleasure to relive U2’s 2001 Elevation tour. What more could you ask for?

Monet in Vegas

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood, 1887
John Singer Sargent,  Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood, 1887

Much to report from Sin City, but for now I want to recommend a Claude Monet exhibit in the most unexpected of places — the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. On loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (not without controversy), this collection of a couple dozen paintings gives a good look at the Impressionist’s growth as an artist. I’ve always found Monet a bit overrated (living in Chicago, there is almost always some flavor of Impressionist exhibit running to keep the Chicago Art Institute coffers full). With this collection though, I was struck by his attention to detail (from a distance, his brush strokes blend into almostphoto-realistic shading, especially his rare urban scenes) and his penchant for the ephemeral.

The recorded tour points out the Impressionists’s roots in realist painting and everyday scenes, as opposed to the then vogue academy painting celebrating idealized mythological subjects. However, with Monet’s turn to landscape painting, and eventually to his home in Giverny, the artist increasingly shaped the world he painted, relying less on capturing the elusive light of this or that region of France and instead depicting a world created a priori.

Netflix Price Drop

For those still unsure about saying goodbye to DVD rental late fees forever and signing up to Netflix, a recent price drop to $17.99 might be all you need to pull the trigger. Here in Chicago, turnaround that once took 4-6 days three years ago (mailing to/from CA) today typically only takes 2 days. Not bad. If you think you might watch more than 4 DVDs a month, and can live without the pleasure of going to the local video store on a whim, Netflix is a good deal.

For the information junkie, the online rental experience also is rich with cross-referenced recommendations, movie ratings, reviews, trailers, and your personal rental queue and rental history.

And did I mention no late fees?

This price drop is no doubt in response to growing competition, but also falls on the heels of a recent joint development agreement with Tivo for digital content distribution. Netflix has learned early that they aren’t in the DVD business. Studios, broadcast networks, and telcos should be so smart about their own business models.

Millennium Park and The Bean

Bean with Falling Man, 2004
Bean with Falling Man, 2004

A visit to Chicago's Millennium Park

I visited Millennium Park today with my aunt and uncle, who were passing through Chicago on their way to Green Bay. It was one of those interesting experiences one has, stepping slightly outside of yourself and your everyday to look in on the place where you live, the city that you call home. We drove down Lake Shore Drive, for the millionth time, but this time pointing out some of the sites — the Drake, Navy Pier, the stout buildings overlooking the beaches, which were humming with cyclists, volleyball games, and runners. As we drove in their rented sedan, a portable GPS device chimed with pleasure that we were “on the green path,” and dutifully following its cheerful yet lifeless instructions. As I went on about “my fair city,” my uncle quipped — “I’ve flown all around these buildings… even flown into a few.” He’s always had a knack to confuse me, to deliver a remark that I’m never quite sure how to take. Was he talking about a previous military career I didn’t know about? What did he mean… into? After a beat, I realized, and he added, that he was talking about simulated flight, from the convenience of his desktop in North Carolina. Of course.

So, electronic frontiers and the lakefront casually blended this afternoon, as we turned toward Wacker… 2 miles ahead, bearing right. It was 5:30pm. Parking in Grant Park Garage and emerging onto Michigan Ave., we caught sight of the Pritzker Pavilion and could have easily missed Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (“The Bean”) had we not been looking for it. It blends so easily into its reflection that, over the sparse treetops and other street-side visual obstacles, you are easily fooled into thinking it isn’t there at all. As we crossed Michigan, people hurried by, some smiling, often to whomever was on the other end of their wireless conversations. Opting to first see Gehry’s contribution to the pricey urban renewal effort, we climbed a few stairs ahead, and as we neared the “firecracker gone off in a tin can” (as a friend, MN, recently described it), we gradually heard the distinct strains of operatic voices and music. Was it recorded? Certainly there wasn’t a performance this early in the evening? Curiosity brought us to the edge of the pavilion and, as we leaned over, we saw the bright red chairs (so new!) and a few folks speckled throughout, joined by others lounging on the lawn behind and beneath the webbed metal and wire stretching from the stage below. On stage, a collection of musicians and vocalists were rehearsing their parts for a future performance. They were dressed casually, no evening attire, especially not in the humid August air. It was a classic Chicago scene — unassuming and beautiful at the same time.

This urban reverie didn’t prepare me for The Bean though — a sublime object that is best approached from the west, looking east, with Michigan Avenue’s cornices and smudged windows lined dutifully behind, in stark contrast to Kapoor’s luminous droplet of pure metal. Both personal, like a prized stone taken from a favorite place, and majestic in its sheer scale and simplicity, The Bean née Cloud Gate speaks to the horizon between public and private, between the miniature and gigantic that Susan Stewart explores in On Longing (no doubt my old U of C professors are thrilled with this city’s latest icon). As I walked beneath its welcoming navel, instinctually looking for my reflection amid the many faces and shapes, I spied others as they pointed their cameras at this curious thing — some with loved ones in the foreground, others within inches of the metal, peering so close. A nearby Latina, impatient with her male companion, broke from her pose and chided him with a smile — “Enough with your artistic shots!”

As I write this, a storm teems outside my windows, bringing welcomed relief from the heat. The neighborhood is eerily quiet except for the whir of my window fan and the applause rising from the macadam. The fan sprays me with tiny shards of rain as I peer out onto the street looking for the life that I felt just a few hours ago. It has gone dark.

On Photography and Memory

Exit Glacier, 2000
Exit Glacier, 2000

Toward a conceptual framework for the Kinogram project.

It is the rare essay on photography — at least in the general sense of photography — that doesn’t touch on, at some turn or another, the unique relationship photography has with memory. Invariably, when one takes a step back and begins to clutch this image or that from the daily stream, perhaps stumbling across some stashed snapshots from years past, a memory is triggered, clear as a bell. So vivid is the recollection, in fact, that the photo can easily shrink to become a sort of footnote, a pointer seizing just one instant in the rush, from which one’s narrative blooms. Those that have shared the represented experience — perhaps they are sitting there beside you, grinning in the sterile wash of the strobe — also share in this reminiscing. And history reigns for a moment. That’s not to say there’s anything at all accurate or exhaustive about the nod back, but it does possess a stubborn pleasure and purpose. That is certain.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the image above. A glacier — unmoving yet not, witness to and storehouse of millennia — strikes an all too recorded pose. Moments before perhaps someone stood between the photographer and his soon-to-be-subject, then background. Indifferent ice, as it still must be today, almost 4 years later. If you too have made the short trek past the signs indicating Exit Glacier’s relatively brisk retreat (each wooden post driven into the ground marks where the glacier reached at periodic years so that your walk up is also a walk through time), perhaps the image reminds you of your own Kenai adventure. Or, if you’ve never seen a glacier, perhaps it offers a more abstract delight, the sooty meringues reminding you of a frothy pint of beer or sea foam slapping at the shoreline. Maybe you see (remember) both, or neither.

For me, it is an anchor. Through the lens, a chain pulled taut, snagged on the craggy ocean floor of lived experience. The typically produced photograph, the third sign, points to its referent in a most emphatic way, as if conceding that its very existence depended on it. Despite the dozens of rational reasons why one shouldn’t trust a photograph to do anything but mislead, misrepresent, or mis-take the world, our first comments are often: “Where was this taken?”, “Who is that standing there? Cousin Billy? He looks so young!”, “What is that bit in the corner?” I share this digitally scanned image here as both a specimen of my work and as a personal memento of time spent in Alaska on holiday. Nothing very remarkable about that — cameras are among a traveler’s essential accessories — except to say that my reading of the photograph, my pleasure in its nondescript sky and pinched shoulders of ice, cannot escape memory. In fact, it is the anticipation of remembering that likely raised my right index finger to the shutter release in the first place.

Kinogram, a follow-up project to Photomoment that has been in the works for the past four years, off and on, is happening soon. Among other things, the project attempts to reverse (or at least disrupt) the circuitry between memory and photography discussed above. Kinogram sketches the possibility to both reshape memory and shape experience (on the cusp of memory). I promise I’ll have more information soon.

Cultures in Webs

My good friend Roderick Coover has just released his latest CD-ROM, CULTURES IN WEBS: Working in hypermedia with the documentary image.

Congratulations Rod!

Bearden in DC

Romare Bearden (Homage), 2003
Romare Bearden (Homage), 2003

SG and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends in NJ, PA and DC/VA. While in DC visiting E., we had the chance to check out a great Romare Bearden exhibit at The National Gallery. Amazing painting and collage. You can learn more about the artist and his work at the Romare Bearden Foundation.

David Revisited

David Revisited, 1987
David Revisited, 1987

The images of Michelangelo’s David above are among the first exposures I ever made. It was the Summer of 1987 and I was just learning how to use a camera. My cousin John had sold me his Pentax K-1000 kit, including a 50mm lens, and I was shooting Tri-X 400 film. You couldn’t get more basic. Later that summer I had the chance to make prints from these negatives onto high-contrast Kodalith film and litho paper. With some toning, the image to the right above was the result.

Years later, I took a course in posterization at the San Francisco Photography Center. The instructor had devised a complicated and labor intensive system of photographing a negative at multiple exposures with different colored filters. The image on the left above is just one of many variations we created by the end of the class. Of course, today one can produce litho-like or posterized images quite easily with a few clicks and adjustments in Adobe Photoshop. Still, both experiences opened up for me the many possibilities of photography, and allowed for experimentation with what were admittedly a tourist’s run-of-the-mill shots.

Double Vision

Mona Lisa

Harvard Professor of Neurobiology, Margaret Livingstone offers new thoughts on the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile. For more on Livingstone’s theories on the dual nature of vision, go here.

Of related interest, Robert Silver has made a small industry of his photo-mosaics, which are images composed of thousands of tiny photographs. Each collage is assembled by first scanning an original image and dividing it into a grid of “tiles” which are then compared and matched to a database of photographs. The photographs are arranged based on qualities like color, luminance, and texture, but the database sample is typically organized by subject. Examples include:

and of course,

  • Mona Lisa hidden amid art history’s masterpieces.