ALL QUIET ON THE HOME FRONT: COLIN PANTALL

I’m pretty sure that my definition of (contemporary) photography as art (the serious expression of intelligence) is a bit (a lot) more stringent (limited) that most people’s.

For the longest time I had trouble explaining my complaint. Mostly I fell back on the idea that many of the photographs being put on the art pedestal these days look, to me, more like illustration. You know . . . executing a plan to arrive at a foregone conclusion. Sure, some of them are swell to look at, there might even be some concept and/or happenstance behind them, but not much has really been discovered or disclosed, little risk is involved, nothing seems to be at stake.

Then I ran across an interview with Chris Boot, the executive director of Aperture. While I didn’t agree with everything he said, there was one thing which stood out for me. Let me paraphrase . . .

He said that the common language of photography used to be one of detachment. While the resulting photographs may have had some kind of personal reverberations for the photographer and certain viewers, the photographers’ position was on the outside, looking. (It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway . . . there are exceptions to this.)

He goes on to say that Nan Goldin changed all that. (I’m pretty sure that nothing is ever the result of just one other thing.) Anyway, he says that she combined the personal and the political and the observational, that she made herself, and the medium itself, her subject, and that that pointed to a more modern way of using a camera.

This is not to say that one must only photograph their own circle of friends and acquaintances to be an artist. That’s too literal a reading of what he’s getting at. He’s talking about what you have invested in your work, beyond the time and the money, some looking, a bit of craft and the quest for acceptance/popularity/sales. In business parlance, do you have skin in the game? (When you do really have skin in the game it ceases to be a game.)

I bring all this up because it’s something I think about. But also because I just received All Quiet on the Home Front, by Colin Pantall, a classic example of the potential of contemporary photography . . .

All Quiet on the Home Front is a book about a father and a daughter growing up, it’s about love and landscape, about wonder and wondering and wandering, about the passage of time. It’s tender but not maudlin; measured but emotional; honest and, you can just feel it, true; it’s simple and complex at the same time.

We see Isabel, Colin’s daughter, grow up, we see their house and the land Colin and Isabel walk to and through. We see what she does on that journey, almost always lost in herself. We catch glimpses of Colin’s wife, Katherine. We don’t see Colin, but his presence is felt in every frame. And we can read this thoughts.

The images are not sequenced chronologically. Here time, like memory, jumps back and forth. It’s a long arc, but throughout there are wonderful page spreads that show us moments of time barely separated.

All Quiet on the Home Front touches on something timeless: family, father, daughter, time, the land. It’s quiet but contains layers of resonance where the personal, the political and the observational combine. Colin has made himself and the medium his subject.

Buy All Quiet on the Home Front
Colin’s blog (worth reading, let me tell you)
The drool. interview with Colin

Re: READING THE GRAPES OF WRATH

I’m re-reading The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. It’s really affecting my thinking.

“Tom said, ‘Prayer never brought in no side-meat. Takes a shoat to bring in pork'”

As most of you probably know, it takes place in the 1930’s and tells the story of the Joad family’s journey from their farm in Oklahoma to California, where they hope to find a better life. They’ve been “tractored off” their land by a combination of the Great Depression, bad weather and the advent of agri-business (one man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families). The banks now own the land and put profit before all else. Sound familiar?

I remembered the broad outlines of the story from the first time I read this book, a long time ago. What I am struck by now, with this reading, is the breadth of detail, the mix of story with document (or, maybe, information).

Page spread

Politics, nature, family dynamics, square dancing, religion, camping in ditches, how to change a connecting rod in an engine, and the list goes on. All the stuff of human existence is mixed in together, given equal weight. And interspersed within the story are short, poetic chapters that flesh out an even broader perspective.

Detail

I’m pretty sure The Grapes of Wrath is not really informing my current project, but it is seeping into me. Its form, its content, its way of seeing life, are all seeping in. And isn’t that why we look and read and think?

And, one other thing: A photograph of Florence Owens Thompson hangs in my kitchen. It’s an alternate frame of the more famous image  known as Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange. When I look at it now I see it in new ways, with a deeper understanding.

Florence Owens Thompson, by Dorothea Lange

GRANT

I’ve just finished writing a grant. And let me tell you . . . trying to succinctly define/describe a project as amorphous as the one I’m working on is a can of worms. It’s not as though I’m shooting a series of portraits of trans people, or landscapes on the edge of town. That stuff , while it can be tricky, is pretty straight-forward, with lots of precedents and a handle (or is that: hook?) that the jury can grab ahold of.

In my head I have a pretty good idea what I’m trying to do. I’m sure you, too, sometimes have a feeling that is deeper than thinking, where, in a split second of clarity you just know something. Except it’s all in your head and almost impossible to verbalize. Problem is, you don’t really know anything until you can say it out loud.

That’s the reason I write my blog. It’s also a reason to apply for a grant: you are forced to make the idea(s) behind your project concrete.

I’m trying to keep my application clear and simple, but I’m also throwing in some highfalutin words to, you know, let the jury know that I know what’s what. Here’s a paragraph from my application . . .

I also had to submit 12 images to support my application. So, for the first time in a long time I had a hard look at what I have so far done. The subject matter is (as I have planned) all over the place, but I think the way the images feel binds them somehow together.

In the end what I did was, I chose 12 images that are the bones of one appendage of the work. And I kind of overstated it, too, brought some obviousness forward. That way, at least, there might be some cohesion for the jury to grasp. I’m not sure how much more plain I can (or want to) make it. Here are three of the 12  images I submitted . . .

Last week I wrote a bit about photo contests. I reckon getting a grant and winning a contest are kind of similar. If the jury is sympathetic to your work (or, maybe, friends with you) you have a chance of being a winner. But it’s still a crap-shoot. The plus side of applying for a grant is that, win or lose, you are forced to think through and write down the aims and ambitions of your project. That, and there is no application fee.

Of course, if you just want to sort out what you’re thinking, you could always start a blog (or a personal journal). That’s free, too.

I HAVE THE BEST WORDS

Three things this week: contests, publishing (or, not publishing) and being critical of a gift . . .

I HAVE THE BEST WORDS

Donald Trump said “I have the best words”.

A certain percentage of the U.S. population thought, well, okay. Others
laughed, were shocked and appalled, shook their heads or were downright outraged.

After all, anyone who says they have the “best” anything is either full of shit, or delusional. You know that. Don’t you? You do.

But what if you enter a photo contest and one of your images gets chosen, is proclaimed the best. Would you believe that? Isn’t that idea equally laughable?

As is the idea that any contest would frame their competition as the search for, or mechanism to find, the best photograph, or photographer.

The above bit of advertising/hype is a classic example of the kind of preying on hopes and dreams that seems so prevalent in the PhotoWorld™ these days.

Look at it: a “name” to give it weight, plus not only the best, no . . . the World’s Best, a London Gallery, Great Exposure. Not to mention + more. What more could you possibly want?

Of course, some of these contests are more righteous than others. And I have seen lots of very good work that has been brought forward as a result of winning. But using modern methods of persuasion to sell you a bill of goods is not exactly honest. It brings to mind the lottery. They, too, sell hopes and dreams, but at least, if you win, they don’t identify you as the best, or even deserving. Its just blind luck.

STRAYLIGHT PRESS WILL CLOSE

It’s been a good run.

Over 5 years STRAYLIGHT PRESS published 15 photobooks by 10 different photographers. Most sold out and were shipped all over the world.

When I started STRAYLIGHT, back in 2012 I was full of beans, interested in supporting both my own work, and that of others. For a few years it was great fun and most invigorating.

Then, a couple of years ago my enthusiasm began to wan. The fun bits (concept, editing, design, supporting of photographers) make up about 20% of the workload, the rest is just maintenance and drudge. My heart’s not in it.

So I am closing it down.

There are still a few titles left in the inventory and I want to clear them out. So all remaining books have been marked down to 1/2 price. Sad to say, the shipping charges will stay the same (seeing as they are all pretty much cost anyway).

So head on over to STRAYLIGHT PRESS and pick up a book or two. For yourself or as a present.

The store closes December 9th and supplies are limited.

Here are a few of the available books. The prices you see here will be chopped in half. Deal!

Thanks to the photographers whose work we published: Christina Riley, Adam Amengual, Timothy Archibald, Stacy Kranitz, Scot Sothern, Cindy Deachman, Josh Hotz and Shannon Delmonaco.

In the meantime, I have opened a small bookshop on my personal website. Just my own books. I plan to use this (and social media for some hype whenever a new title appears) as my conduit to the outside world.

A big thank you to all the folks out there who supported STRAYLIGHT by actually getting out their wallets.

LOOKING A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH

A few years ago Stephen Wilkes’ photos made a splash and he’s riding the wave. Each image in the series he calls Day to Night shows a scene that transitions from, yes, day to night.

The images are often regarded as spectacular. And, looked at one way, I suppose you could say they are . . . the way velvet paintings are spectacular. But once you look past the spectacle you are left with banal tourism photos. You know: kitsch, cliché, idealistic.  Perhaps that’s why people like them. It doesn’t hurt, either, that, when talking about his work, he references and compares himself to Alfred Steigltz, Claude Monet and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Some folks fall for that stuff.

I bring this up because he was in Ottawa this summer to shoot one of his Day to Night things during the big Canada Day 150 celebration. The resulting image was gifted to Canadians in a ceremony hosted by none other than National Gallery director Marc Meyer, where it was accepted by the Gallery on behalf of the people of Canada.

Ottawa, Canada 150, Day to Night. Photo by Stephen Wilkes

One wonders.

Wilkes has been patronized by Vicki Heyman, who as the wife of then U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman (an Obama appointee) did many good things and brought lots of energy to the KapitalCityArtScene™. I shot her for Canadian Art magazine and I must say that the art she had in the residence was smart and engaging.

The sitting room there was full of photographs that focused on race in the USA. A swell and provocative move, if you ask me. I have a difficult time, though, reconciling the modern and political art she chose for the residence with the work of Wilkes. But she has supported the gifting of this photo and folks (even national gallery directors) seem to give that weight.

I suppose it might be considered impolite to look a gift horse in the mouth. But if you have to house that horse, feed and pasture it, call it your horse and live with it for years, it might be a good thing to give it the good-old once-over before you commit.

REVIEW

A  first for drool.: a review. Or, maybe review isn’t the correct word. It might just be an opinion (which wouldn’t be a first for drool.). I don’t know. You tell me.

If reviews (or whatever) aren’t your cup of tea scroll down to the next item, Three hundred and thirteen, a short thing on process.

And if that doesn’t interest you, go for a walk and think about it . . .


REACTION

Three new exhibitions opened last week at the Scotiabank Canadian Photography Institute, at the National Gallery of Canada. I had a close look at two of them: Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush and Frontera: Views of the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Gold Rush shows us historical photographs (and illustrations and adverts) shot during the gold rush that happened in the last part of the 19th Century. Frontera shows us contemporary views of the U.S.-Mexican border.

The gems, in the sparkly sense of the word, in Gold and Silver are the daguerrotypes. Presented in a darkened room and lit to accentuate their otherness . . . drama upon drama.

The following room has a whole bunch of images showing landscapes and portraits (and adverts) from the Klondike, Alaska and other sites of the migration that was spurred by the gold rush of the second half of the 1880’s. Less spectacular than the daguerrotypes and because of that, more telling. If only a tighter edit had been applied.

George Mercer Dawson, Rink Rapid, Lewes (Yukon River) August 22, 1887
Installation view. Photo by Ming Wu.

According to the gallery’s messaging Gold and Silver and Frontera, while being about “borders, territory and migration”, also serve to bring forward the technical and social evolution that happened in photography.
Judging from the images in Frontera you’d think that the only real evolution in photography was the advent of colour, the disappearance of people and the invention of the drone.

From Geoffery James’ beautiful ground-level views of one of the earliest bits of the border fence (1997), to Pablo Lopez Luz’ trenchant aerial photos of the border, from Daniel Schwarz’ accordion books of stitched satellite images that show the entire border, to Adrien Missika’s typology of cacti (plus a video, shot from a drone), we see the border abstracted. It rests with Mark Ruwedel and Alejandro Cartagena to bring a human/political perspective to the show. These two photographers are represented here by a total of 4 images.

Ruwedel shows us the remnants of passage, debris left behind by migrants making their way to the promised land. We can only imagine what came before and after. Cartagena’s large image of  the fence with a silhouette, really just a ghost, brings home the human cost of walls.

Now, I understand that it might not be the purview of the Canadian Photography Institute to put politics in front of, or beside, aesthetics (not that those two things are mutually exclusive). I also know it’s kind of bogus to point out a perceived shortcoming of something when what you see as a shortcoming was never really the intention of the project.

And, to be clear: the images in Frontera are all well realized, and, with a couple of exceptions, interesting and worthwhile, some are even important. Go have a look and you’ll see.

But in this day and age, to mount an exhibition about the border between the USA and Mexico (or any border, for that matter) and not include more than a token amount of human-scale politics is a curious curatorial choice. The almost complete absence in Frontera of the struggle and strife that these days defines borders is striking.

Canadian Photography Institute


THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTEEN

Couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I’m not ready to look at the pile of images so far shot for my new project. Still true, but I’m thinking about it.

Thought I might mention here the process that has led to that folder of images on my hard drive . . .

Go out into the world with a thought in my head. Look for bits and pieces (after all, what else is a photograph?) that might be right. Be open. Go home. Look at what I’ve done. Look for what I’ve seen. Pull out the frames that work. Pull out the frames that might work. Pull out the frames that just plain intrigue me. Be open to “bad” photos. Do some preliminary post production. Put them into a folder titled FINALS. Repeat as required.

So far there are 313 photos in that folder. Here they are . . .

I’m seeing themes evolve. Repetitions. Questionable choices. Some confusion. A feeling.

Here are three of the 313. One from the very beginning, one from the middle, one from last week. I’m interested to see where it goes. I want to find out what it becomes.

 

NOTICE

Suburb, the exhibition, got a decent amount of notice in the local press. Great. Thanks. I appreciate it, really I do. It certainly helps to bring the
folks out to have a look at what I’ve done. It’s nice to be noticed.

Yes, there is a place for noticing, for celebration, for boosterism, but that’s really just public relations. Just (and only) noticing things sets the bar too low in terms of developing an artistic community. As well, it lends some kind of legitimacy to that which gets noticed, whether it deserves it, or not. (Whether something is deserving is an issue for another post.)

Add to this the fact that artists often frame their work for the media (and for their friends and for themselves) in the way that they, the artist themselves, want it to be seen. Of course.

But believing spin (even if its your own spin) is a mistake. It’s not up to the artist to tell people what to see in their work or to say their work is controversial or significant or a breakthrough. That must be the job of the critic and an informed audience.


And this, finally, brings me to my point:

I have long believed that the Kapital City Culture Scene™ has suffered from a paucity of informed public criticism, that the local media spends too much time noticing and not enough energy actively engaging with the work local artists present.

For sure there are institutions here, both public and private, that invest the time and the care and the emotion to present art within a critical frame work. But without critical thought engendered and brought forward through the media, without public attempts to contextualize, to analyze, to consider and, dare I say it, to educate, local artists and their audience remain at a disadvantage. And, by disadvantage, I mean settling for merely being noticed and entertained, rather than being challenged.

Don’t tell me what the poets are doing
Don’t tell me that they’re talking tough
Don’t tell me that they’re anti-social
Somehow not anti-social enough
from: Poets, by The Tragically Hip
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OVER
TIME

Time (past, present and future) is a component of my new project. But you can’t really shoot time, you can only allude to it. So one of the things I’ve been doing is, I’ve been photographing a couple of locations over the seasons.

A crude device, perhaps, when seen here consecutively. But sprinkled through a longer sequence these images have the potential to be echoes, to give a sense of deja vu, to reference the tilt of the Earth and its orbit around the Sun. Upon bumping into them over time you might wonder, where have I seen that before?

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REVIEW

Further to the bit leading this episode of drool. Peter Simpson reviews some local photo shows.

Peter used to work at The Ottawa Citizen, had a thing going there called BigBeat. He put himself about, went to see all manner of shows, thought about it and then wrote about them. He didn’t just notice, he actively pursued. A year ago or so he took the buyout, set to work on his novel, took on some other biz ventures. And in there somewhere he still manages to put himself about, go to see all manner of shows, think about it and then write about them. All this with the regular paycheque of a big media conglomerate removed.

That’s what I’m talking about.
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Thank you for your time
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