PHOTOGRAPHY & POLITICS

Couple of things to make clear at the start . . .

I’m not talking here about the day-to-day, vernacular photography we see posted on social media. I quite like some of that and appreciate the function it fulfills. (Although some of what follows can be applied to that kind of photography, too. After all, all photographs define, somehow, some aspects of the aspirations and world view of the person who took them.)

What I am talking about are the bodies of work created and circulated by photographers who intend to situate their work within the confines of the “serious” and/or “fine art” realms of PhotoWorld™. What are their personal politics? How is it rendered in their work? Do they care? Does it matter?

So okay, with that out of the way, let me begin . . .

My view of, and interest in, photography has always skewed towards the political. And I define “politics” in photography quite broadly. It need not be, in fact often isn’t, overt. It includes informed and incisive looks at, and dissections of, the world. It might consider personal or global politics from a tempered, poetic perspective, or simply be a photographer trying to honestly define their life. (Can there be anything more political that trying to honestly define your life?)

And, it must be said that a good photograph, no matter what, contains a multitude of wonderful aspects to appreciate. What I hope to find is informed opinion and intelligence, photographs that will educate me by showing me something I haven’t thought of before. Or photographs that cause me to reconsider or expand my world view by shedding new light on something that I have thought of before.

But I also look for and analyze the politics contained in images, whether those politics were consciously embedded by the photographer or not. (And this coincides neatly with my belief that many photos are gateways to some aspect of their creators’ subconscious, to their aspirations and/or world view . . . i.e. their politics)

But (and remember I’m talking here about “serious” and “fine art” photography) . . . but a lot of photographs that are created, liked, and given blue-chip support seem to me to be nothing more than pro forma, commercial images that merely support a product. The product being the status quo.

There are, of course, a million shades of grey. I’ve seen quiet, beautiful work that is profoundly political, just as I’ve seen bold edgy work that seems nothing more than a clever way to separate money from patrons who want to appear radical (while at the same time making sure the art they buy matches their glamorous decor).

Don’t get me wrong, I know we need a certain amount of joy, distraction, and just plain beauty in our lives. And, sure, there’s no reason art can’t supply some of that.

But the embrace of anodyne photography equals a tacit acceptance of the tumult that the world (your world, my world, everyone’s world) is being subjected to these days.

Which side are you on?

OTTAWA NOTES

JUSTIN WONNACOTT STUDIO SHOW

This Friday and Saturday Justin Wonnacott will be opening his studio. You are invited to drop by, look at some photographs, have a drink and a chat. And, it must be said, chow down on some of the stellar snacks he’s been known to make.

Happening this Friday, November 29 between five and nine and on Saturday the 30th from one until about six.

Getting there is a bit tricky but will be worth the effort. This is what Justin says:

Folks are invited to a party in my studio with things to eat,
some wine and pictures on the wall.
My studio entrance is the north door at 82 Rue Hanson in

Gatineau on the second floor of La Filature .
I will leave a note on the door with my phone number to call
and I will open the door for you.
Come and see where I work. But….. If you plan to come please

RSVP in a facebook message to let me know when you are coming.
Thanks, Justin Wonnacott

REMI THERIAULT at STUDIO SIXTY SIX

Also on Friday, No Vacancy, a show of Remi Thériault‘s images of life on the road, in the clubs, and stuff, will open at Studio Sixty Six. That’s November 29th, six to nine.

(ANTI) ARTIST-STATEMENT

1/

A while ago, in a fit of inspiration, I dashed this off on my Twitter feed:

Not decorative, not lyrical, not framed as art.
– My (anti) artist-statement.

This isn’t a statement against artists. No, it’s kind of what I’d like my artist statement to be. Except it’s too simplistic. Though it must be said that there’s a beauty to simplicity and to lack of explanation, to leaving it up to the viewer to come to their own conclusion(s).

But, because I embrace my contradictions, let me explain . . .

I don’t want my photographs to be about the history of art, nor for their meaning (whatever that might be) to be reliant on the viewers’ education. I don’t want their form to supercede their content. I don’t want my work’s “success” to be defined by its acceptance into the white-cube-gallery world that signifies “important” work (and here I initially misspelled important as impotent, yup).

And, yes, I know that meaning of (almost) all Art is available for everyone, no matter what; that you don’t need an education to think and to feel or to be affected by any form of expression.

But I hope you catch my drift here . . . I’m talking about Art (photographs) who’s success (acceptance) relies upon the kind of in-thinking (and in-breeding) that forms the closed loop of so much that is considered valuable these days. And in these Late-Capitalism, neoliberal times value is most often equated to monetary worth and acceptance by rich motherfuckers. Let’s call it: collectability.

2/

I just returned from coffee and discussion with another photographer. He was bemoaning the fact that the art world has changed. (Has it?) The gate keepers of those white-cube spaces are too busy (or something), he said, to even look at, let alone consider the work of (senior) artists. Or at least those artists that don’t mesh with their (the gatekeepers) scheme.

I’m sure there are exceptions to what he said, just as I’m sure there is a certain amount of truth to it. But it seems obvious that the system is skewed. Kind of like it has always been. (Of course, if you are an in-demand artist you’ll probably be thinking the system works just fine, thank you very much.)

What is true, though, is that there is a surfeit of photographers clamouring for the limited sanctified wall space in the power-structures we call art galleries. Getting seen and then chosen by the choosers is very difficult and, seemingly (within certain bounds) kind of arbitrary.

I suggested to my friend that if the people who hold the keys to the galleries, and thus to bluechip acceptance (and sales) won’t consider your work perhaps it’s time to look for ways to circumvent those gate keepers, to redefine success, to find other ways of disseminating the information you call your art.

After all, if the door is blocked, it makes no sense to keep banging on it, thinking (hoping) that this time it will be opened.

3/

Now, I’m not saying that galleries have no place in the art world. What I am saying is that showing in galleries is not, or needn’t be, the be-all and end-all; that in this new age there are so many other options available for the dissemination and monetization of art. The problem seems (to me) to be the lack of imagination artists display when it comes to rethinking their place in the current system.

Perhaps it’s time to devise and implement new strategies and tactics, schemes and alternate means, different definitions of success. If you are compelled to create and communicate it might be time to move past (or around) the art-system as it exists now.

Of course, if the approval of the power brokers that represent the status quo is what you need, if your validation will only come from having your work placed on the white walls of the white cubes, I’m afraid you’re pretty much stuck with playing their game, using their rules. And you will change nothing.

OTTAWA NOTES

FURTHER

In the coming months, here on drool., I’ll be thinking out loud about the ideas expressed in the above paragraphs. Tune in to keep up.

OLIVIA JOHNSTON at CUAG

Opening today (Sunday, September 15th) at the Carleton University Art Gallery.

From the CUAG website:
In this new series of photographic portraits, Olivia Johnston invited peers to pose as Christian saints and Madonnas, as well as other biblical figures. As an artist with a secular upbringing, Johnston has been investigating the influence of Christianity within the visual language of Western art and wider culture. Exploring the collection as CUAG’s fifth artist in the Collection Invitational series, the Ottawa-based artist has selected artworks that depict or reference Madonnas, as well as works that contain symbols or narratives associated with saints that are brought into conversation with her own works.

LAUREN BOUCHER and KAT FULWIDER at EXPOSURE GALLERY

Opening Wednesday, September 18th. 6 to 8 PM.

From the Exposure Gallery website:
Heal represents a pilgrimage back to the self. In a dialogue of expression, Katherine Fulwider and Lauren Boucher utilize the photographic medium as a vehicle for introspection, exposing the active process of healing.

In Fulwider’s project Womb, elements of nature and the female form are brought into union through exploring the disconnection between humans, nature and Spirit. Through her dreamlike cyanotypes, Fulwider highlights the universal need for connection and refuge in growth. In You Are Safe Here, Boucher examines ephemera and how the photographic medium plays into recording impermanence. In her visceral, poetic imagery, Boucher enacts performative release by vocalizing personal prayer and affirmation.

Together, Boucher and Fulwider reclaim voice and access inner truths through connection to both the external world and the intimate self.


COPIED AND CO-OPTED

The current evolution (and devolution) of our culture and thus, politics, as it relates to photography is a (figurative) wormhole down which any thinking person might disappear and lose their mind. I’m going to leave it to smarter, more rounded people than me to bring you well thought out treatises on various aspects of that.

All’s I really want to do here is, I want to bring up, and leave dangling, just one thing . . . How quickly new, innovative photography is copied and co-opted.

Used to be finding new photography that informed and inspired was a long slow process. And for me “long” and “slow” and “process” are things that give worth. I’ve never been a fan of easy. It’s too easy.

But now the knockoff artists are running rampant. Within weeks of some new vision creating a sensation, being noticed, adding something to the canon, it is being copied.

A couple of cases in point . . .

Take the work of Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang. He shook things up a few years ago with the new, weird way he was working with youth and the body. Think Ryan McGinley with a (formal) edge.

© Ren Hang

And Zanele Muholi, from South Africa, who’s way of rendering black skin and showing costume was a revelation.

Skim through the mainstream photo/fashion publications and lots of “fine art” photographers’ websites, and so on, and you’ll see many pale imitations of these (above) approaches. And it seemed to happen overnight.

Spending real time searching for inspiration, for process, for personal meaning seems, in many cases to have gone the way of the dodo bird, i.e. extinct.

Too often in PhotoWorld™ the job gets done by biting someone else’s style.

Of course, nothing is really new. The real innovation (and truth and discovery) comes with (and by) the combining of many and various elements into a whole. When you take (yes, take) bits and pieces of what already exists, tumble them around in your brain, and spend the time and emotional capital to develop tactics and strategies to render that mashup you will (if you care and have talent) end up with something authentic.

OTTAWA NOTES

First of all . . . drool. will not be appearing next Sunday. I’ll be at the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival, The Netherlands.

Not taking my laptop, just a phone. And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna write, and format a blog on that thing.

I will, though, be posting copious images and bits of writing on Twitter, Insta, and the Facebook. Follow me there if you need to see that stuff.

DO IT FOR THE GRAIN

There’s a new(ish), free photo zine available in Kapital City. DO IT FOR THE GRAIN, brought to you by Kenneth Yams, is billed as “a semi-regular publication of analog black and white photography by local artists”.

(As an aside, I’m not sure about separating and fetishizing film photography. In should be about the image, right? Why should anyone care what camera was used to create it? But, hey, you start a publication, blog, whatever, you get to do what you want.)

Anyway, in the issue I managed to find (vol 1/ issue 4. 16 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 inches) you will see a mix of, well, analog B&W photography.

Some of the page spreads are quite poetic, others too obvious, but you can tell attention has been paid to sequence, pairings and flow.

Of course, with the ease and relative low cost of printing stuff like this there is always the danger that one will just throw up, onto the printed page, the low-end vacuity often seen on social media. But I must say I was pleasantly surprised by DO IT FOR THE GRAIN. It will be interesting to see how this project evolves.

DO IT FOR THE GRAIN has a kind of bare-bones social media presence, but you can find further info, and where to pick up a copy, on their Facebook and Insta feeds.

I DON’T KNOW

Do you have moods? You do, don’t you? I have them too. Happy, sad; sure, unsure; elated, depressed; strong, weak . . . who knows?

Today I just don’t know.

I could pretend I know, that I’m sure. Or I could wait to write this until I do feel sure (because I’ll feel sure later). I could curate the face I show here, package it up into some as-close-to-perfect me as possible. I could live the lie.

Fuck that shit . . .

Photos tumble out of my X100F. The result of confusion and some kind of concerted effort. But nothing seems to be making much sense.

Don’t get me wrong, though. After all, this is what I set out to do . . . to be confused, to look for some new kind of sense. And now here I am . . .

At least I feel alive.

OTTAWA NOTES

As far as I can tell there’s pretty much nothing I want to note, photo-wise, in Kapital City this week. And when I say “to note” what I mean is there’s nothing happening that, in my opinion, moves photography in Kapital City forward. I don’t need to agree with whatever is being presented, but I’d like it to be smart, modern (or historically pertinent) and well conceived.

The important bit from the above being “in my opinion”. After all, I’m just a guy with a blog, doing the best I can. (And some weeks I do better than others.)

Sometimes I wonder if I might (should) write something critical here when I see photographs presented for consideration that fall short of the (my) mark.

After all, as I’ve said before, there’s too much “noticing” and boosterism in this scene, and not enough actual criticism. And it seems to me that if you present work for consideration perhaps you should want, and expect, people to consider (rather that just notice) it.

Or maybe some photographers don’t want or expect their work to be considered. Perhaps, for some, just being noticed is enough.

NOT A RANDOM KIND OF GUY

Let’s start with the continuing saga of me and my camera. If that bores you, well, there’s also a thing about the Dave Heath show at the Nat’l Gallery of Canada and an excerpt from the Jonathan Blaustein review of After the Fact.

So . . .

PRELIMINARY CONCLUSION

The X100F is a perfect tool for snap-shooting, carrying everywhere, making random notes. And that’s how I thought I might use it.

But after a few weeks of doing that I’ve come to a preliminary conclusion. And that’s that I’m not a random kind of guy.

Hold on, maybe I am a random kind of guy, but only in life. When it comes to photo projects I need some kind of hook to hang on.

Of course we all need some kind of hook, even if it’s just I’m-going-to-photograph-random-street-scenes. Or I-shoot-birds. Or yes-portraits-that’s-what-I’m-interested-in.

At the outset of this new project I set out just to see and react, and to bring the results of that seeing and reacting home so I could look at it, think about what I’d done. Then, as often happens, I saw one image and something in my brain went ping! An association was made, some synaptic path opened up and I saw a way forward. Focus was found, or at least intimated.

This is the photo that set it off. I don’t really like this image, will probably never use it.

It did, however, serve a purpose . . . it fixed a word in my brain, one word. And that word, which I am not yet ready to say out loud, has given me direction. Like a sign.

When all this was going through my head I bumped into this description of the process behind Brian David Stevens book: Doggerland. It was timely for me and seems to hit the nail on the head, about how I will pursue this thing I’m doing now . . .

“. . . found images, but images all looked-for : sought, perceived even a little in advance . . .”

The beauty of the camera I’m using is that it facilitates that mode of working. I’ve been enjoying carrying the thing around, and now I have a better idea of what I’m looking for.

OTTAWA NOTES

The Dave Heath exhibition, Multitude, Solitude, at the National Gallery of Canada is a must-see. A slightly overlarge view of much of the work he did in Korea and, famously, New York City in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Plus recent colour work, book maquettes and a bit of miscellanea.

Perhaps a little too sentimental in places for my tastes, but there is no denying the power and (specific) universality of these renderings. And, having known the man, it must be said . . . the work is true to his sensibilities, vision and outlook. These photographs are impossible not to look at closely, and that looking will affect you. What more can you ask for?

The NGC link here will take you to a place where you can read all about it.

Anyone who wants to take a deep dive into Dave Heath should check out this video made by Michael Schreier: Dave Heath, In Concert With The Silent Witness.

A REVIEW OF AFTER THE FACT

A while ago Jonathan Blaustein, over at aPhotoEditor, reviewed my book: After the Fact.

I have to say, he really got it, not only what it was about, but also the cyclical form of the sequence. Here’s the main bit of his review.

And, by the way, there are still 20 copies left. Go here to see the sequence, and here to buy a copy. Support independent publishing.

The cover is a dream-scape in silhouette of black on blue, with ravens and a tree and the sky.

This will be a repeating motif within, birds, and while I was OK with it, maybe it did seem a bit obvious.

Open it up, and there’s a globe. The North Atlantic Sea is prominent, and I think it’s a pretty damn smart way to ground the story.

Then, a disaffected portrait of a tall guy crammed under a short ceiling.

Then bleak, cold, yet undeniably beautiful landscapes of what I take to be Canada in Winter.

We start with a smart quote by Bertolt Brecht about singing in the face of darkness, which I took to mean that we need to make our art, to speak our peace, to sing our songs, in particular when we think things are going to shit.

(And of course many people regard our current situation as a particularly dangerous one, relative to the Post World War II era.)

Then, some redacted text, and then a slew of excellent images.

Like I said, the bird theme is a bit on-the-nose for me, and I normally don’t use that expression. But I’d also like to ask that people stop including pictures of trash on the street or sidewalk. (We had them in last week’s book too.)

What do you say, folks?
A moratorium on garbage in the street pictures?

But other than that, the photography is spot on.

The portrait of the dog in the muzzle?
Amazing.

The yellow brick road, the policeman’s gun, the bloody bed, the sad portraits, the public places, it all adds up to a feeling of dread and impending doom.

Impending doom is the same as maybe-not-yet arrived doom. You can feel it coming, but is there still time to affect the outcome? To hope? 

There’s a guy in camouflage unfurling a wire of some sort. Mennonite women, a power-company worker at night, more sad portraits, dead-people feet, power washing a building, and then that little girl looking right at you, from the side, like a young-21st-century-Mona-Lisa.

Towards the end, the book’s title page, “After the Fact.”

Then, another quote, this time from Martin Heidegger, “The possible ranks higher than the actual.”

Idealism before realism, I suppose?

Next, another portrait of a guy looking away, (behind the hoodie,) the birds, and a cold Canadian landscape.

A last credits page, which quotes Joe Strummer, “The future is unwritten,” and states, unequivocally, “This book is a work of fiction. The real people, places and incidents portrayed are used fictitiously.”

The end.

Is it, though?

If you open it in the back, and start here, doesn’t the book make just as much sense?

You get opening quotes for context, and you’re explicitly told to see this as a work of visual fiction.

It opens similarly, motif wise, (birds/landscape/dude portrait,) and this way, it includes the title page in the beginning, where it would normally be.

Plus, it’s just so easy to flip-it back to front, given its design.

There are narrative waves and repeating motifs that work just as well this way, and even better, you can reverse direction whenever you want.

It’s a good reminder, perhaps, that we not get too rigid in our thinking. That books should be made this way. Or that.