Category Archive: art
More than a year ago my friend John Malsbary and I began trading emails about a couple of films and some ideas that they inspired. I suppose it is a follow-up to our first post together: Dvafoto Book Club, Vol 1: The Hurt Locker. This discussion started when he told me to watch Winter’s Bone and after I saw it I started drawing a lot of connections to my fascination with the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. So I asked John to watch that documentary. This post is an edited form of the ongoing discussion John and I have been having, and jumps around quite a bit to other bits of art and society that we’re interested in. We hope you find it interesting. Watch the trailers for Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and Winter’s Bone.
I think the most important thing that sticks out to me personally with Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (directed by Andrew Douglas, 2003), in concert with Winter’s Bone (directed by Debra Granik, 2010) is the different approaches to telling stories that I’m interested in. I could see myself working on the stories at the heart of either movie, but I don’t know how I would do that with still images.
Watching Winter’s Bone, I kept thinking .. could I do something like this? Take a very realistic story and use some fiction to be able to communicate the story better? Would it allow me to give the audience more than they could see if I shot it ’straight’ as a documentary? For instance, some of the stories I’ve heard in the Roma camps (I spent much of 2009 photographing the destruction of a Belgrade Roma community), there is no way to show all of those elements in still images made at the moment. These were things that happened in the past, things happening where I can’t photograph, or mental images described to me. It seriously makes me think about doing some work on films some day, to explore that itch to tell a more complete story than “purely” what is in front of my lens. Or maybe there is indeed a way to do that within documentary photography.
It is the same thing with Wrong-Eyed, it makes me dream about making a documentary film. What they are able to pull out of the story, with some scripting, some crew, some lighting, is different than what I would get with my still photographs if I were standing there the day before or after with the exact same idea or perspective. Likewise, their way of telling a story would probably not work at all with the stories I have done. My stories exist because I’m one guy moving quickly with one small camera, really no equipment, and just shooting what happens in front of me, no set-ups at all. That movie can not exist without those setups. It took a crew of people to set up access and equipment, to get those people (in jail, in the bar, the preacher) to say their deepest thoughts in those particular tableus. We could both get in to these places, but our way of working changes what we will get on film. And making the decision about how you physically approach a story changes what you will record.
That’s the essence of what I’m interested in this conversation: the nature and method of story telling. And how choices about a medium, given their specific limitations and advantages, can reveal new elements of the story.
Since watching the film the first time I’ve read up quite a bit more on Wrong-Eyed and have fallen deeply in to Jim White’s music (see the embedded video below for one scene of White playing some music and telling a story while driving around). If you like his tunes and want to hear him talk about the making of the film there is a great live set and interview from KEXP in 2005. There is also a nice press kit with much info about the film, found on the website of the distributer.
The White interview on KEXP gave me some interesting perspective on what they set out to achieve. In response to one of the things you raised in your reading of the film, the whiteness of it all. They say that they chose to focus specifically on the rural southern poor white perspective. And for me, that is something that I haven’t seen much real documentary of. My experience with this population is mostly just jokes about rednecks and northern snootiness. Man, I want to just go drive around the south now. I don’t think I have the balls or emotional space at the moment to actually open myself up to these experiences and go to all of these places right away though. Something I’ve realized living and working abroad: it really can be easier photographing away home. Less personal baggage that you hear off the cuff. Not knowing the nuance at first (though I am obsessed with finding it over time, this is why I am five years in to my project with barely an end in sight). You can photograph and not feel so bad not knowing word for word the details of their life story.
I have no idea why you would be afraid of these places. You are straight, white and male. People would make fun of you for being northern/west coast, but that would just be their way of trying to know you. The struggle would be to put up with the hateful shit they’d say, and keep your cool, and not judge them or fight it. Or maybe you would feel you have to fight it.
You know, I think you’ve put yourself at such a disadvantage by talking to people in a foreign country. In America I sometimes feel like narratives are a dime a dozen. Part of my job, as I’ve told you before, is just being where people are aching to be heard. My supervisors occasionally say that people with literally no money only have their story to trade. No one wants a hand out from me. So I receive stories like they’re legal tender.
For me it’s a pleasurable job. But I get a kick out of incoherent pandemonium. I think the hard part for a story teller would be sewing it all into something coherent.
Mishka Henner, a photographer we’ve written about before on dvafoto, has a new project out called Less Américains. It is a photo book of digitally manipulated Robert Frank photographs from the iconic The Americans, printed in an edition almost identical to the original book.
Less Américains is a remake of Robert Frank’s classic photobook, The Americans. Eighty-three new images have been created by digitally erasing most of the visual content from Frank’s photographs, leaving only solitary details from the originals. The sequencing remains faithful to Frank’s 2008 Steidl edition of the book whilst the design of the covers and title pages are influenced by the first Delpire edition printed in France in 1958.
I’m skeptical about this project, at least from seeing the book preview video, perhaps it is different to behold physically, maybe right next to the original. Many re-appropriation works (or musical remixes, which seem relevant) are interesting to me and build on the original or explore new territory; this at first glance just leaves me puzzled. But still it is a somewhat bold proposition: remixing one of the most iconic documentary photo books of all time and to print it as a companion volume. Further, even Robert Frank seems somewhat ambivalent about The Americans now and what the project “means” or “says” fifty years later. Much of Frank’s later work is some sort of deconstruction or re-layering of photographs or video. At least compared to the iconic “straight” documentary nature of the original Americans.
It might even be a trend in photography now (Brauer pointed out this print by Joe Webb as another example) of cutting solid shapes out of photographs while creating new works of art. I’m sure you can show us more examples, good and bad, of this sort of collage.
Henner and Liz Lock together are represented by Panos Pictures, and their work is solidly within the documentary tradition. Henner however has many recent projects that involve reinterpreting or appropriating existing photographs. In fact, the timing of this new work is interesting, as I’ve already been thinking about Henner this week. An interview I’m preparing touches on one of Henner’s projects from 2011, No Man’s Land, which is built on Google Street View images of presumed prostitution. More on that soon. You can purchase the book Less Américains from Henner directly at this link for £80 + shipping. I can’t wait to read a proper art critic’s take on this project, and what it might mean to abstract this type or era of photography with modern methods. I’ll admit, the more I think or look at this project the more interested I become.
Richard Renaldi’s 4th Annual Secular Holiday Advent Calendar is a whimsical little holiday distraction that keeps on giving. Each day, a new date opens up–click on the numbers–and you’ll find a visual morsel hiding beneath.
Kuba Rubaj recently sent us his project “Rainbow”, a beautiful look into a community that I haven’t been introduced to before. We want to share the work with you and a few questions we had for Rubaj.
Rainbow Gathering is like alternative to modern world. Each year Rainbow Family attracts hundreds of thousands of people to spend time in wilderness.
Gatherings each year take place at over 100 locations all over the world, away from civilization, shops, sanitation, electricity, telephones, Internet, alcohol, drugs, money.
Participants feel deep connection with nature. They wish to live in peace and harmony. Some of them consider Rainbow as a new form of society. Spiritually, there is a very strong influence from native Shamanism. There is no membership, leaders, official spokespersons or any formal structure, everyone is equal. They live like a tribe.
First, how did you come across this group and movement?
It’s hard to say, probably by my friend who used to visit rainbows at the beginning of 2000. But I had many friends who travelled. So I’ve heard about it from time to time. I visited my first gathering in Czech Republic in 2007, actually by mistake. It was small thirty-people gathering with a very calm family atmosphere.
Are you part of Rainbow?
I don’t know if we can talk about a clearly defined “belonging to this movement” in general. If You are on the Rainbow gathering You are a part of it.
But in simple terms – I identify with many ideas from Rainbow. But simultaneously I prefer to go my own way in life all the time learn and just have an opened mind.
What is your background, how did you come to photography? Is there something in your background that draws you to this community?
The world has interested me as long as I remember. When I was twelve, I started to travel on bicycle along Eastern Europe. At the beginning with my father and later alone. When I rode a bike through all these countries, many images moved in front of me. I think it has a big influence on my perception and attitude. And later camera just appeared..
Is there any message from the community that you hope to see reflected in modern society? Is this at all a goal of the project, of sharing pictures of Rainbow?
I think Rainbow is in itself a message. People all over the world try to find different way of life, and change their relations. Sometimes it is more, sometimes less authentic, but that does not change the fact that it is. More and more people are tired of modern life.
As for my photographs – they are very simple. Do not have a clear meaning or opinion. I do not want my photographs to impose a judgement.
I wish that every viewer understands it their way. And had his own thoughts / ideas / requests. They can focus on aesthetics / visual side, or they can go on in the thoughts. It is up to them.
I would like it to be universal.
How do the people react to your work, your way of telling their story?
I guess that they like idea of simplicity. Taking photos is not unwelcome on the rainbow, but when I talk about my work and idea of traveling they usually cooperate. I always send them these photographs later.
You mentioned to me that you are planning this to be a part of a pair of books, the second strongly connected with the idea of “the road”. How are they interconnected?
How do you conceive of each project in relation to the other?
On the work of a rainbow as I thought from the beginning about the book, a book about the road came after some time. Book about rainbow will be simple, calm, harmonious; and the book about the road will be chaotic, personal, subjective, unstable – like road is. I wish that these two books will complement each other.
What work (photography, art, music, writers, etc.) are you looking at that excites you, and that our readers might not have come across?
I think the following line of thought about the modern world, I can say for sure that was a huge inspiration for works of Godfrey Reggio, his Quatsi trilogy. I looked at this when I was 13 years old and it had a big impact on me.
Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger posts a fantastic video from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with photographer Richard Misrach and his work following Hurricane Katrina, which recently had its sixth anniversary of striking New Orleans. This video features some of pictures he shot in the city after the flood, but not the ones he had intended to make. Instead of the 1,000 8×10 film images he chose to feature an edit of the ‘snapshots’ he shot, which focus on the language people used in graffiti to communicate with each other and express their feelings about the storm and the national reaction to it. The result was last year’s book Destroy This Memory.
Earlier this year, we wrote about two US states trying to outlaw unauthorized photos of farm operations (The Florida was changed in a few important ways after our initial report). That’s been the most tweeted and shared post in the history of dvafoto, and generated a great conversation on the value and imperative of photography of American agriculture. Of the many comments and messages I got from that post, one of the most intriguing was from a California-based photographer named Barron Bixler. He’s been working on a project on agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, A New Pastoral, and wanted to start a dialog about these issues. As he said in his introductory email, “I’m sick of shouting into the wind about these issues and would love to start a meaningful conversational thread about it with someone who’s similarly implicated.” So that’s what we’ve got here below. Be sure to check out the rest of Bixler’s work, and if you’re near Fresno, California, between August 19 and January 6, 2012, you can see A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley in a solo exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum.
dvafoto: Why do you photograph the agricultural industry?
Barron Bixler: I’m going to begin with a fairly provocative comparison, so bear with me.
Last week I stumbled across a talk given by photography luminary Fred Ritchin in which he quotes one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders on the power of photography to document events that would otherwise go unseen: “Without a photograph we’ve never been able to prove a massacre….If we have no photographs, there are no massacres.”
Reading this quote within the context of agriculture, many will rightly ask what human rights abuse has to do with where produce comes from. The short answer is, more than you’d think. In September 2010, the “guest worker” recruiting firm Global Horizons was charged with operating the largest forced agricultural labor ring ever prosecuted by the federal government. Sadly, the Global Horizons case is anomalous only in its scale. Google “florida agricultural slavery” and you’ll get a cross section of entries that expose the high cost of cheap produce.
My own approach to photographing industrial agriculture operations in California is decidedly ambivalent, and my focus is on the land rather than the people who work it, but in the back of my mind there’s always this same nagging question: what price have we paid (and do we continue to pay) to farm in this massive, industrial way? Even Monsanto—the company that 50 years ago repurposed Agent Orange into commercial pesticides and has been a driving force behind the Green Revolution—has tacitly admitted that indiscriminate and ongoing pesticide use is probably not environmentally sustainable. So when we look at our industrial food system as it’s existed since the 1940s, and at the downstream social and environmental consequences of that system, what we’re left with is a fairly disquieting picture.
Through our federal ag and trade policy over the last century, we’ve engineered our food system in a way that measures success as a ratio of units of input to units of output. And while this all sounds good and highly rational in that 1940s-systems-engineering-fetish sort of way, the problem is the units of input aren’t abstract concepts or inert materials. They’re farmers and farm workers. They’re animals. They’re entire communities and ecosystems. All of which we’ve placed on the same level in our equation of success as John Deere tractors and gallons of petrochemical fertilizer.
At the same time, as consumers of food, you and I gobble up the seductive myth of the independent family farmer and allow ourselves to indulge, if momentarily, the belief that Hidden Valley Ranch is an actual place tucked away in the rolling coastal hills of California. (For a case in point, read The Story of Hidden Valley.)
Just today I passed a billboard in Oakland, California proclaiming that “99% of California Dairy Farms are Family Owned.” A quick visit to the California Milk Advisory Board website confirms the source of this latest campaign. Watch some of CMAB’s gorgeous short documentaries about family-run dairies and you might be willing to forget, just for a minute, well documented cases of migrant dairy workers drowning in toxic manure evaporation lagoons the size of football fields or official reports from the USDA, EPA and others about the role industrial dairies and feedlots play in global climate change and the pollution of local air, soil and water.
If nothing else, I hope my pictures of California agriculture destabilize our cozy vision of where most of our food comes from—and more importantly, what it leaves behind. After all, if we have no photographs to show how things are, there’s nothing a good marketing agency or PR crisis response firm or government information ministry can’t get us to swallow: whether it’s rounding up political dissidents for a massacre or the latest formulation of Roundup PowerMAX®.
You say you work both with permission of the farmers and without. Do the farmers you work with know that you have such a critical stance on their practices?
A few months back I posted a question on Twitter to the effect of, “As a documentarian, where do one’s loyalties lie? To ‘objectivity,’ or to the people who trust you to photograph them?” The question was prompted by a piece on the NYT Lens blog called “Bonding with Subjects in Harm’s Way” in which Finbar O’Reilly recounts personal experiences photographing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
For documentary photographers, these are the large and rather prickly horns of the dilemma that defines our discipline: to what extent can or should you strive for objectivity when your subjects are engaged in practices that are, at best, ethically muddy? How do you separate out the complicity of the individual from the larger system of which he or she is a part? How does your empathy toward or dependence on your subjects (in Mr. O’Reilly’s case this most certainly was a matter of life or death; in my case it’s more a matter of access and good will) affect your capacity to remain dispassionate and brutally honest? Who or what are your pictures ultimately in service of?
Read on »
Donald Weber has a new book of his work in Ukraine and Russia, to be released in Fall 2011 by Schilt Publishing. We asked him to give us a preview of his pictures and book dummies alongside his ideas on publishing and developing projects. As part of the funding for the project Weber is currently selling collector’s editions and a special advanced version of the book via the Interrogations Book website. Weber is a VII Network photographer from Toronto and often teaches workshops, and is hosting on July 21st and 22nd 2011 a workshop on grant writing in Berlin. Dvafoto previously interviewed Weber in December 2008 when he was living in Kiev and in the midst of the photography and travels that would become this book.
Could you introduce the work featured in your new book Interrogations
Following an exploratory trip to Chernobyl in 2005, I soon returned to the abandoned site of the nuclear disaster and spent the next seven years in Russia and Ukraine photographing the ruins of the unstoppable storm we call history. Traveling and living with ordinary people who had survived much, had survived everything, this project begins to see the modern State as a primitive and bloody sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.
Interrogations is the result of my personal quest to uncover the hidden meaning of the bloody 20th Century. In dialogue with friend and writer Larry Frolick – whose own ancestors had been decimated in the final months of WW II – I insistently and provocatively address questions both to the living survivors and to the ghosts of the State’s innumerable victims, resurrecting their final hours by taking their point of view, and performing a kind of incantatory meditation over their private encounters with Power.
The policemen, working girls, thugs, dissidents and hustlers who inhabit these pages are all orphans of a secret History; the outlines of our collective fate takes shape in this epic work, expanding our awareness of what it means to be an actor in today’s dark opera.
How did the idea for a book of this work come about? How did it change over time?
Stalin famously said, “I am not concerned with how the court of History will judge our current deeds.” I found this a fascinatingly provocative statement, and one that goes right to the heart of who I am as a photographer. I began seeing my role as that of the court of History, another somebody who could examine the deeds of History and present it to an audience. I am much more concerned with making pictures about something rather than of something. As I delved deeper and deeper into my work, I became inspired by the writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Varlam Shalamov and Vasily Grossman, all artists who reveal the incantatory slogans of History and their dark meanings.
So, I started to investigate and examine not just the subject matter I was interested in, but the methods of how best to present that work. I felt these writers to be an inspiration and thus the ideas of the book really began to reveal themselves. I see the role of a photographer not just as a creator of visual narrative, but also a communicator of ideas and people and places and subjects that can be explored much like a novelist explores certain themes. With this in mind, a book was the only obvious way forward.
I cannot say I set out to photograph what I photographed, in fact my original ideas were quite different then what you see in the book. I am an instinctual photographer, I rarely travel with a plan in mind, I prefer moving through a space not just intellectually but through my stomach and my heart. It’s only when I start seeing things, talking to people, getting involved and gaining a little knowledge about the place do the real ideas begin. It’s the same in editing, I lay a bunch of small prints on the floor and I just sit surrounded by them on the floor, the pictures reveal themselves and the places they want to be.
I had a great discussion with Teun van der Heijden, the designer of the book, back in January when we were starting the layout. He wanted the book to be the entire series of Interrogations, as did Maarten Schilt and a few others. I think my ego was a little hurt – I thought, I have spent 6 years in Siberia and Ukraine, wandering in some pretty dark places, and suddenly all this work will never be seen? But then I had a realization that because I spent these six years, these years of frustration and toil and a lot of personal sacrifice, that I could go and make this Interrogations series, that this experience allowed me to get to where I really needed to be. In the end, it’s not totally Interrogations literally, but also a very beautiful “prologue” of the spaces and people that inhabit the interrogation room, the conditions that could foster this type of treatment. I couldn’t be prouder of the direction it has taken.
The title refers, of course, not only to the confrontation of a vast uniformed apparatus and its trembling subjects as a historical set-piece, if not a ritual public ceremony, but, more cogently, to the role of the photographer in the 21st Century as an eye-witness and social critic. The answer, of course, lies in the work itself. The work either satisfies our instinct for truth, or it doesn’t. Fieldwork is the crucible of ambition.
How did you go about getting in to the process of having it published? How did you find a designer and publisher to work with?
I made an initial list (I am an inveterate list maker) of all the publishers I wished to work with. I examined their back lists and looked for books that matched not just the conceptual values of my work, but also the physical values of a book that I admire. From there, I sort of whittled the list down to about seven publishers that I felt would make a good partner. I initially trained as an architect and so I was used to collaboration; in fact one of the things I loathe most about a lot of photography books, is essentially they just become monographs of the photographers greatest images. A book should have plot and character, foreshadowing, knowledge, conflict and redemption, all the ingredients that make up a good story, but also be socially engaged, say something. I always asked myself “What do you want to say?”
Read on »
An inherent value of print is its immutability. What was written online last year or last week, may have disappeared or been drastically modified; there is no record of what was except for what is. Newstweek, a strange little device that intercepts and changes news websites on open public WiFi networks, demonstrates just how tenuous world of digital media can be. The miniature computer was designed to be deployed in coffee shops and similar public spaces. When plugged in, and directed by an administrator over the internet, Newstweek replaces the contents of news websites with whatever the administrator chooses. In the example video above, and the extended video at hackaday, unsuspecting users computers display slightly modified versions of news articles, with headlines or text inserted to reflect the politics of these activists. The creators of the device, Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, want their work to address the issue of trustworthiness as it relates to the gatekeepers of the national and international media conversation. There’s an interview with them at ComputerWorld. There’s also good discussion of the device and its implications at sci-fi author Charlie Stross’ blog.
It’s all very insidious, and I’m frightened to consider the possibilities for these devices in the wrong hands (or anybody’s hands, really). And while the above demonstration of device is eye-opening, there aren’t many degrees of separation between Newstweek and filtering and personalization already performed by most websites. That issue’s been on my mind lately as Eli Pariser’s book, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You,” has been making the rounds lately. At it’s most innocuous, sites like facebook only show you information from your strongest connections, using algorithms to decide which friends are most important to you. Somewhere up the sinister spectrum a bit, e-commerce sites might change prices of items based on your shopping habits or items that you had viewed previously. Even further along the line, China’s government this week temporarily banned the words “Inner Mongolia” online to stem the spread of protests in the region (this would be like if the Obama administration made it impossible to write “Montana” on any blogs, twitter, or facebook). In each of these cases, as in the Newstweek example, the problem not only lies in the types of changes being made, but also in just how difficult it is to discern that any change has been made.
You can learn how to build your own Newstweek device here.
Mishka Henner has a new project on the Panos Pictures website, made with Google Street View, called No Man’s Land. It purports to be a series of pictures of women who “appear to be soliciting sex”. We knew there were going to be a lot more of these Google-based projects coming, following the controversial World Press Photo award given this year to Michael Wolf. But this one impresses me a lot, though in pushing more boundaries raises a new set of questions.
About his project Henner says,
No Man’s Land explores the margins of our urban and rural European environment as experienced by what appear to be women soliciting sex in liminal, post-industrial and rural settings, captured by Google Street View cameras.
Occupying liminal spaces in post-industrial and rural settings, the focus on these women also casts a critical eye on the Street View project itself and on photography’s indelible link to voyeurism and surveillance.
The Street View project heralds a new age of street-level cartography that offers a vast, regularly updated archive waiting to be mined by documentarians seeking to make sense of our contemporary condition. …
I think the project is terrific, especially in the visuals, and it is interesting to hear how Henner contextualizes the issues of using Google Street View immediately in the introduction to the work. I’m still working through some of the implications of the work, and I’m curious about your reactions. For example, these blurred faces imposed by Google itself… I’m sure there are legal implications for displaying peoples’ likenesses but in this context of possible illegal activity, it adds something else. It draws some parallels, in that fine line of documenting accusations, with Donald Weber’s project Interrogations, and many of the same issues of consent and imposition.
Overall I’m struck by the consistency of this project, photographically and conceptually: 64 images (on Panos’ site) with remarkably similar compositions. An amazing, consistent collaboration between Google’s ‘unseeing eye’ and Henner’s curation. The banality of the scenes is so strongly undermined by the repetition, the ubiquity and the scope of these images across Europe. I’m also struck that it would be nearly impossible for a photographer on his or her own to create such a project. Can we really imagine someone driving around and capturing as many scenes, as consistently, on their own?
Henner is showing me that sexual trafficking (as he implies, or maybe just a phenomenon of women sitting by rural roads) has a particular pattern consuming Europe; I am not accustomed to seeing anything like this with my full eyes nor before in an arts project. That is useful I think. This is perhaps journalism in a new form, it is informing us about something after investigation and we can likely rely upon it. Screw the medium, this is showing us something new in our communities and in an eloquent and democratic manner.
Passing this link to some friends I heard some very interesting, and critical responses. Ranging from the idea that a photographer should really just go out and make their own pictures (ideally, sure, but I think that it is clever to use the mass resources of Google photographing more places in less time than an individual could) to the very serious issue of Henner painting all of these women near the streets as street-walkers. Does he have any evidence to make such an accusation? Is this project interesting only because it is voyeuristic and speculative? I don’t have the answer, and Henner does not really give any firm answers in his own words about the project .. so again, I suppose we’re just asking questions but not coming to any conclusions. Interesting questions, but still troubling.
A little levity after last week’s heavy news.
We’ve seen reference photos for Norman Rockwell’s paintings in the past (now available in a book). A set of reference photos for vintage pin-up posters have recently been circulating, and they’re a wonderful look behind the scenes of mid-twentieth-century sexuality. Comparing the reference photos with the final product is fascinating. The poses and figure are often barely-changed duplicates from photo to painting; clothing fabric and extraneous details are cleaned-up or fabricated. The biggest changes can be seen in the faces. In the paintings the women’s faces are smoothed out, made thinner and younger, and if the hair is changed, it always gets longer.