Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper has died today at the age of 74.

A Dennis Hopper exhibition showed at Melbourne’s ACMI during 2010 and some of the work was related to the big Hopper exhibition at New York’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery I saw in 2009. Hopper is more of an artist that I thought, more of a creative individual involved in being creative on a wide front as a life’s endeavour.

I was intrigued by his paintings and their curious relationship to photography. Hopper photographed actively from the 1960s, recording his work and social life in L.A. His photographs, shown seperately at Shafrazi, were lively, interesting records of a certain milieu – intelligent celebrities, if that’s not an oxymoron.

The paintings are the photographs scaled up, big and so accurately rendered in paint that you have to look twice to see that they are not large photographs. Paintings that are 2 x 2.5 metres in size are derived from 40 x 60cm photographs. It’s like the scale propositions of Roy Liechtenstein’s giant comic strip panels. Something changes in the enlargement, but what is it?

Hopper’s paintings have the same monochrome tonality, accidental background details and lens characteristics as the original photographs, but they are not photographs. They pay homage to photography but don’t quite live without the referent of the original photograph. As paintings they are curiously dead, like billboard paintings. Being copies of photographs, they lack the spirit of painting, the painter’s gestures, the hints of colour, the plasticity – Painting’s independence as a medium. They are signs representing Photography.

Call this subject “photography by other means”.

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Which one is the painting?

 

 

 

Photographs from tonyshafrazigallery.com

 

 

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Photography in education

The question facing a lot photography teachers right now is: does the darkroom still have a role in education?

In the historic roll-over to the digital age, is there any point in still getting students to learn how to mix semi-toxic chemicals and stand around in the dark sloshing tanks and dipping sheets of paper into developer? The “digital darkroom” is so civilized in comparison. A scanner, a computer and a printer will do the same or possibly much more, in an area of one square metre, and you work sitting down and with the lights on!

Institutes like to get rid of darkrooms because the computer rooms that replace them can be generic fluoro-lit halls with the same tables and chairs as every other department, no expensive plumbing, no risk of health problems. And it’s getting harder to justify analogue on pure image-making grounds because computers allow even the laziest student to use tools that even Ansel Adams would have envied.

But there are reasons for maintaining traditional methods of photography: they anchor students in the 170 year history of photography, students can develop an eye for what a good photograph looks like, and it’s a varied activity, it gives people a sense of achievement.

These last two points bear on the course I teach, in a college level art department, a TAFE. If the curriculum only consisted of digital techniques using DSLRs and sitting at a desk to Photoshop the images, where is the fun? We have such a range of film cameras ranging from plastic toys to a big studio 5×4, with 35mm and 120 in between, that the students are constantly challenged with unfamiliar mechanics, film loading questions, light fog, enlarging issues, film grain and sharpness differences…I could go on. The point is that young students, and many older ones, are taken out of their digital/online safety zone and are are challenged. In the age of push button mobile phones, games, TVs and cameras, the simple act of loading film becomes a challenging mental effort.

To me, analogue is the soul of photography. I love digital and use it everyday, but I think that a digital only photography education would be a soulless experience. An article by Bostick and Sullivan in openorigins.com gives a another slant on the subject. Here is an excerpt.

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THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DARKROOM IN PHOTOGRAPHY EDUCATION

From Bostick and Sullivan / Member, Freestyle Advisory Board of Photographic Professionals

The whole modern electronic world is basically an abstraction. …The Waterford School in Sandy Utah requires all students to take photography. The facilities there rival those of most 4 year colleges. Students can check out 12 x 20 view cameras, and there are two Hassleblad outfits and numerous other pieces of equipment available. The developing room has three Jobo processors! I asked Dusty Heuston who founded the school why photography? He said it was a universal discipline. Huh? I said.

Dusty said that photography can encompass many disciplines: physics, chemistry, optics, math, history, art, and photography also forces the student to learn to deal with things in a mechanical sense: loading a film holder for instance. The nice thing he said was it bit back in a nice way. If we goofed back in 1953 by filling fellow student’s shoes with hot metal while doing sand casting or by losing a thumb in the table saw, the consequences could be a bit harsh. Ruining a roll of film by fixing it first is a nasty bite, but one the student could recover from. …

If the point of education is only to train young people to join the corporate work force then full on digital is the way to go. If it is to give them a sense of knowing they can “make” something through a logical set of steps and procedures then wet photography is an excellent way to achieve that. The attraction you note of students to the wet darkroom process is a reflection of the fact that we as humans do like to “make” things. Sorry to get too McLuhanesque here but listening to Hot Snot or whatever is the latest fad group on an iPod is satisfying to some but grows old after while. Wet photography is a “hot medium” and digital is “Cold.”

http://www.openorigins.com/photography-notes/the-importance-of-the-darkroom-in-photographic-education/

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Dad’s slides

In 1974 my dear late father brought back from Europe a collection of ready-made 35mm colour slides. These were professional photographs depicting places of interest that he was presumably unable to capture himself. I recently scanned and printed these images with a view to exhibiting the collection as an art installation.

Because of their age the slides have faded into a variety of outlandish hues. They were shot on colour films that have proved unstable, Ferrania, Agfa etc,  the only brand resisting change being Kodachrome – its colours are perfectly intact. The slides have slipped from their cardboard mounts, collected dust and hairs, and acquired scratches and fingerprints. All these signs of decay have transformed the images from their ordinary purpose as souvenirs into something luminous and new.

 

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Paper Moon

Watching the 1973 movie Paper Moon is like seeing Walker Evans photographs come to life. Set in Kansas in 1935, it’s a road movie that follows its two characters across a series of marvellous landscapes and towns. It was shot by Laszlo Kovacs, a cinematographer celebrated for his location work (Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show) which always conjures up memories of how particular places feel. You suspect that Kovacs, director Peter Bogdanovich, and production designer Polly Platt, were looking at Farm Security photographs, work by Evans, Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange and others. The compositions in the movie look like still photographs.

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There is a particular period look to the movie, a combination of carefully chosen locations in Kansas and Missouri, wide angle lenses, deep focus and filters. “Orson Welles and Peter were very close friends” Kovacs said, “and I got to meet my ‘god’ while we were preparing our film. I’d been testing black & white film with various filters but still hadn’t found the right look. Orson said, ‘Use red filters, my boy.’ And I did, because although the filters reduced the film speed and meant I had to use big arc-lights to achieve the deep-focus look Peter wanted, the red filters created incredibly beautiful, dramatic skies and gave us exactly the expressionistic look we were after.”


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DEEP FOCUS

Kovacs and Bogdanovich wanted to evoke the look of a certain American cinema of around 1940, films like Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane. “We wanted to evoke the classic black & white Hollywood tradition pioneered by cinematographers like Arthur Miller, John Alton and Gregg Toland. ‘Citizen Kane’ was our biggest influence.”


Production still from Citizen Kane, 1941

Bogdanovich wanted deep focus throughout the film to give it a greater sense of reality. This decision, combined with Kovacs’ use of red filters, meant that each scene needed vast amounts of light. Deep focus requires the smallest aperture to achieve maximum depth of field in the scene. But a red filter could cut down three stops of light meaning an effective ISO of 30 with the Kodak Double X film that they used. Huge arc lights were needed to replace the light lost through the filters and to provide enough exposure for the small apertures. The co-star Ryan O’Neal complained to Kovacs about the heat they generated.

Deep focus was used as a narrative tool in these two reverse-angle shots. The stillness and isolation of the main character, the nine year old girl played by Tatum O’Neal, is contrasted with two happily playing girls seen through the back window in the second shot.

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The elegance of the filmmaking can be seen in the café confrontation scene, between Addie and Moses (Tatum and Ryan O’Neal). Three master shots progress from …

an exterior view through the window of the café, showing the two characters at a table. (Note the reflections of the street and a cinema opposite – showing a John Ford film!) …

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…to an interior reverse angle of the two, tracking in…

 

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…to a further reverse angle, a viewpoint into the café interior. The point of view, between the window and the table, is impossible but it doesn’t seem to matter.

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Paper Moon is an example of a film that has has been heavily influenced in its visual style, by the history of (still) photography, in this case Walker Evans and the FSA photographers of the 1930s. A further example of a photography-influenced film is Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas which looks like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore photographs come to life. This idea is worth further research.

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Photo Booth

Unknown photographer. Photo-booth self-portraits, 1940s

MoMA recently showed a new acquisition of forty-four photo booth pictures of an anonymous woman. This cheerful, attractive woman documented her changing appearance, which she obviously took pride in, to create a wonderful archive of her life. It is a form of extended self-portraiture, like autobiography.

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Pouva

The Pouva Start was a bakelite camera made in Dresden in 1956. It is a basic amateur camera with limited controls, a fairly good optical viewfinder and a lens that unscrews on a helical mount when you want to shoot. It is very quaint and attractive, in a retro Cold War kind of way – Dresden was in East Germany, the GDR.

Below is the Photoshopped version

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Memento

I bought this in a second hand bookshop for a few dollars, a lovely memento of photographic Pictorialism. It is a small portfolio of photographs from 1915, printed in Switzerland. Each print is tipped-in, on a sheet of fine paper. The loose prints are held in a folded flaps, and each print and its support are in different tones.

30 Bilder aus dem Photo-Wettbewerb ‘Walz’ – 30 Pictures from the Walz Photo-Competition. Publisher W.Walz – Optical Workshop – St. Gallen Retail price 2 francs

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Building or jewelry?

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This is Saul Steinberg’s illustration on the cover of the 1958 French edition Robert Frank’s legendary book The Americans (Les Americains). It’s a satire of the soulless corporate architecture that was starting to take over the world’s cities – graph paper ridicules the alienating grid of International Style skyscrapers.

At about the same time the photographer Ezra Stoller made a picture that resembles it.

 

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Alienation was not what the architects intended. But what was intended? A building in Manhattan is a case study in the ideology of high modern architecture. Manufacturers Hanover Trust, a bank on Fifth Avenue at Forty Third Street, is a key building of the International Style. Built in 1954 by Gordon Bunshaft of the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the heavyweight champions of modern architecture at that time, it was a showcase of the new ideas of transparency and lightness in corporate architecture.

The construction superintendent described the building as being more like jewelry than buildingand it even features a kind of jewelry in the mural sculpture by the great Harry Bertoia (see gold image below). The building is uncompromisingly modern, facing the street with a sheer wall of glass – an exciting new idea for a bank. The second floor contains an architectural coup, as you ascend the escalator, you emerge as if on a stage elevator into the bright open-plan main hall. The openness, transparency and clarity was very different from the heavy stone banks with their image of security and secrecy.


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These images of the building by Ezra Stoller were made when it opened in 1954. Stoller was the great visual interpreter of high modern architecture. His clarity and precision as an artist perfectly matched the same qualities in the buildings he photographed.

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I have a copy of the promotional booklet that announced the new Manufacturers Trust bank, published on its opening in 1954. It is beautifully designed in the mid-century style, with illustrations (not photographs) showing off the building. The fifties was a golden age for illustration, only giving way to photography as the main form of commercial representation in the 1960s. Unfortunately, I can’t make out the name of the illustrator.

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Fifth Avenue sport

Fifth Avenue is an addiction. Once you get the drift of it, feel the energy of it, it makes you want to go back again and again, because it’s where life seems to be. How do you become courageous enough, and take the picture out of it, and learn how to confront the oncoming flow of people and insert yourself into it?  Joel Meyerowitz.

Joel Meyerowitz in BBC’s The Genius of Photography

I was showing a class the BBC4 documentary Genius of Photography. In one episode, Joel Meyerowitz is shooting on the street in mid-town Manhattan. He is darting around with his Leica, photographing pedestrians from only a few feet away. This is a particular kind of street photography that he specialised in, a sport somewhere between boxing and big-game hunting.

By coincidence, I was in mid-town Manhattan only a fortnight later (it’s ten thousand miles from where I live) and thought of that scene shot on Fifth Avenue. I’m way too much of a coward to point a camera in people’s faces but I struck on a technique to get around it: I just held the camera discretely at waist level and pointed it in the direction of passers-by. You miss as many as you get and shoot for averages rather than for the masterpiece, but with a digital camera you can just edit them later.

It’s disconcerting not being able to aim through a viewfinder, but it’s also liberating. Chance throws you a lot of surprises you can later claim were intentional.

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You see I am here after all

You See I Am Here After All is the title of a new Zoe Leonard project, exhibited in the DIA:Beacon museum in the town of Beacon in New York State. I think it’s the largest single work of (wall) art I’ve ever seen.

The project consists of about 4000 postcards of Niagara Falls, sourced from flea markets and the internet. They are displayed on a long wall of the museum, arranged in grids according to viewpoint and colour. It is a huge, manic effort of collecting, a “collectomania,” vast, and symphonic, as if Phillip Glass had composed a long piece on Niagara Falls and it had somehow been rendered visible. Each passage concentrates on postcards of a particular view, and the repitition and rhythmic variation of tones and compositions creates a soft painterly effect.

Any such giant artwork on Niagara Falls will inevitably recall Frederick Church’s 1857 painting Niagara. At Dia:Beacon, a museum of Minimalist and Conceptual Art, the work also relates to the giant wall grids of Sol LeWitt, which are displayed only a few rooms away.

The title itself is taken from a written message on the back of one postcard and points to the evidential nature of photography and its function in postcards (“This proves I was really here”). It seems also to allude to the ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ motif in art, the idea that death awaits us even in an earthly paradise. The commodification of nature through tourism, and specifically through the postcard is one of the subjects of this work. It “offers a filter for exploring the ways in which cultural constructions have mapped, shaped, and framed the geography and topography of North America over time.” (-Dia Art Foundation press release)

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Art of the Diorama

Another good reason for going to New York (you needed one?) is to visit the Natural History Museum to see the dioramas. These are one of the glories of New York, a city with far more than its fair share, and thety are better than you could imagine. They recreate a lost world of wilderness that is only a few generations behind us. These are my photos of them.

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The museum’s website has a history of the making of these dioramas, describing the field research and amazing physical construction techniques. It rivals Hollywood.

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Background artist Chris E. Olsen (underwater in diving gear) making “field sketches” in oil paint while on location for the Andros coral reef diorama in the Bahamas (c.1924)

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Raymond deLucia painting bird droppings on the artificial rocks in the Little Diomede Island diorama in the Whitney Memorial Hall of Pacific Bird Life (1939)

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Foreground artist Freidoun Jalayer melting away the wax from a model of a saguaro cactus for the Hall of North American Forests (1953)

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Foreground artists Reginald “Buddy” Sayre and Tomas Newbery reconstructing giant forest trees for the Olympic Forest diorama (1952)

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Artist Belmore Browne painting the background for the Alaska brown bear diorama (1941)

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Until the Kingdom Comes

Until the Kingdom Comes at Yossi Milo Gallery was a series of large photographs of animals by Simen Johan. Diorama in scale, they have great moral force in addition to their naturalistic description.

Johan photographs animals in zoos, farms and museums using a film camera then combines the images digitally.  Each one may comprise many photographed elements including landscape. Because of the huge scale of the resulting print, great skill is involved and he manages perhaps only five images each year. He also makes elaborate sculptures along similar lines.

What impressed me most was their extreme gravity, an ambitious, biblical tone such as in the amazing Untitled #100  which shows sinister writhing snakes in the shadow of a ravine. Birds fly freely up in the light, but a snake has caught one in its mouth and the terrified bird is desperately fluttering to escape. It is a manichean image, an illustration of good and evil reminiscent of those didactic Academy paintings of the 19th century.

The facing image in the gallery, Untitled #153, is a profoundly sad picture of a bufallo or bison, lying on the ground amidst garbage, its skin moulting, a mighty, defeated beast, seemingly the last of his species.

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The Reality Effect

One of the recurring themes of photography is the the extreme efforts by some people to squeeze out the maximum “proof-content” of a photograph.

Accident Investigation Site, shown recently at the Metropolitan Museum, is a new take on this idea. It is almost six metres long (19 feet), a one-to-one scale image of a section of the Santa Monica Freeway. The photographer, Miles Coolidge, used a large format digital camera to photograph sections of the road surface then digitally stitched them together to create a facsimile in real size. It looks like a section of road lifted up onto the wall. The detail is impressive, not far off what your eye would see if you got down on all fours. Your eye roams, looking for clues in the vast terrain of the print but all it finds is cigarette butts, leaves and stains but the act of looking reminds you that the surface is abstract a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting.

A photograph is not the thing photographed. That is the paradox of photography. You tend to look through a photo onto the thing that was in front of the camera. The print itself, in a way, is not there, it’s just a window. Obviously, this illusion doesn’t occur with paintings, except momentarily in the case of trompe l’oeil.

This issue of the ambivalent physical presence of the print surface in photography is the subject of Surface Tension, the exhibition where Coolidge’s photograph was shown. The wall label neatly describes his effect: “Resolutely flat yet teeming with detail, the picture stands as a sly monument to the concreteness of the photographic object.”

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Muse

These are the latest images in a series I’ve been working on for a few years: people encountering art. They were shot recently in galleries in New York and San Francisco. The project involves photographing people circulating through museums and galleries encountering works of art. I’m looking for odd behaviour, coincidences, moments, it’s humour plus sociology. I plan to self-publish it in a Blurb book. I realize I’m not the first to explore this territory: Elliott Erwitt produced a book called Museum Watching in 1999, and Tim Davis brought out Permanent Collection more recently.

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