|Out of the Photographers' Ghetto
|The Chicago art establishment recently celebrated the long and distinguished careers of Robert Heinecken and Kenneth Josephson, artists who, despite their individual artistic identities, have two important accomplishments in common. First, they've spent their adult lives creating art. Second, theyve each earned handsome retrospective exhibitions, complete with catalogs thick with images, essays, biographies, and footnotes. These publications are well-crafted records of their long and influential careers.
Such recognition was overdue. Both artists are now almost seventy, and each has explored widely varied approaches to photography and other media. Their lack of repetition and unpredictability may have been aesthetically rewarding but was perhaps commercially detrimental, an obstacle to their gaining the immediate success and recognition enjoyed by some of their less eclectic colleagues.
Or, their undeserved relative obscurity may have a much simpler explanation. In the introduction to Kenneth Josephson: A Retrospective, published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the Art Institute of Chicago, Andy Grundberg writes: "By 1980 Josephson's work was widely recognized and admired. ... All that seemed lacking, in terms of recognition, was representation at a New York gallery that would sell his work to important collectors."
Heinecken also eluded the success Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg enjoyed in New York, although it may have been the other way around. Labeled and commercially damned as a "photographer" long before the position of "artist using photography" was widely accepted, he made no effort to create a niche for himself in the photographic ghetto. "I don't consider myself a photographer," said Heinecken, "because I think the term describes an activity and a product which is quite different than what I am involved in."
Heinecken reiterated his subtle disdain for unimaginative photographic approaches in the introduction to his portfolio of readymade photograms, Are You Rea (1966-1968).
The selection of the pages is based on my assumption that they are visually stimulating and that they seem to reveal ironic or significant cultural conditions, much in the same way that some contemporary documentary photographers are doing. The distinction may be drawn, however, that these pictures do not represent first hand experiences, but are related to the perhaps more socially important manufactured experiences which are being created daily by the mass media.
Heinecken further distanced himself from photographic convention with videograms, as well as pieces created with chalk and photographic emulsion on canvas, both approaches from a long tradition of hand-colored and embellished photographs. Heinecken must have penned politically-charged titles like Lingerie for a Feminist Suntan #3 to further offend some of the strongest critics of his unashamedly sexual pieces.
Also of note, Heinecken combined words and images, as in I'm beginning to feel uncomfortable with you sometimes, from the fictional and autobiographical book, He/She. The work consists of four Polaroid photographs and handwritten text:
She: I'm beginning to feel uncomfortable with you sometimes.
He: Which sometimes?
She: When you're drinking and acting funny.
He: Is your body telling you these things?
She: I don't know what you mean.
He: Are they physical feelings as opposed to intellectual or emotional?
She: Lately you don't seem like you to me.
He: Did you know that your tears are bright yellow like your urine?
She: It's my vitamins.
Kenneth Josephson: A Retrospective, presents another fascinating overview of an underappreciated artist's work. Like Heinecken, Josephson explored uncharted visual real estate in pieces like Bread Book (1973), photographs of each side of each slice of a loaf of bread. Josephson described the piece as "more interesting to think about than look at."
Josephson's other photographic work also used the conceptual art vocabulary, which he helped to define, in work such as his series of photographs of postcards held, with visible hand, in front of the scenes depicted. This camera-conscious imagery dissected the mechanics of photography and penetrated the medium's illusion.
And, in much the same vein, for Light Penetration (1986), Josephson abandoned the camera, the lens, and even film. The work consisted of images created by using an electric drill to penetrate a box of previously unexposed photographic paper.
Lately, Josephson has explored photography's retinal pleasures, complete with lush landscapes any f64 acolyte could embrace ... at least those who weren't previously scared away by his more graphically and conceptually challenging work.
Perhaps Josephson's more progressive photographs now look somewhat dated, an ironic tribute to his pervasive influence. Had his work not been so widely imitated, his imagery might still have the power it did when it was first exhibited decades ago. Recognition for Josephson's accomplishments might have been further diluted when his approach was used by conceptual artists in other media, artists who never set foot in the photographers' ghetto.
Josephson and Heinecken's work has been undeservedly devalued because of their lifelong innovative use of the photographic medium. The more renowned conceptualists utilized photography for exactly the opposite reason: they wanted to de-emphasize the value of the art object. They saw photography as having little significance as art, and photographs as having virtually no commercial value. By diminishing the value of photography, these artists--not to be confused with photographers--increased the retail value of their ideas.
Robert Heinecken: Photographist, and Kenneth Josephson: A Retrospective. Both the exhibits and the publications of the same name are welcome and long overdue retrospectives of two versatile and accomplished artists.
|That dead-end job I was working back then. No different from so many others, I was working for survival, paying off the endless accumulated debt because I'd misfortunately believed in that deceptively endearing fantasy about the benefits of honest labor; it was automatically the stuff of bad dreams. Such foolishness, and so much of it was borrowed. I probably would have ended up with the same kind of life even if I hadn't banked on what, by then, had blossomed interestingly into a substantial ransom.
But maybe not. Perhaps the absence of extra money wasn't such a terrible thing. The possibility of really "big" earnings, whether they ever materialized, might only have fostered consequences even more desperate and expensive: growth stocks, appreciating real estate, South African diamonds, maybe even a family of one's own. Perhaps for the best I'd snored so innocently toward that socially-propelled and self-accepted lie, the one about clawing your way back to zero from those ever-famous, "less-than-ideal" circumstances. Somewhere along the way, however, you might begin to wonder what was sleep and what wasn't. Consider those most grotesque, recurring nightmares about the unsavory cost of success so habitual that it becomes predatory, the ruined bodies both warm and cold, a somnambulant world of addiction wherein even murder becomes almost somehow excusably legal.
Of course, I'm sure that's not what my parents dreamt for me. More likely, they envisioned endless supplies of progress and acted accordingly. What else could they have done? Provided the limitless boundaries of the future back then in the dear, dim past, it must have been a breathtaking triptych: ever-new Plymouths, color-coordinated (aqua) kitchens, and the community-building benefits of Civil Defense. Too much dreaming in threes perhaps, but I might have asked, how did it all so speedily melt down to nothing? On the other hand, on the other side of the time-line and far removed from the imaginations of yesterday, I could have been waking up to the relentlessly present scenario of just enough poverty to keep me from inflicting like circumstances on someone else. Or, could it have been that the dreamt promises of a self-seeking acquisitiveness, even in denial, forever drifted off toward a state where the dreamer, by cooperative design, remained partially insensible? No matter. Reason asleep, particularly when it's hot, doesn't always mind the gap, and the unconscious state can be very cruel.
So I really wasn't going to wake up that sultry July morning. The phone rang, and I turned over in bed waiting for it to go away. After all, on my day off I slept seeking to repair the damage of the week past. Not surprisingly, the phone didn't care, and it rang on with the energy of a dedicated menace: RING, RING, RING. Six or seven rings slashed by before I realized it was ten o'clock in the morning, yet fatigue steeled me against the onslaught of invisible enemies both aural and temporal. Sometimes, and perhaps grogginess helps urge on such facile maneuvers, an assailing phone leads to the perfunctory gambit, "Who would be calling at this hour?" Or, even better, although more complex, "If it's really important, why don't they just call back?" These small strategies were all I needed to outlast the unusual persistence of whoever it was at the other end of the line. The ringing finally retreated, and I slipped back into the sleep of victorious kings, particularly if the kings slept in an unusually poor country where phones were answered rarely before brunch.
And I should have slept longer, but not having answered when called demanded that I wake up shortly thereafter--very psychological, albeit a bit pedestrian. Truth to tell, peasants are only kings in their dreams, and bothersome questions regally dismissed in a semi-conscious state come to assume a darker costume when played across the immense proscenium of an impending, wakeful reality. Naturally, guilt and worry assumed major roles, but, so I told myself, I shouldn't have belonged to either at that moment. I had no relatives under immediate medical threat, and, likewise, a terrible accident would have warranted repeated calling until the terror and blood of whatever mayhem in force would have driven me out of bed. Foolishly, I thought about the possibility of one of my many friends phoning on the edge of suicide, desperate for dissuasion, yet that was hardly worth the trouble. All my friends were doing much better than I, and I dully wondered why my fantasies would drift toward anything near their self-induced destruction. Finally, however, it was much more important to get out of bed and make delicious coffee rather than ponder the all-too-obvious flaws in my less-than-substantial character.
But perhaps I wasn't quite so eager for wakefulness, after all. Just before resigning myself entirely to leaving the honeyed indulgences of sleep, I glanced instinctively to the left. It was a different kind of thirst, and I was hopeful I'd forgotten a reason to stay longer in a world of pillowed sensuousness, but I was surely alone. Seeing as how I'd been alone for the last more-occasions-than-I-could-count, I probably shouldn't have bothered. Still, in the up-rising haze of a late-morning emptiness, I laughingly considered a very cruel and businesslike mental note: "Next week, fill someone with enough drinks so that you'll have a place to relieve yourself." But aside from the cycles of thirst, the real chuckle resided in that only a poor fool would imagine himself possessed of the synthetic magnetism of monied success. Or, I could say that you didn't have to visit the infamous Rocket Lounge on West Evans to find out that my near-downtown neighborhood might have been dingy, but it wasn't economically stupid. I should have just felt guilty and left it at that.
Anyway, I swung my legs out from under the covers and my feet made the floor--a short walk to the kitchen, no aqua whatsoever.
And it might have been to match the flavor of my early-morning meditations that I grabbed the least robust beans from the refrigerator. I ground them to suit and tossed everything into the oversized glass-drip coffee pot I'd purchased for practically nothing at someone's "get-out-of-town" moving sale years before. Substantially older than I was, it did an upside-down trick that always made the morning more amusing, and, as it was made of glass, the whole show was entirely visible, completely transparent. Yet, that morning, because of the phone, because of a feeling or atmosphere that I couldn't entirely realize, I sensed an unexpected opacity as the machine started through its vaudeville. So they used to say, guilt and anxiety seek to associate freely, and you can never tell where such associative forces will travel, but I suddenly asked myself how long I could go on buying things for cheap. For all I knew, it may have been just an excuse to think about something else, but as I looked out my Denver apartment window, up there on the fifth floor, I wondered if I'd ever have to sell the tricky, little coffee-show for a few dollars beyond what I'd paid for it. Such are the vapors of a desperate economic future clawing at the door. And I might have mused more keenly on desperation in general, but the happy aroma of impending caffeinated stimulation activated that kind of wonderful forgetfulness which immediately cancels such temporary reflection. Really, what does anything matter so long as one is "rich" in anticipation?
And then the phone rang again.
I turned instinctively to stare at the special table with the noisy bit of pressed plastic making the horrible trouble. Undoubtedly, the time to answer had arrived because the morning's progress now depended on something else, an absent presence repeatedly at the other end of the line. At least, that's what I imagined. Clearing my throat, I mustered my best early-morning sonority and lifted the black receiver...
And nothing happened. Despite the lengthy exposition, the anticipated complication failed to speak, and I stood listening to empty, electronic air. Time marched on, very special time to be sure, but the seconds receded from one to the next in an idiotic silence.
Then, far off, I heard someone breathing. Several breaths went by, and I determined to try again.
And then, after another moment, the receiver at the sending end clattered noisily into its cradle and the line went totally dead.
A bigger nothing.
So there I was standing barefoot with the empty receiver, holding an inanimate plastic object to the side of my face as if it might suddenly resuscitate itself. Of course, it wasn't the first time I'd answered such a call, but I lingered briefly and stupidly in hopeful disbelief, as everyone does. Despite millions of such calls sent off in whatever space of time you like, reactions are mostly the same, little occasion or opportunity for dramatic, individual statement. Actually, as tradition would have it, such abuse is better suffered in private or ignored entirely. Not much difference between the crank phone call or ending up as someone else's receptacle for "relief." And, whether pennies for the phone company or dollars for the victualer who happens to sell the drinks, the result comes out largely the same: an excellent reason to be absent the next morning.
Still, if I was in any way afflicted by having been the temporary instrument of someone's rough use, my embarrassment seemed to dissipate rapidly enough. The temporarily off-stage machine had re-worked its miracle. And, even if I'd been distracted during the performance, the consequence of its entertainment floated gently around and about, reactivating my early morning wish for a warm-brewed satisfaction, a wish percolating somewhere between desire and need. I see no reason why I should have slammed the phone down so energetically.
Back in the kitchen, damp, white puffs of aromatic steam climbed upward into nowhere from the coffee as I poured, with the fat billows continuing their pulse from the cup's tiny whirlpool even as I placed the pot back on the burner. In a different climate, ambient columns of airified moisture might have gone entirely unnoticed. Yet, in the desert of Colorado, spontaneous humidity will always be an occasion, and I immediately produced the sugar and milk to celebrate--staple offerings essential to any ritual, even those practiced by innumerable baser cultures. In Bali, for example, you might be lucky enough to witness the spectacular orchestrations of "human/monkey" noise, but only after the requisite indulgences in processed cane and prepared coconut. But it might be difficult to imagine such a show coming off in Denver. Better to think about the weather. All of this melted back down into the coffee as I stirred.
... and the brilliance of the midday sun, splashing as it was, magically, through the windows, threatened the promise of a bright afternoon. As always, it would have been illuminated by that Colorado sky shimmering characteristically somewhere between azure and turquoise ...
But then the phone rang again.
I was tired of all the interruptions, yet certainly so much awake and surely so much unenamored with the emptiness of the late morning that I angrily wanted a response. No distance now, I instantly stood glaring at my fingers poised on top of the phone as if both my hand and arm could act as a lethal mechanism. With one sharp pull, the receiver's earpiece shot past my eye, and came to rest perfectly in place, mid-ring.
I was all business.
It wasn't difficult to recognize the breathing at the other end of the line, but it sounded different, more urgent, almost anxious. And that was how I knew, how I knew that the silence was going to speak this time.
I had to wait an extra moment.
"Hello," she said in an elderly, broken voice, "is Anne there?"
She sounded very old. A trembling old woman with a voice both unsteady and confused, she was looking for Anne. It wasn't quite what I'd expected. My anger slipped back into its holster. And as I glanced sheepishly about my sun-splashed room, making sure my embarrassment went unobserved, I reflected on the fact that few folks I knew were in her age bracket, and that there wasn't an "Anne" among them. I made my reply as soft as I could.
"I'm sorry," I said, "there's no Anne here. You must have the wrong number."
But she was insistent, or she didn't believe me.
"Isn't this 555-0531?" and her voice had become louder. Perhaps it should have been obvious. Something had happened.
"Yes, that is the number," I replied calmly, "but I don't know any Anne, and I've had this phone for nearly seven years."
Her voice shifted to what almost sounded like pleading, "But I've called this number before... I've spoken to Anne."
What else could I do? I'd offered up the most gentle and avuncular response I could manufacture, and I'd even told the truth, but the message failed to reach its intended destination. You might know what I mean. Oftentimes, even the truth doesn't make any difference.
"Well," I said, "I can only tell you what I know. There really isn't any Anne here." And, as I'd determined to be helpful, I added, "Are you calling long distance? Maybe it's a problem with the area code, or maybe you should have someone double-check the number?"
Again I ended up waiting, but, even with that, her answer was barely audible although I believe she wanted to speak. And then she hung up suddenly. After the terminal "click" snapped out of the earpiece, I though that what I'd imperfectly heard could have been the sound of her sobbing.
Yes, that was what it was--sobbing. Maybe it wasn't so difficult to figure out the unknown after all, not that it didn't finish out rather sad. As I quietly brought the episode to a close, preparing to go on with what was left of the morning, I did feel bad for the old woman, her unhappy attempt to find whoever it was.
But my sympathy didn't last long. An hour or so later, after I'd had my coffee, made my preparations, and was on my way out the door, the phone spat up another annoying jingle. I'd barely answered before the caller slapped the line shut. It had to be the old woman again, still in search of her silly friend.
And the same was true that evening, somewhere around six o'clock, after I'd returned from all my important errands. RING, RING, RING; right in the middle of dinner. I might have admired the old woman's persistence, but it was all getting to be a bit much. Or, I began to think she was going senile, if you know what I mean.
And then the phone rang at seven-thirty that evening. It turned out to be a different woman's voice that I didn't recognize at all.
"Um--hello," it said, "this is Dr. Susan Kelsot," and she identified herself as a psychologist at a hospice unit for one of Denver's prestigious medical facilities.
"I'm sorry to--um--bother you," she said, "but we've been having difficulty with one of our patients, and I found this number written on a pad in her room after dinner. Um--to whom am I speaking?"
Despite the irritating mannerism, there was something deliberately reassuring in her clinically smooth alto, and, after all, I was waiting for an explanation. I decided to believe in what I couldn't see.
"Well," I said, "my name's Keith, Keith Stieglitz, and I wonder if you're calling about an old lady who's been looking for an absent friend?"
"Ah--um--Mr. Stieglitz, it appears as if I've called the right number," and the alto sounded appropriately embarrassed. "I hope you can understand that every now and again we have--um--difficulties with things like this."
Because I was interested, I said that I understood.
She continued, "You see, Eleanor has presented rather special--um--circumstances ever since she arrived a few weeks ago. Although we attempt to monitor our clients' behaviors carefully, um--we aren't always as successful, and they aren't always as cooperative as we'd like."
I chuckled in with some variety of verbal encouragement.
And then the alto psychologist continued, in graphic detail, about Eleanor's particular maladies, complete with talk of a stroke (on the left side), near-bursting aneurisms, liver failure, and even a few words about dementia praecox, a term I hadn't heard for quite a while. Forgiving the gruesome, it all seemed--"um"--somewhere beyond the limits of confidentiality. And when, ending this morbid recital, the good doctor offered a calculated speculation as to how long Mrs. Chase (Eleanor's other name) might continue in this world before shaking off her mortal coil, I must admit to a rather bad reaction. It sounded almost as if she had some kind of "altoistic" agenda, and, in a way, I could hardly believe my ears. Besides, all of Dr. Kelsot's medicine, as detailed as it was, failed to provide any answer as to why the calls were happening in the first place, and wanting to know the "why" of it all was what was keeping me on the line. I had to ask her. She answered my questions with questions.
"Um--exactly what did she want?" and her tone was different.
I told her about the breathing, the someone named Anne, and the sobs. Imagine my surprise when she became defensive, loud, and authoritarian in a way that sounded and smelled suddenly as if her voice was resonating off an ammoniated surface.
"Mr. Steiglitz, I'm sure I don't know what you're--um--talking about, but there certainly isn't any Anne here." And then her voice softened somewhat, "But even if there was, I'm--um--going to ask that you not encourage this kind of thing." And suddenly it was almost as if she were pleading, "After all, it won't help--um--Eleanor if you let her go on with talk like this, and--um--I'm sure you have better things to do."
From the opacity of the smokescreen, I reasoned that she didn't want to answer my question, and, something a bit more sinister, she wanted off the phone in a big hurry.
It didn't take her very long. She was gone in a moment, and there I was, standing in my twilight-splashed apartment, again holding an inanimate, plastic object as if it might suddenly resuscitate itself.
Gently lowering the receiver back to its cradle, I reflected on how little I'd been able to repair of the week just past. I began to feel red and angry, even in the cool of the evening.
It was all over-extended. I'd slapped around a lot of people at the warehouse, including myself. The division managed to fire out somewhere near thirty-thousand extra units, so by the end of the week we were a couple of days ahead, but that was only "on paper." Everybody would be thirsty and hungry and back to work on Monday for more of the same, and I'd be exactly like I was a week earlier. Same time; same damage, and nothing easier to lose than something, "on paper." So what?
But it was more than just the stuff of a week; lives "on-lease" tend to measure time in months or years. I was thinking about my apartment and its fabulously over-extended price tag. Not that the neighborhood was all that swank, but did I really need so many rooms, all that space where I'd been alone so many more occasions than I could count or remember? And it hadn't been difficult to convince the bank that I'd needed the new, over-sized car, but the payments twisted the balance just a little bit tighter. Economically, so close to the darkness, I began to believe I could see flecks of blood peeking out between the strands of the rope. And maybe that was why peasants were only kings in their dreams--all over-extended.
And, then, the phone rang again ...
[End Part One]
Any comment or inquiry regarding this work, specific or general, may be addressed to Conrad's literary executor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
||It comes to light that an operative in our employ engaged in a bit more than the "bad behavior" typically expected from our offices. During her/his/its recent vacation (pronouns left ambiguous to protect the guilty), an impromptu investigation (customary in our offices since the recent wave of "cracking" incidents) revealed that "Editor 6" (until now thought to be such a dedicated worker) engaged in a plethora of unauthorized correspondence.
We are deeply shocked to discover that readers offering their generous questions, comments, and encouragements (not to mention fellow artists writing to seek advice) were subjected to a barrage of spurious abuse ranging all the way from routine indignities to near-pornographic digital displays involving farm animals, people dressed as farm animals, and farm animals dressed as important businessmen and housewives. Too shocking.
Unfortunately, due to Editor 6's brilliant yet twisted encryptions, indecipherable by even the most studied of law enforcement representatives, we cannot reconstruct the devastating pathways of all this "psychic violence"; however, under pending threat of prosecution, we must do something.
Therefore, if any of our readers received transmissions under the following signatures, we offer our most sincere apologies:
Stare. (Visual Information Inquiry)