"Stare. It is the only way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry,
listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." - Walker Evans

about Stare.  |  (free) subscriptions  |  previous issues  |  (No. 802)

Fools, their art and their money
In passing
I can't imagine ever wanting to be an American tourist
Déjà Vu All Over Again
The brave new world of digital imaging bears a striking resemblance to the olde world.
Against Photography
Everything is Stalin, in its own way ...

. . .


Carl LaFong

Art is mostly boring and the Internet is mostly boring, so the two are a reasonably good match on that level. However, looking at real works of art on a color monitor seems pretty hollow to me. Virtually all Internet nodes have less bandwidth than a videotape, and how popular are videotapes of art? On another tack, maybe the Internet will nave no effect on great art or good art but will be the absolute saving niche for mediocre or bad art. That is, the criterion for having it viewed is not its merit, but the ability of its creator to put it on the net. Graffiti's crown of creation.

I think that people will grow bored with the Internet as it now is and as it soon will be: the big slick monied enterprises will make smooth packages that will correspond to the TV networks. The fringe will be readily accessible, but it will still be the fringe. How many people buy short-wave radios to tune in pirate radio stations from all over the world? Not many, but this technology is cheaper and more immediate than the net is now. I think the net is fun since it gives the illusion of a little world you can control, where magic works and you can have godlike powers. But it will never harness the artistry of a talented prostitute, a good back rub, etc. No, the more I think about it, I think the hucksters are right: the proper use of the Net is to separate rich net users from their money. Anything else is probably incidental.

. . .

In Passing

Early in 1995 the artist Danny Martinez came to Newcastle upon Tyne, where he did a bit of street performance art, How to Con a Capitalist. He also gave a talk at the local university, where he told of how tough life was in his native Los Angeles: "People come up to you when your car's stopped at a traffic light, stick a gun in your face, and blam! You're dead!"

He also showed a lot of work, such as the series of five buttons ("I can't," "imagine," "ever wanting," "to be," "white") that were among the most memorable pieces of the 1993 Whitney biennale. His work attacking the rich ("In a rich man's house, the only place to spit is in his face") and the powerful has lead to a curious symbiotic relationship. The leaders of the rich and powerful art establishment keep inviting him to participate in their events, thus demonstrating that they're not only rich and powerful, but hip to boot. Still, he tirelessly goes to what he describes as "awful" events like the Whitney and Venice biennales to take advantage of the upper classes.

His message went over well in class-conscious northern England, and not just among the students and art cognoscenti. While Martinez was videotaping in the town market, some of the local lads apparently mistook the working-class artist from the Los Angeles barrios for a rich American tourist. In an act that could have come from one of his street theatre, the locals robbed the rich visitor of his very expensive video camera.

It was, by any definition, a class act.

. . .

Déjà Vu All Over Again


Wayne Brill, one of my photography teachers at Interlochen, told me that someday--someday sooner than we thought--we'd be using filmless electronic cameras.

"Someday," Wayne said waving his arm at shelves groaning under the weight of the Leicas, Nikons and Hasselblads I coveted shamelessly, "all of this will be obsolete."

That was 1973. It was the first of many claims I heard about the brave new world of digital photography. In San Francisco, I hear fewer and fewer claims that photographers will be doing amazing things with digital imaging "someday." On the border of Silicon Valley, digital photography has gone from the realm of esoteric science fiction to the routine tedium of daily commerce in just a few years.

Bay Area photo labs routinely offer high-resolution scans as well as the usual developing and printing. High-volume catalog photographers use digital backs on their Hasselblads and Sinars; they feed the resulting images directly into digital prepress computers thus bypassing the expensive and time-consuming processes of Polaroid tests, bracketing, and making color separations. And although the local newspaper photographers use traditional film and cameras for most of their work, the film goes directly from the processor to the computer scanner; the enlarger is rapidly becoming as indispensable for newspaper work as 4x5 Speed Graphics and cheap cigars.

It is indeed remarkable that most of the predictions of a digital future have been realized far sooner than most pundits dared to predict. But no one accurately forecast the most surprising thing about the amazing age of digital photography: it looks a lot like photographic worlds we thought were safely behind us.

Remember "camera clubs" with monied dilettantes debating whether Leitz or Zeiss made the sharpest lenses ... arguments about whether through-the-lens metering was a useful tool or just a gimmick? Remember when the "salon prints" were always accompanied by a list of the camera, lens, film and paper employed as well as the shutter speed and aperture used?

If you remember those halcyon days, the world of the digital imaging nerd will seem quite familiar. Is it best to work in RGB or CMYK? How do Apple's new Power PC machines compare to Silicon Graphics work stations? Is JPEG or some other compression algorithm the most efficient? In San Francisco, exhibitions of "computer art" feature long lists of the hardware and software used. Other digital salons require that the work be submitted on magnetic cartridges made by a specific manufacturer, a requirement as bizarre as an editor insisting that all manuscripts be submitted on paper made by a particular paper company.

Oh dear. As Yogi Berra said: "It's like déjà vu all over again." The most striking historical antecedent of the new digital world isn't the camera club ambiance of the 1970s or even the photo secession wars at the turn of the last century. Go back to Europe in the 1840s to understand what's really happening.

From this day forward, photography is dead. Kaput. Done for. History. Hasta la vista, buddy.

You won't have to wait long for the next scenic vista though, for photography is dying the same death painting suffered 150 years ago. Digital imaging is supplanting the photography we've known, loved and used for a century and a half just as the camera usurped painting and drawing's utilitarian functions in the middle of the nineteenth century.

In San Francisco, digital imaging is rapidly becoming the medium of choice in many professional applications. On the other end of the spectrum, Fuji Film's senior technical staff estimate amateur photographers will no longer use film by 2010. So what kind of future is there for good old-fashioned analog photography?

The answer, in a word, is Art.

For art media as well as artists, dying is almost invariably a savvy career move. Once the medium of entirely analog photography becomes as unnecessary and irrelevant to daily life as painting, drawing, etching and sculpture, it may finally fully accepted into the Art family instead of being treated as an embarrassing distant relative. As the director of one of San Francisco's best galleries put it, "Until photography can enter the general art world, it will be regarded as a hobby. No matter how much these fuckers sell for, that's still the issue."

If history and current trends in and around Silicon Valley are any indication, a split between the distinctly different media of photography and digital imaging seems inevitable. Any attempts by photographers to claim digital imaging as their domain by declaring it "digital photography" will certainly prove as futile as attempts by painters and engravers 150 years ago to assert that photography was really "automatic painting" or "machine engraving."

Although digital imaging is being warmly welcomed into the world of commerce, its acceptance into the art world promises to be as elusive as photography's. And for good reason. The latest generation of computers is capable of generating incredible imagery. Sadly, most of the people operating these miracle machines appear not to be.

Contemporary digital imagery seems to fall into two broad categories. The first might be described as the Science Fiction meets Heavy Metal school. The men (and most of them are men) working in this category love special effects, and it shows. In fact, that's all that shows. The International Center of Photography's Timothy Druckery recently commented "After curating the Iterations show I could recognize every Photoshop filter [used by a computer to modify a digital image] just by holding the sheet of slides up to a window."

The other favorite of digital "artists" is to rehash every visual art cliché from the last 2,000 years. With modern digital technology, anyone can make a watch melt just like Salvador Dali! Wow! But seriously, is there any other response than a yawn when viewing the seventeen trillionth impressionist painting? Even if it was done in 24 bit color on a 68040 CPU running at 50 MHz with 192 Mb of RAM on a two gigabyte hard drive?

George Bernard Shaw, the irascible photography critic, would also be right at home critiquing digital imaging. With just a few changes on his word processor, he could reuse some of his best lines:

"When the photographer takes to forgery, the Press encourages him. The critics, being professional connoisseurs of the shiftiest of old makeshifts, come to the galleries where the forgeries are exhibited. They find, to their relief, that here, instead of a new business for them to learn, is a row of monochromes which their old jargon fits like a glove. Forthwith they proclaim that photography has become an art."

This is another historical correlation between art and technology. The initial use for a new medium--after being employed by militarists and pornographers--is to mimic work done in other media. One of the primary uses of the first printing presses was to reproduce illuminated manuscripts; it was almost a century before artists and publishers took advantage of the new technology's unique capabilities.

Some artists are using digital imaging to produce strong work that could not have been done in any other medium, but they're all too rare. For the moment, one can still critique this emerging art form by again plagiarizing Shaw: digital imaging is wonderful except for the pictures.

In summary, the brave new digital world looks a lot like a lot like the grave old world of Paris in the 1840s or Mainz in the 1450s. And the digital future, especially for artists, promises both exhilarating new technological developments and no significant changes. Man Ray said it best: "There is no progress in art, any more than there is in making love."

. . .

Against Photography

Andrei Codrescu

Unlike most people I was not born but snapped and I was not gestated but developed.

Both my parents were photographers. And both of them were Jewish. They were bad Jews because they were photographers. God said, "Thou shalt not make graven images," and both of them did.

My father's graven image shop was on the main street in my hometown of Sibiu (or Hermannstadt) in central Transylvania, Romania. My father did all the graduation portraits of the local high schools and technical schools, and also weddings and portraits. The graduating classes posed for group portraits that were then displayed in shop windows up and down the main street. Marrying couples came into the shop directly from City Hall. When I graduated from high school I refused to wear the school uniform in the class picture. I was the only one out of fifty people who didn't wear a tie. And I insisted that my pseudonym be used under my picture rather than the name I suffered years of school with. My father's shop was long gone by the time I graduated as was my father--but I was driven. When our portrait was displayed, people remarked: "He changed his name, and isn't wearing a tie because he's mad at his father!" And my father, in turn, had been mad at God, which is why he made pictures.

My mother and father spent most of the six months that they were married to each other in the darkroom of the photo shop. I was no doubt conceived in the darkroom. And afterwards, I baked there inside my mother under the steady red light for six full months, the time I believe that it takes most major organs and most of the brain to form. My outline must have been there in any case, as well as certain vital shadows. I was then violently wrenched into the light by my parents' divorce.

My mother did not get her own photo shop off the ground until two months after I was born. I spent those two months in the sunlight with the family of a policeman while my mother got herself on her feet. These people were pagan. They were sun worshippers who slapped me when I complained about the brightness of the sun. "Don't ever say anything like that about the sun again!" the policeman warned me. I couldn't wait to get back into the darkroom again. Even today, I live in cities of the night like New Orleans, and don't fully come to life until sundown.

My mother's photo studio was called Baby Photo--(my mother's nickname was Baby, a very chic moniker in Romania where the word was redolent of exotic fragrance, bubblegum, nylons and big bands, a whole jazzy post-war longing that never materialized because the Russians came instead of the Americans ... but that's another story).

Baby Photo was at the very end of the central street by the train station and the clientele wasn't as upscale as my father's. Mother photographed soldiers and their girlfriends, Gypsies, and peasant grandfathers brought in by their families from the countryside to be photographed before they died.

I grew up playing in the shop, and being photographed. I was my mother's favorite subject. She squeezed me into leather spielhosen and velveteen shirts, and had me stand with one leg up on a lace-covered pedestal with my elbow on my raised knee and my head perched sideways on my hand. This elaborate and unnatural position involved the creation of a correct face that my mother coaxed from me by threats, insults, endearments and sometimes--when it failed to materialize--by tears. "Don't make that face," she'd begin, clicker in hand to the right of the huge camera that dwarfed her, "that's an ugly face! You look like a butcher! Don't grin like that! Why do you punish your mother with those rolling eyes! Is this why I was born? So my child can make a face like that?"

Amid the laments and curses my seven-year-old brain raced through the muscles of my face in search of both the appropriate configuration and the most inappropriate because, let's face it, I was delighted by the attention, by the complete critique of any face I chose to invent. I knew the face that "looked like a butcher," the mug that "broke your mother's heart," the countenance that made her question her existence. It was all there, the ontology and eschatology of mother before the son in search of the photographable mug. At long last, the clicker clicked and I was captured.

Stiff, cramped, in pain, insecure and exhausted I stand there in the early 1950s looking at a point in the future when I would be released. That point came soon after Stalin died, in 1953, when the whole world behind the Iron Curtain let out a great sigh of relief and everyone's face muscles relaxed slightly. Some even smiled. Stalin's portrait, which adorned every building and dwarfed every school wall, came down. In its stead, other pictures took up the space. Our mono-pictoral black & white world gave reluctant way to a serial picture world with hints of color in it. Of course, it wasn't until I left Romania in 1965 that I realized that the world could be multi-imaged and color-explosive, and that people could actually wear unconstrained faces.

Those early 1950s photo sessions left me with a permanent terror of cameras. Whenever someone points one at me now I run automatically through a repertoire of faces before I settle on the one I have approximately decided is correct. It doesn't really matter who's behind the camera, there is only one photographer, my mother. And so to the question of somewhat larger import, "Who's watching?" I can truthfully answer, "My mother," and I believe that this is the case for most people whether their mother was a photographer or not. Mothers watch. And, as John Ashbery put it in a poem: "All things are tragic when a mother watches." There is also only one photograph: Stalin's, and that is another story. My mother may have photographed me but the end product was a picture of Stalin. In those days, Stalin was everything. If you asked a school child what 2 plus 2 were, he answered: "Stalin." Likewise, if you handed someone a picture of their recently departed grandmother and asked who they were seeing, they said: "Stalin." There was no one else. Given the elementary authority of that world, as well as certain subsequent developments, I can never believe that photography is in any way "objective." The photographer, who is the watcher, is always the parent, the subject is always the child, and the end result is always Stalin. And Stalin resembles the photographer more than he resembles the child. The child, like nature, is only there to be used by authority, machines, and the authority of the machine. And this result, this photograph of Stalin, is always tragic.

Among the arts, and for me, photography is the saddest. Even if I grant you that there are in this world photographs that are not photographs of Stalin, their effect has to be tragic. Photographs are the object of a pointed melancholy having nostalgia on one end and metaphysical despair on another. When it is people I look at in pictures I am sad because they are not there. (And they are not there even if they stand right beside me.) When I look at pictures of nature or objects of any kind--though I am not very much moved by these, I much prefer faces--I am struck by their strangeness, by their impossibly alien existence. And all other photo compositions, no matter how formally interesting, sadden me because they are based on the existence of an ideal which, curiously enough, is the world we live in. Platonism did not truly exist before photography. Photographs make it clear that a tragically unknowable reality capable of leaving traces on photographic paper was once present. But these pathetic traces, no matter how skillful, are only an elegy to the real, a lament for a love long gone.

Baby Photo was equipped with painted cutouts: there were bodies of uniformed generals with gold epaulets for soldiers to stick their bodies through; wasp-waisted evening-gowned fin-de-siècle beauties with a hole for a head where girls from the Stella Soap Factory could stick their own; a park bench with a sickle moon on a wire behind it on which sat a well-dressed Parisian or Viennese dandy with his arm in the air: the young lady who wished to be photographed with him slid under his arm and rested her head on his narrow shoulder; there was also a beautiful girl of that same era with an inclined head under which a young man could slide his shoulder. In addition to providing men with the uniforms and the bodies of authority, and women with the curves and frills of La Belle Epoque, Baby Photo had a horse, a mule and a huge rabbit for children.

In 1953, shortly before Stalin died, my mother landed a government contract to photograph all the Gypsies in Sibiu for newly required identity cards. The job took two years, so between the ages of seven and nine we had Gypsy families practically living with us, occupying every inch of floor, eating, whistling, singing, breastfeeding babies and quarreling. The decibel levels were astonishing despite my mother's assistant Radu's half-hearted stabs at restoring order.

One by one they paraded before the cameras, men, women, women with six babes in arms, old men and women, thousands of faces, day after day. Before I left for school in the morning, the place was already filled with a stormy rustling of wide skirts, the clinking of coin necklaces, the echoes of playful slaps, and lots and lots of giggling. The men had wide-brimmed black hats that they removed only after a great many threats by my mother to call the gendarmes (the pictures had to be full frontal) and the women hid their faces behind scarves or babies. When I came home from school, they were still there, taking large bites out of fried meat (they made fires and cooked in the alley behind the shop), asleep one on top of another, and full of unexpected (for me) glimpses of tantalizing flesh under carelessly lifted skirts. I studied the breasts of girls barely older than me while babies suckled on them and wondered secretly what it would feel like to kiss those big full nipples. As my mother photographed their faces I mind-photographed erotic glimpses of bodies at rest and play. I was extremely sorry when the project came to an end two years later, in part because I'd made friends with two Gypsy boys my own age who had no inhibitions whatsoever about spying on their sisters and who knew best the times and vantage points for so doing. A week or so after the project was concluded, I visited with this one particular band on the outskirts of town behind the railroad track but two days later they vanished, to my mother's great relief. She'd had enough, although for years afterwards, she loved showing her friends the shop register where she had written down the Gypsies' names as required by law. They had all named themselves after handicaps: there were hundreds of Surdu (deaf), scores of Mutu (mute) and Orbu (blind). Whatever their real names, they had managed to turn a perfect deaf, mute and blind mirror to the register. I was not surprised to hear later that the Gypsy identity card project was a complete failure. The Gypsies burned their ID cards as soon as they got them, and the government had to content itself with a census. Instead of photo IDs the Gypsies were given numbers. That suited them fine. In the whole country there was now only one Gypsy: No. 3458.

These Gypsies had good reasons to feel queasy about IDs. No more than ten years before, only one year before I was born, they had been interned in concentration camps. All of them, with the exception of children, were survivors. Tens of thousands of Romanian Gypsies had perished in camps. They did not want to be photographed. They knew enough about the State and the police to avoid photographs at all cost.

My mother must have understood their sadness well as she clicked face after face. My mother, her sister, her sister's husband and my grandmother had crossed the Hungarian-Romanian border at night in 1943 to avoid deportation to the death camps. My grandmother's two sisters, my great aunts, perished at Auschwitz. They perished along with millions of others, a whole world of faces that exists now only in faded photos. In 1936, a man named Roman Vishniak, possessed of an extraordinary urgency, crossed and recrossed the borders of Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Carpathian Lithuania to take pictures of Jews. Braving incredible dangers, using a hidden camera, he roamed the ghettos and shtetls, and secretly recorded that vanishing world. He took 16,000 pictures of which 2,000 survive. He smuggled some of the negatives sewn into the lining of his coat out of Europe to America. It is difficult to look at these images. It's nearly impossible to keep in mind that the people we see ceased to exist almost immediately after the pictures were taken. These people went to their deaths almost exactly as we see them: in the puzzle of their childhoods, in the perplexity of their old ages. We see them all: scholars argue through the grey slush of Europe; wide-eyed children look to their teachers, the Torah open in front of them; sages, rabbis, Zaddiks, Hassids in flapping black vestments and wide-brimmed hats. The European Jews of 1936, my mother's aunts and cousins, had been marked for destruction. Vishniak's children, from Seder scholars to street ragamuffins, share a seriousness and understanding beyond their years. In the crumbling innards of the old Polish cities, the threadbare objects of poverty glow with a life of their own. Here is a peddler with two customers, bent over a coat, carefully examining the fabric. There is an incredible materiality to this coat, paradoxically suggesting its opposite, spirituality. When this coat falls apart, this whole world will go with it. Soon, human beings will also become things, to be discarded and junked.

Vishniak has said that he felt that he was on a mission from God. In that case, it could not have been the God that had said, "Thou shalt not make graven images." Or perhaps it was the same God, allowing himself a tiny contradiction within a larger and more terrible meaning. Vishniak's camera is on a mission, a calling that is the opposite of the camera of the state intent on recording every face within its authority. Vishniak's camera redeems in a small way the use of the camera in our century, a use, by and large, infinitely more useful to the destroyers of people than to the lovers of them. The camp guards at Auschwitz all had good German cameras. They wanted to show their children one day what their technology had accomplished. These children, their descendants, are today's tourists. They too are taking pictures for their children: pictures of native peoples in quaint poses before picturesque arrangements arranged for pictures by the Tourism Bureau (the framer of remnants of the real for picture-taking). Well, at least, one might say, tourists aren't killing anybody for a picture.

Is that the difference between tourism and terrorism? Tourists are terrorists with cameras, while terrorists are tourists with guns. Tourism is the civilian aspect of imperialism. After the natives have been pacified by force of arms, we finish the job with the cameras. It's no coincidence that both activities are called "shooting." It's hard for me to look at old National Geographics without feeling an anguished nausea. There they are, on display, the dead freaks of worlds we have destroyed. They've left forms behind for the use of the fashion industry.

In Rome a few years back my family and I strolled about with cameras around our necks and baseball hats on our heads, looking for all the world like Touristi Americani, which we were. It so happened that Aldo Morro, the Italian premier kidnapped by the Brigate Rosse, had just been murdered and deposited about a street away from where we were, on Via Gaetano, halfway between the Communists' and the Social Democrats' headquarters. Hundreds of screaming Italian police cars took to the streets, and trucks full of carabinieri were rushing in from the provinces. One of these came to a screeching halt in front of us, and a police captain holding a machine gun leapt out in front of us: "What's the way to the police station?" he asked. In stilted tourist Italian I told him: "Go straight. Make a right. Then a left." He saluted, thanked me and they took off in the directions I'd pointed them in. Only I'd made up the directions. I'm not sure what exactly went through my mind but I must have reasoned that if the obvious tourist get-up hadn't deterred him, there was no reason for me not to act like a native. And natives, particularly in Rome, answer at length any question you ask them, even if and especially if they don't know the answer. So--the camera, you see--is not a complete defense against the stupidity of the police. Both tourists and terrorists shoot what they can't quite tame. To finish with the camera what your grandfather started with the gun is both easier and harder. The souls we steal may be our own.
Part one of two; concluded in Stare No. 803.

. . .
contents (top)  |  the last Stare.  |  the next Stare.  |  previous issues
contents copyright ©1995 the original authors; all rights reserved.

Stare. (Visual Information Inquiry)
is edited and published by
David Glenn Rinehart, et al.