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Fools, their art and their money
In passing
I can't imagine ever wanting to be an Americantourist
Déjà Vu All OverAgain
The brave new world of digital imaging bears astriking resemblance to the olde world.
Everything is Stalin, in its ownway ...

. . .


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 monitorseems pretty hollow to me. Virtually all Internet nodes haveless bandwidth than a videotape, and how popular arevideotapes of art? On another tack, maybe the Internet willnave no effect on great art or good art but will be theabsolute saving niche for mediocre or bad art. That is, thecriterion for having it viewed is not its merit, but theability of its creator to put it on the net. Graffiti'scrown of creation.

I think that people will grow bored with the Internet asit now is and as it soon will be: the big slick moniedenterprises will make smooth packages that will correspondto the TV networks. The fringe will be readily accessible,but it will still be the fringe. How many people buyshort-wave radios to tune in pirate radio stations from allover the world? Not many, but this technology is cheaper andmore immediate than the net is now. I think the net is funsince it gives the illusion of a little world you cancontrol, where magic works and you can have godlike powers.But it will never harness the artistry of a talentedprostitute, a good back rub, etc. No, the more I think aboutit, I think the hucksters are right: the proper use of theNet is to separate rich net users from their money. Anythingelse is probably incidental.

. . .


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

He also showed a lot of work, such as the series of fivebuttons ("I can't," "imagine," "ever wanting," "to be,""white") that were among the most memorable pieces of the1993 Whitney biennale. His work attacking the rich ("In arich man's house, the only place to spit is in hisface") and the powerful has lead to a curious symbioticrelationship. The leaders of the rich and powerful artestablishment keep inviting him to participate in theirevents, thus demonstrating that they're not only rich andpowerful, but hip to boot. Still, he tirelessly goes to whathe describes as "awful" events like the Whitney and Venicebiennales to take advantage of the upper classes.

His message went over well in class-conscious northernEngland, and not just among the students and artcognoscenti. While Martinez was videotaping in the townmarket, some of the local lads apparently mistook theworking-class artist from the Los Angeles barrios for a richAmerican tourist. In an act that could have come from one ofhis street theatre, the locals robbed the rich visitor ofhis very expensive video camera.

It was, by any definition, a class act.

. . .

DéjàVu All Over Again


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

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

That was 1973. It was the first of many claims I heardabout the brave new world of digital photography. In SanFrancisco, I hear fewer and fewer claims that photographerswill be doing amazing things with digital imaging "someday."On the border of Silicon Valley, digital photography hasgone from the realm of esoteric science fiction to theroutine tedium of daily commerce in just a few years.

Bay Area photo labs routinely offer high-resolution scansas well as the usual developing and printing. High-volumecatalog photographers use digital backs on their Hasselbladsand Sinars; they feed the resulting images directly intodigital prepress computers thus bypassing the expensive andtime-consuming processes of Polaroid tests, bracketing, andmaking color separations. And although the local newspaperphotographers use traditional film and cameras for most oftheir work, the film goes directly from the processor to thecomputer scanner; the enlarger is rapidly becoming asindispensable for newspaper work as 4x5 Speed Graphics andcheap cigars.

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

Remember "camera clubs" with monied dilettantes debatingwhether Leitz or Zeiss made the sharpestlenses ... arguments about whetherthrough-the-lens metering was a useful tool or just agimmick? Remember when the "salon prints" were alwaysaccompanied by a list of the camera, lens, film and paperemployed as well as the shutter speed and aperture used?

If you remember those halcyon days, the world of thedigital imaging nerd will seem quite familiar. Is it best towork in RGB or CMYK? How do Apple's new Power PC machinescompare to Silicon Graphics work stations? Is JPEG or someother compression algorithm the most efficient? In SanFrancisco, exhibitions of "computer art" feature long listsof the hardware and software used. Other digital salonsrequire that the work be submitted on magnetic cartridgesmade by a specific manufacturer, a requirement as bizarre asan editor insisting that all manuscripts be submitted onpaper made by a particular paper company.

Oh dear. As Yogi Berra said: "It's likedéjà vu all over again." The most strikinghistorical antecedent of the new digital world isn't thecamera club ambiance of the 1970s or even the photosecession wars at the turn of the last century. Go back toEurope in the 1840s to understand what's reallyhappening.

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

You won't have to wait long for the next scenic vistathough, for photography is dying the same death paintingsuffered 150 years ago. Digital imaging is supplanting thephotography we've known, loved and used for a centuryand a half just as the camera usurped painting and drawing'sutilitarian functions in the middle of the nineteenthcentury.

In San Francisco, digital imaging is rapidly becoming themedium of choice in many professional applications. On theother end of the spectrum, Fuji Film's senior technicalstaff estimate amateur photographers will no longer use filmby 2010. So what kind of future is there for goodold-fashioned analog photography?

The answer, in a word, is Art.

For art media as well as artists, dying is almostinvariably a savvy career move. Once the medium of entirelyanalog photography becomes as unnecessary and irrelevant todaily life as painting, drawing, etching and sculpture, itmay finally fully accepted into the Art family instead ofbeing treated as an embarrassing distant relative. As thedirector of one of San Francisco's best galleries put it,"Until photography can enter the general art world, it willbe regarded as a hobby. No matter how much these fuckerssell for, that's still the issue."

If history and current trends in and around SiliconValley are any indication, a split between the distinctlydifferent media of photography and digital imaging seemsinevitable. Any attempts by photographers to claim digitalimaging as their domain by declaring it "digitalphotography" will certainly prove as futile as attempts bypainters and engravers 150 years ago to assert thatphotography was really "automatic painting" or "machineengraving."

Although digital imaging is being warmly welcomed intothe world of commerce, its acceptance into the art worldpromises to be as elusive as photography's. And for goodreason. The latest generation of computers is capable ofgenerating incredible imagery. Sadly, most of the peopleoperating these miracle machines appear not to be.

Contemporary digital imagery seems to fall into two broadcategories. The first might be described as the ScienceFiction meets Heavy Metal school. The men (and most of themare men) working in this category love specialeffects, and it shows. In fact, that's all that shows. TheInternational Center of Photography's Timothy Druckeryrecently commented "After curating the Iterationsshow I could recognize every Photoshop filter [used by acomputer to modify a digital image] just by holding thesheet of slides up to a window."

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

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

"When the photographer takes to forgery, thePress encourages him. The critics, being professionalconnoisseurs of the shiftiest of old makeshifts, come tothe galleries where the forgeries are exhibited. Theyfind, to their relief, that here, instead of a newbusiness for them to learn, is a row of monochromes whichtheir old jargon fits like a glove. Forthwith theyproclaim that photography has become an art."

This is another historical correlation between art andtechnology. The initial use for a new medium--after beingemployed by militarists and pornographers--is to mimic workdone in other media. One of the primary uses of the firstprinting presses was to reproduce illuminated manuscripts;it was almost a century before artists and publishers tookadvantage of the new technology's unique capabilities.

Some artists are using digital imaging to producestrong work that could not have been done in any othermedium, but they're all too rare. For the moment, one canstill critique this emerging art form by again plagiarizingShaw: digital imaging is wonderful except for thepictures.

In summary, the brave new digital world looks a lot likea lot like the grave old world of Paris in the 1840s orMainz in the 1450s. And the digital future, especially forartists, promises both exhilarating new technologicaldevelopments and no significant changes. Man Ray said itbest: "There is no progress in art, any more than there isin making love."

. . .


Andrei Codrescu

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

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

My father's graven image shop was on the main street inmy hometown of Sibiu (or Hermannstadt) in centralTransylvania, Romania. My father did all the graduationportraits of the local high schools and technical schools,and also weddings and portraits. The graduating classesposed for group portraits that were then displayed in shopwindows up and down the main street. Marrying couples cameinto the shop directly from City Hall. When I graduated fromhigh school I refused to wear the school uniform in theclass picture. I was the only one out of fifty people whodidn't wear a tie. And I insisted that my pseudonym be usedunder my picture rather than the name I suffered years ofschool with. My father's shop was long gone by the time Igraduated as was my father--but I was driven. When ourportrait was displayed, people remarked: "He changed hisname, and isn't wearing a tie because he's mad at hisfather!" And my father, in turn, had been mad at God, whichis why he made pictures.

My mother and father spent most of the six months thatthey were married to each other in the darkroom of the photoshop. I was no doubt conceived in the darkroom. Andafterwards, I baked there inside my mother under the steadyred light for six full months, the time I believe that ittakes most major organs and most of the brain to form. Myoutline must have been there in any case, as well as certainvital shadows. I was then violently wrenched into the lightby my parents' divorce.

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

My mother's photo studio was called Baby Photo--(mymother's nickname was Baby, a very chic moniker in Romaniawhere the word was redolent of exotic fragrance, bubblegum,nylons and big bands, a whole jazzy post-war longing thatnever materialized because the Russians came instead of theAmericans ... but that's another story).

Baby Photo was at the very end of the central street bythe train station and the clientele wasn't as upscale as myfather's. Mother photographed soldiers and theirgirlfriends, Gypsies, and peasant grandfathers brought in bytheir families from the countryside to be photographedbefore they died.

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

Amid the laments and curses my seven-year-old brain racedthrough the muscles of my face in search of both theappropriate configuration and the most inappropriatebecause, let's face it, I was delighted by the attention, bythe complete critique of any face I chose to invent. I knewthe face that "looked like a butcher," the mug that "brokeyour mother's heart," the countenance that made her questionher existence. It was all there, the ontology andeschatology of mother before the son in search of thephotographable mug. At long last, the clicker clicked and Iwas captured.

Stiff, cramped, in pain, insecure and exhausted I standthere in the early 1950s looking at a point in the futurewhen I would be released. That point came soon after Stalindied, in 1953, when the whole world behind the Iron Curtainlet out a great sigh of relief and everyone's face musclesrelaxed slightly. Some even smiled. Stalin's portrait, whichadorned every building and dwarfed every school wall, camedown. In its stead, other pictures took up the space. Ourmono-pictoral black & white world gave reluctant way toa serial picture world with hints of color in it. Of course,it wasn't until I left Romania in 1965 that I realized thatthe world could be multi-imaged and color-explosive, andthat people could actually wear unconstrained faces.

Those early 1950s photo sessions left me with a permanentterror of cameras. Whenever someone points one at me now Irun automatically through a repertoire of faces before Isettle on the one I have approximately decided is correct.It doesn't really matter who's behind the camera, there isonly one photographer, my mother. And so to the question ofsomewhat larger import, "Who's watching?" I can truthfullyanswer, "My mother," and I believe that this is the case formost people whether their mother was a photographer or not.Mothers watch. And, as John Ashbery put it in a poem: "Allthings are tragic when a mother watches." There is also onlyone photograph: Stalin's, and that is another story. Mymother may have photographed me but the end product was apicture of Stalin. In those days, Stalin was everything. Ifyou asked a school child what 2 plus 2 were, he answered:"Stalin." Likewise, if you handed someone a picture of theirrecently departed grandmother and asked who they wereseeing, they said: "Stalin." There was no one else. Giventhe elementary authority of that world, as well as certainsubsequent developments, I can never believe thatphotography is in any way "objective." The photographer, whois the watcher, is always the parent, the subject is alwaysthe child, and the end result is always Stalin. And Stalinresembles the photographer more than he resembles the child.The child, like nature, is only there to be used byauthority, machines, and the authority of the machine. Andthis result, this photograph of Stalin, is alwaystragic.

Among the arts, and for me, photography is the saddest.Even if I grant you that there are in this world photographsthat are not photographs of Stalin, their effect has to betragic. Photographs are the object of a pointed melancholyhaving nostalgia on one end and metaphysical despair onanother. When it is people I look at in pictures I am sadbecause they are not there. (And they are not there even ifthey stand right beside me.) When I look at pictures ofnature or objects of any kind--though I am not very muchmoved by these, I much prefer faces--I am struck by theirstrangeness, by their impossibly alien existence. And allother photo compositions, no matter how formallyinteresting, sadden me because they are based on theexistence of an ideal which, curiously enough, is the worldwe live in. Platonism did not truly exist beforephotography. Photographs make it clear that a tragicallyunknowable reality capable of leaving traces on photographicpaper was once present. But these pathetic traces, no matterhow skillful, are only an elegy to the real, a lament for alove long gone.

Baby Photo was equipped with painted cutouts: there werebodies of uniformed generals with gold epaulets for soldiersto stick their bodies through; wasp-waisted evening-gownedfin-de-siècle beauties with a hole for a head wheregirls from the Stella Soap Factory could stick their own; apark bench with a sickle moon on a wire behind it on whichsat a well-dressed Parisian or Viennese dandy with his armin the air: the young lady who wished to be photographedwith him slid under his arm and rested her head on hisnarrow shoulder; there was also a beautiful girl of thatsame era with an inclined head under which a young man couldslide his shoulder. In addition to providing men with theuniforms and the bodies of authority, and women with thecurves and frills of La Belle Epoque, Baby Photo had ahorse, a mule and a huge rabbit for children.

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

One by one they paraded before the cameras, men, women,women with six babes in arms, old men and women, thousandsof faces, day after day. Before I left for school in themorning, the place was already filled with a stormy rustlingof wide skirts, the clinking of coin necklaces, the echoesof playful slaps, and lots and lots of giggling. The men hadwide-brimmed black hats that they removed only after a greatmany threats by my mother to call the gendarmes (thepictures had to be full frontal) and the women hid theirfaces behind scarves or babies. When I came home fromschool, they were still there, taking large bites out offried meat (they made fires and cooked in the alley behindthe shop), asleep one on top of another, and full ofunexpected (for me) glimpses of tantalizing flesh undercarelessly lifted skirts. I studied the breasts of girlsbarely older than me while babies suckled on them andwondered secretly what it would feel like to kiss those bigfull nipples. As my mother photographed their faces Imind-photographed erotic glimpses of bodies at rest andplay. I was extremely sorry when the project came to an endtwo years later, in part because I'd made friends with twoGypsy boys my own age who had no inhibitions whatsoeverabout spying on their sisters and who knew best the timesand vantage points for so doing. A week or so after theproject was concluded, I visited with this one particularband on the outskirts of town behind the railroad track buttwo days later they vanished, to my mother's great relief.She'd had enough, although for years afterwards, she lovedshowing her friends the shop register where she had writtendown the Gypsies' names as required by law. They had allnamed themselves after handicaps: there were hundreds ofSurdu (deaf), scores of Mutu (mute) and Orbu (blind).Whatever their real names, they had managed to turn aperfect deaf, mute and blind mirror to the register. I wasnot surprised to hear later that the Gypsy identity cardproject was a complete failure. The Gypsies burned their IDcards as soon as they got them, and the government had tocontent itself with a census. Instead of photo IDs theGypsies were given numbers. That suited them fine. In thewhole 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 wasborn, they had been interned in concentration camps. All ofthem, with the exception of children, were survivors. Tensof thousands of Romanian Gypsies had perished in camps. Theydid not want to be photographed. They knew enough about theState and the police to avoid photographs at all cost.

My mother must have understood their sadness well as sheclicked face after face. My mother, her sister, her sister'shusband and my grandmother had crossed theHungarian-Romanian border at night in 1943 to avoiddeportation to the death camps. My grandmother's twosisters, my great aunts, perished at Auschwitz. Theyperished along with millions of others, a whole world offaces that exists now only in faded photos. In 1936, a mannamed 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 roamedthe ghettos and shtetls, and secretly recorded thatvanishing world. He took 16,000 pictures of which 2,000survive. He smuggled some of the negatives sewn into thelining of his coat out of Europe to America. It is difficultto look at these images. It's nearly impossible to keep inmind that the people we see ceased to exist almostimmediately after the pictures were taken. These people wentto their deaths almost exactly as we see them: in the puzzleof their childhoods, in the perplexity of their old ages. Wesee them all: scholars argue through the grey slush ofEurope; wide-eyed children look to their teachers, the Torahopen in front of them; sages, rabbis, Zaddiks, Hassids inflapping black vestments and wide-brimmed hats. The EuropeanJews of 1936, my mother's aunts and cousins, had been markedfor destruction. Vishniak's children, from Seder scholars tostreet ragamuffins, share a seriousness and understandingbeyond their years. In the crumbling innards of the oldPolish cities, the threadbare objects of poverty glow with alife of their own. Here is a peddler with two customers,bent over a coat, carefully examining the fabric. There isan incredible materiality to this coat, paradoxicallysuggesting its opposite, spirituality. When this coat fallsapart, this whole world will go with it. Soon, human beingswill also become things, to be discarded and junked.

Vishniak has said that he felt that he was on a missionfrom God. In that case, it could not have been the God thathad said, "Thou shalt not make graven images." Or perhaps itwas the same God, allowing himself a tiny contradictionwithin a larger and more terrible meaning. Vishniak's camerais on a mission, a calling that is the opposite of thecamera of the state intent on recording every face withinits authority. Vishniak's camera redeems in a small way theuse of the camera in our century, a use, by and large,infinitely more useful to the destroyers of people than tothe lovers of them. The camp guards at Auschwitz all hadgood German cameras. They wanted to show their children oneday what their technology had accomplished. These children,their descendants, are today's tourists. They too are takingpictures for their children: pictures of native peoples inquaint poses before picturesque arrangements arranged forpictures by the Tourism Bureau (the framer of remnants ofthe 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 aretourists with guns. Tourism is the civilian aspect ofimperialism. After the natives have been pacified by forceof arms, we finish the job with the cameras. It's nocoincidence that both activities are called "shooting." It'shard for me to look at old National Geographicswithout feeling an anguished nausea. There they are, ondisplay, the dead freaks of worlds we have destroyed.They've left forms behind for the use of the fashionindustry.

In Rome a few years back my family and I strolled aboutwith cameras around our necks and baseball hats on ourheads, looking for all the world like TouristiAmericani, which we were. It so happened that AldoMorro, the Italian premier kidnapped by the Brigate Rosse,had just been murdered and deposited about a street awayfrom where we were, on Via Gaetano, halfway between theCommunists' and the Social Democrats' headquarters. Hundredsof screaming Italian police cars took to the streets, andtrucks full of carabinieri were rushing in from theprovinces. One of these came to a screeching halt in frontof us, and a police captain holding a machine gun leapt outin front of us: "What's the way to the police station?" heasked. In stilted tourist Italian I told him: "Go straight.Make a right. Then a left." He saluted, thanked me and theytook off in the directions I'd pointed them in. Only I'dmade up the directions. I'm not sure what exactly wentthrough my mind but I must have reasoned that if the obvioustourist get-up hadn't deterred him, there was no reason forme not to act like a native. And natives, particularly inRome, answer at length any question you ask them, even ifand especially if they don't know the answer. So--thecamera, you see--is not a complete defense against thestupidity of the police. Both tourists and terrorists shootwhat they can't quite tame. To finish with the camera whatyour grandfather started with the gun is both easier andharder. The souls we steal may be our own.
Part one of two; concluded in StareNo. 803.

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