"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

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Analog Island
In Texas, photography means photography
 
Three Pieces
The return of a perennial complication

. . .

Analog Island


David Glenn Rinehart

The casual visitor may be forgiven for thinking that everything Texan is either behemoth, ostentatiously huge, or absurdly obscenely gargantuan. It is impossible to talk about the inimitable state of Texas without talking about size, so let us not avoid that delicate subject when addressing the matter at hand, Houston FotoFest.

In its latest biennial iteration, FotoFest is not quite as large as it once was. That may be a problem for the odd Texan, but for almost everyone else it is a welcome development. A few years ago the most prominent aspect of FotoFest was a Texas-sized exhibition of almost two thousand prints in the sprawling Houston convention center. (I don't know how many prints there actually were; in my two previous attempts I failed to join the elite ranks of the persevering viewers who navigated the entire maze.)

With some 60 exhibits from which to choose in the Houston area, the absence of the megashow wasn't missed. As with past FotoFests, the locus of the festival was "the meeting place," the central venue where hundreds of photographers present their work to dozens of reviewers from around the world.

The presence of so many preeminent--or at least well-known--curators, publishers, gallery owners, critics and educators is the key to FotoFest's success. The conclave of so many nominally important people serves as a magnet for aspiring photographers from across the United States and a sprinkling of other countries. As in previous years, FotoFest provided a satisfying combination of familiar faces and new blood. FotoFest founders Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watress are to be again commended for providing an all too rare catalyst for a gathering of the art photography cabal.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the work presented. Inevitably, there were a few portfolios of what one colleague described with brutal accuracy as "the work of someone engaging in artlike behavior." Fortunately for the reviewers, unexceptional work was the exception.

This year I had the pleasure of viewing dozens of strong bodies of work by mature artists. In particular, Pamela Bannos, Candace diCarlo, Clint Imboden, Luis Delgado Qualtrough, John C. Runnels, Vincent Serbin, and Richard S. Zoller showed work that was so good that I hope to plagiarize it some day. Photographers too numerous to mention showed work I would be proud to exhibit or publish.

Seeing so much good work reminded me of my recently-departed friend Joe Folberg's observation: "There are more pitchers than catchers." It was clear that the arts world's small infrastructure of publications and exhibition spaces is inadequate to present so much good work by so many good artists. Even with rare opportunities like FotoFest, most of today's undiscovered artists will remain so. Forever.

It is understandable that FotoFest is marketed as an opportunity to achieve success as an artist, even though what traditionally passes for "success" will elude almost everyone except the most tireless of self-promoters. That's not as bad as it sounds; the familiar equation of success equals fame isn't necessarily true. Charles Horton Cooley provides a better definition of success: "An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one." And as Tom Stoppard noted "What is an artist? For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist."

The hundreds of hopeful photographers who attended FotoFest could have been luckier. The review process itself was perhaps as fair and equitable as such an ordeal will ever be, given the ratio of pitchers to catchers. Although the photographers had a reasonable opportunity to see a number of prominent reviewers, they were discouraged from looking at other photographers' work.

I met a number of photographers who were upset they weren't allowed to view the dozens of portfolios on display in a portfolio review room reserved for "official" reviewers only. (The room was usually empty, since reviewers were busy elsewhere with a full schedule of appointments.) The FotoFest caste system with its rigid bifurcation between art producers and art consumers was the only notable disappointment in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable event. Photographers who have worked for decades to produce strong work--and then paid for the opportunity to show it--deserve better treatment and greater respect.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this year's FotoFest was the almost complete absence of digitally produced work. I saw almost nothing that wasn't a traditional silver-halide photograph. (The exception to both was an exhibition of Dan Burkholder's lovely platinum prints made from computer-generated negatives.)

Why was FotoFest an analog island in an increasingly digital sea? I can only speculate, but my guess is that it has much to do with photographers' self-imposed segregation from the rest of the art world. It was, after all, FotoFest, not ArtFest. I suspect it may not have occurred to artists using digital photography (and other digital media) to attend a photography festival. Two relevant observations come to mind:

"Today art photography reaps the dubious reward of having accomplished all that was set out in its mid-nineteenth century agenda: general recognition as an art form, a place in the museum, a market (however erratic), a patrimonial lineage, an acknowledged canon. Yet hostage still to a modernist allegiance to the autonomy, self-referentiality, and transcendence of the work of art, art photography has systematically engineered its own irrelevance and triviality." --Abigail Solomon-Godeau

"I don't think photography is a medium by itself. All the plastic, visual arts are one medium. If you want to talk about a different medium, then you mean music or poetry or theatre. Photography is a way to do art. I'm going to continue photographing, but I don't want to stay in the ghetto of photography. It's a mistake too many photographers make. Photography is a part, and I want to learn about the whole." --Igael Shemtov

Such musings on the relationship of photography to Art may be a pleasant intellectual exercise, but they are largely irrelevant to an event that proudly calls itself a photography festival. Photography is FotoFest's raison d'être; to criticize it for a paucity of work in other media may be as irrelevant as lamenting the small vegetarian selection at Sam's Super-Sirloin Steakhouse. Nevertheless, photographers and event organizers must consider whether photography festivals like FotoFest ultimately benefit photographic artists or marginalize them and their work from the rest of visual culture. That difficult question is becoming increasingly relevant as virtually all media find a digital common denominator.

No photography event will appeal to all of the photographic world all of the time, but FotoFest comes as near to that ideal as is likely possible. The highest praise I can give any such event is that I was never bored during four memorable eighteen hour days. Even without a cavernous convention center filled with thousands of prints, FotoFest still provided an exhaustive and exhausting range of visual and verbal stimulation. FotoFest is a Texas-sized banquet for anyone who enjoys a steady diet of photography

. . .

...


Edward Conrad

The editors at this time pay tribute to Edward Conrad, semi-continental critic and perennial complication. These three posthumous, previously unpublished and certainly unfinished items again demonstrate Conrad's eclectic and recursive, self-creating style. Despite numerous rough edges, we offer these admittedly unfinished pieces with no corrections, alterations, or apologies, in the best spirit of tribute, on their merit, with fondest regard.

... if I were thinking about visual art, I would have to remember the eyes and the mind; very little else would be necessary.

But that's not right at all.

Supposing that the sea surrounding one of the outer islands ran cleaner in the old days, and supposing that fewer boats left the coves and small harbors in the early mornings mostly to work but sometimes play along the edges of the cleaner sea, it might be due to the fact that fewer knew or cared to know about the outer at all. Of course, even in the supposed backwaters of such remembered yet forgotten islands, there were camera/photography shops where small, thin, pale men with black-rimmed glasses made their living selling Kodak equipment to and developing film for those who either lived or periodically but briefly visited the outer islands, daring encounters with nature or humanity armed only with an ardent artistic dedication to frame and record the actual, or so it would seem.

I remember a lighter-brown, rutted, dirt road, not many rocks and not very large rocks. The ruts were slow-sloping, deep, filled with darker-brown water, and the sun shined its mid-morning shine: yellow light colliding with dirt and stone to make the browns of the road and the colors of the leaves reaching over the gulleys from the scrub. Reaching in on either side, green-brown-grey, the lower and outer leaves of the scrub hung splashed with dust and dirt and water from the puddles, caked, dried, and drying from the yellow light and the tenuous light motion of an invisible breeze.

The breeze and the cars were both in motion, though no cars were visible, but they had to have been for the water and dirt to have jumped from the ruts. And beneath the leaves down below in the gulleys, the cars had left litter, not much, just enough: a few bits of paper, a box or three of various strategically rectangular shapes, and a handful of obligatory bottles slapped over with technicolor labels, digitally imaged labels; but all that panchromatic darkroom magic and all that formal, marketing-room magic had been altered or spoiled by the brown and the mud, the yellow and the grey, the translucent chatarach film lovingly spatulaed over the technovisual magic peeping up from the darker recesses of the lower side borders of the road.

Still, despite whatever incidentals might momentarily occupy the attentions of someone not unlike myself, the mostly seen outweighed the seldom seen. How the dust made its way to the leaves barely sustained a moment's glance next to the colors, shapes, and textures offered up to the eager eye. If the magic bottles actually presented impossible interference from the gulleys, a slight shift of angle and the verdant tops of the scrub coupled with the azure sky could easily erase whatever blemishes distracted and despoiled the best expected frame. Even if a car happened by, I told myself, plenty of picture waited back past the bushes, a minor adjustment away.

But as much as I tried to focus the camera back beyond the scrub, back past the bushes, into what I hoped would be a less crowded field topped by an expanse of colorful sky, the brush itself was too thick. And when I tried to focus on the pristine leaves behind the grey-brown-green adjacent to the borders of the dirt road, the viewfinder never came to rest on anything entirely clean. No matter what I did, I couldn't frame the wrong leaves out of the foreground. I couldn't find the right sky. And I remembered a bit of something else.

Written somewhere in a mass of pages I had read was something about a tree and the power of an object to participate in the gaze, but participation, in the terms of that argument, meant "co-operation." Now, the lens was refused the co-operation pursued by the eager eye. The form and content of the frame stubbornly remained confined by terms intoned by the object, and no expectation, not even the best intentions, could shake them loose.

...

... I remember a very important youthful occasion--a gather of youthful types engaged in the endeavors of art: a mass show. I saved I don't remember how much money for I don't remember how long so that I could fly out to a place to show my work and feel so important. Well, it was important, children act like adults with families of their own when it comes to certain things--so dedicated. Anyway, the details of the event do not resonate with the force that they then possessed--odd thing, what happens to memories over time.

Of course, my participation in the show was everything I thought it would be (we all deliver the goods when we have to), and I remember flying back from wherever it was in the upper mid-west U.S., and all my gear was packed, very carefully packed, so that the airlines could only damage the smallest portion of what now seems the most amateurish collection of equipment, and I flew into Boston. I flew into Boston--Logan International Airport--just about time for a drink, mid-afternoon, not carrying camera one. I only had a handful of minutes between planes, and on the upper level on that side of the airport was the Cloud 9 Lounge.

From the outside, as there was a definite 1973 mall-shop-type feel to the architecture, very little of the inside happenings could be viewed by potential customers. The huge sixteen-pane glass and steel front next to the thin door of the establishment was mostly blocked out by a gigantic white and yellow acrylic paint cloud, a fleecy motif, with large black/purple letters centered in the middle, spelling out "Cloud 9," centered on an ascending diagonal curve. Perhaps because I was so sixteen and flushed with the success of a successful show so high up in the back pocket of my recent past, I risked adolescent rejection and went in.

I probably needn't have worried. Perhaps business was slow, or selling liquor to minors in the private club of an airport didn't really matter as much as I thought it did, or perhaps at an amazing juxtaposition of space, time, and distance I represented what is termed "the perfect subject," but the bartender barely looked once at me as I moved over toward the stools at the bar and sat down. However, once seated, I felt his gaze upon me, eye to eye. To deflect the penetration of the gaze, I immediately asked for the labels and prices.

The list poured forward like translucent sound, labels ascending and prices ascending, and when the bartender and his gaze arrived at the top of the list, a German imported beer for two dollars and seventy-five cents, I asked for the best with my best pose forward, a pose assembled of the best adolescent theatricality my money was hoping to buy.

So to the world, I thought, the aperture accepted the adolescent pose. The light of performance jumped across the bar, flashed through the airy lens between the bar and its tender, and bonded technovisually to the film of the moment. The expected imported bottle and glass dissolved up before me, and the money entered frame left out of my pocket and into the center of the frame.

It was at just such moments when everything intended went as planned, if I remember my youth correctly, that I heard a very flattering sound, one of those imaginary sounds that makes you ecstatic or intoxicated or whatever, as if the material substance out there is no more than a prop, perhaps not even that necessary. In those days, when I thought I had caught the exact framing, made the perfect picture as it were, I imagined I could hear the emulsion crackling as the image fused to the medium. Although my equipment was somewhere else, driving its way through customs as it were, I thought I still held the camera. Perhaps the perfect performance made itself the camera. Manipulating this very small illegal beer, especially in a foreign country, presented yet another aesthetic success. I could hear the emulsion crackling.

But I wasn't right at all.

At the moment the bartender turned away, a black man walked into the Cloud 9 Lounge dressed in a sharp, charcoal-dark suit, carrying a smart-looking yellow/brown leather briefcase. A black man about thirty, he energetically sliced his way up to a jog in the bar that was ninety degrees away. I crooked my head slightly to frame both men in profile as the white bartender turned to meet the black man eye to eye, and the man asked for a beer.

And there they were, framed in profile, medium close-up. And as I heard the list, pouring forth again like translucent sound, I saw that the prices were not the same. And after I heard the labels ascending and prices ascending, and when the bartender and his gaze arrived at the top of the list, a German imported beer for three dollars and fifty cents, I heard the black man ask for the best, what I was drinking, with a voice organic in strength and endeavor.

I could hear the emulsion crackling, but the camera was dissolving. I was helpless, made silent, trapped by what had been youth and illegal success. The content of the frame reared back on its hind legs to snap the shutter closed, even though it opened again so many times in the interim, for some time to come.

Terms Intoned By The Object

During any given December evening in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A., you might be walking on the sidewalk next to the glistening cobblestone streets, filmed over by the leavings of fog or rain, next to the prestigious Brown University. You might be next to Brown University because Brown University is next to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. The Rhode Island School of Design is considered to be prestigious mostly by those who have paid to attend the school, and mostly because the faculty of the school have told those who attend to recognize that the dollars and dollars that they have paid, excuse me--generally the dollars and dollars that others have paid, entitle them to feel, not think, that prestige follows money like birth follows copulation. Of course, it is a rather Victorian or 1950's notion to believe that birth always follows copulation; however, institutions of higher learning often co-operate with beliefs that admirably demonstrate an unreasonable idealism simultaneous with an unhuman economy--perhaps a crabbed shorthand: expediency. In such an atmosphere, the cobblestones, in the oblique illuminations of evening, also twinkle while they glisten from both the fog and the rain.

But before succumbing to the nascent cinematic abandon reaching forth from the moment, one should remember that Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A., even in the present, remains remarkably uncluttered by cobblestone streets, that the world of this film operates within rarified boundaries. The narrative circumference blocked out by cobblestone streets might seek to eliminate all of the actual beyond the perimeters of two prestigious universities and the living quarters, albeit somewhat strategically dilapidated, immediately allowed for the eager customers of educational edibles, aesthetic or otherwise.

Still, at that time, whenever it was, or any time really, I remember answering a summons to attend the successes of an accomplished young acquaintance, age twenty or so, whose merits had pulsed their way into visibility among the private club of the academy. A remarkably ardent young man, Scot, with his enamel-black hair, Slavic pallor, and speedy black eyes, wished me into the energetic flow of the moment. A willing subject, I traveled from the outer to the inner for a change of atmosphere, for a change of ideas, for the best intentions. I arrived in the early evening on that Friday, and by the time we walked toward his rooms, the chimes from both nearby academic bell towers clapped out the hour in a somewhat routine metallic competition. Honestly, I do not exactly remember the time, but there was much clapping and clanging as we walked to the end of the cobblestone street and veered off to the left. Scot and I walked off to see some of his latest work: myself to see his recent efforts for the first time, he to see his works again with the potential tyranny of a new pair of eyes peering over his shoulder.

When we arrived at his building, an old wooden building, we climbed stairs. Scot lived in a garret, albeit a large garret, at the top of six or so flights that became ever more thin, steep, and winding as we passed through halls bordered by numerous darkly stained doors. As we ascended the final set of stairs, more poorly lit than all the others, the carpet coverings of the lower flights gave way to bare wood. These treads were all worn down in the middle, perhaps by numerous students' shoes, worn down in pursuit of whatever profit might be offered by the long tradition of academic education.

And with the report of a key triggered into the lock, a door, boasting forth illumination into the darkness from the crevices of its loose jambs, shuttered open.

High ceilings, maybe twelve feet high, pushed out of the room as the door swung back, and the huge room advertised itself as a garret, in part, through layers and layers of paint lovingly spatulaed over the walls, decade after decade no doubt, in place of any true structural repairs. Along with a rancid collection of hideous furniture (chair--"chair"--table--couch), four, perhaps even five, makeshift easels, pulled the eye away from the walls and toward the vanishing center of the room. But, just so, each painting clawed the moving gaze back from the imaginary pressure of such an invisible expectation, and just as the sound of ongoing conversation poured forward with the unspoken intention of surpassing the illumination of the room.

Said the twenty year old artist, "I'm saying that prejudice lives within the human condition like a universal alcoholism--a thirst aspiring to drink every minute of every day. No one immune to this disease, no convenient ready-made vaccination, borne within the idea of habit, it's practically a nature of itself."

And the painting on the far left snapped at my eye from a distance--waves of blue and green, overlappings of turquoise, a fissure of yellow singing loudly, pitched upper right near center. I heard a subtle noise.

"Scot, step off the podium. You're treading water. People aren't as rotten as all that. They don't wake up every morning with the leavings of prejudice in their mouths. You're over-generalizing. Get off the stage."

I was still concentrating toward the left.

I pointed, "What about that painting?"

We were moving closer to the center of the room. Amidst all the blue and swirling green pulsing up and over toward the yellow--yes--the yellows formed a canoe. Even while we moved closer, I retreated inside and noticed outward within the waves on the canvas thin lines of black pulling in all directions and small streaks of white pulling in all directions, but mostly massing toward the yellows. And more than that, the tones of the colors, an undeniably present yet ambiguously beautiful arc funneling the gaze toward the canoe--a figure of a woman olive/brown/black sheening out from the center of the fissure. I heard--

"I call it 'Constance Adrift'," said the artist. "But that's exactly my point. Partly, the essence of prejudice is --maybe--unconscious. But also, that essence resides in the conscious, a deliberate act which is the imposition or accession of ignorance. To deny or deliberately fail to see or know is to create ignorance synthetically, and ignorance is the medium where prejudice finds expression. Both the accession and the expression are tautological, just as prejudice is tautological both in essence and intention. And what, in all, dully pulses as the technique of habit becomes actively, in the few, the technique of art. I don't like it. What kind of art could be borne of such technique?"

Scratching unpleasant noise!

Yet I was living with Constance, wonderful Constance; and I should have lived longer, but two easels away was an oversized illustration blocked against an even more oversized slab of plywood. As my eyes leaned over, with Constance still in my thoughts, ancient ruins leapt out from the blocked illustration, leapt forth with an energy and force of masterful accentuation and alteration--revision in brilliant motion. A sky refigured, gross forms rigorously redetailed and shifted, smaller shapes etched deeper and so brought into being, all preserving the power of the original perspective but also offering a new and entirely different perspective--I saw, simultaneously, mediums and media confused, in the best sense, or so I thought. I had to ask.

"That piece is one of a set of eight I've started working. I found the original illustrations in an oversized archeological monograph published in 1880. I think I'll call it, 'Arch at Pompeii.' " And then he went on with the other, "But the old boundaries of the past don't matter like they did before. They've been changed--submerged--transfigured--so that ignorance, the soil of prejudice, can grow more of the same, but an entirely new class of bigotry and brutality, and mostly by virtue of the active creation of ignorance--willful ignorance. I know it sounds oxymoronic--intellectually dishonest--but it is indefatigably true."

"Scot, people don't talk like this. Deliberate ignorance--transfigured ignorance--you're sounding like something straight out of the 1950's. Art is one thing, but you can't substitute your personal experience into any slot you want, just to have it pass for expertise. Academically, in the strictly business sense, philosophers would, no doubt, scratch and bite at your Cartesian dilemma. Furthermore, psychologists would, no doubt, chatter at your 'low power' position, reminding you of the peril of talking out of turn regarding such matters."

My eyes scattered for a further direction, another painting, a something to see, but the subtle noise I heard all the way along had gained strength through the action of unfolding over time. Duration, like the problem of those ridiculous clanging bells, reached forth from an unseen place demanding attention, even if only for a moment, and called my eyes to find.

Turning to follow the scraping noise, I noticed an animal perched on the windowsill, at the other side of the glass. Even though the illumination of the room should have presented the form so that recognition would have been routine, the light itself proved insufficient. The animal twitched and jerked in the half-light as its tiny paws spasmodically flashed against the glass and struck the wooden veins of the window frame. I noticed that the animal lacked almost as much fur as it possessed. Even for such a small animal, large chunks of its coat were torn from its body, and lines of scab and canker outlined the perimeters of its wounds as it passed in and out of visible perception. One of the arms that fired out to strike the glass had no fur at all, was more bone than flesh, and I noticed a whip at the back of its body. Stiff, matted, horizontal flags of hair shot out like the rungs of a mad ladder along the vertical ascending arc of its tail. Somewhere near midnight, in a garret, on the other side of a window during a damp, freezing New England night, I was staring at what was left of a squirrel. And I noticed its lips, in the momentary light, pulled back over yellow/brown teeth with a tiny pouch of bubbling saliva steaming around and under its shivering chin.

If it matters at all, the present and future are not always the same, though they are more often than not, identical. I remember my excitement, then, when I saw the squirrel, and I remember, in an agitated voice, insisting that the squirrel on the other side of the window would be the perfect subject for a masterful painting.

But whatever you will, after all.

And, for those interested, the 'Arch at Pompeii' was purchased, a few years later, on speculation, by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., U.S.A., and the artist, Scot, last I heard, was painting and living well in Villa Unión, Sinaloa, Mexico, S.A.

provided courtesy of Brad Arnold

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