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

. . .


David Glenn Rinehart

The casual visitor may be forgiven for thinking thateverything Texan is either behemoth, ostentatiously huge, orabsurdly obscenely gargantuan. It is impossible to talkabout the inimitable state of Texas without talking aboutsize, so let us not avoid that delicate subject whenaddressing the matter at hand, Houston FotoFest.

In its latest biennial iteration, FotoFest is not quiteas large as it once was. That may be a problem for the oddTexan, but for almost everyone else it is a welcomedevelopment. A few years ago the most prominent aspect ofFotoFest was a Texas-sized exhibition of almost two thousandprints in the sprawling Houston convention center. (I don'tknow how many prints there actually were; in my two previousattempts I failed to join the elite ranks of the perseveringviewers who navigated the entire maze.)

With some 60 exhibits from which to choose in the Houstonarea, the absence of the megashow wasn't missed. As withpast FotoFests, the locus of the festival was "the meetingplace," the central venue where hundreds of photographerspresent their work to dozens of reviewers from around theworld.

The presence of so many preeminent--or at leastwell-known--curators, publishers, gallery owners, criticsand educators is the key to FotoFest's success. The conclaveof so many nominally important people serves as a magnet foraspiring photographers from across the United States and asprinkling of other countries. As in previous years,FotoFest provided a satisfying combination of familiar facesand new blood. FotoFest founders Fred Baldwin and WendyWatress are to be again commended for providing an all toorare catalyst for a gathering of the art photographycabal.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the workpresented. Inevitably, there were a few portfolios of whatone colleague described with brutal accuracy as "the work ofsomeone engaging in artlike behavior." Fortunately for thereviewers, unexceptional work was the exception.

This year I had the pleasure of viewing dozens of strongbodies of work by mature artists. In particular, PamelaBannos, Candace diCarlo, Clint Imboden, Luis DelgadoQualtrough, John C. Runnels, Vincent Serbin, and Richard S.Zoller showed work that was so good that I hope toplagiarize it some day. Photographers too numerous tomention showed work I would be proud to exhibit orpublish.

Seeing so much good work reminded me of myrecently-departed friend Joe Folberg's observation: "Thereare more pitchers than catchers." It was clear that the artsworld's small infrastructure of publications and exhibitionspaces is inadequate to present so much good work by so manygood 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 anopportunity to achieve success as an artist, even thoughwhat traditionally passes for "success" will elude almosteveryone except the most tireless of self-promoters. That'snot as bad as it sounds; the familiar equation of successequals fame isn't necessarily true. Charles Horton Cooleyprovides a better definition of success: "An artist cannotfail; it is a success to be one." And as Tom Stoppard noted"What is an artist? For every thousand people there's ninehundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good,and one lucky bastard who's the artist."

The hundreds of hopeful photographers who attendedFotoFest could have been luckier. The review process itselfwas perhaps as fair and equitable as such an ordeal willever be, given the ratio of pitchers to catchers. Althoughthe photographers had a reasonable opportunity to see anumber of prominent reviewers, they were discouraged fromlooking at other photographers' work.

I met a number of photographers who were upset theyweren't allowed to view the dozens of portfolios on displayin a portfolio review room reserved for "official" reviewersonly. (The room was usually empty, since reviewers were busyelsewhere with a full schedule of appointments.) TheFotoFest caste system with its rigid bifurcation between artproducers and art consumers was the only notabledisappointment in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable event.Photographers who have worked for decades to produce strongwork--and then paid for the opportunity to show it--deservebetter treatment and greater respect.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this year's FotoFestwas the almost complete absence of digitally produced work.I saw almost nothing that wasn't a traditional silver-halidephotograph. (The exception to both was an exhibition of DanBurkholder's lovely platinum prints made fromcomputer-generated negatives.)

Why was FotoFest an analog island in an increasinglydigital sea? I can only speculate, but my guess is that ithas much to do with photographers' self-imposed segregationfrom the rest of the art world. It was, after all, FotoFest,not ArtFest. I suspect it may not have occurred to artistsusing digital photography (and other digital media) toattend a photography festival. Two relevant observationscome to mind:

"Today art photography reaps the dubious rewardof having accomplished all that was set out in itsmid-nineteenth century agenda: general recognition as anart form, a place in the museum, a market (howevererratic), a patrimonial lineage, an acknowledged canon.Yet hostage still to a modernist allegiance to theautonomy, self-referentiality, and transcendence of thework of art, art photography has systematicallyengineered its own irrelevance and triviality." --AbigailSolomon-Godeau

"I don't think photography is a medium by itself. Allthe plastic, visual arts are one medium. If you want totalk about a different medium, then you mean music orpoetry or theatre. Photography is a way to do art. I'mgoing to continue photographing, but I don't want to stayin the ghetto of photography. It's a mistake too manyphotographers make. Photography is a part, and I want tolearn about the whole." --Igael Shemtov

Such musings on the relationship of photography to Artmay be a pleasant intellectual exercise, but they arelargely irrelevant to an event that proudly calls itself aphotography festival. Photography is FotoFest's raisond'être; to criticize it for a paucity of work in othermedia may be as irrelevant as lamenting the small vegetarianselection at Sam's Super-Sirloin Steakhouse. Nevertheless,photographers and event organizers must consider whetherphotography festivals like FotoFest ultimately benefitphotographic artists or marginalize them and their work fromthe rest of visual culture. That difficult question isbecoming increasingly relevant as virtually all media find adigital common denominator.

No photography event will appeal to all of thephotographic world all of the time, but FotoFest comes asnear to that ideal as is likely possible. The highest praiseI can give any such event is that I was never bored duringfour memorable eighteen hour days. Even without a cavernousconvention center filled with thousands of prints, FotoFeststill provided an exhaustive and exhausting range of visualand verbal stimulation. FotoFest is a Texas-sized banquetfor 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. Thesethree posthumous, previously unpublished and certainlyunfinished items again demonstrate Conrad's eclectic andrecursive, self-creating style. Despite numerous roughedges, we offer these admittedly unfinished pieces with nocorrections, alterations, or apologies, in the best spiritof tribute, on their merit, with fondest regard.

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

But that's not right at all.

Supposing that the sea surrounding one of the outerislands ran cleaner in the old days, and supposing thatfewer boats left the coves and small harbors in the earlymornings mostly to work but sometimes play along the edgesof the cleaner sea, it might be due to the fact that fewerknew or cared to know about the outer at all. Of course,even in the supposed backwaters of such remembered yetforgotten islands, there were camera/photography shops wheresmall, thin, pale men with black-rimmed glasses made theirliving selling Kodak equipment to and developing film forthose who either lived or periodically but briefly visitedthe outer islands, daring encounters with nature or humanityarmed only with an ardent artistic dedication to frame andrecord the actual, or so it would seem.

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

The breeze and the cars were both in motion, though nocars were visible, but they had to have been for the waterand dirt to have jumped from the ruts. And beneath theleaves down below in the gulleys, the cars had left litter,not much, just enough: a few bits of paper, a box or threeof various strategically rectangular shapes, and a handfulof obligatory bottles slapped over with technicolor labels,digitally imaged labels; but all that panchromatic darkroommagic and all that formal, marketing-room magic had beenaltered or spoiled by the brown and the mud, the yellow andthe grey, the translucent chatarach film lovingly spatulaedover the technovisual magic peeping up from the darkerrecesses of the lower side borders of the road.

Still, despite whatever incidentals might momentarilyoccupy the attentions of someone not unlike myself, themostly seen outweighed the seldom seen. How the dust madeits way to the leaves barely sustained a moment's glancenext to the colors, shapes, and textures offered up to theeager eye. If the magic bottles actually presentedimpossible interference from the gulleys, a slight shift ofangle and the verdant tops of the scrub coupled with theazure sky could easily erase whatever blemishes distractedand despoiled the best expected frame. Even if a carhappened by, I told myself, plenty of picture waited backpast the bushes, a minor adjustment away.

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

Written somewhere in a mass of pages I had read wassomething about a tree and the power of an object toparticipate in the gaze, but participation, in the terms ofthat argument, meant "co-operation." Now, the lens wasrefused the co-operation pursued by the eager eye. The formand content of the frame stubbornly remained confined byterms intoned by the object, and no expectation, not eventhe best intentions, could shake them loose.


... I remember a very important youthful occasion--agather of youthful types engaged in the endeavors of art: amass show. I saved I don't remember how much money for Idon't remember how long so that I could fly out to a placeto show my work and feel so important. Well, it wasimportant, children act like adults with families of theirown when it comes to certain things--so dedicated. Anyway,the details of the event do not resonate with the force thatthey then possessed--odd thing, what happens to memoriesover time.

Of course, my participation in the show was everything Ithought it would be (we all deliver the goods when we haveto), and I remember flying back from wherever it was in theupper mid-west U.S., and all my gear was packed, verycarefully packed, so that the airlines could only damage thesmallest portion of what now seems the most amateurishcollection of equipment, and I flew into Boston. I flew intoBoston--Logan International Airport--just about time for adrink, mid-afternoon, not carrying camera one. I only had ahandful of minutes between planes, and on the upper level onthat side of the airport was the Cloud 9 Lounge.

From the outside, as there was a definite 1973mall-shop-type feel to the architecture, very little of theinside happenings could be viewed by potential customers.The huge sixteen-pane glass and steel front next to the thindoor of the establishment was mostly blocked out by agigantic white and yellow acrylic paint cloud, a fleecymotif, with large black/purple letters centered in themiddle, spelling out "Cloud 9," centered on an ascendingdiagonal curve. Perhaps because I was so sixteen and flushedwith the success of a successful show so high up in the backpocket of my recent past, I risked adolescent rejection andwent in.

I probably needn't have worried. Perhaps business wasslow, or selling liquor to minors in the private club of anairport didn't really matter as much as I thought it did, orperhaps at an amazing juxtaposition of space, time, anddistance I represented what is termed "the perfect subject,"but the bartender barely looked once at me as I moved overtoward the stools at the bar and sat down. However, onceseated, I felt his gaze upon me, eye to eye. To deflect thepenetration of the gaze, I immediately asked for the labelsand prices.

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

So to the world, I thought, the aperture accepted theadolescent pose. The light of performance jumped across thebar, flashed through the airy lens between the bar and itstender, and bonded technovisually to the film of the moment.The expected imported bottle and glass dissolved up beforeme, and the money entered frame left out of my pocket andinto the center of the frame.

It was at just such moments when everything intended wentas planned, if I remember my youth correctly, that I heard avery flattering sound, one of those imaginary sounds thatmakes you ecstatic or intoxicated or whatever, as if thematerial substance out there is no more than a prop, perhapsnot even that necessary. In those days, when I thought I hadcaught the exact framing, made the perfect picture as itwere, I imagined I could hear the emulsion crackling as theimage fused to the medium. Although my equipment wassomewhere else, driving its way through customs as it were,I thought I still held the camera. Perhaps the perfectperformance made itself the camera. Manipulating thisvery small illegal beer, especially in a foreign country,presented yet another aesthetic success. I could hear theemulsion crackling.

But I wasn't right at all.

At the moment the bartender turned away, a black manwalked into the Cloud 9 Lounge dressed in a sharp,charcoal-dark suit, carrying a smart-looking yellow/brownleather briefcase. A black man about thirty, heenergetically sliced his way up to a jog in the bar that wasninety degrees away. I crooked my head slightly to frameboth men in profile as the white bartender turned to meetthe 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 liketranslucent 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 ofthe list, a German imported beer for three dollars and fiftycents, I heard the black man ask for the best, what I wasdrinking, with a voice organic in strength and endeavor.

I could hear the emulsion crackling, but the camera wasdissolving. I was helpless, made silent, trapped by what hadbeen youth and illegal success. The content of the framereared 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, RhodeIsland, U.S.A., you might be walking on the sidewalk next tothe glistening cobblestone streets, filmed over by theleavings of fog or rain, next to the prestigious BrownUniversity. You might be next to Brown University becauseBrown University is next to the prestigious Rhode IslandSchool of Design. The Rhode Island School of Design isconsidered to be prestigious mostly by those who have paidto attend the school, and mostly because the faculty of theschool have told those who attend to recognize that thedollars and dollars that they have paid, excuseme--generally the dollars and dollars that others have paid,entitle them to feel, not think, that prestige follows moneylike birth follows copulation. Of course, it is a ratherVictorian or 1950's notion to believe that birth alwaysfollows copulation; however, institutions of higher learningoften co-operate with beliefs that admirably demonstrate anunreasonable idealism simultaneous with an unhumaneconomy--perhaps a crabbed shorthand: expediency. In such anatmosphere, the cobblestones, in the oblique illuminationsof evening, also twinkle while they glisten from both thefog and the rain.

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

Still, at that time, whenever it was, or any time really,I remember answering a summons to attend the successes of anaccomplished young acquaintance, age twenty or so, whosemerits had pulsed their way into visibility among theprivate club of the academy. A remarkably ardent young man,Scot, with his enamel-black hair, Slavic pallor, and speedyblack eyes, wished me into the energetic flow of the moment.A willing subject, I traveled from the outer to the innerfor a change of atmosphere, for a change of ideas, for thebest intentions. I arrived in the early evening on thatFriday, and by the time we walked toward his rooms, thechimes from both nearby academic bell towers clapped out thehour in a somewhat routine metallic competition. Honestly, Ido not exactly remember the time, but there was muchclapping and clanging as we walked to the end of thecobblestone street and veered off to the left. Scot and Iwalked off to see some of his latest work: myself to see hisrecent efforts for the first time, he to see his works againwith the potential tyranny of a new pair of eyes peeringover his shoulder.

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

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

High ceilings, maybe twelve feet high, pushed out of theroom as the door swung back, and the huge room advertiseditself as a garret, in part, through layers and layers ofpaint lovingly spatulaed over the walls, decade after decadeno doubt, in place of any true structural repairs. Alongwith a rancid collection of hideous furniture(chair--"chair"--table--couch), four, perhaps even five,makeshift easels, pulled the eye away from the walls andtoward the vanishing center of the room. But, just so, eachpainting clawed the moving gaze back from the imaginarypressure of such an invisible expectation, and just as thesound of ongoing conversation poured forward with theunspoken intention of surpassing the illumination of theroom.

Said the twenty year old artist, "I'm saying thatprejudice lives within the human condition like a universalalcoholism--a thirst aspiring to drink every minute of everyday. No one immune to this disease, no convenient ready-madevaccination, borne within the idea of habit, it'spractically a nature of itself."

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

"Scot, step off the podium. You're treading water. Peoplearen't as rotten as all that. They don't wake up everymorning 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. Amidstall the blue and swirling green pulsing up and over towardthe yellow--yes--the yellows formed a canoe. Even while wemoved closer, I retreated inside and noticed outward withinthe waves on the canvas thin lines of black pulling in alldirections and small streaks of white pulling in alldirections, but mostly massing toward the yellows. And morethan that, the tones of the colors, an undeniably presentyet ambiguously beautiful arc funneling the gaze toward thecanoe--a figure of a woman olive/brown/black sheening outfrom the center of the fissure. I heard--

"I call it 'Constance Adrift'," said the artist. "Butthat's exactly my point. Partly, the essence of prejudice is--maybe--unconscious. But also, that essence resides in theconscious, a deliberate act which is the imposition oraccession of ignorance. To deny or deliberately fail to seeor know is to create ignorance synthetically, and ignoranceis the medium where prejudice finds expression. Both theaccession and the expression are tautological, just asprejudice is tautological both in essence and intention. Andwhat, in all, dully pulses as the technique of habit becomesactively, 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; andI should have lived longer, but two easels away was anoversized illustration blocked against an even moreoversized slab of plywood. As my eyes leaned over, withConstance still in my thoughts, ancient ruins leapt out fromthe blocked illustration, leapt forth with an energy andforce of masterful accentuation and alteration--revision inbrilliant motion. A sky refigured, gross forms rigorouslyredetailed and shifted, smaller shapes etched deeper and sobrought into being, all preserving the power of the originalperspective but also offering a new and entirely differentperspective--I saw, simultaneously, mediums and mediaconfused, in the best sense, or so I thought. I had toask.

"That piece is one of a set of eight I've startedworking. I found the original illustrations in an oversizedarcheological monograph published in 1880. I think I'll callit, 'Arch at Pompeii.' " And then he went on with the other,"But the old boundaries of the past don't matter like theydid before. They've beenchanged--submerged--transfigured--so that ignorance, thesoil of prejudice, can grow more of the same, but anentirely new class of bigotry and brutality, and mostly byvirtue of the active creation of ignorance--willfulignorance. I know it sounds oxymoronic--intellectuallydishonest--but it is indefatigably true."

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

My eyes scattered for a further direction, anotherpainting, a something to see, but the subtle noise I heardall the way along had gained strength through the action ofunfolding over time. Duration, like the problem of thoseridiculous clanging bells, reached forth from an unseenplace demanding attention, even if only for a moment, andcalled my eyes to find.

Turning to follow the scraping noise, I noticed an animalperched on the windowsill, at the other side of the glass.Even though the illumination of the room should havepresented the form so that recognition would have beenroutine, the light itself proved insufficient. The animaltwitched and jerked in the half-light as its tiny pawsspasmodically flashed against the glass and struck thewooden veins of the window frame. I noticed that the animallacked almost as much fur as it possessed. Even for such asmall animal, large chunks of its coat were torn from itsbody, and lines of scab and canker outlined the perimetersof its wounds as it passed in and out of visible perception.One of the arms that fired out to strike the glass had nofur at all, was more bone than flesh, and I noticed a whipat the back of its body. Stiff, matted, horizontal flags ofhair shot out like the rungs of a mad ladder along thevertical 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 leftof a squirrel. And I noticed its lips, in the momentarylight, pulled back over yellow/brown teeth with a tiny pouchof bubbling saliva steaming around and under its shiveringchin.

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

But whatever you will, after all.

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

provided courtesy of Brad Arnold

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