MDM: Sunday Festival Wrap-up
In looking over my notes for the past four days, there’s no right way to push them toward coherence. Powerpoint was invented for a reason, right? Here goes; a bulleted re-cap of NYPH08:
* If you’re a photographer and you think you’re pretty smart and have a lot to say, you probably missed Simon Norfolk’s lecture. His staggering presentation was the kind of thing that didn’t just suck the wind from your sails, it took down the rigging, dismantled the boat, handed you a life preserver, and said, “good luck.” He began in similar fashion to a presentation I’d seen via the HOST Gallery, assessing how his particular brand of photographing civilizations in collapse has antecedents in the history of painting. To say he also talked about rocket launchers and satellites and wars-of-the-future would undersell Norfolk’s capacity to spin, in the best sense, as both a teacher and storyteller. Norfolk’s keen intelligence, arcane references, and impassioned plea for photography that matters (in the greatest sense of the word) was a show-stopper, urging all of us to go beyond making “twee pictures in a box”.
* Martin Parr’s “Typologies” exhibition made me wonder if typological pursuits can be both a curse of the camera as well as one of its greatest strengths. Sometimes your best talent can become your biggest crutch. Which is not to say Parr’s selection was weak; to see so much work that relies on the typological instinct immediately made me consider what was absent. Jan Banning’s photographs of bureaucrats were more instructive than exhaustive, and felt like the stand-out — a project that was as conceptual as it was photographically demanding, in its execution. But that’s my fault as a photographer; in looking at projects, I tend to pay too much attention to the difficulty-in-creation meter. Is it really that difficult (or interesting, even) to photograph the underside of planes?
* Stephen Gill, who ran an analog slide projector (gotta love the sound of each slide falling into place), showed how typologies could be created in a way that isn’t sterile, doesn’t require fancy gear, doesn’t require traveling all over the world, and was directly related to his life and how he makes his way through the world while wearing a yellow-reflective cyclist’s vest. In artist’s lectures, the photographer’s personality goes a long way toward “selling” an audience on the work, and Gill’s humble appeal made for an entertaining hour.
* If a photographer makes work that looks cold, don’t expect a presentation of their work to substantially warm-up your understanding.
* Speaking of warm, why wasn’t “Vinter” photographer Lars Tunbjork, who was in attendance, given a lecture slot?
* The most regretful failing of the Festival falls to founding sponsor VII, who printed a show of the late Alexandre Boulat’s work. The prints include spots from sensor dust in Boulat’s camera. The spots appear in multiple photos taken at the same location, and you can tell they’re dust because they appear in the same relative spots on the frames. One of the prints had crystallization from water damage. You’d think, considering the circumstances, that the upmost care would be taken in printing these photographs, but you’d be wrong.
* “Your subject is your main enemy.” – Jan Banning
* Another fine export from Amherst, Massachusets, Tim Barber’s “Various Photographs” installation [Leo's review here] is an exercise in visual democracy, where all-for-one, one-for-all takes on new meaning. So, how is this different than the Internet, exactly? I’ve wrestled with trying to figure out if Barber’s grid-presentation did as much as it could for the images, and if there really was strength in aggregation, or if the small sizes and bad lighting underserved what could have been a knock-out selection. Barber’s eye is keen, and the pictures contain some of the most active, exciting photography of the festival. When I think of the whole week, images from Barber’s show are the first that come to mind. Quickly, Susanna Raab’s Port-o-San Superman; Eva Minchon’s sink plant; Scott Connarroe’s triple smokestack; Gordon Hull’s red cape hill; Maya de Forest’s snail tracks; Dan Siney’s finger-legged skater, and Meg Wachter’s snow leaper were all keepers, but Jerry Hsu’s back-of-the-airplane-seat tv photograph of the WTC on fire (from a disaster flick) is something else entirely, in the best way.
* Barber’s exhibition also makes the strongest case possible that the best thing about photography is its ability to remind us that we’re alive.
* Last night at dusk, while walking back into Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge, I was struck by how that particular spot, on any given night, is its own kind of New York Photo Festival. It’s where the rubber meets the road as far as the big business of photography (the selling of millions and millions of cameras a year) is concerned. If you’re a New Yorker, this isn’t new news. There were stock shooters with their 300mm lenses looking frantic, alongside hundreds of tourists with all kinds of consumer and professional cameras all gleefully snapping away. There was no art, or no pretense for art, but there was content creation of the purest kind — all enabled by this digital revolution. If the Photo Festival has been an abstraction of a particular slice of photography, the snapshooters on the bridge were a guage to what’s really going on — namely, photography is taking over all of our lives whether we like it or not.
* “Beauty is a tactic.” – Simon Norfolk
* On Thursday night, I attended an event at Lincoln Center that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. There was a screening of “Pull My Daisy”, lectures, music, and a Q&A. In some kind of prototypical Beat fashion, the Q&A was run into the ground by Charlie LeDuff, a writer who accompanied Frank on his recent trip to China and seemed intent on turning the spotlight onto himself at all costs. Audience members heckled LeDuff, yelling for “a new moderator”. Some stood-up in protest and walked out. There was a lot of wincing. Frank admonished LeDuff “you don’t have to imitate Kerouac, he’s gone,” and somehow managed to make hay from the inanity, delivering responses that allowed the audience a peek into how the book was created, and what it all means to its maker. WNYC has audio here. (As an aside, for more insight into Charlie Leduff’s interviewing style, have a look at how he asks Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, “if you were a nut, what kind of nut would you be.”)
* I met just as many photographers in New York this weekend who didn’t go to the Festival as those who did.
* Two quick items about Flickr. I was surprised by how Joachim Schmid & Penelope Umbrico appear to have abandoned traditional methods for acquiring found photography and now spend hours on flickr, trawling tags, but hey — a good deal of the photoworld still doesn’t understand the internet, and then there are those like Schmid and Umbrico, seasoned artist/curators who are now wisely curating the largest visual treasure trove in the history of the universe. Who can blame them? (Though Umbrico appeared peeved that some flickr users had disabled downloads of their photographs.) On Friday night, I ran into a few photographers who are active on flickr, who could very well have taken one of the sunset photographs that Umbrico had “re-contextualized” into her “Suns From Flickr” piece, and none of them had been to the actual festival, a block away. They just happened to be there, in that bar in DUMBO on that rainy evening, too, standing in the path of festival co-founder Frank Evers.
* Here’s hoping NYPH08 freely distributes videorecordings of the lectures and interviews via podcasts.
* I came to NYPH08 thinking about art, and whether or not the “art” could survive the hubub and crowds. In the end, I came away realizing the number one thing about this weekend isn’t the art, or the business, even. A friend took me aside at three o’clock this morning in a bar off Houston and told me it’s about people, and I listened. Whether it’s a photo festival, your career, or however else you plug-into this wide photoworld, this weekend has been all about bringing together like-minded people, engaged by similar interestes, ideas, and questions, who might have never met otherwise. It’s about realizing there’s not that big a difference between the eagerness of the people with their digicams on the Brooklyn Bridge at dusk, and everyone at NYPH08 trying to get a few minutes with Kathy Ryan or Martin Parr. It’s all the same photoswirl, frankly, and it’s all about people.
It’s one thing that my co-blogger Andrew Hetherington got right from the start. We can all work on our little islands, pursuing whatever it is we’re pursuing, but taking a second to slow down and connect with each other in a real way, beyond pixels, is invaluable. You know this, already. If you appreciate what someone’s doing, let them know. There may never be a shortage of photographs, good or bad, but there will always be a finite number of good people. Reach out, it’s worth it.