I’m leaving for a couple of weeks in Texas. I reckon the blog postings will be far and few between.
I’m leaving for a couple of weeks in Texas. I reckon the blog postings will be far and few between.
I’m a big fan of Sonsini’s painting. For several years he painted the same model, Gabriel. In a 2000 interview in Art Connoisseur magazine, Sonsini describes how he rediscoverd painting:
Q: Your collaboration with Gabriel began with a camera, correct?
Sonsini: Yes, I was photographing Gabriel. We’d done, I think, six sessions at the time and then he was here one day and I was bored with photographing. I was thinking, “Well, what will we do today?” Then, I had an idea. The most absurd things in my mind came together that afternoon. One was painting from a live model, and the other, even more absurd, was to pull out the easel I bought for who-knows-what-reason a year before. So, to paint somebody in that manner felt like I had never painted before. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had in my studio.
AC: After all of these hours, how are you able to keep painting Gabriel?
Sonsini: I still find his image unreal. How many times can I paint that foot on the ground and every time I look at it, my feeling is, “Oh, good lord in heaven, that is a human foot, right there, right next to me.” I love that.
“Don’t worry about the ‘Bridges of Madison County’ scenario.”
Maria Friedlander, New City, New York, 1971 (Lee Friedlander)
In response to my recent post on photography and parenting Brandon Sorg mentioned Maria Friedlander’s foreword to What Was True, The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney. While I’ve long treasured this book, I’d never read the foreword. What a shame. Maria Friendlander’s prose is pure and honest and worthy of a lengthy excerpt:
Most of the time we spent with Bill [William Gedney] was in our own home. He seemed content and comfortable in our family setting and, in fact, began to express a growing interest about our particular domestic style. Specifically, Bill began to question me about what it was like to be married to someone as focused on his work as Lee is. How did I handle Lee’s lengthy trips away from home? What was it like to rear our children within this framework? Even as he questioned, I had the sense that Bill already had romanticized my role in my marriage. He often expressed his feeling that to be a truly committed artist one had to be free to pursue one’s work, and the fact that Lee was able to do it while involved in a full family life must mean, according to Bill, that I was some kind of perfect wife for an artist. I told Bill it was not that simple. Photography was the fulcrum of Lee’s life and I had accepted that for myself and for the children. It was an interesting life, I told Bill, one that could be so traditional and then way out there in the world – exciting and also very lonely. I had discovered that it was calmer and more fun at times for me to stay home with Erik and Anna than to accompany Lee on his working trips. On my own with them, I was free of the pressure to behave and make the children behave in ways to accommodate Lee and his work. I could experience a sense of freedom when I didn’t have to deal with Lee’s self-absorption, but I could also be angry with him for being away and miss him in equal measure. I told Bill that’s what life was like, all of the above, sometimes all at one time. But I had the feeling Bill preferred the myth of Saint Maria
How brave of Friedlander to write so honestly for a book introduction. This intimacy is a perfect match for the Gedney’s own diary entries. Here is something Gedney wrote in his notebook on March 27th, 1969:
Go to a dinner for Edward Steichen. I do not relate to the affair or the people, dull speeches, pompous, etc. I sit next to Mrs. Harry Callahan. She is nice, a homebody I suspect, totally uninterested in art outside of her husband’s work. She works as a secretary. Her husband when they were first married attempted to get her interested in photography but she had no interest; she said she never held a camera in her hand. I bet she is a perfect artist’s wife and good mother.
Appearantly Gedney had some strong feelings about wives and mothers. Thanks to the wonderfully rich Duke University website devoted to Gedney, I was able to find a few of his unpublished pictures that hit on this topic. As usual, Gedney’s images are emotional yet restrained glimpses of real human tenderness:
Mother standing with son in doorway, 1964
Mother giving son a haircut, 1964
Roy Harris and wife, 1967
Along with being one of my all-time favorite poems, this perfectly addresses the recent topic of art and family:
by William Carlos Williams
If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,–
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,–
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
I try to keep the process fluid. Years ago I did a project called From Here to There. The idea was that one picture leads to the next. An example:
Boy with chicken
Young man with egg (and superman tattoo)
While working on this project I made a trip down the Mississippi River. After awhile I saw the river as a metaphor for this kind of improvisational wandering. I decided to make the river the explicit subject while continuing to play all of these games beneath the surface.
I still play these games. Now I usually have a list of subject I’m looking for. With Niagara, for example, this list included things like motels, love letters, couples, and so forth. I feel a bit lost if I don’t have anything specific to search for. But the list is just a starting place. It gets me involved in the landscape. Once I’m engaged any number of things can develop.
This past weekend I was in Paris. Today I’m in New York. Next week Texas. Sure it sounds cool, but how does this mesh with being a parent?
Someone whose opinion I respect once gave me great advice: “Never stop traveling.” With success, he explained, many fine photographers stay home and the work withers. After the birth of my first child another friend noted that there were very few great photographers who were also good parents. The reason, he explained, was that these photographers were always on the road. Needless to say, all this advice has caused me grief. If I need to travel to be a good photographer, how can I be a good parent?
I’ve started asking people this question: what great photographers have also been good parents? I ask curators. I ask other photographers. In response I’ve seen a lot of pinched eyebrows and shaking heads. The list is not long. One name I heard was Lee Friedlander. Can anyone out there come up with some more?
My recent post on becoming a curmudgeon generated some critical replies. I’d like to charge forth with a confident and overwhelming defense but I don’t have the ammo or the bullet points. I’m going on instinct and a couple of interview blurbs. Scrutinizing our photographic elders isn’t like scrutinizing Donald Rumsfeld or Britney Spears. We don’t have a vast paper trail. Nor do I think Michals or Adams have done anything to provoke that kind of scrutiny. Both have produced significant work over a long period of time. And both have earned a right to spout off now and then.
I’m a great admirer of photographers with long careers. Keeping your head above the waves of art world trendiness is an art form in itself. I’ve only been in the game for a few years. It is hard to think about surviving a few decades.
I just had the chance to see the Lee Friedlander retrospective at the Jeu de Paume. The exhibition is overwhelming. Not only has Friedlander been productive for the last 40+ years, he’s been consistently good. And not just good – he’s continued to challenge himself. While every picture bears the mark of his unique take on the world, the subjects are as diverse as jazz singers, cherry blossoms, office work, nudes, self-portraits, factory life and family snapshots.
I’ve always known that Friedlander does his own printing. But a curator at the Jeu de Paume told me that Friedlander is in his darkroom each morning at the crack of dawn. You can feel it in the pictures. Friedlander could have hung up the tongs a long time ago. But there is an obsessiveness in his picture making that necessitates his own printing. Knowing that Friedlander is rocking the trays at 6am just ads to my experience of the work.
But what exactly is my experience of the work? When I have a positive response to photographs, one of two things happen. I either sit and stare in awe of the subject (race riots, Marilyn, the moon) or I have the desire to go out and see the world and make pictures for myself. My response to Friedlander is definitely in the second category. His work makes me want to make pictures. His work makes me what to use my eyes.
This is the second time I’ve seen the Friedlander retrospective…sort of. I saw it at MOMA last year. The museum was packed. A dozen people hovered around each 8×12” print. At Jeu de Paume, the crowds weren’t as thick, but I still couldn’t get through it all. Too many pictures. I have a theory that the best photo books don’t have more than sixty pictures. I think the same might be true for exhibitions. Whether the prints are big or small, there is only so much imagery we can take in at once. After awhile it all becomes a blur. If I were the curator of the Friedlander show I probably wouldn’t have changed anything. Every single picture is damn good and every series is worthy of inclusion. But someday I’d love to see a Friedlander retrospective of sixty pictures. While the editing might break the curator’s heart, the result could be breathtaking.
Here are a couple of snapshots I took at the Jeu de Paume:
With this trip to New York I only had time to visit one gallery. But it wasn’t hard to make a choice. Nobody has better photography than Yossi Milo. In the back room Yossi showed me some drop dead work that he is preparing for the the next season. But you don’t have to wait to see great pictures. The current show by Alessandra Sanguinetti, On the Sixth Day, is fantastic. Sanguinetti is the real deal. The prints (by Alberto Blum at Laumont), are killers. See this show.