On Tuesday, September 11, airplanes raped three of America's best-known buildings. The terrorists directed their acts to well-rested Americans, knowing that the amiable chatter of Katy or Bryant would suddenly shift to pictures of unspeakable acts. Megaton detonations went off in the minds of millions of TV watchers. It was mass-mediated rape.
The images of the towers have been endlessly replayed. Already, we can't count the number, and there are miles to go before we sleep. Many people seem insatiable in their need to revisit them. Some are moved to sadness, others to anger, and still others feel numbness. But in all cases our relationship to the images has changed through repetition. At first we didn't have a category for the pictures. We turned up the volume — maybe Katie or Bryant could explain. But once we could frame the images, hours later, on the tenth or fiftieth viewing, their impact shifted. How did we see and know and feel these pictures on the hundredth viewing? Or the thousandth?
Years from now, a handful of photographs will represent this historical moment, much as iconic images like Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother stands for the Depression or raising the flag at Iwo Jima for American victory in World War II. In the current moment, we are attuned to the complexities and uncertainties of the situation. But in the future we'll know how it turned out, and the images that survive — the burning towers, the firemen raising the flag amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center, the upside down man falling from the burning tower — these images will serve as symbols for moments of our sadness, uncertainties, and fears.
All history flirts with reductionism and over-simplification: we never can grasp, much less communicate, the whole package. But with photographic knowing there is the additional burden of familiarity. We are introduced to photography on day one — soon after the slap on the butt comes the camera's flash into our still-closed eyes. Photographs become natural to us, and as we take them for granted they enter us all the more powerfully.
The "we" in the above sentences is an American "we" — the "we" who watch TV and use instant cameras and tape snapshots on the fridge. But there are other "we's" with other ways of knowing. When the Taliban took the reigns of power in Afghanistan they banished TV, a largely gratuitous act, since most Afghanis didn't have electricity, much less the means to own a TV. Most Afghanis don't even know what their leader, Mullah Omar, looks like, since he has never been photographed.
Imagine what Afghanis know about us, and how they know what they know. Can we conjure their image-free knowledge of their culture? Or ours? Do they have a concept of what the World Trade Center was, or what it has become? Have most of them even heard of it?
On the other hand, how do we imagine them, limited as we are to a handful of canned images of dusty streets, and a staged video of a smiling, benign looking Bin Laden?
If American jets fly over Afghanistan, the Afghanis will know what they're seeing and hearing. They don't need images for that: they felt them close at hand during the war with the U.S.S.R. But they will have little understanding of how our fighters come to be there, in much the same way that we struggle to understand the intense hatred and self-sacrificing commitment that led terrorists to steer planes into our buildings. In our ongoing failure to understand one another, war may be waged for a long time to come.
THREE MONTHS LATER
Since my Houston Chronicle article appeared three months ago, the Taliban have been routed, flags continue to fly and photographs of burning towers and firemen raising the flag appear everywhere. Meanwhile, Afghanis have re-entered the media world, in some cases literally digging up TV sets that had been buried after the Taliban gained control. Whether the citizens of Afghanistan are drawn more to CNN or Al-Jazeera Bush or Bin Laden — is, however, an open question.
During the days of commercial-free TV coverage that followed September 11, Americans experienced events as they unfolded with relatively little mediation. Broadcasters were scriptless, politicians were improvising and occasionally one even heard that rarest of televised utterances: "/ don't know." We were all historians, sifting through uncharted, unnamed territory in search of footholds and categories. As masks fell away, everyday posturing gave way to emotional authenticity. Much like the days following the John Kennedy assassination, TV created a sense of community, a set of shared experiences born of grief and confusion. People talked about life and death instead of the bottom line; e-mail boxes were deluged; sales of cell phones soared. Even Congress sang together and proclaimed their brotherhood. We were brought together in the immediacy of the moment, and, like the events of 1963, the experience marked for many a passage from innocence to experience.
But in the intervening months the aura has faded, in part because the passage of time always helps us move beyond grief. Politicians have urged us to travel, shop, eat out and return to normalcy. And repetition has played a role, whether in the form of endlessly replayed 9/11 images, ceaseless talking heads on the TV, innumerable celebrity tributes, music concerts or patriotic pageantry in virtually every major sporting event since mid September. The cumulative impact upon many is a state of numbness. The emotions born of real-time, present-tense experience have become less spontaneous and more formalized. For example, in the days immediately following September 11 countless millions flew the flag, among them middle-aged people who 30 years ago would have utterly spurned any such display. It was a spontaneous act, born of genuine emotion. But in the days that followed, this reflex became increasingly gestural as newspapers printed full-page flags, mass-produced lapel pins became widely available, flags sprouted on websites and sports equipment and TV salesmen and women bedecked themselves in flags as they hawked cars and mattresses during "patriotic sales." As so often occurs in American culture, economics took over. What began as a direct expression of private shock and grief became institutionalized.
Powerful images were dominant in the days following September 11, but the months since have been less visually intense. To be sure, few images in the history of photography can match the graphic and emotional power of the burning towers or the firemen raising the flag. But anthrax created fear and panic more through the imagination than representation. How, after all, do you depict anthrax? Newspapers and news programs played (and replayed) block-lettered envelopes addressed to Senator Daschle and others or pictures of microscopic critters that could have been amoeba or spermatozoa, for all most of us knew. Regarding the war itself, in the first weeks of bombing very few pictures emerged from Afghanistan. Images were tightly controlled, both for security and propaganda purposes, as is normally the case during times of war. The War on Terrorism that we saw on TV and front pages was nearly as abstract as the green tinted images that represented our attack on Iraq during the Gulf War. In both cases, war was kept at a safe distance and the gore was minimized.
And then there is Bin Laden, who has adroitly eluded commandos, satellite detection and our longest tele-photo lenses. He is as much in controlof his image as he is of his impassioned followers, allowing himself to be seen only when it behooves him. It has become clear, in the process, that the Bush administration is very jittery about the power of his visage and words. After the first bin Laden tape was released in October, the Bush administration tried to dissuade the news organizations from running it except in highly edited snippets. Networks were encouraged to show still images taken from the video rather than the full footage. This past December, the Bush administration held back another tape for over two weeks, claiming that they wanted to study it thoroughly for intelligence purposes and to assure an accurate translation into English. Two weeks seems like an awfully long time to achieve these rather modest goals.
The suppression of such images has always been problematic, but especially so in the age of satellite transmission and globally accessible television. During World War II, photographers like Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith conveyed the gritty realities of the battlefield in photographs that were promptly published in magazines around the world. As for ogres and tyrants, pictures of Mussolini, Hitler and goose-stepping Nazis were pervasive in the print media and newsreels throughout the 19305 and 19403. Roosevelt, Churchill and other Allied leaders felt little need to suppress such images. Nor, for that matter, did the lohnson or Nixon administrations try to suppress photographs during the Vietnamese war, even though images from Vietnam often worked directly against their efforts to justify an increasingly unpopular war.
Unlike Vietnam, the War on Terrorism enjoys extraordinary support among Americans, and Bush's poll numbers are off the charts. Accordingly, the Bush administration's clumsy efforts to control what Americans see of their enemy is especially remarkable. After all, the bin Laden tapes were broadcast in their entirety to much of the rest of the world. Did Washington fear that we couldn't handle them? That we'd be swept away by the charismatic bin Laden? Are Americans less well equipped than the rest of the world to distinguish shit from manna? In a country that so deeply values its freedoms, why should our government patronize its own citizenry?
On a brighter note, a few days after September 11 The New York Times began publishing short profiles of people who perished in the terrorist attacks. Entitled Portraits in Grief, the series ran daily through December 31 and on an occasional basis since (the whole series is available at nytimes.com/portraits). These sketches, though they appear in America's most prominent newspaper, are essentially private. We learn only in passing of the victims' jobs and little if anything of their educational background, accomplishments and the like. The victims are described through salient details — how they loved coaching little league, traveling to Disneyland, bowling, shopping at K-Mart, playing Bach inventions, gardening or baking chocolate tortes. Their love of family, and especially their children, recurs in many of the sketches. The accompanying photographs are not studio-made pictures of well-dressed, carefully coiffed men and women that might appear in quarterly reports or, for that matter, in typical obituaries. Instead, they are classic snapshots, casually seen and sometimes out of focus; the kinds of pictures that are creased, tattered and carried in wallets. The framing is tight on each face, and every face is smiling. Some of these people look just as goofy as the rest of us do in our family albums and home videos.
The Times series testifies to the scope of the World Trade Center tragedy. It in large measure avoids sentimentalism while pointing to the inestimable human loss, both in the dead themselves, and the countless thousands of others who were directly touched by their deaths. The series is a great leveler, a paean to democracy that would make Walt Whitman swell with pride. Here are cooks, bonds salesmen, firefighters, businesswomen, students, policemen, foreign envoys, mail carriers, grandmothers, janitors, executives, florists and sales people who left their homes that day, went to work or hopped a plane and never returned. Their lives are described through the people and activities they valued and loved. As a totality, the series evolved into a new kind of elegy, an affirmation of the simple, fragile beauties of life.
"We understand events through narrative, but we remember events through photographs," said Susan Sontag, in her late-October lecture, Regarding Other People's Pain: War and Photography, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
War photography was the stated topic of the lecture, but Sontag, her trademark silver stripe now largely faded into a silvering background, told the audience that she was speaking from a work that was very much in progress. At the center of that work (or at one of its centers) is an ongoing reconsideration of some of the arguments from her 1977 essay collection, On Photography.
She described that reconsideration as one that was overtly inspired by September n, 2001, and by other recent experiences. Her audience, just six weeks after the attacks, was still awash in images, still and video, of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. CNN was still broadcasting, every few minutes, footage of airplanes winging into silver buildings. Lest we forget why we were watching.
Sontag spoke without visual aids, and the lecture roamed across a number of subjects -reflecting what Edward Hirsch described in his introduction as her "keen and scrupulous intellect" and "insatiable curiosity." For the purposes of this essay, I have broken her talk into a few loose themes; they should not necessarily be understood to follow the sequence or structure of her talk.
In the first minutes and hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and as stunned news-gathering organizations dug into the extended improvisation that would become months of exhaustive coverage, New Yorkers on the street were asked what they had seen and what they felt.
And, stunned, they described where they were when they heard, mentioned acquaintances, friends, in-laws and spouses unaccounted for, gave inarticulate voice to confusion about an event without precedent.
"It was like ...," said countless witnesses, and they mentioned movies, Hollywood thrillers with big budgets and big stars and the most special of effects. And across the nation, even through a fog of confusion and grief, the anxious cognoscenti cringed and clucked and spoke of the triviality of the references, and described a nation whose ability to discern and experience reality - the gravest of reality, reality in its ugliest cloak - was permanently crippled by too much big-e Entertainment.
On Photography, Sontag's seminal 1977 book of essays, had helped to articulate this mindset. In this lecture she summarized her 1977 argument: that "in an image-saturated world, images make us less able to respond to other images. They transfix, anesthetize and after repeated exposure become less real; the attraction wears off."In her lecture, however, Sontag drew away from this argument. When people invoked the spectacular, she said - even the commonly spectacular, like Hollywood action films - to explain their horror at the September 11th attacks, it didn't make their feelings any less acute. Rhetorically ham-handed, perhaps, but not any less authentic or significant.
Furthermore, Sontag's own feelings about September 11th weren't changing, despite heavy exposure to images of what had transpired -she wasn't inured to the idea of passenger planes flying into the World Trade Center; she wasn't feeling better, and she wasn't feeling less sensitive to the power of the images.
Another element of the argument against the making (or at least the distribution) of images of suffering, death, war and mayhem holds that such pictures are by their nature obscene, appealing to the basest of tastes and instincts, and for that reason should be kept from the public eye. For a recent example, CBS News was roundly criticized for its decision to broadcast video footage of people plummeting from the burning towers of the World Trade Center.
A searing still image of a man falling (or leaping) from a tower appeared in The New York Times on September 12th. The man, recognizably burned, wearing black pants, boots, a white shirt, fell headfirst past the shining steel of the tower. I studied the picture intently. Was my interest prurient - in response to a pornographic fascination with a damaged person? Was my interest rooted in the physics of the fall, the way the man was falling head-first, arms back, right leg tucked jauntily? Was it curiosity about mortality, Hamlet examining not Yorick's skull, but his face as the clown drew his last breath?
It was probably all of the above. Sontag pointed out that human curiosity about death and the dead is nothing new, and nothing new as a topic for examination, either. In the Republic, Book IV, Plato used the example of Leontius, walking past the city walls and caught by the sight of the bodies of executed criminals.
"... For a time he resisted and veiled his head, but overpowered in despite of all by his desire, with wide staring eyes he rushed up to the corpses and cried [to his eyes]. There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!"
It is a telling and utterly contemporary look at the coexistence of desire and revulsion in the human heart, provoked by a single stimulus. The publisher Benedikt Taschen has made this balancing act into a commercial niche, publishing richly printed books of photographs depicting fetishisticsexuality, post-mortem documentation, blood-spattered murder scenes and the like, lightly veneered with scholarly essays. But the shoppers who fill his Paris book boutique and thumb through his display copies aren't reading the essays. I didn't, anyway.
REALITY, TRANSMITTED (REALER THAN REAL)
Sontag posed a question about the photographing of war: to what extent is war made real because of photographs? Or more broadly, to what extent does war enter our consciousness and become a factor in our thinking and our behavior as a result of photographs? Sontag used the example of warfare in post-colonial Africa to assert that photographs are required for an event to exist. She asserted that the western world knows about the horrors of Biafra, Rwanda and Sierra Leone through the trail of catastrophic photojournalism that tracked them; Angola, however, is less real to us, as little photographic evidence escaped that conflict.
The history of warfare in the age of photography would seem to bear out this assertion. While photographs were made of the Crimean War (1854-1856), the American Civil War was the first in which photographs were taken that depicted death on a grand scale, and that were then widely reproduced and distributed, as in (Alexander) Gardener's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (1866). Such clashes as the Battle of Antietam (or at least its aftermath) were recorded, in large-plate detail, and the necessarily abstract figure of "20,000 casualties" became attached to swollen overcoated corpses lying in the mud.
But for technological reasons and because of the formal dance of photojournalism and wartime censorship, the crowning moment for contemporary war photojournalism would come in the Vietnam War, when photographers were given largely free rein to record the conflict and its costs. The Vietnam War was brought tidily home in Newsweek and Time, and through film footage broadcast across dining room tables at home. And through such reportage an independent view of what transpired there made it back to the States, playing a role in the antiwar movement that is difficult to overstate. Photojournalism helped to make Vietnam a very Real conflict, introducing a level of confusion about that war - debate about the nature of mid-century American military and foreign policy - that has not appreciably receded in the ensuing decades.
Sontag pointed out that compellingly graphic depictions of misery and suffering - like that of civilians killed and wounded during Vietnam -are nothing new, and predate by millennia the invention of photography. Religious art, for example, with its depictions of Christ crucified and myriad saints in mid-martyrdom, spares no detail in their overt effort to educate and convert. These renderings do not, however, depict the sufferings of Christ and St. Sebastian as something that should be stopped; rather, they celebrate the suffering. That suffering is, after all, a necessary element of the holiness of any martyr.
Goya, said Sontag, did something different. His series, The Disasters of War, depicts the carnage of the Peninsular War, crying out in protest through graphic depictions, circa 1808-1814, of the human toll of Napoleon's invasion of Spain. Unlike the religious art that preceded it, these drawings depicted human suffering in wartime as something unequivocally bad that should be stopped. Sontag makes an explicit connection between Goya and contemporary photojournalism: an activist impulse. (In one crucial difference, The Disasters of War, were only published - as engravings - in the 18605; in contemporary photojournalism, the lag between the making of a picture and its publication is closer to five hours than five decades.)
In 1993, Sontag spent time in Sarajevo, living, along with the loose corps of photojournalists there, in the shell-battered but relatively secure Holiday Inn. These photojournalists were motivated by the desire to show the world what was happening in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, and in that way provoke the international community to some sort of action. In her talk, Sontag drew a straight line from Goya, through the photographers of the Spanish Civil War, through Vietnam-era photo-journalists, through (in her words) the "catastrophe of post-colonial Africa" all the way to the Sarajevo press corps and today's stars of activist photojournalism: Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress, Ron Haviv.
A work in progress doesn't necessarily beget solid conclusions. But Sontag left her audience with a few thoughts. She said that while it may be true that the world is overfilled with things that are awful, and that we are "invited to respond to everything," does it necessarily mean that we are responding to less? And Sontag answered that, "No, the opposite is probably true."
Sontag also posited that, "It is a goal in itself to understand that humans are capable of inflicting tremendous cruelty, and that no one has a right to ignorance - ignorance may even be a moral defect." And the role of photographs? "Photographs can't do the moral or intellectual work for us, but they can start us on our way."
In an aside, Sontag discussed the tension between photography and realism, and the conundrum that photographs are instinctively understood to depict what actually happened, rather than an individual's highly selective view of the event. Goya's engravings are understood as his version of what happened; photographs, however, can't possibly lie. In the latter misunderstanding lies the practically limitless power of photography to expose and obscure the truth, whatever it might turn out to be.
Editor's Note: This article is based on the author's interview with Harry Benson in London on November 18, 2001. The interview was occasioned by the promotional tour of Harry Benson's new book,Harry Benson - Fifty Years in Pictures, published by Harry N. Abrams.
"I knew Bobby Kennedy; I liked him," says Harry Benson, "You always left Bobby wagging your tail. He always gave you pictures. When we were on the road, and we were on the road a lot, we'd go in and have a drink with him. But you're always prepared; and you know this was just a few years after Dallas; and the memory of Dallas was very much there.
I was in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to cover Bobby's victory speech in the California Primary. He'd just finished his speech. And the quickest way out of a room like that is to follow the candidate. So I'm walking behind him into the kitchens towards the rear exit. And there was quite a crowd of us and then in front of me a girl let out a scream. And I knew this was it. I never heard the shots. And I turned round and Bobby was going down. And I knew. The pictures were taken from the kitchen hot plate, and I just kept saying to myself "a thirtieth at two eight, wide open." And Ethel Kennedy is screaming for him to be given air.
And then somebody threw me off the hot plate. And I was on the ground and there's a thing you always do. And you learn the hard way. As soon as you've taken certain pictures you get them out of your camera fast. Because if a policeman with a gun asks for your film you give it to him. I want to photograph for LIFE magazine; I don't want to die for it. So I was down on the ground taking the film out of the camera and putting it in my sock. By that time Ethel had hold of his hand and was just saying to him "I'm with you, baby. I'm with you." But you could see the blood pouring out of his head. And then I looked around and I realized other people had been shot all around me. After they took his body away a girl came in and placed a campaign boater in the pool of his blood. I never went to the hospital as I knew there was no point."
"Photographers have asked me how I could have taken the pictures I did of Bobby Kennedy's shooting because he was so nice. But I've always said that when I eventually get to where Bobby is he'll have understood, because I was doing my job you know? I often wake up at night, I don't mean having a nightmare, but I go through the whole thing, you know? I've never thought photographers like me are there to editorialize.That's the job of the magazine or newspaper. I'm there to take the photographs: to tell the truth." Another of Benson's most moving photographs was made only three months earlier and also motivated by a murder, when Martin Luther King's widow Coretta and her four children accompanied his body back from Memphis to Atlanta. Benson, who had previously met King while covering civil rights marches, says it was taken from some distance away with a 2oomm lens as the family came together and paused for an instant in the airplane doorway. Coretta Scott King stands surrounded by darkness at the back of the frame while her children look out into an uncertain future in a grouping that came together for an instant while the rest of the press pack were photographing the coffin coming out of the plane's hold.
Harry Benson is a tall, silver-haired man who looks younger than his 72 years. He says he began as a photographer because he wasn't very good at school. He left when he was 13. "Not," he says, "because the family was poor, my father was the curator of the Glasgow Zoo; but because I was stupid. My point being that I couldn't be taught: I couldn't grasp it." It seems, however, that he was quite capable of teaching himself. His first picture, of a Roe Deer at the zoo, published in the Glasgow Evening Times in 1946. "I'd submitted it months earlier and forgotten all about it. And then I was on the train going home one Saturday and the man sitting beside me had the Evening Times and he opened it up and there was my picture. I tried to get a job on Glasgow papers but they wouldn't have me."
"My first job was on the Hamilton Advertiser, a weekly newspaper. I worked there for four years and it taught me discipline. But the Advertiser was like a dude ranch compared with the work I'd done before that: getting the bus in to Glasgow to photograph early morning weddings, racing home to develop the films and then rushing back to the receptions to sell the still damp prints. While I was working on the Advertiser I got some big ideas about myself. I used to take the night train to London and take my pictures round to the picture editors in Fleet Street. The seventh or eighth time of going down, just after seeing the picture editor on the Daily Sketch, I noticed a little smile on his face. And so I turned to him and said, "There is a chance, isn't there?" And he just nodded.
"Sure enough about two or three days later he called me and asked me to cover a very bad murder. The call came at 5:30 on a miserable winter's evening to tell me to go to a golf course where a girl's body had been found. By the time I got there it was dark so I had a look at the place and went back very early the following day. I chatted to the policeman there, took a couple of pictures not thinking much of them and took them back and transmitted them to London. If I'd arrived with the boys we'd all have been kept 200 yards away, but because it was just me and the one policeman I got close shots of the scene. The pictures turned out to be an exclusive. They made the front pages in London and that was a tremendous help to my career. After that I covered Scotland for the Daily Sketch for a couple of years and then moved to work as a staff photographer on the Sketch in London."
"By 1964 I was working for the Express, and in January I was sent to Paris to cover The Beatles. They were getting there at the time but hadn't quite made it. I still wanted to cover hard news and did all I could to get out of going, but in the end the editor said "You're going," so off I went.
"In the George V Hotel after the show one night The Beatles were all sitting around, and Paul mentioned a pillow fight they'd had a few nights before. I thought "that's an idea for a picture," but I didn't want to tell them then because there was another photographer there from the Daily Mail. I wanted an exclusive shot. I'm always the first in and the last out. No matter how mundane something looks, is, sounds or whatever, there is always a good picture there. Maybe not a truly great picture but there is always something there.
Anyway a couple of nights later I was in the room, and Brian Epstein came in with a cable saying that / Wanna Hold Your Hand had gone to number one in America. It meant that they were going, and they had an offer from the Ed Sullivan Show, which was really big time. Then I suggested the pillow fight for a picture. John Lennon said it was childish and silly. Paul agreed with him. Then Paul's having a drink and John hits him on the head from behind with a pillow and off it went. I got the picture.
When they went to America I was sent with them on the same plane. With The Beatles I did well, which is surprising when you consider the amount of experience I had at the time. The pillow fight was shot on a Rolleiflex with just a bounce flash."
Icon, these days, is a much overused word but it is the only one that really fits Benson's picture of the young, clean cut, dressing gown and pajama clad Beatles having a pillow fight. At the time The Beatles, whose hair covered their ears and came down to their shirt collars, were considered radical. But in hindsight they epitomize the quiet before the storm of the youth generation to come: 1968 was still four years away.As well as pushing Benson into the mainstream and introducing him to New York, his adopted home, The Beatles have been featured across the breadth of his career. He was in Chicago to photograph Lennon when he made the famous statement about them being "more popular than Jesus." In 1987, eight years after the murder of John Lennon, in New York's Attica Prison it was also Benson who photographed Lennon's killer for a feature in People magazine. Three years later still, in Switzerland after photographing Yoko Ono with her son, Benson was asked to talk to Sean about being with his father in the early years of his fame. Describing Ono as intelligent, intuitive and a loving mother, he reflects now that he realized what Lennon saw in her.
The kiss is another shot that is reprised several times through the new book. It's a Benson staple and he does it well: the Reagans kissing melt into the movie influence of a previous life, while the Clintons seem to have separate agendas: there is love in Hillary's expression but artifice in his. Michael Jackson by contrast, kissing his new wife, Lisa Marie Presley, is rather better made up than she is and careful to control the front of the frame. She adopts a Madonna-like pose with ease, yet Jackson's concentration remains firmly fixed on the camera. The marriage was a brief one.
As well as producing successful pictures, the kiss turns out to be another of the quiet man's strategies for pushing the envelope. Benson continues to discuss his technique in boxing metaphors saying: "If I can get them to kiss, unconsciously I've softened them up. Now I can go somewhere else. It is just like aboxer wearing an opponent down. You are wearing down their guard in a nice kind of way; at least I think it's nice."
"I've always kept a distance between myself and the people I'm photographing. I am always looking for the gray area: the no-man's-land between me and the subject. I am there to take their picture, not to be their friend, and there are boundaries not to be crossed. When people call me after a shoot I never speak to them until it's published. And I never see people on the night before a shoot. I don't want them to start figuring me out. It's something I've learned from experience; I don't want to show them my hand. It's better to go with people when you are prepared for them but they are not prepared for you. I also always try to push the shoot a step further. I'm always watching subjects and as soon as I see them weakening I'll really go after them. I'm not out to debunk them or to hurt them; but I am going after them. It's my job. Whoever said I was their friend? But there again I don't go out to be cruel, and subjects are happy with that I keep thatdistance as well. I know this was the reason I got on with Nixon and Reagan. I was the friendly face in the enemy camp. There is usually one that they will allow access; and why not me?"
Talking about cameras, Benson says he uses whatever the job demands. He says he presently has no need of digital: "If I need them quickly I take them to the one hour processor." But there is a time for automation as he feels that theHasselblad is by no means easy to focus in difficult circumstances: "I was in Israel, photographing Ariel Sharon for Vanity Fair, and I started off using the Hasselblad but had to say forget it. It's too slow for dealing with somebody who was getting irritated. So I stopped and got my assistant to get rid of the Hasselblad and I switched to 35mm. And I had one 35mm on manual and another set on program and auto-focus. The manual camera came in about 50 percent, which is usually the way when you are bracketing. Theone set on program came in about 99 percent: even the ones you wouldn't expect. It does work." If anything, Benson seems to be in competition with himself rather than others. Talking again about technique he says, "I don't want to work in one way all the time. Photographically I always want to put the camera in a place where it hasn't been before. I don't like always working within my strengths. I like to work on my weak side. I don't take myself too seriously — but I take what I do seriously; very seriously." His famous pictures of screen idol Garbo came about entirely by accident when the owner of the next chalet down the beach mentioned in conversation that the legend would be there the following week. Benson canceled his travel arrangements and shot the pictures from a boat, paparazzi style without the knowledge of the camera-shy actress.
On other occasions he moves into the harsher areas of photojournalistic practice. In the mid 19903 he visited the Balkans, shooting in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. In 1993 he was in Somalia, while a decade earlier Benson was in Russian-occupied Afghanistan, photographing Russian prisoners of the Afghan Mujahideen.
When questioned today about what he would like to do next, he says he always wants to try and take the difficult picture. He talks about pictures that move, by which he means he likes his images to tell a story. In the hands of the few real masters, the camera, any camera, becomes a "funnel for the harvest of narrative, or perhaps emotion," and Benson is an undoubted master. In 1961, for example he was sent to Berlin to photograph a wall being built around the Western controlled part of the city. He came back with a piece of history: a close shot of a young East German bricklayer helping to wall in an ideology. However, 28 years later, at the point of the hated wall's removal Benson was there again, on this occasion equipped with the experience of the years, gathering the frustrated rage of a woman, who had lived her entire life in its shadow, as she tried to break a small portion of it down with her bare hands and a rock.
Asked if he's ever taken a deliberately negative or uncomplimentary portrait of a subject, Benson says he really doesn't think he can. He will take a critical picture, but determinedly refuses to take what he describes as a cheap shot. Hesays, "I like pictures with an edge: that is what I'm looking for. But it is not just that. I want to show a photograph but I want people to think there's something else happening outside the picture: that there is something else going on. I want my subjects to be what they are, not what I think they should be. There comes a time when you are photographing people when the real self starts to emerge. They start to adopt the poses that make them what they are. For instance, a subject might not want to appear weak in front of people; I mean you look at the staff around them and they're all on edge and you know you're getting there. But I will never take the sort of cheap shot where a subject is standing unaware in front of a sign with "loser" or something like that written on it. I want to get as close as I can. I want to get to the inner sanctum. I want to get into the bedroom. The Elizabeth Taylor picture was all right. I didn't have much time with her because she'd just had her head cut in two; but it's a picture I like. It's a very unusual picture for a celebrity but Elizabeth Taylor marches to her own drummer. And I thought she'd do it."
Fifty years is a long time in anybody's career but for Benson it is obvious that the candle has some way yet to burn. When asked if there is one shot he hasn't yet taken, he pauses for a moment, leaning back in the chair and smiling: "I'd like to photograph the Pope; first thing in the morning, having his breakfast in bed, reading the sports pages. Now that would be a great picture."
Benson is there by consent yet it takes more than that. Much of his strategy seems to hang upon an innate understanding of people. And all his subjects, be they idolized or reviled, king or commoner, mannequin or mistress, celebrity or murderer, are afforded an equal respect, good-mannered courtesy and patient charm. And they are equally free to surrender a rather more telling picture than they intend to the quiet man with his finger on the shutter release.
When Robert Frank won the Hasselblad International Photography Prize in 1996, Gunilla Knape, director of the Hasselblad Center in Giteborg, Sweden, declared Frank as "one of today's leading visual artists. He has contributed to a renewal in the fields of both documentary and fine art photography and 'independent American film art.'" With his relentless search for the truth in his work, Robert Frank exposes reality in a way that causes viewers to examine the subject more closely. When people look at his art, he wants them to feel the way they do when they go back to a line of poetry. The majority of Frank's films are intensely personal, revealing a deep kinship with the Beat emphasis on a broadly auto/biographical thematic. All of Frank's films require close attention and their effect benefits from repeated viewings; each has a personal message that resists interpretation and leaves the filmmaker an enigma forever trapped on the other side of the lens.
Robert Frank moved from photography to filmmaking when he became concerned that he would repeat himself if he continued to take only still pictures. Friend and filmmaker Rudy Wurlitzer said that with each new project Frank "constantly resurrects himself like a phoenix — he reinvents himself again to find out how to look at things."
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston owns one of the most extensive collections and archives of photographs by Robert Frank. These outstanding holdings are the basis of the exhibition, Robert Frank: A Retrospective from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition features images chronicling Frank's career, from his early pictures of Europe in the late 19405, to his searing views of America in the mid-1950s, to the late Polaroid self-portraits and prints of his family and homes in New York and Nova Scotia. In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum's film department presented 5 Films by Robert Frank: Recent and Restored on consecutive Sundays in September. The program included Frank's latest short films, Flamingo (1997), The Present (1996), / Remember (1998), Sanyu (1999) and a recently restored print of About Me: A Musical (1971).
Eager to explore the intersection between photography and filmmaking, artists often cross boundaries in ways that throw critics off balance and leave audiences slightly puzzled. Frank's tendency to combine documentary and narrative fiction often makes his films impossible to classify. As in the case of About Me: A Musical, the intended subject matter is abandoned in favor of a more personal choice. As the film begins, the titles onscreen acknowledge the film was made with support from the American Film Institute while the voice-over narration by Frank states, "My project was to make a film about music in America. Well — fuck the music. I just decided to make the film about myself." To further complicate matters, Frank decides a woman will play him in the film. About Me: A Musical does not completely ignore American music; in fact, many scenes of music making are included as expressions of personalities and gestures of self-assertion. Frank intercuts footage of various impromptu musical performances with footage of his female alter ego, "real" footage of the making of the film, and sound bites of Frank himself narrating his feelings about his purpose. For Frank, music is another form of self-expression, one that communicates in some manner, but which also brings people in closer contact with themselves. This also means bringing people closer to nature, especially in the cultural context of the 19605 counterculture. Not surprisingly, many of the musical sequences are filmed out of doors — rather than in a concert hall.
In the film, Frank (played by Lynn Reyner wrapped in a chenille bedspread) demonstrates the desire to escape his reputation as a photographer of specific types of American imagery, a reference to The Americans, Frank's landmark book of photographs taken across the country in the 19505. As Frank/Reyner dumps a drawer full of photographs onto the bed, he/she says, "That's it, that's my past. I have to get rid of all this shit — I can make a musical out of it." When those around Frank/Reyner protest the "dismissal" of his work, the photographer leaves the room indifferent to their praise. It is as if Frank wants to escape his association with the still (photographic) world and enter a more active (film) one. As most of the music in the film is not professional, performed by street musicians, and Frank's violin playing, real-life companion June Leaf, its improvisation and heartfelt presentation communicates honesty. The sequence involving a group of five incarcerated black convicts singing a gospel song perhaps best demonstrates this honesty: cut off from society and their cultural roots, the men sing as an expression of their desires and their freedom as human beings.
The other short films in the series deal with autobiographical elements from Frank's later life. As an aging artist and a parent who has lost both of his children, Frank grows more reflective and introspective in his more recent video projects. In The Present (1996), Frank wonders if he is able to find a story to tell. He reconsiders themes that have influenced his work, reflects on the death of his children, visits friends, and contemplates the solitude of an artist's soul. He seems to be taking inventory of his life and creating a list of things to accomplish; the present is not only a gift to viewers, it is a reminder to live life to the fullest. In Flamingo (1997), Frank creates a "poetic diary recording the construction of a new foundation for his house in Nova Scotia." The seven-minute short takes inventory of the artist's home while reflecting his need to remain active through the upheaval of nature/life/remodeling. Frank's prediction that he “will see more” from the higher view once the construction is complete is an optimistic promise of new work to come.
I Remember (1998) is a charming reenactment of Frank's visit to the home of photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). The cast comprises June Leaf as Georgia O'Keeffe, Jerome Sother as Robert Frank and Frank himself as Stieglitz. The 5-minute short details an afternoon of lunch and photography at the home of the artists.
Frank's most recent video, Sanyu (1999), is perhaps his most melancholic. Chinese artist Chang Yu, known in France as Sanyu (1901-1966), attracted the interest of Chinese modernists in the 19305 by synthesizing ancient painting tools and aesthetics with the modern art of contemporary Europe.
Sanyu and Frank became friends when they exchanged studios in Paris and New York to save money. Frank includes dramatic and documentary scenes set in Paris and chronicles his trip to Taipei to attend the Sotheby's auction of Sanyu's paintings. Frank questions friends about the nature of success and reflects upon Sanyu's belated popularity 30 years after his mysterious death. He is nostalgic and reverent when examining paintings by Sanyu in his own collection, while commenting on the impersonal way in which the modern art world deals with the work. Frank's explanation of his friend's self-destruction appears to be based on Sanyu's lack of self-confidence and inability to continue working in the face of poverty. An actor portraying Sanyu declares, "If you don't think about your dreams, they will go away." Perhaps Frank believes his friend gave up on his dreams, yet in doing so achieved the success he deserved.
By incorporating documentary with fiction, voice-over narration, and dramatic re-creations of memories, Robert Frank presents his version of truth while remaining ambiguous about his own presence. When he does venture in front of the camera as alter ego, narrator, actor, or interviewer, Frank continues to question audiences whether or not what is onscreen is accurate. As he says in an earlier film, "I'm always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to tell something that's true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what's out there — and what's out there is always changing."
If by accident, illness or the simple aggression of time, we were totally deprived of memories, the beings bearing the depleted minds that would result could hardly be us. In fact, these memory-less beings would probably not be regarded as persons at all. Such beings with no remembrance of things past would more properly be regarded as automatons. Memory is essential to our lives as persons. After all, memories are the repositories of our knowledge of the world, the sparks of our emotions, the cement of our humanity. Moreover, as humans we share a strong intuition that one cannot face the present nor the future devoid of memories because such deficit terminally compromises our "selves."Memory has been implicitly or explicitly recurring in Pablo Soria's oeuvre for years often taking a defining role in his projects. This remark can either be an empty platitude or a meaningful insight into this artist's creative process. If the former, it can be as harmless as the dictum that all novels are autobiographical. For the argument could be made: how can Soria's work not be about something he remembers? To show that the remark is not trivial and truly insightful, we offer this essay.
Not many years ago, when Soria was more a painter than a photographer, he painted a series of enigmatic works showing maps, books, crosses and bones (both human and animal). One of these works, Two Candles for Ana ,1993, is a painting inside a painting. It shows two candles around a painted frame of a painting of a dark room occupied by a small human figure, presumably Ana. Although candles are intrinsically consumable whereas bones are a vestige that endures death, in this painting the visual resemblance between the two is striking. The title informs us that the candles are either an offering for a live Ana or perhaps in memoriam a defunct Ana. Either way, the candles burn in order to keep Ana in mind; i.e., to re-mind us of her. Burning candles, however, mark the passing of time and eventually their light is extinguished as are most memories — if they are real candles. Two Candles for Ana draws a metaphor of the mind as the larger frame in which the smaller painted frame depicting the room is the locus of a specific memory. The light (consciousness?) of the painted candles acts as if it provided the real light under which Ana may be made visible to us. Of course, painted candles have no such power. Memories may be, as Borges suggests, willed only in dreams but really are gifts or blows of our lives awake. Whether art has the power to preserve memories better than documents or the remains of artifacts or formerly living beings is a different matter.
Due to the fact that they are intended to be used by anyone, maps and chronicles are documents aimed at collective memory whereas family photos and letters fulfill the intent of personal narratives for a more intimate audience. Soria's work oscillation between collective memory (history) and personal memory (autobiography) generates an intriguing dialectic. In 1993 Soria painted Three Books of Memories, a very cryptic work whose title spells out the mnemonic theme while its depiction shrouds in mystery what the contents of those three books may be. The work places itself midway between history (as most books present) and personal memory — which one it is depends on the unknown contents of the books.
A path towards autobiography was drawn by Soria when he began using in his works old family photographs set in the northern Argentine province of Tucuman, the artist's native land. However, Soria did not delve long in strict autobiography and went on to produce some works with actual maps of Tucuman as their foundation; e.g., "Untitled", 1995, and Itinerary, 1995. The latter is a map that shows a house in Peru, another one in Tucuman, a third one in Chile, a fourth one in La Plata and a road connecting all four. Soria's interest in Peru is made explicit in those works where he appropriated the historical drawings of Huaman Poma de Ayala, which a previous reviewer erroneously called "a Spanish account of the conquest of Tucuman." Aside from Ayala, an adopted surname, there is nothing much that is Spanish about Huaman Poma (Quechua for puma) who has carved a special place in Americanist studies because his chronicle — both linguistic and visual — is one of the few — if not the only — of the Spanish conquest of Peru from the point of view of the conquered. Soria incorporated Huaman Poma's drawings in the work The Final Cut, 1994, and the installation El media mezquino donde nacimos, 1994. In the latter, he used Huaman Poma's Mapamundi showing the Tahuantinsuyo (mistakenly referred to as Inca Empire). Six hundred years ago, Tucuman used to be in a region of the Tahuantinsuyo called Collasuyo. The Final Cut, on the other hand, includes the depiction of the severing of Atahualpa's head, an act that gave rise to the myth of the Inkarri. In 1995 Huaman Poma's beheading of Atahualpa and a third drawing depicting the evisceration of a traitor together inspired Soria's works like Here is where I dream, There are mirrors that scare you, Untitled, My empty dream. It seems clear from the way Soria has used Huaman Poma's drawings that he wants the viewer to remember more than his personal memories, i.e., he wants us to recallpainful historical facts of his birthplace as well as his culture. One is almost tempted to say that Soria wants us to remember things differently; in other words, to revise history.A 1994 installation by Soria bears the text "La formula del imborrable olvido" (the formula of non-erasable forgetting) repeated n times. The text is somewhat paradoxical, for if forgetting is — by definition — erasing memory, what does it mean for forgetting itself to be nonerasable? That it never fails to erase? Can we forget to forget? This installation is the most Borgesian of all of Soria's works.
However cryptic Soria's formula for forgetting may have been, his formula for remembering was quite specific. He started with the common notion that family photos — even if not produced by him — connect him to specific moments of his own life. Only later, a notion of memory as a blend of yearning anddesire emerged from his work. As he began producing photographs himself and these photographs, rather than collages, turned into the end-products of his artwork, the connections to the past became more fetishistic. In / long to build my house in the cathedral of reeds (1997) the images become a sort of emblematic memory — a memory that is a desire for what the past should have been — a logical incongruity that is nevertheless frequently entertained.
Soria's immigrant experience in the United States rendered his penchant for memories at once more urgent and personal. Under a grant of the Miami-Dade Cultural Council, he conducted a series of interviews with recent immigrants one of whose aims was to find out if in their memories of their homelands there was one particular object they remembered most vividly.
Even though by the end of the 19905 Soria had become a full-fledged photographer, he continued to include several aspects of his painterly life in his photographic phase: the self-portraiture, the insides of the human body, the nudes, the assemblages, etc. Notwithstanding his painterly past, Soria rigorously abided by the constraints of straight photography and produced visual effects by staging and the technical means of inherent in the medium.
In many of Soria's previous works and their titles, there is an unidentified female interlocutor — take, Four candles to the indelible memory of your name, 1993, or I will no longer be able to find you in the same rooms, 1995, for example. Moreover, the body of a naked woman appears in every work of the series, The Yearning of the Body, 1998. Is it a heterosexual male perspective? Is eroticism the point of this nudity? Although unabashed the nudes are not sexually enticing, their nudity isalmost ritualistic. Furthermore, even though a specific body is the intentional object of yearning and the memories, the non-individuating way the models are photographed promote the particular body to an archetypal female.
Soria's photographic phase also brings into prominence self-portraiture and the screen. Both go hand-in-hand. The screen is a translucent curtain that precludes the viewer from a direct viewing of the artist's and occasionally the model's naked body. Metaphorically, the screen is also the filter that distance and time imposes upon memories. Applied to a self-portrait, it is a barrier that separates us from our own memories — forgetfulness being the most benign filter. In the series of self-portraits titled / already lost the empty words in the whiteness of these sheets (1998), Soria appears trapped behind a barrier he cannot penetrate and through which he (and the viewer) can barely see.
Soria's most recent works have taken the format of diptychs which play one image against another. The objects photographed are arrived at using the same kind of mental exercise Soria provoked in his interviews with immigrants. The title La Religion Permanente of one the works in this series is reminiscent of Leon Trotsky's famous phrase "la revolu-cion permanente" whose predicate was to build socialism through the worldwide spread of Marxist upheaval. Perhaps the title is a comment on the globalization of Christianity even against entrenched native religions. In fact, the theme of local religious beliefs is taken up again with the use of pre-Columbian funerary urns from the Santa Maria culture of the Calchaqui valleys. In What did you take with you? 2000, one such funerary urn faces a body that crouches so as to mimic its shape. The body is covered with soil, suggesting a connection with ancient religions of the earth. It is also a reflection about the common matter that constitutes the urn, the body and the earth. What one takes at the end of life is that common substance, part of the land that nourished and made the body and spiritually, the mind. A different kind of body faces the funerary urn in The Guest, 2000: a famished body. The title suggests that this body ravaged by illness or malnutrition is coming to its end as a guest of life. The body as a vessel containing life is an ancient metaphor.
It would seem that with these new works Soria has abandoned the topic of memory in favor of religious themes like life and death, the cult of the dead, the cult of the earth, etc. However, it must be remembered how powerful Soria's appeal to collective memory has been in his quest for personal definition. The incorporation in these diptychs of Christian religious statuary —like the virgins and saints of "To whose hope it is to become pearl or turn into a shell once and for all," "For one who no longer looks at time or "'You are a virgin to me" — is not a eulogy of religious practice but a sort of archaeology of familiar places and objects. Soria revisits familiar places in search of objects that bring about memories and sensations; or vice versa, certain objects transport him to loci of memories.Of the many questions we may have about memory — where they are stored, why they are lost, how they come back, how they surreptitiously influence our conscious lives — one that is often ignored perhaps because it is so transparent that it is almost invisible is: how do memories make us what we are? The question vanishes when we live surrounded by the people and things we have always had near but it becomes particularly poignant when we live in exile of our native land and those people and things are far or gone. Pablo Soria's works make that question and some answers to it once again visible.
Editor's Note: Excerpted from The Tenth Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize: Deborah Luster and C. D. Wright in Collaboration, a CDS Publication from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Winners of the Lange-Taylor Prize last year, photographer Deborah Luster and poet C.D. Wright set out to produce, in their words, "an authentic document of Louisiana's prison population through image and text — a document to ward off forgetting, an opportunity for the inmates to present themselves as they would be seen, bringing what they own or borrow or use: work tools, objects of their making, messages of their choosing, their bodies, themselves."
They wanted to tell the stories and present the faces of these prisoners — simply and directly. In fact their work had already begun. In 1998 Deborah Luster started photographing in three Louisiana prisons: the Transylvania Prison Farm, a minimum-security facility housing drug offenders and parole violators; Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, a looo-bed minimum-, medium- and maximum-security facility located in St. Gabriel; and Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a maximum-security facility housing more than 5,000 men on 18,000 acres of fertile Delta, surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River.
Luster had been searching for many years for a project that would somehow address the 1988 murder of her mother. As she participated in another photography project, documenting the impact of poverty on the lives of people living in northeast Louisiana, the roads turned toward the region's prisons. "While driving around the countryside, I passed a small prison on the banks of the Tensas River. Prison certainly seemed a logical place to photograph in the context of this project. I parked my truck and knocked on the gate. The warden came out to speak to me and granted me permission to take photographic portraits of any inmate who volunteered to participate and signed the standard release forms. After developing and printing the portraits of the inmates, I knew that I wanted to go back."
Luster and Wright have worked together on a number of projects — sometimes the photographer presents the idea, sometimes the writer does — so as Luster continued her work with the Louisiana inmates, she decided to ask Wright to collaborate. In the summer of 1999, the two visited the prisons together, and Wright was moved to commit to the project.
Luster's photographs of the prisoners — from pictures in the fields to formal portraits against a black backdrop — are printed on metal. In the manner of tintypes, durable snapshot mementos popularized during the i86os and '/os, the portraits feature props and poses chosen by the inmates. The view is inherently personal. The prisoners are presented without bars or other architectural references. The photographer has been commissioned, in a sense, by the inmates to make portraits for their loved ones — trying to ensure a balance between photographer and subject, to connect the viewer, whether mother, child, friend, or stranger to the prisoner. When we look at these images, it's not only the persistent gaze of the prisoner that we see.
The prisoners also see the images. Participating inmates receive a wallet-size copy of each frame taken, usually ten to fifteen images. Luster has photographed more than 700 prisoners and returned more than 20,000 prints. These photographs are sent home, swapped with other prisoners, sent to other institutions or simply contemplated by the inmates. On receiving his photos, one Angola inmate remarked, "Damn, I done got old" -prompted by the fact that the prison's stainless steel mirrors allow the men to view only a distorted image of their own reflection.
As Wright accompanies and assists Luster on some of the photographer's makeshift studio shoots, she converses with the inmates and interviews them. A certain amount of procedure is necessary, including release forms. Interviews are informal; participation is voluntary. Luster sends Wright prints from their visits, and the poet responds in her writing. Both Luster and Wright maintain correspondence with several prisoners.
The photographer and the poet have set out to explore the dimensions of the prisoners' lives beyond the crimes that have come to define them. They are also interested in their incarcerated lives. Through the title of this project, One Big Self, and the work resulting from it, Luster and Wright suggest that our punitive models reflect who we are, just as much as our reward systems do. Everyone somehow is implicated.
For exhibition of these images, photographer Deborah Luster commissioned the fabrication of a black, steel-drawered cabinet that holds the 4" x 5" portraits on metal. Personal information supplied by each inmate is engraved in the back of each photo. Viewers remove handfuls of images, shuffle through them, or arrange them on the cabinet top, touching the faces of Louisiana's "invisible" prison population. The cabinet also houses small handmade books with dedication, epigraphs and basic information on the three prisons represented.
"The images aren't true tintypes but rather silver emulsion on prepared aluminum, used like photographic paper under the enlarger," says Luster. "I wanted the photos to be handled by viewers and to suggest the history of the penal system. This technique on this material seemed to me to address those concerns."
Collaborating with Deborah Luster
"One does what one knows before one knows what one does," the poet Charles Olson flatly noted. When collaborating, the major plan is to get along, to stay out of one another's way, and enter in. This is not so difficult for artists working in a different medium, and when core sensibilities and external quirks line up without much contortion. Actually collaboration is an adventure which adult life mostly expresses in terms of shortages. Deborah Luster and I have worked together for a decade and have been friends since we were students. We come from Arkansas. She from near the Oklahoma line and I from near the Missouri. Our mockingbirds talk back to one _ another over hill and hollow. Sometimes we mine one another's strengths and sometimes we offset one another's shortcomings. And of course, once in a long while we undermine the other's strengths and compound one another's shortcomings. It scarcely matters whether the tongue or the eye leads; / it matters less which follows. We communicate. When Debbie began to photograph in the prisons in Louisiana, I was skeptical that my art could aptly turn itself toward that environment. I felt a queasiness regarding poetry in tandem with portraits of prisoners. I am not partial to illustrative collaborations, and I abhor instances of a charged subject made expedient by aesthetics. Also something about the extra-realism of the institution and the resistance of poetry to the conventions of evidentiary writing, notwithstanding top-notch examples to the contrary: Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Wilde, Valery, Celan, Desnos. After all, I am not them. Then there were the practical issues of geographical distance, my full-time job, family, house, dog and so on and so forth. But Debbie's telephone tales of Transylvania, St. Gabriel and Angola were soul-piercing. I have oftenhoned my instincts against the whetstone of hers. And visiting prisons certainly promised to be antidotal to attending faculty meetings. I agreed to come to Louisiana to see what I could see, to see what she was seeing. It was a summons.
To people from outside its borders, Arkansas has always been an unimaginable destination. "Arkansas is not a part of the world for which Jesus Christ died," lamented a lost nineteenth century traveler. I would like to know what his chronicle would have held had he rambled into Louisiana. "Only in Louisiana is the truth that much stranger than fiction," wrote creator of the Little Chase children's series, Anne Butler, and her husband former warden, C. Murray Henderson, in one of their co-authored books on Angola State Prison. A few years later Anne Butler survived five bullets from Murray Henderson, once one of Louisiana's most far-sighted and progressive wardens, now serving his retirement as an inmate at Hunt. Only in Louisiana.
Everything about Louisiana seems to constitute itself differently from everywhere else in the US: the food, the idiom, the stuff in the trees, the critters in the water and the laws, Napoleonic, not mother-country common law. The prisons inevitable mirror differences found in the free world. Where they came up with their mirrors is another mystery. Luster's photographs obtain to such incongruities with her own strain of uncanniness. The way bayou people will handfish, stick an arm into a sunken log to pull out a channel cat, her focus enters and retrieves the very elusive immanence she is after.
The more prisoners Luster has photographed, the more she has wanted to photograph. Behind every anonymous number, a very specific face. The more adept she has become at shooting, the more difficult she seems bent on making the process. All roads become prison roads (in Louisiana, indeed in the country at large, that's a hardening fact). Exceeding a thousand faces, she could not stop; she has not stopped. From prison to prison she drives with her itinerant studio; so the generators for the electric chair used to travel on a flatbed—from prison to prison. I can only visit betwixt and between. I have had to fortify the gaps with distance learning — reading, viewing, corresponding with inmates; taking in Debbie's elaborate telephone tales and elegant metal images.
The world of the prison system springs up adjacent to the free world. As the towns decline, the prisons grow. As industries disappear, prisons proliferate. State-funded prison-building surges in New York and California are complemented by private-investment booms in Texas and Tennessee. In Susanville, California, the unrelenting light following the construction of a second prison prompted a citizen's crusade to Take Back the Night Sky. The town wanted an economic cure, but had not intended to forfeit the stars. Then there is the perverse marriage of mind and technology known as the Supermax. The inter-relation of poverty, illiteracy, substance and physical abuse, mental illness, race and gender to the prison population is blaring to the naked eye and borne out in the statistics. Of the developed nations, only Russia exceeds our rate of incarceration. The warp in the mirror is of our making.
If we do not go there — if not with our bodies, our minds; if not with our minds, our eyes — we are not likely to register the implications. In prison, men and women — those capable — strive for normalcy. Under every condition, humans will so strive. In Luster's photographs you see men and women looking out through the known range of emotional lenses. Sorrow predominates. There is also an occasional, uninhibited smile even a dimpled grin; also a touch of glamour, camera coyness. And supplication. And defiance. The faces record defeat as well as composure. The gaze, point-blank. A decorous air envelops all. The whole history of portraiture is told here. The known range of responses avail themselves of the viewer. One draws on what one sees even before one knows what one is seeing. It is a summons.
Empathic and dogged, Debbie has been permitted to photograph a wedding, baptism, crucifixion re-enactment, Mardi Gras, Halloween, rodeo, field line, visitor's day and scores of individuals whose sentences have rendered them more or less permanently invisible. To see is to believe, a prison horticulture crew dressed up as boxes of Miracle Gro for Mardi Gras; lockdown uniforms converted into Seusslike characters for a day in the ecclesiastic calendar. Bienvenue en Louisianne.
/ was born in Natchitoches, La. I lived there (in the same house) until my 17th birthday, I moved into a trailer on my father's property (but was at least away from him most of the time, usually).Can I fix anything? My father used to make me work with him on anything he did: carpentry, electrical, mechanical, plumbing work around the house. We built sheds, overhauled engines, rebuilt 6-wheelers, replaced the roof's shingles, retinned the sheds' roofs -did anything and everything he said to do. I began working for him when I was about 9 years old - until he passed away. Even after I moved into the trailer, I was still expected to "earn my way."Did I every vote? No, I was 17 years old when I was charged -but I would have because I do believe every vote counts.Am I good with numbers? Yes, I love anything that involves numbers, math. I even enjoyed calculus!I don't like to think about my dreams.When I think of being released, what do I see myself doing? Building a relationship with my son, Nick. Moving away from Louisiana and working somewhere that doesn't ask about felony convictions on its application.
- S. Lofton, Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women
Lines of Defense including Proceedings from the State of
Louisiane vs. The Convergence of the Ur-real and the Unreal
Q: Where were you on the night in question
A: Watching re-runs
Q: What did you do before
A: Fattened frogs for snakes
Q: Before that
A: Sold monkeys door to door
Q: Did you ever imagine yourself doing something really useful
Q: What's your DOC#
Q: What's your idea of Love, Loss, Mercy, etc.
Q: What can you tell us about your passenger
A: She was a slab of a woman, Your Honor
Q: Which is sadder, a motel or a public John
Q: When did your troubles with the revenue service begin
A: On Kafka's birthday, Your Honor
Q: How many prisons have we passed
A: Just four
Q: Was that a harley or a coffin you were driving
Q: Is that the tattoo that says UTOPIA
A: No, that's the tattoo that says Real Men Eat Pussy
Q: What do you call a flesh wound
A: About the thickness of a pair of panties, Your Honor
Q: What can you tell us about your first victim
A: She was a slab of a woman
Q: Westinghoused or edisoned, your choice
AC or DC
Q: Do you have any pets
A: I kept a dog
Q: How did you get rid of the stains
A: I know hot water sets blood
Q: How do you get rid of dirty chi
A: Ask Jeeves
Q: Do you believe in progress
A: See the black curl under my chin
I live on the ground by day and by night . . .
Q: Whom do you see in the mirror, what is your favorite body of water, and why, what is your idea of a good car, do you like fried pickles, how long were you in school, what was your favorite subject, how old were you when you began to mutilate yourself, what is the nicest thing anyone ever did for you, did you ever have your own room, did you wet the bed, did you pour salt on slugs, did he touch you there, did you ever make anyone something you were proud of, can you carry a tune, do you like okra, have you ever been scared to the core
"If the drowned have no story, and single and broad is the path to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable."
Over the last decade, photojournalism and the gallery world have cross-pollinated to produce an unprecedented hybrid. Actual events happening to actual people have always made a slow journey to the world of imagination and myth. We just paddle in a faster, wider stream of consciousness these days. With the advent of the most rapid web of commodificationand communications the world has ever seen, by orders of magnitude, no event seems to hav.e time to catch its breath before it is packaged and presented to a breathless public. This snatching and selling of bits of the world inevitably leaves out the nuances of context and larger meanings for lack of space. After all, windy explanations of history, religion and geography, take time to piece together, and there is always a more current crisis to manage. Who has time to master every disaster?
Two recent books work against the current hyperventilation over the neatly packaged "story" of human inhumanity. Both follow a time-tested working method: find subject matter that moves you, challenges you and pursue it where it leads, even if (especially if) you have no idea how it will come out. Andrea Modica, perhaps best known for her small volume of striving minor league baseball players, and Treadwell, her in-depth look at one poor family's scuffle for survival, has now chosen to take a deeper, retrospective look into American mythology and community. She recently made a new home in rural Colorado, after years on the East Coast, and stumbled onto a nearby excavation on the grounds of a state mental hospital. The human remains that had been found were century-old mental patients, many of whom were sequestered in the (then) Colorado Insane Asylum because of the side effects of syphilis. The skeletal remains were buried without identification; they were cattlemen, miners, ranch hands, the salt of the western American earth. Modica elected to spend the better part of a year photographing the anonymous skulls of these people (most of whom were men). Her book gives us images of about three dozen skulls, with annotations by the site's forensic anthropologist. The bones are photographed plainly, by available light, with a relatively shallow depth of field. The effect is rather lovely, like an aerial view of the vapors rising over a craggy, fissured landscape on a frosty morning.
As the skulls and their desiccated captions pile up, the intent of Modica's theme with variations begins to shine through. Yes, this book is meant as a meditation on death. But more incisively, we are drawn to the traces of individual human lives that remain even long after the thoughts, expressions, gestures, eccentricities and memories we attach to ourselves and each other are transmuted into air and dust. By concentrating on this discrete group of unknown people, the artist asks us to follow in Hamlet's alas-poor-Yorick footsteps, asking where the good looks, the good ideas and the good intentions go when we are gone. On the other hand, these particular people, shunned and feared when alive, shine through in Modica's photographs: they are finally reunited with their human relations, and at peace.
Michael Kenna has steered a different course to a similar destination. Kenna is known for 25 years for his atmospheric images of the nighttime world and more recently for photographing Michigan's Rouge River auto plant, formal European gardens and his child's kindergarten classroom, among other exotic locales. Kenna quietly made numerous photographic trips during the 19905 to the remains of the Nazi death camps, both infamous and obscure, throughout Europe. This in itself is a formidable project. But there have been a surfeit of Holocaust books over the last 50 years. What more can be said? Are we not blinded to the original Holocaust by now, particularly when there have been so many calls for "cleansing" since the Third Reich pointed the way?
Somehow Kenna manages to say, or see, things slightly differently than his predecessors. Like Modica, he uses varied depth of field to powerful effect, inverting our expectations when we encounter the usual barbed wire, converging train tracks, or ominous chimneys, reawakening their poetic power. His use of light(limited as it is in some of the locations), as always, is sensitive and restrained. In fact, restraint is the keyword in the whole enterprise. Kenna shows us the apparatus of industrialized murder in small fragments (although his montage of dissecting tables is something of a show-stopper), and, like Modica, he works to initiate a cumulative question in our hearts as we turn the pages. We seem to zoom in, from the ash piles, ash pyramids and ash ponds (human ash in all cases) to the mass latrines, to the open-doored ovens and threadbare prison furniture, down to the fine details of a row of hypodermics and one false leg on a pile of prostheses. The horizonless scope of the Nazi project is impossible; we can only sense the magnitude of the whole through the bounded eye of individual victims. Somehow, Kenna's steady inventory of the apparatus of death leaves one calm, reflective, as if the scars of bygone suffering could be smoothed by the artist's vision, the depth of loss measured by the clicks of the closing shutter.
Kenna and Modica face the same struggle: how to give a face to people, long dead, whose identities have been deliberately erased? How to reanimate their emotions, and how to reactivate ours in the face of such profound silence? In both cases, the artists have chosen to believe in art's power over entropy, of memory over apathy, of imagination over death. Their books map out for us the limited understanding the living can have of the uncertainty in which we must live — and which we are, equally and indivisibly, bound to leave.
Editor's Note: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston held an exhibition, A Love Affair with Pictures: 25 Years Collecting Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from October 14-December30, 2001, in celebration of Anne Tucker's work.
Anne Wilkes Tucker certainly has made her mark in the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She has also made her mark nationally; in 2001, Time magazine named her American's best curator. Tucker is the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the MFAH.
When Tucker first came to the MFAH in 1976, the photography department did not exist, and the museum had only a handful of photographic images. Tucker laughingly said, "When I came here, there were fewer photographs in the collection than on your refrigerator." Tucker has devoted the last quarter century to collecting, caring and curating images at MFAH that now rates in the nation's top ten collections: her work encompasses 25 years; 12,000 images; more than 1,800 artists.
Tucker modestly credits others for the success of the photography department. "This collection has done as well as it has because of the museum's trustees and individuals who have helped us acquire these photographs," Tucker stated. "Ours in an extremely generous city." However, few could disagree that the driving force and knowledge behind these acquisitions is Tucker herself.
In explaining her job, Tucker said, "Curators are responsible to acquire and to take care of what we acquire. We catalogue, interpret, exhibit to employ the works, and we also interact with the community." As quoted in Time magazine, Tucker said, "In my job there is also an element of the preacher's. You are taking something you firmly believe and trying to impart it to others."
A Love Affair with Pictures: 25 Years Collecting Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston showcases the museum's photography collection. "This exhibition is to celebrate those people who stepped forward to say they wanted to give to the museum's collection," explained Tucker.
The exhibition is threefold: Latin American photographers; visual artists of all media who create photographs; and classic black-and-white photographers. Selections include individual works by Ansel Adams, Hannah Hoch, Andre Kertesz, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Paul Strand. Also on view are single images representing artists whose works the museum has acquired in volume such as Robert Frank, Edward Steichen and Josef Sudek.
Tucker commented, "With a collection this rich, you can do an exhibition on portrait photography, still life or feature one artist. Now after 25 years, we can just reach into the museum's collection." Referring to the Audrey Jones Beck Building, Tucker said, "Also, our museum is much richer with our beautiful new building." MFAH now has a designated gallery for works on paper — photography, prints and drawings. The photography department enjoys a 7,000 square foot study-storage area that allows for curators and researchers to spread out the work and study them side by side. "We can bring the entire collection of works on paper into optimum, controlled environments. And we have windows for natural light," Tucker said.
The photography department is strong in 20th-century photography and features the work of Edward Steichen, Robert Frank, Man Ray, Margaret Bourke White and Diane Arbus. It has one of the largest collections of Mexican contemporary photographs in the United States. Some of the highlights in the collection are images by the European avant-garde, especially Germans and Czechs, including 16 vintage photograms by the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
As to the future of the photography department at MFAH, Tucker says, "We still want to acquire for the collection more contemporary art. We feel that some areas are under-represented, and we are working on that." Tucker added, "Our collection is an ongoing project."
Tucker says, "We still want to acquire for the collection more contemporary art. We feel that some areas are under-represented, and we are working on that." Tucker added, "Our collection is an ongoing project."
Tucker remains gracious when asked about her being named curator of the year by Time. "It was an honor, and I was thrilled. However, I think it had more to do with the museum and its accomplishments than about me," she replied.
"All of us in the arts have experienced the surprise someone has when they realize how really good our work is. We have a very sophisticated arts community here in Houston and I think we deserve more international attention," commented Tucker.
"Anne Tucker's eye and expertise have built an amazing collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston" states Clint Willour, executive director/curator, Galveston Arts Center. "Starting from scratch, she has amassed an eclectic international collection of nearly 13,000 images in just 25 years. Along the way she has been a mentor to artists, colleagues and collectors. She has helped establish the Houston Center for Photography, FotoFest and PhotoForum at the MFAH. She has organized groundbreaking, intelligent, historically important exhibitions that have traveled to major institutions and has written scholarly texts to accompany them. For myself and many others, Anne Tucker is photography in Houston."
The Revelation of the Instant: Eudora Welty's Photography
by Katherine Pannill Center
Editor’s Note: Eudora Welty was born on April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi, and died July 23, 2001.
Before Eudora Welty became the writer that she did, she was a photographer. Maybe taking pictures enabled here to become the writer she was, or maybe the same gentle wisdom that fueled her writing enabled her to take the photographs she did. One thing is clear: she could see things like no one else could.
Educated first at home in Mississippi, and then in Wisconsin and New York, Welty returned home after college when her father was dying of leukemia. It was 1933, and the Depression was in full swing. After her father's death. Welty looked for a way to support herself and soon found full-time work with Mississippi's Works Progress Administration office as a junior publicity agent.
At the WPA, her job was writing and publicizing projects around the state with articles for weekly county papers. She traveled constantly, visiting all 82 of Mississippi’s counties, and soon she was bringing a camera along to document her deepening vision of her home state. "I look the pictures because I wanted to," she said in an interview, "Just impulse. I was not trained and bad no good camera."
Welty had watched her father, who loved machines of all sorts, document family occasions with his Eastman camera. Her parents used to print family photos in the kitchen late at night. Welty herself began taking pictures in 1929, using a popular Kodak camera much like a Brownie that used 116 mm film. She, too, then printed in the kitchen at night using a second-hand enlarger from the State Highway Department. It had a single shutter opening, and she timed exposures by trial and error.
Though she was not their official photographer, the WPA used some of Welty's photographs in their publications. In 1935, she also had a photo printed in Eyes onthe World: A Photographic Record of History-in-ihe-Making. The book also published photographs by Margaret Bourke-While, Charles F. Jacobs and Ansel Adams.
“There is little doubt that the photos she took during that period comprised a crucial part of Welty's artistic education. She credited her time at the WPA for a new kind of wisdom. "You know." she once said, "I had been so sophisticated in New York, and I didn't know a thing. Ididn't know what people were really like." In the introduction to a book of her photographs from that time, Welty writes:"I learned quickly enough when to click the shutter, but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer’s truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves."
In later years. Welty would say that she "didn't have any talent" for photography, and that her pictures were "strictly amateurish," but there was a period when she considered working as a professional photographer.
She tried fashion photography for a while and also applied for a job shooting for the Historical Section for the Resettlement Administration, which had employed both Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. (Later, Welty saw the work Evans had done there and disliked it: "He posed people to tell what their situation was. I shot what I saw.") She was not hired.
She also tried doggedly to publish and show her photographs. She was unsuccessful with publishers but did manage to get a show at Lugene Optics in New York in 1936. She pitched the photographs as "three hundred unposed studies of Mississippi Negroes." The show pitched the photographs to its patrons as "an example of what can be done with the crudest of materials by the most ignorant of photographers," which Welty later said was perfectly true.
That same year, her job at the WPA ended, and she published her first short story, Death of a Travelling Salesman, in Manuscript, a literary journal. She also bought a Rolleiflex that year that she used until 1950, when she accidentally left it on a subway bench in Paris. Mad at her own carelessness, she never bought another one.
She had another show at Lugene's in 1937 and also managed to sell six photos to LIFE Magazine, but as her literary work gained acceptance, her photography settled into a hobby.
Welty maintained that she had only ever wanted to write, though she confessed that her writing was intensely visual: "The only talent I have — for writing, I was blessed with it — is quite visual. And anything I imagine in what I read or write, I see it." In another interview, she granted that her "snapshots" may have had some value as records of history but said, "I am a professional writer. That is my life and my work and I take it very seriously."
Still, her style of writing was often described as "photographic," and she did not deny the connections between the two. "It's true that what I'm interested in is the revelation of the instant. Like the flash of a camera, the record of a movement or an emotion is what fiction is, really."
Welty's writing career, of course, was brilliant. She garnered just about every literary award or honor in existence — most notably the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973. She published five novels, four collections of short stories and two books of non-fiction during a career that spanned much of the 2oth century. But her photographs continue to draw their own attention. Between 1971 and 1995, six different books of Welty's photographs were published.
Often asked about the relationship between her photography and her fiction, Welty was clear about the differences between them. "Writing has everything to do with interior feelings and apprehensions," she said. "Photographs are exterior, capturing the look of things, the quality of light at a certain time of day."
Perhaps she did not see in her own "snapshots" what others see so plainly: the same open sympathy that graces her fiction, the same tender understanding for the human condition, the same clear-eyed reading of the stories within.
katherine pannill center is a freelance writer in houston and teaches with writers in the schools. she has a ba from vassar college and an ma in fiction from the university of houston's creative writing program.
Mind the Gap
Forward by Michael Palin
by Rhonda Wilson
Like the experience of riding on the London Underground, this book is a total journey in itself. It is a clever, fast and enjoyable ride. So much so that once it has ended, you are immediately wanting to do it again.
The creative combination of James himself, book designer Stuart Smith and the legendary Michael Palin, campaigner for better public transport and celebrated globetrotter, makes for something rather more than the coffee table book it could have been. Passionate at every turn of the page, readers become aware that they are being taken on a ride, conceptually, through the color coded pages of the different underground routes and on through the giddy life of a traveler to the end of the lines. It is like being in the tube map itself, with nothing but sheer faith for orientation, except these guides know everything about passenger management. Nothing has been spared — there is customer care here, something which London Underground may usefully note. And, of course, we can travel in isolation, rather than having our enjoyment of the experience interrupted by the reality of others attempting to read our book upside down from a standing position.
Many elements combine to make this publication: a magical picture book for the photographically minded; a guide to the underground for the dedicated anorak (English shorthand for anyone obsessed by anything but mainly derived from train spotters); an architectural time machine for those with an interest in the intricacies of a changing approach to big city public transport systems; or a brilliant example of how to put together a book for the contemporary consumer.
There is a trend in modern British photographic book design for blank pages leading into the first picture spread. This one does that rather well, with two plain red pages greeting us as we prepare to step aboard. Following a white page, the sky in the first picture adds in the blue, the third color in the London Underground sign itself. There is immediate impact. Then we are off, on the platform, in the control center, out onto the street and then into the insightful Michael Palin forward, which signals both his love for the transport system itself and his appreciation of James's vision.
Nothing escapes that oblique eye. James makes us feel we are in the hands of someone dedicated to photographing the familiar but always taking us somewhere new. There is beauty everywhere — in the quiet, uninhabited monstrosities of the underground stations themselves, the unused lift shutters on the closed Aldwych station, rails now overgrown at Verney Junction or the huge emptiness at the ends of the lines where we are carried into the possibilities of what lies beyond. Nothing is quite as it appears to be and every image offers us the sense of adventure that is the essence of this book.
Quality is stamped invisibly everywhere in this journey of the imagination: in the use of the Mamiya 7 camera, always on a tripod; the sharp and vivid reproduction of the images; thoughtful use of type, text color and how the words sit on the pages. And finally there is enjoyment — that sense of discovery shared by James in his journeying, his quirky humor in both images and travelogue copy. It is this enjoyment that carries this book further than the page to the enviable experience of James and his dedicated wanderings with the ancient and modern combination of tracks, trains and topography.
RHONDA WILSON IS THE DIRECTOR OF SEEING THE LIGHT IN BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND.
September 6 - October 13, 2001
FotoFest - Vine Street Studios
by Kenneth M. Hatch
Being Human: Portraits by Suzanne Paul, presented by Houston FotoFest gallery and curated by Clint Willour, features over 40 years of Paul's work. The exhibition displays more than 60 photographs of her friends, fellow artists and Houston art patrons. The work ranges from early images of her sister and dog made with a Kodak Brownie camera to a current portrait of Lynn Wyatt. The large gelatin silver prints generally were hung in groupings by subject.
Paul stated that photographing people is one of her passions, and this ardor is represented clearly in this exhibition. Paul photographs people in both informal and formal settings. Both approaches have their strengths; however, Paul's playfulness and quirkiness come out more in the informal portraits. Paul also possesses a remarkable talent for printing her images; they are almost luxurious in their tonal quality.
Some of the photographs are from the work Paul did during her Houston Center for Photography fellowship. These prints, from negatives made with a Kodak Brownie, are of her family and the family pets. The Brownie was a gift from her mother when Paul was nine years old. This camera opened the door to a lifetime devotion to photography.
One of these family photographs is Claire in the Grass, 1955. Six-year-old Claire is on her back with legs crossed, sunglasses covering her eyes and another pair of sunglasses next to her head. The shadow of a young Suzanne Paul crosses Claire's legs and her lower body. The grass is printed dark — almost black. Claire glows with the inter-light that only the best printmakers are able to achieve.
A later photograph, Rachel 1986-1988, makes a wonderful pairing with Claire in the Grass. The two images illustrate the consistency of Paul's vision from her earliest images to those made by an artist in her prime. Rachel looks directly into the camera yet appears to be unaware she is being photographed. She is leaning back on very dark grass and has the same luminosity as seen in Claire in the Grass. Both images are very sensual, but Claire reflects the innocence of the 19505 and Rachel of the earthier, rawer 19805.
Another grouping is of street portraits and images of friends. In Eamon in Mask 2001, a young boy wearing a mask with a mesh opening for his eyes looks directly into the camera lens. He is missing his bottom front teeth. The effect is of a miniature WWF bad guy waiting for the Smack-down to start. Only after enjoying the menace of Eamon for several seconds do you notice the protective stance of his mom in a terrycloth robe standing behind him in the open doorway. In Fran and the Amarillo Dinner Dog, 1984, the dog could be a finalist in any ugly dog contest. The Amarillo Dinner Dog is presented to the camera by Fran with almost the same affection shown by Eamon's mom. These images are great fun and add a whimsical element to the exhibition.
Paul has been making images of artists for 30 years beginning with her work for Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and many of the usual suspects are on display in this show. The photographs include classic portraits of the godfathers of Houston art — Dick Wray, Lucas Johnson and Richard Stout. Of this grouping the most interesting is of Richard Stout. The Dick Wray and Lucas Johnson images are classic male artist hero images made from a low camera angle — well done resulting in good standard portraits. Richard Stout's image feels darker; he looks slightly uncomfortable, on edge as if afraid that the artist may show his secrets. These images invite the viewer to reflect on the impact and influence these people have had on the Houston art scene.
The photographs in this exhibition offer a selected tour of Houston's art history. These and the other portraits are artfully crafted images of the very human side of the people who have had their lives touched by Suzanne Paul.
KEN HATCH IS A VISUAL ARTIST WORKING AND LIVING IN HOUSTON.
"OK, so Robert Frank is my photographic hero, and The Americans is my favorite photo book. Nothing original there. There's also nothing original about traveling across America, trying to make a photographic portrait of the country in the spirit of Robert Frank and Walker Evans. But how about doing it all from a Greyhound bus?"
Photographer Bobby Abrahamson, based in Atlanta, Georgia, wanted to see America and wanted to photograph what he saw not unlike two of his favorite photographers. He bought an Ameripass ticket from Greyhound — $479 for 60 days of unlimited travel. "Anywhere — anytime. Just go to the nearest bus station — get in line and wait for the next bus," Abrahamson explained.
This past summer's journey started in Florida and ended in California with stops in between. He rode the bus from Key West to Boston through Houston and up to Seattle. Abrahamson stated, "As you look at my images, be conscious that my driving force in making these images is to create an interpretive portrait of America - much in the tradition of Robert Frank and Walker Evans. I consider the bus simply a vehicle - in a literal and figurative sense — one that is enabling me to travel and photograph the country from a different perspective." He continued, "I would suggest that what I am seeing is 'the real America' - or perhaps more accurately 'another America' — one that many Americans would prefer to avoid."
At the end of his journey, Abraham-son wrote, "My bus ticket is over. I feel like I was looking for something that I did not quite find. It's hard to explain. Maybe it would be some sort of consistent peace and bliss about being alone on the road — maybe it has something to do with finding awesome pictures every day."