Day Sleeper

Article main image

If we are going to be remembered at some stage in the future, in all likelihood it will be one thing or aspect out of the many others that constitute our lives. In the case of Dorothea Lange, that’s the photograph known as “Migrant Mother”. The image has become iconic, meaning it has transcended the narrow confines of photoland and is now part of the collective myth that underpins the United States. The woman in the photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, has become a cypher — as has Lange herself.

This particular photograph aside, one of the main reasons for why photographers usually end up as these rather one-dimensional creatures is because there usually is so much control exerted over their legacy, meaning both their work itself and their image. More often than not their estates control every aspect of what can and cannot be done with the photographs they own, essentially cementing narrow views and preventing genuinely new discoveries or re-interpretations.

Of course, this system is not restricted to photography, but I do think it’s particularly harmful here: after all, for most photographers, there exists a large pool of unknown work in the form of pictures that were never used, never seen before. With access to such material usually being very restricted, estates (in collusion with curators) guarantee that most photographers are never being re-discovered. Instead, they become part of some sort of canon, while also becoming more and more irrelevant for a contemporary audience.

In the case of Dorothea Lange, the Great Depression photograph “Migrant Mother” speaks of a time long gone while the associated myth makes it even harder to create connections to our present time. After all, what does Florence Owens Thompson have to tell us for our own neoliberal era, where more and more people have to rely on working two or three poorly paid jobs? In much the same way, Lange’s own sensibility has disappeared as well — the things she might have cared about, things that would be communicated to us through her work, assuming we’d have the right access to it.

Photographs are only alive if they are allowed to exist in new contexts, contexts that possibly force a new meaning onto them. Where such new contexts are not a chance to arise, photographs wilt like flowers deprived of water. The history of photography essentially is mostly a collection of dried flowers that have become too brittle to exist as anything other than something to be gawked at, something that doesn’t speak to us any longer.

A new book entitled Day Sleeper now lifts Lange’s work out of the stasis it has found itself in for too long. For the book, Sam Contis used the archive housed at the Oakland Museum of California (plus images from the Library of Congress and the National Archives). In her afterword, Contis writes that “[t]he more I spent looking through her contact sheets, the more I started to feel an unexpected kinship. […] I formed the idea of making a book that would show her in a new light and also reflect a shared sensibility.”

There are two words here that I find absolutely crucial, namely kinship and sensibility. Through her deft choices, Contis has allowed the rest of us to partake in her own discoveries, essentially giving Dorothea Lange a contemporary life, a contemporary incarnation. To begin with, we get to see aspects of Lange’s work and personality that I don’t think we were familiar with. A touching tenderness pervades the book. With very few exceptions — a crucified eagle being maybe the most drastic example — the photographs are very tender and far from the open expressiveness found in “Migrant Mother.”

At the same time, because visual markers of time are largely absent these people and places from the past could have been captured just the other day somewhere. It is tempting and easy to think of Dorothea Lange as that Great Depression era photographer. But underneath, there was a human being whose aspirations, dreams, and feelings were at least in part shared by Sam Contis. And it is those aspirations, dreams, and feelings that are being communicated by Day Sleeper, allowing for Lange to reemerge in a new light.

If anything, the book demonstrates how much can be gained from the radical reinterpretation of a photographer’s work that we are given here. These photographs, taken decades ago, speak to us about our times. It is as if they were being made for us, to be seen by us, to have their maker urge us to look at this world. And it is Contis who we have to thank for this; after all, she could have decided to create just another edit of the work that would follow an art-historical approach, picking different photographs of already existing ideas.

Despite the lack of the open expressiveness we might have come to expect from Lange, the book clearly is not without an edge. There is, as I noted already, the photograph of the crucified eagle — the bird of prey strung up on barbed wire. I think this picture is absolutely essential; had it not been included, it would have been too tempting to dismiss the book as a contemporary apolitical exercise. And there are other photographs that hint at something being profoundly wrong in the land. What is wrong is not being spelled out — does it have to be? Isn’t it completely obvious if you just look around?

I’m hoping that Day Sleeper is going to become the seminal book it deserves to be, followed by many others in which someone will reinterpret the work of a photographer long gone. There are, after all, many artists whose work is in dire need of a reinterpretation, of a rediscovery. As this book demonstrates, it’s not just the artists who benefit from such an effort, it’s all of us.

Highly recommended.

Day Sleeper; photographs by Dorothea Lange, edited by Sam Contis; MACK; 2019

(not rated)

Thoughts on Dora Maar

Article main image

Up until very recently, there were two things I knew about Dora Maar, namely first, she was Picasso’s muse (ugh!), and second, there is a photograph of hers — entitled Père Ubu — that is a prominent example of surrealist photography.  Here and there, I would see other photographs occasionally that had no visual connection to Père Ubu, making me curious about this particular artist.

The “muse” aspect has always given me the shivers. I personally don’t care what kind of relationship she might have had with Picasso. It’s the “muse” part that has always bothered me. It has bothered me here as much as anywhere else, given its inherent machismo, its reduction of a woman to a status that pretends it elevates her whereas in reality, it does the opposite. I find the word — and the idea as a whole — tainted through its associations with exactly the likes of Picasso.

Once I removed the “muse” part, I was left with that photograph of the baby armadillo. That’s not much. It’s not a photograph that lends itself to imagining something else (assuming one is familiar with surrealist photography). For that reason, I was looking forward to visit an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, the opportunity of which presented itself given a very short trip to the UK.

As I made my way to the museum, I realized that its environs have changed quite a bit since the last time I went (roughly 15 years ago), and not necessarily for the better. Exiting the Southwark subway (“tube”) station, my walk forced me walk past quite a few rather gaudy looking buildings, the tackiest one a glass-clad tower near the river which appeared to house luxury apartments (the rich really have no taste). That put me in a bad mood.

But a bad mood is not a bad state to be in when going to a major art museum: it sharpens the senses, and it revs up one’s bullshit meter (assuming one has one).

What a delight to then come across Kara Walker’s Fons Americanicus in the building’s main hall! Other critics have written about it (example), so there’s no need to do so here. I lingered around it for quite some time, soaking in the fact that contemporary art can be very bitingly political without being clumsy, superficial, or merely didactic (which unfortunately it so often is).

Before seeing the Dora Maar exhibition, I briefly walked through one of the free ones. Setting out to write this piece, I only vaguely remember its premise, so I looked it up: Artist and Society (“artworks from Tate’s collection that respond to their social and political context”). That premise is sufficiently vague for it to contain a variety of material; but all in all, it felt too broad, too dispersed. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with presenting a bunch of artists, each in their own gallery space, and an attentive viewer can make connections; it might just be that I’ve grown tired of this model.

Up one level, there was the Dora Maar exhibition, organized by Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou (Paris), and the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles), with curators from each institution involved. The first thing I noticed was the rather subdued light, which made for a somewhat cavernous atmosphere. Given there were many vintage and thus possibly light-sensitive materials on display, the lack of light made perfect sense, and it really forced a closer engagement with the many objects on display. That said, there was a sense of gloom hovering over larger parts of the exhibition that took away from the lightness and liveliness of many of the photographs.

As most single-artist exhibitions go, the organization was temporal as much as topical, leading the visitor from an introduction to various aspects of Maar’s work. The picture presented was one of an incredibly gifted artist who had engaged in a large variety of work, with Père Ubu being an outlier even within the surrealist section (they had painted this sub-gallery a different colour, not sure why). In a nutshell, Maar worked on all kinds of assignments and types of photography, with a general sense of the wittily absurd often lurking around the corner. I suppose this would in part explain this artist’s engagement with the surrealist movement.

I couldn’t say which parts of her work I most connected with. Most of what was on view showed an artist adept at making strong work regardless of where it would have to be filed. The street photography was just as good as the surrealist collages which were just as good as the social documentary work etc. Many (most?) of her male contemporaries excelled in one, but not in so many different approaches to photography.

The limitations placed on Maar because of the fact that she was a woman seemed pretty obvious to me. There were prints signed “Kéfer-Dora Maar”, which, the wall text (reproduced in a little booklet I took) explained, for the most part were Maar’s products — there was a shared-studio set up with Pierre Kéfer.

Another little nugget I picked up on (which, alas, I didn’t have the foresight to photograph so the details unfortunately escape me) was a caption underneath a portrait that Maar had taken of a female painter. The painter, I was told, had been put off by surrealist poet André Breton’s homophobia and sexism.

And then Maar ran into Picasso, who apparently encouraged Maar to return to painting. In a variety of ways, artists such as Picasso are like black holes, from whose pull nobody can escape. This was as much true for Maar as it was for the curators, because there was a whole room dedicated to the man and his work, with Maar having become a minor object orbiting the black hole. She had, one was told, documented Picasso’s making of Guernica, and she had been made the subject of The Weeping Woman.

As a visitor, I found this part of the exhibition jarring, but not in a good way. I had not come to see Picasso. And given that the two galleries after were rather weak, I ended up feeling that maybe one would take away less from this exhibition that one might have, had there not been such a focus on Picasso, the grandmacho of modern art.

Tellingly, in that space, there was a small negative of Maar’s, a portrait she had taken of Picasso, which she had partly scratched. (There were a few backlit negatives on display through the exhibition.) Make of that what you will — I certainly did.

Who am I to tell anyone what to do, but I think the exhibition should have been a lot more feminist than it was. After all, what it did make abundantly clear is that Dora Maar is a very underappreciated artist, whose contributions to photography should be a lot more widely known — beyond Père Ubu. For example, her surrealist work included some very strong collage examples. Her street photography included plenty of what possibly would be considered classics — had they been taken by any one of the famous male photographers from the era.

I suppose it’s easy for me to demand not to put so much emphasis on Picasso — after all, most people will show up for exhibitions not because of what or whom they don’t know but what or whom they know. Still, it left me feeling disheartened to see that even in her own retrospective exhibition, Dora Maar ultimately was yet again reduced to being Picasso’s “muse” — despite the fact that it had been made clear what an incredibly gifted and accomplished artist in her own right she had been.

Time Atlas

Article main image

“No new photographs,” Joachim Schmid at some stage decreed, “until the old ones have been used up!” Even though he has since retracted the statement, I always enjoyed the general idea (and the fact that Schmid was — obviously very unsuccessfully — adopting the role of photoland’s stern parent). At some stage, I had an app on my phone that would do this: if I took a picture, it would browse a library of already existing photographs and then present me with one that it had determined to come closest to what I had just photographed (I don’t remember the app’s name, it lasted maybe a month on my phone).

Given that work with already existing (found/vernacular/archival) photographs has spun into its own firmly established part of contemporary photography, Schmid’s idea doesn’t sound so radical any longer. Many photographers have come to embellish their projects with archival images (often when their own somehow can’t do the lifting), and there is a larger number of people working with archival photography.

I maybe like the principle of working with archival photographs more than many actual applications, the reason being that there’s the risk that things either get too cerebral or too clever (or, even worse, both). I like clever, but only if it doesn’t draw attention to itself, which, I think, a lot of this work does. In a nutshell, I’m interested in an artist’s wit, in her or his ability to work with archival photographs without her or him showing off. The use of archival photographs shouldn’t become its own attraction. Your mileage might vary — whatever it might be, I think it’s good to think about one’s ideas when approaching such work.

The general principle that I like about working with archival photographs is that I don’t subscribe to the idea that photographs have fixed meanings. I also don’t believe photographs say anything about the intentions or ideas that went into their making. Elsewhere, I have described photographs as being sticky: not only will a photograph attach itself to something in the viewer’s mind, it might also attach itself in often surprising ways to other photographs.

Niina Vatanen‘s Time Atlas is the latest addition of a book working with archival imagery in my library. There are many different sources for the images, and the artist isn’t concerned at all with them. Instead, she creates connections between pictures based on formal qualities, on content, or on both. A pairing of pictures might show a circle as the dominant visual element in both (formal pairing); a pairing of pictures might show a hummingbird in one and a group of flowers in the other (content pairing); a group of photographs might show tilted houses along Pisa’s Leaning Tower (formal and content pairing) — you get the idea.

What makes these combinations of images interesting is that they don’t follow a simple formula, and some are more obvious than others. This is always a good mix for such a book, because if the combinations are always simple that just ends up being predictable and boring. But if they’re always complicated very few people will end up looking through the whole book. Many of the combinations are witty, and by that I mean they are clever and surprising, establishing connections between images that ordinarily wouldn’t exist.

The book’s description states that the book centers “especially on questions concerning time and our perception of it, and exploring how visual memory, personal experience, and history intertwine.” Ignoring the fact that this sentence is so generic that it easily applies to many other books (as an aside, that’s one of my main grievances with a lot of PR material produced these days, whether by artists or by publishers), so it’s not particularly helpful. I personally didn’t necessarily think about my perception of time or any of the other stuff when I looked through the book (this despite the fact that the first and last image show the same hourglass).

My own perceptions and ideas might drive my reaction more than anything, but I enjoyed that the book contains quite a few elements that I didn’t feel I needed to understand. In photoland (get ready for another pet peeve!), things tend to be too resolved. Everything always has to make sense — and when it doesn’t make an obvious, spelled-out sense, the only thing people can think of is poetry. I find that really boring (I’m also not into poetry, which probably is not helping).

Why does everything always have to make sense? Why can’t there be the enjoyment that can arise from things being unresolved in a larger sense, while being resolved at a purely photographic level?

This is exactly what’s going on in parts of this book, where there is a logic presented to me that I can understand — I see how it works, yet I have no idea how it will connect to my own internal logic. In other words, I’m being left puzzled — and amused, because I know there is a sense of play at hand. This is something I’d like to see a lot more. It demonstrates that while photography is a technical medium, made by machines/computers and by typically rather serious people, it has the potential to end up being surrealist or Dada — subverting its own background.

This is a lot harder to do with one’s own photographs — which is why photography has so much in common with rock ‘n roll: there’s just very little humour on it. Thinking about it, most of the funny artists I can think of work with archival material.

So Time Atlas is hugely enjoyable as a strange compendium of visual materials that were assembled to make sense, but maybe not quite the sense you’d be expecting. It’s witty and clever, without relying too much on its own cleverness. And it’s a book about photography, about what can be done with those sticky pictures that just crave to create meanings for you.

Time Atlas; images compiled by Niina Vatanen; 288 pages; Kehrer; 2019

(not rated)