Alec Soth is a divisive figure in the photo world, something that comes with the territory when you get a lot of attention in an attention-deprived microcosm or when you become the figurehead for a whole sub-genre of photography. His quirky, folksy attitude may not go down well with everyone, but I thought his collective, LBM's idea to set up a photobook summer camp for "socially awkward storytellers" instead of doing just another photobook workshop was genuinely refreshing. It doesn't sound revolutionary—replacing the campfire with a digital projector to show the other participants images while telling them a story—but I for one would be interested to sit in on a session. Not all photobooks need a strong narrative to work, but there are a LOT that could definitely use it. Perhaps most importantly, it's free. They don't fly you out to LBM Land, but they are not asking you for hundreds of dollars for the privilege of taking part. For more info and to apply (deadline is April 15th), check out the LBM website.
Jon Rafman is a Canadian artist and filmmaker based in Montreal. He recently gave a talk about his work entitled “In Search of the Virtual Sublime” at the Gaité Lyrique, a new space devoted to digital culture in Paris. I met up with Jon in a café near the Jardin du Luxembourg to discuss Google Street View, street photography, the cyberflâneur and what the future looks like.
How did you start working in the digital space?
After I graduated I discovered a community of artists on the social bookmarking site del.icio.us. It really felt that an incredible artistic dialogue was taking place informally: a new vernacular was being formed online. There was so much energy to it. The dialogue was so exciting, mixing humour and irony, critique and celebration. Del.icio.us was the platform on which I really started working with the Internet. At this point Facebook and Tumblr have pretty much replaced it.
I had known about early net art but I was never attracted to its glitchy aesthetic. So when I discovered this community I felt like I had found what I had been searching for all through art school. Del.icio.us led me to various different collectives like Paintfx. That is the period when I started my Google Street View project.
The project started out as PDF books. And then I started to print out the images just like photographs. I experimented with the printing for a while and eventually decided to print the images as large format C-prints. In 2009 the art blog Art Fag City asked me to write an essay, and that was when the project really took off, but I already had a huge archive of material by that stage. The 9-eyes tumblr blog came directly out of that. I had already been working with Google Street View (GSV) for one or two years when I created 9-eyes.
What was your process to find the locations and images that you used?
At first it was just long, arduous surf sessions. I went to places I wanted to visit, mainly in America (GSV had not been launched in many countries at the time), but not in a systematic way. As the project grew, I learned certain tricks. For example the best place to go for images is to check where the Google cars are and to follow those. Otherwise, Google may have removed any ‘anomalies’, which often make the most interesting images.
Once the project went viral I started getting tons of submissions from people. Some of these I used directly and some would act as a departure point to search for images.
What were you looking for specifically?
I was working a bit like a street photographer: keeping an open mind and responding to my intuition. The process was really about editing down. The entire project is a process of subtraction: since everything has already been captured on GSV, it is about editing down until you find the core, essential moments. I think it could be considered as a major editing project.
Are there any online GSV communities or forums that you use to find images?
There is a forum for pretty much anything you can think of. There is a forum where people only collect images of prostitutes, some of which I used in 9-eyes. I don’t like fetishizing labour. I don’t want to play up the amount of time I spend finding these images. This can become a kind of artistic crutch. The greatest works of art for me can be a single gesture that took very little time at all.
Even though this project is inherently time consuming, I don’t want that to be its central focus. It could easily have become an endurance piece, a kind of artistic marathon. If I had an algorithm to find all these amazing images, I think I would be equally as happy.
Take Duchamp’s ready-mades: they changed art. If everything can be art, then what is art? I see that as the healthiest state for art to be in: questioning its very nature.
How conscious were you of specific street photographers’ styles when taking these images?
I was very aware of photographic history when working on this project. I really believe that photography was the medium of the twentieth century, because of the ambiguity surrounding the question of whether it was or was not art, due to photography’s mechanical nature. I saw GSV in some way as the ultimate conclusion of the medium of photography: the world being constantly photographed from every perspective all the time. As if photography had become an indifferent, neutral god observing the world.
The perception of reality associated with photography is very modern. In the past, representations in the form of images were always imbued with a certain magical quality. The photograph shows a world that is empty of that. It is just a reflection of the surface of things. In that way the photograph is the perfect embodiment of our perception of the modern world. More than specific photographic history, I was thinking of photography from a philosophical point of view.
Most of your work deals with digital media of some kind. Do you consider yourself to be a digital artist?
For a while the term “Internet-aware” was used in relation to artists working with the Internet. Nobody was happy with the term, or with “net artists” which felt too ghettoising. In the same way, many people do not feel comfortable with the term “new media artist”, because it implies a kind of fetishisation of new technology.
I would prefer to be recognised simply as an artist. Unless you are very specific to a medium, which I’m not, I don’t think it is necessary to add these labels. I’m fine with championing net art, but I don’t want to be wedded to it forever.
Take Elad Lassry for example. He is one of the most successful young photographers that I know, and in some way I think that is because he doesn’t position his work as photography but as art. I have a lot of respect for those ‘purists’ that are attached to the formal qualities of their medium, but I don’t want to be associated too closely with a particular medium as I’m interested in exploring many different approaches.
There are other artists, including Michael Wolf and Doug Rickard, who have worked with Google Street View. Do you see GSV as a territory where there is only room for one or do you see it as a vast territory that more and more artists are likely to explore?
GSV is in the zeitgeist and it is a vast territory to explore. In a way I’m surprised that there haven’t been more artists working with it. We all have different methods of working. For example, Michael Wolf photographs the screen to make his images, whereas I think that Doug Rickard removes all traces of Google from the images: the symbols, the Google copyright. My process is more akin to the ready-made.
You have also referred to the flâneur in relation to your work. How does this term that is generally associated with nineteenth century art in Paris relate to your practice?
I’m very interested in the notion of the flâneur. The lack of history in this new post-internet age is making it harder to have a sense of self. The Internet has already become so ubiquitous, that it is now a banal part of our reality.
In Internet years things are forgotten so quickly. The importance of history in building a sense of self is one of the main themes running through my work. Many of my projects focus on very marginal sub-cultures such as gaming (ed. Codes of Honor, for example). They feel the lack of a sense of self acutely because their culture can die out any day. The game is everything to them but from one the day to the next the culture of that game becomes obsolete.
The reason I tie in the flâneur is because I want to find the connection between the cyberflâneur and the flâneur of the Parisian arcades of the late nineteenth century. On one level the comparison is absurd, but on another level it is very apt. In the same way that Internet cultures die off, so did the arcades of Paris.
People talk about how the Internet age is so new, and the idea that technology has changed everything. I think it is very important to see that many of these things existed in different forms in the past. For instance, the information overload that is thought of as defining the Internet era dates back to early modern times and the emergence of the modern city.
The NYTimes recently published an article by Evgeny Morosovabout the death of the cyberflâneur. Morosov makes the point that in the age of social media, web surfing is essentially over, that the information we get from the Internet is essentially pre-digested. Do you agree with that view?
People often ask me what the future is going to look like… I’m not really sure why… maybe simply because I work with new technologies.
In the past we relied on dystopian and utopian views of the future. The future was thought of as fundamentally different from the present. Today, there is a sense that the future is going to be a lot more banal, that we are already living in the future (like with the phone that you are recording this conversation with), that the future is going to be more of the same… more apps and technologies that are designed to mediate and ‘improve’ our experience of reality. It is essentially a more Facebook-like future. This is very different from the early Internet, which was more like an exploration of a vast unknown territory.
Note: Jon Rafman's latest exhibition, MMXII BNPJ, opens at American Medium in New York on May 5.
Paris is still recovering from the busiest week of the year on the photography calendar with the 2011 edition of Paris Photo which was held at the Grand Palais from 10-13 November and the many other events that pop up around it (Offprint, Nofound, Fotofever). In recent years Paris Photo has established itself as the most important photography art fair in Europe (maybe even in the world?) and this was a turning point for the fair. For it's 15th birthday, Paris Photo gave itself a pretty big present in the form of a move from the not-exactly-shabby Caroussel du Louvre, which did suffer from a lack of space, air, seating and natural light, to the Grand Palais which has all of those in spades. The relocation was deemed controversial by some, as people were attached to the Caroussel du Louvre which had housed Paris Photo since its inception. There was also some concern that the size of the Grand Palais space would lead to a more impersonal, bloated fair that would lose the strong identity that Paris Photo had created for itself.
Now that the dust has settled, it is difficult to find many dissenters on the big move. The Grand Palais is pretty much unbeatable as a space for housing a fair, particularly given the amount of natural light that pours in through the several-storey-high glass roof (sunny days can be a bit problematic but if they can find a way to guarantee cloud cover, you will not find better light for looking at photographs). The fair has increased in size with 117 galleries, 27 more than in 2010, and 18 publishers, but the airier premises make it feel less crowded and, if you put your mind to it, it is possible to find enough space to spend time looking at photographs without jostling for space with other visitors. The gallery newcomers included Pace/MacGill, Gagosian, Fraenkel and Marian Goodman, which gave a heavyweight feel to proceedings. Gagosian, who apparently doesn't really do art fairs, had a interesting quirk to his booth: a closet-sized "private viewing room", presumably so that the unseemly practice of paying for art would not have to take place in public.
One of the biggest improvements of the fair was the space devoted to photo-books, something that had been a point of contention in recent years. Although there was no increase in the number of participating publishers and book dealers, their booths were far bigger (the Steidl booth must have tripled in size) and this seemed to be a particularly busy section of the fair. There was also a great installation by Markus Schaden of Ed Van der Elsken's wonderful Love on the Left Bank. The installation, a kind of exploded book, gave a great sense of the process of putting a book together. And finally the Paris Photo book prize was launched to reward "a reference photographic book that has marked the past 15 years" (editor's note: the English translation of the Paris Photo website leaves a lot to be desired). Paul Graham's A Shimmer of Possibility was the deserved winner.
I guess at this point that I should say something about the photography itself. With a fair the size of Paris Photo I'm convinced that every visitor has a different experience and it is impossible not to find things both to love and to hate. My overall impression was of a strong year with a fairly diverse selection of material, whereas sometimes it can feel like the same pictures pop up on every booth. I don't think Paris Photo is the place to see the cutting edge of contemporary photography, although there is always something hiding around a corner if you look hard enough, but rather a venue for great vintage work and a cross-section of what is 'hot' right now.
Some brief personal highlights from the fair include San Francisco-based Fraenkel's booth, which was an achingly (overly?) tasteful mix of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Robert Adams, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Richard Misrach, Edward Weston and others; LA gallery M+B's wall of Andrew Bush vector portraits of drivers in their cars; an exquisite 3x3 grid of late 1970s miniature Peter Downsbrough cityscapes at the excellent Cologne-based Thomas Zander booth; and Berlin-based Springer & Winckler Kunsthandel's booth devoted entirely to photographs by the recently deceased German artist Sigmar Polke. The fair has also maintained the guest country/region format from previous years and this year it was Africa that had the place of honour. This is a hit and miss exercise, but I thought Africa was well represented, and although Malick Sidibe turned up absolutely everywhere, there was a fairly diverse selection of material on show. A few personal favourites were a Michael Subotzky prison yard panorama at the South African Goodman Gallery (not to be confused with Marian), Nigerian artist J.D. Okhai Ojeikere's typological hairstyle portraits which appeared in several places, and a Michael Wolf Real Fake Art clin d'oeil to Malick Sidibe at 51 Fine Art from Antwerp.
Another innovation of the fair was to host exhibitions of both public (ICP, Tate Modern and Musée de l'Elysée) and private (Artur Walther, J.P. Morgan and Giorgio Armani) collections, a pretty simple idea that makes a lot of sense in the context of an art fair. Thankfully the exhibitions went beyond the "here's some stuff we bought this year" format and were generally well-curated and/or insightful.
The only big question mark over the success of Paris Photo 2011 has to be a commercial one. These new premises must involve a pretty significant price increase and I wonder whether the less established galleries will have made sufficient sales to compensate for the cost of a Grand Palais booth, particularly in the current turbulent economic context. With FIAC taking place just a handful of days beforehand, and a growing number of contemporary art galleries present at Paris Photo there is also a question of how these two fairs will coexist. I hope the outcome is a positive one because this edition of Paris Photo certainly felt like the best yet.
I spend quite a bit of time with photobooks, whether it be for this blog, it's slightly less wordy Tumblr cousin, or just for my personal pleasure, but it is not often that I get to spend a day with a book like this one. In fact, it is not a book but a maquette for a book that was never published. Entitled Mario, it is a children's photobook by Cornell Capa that tells the story of a young Peruvian boy named Mario. I'm not sure why it was never published but I understand that this maquette spent most of it's life sitting on a shelf and that it has only recently resurfaced. So when I was given the opportunity to borrow the book for a day, I jumped at the opportunity.
Cornell Capa is probably best known for founding the International Center of Photography in New York in 1974 and perhaps also for being Robert Capa's younger brother, but he was also a photographer and a member of Magnum Photos in his own right. His approach to photography was articulated in his 1968 book, The Concerned Photographer, which he described as a book of "images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism". Mario is very much in line with this philosophy.
The book is made up of approximately 60 images by Cornell Capa. The photographs are predominantly black-and-white although it also includes a handful of colour images. The photographs are accompanied by a narrative written by Sam Holmes which follows a Quechuan Indian boy named Mario who dreams of going to America where he will buy a tractor for his father. The story follows Mario from his family's simple life on the farm to his school and then on to the city of Cuzco in southeastern Peru for the Corpus Christi Festival, ending with Mario returning home. When in Cuzco, Mario happens to meet an American boy who is about the same age as him, his first encounter with the country he has been dreaming of visiting.
Although the text is clearly aimed at children, there are also some quite dense historical passages. One section deals with the richness of the ancient Inca civilization while another describes the rituals of the Corpus Christi festival. One of the most fascinating things about Mario, is that beneath the childlike language, the book has a strong political message. Returning home after his encounter with the young American during which he experiences some of the comforts of the Western consumerist lifestyle after sleeping over with his family in a hotel in Cuzco, Mario grows to appreciate the simple, ancient beauty and traditions of the rural land where he is from and his urge to travel to the city or to America fades. Today's right-wing American cable news networks would be outraged by the book's progressive, 'socialist' message.
I'm not sure exactly when the maquette for Mario was made (my guess would be in the late 1950s or 1960s), but it is an extremely interesting window onto American politics at the time and to the forthcoming interventionist American foreign policy of the 1970s. Although it is aimed at children, the book is essentially a progressive political tract... you could even go so far as to call it political propaganda.
The maquette is an interesting insight into the photobook-making process of the pre-digital era. The design is done by using a set of prints made specifically for the layout which are then stuck into the pages of the dummy book. The text is laid out in the same fashion. The design is pretty dynamic: the book doesn't follow a 'one-page-per-picture' format but plays with different formats and layouts for the images. Having spent most of its life on a shelf, the prints are in excellent condition, even those in colour. As an added bonus, I have featured more images of Mario than usual as this is not a book that you are likely to be able to get your hands on.
What makes this maquette particularly exciting is that I believe that, aside from the odd exhibition catalogue, Capa did not publish any photobooks of his work. With Horacio Fernandez's The Latin American Photobook coming out next week and Parr & Badger's The Photobook: A History Vol. 3 — with a chapter devoted to 'propaganda' — currently in the making, Mario is a timely (re)discovery.
As a blogger I get sent several press releases a day for upcoming exhibitions, from the weird to the wonderful and everything in between. Although 95% of it doesn't hold my interest, once in a while something stands out. The press release for the upcoming exhibition at Gallery 138 in New York of photographs and videos by Clark Winter entitled The Wonder of it All stopped me dead in my tracks.
I knew nothing about Clark Winter, but discovered that he is a global investment advisor, a TV pundit, an art world mover and shaker (he serves on the Committee on Photography at the Museum of Modern Art), as well as a photographer and an "artist". The release tells us that "in his photographs and videos (...) patterns appear, information is collected, everything is experienced; nothing is explained (...) Something's coming, and you don't know what it is." It would seem that Winter leaves the explaining to his day job and let's the invisible hand of chance govern his artistic endeavours. From the visuals I got my hands on, his photographs seem to be as random as the above press statement: snapshots taken in hotel lobbies, airports and assorted 'exotic' locations. Winter travels a lot and rubs shoulders with the powerful and famous, but is also capable of photographing the totally banal... a toaster, some flowers, a field. All of this is then thrown together in 3x3 grids where the mundane rubs shoulders with the "extraordinary things he has seen while travelling as a global financial advisor" and where the former comes out comfortably on top. In one self-portrait, Winter appears with electrodes attached to his head, suggesting his deep connection to these many complex layers of our planet, or perhaps simply to suggest the powerful brain that lies within it.
Of course I haven't seen and won't be able to see The Wonder of it All and this may simply be a case of overblown PR, but to me this feels incredibly misguided. Could there be a worse time to put together an exhibition that reveals "the private world of high finance" by giving us "access to things that are unavailable to ordinary travlers (sic)"? The idea that a man who certainly has a deeper understanding than most of global economics, finance and the powers that be and is clearly very successful in his field, could somehow translate this into a visual form with a series of off-the-cuff photographs, strikes me as a little overambitious, if not downright pretentious.
The exhibition is part of a series exploring the relationship between art and finance, something that is extremely pertinent at this moment in time. There is a lot that is wrong with both worlds and an exploration of how they influence and affect each other could make an interesting exhibition. But surely this is something that requires more than the contents of a powerful man's iPhone camera roll. I don't write blogposts that frequently and writing a critique of this exhibition may have been unnecessary, a waste of your and my time. However, I can't help feeling that in a way this exhibition is insulting to people who are actually devoting themselves to making art. The idea that it is this easy suggests that the relationship between art and finance is a lot more twisted than I thought.
If anyone does actually manage to see The Wonder of it All I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts. However, I am concerned that for someone who cites Picasso and Piero della Francesca as influences, it may be difficult to live up to such lofty expectations.