Notes on Queering the Collection(s) @ the ICP Library

Queering the Collection, 2019, a collaboration between GenderFail and the ICP Library
  1. from the publisher

“Throughout 2018, the ICP Library collectively produced more than six in-house library installations and events considering representation in libraries at large. The success of this initiative resulted in an increase of the ICP Library’s holdings of queer, gender non-binary imagemakers, and artists of color.

“To celebrate the enriching dynamics of Queering the Collection and further bridge the gap between representation and collecting, the ICP Library collaborated with Be Oakley of GenderFail, along with Christopher Clary, Patricia Silva, and many other participating artists, curators, and bookmakers, to highlight these projects in a publication scheduled for release in March 2019.

“The Queering the Collection publication features an introduction by Paul Soulellis, founder of Library of the Printed Web, along with interviews with participating artists and imagemakers, photographs, and in-depth accounts of the events. Queering the Collection is designed and printed by GenderFail.

“Queering the Collection is the culminating publication based on the Queering the Collection program, a collaboration between GenderFail and the International Center of Photography Library. Queering the Collection is a series exhibitions, programs and events that presented a variety of curatorial perspectives on contemporary investigations of gender through archives, libraries, and collections.”

2. As far as I know, there was never an official collections policy for the Library at ICP. It grew fitfully over the early years uptown at 1130 Fifth Ave (1974-2001) through donations and occasional purchases, willed into existence through the zealousness and perseverance of Deputy Director and former Head of Education Phillip S. Block, who, ahead of the curve, understood the importance of photo books as cultural markers, as dynamic, creative things. Generous gifts from colleagues of founder Cornell Capa such as Jacob Deschin and David Douglas Duncan, and the general interests of Capa shaped around what he termed “concerned photography” generated a sizable collection of books related to photojournalism and documentary work, but the library was also reflective of all who entered the institutional doors. Uptown the vertiginous stacks were overseen by Lucia Siskin, a flamboyant artist and raconteur, who carried on a tradition of the library as an informal hub, a microcosm of ICP’s mandate as a “center” for many, for whom Lucia offered conversation and a willingness to expand the collection when needs were stated. Unfortunately the library was not helped by the architecture of the original building, the former home of Willard Straight and Dorothy Payne Whitney on Fifth Ave, where it filled three small rooms, two of which were storage.

Despite the fiscal austerity of its support, albeit stoked with a vision to the future and the deep commitment of Phil Block, when ICP moved to 43rd Street in 2001, it had a library of over 20,000 titles, along with hundreds of artist’s files, none of them cataloged. The move to a new space also brought on staff ICP’s first official librarian, Deirdre Donohue, who brought in subsequently a team of catalogers and archivists, assisted by an enthusiastic, diverse group of donors, volunteers, and students.

The move to the space in midtown and the extensive electronic cataloging of the collection coincided with the impact of digital technologies in publishing and a shift towards artisanal, small-scale production. Coterminous with the obsolescence of conventional print publication was an interest in books and book forms by artists, collectors, and dealers.

The creation of this market by dealers and collectors facilitated production stripped of great profit, but, as if in compensation, it encouraged the clubby spheres of cognoscenti. For artists and photographers, the sheer access of books, the simplified means of production, and the impulse to look at more, going backwards to go forwards, transformed the plebian library into a cultural fulcrum, wider than the limited aesthetic scope of a fine art museum. The intense eclecticism of the scope of the ICP Library collection and the deep enthusiasms of its staff and patrons brought an energy beyond cost. Book-making became part of school curriculum and a new focus on artist’s books enriched the collection. Donations, including a large group of Korean photobooks, and additions such as the complete set of Joachim Schmid‘s series Other People’s Pictures, along with the always growing library of books by alumni, are among the traces that remain from this engaged and shifting community.

Beyond initial workshops in desktop publishing, curricula developed through the artist and publisher Victor Sira in the then-new MFA program run by Nayland Blake, who also included coursework addressing archive and library research through Deirdre Donohue and collections curator Ed Earle; along with continuing education production classes taught by Christina Labey and Jason Burstein at Conveyor Studio. Library archivist Matthew Carson was a founding member of 10X10 Photobooks, bringing the work of that organization into an ongoing and overlapping relationship with the ICP Library.

3. This is a circuitous map of how the experiments instigated by GenderFail, involving collections, events, and the physical plant of the library itself, could find a temporary autonomous zone in the ICP Library.

As per current Librarian Emily Dunne, “it is crucial to remember H. R. Ranganathan’s five laws of library science:

  • Books are for use.
  • Every person their book.
  • Every book its reader.
  • Save the time of the reader.
  • The library is a growing organism.
“. . . She’s an OLD MAID!” [working at a library] from It’s a Wonderful Life, dir. Frank Capra, 1947

Posted in archival collections, artists' books, Book events, Christopher Clary, collections, Cornell Capa Papers, global village, ICP alumni, ICP Archives, ICP Library, International, Library alumni, memory, New Acquisitions, nostalgia, parataxis, publishing, queer, self-publishing, Unpacking the collection, vernacular photography, Vertical files, Visual Research, web browsing, Window Exhibit | Leave a comment

An Angsty Red Cat Waiting for the End of Time

It is refreshing to see  photobooks from India that do not present the usual orientalist tropes – the bright reds, the sadhus in saffron, the ash covered faces, the Kumbh, the Ganges, Rajasthan and a funeral pyre by a river. Most of these tropes are not false, they do exist. But there is another way to see India, through the eyes of contemporary working photographers from there. Their point of view is as much a response to the environment as it is a representation of it. The Red Cat and Other Stories by Ritesh UttamchandaniEnd of Time by Ronny Sen and Angst by Soham Gupta are three such bodies of work that are honest in their response to their environments and what they see.

Bombay is a state of mind and Mumbai is a city. Ritesh’s book The Red Cat and Other Stories, I reckon, is made in Bombay and photographed in Mumbai. In form, it is a white colored square-shaped book with an exposed coptic bound spine. The book is not housed in any protective cover and over time its white cover will stain and scruff. This is very much the experience one will have as one moves through and lives in the megapolis that is Mumbai. This is not a coffee table book on Mumbai, which makes it fantastic. This is a storybook, where the elements in the images are the words and the image is the sentence. Laid out beautifully in a meticulous edit, this body of work narrates a short story of urbs prima in Indis. It is not a fast-flip through, but a slow read novel –  a love story perhaps, one that Ritesh shares with his hometown and one he invites you into.

In reading the Sindhi folklore of the Laal Billi, one may take away a message of compassion with one’s environment, of how that what you seek may be right where you are, not elsewhere. You know what they say, if you think the grass is greener on the other side, it is time for you to tend to your own lawn. Did I mention that this is a fun book? It is, those back alley golfers, the street-savvy workout enthusiasts and the two Ronalds who escaped McDonald’s to watch existential TV! In this city, where life is a grind and unbearable for many, Ritesh provides a hint of a smile.

 

The opening image of Ronny Sen’s End of Timespeaks straight to the title of this book and also to a sentence in the book that reads, “Jharia was once a green forest”. End of Time published by Nazar Foundation follows the success of his project The Endwhich won him the 2016 Getty Images Instagram Grant. This is an apocalyptic story set in a contemporary coal mine town in India and photographed exclusively on Ronny’s phone. This tight set book, the pages of which are housed between two thick cardboard pieces, comes enclosed in a plastic case. As I turn the pages of this photo-book, I feel a perverse desire to witness the suffering in and of this scarred environment. Apocalyptic is a word that is very center and present in this body of work, and perhaps the existence of this scenario in our current time is what gives rise to this desire. To say that the environment is dramatic is, putting it mildly, the images consequently are fairly dramatic too. One may say Ronny’s images in this book are literal in how they speak about the rape of Jharia. There is decay, destruction, smog dust and dirt on every page, the message is constant and relentless. A ruined temple and broken mosque and residential complexes that are as soot-laden as the lungs of those who reside there. One may ask if the photographer is being too cynical, or one may say that Ronny has a high standard for accepting and then representing the honesty of a situation. Either way, End of Time is a photo-book from India that I recommend taking a look at.

 

Soham Gupta’s Angst, is a dramatic photo-book that is made up of four chapters/sections/ stories, each one separate from the other, but equally dramatic in their sense of tragedy, with characters that might appear in your strange dreams and nightmares. There is, however, a tenderness and endearment in the souls depicted within its pages. Angst also brings up questions: Who is that human with his face hanging off his face? Where did that naked round fat man come from, where is he going? Why were we not invited to that glitter party, where we possibly would have met her? Was there ever a party or is that glitter the only shine in an otherwise squalor of a life? Angst is a fictionalized body of work and it was written at night – the images here are staged after Soham would engage the subjects in conversations, which give the base to the stories presented in the book. While all of this work was photographed in Kolkata, there is little in the book to anchor us to the city. There is a heavy emotional weight to this book – it is not one that you can go through in a single sitting. My experience of reading this was like reading a fantastic hybrid of a graphic novel – one with live action photographs instead of drawings. You finish one chapter or a few pages of one, set the book aside and then go back to it again. Shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First Photo-book Award and Shortlisted for the Photo-Text Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France; Angst is published by Akina Books. There are also 100, made by hand, by Alex Bocchetto editions of this book.

It has been close to a month that I have been sitting with these books and I have to say I am not entirely done with them. All three of these books pull me back in, to look, re-look – they bring me home. They also change the visual zip code on India that we have been subject to this far. If you are at some point considering a visit to India, take a look at these books. Most of what you will see here will not be part of your tour itinerary.

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The Photobook is an Art Object.

We are pleased to introduce a post by Rahul Majumdar


‘A photobook is an autonomous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film.  The photographs lose their own photographic character as things ‘in themselves’ and become parts, translated into printing ink, of a dramatic event called a book’  -Ralph Prins, in conversation with Cas Oorthuys in 1969, quoted in Mattie Boom and Rik Suermondt, Photography Between Covers: The Dutch Documentary Photobook After 1945, Fragment Uitgeverij, Amsterdam, 1989, p 12; in turn quoted in the Introduction to The Photobook: A History Volume I, Martin Parr and Gary Badger 

Photobooks that stand as unique art objects, commanding their own space, take the coming together of photography, writing, design, and sculptural skills. They bring a definite tactility to the viewing experience that moves far ahead of simply turning pages; making the viewing experience physical activity and true discovery. Here are six photo books that move beyond the sum total of the images they hold and occupy a space as little temples built to house those images in.

As soon as you consider the photobook as an art object, one has to tip their hat to the years-long experimentation that Dayanita Singh has worked at to shape out new book design formats. (The ICP library holds a book dummy of Sent A Letter.)

Museum Bhavan and Sent A Letter, both beautiful and incredibly well-received works of art have been written about extensively. We’d like to draw your attention to a smaller, less complex (in physical form) and beautiful piece of work, Blue Book (one of two color books Dayanita has made). At about 4.5” x 6”, Blue Book, is a collection of industrial landscapes; each photo is presented as a postcard that one could actually tear out of the binding to send out (currently available anywhere between $114 – $400, I’m not sure how many of us will actually send all of the postcards out, there is something deeply spiritual about this exercise though).

Lucy Helton’s Transmission, a photobook in the form of a scroll, and created by sending the images through a fax machine is another gem. Cased inside a thick cardboard cylinder, Transmission is nine panoramic images that are held together by Japanese clip binding. Lucy describes this body of work: “at once deeply personal and dystopia, my work imagines the future earth as a scarred, damaged, fragile landscape“. Her choice to thermal print on facsimile paper speaks directly to the ‘delicate’ and urgent subject of our environment, as the paper itself is meant to be ephemeral and will begin to disintegrate at an advanced pace.

 

The fantastically odd shaped In Other People’s Bathrooms, by Alexine Chanel was published by The Green Box Kunst Editionen to coincide with a 2008 exhibition by the same name. As the name suggests, this is “a photo adventure by Alexine Chanel”. Presented like a huge collection of paint swatches, under 15 “families” (sic) such as Hit, High, Patterns, Contact, Hide, Mess, Clean, Pet, Jet, Charge, Orbit, Flood, Monster, Cream and Naked, Alexine’s photobook asks the viewer to consider the bathroom as a “laboratory”; a space that allows for the playing out of multiple scenes.

 

The Pictoral Key to the Tarot is the genesis point of Bea Nettles Mountain Dream Tarot: A Deck of 78 Photographic Cards. A line drawing in that book inspired Bea to make a self-portrait as The Queen of Stars, and the next morning she woke up with an idea that occurred to her in her dream: to ask people to pose for her photographic tarot card deck. That is where the ‘dream’ in the title of her photo object comes from. It took Bea five years to photograph this project. The 1975 edition consisted of 78 cards of hand-colored photographic paper enclosed within two sheets of frosted mylar. The more recent 2001 edition (presented here) has been scanned from those original prints.

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On the Road, by Bert Teunissen is an excellent piece of work that emerges from the “in-between” spaces. Working on Domestic Landscapes put Bert on the road and behind the wheel often. From this point of view, staying in the car, perhaps one hand on the wheel and the other holding up an Olympus Pen camera, Bert created this travelogue printed on newsprint and presented as a daily-paper with a black ribbon tied around it.

 

There is a beautiful and mysterious box, Resonance by Minny Lee. It consists of a box, the inner base of which is a photo grid of the covers of literature focused on essays and metaphysics. The book holds three scrolls and a thin stitch bound booklet. The scrolls themselves have content and pages from other books, printed edge-to-edge giving them a continuous and seamless feel. The contents make for an investment of time to read and understand, but the form of this object belies this fact by how feather-light it is. In an interview (https://icpbardmfa.wordpress.com/author/reasonforthis/) Minny says, A book consists of a sequence of pages and therefore it is a time-based medium. I can intend to lead the viewer in a certain way by sequencing and designing the book but each viewer will experience and react to the book differently due to their diverse backgrounds and histories.” Resonance, as a photobook, allows for ample room for play, for discovery and experience.  

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Caleb’s Guide To ICP Library New Acquisitions 2018 part 2

As promised, here is the second installment of my 2018 acquisition blurbs. Caleb’s Guide To ICP Library New Acquisitions part 2 ~

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EINSTEIN STUDIO – TOKYO/JAPAN JUN 2018

At the New York Art Book Fair we acquired a few issues of Einstein Studio’s ongoing monthly series “Tokyo/Japan”. JUN 2018 is the latest that we have however the series, which began in 2016, is still ongoing. Each issue begins with a few highlighted photographers and continues with work from between 30 and 60 additional contributors. JUN 2018 features Hanayo, Masanao Hirayama, Sayo Nagase, and Kohey Kanno but also includes 52 other photographers. Tokyo/Japan is not constrained by photographic genre in any way, and every image in the book is labeled with the neighborhood in which it was captured (regardless of how abstract the picture or recognizable the landmark). The project of Tokyo/Japan seems monumental but at the same time extremely simple. The mission is not to document the totality of the city but simply to create an ever-expanding index of the multiplicity of visions within a highly populated urban space. Einstein Studio 2018.

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MATEO RUIZ GONZALEZ – HAMBURGERS FOR BREAKFAST

I met Mateo by chance through my old friend Cole when we were all going to play in a band together. The band didn’t work out but Mateo and I stayed in touch and last month he donated some books to the library from his new press An-Tics. Hamburgers For Breakfast was to me the highlight of the batch (although all of his stuff is worth checking out), not least because it documents Superiority Burger, a tiny (and extremely good) vegetarian restaurant in the East Village where Gonzalez used to work. He created the images that make up the book by bringing his camera to work and snapping photographs while on shift. It’s rare that a book portrays labor from the point of view (literally) of the laborer, and this book is particularly illuminating because of in turn how mysterious the inner workings of this specific restaurant are.

Hamburgers For Breakfast magnifies gestures between human and comestible to full frame, detailing the inner workings of the arcane food preparation process of Superiority Burger. A key element to unpacking this book is that this restaurant is SMALL. Gonzales gets a lot of mileage out of every available square inch, and when he’s able to get far enough away from anything to get a picture that’s fully in focus it feels like a miracle, yet the images don’t feel claustrophobic. Instead, we get a feeling of density; much like New York itself the restaurant is a site of unlimited cultural saturation and exchange housed within a finite space. Gonzales has a sensitive eye for portraiture, and his strength shines through when he catches his coworkers in rare moments of repose. I’m looking forward to seeing what Gonzales has in store for us next – make sure you stay tuned to An-Tics to find out! An-Tics 2018.

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IKENO SHIORI – ORB

One of the booths I was most excited to visit at the NYABF this year was Commune – the Tokyo based gallery/press/boutique who published Ikeno Shiori’s new book ORB in 2018. Ikeno works in promotional and artistic idioms while maintaining a strong sense of individual style. My first exposure to her work was concert photography on the PYOUTH MAG instagram page – disorienting angles of extreme moments of performance in vivid, very obviously analog, color. Ikeno’s professional work has included product/fashion work, and promotional/tour photography for musicians such as Haino Keiji and Bo Ningen. ORB on the other hand deemphasizes subject matter and brings Ikeno’s personal style to the forefront.

The photos in ORB have no decisive moment other than the instant the flash bulb fires; these seemingly mundane pictures could perhaps fall into the “snapshot-gone-wrong” or “disposable camera diary” genre, but Ikeno’s unique vision shines through when the sensational subject matter of her promotional photographs is removed.

In these more abstract moments, Ikeno’s masterful use of flash, shallow depth of field, and high contrast create a soft world in which much of her frame becomes dots (orbs). Human figures take on a high drama when the flash renders them alone in a frame of darkness. ORB also showcases Ikeno’s sensitivity to the world around her; much of the daylight and non-flash photography shows careful observations of everyday tableaus. The book maintains a straight face without sacrificing a playful and honest approach, and hidden small details reward the repeat viewer. Ikeno’s prolific output can be found on her Instagram as well as in @jusangatsurecords and Pyouth Magazine. commune Press 2018.

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MINNY LEE – MILLION YEARS

Last year, when I was still a teaching assistant at the library, I wrote about Minny Lee’s short yet poignant Ashes Into The Ocean; a loving elegy for her father-in-law that mixes short pieces of text with photographs of apartment interiors and the ocean. In her newest book, Million Years, Lee shifts her perspective and scale, with photographs taken of American countryside from a plane.

Photograph collections are rearrangements of moments; photographers show us groups of instants taken out of time to create narratives or feelings, alternatives to our linear intake of time and life. Specifically, aerial photography often feels like an attempt to display the totality of the planet, or to create an index of the ways in which humans have shaped it. The affect of aerial photography is typically imperialist, masculine, and strict in its formalism.

Million Years reimagines the genre as something softer, more personal, and capable of a wistful yearning. Her approach to text in Million Years is a photographic approach: a pastiche of material sourced from geology, rearranged to create feelings and narratives. An added complexity is that the original geology text often does the very thing that aerial photography sets out to do: show us a totality of the earth, and index its various properties. Lee plays with our expectations of photography, science writing, and poetry by extracting a profoundly lonely personal narrative from seemingly objective scientific texts. Another pick from the NYABF, it was a pleasure to meet Datz, who consistently release spellbinding photography books that are all worth checking out! Datz Press 2018.

 

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Women with [Rolie, disposable & blackberry] Cameras: From Vivan Maier to Kim Kardashian

 

Women with Cameras (Self Portrait) is a collection of vernacular photographs of women making images of themselves in a mirror, often using point-and-shoot or flip-phone cameras, often with the flash on. These images, carefully selected by Collier, predate the proliferation of smartphones, and act as a capsule folk history of the personal camera in the distant-seeming era before social media.

 

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Collier’s book links the photography of Vivian Maier and Kim Kardashian West, perhaps most simply by bridging the time periods in which the two photographers produced their work. But Collier’s book also highlights cultural shifts between Maier and Kardashian West’s respective eras, particularly concerning perceptions of privacy, fame, sex, and the concept of creating one’s own image.

Vivian Maier was born in 1926, and most of her self-portrait work was made in Chicago in the 1950s through the 1970s. Kim Kardashian West, born in 1980, published Selfish as a collection of her selfies taken between 2006 (when her job title was “Paris Hilton’s Stylist”) through 2014 (the year of her marriage to Kanye West). Presumably all of the images in Selfish were made in order to be shared through social media, with the exception an image Kim made with sister Khloé in 1984, identified in the book as her “first selfie.”

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“My very first selfie was taken in 1984 I put my mom’s clip-on earrings on Khloé and found a disposable camera and took a picture to capture this memory.”

Kim Kardashian West is, of course, a celebrity of global proportions, a woman whose image is ubiquitous throughout the media landscape and who, as of January 2019, possesses the sixth-most-followed account on Instagram. At least some measure of Vivian Maier’s fame, on the other hand, derives from her apparent desire to remain anonymous. Maier was “vehemently private about her motivation to make images.” “We look at her self-portraits for revelations, but she does not really give us much, writes Elizabeth Avedon in her foreword to Self-Portraits. “She is alone in her reflections. Her viewpoint difficult to judge, no hint of emotion or reaction. Never a portrait with a partner. She is seldom with a friend…The strength of Maier’s character is found in the persona looking back at us. There is little compromise; and ironically for such a private, autonomous person, her self-portraits are some of her strongest work thus far.”

 

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In addition to her reflection photos, Maier continually made portraits of her shadow. These shadow portraits present an antithesis to the glaring flash photography seen in Collier’s collection, and to the emphasis on the extremely visible self in Kardashian West’s selfies. Maier’s shadows transcend space and exude physicality; they project a phantom or facsimile of Maier onto the photo’s landscape while simultaneously binding her with the photograph itself. One of Maier’s portraits contains both her shadow (including her trademark hat) and her reflection, captured in a globular lawn ornament. The reflective orb distorts her body while also displaying it in its entirety. This photograph enlists Maier’s signature technique of framing and layering of subjects while retaining a playfulness in terms of space, surface and the perception of the viewer.

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The timeline of Kim Kardashian West’s Selfish begins in 2006, one year before the leak of her sex tape and the premiere of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Most of Kardashian West’s early social media images were posted to her personal MySpace; using the Internet Wayback Machine, we can view a screenshot of her account. Her Top 8 notably includes recording artist Ray J, her boyfriend at the time and a fellow participant in the aforementioned sex tape. It’s inarguable that the February 2007 release of that tape skyrocketed Kardashian West into the upper echelons of modern celebrity, and I would argue that much of her social media presence in the wake of the tape is an effort to take control of how the media and fans perceive her. This is paralleled in the book, as there are less than 20 images before early 2007, when her image control began in earnest.

The timeline between the bulk of Maier’s photographs and Kim’s reclaiming of her own image through social media is neatly filled with the images in Women with Cameras. Collier’s book provides powerful insight to the social changes that connect Maier and Kardashian. The bulk of photos in Women with Cameras are from the 1980s and 1990s, but contain brief glimpses backward into the 1970s and also bleed over into the early aughts. If we were to order the images in Collier’s piece chronologically (as is the case with Selfie), the last image would be of a woman standing in a mirror, holding a digital camera at a skewed angle.

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[c. 2000’s]

Based on the camera she is holding, this is obviously a born-digital image. It is a distinct possibility that this image that was originally posted to MySpace. Although Selfish doesn’t indicate where or if the photographs were posted online (save for one section to be discussed below), I think it is safe to assume that the majority of the photos were first publicly posted on her MySpace and, after 2010, on her Instagram account.

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Selfish is an artist book. I like Selfish. But Women with Cameras and Self-Portraits each provide clear proof that the concept of women making their own image through cameras is not new. Although Maier’s inclination was to portray the more mysterious aspects of her personality, it is also clear that she enjoyed posing in her pictures. Collier’s image curation provides further evidence that women have been taking pictures of themselves looking and feeling sexy in the mirror for a very long time. So what makes Selfish such a culturally significant book?

 

For one thing, it’s designed well; Kim is, after all, concerned with aesthetic. But the design of Selfish also informs the story that the book wants to tell. Selfish “starts” less than a year before the Ray J tape leaks, but 427 out of its 444 pages
women_with_cameras019are made up of images taken after 2007. There is also a section in which the photographs are printed on black pages. This section is visible on the fore edge, head and tail of the book, and when we open to it, we find images that feel ~slightly~ more private than others. In many images, we don’t see Kim’s face; just her body or close-ups of her breasts. In a bit of text, Kardashian writes: “#WifeLife” and later explains ” I wasn’t intending to put these in the book but saw them online during the icloud hack. I’m not mad at them. lol They are taken with a blackberry and I don’t have icloud… it’s all a mystery!”

Kim plays with the role of intimacy in her image so well– the text and the nature of the image imply these were images intended for her husband, but she continues to share them with the public. The images are not more or less explicit than the others in the book, but it is the context and design that make it feel that way. Anticipating the now common flippant caption: “felt cute may delete later lol”. Including these images also calls into question whether the hack (or the initial sex tape leak) was choreographed in any way, and allows Kim to take back the narrative. Kardashian deeply understands that part of the allure of these images is the audience’s experience of voyeurism, and this narrative furthers the images’ power.

 

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Most significantly, all three of these books are defined by the ways in which they display women’s power and agency in creating their own image. In Women with Cameras, a pair of friends pose together in a mirror with a yellow Kodak disposable camera with images of a pair of celebrities taped to the concrete wall. We are clearly in a dorm room or perhaps a summer camp bunk, a space where young women are in the process of understanding who they want to be. women_with_cameras006

Kim’s psychology can be inferred more casually, because she broadcasts and curates it on television and her social media. These media underpin her ultimate goals: to be a cultural icon, to be considered beautiful. Kim’s photography was an integrally important tool in allowing her to accomplish these goals. Initially, Kim’s fame was the result of the release of images over which she did not have full control. But her self-portraits, first on MySpace and then, inescapably, on Instagram, reclaimed to the owner the image of herself; Kim has in turn used that image to define her career.

There is a coyness to the incidental act of being caught in a mirror which can be alluring. For Maier, this form of happenstance was a way of engaging with her subjects by catching their reflections and allowing her own image serving as almost a signature. “We were here, and I made this photograph.”women_with_cameras001

Self-portraiture becomes a dialog with ourselves and our intended audience, but, importantly also the camera itself. There is an agency in seeing the camera. It disrupts the gaze and informs the viewer that the photographer made this image, of herself.

Lynne Tillman’s essay in Women with Cameras (Self Portraits) concludes: “[Collier] documents people’s incessant need to see themselves, over and over, and to be their own image-takers and keepers.” Vivian Maier and Kim Kardashian West in many ways exist as opposite poles, Collier’s work calls both to mind, in the sense that she seems to be saying that we need to see ourselves (over and over) in order to understand ourselves, regardless whether that need plays itself out in a private, public or liminal space. But does our perception change when we present our image towards an audience of friends and strangers?

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Ambiguity and photography

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Eugene Atget: The Eternal Inspiration is the record of an exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum that ran from December 2017 till January of the next year. It is part three in a series of exhibits held by TOP about Atget, the previous two showing in 1992 and 1998 respectively. This show specifically highlights Atget’s influence in America and Japan in the 20th and 21st centuries, and collects work from Atget himself as well as Americans Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Berenice Abbott (as well as her prints of Atget’s work), Walker Evans, and Lee Friedlander; Japanese photographers Moriyama Daido, Araki Nobuyoshi, Fukase Masahisa, and Seino Yoshiko; as well as Atget contemporaries Henri Le Secq and Charles Marville. In addition, the book contains supplementary essays by Suzuki Yoshiko and Yokoe Fuminori.

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Eugene Atget “Saint-Cloud” 1904

Yokoe’s essay walks the reader through the history of Atget’s life and work, in the process debunking common misconceptions, including a background to his methodologies, context for his work, and details of his complicated relationship with Berenice Abbott as well as Man Ray and the surrealists. Atget did not see himself as an “art photographer” or a surrealist, yet many saw in his work something beyond mere documentary. In the posthumous 1930 book Atget: Photographe de Paris, Pierre MacOrlan writes that photographs can contain “sentimental knowledge” and “a truth that can serve as a point of departure for our own interpretations”. In some ways, truth was not quite as solid as Atget perhaps trusted it to be in his life’s work: the project to photograph the disappearing Old Paris.

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Seino Yoshiko “Everywhere – Gather Yourself – Stand” 2009

In her posthumous, second photo book, Everywhere – Gather Yourself – Stand (2009), Seino Yoshiko echoes MacOrlan, “Today…We cannot focus on anything and the present gets diffused for everyone. What, then, do we try to find in the images of photographs? I do not believe that photography is a medium that represents memory, history, story, or sentiment alone. I do not like such photographs anyway. It has become clear to me that photographs that just consume our “hope” eventually fail to reach us. Photography makes sense only when it manages to find a narrow passageway; it becomes valid only when the photographer manages to create a “passage”. The passage opens up before the viewer and what lies ahead is left for [them] to decide.”

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Seino Yoshiko “Everywhere – Gather Yourself – Stand” 2009

Atget did not wish to make any sort of imperative statement with his images yet at the same time didn’t see himself as an artist creating open-ended works either; his self-image was that of documentarian whose work would speak for itself in its neutrality. However, this precise lack of added narrative in his work is what attracted impresario gallerist Julien Levy, and Man Ray, to him. Suzuki Yoshiko writes of Julien Levy: “Drawn to the idea that the principal appeal determining whether a photograph is good or bad is concealed within an elusive ambiguity, Levy was preparing the groundwork for passing on the aesthetics of straight photography, which originated with Atget, to the next generation.” Ironically, what is named here as the defining characteristic of something “straight” is that mysterious and slippery quality called imagination. In trying to achieve an impossible objectivity without qualifiers, Atget opened up a new space for a genre of photography in between literal documentary, staged fiction, and figurative abstraction. Straight photography would come to define the 20thcentury even though its inspiration was largely unintentional. The Eternal Inspiration leaves no doubt in the readers mind that ambiguity is indeed central to photography’s ephemeral and sometimes mysterious power, even beyond the realm of straight photography.

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Eugene Atget “Versailles, Parc” 1924-25

It’s this assistant librarian’s opinion that the photography that inundates us: advertisements, ‘non-fiction’ documentary and news, “Instagram friendly photography”, this is to say photography without history, or photography that “just consumes our ‘hope’” is artistic photography without this crucial yet unnamable ambiguity that Levy saw as the foundation of the now-anachronistic idiom of straight photography. The resulting void is replaced with commodity fetishism and spectacle – thus ambiguity in the age of digital advertising is a political and anti-capitalist quality. TOP’s volume on Eugene Atget may at first seem like an unnecessary rehashing of “old masters”, however the value of ambiguity cannot be overstated, and The Eternal Inspiration makes an absolutely convincing case for its title.

 

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Two Books, a Dog a Son’s Profound Longing

Please enjoy a guest post by our lovely volunteer, Artist Erika Morillo:

Making work about family is complicated, and in Sohrab Hura’s two books Life is elsewhere and It’s getting sunny outside, he gives us a visceral look into his own. At face value, both books (which were published three years apart) might seem like a progression from darkness to light, a transitioning out of dysfunction, but upon closer inspection, we familiarize ourselves with Hura’s penchant for paradoxes.

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Comprised of writing and black and white photographs, Life is elsewhere inspects Hura’s surroundings and relationships, most prominently the relationship with his mother, who suffers from severe mental illness, which turns her abusive behaviors towards him. Instead of recoiling, he stays. He writes about the pain and turns his gaze towards her, photographing the ripples of her mental state, an emotional black hole of hospital gowns, decaying walls, and locked doors. We see glimpses of the outside world, where lone horses stand in vast fields at night and individuals incinerated by light become faceless against a black landscape.

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The middle of the book provides a respite from this familial chaos. An image of a boat and the presence of the sea signal a point of departure from life at home. Schools of fish, joyful women splashing in the water and encounters with friends speak to the expansion of his world and desire to find community.  When taken as diptychs, the spreads of man-swan, hand-reptile, woman-cat feel like a Kafkaesque desire for transformation or looking at animals for answers. His images evoke a sense of longing, as he becomes a voyeur of physical affection, of his friends’ romantic pursuits, of coupling reptiles and most poignantly, of his mom’s affection towards her dog Elsa.

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His second book, It’s getting sunny outside, is in direct dialog with the first one. The moths on the previous cover are now cherry blossoms that house a collection of color images. The image of a hospital gown has now been replaced with a yellow dress; his mother is out of bed, her hair brushed and toenails painted. Things seem to be getting better. But as his mother’s mental health improves her dog’s health declines. Elsa becomes the protagonist of the book and his mother, her caretaker.

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Life is elsewhere gave us the foundation to understand that on this second book, Elsa becomes a canvas unto which Hura starts to project the intricacy of his relationship with his mother. In the first book, he conveys his imprisonment more literally, through candid writing and documentary photos of heavily locked doors, dirty walls and pills at hand; But here, through Elsa;, he finds abstraction. These saturated images of life at home feel darker than his black and white photos and say more about his own feelings than those of Elsa. There are photos of gutted dogs lying lifeless, Elsa looking longingly at a bird and a photo of him and Elsa sitting next to each other in bed, taken by his mother, cements the notion that in this work, he and Elsa are emotional equals, two children made to carry the same heavy burden.

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In It’s getting sunny outside there are no breathers, no seaside escape, just a photographer’s relentless gaze at his inner turmoil, conveyed in the most refined and contradictory of ways. Its paradoxes evoke important questions: has being a caretaker for Elsa helped the mother heal, distracted her from her demons? Is Hura’s emphasis on Elsa jealousy or projection? Has Hura come to terms with his upbringing? The work does not provide these answers, it resists resolution, and by making us sit with this complexity, it yields a deeper understanding of the notion of family.


Born and raised in Dominican Republic, Erika Morillo is a freelance documentary photographer and artist based in New York City. She studied clinical psychology and sociology, which influenced her to photograph as a way to understand her family dynamics and the social environment she inhabits. Her work focuses on the issues of family, inner city life and the finding of identity. Her photographs have been published and exhibited nationally and internationally. She lives in Manhattan with her son Amaru.

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