Posts Tagged ‘Great Plains’

NYTIMES MAGAZINE: Alex’s Photographs of a Toxic Town

May 18, 2012
© Alex Webb/Magnum Photos for The New York Times Magazine

© Alex Webb/Magnum Photos for The New York Times Magazine

It’s not often that I’m envious of one of the Alex’s assignments, but I was of this intriguing story about an almost ghost town in one of the most toxic areas of the country on the Great Plains.

You can read the rest of the NYTimes Magazine story here about Treece, Kansas, by the writer, Wes Enzinna, and see a portfolio of Alex’s photographs, here.  I know first thing Sunday morning, I’m looking forward to buying a copy of the NYTimes to see the story in the magazine.  Call me old fashioned, but there’s something special about holding the NYTimes magazine in one’s hands…––Rebecca Norris Webb

UPCOMING EVENTS: MAY & JUNE

NEW YORK

––THURSDAY, MAY 24, NEW YORK, NY: My Dakota book launch at ICP, May 24″ href=”http://www.icp.org/events/2012/may/24/book-signing-rebecca-webb-norriss-my-dakota” target=”_blank”>My Dakota book launch, party and book signing at ICP (43d and Sixth Ave), 6-7:30.

RAPID CITY, SD

––FRIDAY, JUNE 1, RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA: “My Dakota” exhibition opening and book signing, Dahl Arts Center, 5-7pm.  The exhibition will run until October 13, 2012.

––CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, JUNE 9,  AT LOOK3 PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVAL

4-6pm Alex Webb in conversation with noted writer and cultural critic Geoff Dyer

6-7pm: Book signing with Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb at the Second Street Gallery

9pm: “My Dakota” in the WORKS slide show

ADDITIONAL LINKS FOR ALEX AND REBECCA:

See Alex and Rebecca’s photos and others from Magnum’s House of Pictures project in Rochester here

See Rebecca’s My Dakota in progress at Radius Books

Q&A with Rebecca and Sarah Rhodes on Timemachine

To read the Robert Klein Gallery Tripod Blog Q&A with Rebecca.

Read more about Magnum’s House of Pictures project in the New Yorker and see Alex’s photo of the day, April 24th.

Alex’s “The Suffering of Light” exhibition at Forma, Milan, featured in Italian Vogue.

©Rebecca Norris Webb, "High Winds," from the book, "My Dakota" (Radius Books)

©Rebecca Norris Webb, “High Winds,” from the book, “My Dakota” (Radius Books)

TWO QUESTIONS: On Unpeopled Frames, On Early Influences; On Working Near vs. Far, On Text and Photographs

November 3, 2010

The TWO QUESTIONS column this month features questions from photographers from TWO CONTINENTS: Matthew Goddard-Jones from Australia and Carolyn Beller, originally from Alabama.  Matthew’s dynamic, playful, and often surprising images from his long-term project, “Pastimes,” perfectly echo his subject matter, Australians at play.   Carolyn’s curiosity about the world has led her from her potter’s studio in Chicago to follow her relatively new passion of photography in Myanmar, Rwanda, and other countries around the globe. You can read more about each photographer –– and be linked to their work ––  at the end of this column.––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

RNW, St. Francis, Rosebud Indian Reservation, SD, from "My Dakota"

ON TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS AND ON EARLY INFLUENCES

MATTHEW GODDARD-JONES: Rebecca, do you consider the writings in your books as stand alone imagery, or do they add to the visual images?

REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: One of my artistic obsessions is exploring how text and images can work together in a photo book to illuminate one another. I’m a writer as well as a photographer, so I tend to see in images, whether I’m using a pen or a camera.  So I guess in a way what I’m also exploring is a form that echoes my own creative process, especially when that process is trying to deal with something as complicated as loss, from the loss of our natural world –– as in my first book, “The Glass Between Us” –– to a private loss, as in the book I’m working on now, “My Dakota.”

For me, I like to think of text and photographs as equal elements in a book, as if they were all notes in the same piece of music, or images in a single poem.  With each book, I try to figure out the particular relationship between the two that makes the most sense for that particular body of work and the themes that accompany it.  Broadly speaking, I guess I would say that my combining text and photographs has something to do with how I experience the world, and also how this experience is translated in how I build my own photography books ––image by image (sometimes using text, sometimes photographs), page by page, so that the emotional resonance and/or suggestiveness of each image spills over onto the next, allowing each image to be awash with all the others.  This kind of layering — image by image, page by page — colors and shades the body of work until it’s shaped into a completed photo book, a process similar to the creation of a painting or a poem.

For instance, now nearing the completion of “My Dakota,” I’m only now beginning to understand that the my repeated use of shrouds and veils in this series reminds me of the villanelle, a poetic form in which lines/images often repeat, yet each time they repeat, the meaning varies somewhat.  Perhaps I was intuitively drawn to this sort of villanelle-style repetition/variation in both my text and photographs because it’s a form that closely reflects the process that the grieving and troubled mind goes through while grappling with what is lost and –– simultaneously and paradoxically –– what can never be lost.  And it’s probably no accident that one of my favorite poems is a villanelle about loss, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

CAROLYN BELLER:  Alex, it seems that the art of photography is sometimes very misunderstood. Most people would never dream that they could compose a brilliant concerto, paint a masterpiece, or write a classic novel, as these works of art are created by artists out of nothing. A photographer has a camera and in a split second captures what actually exists. It would seem that if a dog, some people, a building, a road exists than we all can see those things and yet a great photographer sees these same things in a very different way. Your iconic images are SO complex. Most people can’t see contrast, shape, color, gesture, scale, expression, and composition in a 3D world expressed as a 2D image. Do you think that you were born with an acute visual awareness or have you developed it over the years by taking hundreds of thousands of images? Have you always sought visual stimulation and have you always been visually curious? What were some of the things that interested you as a child?

ALEX WEBB: It’s always a little hard to have any kind of perspective about one’s self and evaluate the influences on one’s work.  But I’ll make a stab at it.

I’m quite sure that how I photograph was greatly influenced by my upbringing. I come from a family of artists: my mother is a sculptor and draftsman; my father, though a publisher and editor, was also a writer; my brother is a painter; and my sister, who partially escaped the family’s artistic tradition by studying biology, ended up becoming an ornithological illustrator as well as an author of illustrated children’s books.  Art was everywhere in our house when we were growing up: whether we were hanging out in my mother’s studio, listening to my father discuss fiction, or going to museums with both parents.  So from an early age I was exposed to all kinds of visual and literary stimulation.  As a child and well into my teen years, I tried to paint, to sculpt, and — especially later on, and somewhat more seriously — to write fiction.  Fortunately the world was spared these efforts and I became a photographer.

But that predominantly explains something about the urge to become an artist — it doesn’t explain the particular nature of how I see the world as a photographer.  I suspect that early exposure to various modernist painters — especially De Chirico and the Cubists — influenced how I see.  Their paintings still rattle about in the back of my head.  And of course I have been deeply influenced by the stream of street photographers, from Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz on to Frank and Friedlander.  And there are writers — Graham Greene, Conrad, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa — whose vision of the world has certainly influenced where I have chosen to work and how I perceive some of my chosen locales.  But I think there may be a further, ultimately more personal, influence.  My father was an incredibly nuanced thinker, a man who often discovered  alternative perceptions, who seemed drawn to complexity.  I don’t think I inherited the conceptual complexity of his way of thinking — I’m certainly not the thinker he was –  but perhaps something about his attitude toward the world, his embrace of complexity, wore off on me.  As a photographer I am always looking for more — more elements that qualify or transform the image.  This is not just a drive towards visual complexity for complexity’s sake — it is something ultimately more philosophical.  And in that sense perhaps it parallels something about how my father seemed to perceive the world.

AW, Tijuana, Mexico, 1999, from "Crossings"

 

ON WORKING NEAR VS. FAR; ON UNPEOPLED FRAMES

MGJ: Alex: Is it easier to photograph away from your own environment? If so, why?

AW: I don’t think it is easier or more difficult to photograph away from one’s own environment.  It’s just different.  That said, I think that in the act of photographing, when there is that sudden moment of recognition, when somehow all those elements come together and become a photograph, I think it’s pretty much the same. It’s just that the process of getting to the moment is different.

In the mid-seventies after graduating from college, I felt that my photographs were becoming dead, predictable. I began to look outside of the world of New England and New York that I had been photographing.  I went to Haiti, to northern Mexico, eventually to other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America.  I discovered worlds where life seemed to be lived on the stoop and in the street, a world of immediacy and energy, far from the gray-brown reticence of New England.  The brilliant light and intense color that I discovered in these places compelled me to eventually start working in color, which I continue to do to the present.

Was it easier to choose this route than another?  Not necessarily.  Some of the places I have chosen to work in are resistant to photography.  Others less so.  But it was the right route for me at that time for my work.

Now, however, having wandered the globe for some thirty years, I am interested in returning to the United States and photographing more here.  Will it be easier?  More difficult?  I don’t know for sure.  I think it’s always very difficult to take truly interesting photographs.

CB:  Rebecca, in your layout for your upcoming book, My Dakota,  I see that you have included few images with people in them. In The Glass Between Us, however, you include many images of people but they are primarily reflected images. Why have you made these choices in each book?

RNW: As I mention in my introduction to “The Glass Between Us”, this work began thanks to a serendipitous visit to the Coney Island aquarium, where I saw a beluga whale that appeared to be floating high over the heads of a group of people, whose images were reflected in the glass tank.  I first thought, “I’ll get rid of that reflection,” and then realized, “No, that’s what’s interesting…the relationship between the people looking at the whale and the creature itself.” The project expanded from aquariums to zoos to natural history museums.  Many of the photographs are of reflections of people on glass aquarium tanks or the glass walls of monkey houses, capturing the moment when the person was spontaneously responding to the animal he or she was watching.  So the literal reflection on the glass is also a kind of musing/reflection on the nature of the relationship between a particular animal and a particular viewer/visitor.

Yet, even in this body of work, two of my favorite images contain no people at all, merely the vestiges of them:  a faded African savannah mural painted in the 1930’s on the walls of the giraffe enclosure in a Paris zoo; the crooked seams of a crudely-sewn belly of a giraffe specimen in an Italian natural history museum.

Thinking about those images now, I wonder if they in some small way helped to prepare me –– unconsciously, creatively, intuitively –– for what I could not possibly be prepared for –– how to respond to the unexpected death of my first immediate family member, my older brother, Dave.  I don’t know the answer, or even if there is an answer.  What I do know is that, thankfully, I felt compelled to take my camera back to my home state of South Dakota during those darkest days of my life.

That’s not say that I always managed to push the shutter. Some days, all I did was drive and drive and drive, often without encountering another human being for miles. So a major reason this work is relatively unpeopled is because that reflects my actual experience photographing this sparsely-populated Great Plains state.  That said, in many of these images, there’s often signs of people –– a tinted car window in the badlands, a faded painted teepee on a ruined Lakota motel, an animal skeleton on a barbed wire fence near Pine Ridge.  I guess you could say that “My Dakota” is inhabited by the abandoned belongings and other traces of people, something that may well begin to explain the work’s elegiac tone.

Matthew Goddard-Jones, from "Pastimes"

 

Matthew Goddard-Jones is a freelance photographer based in Western Australia, who studied graphic design at the London College of Printing. Always seeking to challenge himself to develop as a photographer, he has recently attended Magnum workshops in Australia and New York.

Matthew is passionate about documenting people in their own environments, and is currently working on a long-term project “Pastimes,” documenting the changing face of the sports, hobbies, and other activities in Western Australia. He has exhibited widely.

Matthew’s website

Carolyn Beller, Burma, 2008

 

Carolyn Beller is a native of Montgomery, Alabama and graduated from Tulane University with an M.F.A. in Studio Art and a minor in Art History.  She has lived, worked and studied art, language and interior design in Italy, France, Japan, Austria and New York. Carolyn has been making utilitarian pottery since 1980. She has maintained a pottery studio and taught art in Chicago where she now lives with her husband and three dogs.

Carolyn’s work in photography started in earnest in 2006. In her own words:

“In 2006, I traveled to Rwanda to fulfill my childhood dream of seeing Mountain Gorillas in the wild. Returning home I began to read everything I could find about the history and the people of Rwanda and promised myself that, one day, I would return with more knowledge and a “real” camera. Later that year I traveled to the Terai in western Nepal to work on a pottery project with the indigenous Tharu people who are hunter-gatherers well known for their ancient skills as artisans.

I took my first digital SLR on that trip and realized that a camera could be an invaluable tool to see deeper into a people and their culture.  Photography has opened my eyes even wider.  I am amazed by the world everyday.”

Carolyn has attended photography workshops, and studied with Nevada Wier, Catherine Karnow, Jay Maisel, David Alan Harvey, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb.  She has traveled to Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and throughout the U.S to study and to make photographs.

Last year, she returned to Rwanda with a “real” camera.

CAROLYN’S WEBSITE

TWO QUESTIONS: On Beginnings and Endings

June 1, 2010

We’re bidding farewell until next fall with TWO QUESTIONS about the beginnings and endings of photography books.  SERGE MAES, a Belgian photographer and psychologist who attended our Barcelona workshop this spring and is working on the long-term project, “Any Given Day,” asks us how photography books begin and how they evolve along the way. West Coast photographer, ALIA MALLEY, who’s attended two of our workshops–– one in the U.S. and one in Cuba –– asks us about endings, a question very much on her mind as she finishes her MFA and is exhibiting work from her series, “Southland,” at an L.A. gallery this summer.  (See below for more information about both Serge and Alia). –– Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb

MAKING BOOKS:  ON BEGINNINGS AND MEANDERINGS

Alex Webb from "Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names"

SERGE MAES:  “Alex/Rebecca, could you elaborate on how your book projects have started out (did they start out with a vague idea, with a particular interest in a topic or place, with a preconceived aesthetic notion,…) and on any influences or decisions that may have changed the direction the projects were heading in?”

ALEX WEBB: I often am  unaware of the genesis of a project, sometimes remaining skeptical of its possibilities until I am well into the project.   The process of looking at the photographs, of playing with them, of making juxtapositions and sequences, usually leads me to begin to understand what it is that I am working on.  The process of photographing and editing  becomes a process of self-revelation, a simultaneous exploration of the world and the self.

To give you two examples:  my first book, Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds, began as an obsession, a passion for photographing in certain kinds of places — loosely speaking, the tropics — places where intense vibrant color seemed somehow embedded in the culture, unlike the gray-brown world of my New England background.  I had no intention of making a book when I began photographing  Haiti,  other parts of the Caribbean, northern Mexico, and sub-Saharan Africa.  But, as I started to look at the photographs that I had been producing in these places and began to put them side by side I began to realize that despite the vast cultural and historical differences between these various worlds there were links, links of emotion, links of sensation, links of atmosphere, that somehow allowed me to leap over cultural and historical differences and make a book that existed on another plane — a more poetic and atmospheric plane — in which though there were socio-political rumblings, they were only just that — rumblings.  The heart of the book lay somewhere else, in a more metaphysical realm.

Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names began somewhat differently.   I had a photographic assignment in 1998 to go to Turkey to photograph in several locations, including Istanbul.  When I arrived in Istanbul in 1998 I had a kind of revelation: I had returned to the city that I had visited 30 years earlier for a day with my family as a teenage photographer.  But whereas in 1968 I had been overwhelmed with the exoticism of a culture so unlike my own, in 1998 I found something strangely familiar, a kind of border.  In those intervening years I had been drawn to borders, places where cultures come together, sometimes easily, sometimes roughly.  Istanbul, both Asian and European, Eastern and Western, Islamic and secular was another kind of border.  I rapidly realized that I had to return to Istanbul and continue photographing, which I managed to do over the subsequent seven years.  So one could in fact say that the roots of the Istanbul book, unbeknownst to me at the time, lie in the trip that I made as a teenager in 1968.

Ultimately for the me, the process of creating a project remains somewhat mysterious.  Projects move forward on inexplicable happenings and impulses.  How they begin, how they end remains couched in enigma.  This is part of what I find exciting about the process.

REBECCA NORRIS WEBBMy current work-in-progress, My Dakota, started out as a photographic exploration of South Dakota, the sparsely populated Great Plains state where I grew up, and a place, to quote the Nebraskan photographer Wright Morris, where the Great Plains “…grew up in you.”  A year later, my brother died unexpectedly, and the project also evolved into an elegy for him.

How can My Dakota be about the American West and also be an elegy for my brother?  This is one of those questions that prod me and humble me.  I don’t know the answer.  I don’t know if I ever will.

I do know that the question itself has provoked me to reread some of my favorite elegies, not necessarily to find an answer, but hopefully to stumble upon a different way of looking at the question, perhaps viewing it from a “slant,” to quote Emily Dickinson.

So, between my photographic trips to South Dakota this past winter and spring, I’ve been rereading Emily Dickinson’s and Walt Whitman’s elegies.  In some of these elegies, Death seems to venture West along with the explorers and the prairie schooners.  In Whitman, Abraham Lincoln’s corpse heads West on the funeral train, and, in Dickinson’s famous elegy, “Because I could not stop for Death,” Death and the poet also journey West –– sharing the carriage with a third passenger, Immortality.

If nothing else, rereading these elegies reminds me of just how long the Western landscape has inhabited the American psyche – those wide open spaces, those fruited plains, those seemingly endless skies ––as a place of both death and hope, transience and immortality, whether we’re talking about Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century or the environmental movement today.

This meandering process –– being prodded by a question, rereading poetry, continuing to travel from New York to South Dakota to photograph–– has lead, if not to an answer to my question exactly, then at least to something unexpected: Lately I’ve managed to write a few spare lines, which may or may not accompany the My Dakota photographs.  Perhaps that’s as much of an answer as I can expect…

MAKING BOOKS:  ON ENDINGS

Rebecca Norris Webb from "My Dakota"

ALIA MALLEY:  Alex and Rebecca, I’ve been wondering, “How do you know when a project is “finished”…?”  It’s something I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, as I’m starting to work on a new project while still continuing to work on another project still.

RNW:  As with any relationship in your life, each photography project or book ends in its own way.  Some end more organically or naturally; others end rather abruptly or completely unexpectedly.  Each project has its own rhythm.

That said, I have found that there are a few signs that a book or project may be ending.  I often slow down at the end of a project, and don’t find myself taking as many photographs as at the beginning.  The curiosity and visual excitement ebb, too.  .If I happen to be working on another project simultaneously, that second project tends to pull at me more strongly than one I’ve nearly finished.

Right now, I’m in the midst of finishing the My Dakota project.  It’s been the most challenging project to date to complete for me, probably because it’s also my most personal project, since it’s an elegy for my brother.  I still feel something is missing in the sequence, but I’m not entirely sure what that is.  I suspect it may be the final sequence of the book itself, which, is quite different from my past two books whose middle sequences were the last I photographed.

I’ve gotten somewhat used to the notion that making books is ultimately a very intuitive process, and I am learning to trust this more and more.  For instance, a couple of weeks ago this line came to me, seemingly out of the middle of nowhere:  “In a deep loss, something inside you is broken, and slowly – through the cracks and the gaps and the jagged openings – you begin to see the light again.”

After I read this line during a slide talk in Toronto recently, one of the photographers in Alex’s and my workshop thoughtfully said to me:  “Maybe that’s the key to the ending of the book.  The light.  You end in the light.”  Her words made me smile.  She may very well be right.  If you’re open enough, books, I’m learning, try to let you know – often in rather roundabout ways — how and when they are finished with you.

AW: Knowing when a personal project is completed is one of the more difficult and challenging decisions I face as a photographer.  More than anything else, I rely on a kind of gut feeling — a sense of emotional completion.  But what that really means is inevitably elusive.  Different projects seem to have utterly different arcs of completion, arcs whose duration remains unpredictable.  I will give a couple of examples.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1987, a bit more than a year after I had been photographing post-Duvalier Haiti, that I began to sense that a Haiti book was in the making.  I started to put together a rough dummy of the work to try to understand what I had been doing, and how it might become a book.  That fall, as the November elections approached, I returned to Haiti.  As political tensions began to simmer, the country descended into a spiral of violence.  A reign of terror spread over the streets of Port au Prince, as dead bodies appeared in doorways each morning, burning barricades dotted the streets, and markets were torched.  Ultimately, the elections were destroyed, as paramilitary gunmen in Port au Prince shot down voters.  In Gonaives, where I was photographing, the gunmen blew up the town the night before.  No one dared go to the polls.

When I returned to the US a book on Haiti seemed utterly irrelevant.  What was the point of a book in the face of this violent destruction of Haiti’s aspirations toward democracy?  What was a book going to do?  But as time passed, as I looked at the pictures more, and especially after returning to Haiti for the next round of elections in January 1988 –  elections that were fundamentally fraudulent in installing the army’s candidate –  I began to sense that perhaps there was something in a book after all, some kind of document that tried to make sense of this troubled time.  A period of Haiti’s history — the cycle of electoral violence, from the fall of Duvalier to the installation of his short-lived successor Leslie Manigat  — had closed.  And I finally felt ready — emotionally as well as intellectually — to close this chapter of my relationship with Haiti as well.

With my project on the US-Mexico Border, however, I never entertained a sense of urgency of completion.  I photographed along the US-Mexico border for the first time in 1975, photographing in black and white.  For the next 26 years I continued to return to the border, shifting in 1979 from black and white to color.  Somehow, it was a project that I couldn’t complete — didn’t want to complete.  Other projects, other books — From the Sunshine State, Amazon, Dislocations — came and went.  It was only in 2001, after a trip to the Arizona border, that I was finally able to let go.

Completing a book cuts something off.  I  return to the same place without the same sense of obsession, without the same sense of passion.  For those 26 years I simply wasn’t willing to let go of the border.  I still occasionally wonder if I let go of the project at the right time.

SERGE MAES

Serge Maes from "Any Given Day"

I was born in 1976 in Sint-Niklaas, a small city in Belgium. About 8 years ago, I moved to Antwerp where I’ve been living ever since. I work as a clinical psychologist in a therapeutic community for people with personality disorders and in my own private practice.

Photography never held much interest for me until a few years ago, when my girlfriend who is a hobbyist photographer couldn’t come with me on a trip to Stockholm and asked me to take some pictures for her with a disposable camera she bought at the airport. Having only 24 pictures at my disposal I was very focused to get every picture right. Engaging the world in a visual way turned out to be such an involving experience that when I got back from Stockholm I decided to take up photography myself.

Among other things I’m working on a book project on city life with the working title “Any Given Day.” Photography to me is not so much about conveying a message as it is about the excitement of capturing that one fleeting moment in which everything seems to interconnect.

My website: www.statikon.com

ALIA MALLEY

Alia Malley from "Southland"

ALIA MALLEY (b.1973) was born in California, and raised in Portland, OR.  She received her BA in Critical Studies from USC School of Cinema Arts, and her MFA from UC Riverside in 2010.  She lives and works in Los Angeles.

Her series Southland won the 2010 Merck Award at the Darmstädter Tage der Fotografie, and will be shown at a solo exhibition at Sam Lee Galley, May 22-July 3, 2010.  She was a 2009 Runner Up at the Forward Thinking Museum/JGS, and a Finalist/Honorable Mention at the Newspace Center for Photography’s 2008 Juried Exhibition, curated by TJ Norris.  She has participated in group exhibitions including the 2009 CAA Los Angeles MFA Exhibition, curated by Alex Klein, and Sculpting Time at the Martin Art Gallery, Muhlenberg College, curated by Ara Osterweil. Her MFA thesis exhibition was on view at the California Museum of Photography, Riverside, CA until May 15, 2010.

www.aliamalley.com

FOTOFORUM: THE INDELIBLE IMAGE

December 7, 2009

We asked photographers this month to select an indelible image –– one photograph they encountered early on as a photographer that still lingers with them today.  We’re especially pleased to include an indelible image from Darius Himes, one of the country’s foremost experts on the photo book, who is also a photographer, writer, and publisher.  And thanks to everyone who submitted an indelible image. Because we had so many responses to the column, we’ll run THE INDELIBLE IMAGE II next month. –– Alex and Rebecca

DARIUS HIMES ON HARRY CALLAHAN

Harry Callahan, Aix-en-Provence, 1958

One of the first photographers I was introduced to, as a young teenage boy, was Harry Callahan. The introduction came by way of the cover of Henry Horenstein’s Black and White Photography. My father had purchased the book at the suggestion of a colleague, and while the technical language was still far above me, I was deeply impressed by the work chosen. Callahan’s graceful black-and-white image of barren trees in winter not only spoke to me due to the subject matter—I grew up just across the Mississippi River in Iowa, a mere 3 hours from Chicago, where I presume Callahan made this photograph—but also because of the graphic power of the world rendered in shades of black, white, and gray.

But the photograph of Callahan’s that I most responded to, then and now, is his photograph of 1958, Aix-en-Provence, France. Actually, that statement is a bit of a falsehood. There are so many photographs of Callahan’s that I respond to, that to narrow it to one particular image is like asking for a favorite passage from Shakespeare! There are so many that are appropriate for so many situations. But nonetheless, what moves me about this image is the wildness of the underbrush and the seeming impenetrability of the scene. And yet, the more you look, the more things are revealed, by which I mean, the more deeply it impresses itself upon you, untethering your own inner eye along the way. Merely informational facts are not what I’m talking about; what I’m hinting at are the multitude of ways that the outer world has been transformed into a powerful two dimensional, abstracted image. I’m talking about the very transformative power of photography in the hands of an acutely sensitive artist.

There is a concept that is a clarifying one for me that relates to my attraction to this photograph. In both Eastern and Western cosmology is the notion of the mirror-connectedness of the Book of Revelation and the Book of Creation. Here is one exemplary, brief passage that speaks to this subject, from Persian-born Baha’u’llah. “Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein”* John Ruskin, the 19th century British writer and social commentator expressed it this way.

There is religion in everything around us,

a calm and holy religion

in the unbreathing things of nature.

It is a meek and blessed influence,

stealing in as it were unaware upon the heart;

It comes quickly, and without excitement;

It has no terror, no gloom,

It does not rouse up the passions;

It is untrammeled by creeds….

There are a great many photographers and artists who have approached the world around them with awe and wonder. In this image, I see a precursor to photographers like Hiroshi Sugimoto and Thomas Joshua Cooper, as well as echoes of artists as varied as Nio Hokusai, Kandinsky, and the darker aspects of Whistler’s painting oeuvre. What Callahan seems to have mastered, to me at least, was the ability to gaze, with deep intent, at his “immediate” surroundings, without feeling the need to either exoticize nor degrade what he looked at and what he ultimately decided to photograph, allowing “the book of its own self” to reveal itself in all of its own inherent beauty. This is a powerful role that the arts can play in our society and in helping us advance our fledgling, world-embracing civilization.––Darius Himes

* (Baha’u’llah: Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 141-142)

Darius’s websites:

http://www.dariushimes.com

http://www.radiusbooks.org

For more about Harry Callahan:

http://www.stephendaitergallery.com/dynamic/artist.asp?ArtistID=25

To see Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work:

http://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/

To see some of Thomas Joshua Cooper’s work:

http://artnews.org/artist.php?i=735



ALEX WEBB ON HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Valencia, Spain, 1933

My father, when he was struggling with writer’s block––which, unfortunately, was all too often––turned to photography, and as a result had a fine collection of photographic books.  At about the age of fourteen, I started to sift through these books in his study.  As I pored through The Decisive Moment, I remember coming upon this Cartier-Bresson image from Valencia, Spain.  I’d never seen anything quite like it.     As I marveled at the echoing rings of the mismatched spectacle lenses and the half-target on the door, set against––in deep space––that slightly twisted, ambiguous figure in the doors behind, I remember thinking: How can someone see this way?  How can someone find such an enigmatic moment in the world and bring it back as a photograph? I began to sense something about perception, about the moment, about space, and about the unique possibilities of the photograph. I’ve never forgotten this image.––Alex Webb

To see more of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work:

http://www.magnumphotos.com

REBECCA NORRIS WEBB ON WRIGHT MORRIS

Wright Morris, Clothing on Hooks, 1947

Formerly a writer, I was attracted early on as a photographer to two books that combine text and images:  Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Wright Morris’s God’s Country and My People. Both bodies of work expanded my way of looking at the photo book, and eventually led to my intermingling the two in my own work.  Yet, there was something about the lesser-known, Nebraskan-born Morris’s photo-text book –– in which he interweaves his writing and his photographs –– that touched something deeper and more inexplicable in me. Morris’s work is aloof yet engaging, bare-bones yet mysterious, spacious yet intimate –– it is work that suggests the many paradoxes that make up the Great Plains itself, where, like Morris, I also grew up,

I’m not sure exactly how his work manages to evoke all of this in me.  Perhaps it’s because Wright Morris’s objects are often photographed so sparely, yet with such intensity, it creates a kind of space around them.   And this space creates a kind of suggestiveness, ripe for poetic reverie in the viewer, not unlike the experience of driving across the Nebraska or South Dakota prairie with few if any trees or houses to fetter the mind, the memory, the imagination.  So, for me, Morris’s spare objects suggest the Great Plains –- like this photograph of the tattered coats and hat –– as well as evoking a different kind of landscape, a kind of private and interior Nebraska, one that suggests what all that emptiness feels like to an insider, someone who grew up on the Great Plains, and the Great Plains “…grew up in you,” to quote Morris.

And, lastly, there are his accompanying texts that somehow speak to –- or perhaps I should say, speak for –– the photos, texts that are as spare and distilled and intense as the photographs themselves.  I find the text pieces as plainspoken and mesmerizing and mysterious as a Weldon Kees poem, a poet who also grew up in Nebraska.  Reading Morris creates a kind of expansiveness in me, a kind of ache and a kind of delight, which is often my response to the Great Plains.  And, I’m not sure why, but as soon as I finish reading one of his more luminous pieces  (like the one I’ve included below), I find myself starting the process all over again –– a sign, they say, of truly poetic writing.––Rebecca Norris Webb

The man who lives his own life, and wears it out, can dispense with the need of taking it with him. He dies his own death or he goes on living, and where the life has worn in the death will come out. Skin and bones, jacket and shoes, tools, sheds and machines wear out; even the land wears out and the seat wears off the cane- bottom chair. The palms wear off the gloves, the cuffs off the sleeves, the nickel off the doorknobs, the plate off the silver, the flowers off the plates, the shine off the stovepipe, the label off the flour sacks, the enamel off the dipper, the varnish off the checkers, and the gold off the Christmas jewelry, but every day the nap wears off the carpet the figure wears in. A pattern for living, the blueprint of it, can be seen in the white stitches of the denim, the timepiece stamped like a medallion in the bib of the overalls. Between wearing something in and wearing it out the line is as vague as the receding horizon, and as hard to account for as the missing hairs of a brush. The figure that began on the front of the carpet has moved around to the back.––Wright Morris

For more about Wright Morris:

http://monet.unk.edu/mona/first/morris/morris.html

For more about Weldon Kees (including my favorite poem of his “1926″):

http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/Ncw/kees.htm


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