Suburban stories: the borrowers

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Woman at Vanity), 2004 (from the series Beneath the Roses)

Although Gregory Crewdson’s strongest influences seem to come from Hollywood cinema, and his works are easy to read as film stills, in some of his pictures there are also clear art historical references. Untitled (Woman at Vanity) could easily be a still from a film or and American television series. I find myself wondering about the open curtains – especially given that this is a ground floor bedroom – and worrying about the slightly open patio door. The couple seem sad, but this is not a shared state; each looks lost in their own thoughts and their own private disappointment. The setting and the relationship between the couple might scream Crewdson but coupled with a hint of Edward Hopper.

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Suburban stories: tales of the unexplained

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Bus Fire), 2002 (from the series Twilight)

Given the cinematic feeling of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hollywood series, it seems like a good time to look at Gregory Crewdson’s representations of American suburbia, a place that feels oddly familiar from films. In Crewdson’s suburbs, all is not well. The detached houses and neat front lawns might suggest otherwise but these are places where dystopian nightmares are more likely to be played out than the American dream. Of course, this is also familiar from the movies – think Blue Velvet – it’s just that here we have to fill in the gaps ourselves rather than watching the dream unravel on screen.

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Laughter and passion

Garry Winogrand, New York City, New York, 1972

To find out what New York looked like in the 1950s or ’60s or up until his death in 1984, there are worse places to turn than Garry Winogrand’s pictures. A prolific photographer who not only recorded everyday life on the streets of America – and New York in particular  – but also got into many significant events of the day, Winogrand photographed the world around him as a way of understanding it, taking many thousands more pictures than he could ever hope to process. Indeed, at the time of his death he has something like 2,500 rolls of film waiting to be processed and even more processed but not yet contact printed. That’s hundreds of thousands of pictures. And those are just the ones he hadn’t really got round to looking at properly.

So, what of the actual pictures? Clearly they’re plentiful, but what are they actually like?

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Strangers in the evening light

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Brent Booth; 21 years old; Des Moines, Iowa; $30, 1990-92

If Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads series tells us little of real substance about the people in the pictures then perhaps his Hollywood series tells us too much, though these are pictures that straddle that blurry line between fact and fiction. In Hollywood, as in Hollywood, anything is possible. The series – also known as The Hustlers – was made on a part Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood with a significant population of drug addicts and male prostitutes; for each picture, diCorcia prepared the scene including positioning camera and lights before looking for a suitable subject for the image. Those who agreed to be photographed were asked their name, age and where they came from and these details, along with how much diCorcia paid them to pose, became the titles for the pictures.

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Seeking serendipity as a day job

Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Head #10, 2001

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Head #10, 2001

A more recent approach to photographing strangers without permission – albeit a rather less surreptitious one – is that taken by Philip-Lorca diCorcia for his series Heads. This series was made in Times Square, one of the busiest places in New York City and a place where bright lights and tourist cameras go with the territory. DiCorcia rigged up lights, using portable flash synced to his camera which was focused on the area he was lighting, and stood twenty feet  or so away with a telephoto lens on his camera. When someone he wanted to photograph came into his zone of light and focus he pressed the shutter and recorded the head of his subject. Simple.

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Subway secrets

Walker Evans, Subway Portrait, New York City, 1938-41

As I seem to be back on portraiture this seems to be as good a time as any to think about some different approaches to photographing strangers (something that I’ve been following through several series on Richard Guest’s blog The Future is Papier Mâché recently). Anyone who photographs on the streets of London is liable to find themselves questioned about their motives from time to time, usually by security guards but sometimes by the police, making many wonder quite how much freedom of expression we still have in Britain and the degree to which supposed concerns about privacy or security are being used to mask a more insidious creeping state control. So, what’s it like elsewhere and does making art ever trump other issues?

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Photography and the poetic

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Angel at the Sepulchre, 1866

Given Madame Yevonde’s use of photography to retell classical myths in the mid 1930s, the relationship between storytelling and photography clearly goes way back. But though Madame Yevonde’s use of colour was unusual and though her images were genuinely different, even eighty years ago the ides of using photography to represent old narratives wasn’t a new one. In fact it’s essentially as old as photography itself.

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Vivid goddesses


Madame Yevonde, Mrs Donald Ross as Europa, 1935

Something about the colour and the relationship between portrait and object in Urs Fischer’s Problem Paintings reminded me about Madame Yevonde’s Goddesses, a series of portraits of society women posing as figures from classical mythology made in the 1930s using the short-lived Vivex colour system. I’ll be honest, I have no clear idea what the Vivex system was but quick google suggests it involved separate plate negatives for cyan, yellow and magenta – which means it can’t have been easy to work with, especially given exposure times of a few seconds – and that Madame Yevonde used some sort of automated camera back to expose the three plates in succession. All the faff was clearly worth it though as the results are stunning.

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Portraits and problems

Urs Fischer, Problem Painting, 2012

After two consecutive posts about a body of work that – while not, in fact, devoid of laughs – is best described as thought-provoking and challenging and which raises questions about the worst aspects of twentieth century history, it seemed like time for a bit of light relief. It was thinking about seeing Yael Bartana’s work at the Venice Biennale that brought Urs Fischer to mind and though the Problem Paintings weren’t what I was initially planning to write about, they make me smile in just the right way so the work by Fischer I saw in Venice will just have to wait.

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The power of place

Yael Bartana, An Europe will be Stunned, exterior installation view, Polish Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2011

Given the subject matter of identity and nationhood that lies at the heart of Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned and the way the trilogy explores the possibility of return and the dangers of nationalism and totalitarianism, the context in which I first came across the work – in the Polish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale – was a fascinating one. It is unusual but not unheard of for an artist who neither lives in nor comes from a country to be selected to represent it at Venice and this was the first time Poland had been represented by an artist who wasn’t a Polish national. And, of course, the history of the Venice Biennale along with the architecture of the national pavilions, the positioning of them within the Giardini and factors like when different countries built or acquired their pavilions offers an interesting, albeit inevitably incomplete, picture of the politics of Europe in particular. Add to this the fact that in 2009 Poland was represented by Krzysztof Wodiczko, who left Poland in 1977 and has been a Canadian citizen since 1984, with Guests, a work about migration and the status of immigrants who remain forever ‘guests’ in their new homes, and the Polish pavilion becomes a fascinating, and intensely loaded, location for Bartana’s installation.

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