Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s The Hamptons has made me start to think about other photographs of dogs and about how they often make me smile. Even the most cursory glance about the place reveals the internet to be all about kittens, but when it comes to actual photographs in actual galleries then I think dogs win out. So in part to get me out of the rut of writing about art I saw last year, here’s some art I saw even longer ago. Admittedly as steps forward go, this may not be a very impressive one but in mitigation, there are some really great art dogs out there and what better way to cheer up this rather rainy January than by looking at pictures one can’t help but find cheering? And what better way to start than with Elliott Erwitt?
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?
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.
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 Mâchérecently). 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?
Paul Graham, Wall Street 19th April 2010, 12.46.55 pm, 2010
Though my preference is almost always for what might best be termed fine art practices, when it comes to Paul Graham’s work it’s generally been his documentary work that has interested me most and, though his work looks great in galleries, books like Beyond Caring and Troubled Land have moved me more. It’s not that I don’t like Graham’s later work – certainly I found a lot to like in his 2011 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition – it’s just that the books he produced in the 1980s seem exceptional. With this in mind, I approached his exhibition at The Pace Gallery as someone who needed to be won over.
Significant highlights of my visit to MoMA were the connected exhibitions Print/Out and Printin’ that look at the way print is used in contemporary art. The latter, organised by artist Ellen Gallagher and Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator in MoMa’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, is centred around Gallagher’s DeLuxe a grid of 60 frames each containing a collaged print based on adverts found in mid-twentieth century black lifestyle magazines and newspaper articles. DeLuxe is an extraordinary, fascinating work that demands, and rewards, close scrutiny. I am fascinated both by the adverts Gallgher has found and by her use materials – particularly plasticine – in the collages.
The automobile has a very particular place in American culture. It’s central to countless films and novels, helping to drive (sorry) the narrative. Though cars do appear in art – in photography, painting and sculpture – they are less prevalent here though from the minimalist sculpture of the mid-twentieth century onwards there was certainly a clear interest in using industrial processes and making work that defied expectations about the nature of sculpture in particular. Expectations about painting had already been shattered by minimalism and abstract expressionism.
One of the aspects I enjoy the most when visiting New York is the city’s familiarity from film and television. No matter how often I visit – not often enough and never for long enough – the connection with the movies won’t ever completely fade. New York has played itself and pretended to be other, often imaginary, places. It’s great backdrop after all. Katia Liebmann’s 1997 series Gotham City uses New York as a backdrop to a series of masked self-portraits.
Nan Goldin, Nan One Month after Being Battered, 1984
Nan Goldin’s pictures from the late 1970s and 1980s provide a unique record of a slice of New York life at a time when hedonism was giving way to tragedy. The body of work she titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency focuses on those who hung out around the Bowery where a hard-drug subculture met an emerging gay scene.
As a student in Boston, Goldin had shown her work in the form of Cibachrome colour prints; moving to New York she switched to showing work as slide shows often with a soundtrack and shown in clubs. The pictures were made using available light and most have a snapshot aesthetic. They document sexuality, drug use, domesticity and the sometimes violent relationships of Goldin and those she hung out with.
Joel Sternfeld, Looking South at 27th Street, September 2000 from Walking the High Line, 2002
Most cities have their forgotten spaces, but it still somehow surprises me that the High Line, the elevated railway that carried goods through Manhattan from the 1930s until 1980 was allowed to decay for more than two decades in a city where space is at such a premium. Thanks to a campaign by New Yorkers eager to see the derelict tracks reborn as a park the future of the High Line as a public space now seems secure.