Archive for July, 2007

coffer.jpgThe New York Times profiled tintype photographer John Coffer in an article illustrated with Coffer’s own tintype self-portraits and accompanied by a multimedia piece in which Coffer speaks about his life and work. As a boy, Coffer became fascinated with a tintype of his great great grandfather and later decided he wanted to learn the technique. He began photographing civil war reenactments and has since moved on to become a respected teacher of the craft.

What makes Coffer’s story so interesting, at least for me, is the fact that his craft is deeply tied up in his lifestyle—the romance with an antique process led him to experiment with an antique lifestyle in which he lives much like people did in the mid 1800s. He lives off the grid with no running water and a minimal supply of solar electricity. He uses a horse and buggy rather than a car, built his own house and raises much of his food. Some small concessions to the 21st century come in the form of a computer (with no Internet connection) and a small radio to listen to NPR. The intimate details of how he has become completely self-sufficient bring out the voyeur in me, but I don’t think most of us would want to go to his extremes. He is an anachronism separated from the contemporary world in many ways, a curious specimen in a bell jar.


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Visited this little gallery/bookstore called Chez Higgins during my vacation in Paris this June. After walking through a very dark courtyard on rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, I stepped into a brightly lit room with no windows, only glass-covered cabinets full of books lining all the walls. The owner, Eric Higgins, creates limited edition photographic portfolios. Each volume has a suede cover with slipcase and contains approximately fifteen 5″ x 7″ silver gelatin prints nestled between transparent paper. Higgins’ goal is to make quality black and white prints both affordable and collectible.

I bought a copy of Detroit photographer Sue Rynski’s portfolio called “End of the Night” for my boyfriend, Mark. The collection features black and white photos of the Motor City punk scene in the late 70s with a preface by Iggy Pop. While I was waiting for M. Higgins to wrap up the portfolio he explained how the rock star royal had stopped in the day before to pick up his copy.

marat1.jpgHiggins has also produced a portfolio of Dolores Marat’s color pieces. While I was in Paris, her work was showing simultaneously at an exhibit at Galerie Kamel Mennour. Marat uses an alternative process created in the early 1900s called the Fresson technique which results in a diffuse, impressionistic image. The negative is broken into four transparencies (CMYK) and is printed four times, each transparency overlaid on the other. The technique suits Marat’s moody shots of Paris and New York. I love this shimmering shot of a woman leaning on le zinc, the bar, cigarette in hand, the lights behind her silhouette exploding in yellow starbursts. Or this lone woman descending the escalator in the metro, bundled in an elegant coat, gloves and handbag, washed in blue, her face not visible.

As a footnote, if you’re going to Paris, check out this page from rendezvousfrance.com that highlights the important photo galleries in Paris. The editors are Cara Ballard and Jean-Sebastien Stehli, an editor at L’Express.

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brodie.jpgIn his photo series, “Ridin’ Dirty Face,” Mike Brodie (aka The Polaroid Kidd) crisscrossed the country riding the rails, capturing raw pictures of young hobos, grimy, tattoed, romantic 21st-century gypsies.

The series also includes candids of the inhabitants of a small seaside town in Maine where a group of runaway middle-class kids live off the grid in their own constructed universe, dressed in cast-off clothes, infiltrating makeshift dwellings and turning them into artful homes.

Like Larry Clark, Brodie immerses himself in the lifestyle so his subjects open up to the camera, disregard it, don’t see it as a voyeuristic intrusion. His work will be on display at Needles & Pens in San Francisco from August 3rd through the 30th.

Another online Polaroid site, PolaNoir sells artist-created high quality Lambda prints of Polaroid originals in limited editions of 47. Each print is 147 Euros. Some of the artists include Filippo Centenari who manipulates the Polaroid surface so it looks like a painting. Or Grant Hamilton‘s minimal abstractions. PolaNoir also has offline galleries in Vienna, Barcelona and Berlin. The owner of the site, who remains anonymous, describes the Polaroid SX-70 as “an instant camera that took the heart of our analogue passion by storm.”

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SF Gate ran an article “Digital Images Dominate—But With A Downside” which talks about the digital versus print divide and features interviews with Jeffrey Fraenkel, multimedia artist J.D. Beltran, SFMOMA photography curator, Corey Keller, and photographers John Priola and Lucy Gray.

The piece looks at how digital is changing our reality. “If film was the medium of the 20th century, digital will dominate the 21st century, with transforming effects for artists and non-artists alike.We can create images of our surroundings in seconds which makes for immediacy and leads to powerful things like citizens’ journalism. But as J.D. Beltran muses, it also relegates us to the status of bystanders, documentarians of our own lives, as we rely on machine memory and distance ourselves from our own experiences.

Fraenkel and Keller both acknowledge the possibilities of digital. Gray and Priola are still captivated by the warmth and luminescence that radiates from a gelatin silver print.

It’s hard to say which way to lean. I love the ease and immediacy of my digital camera and the power of Photoshop, but I also respect the craft and the longevity of traditional prints. As an avid collector of old photos, I realize that snapshots are on the way out. The ability to delete digital images means all the beautiful mistakes of vernacular photography—the blurs, the odd croppings, the double exposures—are a thing of the past. Digital might not possess the same physical and psychological qualities as print but perhaps we need to wait and watch it develop into its own medium with an entirely new language.

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I’ve been commuting from SF to LA and back once a week, logging the frequent flyer miles. Last week I ended up in a window seat and it made me realize I haven’t gotten over the sheer wonder of climbing 35,000 feet, watching the world unfurl beneath me. These days I fly with a cringing feeling in the back of my mind, guilt and anxiety both over the environmental and political baggage that comes with every plane ticket now. But the other morning, climbing out in a wide arc above the Bay Bridge, doubling back over Sutro Tower wrapped in fog then turning south over the Pacific, I couldn’t help but feel the rush I used to feel way back when—when air travel was still an unloaded, more carefree adventure. Looking down at the cloud banks, it’s no wonder this image repeats itself over and over in countless vacation photo albums—the view taken from a plane, looking through the porthole window, the tip of the wing cutting into the frame.

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I picked up “Diane Arbus: The Libraries” at Fraenkel Gallery. It’s a visual catalog of the books and photos that belonged to Arbus’s personal library, the actual contents of which were displayed as part of the Arbus retrospective, Revelations at SFMOMA back in 2003. The book is beautifully put together—accordion-pleated pages inside a cocoa brown slipcase with black lettering. The layout reminds me of Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.”

A shelf lined with books runs along the top half of the page, the titles and descriptions along the bottom. Scanning her library is to figure out what made Arbus tick, what the sources of her creative process were—the stories she carried around with her in her head, the personal photos of family and friends that surrounded her, the images by other photographers that inspired her. A press clipping with the headline “Woman Tortured by Agonizing Itch” serves as a bookmark in Albert Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom. Alan Arbus’s photo of a young Diane sits next to Vogue’s Book of Etiquette. Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural shoulders up to books on William Klein, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, El Greco and Claes Oldenburg. Knowing that Arbus chose these books makes them seem like a recipe, an equation that equaled in some way what her lens was drawn to.

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belger.jpgI was rummaging through some papers and came across a flyer for an exhibit I saw a while back at Varnish Gallery. The show was called “A Collection of Souls from the Borderland” and it showcased Wayne Belger‘s pinhole cameras and the photos he takes with them.

Belger, an LA-based artist trained originally as a machinist, discovered pinhole cameras when a photographer friend asked him to build one for a project he was doing. Since then Belger has created his own series of bizarrely ornate pinhole machines forged from aircraft grade aluminum that stand as pieces of sculpture in their own right. The structure and story of each camera is tightly interwoven with the pictures it takes. On his website, Belger says: “All the cameras I have built have been the work horses for the photos I have taken.” In fact, the two can’t be separated.

The camera in this photo is called the HIV camera. Two valves, one on each side pump HIV-positive blood back and forth between two plates of glass that sit in front of the pinhole. The blood acts as a red-color filter. With this camera Belger photographs people living with AIDS and HIV. Crafting another camera from the 150-year-old skull of a teenage girl, Belger decorates the camera with jewels and composes dreamy photos of roadside shrines and children’s playgrounds that speak to a life cut short. The heart camera enshrines an infant heart in a shiny metal box and produces images of women in the late stages of pregnancy.

Another pinhole book worth checking out is Jo Babcock’s “The Invented Camera” that I originally discovered at Printed Matter in New York. Babcock is a San Francisco-based artist who’s made pinholes from old beat-up things: cigar boxes, maple syrup cans, mailboxes, coffee urns, typewriter cases, packages of Brillo, even old VW buses and Airstream trailers. You name it, if it’s been thrown out Babcock can whip it into a picture-taking apparatus. The book is laid out with an image of the camera on the left leaf and the picture taken by the camera on the right; the two work together to make clever, wry combinations. Battered and bruised Samsonite suitcases give birth to images of crumbling YMCAs, Greyhound stations and neon-lit motels. An old metal movie projector case produces a shot of the glowing red neon sign of San Francisco’s venerable Roxie theatre. A self-portrait of the artist with bandage emerges from a metal Band-Aid box. A package of Tide paints a moody scene in a laundromat. And my favorite—a weathered index card tray long past its prime seizes an image of an equally outdated heaping mound of discarded books.

Both Babcock and Belger wrap their cameras and the images they create into a fascinating embrace.

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