In: colour photography

Richard Misrach | The Desert Cantos series | 1979 – Present
April 22, 2024

Richard Misrach | The Desert Cantos series | 1979 – Present

You look at landscape, but it’s not really landscape, it’s a symbol for our country, it’s a metaphor for our country.
(Richard Misrach speaking about The Desert Cantos)

If you’ve read my past writing, you won’t be surprised to know that I am a fan of the horror genre, both in terms of books and films. This is an underrated and often unfairly dismissed genre : not all horror is equal, of course, but that can be applied to any genre.

In Clive Barker’s film Lord of Illusions (based upon one of his short stories in the Books of Blood series), the opening sequence of the film has often been one of my favourite scenes in the occult horror tableaux. A cult with a charismatic leader who displays abilities that can only be magic is speaking to an entranced group of followers : their ‘headquarters’ is a long abandoned hotel in the California desert, overgrown and run down, a lone fragment shored against the ruins of a dream of prosperity now left unwanted and desolate, blanched and burned by the unflinching sun and sand. The establishing shots as we approach the derelict buildings are entrancing in their ruination, and the state of the cult members mirrors this sense of discarded abandonment….

If that seems somewhat ‘lowbrow’ then let us consider Cal Flynn’s book Isles of Abandoment | Life in the Post-Human Landscape and her chapter that is titled The Deluge and the Desert : Salton Sea, California, United States. This is a fine fit as many of Misrach’s images are of the fetid abomination known as the Salton Sea in Southern California.

It is a poison lake whispering sweet nothings. It promises cool succour, quenched thirst. Despite what I know of this shimmering mirage – despite the stink and the rot and the waste that surrounds it, despite the staring eyes of the dead and desiccating fish that litter its shrinking shores, despite the absence of vegetation – I can’t help but quicken my pace. I stumble through sucking mud towards this false vision, on and on until the muck is over my feet, and up to my ankles, and I am shin-deep in a warm broth that, when stirred, releases a draught so stagnant I can taste it.

Richard Misrach began this series in 1979 – nearly half a century ago – and “this ongoing project explores the southwest American desert landscape, and the impact of our human presence.” In that light, considering Misrach’s intent with this work, these images are not so much passive landscapes as active ones : these are scenes of the results of human action and remind me of my time on the Canadian Prairies and the plethora of abandoned oil wells, or the legacy of Uranium City in Saskatchewan, that speak to an attitude towards the environment that is not just an indicator of the Sixth Extinction but our unwillingness to consider the planet as something other than to be exploited and left when no longer of ‘use’, framed within a capitalist regime. As I’m engaged in my usual tangential style of criticism, I must also cite Richard Rodriguez’ essay The God of the Desert where he offers an aside that the three Abrahamic religions – being birthed in the desert – have an adversarial relationship to nature, instead of a more fostering, co dependent one….

Let us return to Clive Barker – specifically his book The Damnation Game (and considering some of the things I’ve mentioned already, citations about horror and hell may seem less forced, now. Ponder that ‘hell’ is a place we make, not a ‘place’ we ‘find’…which is perhaps what Misrach is documenting with these images) :

In a wasteland a few hundred yards from a highway overpass it finds a new incarnation: shabby, degenerate, forsaken. But here, where fumes thicken the atmosphere, minor terrors take on a new brutality. 

It had once been an impressive building, and could have been again if its owners had been willing to invest in it. But the task of rebuilding and refurbishing such a large and old-fashioned hotel was probably financially unsound. Sometime in its past a fire had raged through the place, gutting the first, second and third floors before being extinguished. The fourth floor, and those above, were smoke-spoiled, leaving only the vaguest signs of the hotel’s former glamour intact.

From The International Center of Photography :

Richard Misrach was born in Los Angeles in 1949 and received a BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. He helped popularize large format color photography in the 1970s and 80s and is best known for Desert Cantos, his ongoing study of the American desert and man’s relation to it. The project presents a variety of images, from traditional landscapes to the space shuttle landing, which Misrach considers a singular work, with each canto acting as the equivalent of a (book) chapter heading. Misrach also works in a social documentary style, which can be seen in his Louisiana photographs of Cancer Alley, the corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, he also has taken pictures of the desert sky; the Golden Gate Bridge; the beaches, water, and jungles of Hawaii; Stonehenge; and the Pyramids.
Misrach’s photographs can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Modern Art; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.

More about Richard Misrach’s photographs and aesthetic (both the Desert Cantos series and other works) can be enjoyed here and here.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
Sandy Fairbairn | ART, Road Closed | Welland, April 5 2014
January 19, 2024

Sandy Fairbairn | ART, Road Closed | Welland, April 5 2014

Four years ago, just as Covid – 19 was beginning to move across the world, an exhibition of Sandy Fairbain‘s artworks that I curated at AIH Studios in Welland opened. These selections from the photographer’s extensive archive were focused upon the city of Welland and were collectively titled Welland : Times Present Times Past. Originally planned to run from February 15th to March 15th 2020, lockdowns and access became an issue, but I take joy in a local writer describing it as one of the most important exhibitions in that city, of the decade. There were also works that acknowledged the major role that Welland played in the history of labour rights in Canada, that were more sculptural, but that’s a story for another time (or seek out the book Union Power : Struggle and Solidarity in Niagara that is a fine history of the space, before we acquiesced to the ‘dogma’ of ‘trickle down economics’ and the liars Mulroney, Thatcher and Reagan, ahem).

This image was one of the more unique ones in that show, differing formally from Fairbairn’s usual straight on shots of buildings and edifices, reminiscent of ‘mug shot architecture’, if you will. But perhaps it might be better described as ‘morgue’ photos, as when we hung the show there were many captures of the same space, from decade to decade, and many times the sites were now demolished and empty….

I must add that as COVID took hold, I was in Welland for a longer time than I had planned to be there, with Fairbairn’s exhibition, and with the vagaries of lockdown I got to know the city late at night or early in the morning, a sense of itself that is not the ‘official’ kind.

Conceptually, this image offers both amusement and cynicism simultaneously. As someone who is soon to mark a decade of being part of the cultural community of Niagara, I could also add that it has resonance in terms of endeavours both planned and aborted, envisioned and stuttered, that have defined [and deformed] the cultural landscape of not just the city of Welland, but the larger Niagara Region.

So like any fine artwork, my interpretation of it changes depending upon when I see it, and the experiences I bring to it, and thus it shifts just as I do (perhaps in tandem, perhaps in opposition). To flip back to a more literal meaning from a conceptual one, my own attitudes about art initiatives within the space of Niagara have also changed, and spurred my decision to feature this work.

One hopes and works to foster artistic and cultural initiatives but finds the road closed, if you will. There are a variety of talks about ‘cultural revitalization plans’ in Niagara, but as this is the space that let a nationally recognized public art gallery go, with barely a whimper and now ignorant celebration of the ’boutique hotel’ that has taken it’s place, I shall reserve my enthusiasm…..but, to offer a positive point as we end, the push to have an Art Gallery of Welland is also moving forward, slowly but surely, and that effort is not without reward. As Sandy Fairbairn grew up in Welland (oh, the stories he’s shared with me, that I enjoy and enlivened some of his images from the aforementioned AIH exhibition), that is a space that might, soon, host more of his photographs like this one.

Not all roads are closed forever.

More of Sandy Fairbairn’s work can be seen here and here.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
Gerald Slota | Home Sweet Home | 2010
October 30, 2023

Gerald Slota | Home Sweet Home | 2010
(in collaboration with Neil LaBute)

Welcome to the midnight America, the one that exists parallel to the “real” world. It’s a dark country, one where men with hooks haunt Lover’s Lane and scarecrows walk on moonlit nights. It’s the place where people go when they slip into the cracks between light and darkness, a world of routewitches and oracles, demons and ambulomancers. 

The rules are different here, and everyone’s playing for keeps. Be careful. Be cautious. And listen to the urban legends, because they may be the only things that can save you from the man who waits at the crossroads, hunting souls to keep himself alive.
Welcome to the ghostside.

Home Sweet Home is a collaboration between Gerald Slota and playwright Neil Labute. Introduced to each other in 2008, they began corresponding and working together (via email, for the most part, as they did not actually meet in person until – fittingly – an exhibition of this work in New York City in October 2010.) From the statement about Home Sweet Home : “For the first time Slota’s visual narratives are aligned alongside written narratives. The series title serves as an ironic reference to much of the early material’s dark focus on themes of home and family.”

The world that Slota and LaBute present us with is the descendant – a successor, in some ways – of the sites and landmarks from Michael Lesy’ The Wisconsin Death Trip. Denizens of a desperate world, sometimes leading lives of ‘quiet desperation’ (but not always, as secrets fester and explode, unable to be contained forever, just as some of the ‘narrators’ of these images must share what they have held inside….)

I also interpret these as postcards from the characters in Harmony Korine’s infamous film Gummo (1997) : a ‘loose narrative follows several main characters who find odd and destructive ways to pass time, interrupted by vignettes depicting other inhabitants of the town.’ That descriptor could apply to Home Sweet Home as well as Korine’s experimental film….

LaBute – whose words offer an unsettling nuance and depth to Slota’s images here – has also observed that “we humans are a fairly barbarous bunch”…..

This isn’t a new concept—the idea that stories change things, rewrite the past and rewrite reality at the same time…

The true secret of the palimpsest skin of America is that every place is different, and every place is the same. That’s the true secret of the entire world, I’d guess, but I don’t have access to the world. All I have is North America, where the coyotes sing the moon down every night, and the rattlesnakes whisper warnings through the canyons.
The true secret of the skin of America is that it’s barely covered by the legends and lies that it clothes itself in, sitting otherwise naked and exposed.

More of Gerald Slota’s work can be enjoyed here. Slota was also a recently featured Artist You Need To Know from AIH Studios’ continuing series : that can be enjoyed here.

All italicized quotes are from Seanan McGuire‘s books Sparrow Hill Road (2014) and Girl in the Green Silk Gown (2018) from her Ghost Road series. In these stories the urban legend of ‘Resurrection Mary‘ is told from the point of view of the dead girl Rose Marshall who’s been wandering the highways and back roads of a ‘secret’ United States of America since her death in 1952….

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
Dimitri Tsykalov | MEAT | 2007 – 2008
July 28, 2023

Dimitri Tsykalov | MEAT | 2007 – 2008

It’s not a new idea that firearms make acts of violence ‘too easy’, almost ‘antiseptic’, as they minimize the necessary physical contact intrinsic to other acts of brutality. This is an idea that’s been raised about technology since we began using it to kill each other.

(At the risk of seeming flippant, I must also inject a quote that came to mind when I first encountered images of Tsykalov’s MEAT : Invariably, the first question asked about a new technology is, “Can this make killing less of a hassle?” The second being, “Can I have sex with it?”…)

The implicit ‘removal’ or ‘remoteness’ (I’m reminded of the ski pole scene from Timothy Findley’s The Wars, for example, where the firearm and act of murder almost seem separate from the character himself) makes it almost a ‘trivial’ or ‘throwaway’ action to fire a gun.

Dimitri Tsykalov’s MEAT works offer a counter to that, in a grotesque manner that is excessive : I’ve debated writing about Tsykalov’s ‘armaments’ for a while, unsure if they’re too flippant, or too horrifying, or a combination of both that is as unpalatable as gripping cold flesh while your hands are stained and overrun with effluvia…

These works don’t pretend to an aesthetic distance (like in Serrano’s work, or some other artists I’ve talked about here who – like myself, when I worked with fat, bone and meat for over two decades – are interested in creating inappropriately beautiful artwork) :  I feel that Tsykalov takes pleasure in our revulsion and wants to evoke it from us, and considering what he’s ‘butchering’ the meat, flesh and bone into, this is not inappropriate. There’s a swagger here, a bravado that intends to make us ill. Meat and guns are, after all, metaphors for penises or toxic masculinity, and Tsykalov alludes to that (even with the titles that reference specific guns).

Tsykalov, in creating work that intersects with brutality and our capacity for it, as a species, has taken an opposing artistic path to someone like Ralph Ziman with The Ghosts Project (a past Curator’s Pick you can see here).

Tsykalov’s own words : “In these pictures I recognize the murderers within me, I recognize love and death within me; in these pictures I recognize my flesh as the cannon fodder it is and will be for the rest of my life. In contrast the secondary meat in these shots – the one that rots and that kills, the animal meat that is used to create the fleshy weapons – seems unscathed, sanguine and elegiac. It is incredibly alive, it is cannon flesh and we are already mortal.”

Dimitri Tsykalov was born in Moscow (1963) where he attended Polygraphic Institute of Moscow (1982-1988). He currently lives and works in Paris.

More of his work can be seen here.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
Beth Galton | Aftermath
May 19, 2023

Beth Galton | Aftermath

[Galton’s] photographs, created with the help of prop-stylist Bette Blau, investigate the consequences to reproductive health and freedom after the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade. Since then, information about how to give oneself an abortion has surged across social-media platforms. This is the sad, secret knowledge passed by rumor and word of mouth in the absence of safe and legal abortion care.

*      *     *     *     *      *    *      *     *     *     *      *

Among the Dutch still lifes, there is a subgenre known as vanitas paintings, which serve to remind the viewer of her mortality through not-so-subtle emblems such as clock faces, burning candles and human skulls. Galton, making visible the private horror of terminating a pregnancy without the protection of the law, performs the gesture even more literally. Her still lifes force us to contemplate the possibility of the mother’s unnecessary death.
(Dana Goodyear)

Dr. Savita Halappanavar’s needless death is where we will begin in considering Beth Galton’s images Aftermath : The Overturning of Roe V Wade. 

Halappanavar (1981 – 2012) “was a dentist of Indian origin, living in Ireland, who died from sepsis after her request for an abortion was denied on legal grounds. In the wake of a nationwide outcry over her death, voters passed in a landslide the Thirty-Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which repealed the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland and empowered the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion.” One might say that her gratuitously cruel death – which can be laid at the feet of the catholic church which for too long has denigrated justice in too many countries – galvanized the people of Ireland to a more humane and informed position.

If I may engage in a rude observation, it is notable when such a formerly staunch catholic country as Ireland can shed the barbarism of that cult to acknowledge the essential autonomous humanity of people. But perhaps the legacy of the  Magdalene Laundries are clear in their minds….

Galton’s images are quiet : a superficial glance will not immediately reveal their truth, but these are as meticulously well executed as many of her more commercial works. But they are not initially recognizable for what they are, with their aesthetic acumen (or – perhaps more likely – as a man, I don’t recognize certain tools. Though I’m surely part of any intended audience, it is more so something I’m being taught rather than having a necessary yet unwanted familiarity with them….and that ignorance on my part is just a small piece of a leviathan of such willful ignorance of church and state in Galton’s country, and my own…).

In an article about this series here, notes are offered such as with Bodily Harm : “Bodily harm caused by wire hangers, knitting needles, douches and hard objects. Emblems from the nightmare past, in the spotlight of now.” Another – Back Alley Abortion – presents “objects traditionally used by medical professionals [that] are also used illegally to perform abortions. Also represented is the abortion pill, shipped to states where abortion is now illegal.”

Galtan is a citizen of the U.S., and this debate is raging there and – as happens with Canada – it’s spilling into our spaces, tainting any genuine informed debate with religious ignorance and outright lies and hypocrisy (I live in Niagara, where former ‘Bishop’ Wingle all but had a stroke when Dr. Henry Morgentaler was awarded the Order of Canada for his work in providing necessary health care. Wingle’s voracious hypocrisy only ceased when it was revealed that one of his ‘priests’ was a serial child molester, at which point he resigned, ran away and hid and the facts are still unclear on how much Wingle abetted or ignored. Do I truly need to ask why acolytes of this cult are being platformed regarding this issue, health care and so many others where their contribution is vile and ignorant?)

Galton’s works are subtle but have much to say : an award winning photographer who lives and works in New York City, Galton’s “images and short films tell stories – the story of memories, of what and how we eat together, a love of nature, and the pleasure of shared experiences.”

It’s also worth noting that the aesthetic discipline of Galton’s images – the beauty in horror, perhaps – is tempered by the facts of what she’s sharing.
Too often – which we’re seeing in Canada, right now – there’s intentional misrepresentation and outright lies around the issue (again, copying what happens south of us, where SCOTUS members lied outright about their intentions, and quote Medieval Witchfinders while bleating they are ‘moral’). Galton’s works remind us – those of us who never knew, choose not to know or hypocritically ignore – of facts : specifically that within the erroneously snivelling assertion of being ‘pro life’, that no such concern is shown – the opposite, in fact – for women.

More of this series can be seen here and Beth Galton’s site is here.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
Dave Jordano | For Sale – America, Westside, Detroit, 2020, from his A Detroit Nocturne Series
March 2, 2023

Dave Jordano | For Sale – America, Westside, Detroit, 2020, from his A Detroit Nocturne Series

In the West, the past is very close. In many places, it still believes it’s the present. (John Masters)

Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus | We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes. (City of Detroit’s motto)

The city makes you; in a million little ways it makes you, and you can’t unmake yourself from it. (Craig Davidson, Cataract City)

Detroit is nothing if not a physical site of contested narratives: having lived in Windsor – Detroit for a half dozen years, the mythology and the reality of that city was something I was exposed to as I was just beginning to mature as an artist and writer, and that city (whether through the Detroit Institute of Arts or the stereotypes of the rust belt wonderlands, the legacy of the riots and so much malfeasance on the part of supposed stakeholders that layer ruin upon ruin) played a large part in my development. Eight Mile Road is not just a song by Eminem, but a real place, with real people, to me.

It’s unsurprising to find out that Jordano is from Detroit: his portraits of the city suggest an affection and an affinity that is more personal, and that he connects with his subjects – whether people or places – in a manner that is more gentle, despite the harshness of the locus he captures, often being abandoned, or the stark industrial lights that help define his scenes. Or perhaps it’s more like one of my favourite books about place and memory, where Craig Davidson talks about how “the most awful thing about living as an adult on the same streets where you grew up? It’s so easy to remember how perfect it was supposed to be. Reminders were always smacking you in the face. Good things happened—sure, I knew that. They just happened in other places.”

Jordano’s own words about this series are as follows: “I chose to make these images at night not only to put more emphasis on their surroundings, but also because I wanted to introduce a moment of quiet and calm reflection. These nighttime landscapes seem unfamiliar and therefore provoke contemplation. Pieces of the past, present, and future are rendered here to be carefully considered. They are, after all, the physical evidence of the city where we once carved our collective ambitions and lived out our dreams.”

I must inject more words – to augment or challenge Jordano’s own – from  Craig Davidson’s Cataract City here: “Most of us in Cataract City were hard because the place built you that way. It asked you to follow a particular line and if you didn’t, well, you went and lived someplace else. But if you stayed, you lived hard, and when you died you went into the ground that way: hard.”

Much more of Jordano’s work can be enjoyed at his site as well as on Instagram.

His extensive body of work – under the title of A Detroit Nocturne – can be viewed here.

 

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
The Great Texas Road Story | Stephen Hood
February 25, 2023

The Great Texas Road Story | Stephen Hood
IG: @thegreattexasroadstory 
https://www.thegreattexasroadstory.com/

I refuse to remember the dead.
And the dead are bored with the whole thing.
But you — you go ahead,
go on, go on back down
into the graveyard,
lie down where you think their faces are;
talk back to your old bad dreams.
(Anne Sexton, A Curse Against Elegies)

Well, I see your light’s still on, so I guess you must be out there. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk, you know. I don’t want to talk either, sometimes. I just like to stay silent. (Nastassja Kinski | Jane Henderson, from the film Paris, Texas)

The scenes that make up The Great Texas Road Story are cinematic. This is not just the nature of the vignettes captured, but that encountering this work on IG, it is like a continuing tale, with missives ‘sent’ to us, like an ongoing conversation or ‘postcards’ in a continuing narrative….

They have a quality of scouting locations for a film, but I will admit that I’m bringing in my subjective response, again.

Looking at some of these, I’m – obviously, due to the title of the endeavour – reminded of the fine cinematography of the film Paris, Texas, by Robby Müller. But I’m also reminded of the television series Carnivàle, where a travelling carnival trudges across the United States amidst the arid dustiness and despair of the Dust Bowl Depression. Like the moments photographer Stephen Hood presents in The Great Texas Road Story, the episodes in that series are named after the small towns they traverse – and it all starts in Marfa, Texas, in an odd synchronicity to Hood’s travels around Texas for this project. Looking at the site for The Great Texas Road Story, empty places like Spur and Snyder might be Marfa – or vice versa.

And in the end, these places – despite their evocative physical presence captured by Hood – are also characters in a story, repositories for memories and ideas both personal and more public.

The Great Texas Road Story is an ongoing photography project devoted to the authentic small Texas town. I aim to continue to artistically capture the places in Texas I find compelling and to share that work here.

This photography project began organically in June 2020, when suddenly, I had to get out of town with my girlfriend, as we hadn’t left our tiny Austin apartment in months, and we needed to do something. Had to go. So we booked a campsite at the state park and headed out west to camp in the Davis Mountains near Marfa. A good ole Texas road trip (soothes the soul) was soon underway. 
Our first stop was San Angelo, where we saw a porcupine. I brought an old camera and started photographing the landscape of Texas. I hadn’t picked up a camera in months, but from then on, we were on the road every other weekend documenting all of the small towns along the way. 
I only moonlight as a Texas documentarian…It is in my spare time that I lovingly chronicle a disappearing Texas.” (Stephen Hood)

That’s an excerpt of Hood’s description of this work, and more of his images can be seen here: but you’ll be able to enjoy more of these moments if you give The Great Texas Road Story a follow on Instagram here.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
Krydor, SK | Danny Singer, 2014
February 17, 2023

Krydor, SK | Danny Singer, 2014

I would walk to the end of the street and over the prairie with the clickety grasshoppers bunging in arcs ahead of me, and I could hear the hum and twang of wind in the great prairie harp of telephone wires. Standing there with the total thrust of prairie sun on my vulnerable head, I guess I learned — at a very young age — that I was mortal.
W. O. Mitchell, Who Has Seen The Wind

I first encountered Danny Singer’s work in an exhibition in Saskatoon curated to mark the centennial of the province at the Mendel Art Gallery. Most of the artists included had celebratory discourses at play about the place in their work, but there were a few more factual as regards the history – and present –  of that province. The Mendel Art Gallery (now the Remai Modern), under the curatorial eye of Dan Ring at that time, often eschewed banal propaganda for more real dialogue, as with the 2002 exhibition Edward Poitras: Qu’Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys. That exhibition’s title “refers to two valleys: a metaphor for the way First Nations and colonists, both past and present, constructed and experienced nature, spirituality, and culture through the physical reality of the Qu’Appelle.” (from the curatorial statement for the exhibition by Dan Ring).
This also acts as another ‘place’ to stand and consider Singer’s ‘sites’, too.

Singer’s works have an element of the performative: if you’ve ever been to the small towns – or similar ones – he’s documented in Saskatchewan and Alberta, you know that they are sparse, spaced and dying, if not already dusty corpses featured in a form of photographic nostalgia that has an element of necrophilia. 

Other works in this series shift the camera so that the sky dominates the majority of the composition, so solid and blue it looks hammered into place, with clouds moving like the ocean, and the towns almost miniscule below all of this. Mitchell’s sentiment about the transience of humanity in the face of the eternity of nature is at play in those works, too.

“In Singer’s large-scale composite photographs, there is a real tension between the assumptions of photography as a medium­ – the fixed point of the camera, capturing a single moment in time – and the reality of the artist’s process, which takes hours and involves hundreds of vantage points. To the viewer, the photographs have a collapsing effect: the passage of time witnessed in a single glance.

The Vancouver-based artist has spent fifteen years photographing the main streets of small towns and hamlets across the prairies and plains of North America, drawing attention to the rural, agricultural communities on which Canada’s economy was built. In these large-scale works, strings of vernacular buildings are dwarfed by a dynamic sky, which fills the visual field. Out of the frame, one can imagine the horizontal repetition of this diminishing effect—farmland stretching hundreds of miles in either direction.” (from Galleries West)

More of Singer’s work can be seen here.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
Jane Evelyn Atwood | TOO MUCH TIME: WOMEN IN PRISON, 2000
November 25, 2022

Jane Evelyn Atwood, TROP DE PEINES: FEMMES EN PRISON, 2000, Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, France. (OUT OF PRINT)
Jane Evelyn Atwood, TOO MUCH TIME: WOMEN IN PRISON, 2000, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, England. (OUT OF PRINT)

“Curiosity was the initial spur. Surprise, shock and bewilderment soon took over. Rage propelled me along to the end.”

Too many times – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this – I have heard some well meaning dilettante assert that ‘art should be about beauty’ or ‘should only uplift us.’ In terms of that space where photography intersects with ideas of art and documentary – and not to mention history – something that comforts you is most likely wrong, if not simply pablum. When I’m sharing images on social media, there are some photographers I hesitate to post works from (as photography still carries the weight of being more ‘real’, thus can ‘offend’ as well as see yourself banned from those platforms): Gilles Peress is one of those, for his unflinching lens in places from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia (“I don’t trust words. I trust pictures”), Gordon W. Gahan (specifically his images of the Vietnam War), Donna Ferrato (I was lucky enough to experience her groundbreaking series Living with the Enemy decades ago, in Windsor) or Martha Rosler (her House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home works that had their genesis in response to the Vietnam War (c.1967–72) but that she ‘revisited’ in 2004 and 2008, ‘updating’ them to Iraq and Afghanistan).

But the text I’ve selected for a Library Pick is something that is not ‘there’ but ‘here’, and in that respect is often – easily, repeatedly – ignored.

Jane Evelyn Atwood’s “monumental work on female incarceration, published in both French and English, took Atwood to forty prisons in nine different countries in Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States. The access she managed to obtain inside some of the world’s worst penitentiaries and jails, including death row, make this ten-year undertaking the definitive photographic work on women in prison to date. Extensive texts include interviews with inmates and prison staff as well as Atwood’s own reminiscences and observations. The prize-winning photos in this book, including the story of an incarcerated woman giving birth while handcuffed, established Jane Evelyn Atwood as one of today’s leading documentary photographers.” (from her site)

Atwood has always used her camera as a means to tell stories too often not even dismissed but denied, and she has granted a level of dignity and consideration to those whom are too often not considered human but detritus.

A good friend is a theologian, but of the liberation theology vein: I enjoy talking with them, as their righteous anger is only matched by their ability to quote that repeatedly translated and edited text with a sense of the public good. I mention them as they once pointed out that in the New Testament, only one person was promised a place in the ‘kingdom of heaven’, and that was one of the criminals being crucified at the same time as Jesus.

In a more modern sense, I might cite Lutheran Minister (and ‘public theologian’) Nadia Bolz-Weber‘s contemporary addendum to the beatitudes, which include ‘Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are they for whom nothing seems to be working.’

Atwood published ten books of her work and been awarded the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, the Grand Prix Paris Match for Photojournalism, the Oskar Barnack Award, the Alfred Eisenstadt Award and the Hasselblad Foundation Grant twice.

More of Atwood’s work can be seen here.

Like several of the books I’ve recommended, this is one I came across in my local library.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More
Elaine Ling | Baobab #31 – 2010, Madagascar
November 19, 2022

Elaine Ling | Baobab #31 – 2010, Madagascar

Ce qui embellit le désert, dit le petit prince, c’est qu’il cache un puits quelque part…[What makes the desert beautiful, said the little prince, is that somewhere it hides a well…]

It is an odd feeling to encounter the work of an artist, seeing how prolific they are and be enamoured of their practice, then discover that they passed a few years ago. I’ve often had the same experience with authors (I have a habit of finding the work of a writer that is new to me, and consuming all the books, and it’s an empty sadness when you realize they won’t be creating any more).
This image is one from a series titled Baobob, by the late Elaine Ling (1946-2016). At her site it is the final series presented, from an extensive and enthralling body of work.

It can be read as having the quality of an epitaph: these massive, seemingly eternal natural ‘monuments’ that have survived her, and will likely survive all of us.

In that manner I have of being ‘too subjective’, Baobob trees remind me of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s novel Le Petit Prince (1943): to me, it’s a melancholy story, about loss and death, with touching moments of truth that have contributed to how it – despite often being considered a story for children – speaks to many adults, like myself.

“Seeking the solitude of deserts and abandoned architectures of ancient cultures, Elaine Ling…explored the shifting equilibrium between nature and the man-made across four continents. Photographing in the deserts of Mongolia, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Timbuktu, Namibia, North Africa, India, South America, Australia, American Southwest; the citadels of Ethiopia, San Agustin, Persepolis, Petra, Cappadocia, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Great Zimbabwe, Abu Simbel; and the Buddhist centres of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Tibet, and Bhutan; she has captured that dialogue.” (from her site)

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux [Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye].

On the first of August, 2016, Elain Ling lost her battle with lung cancer: her brother – Edward Pong – has indicated that he intends to continue to foster her legacy, through the maintenance of Ling’s site.

It is an impressive space with much more about Ling’s life and work – and many more of her moments from her life and around the world – that can be enjoyed here. C’est véritablement utile puisque c’est joli [It is truly useful since it is beautiful]. 

All quotes in italics are from Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince .

Elaine Ling was also a recently featured Artist You Need To Know, in AIH Studios’ continuing series. You can enjoy that here.

~ Bart Gazzola

Read More