In: documentary photography

Lowell Shaver | Process
April 12, 2024

Dave Green | Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024

‘Time is nothing. We have our memory. In memory there is no time. I will hold you in my memory.
And you, maybe you will remember me too.’
(J.M. Coetzee, The Pole)

There is a Salvatore DiFalco quality to Dave Green’s photographs. It’s not just the scenes he presents us, but also the deep almost oily blacks and the grain of the film in many of his photographs. There is a physicality to these scenes, even when seen online : unsurprising, as he’s a photographer who is all about the photographic print and not just within the digital milieu of the present day, that has both its advantages and failings….

DiFalco is a writer and literary critic : I first encountered his fiction in a Canadian literary magazine in the early 2000s and this inspired me to seek out his book of short stories Black Rabbit & Other Stories.

These are urban stories, gritty snapshots of people who are frequently flawed and even, perhaps, a bit repellent. They take place in Toronto or Hamilton or even my own territory of the rust belt wonderland of Niagara, and several memorable ones that are situated in the latter two sites are as engaging as they are grotesque. The characters that inhabit DiFalco’s Black Rabbit (from Stories or Outside or Rocco or Alicia) could also populate some of the scenes that Green presents to us. Green’s work is not quite so dire or dour, nor quite as nihilistic, but his photographs do intersect with DiFalco’s world, whether literally (in his choice of places or his on the cuff captures of his immediate world) or through implication, with the unembellished frankness of Green’s photographs.

Death is also close in DiFalco’s stories : and the image that spurred this response to Green’s work – Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024 – also speaks to an affinity, if not a comfort, with stark endings and perhaps remembrance, perhaps not.

 

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From the artist’s site : Dave Green was born in Toronto (1963), Ontario and grew up in the small Southern Ontario city of Owen Sound. In the early 1980s he moved back to Toronto to study photography at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Toronto Metropolitan University). He has worked as a house painter, a fibreglass worker, a photography technician and as an educator. He served as an instructor of photography at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education and has taught photography to youth affected by violence. He has travelled extensively throughout Canada, the United States and Europe, always with a camera.

The words of LP Farrell, from the introduction to Green’s book Personal (Dumagrad Books, 2017):

Looking at some of these photographs now, the prescience startles and the storefront facade windows, the tired barren highways, the sombre diners seem less a lament or nostalgic yearning for a different time, which is what I thought back then, than a crystal ball, sometimes literally reflecting, but often revealing a life marked by deep solitude. It is as though Dave saw, understood and then showed us what would happen to us all before life hit. Dave Green has photographed a world already disappearing like a picture not quite fixed, time remorseless and unrelenting. Time doing its thing.

———————————————————

This is a book of contrasts, the tension in the dialogue a whisper. Look here: youthful lust and yearning, women and lovers juxtaposed with landscapes busted and stripped down. Lust is a counterpoint to dilapidation. The tang of tungsten light in cavernous bars and then a street lamp, suddenly a votive light in a night sky over lovers like some crazy benediction. As if there was hope…

You can see more of Green’s work at his site here and his IG is here. Green is also represented by the MF Gallery.

If there is a reckoning, it is on the road. The photographer/passenger, the night and a beautiful woman at the wheel; a motorcyclist with a life garbage-bagged and strapped to the saddle of his BSA, maybe in flight. A bleak stretch of road ahead, road the arbiter. Love goes but the road always stays. Road, the redeemer.
LP Farrell, from the introduction to Green’s book Personal (2017)

They drove in silence, the landscape a work in charcoals and flaked quartz.

———–

What the fuck did he just do? He stopped running. He was out of breath.
He looked around him. He was standing nowhere.
(Salvatore DiFalco, from the short story Pink, from Black Rabbit & Other Stories)

I’ll end with how I feel an affinity for Green’s images of the rust belt wonderland : I could be looking at the streets I haunt in St. Catharines or Welland, and even the older images from the 1980s offer a run down weariness, a punky nostalgia, that I also remember from my youth in Niagara. I see echoes of Chris Killip or Tish Murtha, in the images of Dave Green as much as I see my own city, too.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Print is Not Dead | Photography That Matters ON PAPER
April 12, 2024

PRINT IS NOT DEAD| PHOTOGRAPHY THAT MATTERS ON PAPER

APRIL 22, 7PM
Registry Theatre, Kitchener, ON
Tickets HERE $15 (also available at the door)

Camera sale starts at 5:30PM @londonvintagecamerashow

In a world of fast image-heavy, screen-based storytelling, why do artist still see value in slow printed photographs? Is it still possible to become a published artist/photographer in Canada? Why are these photographers still concerned with the analog world?

Join local photographers, Colin Boyd Shafer @colinboydshafer , Robin Claire Fox @robinclairefox , and Karl Griffiths-Fulton for a panel discussion hosted by photoED Magazine’s publisher Rita Godlevskis @photoedmagazine to share the pros and cons of (now) rare analog experiences.

This live, in-person discussion will NOT be recorded and will exclusively share the behind the scenes stories of IRL humans that have successfully presented their work in high-quality PRINT.

Join us to learn more about how these local folks created their legacy works, and stick around for some qualitative peer-to-peer networking, connecting, and supporting these incredible (and rare) Canadian projects.

Stick around to review these artists works on paper. Photo books and magazines will be available for sale. Support incredible local photography IN PRINT.

SPECIAL BONUS! Ron and Maureen Tucker of the LONDON VINTAGE CAMERA SHOWS will be onsite, allowing us all to ogle and purchase their quality analog cameras and accessories Sale starts at 5:30 until 6:50 and then after the panel discussion.

Presented by curated. @thecovertcollective

Want more information? DM @thecovertcollective

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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

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Dave Green | Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024
April 12, 2024

Dave Green | Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024

‘Time is nothing. We have our memory. In memory there is no time. I will hold you in my memory.
And you, maybe you will remember me too.’
(J.M. Coetzee, The Pole)

There is a Salvatore DiFalco quality to Dave Green’s photographs. It’s not just the scenes he presents us, but also the deep almost oily blacks and the grain of the film in many of his photographs. There is a physicality to these scenes, even when seen online : unsurprising, as he’s a photographer who is all about the photographic print and not just within the digital milieu of the present day, that has both its advantages and failings….

DiFalco is a writer and literary critic : I first encountered his fiction in a Canadian literary magazine in the early 2000s and this inspired me to seek out his book of short stories Black Rabbit & Other Stories.

These are urban stories, gritty snapshots of people who are frequently flawed and even, perhaps, a bit repellent. They take place in Toronto or Hamilton or even my own territory of the rust belt wonderland of Niagara, and several memorable ones that are situated in the latter two sites are as engaging as they are grotesque. The characters that inhabit DiFalco’s Black Rabbit (from Stories or Outside or Rocco or Alicia) could also populate some of the scenes that Green presents to us. Green’s work is not quite so dire or dour, nor quite as nihilistic, but his photographs do intersect with DiFalco’s world, whether literally (in his choice of places or his on the cuff captures of his immediate world) or through implication, with the unembellished frankness of Green’s photographs.

Death is also close in DiFalco’s stories : and the image that spurred this response to Green’s work – Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024 – also speaks to an affinity, if not a comfort, with stark endings and perhaps remembrance, perhaps not.

From the artist’s site : Dave Green was born in Toronto (1963), Ontario and grew up in the small Southern Ontario city of Owen Sound. In the early 1980s he moved back to Toronto to study photography at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Toronto Metropolitan University). He has worked as a house painter, a fibreglass worker, a photography technician and as an educator. He served as an instructor of photography at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education and has taught photography to youth affected by violence. He has travelled extensively throughout Canada, the United States and Europe, always with a camera.

The words of LP Farrell, from the introduction to Green’s book Personal (Dumagrad Books, 2017):

Looking at some of these photographs now, the prescience startles and the storefront facade windows, the tired barren highways, the sombre diners seem less a lament or nostalgic yearning for a different time, which is what I thought back then, than a crystal ball, sometimes literally reflecting, but often revealing a life marked by deep solitude. It is as though Dave saw, understood and then showed us what would happen to us all before life hit. Dave Green has photographed a world already disappearing like a picture not quite fixed, time remorseless and unrelenting. Time doing its thing.

———————————————————

This is a book of contrasts, the tension in the dialogue a whisper. Look here: youthful lust and yearning, women and lovers juxtaposed with landscapes busted and stripped down. Lust is a counterpoint to dilapidation. The tang of tungsten light in cavernous bars and then a street lamp, suddenly a votive light in a night sky over lovers like some crazy benediction. As if there was hope…

You can see more of Green’s work at his site here and his IG is here. Green is also represented by the MF Gallery.

If there is a reckoning, it is on the road. The photographer/passenger, the night and a beautiful woman at the wheel; a motorcyclist with a life garbage-bagged and strapped to the saddle of his BSA, maybe in flight. A bleak stretch of road ahead, road the arbiter. Love goes but the road always stays. Road, the redeemer.
LP Farrell, from the introduction to Green’s book Personal (2017)

They drove in silence, the landscape a work in charcoals and flaked quartz.

———–

What the fuck did he just do? He stopped running. He was out of breath.
He looked around him. He was standing nowhere.
(Salvatore DiFalco, from the short story Pink, from Black Rabbit & Other Stories)

I’ll end with how I feel an affinity for Green’s images of the rust belt wonderland : I could be looking at the streets I haunt in St. Catharines or Welland, and even the older images from the 1980s offer a run down weariness, a punky nostalgia, that I also remember from my youth in Niagara. I see echoes of Chris Killip or Tish Murtha, in the images of Dave Green as much as I see my own city, too.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Clarence John Laughlin | Southern Gothic
March 12, 2024

Clarence John Laughlin (1905 – 1985) | Southern Gothic

Laughlin was a New Orleans photographer : he’s best known for his black and white, sometimes uncanny and disquieting images of the Southern United States. Considering the ethereal and dream like quality of many of his scenes, he’s sometimes spoken of as the father of American Surrealism. In considering his photographs, the ‘original’ definition of Surrealism from André Breton was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” Less pretentiously (Frida Kahlo did refer to Breton as being among the ‘art bitches’ of Paris, whom she disdained, ahem), in the work of Laughlin, one can see that he was attempting to both re interpret and define his own memories and experiences of a site, while also employing the place and people within it, that is rife with contested narratives.

I tried to create a mythology from our contemporary world. This mythology — instead of having gods and goddesses — has the personifications of our fears and frustrations, our desires and dilemmas.
(Clarence John Laughlin)

For those unfamiliar : ‘Southern Gothic is an artistic subgenre…heavily influenced by Gothic elements and the American South. Common themes of Southern Gothic include storytelling of deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters who may be involved in hoodoo [or the large sphere of the occult], decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.’ (from here)

As darkness set in, the mist drifted off the deep acreage of sugarcane that flattened back to the surrounding slough and mire. Blooming loblolly bushes, palmettos, and thick fields sprouting a type of flower he’d never seen before filled the evening air with an assertive but sweet fragrance.

The Nail family lived in an antediluvian mansion that had been built long before the separation of states. He saw where it had been rebuilt after Civil War strife and he could feel the dense and bloody history in the depths of the house. He glanced up at a row of large windows on the second floor and saw six lovely pale women staring down at him.

————————

A tremendously wide stairway opened to a landing where colonnades rose on either side abutting the ceiling. He could see the six sisters huddled together at the banister curving down from the second floor, all of them watching him, their hair sprawled over the railing. He waved, but only one of them responded, lifting her hand and daintily flexing her fingers.
(Tom Piccirilli, Emerald Hell)

The book I quote above takes place primarily in Louisiana – where the artist who’s the focus of this essay was born, and a place, whether in terms of New Orleans (his birthplace) or the greater Southern Reach (a term I borrow from another author), that defined his aesthetic. In that book, there are many dark characters that are pervasive within Southern Gothic horror that’s a wide genre, one which I’ve been quite interested in of late. The aforementioned Nail family’s daughters suffer under a ‘curse’ where they cannot speak, and seem to move about the massive manse like apparitions, veiled and almost insubstantial, like a breeze accentuated by their long dresses and hair (like so many lamenting female ghosts of the South, and elsewhere).

Another player in Emerald Hell is known only as ‘the walking darkness’ or ‘Brother Jester’ : a former evangelical preacher who, after surviving an attempt made on his life, wanders the highways and byways of the state, leaving human wreckage in his wake. A later day incarnation of Robert Mitchum’s ‘man of god’ in the film Night of the Hunter (1955), perhaps. I am also reminded of some of the desolate – but drenched in histories and stories, almost like a stain on the ground – landscapes from the first season of True Detective, which is another iteration of the essence of the Southern Gothic.

One could imagine Laughlin’s images as characters and tableaux for such a chronicle. In this sense, Laughlin is a storyteller, an historian, just like Michael Lesy, who took us on a Wisconsin Death Trip

Ghosts exist for a purpose. Unfinished business, delayed revenge, or to carry a message. Sometimes the dead can go to a lot of trouble to bring a desperate warning of some terrible thing that’s coming.

Whatever the reason, don’t blame the messenger for the message.
(Simon R. Green, Voices from Beyond)

I attempt, through much of my work, to animate all things—even so-called ‘inanimate’ objects–with the spirit of man….the creative photographer sets free the human contents of objects; and imparts humanity to the inhuman world around him.
(Clarence John Laughlin)

Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Laughlin had a difficult childhood, and this – in tandem with his ‘southern heritage’ and literary interests – are touchstones for his work.  The family moved to New Orleans in 1910 after further economic hardship, with his father working in a factory in the city. A quiet, introverted child, Laughlin had a close relationship with his father whose encouragement – especially in terms of Laughlin’s interest in literature – was important to his development as an artist. His father’s death in 1918 affected him greatly : the dark, funerary, epitaphic nature of much of his work, perhaps, echoes this loss.

Laughlin never completed high school, but was a “highly literate man. His large vocabulary and love of language are evident in the elaborate captions he later wrote to accompany his photographs.

Laughlin discovered photography when he was 25 and taught himself how to use a simple 2½ by 2¼ view camera. He began working as a freelance architectural photographer and was subsequently employed by agencies as varied as Vogue Magazine and the US government. Disliking the constraints of government work, Laughlin eventually left Vogue after a conflict with then-editor Edward Steichen. Thereafter, he worked almost exclusively on personal projects utilizing a wide range of photographic styles and techniques, from simple geometric abstractions of architectural features to elaborately staged allegories utilizing models, costumes, and props.” (from here)

From the High Museum of Art in Georgia (the accompanying text for a retrospective of Laughlin’s work) : “Known primarily for his atmospheric depictions of decaying antebellum architecture that proliferated his hometown of New Orleans, Laughlin approached photography with a romantic, experimental eye that diverged heavily from his peers who championed realism and social documentary.”

More about his work and life can be enjoyed here and here : and perhaps, while perusing these images, consider listening to another Southerner – Johnny Cash – and his song The Wanderer, that also offers (ironically, considering the title) a place to stand, intertwined with histories both personal and more public, when considering the photographs of Clarence John Laughlin.

~ Bart Gazzola

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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

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Jeff Brouws | Night Window, Los Angeles, California, 2000
December 29, 2023

Jeff Brouws | Night Window, Los Angeles, California, 2000

In the Far West, where Brigham Young ended up and I started from, they tell stories about hoop snakes.
When a hoop snake wants to get somewhere—whether because the hoop snake is after something, or because something is after the hoop snake—it takes its tail (which may or may not have rattles on it) into its mouth, thus forming itself into a hoop, and rolls.
Jehovah enjoined snakes to crawl on their belly in the dust, but Jehovah was an Easterner. Rolling along, bowling along, is a lot quicker and more satisfying than crawling. But, for the hoop snakes with rattles, there is a drawback. They are venomous snakes, and when they bite their own tail they die, in awful agony, of snakebite. All progress has these hitches. I don’t know what the moral is. It may be in the end safest to lie perfectly still without even crawling. Indeed it’s certain that we shall all do so in the end, which has nothing else after it. But then no tracks are left in the dust, no lines drawn; the dark and stormy nights are all one with the sweet bright days, this moment of June—and you might as well never have lived at all.
(Ursula K. Le Guin, from her essay It was a dark and stormy nigh ; or, why are we huddling about the campfire?, 1979)

A number of the images that I share in the main page for this post are also from Brouws’ American West series (1990 – 1993) and the Highway | Approaching Nowhere series. Many of Brouws’ series seem to bleed into each other, or one body of work grows into the next in a manner that does not so much interrupt his ideas as expand them.

I have a certain affinity for abandoned and derelict spaces. I do live in the rust belt wonderland of Niagara, and before that a similar zone in Windsor and Detroit (hence my appreciation of Dave Jordano‘s fine photographs), and my time on the Canadian prairies (with ghost towns in ‘next year’s country’, as captured eerily and evocatively by Danny Singer, for example) fed that interest in an overlapping manner. Brouws’ aesthetic is akin to some past Curator’s Picks I’ve featured : The Great Texas Road Story perhaps being the most immediately similar. But Brouws’ works are less despairing, with the frequency of the neon inviting glow amidst the wastelands, but like many other artists whose work I’ve featured, historical and social themes and concerns are informed by, and informing, his scenes.

“Feelings of isolation colour my photographs – that’s what you’re sensing. It’s fascinating: what’s in your mind, heart and soul gets telegraphed onto the film plane and embedded in the photograph. It can’t be avoided.”

From the Robert Koch Gallery :

“Jeff Brouws photographically explores the American cultural landscape in its myriad of facets. A self-described “visual anthropologist” with a camera, Jeff Brouws utilizes a constructed narrative and typological approach in the making of his work. Over a span of thirty plus years, Brouws has employed a diversity of themes in his work: the American highway, the franchised landscape, deindustrialized inner city zones, as well as riffing on and re-examining bodies of work by luminary artists such as Ed Ruscha, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Brouws captures the unique cultural experience of Americana and its iconography, visually documenting a vibrant travelogue through the half-experienced, half-remembered landscape of America’s fading culture. Directing his lens toward these temporary obsolete and abandoned sites of American consciousness, he powerfully transforms images of history and dereliction into contemplative and at times humorous commentary on the collective and expressive experience of the American landscape.”

An insightful conversation with the artist can be enjoyed here. When I first encountered Brouws’ work – the primary image in this essay Night Window, Los Angeles, California, 2000 – the quote from Le Guin that opens this meditation on his work came immediately to mind. It’s all about telling stories, some of which are quieter than others, some of which are on the verge of being forgotten and some that we may never have considered. The term ‘into the west’ has connotations both positive and negative, but that is just life, and history, and Brouws’ images encapsulate all these contradictions with an eye for beauty in what might be banal, but definitely resonates with the viewer on multiple levels.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Adrianna Ault & Raymond Meeks | Ohio Farm Auction
December 11, 2023

Adrianna Ault & Raymond Meeks | Ohio Farm Auction

The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans
Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers’ Bank foreclosed
Called my old friend Schepman up, to auction off the land
He said, “John it’s just my job and I hope you understand”
Hey, calling it your job ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right
But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight
(John Mellencamp, Rain on the Scarecrow)

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. (Ecclesiastes 1:4, KJV)

There’s a memento mori quality to the scenes from the Ohio Farm Auction series. This may be an interpretation informed by several of the other bodies of work by Adrianna Ault (such as her series Levee which led me to the collaborative Ohio Farm Auction series), that are permeated by a sense of mortality and remembrance, as expressed in her writings about those images.

Though these images are not completely empty of people, the more striking and – unsurprisingly – starker moments that stay with you have no figures within them, though their absence and implication is powerful. The line I quote above, in response to this work came to mind immediately upon seeing the Township photos. Mellencamp’s album was a series of laments for a way of life lost (perhaps taken away or relinquished), as the world moves on (this last being closest, I feel, to the artists’ position here, with a gentle consideration of family history and generational change. Township reads more about releasing than resistance..)

The biblical quote came to me in a more indirect manner. Having recently read George Stewart’s post apocalyptic book Earth Abides (from 1949, so it ages poorly, in many ways – or this is perhaps a corolary to the ‘change’ implicit in the story presented in Ohio Farm Auction, of a time to gather and a time to discard), the ideas, again, of what is lost and our – humanity’s – place in the larger narrative of the earth was a further consideration when I engaged with these photographs…

The words of Adrianna Ault, speaking of this collaboration with Meeks (one of a number they’ve done) :

“These photographs were taken one February day in a rural township in Ohio. My partner, Raymond Meeks, and I photographed and watched as all the possessions of my family’s farm was auctioned to the highest bidder. Photographing served as a testimony to the life and work of over one hundred years of farming in my family. This work was published as a collaboration with Tim Carpenter and Brad Zellar in the book Township published by TIS books and later nominated for the 2018 Kassel Fotobookfestival Award.”

That collection of words and photographs has been described as a “careful deliberation on transience and the ultimate meaning of a way of life in the Midwest.”

More of Ault’s work can be seen here and more of Meek’s work can be seen here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Sibylle Bergemann | The Monument | 1975 – 1986
November 6, 2023

Sibylle Bergemann | The Monument | 1975 – 1986

Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind. (Doris Lessing)

I am old enough to remember when the Berlin Wall fell and the end of the Cold War. In a fine inversion – and something that speaks to how history is often a collaborative delusion and how, at its best, art history can be the most direct and yet most subversive form of history – I would be teaching a decade or so later and have to explain to students what both of those events were, and why they still mattered. That was also a time when I reread Doris Lessing (I recommend her award winning – and divisive, to many readers and critics – book The Good Terrorist) : I had disdain for her books when I read them in my early twenties, and was surprised at how much more sense they made to me, as I had matured and gained experiences that resonated with her words, when I was older.  At that time, I was able to appreciate her words – and especially the sentiment behind them – that I quote at the start of this essay a little better….

Critic Jane Rogers (in The Guardian) described The Good Terrorist as “witty and … angry at human stupidity and destructiveness.” I must inject (as one can’t look at these images by Sibylle Bergemann and not consider the contested legacy of Marx and Engels, communism and the GDR) how I like to antagonize my christian and communist friends (not the same people, to be clear) by citing Mordecai Richler from his seminal book Solomon Gursky Was Here. In the voice of the aforementioned Gurksy, Richler avers that the system (whether the Sermon on the Mount or the Communist Manifesto) is inspired but it is humanity that is vile…

Enough tangential commentary, let’s have some facts : “From 1975 until 1986 Sibylle Bergemann accompanied the making of the huge bronze of Marx and Engels in Gummlin / Usedom from the first sketches to the installation. The work, which was created by the sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt, is still located near the Alexanderplatz in Berlin-Mitte.” There has been controversy about this monument, as Germany struggles with its past as defined in the present, whether it be the theoretical space of Marxism or that the GDR was one of the most repressive states in the 20th century. Monuments, after all, occupy both physical space and conceptual ground in any national imaginary.

In tandem with this, I’d suggest watching the ‘tragicomedy’ film Goodbye, Lenin : “the story follows a family in East Germany (GDR); the mother is dedicated to the socialist cause and falls into a coma in October 1989, shortly before the November revolution. When she awakens eight months later in June 1990, her son attempts to protect her from a fatal shock by concealing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in East Germany.” A majority of that film was shot where this sculpture is located, at the Marx – Engels Forum.

First as tragedy, then as farce, ahem, someone (okay, Engels, ahem) said….

Bergemann’s words about her art and aesthetic : “I am interested in the edges of the world, not the center. The incompatible is crucial material for me. When something isn’t right about faces or landscapes that doesn’t quite fit…”

As of this writing, I am also working on an Artist You Need To Know post about the Mexican photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo (1903 – 1993). Bravo’s words also apply to Bergemann’s Monument series : “If anything is useful about my photography, it will be the sense of being a chronicle of my country.”

But I don’t approach this without bias : my stance can be seen in the primary image I’ve chosen, where the figures are ‘missing’ their heads, like a reversal of Shelley’s Ozymandius, where only the legs remain of his forgotten ‘king’….

More about this project can be seen here and more of Bergemann’s photographs can be enjoyed here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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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

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