photography

Joel-Peter Witkin by Chris Hall

Joel-Peter Witkin (born 1939) is an American photographer, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His photography celebrates the grotesque and society's outsiders, as he often uses dwarves, transsexuals, inter-sex persons, and the physically deformed as models.  His complex tableaux often recall religious themes, sex, death, and classical paintings. 

Witkin was born to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother, who soon split because of they were unable to overcome their religious differences.  His twin brother, Jerome Witkin, and his son Kersen Witkin, are also painters.  Between 1961 and 1964, Witkin was a war photographer documenting the Vietnam War.  He attended Cooper Union in New York where he studied sculpture, attaining a Bachelor Arts degree in 1974.  Later he would get his Master of Fine arts degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  Witkin claims that his photographic sensibility springs from an event he witnessed as a young child, an automobile accident in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated:

“It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it -- but before I could touch it someone carried me away.”

Witkin's favorite artist is the early Italian Renaissance painter Giotto.  His photographic techniques draw on early Daguerreotypes and on the work of E. J. Bellocq, who also specialized in photos of society's outsiders.  Bellocq is known for his haunting photographic portraits of Storyville prostitutes in New Orleans and images of life in the opium dens in the early 20th century.  Like William Mortensen (a fellow champion of the grotesque), Witkin also uses techniques to manipulate the image, such as scratching the negative, bleaching and toning the print, and a hands-in-chemical printing process.

Witkin also uses corpses and body parts in his photographic arrangements.  I have not posted any of these photographs (interesting though they may be to look at) as I believe the dead should be respected and not used for art (documentation in war photography is another subject all together, and the ethics even here are in a moral gray zone).  To get around restrictive US laws, Witkin creates his photography using the dead in Mexico.

Many critics have come out to label Witkin's transgressive photography as exploitative, made to purposefully shock a weak stomached, bourgeois public.  Corpses and body parts aside (the dead have no choice as to whether or not to be included in art), I believe that Witkin's use of subjects that society would rather ignore is a noble occupation with a long tradition, from Diego Velazquez to Pablo Picasso.  Showcasing society's outcasts and outsiders in art forces people to acknowledge their own prejudices and hypocrisies.  And once you get past the initial shock of the grotesque and unfamiliar, many of Witkin's photographs can become quite beautiful.

Joel-Peter Witkin's work was the major source of inspiration (along with Francis Bacon) for Mark Romanek's video for the Nine Inch Nails song Closer.

William Mortensen, Photography's Antichrist by Chris Hall

William Mortensen, Off For the Sabbot, 1927

William Mortensen (1897 – 1965) was one of the most well known and respected photographers in America in the 1930's.  He worked primarily in Southern California as a Hollywood movie studio  portraitist, but later taught his methods and ideas to a new generation of younger photographers.  Mortensen championed Pictorialism, a movement within photography that promoted retouching, hand-worked negatives, chemical washes, and an artistic, painterly approach, standing in opposition to the straight shooting aesthetics of the Modernist-Realist school, as exemplified by Ansel Adams.  

Ansel Adams, and others in the Modernist-Realist school, rejected theatrical set-ups, retouching, and strong, imaginative subject matter, all the things which Mortensen stood for.  Mortensen had an ongoing written debate with Adams in photography magazines, which lead to him being ostracized from the more authoritative canons of photographic history.  Ansel Adams held so much animosity toward Mortensen, that he variously referred to him as “the Devil” and “the Anti-Christ.” Adams' approach would eventually win out and Mortensen was considered an anachronism and an outsider in the art world.  After World War II, photographers began to favor the straight shooting, Modernist-Realist approach, becoming a documentarian of preexisting situations rather than a creator of new ones.  William Mortensen soon faded into obscurity.  

“Even the death of the individual cannot destroy the imagination, for that which is clearly and strongly imagined partakes of eternity."  William Mortensen

In recent years, William Mortensen has returned to the public's consciousness; Feral House has just published a book of his photographs.  Mortensen's work is imaginative and weird, celebrating sexuality and the grotesque.  Mortensen recognized the power that sexuality and the grotesque has on the imagination of the viewer, and he applied both tactics liberally to his work.  On the grotesque, Mortensen wrote:

"Herein lies the reason for the equivocal effect of grotesque art on many people: the material is unfamiliar, and, by ordinary standards, unpleasant: yet it calls forth a deep instinctive response. Thus they are torn between repulsion and attraction..." 

Perhaps the most striking of all of Mortensen's works is his 1932 piece, Human Relations.  Of Human Relations, Mortensen would write late in life:

"Hatred is frequently the emotion that lies behind grotesque art... These were the days when stocks were stopping dividends, when lives of thrift and industry were being wiped out by the foreclosing of mortgages and the closing of banks, when Japan was carving herself a large slice of China. Everywhere there was the spirit of 'Take what you can, and to hell with your neighbor.' Those who were strong seemed to be, in sheer wantonness, gouging the eyes of humanity."

Yayoi Kusama: Queen of Polka-dots by Chris Hall

1 kusama2.jpg

My first impression of Yayoi Kusama’s work was not favorable.  What I saw was phenomena art, kind of like Op Art . . . no real substance beyond just what you see.  It seemed to me that her work had a 60’s psychedelic design flavor to it.  I knew she was associated with Pop Art and had exhibited alongside both Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, both artists I do not care much for.  I also knew that she had no problem translating her art into pop culture consumer products.  She is shameless promoting her collaborative efforts with Louis Vuitton.  

Then there are the endless self portraits, photographs of her in front of her work.  I thought her art was kind of narcissistic.  Her outlandish clothing blurs into the paintings behind her, and blurs the line between fine art and fashion.  I am not one to really care about fashion and outward appearances, I’ve always been more concerned with what is deeper and inside, nor am I one to care much about cults of personalities.   I’ve always thought her self-portraits literally got in the way of the paintings behind her.

Yayoi Kusama is the Queen of Polka-dots.  Where Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are cold and pharmaceutical, Kusama’s art at least has a celebratory feel to it.  I’ll giver her credit for that.  This is a reflection from the peace and love idealism she embraced in the 60’s.  Still, I could not get past that a lot of her work was reminiscent of a fabric pattern.  

All of these negative things really colored my perspective of both her and her work.  So, it was to my surprise when I discovered that she had once identified with the abstract expressionists, this was before she changed allegiances to Pop Art in the 1960’s.  She made some really good work.  In reading about her, I found she could be really deep and psychically aware.  Here is a really good quote from her concerning one of her paintings, Flower (D.S.P.S.), 1954:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.

It is clear that Kusama is sensitive to her surroundings, a signature of a good artist.  Perhaps this sensitivity is why she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital ever since 1977.  What about the polka-dots?  They are more than just decorative elements to her.  This is what she has to say about the dots:

A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.

This might not always translate to me in her work, but I like that in her heart she still has an appreciation for symbolism (many in contemporary art do not).  I have also learned to like some of her recent installation work.  I find that it can be beautiful and even, at times, sublime.  Her work sometimes suggests to me self-obliteration, infinity, losing yourself, and dissolving the ego into the universal void.  There is some spirituality hidden in there!  This is not your average everyday Pop Art!  

It is good to be skeptical . . . just do not allow it to overwhelm your curiosity. I am glad I dug deeper into Kusama's art and gave it another chance.  I've learned to appreciate both the substance and motivation behind some of her work. Unfortunately we do have to be willing to get past work such as her video piece Manhattan Suicide Addict (2010) in order to access it.

Is Photography an Art? by Chris Hall

Peter Lik's 6.5 million dollar photograph, Phantom.

I recently read an article in The Guardian by Jonathan Jones where he says unequivocally, ”Photography is not an art.  It is a technology.”   In the article he bemoans the fact that landscape photographer Peter Lik has sold his photograph, Phantom, for 6.5 million dollars, setting a record for the most expensive photograph ever sold.  Jones’ criticism of the work is specific, saying that the photograph records a naturally occurring phenomenon, that it is something anybody with I-Pad could capture.  He also says that Lik’s photograph is cheaply nostalgic, that it references painting from over 100 years ago.  Despite Jones’ anti-beauty, anti-aesthetic argument, I find somewhat of an accord with what he is saying about photography being too readily accessible.  

I have grappled with similar thoughts myself from time to time.  There is something about the quick, instant nature of photography that, as a painter who has to lovingly labor over a canvas, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  The photographic process, well, it just seems too easy.  Since the advent of the digital camera, it seems everybody is now a photographer, and all the hard work of making a good photograph has been simplified into an automatic point and shoot technique.  You do have to have some creative instinct, such as how to recognize a good composition and what makes something interesting or beautiful, but a lot of the technical input, from lighting and lenses, to old fashioned dark room techniques has been replaced by autocorrect technology within a camera’s or computer’s software program.  This already compounds the problem that a lot of times a person really “takes” a photographic image, and does not “make” a photographic image.  To be sure, some photographers such as Joel Peter Witkin and William Mortensen do go to great pains to arrange subject matter within a composition, and then manipulate the image after the photograph is taken, but often the photographic process and aesthetic is one of being a good documenter of something that already exists.  In the case of Peter Lik, we could argue that the real author is Nature, not Peter Lik.

Below are images from Joel Peter Witkin and William Mortensen, respectively.

All the same, however, I shouldn’t be so hard on photography.  The camera is technology, but so is a saw, and so is a paintbrush, they are all tools.  What matters is the person behind the tools, their talents, and what they are thinking and hope to accomplish.  It requires a good eye and a poetic nature to recognize a good photographic subject when one sees it, so there is that.  Though they do not flock in numbers the way they do toward photography, there are plenty of amateurs who paint and sculpt, too.  Good photography is most certainly possible.  A good photograph can move us in the same way a good painting can move us.  I am inclined to think that despite it all, in the right hands, photography is an art.

If there is any argument at all left concerning Peter Lik's Phantom, perhaps we could discuss whether or not an art that can be easily reproduced can ever really be worth 6.5 million dollars.  Does Lik destroy the negative or delete the image file?

You can read Jonathan Jones' article here:  http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/dec/10/most-expensive-photograph-ever-hackneyed-tasteless

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.