Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Recent Prints

Here are some of the recent prints I have been making in my darkroom.

Buck

Alicia, Eel River

Waterfall, Yelapa, Mexico

Two Bullriders, Bakersfield Rodeo

Georgia O’Keefe at the deYoung

Georgia O'Keefe-Storm Cloud, Lake George-1923

Exhibition dates: February 15-May 11, 2014

I recently visited the deYoung Museum to see the Georgia O’Keefe “Lake George” retrospective and walked away having enjoyed much of the work. There were a few pieces that seem included but for their reference to the stated theme alone, but in general the exhibition was strong and insightful with concern to the seeds of natural exploration that had been sown during O’Keefe’s time in New York and later brought to fruition in the artist’s best known paintings of the New Mexico years.

Coming off of the massive David Hockney show that had previously been on display at the museum, it was hard not to conceive of the O’Keefe exhibit as intimate in scale. There were essentially five rooms of various sizes that displayed the artist’s Lake George paintings as well as contemporary photographs and images by other artists that shed light on the themes and intellectual currents present in the canvases of O’Keefe. I must say that while most museums and the deYoung in particular always pay great attention to the arrangement of the artworks and their lighting, the quality of light present in this exhibition is quite beautiful and produced an effect akin to a glowing window in many of the pictures. The watercolors especially seemed to radiate light and generated an impression of transparency.

I was happy to see towards the finale of the exhibition that some of O’Keefe’s early “Precisionist” style work was included. This period is probably the least known of the artist’s oeuvre, but one look at classic New York moodscapes like “Radiator Building” and other urban abstractions enhances the reputation and range of this great painter. I have chosen to include two specific landscape paintings in this blog entry as they are the two images from the show that struck me with the greatest intensity. The dramatic tonalities and subdued color palette of “Storm Cloud, Lake George” (1923) functions similar to a warmtone Romantic style Western landscape in its gravity and emotion while the quiet sunset (or sunrise) depicted in “The Chestnut Grey” (1924) reminds me of my own quiet reverence for the simpler daily recurrences of the natural world and the complimentary play of cyan and peach hues lends an aesthetic aura to an otherwise seemingly cold and distanced formal design.

Georgia O'Keefe-The Chectnut Grey-1924

Cabin Creek

This is some footage of the creek on our property up here in the redwoods. The creek is normally dry but after five days (and counting) of heavy rain the stream is now going full force. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Jim

David Hockney-“A Bigger Exhibition”

de Young Museum of San Francisco
October 26, 2013-January 20, 2014

Both in scale and quantity of imagery, “A Bigger Exhibition” lives up to its title in this massive survey of painter David Hockney’s work of the past two decades. Outside of a few examples from earlier periods that establish context, this exhibition program almost exclusively features work from the 2000’s and displays the diversity of the artist’s range in several media in his continuing evolution of style as well as engagement of contemporary technology. Hockney’s investigations and adaptation of photographic techniques and principles dates back to the death throes of Pop Art and Modernism, but the ways in which the painter turned conceptual photographer has embraced such novel platforms as the iPad and digital video are stunningly refreshing and also a promising sign of technology not signaling an inherent end to creativity, but rather a chronological extension of it.

David Hockney-%22More Felled Trees on Woldgate%22-2008

David Hockney-“More Felled Trees on Woldgate” (2008)

While the exhibition press releases and catalog make continued mention of Hockney’s consummate virtuosity of “draftsmanship”, I found this statement to be an unfit description considering the often purposefully rough and slightly unfinished qualities of the works included in the exhibition. This is not to say that Hockney isn’t gifted in his ability to manipulate line and paint, just that the emphasis on this aspect of the artist’s practice seem at odds with the lack of pictorial delineation the painter so often employs to thoroughly evoke texture and atmosphere. One may argue that these are in deed attributes of impeccable drafting, but when a large part of both the show as well as Hockney’s oeuvre concentrate on painting’s relationship to photography, this argument gets lost in some of the points the artist has repeatedly broached over the course of his career.

Take for example the room which displays Hockney’s own camera lucida drawings juxtaposed against a large multi-wall mural of reproductions that depict the evolution of the painted portrait over the course of eight centuries: “The Great Wall”. Beginning with the pre-Renaissance work of Cimabue and cycling through an ever-greater sense of photographic realism in the masters of the following epochs, both the accompanying text statement and the organization of the imagery suggest the potential use of aids to draftsmanship that may have produced the realistic fidelity of painting throughout art history. Hockney ushered in a controversial debate a decade ago with the publication of his “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” and its suggestion that artists from Van Eyck to Vermeer utilized camera obscuras and lucidas in order to master perspective and perfect verisimilitude of their subjects. For those unaware, the camera obscura is the forerunner of the contemporary camera and is either an opaque room or box that projects an image from the outside world into the dark interior through a small aperture (without or without glass). This basic principal of optical physics would allow an artist to construct a tent in the landscape or utilize a smaller apparatus and then project and trace an image onto a mounted canvas or support. These techniques date to the Renaissance and the smaller and more portable camera lucida was first introduced in 1807. While Hockney does have strong evidence for his claims that many artists have made use of such tools as aids to their artistic practice, the over-simplified account detailed in the exhibition makes too broad of an assumption. Renaissance figures such as Paolo Uccello created incredibly complex spatial studies that relied heavily on mathematical formula and spatial observation, not the use of a camera obscura. Jan Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding” (1434) signals a massive breakthrough in the life-like delineation of the human form not only for its photographic perspective and clarity, but also for that master painter’s landmark introduction of oil paint rather than tempera and the resulting vivid colors and textures that render greater illusionistic depth. Even the statement’s assertion that the great Frenchman Ingres was exploiting the camera lucida bears little consequence upon close examination of his famous odalisques and the obvious ways in which the painter has elongated the female form and “mannerized” the human body. Even in the 20th century abstract artist Willem de Kooning was able to so faithfully render a portrait that both his sitters and contemporaries were amazed by his gifts of draftsmanship, often comparing him to Ingres in his absolute mastery of line. While one is less apt to take issue with the claim that many artists have incorporated photographic aids into their work over the centuries, it becomes a specious argument the way in which the exhibition states it, and one that is especially speculative and perhaps politically motivated given the 20th and 21st century painterly practice of using grids (see Chuck Close), slide projectors (see Richard Estes) and even computers and Photoshop (see the scores of realists of the past 20 years) as means of making paintings appear photo-realistic.

David Hockney-%22The Great Wall%22

David Hockney-“The Great Wall” (detail)

On a less contentious note, let us take into consideration the beauty of David Hockney’s recent large-scale landscape paintings in oil and the gorgeous plays of color that make them successful. Hockney is truly a master of color, and this is a feature of the work that should have been played up more than the quality of his draftsmanship. In several canvases the medleys of chroma remind one of Gauguin or Van Gogh and this kinship bears out further likeness in the linear movements created in several pieces. The 2008 painting “More Felled Trees on Woldgate” seems especially reminiscent of some of Van Gogh’s canvases both in their sense of color contrasts and implied spatial dimensions. Many of the charcoal studies and works on paper also evoke similar sensations of texture in the style of Charles Burchfield. The implication of tactility was marvelous and the ways in which Hockney has allowed the negative space and lack of defined contours to create a greater suggestion of substance shows his aptitude for knowing how to utilize a minimal rendition for maximal effect.

Burchfield-Hockney

Comparison of Charles Burchfield’s “Pine Tree and Oriental Poppies” (1955-60) and David Hockney’s “Kilham to Rudston” (2008)

I was also very pleasantly surprised by Hockney’s iPad drawings/paintings which proved to be some of the most interesting work in the show. Both the portraits and landscapes were successful in their manipulation of this new technology (which the artist has used since its inception in 2010) and these pieces seem to glow with a wonderful sense of interior illumination. It is almost as if the backlit projection of the mobile device has been embedded into the reflective surface of the physical prints on dibond that were mounted for the exhibition.

In my opinion the “cubist movies” which Hockney has recently created really stole the show. These pieces were crafted using several digital video cameras mounted to an armature so that a larger scene was captured with multiple perspectives. Calling to mind Paul Cezanne’s disintegration of one-point perspective as well as the Cubist movement in general, these multi-screen installations were stimulating in their off-kilter registration of the same scene as well as their inherent emphasis on perception. A piece with jugglers throwing their implements across a panoramic space was perhaps most dramatic in displaying this re-organization of spatial realities but the landscape pieces were breathtaking for their immersion of the viewer into the space(s) as well as their conceptual structuring. In the same downstairs galleries as the artist’s largest works on canvas, there is one room which exhibits the same East Yorkshire bucolic locale in all four of the distinct seasons. Each piece occupies its own individual wall and all the videos are synchronized as to generate an enveloping encounter with time and weather creating an almost sublime experience. Even with other museum attendees present the pieces create an intimate space for the viewer to become a part of. These digital videos serve as a fitting compliment not only to the nearby painted landscapes but also to the continuing fascination that David Hockney has had with photographic media over the course of his career and his desire to both adapt and go beyond this medium as a counterpart to his oeuvre in painting.

3 for 1 review: 49 Geary Street Galleries, San Francisco-December 2013

This past week I had the opportunity to visit the galleries at 49 Geary Street and view a few photography exhibitions that warrant discussion. While at times the shows were mixed in their success and impact on the viewer, all three of these exhibits provided their own unique take on photographic approaches to a specific subject.

Let’s begin with the Robert Koch Gallery and the display of images by the late Hungarian photographer János Szász (1925-2005). The Koch gallery is typically a staple of high quality contemporary and historical photography, and this show presented an artist who was unknown to myself prior to the viewing of the work. The high contrast black & white prints display the strong emphasis on abstraction latent in much of Modernist art photography and Szász’s pictures attest to the international influence of contemporary practitioners such as Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. The photographs appear to be the result of extreme underexposure and then severe push processing of the film to achieve an all but bi-tonal separation of values that render even mundane subjects like a movie theatre or soviet-era blockhouse into crisp, rhythmic designs. The photographer utilized potassium-ferricyanide bleach (a chemical applied with a paintbrush to brighten highlights or shadows) to augment the richness of his monochromatic separation and the results create a striking level of non-objectivity despite the all-too everyday interest implied by his chosen subjects. The prints in this exhibition were vintage, and this was an element of the presentation that was readily noticeable in the varying paper types, creases and dents in the prints, as well as the multi-colored and roughly retouched dust spots and scratches visible in the imagery. As a darkroom instructor myself, the utter sloppiness of the attempt at concealing the imperfections of the photographs would normally begin to detract from the refinement of the pictures, but here the effect was less pronounced and even arguably something that lent to the humble nature of the simplified designs. (To be fair, this is an arbitrarily applied axiom that often accompanies older, historical photographs.) The most striking image in the show was perhaps the one heavily reproduced by the gallery in their promotion of the exhibition, a picture of couples dancing and captured with their movement dragged across the plane of the film’s negative. The effect is reminiscent of Italian Futurism and their adoption of motion to impart both energy and formal dynamism to their artworks. For myself the most interesting picture and the one that seemed to best handle the heavily manipulated contrast was a simple image of a herd of sheep contoured in intense chiaroscuro, thus elevating a common rural scene into one of strong pictorial values.

János Szász-“Herd”-1971
Janos Szasz-Herd-1971

Next up was the Stephen Wirtz Gallery and Sean McFarland’s body of work entitled “Glass Mountains”. This exposition was the most conceptually oriented as well as thematic of the three galleries being reviewed, and perhaps some viewers might not take to the loosely applied criteria that often determined which pieces were chosen to amalgamate the exhibit. The title and subject matter of McFarland’s work is derived from a particular location in the Inyo National Forest of California that constitutes the locale for most, but not all of the pictures included in the gallery. There were a variety of different photographic media on display, from the contemporary archival pigment print to traditional gelatin silver images as well as cyanotypes and minimalistic multiple media collages. There were also several small-scale black & white polaroids presented both as singular images as well as multi-panel grids, and while some of these particular pieces were interesting in their abstract allusions to various aspects of the natural landscape, the process being detailed on the title cards as “monochromatic dye diffusion transfer print” might seem obnoxiously grandiloquent. Even to the most high-minded of gallery-goers this may seem pompous considering this description is a blatant financial pampering of “instant print” or “polaroid”. That said, I do believe that keeping an open mind when viewing this work allows for the audience to appreciate the cosmopolitan approach McFarland brings to his subject matter, and I found the diversity of mediums refreshing considering the strong emphasis on an uniform theme. Some of the photographs do depict actual mountain landscapes while others suggest similar formal and even emotional resonances with constructions created by McFarland that echo features of the natural environment. The pigment prints were dimly exposed and de-saturated in their palette, but this artistic choice not only generated a strong mood for these pictures but also unified these pieces with the remainder of the imagery, while an alternate take on the capture process might have made these more straightforward documents of the terrains incongruous. As a total effect, “Glass Mountains” evidences the vision of an individual clearly interested in themes of nature and its illustration, but with the unique perspective of a photographer less concerned with the purity of any one medium and more for the impact derived from the manipulation of materials towards their own conceptual goal.

Sean McFarland-“Untitled (Blue Glass Mountain)”-2013
Sean McFarland-Untitled (Blue Glass Mountain)-2013

Finally, we must discuss the Arbus retrospective at the Fraenkel Gallery: “DIANE ARBUS: 1971–1956”. This show is a must-see and a perfect example of why Fraenkel remains the premier institution at 49 Geary for seminal and groundbreaking photography. While a case for the importance of Arbus in photographic history hardly needs to be waged, this presentation of both lesser and well-known images provides for a wonderful assessment of the photographer’s oeuvre. Chronicling a 15-year period, the included portraits attest to Arbus’ continuing interest in persons on the margins of society as well as her aptitude for normalizing these individuals at the same time that she seems to debunk the status quo of civilized archetypes that she also chose to highlight. The aesthetic of Arbus breaks every rule of both traditional as well as academic approaches to composition, lighting and printmaking, but as has been long remarked, these are the often charming qualities that generate the reality and impact of her pictures and make them stand out against the peers of her own time period. While brought to a level of prominence during her lifetime with her inclusion in the landmark 1967 MOMA exhibition “New Documents”, it is largely the posthumous notoriety she has received that has firmly cemented her in the annuls of photographic history. What a sensitive and perceptive artist she was. She understood that technique or style could not supplant her empathy for humanity, and that ultimately this is why she was a great photographer. Interestingly enough the print quality in the Fraenkel prints is quite good, while still in keeping with the anti-aesthetic associated with Arbus’ work. The most telling images were the more obscure inclusions, such as the “Backwards Man” in his NYC apartment and especially a completely non-sexualized portrait of an older gentleman and his hired dominatrix. Pictures such as “Kid in black-face with friend, N.Y.C. 1957” not only project the prejudices of a bygone era, but also the overarching manner in which Arbus was able to deflate the “normals” of society while at the same time ennobling the so-called “freaks” that she humanized repeatedly. While I had seen the large survey of Arbus’ life and work that SF MOMA put on several years ago, honestly the impact is almost greater when viewing this more modestly sized collection of images. The genius of the photographer is subtler and at the same time more potent in how the pictures display her recurring themes over the multiple decade approach to her chosen iconography.

Diane Arbus-“The Backwards Man”-1961
Diane Arbus-The Backwards Man-1961

The Benefit of the Book

Felicitaciones de Mexico. As I sit here overlooking this beautiful tropical landscape on the Pacific I feel the need to share some thoughts stemming from my most latest re-reading of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. As you may know there is a new biography on the author who passed away a few years ago and some recent radio interviews regarding the author and his work sparked my interest in returning to his iconic novel.

Besides the many private and undisclosed details of Salinger’s life, I find it fascinating that he repeatedly refused to allow a film adaptation of his most famous book to be produced despite numerous offers over the later decades of his life. There are several reasons for this rationale, but one is the ownership he took over the character of Holden Caulfield and how his perfectionist streak could not envision anyone other than himself being able to play the role of this angst-ridden youth. Now, here is the main point of this unfolding dialogue: Thank God we have not had to see a movie version of this book up to this point! As someone actively engaged in visual culture (the arts, not what passes as “culture” in these days of the intellectual demi-monde), it does not bother me in the slightest that there is as of yet no cinematic realization of this wonderful piece of American literature, just as I am equally pleased that I have not had to view scores of others of my favorite reads as overly-simplified, watered-down caricatures of themselves as translations from the written word to the pictorial image. This is not to say that film or movies are not works of art or valuable pieces of culture, just that some narratives and characters are better left to the page and not the screen.

Most of us have had the experience of having read a book only after it has been adapted to cinema, and often there is the unfortunate occurrence of not being able to picture the events or persons described on our own terms, but rather as they have already been presented to us by a theatrical visualization. This is precisely why I have avoided watching some of my favorite novels as films (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Child of God serve as prime examples), because once you have had that personal mental image supplanted by that which is provided to you on the screen, you can never get it back. This seems inconsequential to the non-reader I realize, but when an author transcribes their words to the page and you read those same pieces of text directly off of said page, there is an intimate relationship thus created. The writer is now speaking to you alone, and no matter how many millions of copies a book might go on to sell or how popular it already is, there is a connection between the two of you that accounts for just one of the multitudes of reasons that reading can be magical. So, even if you aren’t overly-concerned that your favorite book will soon be turned into the next vapid Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay monstrosity, heed these words: don’t see the movie.

Rose Mandel- “The Errand of the Eye” at the de Young Museum

I took some of my students on a field trip to the de Young Museum this past week with the express aim of viewing the Rose Mandel exhibition of photographs that is up until October 13, 2013. I had never seen any of Mandel’s work before viewing the show and frankly, had never heard her name come up in either the broader history of photography or discussions about the local San Francisco Bay area artistic milieu. I was delighted however to get to see this collection of images for the first time and learn more about Mandel’s life and work (1910-2002). This survey of the photographer’s oeuvre was in conjunction with the Richard Diebenkorn exhibit also on display, and while most of us are readily familiar with the painter’s imagery, his friend and colleague Mandel was much less widely known to the larger Bay Area audience.

It may be that Rose Mandel’s name has slipped into some obscurity, which makes the de Young’s retrospective of her work all the more valuable some 60 years after her first exhibition there, but the artist was firmly rooted in the high Modernist photographic tradition. As an émigré from war-torn Poland, Mandel was forced to give up her practice as a child psychologist and start anew upon being naturalized in San Francisco in the late 1940’s (after several years of residence in the U.S. previous to that date.) The lingering impact of her homeland’s state of devastation and emotional resonance is visible in her work, even though at first many of the pictures seem to be mere formal abstractions. As a pupil of Ansel Adams, Mandel was able to adapt her printing and large format capture technique to that of her teacher, but rather than simply mimicking Adams’ dramatic landscape iconography, Mandel instead chose to merge these aspects of her craft with a more probing and psychologically intimate vision of everyday life. The great majority of the pictures in the exhibition are contact prints (primarily 4 x 5″) and the small scale and beautiful textures of the non-enlarged negatives creates an experience for the viewer that goes beyond pure, F.64 straight photographic principles. Her use of extreme soft focus surrounding a point of clarity as well as her concentration on reflections as subjects establishes a link between her work and that of the Surrealists as well as other artists who provoke us to go beyond mere visual recognition of objects, but instead to exercise more mental acuity in its deciphering.

Besides a strong presentation of the photographs (one wall of roughly 40-50 images contained the small 4 x 5″ contacts framed and arranged in a typological format) there was also the inclusion of some of Mandel’s personal documents and other written correspondences. Of particular note were the response she received on Museum of Modern Art letterhead from John Szarkowski (that institution’s renowned photography curator) regarding his enthusiasm in requesting to purchase one of her prints for the standard rate of $25 but also Mandel’s typewritten Guggenheim fellowship application that she authored in the 1960’s. The photographer did win the fellowship and it was a remarkable example of how times have changed in the professionalism of the artist and their personae. The one paragraph long proposal contained numerous “x”-ed out typos and could not have more simplified in its description. Mandel had already by that point been given prestigious exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as having work in the collection of several other museums, but the stark directness of her application to make a body of work on the people and places of Berkeley, California clashes with the hyper-verbal artistic theory and vocabulary that is so omnipresent in the universities of today. It was therefore rather refreshing.

Rose Mandel-On Walls and Behind Glass #20-1948

Rose Mandel-Jay DeFeo-1949

“Impressionists on the Water” at the Legion of Honor

Exhibition: 6/1-10/13/2013

I recently had the pleasure of viewing the Impressionist show running at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and like many a guest found myself delightfully overwhelmed with the wealth of work that was contained within it. There are paintings and various media by Monet, Renoir, Signac, Pissarro and a host of others and the quality of the included selections is quite high.

The theme of the show is “on the water”, which coincides with the America’s Cup race that annually takes place in San Francisco. Besides the range of styles and artists working in this theme, there were also writings, graphic works and even a pair of Gustave le Gray albumen prints from the 19th century which served as a fitting counterpoint to the subjectivity imbued in the Impressionists recording of similar motifs. It should be noted that le Gray is famous for his combination prints that surpassed the technical limitations of wet-plate collodion photography and allowed him to dramatize and romanticize his well-known seascapes. There was a large survey of painting that included the giants of the movement and on the occasion of my visit the Renoir’s and Pissarro’s occupied the most popular and congested segments of the galleries. Nevertheless this gave me the opportunity to see some of the Paul Signac’s up close and while I had seen some of his and Seurat’s Pointillist works before at the Musée D’Orsay previously, this viewing seemed to pack more of a wallop in the pictures’ technical virtuosity and aesthetic appeal. I also was able to see a couple of Emile Vuillard canvases that glowed in their play of complimentary color contrasts but also reminded myself of my cabin and its environs on the Russian River in Sonoma County.

Another interesting observation for the museum-goer is the noticeable influence of Impressionist pictorial devices on future “realist” painters and how they would come to define highlights and shadows in oil. I have always loved the work of Edward Hopper, whose themes of loneliness and aloneness display an existential current of American life in the first half of the 20th century. One of the aspects of a Hopper painting of a pastoral or cityscape that helps crystallize his beautiful sense of light is his application of warm hues to the highlights and then the corresponding/complimentary cool tone hues to the shadows. This development might not sound all that revolutionary in and of itself but it was truly the Impressionists that initiated this effect and perfected it as a means of creating the often dazzling displays of color and brilliant light that are so famous in their works. Even with a good deal of white mixed into the colored pigments (thus lessening the saturation and creating more of a high-key, pastel palette) these contrasts of warm and cool still energize the imagery in a way that painters had not achieved before. For myself it is the landscape artist’s equivalent to how Leonardo invented “sfumato” and changed the course of Renaissance painting with his famous dissolving contours and thus less cut-out and immovable figures.

It is rare for a show of this kind, one which highlights the great masters or a popular Modernist movement, to not seem trite, cliché or overly broad in its appeal but this exhibition was wonderful. I would recommend that you be sure to catch this show before its closing this coming October.
Gustave Caillebotte-Regatta at Argentuil-1893
Gustave Caillebotte, Regatta at Argentuil-1893

Annie Leibovitz-more pictures of famous people(‘s stuff)

PILGRIMAGE
June 6, 2013 through September 8, 2013
San Jose Museum of Art

Let’s get this out of the way: I do have respect for Annie Leibovitz and the contributions she has made to editorial and commercial photography over several decades. She is an everyman’s photographer in that her name is recognizable to almost anyone, especially those who can name no other photographers besides herself and Ansel Adams. (As an undergraduate at Arizona State I was welcomed into the fold by graduate students who proclaimed that any real artists in the program should hate Adams by Photo II and the same could be said about Leibovitz’s equally acclaimed status in popular culture.) While I would not consider myself a fan of Leibovitz, I have come to accept and even appreciate her work slowly over time. This has been a winding road to say the least beginning with a show entitled “Women” that I viewed at the Phoenix Art Museum back in the early 2000’s. The work was competent and well-framed, but other than that just kind of blasé. (It should be noted that at no point am I declaring that Annie does not have a good eye or isn’t a legitimate photographer, just that her status as an “artist” can be disputed.) The great majority of the individuals featured in the exhibition were famous. Celebrities, politicians and all of the standard personas that Leibovitz is renowned for photographing were on display and unless you had arrived at the show as a ready admirer of fame or were an established acolyte of the photographer, you left rather unimpressed. The question was really who would care about the work if it didn’t depict famous people? In a culture that has since even gone more absurdly over the edge with who it values purely for their cause célèbre, do these picture really merit being exhibited in an art museum? (If you are looking for high volumes of attendence, of course the answer is yes.)

Flash forward a decade and you will find my position softening after having seen “A Photorapher’s Life” and having read “At Work”, both of which document and memoir Leibovitz’s career as a celebrity portraitist. I would recommend viewing the film and reading the book as they did start to win me over to the photographer. I would never question her dedication or continuing evolution and I enjoy how she looks back at her oeuvre and seems to place greatest value on the relationships she has established with these iconic subjects over repeated experiences. Remember though, this is about “ART” and while it may sound and probably is snobbish (hell, its snobbish) to say that Leibovitz does not produce art photography, well that is the case. This is not the same condition of commissioned portraiture that existed throughout art history: the budgets, locations and access are all a matter of commercial art and do not ultimately carry the same significance as the images referenced in that previous category. Although I do sincerely believe however that many Leibovitz pictures will always stay with us, such as the John & Yoko “Rolling Stone” cover that was taken mere hours before the singer’s death, one must take into account however that the ambiguous categories and genres that photographs are by necessity allowed to float around in often creates the illusion that we can deem any image “high art”. A similar case would be the “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” portfolio that Steven Klein completed as an editorial for “W” magazaine which Larry Gagosion later shamelessly renamed and exhibited as a fine art body of work in New York that same year. Would anyone even care about these pictures if the depicted individuals weren’t two of the most famous people in the world? No, and while the photography is top notch as usual with Klein, the case remains that public fascination with the celebrity is enough to justify anything being thrown under the banner of fine art.

A look at the current Leibovitz exposition in San Jose is one and the same with all of her famous celebrity portraiture. It rallies under the guise that it is about her vision and the overall message, but if you look below the surface you will note that all of the locations photographed are the environs of yes, you guessed it, famous people!!! If these small point and shoot images blown up to large sizes were not photographed by perhaps the most famous image-maker in the world, again, who would pause to consider them for even 3 seconds? But of course, our love of the celebrity and of the celebrity artist (thank you Warhol, you were right) is truly the basis of any of this show’s appeal. Look deeper, expect more, desire for your art to be of value. We must transcend the cult of celebrity and learn that an image is the only viable means these people have of expressing themselves. Art is beyond the literal and superficial visage that you will encounter in the likes of celebrity photography!

Annie Leibovitz-Elvis’s 1957 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide motorcycle, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2011
Annie Leibovitz-Emily Dickinson's Only Surviving Dress-2010
Annie Leibovitz-Ansel Adams’s darkroom, Carmel, California2010

Hawaii – a collection of prints

I thought I would post a small group of gelatin silver prints that I have made recently. All of the pictures are from my trip to the big island of Hawaii in the summer of 2012 and while there are many images left to be enlarged and printed, I felt that this humble survey of the photographs would be interesting enough to dedicate a post to. The island was magnificent as you can imagine and the reason we chose to visit only the largest of the Sandwich Islands was due to the more natural and less developed character of the landscape. The diversity of climates and environments was astounding and while most people are familiar with the more arid Kona coast, we were installed on the Hilo side of the island which receives well over 100 inches of precipitation annually.

Volcanic Landscape and Coast
Sea Tortoise, Hawaii
Papaya Trees, Hawaii
Alicia-Lanai, Hawaii
Volcano National Park, Hawaii
Trees, Kapoho, HawaiiHawaii Sea Caves