Three Photo Books and One Book on Photo

May 21, 2010

LACMA’s Wallis Annenberg Photography Department has published four books in the last year that have one thing in common: in their own individual ways, they communicate our relationship to very specific moments from the first 150 years of photographic history. Only one of the four, coincidentally titled Four Over One, by Phil Chang, uses images to explicitly explore a world dealing with digitization and obsolescence in photographic processes. Another, Words Without Pictures, edited by Alex Klein, includes pointed essays discussing online images and digitization. The other two books, The Sun as Error, by Shannon Ebner, and Bananas for Moholy-Nagy, by Patterson Beckwith, are so not about digital photography—so steeped in analog filmic processes—that their obvious footing across the divide becomes part of the message.

It’s hard not to wrestle with the topic of digital photography in today’s conversation about photography. I recently attended a two-day slap fight of ideas verging on verbal pugilism at times—the symposium “Is Photography Over?” hosted by SFMOMA in April. You could probably count the minutes on two hands (maybe three…) before the word “digital” pounced onto the scene and began to be regularly peppered throughout the days’ conversations as a path to an answer, only to be quickly abandoned for more interesting fodder. It’s not breaking news that digital has changed the way that we take, view, disseminate, think about, talk about, process, collect, commodify, archive, protect, believe, disassociate ourselves from, manipulate, research, and relate to photography. But has digital strangled photography to death, lassoed with the lariat of a binary zero? According to the thirteen panelists of “Is Photography Over”—artists, curators, academics, and authors—probably not. Or at least the players creating photographic art in the hereafter (or is it just art?) are looking quite spry.

“ID:17 APERTURE: F5.6 HEIGHT:132 CM PPI: 600 PASSES: 6 SIZE: 70.1 MB”—from Four Over One, by Phil Chang (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2010), p. 55

The books mentioned above will continue to explore what it is that’s “going on” with photography. Phil Chang’s monograph Four Over One is page after page of gently shaded but monochromatic prints that shift like the weather from one image to the next. Finding an explanation for this seemingly subject matter-deficient presentation takes a bit of detective work. Other than a production note on the second-to-last page (“The photographs in this publication were made using an i2s Digibook 2000LC book scanner and Kodak Kobachrome II RC photographic paper”) and a list of specifications in place of a list of plates, there is one sentence buried within the acknowledgements that speaks to the theme: Four Over One is “… a project that centers on economy and obsolescence….” I guarantee this is one of the most unusual books you will ever come across.

“A plain, matter-of-fact enumeration of the specific photographic elements—will be enough to enable us to divine the power latent in them, and prognosticate to what they lead.”—László Moholy-Nagy, from his essay “A New Instrument of Vision” (extract from “From Pigment to Light”, in Telebar Vol. 1/2, 1936) as printed in Bananas for Moholy-Nagy by Patterson Beckwith, with an essay by Alex Klein (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Museum of Art, 2010), p. 11.

In the forthcoming Bananas for Moholy-Nagy, Patterson Beckwith quite literally, but with slight tongue-in-cheek, interprets “The eight varieties of photographic vision” as put forth by László Moholy-Nagy in “A New Instrument of Vision,” from 1936, by photographing bananas in eleven different ways—x-ray, filters, photograms, prolonged exposure, etc.

“The only type of corruption of transmitted data that has been discussed is the error. An error actually represents two unknown quantities in general: location and symbol value,” referred to via asterisk on page 239: “Wiggert, Djimitri. CODES FOR ERROR CONTROL AND SYNCHRONIZATION. Massachusetts: Artech House, Inc., 1988.”—from The Sun as Error, by Shannon Ebner, coordinated by Dexter Sinister (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009), edition notice page text; p. 239.

Shannon Ebner, in The Sun as Error, includes diagrams and illustrations from practical-photography textbooks and Ansel AdamsThe Print and The Camera interspersed with her own work, which spans tableau text-based setups and quixotic moments of close-up landscape and living-scape captured on film. Citations for the anachronistic elements similar to the caption above provide for some entertaining reading at the end.

“One of the most important facets of the digital era is that it created both the markets and desires to revisit the past…”—Charlotte Cotton, in her essay “Process, Content, and Dissemination: Photography and Music,” from Words Without Pictures, conceived by Cotton and edited by Alex Klein, Aperture edition (New York: Aperture, 2010), p. 228.

Words Without Pictures, in title alone, says it all. The book is a record of what went down when a series of online essays, discussion forums, and live-for-the-audience conversations created “spaces where thoughtful and urgent discourse around very current issues for photography could happen.” Words Without Pictures includes essays with titles like, “Photography as Art,” “Online Photographic Thinking,” “Remembering and Forgetting Conceptual Art,” “Abstracting Photography,” all born by c-section from the mother of all questions about photography. And this mother—this urgency—is the digital. If not the mother, then, at least, a very nosy neighbor.

The Photography Department is celebrating the publication of these four books with a reception this Sunday at 4 pm at Art Catalogues at LACMA, including a conversation moderated by Britt Salvesen, curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department, with artists Patterson Beckwith and Phil Chang, and light refreshments.

Sarah Bay Williams


Radiator Charlie and his Mortgage Lifter Tomato

May 20, 2010

Takahashi Shōtei (Hiroaki), "Cat With Tomato Plant," 1931, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Felix Juda, © Takahashi Shōtei (Hiroaki)

While the woodblock for Cat with Tomato Plant (pictured above) was being carved in Japan in 1931, and the world was being rocked by the Great Depression, a man in Logan, West Virginia, named M.C. Byles was perhaps just starting to mull over the following thought: “By golly, someone ought to build a better tomato!” Byles was an auto mechanic at a shop that was conveniently located at the bottom of a steep incline that apparently vanquished more than one over-taxed trucking radiator. Luckily, one could just put ’er in neutral and roll right back into the healing hands of “Radiator Charlie” Byles, as he was known.

But radiator-fixing was not the only skill set acquired from Byles’ vast gamut of experience. Proudly claiming “I never been to school a day in my life,” Byles had been a cotton picker, a member of the National Guard, a pilot, a wrestler (or “wrassler” as it’s called in Appalachia), an auto mechanic, an inventor, and… an unconventional tomato breeder. Yes, Radiator Charlie decided to try something with tomatoes. He ingeniously positioned a tomato plant called the German Johnson in the middle of a circle of 10 other tomato plants—varieties chosen for their tendency to grow unusually large tomatoes. Using a tiny ear syringe, he then transferred pollen from the plants in the circle to the flowers of the German Johnson.

After seven years of collecting and planting the seeds from the resulting tomatoes, Radiator Charlie finally had grown a plant of which he could be proud. This varietal eventually became known as Radiator Charlie’s “Mortgage Lifter” because, dagnabbit, Radiator Charlie paid off his $6,000 mortgage in the thick of the Depression by selling these tomato seedling plants for a dollar a pop! The giant spheroid Mortgage Lifters, clocking in at one to four pounds, fed entire families of eight. Learn more about Radiator Charlie by listening to an archived show of the radio program Living on Earth, which includes a recording of Radiator Charlie himself!

As a part of EATLACMA, LACMA and artists’ collective Fallen Fruit are hosting a Tomato Hootenanny this Saturday, which will include tomato seedling adoptions. Artist Anne Hars has been growing Mortgage Lifters from seed in special pots made from the financial section of the newspaper to include in these adoptions. She and artist Stephanie Allespach will also be leading a tomato seedling workshop with several varietals of tomatoes (including the Mortgage Lifter). Download adoption forms here.

Mortgage Lifter seedlings in pressed pots made from newspapers, by Anne Hars

Sarah Bay Williams


“What Do People Want? Images”

May 18, 2010

A little while ago we ran a survey asking what information people find most useful on the LACMA website. Based on the way we put the question I expected a strong showing from “hours and directions,” but it finished fifth, well back of “artworks,” which won going away. “Let your art flourish on the site,” wrote one respondent. “What do people want?” asked another. “Images.”

Well, O.K. Images it is.

Today we introduce new web pages featuring more than 800 images of LACMA artworks. Each of the 22 collection subdivisions—areas of specialty spanning time and geography—gets a new page, with close-ups and full images of signature works, plus collection-specific Unframed posts, image browses, events, and video.

Image fans should also give the new all-collection landing page a look. In addition to an image grid providing links to the collection specialties and a rather dashing alphabetical sampling of artists in the collection, there is remix. Think of remix as a curated tag cloud—we’ve put together hundreds of sets featuring three images from the collection and a word or phrase that unites them.

People from all across the museum contributed remix sets and we invite you to do the same. Just email us a word or phrase, and enough information to identify three corresponding images from our collection, and we’ll put them together and add them to the cloud. The phrase should be, oh, say, one to five words. Be warned though. Inventing remix sets can be addictive. After sending several rounds of wonderful remixes (see “Spying,” “Jealousy,” “Money”), one of my colleagues decided that was enough because, as she said, “my brain likes this too much.”

Tom Drury


Seeing Anew: A Conversation with Franklin Sirmans

May 14, 2010

Franklin Sirmans hasn’t wasted any time settling into his new post as head of contemporary art at LACMA. He’s been visiting studios, galleries, and private collections around town, getting to know the works of art in our permanent collection, and planning upcoming exhibitions. Before coming to LACMA, Franklin served as curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection in Houston, and worked as an independent curator, critic, writer, and editor. Now that he’s been here for a few months, I checked in to see how he was adjusting to his new surroundings.

What brought you to LA?

It was the opportunity to work with the team assembled here—including director Michael Govan, and my colleagues throughout the museum—at a really exciting time. Also, right now, the art conversation in Los Angeles is so interesting. Art in Los Angeles is still so young. We’re looking back to the grand old past of, what? The 1950s and 60s. We are still in the midst of a conversation about the formation of the art scene in Los Angeles with the people who were here then and are still here now—Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, Betye Saar, Samella Lewis, just to name a few. That fascinates me.

What are you finding out about Los Angeles?

I’m still checking out the neighborhoods, seeing new places. I went to see Judson Powell in Compton the other day to talk about his work at the Watts Towers in the past and his present work there, building an arts and cultural center.

I feel like I know the Culver City scene but I know that’s very little in the scope of things. That said, Lauri Firstenberg at Laxart, Suzanne Vielmetter Projects, and Roberts & Tilton are always interesting.

I‘ve done studio visits with Betye Saar, who has a wonderful piece in the collection, and Paul McCarthy, also in the collection. I recently did a visit with the curator Samella Lewis, whose work I grew up reading.

I knew a lot of artists before coming here. But I didn’t know the collectors and collections in Los Angeles, so I’m trying to get to know them now, as well as artists. I’m also really interested in what’s happening outside the confines of visual art—what people are doing in film, dance, and music, and the vernacular of the city.

What else, besides art?

I watch a lot of soccer.

What do you miss about Houston and the Menil Collection?

The atmosphere there is so serene. You have the Byzantine Fresco Chapel across the street from the Mark Rothko Chapel. Right there, you also have Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk and down the street you have the Menil Collection and behind that you have Cy Twombly’s gallery and behind that you have Dan Flavin’s gallery. It’s like a perfect art experience.

But in a lot of ways, that’s what’s happening here at LACMA, right now.

What’s it like getting to know the collection here?

I’m interested in exploring the synergy between the Broad collection and the LACMA collection, and we’re doing that already in some new installations this fall.

The modern collection here includes some really special pieces—the Giacomettis, for example. The Picassos, those Brancusi birds.

There are some wonderful works I would like to see installed—a Marlene Dumas painting that’s been out on loan for a while, a work by John Outterbridge that I really want to see, and Toba Khedoori, a young artist who interests me. We have a wonderful piece of hers in the collection. It’s huge—I’d really love to see that on view. Not easy to do.

I want to play on the strengths of the collection, those special objects that we have at hand, and also the relationship we have with artists here in Los Angeles, which is something that will play a prominent role in a future exhibition. More news on that shortly.

I want to look at contemporary art in the context of the encyclopedic museum. That was part of the hook, the reason I came here. How, as contemporary viewers, do we look at the art of the past? How can artists help us see the past anew?

Amy Heibel


The Boone Child-at-Heart Gallery

May 13, 2010

I first started working in the Boone Children’s Gallery several years ago when it was located in LACMA West. The theme of the gallery at the time was Construct, offering the experience of understanding construction, recycling, building, and city planning. It was a big hit: regulars and locals would come daily and weekly to work in our “free art area,” which really drew the crowds. Kids would line up to paint; it was by far one of the most popular activities we had.

With the Boone Gallery’s change of location a few months ago—it’s now adjacent to the Korean galleries inside the Hammer Building—so too did its theme change. I was thrilled to see that the new theme represented and honored the traditions of Korean art by focusing mainly on brush painting. Even more thrilling was finding that the change in venue would also bring about a whole new type of visitor—not just the very young but the young at heart!

What could possibly bring young and old alike together? The simple art of painting. We have teens that come to work on school projects after school, adult artists who stop by to pick up techniques from facilitators, weekly regulars who come to learn particular brush strokes and get demos, and professional painters who leave us pieces to learn from.

All the activities in the gallery are focused around Korean brush painting or crafts related to the Korean arts, and the traditional music that plays in the background really sets a tone. There are lots of children’s books that one can look at to get inspiration and a wall display of art donated by visitors that changes regularly so as to help conjure ideas and techniques. It’s such an irresistible space that passersby on their way to exhibitions seem to stop by to do “just one quick painting.”

The Boone has always been a place where families can spend time together and learn along the way. It’s nice to see that all ages groups can interact, enjoy each other, learn from one another, and become a community family in that sense.

Amber Edwards


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