Last week I was procrastinating, going through a box of vintage postcards at Owl and Company, a used bookstore in Oakland. And in the pile of paper, this little beauty caught my eye. I couldn’t leave it there — and at fifty cents, why would I? I have an apartment to decorate.
I’ve always had the ability to become utterly obsessed with old postcards. It’s a weakness. One of many. Like when I come across a western shirt in my size. I buy. One thing I like about vintage postcards is that they are sent, not just across space, but through time. They traverse in four dimensions.
But why did this particular one catch my eye? Because I am who I am, I can’t just collect. I have to analyze why I love a thing:
There’s no grand revelation. After buying the postcard, I went out and bought a frame and a rust-colored backing for it. It hangs by my fireplace where it will continue to obsess me. It’s a moment trapped in amber.
If you look through my Instagram feed you'll likely see a lot of signs and walls. You'll see stuff influenced clearly by Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind, and Harry Callahan, amongst others. You'll see pop-inspired Polaroids and lots of geometry. Abstracts galore. There are instax grids of depopulated neighborhoods. But you won't see a lot of people. When there are people, they're usually looking away from the camera.
Well, until recently. About a month ago I made a couple of changes. First, I started shooting more with my Pentax ME Super, my dad's old camera that I've used on and off over the years, and less with my Olympus XA. Second, I started developing my own film at home.
I was scrolling through Instagram yesterday when I came upon an altered version of Norman Rockwell's humorous and meta Triple Self-Portrait, and it made cringe—but not for the intended reason.
Rockwell is replaced by a man in a KKK hood—or rather cloaked in it. He is painting not his own hooded likeness but an image of Marvel comics hero Captain America. There are other alterations too: Rockwell's studies of himself are replaced by an image of Hitler. A Rembrandt self-portrait is replaced by the confederate flag. The Roman helmet is inexplicably missing.
It's a skillfully drafted layering of symbols executed by the artist, one Mr. Fish. The message is that when racist America looks at itself, it sees a hero. Which is all rather true. But the pastiche is convoluted, and it all starts with using Norman Rockwell as KKK stand-in.
It's hard to write a review of the Polaroid Originals instant film without being tempted to recount the birth of Polaroid's instant film, its demise, its rebirth as the Impossible Project, and the purchase of the Polaroid brand by Impossible's biggest shareholder. But I assume if you're here reading this, you know all that. If not, read Instant: The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos, and then read the endless threads on Flickr about the various Impossible Project film formulations.
My favorite Impossible film was made in 2014—it was just beautiful, if a little slow to develop. I haven't been thrilled with batches produced starting in 2016. A dodgy opacity layer meant white streaks (even if you covered the film as it ejected) and the color seemed lifeless. I couldn't rely on it unless I was shooting inside. And the packs leaked blue goo frequently. Beta film that I tested earlier this year gave me hope, however.
Today I shot my first pack marketed under Polaroid Originals—so now when people ask if Polaroid still makes film you can say "yes" and just leave it at that. Fortunately that's not all that happened.
When a man who has photographed Andy Warhol asks if he can photograph you and your rabbit, you're going to say yes (even if photographing Warhol is the least of his accomplishments). And that's how it happened, nine months ago. My friend, Arthur Tress, brough his Hasselblad over. He had some ideas about photographing me with my fourteen-year-old rabbit, Celeste—a rabbit of incredible spirit who had been fighting seizures and a brain tumor. I didn't know how much time she had left.
The best light was in the apartment stairwell, down half a flight, where a skylight acts as a soft box. Arthur tried a lot of different shots, following his trademark surrealist approach. There were props from my apartment. He would ask me to "look" a certain way, hold the rabbit while holding a book about magicians. In between these I would clutch Celeste close, kiss her head. I was stubborn. These were the shots I wanted. He would relent.
Every Tuesday, I take MUNI to the Tenderloin and climb three flights of stairs to a small room with a light table, boxes of slides, archival pens, loupes, numerical stamps, and plastic sleeves. This is my volunteer archiving gig while I’m unemployed. I join the other archivists, grab a stack of negatives, take off the rubber band, spray canned air on the negatives, and transfer the information from the enclosed roll marker to the plastic sleeves. I then order the slides by frame number, rewriting the number on the slide holder so it’s easier to see. Often the frame numbers are marred by other information stamped on the holder, or simply mis-stamped. Once the sleeve is full, it goes into a binder. Rinse and repeat.
Sometimes, though, there are no frame numbers so it’s a more investigative process. I have to look at the lighting, the background, the camera axis, the state of of the model’s undress, and then reconstruct the sequence.
I don’t have a steady job right now, but that doesn’t stop me from spending a couple hours of every week shopping for art I can’t afford. I go through the work of artists I like (Rauschenberg, Warhol, Dienes, Rosenquist, Leeson, Smithson…). I discover new artists, like Derek Fordjour and Nancy Holt. It’s not the worst way to spend my time, but I’m also not getting any exercise. I’m not walking into any galleries. I’m doing it on my iPad.
The companies that enable my LCD-window-shopping habit are Artsy and Artspace. They don’t house the art itself, but they aggregate the catalogs of well-known galleries across the world. Each offers a clean, uncluttered interface where you can engage in activities we’re all familiar with by now: follow, favorite, and—if you have a couple thousands of dollars—buy or bid.* Sometimes my credit-card finger gets itchy, but so far I’ve resisted. I like looking at my own virtual gallery when I open up the app. It's like Pinterest, but classy. **
My first thought during the opening seconds of Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) was that the audio wasn’t synched correctly. On screen I was seeing a negative of a photographer’s darkroom, but the audio track was describing a different photograph all together, a portrait with a frame and a metronome. As I was preparing to get up and reload my web browser something was happening: the negative was melting, the emulsion was rippling; it was turning dark from the inside out. This drama of slow destruction had distracted me from the problem at hand. By the time the photo was a crinkled, chard mass on a hot plate, we were on to another photo: A frame and a metronome. The audio, however, was describing a different photo altogether.
Such is Frampton’s game, and it continues for another thirty minutes: a succession of photos out of synch with their narratives. In (nostalgia) we are neither living in the present or the past. The narrative disrupts our visual interpretations of the photo, just as much as the photo disrupts our memory of the narrative—on top of it all, the photos are resigned to oblivion, one hotplate session at a time. This was Frampton’s way of dealing with an archive he found somewhat unnecessary (and occasionally embarrassing) as he moved from photography to its sequential progeny of motion picture film.
“Just watch these images. Nothing much happens. Images go. No tragedy, no trauma, no suspense. Just images. For myself. And for a few others. One doesn’t have to watch. One doesn’t. But if one feels so. One can just sit and watch. These images…”
This quote comes nearly two thirds of the way through Jonas Mekas’s 1969 filmic essay Walden. For some viewers, it’ll be too late to explain just what he’s about. For others it’ll be unnecessary. But for an essentially plotless film that clocks in at three hours, this thesis has always been lurking in the background. Someone may as well say it. And it may as well be him.
And yet, so much happens here. Mekas is at the epicenter of New York art. He finds himself filming—and sitting in with—Andy Warhol, Eddie Sedwick, Allen Ginsburgh, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Velvet Underground (during their first appearance), Hans Richter, an anonymous German film crew, John and Yoko, and Stan Brakhage. Yet all this amounts to a small percentage of what’s on screen. Mostly it’s Mekas as observer of his friends, environments, and the anonymous people of New York. He’s a master of jump cuts, double exposures, and asynchronous sound. The sequences are loosely connected through a series of typewritten intertitles. But mostly these are images. Nothing much happens.
I'm kind of, really addicted to art books. I buy them. Read them. Love them. I refer to them. I look to them for inspiration.
But I have a bit of a problem as I move beyond the cannon of Warhol, Cornell, Rauschenberg, Johns, etc. There aren't enough women artists represented in art books. Yes, there are many books on Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, and Louise Bourgeois. But many groundbreaking female artists have been passed over by a chauvinistic and risk-adverse publishing industry.
So I'm keeping a list, as I come across them, of important female artists who have no currently in-print catalogs or monographs. Know of a woman artist who needs a book? Let me know if the comments, and I will add her. Or tweet with #sheneedsabook.
Ruth Asawa: A much loved Bay Area sculptor whose work hangs in the DeYoung Museum. She also has an art school named after her—but no book currently in print (a well-received publication from 2006 goes for $150 or more on Amazon marketplaces).
Sari Dienes: She inspired and championed Rauschenberg and Johns (who have more books between them than I can count). Her work ran the gamut from traditional printmaking, to painting, to photography, to complex sidewalk rubbings.
Joyce Neimanas: Neimanas is a groundbreaking photographer who discovered Polaroid "joiners" two years before Hockney. She delighted in process, and frequently brought feminist concerns into her work. In 1984, a 24-page pamphlet was published by the Center for Creative Photography is Arizona, but it's out-of-print. And it's only 24 pages.
Idelle Weber: Her graphical and dynamic pop art style literally invented the look of Madmen. In 2013, a 48-page book was published by Hollis Taggart Galleries.
Jann Haworth: She "helped" Peter Blake create the cover for Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But she did so much more. Her complex assemblages and "soft art" are feminist statements that deserve to be seen.
Dorothy Grebenak: She wove "pop" statements into rugs. Her woven "manhole covers" in particular seem apt critiques of the male-dominated art world.