Judy DaterSelf Portrait Salt Flats (1981)

One of my all time favorite photos by Dater is her Self Portrait with Snake Petroglyph:

I don’t know how I’ve never made this connection before but it’s entirely possible–quite likely, actually–that this is was intended as a sort of paean to Francesca Woodman.

After all, Woodman took her own life in January of 1981–the same year that Self-Portrait with Snake Petroglyph was created.

There are other similar features–the camera anchored firmly on a tripod while the photograph positioned herself in the scene. There’s the similar sort of motion blur Woodman deployed so often. (Although, it is important to note that: here it used much differently.)

A common critical and art historical question centers less on whether Woodman was an important artist–the interest in her work certainly continues unabated–but there is a lingering question of whether or not any of her mature work would’ve incited the intense reverie and devotion. With notable exceptions, her oeuvre (as it is), has been culled almost entirely from work produced before she was even 20. And there’s an argument to be made that after her year studying abroad in Rome, she never managed to rediscover the same sharpness in conception and execution again. Her foray into fashion photography was incalculably heinous. (Although in fairness, my favorite photo of hers was made during her last year of life.)

I adore Woodman. There’s only a handful of artists whose work I’ve spent as much time with as hers. (When I’m feeling especially full of myself I tell people that we’re involved.)

But I think that Dater’s work from from the year Woodman died–whether she meant it to or not–suggests that perhaps Woodman had, in fact, peaked and was past her prime.

Even in Self-Portrait with Snake Petroglyph, the framing is pretty much just about as wide as Woodman ever got. In her later work, in fact, she retreated–favoring the more intimate close-up style that prefigured the age of the instagram selfie by nearly three decades.

Dater very much went the other direction. Pushing the camera further and further back. (Anyone who is an actual photographer will appreciate the way this increases the difficulty and risk of the composition–the eye is more willing to forgive a composition that almost works if it’s shown something interesting in the bargain.

With the image above there’s also references to Wythe’s Cristina’s World as well as both a reference and a feminist critique of Edward Weston‘s strident male gaze-i-ness.

Also, it occurs to me that although we can with hindsight see the link between Woodman and Duane Michals now, plain as day: I feel like it was perhaps problematic for a straight, cis, white girl to be appropriating so whole cloth the work of a gay man?

Dejan Dizdar AKA CDAstudioD0215 (2013)

If
not exactly a good image, it does feature several noteworthy facets: it
bears the blanket blessing bestowed by dwindling golden hour light, the
pose imposes an intriguing sculptural form against the sand, sky and I
suppose you’d term that grassy mass ‘a tuffet’.

What is extremely
cool is that the camera is essentially pointed up hill–giving a view of
both the ground sloping upward as well as the clouds strewn all about
overhead.

However, unless I’m mistaken, part of what makes this work is a feature of optical distortion–specifically what’s
termed barrel distortion; basically, horizontal and vertical lines only
run truly side to side or up and down, respectively, at the center of
the frame. The further you are from center frame the more they bulge
outward. Like so:

Not how this visual aberration creates and illusion of bringing the model closer while pushing the sky further back:

Edward WestonNude on Sand, Oceano (1936)

If you ever get the chance, I recommend going to an exhibition opening party at MoMA enough. There’s nothing like getting shitty off an open bar and then wandering around transfixed by art.

I’ve been to two such events. The one relevant to this post was for Paul Graham’s a shimmer of possibility. Graham is a grossly underappreciated photographer and the show was excellent; but being more than a little inebriated, I wandered into either the permanent photography catalog or another exhibition. Come to think of it, it might’ve been part of the broader implications of Graham’s work in an photo historical context.

However it worked out, I ended up staring at this Weston print for the better part of an hour.

I’ve noted previously that I don’t really care for Weston as a photographer but I consider his skills as a print maker unriveled. That’s not an uncontroversial opinion–given that Weston’s son apparently made the prints for the majority of his father’s work.

The thing that makes me reasonably sure that this photograph was printed by the elder west is that it’s both flatter and both shadows and highlights are more restrained.

This capture doesn’t even come close to doing the physical print justice. But you can at least see the implication of the stunning texture in the sand and the luminosity of gradations in the mid-tones shine through legibly.

As such, when I read about the tempest in a teapot over at The Guardian–where several of their ‘esteemed’ art critics got into a tiff over whether or not photography is art, I was immediately reminded of Weston’s print.

Perhaps, I’m biased but I don’t understand how anyone could stand in front of this print and argue that isn’t Art without being a troll’s asshole.

Marcel MeysLeda and the Swan (1920)

I have a very long list of scholarly essays I have half a mind to write. I know I’ll never write them but I think the concept is vital enough that someone should write about it–even if it’s not me.

One such essay has to do with understanding the mechanics or artistic influence using figurative painting as a microcosm. I think it’s interesting that it starts out as a system of patronage–artists accept assignments to depict certain stories and thereby practice their craft.

If you’ve ever spent any time studying 13th through 18th century painting–or spent an afternoon ambling drunkenly around the Gemäldegalerie (have done; plan to do again)–you know that regardless of historical merit, a fair portion of it is BORING AS FUCK.

Yes: there are exceptions wherein the practitioner’s craft is so clearly some next level shit that it shifts the way that myth is depicted henceforth. (Giotto and Masaccio being goddamn exemplars.)

Then there’s those that add not only staggering craft but who also manage to strip away any sort of superfluous decoration and get to the dynamic core of the image. That’s abstract… think of it this way given the established trope the artist finds a means of not only presenting the subject in a new, dynamic way but they do so in cuh a way that the render the title unnecessary. You look at the image and you know down in your bones, the story behind it.

My favorite example of this visionary work is Bruegel‘s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

But there’s also work that alludes to mythology in order to clarify or enrich itself. I had an example that was a painting but as I’ve been writing this I may have been drinking rye whiskey and now I’m just blasted enough that the only example I’m able to summon to mind is the fact that Ellen Page’s (who is fucking incredible, by-the-by) character in Inception is named Ariadne.

As with this example, the majority of such efforts end up knee jerkily hipster. But there’s the further complication when we are dealing with analog photographic or digital imaging processes. Joel Sternfeld did a a great project called On This Site: Landscape in Memorium that commented on how text informs images and images inform text.

I find this image to be an example of this last kind of image. I’m not the title necessarily detracts from the work… if you know anything about the history of the depictions of the story of Leda and the Swan then you can appreciate it’s cleverness.

My trouble is that I think the harkening of the title back to mythology diminishes the fact that this image is more than ninety years old but still looks as if some analog fetishist Tumblr photographer collaborated with an up and comping Tumblr model to make it.

Iwase Yoshiyuki – Untitled (1966)

Yoshiyuki, it seems, was a sake magnate who upon being gifted a Kodak camera set out to document the so-called ama girls who harvested seaweed, shells, oysters and abalone from the cold waters off Japan’s Pacific coast.

This photograph is atypical of his work which frequently featured candid shots of topless divers, water, sand and nets.

It was likely produced as part of one of his ill-advised forays into the fine art nudes. Unlike those awkward, overly self-conscious dalliances re-staging previous scenes in an effort to transform immediacy into technical rigor, this manages to encapsulate Yoshiyuki preoccupations in a manner which transcends the context of its creation and becomes at once somehow both timeless and deeply resonant in its uncomplicated humanness.

Miloš BurkhardtTitle Unknown (XXXX)

You know how a movie that is just plain bad is somehow always better than a film that squandered such great potential?

That’s how I feel about Burkhardt’s work–he images have potential but almost always come off as dull in their staid repetition of the female nude as a landscape within a landscape conceit.

The above is an exception. So much so, in fact, that I question Burkhardt’s editing eye–this flatly doesn’t belong anywhere near the photos with which it has been surreptitiously grouped.

Note the subtle shadow-to-highlight gradation between foreground and background sand. With the exception of her left elbow, the image is compressed to mid-tones/shadow ranges; accentuating the curving line of her back flowing into her neck and dark cascading hair. The line of her right leg jagging the eye rightward, following the angle of her thigh

Her contorted pose reframes her face and pubis within the larger composition–the focus is definitely sharper on her face.

I love the way the one strand of her hair is straggles along the back of her neck toward her throat. And I can’t really justify it but something about the position of her hands brings to mind both Gabriel Orozco’s My Hands Are My Heart and Pina Bausch’s brilliant choreography for Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.