Koo BohnchangIn The Beginning #41 (1995)

It occurs to me that maybe what separates an aesthetically pleasing image from Art has something to do with connectivity–how carefully it is stitched together and to the world surrounding it.

For example, Bohnchang’s body of work entitled Soap, is clearly an exercise in typology. It’s antecedent being the preeminent practitioners of photographic typology Bernd and Hilda Becher. Followed by Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip and Chuck Close’s portraits and Sugimoto’s luminous Seascapes.

The thing is: once you start considering typology as a motivation for image making it’s difficult to know where to cease application. In effect, I can’t think of a single so-called fine art photographer whose work in terms of genre, subject or process can’t be interpreted as a inherently typological. (Francesca Woodman would perhaps provide the exception that proved the rule.)

There is something obsessive about typology. So what separates a genuine work of art from something compulsively collected–and I acknowledge the distinction between making the thing you collect and simply acquiring an object.

Bohnchang, in his own words, describes his motivation to make images as being driven “not [by] flinging a camera over my shoulder and heading off to some
unexplored place. For me the thing of real value is looking for what is
inside of me.

I could take the easy way out here and attribute this sentiment to a sort of process as an act of mindfulness. And while I think it is, at least in part, exactly that, there’s also something of an underlying awareness of the connection between that mindful exercise, the form taken by that exercise and the historical interpenetration.

The Becher’s work is genius not because of obsessivenes, it’s brilliant because it finds dignity and beauty in the ugly and ordinary; Ruscha’s efforts and not extraordinary because of their comprehensiveness, they are vital because they expandied the way that photography can present the world as continuous within the scope of singe, static frames; Sugimoto’s ocean as landscape are straight up hypnotic as fuck.

Though I don’t love all Bohnchang’s work, it’s definitely Art. And the reason it is comes as a result of the way his work always contorts in on itself to draw attention to the process that brought it about.

I feel that Matthew Weiner‘s–despite how horribly enormously problematic I find him is as a creator–oft trotted quote fits here:

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They
want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it
all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who
do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek
to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and
the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the
illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that.
People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged,
because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a
finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I
would not hide my brushstrokes.

The difference between Weiner and Bonchang is that the former’s brushstrokes point self-consciously to the creator whereas, the latter’s seams point to the historical context, the process of creation and the work itself.

Katherine TurczanAnya and Carolina from Brezhnev’s Daughters series (201X)

In the indispensable Ways of Seeing, John Berger shows us the same painting–specifically, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows–twice.

With the first instance he presents it much as it would be encountered in a gallery, with the title and artist. However, the second time he merely labels it something to the effect of the last painting Van Gogh made before killing himself.

Criticism has been leveled against this scene. Chronologically, Wheatfield with Crows is only known to be one of the final paintings.

In my mind the criticism misses the point and by doing so goes a great distance towards proving the contention: context of presentation shapes the way a work is approached and subsequently understood.

Katherine Turczan’s work–to coin a phrase–really cultivates my pearl by representing both why fine art photography matters as well as why it’s–in the same breath–an intolerable, insufferably pretentious circle jerk.

Consider the ’essay’ which accompanies Brezhnev’s Daughters:

Brezhnev’s Daughters, the title of this project refers to what women call themselves in Dneprodzerzhinsk, Ukraine, the birthplace of Leonid Brezhnev and the industrial heartland of Ukraine.  The women say that they are Brezhnev’s children because they have inherited the future of the failing land and their father has abandoned them.

Dneprodzerzhinsk, Ukraine is about 8 hours from Kiev along the Dnepro River the heart of Ukraine’s mining and manufacturing production.  This area is like many cities in the east, an industrial wasteland with factory stacks ablaze filling the skyline.  The landscape takes on the quality of a bad Hollywood movie about the apocalypse. The industry in these towns is a double edge sword; one that contaminates and sickens yet employs most of its people.  This is where Ukraine’s working poor live.

In these parts of Ukraine it is very prestigious to work in the sex industry.  The industry offers economic opportunity to many women other than what the factories can provide. Their sexuality is their strength and they use it as a form of emancipation to support their families.  They are very proud of this.  Many young women work as welders during the day for pay that is not sufficient to feed their families, while at night they pole dance. Brezhnev’s Daughters is a portrait of these and other women in the industrial south who are faced with these complex choices. 

These photographs are made with an 8×10 camera and printed on Gelatin Silver Paper.

As far as such things go, it’s all but flawless. And without a doubt it enlivens/amplifies the resonance of the photographs. The trouble is: it also muddles them.

That which is distinct in Turczan’s work is not what makes the work’good’.

Katja, Mariya and Liana resemble thousands of other candid model shots produced by the internet hordes. (Admittedly, these were shot with a large format 8×10 analog camera.)

Karolina could very well be a reclaimed Jock Sturges’ discard; Yulia is a straight-up Atget heist.

What is distinct about Turczan’s work is where it doesn’t bother to sweep it’s shoddiness under the rug. Sasha is #skinnyframebullshit; Oksana avoids the same mistake (the difference for anyone who cares, is mentally reconsidering the shot given the opposite orientation and comparing and contrasting) but as with the previous image just isn’t an especially technically astute image even if both are alive in a way few of the other images are.

I do like the photograph I’ve posted here. It one of maybe three in keeping with the explanatory essay. But not only is it in keeping with the essay, there’s a dialogue between the contextualization and the work that sharpens both.

And it occurs to me that academnified fine art photography operates from the premise of creating work that clearly indicates both what it is and what it is not. Popular image making on the other hand starts and more often than not ends with the assertion this is interesting. Such taxonomical considerations are vital to my own process, but I think at a certain point you have to focus on what is instead of what isn’t. Too much work tries to be everything to everyone and ends up nothing to no one. But it’s interesting that the work which insisted clearly in its own specificity somehow manages to transcend that specificity more often than not.