I was in desperate need for distraction a few weeks ago and decided to catch Robert Mapplethorpe's Polaroids exhibition at Modern Art Oxford in its last week. Like most people, I came to Mapplethorpe via his close association Patti Smith, but I enjoyed the show for a whole host of unexpected reasons.
Think Mapplethorpe and think punk rock, polaroids and sado-masochism - all instantly gratifying hits. And while there was plenty of that among the 96 shots in the show, I was surprised how many lonely still lifes there were - single subject shots of dusty sideboards and worn mattresses from friend's apartments in early 1970s New York.
These images dealt with unexpected emotions; of nostalgia, contemplation and grief. Arranged as respite to his more aggressively sexual snapshots, they felt charged with a negative force, as if you could sense the absence of each object's owner(s).
Maybe I was looking for this. Having spent 36 hours by my Mum's bedside before she passed away in the early hours of the previous Saturday, I had found myself with plenty of time to dwell on similar small details and inanimate objects: the folds of her bed sheets, the patterns of the hospital curtains, the arrangement of belongings on her dresser. Regardless of the prompting, I felt like Mapplethorpe was looking at his immediate surroundings through a similar filter.
I was lucky enough to interview Patti Smith a few years ago and she told me how she had taken to visiting the houses and graveyards of the writers and artists that she admired to photograph the tools of their creativity - the writing implements of William Blake and such like. I wonder now if that was a fascination that dated back to her time together with Mapplethorpe, or whether she was belatedly picking up on the methods of her former lover?
Soon after that exhibition, the ever-generous Bill Guy recommended I take a look at the work of Uta Barth, a beautiful and rather understated photographer working in Los Angeles. As her website puts it, "her interiors and landscapes engage the viewer in an almost subliminal way, testing memory, intellect and habitual response." That seemed to crystallise what I had felt towards Mapplethorpe's still lifes but also left me sad that the Oxford exhibition and accompanying book had all been promoted in a rather one-dimensional way - even looking for a polaroid to accompany this post, I found plenty of his S&M shots and portraits but none of the more modest, contemplative pieces. Sure, people like to be titillated and provoked but where is the harm in presenting a fuller picture of an artist with more to offer? To me it was clear that sex sells but memories last.
The Jive Talk “In the context of art photography, Sasse rightly begins by breaking the replicative link between camera and subject. Taking this altered concept of photography as a basic premise, he sees pictures not as illustrations of something else, or as records of the past, but first and foremost as two-dimensional formations, during the viewing of which the present occurs.”
- Stefan Gronert, The Düsseldorf School of Photography, 2009
The Hip Walk Atmospheric, lo-fi shots of otherwise insignificant architectural details that feel loaded with nostalgia and intrigue.
I just read this great story about "that little ole lonely elevator girl" from Robert Frank's photo, above. More than 50 years on, she came forward after seeing her 15-year old self in a review of Frank's The Americans at SFMOMA. I particularly like Kerouac's description of the "blurred demons" in the photo too - it's something I've attempted in a few pictures with mixed success.
Anyway, thanks to the Exposure Project blog for tipping me off to this (via the NPR site). I found their blog while I was searching for Christopher Doyle images online yesterday and it is the sort of site worth setting aside a long, wet afternoon to properly dig through.
Another plea for recommendations here. After posting about the work of Rut Blees Luxemburg a few weeks ago, I've rewatched a bunch of bootleg Wong Kar Wai DVDs I picked up in Hong Kong last year. The director has worked with cinematographer Christopher Doyle on most of his features so far and between them they've established a very distinctive style, taking their cue from vintage noir and retro-futurism, with plenty of slo-mo camera work and unusual viewpoints.
It is the over-saturated colours and heavy contrasts that I'm particularly interested in, especially on 2046 and In The Mood For Love. I've seen it called "Vanguard colour grading" but can't find a good explanation of this on the 'net. I'm guessing it's an expensive post-production filter of some sort but I'm sure there must be an easy way of getting similar effects in Photoshop - a few things I've tried look far too processed or heavy. If anybody can advise on a neat way to replicate this or maybe point me to an online tutorial somewhere, that'd be much appreciated. Here is the kind of thing I mean...
2046, (Dir.) Wong Kar Wai and (Cine.) Christopher Doyle
Chungking Express, (Dir.) Wong Kar Wai and (Cine.) Christopher Doyle
In The Mood For Love, (Dir.) Wong Kar Wai and (Cine.) Christopher Doyle
Dutch photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn has spent the best part of three decades taking portraits of Tom Waits and the pair have now collaborated on a book of iconic shots and lyrics. Waits/Corbijn was due out today according to Amazon but it looks like we might have to wait until the end of the year to see it, judging by the website of publishers Schirmer-Mosel.
Waits must be a dream to photograph as I can't think of another singer-songwriter of his stature who has maintained such a strong aesthetic over a 30-plus year career. His lyrics have always been a grab bag of vivid visual references and twisted narratives; of Potter's Field graveyards, windshield diamonds and jockeys full of bourbon; of buildings "lit like dominoes" and hookers so good they'd "make a dead man come."
And for a funny looking fella, he seems to really enjoy the theatre of the photo shoot, with each scene serving to accentuate his various character traits in neat little ways. When he barks into a megaphone or bangs a drum, it encapsulates that unpredictable menace within his music - that same uncomfortable feeling you get when a nutjob sits down beside you on the bus. Similarly, when he is shown elsewhere in silhouette clambering up a tree, it is impossible not to fixate on his simian-like features more closely next time around or chuckle at the Jungle Book-era Louis Prima bounce to his gravelly scats. Corbijn's photographs draw many of these traits out beautifully and the pair's collaboration should be a rare treat. Whenever it comes out.