Paul Graham’s ‘Free Pass’?

Shortly after I posted the first ‘Food for thought’ which gave an introduction to Paul Graham’s work, Stan Banos of Reciprocity Failure commented on the amount (or rather lack of) criticism his more recent projects have been subjected to. This doesn’t just apply to Paul Graham by any means and I think important points are raised here by Stan so have included his comments below: (Thanks Stan!)

– Matt

From the series 'Troubled Land' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Stan Banos:

FWIW, I think Troubled Land one of the greatest, most innovative documentary essays ever, and full well realize that Mr. Graham is close to a photographic demigod in many an art and documentary photo circle- and yes, who am I to say otherwise. Master photographer, innovator, educator- all well earned accolades. Nevertheless, all the above should not place anyone above criticism.

I’m not the greatest fan of his latter work, most of it searching for a new voice, a new vision he never quite achieves, but continues to deconstruct on his journey- and it most certainly is his prerogative not to repeat himself. But I continue to ask- who without his pedigree, without his name appeal would have been able to secure a publisher (other than Blurb) to publish a book of… grain? All without question or critique- no artist, politician, or god that should be given that much of a free pass.

From the series 'Films' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Matt Johnston:

Stan,
I would tend to agree with you here. Troubled Land is the rare photobook that really can keep you coming back and finding new layers and new questions each and every time, for me the same is true of ‘A1′ and in a very different way ‘Beyond Caring’. His latter, more conceptual work certainly doesn’t have the same gravity as these early projects but in ‘A Shimmer of Possibility’ I still find something special (can’t really out my finger on what that is though).

The free pass is a very good question, and I think it can apply to a few photographers lately; I know it is photo-suicide to say anything against Mr R Frank but I was immensely disappointed with ‘Pangnirtung’ and suspect this 5-day documentation would not have been published by Steidl had Frank been a young and unknown author.

I think in these cases the discussion and critique or review of the projects/books should be more transparent, otherwise these authors continue to have an aura of invisibility around them; everyone says they are fantastic but no one want to say why! On top of this, so many reviews now simply take the letter of the publisher as law, and in turn the publisher points people to this ‘great new review’ and the circle of photobook love-in continues. (There are of course some fantastic reviewers and photobook commentators who do not fall into the category above – Stockdale, Colberg, Claxton etc)

Do you think Graham’s standing as an ‘Art’ photographer helps with this ‘free pass’?

M

From the series 'American Night' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Stan Banos:

I can only speculate, Matt. Some artists build up toward greatness in slow and steady increments then maintain a persistent level of quality throughout, others have a rather meteoric rise, and then milk it- others still, try as they might, just can’t grab the golden ring again. I don’t believe Mr. Graham a slacker by any means, he has continued to create in earnest- I just don’t think anything he’s done since his initial three books has come anywhere near that level of artistic quality, confidence and authenticity. His latter work is characterized mostly by a series of hits and misses, perusing perpetually changing waters- not unsimilar to most student work. In this respect, he very much follows the Stephen Shore mode- an initial brush with photographic immortality, followed by more “personal” explorations.

Again, as to why the dearth of criticism (constructive or otherwise)- it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why certain artists and personalities become irreproachable darlings of the art world. Maybe, just maybe, because he was once called on how not to do documentary (B&W only, please) and having proved them wrong (big time) critics are now somewhat reticent to step up- particularly since he’s quite articulate and can sling the vernacular as good as any other art shark, and beyond. I still remember hearing him wax prolific on the benefits of “meditation pages” between images.

Hell if I know- what I do find curious though is that even the immortals of cinema get called out whenever they lay a turkey- and it’s usually fast and furious….

See the comments for more discussion:

Jeff Brouws on ‘Invisible City’, a personal reflection

Our sincere thanks to Jeff Brouws, photographer and author of ‘Approaching Nowhere’ and ‘Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations’ amongst others, for offering this personal reflection on Ken Schles’ ‘Invisible City’.

Ken Schles Invisible City was a lonely, cold toned poem to the urban night, capturing equally the alienation of those unsanctified city spaces while simultaneously calling forth the glee of anonymity and free flight found only on the street. The size of the book was perfect, the design perfect, and its printing perfect: matt, coal-black, sheet-fed gravure. Bleed upon bleed: images interrupting and overflowing onto, and into, one another.

©KEN SCHLES

This was a fragmented, elliptical narrative. With tenderness sprouting on one double spread, and bouts of cold-hard fucking amongst the decay on another. Blighted beauty. Naked nightscapes. Unkempt, dimly lit details of fast and forlorn self-pleasure make themselves known. Revelations pour down from our daily stage production, the audience a lone camera. Metonyms and metaphors for all that ail humanity.

This was a grainy, lens wide-open, manly photography: when a fellow had to know how to push film. Had to know the proper darkroom alchemy in which to conjure and coax delicate, thinly sliced images from cooked celluloid.

©KEN SCHLES

A bit of William Klein, Meatyard and Brassai. R. Frank roaming internal America instead of its hinterlands. A Tom Waits tune or Bukowskian turn-of-phrase made visual; the threat of the acrid, hot city beckoning, or blowing itself up, or perhaps imploding. Who knows in all that darkness?

Schles’ Invisible City photos hold all tension and dance with it. We catch our breath for the briefest of moments and then seek solace in movement again.

 

Jeff Brouws

 

 

Technical proficiency in Cafe Lehmitz – Stan Banos

Thanks to Stans Banos of ‘Reciprocity Failure‘ who commented this week on the technical proficiency Petersen demonstrates with the 35mm images in Cafe Lehmitz.

Banos pointed to several other artists who have captured moments under available light in a similar fashion, the comments, and a selection of images are shown below.

Stan Banos
Something that rarely, if ever, gets mentioned is that one of the reasons that Cafe Lehmitz remains so powerful and poignant to this very day is that the technical proficiency of the work alone is simply incredible. Early on, it really set the bar for what “availble light” work could aspire to be at its very pinnacle with a simple 35mm camera- and it was rarely duplicated in the years since…

Matt Johnston
Stan, you are absolutely right, the technical proficiency Petersen shows in Lehmitz is something i must say i overlooked on my first looks through the book. I would be keen to hear some of the projects you think have come close to the Lehmitz standard? I would suggest Invisible City by Ken Schles (which we look at in Sept) is another groundbreaking ‘available light’ piece of work.

Stan Banos
Good question. First off, it’s much easier to get top quality available light (ie- just enough existing light to record a worthwhile image) work today with full frame digital sensors. And although I can’t think of any (film) projects offhand of that particular (technical) quality that involve the sole use of available light photography, I’m sure they must exist. Admittedly, I’m not a great fan of available light work since 35mm by its very nature is pushing the limits of technical quality under the best of circumstances. That said, Henry Wessel’s 35mm prints (although not “available light”) are some of the most technically amazing and pristine wonders that can compete with any format for sheer technical (and aesthetic) beauty. And you need not go further than Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue to sample top notch work that features a considerable amount of available light work.

The work by Ken Schles has a different, more dreamy like aesthetic than Cafe Lehmitz that more closely resembles the work by another exemplary available light photographer, Michael Ackerman.

 

Anders Petersen

©ANDERS PETERSEN
©ANDERS PETERSEN
©ANDERS PETERSEN

Eugene Richards

©EUGENE RICHARDS
©EUGENE RICHARDS
©EUGENE RICHARDS

Michael Ackerman

©MICHAEL ACKERMAN
©MICHAEL ACKERMAN
©MICHAEL ACKERMAN

Ken Schles

©KEN SCHLES
©KEN SCHLES
©KEN SCHLES

We looked at Eugene Richards’ ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ a couple of months back, the archive can be found here

And we will be looking at Ken Schles’s ‘Invisible City’ in September, so plenty of food for thought here!

– Matt Johnston

 

 

The Valley: A Summary

Thanks to all who have contributed to the discussion on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’. We have compiled an archive of the posts below for future reference and will also be listed under the reading list page.

Larry Sultan: Video Obituary
Synopsis: Larry Sultan, The Valley
Images from ‘The Valley’
VIDEO: Full book video
‘Nature is Strange in the Valley’ Essay by Larry Sultan
Erik Saeter Jorgenson – The Valley is my favourite photobook

Chris Timothy on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’
Larry Sultan – Katherine Avenue
Larry Sultan interview with Terri Whitlock
Out of Sorts in ‘The Valley’ – Matt Johnston
The Valley – Exhibition Catalogue

July’s book is ‘Cafe Lehmitz’ by Anders Petersen. If you would like to contribute to the discussion, just let us know on mail@photobookclub.org

Chris Timothy on ‘The Valley’

Chris Timothy is a photographer and teacher from England, he runs the 21 Rue De La Hachette blog which is well worth a follow. He got in touch to add thoughts on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’ with reference to key images. If you do not have access to the book make sure you check out our video from cover to cover.

Chris Timothy on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’

Larry Sultans work entitled “The Valley” documents the filming of pornographic movies in his hometown of San Fernando Valley in Southern California. The Valley is an average middle class area, where homes cater for the needs of dentists, lawyers and strangely enough porn stars. These wonderful homes are rented out to the porn industry for live scenes to be captured in an aspirational setting. The strategy that ensures the body of works identity is different to that in which it is documenting is its main angle of concentration on location rather than the actors or actresses being sexualised or objectified. Sultan’s images explore the issues surrounding the questions; why would the owners of these middle class homes rent them to the industry, why does the industry want them? And maybe most importantly what are the consequences?

Why would the owners of these middle class homes rent them to the industry? Is it a sense of self-indulgence on the owner’s part or is it simply a method of further financial gain, which helps with the continuity of the middle class lifestyle? I believe it is the later. To rent out your home to the porn industry is a big moral decision and to do so is a clear indication of where you stand on the issue. However Sultan’s work discretely highlights maybe this moral decision is simply ignored and the homes are being rented out without too much thought to what the consequences may actually be. Sultan’s images show family portraits and personal photographs of the homeowners, their friends and their families, left on shelves and cabinet tops. These photographs are being captured in the background of sexual scenes and taken into the industry. While the viewers are consuming sexual media texts the home owners family and friends are on full view. Is this conscious choice of Sultan to show this demonstrating the loss of morality and care for others when a high amount of money is involved.

Child's Bedroom, Calabassas, 2001 ©LARRY SULTAN

So why does the industry want these homes? The choice of location has been made by the production companies to satisfy the needs of the consumers of the films. Remember, the sole aim of these films are to excite the viewer, so the combination of sexual gratification and aspirational images and locations will help the audiences purpose of consumption be met. To set scenes in houses, which most are not able to afford adds to the fantasy aspect for consumers and maybe most importantly adds to the escapism. Sultan’s choice of mis en scene within some of his images demonstrates this.

west valley studio #13, 2003 ©LARRY SULTAN

There is a definite juxtaposition between the property owners and the porn stars. One of Sultan’s images will focus on the pleasure and excitement of being a porn star and the next, the banality of sitting, sleeping and generally waiting around on set. This drastic change of emotion could be compared to that stereotypical view of a superficial consumer lifestyle held by the middle class. One minute you are filled with excited with a purchase that most would not be able to afford, the next this excitement has worn off.  You find yourself sitting in your museum of expensive purchases with the realisation that boredom has set in due to a lack of motivation and purpose of a lifestyle where there is no need to work towards anything, success has already been achieved.

Tasha's Third Film, 1998

Although Sultan states this work is not focused on the stars of the porn industry, after the audience views the images, most cant help but question why the actors and actresses take part in the industry. Do they perform due to a sense of aspiration and a desire to gain financial clout from a profession that is relatively high paid? Are the actors motivated by and aspire to be the very people who are renting their homes to the industry in which they work? So what are the consequences of the middle class renting out their home to the porn industry? Well, that is a matter of opinion dictated to you by your own moral standing. But what “The Valley” does clearly demonstrate is the porn industry and the films it creates are becoming more and more integrated in every day life and society in the western world.

– Chris Timothy

Erik Saeter Jorgenson – The Valley is my favourite photobook

The Valley is my favourite photobook. It’s the one I wish I had made. As a European, San Fernando Valley is pretty much my idea of the American dream. Equal opportunities in jizzneyland. I think the first image I ever saw from the book was the one with the lady in the killer heels, and the dogs following here. I was hooked. Then I read the essay and was blown away. It was so vivid, I could feel the Cali sun (and the dried cum too). The pictures themselves are so subtle and quiet, businesslike even. At the same time, they’re more cinematic than any porno I’ve ever seen. Porn is all about putting the viewer in the film, but Sultan manages to both be really present, and seemingly invisible at the same time. I still don’t understand how he made some of his shots. Sultan was there, and from first page to last. No book has thinner pages. There have been many books about porn and the performers, but The Valley will always be my American dream.