Wednesday, March 14, 2007

La Jeunesse Dorée: PDN's 30

The list of winners is finally viewable here.

There is a preponderance of fashion and other types of photography which does not interest me much, though it is all very accomplished work. However, there is indeed some stand out documentary and travel imagery that I find notable.

First off there is Kathryn Cook's excellent coverage of the Bolivian elections. These elections are part of a putative shift to the Left in Latin American politics which includes Lulo in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and Ortega in Nicaragua. Course whether this is in fact a genuine shift to the Left is highly questionable, as each of these candidates are very different pols with very different constituencies determined by very different circumstances. Ortega is a pragmatist who has ably managed to keep his "revolution" alive by working within the prevailing power structure; Chavez is a demagogue, a little in the Peronist line, who spouts alot of Bolivarian rhetorical tripe in order to contain and coopt troublesome elements in Venezuelan society that might otherwise prove unmanageable; -- of all the candidates Evo Morales could prove to be the most interesting because he appears to be genuinely motivated by the planks of his political platform.

Secondly, there is Aaron Huey, whose marvelous image of a ruined mosque in Uch Sharif, Pakistan was featured on Tewfic El-Sawy's blog.

Rena Effendi's black and white work in Baku, Azerbaijan. Here is a candlelight procession:

And Alvaro Yballa Zavala, who strives to capture a different perspective on the war in Iraq; rather than combatants, he depicts mundane moments of life under seige, so that "viewers can imagine themselves in these situations."

Well done everybody.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Travelling with Tewfic

"le film, c'est le traveling." Jean-luc Godard.

Being that it is Saturday, but I have been somewhat remiss in posting on this log over the past weeks, I feel that I ought to post something, but will let up on the heavy duty commentary! Saturdays have special significance for me, because those were days when my father would pack us up in the car and explore New York, travelling into its numerous subcultures guided by my his inconsumable interest in its many eccentric characters. That love of exploration deeply impressed me and pretty much accounts for why I find myself doing what it is I do.

So I thought it would be nice to commemorate the day with a nod toward the concept of travel, in its best sense, and bring to your attention one of the most enjoyable web logs that I have come across recently and which I regularly consult.

Tewfic El-Sawy's The Travel Photographer is a great example not only of a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable blog, but also of the very concept of travel -- not so much as a genre of photography, which in a sense provides merely the context for Tewfic's musings, but more as a general approach to writing, thinking, and living. Because through the medium of Tewfic's wideranging interest, his generous appreciation of his fellow travelers, his love of the endless variety of human life and culture, as well as his indefatigable energy, we are treated to a spectacle of global cultural expression that I find as nourishing as my daily breakfast and a lot tastier than Special K.

Travel photography is sometimes criticized for its being an adjunct of consumer culture, and I must admit that to the extent that it serves the tourist industry, it is an egregious and problematic genre; I live in a place that simultaneously benefits from and is inevitably damaged by tourism, so I am naturally ambivalent about its virtues. But Tewfic's take on travel is of a different nature altogether: he is not after cinematic adventure; exoticism is irrelevant, and the merely picturesque, the mainstay of many a travel rag, has no hold on his imagination. He is after something more modest and more profound -- human communication, pure and simple. Connecting with others and exploring their world views.

In the past week I have travelled with Tewfic to Turkey through the lens of the great Nuri Bilge Ceylan; to Afghanistan with Veronique de Viguerie; to Kashmir wth John Isaac; to India with Steve McCurry; to Havana with David Alan Harvey; as well as to the Kumbh Mela through Tewfic's own steady lens -- all without leaving the sheltering sky above me. It has been an exhilirating ride -- not for the distances covered but for the distances closed, the connections made, the communication effected. In the end, travel is a deeply personal and intellectual process whereby the enlightened reader -- and after all, seeing the world is a kind of reading, a perpetual search for signs and a puzzling over their meaning -- is compelled to test the limits of one's understanding, and the extent to which one manages to push away the comfortable envelope of our assumptions that cocoon our perceptions may well be the governing criterion separating the traveler from the mere tourist. Tewfic is decidedly working on behalf of the former.

I could go on, but let Tewfic be your guide from here on, as few people have ever been issued their credentials to better purpose.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Milton Rogovin




©Milton Rogovin, from Triptychs, 1972-1994

One of the best portraitists of our times, Milton Rogovin, has received the Cornell Capa Award and I thought I would just make mention of it here, though both Jim Johnson and Alec Soth have commented on this remarkable photographer whose simple, direct gaze has furnished some of the most powerful portraits of our time. His simplicity is the key to his vision and the enduring interest of his work. While I agree that his focus on "the forgotten ones" is something that distinguishes his imagery and certainly has served as an important guiding theme, I do not believe that we can define the value of this remarkable body of work solely in terms of his abiding interest in the common man.

One of my favorite books of his is in fact Triptych, a marvelous journey through time and space. It is a very strictly defined time and space, too, perfectly in keeping with the highly detailed and specific nature of the gaze he turns on people. This is Buffalo's Lower West Side, over a period of three consecutive decades. Photography by its very nature is a meditation on evanescence, on passing -- we photograph what is there for a split second and gone. The trace that remains on our negatives or our sensors forms a curious record of reality, since it testifies unequivocally to the momentary presence of that particular set of objects in time and space, and yet is itself a chimerical imposture conjured up out of a multitude of compositional elements that ultimately form the photographer's perspective. A portraitist like Rogovin keeps his intervention to a minimum, and there is no doubt that he must think of himself as one who hews to an objective viewpoint--no postmodern irony here regarding the nature of representation. The concept underlying Rogovin's relation to his subjects is more naive but no less profound, because it yields perhaps one of the most intimate and human portrayals of the passing of time that I know of. A terser, more poetic look at The Ages of Man would be hard to find.

It is interesting to compare Rogovin with his predecessors, particularly someone like August Sander. While Sander was interested in a kind of typology of his society (and it is important to note in passing that his photographic genius saved his work from being a mere catalogue of social types), Rogovin is clearly interested in the individuality of his subjects, their inexorable quiddity, and this little trip through three decades of Buffalo time provides ample evidence of the inexhaustible curiosity and sympathy Rogovin bears for each of his subjects. Each triptych, in its way, is unique. One would think that such a rigid formula would vitiate the effect of the portraits and create a monotonous rhythm, but I can find no lapse of interest or energy in the series.

One of Rogovin's virtues is that he brings us back to a very simple truth, that the simple act of looking squarely at something can yield profound pleasure and understanding, that taking the time to actually look instead of peruse or scan as we are wont to do is in the end the essence of photographic revelation. Our Kodak moments are lacking not so much because they are artless but because they are thoughtless, the product of a reflex snap of the shutter. Instantaneity is not necessarily an advantage: thought comes dripping slow, and the photographer is caught between two very different rhythms whenever he or she lifts the camera to the eye. The accumulated weight of culture and history and temperament presses against the flimsy shutter with inexorable desire, while the lure of quick gratification -- the lynchpin of our consumer culture -- has induced in us dismayingly itchy trigger fingers. Snapping is at once so facile and so fraught with conflict and possibility. Salman Rushdie once observed that a snap was a moral decision taken in an eighth of a second. The decision only appears split-second; but it, like the moral it captures, is, or ought to be, the fruit of history, of reflection, of deliberate cultivation, perennial and persistent like the olives of centuries old trees. Rogovin's patient and painstaking collection of humanity in the coils of circumstance is a testament to the power of dwelling in this contemplative attitude, wherein the blink of the shutter is an almost unconscious or natural consequence of a profound intuitive grasp of the momentousness of the mundane.