The Red Bustle, by Nick Knight

Nick Knight Red Bustle for Yohji Yamamoto 1986

Nick Knight            The Red Bustle, 1986

The colours of a bullfight as the sun finally goes down. It’s not complicated. The elements of this photograph are controlled with a curious mix of indulgent austerity, and it remains seductive long after the clothes it was made to sell have passed into the archive.

The picture comes from early in the series of clothing catalogues Nick Knight made for Yohji Yamamoto and is dated 1986.  The model was Sarah Wingate and Knight was an outsider. He’d made a documentary series about skinheads (the disaffected right-wing youth movement which was both scary and deeply fashion-conscious) and a series of exaggerated portraits of a new London in-crowd of the early 1980s in a commission for i-D magazine. Still not thirty when the Yamamoto commission came his way, his collaborations with graphic designer Peter Saville and with art director Marc Ascoli were relatively new.

The catalogues were an experiment in how these confident, even arrogant talents could work together, and they were a departure for the client, too. It is always a wrench for a fashion house to publish pictures which give no very clear idea of the garments.

These pictures were a reaction against a period when fashion had been for a while even more overtly all about sex than usual. They are deliberately non-sexy in the same way that a Mohican and a pair of Doc Martens had been a few years before. They have technical brio. Knight flirted between flat representation and three dimensional: almost all of the girl, her cap, her long coat, most of her shoes are in inky black silhouette.  It could have been drawn with a Rotring.  The bustle that flares out behind her is glittery translucent pink net, and every pleat catches its full complement of zinging highlights and dark shadows.  The pool of shadow on the floor reminds us that this is a person, not just a graphic.  The little highlight on the heel is important: that’s where the flat blankness finally begins to curve into relief, and it’s the only place which shares something of the rival qualities of a map (on the left) and a sculpture (on the right). There is originality here, but there are debts, too, most obviously to Erwin Blumenfeld, the great innovator. It’s a cultured picture as well as a brash one.

Later in the same series of catalogues, Knight made a set of four pictures of Naomi Campbell in a red coat, the shapes as full as the sails of a J-Class yacht.  Those are perhaps better known than this one, but in the Red Coat, Knight made a formal error which jars badly:  he cut the girl off at the ankles, and in one version, at the top of the head, too.  This is better.  There is no slippage here.  This is a collision of punky daring with a very British Puritanism.

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L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard, by Robert Doisneau

The Accordionist Rue Mouffetard

Robert Doisneau                                      L’Accordéoniste de la rue Mouffetard (1951)

I like a bit of French humanist photography as much as the next man, and often for very simple reasons. But they’re not always simple pictures. Brassaï was an intellectual, a writer and a thinker as well as a snapper, whereas Robert Doisneau is thought of as an instinctual, reflex, photographer. He certainly had prodigious reflexes. A picture like this has to be rapidly seized. But that by no means implies that it need be slight. The elegant complexity of what is going on in this charming street scene still takes me by surprise. Never underestimate a great photographer.

The nominal subject of L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard  (1951) is a musician. He is facing us, but his eyes are a dark bar across his face, a clear indication that he cannot see. As if that were not enough, he has a very visible white stick. Above his head, a No Entry sign looks for all the word like a blindfold on a child’s drawing of a face. A blinded smiley would look just like that. It acts as a graphic shorthand of the whole picture: a visual title. So we have three separate, very clear suggestions that this cute picture is not about street life or music but about blindness.

Let’s go on: the group on the left are all looking with concentrated attention at something, but we cannot see what. The lady on the right, too, is staring at something, but in her case it’s out of shot. Between them, a very obvious “frame” in the panelling of the shop front is empty. Where we might expect an advertisement or a trade-name, there is only the varnished grain of bare wood. So the frame is “blind”, too. Only one figure is caught looking with attention: the sturdily poised artist square on his feet, drawing. We can’t see his page: too far, and protected by the angle of his pad. We can guess what he’s at, though. He must be drawing the blind accordionist. And then it finally dawns: he is drawing the musician, certainly. But he’s drawing him in a scene just like the one we’re looking at. And the only person looking intently back out of that scene, into the picture that Doisneau has made, is you. It’s a cheerful enough scene. But the joke is on us, the viewers. We are the only ones in the whole equation who are not seeing anything of what all the others are looking at. We are the blind viewers of the Rue Mouffetard.

It’s still cute, full of lovely period details like the baggy trousers and the battered soft hat. But it isn’t just cute, by any means. It is a beautifully crafted essay on the business of looking. As such, it’s amazing.

Engineers’ Blue

Henry Peter Bosse : US Dredge 'Phoenix' 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : US Dredge Phoenix 1885

In 1890, a year after the Oklahoma Land Rush, the great race by 50,000 settlers to claim previously Seminole lands after a starting gun was – literally – fired on April 22, 1889, the director of the US Census declared that the frontier was closed.  “There can hardly be said to be a frontier line.” He meant it in a specific and technical sense, that the line which divided population densities of less than two persons per square mile from heavier settlement was now impossible to trace.  Three years later, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner expounded at the then-new Art Institute in Chicago his influential doctrine that the character of American democracy had been formed by the frontier.  At that time, a few miles away, crowds were flocking to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (known also as the World’s Fair).

World's Columbian Exposition Chi 1893

World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago, 1893. Made by the Chicago Bank Note Company.

windmills at the Fair (uncredited)

Display of Windmills at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1893 (No photographer credited)

Tesla demonstrated the lightbulb and Westinghouse the alternating current generator (and George Ferris built the Ferris wheel and somebody displayed a chocolate machine so impressive that Milton Hershey switched from making caramel to chocolate). Theodore Dreiser was one of many visitors who had cause to remember the Fair: I think he met his wife there.

Chicago may well have remained a wild, wild town in its mores for some years longer (as bears witness Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, which dates from 1906); but after the 1893 Exhibition, it could hardly be thought a frontier.  The great rail-head, the focal point of all US trade, it had been sited where it was partly because it was so close to the Mississippi watershed.

One can argue with Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis at all sort of levels, and many historians have contested bits or the whole of it.  But the double myths of the West – of the wild lands being ‘civilized’, and of civilized townies getting a bit of the wilds in them, have become recurring tropes of the American view of America. America has been looking for new frontiers – including Space, famously, the ‘final frontier’ – ever since.  And conversely, the cults of outdoorsmanship remain undimmed, including guns and survivalism for some, or building self-sufficient communities off-grid for others.

the-grand-canyon-of-the-yellowstone-1872.jpg

Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.

The myth of the West was strong even as the frontier was being declared closed.  Among paintings, for example, Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair.

Numerous government agencies showed the photographs they had commissioned, many of them of expeditions west of one kind or another. Timothy O’Sullivan’s and Eadweard Muybridge’s pictures of the west were shown at the Fair, and so were William Henry Jackson’s, who had accompanied Moran to Yellowstone.  Jackson’s and Moran’s pictures are arguably what made it a national park – a literal taming of the West.   Jackson also made numerous photographs of the fair itself.  In other registers, Eastman showed there, and there were representatives from abroad, too. Among them all were a number of pictures by contributors from the Corps of Engineers, including Henry Peter Bosse (he’s pronounced Bossy, I think).

Bosse was a draughtsman mapmaker on the upper Mississippi, assigned to that branch of the Army Corps of Engineers based at Rock Island, Illinois from 1878 until his death in 1903. As an Englishman, I had to look up where Rock Island is.  I’d only ever heard of it in the context of Leadbelly’s classic Rock Island Line – reworked a number of times, including a version right in the far recesses of my memory by Harry Belafonte.

Bosse’s story is a wonderful one for a number of reasons. To start at the wrong end, it has a number of bad endings which almost scupper it. A large number of his glass negatives, for example, almost all of them, were dropped and smashed in an office move. He himself, come to think of it, could have survived longer.  He died at 59, poisoned by improperly canned asparagus. Bosse’s work, like that of so many photographers, could simply have not survived.

In the early 1990s, a number of dealers (including Denise Bethel, not yet head of the photographs department at Sotheby’s) became aware of some of Bosse’s pictures.  Prices were discussed, a few collectors were alerted, some sales were made.  John Anfinson, a historian attached to the Corps of Engineers, was contacted about Bosse.  He ferreted around and found a photograph of the cover of an album that had not yet appeared. “Presented to US Dredge William A. Thompson by Mrs. William A. Thompson.”  (Dredge is the Americanism for what British people call a dredger.  It’s a type of boat. In English English, the dredge is specifically the mud-digging or mud-sucking apparatus on the boat.)

The Corps of Engineers has the pleasant habit of renaming its boats after long-serving employees: Thompson had been a colleague of Bosse’s.  (Bosse got one of his own: after his death, the Vixen was renamed Henry Bosse in 1908, but unfortunately that one capsized in 1913.)  Anfinson checked, and sure enough, there was still an album on the Thompson:  it had been chugging up and down the Mississippi in the captain’s desk drawer for something like 50 years.  Miraculously, it was undamaged by damp or dust, by bugs or boatmen. That album was valued high ($4.5M high) and Bosse’s place in photographic history was made secure. As Wellington said of Waterloo, it was a damned nice thing…the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.  There are now Bosse pictures online, museums have Bosse holdings, there’s plenty of Bosse scholarship (some of which of course I acknowledge here with thanks).

In a blog of this kind, it is all too easy to write disproportionately (much and often) about that tiny part of photographic activity which has overt claims to art.  It is salutary sometimes to underline that photography makes its own art.  The great master photographers take their habits, their working methods, their interests and prejudices from where they find them. Bosse wasn’t an artist.  He was a jolly amateur cartoonist, a dab at lettering, a prince among cartographic draughtsmen.  He became a brilliant photographer. For the ten or so years that he photographed up and down the Mississippi, he was a state employee (he worked on the river much longer, but seems to have photographed only between about 1883-1893). It was work.  Important work in the national interest, to be taken seriously. To say that Bosse would not have considered himself an artist doesn’t imply that he was visually illiterate or naïve. He had artistry; even genius. But that’s not what he was selling.

His subject was the taming of the Mississippi – one of the notoriously incontinent rivers of the world – into a usable commercial highway.  The Mississippi is a great sluggish beast chock-full of silt, and it has the habit of flooding and violently changing its course.

Arkansas City, Arkansas, flooded by the Mississippi River, April 27, 1927

Mississippi Flood at Arkansas City, Arkansas, April 1927.

mississippi_map_1999265

Harold N. Fink for the Army Corps of Engineers. Map of the historical changes of bed of the Mississippi, 1944.

Taming the river was not just a question of civic pride.  Until the expansion of the railroads, the Mississippi represented the likeliest trade route for a country that was beginning to demonstrate its insatiable appetite for trade.  It had been a major trade route surprisingly early: by the 1820s the river was churned by steamboats as far north as Minnesota, enough of them in fierce competition that it was cheaper to send goods East by going down the Mississippi and around the long sea passage than to send them over the land route through the Appalachians – even though the land route is ten times shorter.

The Daisy Belle Taking the short cut after a Mississippi flood. Morris

Morris (Maurice De Bevere). The Daisy Belle Taking a Short Cut after a Mississippi Flood. The Lucky Luke books by Morris (later Morris and Rene Goscinny) are often based on real events. Here the famous 1000-mile race between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez in 1870 forms the basis of the story.

The Army Corps of Engineers has long been tied to huge projects that might elsewhere be given to civilian contractors.  Among these are national parks, road and railway construction, and of course a huge programme of working with water – for irrigation, navigation, flood-protection, and later, hydroelectric power.  After Bosse’s death, the depression-era programme of kick-starting the economy through public works was partly carried out by the Engineers, responsible for such all-American monuments as the Fort Peck Dam – whose very Socialist representation by Margaret-Bourke White appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life in 1936.

In Bosse’s day, the Engineers had funds to create a channel of a certain depth up the length of the upper Mississippi.  At first, that was four feet six inches; later more money was found and a channel depth of nine foot was aimed at over the entire length of the river above St. Louis.

Bosse was interested in a number of specifically river structures: weirs, locks, wingdams, levees… (a wingdam is a carefully angled obstruction built deliberately to speed the current to scour out a particular shallows). He was interested in a number of specifically river effects: rapids, floods, meanders…He was interested in the possibilities of bridges, docks, wharves.  And he spent his working life on boats: snag-boats, tug-boats, dredgers, workboats and so on.  That might have remained the working environment of Abraham Lincoln, who had spent a while as a flatboatman on the Mississippi, completing at least one journey from New Salem, Illinois, to New Orleans. It did remain Bosse’s working environment his entire working life.

Henry Peter Bosse :Wingdams Below Nininger, Minnesota

Henry Peter Bosse : Wingdams Below Nininger, Minnesota

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at Winona, Wisconsin, 1892

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at Winona, Wisconsin, 1892

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : US Steamlaunch 'Elsie' towing brush, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : US Steamlaunch Elsie towing brush, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Old Ponton Bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisonsin, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Old Ponton Bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisonsin, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Mechanic's Rock, Low Water, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Mechanic’s Rock, Low Water, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Front Street, Davenport, Iowa, High Water, 1888

Henry Peter Bosse : Front Street, Davenport, Iowa, High Water, 1888

Henry Peter Bosse : From Bluffs at Fountain City, Wisconsin, Looking Upstream, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : From Bluffs at Fountain City, Wisconsin, Looking Upstream, 1885 . You can see a raft of lumber in the channel – just what Bosse worked to make safe, fast, and cheaper.

Henry Peter Bosse : Entrance to Guard Lock, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Entrance to Guard Lock, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Closing Dam in Otter Chute, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Closing Dam in Otter Chute, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Below the Falls of St. Anthony, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Below the Falls of St. Anthony, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Bar in Front of La Crosse, Michigan, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : Bar in Front of La Crosse, Michigan, 1891.

The reason his pictures were (usually) made as cyanotypes was severely practical:  he worked for the Corps of Engineers.  Cyanotype was a sensible, relatively sturdy way to make cheap copies of diagrams and plans. Bosse could mix cyanotype chemistry even in a cramped cabin on a boat. But there is every reason to believe that as well as the stench of Mississippi mud, Bosse had poetry in his soul.

Engineers’ blue is a type of brick, made of heavier clay than the standard, more nearly waterproof, even less easy to crush. It was used by Victorian builders where great strength was needed, but because it looked so different, it also provided a simple vocabulary for (restrained) decorative fanciness. That is exactly how I feel about Bosse’s blue. It’s a tool, but one which allows a hint of flourish. Nothing gaudy, certainly nothing sensational. Bosse remains a steady working man. But that blue becomes his metre, his idiom. Time and again he puts little figures in the foreground of his pictures as Moran put them on a rise in front of Yellowstone. Do they represent the enormity of the task that he was tackling?  Human frailty in the face of the river gods?  Or are they there as a surveyor’s ranging rod, to give scale?  I’m sure Bosse had both in mind.  He was a practical man – and a practical man is the epitome of the American dream.  But he was also a photographer, making images to be dreamt over as well as merely read.

Surely that’s why he chose to make his pictures oval in the presentation albums that he took most care over.  The oval signified a view.  The oval was the shape of the eye: in French (which I have absolutely no reason to believe Bosse knew, but still) there is the expression a coup d’oeil, meaning a glance or look.  The oval represents that, a deliberate eyeful of the Mississippi, to be contrasted against merely sighting some bit of the thing. The pictures are superbly composed.  They are river views in the same way that Peter Henry Emerson was making river views in Norfolk at about the same time.

Emerson The Bridge publMarsh Leaves 1895

Peter Henry Emerson, The Bridge, from Marsh Leaves, published 1895.

Emerson thought of himself as making naturalistic photographs; as far as we know Bosse didn’t trouble himself with such things; they are just photographs.  They are records, statements of belief, elegant graphical shapes, mnemonics, arguments, totems, invitations all at the same time.  Too complicated?  That’s what photographs do; they smash our flimsy divisions between different kinds of thinking. The oval is the shape of fancy mounts in photographic company catalogues: this may be a factual view of an iron bridge, but it puts that bridge in its proper context, of the glorious triumph of the taming of the river – itself a big part of the taming of the West – by doughty engineers attached to the citizen Army of the self-identified most exceptional country in the world.  It isn’t fanciful to think of Bosse’s Mississippi as a kind of watery history painting.  Here was destiny.  Only in Bosse’s world, it didn’t have hussars bravely galloping through cannon-smoke. It had a four-and-half foot channel to clear.

Henry Peter Bosse : Construction of Rock & Brush Dam, Low Water, 1891

Henry Peter Bosse : Construction of Rock and Brush Dam, Low Water, 1891

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Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983 by Richard Misrach

Richard Misrach, Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea 1983

Richard Misrach: Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983. Richard Misrach is represented by the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, California.

As a co-founder of the Prix Pictet, awarded since 2008 for images on the theme of sustainability, I have thought a lot about environmental photography. I know that Richard Misrach takes his place in a long line of predecessors, from Carleton Watkins through Ansel Adams and the New Topographics. I know that both irony and the sublime had been found in the landscape many times before him. I’m British, and know well that tradition of engaged landscape photography represented by Fay Godwin and before her by Bill Brandt. But somehow, for me, it always goes back to Misrach, who was born in Los Angeles in 1949. Nobody else has made such a sustained political enquiry into our maltreatment of the wilderness in a vocabulary of such exquisite beauty.

 

This 1983 view of a flooded campsite, “Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, California”, is so simple. Yet it goes so far. Misrach’s big subject for some 40 years of photography at the very highest level has been the complex relationship between man and the environment. Much of that work takes its place in his huge Desert Cantos, which is mainly a catalogue of dreadful abuse, although the occasional noble moment intervenes. As his projects accumulated, it began to seem that here we had someone whose scope and range were as monumental as the area he worked in, the deserts of the south-western US. As sustained serial works go, the Desert Cantos are on the scale of Balzac. One of the Cantos is on the subject of a mysterious pit in the desert, full of dead horses and cows. A nuclear accident? An epidemic of some sort? Misrach’s point (or one of them) is that the whole mythology of the West was centred on those beasts: the 1,000-strong herds of cattle driven to the railheads, the cowboys on horseback. Suddenly Misrach was looking down at John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, caricatured in a pit full of dead beasts. He photographed them with the twisted agony of Goya or Géricault.

 

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 by bad management of irrigation waters from the Colorado River. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was substantially enlarged by more mismanagement. It is, in other words, both a part of the larger story of the struggle to bring water to the arid West, and a symbol of the chronic failure of that intervention. Misrach offers us this rare watery tourist spot in the desert, turned sour. Yet his camera is not so very different from the tourists’ cameras that would have pointed the same way before the water level changed. We gaze, as sightseers, at a sight no longer fit for sightseeing. There is blame to be ascribed, fault. Yet it is photographed with Misrach’s particular genius for light, caressingly.

Konditormeister by August Sander

August SanderPastrycook,

August Sander Pastrycook, 1928. © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2011. © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2011.

I have been inconstant about my favourite August Sander photograph. For a long time I had postcards of the three most perfectly Weimar of them pinned just to the right of my desk. The high-school graduate (1926), the secretary in a Cologne radio station (1931) and the wife of the painter Peter Abelen (1927/8). Three twisty Mannerist poses, three exquisitely languid cigarettes. Those three fabulous photographs are direct photographic parallels to the savage portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Hardem by Otto Dix, in her red-checked dress and monocle, which dates from 1926.

At other times, it’s been “The Three Farmers”, one of the very few photographs to inspire a full-length (and very good) novel: Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers. Or the travelling mason at the bend in road, in his startling flared trousers and fancy waistcoat. The bartender, with his absurd black toupee . . .

It is conventional to read Sander’s portraits as historically and prophetically laden; they throw light back on the collapsing orders of 19th-century Germany, and forward to the horrors of the early 20th. His great catalogue, Men of the Twentieth Century, is cited as a fundamental source so often, and by people expressing so many different things in so many different ways, that it is sometimes hard to see quite what the original added up to.

In the end, it was a heroically ambitious project by a photographer at the peak of his powers, but even he didn’t quite know what it all meant. He was a politically cautious man moved to great anger. He was a local patriot from the Westerwald unable to conceal his contempt for some of what his world had fostered. I see Sander crashing the studio habits of the generation before his into the newer habits of lightweight portable cameras and available light. Above all, I see a true photographer; somebody who believed that if you just look well enough something will become clear.

Look at his “Konditormeister (Pastry Cook), Köln Lindenthal”, c.1928. See how his ring bites into that fleshy finger. See how he wears the pin-striped trousers and highly polished shoes of a master of his trade. See the tense compromise between the strength of his right fist and the delicacy of those fingers in his left hand. Remember, if you will, that this man must have served in the Great War, and try to imagine what that left in him. See the three great round curves, of his head, his torso, and his mixing bowl. Admire the dusting of flour or sugar on the floor. Admire the way his coat has so much texture it’s almost a skin. And once you’ve done all that, see if you really can read the odd expression in his eyes. He looks a bully, but he wanted Sander to approve of him. You won’t lose interest. This is a masterpiece.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Mari Mahr

 

New Mexico 1931

Mari Mahr – New Mexico 1931.     From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

Mari Mahr is a brilliant artist of Hungarian origin who divides her time between London and Berlin.  Too gentle a person ever really to push herself forward, Mahr has had the kind of career which is faultless, but not really very visible.  No longer a young woman, she remains insufficiently appreciated by a large factor.  She works in relatively small series, often about her family, occasionally about figures of more public standing. In series after series, she has produced works of astute elegance seeking to situate her own affective existence among the objects of affection or culture around her. Her hallmarks are exquisite delicacy of psychological enquiry, matched and made visible in exquisite delicacy in the photographic object. By quality of work, she is one of the very great artists of recent years; by the amount of limelight shone upon her, almost invisible.

In 1982, as something of a feminist looking for strong women models, Mahr came upon the figure of Georgia O’Keeffe.  This is how she herself described it:

“In the very last scene of a documentary movie, an old woman climbs a ladder all the way to the top of her house. I was impressed by the strength and charisma of such an old woman and decided to find out more about her.  I learnt she was partly Hungarian, but what is more important I absolutely loved how her career came about, the way she made her choices, how she chose her men, how she made situations awkward for herself, painting away when it wasn’t a womanly thing to do.

I’d read her diary where she writes so eloquently about Taos, Black Place and so on — I saw it all in colour. This was before I’d been to America, so all the knowledge of the country came from Technicolor movies. I did the series in 1982, about her travels in the 1920s, using a black car like the one Stieglitz (the photographer, her husband) had given her.”

New York 1925

Mari Mahr – New York 1925.  From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

 

New York 1918

Mari Mahr – New York 1918.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934

Mari Mahr – In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934.  From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

Black Place 1944

Mari Mahr – Black Place 1944.    From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

georgia_o_keeffe_ghost_ranch_1941

Mari Mahr – Ghost Ranch 1941.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

It sounds simple, and so perhaps it is, once you’ve done it. By making the stagey elements of her pictures completely apparent, Mahr let us know immediately that we weren’t looking at fact.  Every standard picture element is up for revision: scale, perspective, narrative… this is a complete taking of control by the artist of those things which more normally constrain photographers.  The obvious edges and folds, the block colours, the ultra-plain symbolic elements (skyscraper, cow, adobe, car, flag…) give the clues to a reading of O’Keeffe’s story which is both heroic and curiously domestic in scale.  What results is a tribute and a separate work in its own right. Mahr has admiration and respect for O’Keeffe, and a point of humour about her, too.

These are variants of collage, set design, maybe diorama. A few recurring themes make them understandable as music.  They’re lovely as little post-cards, and sensational as the chapters in an episodic biography. They’re anything you like except flat photographs.  No matter that it is little known; this is one of my great series.

Canyon 1916

Mari Mahr – Canyon 1916.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

[Another in the series Hodgson’s Choice, assembling a virtual collection guided by no more than my own taste, interest, curiosity, amusement or any combination of those. This piece was originally published in the Financial Times in January 2013 and reposted as part of a larger piece on these pages in 2015.]

Great North Road Garage, Edinburgh, November 1981 by Paul Graham

Paul Graham, Garage on The Great North road, Edinburgh

Paul Graham; Garage on the Great North Road, Edinburgh, 1981

 

[Continuing to re-post pieces from my 2013 series Hodgson’s Choice]

Paul Graham changed my attitude to colour. An excerpt from a gallery text on his own website says that he “belongs to a rare group of photographers that were the final generation to enter photography before it became part of the broader contemporary art world.”  That’s true, and it has nothing much to do with exact dates.  Along with such as Philip-Lorca di Corcia and even Nan Goldin, Graham remains a photographer, not an ‘artist-working-with-photography’.  Graham won the Hasselblad award last year (2012), the first Briton to do so. He’s an international player. Yet, in our very British way, in the UK he’s hardly known outside photographic circles.

When Graham started, documentary photography (at least in Britain) was in black-and-white, and it was about telling the truth.  After him, it was in colour, and it was about having a view.   Richard Billingham, Martin Parr, Nick Waplington, Paul Reas, Donovan Wylie, Anna Fox, even Gillian Wearing…a generation of British photographers, shading off in all directions towards art, were liberated by, and in some sense indebted to Graham.

In the early days, Paul Graham did eye-watering things.  He went to Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles and made beautiful, even romantic landscapes with just the tiniest glimpses of all being not well.  He made a record of Britain on the dole in the Thatcher years that would (I’m not joking) have brought down the government had it been published by a major novelist or film-maker.  But he was a youngish photographer, and it passed.

In that same period, Paul Graham went on an absurd road trip up the A1.  The A1 is to road trips as a fairground choo-choo is to the TGV.  It was so British it wasn’t even a motorway.  It still isn’t, as a matter of fact. And on this ridiculous road, with culture and reflexes and patience and sympathy and wit, Paul Graham began to make pictures about what it meant to be European as Europe fell away from dominance.  He was literate in photography – and in a lot of other stuff, too – and he made out of the sleepy cafes and uninspiring landscapes of the A1 a vision so much bigger than the A1 that everything he has done since has been checking the wake behind.

Of course Graham had seen his Joel Sternfeld and his Stephen Shore and his William Eggleston and his Joel Meyerowitz. But still.  A subaqueous car showroom, in which the only line of black is a twisted aerial?  And those names, perfect for cars:  here we go, in the money of 1950 or so, Singing and Humming along.   I don’t even think Humbers were still manufactured when the picture was made: sold to Chrysler or somebody, and then again, to become Talbot, I think, then swallowed up in Peugeot.  This showroom was drowning even as Paul Graham photographed it. The Singer, descendant of the sewing machines which represented one phase of the Industrial Revolution.  And next to it, the Humber, named after the great estuary that watered part of that British industrial landscape.  All going under, in the early days of Thatcherism. It’s very simple: I know intimately the culture this picture comes from.  I even remember the smell of those places, of T-Cut and spilt petrol.  In Britain, this is a brilliant, game-changing picture.  But it also speaks right to me.

Paul Graham’s early prints are absurdly undervalued.  You can buy them from Pace/MacGill in New York, or from Anthony Reynolds in London.