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.

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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.

Ady’s Poem by André Kertész

Ady's Poem

André Kertész Ady’s Poem, 1934. From Az Igazi Ady (Le Véritable Ady) [The Real Ady]. Text by György Bölöni. Photographs by André Kertész and others. Editions Atelier de Paris, Paris, 1934.

It started with André Kertész. A little book called On Reading, in which the Hungarian photographer simply presented pictures of people in the act of reading in public places. There is no text. I have my copy still and I see it is an English reprint dated 1982. I had been interested in photographs long before then, but once I had Kertész’s book, I got my teeth into it.

Was it journalism? Was it some kind of attempt at a catalogue, in which the variety and similarity of human activity would be laid out for comparison and categorisation? Was it a sketch of an autobiography? A book of gently comic illustrations in the manner of Sempé? I remember how long I held that puzzle in my mind. Having no scaffolding of reference to make sense of it, I interrogated those pictures again and again. I discovered in that little book that photographs could convey complexity in spite of their apparent simplicity, and that they amply repaid concentration and analysis.

Although this series will abide only by such rules as I shall feel like following at any given time, it seems fair to start with Kertész, because he started me. The series will develop into a virtual collection of the photographs I would help myself to if money were no object. In the nature of photography, there are many versions of most pictures, and sometimes I can have one and you can have another just as good. I will for that reason suggest places where pictures can be bought if I know of such places and if it seems right to do so. But a virtual collection can be selfish and can certainly be light-fingered. I will have no compunction about plundering public and private holdings in establishing my own, and if I happen to want the only known print of something, well, suck it up. Virtual collecting takes no prisoners. I can see that already, and I haven’t even started yet.

Essentially, these will be things I covet. But I covet photographs as photographs, not as a class of asset. Some will be very valuable; others will be unsellable. And with that, let’s begin.

Kertész was an exile and a freelance. He worked where he could and never allowed himself to lose his own personality in the collective personality of a newspaper. For that reason, he had to trust his own taste. Even when working for another, it was always a Kertész he would make. In 1933, in Paris, his fellow exile György Bölöni invited him to illustrate a life of another Hungarian, the poet Endre Ady. It was published in 1934 as Az Igazi Ady (The Real Ady) by Atelier de Paris, and “Ady’s Poem” is one of the illustrations from it. And what is it? Just a little meditation on reading, and on writing. It’s no big deal, yet it’s marvellous. Loads of people can make a picture of a café table. But not many could get those sweet relations between the straight lines and the curves so absolutely right, and even fewer could make a simple modernist study of materials and surfaces into such an exquisite minor-key sigh for home.

Kertész’s greatest hits are everybody’s greatest hits. “Chez Mondrian”, “Melancholic Tulip”, “Underwater Swimmer” . . . More than anybody else, Kertész is the man who claimed for photography its strange intermediate territory between realism and metaphor. This café table was not much on the day that it happened. But turn it into a photograph like this, and it has become quite something. This print was sold by Sotheby’s in 2006, a little thing, less than 10 x 8 inches. It’s a very rare image in the Kertész canon, yet at £48,000 far, far from his auction record. Its tones were lovely but it wasn’t one of the heavenly miniatures that Kertész made on postcard stock. No doubt, I’ll have one those, later. All in all, nothing gaudy, but a lovely thing with which to set off.