Posts Tagged ‘spectator

21
Apr
09

Vale Helen Levitt: Always ‘Here and There’

April 2009

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1972

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1972
© Helen Levitt

 

 

“For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world … Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy …”

.
Charles Baudelaire. ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ 1863

 

“At least a dozen of Helen Levitt’s photographs seem to me as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying, and enduring as any lyrical work that I know. In their general quality and coherence, moreover, the photographs as a whole body, as a book, seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gently and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.”

.
James Agee

 

 

Speaking of pioneers of colour photography the wonderful American photographer Helen Levitt died recently at the end of March. Here is a selection of her colour work from the 1970s – 1980s. With two Guggenheim Foundation grants in 1959 and 1960 she switched from black and white to colour dye-transfer prints photographing the theatre of the street, the serendipity of the decisive moment previsualised and captured through awareness and an intimate knowledge of her subject matter. Unfortunately in a burglary in 1970 most of her colour transparencies and prints were stolen from that initial period.

What remains, as Sally Mann would say, are the eloquent bones of the matter: superb lush colour photographs taken after 1970 that engage the viewer not in memory but in the moment, not in nostalgia but in joy. In colour she found “beauty in correspondences.”

Marcus

.
Please click on some of the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c.1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1971
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c.1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1971
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c.1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1971

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1971
© Helen Levitt

 

 

Helen Levitt

… Her pictures were mostly of Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side. She shot them in black and white, as silver gelatin prints, in the 1930s and 1940s and in colour dye-transfer prints in the 1960s and 1970s. In between, she got into movie-making for a while. Her theme was the same, the streets of New York. Apart from a trip in 1941 to Mexico City, she never found a better subject in her life.

The grittier parts were her particular joy. Her world was run-down streets, rubble-filled building sites, warehouses and litter-strewn front steps. This was urban photography with a vengeance: small scraps of sky, no trees. When she was going with Walker Evans in 1938, borrowing his camera as well (“of course”) as sleeping with him, he used to be afraid of going as far uptown as she did. Some of her young male subjects, lounging around in their zoot suits and fedoras, had an unmistakable air of menace. But mostly she brought back images of gossiping women and her favourite, scrambling children. A right-angle viewfinder allowed her to take the picture without them knowing, even, as Evans showed her, when riding right beside them in the subway.

 

Here and there

Her birthplace was in Brooklyn, where her father was in the wholesale knitwear business. She aspired to something more artistic, but found she couldn’t draw. For a time she trained in ballet, which taught her to appreciate the musculature of posing bodies and the spontaneous grace of her child subjects. After dropping out of high school she went to work in the darkroom of Florian Mitchell’s commercial portrait-photography studio on $6 a week. There she was hooked.

A good image, she thought, was just lucky. But her New Yorker’s instinct seemed to tell her exactly where to wait for one. A broken-down car would soon attract people to lie under it, peer under the hood or try to push it. A cane chair, put out on the sidewalk, would draw an elderly man with cigar and newspaper, or a plump young woman in a housecoat wilting in the heat. With luck dogs would come out too, rough-haired mutts or poodles with fresh-shampooed coats. The open back of a truck would reveal delivery men moping on piles of sacks, or dozing among pink and blue bales of cloth. Any abandoned thing – a tea-chest, a mirror frame, the pillared entry of an empty building – would soon sport knots of children diving in, climbing up, fighting and contorting their small bodies in every kind of way.

Her pictures did not have names. “New York”, and the year, was the label on most of them. They did not need explaining; they were “just what you see”. Many had a backdrop of posters, graffiti or billboards, which gave a commentary of sorts. “Special Spaghetti 25 cents.” “Post No Bills.” “Nuts roasted daily.” “Buttons and Notions, One Flight Up.” “Bill Jones Mother is a Hore.” Her earliest project with her first, secondhand camera was to photograph children’s chalk drawings on the pavements. She never tried to speculate on them. What mattered was the patterns they made.

In the 1960s, when she got two Guggenheim grants, she began to shoot the streets in colour. The tricky developing ultimately frustrated her, and the streets, too, had changed. The children had retreated indoors to watch television. But where she had found grace and texture in black and white, colour now provided beauty in correspondences. The multi-coloured balls in bubble-gum machines could be picked up in a girl’s dress, or the red of a stiletto shoe matched with the frame of a shop window. Her broken-down cars were now lurid beasts against the stucco walls. And out of her peeling, greenish doorways could come women in furs, or pink hair-curlers, or orange-striped socks.

She did not rate her own work highly. Though her original prints eventually sold for tens of thousands of dollars, she let them pile up in her apartment in boxes labelled “Nothing good” or “Here and there”. Her hopes when she started were for photographs that would make a socialist statement of some sort, but she abandoned that on Cartier-Bresson’s advice. A “nice picture”, as she reluctantly admitted some of hers were, was a work of art that had value in itself, as well as a celebration of the random, teeming work of art that is the city of New York.

Anonymous. “Helen Levitt,” on The Economist website April 8th 2009 [Online] Cited 16/04/2009

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c. 1972

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1972
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c.1972

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1972
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1972

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1972
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1980

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1980
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1971
© Helen Levitt

 

 

Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt by John Szarkowski, Powerhouse Books, 2005 is available from the Amazon website. The photograph above is used on the cover of the book.

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06
Mar
09

Opening 1: Review: ‘Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity’ by Damiano Bertoli at The Narrows, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 5th March – 28th March

Opening Thursday March 6th 2009

 

Damiano Bertoli. 'Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity' 2009 video still

Damiano Bertoli. 'Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity' 2009 video still

 

Damiano Bertoli
Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity
2009
video stills

 

 

In a busy night of openings in Melbourne we arrive to watch, to be a spectator and voyeur at Damiano Bertoli’s new twin video installation at The Narrows on Flinders Lane, ensconced in the darkness of the gallery space. The looped installation features on the left scenes from the original Miami Vice TV series and on the right approximate scenes from the 2006 feature film of the same name. The synchronicity of the two splices of time moving in and out of register is uncanny. We have memories of these appearances, flickering signifiers embedded in our psyche which are called to presence in the space between screen and viewer as we add our own layer of temporal distortion to the unfolding events.

In an erudite catalogue note Bertoli expounds on the nature of the performative and the question of authorship by analysing Glenn Gould’s two recordings of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one recorded at the beginning of his career and one in the final year of his life. Bertoli posits that Gould used counterpoint “as a formal construct for its capacity to produce ‘an explosion of simultaneous idea’s’ … as a solution for his dissatisfaction with singularity and linear definition.”

He notes that, “As an interpreter of others work, Gould occupied a position of equivalence – we are aware that we are listening to Bach and Gould – simultaneously … These co-existing yet distinct voices move in and out of synchronicity, as does the listener’s experience of Gould’s interpretation (actually an interpretation of an interpretation) as the latter version iterates and embodies the version which precedes it. We are constantly comparing the two, as is Gould.”

This is quite true but I do not think the metaphor can be so literally applied to the video installation Bertoli has constructed. Firstly Gould’s interpretations and our recognition of them requires knowledge of the authoritative voice of the author as composer and the author as performer: Bach and Gould. Conversely in the videos the directors are unknown by most and the actors anonymous except by those with specific memory of appearances. There is no contrapuntal fugue like working of the sound or images in search of the purity of musical ideas – the dialogue talks over each other and splice cuts jump the scene from one location to another – forming a fractured hypertextual narrative driven by the spectacular gaze of the viewer, a simularcrum of the ‘real’. The simultaneity of being in three worlds at once is the world of simulacra not of equivalence.

As Ron Burnett has observed

“Video creates what I will describe as a logic of the present while simultaneously producing an image-event in the past. This generates a somewhat different temporal context than we are normally accustomed to – a mixture of present and past that is both, and neither, simultaneously. The disjuncture that results is part of the attraction but also part of what makes the electronic image so puzzling. It suggests that history has already been made while one continues to make it. It is this suppleness that allowed broadcasters for example to repeat the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles over and over again, as if each showing would somehow reconstitute the event, as if to prove that this was not a dramatisation, not a fiction. In order to gain control over the many disjunctures, repetition was used … But this only validates the contradictions, proposing that the disjunctures in time and place can be controlled, that there is some way of gaining authority over the impact of the event as image.”1

.
I would argue that what Bertoli’s installation does offer is a release from inert rationalist geometries, a deterritorialization and reterritorialization of temporal time in a heterotopic space, juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. These are layered images of hyper-performativity and hypermediacy, where the fragmented images become a process and a performance, where the spectator becomes the screen not the author.

As Baudrillard has said, “Today we live in the imaginary world of the screen, of the interface and the reduplication of contiguity and networks. All our machines are screens. We too have become screens, and the interactivity of men has become the interactivity of screens. Nothing that appears on the screen is meant to be deciphered in depth, but actually to be explored instantaneously, in an abreaction immediate to meaning.”2

Here is the immediacy of continuous time – the removal of psychological depth, the reduction of life to a series continuous presents and surface phenomena that repeat over and over again. Is this bad infinity? We will never know as we can never have knowledge of infinity, it is a noumenal concept, an event known only to the imagination – independent of the senses.

This is an interesting and fun installation. Well worth a visit.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Many thankx to The Narrows gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

  1. Burnett, Ron. Cultures of Vision: Images, Media, & the Imaginary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 249
  2. Baudrillard, Jean. Xerox and Infinity (trans. Agitac). Paris: Touchepas, 1988, p. 7

 

 

 

Damiano Bertoli Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity (2009)

 

g

Damiano Bertoli. 'Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity' 2009 video still

Damiano Bertoli. 'Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity' 2009 video still

 

Damiano Bertoli
Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity
2009
video stills

 

Damiano Bertoli. 'Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity' 2009 video still

Damiano Bertoli. 'Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity' 2009 video still

 

Damiano Bertoli
Continuous Moment: Bad Infinity
2009
video stills

 

 

The Narrows

This gallery is now closed.

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Dogs, chickens, cattle’ 1994-95

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