Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Remembering Lotte Jacobi


Jacobi c. 1946
She got off the ship in New York harbor in 1935 with her Leica and a few names, not many.  Her circle in Berlin had started to fragment, the artists, dancers and actors she so loved to photograph that had been her life, and it was time to leave.  She also left behind some 10,000 negatives, now lost, and a business that had been in her family for four generations: her great-grandfather Samuel had learned the art directly from Louis Daguerre in Paris in 1840.

Her sister Ruth, also a photographer, had preceded her to NY by a few years, spending time documenting Manhattan’s Lower East Side and doing portraits while Lotte was off photographing Jewish graves in Soviet Uzbekistan.  Reunited they set up a photo studio around 1938, perhaps near Times Square, perhaps not, and did portraits to pay the rent.  Lotte though was an uncompromising photographer and not every client liked her work.  Too close-up, too informal they said.  She was ahead of her time.  Years later this would become the style but not now.
Jacobi c. 1946

Jacobi c. 1946

Jacobi c. 1946

The close-knit émigré community became sustenance for Lotte.  She photographed Kurt Weill, Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall.  She began hanging out with artists; she met Leo Katz who would become her mentor, she met Berenice Abbott who persuaded her to take courses at the New School for Social Research, a bastion of intellectual refugees from Europe.  There she learned printmaking with Stanley Hayter who had founded Atelier 17 and had printed with Picasso and Kandinsky.  She shared studio space with other student artists under Hayter’s eye, names like Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko, Miró. (Her etchings from 1947-48, like theirs, appear occasionally at auction).

Encouraged by Katz, she went back to the darkroom and began playing with light and shadows.  She could make them move and shift.  It reminded her of dancing as a young girl.  She tried candles and flashlights, and sometimes covered them with fabric.  For ten years she did this, very quietly, while the abstract expressionist movement in a big noisy way was exploding around her.  She saved the results to photo paper, eventually amassing a considerable body of work.  Katz gave them the name ‘photogenics’ and understood just what part these peaceful, amazing pictures could play in the evolution of photography as an art form, besides being really beautiful in themselves. 
Jacobi c. 1946

When I walk today through the corridors at AIPAD, the huge congress for dealers in photographic art held annually at the Park Avenue Armory, there are thousands of great photographs.  I move on, I’ve seen them.  Then, in the corner of someone’s booth, I’ll spot a small lovely thing mounted on soiled cardboard, projecting authority like nothing else around.  I stop in my tracks: a Jacobi.  I know this is why I’ve come and why I do what I do. 

Jacobi c. 1946

After 1951 she never made any more of them, although she lived another forty years.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The stars stop moving, but the earth still turns

Marinai, 2012
Franco Marinai continues his epic program of deconstructing our ideas of time and its portrayal that he first showed us in March of this year with his groundbreaking work in color chrono-photographyHe is closing in on his goal of isolating the fixed point of time, its fulcrum.  By scaling back to a black-and-white representation, his current strategy, he is able to abstract motion and therefore time yet further, reducing it to what amounts to a spare, defining beauty of pure marks and markers.  It doesn’t help to know that underlying these are trivial or prosaic acts like walking, climbing steps, eating, biking.  Forget that he uses a medium format camera modified with the addition of a variable speed motor.  Forget even that he uses a camera at all.  These marks are gestures for both the unraveling of time, and for its concentration.  They are black holes, and like all black holes they command our acute attention.   

Marinai, 2012
Marinai, 2012
Marinai, 2012

Marinai, 2012
Franco is in the process of collecting these images, numbering almost 100, into a limited-edition book of photogravures for which he will undertake the monumental task of printing himself from copper plates in his Manhattan studio. It will be entitled The Motion of the Wheel and Other Spins.  Those interested may contact him directly at www.marinai.com for further details.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cameraless at Cabrillo

Sieglinde Van Damme, 2012
Is there a resurgence of cameraless photography these days, or is that just my imagination?  If I didn't know better I'd say there was.  You saw it during the recent f295-sponsored alt-photography conference in Pittsburgh, where Norm Sarachek's spirited keynote address, to a packed audience in the august halls of the Carnegie Museum of Art, was on chemigrams.  Who can remember when chemigrams last received so much attention?  Later, in several of the more popular workshops such as Elizabeth Opalenick's on mordançage, the camera was defined to be optional.  Leave it at the door and come in and make photographs, they said.
Beverly Rayner, 2012

Across the country, Martha Casanave’s workshop on cameraless photography at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, California, July 16-27, continued the trend by demonstrating some of the many methods available, at the same time emphasizing their rich potential for mixing and hybridizing to produce new, unexpected results.  Processes included silver photograms, lumen prints, light-drawing (using flashlights), clichés-verre (aka glassprints), cyanotype photograms, reversed cyanotype photograms, dry plate tintype photograms, chemigrams, and combinations of all the above.  So much to play with in such a short time, but Martha proved a stimulating and tireless guide.
Susan Haisington, 2012
Robin Robinson, 2012
Here we present a few of the works created at Cabrillo by the students, who by and large were completely new to cameraless methods.  In looking at them you get the feeling a curtain has been pulled away, that something uncharted and maybe beautiful awaits these promising artists if only they will take it further, in their own way.  Uncertainty, wonder, discovery, it’s all here.  We wish them the best. 
Aaron Peters, 2012

Michelle Paulus, 2012

Michael Gant, 2012

If you missed Martha at Cabrillo, she'll be offering a public lecture entitled “Letting Go of the Camera: The Joy of Cameraless Photography” on Friday, November 2, 2012 at the Center for Photographic Art, Carmel, California.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

New books on methods

This has been a solid year for books and manuals aimed at the analog, experimental darkroom crowd (we'll call it that) and even though it's only August now might be a good time to sort through some of them - who knows, by year end we may see others.  Let's work through the pile.

For an English-speaking audience the most important and useful is Christina Z. Anderson's The Experimental Photography Workbook, 6th ed., 2012.  This is a complete revamping and expansion of her earlier editions, with an especially happy mix of contemporary topics: photograms, lumens, glassprints, pinhole, chemigrams, mordançage.  Sure, you have modern tintypes, bromoil, lith printing and so on, but the slant definitely favors what gets students and practitioners most excited these days, and Chris manages to convey that excitement with a step-by-step text and inspired examples by artists in the field, many of them former students. She gives lots of tips, hands-on insights on variants, a bit of history, and all the formulas you could want.  With Chris, you feel she not only has done all these techniques herself but that she actually loves each of them.  She has sacrificed for this book: her beloved gum bichromates are nowhere to be seen, but have been relegated to another book altogether due out next spring.  This is just as well.  In classrooms we used to use Christopher James' massive (1.8 kilos, 660 pp) Alternative Photographic Processes, 2nd ed., 2008, but no more.  The Experimental Photographic Workbook is snazzier, more to the point - and I think more to be trusted.  If you're crawling under the hood of modern analog methods this is the book to take with you.  Available from www.freestylephoto.biz.

In a different vein, we have Jalo Porkkala's sumptuously produced Köyhä Dagerrotyyppi, 2012, subtitled 'Alternative Photographic Processes' and available only in Finnish at the moment although a translation is planned.  Jalo says the best rendering of the title is 'A Poor Man's Daguerrotype' which refers to a silver plating or silvering-out process, but the book's contents are much more comprehensive than this would make you believe, with chapters on lith prints, lumens, toning, and a host of historic techniques like bromoils, anthotypes, ziatypes, cyanotypes, Vandyke browns, gumoils and gum bichromates as well as informative pages on chemicals, darkroom equipment, and safety precautions.  Anyone acquainted with Jalo's wonderful alt-photo blog Vedos knows how scrupulous he is about method, carefully recording results under different conditions before reaching conclusions and making recommendations; the same care is found here, and should set the bar for writing on photographic method.  If you can't wait for the English version, the book can be bought in Finnish at http://www.booky.fi.

Finally, Tom Persinger at f295 has come out with a slim volume called The f295 Historic Process Workbook, an easy-to-follow journey (if harder to do) through building a camera, preparing lenses, and everything you need to know about four historic processes: cyanotypes, salted paper, gum bichromates, and Vandyke browns.  Useful too are the sections on preparing a portfolio and writing a statement.  You can get it at www.freestylephoto.biz.