Binge-Worthy #8: Stranded In Canton (William Eggleston, 1974/2005)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“I am at war with the obvious.” – William Eggleston

Stranded in Canton, William Eggleston’s lone foray into filmmaking, somehow manages the neat trick of being both strikingly similar to and completely different from his still photography. Assembled from video footage shot in Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood, Mississippi throughout 1974, it’s a non-narrative, quasi-home video that grabs your attention immediately and never lets go. It’s rough, intimate, sublime, disturbing, occasionally profound, determinedly weird, and endlessly fascinating. And, like several of Eggleston’s classic photobooks, it’s an understated, unassuming masterpiece.

Shot on black-and-white reel-to-reel videotape, Stranded is comprised of short vignettes featuring a number of eccentric personalities. Eggleston’s approach could almost be described as ethnographic. However, it’s far more personal. (After all, this was his world as well at the time.) He mainly focuses on a coterie of garrulous and gregarious drunks and eccentrics living on the margins, as they channel their creativity and acquiesce to various transgressive urges. Glimpses of Eggleston’s immediate family and close relatives add some balance to the proceedings.

Eggleston has described his photographs as excerpts from an unfinished novel, and that could sum up the various strands in Stranded as well. An inebriated small-town dentist waxes poetic. A mercurial artist performs a borderline-unspeakable act involving a beer bottle. A tightly coiled country singer brandishes a firearm. Passions erupt and tempers flare. These are cinema verité sketches with a distinctly Southern Gothic flavor.

The film opens with a sustained video portrait of Eggleston’s two children that’s reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s work. There are a number of instances throughout where individuals mug for the camera or otherwise interact with “Egg” (as they call him). Yet, just as often, he is able to record unobtrusively, even when his camera is only inches away from someone. His video camera restlessly winds its way through the various proceedings, searching for the right angle, or perhaps for a different way to capture the scenes that are unfolding around him.

While it’s clear that Eggleston prefers intimate moments over spectacle, it’s also clear that he’s drawn to the performative, whether it be a fantastic blues harmonica riff or an inebriated drag queen’s wobbly attempt at cabaret singing. Late in the movie, there’s a “shockumentary” mondo-style scene that involves a circus geek biting the head off of a live chicken to the drunken jeers of a rowdy audience. How does one seek out a genuine moment in the midst of such a violent and garish performance? I would argue that in the close-up of the geek’s cruelly self-satisfied mouth after completing his act, two gold front teeth gleaming, a stray feather stuck to his chin, Eggleston finds it.

man with sunglasses and hat holding a gun
Country singer Jerry McGill appears in William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton

Similar to Robert Frank, Morris Engel, and other photographers in this series, Eggleston was shooting fast and loose with minimal equipment and working more or less on his own, employing a largely photographic approach to the new medium. He was also taking advantage of new and innovative technology—in this case, the first video camera manufactured for the consumer market, the Sony Portapak. The Portapak was relatively lightweight, unobtrusive, and easy to use. It featured synchronous sound and decent motion reduction that made it conducive to handheld shooting.

Eggleston saw the video camera as a radical invention comparable to the 35mm camera in terms of its potential game-changing significance. He retrofitted his Portapak with a 16mm film camera lens and an infrared picture tube for low light conditions. The lens gave increased clarity, enabled shooting from a closer distance, and resulted in a shallower depth of field. The heat-sensing vacuum tube resolved tricky lighting issues while giving everything an otherworldly sheen.

A major drawback to using reel-to-reel videotape was that there was no easy way to edit it, so the footage languished unseen for decades. However, a 2001 digital restoration enabled the dozens of hours that Eggleston shot to be cleanly edited into a tight 80-minute film. It was released on DVD in 2005, alongside a book comprised of hauntingly ethereal stills pulled from the finished version.

The editing is as fluid as the camerawork. There isn’t anything that one would deem extraneous—it’s taut and fierce, no small accomplishment. Given the sheer amount of footage, Stranded could have easily would up sprawling and unshapen. A great deal of credit goes to film editor Robert Gordon for giving shape and rhythm to the film. It unfolds like a jazz composition, with variations on themes and recurring motifs. And given Eggleston’s musicality, perhaps that should come as no surprise.

woman with eyes closed
A video still from William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton

Like many, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at Eggleston’s photographs, trying to untangle the mysteries in them and struggling to put into words the rationale behind why I think they’re so incredibly good. As curator and art historian Phillip Prodger writes in Portraits, they have a fundamental inscrutability about them: “Their meaning is open-ended, and their emotional impact is uncontrived. In terms of narrative, they offer provocation without resolution.” The same could be said about practically every moment in Stranded. (Heck, the same could be said just about the title itself.) It’s a significant work from a legendary photographer–and one of the greatest chroniclers of the American South–defiantly following his own muse.

Stranded In Canton (directed by William Eggleston). Video (B/W), 77 min., 1974/2005.

Binge-Worthy Interlude: Alec Soth – On Filmmaking and Photography

Lately, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Magnum photographer Alec Soth’s YouTube talks. This past month, he posted a two-part series entitled “On filmmaking and photography.” Since I’m currently working on the next Binge-Worthy column, I was eager to gain his perspective.

As it turns out, Soth is trying his hand at filmmaking, which prompted reflection on the similarities and differences between motion pictures and still photography. In the first video, Soth looks at several photography books published by filmmakers and others in the industry (which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad idea for a companion series to Binge-Worthy). In the second, he delineates the differences between editing a film and editing a series of photographs via Helen Levitt’s classic book A Way of Seeing.

He also talks about how, as a filmmaker, he found himself in a situation where he needed to hire a casting director and a cinematographer, pointing out the cognitive dissonance of watching the action unfold on a monitor instead of through the camera’s viewfinder.

Soth is perhaps the embodiment of a photographer’s photographer, and he’s extremely open when it comes to giving insight into his process. Similarly, in his video talks, he focuses a great deal on the process of making photos and photobooks, rather than simply analyzing the end results. He tackles complex questions that many photographers wrestle with (I certainly do), and his experiences and insights, personal as they may be, tap into something universal.

So watch the YouTube videos! And stay tuned for the next Binge-Worthy entry, which focuses on a video project with a strong cult following made by one of the great chroniclers of the American South.

New and Notable Photobooks: The Way It Was by Thomas Hoepker

At first glance, Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker’s new monograph, The Way It Was: Road Trips USA, is a look at America in the 1960s, as compared to now. On closer inspection, it’s also a portrait of a young photographer finding his voice—and of a master photographer rediscovering a body of work from his formative years and using it as the inspiration for one last journey.

In his 20s, prior to joining Magnum Photos, Hoepker was an up-and-coming staff photographer at a German magazine called Kristall. In 1963, he was given a dream assignment to spend several months road tripping across America and documenting the country, alongside a staff writer (Rolf Winter). Almost 60 years later, in 2020, Hoepker made a return trip down those same blue highways, looking for America in the age of Trump and the midst of the pandemic.

Hoepker’s earlier black-and-white work is the main focus of the book. The color digital photos from his recent travels mainly serve to help break up the different sections. There are no captions and not much text aside from editor Freddy Langer’s excellent introduction. We are simply presented with an abundance of images, all of which are beautifully reproduced by Steidl—indeed, it would be almost impossible to improve on the black-and-white printing.  

Looking at the 1963 photos, one almost instantly senses the specter of Robert Frank’s landmark work The Americans. Frank’s influence can be felt not only thematically but also stylistically, with regard to Hoepker’s similarly fast-and-loose approach to shooting.

I would also note another similarity, although this may be slightly controversial to say: Both books’ main strength lies in the editing and sequencing—how the individual images come together to tell a story. In Hoepker’s book, there can be up to a dozen or so black-and-white images laid out across a two-page spread. In essence, the individual photos are treated as fragments of a much larger picture. As a viewer, I often found myself studying the intricacies of these spreads.

Parade. San Francisco, CA, 1963 © Thomas Hoepker

Presented side by side, without editorializing, are subway commuters, churchgoers, strippers, motels, shanties, roadside diners, billboards, jukeboxes, cowboy hats, and quite a few American flags. By sheer coincidence, the Kennedy assassination took place during his visit, and its impact is captured in newspaper headlines that people are reading as they go about their everyday lives. Like Frank, Hoepker was also a European and an outsider – and the way some of the people in the photos look distrustfully or nervously at the camera sometimes makes the viewer feel like an outsider too.

2020 was also an extremely politically charged year, with Covid, BLM, and the Trump presidency at the forefront of people’s consciousnesses. Hoepker chose the place where he took his iconic and controversial 9/11 photo as the starting point for his recent journey. As Langer points out in his introduction, that space, now devoid of people, has taken on a new significance, denoting the emptiness that was emblematic of the early days of the pandemic.

East River waterfront in Williamsburg, 2020 © Thomas Hoepker

The photographer lets this image, which opens the book, speak for itself. In fact, the only words by Hoepker are found in the brief acknowledgements section at the end, to which he adds a quick flash of humor: “I hope you all like the yellow cover, it was totally my idea,” he writes. (For the record, I approve of the yellow cover.)

Langer ‘s introduction, on the other hand, is highly illuminating and covers a great deal of ground. At one point, he pauses to consider a fly in the ointment with regard to the initial photography endeavor. Unbeknownst to Kristall’s staffers, their editor, Horst Mahnke, had been a Nazi propagandist during World War II. Langer wonders, “Were perhaps the pictures published in Kristall – depicting the downsides of the country– intended to diminish America’s function as a role model; was this a candid form of anti-Americanism in the midst of a Nazi environment that included reports by Paul Carell glorifying war which sent shockwaves through the editorial team?” Whatever Mahnke’s intentions may have been, ultimately, Hoepker was able to make the work that he wanted to make.  

A film crew accompanied him on his 2020 journey, and a documentary film that covers the making of this project will be released soon. Sadly, in recent years, Hoepker has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has been experiencing memory loss. He didn’t recall seeing many of the images before, much less taking them. But he has stayed committed to photography despite this tragic turn of events.

Ultimately, The Way It Was is a testament to the photographer’s spirit and dedication to the medium. Within these pages, one gets a sense of reminiscing and even perhaps a touch of nostalgia. The title serves as a reminder that our current era will, soon enough, become a part of the historical record as well. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

The Way It Was: Road Trips USA by Thomas Hoepker. Edited by Freddy Langer. Steidl, 2022. 192 pages, 436 photographs. Hardback.

New and Notable Photobooks: Nudism in a Cold Climate by Annebella Pollen

In Nudism in a Cold Climate, Annebella Pollen writes with clarity and insight about a fascinating niche subject: the history of recreational nudism in 20th Century England. In the process, she takes an in-depth look at the idiosyncratic photographs that sprang up around this often misunderstood and rather idyllic subculture.

The book tracks the social nudist or “naturist” movement over five decades, starting in the 1920s when the practice was widely deemed scandalous and immoral, and following it through the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, when it was dismissed by the young generation as being too uptight and old-fashioned. Naturism originated as a health-conscious pursuit that, along with its staunch anti-clothing stance, incorporated a range of healthy living practices such as vegetarianism. From the beginning, British naturists generally embraced the progressive politics of the era, although in the mid-20th Century, those views did not take fully into account racism, sexism, classism, and other such -isms. (Pollen points out that homophobia and body-shaming practices were commonplace back then as well.)

Adherents joined nudist social clubs and resorts, and they also contributed and subscribed to magazines dedicated to promoting the lifestyle. The author surveys these different publications, which boasted names such as Sun Bathing Review and regularly solicited amateur photographic contributions. Quite a few of the images were taken by professionals as well, ranging from high society portraitists to retired newspaper photographers.

Pollen reports that, while there were some attempts to visually preserve and celebrate naturist culture, straight photography was generally frowned upon. The photographs that appeared in the nudist press were mainly intended to serve as propaganda for the movement—a way to attract new (and hopefully younger) members.

As a result, they tended to depict smiling, able-bodied young men and women enthusiastically engaging in calisthenic exercise and recreational activities in pastoral settings. Notably, professional models were often pictured, rather than actual nudists, who tended to be middle-aged and not as conventionally photogenic.

from Nudism in a Cold Climate by Annebella Pollen (Atelier Editions)

Contrived as they are, these photos are fun, kitschy curiosities, and the nudity adds a slightly surrealistic touch to them. There is plenty of joie de vivre and esprit de corps on display, and the models’ sunny dispositions further enhances the images’ artificial sheen.

Obscenity laws required the genital regions to be covered or obscured, which gives a demure quality to many of the photographs. In the case of females, this could involve clumsily airbrushing over the offending area, resulting in a kind of Barbie-doll effect. Photographers were forced to work within strict parameters, and Pollen details several notable, high-profile legal battles. She also traces how the naturist photographers’ struggles to categorize their work as art, rather than pornography, inadvertently helped open the door for pornographers as well, despite their best intentions.

As for the thorny question of whether naturist imagery shared any commonalities with pornographic photographs…well, that’s where things get a little complicated. Quite a few photographers and models worked in both genres. In a side-by-side comparison, Pollen presents two photos of Pamela Green, one of the most famous pin-up girls of the era. (Green was also a member of Spielplatz, one of the most well-established nudist resorts.) Both were taken by a photographer named George Harrison Marks. A naturist photo appears on the left and a pin-up photo on the right.  

Stylistically, they are vastly different, and if you didn’t know, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that two different photographers had photographed two different women. In the first image, Green’s short-cropped hair is purposefully unstyled and she’s not wearing makeup or jewelry. To give the appearance of outdoor work, in line with a healthy, natural lifestyle, she is standing in a field and holding some hay.

In the latter, a studio portrait, Green has transformed herself into the embodiment of male desire via a wig, makeup, and lingerie that covers very little. She poses erotically in a way that emphasizes a stockinged leg and flashes a come-hither look at the camera.

Not surprisingly, the most prolific and successful naturist photographers, such as Marks, who worked extensively with Pamela Green, tended to be male. Yet, there were also prominent female photographers. Among them for several decades was Edith Tudor-Hart an Austrian-Jewish refugee, socially concerned photojournalist, and, intriguingly, a Soviet spy for many years. She, too, posed her models in idealized ways, in stark contrast to her social documentary work. Pollen writes, “While not as political in message as her other campaigning photographs, they communicate her interest and participation in radical, experimental lifestyles.”

On a similar note, Pollen’s study connects two personal interests of mine: experimental Utopian communities and vernacular photography. People might be inclined to shy away from Nudism in a Cold Climate due to the title and subject matter, but it would be a shame if this book doesn’t find an audience within the photo world. It’s a rare critical look at a type of photography that hasn’t really been researched or written about before. In that sense, in its own unassuming way, it’s a landmark study.

As for the state of the movement today, a decent number of British “sun clubs” still exist, although their numbers have continued to dwindle. “The nude pursuit, as a formal membership activity, is a minority interest even as nude visual culture attracts endless attention,” Pollen writes. Twas ever thus.

Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th-Century Britain by Annebella Pollen. Atelier Editions, 2022. 272 pages. Paperback.

In the Galleries: April 2022

Highlighting photography exhibits and photo-related happening in the Philadelphia area.

It’s been a few months since the last installment of “In the Galleries.” While the pandemic continues to keep options somewhat limited, there are nevertheless several excellent exhibits here in Philly at the moment. Both are well worth seeking out.

Gravy Studio‘s current exhibit, on view in the lobby of 2424 Studios, spotlights Philadelphia-based photographer Martin Buday‘s Prophetic Kingdom. In his debut project, Buday seeks out the surreal in the mundane, exploring offbeat places and creating thoughtful images that range from satirical to sublime. The photographs (mostly in color, with several notable exceptions) generally tend to be devoid of people, but the human presence is keenly felt in each. Prophetic Kingdom was recently published as a monograph by Daylight and the book has been receiving a good deal of critical acclaim. Highly recommended.

The Halide Project’s Pop-Up Pinhole Photography Exhibition celebrates the alternative photographic process in spectacular fashion. The gallery put out an open call to anyone who wanted to participate, free of charge. In response, artists submitted a wide variety of works that feature a range of pinhole processes and run the gamut from landscapes to street photography. There isn’t a weak image in the show–all the more impressive, considering it was non-juried–and the arrangement of the pieces on the walls provides a nice sense of cohesion. The exhibit is only up for several more days, so don’t sleep on this one! The closing reception is timed to coincide with Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, on Sunday April 24th from 4-7pm.

Binge-Worthy #7: The Learning Tree (Gordon Parks, 1969)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, and poverty.” –Gordon Parks

An award-winning photojournalist with an unwavering commitment to social justice, Gordon Parks made history in the 1940s when he became the first Black staff photographer for Life Magazine.

In 1969, when he adapted his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel The Learning Tree for the screen, he broke another barrier: At age 56, Parks became the first Black man to direct a major Hollywood studio film. In addition to directing and producing, Parks wrote the screenplay and also composed the film’s lush symphonic score.

Long overlooked, The Learning Tree has been on my list of films to write about since I began this series, so it’s impeccable timing that the film was just reissued by the Criterion Collection. The Learning Tree is a major motion picture with an independent spirit that explores complex social and racial issues in ways that continue to resonate. In a profile of Parks, Roger Ebert described the film as “a deep and humanistic portrait of growing up black in America.” It’s also a gorgeously photographed and carefully reconstructed period piece that provides a window of insight into 1920s America.

There are, in fact, two young Black men at the heart of the film: Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson), Gordon Parks’s alter ego, and Marcus Savage (Alex Clarke), Newt’s rival. After an early altercation with a local farmer, the two find themselves heading down different life paths. During the first half of the film, Parks cuts back and forth between their two storylines, comparing and contrasting their experiences.

Newt’s parents and extended family are determined to raise him with the right values, and to provide for him as best they can. He experiences first love, and his courtship of the new girl in town, Arcella (Mira Waters), unfolds like a wondrous romance, with long walks, long stares, a picnic in the park, and a magical snowfall on Christmas eve.

Marcus, who fails on his attempt to escape from a juvenile detention facility that same Christmas eve and is brought back shivering with cold, experiences the world much differently. He understands, both viscerally and intellectually, the ways that his race and lack of social status will help determine his fate. He also recognizes the ways in which adult authority figures uphold and abuse this power dynamic. A wonderful, empathetic performance by Clarke provides a window into Marcus’s anger.

Late in the movie, an incident occurs that threatens the delicate social fabric of the town and inadvertently reunites the two of them. Ultimately, Newt must decide whether to stand up for justice when doing so may result in a much greater injustice that will bring pain and suffering to the Black community.

Parks grew up in Fort Scott, Kansas, and he returned there to film the movie, revisiting many of the locations where he spent his childhood. Lensed by Burnett Guffey, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, The Learning Tree has the look and feel of a classic Hollywood film. Yet, for the most part, its style is naturalistic. And although it’s tinged with nostalgia, it’s also imbued with clear-eyed social commentary. As Hank Willis Thomas points out in one of the excellent features included on the Criterion reissue, many of the themes, such as institutionalized racism, continue to be highly relevant.

The Learning Tree marked a late-career shift from photography to filmmaking for Gordon Parks. Two years later, he captured the Zeitgeist with Shaft, one of the earliest and best-known Blaxploitation movies. A sequel, Shaft’s Big Score!, followed, along with several other features. In the 1980s, he helmed the excellent made-for-television film Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey for the PBS series “American Playhouse.”

Still, for me, The Learning Tree remains the place to start exploring Parks’s filmography. It’s so fully and assuredly realized that it’s easy to forget it’s his directorial debut. The Criterion release includes several features that give insight into the making of the movie. Even more crucially, it also preserves two short documentary films that Parks made around the same time.

The first, “Diary of a Harlem Family,” features a montage of still images from Parks’s 1968 Life Magazine story profiling the Fontanelle family. Parks narrates, and his words illuminate the social issues that they struggle with clearly and poetically. While working on the article, Parks embedded himself with the family, gaining their trust, their friendship, and their genuine collaboration.

The title of his second documentary, “The World of Piri Thomas,” greatly undersells this intense, profound, emotionally devastating, and unflinchingly honest work. Much more than a profile of the famous Nuyorican poet, it gives an insider’s view into daily life in Spanish Harlem. Once again, it showcases Parks’s ability to get close to his subjects, collaborate with them in a genuine and meaningful way, and capture intimate moments off-limits to most outsiders.

“The World of Piri Thomas” is as raw and gritty as The Learning Tree is stately and elegant. Thomas reads excerpts from his work in voice-over, as Parks documents life on the streets and in the housing projects of Spanish Harlem with a 16mm film camera.

Thomas’s dramatic reenactment of his attempt to kick his heroin addiction cold turkey (thankfully successful), combined with long takes of actual heroin addicts shooting up, is truly painful to watch—but vital to witness. The intense, visceral quality of the images on the screen matches that of Thomas’s language.

The films of Gordon Parks shed insight into the challenges and roadblocks embedded in American society. They also add a great deal to the legacy of one of the most important photographers of the 20th Century.

The Learning Tree (directed by Gordon Parks). 35mm film (color), 107 min., 1969.

Book Review: i saw the air fly by Sirkhane Darkroom

Over a decade of brutal civil war in Syria has created a dire humanitarian crisis. The conflict has displaced approximately two-thirds of the population. Of the almost 7 million refugees who have fled Syria, more than 5 ½ million are sheltering just across the border in Southeast Turkey, with minimal access to education, health care, and other resources. As is always the case, young people are especially vulnerable. Those coming of age during this time are at risk of becoming a lost generation.

Published in 2021, i saw the air fly provides an intimate glimpse into the daily lives of some of these young people, from their point of view. Defying expectations, it’s a collective portrait of resilience and joy, wonder and curiosity.

The book compiles over 100 black-and-white photographs that showcase the work of the Sirkhane Darkroom, a photography program for child refugees in the region. The program began in 2017, in conjunction with an NGO called the Sirkhane Social Circus School. Documentary photographer Serbest Salih, a Syrian refugee himself, is the director and co-founder. Children as young as 7 are eligible to participate, and there are a number of Kurdish and Iraqi children in the program as well. (In his afterward, Salih describes the area as a “melting pot” of refugees from around the region.)

The kids are given old compact point-and-shoot film cameras to document their daily lives. Afterwards, they develop and print their images in a small makeshift darkroom on wheels. The project could have just as easily utilized digital point-and-shoot cameras, but Salih wanted the children to experience the process of shooting film and the magic of developing prints. In his afterward, he elucidates how analog processes emphasize the need for patience. There’s no instant gratification, and there’s no disrupting the moment to look at the photos on the back of the camera.

These young people have a great deal of talent and potential, and quite a few of the photos are strong standalone images. Yet, what truly gives this book lasting value is the way that it reveals the kids’ collective resiliency, independent spirit, and playfulness. Amid extraordinarily challenging circumstances, the workshop participants turn their cameras on the fun and joyful moments rather than focusing on the struggles resulting from being displaced, and that’s why these photos are so essential. Such images are almost always missing from the overall story.

Their photos help tell a more complete story of what happens after the bullets stop flying, as people try to pick up the pieces of their lives. As Salih writes in the afterward, “These aren’t the photographs adults expect to see from children who have grown up surrounded by conflict, they aren’t photographs of trauma or sadness. Instead, they are a testament to the resilience of the childhood imagination, the healing power of photography, and the enchanting perspective of childhood.”

Photo by Refai, 12 years old, from Derbasiye, Syria.

There’s something timeless about children playing, and the black and white film approach conveys that sense of timelessness better than digital could. Many of the images tend to be a little rough around the edges, which also adds to the appeal for me. There are tilted horizons, blown-out highlights, soft focus from taking a picture too close to the subject and other “composition errors,” all of which accurately convey the anarchic chaos of childhood exploration, in which there are no rules. And in the process of discovery, the kids take photos that call to mind those of famous photographers who consciously bent or broke the rules as well.

The photos are either printed one per page or laid out across two pages, and most come at you in short, staccato bursts. In one spread, the photo on the left-hand page shows a young girl at prayer in an empty rug-covered room next to a generic plastic chair that is slightly taller than she is. The photo on the right shows a young boy practicing with a hula hoop indoors. It appears to have been taken in the same room—or perhaps a similar room. (The living spaces have a cramped uniformity.) In a few instances, grown-ups (parents and relatives) are pictured, but mostly it’s just kids, in their own worlds.

The circumstances of war are mostly hinted at, found in the margins and a few revealing details. The most direct and compelling depiction appears towards the middle of the book. A helicopter hovers in a grainy, monochrome slate grey sky, situated in the lower middle of the frame. Rendered in silhouette, it has an ominous quality, a signifier of the ongoing conflict.

The photos are printed without captions – only the first name of the photographer along with their age is provided. This is a smart decision—for the majority of images, captions are unnecessary. And while a little more information or context would be useful for the helicopter photo, as a viewer, I can’t help but put myself in the photographer’s shoes, and to try and ascertain what I would be thinking and feeling as a young person in that situation. That’s more valuable than caption information when it comes to understanding these images.

Photo by Muhammed, 17 years old, from Raqqa, Syria.

The proceeds from book sales will help fund the Sirkhane Darkroom. People can also support the program by making a direct donation.

A quick note: When I started this review, Russia had yet to invade Ukraine. Now that the invasion is in full swing, I can’t help but consider the parallels. The flood of images coming out of Ukraine can and will bring about greater awareness and understanding of the tragic situation, counter disinformation, and inspire action. Let’s hope that the toll that conflict takes once the bullets stop flying—especially on the young—does not go ignored.

i saw the air fly by Sirkhane Darkroom. Mack Books, 2021. 160 pages. Paperback.

Binge-Worthy #6½: The Films of Man Ray (Part 2)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

A great deal of ink has been spilled about Man Ray’s third short film, L’etoile de Mer (1928). It’s a rhapsodic Surrealist meditation on lost love that attempts to interweave the lived experience with the dream-state. Fusing cinema and poetry, it’s a more mature work than his earlier forays into “pure cinema” and arguably his most significant cinematic experiment.

Man Ray was inspired to make the film after hearing the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos recite his work “La place de l’etoile.” Marking a departure from his previous films, the process of making L’etoile de Mer was both more collaborative and more planned out. Desnos’s poem provided an outline that Man Ray interpreted visually, and Desnos himself makes a brief cameo appearance towards the end.

Desnos wrote “La place de l’etoile” while in a self-induced hypnotic or trancelike state. In theory, this process, termed automatism, enabled his subconscious mind to compose poetry in an almost automatic way that emphasized spontaneous composition and free association. The idea behind it was to strip away the artifice that one consciously overlays onto the creative process in order to reveal deeper truths via an unmediated act of creation.

Man Ray’s treatment of Desnos’s poem is a much more conscious effort—in fact, this is the first film in which he isn’t simply improvising as he goes along. But it is also a powerful representation of the subconscious state that never appears contrived. Like the poem, it generally follows the stream-of-consciousness logic of a dream.

Yet, as abstract and free of narrative trappings as both the film and the poem are, there is still some semblance of a basic story: A failed seduction between a man and a woman results in the woman choosing to be with another man. While there is a purposeful lack of drama, each moment is highly consequential.

Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray’s muse throughout much of the 1920s, appears in “L’etoile de Mer”

Much of the film was shot with a celluloid filter in front of the lens that obscures the male and female figures, rendering them abstract and faceless—archetypes, as opposed to characters. The viewer can’t quite hold onto their images or picture them clearly, much less study their expressions. Nevertheless, the filmmaker provides brief glimpses of them at certain moments, indicating that actual memories are mixing with the dreamer’s subconscious imagination.

The symbolism is purposefully bewildering. Words, images, and gestures all carry oblique, arbitrary connotations that are difficult to pin down. Even the starfish, the film’s central symbol, is an empty signifier waiting to be endowed with meaning (or, rather, multiple meanings). Sometimes the starfish appears trapped in a jar. At several points, it is superimposed over the action. In one sequence, it is part of a classic still life (wine, fruit, a newspaper). In another sequence, it is portrayed erotically as a sensual creature in close-up.

It seems likely that Man Ray intended for such meaning to be created solely within the viewer’s mind. After all, the act of watching cinema involves placing oneself in a kind of trancelike state, as we perceive and interpret the flickering images on the screen. Perhaps thereby, the film’s subconscious explorations enable us as viewers to tap into our own subconsciouses.

Their identities obscured, Man Ray and his photography assistant Jacques-Andre Boiffard roll the dice in “Chateau”

Surrealist touches enliven Man Ray’ fourth and final film, Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929). Unlike his previous films, Les Mysteres was a patron-commissioned work. In his 1963 autobiography Self Portrait, Man Ray dismisses the film as a work-for-hire and claims that he saw it more or less as an opportunity for a paid vacation. Yet, despite his disavowel, it is still an important Surrealist film.

The backstory is as follows: The Vicomte Charles de Noailles, a patron of the arts and the owner of the titular chateau, wanted Man Ray to make a film that showcased his contemporary art collection as it was displayed in his mansion. (He had an extensive collection that included several important Cubist works by Picasso and Miró as well as commissioned sculptures by Giacometti and Brancusi, among others.) De Noailles also desired to show his well-to-do guests enjoying leisure activities there, making particular use of such modern luxuries as the covered swimming pool and gymnasium. The film was intended as an addition to his private collection that would be screened for future visitors. De Noailles would go on to finance several significant avant garde films, including Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s groundbreaking provocation Un Chien Andalou a year later.

Within those parameters, Man Ray was given the freedom to pursue his unique creative vision, which he took full advantage of. The Surrealists embraced the notion that an individual’s fate was largely determined by chance, so the film begins with a lighthearted riff on this concept. Two travelers, their faces masked, roll a pair of dice to determine if they will go on a journey to the mysterious “chateau of dice.” The travelers are played by Man Ray and his assistant, artist and writer Jacques-Andre Boiffard, who was working as Man Ray’s studio assistant at the time.  

From there, the film spirals into a twisty, windy tour of the palatial modern villa. At the swimming pool, the bathers disappear, reappear, and move backwards and forwards. These unusual guests sometimes pose or act in ways that resemble Greek gods. Their identities are hidden—or more to the point erased—so that they become interchangeable avatars, with as much agency as a frequently-appearing mannequin hand that holds a pair of dice. Innovative, slow-moving, low-to-the-ground tracking shots (similar to the ones that Stanley Kubrick would design decades later for The Shining) create a foreboding atmosphere as the camera explores different rooms in an otherwise empty villa. To paraphrase Bill Murray, that is one nutty chateau.

Like so much of Man Ray’s work, Les Mysteres is the vision of a truly original and groundbreaking artist. Once again, poetry provides inspiration for the onscreen vision. In this case, the work is “Every Thought Sends Forth One Toss of the Dice” by French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a lengthy poem that had a great influence on the Surrealists.

There were several attempts at filmmaking after this one, including a potential collaboration with André Breton, but none of them came to fruition, so we are left with only these four short films.

Le Retour à la Raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926), L’etoile de Mer (1928), Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929).

Binge-Worthy #6: The Films of Man Ray (Part 1)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

It’s something of a minor miracle that all four of Man Ray’s short films are easily accessible online, and in reasonably good quality. Very few visual artists have applied the language of art to filmmaking so directly, and Man Ray was one of the first to do so. Utilizing the alternative photographic processes that he pioneered, he helped lay the foundation for avant-garde filmmaking.

As was the case with a number of early photographers, Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) initially pursued a career as a painter. Born in South Philly and raised in Brooklyn, he expatriated to France, immersed himself in the art scene there, and launched his career.

In 1915, he learned the basics of photography in order to make reproductions of his artwork. The new medium and its seemingly limitless potential quickly captivated him. As Kim Knowles writes in A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray, “A fascination with the technological basis of photography and a desire to explore, master and push the boundaries of the medium led to him becoming one of the most innovative photographers of the twentieth century.” As Man Ray himself stated, “I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself.”

That desire for freedom, and the urge to transcend artistic constraints and limitations, informs both his photography and his filmmaking. In a 1927 essay, the influential Surrealist poet and intellectual André Breton wrote that Man Ray guided photography “towards other ends than those for which it appears to have been created”—high praise indeed.

Similarly, Man Ray saw film as a unique art form with unrealized potential needlessly tethered to theatrical and literary conventions. He worked to detach cinema from narrative much in the same way that he strove to separate photography from straightforward representation.

He learned the craft of filmmaking by assisting Marchel Duchamp during the making of Anemic Cinema, a short avant garde exercise in Dada and Surrealism. For that experimental film, Duchamp constructed a machine with rotating panels that created a smooth, three-dimensional animated effect—a work of art for a mechanical era.

In contrast, Man Ray’s first independent effort, entitled Le Retour à la raison (1923), is chaotic and aggressive, with abrasive textures and syncopated rhythms. In place of Anemic Cinema’s carefully constructed, smoothly executed visual effects, Le Retour features crude stop-motion animation and spontaneously-composed visual cacophony. It was hastily assembled on a short 24-hour deadline. Nevertheless, however improbably, it transcends its limitations to become a significant Dadaist piece.

The three minute long cinematic sketch is largely comprised of camera-less photographic techniques, such as photograms (which he termed, tongue-in-cheek, Rayographs). It’s quite possibly the earliest example of camera-less filmmaking. To watch Le Retour a la raison is to witness the explosive and, frankly, painful birth of a filmmaker—and a filmmaking vision that will begin to mature in subsequent films.

Abstract imagery is constructed over time during this short sequence from Emak-Bakia

Emak-Bakia (1926), Man Ray’s second film, expands on the achievements in his first film—and repurposes some of the footage as well. The 16-minute piece also utilizes techniques found in his still photography (photograms, double exposures, negative images, etc.) but it’s constructed more purposefully and with greater attention to detail.

Photography, painting, sculpture, and more come together to create a powerful, iconoclastic filmmaking vision that showcases imagery and movement. The stop motion is more controlled and effective this time around. Everyday items and ephemera are imbued with oblique and arcane symbolism, Duchamp-esque wordplay appears here and there, and Surrealist touches are prevalent throughout.

In Emak-Bakia, Man Ray utilizes basic editing and cinematography techniques—the language of narrative film—to create a non-narrative visual poem. It’s a textbook representation of “pure cinema,” yet it’s also very much a formative work. While groundbreakingly original, it’s punctuated nevertheless by instances of dilettantism here and there, including a fascination with water reflections that could make even a Beginning Photography student blush.  

Man Ray’s filmmaking process during the making of Emak-Bakia differed only slightly from his artistic process in general. He worked alone, for the most part, except when there were people in front of the camera. And he improvised as he went without the benefit of any type of script or outline, opening the door for spontaneity and chance in his process—essential qualities for Dadaists and Surrealists. However, this approach would change with his next film, a collaborative effort with one of the great, overlooked Surrealist poets.

To be continued…

Le Retour à la raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926), L’etoile de Mer (1928), Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929).

Best Photobooks of 2021

OK, first things first: My vote for the best photobook of the year goes to Gilles Peress’s self-described “documentary fiction” Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.

I could give that honor just for the title alone. It presents a riddle without a solution, and it perfectly captures the absurdity of war. The book is the product of several decades spent covering war-torn Northern Ireland, beginning with the infamous Bloody Sunday event in 1972, which Peress witnessed, and continuing throughout the 1980s. It’s overwhelming both in terms of actual size (over 1300 photographs, stretched over 1000 pages across multiple volumes) and in terms of content. And it’s of a piece with Peress’s highly influential works Telex Iran and Farewell To Bosnia.

Peress seeks out the human in the midst of the inhumane and elucidates the tragedy of ordinary people trying to survive in the midst of a seemingly endless cycle of political violence. In a recent video, Magnum photographer Alec Soth gives a nuanced and insightful critique of the book and expresses awe and admiration that so many of the photographs hold up — especially when you consider that most photographers struggle to string together 50-100 strong images when compiling a book.

The hefty price tag will cause all but the most fervent and dedicated collectors to balk, but fortunately one of the volumes, entitled Annals of the North, is also available separately. Annals features over 300 images and a great deal of text (by Chris Klatell) that provides context–especially useful for those who aren’t as familiar with the conflict and the issues at stake.

Honorable mention for Best Photobooks of 2021 goes to three books that I can’t seem to stop looking at or thinking about. Jonas Bendiksen’s deepfake fake-out The Book of Veles is a fascinating exploration of media manipulation in the digital age and the technological potential to convincingly fabricate misinformation. On the more traditional end of the spectrum, I loved Mel D. Cole’s American Protest, which largely focuses on the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020. Cole incisively captures the overwhelming tensions and emotions in a divided country via an insightful and visually powerful series of black-and-white images. And finally, I can’t get enough of Gillian Laub’s brave, intimate, visually stunning, and endlessly fascinating work Family Matters. It’s every bit as strong as her previous works, and looking at it has inspired me to push myself a little more as a photographer.

There are many others that deserve mentioning as well. So, before we close the book on the inaugural year of The Parallax Review, we’d like to leave you with a roundup of notable lists of the best photobooks of 2021 from other publications.

A huge thank you to all of our readers, and stay tuned–we have big plans in store for 2022!

Best Photobooks of 2021 Roundup


The New York Times


PhotoBook Journal

Smithsonian Magazine

TIME Magazine