In the Galleries: September 2021

Blaise Tobia – Parking Garage, Mazzara Del Vallo

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

The inaugural 20/20 Photo Festival is happening throughout September here in Philadelphia, featuring events, exhibits, workshops, artist talks, a book fair at Cherry Street Pier, and more. The festival is billed as a monthlong, citywide celebration of photography, with the bulk of its core programming taking place the week of September 22. The festival is organized around the theme “history informs the contemporary.”

One satellite show worth noting is New Sicilian Topographics at Art on the Avenue Gallery. Organized by Blaise Tobia, a Philadelphia-based photographer whose work will also be on display, the show takes its cue from the landmark 1975 photo exhibit New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Collectively, the three participating photographers take a critical look at suburban sprawl and encroaching development in Sicily, via color images rooted in a firm sense of place. They reveal an ancient place on the cusp of irrevocable transformation, often via cleverly-composed juxtapositions. The opening reception takes place on September 25, and a gallery walkthrough is scheduled for September 26.

Opening September 1 at Gravy Studio, Michael Froio’s solo show From the Main Line is a visual survey of the landscapes altered by the historic Pennsylvania Railroad Corridor, which dates back to the mid-19th Century. His large format black-and-white photos capture vistas at once familiar and alien, and reveal a keen eye for region-specific details. It’s one of the core exhibits of the festival, and it complements New Sicilian Topographies nicely.

From September 19-26, Wiota Street Garden in West Philadelphia will provide the setting for A Quiet Light: Photographs by Amie Potsic, Jason Francisco, Laurence Salzmann, John Singletary and Milton Lindsay. The show is curated by Salzmann, a local photographer and former gallery owner whose documentary and street photos date back to the 1960s.

Book Review: Fotoclubismo by Sarah Hermanson Meister

A beautifully printed, densely informative catalog that accompanies the current MoMA exhibit (on view through September), Fotoclubismo focuses on the contributions of a mid-20th Century amateur photography club in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Largely unknown outside of Brazil, the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB) was comprised mostly of white-collar professionals, both men and women, who produced bold and innovative photographic works.

Organized by Sarah Meister, MoMA’s former curator of photography, the book and exhibit illuminate the contributions of the FCCB while challenging the ways that amateur status is viewed as a liability in the art world. In her opening essay, “Excelente, Bom, Sofrivel, Pobre: Judging Postwar Photography in Brazil,” Meister argues, “Their photographs attest to the seriousness and skill with which they approached the medium; their amateur status figures prominently among the reasons why this chapter of photographic history has been largely overlooked outside Brazil.”  

This neglect is unfortunate, since the Bandeirantes created dynamic, unconventional, and powerful images. This was by no means an accidental development. The club’s members prized innovation, valued originality, and adapted a range of approaches with an emphasis on developing one’s personal vision. They fostered what Meister terms a “culture of criticality,” utilizing in-depth, constructive critiques to help elevate their work collectively and prevent “the complacency that characterized so many of their amateur peers.” This was in line with the club’s monthly contests, rankings, portfolio reviews, discussions, and seminars—and a distinguishing feature from most other photo clubs.

In many ways, the club is comparable to New York’s vaunted Photo League, which had been founded a decade earlier. However, the Photo League concerned itself with documenting the social issues impacting New York City, while the less politically-minded Bandeirantes favored more avant-garde, abstract, and experimental work. They embraced the potential for Modernist compositions that Sao Paolo’s industrial transformation offered, rather than photographing, with a social conscience, the impacts of those transformations.

As a result, their striking and dramatic works place a strong emphasis on form, texture, and technique. When people happen to be present in a shot, they are often rendered in silhouette or shown with their back to the camera—or both. The selection of photos in the book (expertly curated by Meister) reveal that the practitioners were finely attuned to the strengths of black and white photography. There is an impressively diverse array of images on display, still Fotoclubismo is an apt title, since this genuinely feels like a collective body of work.

Julio Agostinelli. Circus (Circense). 1951. Gelatin silver print, 11 7/16 × 15 in. (29 × 38.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Richard O. Rieger. © 2020 Estate of Julio Agostinelli

The 140 tritone plates are divided into six sections. Each section explores two interconnected themes and spotlights an individual photographer while segueing from one theme to the next. The themes are inspired by the monthly photography contests in the club’s highly collectible monthly publication, the Boletim, and approximately half of the photos are from MoMA’s collection.

The sequencing is a major strength of the book. The sections are arranged like jazz compositions, offering variations on themes and finding cohesion in the process. There is rhythm and harmony, spontaneity and repetition.

Case in point: The first section opens with a collection of architectural photos. Lyrical photographic compositions showcase lines and curves, and play with light and shadow. Architecture seamlessly transitions to the early work of Jose Yalenti, a civil engineer and co-founder of the club. His fragmentary, geometric, and pointillism-influenced compositions, in turn, lead into the theme “Abstractions from Nature.”

The next chapter, “Solitude/Shadows,” highlights the club’s first female member, Gertrudes Altschul, whose 1953 photograph “Filigree” adorns the book’s cover. That striking image emphasizes the intricate veins of a leaf while imbuing it with an artificial sheen. It was selected for the cover partly because it illustrates an instance of an amateur’s day job overlapping with her photographic interests–Altschul had a small business designing handmade ornamental flowers. Born into a Jewish family, she had emigrated from Nazi-occupied Europe, as had Thomaz Farkas, a prominent founding member who at 14 years old was the youngest photographer in the FCCB when he joined. Meister alludes to their Jewishness in her opening essay without going into any depth, but it would have been interesting to explore, in greater detail, how this part of their shared history influenced their work.

Farkas’s body of work is particularly strong. His images tend to be visually playful and imbued with a humanistic quality. There is an intellectual complexity to them. I found myself returning to his photos as I looked through the book, and discovering something new each time.

Far from purists, FCCB photographers often cropped their work—sometimes radically so—and dabbled in the types of alternative processes familiar to most Beginning Darkroom students: solarization, photograms, printing from multiple negatives, and negative printing (a two-step process that involved first making a positive print and then contact-printing the positive in order to reverse it back to a negative image). Although those works may come across as antiquated and, well, amateurish at first glance, they nevertheless speak to the spirit of experimentation that the club had at that time.

Fotoclubismo deepens our understanding of 20th Century photographic history, and it will likely lead towards a greater appreciation of both amateur photography and Brazilian photography. MoMA’s bold decision to showcase the work of an amateur photography club should resonate in a positive way among galleries and museums and lead to more opportunities for works created by “non-professionals” to be discovered and rediscovered. It can’t completely overturn the biases towards amateurs in the art world, but it’s a huge step forward.

Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography and the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante, 1946–1964 by Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2021. 184 pages. Hardcover.

Binge-Worthy #4: In The Street (Helen Levitt, 1948)

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

In the Street is a sensitively observed slice-of-life portrait of Spanish Harlem shot in 1948 and released in the early 1950s. It’s a non-narrative film that manages to tell a compelling story nevertheless, immersing viewers into the world onscreen. It’s visually innovative and mesmerizing to watch.

Acclaimed street photographer (and Walker Evans protégé) Helen Levitt made the film in collaboration with her sister-in-law, painter Janice Loeb, and author James Agee, who wrote the text for Now Let Us Praise Famous Men. All three took turns handling the silent portable 16mm film camera, Levitt edited the footage, and Agee wrote the opening text. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who filmed what, but this really feels like Levitt’s vision overall, in large part because it’s of a piece with her photographic body of work: decisive-moment street photography mainly preoccupied with the lives of children.

In the film, kids play, laugh, and fight in the street. They mug shamelessly for the camera, cool off in the spray of a hydrant on a hot afternoon, and dress up for Halloween in simple homemade costumes. This is a child’s-eye view of their world, filmed with a social conscience, empathetic without being overly sentimental.

Agee’s prologue begins by stating, “The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground.” The “theater” becomes almost too literal during a sequence where children dance in an alley. The battlefield does too, at one point. The streets and sidewalks, which double as the kids’ playground, practically transform into a war zone during a particularly chaotic free-for-all. (The rough-around-the-edges nature of children playing in the street is a theme that emerges in Levitt’s still photography as well.) Kids chase each other, hit each other with things, and run around with cardboard boxes on their heads. It’s rowdy, violent, anarchistic, and results in tears more than once.

In the midst of all this is Levitt’s camera. They trust the filmmakers enough to let them into their world–and at one point are very clearly avoiding hitting the camera as they attack one another. For the most part, the adults in the neighborhood relegate themselves to the background of this scene. Some seem oblivious while others stay well out of the kids’ way.

Like the previous entry in this series, In the Street embraces the language of street photography while mostly disregarding cinematic conventions. The filmmakers capture the everyday dramas unfolding in the street, and their loose, informal camera work results in dynamic and spontaneous compositions.

In the Street has been digitally restored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is being presented as part of their From The Vaults series, which highlights rarely-seen films from the museum’s archive. The film can be viewed on the Met’s website as well as on YouTube and Instagram.

The Met has added a new musical accompaniment composed and performed by Ben Model, who astutely sums up the silent film as “an exhibition of moving images” in his video introduction. Originally, Levitt hired MoMA’s longtime resident silent film accompanist Arthur Kleiner to record a piano score after she finished editing the film. Sync sound hadn’t been developed yet for portable 16mm cameras, so including the actual sounds of the street would have been an incredibly complicated task.

It’s debatable as to whether Model’s score improves on Kleiner’s original. They’re both quite beautiful. However, to my ears, they also seem to be superfluous nods to the perceived demands of the viewer. Watching the film with the sound muted resulted in a more authentic and immersive experience for me, and it enabled my mind to reconstruct the approximate sounds as the images rolled past.

Worth noting: Levitt, Agee, and Loeb collaborated on other projects as well. Around the same time, they penned the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Sidney Meyers’s socially concerned 1948 docudrama The Quiet One. Agee also wrote the text for Levitt’s 1965 monograph A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York.

In the Street (directed by Helen Levitt, James Agee & Janice Loeb). 16mm film (black and white, silent), 17 min., 1948.

Book Review: Diana & Nikon by Janet Malcolm

In her collected writings on photography, New Yorker staff writer Janet Malcolm accomplishes what many critics set out to do but few achieve. She illuminates much that is true about the medium in a unique, eloquent voice that is piercingly intelligent and bluntly honest.

Although this collection was originally published forty years ago, the passage of time has not lessened its impact and relevancy. These pieces were originally published in The New Yorker, along with The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, and they are presented here in chronological order. (The expanded edition ranges from 1975 to 1996.) There are 16 essays total—11 in the original, plus 5 for the expanded edition. Most start out as reviews of specific books or exhibits, using those as jumping-off points to examine larger questions.

One of the pleasures of the book is seeing her ideas and views develop and evolve over the course of the book. Each question she asks leads her to another deeper, more complex question. (“Questions are what matter, of course,” Malcolm writes.) Recurring themes include the complex and somewhat symbiotic relationship of painting to photography, the fundamental nature of photography and its ability to capture “truth,” issues of form and content within the context of photography, and the struggle to situate photography within the arts.

Malcolm expresses little interest in the politics of photography. She doesn’t traffic in holier-than-thou writerly critiques of photographic practices. Nor does she rhapsodize about the power of photography to bear witness or bring about social change. She’s much more interested in exploring the connections between Abstract Expressionism and Harry Callahan’s formal innovations, Jackson Pollack’s Action Painting technique and the incessant snapping of Garry Winogrand’s Leica, early pictorialism and Diane Arbus’s portraits. Malcolm is a strong proponent of the argument, popular in New York art critic circles at the time, that innovations in painting preceded and influenced innovations in photography. That point of view is very much up for debate, but she makes her case convincingly.

Malcolm also wades into the early debates surrounding the use of color in fine art photography via William Eggleston and ruminates on the elegant cruelty of Richard Avedon’s portraits. She was one of the first critics to connect the dots between Walker Evans’s work and Robert Frank’s and to truly elucidate Evans’s impact on Frank.

The influence of MoMA’s legendary photography curator John Szarkowski is present throughout. The title essay directly addresses Szarkowski’s classic book The Photographer’s Eye, which inspires Malcolm to reexamine some of her beliefs about photography. Looking at The Photographer’s Eye, Malcolm writes, “Photography went Modernist not…when it began to imitate modern abstract art but when it began to study snapshots.” It is here that Malcolm starts to view the camera as a democratizing instrument, and she asserts that attempts to re-establish the dividing line between the refined artist and the untrained amateur (e.g., by segueing into alternative processes and camera-less methods) only move those practitioners further away from the genuine nature of photography.

The last two essays, posthumous considerations of Diane Arbus and E.J. Bellocq respectively, continue Malcolm’s own evolution as a writer towards in-depth journalistic profiles. The former is an excellent consideration of Arbus’s work that uses quotes from her writings to give insight into the images (the how and why behind their creation). The latter involves a posthumous investigation of the enigmatic Bellocq, with input from Szarkowski, Lee Friedlander, and former New Orleans Museum of Art curator Steven Maklansky.

Malcolm still writes for The New Yorker on a variety of topics. She contributed an intelligent and in-depth profile of Thomas Struth in 2011 that goes deeper than most full-length biographies in addressing fundamental questions around the creative process of an artist. The essay was reprinted in her 2013 collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which is well worth seeking out as well.

Art criticism is much more likely to be read by academics, curators, aficionados, and collectors than artists, but that does a disservice to Malcolm’s work. Diana & Nikon holds relevancy for photographers–moreso than most criticism, in my opinion–and I believe that it is beneficial for photographers to familiarize themselves with essential works of criticism, even if their ideas only indirectly manifest themselves in one’s work. Even so, in these pages, Malcolm herself asserts that those benefits are limited, since so much of photography, in her view, depends upon being present in the moment, placing oneself in the right place at the right time, capturing the right expression—and ultimately, resigning yourself to technology and chance.

Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography (Expanded Edition) by Janet Malcolm. Aperture, 1997. 224 pages. Hardcover.

Binge-Worthy #3: Gare de Lyon (William Klein, 1963)

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

Click here to watch.

A living legend and an innovator in several different photography genres, including abstract, street, and fashion, William Klein also boasts a reputation as an innovative and prolific filmmaker. True to form, he tried his hand at a number of film genres, including experimental avant-garde works, documentaries, and features. Gare de Lyon, one of his earliest efforts, is much more modest in ambition and scale than his later films. It’s a quick sketch made by a brilliant autodidact who is just beginning to test the limits of the medium—and a relatively simple concept executed extremely well. Within a brief time frame (approximately 12 minutes), Klein captures a day in the life of the famous Paris train station from which the film takes its name.

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In the Galleries: May 2021

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

One tiny silver lining in the midst of the pandemic has been the proliferation of online exhibitions. Museums and galleries around the world are beginning to utilize virtual presentation platforms, and it seems likely this trend will continue. Granted, looking at images on a screen is no substitute for engaging with artwork in person. However, since some museums and galleries remain closed to the public, going online is currently the only way to access their special exhibits and collections.

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Book Review: Yamabito, the Mountain People by Osamu Sato

In the 1970s, an unassuming Tokyo salaryman used his one day off each week to journey into the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, an 8×10” view camera in tow. Leaving the city behind, he trekked—first by train, then by bus, and finally on foot—until he arrived at the remote villages there.

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Book Review: Grim Street by Mark Cohen

It’s rare to see street photography that captures life in a small American town. Without the crowded sidewalks and anonymity that one experiences in a big city, street photography doesn’t seem nearly as viable. Yet, photographer Mark Cohen stalked the same small radius of Wilkes-Barre, where he lived and worked, for decades, taking groundbreaking and revealing photos of small-town life that revel in the details. A well-edited selection of his black-and-white work comprises Grim Street.

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Binge-Worthy #2: Candy Mountain (Robert Frank, 1987)

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

In 1958, photographer Robert Frank published his groundbreaking and highly influential masterwork The Americans. A year later, he segued into filmmaking. He directed the surreal, semi-improvised Beat classic Pull My Daisy (1959), along with a brilliant and difficult-to-track-down documentary on the Rolling Stones, and a myriad of short, avant-garde films. He occasionally dabbled in other formats as well, even branching out into music videos.

Candy Mountain, a low-budget independent feature from the mid-1980s that Frank co-directed, easily ranks among his most significant filmmaking achievements. It’s a deeply personal work etched with social commentary that drives home just how much, in the wake of The Americans, Frank strove to distance himself from that career-defining body of work. It’s also his most mainstream project, and one that he ultimately deemed a failure.

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Book Review: Palante: Young Lords Party by Michael Abramson with the Young Lords Party

Initially published in 1971 and reprinted in 2011, Palante tells the story, in words and pictures, of the New York City chapter of the Young Lords Party.

Inspired by the Black Panthers, the Young Lords Party was an organization of Puerto Rican activists and community organizers, many of whom were first-generation college students at the time. The movement’s heyday lasted a little under two years, from 1969 to 1971. During that time, its members were on the frontlines of the struggle for social, racial, and economic justice. They were self-described socialist revolutionaries who took a strong stand against police violence, systemic racism, and colonialist policies. Not surprisingly, they constantly found themselves subjected to arrest, surveillance, and harassment by the powers-that-be.

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