Blind Spot Magazineby Farrah Karapetian
Contemporary art photography finds its audience not only in galleries and museums, but in the alternative space of the magazine. Since Alfred Stieglitz founded Camera Work, the portable space of the journal has served as a real forum for the exchange of ideas in photography. The people responsible for the selection of photographs can be considered curators as much as editors; they construct sentences between artists whose work may be very distinct.
This twenty-sixth issue of Blind Spot is no group show; it is a family album—the container for some study in shared practice and aesthetic intimacy. Its fulcrum, however, is a conversation between Tim Davis and Stephen Shore. Davis opens his conversation with a brief description of Shore’s Uncommon Places (1973-1981): the "view camera landscapes," which "possess, above their other qualities, a deep and fathomable resolve." What makes Davis’s comment so interesting is that this "resolve" can apply to all of the projects pictured in this season’s Blind Spot except for Stephen Shore’s.
Each of the photographs in Alec Soth’s series Along the Mississippi contains the full body of his subject—a man in coveralls, a houseboat, a drowning mattress. Each subject extends to us a few props: two model airplanes, a line of laundry, a silhouetted tree. The titles fill in any remaining information. "Crystal, Easter, New Orleans, LA" explains the otherwise pathetic situation of an old woman with crimped hair and a fancy dress sitting on a Disney bedspread: she might have a family, a church. She doesn’t do this every day. "Johnny Cash’s Boyhood Home, Dyes, AK" explains that this shack in this field is an American Dream.
The only black and white pictures in the magazine, Frank Gohlke’s images of Queens are each dead-ended compositions of fenced-off suburban properties. In color, these pictures would be a wash of brick, grass, pavement, and sky; black and white renders the lines of the fences graphically. It emphasizes the persistent placement of the fences in the center of the frame. This emphasis, of course, makes a priority of the fences; hence the title of the series, The Landscape of Longing. Each image is titled after its space-time source—"Flushing," "Edgemere" or "Woodhaven, Queens 2003."
Joel Sternfeld’s take on The Landscape of Longing follows Gohlke’s. Sternfeld’s decision to make color images is as deliberate as Gohlke’s choice of black and white. These pictures emphasize the text of Queens, the vulgar colors of its signs, the leveling that these signs effect on local culture. Sternfeld’s titles are even more factually full than Soth’s: he actually gives us the address of each of these locations. In "Sybil’s West Indian Bakery and Restaurant, 132-17 Liberty Avenue, Queens, New York, July 2003," for instance, the patrons of the restaurant smile at the photographer as though they were the point. In truth, they function like one of Soth’s props: a thing included to more fully describe Sternfeld’s subject.
Jem Southam’s Upton Pyne was made in England on the grounds of a house in the countryside. His titles are dates, and through them, if not via the photographs themselves, we find that the project took place over five years, from 1996 to 2001. Of the eight photographs published here, "May 1999" is the most remarkable. The picture is a mass of slender trees, weedy shoots, and stark reflections. The view camera takes in every feathery young line and leaf; this is the one picture in the magazine where the perceptive capacity of that camera seems necessary.
These four photographers make fine use of the view camera to contemplative, lyrical effect. Gohlke and Sternfeld approach the landscape with blunt intention. Soth and Southam treat the landscape with more romance. Despite the variables of location, the specifics of concern, however, these four bodies of photographs are handled with remarkable similarity. They seem as much at home in the context of a magazine as they might on a wall, not only for the traditionally cited reason that photographs lack specific scale, but also because they seem so comfortable together. Each series answers the questions of the next: What is behind the fence? And inside? Who lives there? Victor Shrager takes the library. Each of his pieces is so resolved it seems finished before it starts: he places color rather than plays with it. His body of work is titled Composition as Explanation. Is explanation his aim? Is it the aim of his peers’ projects?
In a way, yes: these series each seek to explain and encompass their locations. That is, except for Stephen Shore’s. A spread of nine pictures begins with a pixilated digital rendering of a few bright shapes. Each image further clarifies the one before. They are titled "Jigsaw Puzzle, Lookout Hotel, Ogunquit, Maine," identifying the subject from the get-go. Really, though, the process of clarification is the essence of this project; the identity of the puzzle is not the point. The pictures come from a series of small books produced unprofessionally. In this series, Shore attempts to respond to one picture at a time, to respond to the format of a book, and to have some fun with a medium that defaults, in some cases, to the serious, the contemplative, the perfect, the sublime. Jigsaw Puzzle begs to be seen in its proper format. Its presence in a magazine, placed among text and before and after the work of other people, actually alters the series consequentially; it is no longer a self-contained object. Stephen Shore’s work in Uncommon Places is a precedent for photographers like Soth, Sternfeld, Gohlke, and Southam. Perhaps this new work can be a precedent for them as well: to question rather than explain, to respond rather than resolve.