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  1. #1
    Rolleiflexible's Avatar
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    Walker Evans, inkjets, and the metaphysics of photography.

    Somebody went and printed Walker Evans's negatives big on an inkjet -- the prints are on display here in Manhattan at the UBS Art Gallery (6th and 51st). Today's New York Times publishes a review that ponders the consequences, and the nature of photography:

    The New York Times, Friday, August 25, 2006
    Art Review
    Walker Evans. Or Is It?

    By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
    A PHOTOGRAPHER snaps a picture. If itís a camera with film, a negative is made; if itís a digital camera, a file is produced. A printer, in a dark room using chemicals, or at a computer screen, can tinker with the image, crop it, enlarge it, make it lighter or darker, highlight one part or obscure another.

    In other words, the image produced by the camera, whether itís a negative or a digital file, is only the matrix for the work of art. It is not the work itself, although if the photographer is a journalist, any hanky-panky in the printing process comes at the potential cost of the pictureís integrity. Digital technology has not introduced manipulation into this universe; it has only multiplied the opportunities for mischief.

    I dawdle over this familiar ground because the digitally produced prints of classic Walker Evans photographs, now at the UBS Art Gallery, are so seductive and luxurious ó velvety, full of rich detail, poster-size in a few cases and generally cinematic ó that they raise some basic issues about the nature of photography.

    For starters they suggest a simple question, whether luxury and richness are apt qualities for pictures of Depression-era tenant farmers in the American South. These are, I must say, almost uncomfortably beautiful. In ďLet Us Now Praise Famous Men,Ē where Evans first published many of these photographs in 1941, James Agee, his collaborator, wrote that the book might best have been issued on newsprint to suit the simple and honest character of its subjects. Photography compromises its own value, Agee thought, when it becomes pretentious.

    For his part Evans notoriously disdained darkrooms and only haphazardly supervised the making of his own prints. But he adopted the new Polaroid SX-70 camera when it came along in 1973, indicating that he wasnít averse to new technologies; and with his negatives, like most photographers, he occasionally burned in or dodged out passages to make the pictures look more the way he wanted them to, which they couldnít otherwise. To a negative of the famous portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, the sharp-faced Alabama tenant farmerís wife, he attached instructions for exposing furrows in her brow. Adjusting the exposure was the technique he had at hand, a crude one compared to digital technology.

    The new Evans prints are made by John Hill, a friend and colleague of Evansís at the Yale School of Art, in collaboration with Sven Martson, who printed photographs for Evans during the 1970ís. They use carbon pigments. Evans shot these works on assignment for the Farm Security Administration, so they ended up in the Library of Congress as public property, where anybody now has permission to reproduce them.

    The digital process allows Mr. Hill and Mr. Martson to uncover details embedded in the negatives, outside the tonal range of the old silver gelatin prints: a shadowy girl in the doorway of a roadside stand near Birmingham, Ala.; numbers painted on a telephone pole beside a gas station in Reedsville, W.Va.; penny-picture faces in a window of a photographerís studio in Savannah, Ga. The new prints modulate and unify the midranges of grays in these pictures to soften contrasts and give a warmer ambience to photographs that were often sharp and austere in Evansís gelatin silver prints. Mr. Hill, who put together the show, includes various books, magazines and prints that Evans supervised, so you can make the comparison yourself.

    But does this improve the pictures? No. For one thing, it is not possible to improve on the quality of Evansís originals, only to emulate it. For another, size shifts how we see, both for better and worse. There is a level of concentration required by staring into a small gelatin silver print, a way the image focuses the mind and stays contained within a narrow field of vision, which is among the pleasures of photography. Bigger pictures are read differently, more piecemeal, in the way that film in a theater is viewed differently from an image on television or on a computer screen. Evans lugged his large-format camera around the rural South during the heat of summer so that he could make pictures containing lots of detail. And for his Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1971 he approved the installation of a few blownup photographs as props.

    But a new detail revealed by an enlarged digital print becomes a visual fact that, however subtly, affects the balance of the entire picture. Photography is a seamless medium: a whole, continuous image put together at once, which the eye unconsciously distinguishes from a drawn image that is made inch by inch, or pixel by pixel, in the case of a digital image.

    Maybe thatís why these new prints have something of the aura of drawings. They are, Mr. Hill makes clear, his interpretations of Evansís work. The effort may summon to mind Sherrie Levineís appropriations of Evansís photographs, which were also conceived as high-end art objects, not commonplace reproductions. But while Ms. Levine trumpeted the inferior, second-hand quality of her copies (which at first sold for more than Evansís vintage prints; go figure), Mr. Hill and Mr. Martson bring to their works the authority of first-hand experience with Evans and an obvious devotion to him.

    And this is where the philosophical implications get interesting. Is photography closer to music and theater, or to painting? A painting is what it is, and copies of it are not the same. Music and theater exist through their variety of interpretations. Mr. Hill makes the music argument, not surprisingly.

    The tricky part is that a listener knows a musician playing Bach is not Bach. Somebody looking at one of these new Evans prints is likely to assume it is by Evans, which it is of course only up to a point. That point is the threshold of the new technology.

    It allows Mr. Hill and Mr. Martson to combine two separate images into a wide panorama of a street scene in Selma, Ala. The stitches are clear, acknowledging the interpretive lark. In other cases, moderate-to-large-scale prints of the Cherokee Parts Store and of Joeís Auto Graveyard in Pennsylvania, of matching houses with round windows and a Carole Lombard poster on a wall in front of them, and of a small-town main street, crisscrossed by telephone wires ó all these prove that Evansís pictures work at any size because they are emblematic and therefore infinitely reproduceable.

    He combined Hemingwayís economy with Cummingsís wit and Eliotís urbanity. His laconic scrutiny defined an American visual poetry stripped of Victorian charm and propriety and easy bohemianism. Itís there in the rhyming circles of the windows of the houses echoing Lombardís shiner on the poster, in the haphazard geometry of the telephone wires and in the tumble of abandoned Model Tís, like tombstones, collected at the base of a grassy hill. The last is akin to one of Bradyís Civil War photographs, silent and eternal. Evansís mordant dispassion let him see destitution and the everyday in all its ready-made eloquence, short-circuiting our pity and condescension.

    About that famous Allie Mae Burroughs portrait, of which there is a new, sumptuous print and also a billboard-size image in the UBS show, Lionel Trilling pointed out that she ďsimply refuses to be an object of your Ďsocial consciousness.í She refuses to be an object at all.Ē

    These latest prints, beautiful though they are, will no doubt be superseded by further technological inventions claiming to extract still more signs of the artistís genius.

    They will come and go. Technology isnít timeless. Evans is.


    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  2. #2
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    I guess I should get over there - I work at 50th and Lex and this is nearby. Then again, I think not

    While I agree with the critic's sentiment the reality is that the Times is the biggest proponent of digitizing all and everything. Don't they feature that guy Pogue every Thursday who tells me why my erstwhile digicam that I should have bought last week has been obsoleted by the new one I should buy this week?

    The NYT is the newspaper that puts a one day limit on it's web postings before turning them into "Times Select" (i.e. pay as you go) archives. I remember years ago as a grad student reading NY Times archives going back 100 years at the NYPL's microfilm reader and I didn't have to pay a dime!

    More than once I have been fooled by their "Select" system and posted a link to a photog story here - only to see it go "Select" at midnight and lead to a teaser "subscribe now" link.

    The smarter than me OP here did a "clip and paste" but at the cost of screen and server space to this site!

    As to making WE's pics richer and deeper via ink jet - so what? It's the UBS gallery. They probably were in the underwriter's management group for the printer company's IPO. For cryin' out loud - UBS is an investment banking firm and their "gallery" is an office building lobby exhibit.

    Yes, admittedly 'high end' - this is NYC not Kansas City - but an office lobby exhibit is not (yet) museum standard. What's really sad is that the NYT is now reviewing exhibits in office lobbies!

    But, not to worry, this story will go "Select" in a little while and no one will buy it and it will disappear.....

    Oh, and the weirder thing is how an IB firm finds "feel good" traction in posting 1930's Depression images - when their office building is just a few miles away from some of the saddest neighborhoods in America today!

    I guess poor folk from seventy years ago deserves a pity we refuse to extend to poor folk today?

  3. #3
    Sparky's Avatar
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    That poor man! (walker evans) First, it was Sherrie Levine, and now this!!

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    And this is where the philosophical implications get interesting. Is photography closer to music and theater, or to painting? A painting is what it is, and copies of it are not the same. Music and theater exist through their variety of interpretations. Mr. Hill makes the music argument, not surprisingly.
    Evans, like many great photographers, was averse to the darkroom; though he may have "conducted" their production. So when is a print, like a painting, the unique work of the photographer?
    van Huyck Photo
    "Progress is only a direction, and it's often the wrong direction"

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    From what I have read in a long article about Mr. Evans, by his contemporary and associate Ralph Steiner, that was edited by David Vestal and published by Photo Techniques, Mr. Evans did not perhaps enjoy darkroom work as much as some but was perfectly capable of making straight forward prints that did the job. He apparently was not into a lot of fussines in print making but he did have solid competence in the foundation of the craft.

    I believe that his prints look the way that they do because that is the look he wanted.

    To often today, I am talking conventional photography, some very much favor highly manipulated prints that lack, what is for me, a straght foward appeal.

    I would not wish to prevent others from making prints in any manner that they choose.
    Claire (Ms Anne Thrope is in the darkroom)

  6. #6
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    This just in:

    For their next "project" Mr. Hill and Mr. Martson are in the process of digitizing various paintings from the Impressionist era. In a news release they stated:

    "While there is some merit in the representational presentation of these paintings, upon close inspection they tend to blur and "pixellate". By using new, high-speed drum scanning techniques we can digitize these images. Then via imaging software we can use various advanced "sharpening" techniques and other tools to reduce the noticible pixellation to a considerable degree."

    Hill and Marston went on to explain that cleary the artistic intent of the original artists had been rendered almost ineffective by the cruder pixellation available in the early digital imaging era (circa late-19th Century).

    "With modern technological tools and using high-res printer technology, we are convinced we can transform these paintings into the smooth representational images that eluded the original artists." said Hill and Marston.


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    Ansel Adams' photos will be colorized, Julia Margaret Cameron's prints will finally be spotted, Robert Frank's will be sharpened, Garry Winogrand's will have the horizons corrected, Ralph Gibson's will gain shadow detail and we'll have some fig leaves placed on those embarrassing photos by Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorp.

    Sheee-it!

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    I read the Times piece and thought it was awfully narrow-minded.

    There was an interview in the most recent LensWork with the fellow who continues to print Ansel Adams photos. Granted, he is printing silver optically rather than carbon digitally, but there is no question that his technique is different from Ansel's, a fact that he cheerfully admits.

    The makers of these carbon digital prints make no bones about what they're up to. Whether the results are better, worse, or just different is a matter of legitimate criticism. Rejecting them solely on the grounds that the size of the prints and the technology used to produce them is different, which is what the Times reviewer does, seems to me to be a cheap shot.

  9. #9
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    Seeing the old car on the gallery thumbnail at the same time I saw this thread reminds me of the long standing battle between car hobbiests/restorers.

    There are the people that find old classic cars and restore them lovingly and meticulously to the exact way they were first produced. Then they place them in garages and on the occasional Sunday they'll proudly bring them out and put-put around their respective towns or take them on Classic Car Runs.

    Then there are the bastardizers who take the old classics, gut then down to bare metal and refabricate them, stick in a big hot new motor, air conditioning, cruise control, automatic trans, big tires/wheels and basically re-invent the car. These probably see the light of day as much as they see the garage. However they still call it a 32 Deuce or a 29 Model A.

    Would Henry roll over in his grave. Don't know.

    The thing is, maybe some photographers would be happy to see their work reintroduced to the public and I'm sure a bunch probably wouldn't. But as time goes on and this whole digital thing keeps evolving, this kind of re-inventing will probably continue.


    Michael
    I couldn't think of anything witty to say so I left this blank.

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    Re-inventing

    If re-inventing makes more people interested in art or creates new dialog about art in general it is good. If re-inventing is nothing more than a commerciel attempt to make a quick profit it should be rejected.

    It is so important that photography like any other art form be debated, discussed and thought about by as many people as possible.

    Some people still belive that photography is mainly about technoque and "tricks". In order to prevent such notion from spreading we all should concentrate on content - not technique (or "tricks") - digital or film based.

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