5B4 - Photography, Photobooks, Printed Matter

American Images: New Work by Twenty Contemporary Photographers

The two books compiling work from various photographers that were extremely important to me as a young photo student in 1987 oddly shared the same title. American Images edited by Pete Turner and American Images edited by Renato Danese. It is this second book I want to highlight here.

Published in 1979 American Images: New Work by Twenty Contemporary Photographers reproduces 160 photographs from a project initiated in 1977 by the Bell System telecommunications conglomerate to create a general survey of contemporary American photographers. The only stipulation of the commissioned artists was that the new work be created within the USA and that each produce three sets of their fifteen photograph ‘portfolio’ that would be donated to museums. The list of artists reads like a virtual who’s who of late-70s practice; Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Harry Callahan, William Clift, Linda Conner, Bevan Davies, Roy DeCarava, William Eggleston, Elliott Erwitt, Larry Fink, Frank Gohlke, John Gossage, Jonathan Green, Jan Groover, Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Misrach, Nicholas Nixon, Tod Papageorge and Stephen Shore.

What is still impressive about this volume, aside from how good a majority of the work is for a commission from one year, is the cleanliness of design and the quality of printing especially the black and white plates. The printing was by Acme Printing Company of Boston who also inked Park City and Nevada for Lewis Baltz.

What is less impressive about this volume are the artist statements that precede each section of a photographer’s eight photographs. Obviously such statements are aimed at a more general audience, those that may attend the exhibition and want to know in advance what they are looking at from the photographer’s mouth, but with rare exception they mostly seem rather silly or tread into a word salad of pretention. Only two photographers, John Gossage and Lewis Baltz, chose what seemed to be the smarter route stating “The photographer prefers not to make a statement about his work.” For viewers for which the work might be truly important, we can figure it out. The less said the better. And considering hardcover copies of American Images can be had for less than ten dollars, the “pleasures of good photographs” are also a bargain.

 

  • American Images: New Work by Twenty Contemporary Photographers
  • Edited by Renato Danese
  • McGraw Hill, 1979
  • ISBN: 9780070152953

Gas Stop by David Freund

Within the American landscape, or any landscape in the world for that matter, gasoline stations are at once ubiquitous and forgettable. They occupy the corners of city intersections and on lone stretches of highway in the middle of nowhere and seem to be everywhere when you don’t need them, and almost out of reach in an emergency. In my childhood they were of particular fascination for a young boy as, if my older brother didn’t beat me to it, I’d be able to convince my father to let me pump the gas. It was a time when I felt small excitement with simple things like the twist and release of suction of the gas cap, the fumes, the clank of the nozzle inserted, the arc of the pump reset handle, the tension of the pump’s trigger, the speed at which the price indicator out runs the volume indicator and then finally the sudden and almost violent shut off once the tank was full. Finally, after the manual card machine was slid back and forth and my father handed the credit card slip’s carbon-copied layers back to the attendant, we pull out onto the main road and I sit in the backseat breathing in the gasoline smell from my hands. 

From 1978 to 1981, David Freund travel throughout the United States exploring the culture and architecture of gas stations as they appeared in the American landscape.  The four slipcased volumes presented here titled Gas Stop are organized into locations of the Midwest, West, East, and South and includes 574 photographs in over 700 pages. My first thought was “do we really need four volumes of black and white photographs of gas stations?” It is a reasonable question in the same way that one could ask “do we really need hundreds of photographs of the same subject of anything?” What do 574 photographs accomplish that 50 can’t? Just because one does have hundreds of photographs of the gas stations doesn’t mean all need to be seen. Right? In a funny way, if this epic bookwork were made by a self-identified conceptual artist, the volume of images wouldn’t be questioned. What if Ed Ruscha presented us in 1963 with a book called Five Hundred Seventy Four Gasoline Stations? No one would bat an eye yet the usual photobook publisher’s instincts might still wish to limit Freund to Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Well, although your instincts and experiences with photo books might lead you down that path I have found these four volumes far more interesting and successful than I could’ve expected.

The language of Freund’s photography is not unique from the time and will seem familiar to most with flavors of Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Henry Wessel, Tod Papageorge and others also working the “social landscape.” Although that lineage can be reasonably made, Freund has succeeded in most cases of making brilliant and complex photographs. Of course, only a glutton would try to go through all four volumes in one sitting, right? Well, that depends on your appetite for the pleasures of good photographs. These have a way of sparking curiosity for what is on the next corner, even though you already know with certainty what you'll find there.

 

Reading Raymond Carver by Mary Frey

A very interesting comparison could be made between the book in the previous article Interieurs by Thomas Ruff and the new book by Mary Frey called Reading Raymond Carver. The work in each of these titles was photographed in the late 70s early 80s; both describe something of domesticity and family; both are fascinated with interior decor; and both seem to question whether the character of the subjects can be surmised by their surroundings - if Thomas Ruff’s photographs of German homes in the Black Forest can speak of “German-ness,” do Mary Frey’s photographs made in the homes of families and friends in Massachusetts suburbs speak to something unique about “American-ness.”

Frey cites inspiration from the national mood of her childhood where “the nuclear family reigned supreme, and general interest magazines like Life and Good Housekeeping showed us what the world should look like, I began to mimic this 50s imagery” yet she concludes, “I can’t recall exactly what I was feeling at the time, but I do remember that I was reading Raymond Carver.” This is the charm for me of much of Frey’s work, her photographs have a light-hearted wink to the viewer yet, if one takes the time, you perceive life’s complications without getting to the level of Carver’s dispiriting desperation. As a husband drapes a string of pearls around his wife’s neck, her eyes slightly distorted buy her oversized eyeglasses are unseeing, appearing entirely in thought - his effort at taking care show in the tension of his mouth and chin; the young girl on the book’s cover, closely listening to an eight-track tape player, seems as awkward on the edge of her bed as she might feel in public; a young boy who has made a papier-mâché volcano in the basement presents his creation almost with uncertainty of what he holds in his hands; a mother holding two children is unaware that she is become a cigarette smoking Jesus figure in a modern-day depiction of the Last Supper.

There is grace present in these images that doesn’t seem forced or contrived and her humor rarely reads as a one-liner. This work is a fine example of how embracing everyday life can be far more interesting and surprising than the pre-planned contrivance or construction. One just has to take the risk of trusting in the world, even if that world is just your living room.

 

Interieurs by Thomas Ruff

Looking through Thomas Ruff’s newest book Interieurs one immediately senses two things; the first is Ruff’s precision in framing the interiors of Black forest German houses and the precision in the arrangement of furniture and decor of those interiors that he is photographing. Whether found as such or rearranged by his hand before releasing the shutter, everything seems so devoid of human presence yet there seems to be the intent to capture something of the occupant’s character, the person that can be sensed who constructed such spaces. These still lives look like some found set piece calling so soundly into the past, that they feel abandoned.

Made in the late 1970s and early 80s they both seduce and repel the viewer with their round-cornered and clunky furniture, warm wooden tones, kitschy drapery, vulgar mustard hues, and attempts by the wallpaper to lighten the heavy atmosphere. Ruff, born just a few years before the construction of the Berlin wall commenced, is one of many artists of the post-war generation who are looking at their surroundings, their history, with a critical eye. Even though these are the interiors of the houses of family friends and neighbors it is hard for me not to see these pictures as a kind of personal protest against the past, the lives and choices of earlier generations.

It is always debatable whether or not people arrange their homes to truly make practical and personal use of what they own or whether they do so more for the visitors they occasionally entertain. How are others see and perceive how our lives can be all consuming. I sense from these photographs the occupants considered both and that the almost imperceptible arc of a loosed human hair which has come to rest on the sink edge near the bar of candy-striped soap – that tiny bit of proof of the human body­ – does not belong.