Tag Archives: Photography

“Water” at Alex Ferrone Gallery


Paula Kelly, Afloat; courtesy the artist and Alex Ferrone Gallery

* * *

With galleries in New York City shutting their doors, partnering up or capitulating to the art fair epidemic, gallery-goers are recommended to satisfy their art jones in venues elsewhere. Upon a recent jaunt to the North Fork of Long Island, I came across Alex Ferrone Gallery, an exhibition space dedicated exclusively to photography.

Unostentatious and intimate, Ferrone is currently displaying a show juried by Glynis Berry–architect, dealer and former supervisor of “traffic calming” (!) for The New York Department of Transportation. “Water” is the theme and the art of photography proves suitably fluid for the occasion.

Whether it be classic black-and-white, analog “decisive moments”, color flash imagery, iPhonography (that’s a thing, apparently) or Photoshop, the work proves remarkably consistent in its attention to craft and surface. “Meticulous” doesn’t begin to describe it. The works are affordable; ten percent of proceeds are targeted to benefit Hurricane Harvey relief. Running through January 7, 2018.

© 2017 Mario Naves

The Woodmans

Francesca Woodman, Self-Portrait Talking to Vince (1975-1978); courtesy George and Betty Woodman

* * *

As an artist, Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) gained more from dying young and staying pretty than she did in life when no dealer would take on her elegantly choreographed photographs of women, many of them self-portraits. Times have changed: Woodman’s undeniable talent, unapologetic narcissism and suicide are perfect fodder for the age of Oprah. Her posthumous reputation has eclipsed the achievements of the remaining members of the family: mother Betty, father George and brother Charles–artists all.

Francesca is at the center of C. Scott Willis’s The Woodmans (2011), a harrowing documentary that encompasses not only unspeakable tragedy, but the vagaries of the artist’s life and the self-absorption it can engender. Watching Betty and George tell the story of their daughter’s fate is difficult, not least because of their obliviousness to how an abiding fidelity to art can stunt a person’s ability to connect with other human beings.

A collective cringe went through the audience when George, as a means of continuing his dead daughter’s vision, was seen taking photographs of a young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Francesca. And that’s not the only moment in the film when you’re brought up short by the lengths–often unseemly, sometimes delusional and, in Francesca’s case, final–by which art is favored over life. A riveting movie, yes, and recommended too, but The Woodmans provides enough reason to think twice about the succor art ostensibly provides.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Eugène Atget at Zabriskie Gallery

Eugène Atget, St. Sulpice, Buffet d’Orgues pour chalquier clodion (Undated), ablumen print, 8-3/4″ x 7-1/4″; courtesy Zabriskie Gallery

* * *

There’s no way around it: Eugène Atget’s photographs, the subject of an elegantly appointed exhibition at Zabriskie Gallery, are beautiful. His immaculately poised depictions of Parisian houses, streets and monuments never take a false step. Although most of Atget’s oeuvre dates from the early 20th century, it is essentially 19th century in character—his great subject was history passing.

Notwithstanding these considerable merits, can Atget’s lovingly rendered nostalgia be considered art? Or is it, rather, a purposeful contribution to the history of art? It’s a silly question on the face of it. Atget’s place in the history books is guaranteed. His Modernist bona fides are in order—the photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), for example, was an unceasing and enthusiastic advocate. Atget’s photos were admired by, among others, Matisse, Picasso and Man Ray. Atget, in other words, had fans in high places.

But with significant exceptions, Atget’s accomplishment is drabber than we might like to admit. The photos aren’t bad, necessarily; it’s that their pleasures don’t redeem a plainness of vision. Whatever he set his sights on, whether antique statuary or a sprawling country estate, Atget focused on the particulars of his subjects rather than on those of his medium. He didn’t think of himself as a photographer; he preferred the term “author-producer.” It’s rare for an artist to be so unpresumptuous.

Orphaned at a young age, Atget (1857-1927) was raised by an uncle and went on to pursue a number of avocations. He was a sailor, a painter, a bit actor in a theater troupe and, for a time, studied to become a priest. He retained a lifelong sympathy for the working class, and was given to quixotic habits: Late in life he adopted a diet comprised solely of bread, milk and sugar.

At the age of 41 and without formal training, Atget took up photography as an expressly commercial venture, selling his images of plants, animals and the natural world to artists for use as reference material. Upon recognizing the ruthless momentum of urbanization at the turn of the 20th century, the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris commissioned Atget to photograph old Paris—the project that would come to define his aesthetic legacy.

Atget’s romanticism, though filtered through a cool remove, is unmistakable. He rued modernization, not least because it threatened the livelihoods of small merchants and tradesmen. The work’s bittersweet ambiance—its gravity and longing—is antithetical to the speed and invention of early 20th-century culture. Atget preferred history’s comforts, however dilapidated, to the promises of a new age. An appealing mustiness pervades this backward-looking art.

Ironically, the irreverent Surrealists embraced the reactionary Atget as one of their own. He took photos early in the morning for practical reasons—to avoid pedestrian traffic and, one imagines, distracting public scrutiny. But in doing so, Atget transformed Paris from a bustling metropolis into a ghost town. The photos aren’t suffused with calm so much as bereft of vitality. Their emptiness is disconcerting; Paris is a void, a no-place similar in detail and mood to de Chirico’s skewed and deserted plazas.

Abbott wrote that Atget “persisted in his choice of un-pictorial subjects … the structure, the flawless compositions were there to clarify and express the subject.” Commending a pictorial artist for an “un-pictorial” bent is puzzling. What does it mean? There are aspects of Atget’s photos that are adamantly pictorial—a startlingly clean, all-over focus and extreme elisions of space, for example. But Abbott inadvertently suggested Atget’s chief failing: He wasn’t a photographer.

Employing a camera isn’t necessarily the same thing as taking a photograph. The latter requires a thorough knowledge of the medium’s characteristic necessity: light. The photographer’s responsibility is to give body and emphasis to light—to divine its formal, evocative and structural capabilities. To point and shoot isn’t enough.

Atget knew what he wanted and took the shortest path between stubborn intent and unerring result. His no-nonsense approach can be bracing, but it’s also pedestrian.

Yet there are sterling examples of photography at Zabriskie—Escalier, rue Deautreilles, with its cleansing wash of light, and the breathlessly zooming space of Rue de la parcheminerie (both undated). Atget’s simultaneous emphasis on and undercutting of architectural underpinnings in Ancien Hôtel Gallardo, 27 quai d’Anjou (1914) is astonishingly subtle. But these examples are few and far between; sometimes a guy gets lucky—that’s how the history of art will remember him. Posterity, on the other hand, will thank Atget for recording a time and a city come and gone.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 21, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.