1. The Current Scene of Photo Book and Art Book Publishing, As I See It

Welcome to everyone following this blog!

I am not a theoretician, nor overly intellectual, nor an art historian, nor a regular writer – just a manic art book publisher who, after 25 years in the business of making art and photography books, has taken a break to consider the years gone by. I am taking a deep breath of freedom now, granting myself the time to indulge my curiosity about our world in general, and that of art and photography in particular, as this was the world to which I have devoted my life during the last decades. So, for a while, I will change my position of an insider to that of an outsider, to explore a different perspective and new ideas. Read More »

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V. After Liberalism

One of the most idiosyncratic yet unrecognized trends of the 1970s is how it was precisely then, when the prewar documentary culture from the 1920s-30s began to appear in a new light. Besides the Walker Evans retrospective at MOMA in 1971, which I mentioned in the previous post, the decade started with a series of seminal monographs on the FSA and the 1930s documentary, including Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade (1972), Roy Stryker and Nancy Wood’s In this Proud Land (1973), and William Stott’s Documentary Expression and Thirties America (1973). Read More »

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IV. Heart of Darkness

The 1960s are dark and phantasmagoric, like an ambiguous terrain vague or “nowhere land” in the periodization of photographic history. I’m not free from that uncertainty about the interpretation of this complex decade. It seems like a moment when the past was not quite over and the future had yet to start. Such ambiguity is evident if we compare Steichen’s The Bitter Years with Szarkowski’s New Documents. Both exhibitions were created within only five years of each other, yet stand for two different historical eras in the same decade. In a way, The Bitter Years is the last hurrah of prewar modernism, a living fossil that represents the peak and the end of the 1920-30s’ innovations. Read More »

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III. Excursus: Politics of the Victim

I mentioned in my first post that the rise of documentary discourses between the World Wars resulted from the political need to visibilize the working class in the new media culture corresponding to the era of mass democracy. Both in its “from above” (state/liberal/Griersonian/FSA) and in its “from below” (social movements/revolutionary/worker-photography) versions, documentary rhetoric contributed to this political need, in part through the dissemination of an iconography of a victimized working class.

The production of a poetics of dispossession is a key contribution from documentary methods emerging from the 1930s to social struggles for justice and democracy. Beyond the specific historical prewar context, I think this poetics was a central contribution to the 20th century universal citizenship democratic imaginary, which finds precisely a key historical iconic source in the worker-photography documentary project. I mean, the iconography of a fragile and precarious life is constitutive not only of the project of proletarian documentary, but is in the root of the poetic construction of democracy and justice. Read More »

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II. Paul Strand after Margaret Mead

In this second post I’d like to expand the scenario somewhat by introducing a few other possible significant references for an interpretation of the logics of the 1950s.

In 1949, Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 catalogue of the MOMA exhibition, Photography 1839-1937, appeared revised and enlarged as an autonomous book: The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day. Postwar liberal modernist photographic culture now had its foundational text, its Bible. Chapter 10 in Newhall’s book was devoted to documentary, and the genealogy it proposes on the subject remains as canonical as Newhall’s history itself. The genealogy is as follows: first we have the 1860s and 1870s geographical surveys as a pre-history of documentary. Then we have Jacob Riis as the precursor and Lewis Hine as the founding father of 20th century documentary photography, which reaches its complete and most self-aware form with the FSA. Read More »

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I. Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: A Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary Photography

Hello world!

This is my first blog. I’m not a blogging person and I confess I’m feeling uneasy about the vulnerable improvisatory condition that blog writing involves, a kind of performative public conversation open to doubts and suppositions and maybe to banality :) ), rather than solid demonstrative writing. But, anyway: let’s try it.

This blog takes informally, maybe perversely, the title of Immanuel Wallerstein’s recently published fourth volume of his landmark book series on the modern world-system. I will attempt to bring to discussion some ideas and intuitions concerning the postwar reframing of documentary photography as a liberal humanistic (or humanitarian?) discipline. I’ll come back to definitions of humanism further below. Read More »

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4. Whitewash: Artist and Models

When one reads this passage [from Martinique by Michel Cournot] a dozen times and lets oneself go; that is, abandons oneself to the movement of its images—one is no longer aware of the Negro but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis. (Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Masks)[1]

By no means the least ironic aspect of the Mapplethorpe enterprise is the ways by which the fetishism that is so prominent a feature within the work is replicated in its celebratory discourses as well as its exhibition formats.[2] If we accept Freud’s model of the structure of fetishism by which the male subject recognizes a physical fact (i.e., women do not have penises) and simultaneously rejects/denies/represses this disturbing observation by investing a surrogate object with compensatory significance, a number of contradictions in the discourses generated by Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre are clarified. Indeed, one of the reasons that this model of [psychic] fetishism is useful in critical thinking is that it helps account for logical contradictions, famously encapsulated in Octave Mannoni’s “Je sais bien, mais quand même” (I know, but nevertheless).

TOILETPAPER pour M, Le magazine du Monde

TOILETPAPER for M, Le magazine du Monde

Read More »

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3. A Tale of Two Mapplethorpes

A large retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work has just opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is coupled with another Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Musée Rodin where Mapplethorpe’s photographs—I am not joking—are displayed with various sculptures by Rodin.

Mapplethorpe Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

As it happens, Mapplethorpe did photograph sculptures (torsos, heads, and backs) in ways not so different from those he used to photograph living bodies, although it seems not to have mattered if the sculptures were authentic, copies, classical, neoclassical, or kitsch. Somewhat perversely (I use the term advisedly), the photographs of sculpture are in the Grand Palais show, whereas the pictures in the Musée Rodin are mostly of living bodies (or body parts) as well as the miscellaneous self-portrait or still life. More to the point, what the exhibition really demonstrates is that for good or ill, Rodin’s sculptures, plasters, or small studies have nothing whatsoever to do with Mapplethorpe’s work and vice versa. Why would they? Read More »

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