Author Archives: Jeffrey Ladd

David Goldblatt Revisits “On the Mines”

As the German publisher Gerhard Steidl prepares a series of books on the life work of David Goldblatt, Jeffrey Ladd spoke with the South African photographer about the newly edited and designed release of his long out-of-print collaboration with Nadine Gordimer from 1973, On the Mines.

Jeffrey Ladd: Alongside the political and economic realities of mining Gold or other natural resources there can be any number of powerful metaphors associated with “mining.” For example: what is “on the surface” and “what is hidden”; social strata within the apartheid system; light and darkness; heaven and hell—what initially drew you working on a project about the mines?

Images:

The cover of On the Mines by David Goldblatt, published by Steidl.

David Goldblatt: I was drawn to photograph the mines not by any metaphor in which they might be seen but by their overwhelming presence in the life and landscape into which I grew. Photography offered both the justification and the medium for greatly extending experience and understandings begun in childhood.

JL: One of your earliest images, from 1947, is linked to mining. It shows an area called The Millsite dump purported by the local population to be the largest tailings dump in the world. You roamed this area and the mining estates as a child.

DG: As White children growing up in Randfontein my friends and I enjoyed almost unfettered freedom to roam among the mines that curved around our town. There were two provisions: never enter the fenced off areas that carried the skull and crossbones and the warning, ‘Caving Grounds’; and not to play on the slimes dams, formed by the mud that came from the mills. But we did play on the sand dumps, especially one called Whitey because of its fine white sand.

There was blind innocence to our meanderings on the mining estates. We took care to avoid the Pondo miners—our myth had been that they were ‘dangerous.’ We didn’t know their language, we didn’t know anyone who had been harmed by Pondos, but we feared them. We never wondered about the lives of the Black miners, living 40 to a room and far from their families.

JL: As a photographer were you able to see firsthand how the mineworkers lived in their compounds and hostels?

DG: Permission had been given to me by the ‘head office’ to take photographs in the hostel of the Western Deep Levels mines in Carletonville. Without consulting me the hostel manager sent out an instruction that men of each tribal group were to present themselves to me in tribal dress. I had no desire to do ethnographic “studies” and was preparing to withdraw. But then I saw the men and that they took the occasion very seriously and with great dignity. And so I photographed several groups.

JL: The book begins with a few photographs shot in color that date from the mid-to-late 60s, you turned to working primarily in color much later in your career, were these among the earliest of your color images? Was there a moment in working that you decided to use color?

DG: Professionally I worked in color on commissions since 1964. The color photographs in the new edition were made experimentally rather than from conviction that that was the ‘right’ medium for the subject. In addition, in the late 60s and in the 70s and 80s I did quite a lot of color photography underground for mining companies but I did not bring this into what I regard as my personal work.

JL: How were you able to gain, what appears to be, unrestricted access to the mining estates to photograph?

DG: Access to mining properties was quite severely restricted. If I was roaming on an estate that had ceased operations many years before, a mine policeman might appear suddenly as though from the earth to challenge me. Sometimes I would be allowed to proceed, sometimes not. On some properties I approached senior management first and was given permission to photograph. Photography in the compounds/hostels and underground would have been impossible without such permission.

JL: The 1973 edition of On the Mines is strikingly different from this second edition. You have redesigned, added 31 photographs and removed 11.

David Goldblatt

A spread from the book: “Notices in English, Afrikaans, Sotha, Xhosa and Tsonga, on the bank at New Modderfontein, Benoni, 1965.”

DG: The design of the original lacked wholeness and indulged in visual excesses in which I no longer believe. The first chapter (The Witwatersrand), was strongly graphic and contrasty, with some of the pictures going across the gutter; the second (Shaftsinking), was blighted by an ill-conceived attempt at drama, dropping the pictures into a black surround; the third (Mining Men), was classical one-picture-to-a-spread. In the new edition I wanted to give greater coherence and unity to the whole, and while not attempting to provide contemporary photographs, I wanted to enrich the mixture with many more photographs from the original archive. I invited Cyn van Houten, a designer with whom I had worked on magazines in South Africa and who had designed three other books for me, to design this one. We have a good understanding of each other’s thinking and so it became a real pleasure to put this book together.

JL: I recall you telling me that Sam Haskins offered advice with the design for a couple of your early books, did he help also with the 1973 edition of On the Mines?

DG: Sam’s influence is strongly evident in the first chapter of the first edition—bold, graphic, contrasty, but as far as I can recall, he was not involved with the design. Sam was remarkably generous to me. At a time when I knew nothing about using photographs in a book, he designed a dummy for my first essay, Some Afrikaners Photographed. In the end, I adopted a completely different approach from his, but in the process I learned a great deal about book design. The design of the first edition of On the Mines marked a sort of hybrid point in my understanding, where the first chapter is heavily indebted to Sam’s thinking and the last one, my departure from there.

JL: As Steidl publishes other volumes of your life’s work, will they all be completely revised and newly designed?

DG: I can’t say at this stage how we will approach subsequent books. I would hope to come to each on its merits. For me the particular attraction of a new edition is the opportunity to correct errors and to strengthen what was done originally.


The new addition of On the Mines is now available from Steidl.

David Goldblatt is an award-winning South African photographer represented by Goodman Gallery.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.



Looking For Love in 90′s by Alec Soth

Love makes people do strange things. The history of mankind is rife with love producing illogical and oddball behavior. When it comes to photography, falling in love with the medium is hardly an exception. For example, someone painfully shy might find themselves impulsively photographing strangers without asking for permission. Or, they instinctively photograph something without any ability to later explain why. Alec Soth’s newest book Looking for Love, 1996 is, in its way, about both—the search for love guided by the heart and the search of love guided by the eye.

Soth, a Minnesota native, came to national attention in 2004 after his project Sleeping by the Mississippi was featured at the Whitney museum during its Biennial exhibition and consequently released in book form by the prestigious German publisher Steidl to critical acclaim. Rapidly thrust into the worlds of art and commerce he followed up his debut with equally strong and provocative bookworks: Niagara (2006), Dog Days Bogota (2007) and Broken Manual (2010). Looking for Love, 1996 (Kominek Books, 2012) is a look to the past at his early beginnings as a photographer working with black and white film and a medium format camera.

In his brief introduction to the work Soth describes that time as one of working a miserable job (printing photos at a large commercial lab) and retreating to a bar to be comforted by “the solitude I found among strangers.” He began to concentrate on his own pictures, slyly using the lab to make prints which he smuggled, concealed under his jeans, out to his car. He writes of imagining one day “a stranger would fall in love with me.”

The first photographs of couples we encounter in Looking for Love cling possessively to their partners and leer at Soth’s camera as if to ask, “this is mine, where is yours?” While his journey takes us through the outside landscape and various social gatherings—the aforementioned bar; a convention hall that seems to bridge religion, spirituality and dating under one roof; poker games; singles parties; high school proms—we can sense a young photographer eager to hone his photographic instincts for metaphor and craving the fruits of collaboration between artist, medium and world. A photo of a flirtatious blonde cheerleader sits on the opposite page of a lone, slightly gothic teen outside a music club. The prom king and queen stand proudly before an auditorium empty but for a few hidden background observers and a basketball court scoreboard. An older man sits phone to ear at a ‘Psychic Friends Network’ booth while a quaffed blonde with a #1 ribbon pinned to her lapel passes by paying no mind. Alongside the underlying melancholy of some of these pictures is also the excitement of a photographer discovering their talent and seeing an affirmation of life stilled in photographs.

That affirmation makes the parting photograph all the more important. In it we see Soth himself sitting sprawl-legged in a rental tuxedo as if his own prom has just ended. Perhaps it had. I hope the love he may have found, lasts.

Looking for Love, 1996 is available from Kominek Books.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

The Sweet Life: Revisited

In photography, “the road trip,” especially by car around the United States, has been a right of passage for many photographers. Embarking on a fourteen-month world tour however is a bit less common, but that ambitious challenge was taken on in 1959 by the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken and his wife Gerda. The resulting photographs would turned into one of the most epic Dutch photobooks ever produced, The Sweet Life.

Ed van der Elsken

Ed van der Elsken photographing his exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1966.

Van der Elsken secured the much needed financing for the trip through contracts to make a series of films enroute for Dutch television and at the Royal Dutch Shipowners Association (KNRV), where Elsken and his wife would be provided first class passage on merchant vessels. article writing submission . In exchange, van der Elsken was to make a short film about the merchant navy that would be a present to Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. Additional funding came from Gerda van der Elsken who wrote a series of articles about their adventures for Dutch magazines illustrated by her husband’s photographs. On Aug. 22, 1959 they sailed for Africa.

Their travels would cover West Africa, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, the United States and Mexico. Van der Elsken found his stride photographing in the streets of each major city or backwater; When Im working I get up fairly early, cup of coffee, camera, check if the films alright, any dustthen I set off to see what I can find. Hunting for luck, hoping Ill come across people who excite meI let them know with my eyes and facial expressions what I am doing, that its okay, that I mean no harm and I dont. In all he would shoot more than 5,000 pictures, and by the time of their return to the Netherlands on Sept. 19, 1960, they were both completely exhausted and their money had just run out.

If the scope of the trip wasnt enough of an exhausting (albeit exciting) experience, the ordeal to get Sweet Life published as a book would be frustrating and even more exhausting. Upon his return van der Elsken immediately set to work printing, editing, sequencing and designing a book he thought at first to call Crazy World. After four years of work there were still no book publishers interested that would take the risk on bringing his world project to print yet Elsken continued to rearrange and improve the edit and layout. He employed various improvised means to shape the material including hand drawn storyboards, cut up photo prints, variant printing techniques, extreme croppings, images bled to the paper edge, and double-spread pages that linked separate images into a run-on panoramics. Additionally, van der Elsken wrote 26 pages of extensive captions for each of the images with stories of experiences in a hipster voice that recalls the lyrical styling of Kerouac and Ginsberg.

*SWEET LIFE* – sweet and sour, sweet and bitter. Who am I to spout about life, love, happiness? About whether all’s right with the world, or whether it’s just a vale of tears, so store up your treasures for heaven. I think it’s unbelievable, fabulous, this life of ours – everything, the birds and the bees, the dear and the antelope, the spacious skies, the foggy dew, the rockabye babies. Men like John F. and Robert Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Georges Brassens, Fidel Castro, Pope John XXIII. My wife’s embrace, a landing on the moon, space, time, eternity. I don’t understand one damn thing about any of it, except that it’s enough to keep me in a constant delirium of delight, surprise, enthusiasm, despair, enough to keep me roaming, stumbling, faltering, cursing, adoring, hating the destruction, the violence in myself and others.

Katholieke Illustratie

Article in Katholieke Illustratie #39 from 1959 announcing the departure of Ed van der Elsken and Gerda on their world tour.

Finally in 1965, Andreas Landshoff a friend of van der Elskens who had ties to the American publisher Harry N. Abrams, persuaded Abrams and several other publishers into co-publish an edition that would appear in seven different countries (with seven different covers!) totaling 17,000 copies in all a huge number of copies for a photography title. Borrowing the name from a tramp steamer they traveled upon in the Philippines, the books title became Sweet Life. During its printing, van der Elsken stood next to the presses in Japan and ordered the black ink to be applied as heavily as possible resulting in the dense and contrasty gravure images far blacker than his original prints achieved.

Today, for historians and those lucky enough to see a copy firsthand, Sweet Life is admired and celebrated for its cinematic energy, raw style, and gritty in-your-face design reminiscent of another masterpiece, William Kleins Life is Good & Good for You in New York. What Kleins New York and Robert Franks The Americans did for the genre of personal documentary of one country, van der Elskens ambitions took on the world.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder ofErrata Editions.Errata Editions is featuring Sweet Life in its Books on Books series this month.

The Darkroom: Nostalgia for a Dying Craft

The thought that most photographers working today will no longer, or will never, step foot in a traditional analog darkroom is remarkable for me. So much of the public imagination historically (and cinematically) with “photography” has been tied to the image of a man or woman hunched over trays of liquid watching an image appear on paper while enshrouded by the warm, amber glow of a safelight. Will that collective image ever be replaced with one of someone sliding a cursor along a histogram while bathed in the cool glow of a Macintosh monitor? Adam Bartos’s new book from Steidl Darkroom sheds some white light on the dying craft of analog printmaking and the environments that have produced most of the medium’s greatest images.

©Steidl—Adam Bartos

The cover of Adam Bartos’s new book from Darkroom.

Bartos is a photographer of the generation where working in a darkroom was a natural extension of the artist’s process and although I suspected this book to be a kind of lament to their near extinction, Bartos himself has been making digital prints of his work for over a decade.

“I’ve never thought that spending time in a darkroom makes for a better (or worse) photographer. That’s a matter of choice and process…The difference might be that I make distinctions about prints because I have a feeling for them as objects with history. Those of us who have spent time in darkrooms may be more likely to share that experience, but I hope that photographers who haven’t will be interested in what the possibilities of printmaking are before thoughtlessly accepting the standard product. It’s quite easy to make a digital print that looks alright, but it’s still very difficult to make one that is beautiful and expressive.”

Bartos’s still-lifes describe how darkrooms are part laboratory and part personal spaces – lived in and decorated with talismans; a ball compass hangs from a safelight fixture, old test prints and penciled notations are left pinned to walls, layers of dust coat unused equipment. (I recall reading a story about the American photographer Garry Winogrand and his darkroom enlarger upon which hung several items including an old bow-tie and a string of rosary beads. When asked about these things he simply replied, “They can’t hurt.”)

I have spent most of my life as a printer in such environs so the first few images bring a flood of memories from the last twenty-five years: Printing in Helen Buttfield’s ancient darkroom above the old Irving Klaw Studio where Betty Page was often photographed at 212 East 14th street; Trying to print on GAF photo-paper that had expired in 1968 – the same year I was born; My printing teacher Sid Kaplan pouring his hot coffee into the developer tray because the chemistry was “too cold”; Coming home to find a pigeon sitting on my film drying lines in my improvised darkroom in my 35th street tenement apartment. Discovering my cat Bun-Bun had once again used one of my 16X20 developing trays as a litter box. Having my exhaust fan tumble out of my window and somehow shatter my downstairs neighbor’s window. The shrill beep of my Gra-lab enlarger timer as it counted down: 5, 4, 3, 2…

Adam Bartos’s Darkroom is available from Steidl this now.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

Master of the Photobook: Robert Delpire’s Long and Legendary Influence

Few publishers in the history of photography have had as lengthy a track record of producing books that are now considered the medium’s landmarks as Robert Delpire. As most post-war publishers often have had brief existences in the world of photobook publishing (which is stunningly disadvantageous financially), over the past 60 years, this former medical student and hobbyist photographer created and managed one of the most iconic photography and graphic arts publishing houses in Paris: Éditions Delpire. A Tribute to Robert Delpire through the work of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Josef Koudelka, Duane Michals and Paolo Roversi runs from May 10 – June 16 at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York City.

Sarah Moon

Robert Delpire

Delpire’s transition from 23-year-old medical student to publisher came when he was asked to become editor-in-chief of the Maison de la Medicine’s cultural bulletin for its doctors. Delpire imagined the bulletin as a subscriber-based art review that would be richly illustrated, with a focus on photography. The first issue of Neuf (meaning both ‘new’ and ‘nine’) appeared in June 1950, and over the course of its run, would devote much of its content to photographic works by Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Izis (Israëlis Bidermanas), Willy Ronis and a young unknown artist, Robert Frank. Two of the issues were essentially monographs of Brassaï (Neuf #5) and Robert Frank (Neuf #7), which pointed toward Delpire’s interest in publishing books of photography.

Editions Delpire

Robert Frank’s Les Américains, 1958

One link between many of Delpire’s publications would be his interest in anthropology, as could be seen when he switched to publishing monographs of photographers under the short-lived imprint Huit (Eight). Robert Doisneau’s Les Parisiens Tels Qu’ils Sont (Parisians As They Are, 1954), Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Les Danses à Bali (Dances in Bali, 1954) and George Rodger’s Le Village des Noubas (The Village of the Nubas, 1955) are studies in the documentary vein encapsulated in three small-format hardcover books that feel like case studies of mankind. In 1957, he created a small collection of books on culture called the Encyclopédie Essentielle, which included the first appearance of Robert Frank’s Les Américains (The Americans, 1958). That legendary magnum opus came across less as the beatnik road-trip as which it was later perceived, but instead with a particular anthropological flavor through texts—by literary luminaries such as Faulkner, de Beauvoir, Steinbeck and others—that Delpire positioned opposite Frank’s photographs.

Delpire’s career path has been as varied as the books he has published. Aside from the realm of photobooks, he has run a publicity agency with clients that included Citroën and L’Oréal, opened a gallery in Paris, produced a number of films including two by the photographer and filmmaker William Klein, created a creative studio and publishing house called Idéodis and became the first French publisher of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are.

Photo Poche

A Photo Poche about the photographer Nadar.

In 1982 he was appointed by the French arts minister Jack Lang to be director of the Centre National de la Photographie, where he would organize exhibitions and create a collection of small pocket-sized books called the Photo Poche—the most successful series of photography monographs ever published. To date there are over 150 books in the collection, covering a wide range of photographic practices from the documentary-style traditions of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander to the fine arts of Duane Michals, Paolo Roversi, Sarah Moon and Joel-Peter Witkin. Hardly any photographer’s bookcase is without a selection of these black-spine bound books.

Nevertheless, of all of his accomplishments, the name Delpire most conjures up his hand in the creation of books such as Josef Koudelka’s Gitans La Fin du Voyage (Gypsies – The End of the Voyage, 1975) and Exiles (1988), Cartier-Bresson’s D’une Chine à l’Autre (From One China to the Other, 1954) and Moscou (Moscow, 1955), Inge Morath’s Guerre à la Tristesse (War on Sadness, 1955) and De la Perse à l’Iran (From Persia to Iran, 1958), William Klein’s Tokyo (1964) and Indiens pas Morts (Indians not Dead, 1956) with photographs by Werner Bischof, Robert Frank, Pierre Verger.

Today, at 86, Delpire seems to sum up his accomplishments with a deceptively simple statement: “A publisher’s job is to showcase the work of others,” says Delpire. “It’s not just the work of a team; it requires deep mutual understanding. I’ve never published anyone who was of no interest to me.”

The Pace/MacGill Delpire tribute opens May 10 in New York City. Five simultaneous companion exhibitions across the city will expand on Delpire’s work.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his blog here.

‘Passengers’ Wins the Fifth International Fotobook Festival Dummy Awards

For the past five years, Kassel Germany has been home to the most important annual forum on the world of photography books, the International Fotobook Festival. This year, with the Documenta exhibition taking over the city of Kassel, the Le Bal photography museum in Paris hosted the Fifth International Fotobook Festival from April 20 – 22.

The festival is a weekend full of artist lectures, book exhibitions, booksellers and publishers showcasing their most recent offerings, portfolio reviews and awards for the “best” photobooks from the previous year. For photographers hoping to find interest in their yet-to-be-discovered book projects, the main attraction of the Kassel Festival is its “photobook dummy” competition for the best unpublished photobook mock-up. The first place winner receives a publishing contract with the German publisher Seltmann und Sohne. The second and third place winners receive several hundred euros worth of credit from the print-on-demand service Blurb.

This year, the dummy competition was between fifty-eight books culled from over five hundred entries, ranging from very roughly hand-made objects to the most finely polished in editing sequencing, design and printing. All books selected are tethered to tables and prominently displayed, encouraging visitors to leaf through them and discover new talents. On Saturday, a small panel of experts in the field convened in the closed galleries to passionately argue their opinion and decide on the three winners. This year’s panel included; Gerry Badger (Critic, Photographer, London), Todd Hido (Photographer, USA), Dieter Neubert (International Photobook Festival, Kassel), Laurence Vecten (Lozen Up, Paris), Oliver Seltmann (Publisher, Berlin), Diane Dufour (Director Le Bal, Paris), Andreas Müller-Pohle, European Photography, Berlin), Markus Schaden (Bookseller, Publisher, Cologne) and Sebastian Hau (Le Bal Books, Paris).

And the envelopes please…

Courtesy of Andrea Botto

From Andrea Botto’s book, 19.06_26.08.1945

Third place went to Andrea Botto and his book 19.06_26.08.1945. Created in the memory of his grandfather Primo Benedetti, the book traces his journey through Northern Germany to his home in Tuscany after being released from a Nazi prisoner of war camp on June 19, 1945. Botto’s approach was to compile images from the internet by searching dates in tandem with the names of cities through which her grandfather passed. Pages of historical images are combined with 1:1 scale personal documents and letters sent to his family during his imprisonment. The resulting book feels as if the reader has discovered an encyclopedia of war filled with tender personal documents slipped between its pages.

Courtesy of Carmen Catuti

From Carmen Catuti’s book MICHELLE (Best Wishes from 18,500m High. MICHELLE).

The second place winner is much harder to pin down in a few words. Liebe Grüße aus 18500m Höhe, MICHELLE (Best Wishes from 18,500m High. Michelle) from the Italian photographer Carmen Catuti is about a man who calls himself Michelle and says he’s a professional model. Catuti photographed her subject as he wished to be photographed according to his own conceptions “as a modern man” posing among arrangements of trees and shrubbery, cleanly drawn from darkness by flash. Mixed in are very brief texts, possibly letters from Michelle challenging the collaboration; “Plain backgrounds are often too boring. A picture must immediately be elegant, exciting and original.” This book is a U.F.O. (Unique Foto Object?) and the world of photobooks needs more sightings like this.

The top honors for the 2012 Photobook Dummy Award went to a remarkable body of work from Dagmar Keller and Martin Wittwer and their collaborative book Passengers. During a residency in Poland in the winter of 2011-2012, Keller and Wittwer were initially looking to start a project photographing Socialist architecture but discovered instead a tangential subject: a bus station in Kielce and its passengers awaiting departure within dozens of regional buses. Framing their subjects from outside, looking in through the frost and mist of the bus windows, the couple photographed individually but combined the results into a sequence of images that seem to have a completely unified voice. Calling upon the long traditions of portraiture and documentary style work, the images are stunningly intimate and beautiful but without the trap of sentimentality.

Congratulations to the winners! I find it refreshing that a majority of the winners from the past two years have been women. The history of the photobook, as written, is remarkably male-heavy. These contest results point toward a new horizon that may very well restore some balance.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his photo book blog 5B4 here.

Danny Lyon: The World Is Not My Home

For the past five decades the photographer Danny Lyon has produced a mix of documentary photographs and film – both politically conscious and personal. As the artist turns 70 this year, a new exhibition called The World is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs will celebrate his lengthy career at the Menil Collection in Houston from March 30 to July 29.

In the early 1960s when many photographers where working the poetry of the streets and snubbing their noses at the tradition of “photojournalism,” Lyon embraced both the lyrical potential of photography as well as its ability to raise awareness to current political issues. Some of his earliest images as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) documenting the civil rights demonstrations against segregation in the South (later published in the book The Movement) made their way into the mainstream press and also onto SNCC posters and brochures. “My camera was my entrance into another world…I had the rare privilege to see history firsthand.”

The Menil Collection has played an important role in Lyon’s career as it was one of the first institutions to acquire his prints as early as 1974 and the Collection currently holds 246 of his photographs. “Addie and Ted de Menil [Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter Snow] made a large contribution of my work to the Collection, and that morphed into this larger show,” Lyons said of the exhibition. The photographer’s cousins Leon and Ginette Henkin also gave the Collection 20 vintage prints that Lyons had given to the them in the sixties and early seventies. The World is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs will consist of approximately 45 photographs covering his career from 1962 to the present including recent montages and his Polaroid albums which have never been shown.

Lyon lived in East Texas and Houston for 14 months while photographing within Texas prisons. This work would eventually be published in his 1969 book Conversations With the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life, with the letters and drawings of Billy McCune #122054. Lyon’s virtually unrestricted access to several prisons and their inmates went as far as conceiving the idea of having his book printed by the inmates working in the Huntsville prison print shop. The fruit of this idea, a smaller and necessarily less ambitious book of 15 images called Born to Lose (printed by Don Moss #150590 and with layout and lithography by ‘Smiley’ Renton #189994 and Ed Carlock #192204) will also be on display in this exhibition at the Menil.

John and Dominique de Menil started their collection in 1945, focusing on European painting and American contemporary works including Minimalism and Pop Art. The collection holds nearly 16,000 works of art. “I met Dominique when she was a teacher in Houston,” Lyon recalls. “She knew of my work in the prisons and helped me get art supplies to Billy McCune. In 1974, Mrs. de Menil was one of the first to ever purchase prints from me, and then in 1975 paid for the making of my film Los Ninos Abandonados. She handed me a check and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’” Los Ninos Abandondos is a film about street children in Colombia which has been recently been digitally restored and will be shown at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts as a companion piece to this show.

Los Niños Abandonados (1975) – Restored 2012 (Trailer) from Watchmaker Films on Vimeo.

“Dominique de Menil said to me many years ago that there was always something ‘happy and sad’ in my photographs,” Lyon says. “The announcement card shows a man gleaning coal walking down a long and sad railroad track. It could have been taken in America during the Depression, but it was made in China four years ago as part of my Phaidon book Deep Sea Diver. The hymn The World is Not My Home is a sad one, but it also implies an existential relationship to life and the world around us.”

Danny Lyon is an American photographer. He blogs at this address (http://dektol.wordpress.com) where he posts his current work with the Occupy movement, and more of his work can be seen here on his website. The above photographs are from the show The World Is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs, on view at the Menil Collection in Houston, March 30 – July 29. 

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his blog here.

Retouching a Classic: ‘Less Américains’

In the digital age, touching the work of established photographic masters can be sensitive business. Recently a Swedish artist named Sanna Dullaway applied her colorizing skills to several historical photographs that included Dorthea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Eddie Adams’ harrowing image of an on-the-spot execution of a Vietcong on the streets of Saigon. The debate surrounding these modified versions was whether the interpretation was an improvement that could somehow be more powerful emotionally—due to addition of a color palette and the ability to reach newer generations who disconnect when they see black and white images—or simple vandalism.

The artist Pavel Maria Smejkal in his Fatescapes series took his appropriation of historical images one step further by digitally removing the people from images such as Nick Ut’s photograph of a young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack and the aforementioned Adams image. By leaving only the landscapes or streetscapes to play on our subconscious memory of historical places and events, he questions the limitations of a photograph’s accuracy at the representation of history.

Perhaps the most provocative example in terms of potential copyright infringement is when the artist Sherrie Levine re-photographed some of Walker Evans’ famous images from the 1930s Farm Security Administration project and presented them unaltered and with her name (the series was called After Walker Evans). Many viewers were outraged. Her act called into question many issues regarding a photograph’s author, copyright (Legally the FSA photographs are owned by the American public, which financed the project so there is no copyright infringement case that could be brought against Levine) and the portrayal of the poor. To some it was Art, but to others, it amounted to Blasphemy.

After Evans, Robert Frank may well be the most influential photographer the medium has seen. Frank’s book The Americans, published in the United States by Grove Press in 1959, was equally celebrated and reviled for its view of the U.S. and its citizenry. Today there is hardly a contemporary photographer who does not acknowledge that Frank accomplished greatness while photographing America for two years on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The Americans hasn’t escaped its own touches with appropriation. In his newest bookwork Less Américains, London-based artist Mishka Henner takes his humorous title from the French Edition of Frank’s book Les Américains, published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris. By scanning and applying Photoshop to Frank’s images, Henner has proceeded to remove most of the vital subject matter from all 83 photographs—leaving only small details hovering around the frame like background props on an empty theater stage.

Of course, as the title suggests, Less Américains does away with the “Americans” in Frank’s photographs so all that remains, for example, of the Hoboken City Fathers are a line of hats and some political bunting hanging on a two-by-four. And what has been spared in the most famous of all New Orleans street car picture which so perfectly expressed the implied race hierarchy of Jim Crow in the United States? A few vague, unidentifiable shapes that sit within the frame like mismatched puzzle pieces. To quote Jack Kerouac, who wrote an introduction to the American edition of Frank’s book, “The humour, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures (!)” linger like a ghost in these secondary elements.

Less Américains includes an introduction by the artist Elisabeth Tonnard that takes the form of a concrete poetry version of Kerouac’s prose. Tonnard’s approach was to systematically white-out the individual letters A.M.E.R.I.C.A.I.N.S. from Kerouac’s text, leaving an incomprehensible soup of vowels and consonants. His “…basketa pittykats…” becomes the even more cryptic “…B k t p tty-k t …”

Well, what can we make of Henner’s reworking of this masterpiece? I think Kerouac said it best: “What poem this is, what poems can be written about this book of pictures some day by some young new writer high by candlelight bending over them describing every grey mysterious detail.”

Less Américains was published earlier this year.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his blog here.