Author Archives: Lily Rothman

Displaced History and the Art of Collective Memory

Somewhere in Switzerland there’s a municipal archive, the collective memory of a town, with negatives and newspapers and postcards and photographs that tell the story of the area from 1880–1940. It’s the collective paper memory of the place, including a picture of four children who might not have grown into respected elders, a picture of a priest who may have performed important rituals in the town, a picture of a young woman whose face you might recognize—if the town’s memories are your own.

On the other hand, for photographer Nicolas Dhervillers, who spent only six months residing in Sion, the people in those images were more like characters in a play he would write. Acting the parts to which the photographer assigned them, they appear throughout a series called My Sentimental Archives which will be exhibited at Galérie Bacqueville in Lille, France through Nov. 20. In a meditation on appropriation, each photograph is a two-in-one. Dhervillers’ landscape photography from the area was subjected to a digital process adapted from the cinematic “day for night” technique, lending an eerie look to pictures taken in broad daylight; the archival figures are placed within those landscapes and washed with the unnatural digital light.

“It was very important to find a technique that gives an impression of being ‘outside time,’” Dhervillers told TIME in an email. “Thus, it’s not about a simple photograph but rather a photograph that mixes different mediums that I particularly like: theater for the positions and attitudes of the characters, movies for the light, photography for the idea of controlling the framework, painting for the final rendering.”

Each figure from the archives—small, dusty, black and white people—has been carefully restored by Dhervillers. And, in the process of restoration, the photographer says he felt that the images raised a spiritual question: can we create a present, a now, out of the scraps of the past? “The appropriation of the collective memory, of photographic memory, overlaps with the desire to question a picture in a larger sense,” he said. “This series takes us into a fictional space outside of time, through the photographic processing.”

Dhervillers has worked with appropriated figures before; his series Tourists uses images taken from the internet. But in this case, in the end, his questions about photographic appropriation took on another dimension: the archives from which Dhervillers took the figures did, in a way, become “his.” Even if he didn’t share the town’s history, he felt he knew its inhabitants well. “I spent a lot of time with these little characters,” he said. “I raised them, I colorized them, I gave them life.”

This interview has been translated from French.


Nicolas Dhervillers is a Paris-based photographer represented by School Gallery/Olivier Castaing in Paris.

Wheelchair Bodybuilders Muscle Their Way to the Top

When he was 16, Nick Scott was in a near-fatal car accident. He was left paralyzed from the waist down. Nonetheless, Scott, now 30, is also known in certain circles—namely, the wheelchair bodybuilding world, a universe in which his is perhaps the most recognizable face—as “The Beast.” The Beast isn’t sure of his bench press limit, only because he hasn’t yet stopped reaching for more weight. The metaphor’s an obvious one, but true: ”If you want something bad enough, nothings gonna stop you from not getting it,” he has said.

And The Beast wants to spread the word: he was instrumental in the creation of the first-ever competition for certified International Federation of BodyBuilders (IFBB) Pro Wheelchair Bodybuilders, which was held last fall. The 2012 IFBB Pro Wheelchair championships took place Oct. 13 in Houston, an event open only to Scott and the dozen other men who have qualified as pros. Harold Kelley was named the winner in 2011 and 2012.

Photographer Lauren Fleishman has been documenting the sport for over a year, including that first competition. She first heard about wheelchair bodybuilding via a phone call from her cousin, who works in a hotel where a bodybuilding event took place. “I got so excited that I hung up the phone and began researching the sport,” she says.

Fleishman says that when she first began exploring the topic, she noticed that almost all of the photographs of bodybuilders, at least the ones that she could find, portrayed the participants in an almost grotesque manner. She wanted to avoid that look. “In showing a different side to it, it’s a way of connecting people, a way of changing their perceptions about the sport.”

Wheelchair bodybuilding competitions date back about 15 years, and both amateurs and professionals compete in worldwide events throughout the year. After following the participants for months, Fleishman says that, besides the normal suspense that comes with any competitive event, there’s another layer to it. “Seeing what being on stage does for them, they really, really shine,” she says. “You have a whole range of reasons why they compete, but the dedication and perseverance is really inspiring.” And it’s not just on stage: last May, in a Wal-mart in Texas, Fleishman accompanied Scott—the de facto spokesman for the sport—when he went to purchase batteries for his wheelchair, which is rigged to light up when he performs. Outside the store, a teenage boy, also in a wheelchair, approached Scott to say that he hoped one day to be like him. “You can obviously see that Nick has muscles,” says Fleishman. “The kid was impressed. It was a really nice moment to see that.”

But there has been one drawback to immersion in the wheelchair bodybuilding community during her year of photographing the project—and, as the work continues, it may only get worse. “It’s really hard,” Fleishman says, “because you want them all to win.”

Lauren Fleishman is an award-winning photographer based in New York City and Paris. See more of her work here and or on LightBox here.

Pictures of Pictures: The Ambiguities of Laura Letinsky

The declaration that “a rose is a rose is a rose” is one of Gertrude Stein’s best-known lines. Now, with an upcoming body of work called Ill Form & Void Full, photographer Laura Letinsky—who is a fan of Stein’s—has her own take on the idea: “What’s the difference between having a picture of an apple and having an apple and having a picture of a picture of an apple?” she asks. “If you take a picture of a picture of an apple or if you take a picture of an apple, it ends up being the same thing. It’s still a photograph and it’s always distant.”

The work, which will be exhibited at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York City from Sept. 6 – Oct. 20, is a series of still-life photographs in which the tableaux are constructed from objects as well as pictures of objects. The title of the series is itself a reference to Stein, says Letinsky, who was inspired by the writer’s ability to make a word carry more than one meaning.

Letinsky, who has been making still-life photography since 1994, is familiar with double-meanings and illusions. She says that her interest in the genre came partially from the way objects speak to material desire, the way that the realm of the home is staged—in much the same way that a photograph of a piece of fruit can be placed on a real table. “We still want to think of [domestic life] as some sort of natural or organic presence,” she says. “It isn’t; it’s a constantly fluctuating and manufactured idea.”

In addition, the line between still-life art and advertising has blurred, she says, causing levels of meaning to expand. Whereas Letinsky can point to the four clearly delineated areas of art that would have existed hundreds of years ago—historical narrative, landscape, portrait, still life—today a still life’s common, commercial use has also made the genre a form of portraiture. “It’s very revelatory of identity in the general sense of being about a portrait of a culture, how culture values things, what things are deemed important,” says Letinsky. “The photograph figures on the one hand as making us feel like we have something, and yet we don’t have it, so it sets up a desire for the thing.”

And, for Letinsky, that ambiguity, the question of whether we have something in a photograph or we just want to have it (and, in turn, whether the object is an object or an image), is central to Ill Form & Void Full. The work—which she says is not meant to be pessimistic—questions whether photography ever shows us anything real, or if we just see what we want to see. So, in the end, when it comes to this work, it turns out that there’s a common phrase even more appropriate than the one about the rose: “It ends up becoming a kind of chicken-egg problem,” says Letinsky. “We produce the culture that we consume that we produce that we consume.”

Laura Letinsky is a Canada-born photographer. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000. More of her work can be seen hereIll Form & Void Full will be on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York City, Sept. 6 – Oct. 20.

‘Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’: Collaborative Semantics

Years ago, the photographers Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel decided to put together a book about the work on which they had collaborated, decades worth of significant art made between the 1970s and 1990s. Each had been working on his own solo projects and Mandel had left California, where the two grew up and met and studied together, so the book was always meant to be a look back, a visitation from a place of finality. But then Larry Sultan got sick. Sultan succumbed to cancer in December of 2009 at the age of 63.

We thought it would be great to take some of the work that people hadnt seen a lot of or hadnt seen anything about and bring that to light, and we just thought now would be a great opportunity to do that, now that we were kind of moving into a different part of our lives, Mandel says. We didnt realize Larry was moving into leaving this place.

The book project was dormant for a while after Sultans death, but his wife, assistant and galleristwho continued to be involved throughout the projecthelped Mandel get the idea going again. Because the book had always been about a collaboration that had ended, the form and structure imagined by Mandel and Sultan could still be implemented. linkwheel . The resulting book, Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, will be released by Distributed Art Publishers in September.

The artists, who met as graduate students at the San Francisco Art Institute, shared an openness to conceptual and experimental photography. We were lucky to be young and freshly in that world when so much was changing, says Mandel. The medium was expandingalthough Sultan later became known as a photographer, the work the two did together is photography mainly in a conceptual senseand the community was small enough that the two had access to influential teachers and artists even outside their school environment.

Courtesy Mike Mandel

Larry Sultan (R) and Mike Mandel, circa 1997

Their collaboration began in 1973 with public art displayed on billboards, work that both interrogated the tropes of advertising and challenged art by placing it in a commercial context. They continued to make billboards for many years. They also worked together on books, including How to Read Music in One Evening, which re-appropriated advertising imagery, and the seminal Evidence, their best known work, which took documentary and archival photos out of their contexts. Later, the two turned their attention to the news media, applying their signature critical mindfulness to the subject. Alongside photographic highlights of their art career together, Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel features analytical essays and a metaphorical commentary by author Jonathan Lethem.

Mandel says that this new book was an opportunity to revisit some of their projects that had not been previously examined. As time went on I think we recognized that a lot of the work we had decided at the time we didnt need to talk about really ought to be talked about, for different reasons, he says. We did re-frame what we chose to put in the book based on this idea of looking back and being a little bit more generous toward ourselves.

But even though the photographers had discussed the content of the book prior to Sultans illness, Mandel was left to make many decisions alone. He says that there were moments when he knew that there would have been a disagreement if Sultan had been there; the weight of sole responsibility was a heavy one. And they hadnt yet decided how to end the book. Mandel chose the project Newsroom, a 1983 exhibit in which they used news tickers to edit their own versions of the days events, as the book’s stopping place. He says he felt that to stop there was to present the most coherent set of ideas, and it was also a chance to step back and look at a project that the artists had been such part of that they never got to see it from a distance. If Larry had been with me it would have been really great to have done that together, Mandel says.

In an essay that accompanied Evidence, Robert F. Forth, the dean of the California College of Arts and Crafts, examined the meanings of evidence, surprise and context. He wrote about the yin/yang balance between the circumstantial and the evident, the way that the two compliment each other to make one whole thought. If one has any defect, its relationship to the other can fill that whole. Likewise, says Mandel, his own introverted working process and Sultans gregarious quick thinking co-existed without one drowning out the other.

We just had a very different way of being but we both trusted each other a lot and we both gave each other as much room to argue and promote our ideas as much as we could. Thats what the Socratic attitude was about. It was about testing these ideas, says Mandel. We collaborated as equals all the way through our relationship.

Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, will be released in September byDistributed Art Publishers.

Landscapes on the Verge of Change

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has a strong collection of Japanese photography and a history of showing important photographic work from that country to American audiences, dating back to a 1999 retrospective of the work of Daido Moriyama. free basic cable . Last year, curator Lisa Sutcliffe began work on putting together an exhibition of the work of Naoya Hatakeyama, a photographer whom she describes as one of the most interesting Japanese artists working right now but someone who has not yet become well known in the United States. She traveled to Japan to meet with himin March of 2011, when the tsunami struck, destroying Hatakeyamas hometown of Rikuzentakata and killing his mother.

The show that Sutcliffe and Hatakeyama were meant to discuss was transformed by those events. The result is Natural Stories, organized in cooperation with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and opening at SFMOMA on July 28. The exhibition is a retrospective, featuring more than 100 photographs along with videos, all with a focus on the artists landscape work.

All of his work is looking at landscapes in transition. It draws on the tradition of the sublime, so even when the work is peaceful theres always this quality of on-the-verge-of-change, Sutcliffe says. Even if the photographs are sort of peaceful and idyllic there is this sense of this other, more interesting system at work.”

The earliest work in the show comes from Hatakeyamas Lime Hills series, which the artist began in 1986. Those photographs of a landscape shaped by a desire for the natural resources within are, says Sutcliffe, a sort of jumping-off point for the career that followed, throughout which Hatakeyama has explored the relationship between the land and the people who live and work in it. And, ever since the tsunami, the balance of power in that relationship is exceedingly clearand seeing Hatakeyamas photographs from 25 years ago next to his work from this past year just underscores that point.

You look at these landscapes where humans have interacted with the landscape, and you see the pictures after the tsunami, Sutcliffe says, and just how much nature really does still have power over us.

Naoya Hatakeyama is an award-winning Japanese photographer. The exhibitionNaoya Hatakeyama: Natural Storiesis on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from July 28 Nov. 4, 2012.

Photoville: Established 2012; Population Growing

Photography doesn’t usually have the problem that it’s too noisy an art form, but that was exactly the challenge that faced the organizers of Photoville, a new photo festival that will open in Brooklyn, New York, on June 22. One of the major components of the show is an exhibit inside a warren of industrial shipping containers. Forty-two of them, to be exact, laid out in a maze carefully planned with both exploration and safety in mind.

Sam Barzilay

Viewers check out photography in a shipping container at a past United Photo Industries event.

“Getting a container is simple. Getting 42 of them placed in an intricate pattern is complicated. The most complicated thing is they’ll show up, they’ll dump it and they’ll drive away. I’ve learned that their preferred hour of doing that is 4:30 in the morning,” says Sam Barzilay, formerly of the New York Photo Festival, who is one of the three minds behind the festival. “Dumping a container as it grinds off the truck onto cobblestone is about the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.”

But when the festival opens, the containers will be there, full of photos. And that won’t be all: Photoville will also include about 1000 feet of fencing covered with community-centric photography, presentations from organizations like the Magnum Foundation and Photo District News, a number of workshops and even a beer garden and a dog run with a dog photo booth. And it’s all completely free.

Photoville is the product of United Photo Industries, a year-old cooperative comprising Sam Barzilay, Laura Roumanos and Dave Shelley. Barzilay says that the idea behind the event, and United Photo Industries’ other projects, is the realization that New York real estate affects the art scene. Empty storefronts have meant that small pop-up galleries have been relatively accessible during the last few years, but that won’t last forever. “The writing on the wall was sooner or later the economy would pick up again and people will be back in business, opening the stores,” says Barzilay. “Those spaces weren’t going to last.” They wanted to figure out a way to continue to present artwork without the overhead needed for a giant space. And once the shipping-container idea struck, the ideas just kept coming.

The end result is meant to appeal to photographers and civilians alike. “Even though it’s the most easily relatable art medium at this point, because everybody carries a camera, I think a lot of the time people are afraid of photography exhibitions,” says Barzilay. “We’re trying to cater to a full spectrum of people. I want people to come and enjoy it.” That’s why the free and open model is so important to the organization.

Barzilay and Shelley have both worked for the New York Photo Festival in the past, but Photoville is not meant to be competition for the more established festival. New York is big enough and “art-loving enough” to support many festivals, says Barzilay—and, besides, Photoville isn’t even meant to be a festival in a traditional sense of the word. “We’re trying to build a destination, trying to build a place where you go and spend a day listening to lectures and participating in a workshop, probably having a beer, to bring your dog to the dog run,” he says. “It’s a place to spend physical time with the photography, not so much as a passive viewer.”

Photoville will be held in Brooklyn from June 22 through July 1. More information about the event is available here.

See more work from Bruce Gilden, one of Photoville’s featured photographers, here.

‘No Place Like Home: Foreclosures in America’ by Bruce Gilden

Bruce Gilden’s photo series about foreclosed homes, which will be presented this weekend by the Magnum Foundation as part of the Photoville 2012 festival, is a departure from the photographer’s usual working style—and not just because this exhibition is going to be held in a shipping container.

“It’s the only piece I’ve ever done that could be considered photojournalistic, because I work generally like a poet,” Gilden says, meaning that he went into the project with a point of view rather than just looking for people or things that caught his eye. “I take pictures of what I feel, but this is a direct thing: I’m going to photograph houses that are foreclosed.”

Gilden got started on the topic in 2008, as part of a Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund effort to revisit a 1960s project; the idea was that President Obama might present a parallel to President Kennedy, and that it was a good time to look at the state of the country. Gilden intended to go to Florida and photograph the people of Miami Beach, but his wife suggested that foreclosures might be a more appropriate subject. “I didn’t even know really what foreclosure was,” he remembers. “But I went down and did foreclosures, and as I started to do it I started to get annoyed, because I saw it’s like legalized thievery.”He subsequently began to study up on the topic—he says he has now read 20 books on the topic, throws around words like “tranche” and can cite foreclosure rates by state—and the annoyance turned to anger. That anger became the message of the photographs. “I’m not on the one-percent side,” he says.

Video about the project from Gilden’s Kickstarter page

Some people do take advantage of the mortgage crisis as a scam, he says, but mostly it’s the bankers who he sees benefitting. “This just showed me how people in our country get used and abused,” he says. He cites one woman he met in Las Vegas, who earned $40,000 a year and received a $360,000 mortgage; “I mean, you must be kidding me,” he says. He admits that it’s not smart to take such an offer, but in a scenario where banks can get rid of bad mortgages rather than suffering from them, he sees incentive for those in power to convince individuals to take loans they can’t handle.

In the time since Gilden began photographing foreclosed houses, he says the problem has gotten worse. The original photographs of Florida have expanded to include several other states, including Nevada, which he recently visited on a Kickstarter-funded trip. The people he’s met along the way, people who feel taken advantage of, are eager to tell their stories in the interviews he conducts along with his photography. But he says he doesn’t plan to work on this series indefinitely. Next, he’d like to capture the step that sometimes follows foreclosure, life as a long-term resident of a motel. And he doesn’t see improvement coming any time soon: if the people capable of changing the situation benefit from the status quo, he says, why would they ever make those changes?

So even though this recent work is a departure from Gilden’s typical style and process, his interest is consistent when it comes to what he calls the dark side of life. “It’s great to wake up every morning because the world is great,” he says, “but it’s not a wonderful place for everyone.”

More information about Bruce Gilden’s No Place Like Home is available here, through the Magnum Foundation. The Photoville exhibition will be shown June 22 – July 1 in Brooklyn, New York; more information about the festival is available here.

Maggie Steber’s ‘Rite of Passage’ and the Gift of Memory

It was almost a decade ago that photographer Maggie Steber realized that her mother, Madje Steber, was not going to get better. Although her mother had always lived independently, her dementia had gotten to the point where that would no longer be possible.

“I started photographing my mother as soon as I realized I was going to have to move her out of her home in Austin,” says Steber. “She would never let me photograph her before. When her defenses were down—and I’m sure some people will say that’s not right—I started photographing her.”

The project was originally intended as purely personal, a way for Steber to cope during her mother’s illness and a way for her to remember her mother in later days. There was also video, filmed as Madje Steber’s condition deteriorated, which would allow the photographer to remember how her mother moved and sounded. But along the way, says Steber, she realized that the project could be more than something she would dust off and look at when she wanted to remember. After a shorter project created for AARP and then a period of time away from the work after her mother’s death in 2009, Maggie Steber (in collaboration with MediaStorm) made a film, Rite of Passage, which will premiere June 11 at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Steber’s film involves photos and video taken at difficult moments and at beautiful ones—moments when Steber says her mother came out of herself and lost her shyness. Her mother’s reluctance to be photographed was, she thinks, a result of her youth and beauty passing; “it was so lovely to have these pictures where she was happy and beautiful again,” she says. The photographer hopes that those transcendent moments will teach viewers that illness comes in waves, that stages will pass and—perhaps most of all—that if you are willing to be a “warrior” on behalf of your loved one, they can have a positive end-of-life experience. Nobody told her how to navigate doctors and medications, and part of her goal is to help others with the research that accompanies a loved one’s death. “If you can stick with it,” she says, “there’s this rather remarkable gift at the end.”

Maggie Steber

Madje Steber naps with her favorite toy, a stuffed kitty, in her room at Midtown Manor, an assisted living facility, in Hollywood, FL. in 2007.

Part of that gift is knowing that you’ve done what you could. Steber says that she was aware from a young age that her mother, the single mother of a single child, would die one day and that she had a responsibility to be there for it. And she was: “I was able to hold my mother while she took her last breath,” she says.

The other part is meeting your parent all over again, with all the barriers down. Steber says that, as her mother lost touch with the past, they lost touch with the mother-daughter relationship. “They don’t recognize you anymore. They fall in love with somebody else. They think the caregiver is their daughter,” she explains. “That’s a little startling, it hurts a little bit, but I started to see her as Madje.” It’s difficult for children to see their parents as individuals separate from themselves, but Madje became a whole woman to Maggie, someone who told marvelous stories, someone who had been a scientist and would have wanted her last days to help ease medical confusion, someone who could have become a friend if they had started out as strangers. “I just fell in love with her,” says Steber. “I know I would have just really enjoyed knowing this woman.”

Steber’s photographs and videos were made in order to preserve just one woman’s memory of a mother, but she says she hopes that her decision to share will help other people decide to look for those gifts of memory. “It doesn’t come easily, but it’s worth it,” she says. “You have to live with that for the rest of your life and I just think if you can live with the happier memories, the discovery and seeing somebody blossom even as they’re disappearing right in front of you, you have that to hold onto. And maybe it is the best thing you’ll ever do.”

Maggie Steber’s Rite of Passage premieres June 11 at Galapagos Art Space, along with Phillip Toledano’s A Shadow Passes, another film from MediaStorm about the loss of a loved one. More information about the event is available here.