Google’s Macchia

The “neutral” and panoptic eye of Google itself becomes the camera, and under these conditions, the photographer’s task becomes curatorial
“I don’t know what they are up to. They just run around taking pictures of things.” Her commitment was to ideas, or perhaps to something even more abstract than ideas. We were at a party. She was an avant-garde photographer. Photography, in her view, lived neither in the camera nor in the printed photograph, but in a more nebulous zone. Then came another round of cocktails, and she swirled away. A dozen years from now we will enter photography’s third century. We seem to be in the moment of its fullest bloom and diversity. More people than ever take photographs, and more photos than ever are being made. Geniuses, recognized or otherwise, stalk the earth. But the art is also in its moment of crisis. There's never been so much photography on view, and most of it is bad. There… Read More...

Wicked Pictures

These are photographs not merely of human cruelty but of human helplessness. They remind us (we do not wish to be reminded) that there will always be a minority of people whose luck is bad in the extreme.
I’m thinking of photographs that draw us into the dark star of the human predicament rather than into contemplation of some specific injustice. Why do we photograph the aftermath of misadventure? Most of this catalog is unseen. The photos lie archived in the basements of police departments the world over. A few make it into newspapers. The photographs of suicides, wrecks and crashes taken by Enrique Metinides, Weegee’s Mexican descendant, satisfied a local hunger for scandal. Now they have migrated from the tabloids to gallery walls. Black and white can sometimes protect us. Color like Metinides’ is pepper in the eye. But in color or otherwise, these are images that sidestep love. Their moral registration is off. The pictures don’t map onto what we wish to know about the world: they are unbearable but (are they?) necessary. In any case,… Read More...

Book Covers of the Year

One of the best ways to judge a book is by its cover. Here are some of the better book covers of the year, as…
One of the best ways to judge a book is by its cover. Here are some of the better book covers of the year, as selected for the New York Times by “people in an around the world of graphic design.” I love John Gall’s cover for Houellebecq’s latest (slide 1) and Keith Hayes’ design for Bloodland (slide 13). I also like slides 4 and 18, but many of the other covers bored me somewhat. One of my least favorite is slide 6, for Chris Ware's Building Stories, chosen, as it turns out, by the very same John Gall whose own designs I adore. What do I dislike about it? The tricksy but depthless cartoonishness of it, as opposed to the cartoon-like mystery of the Houellebecq. I can see that it’s good, but I don’t love it. I like a… Read More...

The Strangers

The appeal of the pre-modern is in its strangeness, its estrangement from us, its trust in a system we’ve since jettisoned.
We often say, in praising something from the past, that it is "recognizably modern." When we say that Emma Bovary or Clarissa Dalloway are modern, or that Michelangelo's David looks like a real teenager, or that Degas' paintings of the Place de la Concorde or the horse races are full of a modern life like our own, we take it for granted that these terms of praise are self-sufficient. Verrocchio's David, fine as it is, owes more to the Gothic than Michelangelo's does. It's not as recognizably modern and is therefore, somehow, not as good. (Our colloquial usage of "modern" is elastic, but we generally know what we mean by it, and one of its most vivid senses is "that which reminds us of ourselves"). Fictional characters that have an inconstant inner life are more like us and, therefore, better… Read More...

Over the Static of Time

Why had Pontormo come here? To escape the plague. The year was 1522.
We went to Galluzzo, to the Certosa there. An old monk whose eyebrows were like brushes brought us in. It was late afternoon. Gray light fell on old stone. The view from up there was as it is in the illustration on a wine bottle: terraced green hills, grown over with vines and olive trees. Battlements and ancient stone buildings too, imprecise in the distance. We’d cut short our purchase of grappa at the cloister’s liquor shop to join the guided tour. Who needs tours? But the Certosa offered no other option, no opportunity to wander through the large halls alone. We tailed the monk.  (more…) Read More...

Disappearing Shanghai

All photography is a record of a lost past. Photography does not share music’s ability to be fully remade each time it is presented, nor…
All photography is a record of a lost past. Photography does not share music’s ability to be fully remade each time it is presented, nor does it have film’s durational quality, in which the illusion of a present continuous tense is conjured. A photograph shows what was, and is no more. It registers in pixels or in print the quality and variety of light entering an aperture during a specific length of time. There are no instantaneous photographs: each must be exposed for a length of time, no matter how brief: in this sense, every photograph is a time-lapse image, and photography is necessarily an archival art. There are certain oeuvres within the history of photography in which this archival pressure is felt more intensely than in others. Eugène Atget's facades, architectural ornaments, and street corners depicted a Paris that… Read More...

Dappled Things: Pinkhassov on Instagram

We are not mayflies. We have known afternoons, and we live day after day for a great many days. This long experience of how days…
We are not mayflies. We have known afternoons, and we live day after day for a great many days. This long experience of how days turn—how afternoon becomes late afternoon and late afternoon becomes night—informs any photographic work we do with natural light. The time of day at which the light is at its most glorious photographers call the golden hour: you’ve seen them toting cameras on street corners and in abandoned lots, coming at 5.30 pm or 6.30 or later, depending on the latitude and time of year. They wait for a certain intensity of shadow, for the yellow sunlight to spill just so, before it dies away into the night. But Gueorgui Pinkhassov (Russian, b. 1952, based in Paris) has done something more than wait: he has detected the golden hour in unexpected hours. A low and fractured… Read More...

Mr Encyclopedia

Edinburgh. It’s my third day here, a return to Scotland after 18 years away. My readings at the book festival are done, and all I…
Edinburgh. It’s my third day here, a return to Scotland after 18 years away. My readings at the book festival are done, and all I want now is a few hours in the National Gallery, which has a strong collection of paintings. I went for half an hour yesterday. Now to go in and spend more time. I think if I ever went blind—I wrote an essay on the subject last week, and I’m still preoccupied with it—I would miss looking at paintings even more than I’d miss taking photographs. I follow this thought, and I’m surprised at where it leads. I realize that the artist whose work I’d most miss seeing is Rubens. Why should this be so? He’s not my favorite painter, an honor that belongs either to Caravaggio or Titian. He’s not even one of my ten… Read More...

Why Is This Man Wearing A Turban?

The gray-eyed gaze of the man in the painting is a dare. Show me who’s done it better, he seems to say. Didn’t think so, he adds.
He is unknown. No name, no profession, no identifying details, but he looks out with the calm sternness of one who knows his place in the world. And because of this calmness, this sternness—the skeptical gaze and tight lips—we suspect it might be an image of the artist himself. Self-portraits of artists often present them with a certain forthrightness, which is necessary because the status of artists is always uncertain—this was true in the 15th century, and it is true now. And so, in their portraits of themselves, artists show confidence, worldliness, and a measure of pride in being artists. Worldliness: the artist is Jan van Eyck, the portrait was painted in 1433 in Bruges, and it is as much a portrait of a man as it is a portrait of his enormous red turban. Each wrinkle of the cloth,… Read More...

Break It Down

In a dry landscape, men work. With axes, hammers, and other tools, they break stones.
In a dry landscape, men work. With axes, hammers, and other tools, they break stones. It is hard work, from the looks of it, but they do it seriously. They are enthusiastic, and work as a team. Something is being cleared away, perhaps in preparation for something else to be built. A small walled house, made of hardened mud bricks and just a little taller than human height, comes crashing down. When the dust settles, the men, finding the large chunks of rubble unsatisfactory, reduce them further. With a pick, one man hits a flat concrete slab on which inscriptions are visible. At first, the pick glances, unequal to the task. But soon the slab is crossed by hairline cracks and begins to split. Two other men wander near the wall that has just come down. In the sand around… Read More...