Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Blue Room – Eugene Richards (Phaidon 2008)

For many years Eugene Richards has brilliantly combined the raw emotionalism generally only seen in war photography with the formalism seen in museum art. In "The Blue Room", Richards is working in color. Even though this is his first book in color, it has the look of somebody who has worked in color for a very long time and now works with it as naturally as breathing.

These photographs were taken on a series of road trips thru small communities in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming between May 2004 and October 2007. There are lots of abandoned houses. Some of it was financed by assignments with National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine.

This book is filled with so much sadness. Richards may be the strongest American documentary photographer since Eugene Smith. I feel like I am seeing this odd synthesis of many of the things I like in William Eggleston’s photographs and James Nachtwey’s photographs.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

William Eggleston

I recently had the privilege of seeing the William Eggleston show at the Whitney. In the mid 1970s Eggleston along with Joel Meyerowitz and Stephen Shore transformed color photography from a snapshot medium to museum art. Each photographer worked independently. Shore and Meyerowitz used large, heavy, tripod mounted view cameras slowly shooting sheets of 8"x10" film. Eggleston worked with a variety of cameras, mostly 35mm. He made color slides. He does not bracket, crop or edit. He has professional printers print his work. He has had printed for him every photograph that he has ever taken. Many of these are 11"x14" or larger Kodak dye transfers, a slow and expensive printing process, which Kodak no longer makes materials for. More recent prints are digital print processes. The most recent being pigmented inkjet prints.

The content has much in common with the black and white photographs of Lee Friedlander, but in color and less compositionally and technically exact. He photographs everyday subjects - land, buildings, and people. They are for the most part the places and people of his daily life - no national parks or celebrities. Recent photographs shot in Japan; shot in this same style as his earlier work reveal more about the photographer than the actual place. It is not uncommon to see an out of focus piece of furniture or a person's elbow in the corner of the frame making many viewers come to the mistaken conclusion that they are merely seeing over rated large snapshots. They are not snapshots. The composition is well thought out. The subject matter is often amusing - an abandoned tricycle, a light bulb strung to a bright red ceiling, the inside of a freezer, and underneath a bed. The emphasis of the Whitney show was on past work, which is appropriate. The most recent work was from Japan. I would have liked to see lots more of this and will try to do so in the future.