Friday, June 24, 2016

Photo Exhibit: Lillian Bassman at Edwynn Houk Gallery

In one of the more intriguing exhibits of the summer season, rarely seen works by Lillian Bassman, one of the twentieth century's most original fashion photographers, are now on view at the Edwynn Houk Gallery on Fifth Avenue.

Like her more famous contemporaries Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Bassman was a student of Alexey Brodovitch whom she first met at Manhattan's Textile High School from which she graduated in 1933.  Few individuals have exerted as much influence on American fashion photography as Brodovitch who was employed as art director at Harper's Bazaar from 1934 to 1958.  In this position he was able to share his own sense of style with the many talented photographers who worked with him.  He was in this sense not so much a boss as a collaborator. It was under his direction that Bassman was able to formulate the unique look of her photography.

First and foremost, all the 35 prints on view at this exhibit exude an aura of glamour.  Bassman worked with the top models of her day - including Sunny Harnett, Suzy Parker, Dovima and Lisa Fonssagrives - and posed them in tableaux that fairly reeked of wealth and sophistication.  It was always made clear that the couture pieces these models wore were designed only for the privileged few, and Bassman did everything she could to emphasize this exclusivity but almost always without using any props other than the clothes themselves.  Instead, the compositions are tight and the figures within them sometimes cropped by the photos' borders.

What is most interesting to a photographer is Bassman's unique style of black & white printing.  Although the photographer was quite adept at using standard printing techniques in the darkroom - as can be seen from Margie Cato, New York (c. 1950) and Southwest Passage - Sunset Pink (1951) - she more often than not broke every rule of making the "normal" print.  Her work exaggerates contrast to the point where detail is frequently lost, and she then pushes the effect even further through the use of selective bleaching.  Often all that is left is line and form.  But the effect of these manipulations, which in lesser hands would have rendered the images merely bizarre, is the creation of modernist artwork of the highest standards.  

Later in her career Bassman began to use digital imaging to reimagine her earlier negatives.  This is not so surprising as it might at first seem.  The radical manipulations she performed in the darkroom actually prefigure the extensive retouching capabilities of programs such as Photoshop.  In this sense Bassman can be seen as a pioneer who was years ahead of her time.  Perhaps the most interesting photograph at the exhibit is Kronung des Chic, Jada from a 1998 issue of German Vogue that is described in the catalog as a "unique reinterpretation."

One feature of the current show that is always appreciated by photographers is the inclusion of contact sheets.  There are three here, each consisting of twelve images shot with a medium format camera on 120 film.  It's much easier to understand the photographer's vision when viewing these sheets and the choices she faced in making a final selection.

The exhibit continues through July 8, 2016.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

FREE DxO OpticsPro 9 Software

DxO and Profifoto have made the Elite version of DxO OpticsPro 9 available at no cost until August 31, 2016.  Simply click on the link below, enter your email address and click on "Absenden."  (You can uncheck the box that reads "Ja, bitte halten Sie mich ├╝ber DxO Produkte auf dem Laufenden" if you do not wish to receive news and offers from DxO.)  You will then receive an email with a download link and a serial number to be used in activating the software once installed.  Remember that activation must take place prior to August 31, 2016.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Photo Exhibit: Mary Ellen Mark at Howard Greenberg Gallery

I had not been familiar with Mary Ellen Mark's photography before attending yesterday the current exhibit of her portrait work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on West 57th Street.  This was an oversight on my part.  The late photographer - she passed away last year at age 75 - was extremely talented at capturing the personalities of her sitters and along the way created a number of imaginative and innovative works.

Many of the portraits on display depict troubled youths, sometimes barely older than children.  One of the best of these is a 1983 study of a young girl from Seattle entitled Tiny blowing a bubble.  The manner in which the subject confronts the camera head on is characteristic of Mark's style.  There's no artifice here and no attempt to strike a pose.  Instead Tiny has an air of worldliness that belies her young age.  The same can be seen even more forcefully in a shot from 1990, Amanda and Her Cousin Amy Valdese, that shows a young girl standing in a wading pool and smoking a cigarette while staring coolly into the lens.  Photos such as these and the 1994 Chrissy Damm and Adam Johnson belie the myth of childhood innocence.  The subjects possess an adult sensibility that is almost jaded in its appraisal of the adult world surrounding them.

One section of the exhibit is given over to large format Polaroids measuring 30 x 22.  The use of the view camera in portraiture carries with it an inherent formalism.  It's not possible to take a quick shot with this equipment.  The photographer must instead study the composition of the ground glass in reverse and inverted form before inserting the plate holder and snapping the shutter.  The examples here fall into two categories.  The first three were shot at high school proms in 2008 and each show two subjects standing side by side.  Somehow, though the students stand in close proximity to one another, they are at the same time isolated, each in his or her own world.  The second set of three photos again show two subjects, but this time the subjects are identical twins photographed at a "twins festival" held, appropriately enough, in Twinsburg, Ohio in 2001.  Again there is a psychological distance between the two subjects, in this case made even more striking by the close resemblance between them.

From here the viewer moves on to a selection of celebrity portraits, most of them taken on location rather than having been shot in a studio. According to Mark's Wikipedia biography, she worked as a "unit photographer" and shot production stills on more than one hundred feature films.  None of those are included in this exhibit, however, only the one-on-one  portraits she took of the films' stars.  The problem here is that the subjects, practiced in posing before cameras, are too self conscious to reveal much of themselves.  Photos of such stars as Jeff Bridges, Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp, while exceptionally well executed, show nothing of these actors' inner selves but only the public personae with which they face the public.  The exception is the photo of Patrick Swayze in drag and makeup standing on his lawn with his dog at his feet.  More successful are the celebrity portraits of Henry Miller and Clayton Moore.  In the first, taken in 1975, the elderly author wears a lecherous grin while seated in a wheelchair with the model Twinka kneeling behind him.  It is in the portrait of Clayton Moore that one sees most clearly the influence Diane Arbus had on Marks.  The former "Lone Ranger," now a very old man indeed, sits on a couch in his living room in full costume including mask.  Beside him is a statuette that shows the Ranger atop his rearing horse in the character's most iconic pose while above him hangs a framed Victorian portrait (his mother?).  It is the very normalcy of the surroundings that make this photo so unsettling.

There are a couple of color portraits of Indian and Nepalese prostitutes on view, but the inclusion of these shots only serve to make clear that it was black & white film photography that was Mark's true metier.  She was one of the last century's true masters of the medium.

The exhibit continues through June 18, 2016.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"Crime Stories": A Photo Exhibit at the Met Museum

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, is not particularly large - it takes up only one gallery - but is still worth a visit for anyone with an interest in documentary photography.  The works shown here are all drawn from the museum's permanent collection and, as the museum's website notes, constitute a "rogues gallery" of underworld figures, some notorious and others anonymous.

The most interesting photos here are the crime scene photos; even after so many years they still possess a macabre fascination for the viewer.  The most famous examples of this genre were of course taken by Weegee.  On view is his Human Head Cakebox Murder in which the spectators are photographed from such an angle that they themselves appear headless.  But there are others of equal impact, such as a photo of a man who died from a drug overdose stretched out in a Bronx hallway so narrow the photograph by Leonard Freed had to be taken from the staircase above, thus unwittingly providing a unique point of view.  Another photo, taken of the corpse of a knife wielding man shot dead by police in the Bronx, has connotations that would not have occurred to its original viewers.- seen now, one cannot help wondering if the knife were placed in the dead man's hand by the police after he had been killed.  Then there are the sensationalist photos of Ruth Snyder dying horribly in the electric chair at Sing Sing and a photo of a "girl resembling" Patti Hearst robbing a bank in California.  One of the best shows a robber firing his gun directly into the lens of a surveillance camera in a failed attempt to disable it.

As one would expect, there are a number of photos related to political assassinations, the crimes that have always been most thoroughly covered by the media. There are photos of the gun that killed Robert Kennedy, the famous photo of Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald, and the scene of the hanging of Lincoln's assassins.

The exhibit also contains work by well known photographers who were inspired by crime and its perpetrators.  These are of mixed quality.  Work by Walker Evans, William Klein, Larry Clark, and even Andy Warhol seem out of place here.  The exception is Avedon's penetrating portrait of In Cold Blood killer Dick Hickok, taken at the request of friend Truman Capote, that is absolutely chilling.  Like the anonymous portrait of 12-year old Freddie Scheiderer who shot to death his two sisters, the photo is frightening precisely because its subject is so ordinary - he could have been any one of us.

The least interesting photos - though given the most prominence, both at the exhibit itself and on the museum's website - are mugshots, including the posed portraits taken by Alphonse Bertillon.  These lack drama, and the subjects themselves are too conscious of the camera to expose their true personalities to it.

The exhibit continues through July 31, 2016.