I’m a Real Photographer

Keith Arnatt, Photographs 1974-2002
by David Hurn & Clare Grafik
ISBN: 9781905712052

I found the idea of this book appealing, despite not generally having much patience for discussions (arguments?) about is it art? Maybe it was the title; maybe it was the all-caps fierceness of the handwritten note on the cover (“YOU BASTARD! YOU ATE THE LAST OF MY CRACKERS”); maybe it was something else in the blog post that I now of course can’t find that originally sparked my interest; whatever it was, I’m glad I finally got around to spending time with this book.

If you don’t know (and I didn’t) Keith Arnatt was a Conceptual artist (yes, he was apparently important enough for that to be capitalized) who, in middle age, took up photography. Photos were at one point the only record of his work, and he became interested in them being the work, instead of just the record.

He did most of his shooting around his house. First he took black and white photographs of tourists; then he did a series on dog walkers that is unusual because both walker and dog are looking right at you; then he moved into color. The color photos are where it really started to get interesting — well, that and Arnatt’s seeming obsession with a garbage dump near his house.

Arnatt’s photos are of unexpected things. He shot the tourists, not the sites they came to see; literal garbage, but rendered with the texture and glow of paintings; the notes his wife wrote him, but we don’t see her. He was a guy with a camera, sticking close to home and indulging his obsessions. In his case, it paid off with fascinating and weird images. The close ups of industrial gloves and the canned sunset series were two of my favorites — strange and funny and beautiful even though they shouldn’t be. Arnatt’s work also suggest a sense of time without rush, a foreign concept.

Some of the work isn’t as as compelling to me. The random blurry snaps of his pets, or his fascination with the cows, or willingness to reach for a laugh or question by photographing dog turds just… well, none of those are really images I want to spend much time with. Not compared to the misshapen toys or dog toys or things retrieved from the trash and set on a homemade plinth, at any rate, though this may say as much about my obsessions and quirks as Arnatt’s.

Hurn’s essay (which I went back and read after going through the photographs) explains — but not too much — how these photographs came to be, in a fairly straightforward retelling of key points in Arnatt’s career from the point of view of a fellow professor and photographer. Grafik’s essay at the back of the book provides the art world context for Arnatt’s work, and is a fairly accessible accounting. The book spans nearly thirty years of Arnatt’s work, and at times he felt curiously absent from it, as there isn’t really anything here attributed to him that isn’t the work, no voice other than the visual. I suppose that is as it should be. Recommended.

Little People in the City

The street art of Slinkachu
ISBN: 9780752226644

The tagline from Slinkachu’s blog may put it best: this is about “little handpainted people, left in London to fend for themselves”.

The book is a collection of photographs of these little people. They are models set up in urban locations, and the jarring quality of the images comes not just from the scale (they are miniature) but from recognizing the bits of everyday life in the scenes that are real and not real at the same time.

I did wish for a stronger layout: one page is a photograph of the little people as staged by Slinkachu, and on the opposing page the photo is taken from further back, revealing the setup and scale. While I did appreciate the reveal, would rather have seen the worlds created by the miniatures all together, with the trick exposed later on. There are thumbnails in the back with location and dates London 2006 – 2008, perhaps a larger version of the whole scene would have worked better there.

Still, it’s a charming collection of work — clever ideas, well done street art on small scale.

Scorpio

by Mike Slack
ISBN: 0977648109

This book is a lot like Slack’s OK OK OK, down to the size and fabric and polaroids on the covers, the same lack of any textual explication, and the same magic in the everyday that is so wonderfully — if you are a fan — expressed with integral polaroid film.

These series of images, each on its own page with no facing picture, invite you to make your own connections (shape? texture? color? tone? mood?) as you move from one image to the next. The one-sided affair makes it seem as if you were looking at a stack of polaroids, rather than flipping pages in a book, only with more white space, an empty distraction-free zone around the pictures.

Either you find this kind of thing fascinating and are easily absorbed in the polaroids, or you don’t. If you don’t, I imagine you’d be frustrated, fed up with the lack of spelled out story or even backstory, and wondering why a photographer in this day and age would even want to work with polaroids because they are small, soft, and imprecise compared to digitally captured and perfected pictures. In my opinion you’d be missing out, but to each their own. Like to look at photos? Invent your own stories to go with them? Then check this out. Recommended.

A Year of Mornings: 3191 Miles Apart

by Maria Alexandra Vettese and Stephanie Congdon Barnes
ISBN: 1568987846

This book is the result of a project that began on the web: each woman took a photograph in the morning, and they posted the resulting diptych on their blog. (Sadly, the whole year is no longer available online. I have a massive crush on Princeton Architectural Press, and it pains me to think they made this choice — how much better would it be if I could show you links to the images that I liked best in this review?)

I was aware of the blog when it was alive because I blogged about ideas for a new project and Krista — who would become my co-conspirator in the new project — left a comment linking to their site. I remember wishing I could see larger versions of some of their diptychs, but they maddeningly didn’t include links to larger versions.

I sort of got my wish with this book — some of the photographs are printed across two pages. Images appear in different sizes throughout the book, with some not much more than thumbnails, others in medium size, a few blown up in detail for section markers, and the quiet luxury of the two-page wide diptychs. This isn’t a traditional coffee table format photography book, it’s more intimate than that, a smaller trade paperback size with raised dots of texture on the cover. The overall softness serves the book well, the matte fits the photos better than glossy pages would.

There are remarkable similarities in these paired images: over and over again the morning light, but also the composition, the subject matter… Mav and Stephanie (as they are known online) capture quiet moments, where they remain still for us to observe, wonder, and dream about.

If I could link and show you some of my favorite images, I would pick:

01/09
A blurry telephone pole and wires against a blue sky, next to a detail of a well-made bed with a softy bunny’s head poking into the frame

4/05
A green and white knitted thing dropped on a wooden bench painted blue, paired with a small white ball and large white ladder in deep green grass

6/12
An empty paper coffee cup on that same blue painted wood, next to a top-down view of daisies

9/20
Red fruit in a wooden bowl in the lower left corner of the frame, enhancing the red maple seeds ready to twist off and fly

There are birds and baked goods and spider webs and coffee mugs and windows: an endless supply of dailiness to select from. It might not have felt like it to them at the time, but the two were exercising editorial vision, choosing which moment from the morning to record and share. It is a year of seasons, starting with winter in January, and pushing things a bit too far by ending in December and calling it fall.

There are tiny thumbnails in the back of the book, a clever visual table of contents, which include select comments from the website. Most fitting overall is probably something a woman named Katie said, about a paring from the middle of June that included green stems in a plastic bag lying on a paper towel, and part of laundry basket on the floor: “Funny how such simple things can be so beautiful.”

The Principles of Uncertainty

by Maira Kalman
ISBN: 9781594201349

I was fascinated with the unexpected heaviness of this book as an object, and by the style of illustration – handwritten with bright colors and not polished (as in not antiseptic, not as in unfinished) – so of course I needed to bring it home when I found it at The Strand.

I love the sense of you can do that? that comes from this kind of book. “This kind” meaning a book that isn’t conventional: not a “regular” story or essay or even coffee table art book, but different somehow in ways that perhaps break unwritten but nevertheless sensed rules about how things are supposed to be.

The story catalogs a year in Kalman’s life. It goes from May to April, spring to spring. Not traditionally seasonal, though “The Impossibility of February” does seem accurate to me. It’s an idiosyncratic view, full of charm and musings, small and big questions. It meanders, and that makes it the sort of book I want to read while I drink coffee or tea, savoring it, stopping to stare out a window, or people watch around me. Recommended.

Going Somewhere Soon

by Brian Andreas
ISBN: 0964266024

This is the third collection of story-sketches from Andreas. (I read at liked a previous volume, Mostly True.) Whimsy and knowingess seem to be Brian Andreas’s thing: many of his stories – fragments, really – manage to deliver both even though they are less than a page long. “Open Heart” is characteristic of his work:

He told me that once
he forgot himself & his
heart opened up like a
door with a loose latch
& everything fell out &
he tried for days to put
it all back in the proper
order, but finally he
gave up & left it there
in a pile & loved
everything equally.

I like the goofy sketches and the absurdity: they feel good. The recognition goes deeper with some than with others, and the best that provide magical little story moments. I sometimes wonder what they’d spin out to be if they were longer, and my musing is part of the fun and wonder in reading Andreas.

Art & Fear

by David Bayles and Ted Orland
ISBN: 0961454733

This book can be reliably found in used bookstores throughout Cambridge and Boston, so I’ve looked at it for years. Looking at it on the shelf always made me feel like a wannabe — I wasn’t a real artist, so I had no business reading the book.

I could not have been more wrong.

For one thing, the book is all about finding yourself as an artist. About giving yourself a break from the bullshit going on in your own head long enough to take a breath and do the work. In it’s most simple and therefore uncomfortable form: if you think this book has anything to do with you (including you just wishing it to be true) it does. You probably aren’t a genius, and that is ok. You can still make art. The authors tell us: “The difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familar.”

So if you’ve been thinking (like I was) there are probably so many copies around available on the cheap because other wannabes were tired of the guilt and traded the book in for something else, get over it. Read the book. It isn’t full of answers, in that there is no magic shortcut to becoming an artist. Just do the work, do more work, and in doing the work you’ll figure out what the work needs to be.

I still don’t know the answers, but I’ve made a start on the work in a more committed way than I have before. (That’s the other thing: I have studio space now, which means I have the space and time to develop my own practice, to keep asking and answering questions.) I still don’t know what it all means or where it is going, but on good days, that’s okay.

I imagine I’ll reread this book. I’m betting it will feel like going for coffee with a good friend who’ll give me a kick in the pants when I need it.

Happy Kitty Bunny Pony

A Saccharine Mouthful of Super Cute
by Charles S. Anderson Design Co. with text by Michael J. Nelson
ISBN: 0810992000

This book is outrageous.

That is pretty much the point: consider the subtitle. It’s full of unreal colors, plastic, toys both super creepy and super cute, and weird portrayals of animals. It dishes out nostalgia (anyone else remember sharp-edged inflatable toys?) and it will make you laugh.

The real secret of the book isn’t the dubious pleasure of looking at the bizarre toys or oddly anthropomorphized animals, but in the captions. Oh yes, the unexpected zing of what passes for narrative amid supersaturated ultra-cuteness:

If you open an umbrella near a pony, it is likely to startle and stomp you to death. Ponies are far less enchanting when you are beneath them, being crushed by their hooves.

…and of course, Chester the 13-Striped Ground Squirrel Who Will Distract You and Then Drive a 16-Penny Nail Into the Back of Your Neck.

Well, late at night, armies of ferrets, who are in pay of the Easter Bunny, swarm into chicken houses everywhere and steal as many eggs as they can.

This book has, is cuteness that can (and does) cross the line over into repugnant, but is fascinating for it. Recommended in small doses, unless you crave a crazy kitsch factor, in which case go ahead and overdose with this.

Mostly True

Collected Stories & Drawings
by Brian Andreas
ISBN: 0964266008

We have one of Brian Andreas’s Story People sculptures on our living room wall. We picked it up last summer from a funky little gallery in Rockport, when we were on vacation. The whimsical appearance and thoughtful message spoke to me:

Wish for your
deepest desires, she said
& when I asked if they’d
come true, she said
they always do,

so you might as well
get them out in the open
while you’re still young
enough to correct any
serious mistakes.

For one thing, I like to believe I am still young enough. I like to believe everybody is, which is to say I hope I’m never not young enough. It’s a happy — but not irritatingly cheerful — thing to see every day. It resonates with me.

This book is a lot like the sculpture, in that it is whimsical and wise (but not as literally colorful). It’s also a lot like a volume of poetry in size and shape, which I’m sure is intentional. It’s filled with vibrant sketches — line drawings, really, that look not quite childlike, but have an urgency and playfulness about them. Half the pages have sketches and hand-written stories, and the other half have printed stories in a rough, slightly oversized serif font. The overall effect is charming, but not smarmy. I love the stories:

There was a single blue
line of crayon drawn across
every wall in the house.
What does it mean? I asked.
A pirate needs the site of
the sea, he said & then he
pulled his eye patch down
& turned & sailed away.

If you (or anyone you know) is in need of inspiration, a sense of play, or something to kindle the imagination I highly recommend Collected Stories & Drawings.

Paint by Number

The How-to Craze that Swept the Nation
by William L. Bird, Jr.
ISBN: 1568982828

…hobby kits, like paint by number, functioned as a compromise between genuine creativity and the responsibilities of homemaking and earning a living. The real art began the moment the the hobbyist ignored outlines to blend adjacent colors, added or dropped a detail, or elaborated upon a theme by extending the composition on to the frame. By doing what art was not supposed to be, one could learn what it was.

I had no idea how huge a phenomena paint by number was in the fifties.

This book — incredibly well put-together with many photographs, advertisements and other ephemera, and of course, paintings — is an exhibition catalog. The exhibition Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s was on view National Museum of American History for most of 2001. Though it would have been interesting to see the exhibition in person, reading the book I did not feel like I was missing out. I suspect this may have been one of those rare gallery experiences where reading all of the wall text was as interesting, if not more so, than viewing the “art” without curatorial context-setting.

That’s because it’s a great story. It has arguments about what is art, reflections on suburbia and class, digging into the “appropriate” use of leisure time, and the copious illustrations range from kitschy to creepy, and sentimental to odd. Bird’s narrative considers everyone from the business people behind the sale of the kits, to the artists who created them, to the consumers that bought them and used them, to a later generation of artists inspired by them.

The paint by number kit might was “a transition item that add[ed] new scope to the hobby business” because it appealed to both genders and a very wide age range. In that way, I suppose the paint by numbers kits of the 1950s were not so different than MySpace pages or blogs today. Both were called fads, yet generated tens of millions of dollars a year in business. Both have caused something of an uproar among elites concerned about the fate of art and culture.

So if you are interested in kitsch, in the 1950s, or even in exploring the parallels of paint by number and cookie cutter web publishing templates, you’ll probably enjoy this book. I should just admit to having a crush on Princeton Architectural Press, because they publish wonderful things, and this is no exception: the heavy, cover-sized front and back flaps are paint by number pieces. Recommended.