THE CYNEPHILE

"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Where The Boys Spend Their Money [Lewis Hine, 1910]

hine

St. Louis, Missouri, May 1910. From the National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress.

Raymond Depardon, The Picture Thief

I would give anything to be in Paris right now to catch Raymond Depardon’s La France at the BNF, in order to see his miraculous and ordinary (yes, those two words can go together) photographs up close. Raymond Depardon is a photographer and a filmmaker, the French equivalent to a modern-day Paul Strand, and film work has often been compared to Frederick Wiseman. Depardon’s overarching sensibility is that of reverence for small and intimate improvised experience. The result is that each ordinary moment he photographs is enshrined and somehow emblematic of both a dense sweet past, and a thinned out, scattershot present.

Jean-Michel Frodon’s review of the exhibition in Slate.fr is a beautiful piece of writing in its own right. Here is a translated passage that encapsulates the essence of Depardon’s style:

“There is no secret in these photos, no revelation. Depardon’s art was never that of the knockdown, it was often noted for his documentaries about the quality of listening. With his enormous camera, he listened to everyday landscapes. And everyone hears. Everybody hears something, but never the same thing. Everyone takes ownership of these images, they live in our own memories, as reflections as done over time, and most often kept to oneself.”

Depardon’s New York, NY is a film that epitomizes the act of listening. A mobile portrait of the 59th Street Bridge — shot most likely from the Roosevelt Island tram — the film is both intimate and spare. There are some iconic shots of Wall Street, and then we traverse the bridge again with our eyes, this time at night:

Depardon describes his process as that of a flâneur losing himself in the crowd. This passage is from his essay entitled “The Picture Thief”:

I would seek cover amidst the throngs of people in the busy streets of these big metropolises. For a few hours, a few days, I was an inhabitant, a special kind of local. I remained a foreigner, but I was adopted and protected by the crowd. I have always liked being invisible, disappearing as soon as I’m noticed and slipping unobserved from one street to the next without trying to hide. I remained a tourist a little off the beaten track, full of curiosity, but always an amateur.

I think Depardon is overdue for a New York retrospective, similar to the one MoMA mounted for Wiseman. His filmography is vast and varied, and includes documentary, narrative, and short-form work. Unfortunately, not much is available on DVD.

More:
An interview with Depardon in Cinemascope [Engilsh]

Maurice Tabard, Film Solarize

Assistant to his father in a silk mill, fashion photographer, friend to Man Ray, X-ray technician, master of solarization and the double exposure…Maurice Tabard had quite the C.V. Unfortunately most of his work was destroyed during the war. Below is a rare oversize filmstrip that has been solarized by Tabard — arresting, no? The Sabatier effect in action.

Ed Ruscha and Film

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A B&W still from Ed Ruscha’s film Miracle [1975].

After catching Ed Ruscha’s rare early films at Anthology — two utterly sublime set pieces that riff on the American holy trinity of cars, food, and women — I wanted to gather together all of Ruscha’s art that directly referred to cinema. This proved to be an impossible task, for the L.A. artist absorbed movie aesthetics the way a sponge absorbs water. A certain disaffected cinematic consciousness imbues almost all his photographic work, especially his exercises his serialism [Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Thirtyfour Parking Lots]. These photographs could be establishing shots from an LA film noir, or alternately, Ruscha could be conceived as donning an industry role: the artist as location scout. I like Ruscha’s description of how movies made unknown places known to him, and virtually paved the way for his arrival.

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When I first went to New York at about age 20 I felt like I was in a familiar land. Movies laid out the carpet that I would walk down to see the city. It was kind of like going to Oz. The same thing happened with LA. It seemed like movies initiated me to new lands. I can’t be exactly specific, but I’m inspired by the clichéd activities in films. For example, in movies from the 40s there was always a train that was depicted as a little spot in the lower right hand corner of the screen and it would always emerge with all of its whistles and steam in the upper left hand side of the frame. It was a bridge between plot action when people were moving from one place to another. It had a powerful, cinematic suggestion to me that directly came into my work as an artist. I still dig the diagonal (laughs). [Excerpted from an interview in Fabrik Magazine]

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I dig the diagonal too, which is a powerful compositional element of not only Ruscha’s photographs but his drawings. Several of his most-lauded pieces play with angles and anamorphotics of famous cinematic landmarks and logos, such as the Hollywood sign as viewed from behind and from the side, where the stagecraft used to the erect the letters is revealed.

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Hollywood as a metonym figures prominently in his text constructions as well, which are reminiscent of title cards, billboards, or signage. Of course Ruscha would write HOLLYWOOD IS A VERB, emerging from a smog made up of hazy graphite. ANOTHER HOLLYWOOD DREAM BUBBLE POPPED evokes a rosy-fingered mirage.

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Ruscha loved the end credits, and that last title card appears in several of his later drawings. They specifically capture the materiality of cinema by showcasing the scratches and lines that characterize a worn-out film print. Part of the reason why Ruscha’s films are not well-known is because he insists that they be shown on film, insisting on their original medium (and perhaps damning them to obsolescence). One can almost hear the faint whirring of the projector as it reaches the end of the reel.

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A Pot-pourri of Links

art + video
It’s Armory Week, and the number of openings, events and parties in the next few days makes my head spin. Aside from the usual mainstays, the new kid on the block this year is the Independent. Born out the ashes of X-initiative, it offers an alternative to the inescapable shopping mall ambiance of the art fair — there’s even a panel on gluttony! And a film program too. Check it out here.

Scope also has a video program, with work by Martha Colburn, George Kuchar and fashion-y films. Sashay!

design
Check out the next generation of Polish film poster design.

fashion
Look who’s copying a page from the Vezzoli playbook: Agyness Deyn deigns to appear in a McDermott and McGough film.

film reviews
Andrew Grant (nom de blog: filmbrain) reviews The Ghost Writer, and thinks it’s pretty good.
You should see it, especially since all proceeds from the film go to the Roman Polanski legal defense fund. (Kidding!)

mystery flavor
My favorite posthuman Andrei Codrescu is anti-Avatar, and pro-zombie. Deliciously brainy as always.

zombie_vampire_hybrid
My friend Ziyan and I as zombie-vampire hybrids. Kristen Stewart, eat your heart out.

new york
Movie program ephemera from the 8th street Playhouse, which I remember going to as a little girl. Thanks to reader Jack for the tip.

photography
Andy Warhol: Unexposed Exposures just opened at Steven Kashar.
If the Factory had had a facebook page, these would be the pictures that they would post to their wall. Lots o’ pics online too.

watch online
The first and only truly Beat film Pull My Daisy (Frank and Leslie, 1959) is on Google Video.

Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood at Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Nollywood, Nigeria’s grassroots independent film industry, produces over 2,000 feature-length movies per year. This makes it the third* largest in the world, behind Bollywood and the United States in terms of the number of movies made, with profits ringing in at around $250 million dollars. Working with digital cameras and near-zero budgets, these films are a rare instance of autonomous film production in a third world country, and are wildly popular throughout West Africa.

Pieter Hugo’s striking photographs reveal, in a highly stylized form, the characters and subject matter of Nollywood cinema. Horror dominates as characteristically low-budget genre that appeals to audiences and filmmakers alike, and there are a profusion of stories about zombies, black magic and the occult as a result. But there are also stories about poverty, teenage pregnancy, tribal conflicts, HIV/AIDS and other contemporary realities that haunt daily life.

Not surprisingly, Hugo’s work is controversial, and he has been accused of sensationalism and spreading racial stereotypes (for these photos as well as for an earlier series, The Hyena & Other Men). But I think the sheer force of his images combined with the artifice-upon-artifice presentation make these photographs more performative than anything else. They actively seek to disturb the viewer — much like the films themselves.

And how do you get your hands on some Nollywood films? Format-wise, the films are mostly distributed on VCDs, making them hard to view in the United States. I have asked friends (and a few cab drivers) to recommend some popular titles, but it seems like there isn’t any equivalent (as of yet) to a Nollywood Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the universally beloved Bollywood classic. You can watch full-length films at this website, but I was enraged by excessive pop-ups. The best solution for New Yorkers? Go to Harlem, find a vendor, and ask what his favorites are. Festival fare it isn’t, but for those truly interested in developments in world cinema, the Nollywood film industry is too revolutionary to ignore.

*Some estimates actually place the Nollywood film industry ahead of the U.S.

Pieter Hugo’s photographs are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery until April 10. There is also a photobook available via Amazon — the reviews indicate  just how polarizing these photos are.

Miroslav Tichý at ICP

Miroslav Tichý’s photos are a mess, and I mean that as a compliment. They look like they have been stepped on, scratched, crumpled up, and left out in the rain. Old and neglected, many of them have partially oxidized, obscuring the ghostly image that lies beneath a layer of corrosion. They are covered with fingerprints, grit, and in one case, the image of stray fly that made its way on to the enlarger. They are small and oddly-shaped, with nary a straight-edge in sight. Seemingly artless, they look like mistakes that another photographer would consign to the dustbin. But for Tichý, the imperfections are where the beauty resides: “The flaws are part of it,” he insists. “That’s the poetry.”

(Click on individual photos to enlarge)

Tichý himself is an odd character: a toothless Czech vagabond, he was briefly jailed by the Communists for being deemed “subversive.” While he did wander around snapping photos of the unsuspecting in his native Kyjov, most of the village saw him for what he was: a harmless eccentric. Using cameras that he constructed from found materials (clothespins, spools, cardboard tubes, string), Tichý shot about two rolls of film per day, mostly of females caught unaware in the midst of their day-to-day leisure activities (sunbathing, reading, riding bikes, sitting on park benches.) While there is undeniably an element of voyeurism to his work, his photos remind of Chris Marker’s atmospheric portraits of women or Gerhard Richter’s blurry photo-paintings — hazy, feverish, sensuous images suffused with an undercurrent of death, decay and dissolution.

Tichý’s work is currently on display at ICP, and it is something you should truly see in person. Incidentally, there is also an exhibit of Surrealist photography from Paris and a small presentation of vintage prints by Eugène Atget (which Walter Benjamin described as resembling “the scene of the crime”). Do you need any more beautiful reasons to go? Allez-y à ICP!

Marilyn Monroe, Crucifix [From Bert Stern’s The Last Sitting, 1962]

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While I am not a M.M. fetishist, I find this image remarkably unsettling for the way it seems to prophesy her death. During her legendary final photo shoot with Bert Stern, Monroe crossed out the negatives that she didn’t want to published with a magic marker. (She just had a gall-bladder operation, and was ashamed of the scar on her midriff). The red gash on her ghostly body produces an uncanny memento mori — a quality that, according to Roland Barthes, lies at the crux of all photography.

Of course, Marilyn-as-muse is a popular trope in all mediums. Here’s Dalí’s take on the icon, which is obviously a nod (or a jab) in Warhol’s direction. (Duly noted: Monroe’s beauty mark takes precedence over Mao’s mole.)

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Salvador Dalí, After Marilyn Monroe [1967]


Pasolini, La Rabbia [Rage, 1963]

Restored for the NYFF this year, Pasolini’s La Rabbia interprets Monroe’s death as the killing of all that is innocent and beautiful in the world. My shoddy translation of the last line, spoken over footage of a mushroom cloud: “You’re the first in the world beyond the gates abandoned to death’s fate.”

O. Winston Link, Hotshot Photographer

The work of O. Winston Link has only recently been recognized as significant in the history of photography. His documentation of steam locomotives in the U.S. is not only an important historical record but an undertaking of cinematic proportions.

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When I first saw Hotshot, Eastbound I was floored by the remarkable coincidence of events: the train shoots its way like a missile across the background just as the airplane is captured on the movie screen. I was also amazed by the depth of the field and the richness of detail—this is a night photograph, after all. How on earth did he take such a picture?

The answer, of course, is that he directed it. He hired the two lovers in the foreground to sit in his car. He engineered an extensive arrangement of flashes that, at his command, would all fire at precisely the right moment. He became friendly with an army of train conductors whom he would call to check on train arrival times. And that oh-so-perfectly framed plane was added later in the darkroom. In short, this photograph was entirely premeditated, posed to an extreme degree, and “photoshopped” avant la lettre. Yet that doesn’t make it any less valid as an historical document, or any less important in the history of photography.

I think this image can also be instructive in thinking through the history of cinema. What this photograph manages to capture so brilliantly is the way in which modern technologies of transport—trains, planes, automobiles and yes, cinema—engender new modes of spectatorship. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out in his lucid book, The Railway Journey, the experience of railway travel brought about entirely different type of interaction with the landscape. The velocity and evanescence with which the railway traveller experienced the landscape can be thought of as a precursor to cinematic spectatorship: train travel in effect, “conditioned” the modern individual to embrace the rapid editing and the luminous screen of the cinema. The automobile and the airplane represent further permutations of this postwar industrial consciousness, and it is fascinating to see all three of these technological assemblages consolidated into this single, quintessentially American image. It’s no accident that the viewer shares the point of view of the lovebirds, enraptured by the otherworldy image of the plane while the train barrels out of frame.

O. Winston Link (the “O” stands for “Ogle” by the way—a Dickensian name if there ever was one) didn’t just take photographs; he also made sound recordings and a few hard-to-find films. Besides serving as testament to the fact that he was indeed thinking cinematically, the Link footage is an important historical document in its own right and should be more widely available so it can be celebrated and studied. (This website reports that his ex-wife may be holding some of these materials hostage.) I would die to see some of these films—ideally, on a double bill with James Benning’s RR, perhaps the most sublime minimalist tribute to trains on film. Cinema arrived via train, after all.

More links on Link (sorry, couldn’t resist):

An bio of the Brooklyn-born photographer from the O. Winston Link Museum in Virginia

An interactive graphic of the Hotshot Eastbound photograph from The New York Times