Sunday, September 30, 2012

Film: Rothko's Rooms

Just finished watching this documentary. I enjoyed it and learned more about Rothko's personal biography and how his ideas progressed during his life.  

Rothko's Rooms, made in 2000.

4 Rothko Quotes:

“I'm not an abstractionist. I'm not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” 

“We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.”

“The myth holds us, therefore, not through its romantic flavor, not the remembrance of beauty of some bygone age, not through the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves, as it was to those who first stumbled upon the symbols to give them life.”

“The romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places. They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental.” 

Looking at Ad Reinhardt

In the last month, I've been thinking about and studying the concept of representation in art.  In regards to my own practice as a photographer, I have been moving towards more abstraction in my work. Even at last June's residency, I was quickly labeled a "painter's photographer." One project I am currently working on is making long exposures of Oahu's shoreline at night. The images are less about what they literally represent and more about the emotions evoked. At the same time, however, I am aware that they are still representations of Hawaii in a sense. They are, after all, made on Oahu’s beaches and depict the horizon line as seen from the shore. They are OF something even if that something is not immediately deciphered visually. My hope is for the emotion evoked to be representative of the spirit (perhaps "mana") of Hawaii… for the abstract images to still have a sense of place.  I would like for the abstractions to portray a sensitivity to the elements that are embedded in daily life here - light, air, and water.

My mentor, David Ulrich, suggested I look at the work of Ad Reinhardt during our last meeting. He loaned me the book below. It was informative to review Reinhardt's work and to learn more about his ideas, especially as I explore both long exposure abstract work and more literal collages juxtaposing representations of Hawaii. I've selected a few images and quotes from the text below. 

"The paintings in my show are not pictures....The intellectual and emotional content are in what the lines, colors, and spaces do. - Ad Reinhardt 1944

Lippard, Lucy R. Ad Reinhardt. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1981. Print.

On Collage: "At the same time, expanded use of the collage medium brought Reinhardt dangerously close to fusing two aspects of art which he considered permanently opposed - the pictorial, or picturesque, and the abstract; or life and art....Yet Reinhardt was an obsessive clipper of reproductions, art and otherwise, from magazines, books, and newspapers, a collector of the most picturesque of the picturesque - humorous, evocative, grotesque images for which he later found an outlet in the PM cartoons, and still later, in his teaching methods. One of the major challenges of the abstract collages, therefore, lay in the rearrangement of highly charged representational images in order to divest them of just those effects for which they might have been chosen...In figure 22 (Collage), what shapes can be discerned are only parts of a patterned whole. The pasted papers had to be small in order to be cleansed of associative imagery; this gave them an anonymity rare in geometric art at the time, and the disintegration of both form and image paved the way for the black paintings." (34)

"The expressive and structural meaning of color space in painting is my main interest." 
- Ad Reinhardt

Another quote from Lippard's book citing the English writer David Thompson: 
“Radical extremism in art tends to be thought na├»ve in Europe. In America it tends to be thought necessary; hence that extraordinary ability of American painting in the last twenty years to drive through again and again to what appear to be ultimate conclusions. ‘It’s too obvious’ or ‘It can only be a cul-de-sac,’ the anti-Americans have said in turn of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Johns, Louis, Noland, recoiling from the idea of being so uncompromising.

Extremism is both romantic indulgence and the strictest of disciplines. Perhaps that is why, being a paradox, it is not a bore, but a challenge, and why American painting can derive so much strength from it. Reinhardt is the embodiment of such a challenge, a sort of logical counterpart of Duchamp." (123)

“The separation, definition, compartmentation of all that affects how art is seen occupied Reinhardt wholly apart from the process of making art. He considered art a social responsibility and saw himself as an imperative force toward the formation of a type or class of American artist opposed to the current image. A certified liberal in regard to ‘life,’ i.e. all that is accidental and uncontrolled (including personal relationships), he was a dogmatist or a “conserver” in regard to art because art was, finally, what counted.” (130)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Myths of Paradise According to One High School Photo Class

 In thinking about portrayals of Hawaii, I’ve included my high school photography students in the conversation. We’ve been discussing the role images play in shaping reality. My readings of Camera Lucida and On Photography have helped guide our discussions about representation, reality, and truth. With these larger concepts in mind, we’ve discussed how Hawaii has been portrayed via photographs in the media, pop culture, the travel industry, etc. I asked students to list 10 myths or stereotypes of Hawaii and then for each myth, find one image via the Internet that perpetuated (or “proved”) the myth and one image that debunked it. An example that came up repeatedly is the idea of Hawaii as an endless stretch of pristine, empty sandy coastline.  You know the postcard – gorgeous white sand, turquoise water, swaying palm tree. While this striking scenery does exist, the stereotypical image of paradise certainly doesn’t include the daily commute of H1 traffic that both my students and I travel on everyday nor does it include the beaches overflowing with homeless makeshift housing. What other myths of paradise exist? Which ones are true, partly true, or entirely inaccurate? What we found is that many of the stereotypes were in fact embedded in some sort of partial truth. For every image available to debunk a myth, another photograph was available to validate it. When we worked to compile all of the images in a venn diagram (3 categories: true, false, sometimes true or false), we discovered that many of the images fell into the sometimes true/sometimes false center section. (Image below is not the final display but I wanted to show an idea of what we were working with.) Sorting and organizing the images was an engaging process but also somewhat problematic depending on how the stereotype was phrased. (Words like "everyone" or "all" tended to automatically be false given their absoluteness.) Nevertheless, the activity did provide interesting debate about topics ranging from identity, island culture, food, family, and local political issues like affordable housing, traffic, and environmental issues. We still have a number of images to sort…and I hope to eventually involve more classes on the venn diagram project.
Draft of Venn Diagram: Images that perpetuate/debunk myths of Hawaii

Next, I am most interested in working with my students to consider what role images play in shaping the perception of Hawaii.  And in the context of their own practices, as photographers, what is their responsibility in portraying a subject authentically? Is this even possible? Is it important?

Tomorrow, I am taking this class on a field trip to Haleiwa to the legendary North Shore. They are each doing independent projects but I’ve asked them to keep our recent discussions on the myths of paradise in the back of their minds as they shoot. I’m looking forward to seeing their work on these concepts, as there will be ample opportunity to explore them tomorrow.

Below is a compiled list of my students’ thoughts on the myths of Hawaii. 
  • We live in grass huts.
  • It's always sunny, beautiful weather in Hawaii.
  • Everyone can dance hula and hula dancers exist everywhere.
  • There is no traffic on the islands.
  • The beaches are deserted and pristine.
  • Everyone is happy, has no problems, and in "permanent vacation mode."
  • All water is clean.
  • People from here don't go to college.
  • People wear grass skirts and coconut bras.
  • Everyone can surf and goes to the beach everyday.
  • We walk (swim, surf, or paddle) everywhere.
  • People are laid-back and "super-chill."
  • We go barefoot everywhere.
  • Volcanoes exist everywhere in Hawaii.
  • Everybody is rich with beach front property.
  • We only eat Hawaiian foods like poi.
  • Everyone is beach blond surfers.
  • Everyone is Hawaiian.
  • Plumeria flowers are native to Hawaii.
  • Everyone knows how to play ukulele.
  • Everyone speaks Hawaiian on a daily basis.
  • All women in Hawaii are ugly.
  • All women in Hawaii are beautiful and exotic- looking.
  • Everyone has a hula dancer car dash ornament.

Lastly, this week marks the 50th anniversary of Blue Hawaii starring Elvis Presley. We watched the beginning of this film to see how Hawaii was being portrayed in the 1960’s. Some of the stereotypes (both racial and sexual) were offensive. However, in general, as a learning exercise, it was informative  and fairly entertaining to critically examine this film in the context of Hawaii stereotypes. It’s serendipity that the film’s 50th anniversary is this week.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Barbara Probst: Exposures

I've been looking at the work of Barbara Probst in relation to my current paper topic - photography's role in understanding time, reality, and truth.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to see Barbara Probst's New Photography exhibit at MOMA in NYC. I loved the work when I saw it then and now I am bridging the concepts in her work into the paper I am currently writing. In her series titled Exposures, Probst photographs the same exact moment in time using multiple cameras placed at different vantage points. The image below is an example of one diptych. I'm interested in how Probst forces the viewer to recognize photography's limitations in showing reality as a whole, yet simultaneously acknowledges that all images are, in part, an accurate replication of a specific time and place. 

In an interview posted on her website she says, “What I am interested in, after all, is not what is represented but how it is represented, the potential and the effects of representation. My purpose is to examine what photography can produce out of what was there.”
 Check out her website for more work:

An informative interview on Vimeo discussing and showing an installation of her work:

Probst, Barbara. Exposure #39: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:17 p.m. 2006.

Current Paper: Barthes & Sontag on Photography

I've finished reading two classics on the medium of photography and compiled a massive list of interesting quotes... too many to list here. I'll be posting my paper soon. Using Barthes and Sontag as starting off points, I'm writing about (more like quickly summarizing) photography's ability to question our understanding of truth, reality, and time.

1. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. 

2. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.