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Big Apple Photo Art Scene, Part 3 (conclusion)

August 25 2009 - Gallery News

“The photographer Hans Lullig is an intellectual visionary. His photographs deliver a hard edged style of realism from everyday life. The photograph at the right, titled upside-down, expresses a corrival relationship between illumination and shadow, without the intensity of either. Lullig’s strong and unique signature and optical perspective avoid need for correlations or dynamic locality. The three vertical lines, in part provide a basic compositional outline, and cross with the horizontal beam, making the cruciform symbol against which the abject subject is placed. Ultimately it is the resulting natural simplicity that defines his special vision.”

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Having had a chance to sight see, relax, and then consider what I have learned, developed, explored as a photographer/artist for thirty five years and counting, it was time to make final preparations. I took information I had gathered specifically on galleries and other venues showing photography and made an itinerary of stops in order to visit as many of them as possible following a sensible path.

Home base for me was the Upper East Side on East End Ave. The journey might begin and end on a subway, but most of the ground would be covered on foot. The concentration of galleries used to be in SoHo, but the bohemian mystique of the arts, the supposed carefree intellectualized lifestyle has always attracted a following by the high life of the smart set. Eventually this makes an area unfordable to most galleries and the “starving” artists they represent that may have lived there. This is what I’ve heard is the reason for change. I do not know if it’s true

In any case, today, approaching 2010, the haven for galleries in NYC has shifted to the Chelsea Pier area on the west side, between 20th to 30th Street, (and to Williamsburg, Brooklyn…more on this later). There are still galleries in Soho and sprinkled around the rest of Manhattan. They tend to be more established.

Established galleries that have been able to keep their doors open over the decades generally deal in vintage photographs, estates, collector editions by the pioneers of photography; photographers with familiar names like Karsh and Adams, and those not so well known, such as Ernest Bellocq, John Gutmann, and the original Arthur Fellig. Their reputations bring a certainty, security, and reduced risk to meet sales objectives necessary to keep those expensive doors open.

The International Center of Photography on Avenue of the Americas as well as the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 41st E. 57th St. were exhibiting the well know Edward Steichen and Hungarian born great Martin Munkacsi. The Center was having an expose on fashion photography. It was the only place I visited were, through the displays of modern fashion magazine advertising, were I saw extensive digitally enhanced images, side by side with the masters of light.

In addition, to established galleries showing photography in south and central Manhattan on towards the Upper East Side, I happened upon places such as Throckmorton Fine Art, which had wonderful displays of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture. Those visits were asides to my main mission, and with that in mind I ventured into the Chelsea area.

Before entering into this experience let me reflect on what is most often shown in the vintage displays of the established Big Apple art scene. I have been a frequent visitor to the city for a long time, but only since the 1980’s have I focused more attention on photography. I have found there is a particular fondness for “straight” and realism in photography. It has an extra edge by having social utility. The pictorialist coming before and modernist following after have not enjoyed (shall we say) the same exposure.

I embrace the various approaches fine art photographers have used in creating their personal vision, to reveal what is behind and beyond the surface of a photograph, taken with a camera and printed with basic post production processes. But there seems to be a die hard contingent in this city that a photograph is best suited for crisp, sharp, straightforward exposures without further darkroom due, and with depictions of reality, however unreal.

Afred Stieglitz comes to mind: he and many of the photographers in his association are favorites. His well known Camera Work Magazine published in the early twentieth century was a proponent of this photographic approach, were the central object of the discourse, having semantic autonomy, was the photograph. His ‘The Steerage’ was among many published photographs to be so distinguished.

This invention of this photographic ideal was diluted years later when he published “How The Steerage Happened,” for which he created the symbolist folk-myth, an invention of meaning, a currency taking the photograph from a documentary to a metaphor and possibly the photographer from witness to genius…”seemingly a new vision held me—people, the common people—away from the mob called the rich—Rembrandt came into my mind…”

Berenice Abbott represents another group of celebrated photographers active around the Farm Security Administration era. She trumpeted the photographs ability to reveal reality, then adds her own contradiction to this delusion when she adds the photographer is to impose a visual order and intellectual framework to what is seen–thereby, in essence providing a metonymic significance beyond claims of realistic representations of the world.

The reason in giving both examples is to question both what is ‘straight’ and ‘reality,’ and not intended any way to diminish their perception, meaning, intention, and aesthetic value of their photography or the contributions they made in photography, especially pioneers with a historical perspective. The point here is, photographs can be seen as windows to the world, but whatever the context, its content and semiotic identifiers, however fantastic, remain subjective constructions. What is, by in large, completely overlooked or ignored, at times with disdained, is any wisdom on the form.

By the wisdom of form I mean the process of constructing a conceptual content and aesthetic in the physical space, as it is achieved through advancing technique of the technological time. My view is the ‘art of photography’ reaches pinnacles when there is a significant blending of both. This applies equally to abstract photography as well as photography in the service of pure liberalism. Even full of social utility and ideological fervor, the latter is dull in its art without explorations and achievements in technique.

Those who take photographs, and they are in the majority, can disagree. Their photographs continue to report, witness, document the world, to which they or their promoters may then give added significance and meaning through semiotics–this following a tried and true repetitive process changing the content, but not the context. On the other hand, photographers who make photographs, without elitist aspirations, look at art not only in what is being expressed and the way of expression, to enlighten.

This brings me back to the Chelsea art district. I found my opinions obviously out of step with the exhibits on display. With a few notable exceptions, from one city block to the next I could see straight shots of reality of drug addicts, girls in glass cages, people behind their steering wheels, etc., and all so thrilling.

If we are to look for a ‘new vision’ different from that explored in the first half of the Twentieth Century, we can say these photographs are now in living color, there is some use of a camera flash, and subjects are now in contemporary dress and settings. Without question they were, if simply, true photographs. Most of the photographs on display were comparable to that shown above by Hans Lullig, which is straight, real, (and tired). Is it one you would place in your personal collection?

In an aside for this piece, while making the rounds I talked with personnel in a number of galleries with respect to photographic and digital artists I represent, specifically in regards how they might be considered for exhibition in their establishments. Every one of these encounters followed the same pattern and conclusion.

At first my inquiry would get a positive reception, “yes, we look at the work of artists–the person in the office can give you our forms.” Then when I spoke with this person in the office and asked for the forms and an appointment, it was always “we are not reviewing any work at this time,” and there was unwillingness to suggest a time that might change. I faced a crisis of the real-reality. It “reminds us of the blindness of a man whose mind is ‘made up’ and therefore incapable of responding to unforeseen opportunities. Those are the wages of economy,” Rudolf Arnheim.

The reality of Hans Lullig, the straight talk is that lullig in Dutch (my native country) means to jibber jab in excess, to jive talk on the merits, to communicate meaningless talk. This is all that I wrote and reads sort of like a horoscope… actually about this photograph that I took of my sister, Yvonne, after one long day stopping by galleries.

This photograph, as with many that we saw, is valid and expressive, but does it represent the art of photography or follow Victor Burgin’s comment, “It seems to be extensively believed by photographers that meanings are to be found in the world much in the way that rabbits are found on downs, and that all that is required is the talent to spot them and the skill to shoot them. A certain je ne sais quoi, which may be recognized but never predicted, may produce art out of the exercise. But those moments of truth for which the photographic opportunists waits, finger on the button, are as great a mystification as the notion of autonomous creativity.”

That is it for the Big Apple art scene. Williamsburg in Brooklyn will be my next stop for exploration in this area. I hear that scene is more open to different types of photographic art and digital art based on photographs. And for the next article—is professional level photography dying and what is the future of digital art?