Friday, 28 November 2008

Where We Live

Bronx Boy - John Benton-Harris - examines the validity of
Frank Gohlke’s - “Where We Live”

@t New York’s - Howard Greenberg Gallery 27 June - 22 August 2008

As someone as long in the tooth as Mr Gohlke, and as involved just as long as he in communication through seeing, I feel I have both the right and the obligation to speak of this show, and what I feel are its merits and failings. And since its overall merits are few, and its failings great, I’ll deal with the former first.

The 40 plus prints exhibited (mostly horizontal) are large and very large, by the standards of a documentary photographer of his age and type, and far too big for the smallness of their content, so why he would want to draw our attention to this view of Queens is beyond my comprehension, especially after the gallery handout, stated - “Queens is both a destination and a way station, where ethnic diversity first undergoes the turbulent process of Americanization.”.

Well, looking at this show, I would have to challenge that remark, for there is no sign of habitation, let alone a piling up of people awaiting to be assimilated, neither is there anything chaotic, untidy, or frenzied about these images that would suggest that singularly or en masse. Indeed for Mr Gohlke to capture anything of that, he would have had to take a risk to gain a chance, in a less affluent, more borderline neighbourhood. That way, he could easily show us these same nice tidy homes, adjacent to, or juxtaposed against - Failing Light Industry, Foreign Greengrocers, New Irish Pubs, Indian News Agents, Graffiti, Abandoned Cars, and possible even Sneakers dangling from tied shoelaces from a spaghetti of overhead cable. And all manner of other signs of change and cultural clash, that are easily and abundantly available, if one chooses the right locality, and focuses an appropriate mindset to illustrate transition.

These images are more like advertisements, then anything to do with social commentary, or the art of thoughtful seeing, that having been said, I believe they would be better placed in an Estate Agents window, then on a gallery wall.

So I’m thinking, whoever wrote the PR for this show, was doing it without access to the images, while Mr Gohlke was out doing some simple stock-taking, with his camera in a part of Queens, that looks more like the place that we would find “Stepford Wives” residing then any area in the process of great social and ethnic turmoil. The only kind of reading these observations project is the neutrality and economy of a quantity surveyors list. A list of different types and kinds of required bricks, railings, fences, doors, sidings, windows, awnings, bushes, trees, shrubs, and flower beds. All that seemed to be missing here, was the costings of all these different home and garden accessories, so if they celebrate anything at all, it seems to be “HOME DEPOT”, or some such other like place.

As someone who is a veteran walker of this city, I know where to look for those things that were
promised in "Where We Live" but not delivered, because I've explored a number of such confused and contrasting areas of this borough, and the other four. So I know from experience that all that was mentioned above as indicative of the kind of turbulence is very get-able, as long as one commits the necessary thought, time and effort.

But I suspect he’s a contented one way approach person, and will carry on snapping stylistically as he always has, leaving any sign of personal reading in or across his imagery to others, as well as any accompanying text. And that will always get him into deep-shit with people who can read image-text and text-image, for his promises remain undelivered.

However, on the plus side, as this kind of graphic wall furniture goes, they are beautifully finished and presented, as is the standard of Howard’s gallery. But Mr Gohlke commitment here is merely to shape-up on this dull neighbourhood, that at best reveals an abundance of poor taste, made taut through simple juxtaposition. And to think it took him two years to bring into being this small graphic exercise. Even more astonishing to me, that it should get an outing off campus, let alone at a major New York Gallery.

But to be kind, and to also to encourage the photographer to go back and give the subject suggested in the text, another try, I did happen to notice here and there, a few barred windows and the occasional front door that resembled a small town bank vault. So maybe his mind was beginning to kick in with a little, but too late. From his CV, he seems like a guy who knows how to get access to funding, so if he doesn't feel "he’s already done it" and there is a next time this could be a start point. He might consider trying to let us know something about those who lives there, as I listed earlier. Such as what the inhabitants drive, where they eat and shop, anything like that would help to warm up Mr. Gohlke’s precision and economy, so we are motivated to look again.

At this juncture, he simply gives us access to what we can easily see for ourselves if we venture past those houses, and down those streets. So I must pose the question - "Does this view of Queens really deserves great praise". Yes indeed it does, but only if we were tragically all born blind, and these observations were printed in Braille, then we could all feel our way around the gallery walls, and be amazed.

© John Benton-Harris - August 2008

The Author's Queens

Queens, 2006

Queens, 2009

Kings of the Street

John Benton-Harris looks at:
Henri Cartier-Bresson & Helen Levitt Side By Side
Laurence Miller Gallery (From 5 June to 14 August)

All things being equal (which they never are) we who use photography to communicate should be encourages to be courageous, minded and to speak from the heart, even while working to fill our pockets, as it once was in America. But the commercial world has become smaller, narrower, dumber, as well as much greedier, particularly in recent years. And as an American, who has resided here in England as long as I have, I pine the loss of more mature and optimistic times, in a place when anything was possible, as we made the effort to work towards it. And that’s the most honest declarations I can provide others with, as to why I still return to New York once or twice a yearly, but continuing to speak frankly, it’s to protect and fan that flame that still is in me, to stay alight and grow. And also because here in “Never Never Land”, the UK, there is no home-grown history of serious individual expression or mature leadership, that could spark such a light. Here we merely continue to produce a glut of ambitious photographers, but not a surplus of talented ones. This will continue to be the case, as long as photography is controlled by a disconnected leadership at the very conservative centre of English life.

That is why New York and Paris more particularly today are regarded jointly and deservedly as the Home Offices of this medium. In fact the French have overtaken us Yanks in their celebration of visual expression, through and with photography. Through doing so much more to expand interest, understanding, opportunity and access, with its introduction of major city and regional festivals that are given over to this discipline

Now you might be wondering what has all this to do with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt. Well they are the two significant talents that immediately come to mind, signifying that personal commitment in these twin visual cultures on a personal level. And although very different people with very different outlooks, overviews, approach modes, and subjects, but none the less they are both committed to their personal understanding of excellence. One travelled the world to catch views of people and life that concentrated more on defining his sense of timing, sensitivity, and eloquence. The others eyes being motherly ones, mostly watched over neighbourhood life, with a particular fondness for children at play and the elderly with time on their hands. And speaking of Time, they were both equally obsessed with shaping it, catching it, saving it, and presenting it, all together in ways that capture our attention, our appreciation, and our wonderment.

Helen and Hank (excuse the familiarity) are not just good friends to my eye; they are in their very different ways, life long influences, for her emotional warmth and sensitivity is as important as his structuring and timing. Helen in her later years moved a little further out from her immediate neighbourhood, and added information of another colour to her New York visual symphony, that gained her an even larger and more appreciative audience. While Hank, hankering to be what he already was, “An Artist” in his own right and place, took himself out from behind his camera. But quite apart from these late life alterations, both still remain; put simply “Kings of the Street”

In closing I feel no need to attempt to describe in words, what is meant for eyes to digest; all I will say to those who know nothing of them, they are in for a very special treat, and for them that do, this presentation is chock full of premium works.

© John Benton-Harris - 30 July 2008

Author's Footnote Images: An appreciation of Hank and Helen

Derby Day, Epsom, Surrey, 1986

Notting Hill, London, 1976

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Larry Fink’s “The Democrats”

@t the PACE/MACGILL Gallery, New York (July 4 -15 August)

A Review by John Benton-Harris

I told myself, being that I’m a socially and politically minded observer, that I couldn’t leave town without taking this one in. I suppose I was hopeful that Mr. Fink would reveal some degree of criticism, understanding and feeling for these candidates, their entourages, the press, and possibly even the political process, that would further enlighten and motivate me, simply because that’s what I aspire to do when looking in on “My America”.
Sadly I was disappointed, but equally not surprised; for it takes a kind of distance from the everydayness of American life, and new American Photography, to begin to see and catch this nation, its people and its problems, with a minded timing, and from a perspective that has relevance. It also takes a certain kind of freshness, deceptiveness and tenaciousness, that no stay at home American photographer ever gets to develop. That is why no one since Robert Frank in the mid to late 50’s has managed to articulate a more lucid and complete visual account of the growing complexities of today’s America, for my fellow American photographers are all much to obsessed now with establishment career objectives (obtaining their “Pulitzers” or their “One Person Show at MOMA”) to truly focus on this subject and a meaningful chronicling of it.
I believe that Frank’s stab at this kind of (here hinted at) critical analysis only failed because Robert committed too little, in terms of thinking, analyzing, researching, and seminally never questioned his actions and motives, before during and after his road-running across my native land. He also relied too much on momentary feelings and his innate bitterness towards cold war America, to achieve the exceptional goal that could have been his. If he had only spent more energy and a greater period extending the unique story dialoguing that “The Americans” intermittently revealed, he would be even more regarded the he is today.
Now, if I can say that about Frank, you can guess what’s coming after looking at Fink’s big scale small offering. Let me start by saying, if someone wants to win my vote for being an artist they are going to have to offer up something more then a casual snapping of these candidates and covering all the angles at what is essentially a staged event, especially if they are attempting to market there results as “Art”. Now I do realise it’s not easy to work within a limited time frame and with limited access, but from the look of these 29 large well finished images displayed over two rooms at New York’s PACE/MACGILL Gallery located at 32 E 57th Street, Mr. Fink (to my eyes) made no attempt to use this small opportunity to bring anything interesting or remarkable to our attention, as an able journalist or as a significant artist; he merely looked, shaped and shot when he had line of sight. Then he selected, ordered, finished and presented these outtakes from this wasted opportunity, to conform to his art world signature.
It’s difficult enough to seize on a meaningful moment, when one presents itself, even when you’re regarded, as I am, as a constant pricker of the human condition. But if one hasn’t the quintessential qualities for satirical commentary or something even better to aid and guide one in their expression, then one should steer clear of a explosive subject like this, especially in today’s political climate. But if you’re going to stand up and ask to counted, you had better have something worthy and relevant to offer. Otherwise you and those who represent you will rightly be seen just as opportunists, trying to hop a ride on the political bandwagon, for some quick personal profit. In closing, Mr. Fink’s view of the Democrats may declare his support of this party and candidate, but it offers up nothing in the way of commentary, criticism or optimism, for it poses no questions, offers no answers, and also does nothing to entertain us.

Copyright © John Benton-Harris - 2008

The author's eye-alogue

Manhattan, New York, 2009

Stroudsburg PA, USA, 2010

Monday, 3 November 2008

Jones Beach

John Benton-Harris - “a son of the beach”
Looks at - Joseph Szabo's - "Jones Beach"At the Michael Hoppen Gallery - (1 August - to -19 September)

It takes courage to be a leader, instead of simply playing it safe by being yet another follower, just as it’s refreshing for us, not to gaze upon works by people who've been over celebrated and over marketed. But sadly Mr Hoppen's courage isn't quite enough; it also takes the ability to differentiate between imagery that is adequate, or even good in editorial terms, and seeing that goes way beyond familiar observations of everyday existence.

However, imagery that take us to this new plain of awareness are always the by-product of those who take the trouble to know this history, and also something about their subjects, and those earlier eyes that contributed to both. Sadly Joseph Szabo's love affair with Long Island’s Jones Beach has more the look of a voyeur then someone engaged in a fine romance. He, as this imagery states (excuse the clumsy metaphor) has been operating in the dark, while he’s been out there basking in the sunshine of this subject. So as adequate as these first images looked on paper, as illustration, they do not pass muster as notable examples of Fine Art, on a gallery or museum wall.

And when I first caught site of his Jones beach snaps, while flipping through a copy of a recent Sunday supplement, the thought that came to me was something Walker Evans said, (See the bottom of Page 3, Number 6 of “Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence” By Tod Papageorge, Published by the Yale University Art Gallery) in regard to where he believed “Valid Photography” could not be found; after he listed several unlikely spots, he concluded - “under no circumstances is it anything ever anywhere near a beach”.

Looking at these images without the benefit of knowing of my medium, and its achievements, I might well agree with Walker's prejudice. But since I have this knowledge and openness, I can also see what Mr Szabo's simple approach denies him, a message or opinion to deliver, a desire to entertain, a determination to seek and capture what has not been previously seen, and a talent for invisibility. Understandably all this allows, even demands that I be under-whelmed by Mr Szabo's shoot, and Mr Hoppen's choices, as well as Mr Evans’s words, when it comes to understanding what the beach has to offer.

At this point, I must confess I haven’t yet seen the complete show, only the synopsis of it. But having experienced Mr Hoppen’s disregard for fact and his poor visual sensitivity tells me he’s simply looking here to sell lower priced works, to gain some advantage from the recent down-turn in the photographic market.

Well, now that I've seen the “Whole Tamale”, I’m left feeling that the additional 30 images only devalued his smaller view, for it became clear that the diversity that was hinted at in the first eight images that illustrated his “DAYS OF SUNSHINE AND POSES", revealed more about him then his subject. Snap, after Snap, after Snap, this beach was used as his premier place for watching “Dolls Strutting their Stuff”, mixed in amongst a few muscle flexing Adonises. If Joseph truly wants to be taken seriously (by me at any-rate) he needs to stop (seemingly) letting little Joe point the way, and also attempt to look beyond the reach of his lens, for a contact that strives to go beyond the best, and nothing of that is to be gleamed in this display of beach trekking.

The variety hinted at in the small editorial advertisement for this show was never delivered, but a diversity of sorts was to be found. It was in the prices asked, which ran from £790 for an 11 x 14 inch print to as much as £8289 for something near 2 to 4 feet. So I must admit, I got Mr Hoppen's motivation wrong. It was after all about a show at a lesser cost to everyone, it was about giving us an "AMERICAN FANTASY" to follow in the wake of his first "AMERICAN FICTION" - "The New York School" - his last American offering.

So thinking there might also be a fictional aspect to this show, I took one last look around these 36 exhibited prints, to make sure there weren't any from Brighton, Ramsgate, Margate or Scarborough, by another true Son of the Beach, like myself, that could be more justifiably connected to either of these poorly represented and distorted offerings.

© John Benton-Harris - August 2008

Two from 'a son of the beach'   

Essaouira, Morocco 2011

Sausalito, CA, USA 2012