Coeburn, Virginia

sternfeld_joel_86_1984Joel Sternfeld, Coeburn, Viginia, April 1981 (86.1984)

Joel Sternfeld is known for his large-format photographs of America in the early 1980s. Sternfeld traveled throughout the country extensively, capturing the beauty of the American landscape but also producing subtle and ironic commentary on the political issues of the time. The photograph from Coeburn, included in his iconic book American Prospects, possesses all the signature qualities of its maker. It is perfectly composed and pleasing to the eye, yet its subject matter encourages the viewer to reflect on larger issues relating to the photographer’s native country.

We are first struck by the image’s beautifully balanced colors and the strong diagonal line formed by the coal train. The composition is clearly divided into foreground, middle ground, and background. Our eyes first land on the largest train car in the bottom left of the picture. Our attention gravitates towards the large dark mass of coal and the cold metallic frame of the freight car. From there our eyes are “dragged” along the train track to the top right edge of the picture, floating over a never ending river of coal, only to come to rest on the slope of a lush green hill. Next we are pulled back to the center of the picture, where we pause in an oasis of pink. Those are blossoming trees, and their color complements the browns and greens of the rest of the picture in what can only be described as absolute color perfection. Once the beauty of the blossoming forests is no longer able to hold our attention, we climb down the hill into a small town at its foot. We walk through the scattered buildings, run out on a small farm field, and end up back at the starting point, where we notice a dead tree with limbs removed near the train track. Our eyes keep travelling in this loop around the photograph, as if trapped. The pattern is broken only when we zoom in on one of the many details that Sternfeld’s 8×10 camera captured.

The high level of detail allows us to step into Coeburn in 1981. We see a man standing outside one of the houses. Why is he just standing there? Sunlight catches a car parked between two sheds. We feel an urge to sit on a bench on the side of the field. A thin band of trees separates us from another farm. If we look closely among the trees, we find an old car left to rust away and grow into the land. Laundry drowned in the sunlight as it hangs to dry, a sign of less than ideal economic conditions. We also notice the velvety texture of the coal.

The trains cut through the landscape and disrupt what otherwise could be an idyllic rural scene. Where is this “black gold” going? Who benefits? Sternfeld seems to be giving us some clues. The ominous appearance of the dead tree anchored at the tail end of one of the trains cannot be a coincidence. Destruction comes with the mining industry. The man outside the house becomes a witness to this process. His uncertain posture makes him seem vulnerable. His tiny size relative to the giant trains illustrates his insignificance within the economic system of the industrialists and his country’s capitalist government.  Thoughtful viewers are faced with their own relationship to this scene. Most of us are in one way or another contributing to the forces powering those trains. Sternfeld’s beautiful photograph captures a place and people that we are connected to through our daily choices.

Jan Cieslikiewicz, ICP GS 2013

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Bill Eppridge (1938-2013)

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Bill Eppridge, [Juan Romero, busboy at Ambassador Hotel, kneeling to help fallen Robert F. Kennedy after he was shot by Sirhan B. Sirhan, Los Angeles], June 6, 1968 (1197.2005)

Sadly, we mark the passing of Bill Eppridge (1938-2013), one of the great photojournalists of the twentieth century. Best known for his harrowing picture of a busboy cradling the dying Senator Robert F. Kennedy moments after he was shot on Jun. 23, 1968, Eppridge seemingly covered everything in the 1960s, from the Beatles and Woodstock to Vietnam and politics. But perhaps his greatest achievements were his searing and insightful photo essays for LIFE, including one on the gay scene in San Francisco (“Homosexuality: A Secret World Grows Open and Bolder,” June 26, 1964) and one on Needle Park (“John and Karen, Two Lives Lost To Heroin,” Feb. 26, 1965). Always willing to go wherever necessary to get the difficult shot, Eppridge made the impossible photograph look easy.

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Bill Eppridge, [Patrons of gay leather bar, San Francisco], 1964 (1238.2005)

eppridge_bill_1240_2005Bill Eppridge, [Barney Anthony with sign he put up his bar on Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles], March 16, 1964 (1240.2005)

eppridge_bill_1949_2005Bill Eppridge, [John, a heroin addict, mainlining, New York], 1965 (1949.2005)

eppridge_bill_1770_2005Bill Eppridge, [Herion addicts Karen, her boyfriend Johnny, and his brother Bro, lying on hotel bed, New York], 1965 (1770.2005)

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Monocular Vision and Absurd Perspectives

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John Pfahl, Australian Pines, Fort DeSoto, Florida, 1977 (416.1984)

From 1974 to 1978, American photographer John Pfahl (b. 1939) worked on a series of unmanipulated color photographs on the theme of The  Altered Landscape. The series consists of landscape photographs with different added elements, depended on the given scene. In these pictures Pfahl manipulates the optics of the camera and is playing tricks with perspective by using cleverly placed man-made objects to mislead the viewer’s eye.

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John Pfahl, Shed with Blue Dotted Lines, Penland, North Carolina, 1975 (562.1983)

Especially the photographs in which the perspective of the depicted scene is corrected piqued my interest. They reminded me of the series Perspective Correction (1969) of the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, who exploits the illusion of perspective created by the camera. One of the interesting aspects of photography is the difference between the monocular view of the camera and binocular seeing in real life. Thanks to our binocular vision, we are able to see the three-dimensional world by using both of our eyes, which gives us a wider field of view and a precise perception of depth. The single-eyed lens of the camera sees with a monocular vision and thus creates in a photograph a two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world. Perceiving a monocular perspective photograph of a place as “being in that place” means, according to the Dutch scholars Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, that one is able to imagine looking with both eyes at a three-dimensional space. So, if we can image ourselves be present in the space of the photographed place, why then are we unable to see the rectangle in Pfahl’s photograph Library Protection or the squares in Blue Grid as a trapezoid lying on the floor or spread out over the stones?

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John Pfahl,  Library Projection, Tampa, Florida, 1977 (566.1983)

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John Pfahl, Blue Grid, Pembroke, New York, 1977 (425.1984)

In David Green’s article “Between Object and Image,” he writes the following on the work of Dibbets, which is also applicable to Pfahl’s Altered Landscapes: “In exploiting the difference between what we know and what we actually perceive, [the photographer] does more than draw attention to photography’s ability to deceive: he suggests that the ‘reality’ which it offers is itself problematic. Thus, the camera records a trapezoid that cannot be ‘seen’ and reveals a square that does not ‘exist’ and a conundrum is set in motion that involves a reality that is there and not there, a truth which is evident and concealed, and evidence that is visible yet in some sense invisible.” (Cited by Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, Photography Theory in Historical Perspective, 2012, p. 128)

Like the lines in Pink Rock Rectangle and in Shed with Blue Dotted Lines, when photographed from a pre-calculated vantage point, they appeared as non-perspectival rectangular shapes. By exploiting the consequences of the monocular and their central linear perspective in photography, Pfahl is not just playing with our ideas of perspective, but also with our understanding of what a photo is, because he draws attention to the fact that we are looking at a photograph by the absurdity of the perspective.

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John Pfahl, Pink Rock Rectangle, Lewiston, New York, 1975 (563.1983)

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Government Shutdown

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Weegee, [Baby elephant a top of Capitol, Washington, D.C.], ca. 1960 (3041.1993)

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Fall for Dance

morgan_barbara_528_1986Barbara Morgan, Martha Graham–Letter to the World, 1940 (528.1986)

lee_russell_80_2003Russell Lee, Negro cabaret, Chicago, April 1941 (80.2003)

rothstein_arthur_208_1989Arthur Rothstein, Tanaquil LeClercq, Ballerina, 1950 (208.1989)

morgan_barbara_531_1986Barbara Morgan, José Limón–Cowboy Song, 1944 (531.1986)

Fall is dance season in New York, with plenty of dance to be seen at Lincoln Center and City Center.

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Working to Break up the Break: Celebrate International Coffee Day!

owens_bill_2389_2005Bill Owens, I used to be a chef and my partner was a garbage foreman, 1974 (2389.2005)

mydans_carl_181_2005Carl Mydans [French tank brigade near Verdun, France], June 1940 (181.2005)

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Carl Mydans [Sand hogs, Midtown Tunnel breakroom, New York], 1939 (189.2005)

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Russell Lee, Combine Workers Eating Breakfast, 1943-50 (210.1983)

weegee_15135_1993Weegee, Fire, July 27, 1941 (15135.1993)

“Long hours don’t mean good work—highly efficient, productive work is more valuable,” Dr. Levine says in a New York Times article, published June 16, 2012 by Phyllis Korkki, outlining the benefits of regular breaks from the work day routine. When you come right down to it, Dr. Levine says, “the work should break up the break.” In summary of a summary, whatever your “work,” consider the benefits of taking a few quality breaks. And on September 29, in Canada, England, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Sweden, and the United States, in honor of International Coffee Day in those countries, consider carefully your beverage of choice.

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The Art of Spontaneity

For sixty years, documentary photographer George S. Zimbel (b. 1929) has been fascinated with capturing spontaneous moments. “Unique among the visual arts,” he writes, “is the ability of  a photographer to incorporate spontaneous action into a  still work.” His favorite photograph, The Goose, exemplifies this idea.

zimbel_george_103_1985George Zimbel, The Goose, New York City, The Bronx, 1958 (103.1985)

zimbel_george_119_1985George Zimbel, Girl and Dog, Queens, New York, 1960 (119.1985)

Like The Goose, many of Zimbel’s photographs have an element of humor. In 35th Street, New York City, Zimbel caught two neighborhood boys, one wearing a traffic cone as a hat. The boys, Butch and Jub Jub, were aggressively hustling cab drivers for spare change as the drivers came in and out of a tire shop. Such spontaneous moments, by definition, cannot be constructed.

zimbel_george_104_1985George Zimbel, 35th Street, New York City, 1954 (104.1985)

In order to capture spontaneousness, Zimbel argues that the photographer must “have a sense of rhythm” and “be in tune” with what is happening in front of the lens. From dancers in an Irish dancehall to Marilyn Monroe, Zimbel has utilized these skills to make photographs that capture the unexpected, fleeting nature of these scenes. In his view, “photography is the art of spontaneity.”

zimbel_george_106_1985George Zimbel, Irish Dancehall, The Bronx N.Y.C., 1954 (106.1985)

zimbel_george_105_1985George Zimbel, Marilyn Monroe, 1954 (105.1985)

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