In Her Own Words

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(L): Barbara Kasten, Construct VII-A, Polaroid, 8 x 10 inches, 1981. Courtesy of the artist. (R): Barbara Kasten, SCENE 140, Archival Pigment Print, 43.75 x 53.75 inches, 2012. Courtesy of the artist

Curation can be a kind of storytelling—it is a chance to narrate or reframe an artist’s practice, but it is also a conversation. For the past two years I have been spending time with the artist Barbara Kasten as we work together to mount her first museum survey. The show, opening at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in February 2015, will bring her most recent large-scale photographs together with her well-known images of studio constructions and architectural interventions, as well as her seldom-seen experiments in other mediums.

I initially became interested in revisiting Kasten’s work about six years ago when there was a renewed excitement around photographic abstraction. As a younger generation of artists began to find inspiration in the works she had produced over thirty years ago, I wanted to learn more about the ideas and processes that had informed her practice and was prompted to invite her to speak at the museum where I was working at the time. Now that I know her better, I increasingly understand her photography within a wider and more complex context. Working in her archive I learned about her forays into fiber and set design, and I became familiar with her own intergenerational explorations, namely a 1990 documentary, produced through a collaboration with art historian Deborah Irmas, High Heels and Ground Glass, which presents interviews with five women photographers working in different areas of photographic practice who at the time were in their seventies and eighties.

(L): Florence Henri, Abstract Composition, Gelatin Silver Print, 7 7/8 x 6 13/16 in., 1929. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; (R): Lucia Moholy, Florence Henri, Gelatin Silver Print, 14 5/8 x 10 15/16 in., 1927. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(L): Florence Henri, Abstract Composition, gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x 6 13/16 in., 1929. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; (R): Lucia Moholy, Florence Henri, gelatin silver print, 14 5/8 x 10 15/16 in., 1927. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As a young artist looking for role models within the European avant-garde, Kasten became intrigued by the photographs of mirrored surfaces and nonrepresentational imagery by Florence Henri, an artist whose work helped usher in the era of the New Vision, in which the camera portrayed the abstraction of modern day life via startling perspectives and refracted viewpoints. Although by the late 1970s the history of modern photography was becoming increasingly codified, she found that there was a lack of substantive information about the women she admired and wanted to learn about their approaches to photography and how being a woman in a male-dominated field had impacted them. Realizing that many of these photographers who had played a role in the heyday of the early 20th century might still be alive and able to tell their stories, she applied to the National Endowment for the Arts with the aim of acquiring funding to videotape them.

(L): Gisèle Freund, Walter Benjamin, Paris, C-Print,1938. Courtesy of; (R): Eiko Yamazawa, What I am doing No, 24, Cibachrome, 1982

(L): Gisèle Freund, Walter Benjamin, Paris, C-print,1938. Courtesy of; (R): Eiko Yamazawa, What I am doing No, 24, Cibachrome, 1982

Upon learning of her NEA award in 1980, Kasten immediately wrote to Henri to inquire whether she could meet her in person. She explained, “As an artist and instructor of photography, I have felt the need and desire to identify my own roots in the art of photography and also present this to the students I teach. Although women have recently been gaining recognition for the importance of their roles in the history of photography, I would like to facilitate the acknowledgement even further(from a letter from Barbara Kasten to Florence Henri dated April 8, 1980; Courtesy of Barbara Kasten’s archive)By the time Kasten met with Henri in Paris, she was too ill to be recorded, but the experience was encouraging enough for Kasten to return to the States and begin reaching out to other photographers in an effort to document their stories. Working with Irmas she set out to interview women that represented different areas of the field: from Louise Dahl Wolf‘s iconic fashion spreads in Harper’s Bazaar and Maurine Loomis’s headshots of glamorous Hollywood stars, to Lisette Model‘s fresh images of New York street life, Gisèle Freund‘s portraits of iconic European intellectuals, and Eiko Yamazawa‘s colorful abstractions. In their homes and studios from Los Angeles to Osaka, each artist reflected on her individual philosophy about photography and offered insights into her autobiography and how World War II had brought both opportunity and devastation.

Barbara Kasten, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and Deborah Irmas during the filming of High Heels and Ground Glass. Courtesy of Barbara Kasten

Barbara Kasten, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and Deborah Irmas during the filming of High Heels and Ground Glass. Courtesy of Barbara Kasten

Of course, this was all done in an era before mainstream digital technology and affordable editing software had become available, and so, before Kasten and her collaborators knew it, they had embarked on a project ten years in the making. The final documentary thus provides an invaluable record of the artists and their personalities, and continues to be shown in classrooms to this day. At a moment when intergenerational dialogue is increasingly central to artistic and curatorial activity, and as the history of art is continuously being expanded and rewritten (thankfully), we can now access the numerous hours of unedited footage—acknowledged as an important document in their own right—in the Center for Creative Photography‘s archive, where they await a new generation of artists and scholars to become acquainted with these remarkable women in their own words.

A New Look at Photo Agency

Posted by | History, Perspectives, Technology, Uncategorized | No Comments

phantom-2-vision-featureRecently, I came across a New York Times article about a $1,200 domestic drone, whose writer described opening a bulky box, extracting a picture-making flying machine, puzzling through its complex instructions and, ultimately, having a great time. “Oh, my goodness, this thing is fun,” he summed up the experience. And I bet it was.

But because I track stories about photography and visual culture on a daily basis, I’m also well aware of the drone stories that don’t have such consumer-friendly and happy endings. What continually fascinates me, someone who’s worked in the photography field for decades, is that even as picture-taking and photo-sharing become increasingly democratized, impactful, and controversial, not enough dialogue about photography seems to be going on.

This may seem hard to believe. There are, one might argue, ample opportunities—in exhibitions, magazines, journals, blogs, books, courses, and conferences—to look at, question, and argue for the medium. But surprisingly, how photography actually functions in the broader cultural scheme of things—how it is employed, who and what it represents, and why it works so powerfully and well—remains underexplored.

carousel_24 hrs photos installatie erik kessels c gijs van den bergInstallation by Erik Kessels © Gijs van den Berg (Les Recontres d’Arles Photographie)

With well over a billion photographic images being made every day, by many people and for many reasons, it is impossible to construct or support any single or seamless story about the medium. (To get a sense of the sheer volume of new images we are generating, see artist Erik Kessels’s installation of all the photographs uploaded to Flickr in a single day in 2013.) Today, photography is used more variously, often, and consequentially than most other visual media. And as photography is being redefined in the digital era, it is redefining our relationships to reality and each other. The pictures and photo-driven narratives that capture attention and go viral, such as the recent spread of and chatter around President Obama’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, only begin to hint at how deeply photographic imaging is embedded in and actively shapes everyday life and culture at large.

The fact that photography’s definitions have always been fluid—and its practice and audience broad—has made the medium particularly problematic for art museums. Photography, as Lady Elizabeth Eastlake noted in an 1857 article she wrote for the London Quarterly Review, “is made for the present age in which the desire for art resides in a small minority, but craving, or rather the necessity for cheap, prompt, and correct facts in the public at large. Photography is the purveyor of such knowledge to the world. She is sworn witness of…facts which are neither the province of art nor of description, but of that new form of communications.”

Since its introduction in the 19th century, the artfulness of photography has been cyclically argued for and argued over. Carnegie Museum of Art was, in fact, among the earliest of American museums to pioneer the display of art photography with Photo Secession, the historic 1904 exhibition of pictorial imagery that was organized by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.

photosecessionCover and interior page of Photo-Secession, a Collection of American Pictorial Photographs as arranged by the Photo-Secession and exhibited under the auspices of the Camera Club of Pittsburg, at the Art Galleries of the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1904), a large quarto book with seven photogravures, Second Century Acquisition Fund. The page on the right shows Steichen’s Rodin—The Thinker from 1902.

Throughout the 20th century, more art museums in the United States began to recognize and support the medium, or at least their quite intentionally rarified version of it, by focusing largely on the photographs made as art. But what about all the rest of them? The much-heralded photography boom of the 1970s made it seem as if the medium, a century and a half after its introduction, had come of age. But even that transformational moment failed to calm down the nervousness that perpetually hovers around photography.


Covers of William Eggleston’s Guide (Harper’s Books) and Pictures for Artists Space (read the original essay by Douglas Crimp at X-TRA Online)

With the democratization of digital imaging in the 21st century, and as photography is in the process of being radically reimagined, cultural institutions and art museums in particular find themselves in a curious position. They can move forward on the photographic paths they’ve staked out for themselves or bob in the wake of exhibition and collecting models developed elsewhere. Or—and this is where things get interesting—museums can, in this time of flux, rethink their relationship to and broaden their inquiry into a medium that is re-engineering itself and in the process re-shaping our need for and expectations of representation itself.


FBI agent, 1939

It is Carnegie Museum of Art’s decision to take the latter course that made me jump at the chance to become one of the first round of “agents” to steer the early programming and course of the Hillman Photography Initiative. The word agent (I’ve got to admit) at first sounded like a strange way to describe what we were or might do. As it turns out, it’s pretty accurate. If photography is increasingly understood to be a powerful agent of cultural and social change, then why not sign on to investigate and advocate for that?

Initiative, too, is an interesting word, one that suggests ambition, reassessment, a desire to forge ahead to make new things happen. That’s what makes working on the Initiative a unique opportunity for the first small group of us—artists, curators, writers, and a technologist—who’ve been invited to bounce ideas around and create a year’s worth of innovative programming. And once we’ve done that, another group of agents will be recruited to rethink photographic imaging and priorities their way.

At a time when the field of photography is being radically transformed, and as many museums choose to wait things out or host decorous and defensive discussions about what’s happened to photography, the Initiative and the Carnegie Museum have more boldly staked out an active leadership position in the field. What an honor to be a part of that. And, what a relief.

Archiving Photographs in Outer Space

Posted by | Archiving, Uncategorized | No Comments

space-microSelections from Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures: Earthrise photographed by astronaut William Anders, 1968; HeLa cells, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA

The history of photography is no stranger to stories of hidden cachets of photographic negatives discovered haphazardly. Think of the discovery by a real estate agent in Chicago of 100,000 negatives taken by a previously unknown artist, a nanny-cum-street photographer named Vivian Maier whose work is now the subject of much attention and an upcoming documentary.

Artist and photographer Trevor Paglen’s recent project The Last Pictures might be conjuring a bit of the folklore and fanfare true to photography’s past, while at the same time looking to its future. Paglen, an artist and writer who lives in New York, chose a group of 100 photographs and last year, with the help of the public art organization Creative Time, and launched them into space. The idea came up years ago, when Paglen who often photographs the sky—specifically long-exposure photographs centered on satellites that orbit the Earth—began to think about the numbers of dead spacecraft locked in celestial orbit. In some ways, these hunks of metal now upwards of 800 spacecraft might be the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization. Paglen said, “I started thinking about them not just as spacecraft, but as monuments to the historical moment they emerged from. When we’re gone, they’ll still remain.”


The cover (left) of the Voyager Golden Record (right) presents instructions on how to play the record as well as astronomical information showing the location of Earth. The record includes both audio recordings and analogue images of Earth for extraterrestrials to decode. Source: GRIN (Great Images in NASA)

Carl Sagan with the help of NASA embarked on a similar mission in 1977. Known as the Voyager Golden Record, Sagan and his associates at Cornell assembled a collection of images and sounds (both naturally occurring and language-based, such as 55 different ways to say hello), put them on a record, and launched it into space with the hope of explaining something about human life to extraterrestrials. Something about Voyager and Paglen’s project also suggests the meticulous grouping of visual image clusters edited by Aby Warburg for his now legendary Mnemosyne Atlas in the 1920s.


The protective shell for The Last Pictures project bears markings similar to the Voyager Golden Record, but unlike Voyager’s spatial maps indicating Earth’s location, Paglen’s visual data highlights the date of the project’s creation.

As a visual record, Paglen’s The Last Pictures is something of a diary of our times. The 100 images Paglen chose, or in some cases commissioned, were chosen through a lengthy process of investigation, research, and interviews with scientists, artists, and philosophers. The group was then etched onto one 5-inch ultra-archival silicon disc stored inside a gold-plated aluminum shell and launched into deep space by the EchoStar XVI communications satellite in 2012. The project opens up questions about the meaning of the photograph divorced from its context. But as an act of preservation, it is both generous and hopeful.

threepaglenSelections from The Last Pictures (clockwise L to R): Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado, used by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and others;  Typhoon, Japan, early 20th century; Waterspout, Florida Keys

Yet The Last Pictures is also based in contradiction. In Paglen’s introduction to the accompanying publication, he points out that on average, a person living in a city sees over 5,000 images a day. Yet most of these images are fleeting and will be lost as the devices that currently cast them across the world at hyperspeed become obsolete. The Last Pictures asks the inevitable question: Apart from the ecological imprint of human activity on this planet, how will we be remembered? And by whom? Paglen doesn’t dare wager that it will ever happen, but as a thought experiment, The Last Pictures is a curious collection of what we look like at the present moment.

gasmasksSelections from The Last Pictures: Gas Masks, World War I; Operation Crossroads Baker, Bikini Atoll

Making Pictures

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Crank1A picture is not just a picture. It is an iceberg, a sign of vast complexity below the waterline. The invisible detail certainly includes vision and art, but also years of hardware development, computer programming, manufacturing, high-quality optics, and the entire economic system that builds, markets, sells, and buys all things photographic. This is why I believe the picture—a totem for the entire photographic culture—can be even more fully appreciated when we have the chance to look at its foundations, including the networks and processes that contributed in some small way to its existence. I wanted to share two products that I have greatly enjoyed both as an adult and as a father of two young children. These products are construction projects, and they help us to remember just what it means to really make pictures, from soup to nuts, and how the photographic form authentically combines art, science, and technology.

My first product is a build-it-yourself camera kit called BigShot. This kit is the brainchild of Professor Shree Nayar at Columbia University’s CAVE Lab. He noticed how taking pictures empowers children to become communicators—to document and express their hopes for a better world. Nayar saw in the camera a form of social empowerment, and he put together a team to invent a new kit to combine this social empowerment with technological empowerment. BigShot comes in tiny parts, with detailed on-line instructions that teach you everything about the camera, from optics and electronics to its mechanical detent springs, see-through camera body, and battery-recharging hand-crank. Yes, you read that right. It’s a hand-crank digital camera! The camera takes regular pictures, wide-angle panoramas, and even has a prism to capture two side-by-side images that combines into a 3D image (below). Build one with a child, and you will both learn something new about the components in a small digital camera. This is a form of transformation, taking you from camera consumer to an end-to-end picture maker, and that is a great way to become more intimate with the photographic.

3dpumpkinsOf course a camera is just one of many ways to make a meaningful image, and my second product is a ten dollar fold-it-yourself cardboard spectrometer:

SpecPod1This little gem takes incoming light and spreads out its spectral ingredients like a prism. Even better, you can tape this to any smartphone camera or iPod. The result: your own amateur spectral analyzer that lets you investigate just how the light in your house really behaves.

Spectrometer1So you bought an expensive “full-spectrum” bulb for warmer light? Below are two pictures with the kit. Can you guess which is the spectrum from an old incandescent bulb in the basement, and which is from a fancy and expensive balanced LED light bulb? This kit comes from Public Lab, an organization devoted to empowering citizens to monitor and measure environmental change. It’s an authentic way to build an imaging device, learn how a spectrometer works, then use it as a new experimental tool to do science in your own home. Whichever project you choose, enjoy the transformation from consumer to maker, and see how your relationship to the picture changes along the way.


Lytro & GigaPan Event Wrap-Up

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ohsnapparty1Have you heard of the Lytro camera? If not, you should check it out. It allows you to take pictures that can be endlessly refocused after you take them. In a nutshell, it’s one of the coolest new consumer camera technologies on the market today. Last month, the HPI cosponsored a Lytro workshop, which was held as part of the closing event for Oh Snap!: Your Take on Our Photographs. Sam Tellman, Lytro Image Quality Analyst, and Mugur Marculescu, Member of Lytro’s Technical Team, brought 20 Lytro cameras to Pittsburgh all the way from Lytro headquarters in California to show workshop attendees the ins and outs of shooting, manipulating, and editing Lytro photographs. You can even modify some  photographs from the workshop yourself!

One of our workshop attendees was Leo Hsu, a photographer and teacher at Carnegie Mellon University and writer for Fraction Magazine. His thoughts on the Lytro camera are fascinating and definitely worth a read. Leo addresses some of the issues that we’ve been grappling with as part of the larger process of the Hillman Photography Initiative.

photopanelLater that same evening, the museum hosted a panel discussion that combined our esteemed guests from Lytro with Mike Franz, Director of Products at GigaPan, for an in-depth look at how new camera technologies are changing art practices, the way we think about photography, and even how we see the world around us. GigaPan—which our Pittsburgh readers should be quite familiar with as it was born right here at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab (and, in fact, codeveloped by one of our Agents, Illah Nourbakhsh)—is another one of the coolest camera technologies available today. It consists of a robotic device that houses any old point-and-shoot digital camera and allows you to take gigabyte-sized panoramas that capture and reveal astounding amounts of detail.


I had an opportunity to take a series of GigaPans of the Oh Snap! gallery, which captured all of the nearly 1,500 photographs submitted to the project, many of which have since been tagged by their authors. GigaPan could potentially revolutionize the way museums record exhibitions for posterity. The act of exploring the GigaPan of a gallery almost recreates the experience of being in the space, long after all the work has been taken down.

The Lytro and GigaPan panel discussion, moderated by museum director Lynn Zelevansky, was rounded out by two Pittsburgh-based photographers, both professors in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University: Charlee Brodsky and Dylan Vitone. I wish I had an audio recording of the discussion that ensued onstage, not only because it was the perfect mélange of art and technology, but also because it reinforced one of my core beliefs: artistic inquiry and experimentation can yield results that are just as valid (and often much more unexpected) as those achieved through the scientific method. Sam, Mugur, and Mike captivated all of us with the capabilities of their camera technologies, but Charlee and Dylan made us question the technologies’ as-yet-unexplored potential.

As Leo discusses in his piece for Fraction, there seems to be a pervasive sense that the visual and aesthetic (dare I say artistic?) possibilities of such technologies are in a nascent stage. These two technologies have so fundamentally changed the photography game that I find myself questioning the parameters of the field itself. What will happen when more and more artists get their hands on the game pieces and challenge the rules? I can’t wait to find out!