Monday, December 31, 2007

Top Ten #1 – Brandi Carlile

A singer songwriter from Seattle, Brandi Carlile takes the number one spot with her fusion of country, folk, and rock. Her first album, Brandi Carlile, released in 2005 seemed to mark her as the next Lucinda Williams, a promise that was more than met with the 2007 release of her even better follow-up The Story. Yet in spite of a big push on Grey’s Anatomy, Carlile has not yet become the big name I anticipated (which makes listening to her even cooler). Here’s a video of a very relaxed performance that gives a better sense of her style than some of her more polished videos.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Top Ten #2 – The i-phone

Just as the Walkman and the first MP3 players ushered in a new era in how we listen to music, the iPhone presages the era of the all-in-one machine in a way that I'm still not sure has been fully recognized. It is a device out of science-fiction and it's been interesting to note not only the incredible press, but also the level of skepticism and hostility. So I think it's only begun to tap its market potential. (Let's see where Apple stock is next year.)

Trying not to be caught up in the initial hype, I resisted as long as possible (about three months) but after spending long hours at the Apple Store after both my children broke their computers, I gave in. (It was fortunately just after the price drop.) But, boy, do I love my iPhone! And don’t believe the scare stories. Everything about it works flawlessly and it’s really simple to master. In order of frequency the applications I use most often are: phone, iPod, notes, photo album, camera, weather, and the link to You Tube, but my newest pleasure is using it to listen to podcasts of Studio 360 as I walk my dog. Now that’s cultural enrichment!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Top Ten #3 – What Remains

Steven Cantor’s second film about Sally Mann (his first was a 1994 Oscar nominated short) was shot over five years and largely eschews the controversy about nudity and children to focus on the creation and aftermath of Mann’s photographic studies of death. An intimate and beautifully shot feature-length documentary, the film takes you deeply but unintrusively into Mann’s personal life and ends up as a study of the life of one of our most serious and talented photographers and the challenges even a renowned artist faces. Look out for: the story and pictures of Sally and husband Larry when they first met; and the unfolding drama of Mann's Pace/MacGill exhibition.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Top Ten #4 – Blogs

As previously noted, Jorg Colberg’s Conscientious, The Sartorialist, and Alec Soth’s late blog, were not just a pleasure but an inspiration. However, to state the obvious: the entire blogosphere is simply teeming with original voices, opinions, and content. In writing this blog I often find the answer to my research on one blog which leads me to another blog, etc...

If not for blogs, how would I have known who made the bra Nicole Kidman wore on the cover of Vanity Fair? (Thank you Mr. frankufotos.) Or seen the daily photographic postings of Swedish photographer Sannah Kvist on “She Broke My Heart So I Broke Her Face”. Or even known there was a blog “For White Men Who Prefer Black Women”. (I was trying to find out who took this great period expression of pride in black beauty (below) after I saw it on another blog that was referencing Jacob Holdt’s website for “American Photographs”.) I'm still trying to find out the photographer, so blog readers, please help!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Top Ten #5 - The Sound of No Hands Clapping. By Toby Young

The second book I loved was so funny I couldn't stop laughing out loud even as I ruefully noted the diminishing number of unread pages. Toby Young was the archetypical Brit in New York whose first book, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”, chronicled his hapless time at Vanity Fair where among other things he invited a stripper to the office on what he was unaware was Take Your Daughter To Work Day.

The follow-up finds him improbably successful after his first book is turned into a one man play in London. He is hired by a big time Hollywood producer to write the screenplay for an un-named movie about a mysterious 70s record producer. As he learns the ways of Hollywood and screws up with regularity, Young warily gets married, has a child, and in some of the books funniest moments attends various friends’ weddings where his inappropriate toasts end up losing even more friends and alienating even more people. A heroic failure in true Brit fashion, the book provides the vicarious pleasure of seeing the Emperor, himself, reveal he has no clothes, while skewering the media, the film business, and other cultural obsessions of our time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Top Ten #6 - When the Light Goes: A Novel. By Larry McMurtry

While the cover misleadingly uses photography to reference "Brokeback Mountain" (for which McMurtry co-wrote the Oscar winning screenplay) "When the Light Goes" is in fact the latest and fourth installment in his Thalia series. Set in Texas oil country, the series began with the 1966 “The Last Picture Show”, followed by "Texasville", and the wonderfully alliterative “Duane’s Depressed”.

“When The Light Goes” picks up Duane Moore (the Jeff Bridges character in "The Last Picture Show") at 64 - now widowed, semi-retired, and crisied in just about every way. When I told my friend the über literary agent Mark Reiter I was reading it, his comment was “Oh, the sex book!” and it’s certainly….. frank. If that’s not enough to recommend it, McMurtry's writing is so sharp and breezy it’s one of those books you race through and then makes you want to go back and read all the others in the series.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Top Ten #7 – I’m Not There – the soundtrack

Merry Christmas to all!

I’ve never defined myself as a Dylan fan and I thought the movie was a mixed success, but the soundtrack was out of this world - an eclectic mix of recording artists covering 36 Dylan songs with a bonus 37th song of Dylan himself singing the title track. Many of the artists are pretty obscure. I still don’t know who John Doe is who sings my favorite song “Pressing On”, but I’ve at least heard of some of the other contributors - Karen O, Jeff Tweedy, Sufjan Stevens, etc.. Nevertheless in combination with the film, the soundtrack re-awakened my interest in Dylan so that my Christmas viewing will now include Scorcese’s Dylan documentary.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Top Ten #8 – Project Runway

If I had to pick one television show it would have to be Project Runway. What's so fascinating about P.R. is that as the contestants grapple with the weekly challenge you really do see the creative process at work from beginning to end. Idea, struggle, solution, execution. Surprisingly, the contestants seem largely friendly and supportive of each other, although there's always some super-narcissist to stir things up, and host Tim Gunn is avuncular, helpful, and charming – all at the same time. The judges are honest and incisive and so all the tension comes organically from the simple format – who is going to make the best outfit of the week and who is going to make the worst and get voted off. It’s thrilling to watch.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Top Ten #9 - Patrick Tsai and Madi Ju

Patrick Tsai is a 26 year old American who moved to Taiwan in 2003 to pursue his photography. Three years later he met a young Chinese photographer named Madi Ju via the internet and shortly afterwards they began an intense personal and professional relationship. Working together under the studio name "My Little Dead Dick", they began documenting their travels and life together. Like Lartigue crossed with Nan Goldin their photographs are footloose, modern, romantic, and blissfully free of the heavy-handed Chinese references that seem so prevalent in the wake of the Asian art boom. I have never met them or seen their work in person but we have communicated via e-mail, and their pictures are the freshest thing I have seen all year.

The writer Will Doig summed up their work beautifully. “These photographs,” he said “make me want to flee — not flee anything in particular, but simply flee for the pure elation that comes from irresponsibly picking up and leaving. Because what starts as irresponsibility so often turns into opportunity, and sometimes you just need a little nudge to make that leap. This series feels like a good, hard shove.”

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Top Ten #10 – Across The Universe

I’ve never been a huge fan of top ten lists (other than David Letterman’s). Too often they seem obvious or self-congratulatory. But as I’m taking off for the holidays, for the next ten days I hope you’ll find some interest in a countdown of the top ten things that enriched my life culturally in 2007.

With best wishes to all for a Happy New Year!

This Julie Taymor film which wove a bunch of Beatles songs into a trans-Atlantic love story set against the political and cultural background of the 60s seems to be film that everyone meant to see, but didn’t get around to. It got terrible pre-release publicity as a result of an editing showdown between the director and producer and that (along with a lackluster advertising campaign) seemed to rob it of the necessary kharma. It was, however, not only imaginative and entertaining, but pulled off the incredible feat of refreshing its Beatles songs and reconnecting you to what made them so special in the first place. (So the soundtrack shares kudos with the film, which should be out on DVD any day.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Weekend Video - Grapes of Wrath

Seven years ago I happened to see the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts' landmark show, "Made in California". A vast and ambitious look at California culture, the works ranged from Edenic painted landscapes to Rock and Roll posters. What affected me most, however, was a short film loop of Henry Fonda's end speech from the John Ford film of Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath". Inspired by FSA photography it was film as verbal and visual poetry, and I always felt a loss at not being able to revisit it at will. Well, thanks to the miracle of You Tube, here it is. (If you're impatient skip to 02:15 minutes into the clip.)

To set the scene: it is late at night after a dance at the workers' camp. Tom Joad and his mother stand at the edge of the wooden dance floor. Joad has killed the man who assassinated his friend the activist Preacher Casey. Now Joad must run away to take up Casey’s mission.

And here, for the record, are Fonda/Joad's words:

Well, maybe it's like Casey says. A fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul out there that belongs to everybody. Then....(Ma Joad: "Then What, Tom?") Then... it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere…wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready…And when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Man and Hyena

One show not to miss is Pieter Hugo’s “The Hyena and Other Men” at Yossi Milo (through January 12). There a large and pale-colored group of photographs present the surreal spectacle of a group of Nigerian men who make their living by traveling around displaying their captive hyenas. The hyenas look nothing like one would expect, but rather like strange mythological beasts. The crudeness of their muzzles and chains bring to mind Aslan’s sacrifice in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”.

The photographer, Pieter Hugo, is a 31 year old self-taught, South African photographer who has been exhibiting all over the world since 2002. This is his account of the work:

These photographs came about after a friend e-mailed me an image taken on a cell-phone through a car window in Lagos, Nigeria, which depicted a group of men walking down the street with a hyena in chains. A few days later I saw the image reproduced in a South African newspaper with the caption 'The Streets of Lagos'. Nigerian newspapers reported that these men were bank robbers, bodyguards, drug dealers, debt collectors. Myths surrounded them. The image captivated me.

Through a journalist friend I eventually tracked down a Nigerian reporter, Adetokunbo Abiola, who said that he knew the 'Gadawan Kura' as they are known in Hausa (a rough translation: 'hyena handlers/guides').

A few weeks later I was on a plane to Lagos. Abiola met me at the airport and together we took a bus to Benin City where the 'hyena men' had agreed to meet us. However, when we got there they had already departed for Abuja.

In Abuja we found them living on the periphery of the city in a shantytown - a group of men, a little girl, three hyenas, four monkeys and a few rock pythons. It turned out that they were a group of itinerant minstrels, performers who used the animals to entertain crowds and sell traditional medicines. The animal handlers were all related to each other and were practicing a tradition passed down from generation to generation. I spent eight days traveling with them.

The spectacle caused by this group walking down busy market streets was overwhelming. I tried photographing this but failed, perhaps because I wasn't interested in their performances. I realized that what I found fascinating was the hybridization of the urban and the wild, and the paradoxical relationship that the handlers have with their animals - sometimes doting and affectionate, sometimes brutal and cruel. I started looking for situations where these contrasting elements became apparent. I decided to concentrate on portraits. I would go for a walk with one of the performers, often just in the city streets, and, if opportunity presented itself, take a photograph. We traveled around from city to city, often chartering public mini-buses.

I agreed to travel with the animal wranglers to Kanu in the northern part of the country. One of them set out to negotiate a fare with a taxi driver; everyone else, including myself and the hyenas, monkeys and rock pythons, hid in the bushes. When their companion signaled that he had agreed on a fare, the motley troupe of humans and animals leapt out from behind the bushes and jumped into the vehicle. The taxi driver was completely horrified. I sat upfront with a monkey and the driver. He drove like an absolute maniac. At one stage the monkey was terrified by his driving. It grabbed hold of my leg and stared into my eyes. I could see its fear.

Two years later I went back to Nigeria. The project felt unresolved and I was ready to engage with the group again. I look back at the notebooks I had kept while with them. The words 'dominance', 'codependence' and 'submission' kept appearing. These pictures depict much more than an exotic group of traveling performers in West Africa. The motifs that linger are the fraught relationships we have with ourselves, with animals and with nature.

The second trip was very different. By this stage there was a stronger personal relationship between myself and the group. We had remained in contact and they were keen to be photographed again. The images from this journey are less formal and more intimate.

The first series of pictures had caused varying reactions from people - inquisitiveness, disbelief and repulsion. People were fascinated by them, just as I had been by that first cell-phone photograph.

Many animal-rights groups contacted me, wanting to intervene (however, the keepers have permits from the Nigerian government). When I asked Nigerians, "How do you feel about the way they treat animals?", the question confused people. Their responses always involved issues of economic survival. Seldom did anyone express strong concern for the well-being of the creatures. Europeans and Americans invariably only ask about the welfare of the animals but this question misses the point. Instead, perhaps, we could ask why these performers need to catch wild animals to make a living. Or why Nigeria, the world's sixth largest exporter of oil, is in such a state of disarray.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Notes from Jo

I just heard that the British photographer Keith Arnatt is not well. This summer I was introduced to Arnatt's work in a show at The Photographers' Gallery in London curated by his friend, Magnum President David Hurn. While Arnatt started off as a painter, he turned to conceptual photography in the late 1960s with work that often had a deadpan humor. One series in the show particularly caught my attention. "Notes from Jo" (1990 – 94) record his wife’s Post-It note messages usually left in their kitchen. The work irreverently plays on the conceptual concerns of image and text through the irritations and communications of daily life. Above and below are a selection of the pictures. We wish Keith the very best.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Weekend Video - Dance With Me

Nouvelle Vague (the band) was created by two french arrangers, Marc Colins and Oliver Libaux, who put together eight singers - six French, one Brazilian and one New Yorker - to reinterprate 80s post-punk songs in mellow French "lounge" style. Sounds pretty arcane, but the group found their own cult audience and released two albums with a third on the way. Their stand-out production, however, has to be this incredible video of their song "Dance With Me" set to the famous dance scene from Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 film "Bande A Part".

As you can see from the clip of the original film (below) - there's
been some deft editing to make it synchronistic, but it's currently my
favorite video.

For trivia fans:

1) The actors dancing are Anna Karina, Sami Frey (in the jacket) and
Claude Brasseur.

2) The film gave its name to Quentin Tarantino's production company, A Band Apart, and several of its scenes are echoed in "Pulp Fiction".

3) Nouvelle Vague and Bossa Nova both translate to "New Wave" in English.

4) In 2005, "Bande A Part" was the only Godard film selected for Time
Magazine's All Time Top 100 Films list.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Your Spread of Spreads

I am not a disinterested observer (being in the process of producing a film based on the life and autobiography of Diana Vreeland) but Vince Aletti's 8 page appreciation of the exuberance of Vreeland's VOGUE layouts in the new issue of Aperture Magazine is a knockout. Vince has long been an authority on magazines as well as one of the more eloquent and astute writers on photography and the selection of spreads is terrific (as is the design by Yolanda Cuomo).

Regarding my own D.V. project, I am incredibly pleased to announce that Ric Burns has agreed to make the film his feature debut. My co-producer is Nina Santisi who produced what is generally considered the best and truest film on fashion - "Unzipped". We are at the earliest stage of development, but describe the film-to-be as a blend of documentary and performance with a single actress playing the role of Diana Vreeland. For those who did not see Ric Burns' last work, the 4 hour PBS documentary on Andy Warhol, trust me - it's one of the greatest documentaries ever made (along with his 7 part series on New York). Both are available on DVD.

American Pictures

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is one of the most prestigious in Europe and the four shortlisted photographers have just been announced.

Most interesting of the group is Jacob Holdt – a little known 60 year old Danish photographer. Beginning in 1970, Holdt spent five years hitchhiking across the US, living with and documenting the lives of the people he met - from sharecroppers to wealthy families. Holdt was not particularly interested in photography as anything other than a means of expressing his shock at the conditions he found in America. Yet as his images reveal, he was an extraordinarily gifted photographer. (Think William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Donna Ferrato, and Nan Goldin!)

In 1977 selections from his travels were published in a book titled “American Pictures”, but after a Byzantine plot by the KGB to use the book as pro-communist, anti-american propaganda was uncovered, Holdt hired a lawyer to stop publication of the book all over the world.

Since 1991, Holdt has worked as a volunteer for CARE in numerous third-world countries while maintaining one of the more eccentric and image laden websites. A book, “United States 1970 – 1975” was published by Steidl this summer, and is listed on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, but I have yet to see a copy in any store.

Jacob Holdt on his travels around America circa. 1972.

Georgia Prison

After church in South Carolina.

Palm Beach

15 year old unwed mother.