Documentary


At Pippin Home in Chelsea just off 17th Street, I came across a great assortment of vintage postcards neatly filed in drawers in the back of the store.  The pastel colors and elegant handwriting on the postcard of the South Haven, Michigan lighthouse caught my attention.  It is dated October 2, 1906 and is stamped in the lower right corner as hand colored.  


Lighthouse at South Haven, Michigan
 

Nothing dramatic is happening in this communication.  The sender, Ellen, is confirming receiving a letter from her friend, Edna (last name I cannot decipher) from rural North Manchester, Indiana, and promises to write soon.  The card was postmarked in South Haven at 4:30 p.m. on October 2, 1906 and arrived in North Manchester, Indiana (129 miles to the south) at 11:30 a.m. on October 3, 1906. Postage was one cent.

Finding an old postcard with text is like finding a message in a bottle washed up on the beach.  This postcard was printed by The Rotograph Company here in New York; and its return to the city of origin seems appropriate. 

As I was looking through the drawers, I thought of Ray Johnson, who used correspondence with his friends as one medium of his art, while at the same time questioning the preciousness of the art object itself.  It was his work that served as the point of departure for my own Historical Amnesia line of postcards. 

 

Reverse side of South Haven, Michigan Lighthouse postcard.

 

Using Google Earth, I did a fly over of South Haven along Lake Michigan and found that the lighthouse structure is still intact and appears almost exactly as it did in the 1906 image.  I pulled a recent photo of the lighthouse that had been marked at the site.

 

Screen Shot from Google Earth Fly Over

Screen Shot from Google Earth Fly Over

polidori03_body

 

Bomb, Issue 99, Spring 2007

 

I met Robert Polidori through a photograph he had taken of the Versailles restoration. It captivated me. Seeing so many layers of history in one image was astonishing. So was being spurred to imagine Versailles as a real dwelling defined by the remnants of its inhabitants, and all the changes in history they and it had undergone.

This was the ’90s, when many photographers making art were constructing their own subjects or creating intellectual images that involved visual sleight of hand. The straightforward voluptuousness of Robert’s photo stood in stark contrast to all this. It was this originality and this lushness that enchanted me.

Later, after I got to know him, I invited Robert to visit North Dakota and photograph a town that had once belonged to my grandfather and is—now that the celebrated territories romanticized through legends of the Wells Fargo are a virtual desert—nearly gone. I wondered what his lens would uncover in that supernatural barrenness. Robert accepted. On the first day, we were so busy talking in the airport we missed the plane. On the second, I discovered that Robert fully expected me and Leaf, my Native American driver, to meet him for breakfast, totally awake and smiling, in the motel restaurant at 5:30 am, and to keep going until we lost the sunset’s last ray. To say that Robert is passionately focused is an understatement. He was so intense in his search for images that the final night, while we were having dinner in the same motel restaurant, a man came over to him and said, “I know who you are. You’re the guy who was taking pictures in my backyard this afternoon. I’m the mayor of this town.” I don’t think Robert had even realized we were trespassing.

The Metropolitan Museum commissioned Robert to take pictures of the New Orleans flood disaster. A friend who had grown up there cried when she saw them. She was not alone. The Fall 2006 show in the Howard Gilman Gallery was the most attended photography show in the history of the Met. Robert’s work has an extraordinarily wide, visceral appeal.

Robert’s focus and intensity made him very easy to interview. The difficulty was in deciding where to edit the generosity of riches in all he had to say. And despite the bleakness of his conclusion, I think that Robert transforms the sorrow of his subject with the compassionate beauty he discovers in its form.

 

Polidori01.jpg
Marat De David, RDC, Aile Du Midi, Versailles 1985.

 

Michèle Gerber Klein You were a filmmaker before you were a photographer.

Robert Polidori I used to work in avant-garde film, or what was known as structural film. It all started in 1969, when I was a freshman in college in Florida. Annette Michelson came and showed some films, including Wavelength by Michael Snow, and that changed my life. When I came to New York a couple of months later, she was kind enough to let me stay with her for a brief period. Through Annette I met Jonas Mekas and then I worked at Anthology Film Archives, even before they opened their first location at the Public Theater.

MGK So how did you start making still photography?

RP Well, my films were about the temporality between still and motion. But it really came about because I read a book called The Art of Memory by the late Frances Yates. This book was about ancient mnemonic systems, and rooms play a central role in “memory theaters.”

MGK How?

RP Say, for example, in the Pythagorean School—Pythagoras was into math and spirituality. He used to teach math by sounds—by fractioning lengths of strings or ropes. The students there were not allowed to speak for two or three years. They were taught to memorize empty rooms. A room was a locus for memory. They would memorize the color, doorways, windows, and halls.

MGK They would memorize the landscape of the rooms, develop a visual memory?

RP Yes, and they would place imagenes agentes, roughly translated from Latin as activated images, in the loci. These would be theatrical tableaux. The idea is that the mind has the hardest time remembering banal everyday things, but can more easily recall things that stand out of the ordinary. So they would compose these tableaux in order to remember something. I will give you an example. A lawyer had to memorize the facts in a case where a doctor had poisoned an old man to get his inheritance, and there was a witness. So the lawyer creates an image of two men in a blue room: an old man, semi-reclined in bed, and another man standing over him, who in his right hand holds a cup placed to the patient’s lips. The right hand indicates volition—that is, the doctor willed it, it was not an accident. Between the doctor’s fourth and fifth fingers were the testicles of a ram. The fourth finger was known as the medicinal finger, hence the doctor, and in Latin, testicles and witness are practically homonyms. The image is easier to remember than the facts, and by using a consistent deciphering language you could extract all the facts you might forget because of, say, your busy caseload. Memory was just one of the seven parts of classic rhetoric.

This particular example comes from the Ad Herennium. A Latin copy of that text from antiquity is dated 64 AD, and only fragments of it were still in existence just before the Renaissance. The Ad Herennium is an example of memory systems meant for practical usage. Later philosophers developed memory systems as theistic paradigm theories. Giordano Bruno, the last Catholic heretic burned at the stake, is a notable example. All of this is explained in Yates’s book. This is how I got into rooms, rooms as metaphors for states of being. And practically speaking, rooms simply don’t look that good in films; they look better in photography. When there is nothing else moving in the room, the grain effect of cinema makes the walls buzz as if they were composed of a swarm of bees. It doesn’t look right to me.

Metaphorically speaking, photography does to time what a wall in a room does to time. It’s a kind of slice of time that is transfixed and only very slowly degrades its semblance. Curiously akin to the quantum of time it takes to forget something. I would say that the emblematic photographic image is a picture from inside a room looking out. I think this defines photography. It’s the metaphor for the notion of first sight. What one saw first.

MGK Well, the camera is like a room; the shutter is like the window.

RP Yes, and camera in Italian means room. Anyway, when I realized the psychological importance of rooms and my commitment to them, I wandered away from cinema. There were other books too, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space talks about rooms and beehives and a set of drawers, all these receptacle kinds of images, and their metaphorical and psychological undertones.

 

For full text: go to Bomb, Issue 99, Spring 2007.

 

On September 11, 2001, my wife and I were living in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.  From our  balcony, we had a partial view of the World Trade Towers.  I took video footage of the towers before their catastrophic collapse as well as footage of the seemingly normal activity on the streets below in the aftermath.  In the days following 9/11, we went into Manhattan, where I filmed the spontaneous gatherings at Union Square as well as various other scenes that caught my attention.

On August 6, 2006, The New York Times ran a feature article by Joyce Walder on wet plate photographer John Coffer, entitled “Born 150 Years Too Late.”  Walder explored Coffer’s off the grid rural lifestyle rather than his photographic work.  In conjunction with the article, Fred Conrad conducted an audio interview of Coffer and spent some time learning the wet plate collodion process.  Conrad’s tintypes were part of a slideshow that accompanied the audio interview on the newspaper’s website.   

 

Audio: John Coffer Interview by Fred Conrad

 

Tintype by Fred Conrad (2006)

Tintype of John Coffer by Fred Conrad (2006)

 

Tintype of Coffer's cabin by Fred Conrad (2006)

Tintype of Coffer's Log Cabin by Fred Conrad (2006)

Billy McCune by Danny Lyon

Billy McCune by Danny Lyon

 

From soundportraits.org:  

On October 1, 2007, an ex-convict named Billy McCune—one of the most important subjects in the history of documentary photography—died in a half-way house in Kansas City, Missouri. He was 79 years old.

McCune, who was mentally ill, was convicted of rape and sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1950. A song he wrote on death row caught the ear of the governor, who commuted his sentence to life in prison. It was there, four decades ago, that McCune met a young documentary photographer named Danny Lyon. Lyon had been granted unprecedented access to photograph inside the Texas prison system. He published his photos in the seminal 1971 book,Conversations With the Dead.

Over the course of the project, Danny Lyon got to know Billy McCune, who had also become an artist in the penitentiary. Lyon included so many of McCune’s drawings inConversations With the Dead that he subtitled the book“Photographs of Prison Life With the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune #12-20-54.”

While Lyon’s prison photos are today legendary, what’s not known is that he also made reel-to-reel audio recordings of his conversations with Billy McCune in prison. Never before heard, these tapes are an extraordinary artifact—providing a rare glimpse inside the Texas prisons of the 1960s, and documenting Lyon’s historic partnership with the late Billy McCune. Photographer Danny Lyon tells us the story.

Producer: Matt Ozug / Narrator: Danny Lyon / Executive Producer: David Isay / Production Assistant: Maisie Tivnan / Music: Nick Yulman / Special thanks to: Andy Lanset, Donna Galeno and the StoryCorps MobileBooth team, Kimberly Wells and the Ft Worth Public Library, and Aminur the Cabby / Funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Dr. Fred Burnham, former director of Trinity Institute in lower Manhattan, recalls his experiences of September 11, 2001 alongside Rowan Williams, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury.  This interview excerpt is from a 9/11 digital video project that I worked on in Hans Dudelheim’s documentary course at The New School in 2002.  

Trinity Institute is a program for the continuing theological education of Episcopal clergy and laity sponsored by the Parish of Trinity Church, New York City.

Burnham was educated at Harvard, the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge University, England, and The Johns Hopkins University, where he received a Ph.D. in the History of Science. He also holds an honorary degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He writes and lectures on the relationship between science and religion.