Friday, July 16, 2010

Thomas Barrow, Charlotte Cotton and "The Amazing Fish Cam".

My friend Javier wrote me this morning with a link to an interview with Thomas Barrow by David Ondrik in issue nine of Finitefoto. You can find the article here.

I first read about Thomas Barrow in Jonathan Green’s American Photography: a Critical History 1945 to Present. I was a high school student in the mid 1980's in Albuquerque. I was also hanging around in the fine art museum at the University of New Mexico and I was very aware of Barrow’s work. I had read about it in Green’s book and realized there were more than a few Albuquerque connections to contemporary photography. If you grew up in Albuquerque in the 1980’s, you were amazed that Albuquerque had connections to anything contemporary; the fact that it dealt with photography and art was sort of a bonus.

Barrow has a really fascinating CV – He’s part of a lineage that goes right back to Beaumont Newhall and the invention of the history of photography. He was one of the reasons I so badly wanted to go to the University of New Mexico for graduate school.

I have always suspected that the generation of photographers like Barrow who founded MFA programs in the 1970’s boon of G.I. Bill money must have all been lovers, drinking buddies or mortal enemies. Their world was so small then, and they were busy defining what photography in academia would look like. They were also busy building the network of galleries and opportunities that would define the careers of art photographers for a couple of decades. They were movers and shakers, and at the beginning of the 1970’s, I bet there were about two dozen of them in the United Sates that really mattered. Just a guess.

So I was really interested in the quote below, from Barrow, because it touches, in a round about way, on something that I haven’t been able to articulate for a number of years.

“Nathan Lyons used to ask, when you’re looking at a picture do you see the picture or do you see what you want to see? Your eye really isn’t open to fresh things with photography, you have expectations with photos and they aren’t very great. I’m still disappointed after 40 years that people aren’t very demanding of photography.”

O.K. – be patient with me, as there is one other important anecdote.

In the early 1990’s the UNM art department had a room called “The Computer Closet”, which consisted of four or five Macs. It was the department’s early foray into digital imaging. But what the space was really used for was graduate students exploring this nifty new thing called “The Internet”, and thanks to Netscape 2.0, the Internet suddenly had pictures.

The Computer Closet was also next to Patrick Nagatani’s office, so Tom Barrow would frequently poke his head in and marvel at the complete lack of art-making happening on the expensive computers.

One day, he folded his hands together, shrugged his shoulders and sighed – “This Internet will be like C.B. radio. It’s a fad and in a few years it will be over.”

To be fair, at that moment, there were four graduate students looking at one computer showing something called “The Amazing Fish-Cam”. Someone at Netscape had set a camera up next to their fish tank and a computer would post an image on the web every minute or so. I’m pretty sure we graduate students thought it was hysterical. I think Barrow was disappointed in the waste of potential he saw in the room. In retrospect, I can appreciate that Barrow couldn’t foresee a world where a dot-com crash would soon have the power to wipe out his 401k.

I think we all understood that Photoshop would be a disruptive force for photographic image making. But no one in that small closet could have predicted the way that instant communication of images and ideas over the Internet would be so disruptive in their coming careers as artists.

It’s obvious now, that blogs and camera phones disrupt news and newsgathering. A slip of the tongue or a snide comment at a stump speech in the middle of nowhere ends a political career.

And the same thing happened to the gatekeepers and power structure of photography; or in this case, photography in the academy.

A new generation of gatekeepers came to photography after academic training in other fields. The Internet or the blog-o-sphere is where they found their voice. Jen Bekman and Jorge Colberg encapsulate the new power structure of photo as art. Bekman’s career of working in the web industry and starting a photo gallery after the dot-com bust is the ultimate refutation of Barrow’s early evaluation of the Internet’s potential. My understanding is that Colberg is a astrophysicist who came to an interest in photography later in his academic career. And he certainly champions work that is the polar opposite of what Barrow does.

I suspect another important change in the structure of photo gatekeeping was the publishing of Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art. The book is a narrative of photo-history that starts with the very last illustrations in Newhall or Rosenblum’s books and champions artists who they didn’t discuss much.

In fact, Cotton’s narrative starts at about the time I was sitting in a closet in Albuquerque laughing at a pair of fish belonging to a Netscape employee in Mountain View, California. That’s probably why reading her book took me so completely off-guard. I wasn’t out in the art world or the darkroom like I should have been. I was on the Internet in that closet looking at much, much more stupid stuff.

Like Cotton; Bekman, Colberg and the generation of photographers they are cultivating aren’t particularly beholden to the Newhall-Coke lineage of photography from which Barrow descends. They don’t really owe anything to Barrow’s generation of image makers – image makers like Robert Heinecken or Judith Golden or educators like Harold Jones. The L.A.- Chicago connection has lost ground to William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.

A new generation of photographers are also more likely to work with color, more likely to make inkjet prints, and less likely to cut their images apart and caulk them back together. They are photographers who are interested in the documentary qualities of photography. They are not to trying to disrupt a viewers assumptions about the photographic image – which is sort of key to Barrow's work.

I live and teach in the third largest city in a flyover state. From where I am sitting, having my work show up on Bekman or Colberg’s blog would be a much more valuable career moment than showing work at a place like the Etherton Gallery in Tucson or the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland. The work would get instant, international exposure, and I might not have to print or frame anything. The career trajectory of new photographers seems to be that you pay money to go to a portfolio review, hoping to get your work on a blog, I’m not sure what the next step is after that. A Blurb book?

Let me say, also, that because I live in a flyover state, having access to Bekman and Colberg; or the discussion that Alec Soth, David Ondrik, Deywoud Bey, David Bram, James Pomerantz, Aline Smithson, the collective of voices at the now defunct NYMPHOTO and countless others foster have been a life line. It is now possible to participate in, or lurk near, a conversation about photography from some fairly remote places. Thank you.

Now if one of you would just point a web-cam at your fish tank.

Tom, if you stumble on this, I am sorry my writing hasn’t gotten any better since graduate seminar in 1994.


Unknown said...

Actually, this works as eloquent and succinct. Far from the criticism of "dopey". More later... I just spent the evening looking at the Blurb submissions motivated by and hearing Barrow's echo: much out there / it's great that it exists / but is it demanding work?

Anonymous said...

brian, i really missed it on that
crystal balling. glad you remembered.
it proves that the negative is as important as the positive...or used to be anyway.
your old prof