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Wednesday 07.23.08

« Meet Cat Clifford | Main | Brian Borrello: gallery talk Saturday »

The Power of Place

This post is a bit of an experiment but I have been thinking a lot about the way a photo can tell a story a about specific time and place. The photograph becomes an embodiement of an idea that is sometimes separate from the work itself. This essay is a study about the way that certain photos become more than just about the visual records of experience that exist in the worlds of art and architecture.

At the same time, I would like to add that the photograph undermines any emphasis on any geographical location outside of the field of view of the camera. Images are one of the few things that available to everyone because all you need to have is a camera and access to the internet. The reason that I chose these images in the post is that they all convey a story. They seem to be closer to conveying an idea about a person or work rather than simply documenting an experience. The ideas in these photographs seem to me to be essentially about place.

A camera is extremely specific, it can only record what is in its field of view. If it is outside the field of view of the lens, it wouldn't be recorded. For me, that means that a camera is essentially about a specific place at a specific moment. The great thing is that that place can be anywhere now and availible to anyone. Everybody has the opportunity to participate. In a world that is becoming increasingly universal, there is still something compelling about the specific. The camera also separates the viewer from the event. The image can be used to convey a specific idea which might be different than the experience of the actual event.

This post is probably closer to a slide lecture that happens to be on the internet rather than a normal post. There are plenty of artists with a few architects and architecture thrown in. It is worth noting that a piece of architecture is not easily relocated. Unless people make the effort to visit it, it will only exist for most people as an image. For me that is important lesson for artists. Within the confines of a camera you can create your own world that may or may not have anything to do with where you live on the planet. The camera is a great equalizer.

As I was doing research for this post I was surprised that artists and architects have been using images this way since the very beginning.


A self portrait of Brancusi in his studio. The idea behind the photo is the integration of a man and his work. In this photograph he is completely subordinate to his work, his figure barely fills up a third of the image. It is a photograph about the juxtaposition about his sculpture Bird in Space and himself. The rest of the studio comes into focus through our periperal vision and the long exposure also gives the studio an otherworldly light. He is literally one with his work.


This is photograph of Richard Neutra's Kaufmann house has always been important to me because it seems like it is much more than just a photo of a house in the desert. Julius Schulman's photograph is like a beacon toward a new way of living. The photo is as much about the idea of the future and life in the desert as the recording of the image of a house.


Another photo by Julis Schulman photo of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #22 from 1960. I think that architectural photographs are helpful for this discussion because the homes themselves can not be relocated to a museum for an exhibit. They are intrinsically linked to place. If you want to see the house, you have to travel to it and experience the place for yourself. Schulman's photo of Case Study #22 seems to be less about a house and more about a new way of living in Los Angeles. Somehow the grids of the streets below echo the geometry of the house.


One of my favorite photographs, dubbed "The Irascibles" it is a portrait of some the greatest American artists of the 20th century.
One might think that a museum comissioned the portrait to document the flourishing art scene in New York in 1951. It is a reasonable assumption but that would be incorrect.

The photograph was comissioned by LIFE magazine a group of artists that were protesting a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is hard to come to a different conclusion than the institutions at the time got it wrong. The Met at the time failed to recognize some of the most brillant American artists that ever lived.


Bernice Abott photo of New York from the Empire State Building in 1932. The photograph conveys the idea about living in one of the greatest cities in the world and the infinite possibility that exists under the cover of night.


OMA's Villa dall'Ava built in 1991 on the outskirts of Paris. This photo is a little jarring in the juxtaposition of the urban/ suburban by one of the best architects in the world. You can see the Eiffel tower on the horizon.


This portrait of Jean Michel Basquiat was taken by James van der Zee. Basquiat has an incredible prescence that is highlighted by the long exposure and the shallow picture. The chair has always echoed a king's throne for me and we, the viewers, are the audience in the King's chamber. In this portrait Basquiat chose not to look at the camera as if he is in his own world.



I thought it would be interesting to look at these two photographs together. The top is of the Broad Collection at LACMA and the bottom is a photo of Double Negative which is in the collection of MoCA, also in Los Angeles.

The Broad Collection is a beautiful museum and Renzo Piano is a great architect but in terms of the experience of a place it does not a hold a candle to Michael Heizer's Double Negative. The Broad Collection is beautiful, expensive and ultimately interchangeable. Even worse, like most museums it is very hard to see any of the work in isolation. I think that museums feel that general public would be bored if the experience of the museum is too singular so that put something in there for everybody.

While musuems tend to see themselves as generalists, art on the hand has always been extremely specific. If you are going to Double Negative from Las Vegas it is close to two hour drive. During the two hours you might be a little anxious but you are also soaking up the landscape from the car. As you to take make the turn you slowly begin to climb up to the top of the mesa. You can't see anything because it is a flat mesa and there aren't any signs so you are never sure if you are going in the right direction. After driving 30-45 minutes you come to these large holes in the ground. No signs, no admissions, no bookstore, just your experience. Make of your time there what you will. Afterwards though, you realize the whole trip was your experience and not just the time that you spent in and around Double Negative itself.


A photo of Robert Rauschenberg at his first solo show at the Sable gallery. I am always surprised to see how natural his early work is. Most of the work is made of found pieces of stone and the wood. In the back is a multi-panel all white painting that creates a bright halo around his head which always gives the image an iconic quality for me. It is a litte funny that he is so put together in his suit but then his socks are drooping down.


Japser Johns in front his Target painting which I think that was in progress. I am not sure if the photograph was taken by Rauschenberg or not. Johns is sitting side ways on a bench and the way that his arms are rotating in gives the photo a slightly disturbing quality but the look on his face is unforgettable.


Rauschenberg in the mid 60's. There is something strange about him putting his hands to his side while an assasinated President Kennedy is pointing his finger toward the viewer. A very similar expression to his earlier picture but a bit more worldly.



I always liked these two photos of Damien Hirst. In the first painting, I think that he must be glazing his painting because he is painting with a rag rather than a brush.

In the second photo, he is a reading a newspaper witht death staring over his shoulder. It is like it is perfectly normal to be reading he morning newspaper with death staring over your shoulder.



Two photographs of Richard Neutra's Singleton House that do an excellent job of demonstrating that the idea behind the camera is as important as what is in front of it. The first photo is does a good job of showing how the house relates to the landscape and the view out the back. The house looks great but not that different from other modern houses that you might find in Los Angeles.

The second photo by Julius Schulman changes the whole character of the house. The roof beam and column that spans over the small pond look like a Japanese Torii gate that had been relocated to Los Angeles. The three steps become like a small Zen garden. Two photographs of the same house from nearly the same angle and they are literally worlds apart.


One of my favorite photos of Jake and Dinos Chapman. At the time they were recreating African masks and sculptures with subtle alterations such as incorporating the McDonald's logo or characters into the work. I think that the piece is called the Chapman Family Collection. We saw it at White Cube and Julie, who is always smarter than me, got it right away. I was too taken with what I thought was a show of tribal art. There is something very deep about the mask that allows us to become somehting more than what we are, if only for a moment.


Andy Warhol and Philip Johnson's Glass house. Andy is at the window and Philip is behind him at the desk. The window that Andy is looking out of is blanketed in the reflections of the landscape around the house. It always seemed to me to be the natural equivalent of Andy's own work, where the world as he experienced it gets projected back into his movies and paintings.


A photo of Chris Burden after he was shot as part of his art pieces. As I understood it, the blood and the hole from the bullet became the art on the wall. The expression in the photo is great. It is a mixture of "I can't believe that I have been shot" and "I just made history."



Louis Kahn described material as being spent light. This is a photo of Le Thoronet Abbey by David Heald. "There must be no decoration, only proportion." Quote from St. Bernard of Clairavaux, the 12th century ticket to modernism.

The bottom photo is Agnes Martin's studio in Taos, New Mexico.


My first reaction is to this photo is always what a mess, and then a quick glance to the wall to see what De Kooning is working on. I think that this is in his Broadway studio before he left New York to work near East Hampton. His eyes seem a little burned out to me, like he is exhausted and forcing himself to smile. He looks like he is looking of a change in his life but perhaps isn't quite sure what it is. Maybe it is that he has everything that he always wanted and it is not enough.



I always wondering if it what these pictures represent that was haunitng De Kooning. If seems to far fetched, remember he took up with Ruth Kligman less than a year after Pollock died. The top photo is from Life magazine from the late 40's and the bottom is a few years later by Hans Namuth in the early 50's. It is amazing to think that these paintings that changed the course of 20th century art really were painted in a barn. In the lower photo, you can see the streaks of light that are visible between the plank siding.


I think that this photo was taken during the opening of Barnett Newman's first one man show. Pollock was one of the few artists that supported Newman's work. At the time, most artists did not take his work seriously because they felt like Newman was more of a writer than painter and his paintings were incredibly austere. The other person on the bench is the sculptor Tony Smith. Newman's Ver Heroicus Sublimis is the painting on the left.



Two studio shots, Gerhard Richter on top and Howard Hodgkin on the bottom. This is an idea that Jesse Hayward got me thinking about. When it comes to Hodgkin's work, I think that it would always look better in his studio than it does in a gallery or a museum. In the studio, there are no distractions: white floors, white ceiling, and, his studio being in England, white sky. The white studio is in stark contrast to the green landscape that surrounds it. We can see just a sliver of green through the door at the center of the photo. When you are there, you are there for one thing, to look at his paintings. Anything else is a distraction. Maybe it is as simple that the studio allows the viewer to focus on one thing and one thing only, while a museum tends to be more interested in either a historical/ contemporary arc or in the juxtaposing the work to create an "idea" about an exhibition. In Hodgkin's case, the studio exists as a place of work and contemplation. It is funny to see him sitting in a studio that cost a fortune but it looks like he is sitting on a cheap folding metal chair surrounded by his paints. It works because his studio is not about comfortable chairs but about the direct experience of making and looking at his art.

The Richter photo is great because it always reminds me of Vermeer painting. Although, most of the time in Vermeer's work the light comes from the left rather than the right as it does in the photo. I think that the photo is extraordinary because the whole experience is about the natural light and the painting. The white walls and the gray walls dissovle away, the physical properties of the space are secondary to the experience of the work. Even Richter is a little extraneous to the photo. If he was not in the photo, it would not change the experience of the space, although his dark clothes do provide a nice hard line to frame the painting. The photo to me is about the integration of art and space which seems so hard for most museums, the Dia Center being the exception.



Two of Matisse. The top of photo is interesting because it is a portrait of Matisse in a Matisse painting. Not only is he surrounded by his work by you can see the bowl of fruit on the table. He does not use the fireplace, perhaps it is too drafty, and prefers a radiant heater. The portraits of Lydia that ring the top of the room are amazing. Maybe the line drawings you can see from far away but he wants you to look at his paintings close up.

The bottom photo is from Matisse in his studio from a few years before. It is interesting that he is not only not looking at what he is drawing, but also that he seems to be looking through the model rather than looking at her. He is trying to connect the eye and the hand without letting it be filtered by the mind. I always think that he is looking for the most complete expression of the moment.




Here are some pictures of the Twombly in his studio at various times. The top photo is from the early 60's and was taken in his studio in their palazzo in Rome. You can see the painting that that art tacked to the wall behind him because I think that he likes the resistance of the wall especially when he is using something sharp like pencils. I love the juxtaposition of the old and new in this photo. The floor in his studio is probably 400 years old while his paintings are so direct and completely in the moment. The best of both worlds.

Twombly's studio in, I believe, Gaeta in early nineties. He is working on one of the panels of the Four Seasons. Twombly is in the photo but he is blurred, so somehow his form echoes the forms in the paintings. Again white walls and white floors. The paints are on a curving antique table that is painted all white that is next to a very simple wood chair. Just out of the frame of the camera, is a door or window that looks out over the bay below. One of my favorite photos.

The last photo is a little bit of a contrast with the other two. Twombly is in the Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection in Houston. It is the face that the public sees and he is standing in front of his painting like a proud father. Still, the face the public sees is different than the raw, concentrated experience of his studio.


Walter de Maria's Lightning Field. The experience of seeing grid of stainless steel poles that change in with desert light in New Mexico. I always wonder if part of his motivation for the piece was simply to get us to open our eyes to the environment of the desert. Is it the art or the landscape? Could they even be separated? The poles themselves are the idea but it is the interaction with the landscape that is the art.




By looking at these photos of Mies van der Rohe you would think that you could not truly experience the architecture of a space unless you were smoking a cigar. The middle photo is Mies in his apartment. I think that the wood paneling is pretty funny because it suggests a language that is exactly the opposite of the experience and detailing of his own buildings. But then Mies always saw himself and his work as incorporating the best of the new world and the old one. In the bottom photo he is Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology where is a contemplating the new kind of Greek temple that he had created for the architecture students.



The top of photo is Mies' Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. The bottom photo is the Tokyo Prada Store by Herzog and De Meuron. The Farnsworth house is an idea about literally living in the landscape. The boundaries between the interior and exterior are reduced to one thin panel of glass. HdM's Prada's is more geological as if we are walking in to crystal cave that just happened to be a store.


This is photo Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, next to a Donald Judd sculpture. As publicity photo, it is interesting because there is no eye contact and seems as though he is lost in though contemplating the work. He is sitting one of the fold up stools that they lend to artists that want to copy work in the museum. Still, you wonder if the humility of the photo is genuine or just a good publicity shot.



Two of the Warhol Factory. In these photo you can see exactly what Warhol is about. Dark spaces, a reflective ceiling and no natural light. The work is about the culture of America in the sixties and the desires and fears of that time.



The top photo is an installation shot of one Robert Irwin's discs in San Diego. Below is one of James Turrell's ganzfeld spaces. I thought it would be interesting to with these two images because even though they might seem to be similar, they are complete opposites. The Irwin disc is the art object dissolving into the space of the room. Turrell's ganzfeld is the room dissolving into the space of the work. In both casess, neither the work or the room are fixed entities. They exist only in relation to one another.

You could not remove one of Walter De Maria's poles from the Lightning Field and still have it be considered art because the art exists only in relation between the grid and the landscape. If you saw one of Irwin's discs lying up against the wall or if you walked into one of Turrell's works with the work lights turned on, both would somehow no longer be art any more. They would have the potential to develop into an art experience but without the the connection to the space they would exist outside of an art experience.

The lesson that I got from all of these photographs is that we can all exist everywhere and nowhere now. We are interconnected. The only important is the present moment, where ever you are. For me, each of the photographs have come to represent the power of an idea. It is an idea that is expressed in a certain fraction of a second within a very specific field of view. In other words, it is the power of place. It is a place of ideas, or being in the right place at the right time when history changes. It is a place that is powerful regardless of physical location.

Posted by Arcy Douglass on July 23, 2008 at 12:10 | Comments (8)


Thanks Arcy, I love your reflections and the photos you have put together. I find it so enriching to have artists and critics show and talk about art that moves you and why. Your piece here allows me to go deeper into my own experience of photos and art and why I may be moved by particular ones. I also appreciate you including architectural photos, the juxtaposition of the two Singleton house photos demonstrates for me, with simple eloquence, the contrast between good and great composition. I look forward to the pieces you write here and the depth and sense of exploration you bring to PORT. Thanks again. Charles

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 23, 2008 04:11 PM

Thanks for these great photos.

I'm surprised to see Twombly working on that canvas leaning against the wall - I wonder if that's a posed shot for something or just how he worked early on - like you said, my belief was that he always worked with the canvas tacked to the wall. He was a huge influence on me in my very early 20s - I dreamed of traveling back in time and going to Black Mountain. I'm glad you included him.

Martin's studio is beautiful - I hadn't seen that photo before - but it's inspiring. I recently saw the rooms of her work in Beacon and it was wonderful - old and new work next to each other - it was the first time I've been in a room entirely filled with her work since she passed away - it was very sad and wonderful all at once.

Posted by: MOR [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 23, 2008 10:08 PM

Nice set of photos... but it does strike me that there are none of a female artist/architect (the women in the photos seem to be only in the role of subject).

If you wanted a bit more gender balance, I'd nominate adding this one to the collection (though perhaps it doesn't have enough sense of "place"):

Posted by: SimEnzo [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 24, 2008 06:08 AM

I agree with SimEnzo. So much of it comes off as male posturing after awhile - it is a reasonable observation to just bring it up. The image of Matisse is especially repulsive - his relationship with his "models" and his treatement of women is well documented.

Posted by: lsd [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 24, 2008 09:36 AM

Taken as an essay, what I get from this more than anything is a demonstration of our tendency to see in photos a confirmation of what we already believe. I don't know how else to account for your seeming confidence in your interpretations of them.

"The expression in the (Chris Burden) photo is...a mixture of 'I can't believe that I have been shot' and 'I just made history.' "

How do you know that his expression isn't, for example, a transitional one not relective of any concurrent thought? Or something else? You reject or do not consider this possibility because it doesn't fit your pre-conceived ideas about the event. Granted, the photo does not appear to contradict you, but to what possible expression could you not have applied your interpretation?

"In these (Warhol) photos you can see exactly what Warhol is about. Dark spaces, a reflective ceiling and no natural light."

In your interpretation, "dark spaces, a reflective ceiling and no natural light" is a metaphor, but you did not "see" this; metaphors do not exist in nature; we create them to express what we already believe. Perhaps you are saying that the metaphor is the photographer's, but are you sure that it isn't yours?

"Still, you wonder if the humility of the (Nicholas Serota) photo is genuine or just a good publicity shot."

I think you should have brought this skepticism to all of the posed portraits.

Posted by: rosenak [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 24, 2008 12:54 PM

Two things...

First, The Iracibles photo is by a woman, Nina Leen... and in it she deftly put Hedda Sterne at the top of the heap.

Second, Arcy and I were present one day while the photgrapher was feverishly working to try and capture that Robert Irwin disc... I cant think of any subject more difficult or worth documenting. For those who did not get to see that show... this is an important photo.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 24, 2008 02:42 PM

Thank you to everyone for taking the time to make comments. First, as for the selection of the photos, these were photos that were interesting to me. I make no claims beyond that. Someone else could choose a different set of photos that would be equally valid to that person.

For me, the images that I chose are able to convey a large amount of information that can be encoded at the time and place of the photograph that really has no relationship to its geographical location. It is the place that exists in front of the camera and that place sends a message or as an idea.

Chris Burden is the perfect example. As I understood it, Chris Burden had planned to be shot in front of a wall and the resulting blood and the bullet would be his contribution to a group show. I think that on some level the resulting blood splatter would be a commentary on his interpretation of what it means to be an artists as well as secondary reference to Pollock's paintings.

Fine, easy to follow as an idea and right in line with the type of work that Burden was doing at the time. For me, the photograph is revealing because it shows there is a big difference between planning to be shot and actually being shot. The look his face says it all. His arm hurt, he is probably hoping (or glad) that the bullet did not break a bone, but at the same time a little relieved that he achieved what he set out to do. It is all right there. For me, he looks relatively calm and collected for just having been shot.

The deeper question is who took the photo? Was it a spectator or was it a photographer arranged by Burden ahead of time? Although, the public performance aspect of the event was crucial to the piece Burden understood that without a record, the effort might have been wasted or at least only witnessed by a few people. Recording the event was the way that the piece could live on long after the show was over. Does the participation of a photographer change the work? I think that it does. He did not do it alone in his studio one night by himself. He saw the work as part of something larger.

But you are right, in the sense we do not know what happened the split second before and after the photograph was taken. That is one of the limits of a camera. That is why everything that it produces is on some level artificial or at least only a one moment and one angle of actual event.

But just because something is artificial does not mean it is not useful and can't be used to convey a powerful message.

I think a few people have misunderstood what I was trying to get at in the essay. First, it is the idea that images, even though they are artificial and substantially different from the actual experience of work, are incredibly powerful. Second, these are examples of photos that I found interesting but everyone is free to choose their own. More importantly everyone has the opportunity to make their own images and to convey whatever message they want to send.

Third, is the idea that the strength of the image is not determined by where one lives. The images made in New York are not inherently better than those produced in Los Angeles or Portland. What is better is that those artists understood exactly the type of message that they wanted to send.

Warhol's studio is dark, artificially lit, and had reflective ceilings not because I am interpreting that but because that is the message he wanted to send. He wanted to his studio to look that way and it adds something to see the work in that context. Natural light fluctuates, artificial light does not until a bulb burns out or you turn off a switch. His studio arrangement was deliberate and an important influence on the way he worked.

I would also go one step further and say that the look of the studio was also an important way for Warhol to present the work as well. Studio shots reinforce the connection.

The important thing is that there is an agenda behind every single one of these images. That was the point of the essay. If you see it, it is something that you could use for yourself.

Posted by: Arcy [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 24, 2008 06:34 PM

'Thank you to everyone for taking the time to make comments."

My pleasure, to the detriment of my creditors. Thank you for responding thoughtfully.

"For me, the photograph is revealing because it shows there is a big difference between planning to be shot and actually being shot. The look his face says it all. His arm hurt, he is probably hoping (or glad) that the bullet did not break a bone, but at the same time a little relieved that he achieved what he set out to do. It is all right there. For me, he looks relatively calm and collected for just having been shot."

This seems more reasonable and is more interesting than your original description. "Probably" and "for me" help a lot.

"The deeper question is who took the photo? Was it a spectator or was it a photographer arranged by Burden ahead of time?"

It was arranged that Barbara T Smith, who had been a fellow MFA student at Irvine, would take photos at the event. I don't know if she was the only photographer there, so I'm not sure if this one was hers....or was Smith only a spectator? I'm not sure anymore -- I was told about this over 30 years ago. In any case, I think it's safe to say that Burden did make sure that the event was documented. As I recall, it was not so public; it was (reasonably!) considered a bad idea to throw a public shooting.

"But just because something is artificial does not mean it is not useful and can't be used to convey a powerful message."

Agreed. I was only advising the viewer to exercise some caution.

"I think a few people have misunderstood what I was trying to get at in the essay."

I couldn't quite put your thesis together and should have said so when I commented earlier.

"Warhol's studio is dark, artificially lit, and had reflective ceilings not because I am interpreting that but because that is the message he wanted to send."

Fair enough.

"The important thing is that there is an agenda behind every single one of these images."

I'm trying in vain to think of a photograph for which that is not true.

Posted by: rosenak [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2008 01:02 AM

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