Mary Macpherson

The photographs of Mary Macpherson – with a dash of poetry

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The second cousin in the dance – Teju Cole’s Blindspot

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Pairing writing with photographic images is a delicate act. It’s like putting clearly defined meaning up against a medium that speaks another language, and through the pairing suggesting what’s meant to be thought about an image.

The extremes range from a photojournalistic or gallery approach, which sees every image captioned, plus explanatory text, least you foolishly miss the subject’s point of view or what an image is meant to be illustrating.

At the other end of the scale  is the typical Mack photobook where you’re lucky to find the title and the photographer of the work. Any text is usually an oasis on the last page where a few acknowledgements, or line about when or where the work was done, may be offered. That’s when the photographs do the heavy lifting of conveying vision and meaning. Clues and interpretation come from online commentaries, interviews and reviews, but even with this information, meaning is conveyed visually – a kind of pre-language state of paying attention.

In between these extremes, there are essays at the front or back of books – to be ignored or read afterwards – notes to the photographs (think Alec Soth) or captions that pinpoint some critical element that shifts the frame around an image. At the recent William Eggleston Portraits show (see my recent post) I was struck the curator’s pleasure at persuading the photographer to name the subjects or tell the backstory to iconic images that had previously soared in their own mysteries. While the information was interesting, I was glad I’d first experienced the images in my imagination and could love them for their own account. I was interested when, in my project Bent, I captioned the works with the names of trees and added notes at the back of the book about human manipulation of the tree landscape, something about our ruthless cultivation of natural resources popped into focus. The subtle presence of words felt necessary.

Teju Cole’s Blindspot is a true hybrid of text and photographs.(Cole credits the text and photograph pairings from John Szarkowski’s book on Atget as inspiration). Cole’s photographs from his much traveled existence are paired with short meditative texts. Although the pairing is titled with the name of the place, presumably where the image was made, the texts often don’t relate specifically to the image, or stage a tangential take off from a detail. Cole is a master of poetic and philosophic thinking and the pieces are mini gem-like essays that seem at one with his latest book of essays Known and Strange Things. They also form a line back to Open City where his narrator Julius wanders the New York and gives us his insights into a broad range of subjects.

A sequence from Blindspot

Notably, the photographs are not whole views of any part of the world. Rather they’re extractions of sidewalk, construction and building details, featuring juxtaposition and careful composition, along with windows, screens and tarps, which seem to point to illusion, or the fractured nature of our perception. In their fragmentary state it’s easy to see the images as adjuncts to the accompanying thoughts, in the way a whole landscape or person might not be. In a recent interview on the Magic Hour , Cole says he wanted the photographs to be the quieter partner in the text/image pairing, and he’s achieved that.

While Blindspot is interesting reading, the photographs suffer in the dance between text and image. The texts come first on the left hand page, images on the right. In his Magic Hour interview Cole says he wanted to suggest there was more to the photograph than you’ll see by viewing. Even with tangential texts and little direct commentary on the image, I found it hard to respond to these quite cerebral images that were clearly second cousins to the main event, intent on taking you somewhere you were sure to miss if you’d been allowed your own thoughts about the image.

The texts,however, are often quite wonderful – you can read them for their sequences or as references to the blindspots in our reading of the world, or dip in and out of the book, enjoying the morsels. What I couldn’t do was look at the photographs and enjoy them, their language having been set straight by words.

Listen to Teju Cole on The Magic Hour http://www.magichourpodcast.org/

 

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Written by Mary Macpherson

05/08/2017 at 3:43 pm

‘The Shops’ proofs arrive home

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The sample proofs for Peter Black and Steve Braunias’s The Shops found their way from China to our house. Happily the reproduction looks excellent. There’s also a wonderful personal essay by Steve that reminds me of some of my favorite long Robert Hass poems.

I love the feeling of an abundance that sets of proofs give – all those images before you and the unbeliveablity (is that a word?) that these sheets of paper will fly up and become a book.

Proofs for Peter Black and Steve Braunias 'The Shops'

Front and back covers for ‘The Shops’. A special shout out to Katrina Duncan for the great design.

 

 

Written by Mary Macpherson

11/09/2016 at 7:36 am

Urban Landscapes from the 1980s on show

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I was stoked recently to have my work featured on the BNZ Heritage Art Collection site (right under Megan Jeninkson and above Colin McCahon!). The three images are from my Urban Landscapes series of the 1980s and were brought for the Collection by the late Peter McLeavey. At the time I’d been excited by seeing books like Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore and American Prospects by Joel Sternfeld, and wanted to apply this sophisticated, nuanced approach to photographing the everyday environment in my own work.

The nice people at the BNZ were concerned to have good reproductions of the work for their website, which gave me an opportunity to have some quality scans done. It was great to reprise some old favourites like this image from Featherston. I’ve also printed contemporary archival inkjet prints of the three images, which are on show at Photospace Gallery in Courtney Place. If you are in Wellington do call in and check them out.

Featherston 1985

Featherston 1985 (image copyright Mary Macpherson)

Written by Mary Macpherson

13/08/2016 at 12:56 pm

The ‘pulling together’ impulse

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I don’t usually have the urge to curate other people’s work. In fact I’m more likely to be found ‘hmnphing’ about the choices that real curators make in exhibitions or awards.

But around Christmas time – not quite in one fell swoop – I brought together two photobooks about place from very different time periods, and was overcome with an urge to compare, wonder at difference and whether connections existed. (A dictionary definition of curation is an ‘organising, pulling together or sifting through)

The first book to arrive was the highly praised Lago by Ron Jude, published by Mack in 2015. I don’t always respond to Jude’s work, but this spare piece of work about the California desert he grew up in, intrigues with photographs as clues to a landscape and how it might be perceived or remembered.  One of the things I like about this book is that nothing is offered in the way of shaping words or introduction. Only at the end we get a quote from John Darnielle (of Mountain Goats fame) from Wolf In White Van, which points to the complexity of reconstruction and memory.

Presenting the photographs and letting them, and their sequence, do the work of story telling, is de rigueur. Jude amplifies this with images of strange objects in isolated in a desert landscape – a porn magazine, a Columbia record, a tyre and orange tree – looking as if they’ve dropped from outer space. These images are interspersed with parched, bleached trees, pictures of palms looking like heavy clubs and the occasional long landscape with marginal buildings. At the beginning and the end are images of water, either lyrical or rushing forward with dreamlike force. There’s little of the carefully seen lyric landscapes of large format photography, rather a disturbing ‘clump, clump’ imagery one might find in a rather bad dream.

So interpretation is left to the viewer, who is compelled to return to the work to try to sink into its meaning. Of course, it helps that online there’s interviews with Jude, reviews of the book, a publisher’s write up and you can easily Google ‘Lago’, which seems to translate as ‘lake’ or sometimes as ‘narrow inlet of sea’ or ‘a small pond of standing water’. In a sense, the shaping, which in an traditional style book might have been a frontispiece or essay, has merely moved online.

But I liked the uncompromising nature of the images, their sequence and the silence that surrounded them.

The second book was the republished classic Cape Light by Joel Meyerowitz. I’ve had a complicated relationship with this book. When it first appeared in the late 70s, we swooped on the library’s copy and a much younger version of me spent much time studying to long light-filled plains of sea and sky dotted with tiny objects and wondering about the portraits and interiors. But the young person decided on balance that the work was too romantic to buy for our fledgling collection.

Over the years, if I’ve occasionally felt the urge to revisit the images, I’ve gone back to the library copy – until the day I got it out and discovered someone had snipped out all the images of women…. When Aperture did a reissue recently, I needed to act.

They’ve kept the original spirit of the book (minus a few images). It starts as classic photobooks do with a long informative conversion between Meyerowitz and Bruce K MacDonald, so the reader is well prepared for viewing the images. From the conversation it seems that Meyerowitz sought and found an almost ecstatic melding of self and experience, which I think comes through in the images.

The photography favours the composed large format landscape, and subjects of marginal worldly significance, lit with beautiful shades of water-filled light, or sometimes thrillingly with mixed light sources like dusk, house light and lightning as in the wonderful Porch, Provincetown, 1977. The sequencing also classic; page after page of porch and bay in different hues, interspersed with rather good interiors and portraits, which, at times, seem to be least successful images. Over the years we’ve come a way in how books are sequenced.

But the book doesn’t compromise on its response to the beautiful and I’ve rather changed my view of this. There are still many books that cover the territory of the marginalised everyday world – that’s still going strong as subject matter – but much rarer to find a respected work that deals in beauty in such an overt way. That the book has survived for a reissue and its approach still seems dangerous, I think makes it the stronger, riskier work.

Strange how the wheel turns.

Lago by Ron Jude

Cape Light by Joel Meyerowtiz

Written by Mary Macpherson

08/05/2016 at 1:40 pm

New work – ‘of the hills’

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With Photobook New Zealand in mind I’ve started an extract of my of the hills series. The work isn’t complete yet but there’s enough to start a grouping – with all the attendant anxieties as you try out your sweet dreams about what the work’s about and how you fondly imagined a sequence would flow. But editing is where work is made (or unmade) – so onward.

A bonus, one restless 5am dawn, was finally arriving at a title for the series.

of the hills

From ‘ of the hills’, Wellington 2014 (image copyright Mary Macpherson)

 

of the hills

From ‘of the hills’, Wellington 2014 (image copyright Mary Macpherson)

Written by Mary Macpherson

31/12/2015 at 2:30 pm

Peter Black review

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I was pleased to see this review by David Eggleton of Peter Black’s Frozen in Landfall Online:

” In Peter Black’s photo-book Frozen, there’s something voodoo-like or juju-like about its colour photographs taken on the fly, as if Black is a witchdoctor with a camera, engaged in psychic healing, or at least psychic assessment. Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the need for a documentary photographer in pursuit of a clinching image to have ‘a velvet hand and a hawk’s eye’. Black is one of the gifted few who have both attributes: he knows how to obtain the maximum effect with artistic finesse. He knows how to render the soul of an image.” Read more

From Frozen (image copyright Peter Black)

From Frozen (image copyright Peter Black)

Also good to see the recognition of other photo-books such as those of David Cook and Yvonne Todd.

Written by Mary Macpherson

15/12/2015 at 7:30 pm

A masterly anti-hero

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Recently, courtesy of an unexpected win of a large number of book tokens, I’ve bought a cornucopia of photography books. Of all of them, the one that’s most impressed so far is Paul Graham’s The Present (Pub Mack).

It’s not just the  bronze silk cover with its minimal pink embossed title, or the numerous elaborate gatefolds inside that act like waving pieces of origami, that make the book impressive. In spite of the fact I’m not a street photographer, and usually have little interest in the genre, I can’t help but be wowed by by the way Graham has shoved photography towards film and made another ambitious step towards making banality a hero – or should that be anti-hero?

The photographs taken in New York are of streetfuls of ordinary people – the suited, t-shirt wearing, colourful, the normal, normal. The premise is that each picture is taken a few seconds after the first so one gets a slightly different array of figures in the same territory. The comment on time, which might founder in lesser hands, is made extraordinary by a masterly use of shifting focus and cinematic exposures.

Graham, with what looks like an extremely sharp lens, picks out one person in the mid distance. As in many a movie, the rest of the street and its inhabitants are out of focus, directing our attention to the figure of interest. In the next picture the focus has usually shifted to another figure who was just coming into view in the first photograph. This is continued in sequences of photographs of the same spot in the New York streets. This is where the gatefolds and Graham’s cryptic placement of images come into play, making us react to the sequences in an almost physical way.

Add to this dramatic shadows from tall buildings, the city light ranging from harsh to gilded, and the effect is uncanny like being immersed in the streets. (Of course, looking closer at the pictures one can see the photographer playing games with colour, and an indecisive man who seems not to know which direction to walk in).

And why should this be so exciting? Because it’s challenge to the long tradition of the heroic, the pleasing, the exciting and the coherent, in photography. It reminds us that we need to be closer to the language of film, the camera phone, the huge democracy of images all over the internet. Only a master could raise the seemingly mudane to this level.

http://www.photoeye.com/magazine/reviews/2012/05_17_The_Present.cfm

http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/20-The-Present.html

Written by Mary Macpherson

21/10/2012 at 9:07 pm

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