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Photograph: Richard Hendy/Spike Japan

Outside Tokyo and its other metropolises, Japan is dying a strange death. It’s due to demographics. First: advances in medicine and a diet high in raw squid have helped to make Japan the oldest society that has ever existed in the long history of human societies. Second, because of its ridiculously low birth rate and frosty attitude to immigrants, Japan is now the first large industrialised country to experience a population decrease as a result of natural causes. In short, as its oldsters get even older, and its youngsters spend all their time commuting on packed trains in identical black suits instead of having wild unprotected sex, Japan’s population is shrinking. Very rapidly, in fact. In 2008, it lost 79,000 people. If such trends continue, the Japanese child and working-age population will decrease by almost half in the coming 50 years, while the ranks of the elderly will swell.

What does this mean? To Richard Hendy, whose ongoing online essay Spike Japan is some of the funniest and saddest writing on contemporary Japan today – and to whom I am in debt for the statistics in the preceding paragraph – it means rust. Lots and lots of beautiful rust.

A self-proclaimed “luster after rust”, Hendy travels the Japanese hinterland taking photos of crumbling architecture and shuttered buildings. He goes to the remote, and not-so-remote, places from which the population is disappearing. He tracks abandoned railway lines. He takes pictures of deserted schools. He wanders through silent factories. And he revels, if that’s the right word, in the melancholy beauty of his adopted country’s air of neglect. He says things such as “What a patchwork quilt of corrugation” or “Look how delicately the embers of rust lick up and down the ridges and furrows; how the windows shed tears, grow beards of rust”. Meanwhile, he unspools a wry and uniquely informed commentary on Japan’s twin woes: economic (aka “the malodorous pall of the Bubble”) and demographic. Together, these two demons have all but utterly consumed hundreds of towns, thousands of villages. Hendy is determined, in his odd way, to honour them.


Chris Michael

Nicholas Nixon, The Brown Sisters (Photo: SFMOMA)

Perhaps more than any other work on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, “The Brown Sisters” by Nicholas Nixon captures the essence of the institution’s 75th anniversary celebration. The work is a set of 35 photographic portraits, made annually since 1975, of the artist’s wife and her three siblings standing in the same order. The museum acquired the artwork in 2000, and, as of now, there is no official end date to this act of creation.

Just as the past and future fuse in Mr. Nixon’s photographs, so the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1935 as the San Francisco Museum of Art, is taking a Janus-like approach to its milestone year.

Arts organizations often use anniversaries as an excuse for self-flattery and financial opportunism. The recent 30th anniversary celebration for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles — with its ritzy gala headlined by Lady Gaga and the Bolshoi Ballet and a no-holds-barred campaign to raise $60 million — threatened to eclipse the opening of the museum’s important anniversary show, one of the largest exhibitions in its history.


Chloe Veltman
New York Times

Ask the proverbial person on the street to name a famous painting, and chances are you’ll get an answer, whether it’s Andy’s “Marilyn” or Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.” Yet ask that person to name an important photograph, and silence is all you’ll receive.

What about work by the recently deceased Irving Penn or his sometime rival, Richard Avedon? Both men straddled magazines and museums, but neither can claim a signature image or has leapt indisputably into the popular imagination. (Diane Arbus and her black-and-white “Twins” have come close, but aren’t there yet.) Sure, some photos are iconic because of their content and what they have come to symbolize: raising a flag at Iwo Jima, for example, or that same Miss Monroe with her white pleated skirt blown up by a blast of subway air. But photos as art, and photographers as artists, are a much harder sell.

Photographer and teacher Larry Sultan died in December at age 63, and although a few newspaper obituaries surfaced — obits themselves are a melancholy measure of fame — Sultan should be a lot better known. A bit of artistic irony is at play here, because the “accidental,” anti-masterpiece nature of his best work, which has acted to muffle his renown, may ultimately guarantee it.


Jeff Weinstein

Strange and familiar … detail from Untitled (bathroom with pink curtain, Cuba), 2007 Photograph: William Eggleston

William Eggleston’s photographs are filled with light; he calibrates its ­differences and qualities. The shadow of a palm tree on a sun-smitten wall; light filtering into an empty shower stall through a faded curtain. Grim, hellish light inside a freezer, the rust-pigmented frost caked to the freezer wall, plastic bags of ice ­snuggled neatly in the lower gloom. Who else would think to photograph this dreary beauty?

Eggleston’s new exhibition 21st ­Century, selected from work made over the last decade, opens this week at the ­Victoria Miro gallery in London. (The same exhibition also runs concurrently at Cheim and Read in New York, where I saw it a few days ago.) Increasingly the subject of major retrospectives, where individual works are often ­subsumed in the arc of a career that has spanned more than 40 years, the Memphis-born photographer’s work is both familiar and strange.


Adrian Searle

William Eggleston’s Untitled (Newspaper on Ground, Grass, California, 2000): ‘More muted tones point towards pure abstraction.’ Photograph: Eggleston Artistic Trust

In her illuminating introduction to William Eggleston’s book The Democratic Forest (1989), Eudora Welty writes that his photographs “focus on the mundane world” and that “there is especial beauty in his sensitive and exacting use of colour, its variations and intensities”. This remains the case.

Now 70, Eggleston’s eye is still drawn to the everyday, and he still renders it as if he were a visitor from Mars. And yet what you sense here, in the 22 new photographs on display at Victoria Miro, is a tentative reinvention. Eggleston is a master of vivid, sometimes garish, colour, though the lurid oranges, reds and yellows no longer shock the eye like they used to. What intrigues more here is his deployment of more muted tones that, in certain photographs, point towards a move into pure abstraction.


Sean O’Hagan

Crowning glory … Annie Leibovitz. Photograph: Andy Rain/Corbis

Just before everyone ran out of money last year, I paid way too much cash for two photographs – one of the Clash and one of Chic, both taken at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1979 by Jill Furmanovsky. Despite my house price fluttering downwards, salary looking shaky and pension all but collapsing around me, these two pictures have proved my greatest investment: both have doubled in price in the last 12 months and as Annie Leibovitz shuffles around hunting for cash to pay off her $24m (£14.5m), I’m tempted to flog them both and send her the money.

It’s thanks to her that these pictures exist, that they have a recognised, independent beauty and value that documents a moment in history – indeed, it’s thanks to her that a combination of five guitar players, two singers and a drummer can be considered history at all.

Leibovitz has been the eyes of the boomer generation since she joined Rolling Stone in 1970. Her lens work in that magazine and subsequently Vanity Fair was the artillery behind her print compadres – Lester Bangs, Cameron Crowe, David Fricke – in their assault on pre-60s cultural values.

Before Leibovitz, we were arguably living in a Mad Men world of goofy visuals, meaningless phrases and an absolute ignorance of women or youth. It’s that influence that’s in danger of being forgotten as we marvel at her spectacular misspending – mortgage debts of $15m, a total of $2.1m in unpaid taxes, plus various claims of unpaid bills that top out above $500,000. “The mind that can take these extraordinary pictures is not necessarily the same mind that is a perfect money manager,” according to Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair.


Stephen Armstrong

Alstroemeria, sp. Photo: Robert Buelteman

Forget the notion of a reverent nature photographer tiptoeing through the woods, camera slung over one shoulder, patiently looking for perfect light. Robert Buelteman works indoors in total darkness, forsaking cameras, lenses, and computers for jumper cables, fiber optics, and 80,000 volts of electricity. This bizarre union of Dr. Frankenstein and Georgia O’Keeffe spawns photos that seem to portray the life force of his subjects as the very process destroys them.

Buelteman’s technique is an elaborate extension of Kirlian photography (a high-voltage photogram process popular in the late 1930s) and is considered so dangerous and laborious that no one else will attempt it—even if they could get through all the steps.

Buelteman begins by painstakingly whittling down flowers, leaves, sprigs, and twigs with a scalpel until they’re translucent. He then lays each specimen on color transparency film and, for a more detailed effect, covers it with a diffusion screen. This assemblage is placed on his “easel”—a piece of sheet metal sandwiched between Plexiglas, floating in liquid silicone. Buelteman hits everything with an electric pulse and the electrons do a dance as they leap from the sheet metal, through the silicone and the plant (and hopefully not through him), while heading back out the jumper cables. In that moment, the gas surrounding the subject is ionized, leaving behind ethereal coronas. He then hand-paints the result with white light shining through an optical fiber the width of a human hair, a process so tricky each image can take up to 150 attempts.

Because there’s no lens to distort the colors, Buelteman’s work replicates natural hues far better than traditional photographs. “I’m calling into question what we see every day,” Buelteman says. “Is that really a flower? Have I been blind my entire life?”

Jason Albert
Wired Magazine

Courtesy of the George Eastman House

One of the most intriguing booths at the AIPAD Photography Show in New York last weekend didn’t offer anything for sale: For the first time, the George Eastman House (right) was at the fair, here from Rochester to tell people about a new joint-venture with the Rochester Institute of Technology called “The Center for the Legacy of Photography.”

The Eastman House booth offered an exhibit called “Cause & Effect,” a series of vintage photographic prints from its collection that provided insight into “historic cause-and-effect relationships of materials and processes.” For example, there was an early salt print by the partners, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, that was shown adjacent to later prints in platinum and carbon. And there were several prints of Lewis W. Hine’s Powerhouse Mechanic, again showing how the choice of material and process changed the aesthetics of the image.

The exhibition provided a window on the Center’s mission which is, as digital photography takes over, to focus on:

collecting and sharing knowledge about photographic materials to deepen the understanding of the photograph. The work of the Center [is] developing reference resources and learning tools and refining the inquiry to deepen the understanding of the photograph through materials-based knowledge.

The Eastman’s director, Tony Bannon (Dr. Anthony, more formally), described the Center’s rationale in an email to me:

As silver halide photography passes into history, with it will pass its industrial technology, its aesthetic and commercial context, and nearly all firsthand knowledge of its chemistry, materials, and processes. We must understand and define the ways in which the material nature of silver-based photographs differs from that of digital images and to make clear that the preservation and interpretation of the two pose distinctly different challenges, originating in different material and cultural contexts.

You can get a better understanding by looking at the beta website of one of the Center’s projects: Graphics Atlas, which allows visitors to compare an image’s trait across several processes, among other things. Another project, Notes on Photography, is a collaborative website that uses wiki technology to let collectors, curators, conservators and the general public share knowledge about photographic prints — the camera, the process, the inscriptions, the age, and so on. It is expected to debut in June.

This is cool, if sometimes esoteric, stuff — but both professionals and the public stand to gain. Here’s a link to the Center’s website.

It’s my personal pleasure to mention all this, not only because I love old photographs (and new ones, too), but also because I’m from Rochester and always happy to call attention to the treasure that the George Eastman House is.

Not to mention George Eastman himself — he was ahead of everyone on so many things, and aside from his contributions to photography, gave Rochester the Eastman Theatre, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Durand-Eastman Park, a gorgeous place. Rochester, the late University of Rochester President Rush Rhees once said, would be “difficult to imagine” without him.

Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts

Stephen Shore’s picture is included in “Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West” at the Museum of Modern Art. (Stephen Shore/303 Gallery)

In Oregon, along Route 97 south of Klamath Falls, there once stood a billboard. Someone had painted out its words, leaving only a panoramic image of a glassy lake, dark forest and snowy mountain rising majestically under a perfect blue sky. Stephen Shore took a picture of it in 1973. Surrounded by flat, scrubby, fenced-in land with telephone poles and low mountains in the distance, beneath a sky scattered with fair-weather clouds, the billboard projected a mythic vision of the great American frontier. This was in sharp contrast to the disheartening banality of the real, modern world, of which the billboard is emblematic.

Mr. Shore’s mordant photograph pretty much sums up “Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West,” a resonant exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Almost every one of the approximately 150 pictures by about 70 photographers evokes that tension between myth and reality. While loaded with compelling images, dating from 1850 to 2008, the show ultimately presents an all-too-predictably bleak view of America’s realization of its Manifest Destiny.

Organized by Eva Respini, an associate curator in the museum’s photography department, “Into the Sunset” is set up thematically rather than chronologically. It divides up into landscapes and images of people, with subdivisions devoted to different types of images. One group of landscapes focuses on awesome natural beauty while another documents the havoc wreaked on nature by industrial development. People in one section exemplify a pioneering spirit; elsewhere we encounter portraits of wasted human potential. Provocative and amusing conversations between images occur throughout.

Irving Penn’s glamorizing 1967 studio portrait shows five ruggedly handsome Hell’s Angels with two pretty girlfriends and a pair of motorcycles. Nearby, a small print made by an unknown photographer around 1892 portrays five men in bowler hats and suits. A label explains they were members of the Wild Bunch, the outlaw gang that included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They look more like bankers than bank robbers.

Ms. Respini points out in her catalog essay that the time during which white European civilization expanded into and eventually occupied North America coincides with the invention and development of photography. This is not just incidental. The idea of the West would be informed by machine-made images.

That the medium itself can be used both for empirical documentation and visionary expression nicely mirrors the exhibition’s subject: the American West is real, but it is also a set of fantasies.

Early photography pictured a new world of seemingly infinite possibility. The sense of wide openness is reflected in large-format 19th-century photographs by William Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins in which geographical wonders are finely detailed, and certain amazing sights, like the Grand Canyon and giant redwood trees, were proved really to exist — unlike the otherworldly places and bizarre monsters that the unexplored parts of the world were thought to contain in the centuries before photography.

While photographers paved the way psychologically for transcontinental expansion in the 19th century, 20th-century modernists like Minor White and Ansel Adams helped to shape a new romantic poetry for an intensely industrialized society. The West as envisioned in their work would be a last bastion for undefiled nature and for the recuperation of the soul.

After World War II, however, that picture could no longer be sustained. It became a cliché for the tourism and real estate industries, like the billboard image in Mr. Shore’s photograph. For landscape photographers of the 1960s and later the West became a place where despoiling by industry and commerce could be revealed at its most unvarnished. Robert Adams’s picture of tract housing in Colorado (1970), Ed Ruscha’s aerial views of parking lots (1967) and Lewis Baltz’s grid of 25 pictures cataloging littering at San Quentin Point (1985) are coolly understated indictments of modern civilization.

A parallel sense of degradation animates the sections on people. Looking at the 19th-century images of explorers, pioneers and Indians, you wonder at the fortitude it must have taken for these men and women to endure and persevere as they contended with challenges few people today could imagine.

But it is hard to find much to respect in people pictured in works from the post-World War II era. The urban cowboy pausing to light a cigarette on a New York street in Robert Frank’s 1954 photograph is a dude of uncertain moral fiber. The rotund husband and wife smiling vapidly at the camera while feeding their baby in a 1972 photograph by Bill Owens titled “We Are Really Happy” seem ridiculous. Three porn actors lounging between takes on a sofa in a suburban house in a 1998 picture by Larry Sultan are not exactly admirable, nor are the male street hustlers in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s noirish pictures from 1990-92.

Such photographs may evoke the West as a place of unprecedented freedom for individual expression and experimental behavior. But the people they portray look pathetic, not heroic. There are no positive role models here. Richard Prince’s rope-twirling cowboy is from a cigarette ad.

Why does the exhibition project such a dim vision? Is it impossible for serious contemporary photography to see something better? Is failure and disappointment the real, unavoidable story? Or is it another myth, a paradoxically reassuring narrative to which many high-minded people now unthinkingly accede? If so, what would be the alternative? That could be an unknown worth exploring.

Ken Johnson
New York Times