I’ve stopped getting blog spam. Does that mean I’m actually dead?

June 13, 2014 § 1 Comment


Do you see the difference? In state 1, on the left, the head seems disconcertingly to be floating above the collar; in state 2, a shadow has been added behind the head to help it appear to “sit” better on the collar. There are only four surviving impressions of this earliest state (two at the Folger, one at the British Library, and one at the Bodleian), so it seems likely that Droeshout made the change fairly early in its run through the press, and thank goodness for that.

Spotting the differences between states 2 and 3 is a bit trickier…  read more


Embarrassing? He’s on his knees, begging God. What’s he supposed to be? Cool?

November 4, 2013 § Leave a comment


Early 21st century: from “SELF” + “IE,” says the Oxford Dictionary Online, and since my generation still remembers Internet Explorer (I.E., see), I want to smile. Then I want to paint, whiten, and Willow-filter my smile on Instagram, except I can’t without making a statement: The selfie is self-exploration. It’s self-ex_ploit_ation. It is harmless, fun. It’s narcissism gone wild. No, it’s female narcissism, which didn’t you know is redundant, unless it’s “feminist narcissism” by which we mean self-love so please go fuck yourself. Or it is neither feminist nor female but rather the male gaze internalized and viral, in which case it is nothing but harm, and also is making us stupid. But what if it’s self-portraiture? Then who’s stupid? You, who cannot draw a simple line from the nose of Picasso to Miley’s tongue.

My problem with this last, ultimate defense of the selfie is the assumption it needs defending at all. We have been depicting cool animals since the #LOLMAMMOTHS of the Chauvet Caves, yet pseudo-historians are not lining up around Greenpoint to place the cats of Instagram in a lustrous tradition of art. Likewise, I have not read twenty-eight minor essays defending Thanksgiving dinner pics as new Dutch-masterly still lifes. The face alone has launched a thousand think pieces. So now the question is not one of basic selfie-justification, but rather, why must a photo of my face be justified when a photo of my bookshelf is not?  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Elizabeth Moran

Even a small-time gang of hoodlums has its own melodramatic ideology and pathological romanticism

October 22, 2013 § Leave a comment


… if one wants to photograph another person, isn’t that all about that other person? About, possibly, that person’s essence, personality, or whatever else? It isn’t. Ignoring the fact that photographs are unable to reveal a person’s personality in ways that go beyond what, well, cartoons show, what makes portraiture – and especially looking at its very best practitioners – so exciting, is to see how someone shaped a picture out of another person, using nothing more than a camera. The other day, I met a person I thought I knew from one of my student’s portraits, and I didn’t recognize him at first. How could this be? How can this possibly function, given there’s a camera, a technical device that we think of as faithfully representing what is in front of it?  read more

CHART: Lindsay Wilson

I’m still here – where are you?

August 23, 2013 § Leave a comment


The great period for the carte-de-visite was from 1859 to the later 1860s. It was in May 1859 that Napoleon III riding at the head of his troops, actually halted the French army en route to the war in Austria whilst he called at Disdéri’s Paris studio. The Emperor had shrewdly realised how effective as personal publicity such cheap portraits would be among the populace; and what the Emperor did the whole of fashionable Paris was quick to emulate. Disdéri made a fortune, opening studios in Toulon, Madrid and London. At the height of the craze, in 1866, it was estimated that between three and four hundred million of the small-scale photographs were sold in England alone. But after that year the fashion went into quick decline, though the carte-de-visite as the accepted format for run-of-the-mill family record was to last well into the century. Ergo those countless little sepias we find today in every fleamarket…

Though photography was in very essence part and parcel of the science and technology of the period – collodion, silver nitrate, anastigmatic lenses et al – the theme of photo-back imagery is essentially that of ‘Art’. There is scarce a chemical in sight. The underlying art theme of A & G Taylor’s photo-back illustrated here, with its flowers, birds, abstract patterning and one little putto actually creating a picture by drawing is not untypical, and that the imagery in this case does include an incidental camera is sufficiently uncommon to put this example into a distinct sub-category known to collectors as a ‘camera-back’. Rare indeed is a design such as that of Lambert Partington of Southport showing the whole paraphernalia – camera, dark slide, developing dish, retouching brushes and even painted studio backcloth-virtually the complete kit.

But still, ‘visiting card’? Could these little photographs ever actually have been so used?  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Patty Carroll

I’m only waiting for my cue, I’m a stranger here myself

March 11, 2013 § Leave a comment


After I received the photographs I looked at them for a long time. Here was, after all, visual proof of small parts of the life of a man I had never met, a man who was one of my grandfathers. I had not known my grandfathers (they had both died before I was born), so the concept – a father figure once removed – itself seemed strange to me. All these photographs, I figured, would surely tell me something about my grandfather, wouldn’t they? How can 25 photographs not say anything?

In various of the photographs, Josef Nowak is seen holding and/or playing an instrument, mostly an accordion. There are various group portraits, and there even is a photograph of an actual performance. My grandfather must have loved music. In many of the photographs, he strikes an almost comic figure, with his large round glasses, his slightly bewildered look in his eyes, and those ears that seem stick out just a tad too much. At times, my grandfather looked like the Zelig character in the eponymous movie, the person who somehow was everywhere, without actually belonging there. My grandfather, in other words, was the kind of person you wouldn’t really have to mark in a photograph. You’d notice that one guy sticking out anyway.

There is an exception to that rule. One photograph shows him in a field hospital, another group photograph. His right hand is bandaged, and the goofiness in his face seems gone. He also suddenly looks much younger, possibly because his uniform jacket is open, and his stance is more casual.

Every photographs tells a story, the old adage goes. It’s a wonderful cliché, it’s a horrible cliché, and it’s most certainly not true. What stories do these photographs of my grandfather tell me? Having looked at them for so long now (a few years) I’m still not an inch closer to knowing anything about the man. He loved music, I wrote. How would I know that? All I can really know from the photographs is that he knew how to competently hold an instrument and, possibly, play it. Everything else I added on top.  read more

ART: Liu Xiaodong

Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction

January 4, 2013 § Leave a comment


Extraordinary images have been discovered hidden beneath two 500-year-old paintings at the National Portrait Gallery.

A version of The Flagellation of Christ has been found on the canvas underneath a portrait of Thomas Sackville, the Tudor statesman and poet.

A portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster and secretary, is thought to have been painted on wooden blocks previously used for a depiction of the Virgin and Child. The images were revealed with infra-red reflectography and X-radiography during a five-year study at the gallery into the working practices of Tudor artists.

This has allowed the images to be seen underneath layers of paint without disturbing the main works. Experts are hopeful of making further discoveries when other Tudor paintings are X-rayed as part of their conservation.

Dr Tarnya Cooper, chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery, said: “It has been really exciting to discover these images beneath portraits. The re-use of wooden panels is an example of Tudor recycling, which was an essential part of life in the past. And yet, the people in the portraits painted over the top were perhaps unlikely to have known the panels were second-hand.

“In the case of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Protestant spymaster with the Roman Catholic image of the virgin and child beneath, you do wonder if the artist might be enjoying a private joke at the expense of the sitter.”  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Ellen Rogers

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