March 2009 Archives

pop tArt



Cindy Sherman: Monument Valley Girl

The artist's self portrait plays with our notions of an archetypal West.

Or Not. 

When Tyra Banks' "America's Next Top Model" sent its girls on the fashion photoshoot aired March 25th on the CW tv network, the assignment was to portray an immigrant's arrival at Ellis Island, complete with trunks, bunch-o-kids, and tired but forward-thinking dad in the background.  Those pictures will eventually hit the web (they aren't there at this writing's moment), and when they do, the article that I opened to in the Smithsonian Magazine this morning will go really quiet in comparison, although its writer Victoria Olsen and the NY MOMA show of her interest may not.

Cutting to the chase, ANTM's panel of judges were far more interesting in their critique of the models' efforts than Olsen is about Sherman's "unusual" picture of herself included in the exhibition, "Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West" .


This facsimile of the photo in question, which represents Sherman's copyrighted work from 1979, is enough to draw out my question below. (Let's face it, with the ambiguity of current copyight laws vis-a-vis the internet, the facsimile may be removed from this location by the time you read these words. But for now, it is here, and presumably can be retrieved at a click in the future from right here. ) 

What's at stake in the question is the understanding of why, not how, we pay attention to pictures in any given special way. Obviously, a museum creates a context that is designed to direct our attention in a certain way. But, so is ANTM. Victoria Olsen gets the Smithsonian to direct it even more. While we should note, by the way, that Sherman's picture is NOT a portrait of her Self, Olsen writes that Sherman wrote, 'The women in these photographs... "are on their way to wherever the action is"... ' And then Olsen wrote, "[Sherman] was interested in playing with stereotypes and visual clichés.

But then Olsen wrote for herself, " Sherman...didn't want to compete with the landscape...but this one shows her ability to do so. Her centrality in the foreground helps, but so does her pose, with a bare leg on the tree limb echoing the shape of the cliff behind her. The picture subtly suggests a relationship between women and nature that is missing from the generic Western landscape." Okay, I can go along with the bit about what's missing. But the bit about the bare leg echoing the cliff? Pointless. So, The Question: why bother to trump up this detail, when the important detail is that Sherman is off-handedly sensual or inexplicably free from any concerns, in a way that is interesting because it is either faux innocent or sincerely romantic? (Also, you have to pretend that you don't feel the stagecoach waiting just outside the frame of the image.) The leg-cliff thing has nothing whatsoever to do with Sherman's competitiveness with the landscape. Olsen was on the right track initially, then for some reason jumped the track.

Whatever the reason was, the result is the most aggravating thing about art criticism: criticism that shoots for marketing and does a bad job. What used to be the most aggravating thing was obscurity on the academic side and marketers posing as critics on the entertainment side. (My own crimes always tended towards the former, but I've been saved by television. America's Next Top Model publishes their immigrant pix on the web, which I link to and promote as my vindicating evidence that I've reformed.) I think Sherman herself knew, comfortably, that these pictures she made called "film stills" (This one is Untitled Film Still #43) meant dealing with the way men decided to portray women to everyone, or otherwise, the way women decided to portray women for men. Olsen wrote, "She says she was interested in playing with stereotypes and visual clichés."

I have no doubt that Sherman felt no need to amplify her effort beyond just those words; they're enough. And so this is why the picture is no more nor less than ANTM's portfolio of shots. What is different, really, is that having MOMA show a picture instead of "The CW" network showing one is an act of contextual decorum that squeezes the picture for some meaning that can be had in the heat of the viewing moment, created by the context. Now I want to see the Sherman picture on a modeling contest show, and I want to see the ANTM girls in MOMA.


ellis_london_gallery_primary.jpgLondon of 'America's Next Top Model' in the Ellis Island photo shoot

Credit: Brian Edwards/Pottle Productions Inc

It doesn't stop there, though, this whole business of hinting at the stories of women in these vignettes. However, some evidently have less risky stories than others.


SylviaPlachy_CypressHillCemetery_2462171250_5a8d6a59cb_o.jpgCopyright: Sylvia Plachy, "Cypress Hill Cemetery, 1986" 


Sui Generis. Ish.


Documentary landscape, when focused on buildings, is essentially portraiture. But the issue is open as to whether the building is modelling or not. Because it can be seen in many ways, the specific sighting of the building means that it can have a variety of apparent en situ personae. In this case, the actual building has become more and more anonymous and "unseen" by its passersby due to its loss of status as a functioning location, crushed by a fallen economy. But in this appearance, it very much reaches out to get attention, for whatever it is worth.


HighStreet-Comps.jpgThe matter-of-factness of the view suggests that there is no special effort to find any meaning beyond the surface. But the reality of the portrait is that the surface is constructed, not just found, and that construction results in the building's persona.   

So again, the result is that the picture is a portrait, not just a document. The purpose of the portrait is to invent the persona with the facts in the picture. The above deconstruction of some of the structure is easily seen in the integrated composition, but it initially hides somewhat as it is presented merely as more facts about the building, en situ.



Copyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder





With this place, native funk and flash sets the stage exactly as the people need it. The legendary BEST store chain strategized its way to an effect not different in any important way from the implied archaeology on display here.

Copyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder





Without snooping around, we can't know exactly why the custodians of this building did what they did with it. But in theway that they left it, the building portrays itself, stepping up to the occasion of being seen.

The anonymity of it all -- the sameness of the colorless cars, the blank storefronts, the indifferent sky -- all are foils to the facade of the big box's earnest hand-crafted pose.

Copyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder

Taxonomy has its rewards


The May 14th New York City Beard and Mustache Championships was a rousing success, sticking to its announced date and location and thereby narrowly missing the sidewalk stampede of terrified contenders for "America's Next Top Model".

To become the hairy champ, this handy iconograph announcing contest categories was essential to your successful registration. No age limit was expressed by any of the uniquely typed  pictures but the nature of the contest implied at least 16 years or older.Still, the moms of numerous disappointed youngsters fenced them off from the registration tables with the decisively rhetorical comment, "Where do you think you're going in that getup?"

Taxonomy has its rewards.



Poster image is property of Wondermark and will be removed from here if necessary. Find it again via BoingBoing or Wondermark. Meanwhile, we're on the lookout for beard photography and will be visiting barbershops to get a grip on what it takes for these promotional images to convince someone to adopt the looks. It seems that when it comes to plumage, beards gave way to hats, which gave way to nothing much at all until the Afro, then rockstar bling then bodyart.





We noticed in the car last week that, thanks to the incessant development projects around town, there is hardly any such thing as a "skyline" anymore.


LeVirage-IMG_1005BW.jpgCopyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder

The Finish




I heard two stories about this place. . 

In one, it's a whorehouse. In the other, it's a haunt of the rich and famous


During its shutdown, over the last year or more, street forces amped the place in a way that erases the difference between the stories.




























































Copyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder

Double Negative


Scott Pendergrast, star of the #1 ranked Westminster Wildcats soccer team, taking a break, with a lead, in the very early seventies.




Virtually none of the contextual information supplied above with the picture could be determined from the picture. But the picture's purpose is to be the official placeholder for the conceptual convergence of those various data that were proposed. In this case the data were entirely truthful, but it could have been entirely fictional -- in which case we might recognize the picture doing its job as the cover of a novel or the last frame from a film. What is in common for all cases is that the picture is offered as a token of a proposed memory -- a souvenir. Ironically, inexperienced tourists may look for souvenirs to tell them what memories they are supposed to have -- the very device that genre portraiture and propaganda have in common.

Digital negative of a paper negative

Copyright 1971 Malcolm Ryder

Getaway Car






 Copyright 2007 Malcolm Ryder

That Car on Saturday


(New Drawing)



 Copyright 2009 Malcolm Ryder