Book Review: “I see around me tombstones grey” by Stefano Marchionini

Books, Feature, Pictures, Spotlight

Stefano Marchionini is a photographer who has always engaged me by the range and quality of his work. Whether shooting in color or black-and-white, a very intimate and relatable quality comes across that never seems to dwindle after repeated viewings. Marchionini recently released a self-published book titled, I see around me tombstones grey, that focuses on his relationship with his parents after being away for an extended amount of time and the feeling of “home” that his parents bring to him, even when the physical locations of “home” may have changed.

The book is a strong testament to what smart editing and simple design can do to allow for images to speak for themselves and breathe. The pacing of the book is evenly spread between sequences that build to a sense of short-lived intimacy; short-lived, because as soon as one may start to feel a sense of nostalgia or love take form, a reminder of the fragility of life is suddenly thrown in. The finite quality of our relationships with those we love is a hard universal truth that Marchionini reflects upon throughout the book.

Conversely, the imagery often rejoices in the lighter and mundane moments between the photographer and his parents. An image titled, “my father in the garden,” shows Marchionini’s father working in a garden that seems to slowly engulf him despite all of his attempts at pruning. It is an action that seems important while doing but one that in the scope of things, really doesn’t matter as the garden will outlive us all. Subtle reflections like these build upon the theme of the book to guide the viewer through their own thoughts and feelings, a trip that requires multiple visits to really grasp what is being said, but is luckily made easy through the craft of the photographer.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED and please check out more of Marchionini’s work on his website and flickr.

Book Review: Chris Berntsen

Books, Feature, Interview, New Zine, Pictures, Spotlight

I was driving around New Orleans with no real destination, when I passed a guy on a bicycle, he looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. A few minutes later, I realized it was Chris Berntsen, this only solidifies his somewhat mythical creature status. He does what I try to do, only he succeeds. He seems to constantly be in transit, he consistently makes new work, & is one of the nicest people I have come to know in recent years. We interviewed him about a year ago & since then he has had shows in Montreal, New Orleans, & Philadelphia, & released a new book “The Ritual of Nothingness.”

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It come’s in a xerox cardstock sleeve, black & white with a beautifully cyan out of focus portrait, gold text scribbled across in messy cursive. As I pull the book from the sleeve, I almost immediately realize, he has accomplished in one book, what I have been trying with Empty Stretch releases for years; he has kept the ethos & feel of a zine, yet translated it into book form. Photos taped in, sporadically arranged, collaged, notes written; he has stepped right inline behind the greats of Jim Goldberg’s “Raised by Wolves” & Ed Templeton’s “The Golden Age of Neglect.”

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chris-berntsen-emptystretch-02

I first got into Berntsen’s work because of his photos & videos of bands & his closeness to them & I have stayed interested in his work because of that proximity. You can look at these photos & know he cares about his subjects, some faces repeat, & you can actively see the transitions of his friends, whether physically or geographically. He has spent years with these people & this is their yearbook of sorts & I can only hope to one day produce a body of work so drenched in passion & so footnoted with care.

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If you haven’t previously seen his work, I urge you to get a copy of the book, as well as take another look at his website, he is constantly adding new photos & videos.

You can email him at chris@chrisberntsen.com or pick up a copy at Dashwood Books in New York.

Interview: Johnathon Kelso

Feature, Interview, Pictures

Johnathon Kelso‘s photographs have been a source of inspiration for me in more ways than one over the years. I was drawn to his work about two years ago when I found his Flickr page in my own search for Southern identity in contemporary photography. Kelso’s pictures exude a lot of my own ideas regarding a sense of place down here. Vibrancy, intimacy, (Kelso makes friends with the landscape, he knows where to go, and the people around it, he knows how to talk to his subjects), sitting, listening, and, for me, a genuine understanding of the importance of Christian ideals. His photographs all come down to witnessing. And he does it so well. Kelso’s at his best when he photographs the Sacred Harp singers, of which is he is not only a participant but an observer of the beauty that fills the rooms when voices blare. You can almost hear it. You can certainly feel it. I was hesitant to contact Kelso at first, as he’s done a plethora of interviews about all this over the years, but I’m glad I did.

fts, "I Want to Die A-Shouting"
fts, “I Want to Die A-Shouting”

Empty Stretch: Age/Location/Three favorite things in life:

Johnathon Kelso: I’m 29, I live in Atlanta, Georgia. My three favorite things are my mother, my dog, and the Trinity (cheated a bit on that last one.)

ES: What are the Sacred Harp Singers? How did you first get started with photographing I Want to Die A-Shouting?

JK: Sacred Harp singers are people just like you and me – anyone can sing this music. Both young and old alike for many generations have came together and sang these praises to God. Sacred Harp or “shape-note” singers refers to those who commonly sing from a popular hymnal like the Sacred Harp, or something similar that uses shape note notation to aid along in the sight reading process. It’s full throated singing, bringing people from all different walks of life together. You don’t have to be classically trained or have a pretty voice, you just need to be willing to have some fun and do some singing. I had been singing for a good while before I started this body of work. It took a lot for me to put down my song book long enough to do anything else but sing. It’s funny too, because once I started photographing at singings, it was never the actual singing that I was interested in. I wanted folks to see the love Sacred Harp singers have for one another and the joy that comes from these times we spend singing. In doing so, the visual work was taken away from the hollow and square and to more intimate settings like the back pew of the church where a mother would be teaching her son to sing, or drawing near with friends to sing at the bedside of those passing away. I wanted to soar above the music and tradition a bit and get to the hearts of the people who join together in song.

fts, "I Want to Die A-Shouting"
fts, “I Want to Die A-Shouting”
fts, "I Want to Die A-Shouting"
fts, “I Want to Die A-Shouting”

ES: I acquaint singing in a group like that to the act of photography itself. You really do bear a lot of yourself out to the public, more or less, and in a way that’s somewhat immediate. How do people respond to you when you ask to make their picture?

JK: I reckon people always surprise you and you can get a handful of different reactions throughout a day. Oftentimes at singings people are familiar with me wielding my camera around and it gives me a chance to talk to people a little better and get to know them. Outside that arena though, reactions are always of mixed degree. People in the south are always wanting to understand what I see in them or their surroundings that is worth while. I’ve gotten into the habit of giving my camera to strangers and have them look through the viewfinder to see for themselves what might be beautiful.

ES: What are your favorite songs to sing?

JK: If we are talking Sacred Harp jams, I tend to lean towards the minor tunes or songs with poetry that draws my mind back to where it needs to be. One of my favorite’s in the Denson book, 397 The Fountain, goes – “There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Immanuel’s veins; And sinners plunged beneath that flood, Lose all their guilty stains.” Those just aren’t words you hear sung in most churches these days.

 

fts, "I Want to Die A-Shouting"
fts, “I Want to Die A-Shouting”

ES: What does it mean to be a Christian working in the art world?

JK: As I mature in what it means to know Jesus, I struggle with how being a Christian not only affects this arena of my life, but all aspects of living in general. In the past couple of years I’ve wrestled a lot with trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian man holding a camera. God has given me a gift that allows me to approach strangers and interact with them on a personal level within minutes. Getting to know the people whose lives I’m documenting and hearing their stories is important to me. My hope is that whatever it is I’m doing, whether it be working with a camera or simply befriending people I meet, that they would come to know and see Jesus through our interaction together.

fts, "Ongoing"
fts, “Ongoing”

 

fts, "Mountain View"
fts, “Mountain View”

ES: What first attracted me to your work was that I didn’t see any of the normal aspects of the South that first come to viewers minds when they hear “Southern” — how do you contend with the rich history that precedes this part of America?

JK: Well, I guess people first have to realize is that the South, just like anything else is rapidly changing. Those iconic images that Eggleston and Christenberry shot are still out there, but there’s also so much more still on the table yet to be captured. Because the South is trying on different forms and the landscape is encountering small changes, even the oldest relics take on a new face. My eye will always go first to the images I’ve come to know and love about the south just like everyone else, but to stop looking there is to rob yourself of a great treasury that this part of America has on offer.

ES: When did you first start taking photographs?

I first starting making photographs in 2006 while living in Memphis, Tennessee.

JK: Can you describe your most recent body of work “Mountain View”? How did you approach photographing this town and its people?

Essentially, it’s the documentation of a town that was. Mountain View is the the only town in Georgia history to be abolished by the Georgia State legislature. Folk stories and rumors of why the town eventually disbanded differ from person to person but the arching theme that is prevalent in all stories pins the Atlanta airport’s destructive and expansive need for and more land as the cause to why thousands of residents were “bought out” and moved. Churches, schools, and businesses alike slowly but surely boarded up, shut down, and were bulldozed over to make room for the megaplex of the future which now stands proudly as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The work focuses on what remains, who remained, and who moved in.

 

fts, "Mountain View"
fts, “Mountain View”

After work everyday I’d drive just outside Atlanta and explore this place. It was fascinating to me that know one talked about it or knew it existed. Some of the new business owners I interviewed had no idea that the land they worked on (thought to be a bypass between Hapeville and Forest Park) used to be a town in itself. Beyond the kudzu, just feet beyond store fronts, were whole maps and grids of road and remnants of where people scratched out their livelihood. It seemed like a living tomb holding onto dying parts of itself and all the while harboring drifters and woebegone’s. Most people I photographed were quiet and wanted their privacy. A lot of folk never answered their doors no matter how many times I stopped by or left notes explaining my presence. It was very difficult tracking down the original community members to photograph, so a lot of what you see in the work are people living on the fringes of the place – people living in the woods in secret huts covered by brush or pastors holding onto small congregations and waiting for just the right time to sell their properties to the Airport buyers.

fts, "Mountain View"
fts, “Mountain View”

 

fts, "Ongoing"
fts, “Ongoing”

ES: What are you up to now? What does this year hold for you and your photography?

JK: I am still figuring that all out. I put down the camera for a bit after the Mountain View work and have only recently started shooting again. I’ve been thinking a lot about Grey Villet’s work in the late 60’s when he documented interracial marriage in the south and how that might look different today. If I shoot anything of value this year, I’d want it to be something like that.

Can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon, thanks, Johnathon!

Currently Untitled

Pictures, Projects in Progress

For about a year now I’ve been telling myself I’ve been taking pictures of nothing for nothing, and while that may or may not be true, I feel I’m finally done with whatever it is I have been doing. It’s time to move on and try something new at the very least and while I wish I could write something more profound about what this episode has taught me, I feel I may be more lost now then when I started (but that’s probably fine too). I’ve had a lot of ideas come and go over what to do with these images but as the amount of images kept growing, all that really remained of those ideas are little lists like this one:

  • Hymn Book For The Anxiety Induced
  • As I Was Chasing You
  • (Something with city slicker in title)
  • What A Mess…
  • Rejoice! That We’re Born Again
  • Nathaniel, This Is Your Life

Hopefully something more physical will come of all of this in the coming months but for now, here’s the tip of the iceberg.

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Henry Busby

Feature, Pictures

Henry Busby makes me nostalgic for people I don’t know & places I’ve never been. Portraits & objects that look abandoned, have a stillness that seems ready to break. There is an underlying tension that everything is about to change. emptystretch-henrybusby01 emptystretch-henrybusby02

emptystretch-henrybusby03 emptystretch-henrybusby04 emptystretch-henrybusby06 emptystretch-henrybusby07 emptystretch-henrybusby09

emptystretch-henrybusby05 emptystretch-henrybusby08Check out even more work on Busby’s webpage.

Matthew Swarts

Feature, Pictures

Matthew Swarts’ photographs unnerve me. They leave me nervous & wanting leave but I keep looking. His titles & subject matter play into peoples natural inhibitions & stereotypes, with series titled “Amsterdam,” “Rapture,” & “Open Water.” His photographic work has a veiled openness. Portraits of persons with disabilities look trapped in time & topless swimmers on the beach, skin & sand almost the same color, look confused & removed from where they are. Details of water swells pull at my longing for the ocean but bring up the fear of what’s beneath. Photography was originally intended for use of documenting what was there & Swarts skirts this line with great skill.

fts Open Water
fts Open Water
fts Amsterdam
fts Amsterdam
fts Mystery School
fts Mystery School
fts Amsterdam
fts Amsterdam
fts Rapture
fts Rapture
fts Mystery School
fts Mystery School
fts Open Water
fts Open Water

Please find more of Matthew’s work at his website.

Ben Huff

Feature, Pictures, Spotlight, Travel

Maybe it’s because it hasn’t stopped snowing for almost a week, but I can’t stop looking at Ben Huff’s series “The Last Road North.” Started as most projects, as a one off trip, Huff became obsessed with the road tracing the Alaskan pipeline. I usually hate when people do this, but the photos that follow, speak for themselves.

Please see the rest of the series on Ben’s website.

Feature: Tim Richmond

Feature, Pictures, Spotlight

I like Tim Richmond’s photographs because I like movies. This may seem like an easy realization but sometimes, that’s all life is. His portraits look like extras in the background of bar seenes & grocery stores, because that’s who they are. Alley ways, interiors, & landscapes look like scouting shots, & that’s a good thing. British by birth, Richmond spent years photographing the old oil towns of the American midwest & has made a beautiful document of the states.

fts Last Best Hiding Place
fts Last Best Hiding Place
fts Circus Left Town
fts Circus Left Town
fts Last Best Hiding Place
fts Last Best Hiding Place
fts Facade
fts Facade
fts Free Parking
fts Free Parking
fts Last Best Hiding Place
fts Last Best Hiding Place
fts Facade
fts Facade

Richmond also turns the lens on his native land in the series “Love Bits,” documenting the seaside towns along the Bristol Channel. The cinematic quality is far from lost on this series, & maybe it is because I’ve only been to England in the winter but damp parking lots & the lights of night hit a nostalgic chord in this yankee’s heart.

fts Love Bites
fts Love Bites
fts Love Bites
fts Love Bites
fts Love Bites
fts Love Bites

Please find more of Tim Richmond’s work on his website.

Cover Songs

Music, Pictures, Text


The Beatles feeling Buddy Holly-esque in “I’ll Be On My Way”

Picking up the bass guitar again has brought back a lot of not-so-distant memories of playing music with a band in high school. It was an escape of sorts to sit around with friends, play our parts to make it sound whole, and take on roles from the band whose songs we were playing. Getting to be loud was always fun, as well. I often go back and listen to those songs my friends and I recorded crudely over cassettes. I listen for nuances within the songs that mark our personalities, cohesiveness, and endless hours of practicing to get to the final product.

During my last two years of college, I was struggling with my own influences as a photographer. Instead of creating work that looked like my own, it was looking like some of my forebears’ like Bill Eggleston or Bill Christenberry. I was playing my part too well, with no style and very little individual voice or nuances that were a part of me. It’s a happy struggle that visual and performing artists contend with quite a bit. When there’s large and looming figures from the past, it’s nearly impossible to escape them. I don’t know if those influences ever go away. Do they need to?

Mark Steinmetz‘s books (“South Central”, “Greater Atlanta”, and “South East”) struck a chord with me within the library at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The three books are big and beautifully printed and I could hardly crane my eyes away from their pages. I was struck with how contemporary his photographs felt. I heard a little bit of my own voice within them as some of the portraits of teenagers felt closer in age to me, whereas other Southern places and people felt so distant to me and a bit caked on with nostalgia. Bill Eggleston’s pictures come to mind as a not-so-stark contrast. If there was a so-called New South, it might exist in Mark Steinmetz’s portraits. Flipping through “South Central” I saw vivid characters from Flannery O’Connor like a Mr. Tom T. Shiflet from Tarwater, Tennessee (or was it Singleberry, Georgia?) or a Hazel Motes, or a crooked bible salesman not even from a place but near a place.

The people in Steinmetz’s pictures feel the same way to me. Not really from a place, but near a place I recognize. As in a bit suburban, rural, and urban all at once. A place and person that feels immediately identifiable and altogether estranged. Steinmetz remarks in an interview with Ahorn Magazine about all this:

I’m not so sure my work has any single specific emotional effect – so much depends on the eyes of the beholder and where he or she might be at in their life or in their cultivation. The work is open to interpretation. I think my psyche is just wired a certain way and that I’m pretty much helpless to photograph things the way I do. It’s my nature. I should note a correction – I don’t just photograph the suburban world but rather a range that moves from the rural to the inner city.

In my eyes, a lot of South is like this. It’s not as much rural as it is suburban and not as much urban as it is rural in places. Especially in the late 20th and 21st century, it feels a lot easier to float in and out of all three realms. This sort of grey area becomes apparent in the sort of lost faces of Steinmetz’s portraits, especially some of the teenagers and young people. This is not a particularly Southern trait, but a kind of sweeping feeling of ennui among a generation. That lasting feeling of unrest, that gaze, stuck with me for a while.

I’m often intimidated when taking portraits but I think anything that scares you as a photographer somehow draws you to make its picture and find out what that thing is. For me it’s talking to people. It’s a rush and quite exciting sometimes getting to know another person and share in the picture-making process. Sometimes it’s fruitful, other times not so much. Mark Steinmetz’s own approach, in an interview with Joerg Colberg, to portraiture milled about in my head whenever I had my camera in hand.

I want to show something of people’s inner lives. I think for portraiture you have to be completely certain that you are interested in photographing this or that person. You can’t be wishy-washy in your motivation. You just have to know that you want to photograph this person and it’s a kind of knowing that eradicates any asking of “why?” My approach is fairly low-key. I don’t want to make waves. I’ll just ask something like “Can I photograph you as you are?” Sometimes I’ll give a little direction like “look over that way” but it’s never elaborate. Having an ability to focus and concentrate is necessary for making good portraits.

Sometimes my heart got to beating too much as I approached a person to make their picture, with fear of rejection also milling around in my head. Concentration was almost secondary to my cause. I just received a lot of film back from the lab and I wanted to share some of the portraits I made. I found myself this time around feeling a little more brazen and talkative with people as I built my confidence up. I certainly had more people included on the rolls of film than any other set so far.

After examining the scans, I acknowledge a decidedly Steinmetz influence. What felt strongest to me out of the photographer’s pictures was the inclusion of teenagers, kids, and young adults. Those pictures interested me the most and I subconsciously took it to heart. I started photographing couples, teenagers at homecoming football games, street preachers, and kids giving away puppies outside department stores. I’ve been carrying around a camera more and more with me, as well as my manners and thick skin for a “no.” I didn’t really receive any of the latter, possibly due to the former.

Since graduating, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to grow even more as a photographer from month to month or season to season. For me, that was making pictures of people. And while thinking about growth, I thought about a quote attributed to photographer Jerry Spagnoli on a bulletin board at the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina. “If it scares you, I want you out there doing it.” It stuck with me for a long time, as well as a lot of faces in Mark Steinmetz’s portraits. While scanning the negatives, I noticed some of the striking similarities between some of my favorite pictures of his and my own images.

I came back to the overarching and overpowering influences again. I think it comes down to what you know and what you envision of as an artist. Figuring that out takes a little time, but maybe in three years or so I’ve learned a little more about what that means and how to contend with my influences like Mark Steinmetz. I used to avoid it because it seemed nearly impossible to make any sort of photographic voice my own. Is everything a copy of a copy? I begrudgingly refuse to take up that notion despite some of the obvious artistic influences and influencees out there. Something has to beget something else and that’s what makes for progress in a medium. In a small way I feel I’ve started to do that because what my work looks like now will be a bit different in another few years and that’s how you cultivate a voice and signature. Maybe influences aren’t so bad to emulate now and again, even subconsciously. If anything, change comes from it, it’s got to, and it helps to know where your ideas began in the first place. It makes you a better artist in the end, I think. Like going from making two minute songs to whole album and portfolios of profound work on its own level. That’s what we strive for, anyway.