December 10, 2012 | by Eric Banks
I first noticed the work of Henry Horenstein when he published his 1987 book, Racing Days, a photographic diary in gritty black and white, compiled largely in the now mostly defunct northeastern thoroughbred circuit. I knew his name at the time to be vaguely familiar from other contexts, though I hadn’t yet made the connection to the body of work he’d done beginning in the 1970s of the world of country music. Seeing the photographs in the new edition of Honky Tonk published together, I finally got it—I’d been admiring these pictures of bluegrass pickers and hillbilly crooners for years without realizing their author. Horenstein captured the extremes of the country-western world over the years, from the Hee Haw familiars onstage at the Grand Ole Opry to old-time cult favorites like the Blue Sky Boys; from seventies country-pop meteors like Jeannie C. Riley to such bona-fide C&W stars as Conway Twitty and Porter Wagoner. But what makes Honky Tonk such a terrific document are the photographs Horenstein took of the places where the music was heard—legendary joints like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville and long-gone venues like the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston—and the regulars inside.
With the republication of Honky Tonk, I spoke to Horenstein, now based in Boston and a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, about how a nice young guy from the University of Chicago got involved in documenting what the “King of the Strings” Joe Maphis summed up as the “dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music.”
October 4, 2010 | by Eric Banks
There might never be a more bountiful kingdom of photography than that established under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration and ruled by the former economist Roy Stryker, some 171,000 negatives made to document Depression America between 1935 and 1942. Though he was no photographer (Gordon Parks joked that he couldn’t even load a camera), Stryker pulled no punches during his reign. “I never took a picture,” he once wrote, “and yet I felt a part of every picture taken. I sat in my office in Washington and yet I went into every home in America. I was both the Stabilizer and the Exciter.”
He might have added the Excisor. Scattered among the Library of Congress’s FSA archive are curious reminders of Stryker’s autocratic touch: For the first three years of the project, he registered his disapproval of an image—whether to make an example out of those he thought had wasted valuable film or out of some darker fit of spite—by taking a hole puncher to the negative, ensuring that it wouldn’t be subsequently printed. It didn’t seem to matter who took the picture. Walker Evans got holes punched in a handful of negatives; so did John Vachon, a lowly FSA clerk at the time who was learning the trade on weekends. If Stryker’s one-man photographic death panel was democratic in judgment, it was sporadic in execution. In some negatives the holes are perfunctorily, even apologetically clipped along the borders of the negative; in others, Stryker seemed almost wrathful, going straight for the jugular by obliterating offending faces, necks, or buttocks.
In his video “Punctured,” a reformatted version of his 2009 film “Killed,” the LA-based artist William E. Jones has performed a sort of perverse resurrection of Stryker’s perforated negatives, a Lazurus act that’s doubly miraculous because it uses the powers of video animation to raise up the quite-dead world of documentary photography. (The video is currently featured in an exhibition at Andrew Roth gallery in Manhattan.) From 100 perforated images he located in the Library of Congress archives, Jones has produced 4,500 digital files at different scales of enhancement and organized these into a hypnotically syncopated, nearly five-minute-long looped movie. The structural logic is provided by Stryker’s hole itself: each of the hundred images appears for a total of around three seconds, beginning with an enlarged, screen-filling close-up of the negative space of Stryker’s hole, a giant black spot that then smoothly and very rapidly appears to recede in size as the surrounding photograph comes into view. Then, bang, another Stryker reject appears, with the same fast zoom-out, from hole to whole.
August 26, 2010 | by Eric Banks
This is the second installment of Banks' culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
12:30 P.M. I put in a few bets in advance on the Saratoga card and head for the eye doctor to get new lenses for my glasses (which would have been a boon to have in place before the trip to Philadelphia and DC). I’ll be lens-less for a half hour or so but I print out anyway a Guardian article by Tom McCarthy on “technology and the novel” that I want to read after finishing C. The book had already dashed my fears that post-Remainder McCarthy had turned art-world prankster at best, experimentalist court jester at worst. The profile’s a funny and smart piece when I squint over it an hour later. C begins at a turn-of-the-century school for the deaf with the burial of the protagonist’s sister while the dead girl’s father, a wireless communications buff, wants to rig the bier with a device so that she might signal if she’s not really dead. McCarthy mentions an anecdote about Alexander Graham Bell—his father also ran a school for the deaf, he also had a brother who died, and Alexander entered into a promise with his surviving sibling (who died early as well) that should either of them succomb, the other would create a device to receive transmissions from beyond the grave. He probably would have invented the telephone anyway, of course, and “remained a skeptic and a rationalist throughout his life—but only because his brothers never called: the desire was there.” I’m not sure I buy it, but C makes me feel like I should.
3:30 P.M. Get back home after picking up the new glasses, and I’m glad I read the essay while I waited for them—the replacement lenses make me feel like I’m seeing the world through a goldfish bowl, and I get a terrible headache as a result. Plus, I lost my bets. In the mail is the new Jonathan Franzen which I put off reading with my funky vision. It’ll have to wait until next week, which means I’ll have to make up a bunch of lies if anybody asks me what I think of it. I’d rather bullshit my way through than face the guilt that I won’t actually turn to it until I’m on vacation.
8:00 P.M. Head is still throbbing so I cancel plans to go see the Tilda Swinton flick I Am Love (the only film it seems anybody’s talking about these days) and turn on The Wild One on TMC instead. I feel like I’ve seen it a million times but this seems like the first time I’ve noticed the actor who plays one of Lee Marvin’s sidekicks—who is that guy? A quick IMDB check turns up Timothy Carey—his face is familiar because he plays the racist psychopath in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing who shoots a horse, Red Lightning, during a stakes race, setting off the racetrack heist. Man, where have I been? I make a note to rent Carey’s only directorial effort, The World’s Greatest Sinner, where he plays a crazed rock n’ roller who turns into a Jimmy Swaggert–style evangelist and is struck down by God Himself in the final scene.
Read More »
August 25, 2010 | by Eric Banks
11:30 A.M. One of my favorite things about going to Philadelphia is that when you’re disgorged from the train you step into 30th Street Station. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment—how many films1 have been made about the City of Brotherly Love that find some way or another to use the old Beaux-Arts structure as a set? I’m not sure what it says about a city that every filmmaker wants to signify Philadelphianess with the very place you’d pass through if you were either coming or going—or for that matter, why so many Philly films choose to stage their most extravagant moments of murder and witnessed mayhem in this relatively quiet corner of the city—but at any rate I get a little thrill2 of walking through the station, so much more humanly scaled (if still monumental in its own way) than Grand Central or Union Station but losing nothing of the rustle of urbanity in the process.
11:50 A.M. It’s a quick hop by cab to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first leg of our seaboard-descending art trip. It’s not so much a staycation—with the price of an Amtrak ticket down and back, plus a night among all the foreign tourists at a Dupont Circle hotel chain, we could as well have flown somewhere. We were lured by the recently restored Gross Clinic, on view for the first time since it’s been spiffied up by its new owners, who rallied to keep the canvas in Thomas Eakins’s hometown when the Walmart heirs were trying to buy it and exile it to an Arkansas museum, and the promise of an Arte Povera installation. The latter turns out to be a bit overblown—really just a couple of ho-hum works thrown in to a room alongside great but familiar pieces by Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris. Povera, indeed.
12:30 P.M. The Duchamp gallery is, happily, nearly empty of other visitors. Our companion, a Yale art historian who did his dissertation on Duchamp, seems almost deliriously placid sitting in front of "The Large Glass." You don’t associate that sort of copacetic plenitude with looking at Duchamp, and it’s sort of marvelous to behold. “It never disappoints me,” he says in a church voice. I’ve never had that experience with "The Large Glass," though "Étant donnés," no matter how many times you’ve peeped through the hole in the doorway, never loses its filthy staying power and fresh smell of mystery. What other creaky and canonical artworks of the last one hundred years can you say that about? I still feel like a perv squatting so slightly to look through the peephole at the splayed, spread-eagle figure and the twinkling faux waterfall. It’s almost obligatory afterward to cut back through the Brancusi gallery and have a look at the plain, unmarked door allowing maintenance access to the piece. The sight is a purgative for the eyes.
2:00 P.M. After a bite in the commissary, we catch the trolley to the museum’s annex, where "The Gross Clinic" is the star attraction. There’s a dismayingly large crowd on hand to see Eakins’s bloody study from 1875, which until a few years ago was off-the-beaten trail at the Jefferson Memorial Hospital (where Gross, a celebrated military surgeon during the Civil War, held his classes). There’s a lot of documentation on the walls about the painting’s history and how its subject matter—the surgery to remove a diseased bit of femoral bone, which pre-Gross would have entailed amputation of the leg—revolted audiences in 1876, when it was excluded from the city’s Centennial Exhibition. I hoped there’d be a picture of how it was in fact installed at the time, hanging at the end of an art-meets-life prefab model army hospital tent, neatly and almost hilariously in situ, but no such luck.
The canvas now has far more commodious digs—almost its own mini-chapel, where it’s flanked by Eakins’s other surgical masterpiece, "The Agnew Clinic3." And after the restoration effort, it’s that much clearer just how strange a picture it is. Before, you saw Gross holding his scarlet-flecked scalpel upright like a paintbrush, you made out the scene of the operation, with its attending surgeons wielding their blood-tipped knives like pencils4. But so much else was clouded and clotted in a bizarrely blah electrically colored background glare—the tonal registers were just weird, almost fecklessly unresolved. Now you can really pick up the dark clarity of the whole background, including the image of the figure just behind Gross, who’s taking notes and whose grip on his pencil ramifies that of the doctors going after the rotting bone. The sharply foreshortened patient’s fuzzy blue socks jut out at you all that more dramatically and make a clean rhyme against the ether-soaked pillow over his head. And the guy lingering in the hallway—Gross’s son—behind the theater, swallowed in a red haze, is a lot more fiendishly integrated into the scene. I first saw the canvas when it was in the Met’s Eakins retrospective in 2001, and this was like seeing a totally different picture.
When we had dinner a couple of nights earlier with an art historian who has a book coming out on the “pleasure dairies” of the ancién regime (the best known being Marie-Antoinette’s white marble Hameau at Versailles), she complained about the recent exhibition tendency to make a fetish of the tech-wiz conservationist. Philadelphia’s played up its efforts to clean Eakins—a misnomer, since what they did in essence was to add a level of varnish that the old medical hospital canvas doctors stripped away to try and make the gloomy tones brighter, mucking up the balance in the process. They’ve clarified it strangely enough by making it more oblique. In a lot of the press notices, the conservators make a fascinating observation that their restoration process can easily be undone by future generations if viewing tastes should change—what they’ve got now is a painting that is more attuned to the way nineteenth-century viewers looked at canvases, though most nineteenth-century folks couldn’t stand to look at them. Could you do the same thing with literary translation—build in some sort of tacit statement that the new translations of Proust or Tolstoy or Kafka that you’re reading are only provisional, or for that matter, opt to retranslate them backward, into their earlier and less contemporary idioms? I’ve just read a passage in Tom McCarthy’s new novel C where Egyptologists are discussing a dig and talk about the fact that what they drag up aren’t pure artifacts but the record of earlier plunderers, Romans, Arab, even pharoaic. Where the latter-day architects make their historical mistake is in thinking that their own moment is somehow the definitive one. Instead, it’s just another chapter in a long book. I think McCarthy would approve of "The Gross Clinic’s" restoration relativism. Read More »
- I immediately think of Witness, and Trading Places, and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. (I can’t recall whether there was a 30th Street Station scene in Philadelphia, but it seems to be on AMC every five minutes, so I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough, but if there wasn’t, there should have been.)
- Do Philadelphians have the same feeling, or does it communicate this little charm only for the visitor?
- While we’re standing there, a couple of kids in T-shirts and white gloves come out of the woodwork to make a show of dusting the frame.
- The pencil-brush contrast is one of the palpable dramas, of drawing pitted against painting, taking place in the canvas; once you know that Eakins’s father was a successful calligrapher and have seen enough Eakins to register how frequently he tried to couple both graphic perspective and painterly chiaroscuro to produce his own brand of realism, the violence of the operating room gets a lot more Oedipal.