I reviewed Steven Dunn's wonderful book Potted Meat some time ago, well before I had taken to blogging about cover art. Although thinking about cover art critique was not on my radar at the time, nevertheless I did feel compelled to comment on this glorious image by Angel Whisenan, a still life arrangement of some kind of organ meat (looks like pig stomach to me but I could be wrong) and bones. This kind of thing is, of course, quite in keeping with my own still life work, so I kind of can't help but love this image. I love the textures in this shot and the soft light falling off to deep black shadows. I love Whisenan's placement of the bones; the two skulls at the base of the piece almost suggest feet and make me think about this as a sort of abstract representation of a figure. Here Whisenan has taken the concept of what the highly processed potted meat "food product" actually is (namely, a big mess of organ meats and other scraps of the meat industry) and she has distilled it into a form that is readily recognized by the viewer. Beautiful stuff.
The second instalment in my series of cover art reviews is Tom Waits' 1985 album Rain Dogs. Waits is a bit of a departure from my usual musical diet of creepy dark ambient and weirdo experimental, but this is an interesting piece of music accompanied by an absolutely wonderful and perfectly matched photo by Anders Petersen.
Over a career spanning decades Waits has honed to near perfection an image of himself as a kind of vagabond poet who sleeps in ditches and stirs his brandy with a rusty nail and croons passionately in a gravely voice about long lost loves. He's kind of like Bukowski meets Captain Beefheart meets a 1920s train-hopping tramp. Along with Swordfishtrombones and Frank's Wild Years, Rain Dogs is an album about the urban dispossessed and, fittingly, the album was composed during a two-month stint in a basement room in a rough part of Manhattan.
The cover art for Rain Dogs is by photographer Anders Petersen, whose work I greatly admire and who I've written about previously on this blog. The shot comes from Petersen's famous work Cafe Lehmitz, which life at a dive bar on the Reeperbahn in the late 1960s with stunning intimacy. Petersen's subjects were on the fringes of society: many were drunks, addicts, sex workers, etc. In other words: Petersen's subjects were precisely the kinds of people Waits' songs seek to give voice to.
In my inaugural cover art review I suggested three criteria for a piece to work: relevance, consistency, and quality. I intended these as vague guidelines and I can certainly imagine a successful piece that flouts one or all of these "rules". That being said, the cover of Rain Dogs fits my criteria as perfectly as I can imagine. The image is relevant thematically and consistent tonally, as is evident simply from understanding the context of both the record and the photo. But the relevance goes deeper when we note how much the man on the cover looks like Tom Waits. This guy is absolutely not Tom Waits -- the couple depicted are named Rose and Lily -- but the resemblance is so striking as to almost be a bit creepy. The last criteria, quality, is also undeniable, at least for me. I love Petersen's work and I love this image, I love how intimate the moment is, how real the emotion is. I love the weird crop on the laughing woman's face. I love the odd peacefulness of the man, perhaps drunk and near falling asleep on her chest. It's all fucking perfect.
I had a great time at the Bazaar of the Bizarre yesterday. Thanks so much to the organizers and also everybody who came out to chat or buy stuff or just look at all the fun creepy wares on display! It really means a lot to small indie arty weirdo like me to have so many cool people come out. Your support -- both moral and financial -- is what keeps folks like me in the business of photographing corpses and taking severed pig's head dic pics. You're all amaze-balls!
I can't emphasize enough how great it was to see so many people out! I was honestly stunned at the crowd. Although Hamilton is smaller by about an order of magnitude, I'd guess that crowd yesterday was comparable to what we had at the Halloween Bazaar in Toronto. (Certainly my sales yesterday were comparable, if that's any metric.) So... To my mind this constitutes rigorous mathematical proof that Hamilton is 10 times more artsy than Toronto. Science!
This was likely my last show of the season; from December on it gets a bit cold to be out Art-Crawling. I will, of course, be back doing shows starting next spring at which point I should have some new stuff ready that I'm excited about. In the meantime, I'm of course still selling prints through my website so send me an email (email@example.com) or reach out via social media if you're interested in anything.
Thanks again, you're all awesome Hamilton!
Following my recent discussion of the importance of cover art for books, music albums, etc, I've decided to start a new series of blog posts where I "critique" various examples of cover art, both good and bad. The same caveat applies to both my cover art critiques and my book reviews: these posts are just my personal feeling about the work under consideration, they should not be construed as anything more substantive than that, and they are certainly not meant as scholarly academic criticism.
Since this is going to be my inaugural cover art review, I suppose it makes sense to try to establish some ground rules for what makes a "good" piece of cover art. I think it makes sense to ask that the image on the cover be meet the following three criteria.
- Relevance: The cover art should make some kind of sense in the context of the book. While I certainly wouldn't argue that the art piece should be a literal representation of something from the narrative, I do think that it should at least be relatively straightforward for somebody who's read the book to understand why this image is meant to accompany the text.
- Consistency: The general mood of cover art should match the tone and atmosphere of the story, so that a reasonable reader stumbling across this title on a book shelf could make a sensible educated guess about what kind of novel they're picking up.
- Quality: The cover image should be strong enough to stand on its own as an art piece, even when stripped of context and copy.
I would argue that this cover of Story of the Eye, designed and shot by Gent Sturgeon and Rex Ray, succeeds on all three counts. First let's consider relevance. An image of an eyeball is an obvious choice for this novella, of course. But I'd argue that the relevance of this photograph goes deeper than just "behold an eyeball". The eye on the cover seems to be floating in some kind of admixture of fluids (perhaps two different paint colours?). It's not entirely clear what's going on there but, to me at least, the swirling background of the image suggests a mixture of bodily fluids, while the yellowish colour palate suggests urine. This is certainly in keeping with the contents of Bataille's infamous work of erotica; the story involves quite a few scenes involving play involving urine and semen.
Next we come to the question of tonal consistency. I think that's also a dead match here. The novel is dark and surreal and nasty at times, and this is exactly the kind of tale that the cover art suggests we should expect. I love the fact that it's not entirely clear what's going on with the out-of-focus background that the eyeball is floating in. The mystery of this image is perfectly in keeping with the somewhat inscrutable nature of Bataille's narrative.
Finally, we have the question of whether this image is strong enough to work as a stand-alone piece of art. For me, again, the answer is an enthusiastic yes. I love this image; I'd happily buy a print and hang it on my wall if I could. So... Win, win, and win!
A little while back I posted a review of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, wherein I made the mistaken claim that Ketchum (or his publisher) had intentionally paired this very upsetting and adult story with a cover that made the book look as though it were intended for a YA audience. I found the incongruence between the goofy cartoonish cover art and the disturbing contents of the novel to be so striking that I imagined it must reflect intentional effort to produce a subversive art piece. It turns out I was wrong in this interpretation. Nevertheless, I left my original review largely intact because I think it's a good launching point for an argument I've been wanting to make for a while: the choice of cover art on books (and music albums) matters.
I suspect this is going to be an unpopular opinion; at some level it sounds like I'm literally arguing that one should judge a book by its cover, contrary to what your mother taught you. Indeed, most of my friends whom I've discussed this with seem to disagree with me, so I'm going to be careful to emphasize that I am absolutely not arguing that cover art is more important than the contents of a novel, nor am I trying to claim that good cover art could salvage a terrible book, nor am I going to claim that terrible cover art ruins a great book. What I do want to say is that I think cover art matters more than most authors and publishers seem to think it does, it influences the branding of the art piece, and it influences the way a reader approaches the book. For this reason I think the publishing industry might do well to consider putting a bit more care into the visual aspect of the presentation of their product.
Before proceeding I should also mention the obvious caveat here that the contents of this blog are just my own personal opinions, these posts are not supposed to be rigorously researched academic arguments, nor are my "reviews" and "critiques" intended to be anything more than just my own personal thoughts and feelings about the work I'm discussing. (Another caveat: the argument that follows is probably much stronger when we're discussing physical media than when we're talking about mp3 files or e-books.)
With all that being said, let's get a little bit abstract for a moment. Most people tend to draw a strong distinction between those things that influence the actual value of a commercial product (say the quality of ingredients in a candy bar) and things that influence only the perceived value of the product (like changing the packaging of the candy bar). And this distinction seems sensible: who cares about the packaging of your food, it's the taste that matters, right? But, while it may seem counter intuitive, there is actually a pretty sensible argument to be made that the distinction between "real" and "perceived" value is more or less meaningless. There are loads of examples and studies in advertising and economics to support this view. To make this position seem more plausible it's useful to consider the extreme example of a restaurant that smells of sewage and has human shit on the tables. Cleaning the place up only changes the perceived value of the meal, not the actually food quality. But ask yourself: does it really fucking matter how good the food tastes?
This kind of thinking is actually fairly well supported by data. There are lots of different studies out there but let's take, for example, this study where it was found that the same wine tastes better to participants when they are told it's more expensive. And this isn't just about the participants claiming that the ostensibly more expensive wine tasted better to fake being wine savvy. MRI measurements of participants' brain activity actually showed more activity in regions associated with reward. Telling your dinner guests that the wine is more expensive genuinely does make it taste better to them! Now, to be clear: this isn't magic and this marketing placebo effect has limits. This kind of placebo effect won't make a shit wine taste amazing, for example, as the researchers noted in their study. But it will make a good wine taste great. Rory Sutherland has some fun TED talks on the subject here and here.
The analogy with book cover art (or album cover art, or movie posters, or whatever) is straightforward. The contents of the book are generally treated as being the "real" value of the product, while the cover art influences only perceived value. I'm simply arguing that -- like the ambience in a restaurant or the packaging of a candy bar or the price tag on a wine bottle -- the choice of cover art has a subtle but real effect on the reader. My misreading of The Girl Next Door is an extreme example of this claim. Given what advertisers and economists know about perceived value, it seems weird to me that there is surprisingly little interest in taking full advantage of the potential for good, thoughtful cover art to influence a reader's impressions.
I bring all this up mostly because I'm endlessly surprised by how lazy a lot of publishers seem to be with cover art; there are lots of great books on my shelf that appear to have more-or-less randomly selected stock photography images as their covers. I don't want to compile an endless list of covers that I think are shitty, but how about a couple of examples to clarify the argument, shall we? I've already trash-talked the cover art for The Girl Next Door, so let's move on to a Nobel laureate:
Behold the cover of Samuel Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks! Everything about this "spooky silhouette ghost figure is spooky" image screams "stock photography". I have no idea how this is this is supposed to be related to the story. This cover kind of looks like something that should go on a book of ghost stories or zombie stories or something. Instead, the first story in the book concerns a peculiar young Irish fellow going about his day, reading Dante, buying mouldy cheese, burning toast, and eating lobster for dinner. Is that really the kind of reading experience that one would expect based on this cover art?
This cover for DeLillo's (wonderful) novel The Names is baffling to me. This is... a weirdly cropped part of a shot of a palm tree on a beach that's been flipped upside down? I've read this book 3 or 4 times and I don't know what the point of this image is. I guess this is supposed to be a shot of a beach in Greece, which is where much of the novel takes place. And I guess maybe the point of the weirdo choice of crop is that the narrator's world gets turned upside down? Maybe? But... The book is fundamentally about language... So what does this image have to do with that central theme?
DeLillo and Beckett are both very famous writers. Beckett won a fucking Nobel prize! It seems amazing to me that the publishers couldn't be bothered to put in the effort to make interesting cover art pieces to accompany their work. Again: I'm not saying these covers ruin the experience of reading those books. I'm saying that there's a missed opportunity to add some (perceived) value to the reading experience.
For the wine study I cited above, the punch line was that tinkering with the perceived value made a good wine taste even better. Here's my thing: it takes many many many hours to write and edit a good novel. If you can make the reader enjoy your book a bit more by simply taking the time to find a good piece of cover art, then why not do that?
Dear friends in Hamilton: I'll be at the Bazaar of the Bizarre on Sunday Nov 12 at 1221 Hughson St N, near James St N and Cannon. If you're in the area please come on out! There will be lots of cool weirdo vendors selling all manner of cool weirdo stuff. As always, I'll be selling framed prints and, as always, I carry stuff ranging from very small (4X6, 8X10, etc) up to very large (16X20, etc) so I usually have something that can accommodate most budgets. Come on out!
In my last post I talked about Jack Ketchum's 1989 horror novel The Girl Next Door. My review was almost entirely positive. I praised Ketchum for his technical prowess as an author, and also for the way he manages to get the reader inside the head space of Ruth and her children. While stories like this are not exactly fun to read, I do think this kind of literature is something that needs to exist. When sane people read about true stories like the Sylvia Lichens case their reaction is overwhelmingly to wonder "how can people do such things?" In my opinion this is not a question that objective journalism can answer, at least not in a satisfying way. I think the role of books like The Girl Next Door is to provide an answer that makes sense on an emotional level. Ketchum certainly accomplishes that goal in The Girl Next Door. Moreover, he does so without sensationalizing the misogynistic violence at the core of the story. So, yeah, this is not a fun read but it's definitely an accomplished book.
My reason for revisiting this review is to correct something: my claim that the book intentionally tries to misrepresent itself as YA fiction. I got the idea because, in my mind, everything about the presentation for this book makes it look like it's intended for children. The cartoonish "spooky tree is spooky" cover art reminds me of something you'd see on an R. L. Stine or Christopher Pike novel. I find the title font to be similarly cartoonish and cheesy, and the copy on the back cover only reinforces this impression. My interpretation was that Ketchum (or his publisher) were intentionally pairing this grim adult story with a goofy kid-friendly packaging because they were trying to make a subversive piece of art. This (erroneous) interpretation was bolstered by two things: (1) the fact that prose style would be accessible to a middle school student, and, (2) a comment Ketchum makes in the acknowledgements thanking the cover artist for "finally giving me the kind of cover I wanted".
When I posed on Facebook about this I quickly got some thoughtful push back from Sam Richard, a friend, an author, a reviewer at Splatterpunk Zine, and an editor at Weirdpunk Books. Sam pointed out three things:
- Ketchum almost certainly had no say in the cover art, marketing, back cover copy, etc, for this novel. All of that would have been handled by the publishers.
- YA horror fiction wasn't really the same cultural force in 1989 that it is today. Indeed, the earliest Goosebumps books are from 1992, several years after The Girl Next Door was released.
- The goofy cartoonish cover art for this book is actually pretty much standard for 80s paperback horror fiction.
In summary: I took the book out of proper historical context and I was ignorant about the aesthetic of 80s horror paperback fiction. I was thinking about this from the perspective of a reader first coming across the book in 2017, and this led me to over-interpret the choice of cover art. My bad! Sorry for the misleading post and thanks to Sam for schooling me.
I decided to leave my original review intact because I want to use that misinterpretation as a launching point for a future post about the importance of cover art on books and records. I hope to get to that soon.
Jack Ketchum's 1989 horror novel The Girl Next Door is a deeply disturbing and subversive piece of genre literature. The story -- based on the real torture/murder of a 16 year old girl named Sylvia Likens -- is simple enough. Sisters Meg and Susan lose their parents to a car accident and are left in the care of their aunt Ruth. The older sister, Meg, becomes a target for abuse and Ruth, with the help of her three underage children, tortures and murders the poor girl. The abuse begins with name calling and withholding of food, but quickly escalates to the long brutal set-piece that comprises the novel's third act. This is really the centrepiece of the novel, and in this final act Meg is tied up, force fed shit, urinated on, burned with cigarettes, raped, beaten, branded, doused in scalding hot water, and ultimately circumcised with a hot tire iron. So, yeah, this is not a fun read. If slogging through nearly a hundred pages of detailed descriptions of this kind of stuff isn't your cup of tea -- and I certainly wouldn't blame you if it isn't -- then you'd do well to sit this one out.
Now, I imagine a lot of readers will be turned off by the last paragraph, and I get that. But there are a number of things worthy of praise about this book. First off, while Ketchum pulls no punches and while his descriptions of Meg's torture are detailed and graphic, the novel never revels in violence against women. Nothing about what happens is fun or glorified in any way. Ketchum cuts right to the heart of the evil at the novel's core, and he manages to carefully strike a balance where the novel describes in detail the exploitation of a young woman, but never really feels like an exploitation piece. (That was my reading, anyway; I gather that some readers have come away with a different impression.)
The second thing worth praising Ketchum for is his technical prowess as an author. He handles this story with incredible skill. The novel feels simplistic and straightforward at times (more on that later) but this is not because the novel is straightforward, it's because Ketchum is such a good story teller that he makes writing like this look easy. This book is a page turner and every chapter drives the reader ever deeper into the darkness. With a different subject matter I'm convinced that Ketchum would be selling books at the level of James Patterson or Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling.
The story is told from the perspective of David, a young boy living next door to Ruth. David's raison d'etre in the novel is to bridge the gap between the audience (who are horrified by what transpires) and Ruth's kids (who are titillated by what transpires). David is something of a voyeur; he is neither an active participant in the torture, nor is he blameless. Ketchum uses David's ambiguous and shifting moral stance to let us get inside the headspace of Ruth and her boys and the novel does an impressive job of making their descent into madness understandable. Of course misogyny accounts for much of the horror, but Ketchum also wants to make a broader point about the cruelty of children, mob mentality, and a sort of Milgram-esque submission to the cruel will of an authority figure. If there is a morally redeeming reason for books like this to exist, I think that that reason is to provide an answer to the question "how could people do such a thing?" that arises whenever we read true stories like the Sylvia Likens case. This appears to be Ketchum's goal with The Girl Next Door and, for better or worse, he accomplishes the fuck out of that goal.
It should be mentioned that this is also one of the most subversive novels I've ever read. Everything about the book is designed to make it look like it's intended for a young adult / child audience. The book is intentionally misrepresented in such a way that a casual reader would mistake it for an R. L. Stine book. You get this sense from the cover art, of course, but also from the prose style. The chapters are all very short, most are only a few pages. The prose style is straightforward and easy to read. This book about about rape and torture and murder is quite conspicuously written at a sixth grade reading level. I can easily imagine somebody accidentally buying this for their kid expecting something along the lines of Goosebumps. This intentional misrepresentation of the novel is a big part of why it's so effective; even having read the synopsis on the back you just don't expect that the story will be as nasty as it really is. This feeling of surprise persists throughout the novel, even though it's abundantly clear where things are going already from even the first pages of the book.
This, finally, brings me to the deepest problem with the book. The fundamental tension is as follows. On the one hand Ketchum aims to deliver some deep adult insight into real life horrors like the Likens case. But, on the other hand, by choosing to structure the book like a piece of YA fiction, it can't help but feel somewhat superficial. I was left with mixed feelings about all this. We don't come away from the unpleasant experience of reading this book with any deep insight into the psychological origins of the misogyny and rape and violence on display. To be fair: perhaps the roots of all this evil aren't particularly deep. I sincerely doubt that the family who murdered Sylvia Lichens were particularly thoughtful or complicated people. That being said, I left this book feeling somewhat empty. It's a feeling I don't get when I read Hubert Selby Jr. or George Bataille or Denis Cooper, for example, although those authors have all handled similarly nasty stories.
So... There you have it. I'm hesitant to say I recommend a story like this but Ketchum has certainly accomplished something interesting here.
Update: My claims about the novel misrepresenting itself as YA are almost certainly off the mark. I explain more in detail in the erratum for this post. Sorry and thanks to Sam Richard to schooling my ass.
Norwegian director Joachin Trier's horror film Thelma is a wonderfully restrained mood piece -- kind of a queer art house version of Brian De Palma's Carrie. The titular character is a young woman, away from home for the first time for college, who falls for a fellow student named Anja. We learn early on that Thelma comes from a repressive religious family, and much of the drama during the first act comes from her feelings of shame around her sexuality. Like Carrie, Thelma has psychic powers which become more and more pronounced as she explores her sexuality and identity, free from the constraints of her parents' home. Trier wisely never clarifies the exact nature or full extent of Thelma's powers until the final few scenes of the film. I won't spoil too much, and the ending of the film certainly leaves room for interpretation and discussion, but I will say this: for me, the final few scenes of the movie definitely cast Thelma and Anja's relationship in a troubling a new light. The ending happens so quickly and the key moments pass with such subtlety that the full force of the film's conclusion only really settled in for me some time after I had left the theatre. Discussing this film with my spouse afterwards, we both found that we had to reconsider our sympathies or Thelma, and also our distain for her overbearing father. (In fact, on reflection I'm not even sure that his staunch religious faith is sincere...) It's a fascinating horror movie which leaves lots of room for discussion; I'll surely revisit this again in the future.
Setting aside plot, I need to ramble on a bit about how much I loved Thelma's ominous atmosphere and slow building tension. I am so happy to see so many films getting made in the last few years which blend art house sensibility with horror genre elements. This is hardly a new development but movies like The Babbadook, It Follows, and The VVitch have certainly brought attention to this kind of film making and I couldn't be more pleased. Dear film makers: more art house horror!
Finally: since this is, after all, a page about photography, I should say something about horror photography in relation to horror film. I'm endlessly struck by how varied the horror film genre is, encompassing not only art house flicks like this one, but also comedies like Evil Dead II, and depressing torture pieces like Martyrs, and cheesy slashers like the Nightmare on Elm Street films, and self-aware meta-films like Scream or Cabin in the Woods... All those films share very little creative DNA, but all deal with the themes conventionally tackled by horror, and all share certain genre elements. By contrast, the genre tag "horror photography" is typically used to describe a much narrower set of images and is often viewed as something quite apart from the kind of "fine art" photography one would see in museums. (Have a quick look at how narrow what comes up under "#horrorphotography" in Instagram as compared with the diversity you'd find for "#landscapephotography" or "#fineartphotography" if you don't believe me.) Part of the reason I have taken to using the term "horror photography" for my own work, despite the fact that much of what I do doesn't necessarily slot neatly into the kind of work usually associated to the term, is because I would like to challenge the narrowness of the genre. I very much think that horror photography should be more like horror film or horror literature. I plan to write about this in rather more detail in the near future, but it seems (more or less) topical so I couldn't leave this post without making a quick comment.
I came across J. A. Baker's bird hunting diary, The Peregrine, because Werner Herzog recommends this book for anybody aspiring to be a filmmaker. I don't really aspire to be a filmmaker (at least not in the immediate future) but I was curious what lessons Herzog has in mind when he suggests that film students should invest their time pouring over the bird hunting diary of a dead Englishman.
It's difficult to convey the experience of reading this book simply by describing the contents. This is, quite simply, the diary of a man who tracks the hunting behaviour of two pairs of peregines from October to April. In daily entries Baker records his experience of watching the birds kill, bathe, fly, roost, sleep, etc. Some days the peregines are absent entirely; on these days Baker describes the weather or other birds he has seen. This is a book in which almost nothing happens, and what little does happen tends to happen over and over and over again. This probably sounds boring and, indeed, the book is not for everybody, but there's a beauty and poetry to Baker's prose that elevates this book from something quite mundane into a piece of art. I'm tempted to compare The Peregrine to Truman Capote's nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, since both books take something that might have been just a few simple statements of fact and elevate this into high art. (This comparison is arguably a bit of a stretch, since the two books share no connection thematically, but I don't think it's entirely unwarranted.)
To give a sense of how Baker approaches his birding diary, here's a pretty typical paragraph drawn more-or-less at random from the text, describing a peregine descending on his prey:
He fell so fast, he fired so furiously from the sky to the dark wood below, that his black shape dimmed to grey air, hidden in a shining cloud of speed. He drew the sky about him as he fell. It was final. It was death. There was nothing more. There could be nothing more. Dusk came early. Through the almost dark, the fearful pigeons flew quietly down to roost above the feathered bloodstain in the woodland ride.
The beauty of Baker's work comes from the repetition, the incredible attention to detail, the insight Baker has into the mind of the pregrine. The "story" emerges slowly and in small key moments, such as a passage where Baker stands over a fresh kill, mimics the postures of the peregine, and even tastes the kill that the bird has left behind. These moments tell the story of a man who is gradually becoming one with the beast that he observes. This is a story of pure empathy, of placing oneself wholly in the skin of another living thing.
This idea of Baker becoming the peregrine (metaphorically, of course) over the course of the narrative is presumably the reason Werner Herzog recommends this novel to aspiring filmmakers. Herzog is probably best known as a documentarian, it's easy to see how Baker's meticulous process of getting inside the mind of his subject would carry over to that line of work. There's a lesson here also for portrait photographers, I should think. Beautiful stuff.
Tomorrow is the last Art Crawl before Halloween and it's also Friday the 13th! So you can bet your ass that I'll be out on James St N Art Crawling my little heart out. I'll be selling framed prints, as always, and will bring lots of pictures from my recent project Empire of Death, having see from the Bazaar how popular those particular images are.
If you're in the area please feel free to come on out and say hello and look at pictures of dead stuff. Hope to see you all there!
You're amazing Toronto! Thanks so much to everybody who came out to the Toronto Halloween edition of the Bazaar of the Bizarre yesterday! I had a wonderful time meeting all of you. Thanks so much to the organizers for putting on this wonderful event, thanks to the other vendors who were all lovely and kind, and thanks especially to everybody who came out to support local artists. It really means a lot to see so many people at events like this, and your support (both financial and moral) is what keeps artistic weirdos like me in the business of creating weird idiosyncratic art. I'm so grateful to all of you!
Events like this are always a bit of a gamble; going in one doesn't necessarily have a clear idea of how many prints to prepare and which images (if any) will sell. I decided to be optimistic and framed significantly more images that I figured I'd be able to sell, reasoning that I'd probably clear the surplus at the next couple of shows I have this fall. But, holy shit Toronto, y'all came through and bought considerably more than I anticipated! It feels wonderful to be able to walk away with my boxes lighter than when I arrived. Thank you so much! I apparently underestimated the popularity of the smaller format skulls prints. Lesson for next time: bring lots 4X6 and 8X10 prints of skulls in the catacombs. I am already at work printing more skull shots for my next show.
One last point in this rambling post of gratitude: if you wanted a print but didn't manage to grab one at the Bazaar, feel free to reach out to me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org or via the contact form) or on social media. There are loads on images on my website and I'm always happy to make custom prints, even for smaller pieces.
Thanks again! You're all fantastic.
Friends in Toronto and the GTA,
I'm happy as shit to be participating in the Halloween edition of this year's Bazaar of the Bizarre in Toronto.
What: Not your average craft show - The Bazaar of the Bizarre : a marketplace for all things, different, interesting and macabre...
When: Sunday October 8th, open to the public from 11am - 8pm
Where: 6 Noble St, Toronto, ON (Pia Bouman School)
I will be selling frame fine art prints ranging from very inexpensive small format options (4X6, 5X7, 8X10, etc) to larger wall pieces (16X20, etc), so I should have some options available that can work with most budgets. For the first time, I'll also be selling 4X6 folded cards featuring imagery from my latest project Empire of Death.
Check out the official Facebook event page to RSVP and get a tease of what's to come. If you're in the area be sure to stop by, there will be lots of cool artists selling lots of great creepy stuff. I hope to see you there!
Kathe Koja's 1991 horror novel, The Cipher, is a wonderfully mean spirited book that concerns the misadventures of protagonist Nicholas and his kinda-sorta girlfriend Nakota when they discover a mysterious supernatural black hole -- dubbed the "Funhole" by our heroes -- in a storage closet in Nicholas' apartment complex.
The first act of this novel plays out more-or-less along standard genre lines: Nakota and Nicholas explore the Funhole (dropping animals and video cameras into its murky depths) and creepy things happen (the animals comes back re-arranged in nasty ways, the camcorder records a strange creepy video that appears different for different viewers and changes every time you view it). Koja's voice is unique, particularly for this kind of paperback genre stuff, and these early pages do an admirable job of pulling the reader into the narrative.
Koja wisely never explains the meaning of the Funhole. The last few pages step a little too closely to spelling out the metaphor for my tastes, but for the most part she leaves the focal point of the novel vague enough that it can serve more than one symbolic purpose. Probably the most obvious reading of the Funhole is that it represents evil the way Dante would have conceived it: evil as an absence of light, as the negation of good. (This is why the denizens of the lowest circle of hell in The Inferno are frozen into inaction.) The Funhole is described as an emptiness, an absence of light, and Nicholas' character almost perfectly embodies the evil of inaction. Nicholas is a complete wastrel. He is an aspiring poet who works at a video store and managed to avoid the "struggling" part of being a "struggling artist" by giving up before he had really tried to accomplish anything. Much of the novel revolves around Nicholas' complete paralysis in the face of the drama around him. He gave up on his artistic career without ever trying. He never bothers to try to mend his dysfunctional relationship with Nakota, nor does he ever finds the courage to confront her and simply kick her out of his life and move on. He gives up on a suicide attempt partway through the novel, only to return to the situation that drove him to consider suicide in the first place. When weirdos that he hates start to congregate around his apartment and the Funhole, Nicholas again is completely unable to banish them from the premises, instead relegating himself to bitter quips. Towards the end of the novel Nicholas locks himself with his notepad in the creepy storage closet, presumably imagining that the mysterious Funhole might inspire him to create art (as it has for several of the other wastrel artists in his orbit), but still he is completely unable to do much of anything at all. This kind of apathy and inaction is presumably central to Koja's point here, but it also makes for a somewhat infuriating read because the narrator is just so goddamn annoying.
The second act of the novel is a bit of a tonal shift, and initially this portion of the book lead to me having some reservations about this novel. In the second act Koja more-or-less stalls the plotline of investigating the mysteries of the Funhole and instead chooses to introduce an ever widening cast of unpleasant characters, mostly more wastrel artist types. I think that what Koja is going for here is to try and meditate on her central theme -- the Funhole as an embodiment of evil -- by bringing various characters into its orbit and letting them interpret the metaphor for us. It's a trick that Don Delillo also uses in his wonderful novel The Names, and it allows him to explore a deeply abstract concept (language) in a rather concrete way; using a diverse cast of interesting people who all have different relationships with language to do most of the talking. The issue here is that Koja's writing lacks the poetry of Delillo's and, unlike The Names, the characters in The Cipher are neither interesting, nor likeable. So the second act of the novel mostly just involves shitty people being shitty to each other and bickering over trivial things. While this creative choice certainly serves Koja's point, it also makes for a somewhat unpleasant read. Fortunately this section of the novel never drags on long enough to derail the narrative (in my opinion at least), but it does kind of fuck with the pacing of the story. That being said, I have to admire Koja for taking a chance here and breaking with genre conventions to pursue her vision with clarity.
The third and final act of the novel concerns Nicholas' inevitable communion with the Funhole and is really the highlight of the book. Here Koja revels in filling the story with menace, and the creepy imagery is fantastic. I struggle to think of another genre book which contains so many genuinely unnerving and surreal images. It's great stuff that makes the slog of the second act worthwhile.
Before wrapping up here, I do feel obligated to comment on Nakota, our protagonist's kinda-sorta girlfriend. Basically every other reviewer of this book felt the need to comment on how nasty Nakota is, usually using rather gendered language to do so. It's tempting to chalk up to misogyny this tendency to single out Nakota -- the only well developed female -- from a cast of equally deplorable characters. To be fair, Nakota is hardly a person I'd want to spend my life with. However, I would argue that she's probably the least shitty character in the novel. Nakota, unlike Nicholas, has goals and drive. Her goals aren't exactly noble, but at least she aspires to do something with her life. Without question Nakota is the only person in this novel with the courage of her convictions. By contrast, I have a hard time feeling sorry for Nicholas, who is very much the author of his own misery. Nicholas could solve all his problems by just walking away. Indeed, he does just that at one point, only to come crawling back to the source of all his woes with no obvious motivation beyond a desire to sabotage Nakota. By the end of the novel Nicholas' entire raison d'etre is to act as an impediment to Nakota. Nicholas comes to define his existence by being a barrier; this is the reason the door to the storage closet cannot be opened even after the lock is removed. This brings us to a parallel interpretation of the Funhole as a metaphor for rotting heart of Nicholas and Nakota's dysfunctional love. To my mind Nicholas' approach to the relationship, especially in the third act, seems at least as abusive as Nakota's. That was my takeaway, at least, and I felt like I couldn't leave this review without mentioning Nakota.
I recently added a new gallery to my website cataloguing my portraits of the dead buried in the catacombs of Paris. It occurred to me that it might be useful to write up a short post with advice for other photographers who are hoping to shoot in the catacombs, since you might not necessarily know exactly what to expect when you get there. If that's you then I hope you can find something helpful here. Happy shooting!
Buy your tickets in advance.
Before visiting the catacombs I would strongly recommend that purchase your tickets in advance. (You can buy tickets online here. I wasn't able to find an English version of that page, but even if you don't speak French the fields are pretty straightforward to interpret.) Purchasing advanced tickets will allow you to skip most of the queue, which is a huge advantage. When I visited the line of people snaked around several blocks, and I understand that typical wait times without advanced tickets are at least several hours.
Don't be an asshole.
While I was in the catacombs I saw many skulls that had been tagged with graffiti. I saw tourists handling the bones and rearranging them. I saw people eating junk food (why anybody would want to snack next to a wall of corpses is beyond me). Don't be that asshole. I realize that the catacombs is a tourist destination, but it's also a fucking grave site filled with human remains. Try to show a little respect for the dead.
More specific to photographers: flash is not permitted, nor is the use of tripods. This means that light will be a challenge (more on this later) and your job as a photographer is to rise to that challenge, not to be an asshole and break the rules. During my visit I saw a number of people shooting with flash. Again: don't be that asshole. It's worth noting that every person I saw using flash was using the little pop-up flash that comes with the camera body. There is almost no scenario where using the pop-up flash without a modifier is going to improve your photo. The light from the pop-up flash is harsh and unflattering, not to mention the fact that lighting the subject along the same axis as the camera's line of sight will produce flat, boring, shitty images. If you turn off the pop-up flash then you will not only get a better picture, but you will also be doing your part to help preserve the catacombs for future generations.
It is very dark down there.
The catacombs is a very low light environment and, as I mentioned above, you are not allowed to use a flash or any other lighting rig. To get decent shots you're going to want to use the fastest lens you own, and you will probably find yourself shooting mostly with the aperture wide open.
Tripods are not permitted, so you will need to shoot handheld. That means you need to keep your shutter speed fast enough to get shots that don't suffer from motion blur. The standard bit of advice here is the reciprocal rule: when shooting handheld you want to set your shutter speed to at least as fast as the inverse of your focal length. This means that, for example, if you're using a 50mm lens then you want the shutter speed to be 1/50 seconds, or faster. (Dear fellow math nerds: yes I'm aware of the abuse of units that's going on here, but this way of stating the "rule" is conventional amongst photographers.) Many cameras have an auto ISO setting that allows you to set a minimum shutter speed; I'd suggest using that feature if you have it. Also, know that the reciprocal rule is really a rough guideline and you might be able to get away with slightly slower shutter speeds if your hands are very steady, or you might require faster if your hands tremble. If you haven't already done so, experiment with different minimum shutter speeds to see what works for you.
Pay attention to the available light.
Of course this is advice that could apply equally well to any photo shoot, but it's particularly salient in the catacombs. Not only is the available lighting dim, it's also harsh and unflattering. This is a very constrained situation, the only way to move the light relative to your subject is by adjusting your angle. So pay careful attention to your line of site and keep an eye out for scenes where the light is interesting. You will also want to pay special attention to photographically interesting scenes that are as close as possible to a light source. Remember the standard rule of photography: the closer you bring the light to the subject, the softer the light, the better the image.
Consider bringing a grey card.
The available lights in the catacombs are not only dim and harsh, they also have a rather odd hue. If you set your camera to auto white balance the images will come out very yellow. You might want to bring a grey card to calibrate the white balance, assuming if you're hoping to get realistic-looking colours in post production. Personally I seldom have much interest in getting the white balance "correct"; I view colour temperature as a creative choice. But even if you're planning to opt for non-realistic colours at the end of the day you might still find it helpful to have calibrated the white balance before you start editing.
Here I am, obviously, assuming that you're planning to go for colour images. If you prefer black & white, then you probably don't care about white balance at all. Indeed, black & white might be a very natural choice given that the lights are dim (so you can hide ISO noise under grain) and harsh (monochrome processing tends to be more forgiving of harsh light). I opted for colour images for a number of creative reason, but I suspect that many photographers would have made a different choice.
You are not permitted to take large bulky bags into the catacombs, and the smaller knapsacks that are allowed are supposed to be either carried at your side or else worn over the chest. (I presume this rule is supposed to keep people from accidentally bumping the fragile skeletal remains with their packs.) This means that you probably cannot carry very much gear. I'd suggest sticking to just one or two lenses. I opted to shoot entirely on a 35mm prime and was generally pretty happy with the perspective I got, but obviously focal length is a creative choice that is quite personal, and there's certainly no "correct" lens to opt for when shooting a scene like this.
It's a fairly cramped environment; you may want to pack a wider lens.
As I just mentioned, lens choice of subjective and personal. That being said, you should know that the tunnels are pretty narrow (maybe 2-3 meters wide at most). If you want to be able to shoot larger structures (like the crosses made of skulls) then you might want to opt for a wide-ish lens. I found it slightly tight getting some of those shots on a 35mm; if I made the trip again I'd definitely pack something a bit wider.
During a recent trip to Europe I had the great pleasure of visiting and photographing the catacombs, Paris' infamous underground ossuary. You can have a look at my favourite images from the trip in the slideshow above; there are many more in my new gallery Empire of Death.
If you're unfamiliar with the catacombs, then perhaps a little history is in order: The catacombs began as a network of old caves, quarries, and tunnels that stretch for hundreds of miles far beneath the bustling streets of Paris. In 1786 they were blessed and consecrated by the church, and used to house corpses from the overpopulated and overflowing Parisian cemetery Les Innocents, many of which had been improperly buried in open graves leading to concerns over the strong odour of rotting flesh and the spread of disease. In 1810 the catacombs were renovated to the form they take today: monumental tablets and archways were added, and the skulls and femurs of the dead where stacked along the walls into various decorative patterns.
This new project is a departure from my previous work along several directions. Firstly the obvious: this is my first time featuring work on my website that isn't about the ethics of eating animals. This is perhaps an overdue addition. It had never been my intention to make the page entirely devoted to meat photography and, indeed, I have a couple more non-meat projects in the pipeline, but these are logistically complicated and are taking somewhat longer to complete than I had expected.
Initially I had planned on making my new gallery Empire of Death rather more succinct than it ended up. My plan was to display only 10-15 of my favourite shots from the trip; generally I tend to prefer a "less is more" approach to displaying my work, trying to emphasize only the best shots and avoid too much repetition. But the more I worked on the images, the more I came to realize that this gallery is conceptually distinct from my studio work and calls for a different approach. The repetition of similar imagery in this gallery serves to convey the enormous scale of the catacombs, something I had not really been prepared for when I visited. But, more to the point, it was only during the editing process that I came to really see these shots for what they really are: portraiture of the dead. Every femur and every skull is different; one would no more argue that the repetition of these images is monotonous than one would argue that a series of head-shots of different models becomes monotonous.
From a technical perspective this gallery is also a bit of a departure for me. This is my first time featuring work on my website that is shot in available light, as opposed my studio work where I always to have complete control over the lighting. Photographing the catacombs of Paris is a technical challenge for several reasons, but the most salient point here is the fact that the catacombs are a very low light environment. I found myself shooting almost exclusively with the aperture wide open. This is a technical choice that I almost never make in my studio work; for aesthetic reasons I tend not to love the shallow depth of field effect that so many other photographers are enamoured with. Initially I had mixed feelings about this choice; however, while editing these shots I came to find that the softness of the backgrounds/foregrounds adds a sense of mystery to the images that grew on me.
In future blog posts I intend to discuss this project in a bit more detail. In particular, I'm planning to write in more depth about the technical aspects of shooting in the catacombs and also I'd like to write a short post about my thoughts on colour vs monochrome for imagery like this. In the meantime, please enjoy the new gallery!
The 2017 Olive Cotton Award -- which I gather is some kind of prestigious photo contest in Australia -- was recently awarded to artist Justine Varga for her wonderful work Maternal Line. (Go here for an article on petapixel.) In her artist statement Varga explains the piece as follows:
One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.
I wanted to talk about this work, and the ensuing controversy, because it speaks to a point I have made somewhat tangentially several times before on this blog: the idea is everything. Varga's beautifully written artist statement is what elevates Maternal Line from a bunch of scribbles to a thought-provoking and moving piece of art. It's the idea that makes this a portrait, which is something the judge understood and wisely rewarded. (It's worth mentioning that the contest came with a $20,000 prize. So congrats on the prize and the lovely work Justine!) I have said it before but I'll repeat myself here: regular people who view photography want to see images that speak to them, that are about something, that strike an emotional chord. The viewer doesn't care about the technical stuff at all, insofar as that stuff doesn't interfere with the meaning of the image. That stuff only matters to gear-obsessed pro photography nerds. This truth seems well understood by artists working in other mediums (film, painting, sculpture, music, etc) but somehow the point is utterly lost on a large and vocal segment of the photography community.
In a turn as predictable as it is depressing, certain "pro photog" denizens of the interwebs have taken great exception to Varga's award and have been sending hate mail, both to her and to the judge who selected the piece (Dr Shaune Lakin). It seems that, in some eyes at least, Varga's work has committed the cardinal sin of photography: this photograph was produce without even using a camera! However are we to then proceed to critique her choice of lighting modifier!? However are we to have long protracted debates in the comment section weighing the pros and cons of digital vs analogue!? Dear god won't somebody please talk about ISO noise, preferably with charts and graphs!?
Of course, complaining that Maternal Line isn't really a photograph completely misses the point. The piece is about questioning the meaning of what constitutes a photograph. The fact that folks are arguing in comment sections about whether or not this is technically a portrait speaks to how successful Maternal Line is as an art piece; fuelling this kind of self-reflection and intellectual debate is certainly no cause for criticism. Note also that the fact that Varga has chosen her grandmother as a subject is telling, since the piece is about not only her own genetic blood line, but also about the artistic lineage and the history of photography that has led up to this work.
At the heart of this "controversy" is the tedious debate about whether photography is an art or a craft. I've always been baffled by the animus certain "pro photog" types have toward the idea that we're artists. These same narrow minded folks tend to take great exception to art, like Varga's work, that seeks to push the boundaries of the medium. It seems to me that this is precisely the kind of exercise artists like us should be engaged in. Do painters have this kind of argument? After all, painting is also a technically demanding task that requires a considerable amount of skill and craft, but I'm unaware of any painters who scoff at the idea of making paintings that are about something, or that speak to the human condition. Perhaps design would be a better analogy, since there is an explicitly practical aim in mind when one creates an iPod or a wine glass or a sports car? But, rather often, those kinds of utilitarian objects have a certain beauty in their form that is hardly accidental. Indeed, I know several designers and none of them seems perturbed by recognizing the artistic component of what they do.
It seems to me completely trivial and without question that photography is art. Of course it's art, anything can be art. Art is about intentions and ideas and creativity, it's not about the medium and it's not about the technical stuff. Getting angry in internet forums and sending hate mail to talented and successful artists won't change that fact.
I recently got home from a family vacation near Tobermory, ON. At one point during the trip I more-or-less accidentally stumbled into Dunk's Bay Cemetery, located just meters away from a surprisingly diminutive public beach. I've wandered about my share of these sorts of small country graveyards, and they tend to all blur together after a while. But there was something surprisingly idiosyncratic about Dunk's Bay Cemetery. Many of the graves were adorned with lawn ornaments (like the plastic gargoyle in the first shot in the slideshow above) and garden flag stands that were hung with various trinkets and religious items (5th image in the slideshow). Maybe these kind of grave decorations are commonplace, but this is the first time I've ever seen such a thing in a cemetery before. Certainly the most moving grave I stumbled across belonged to a 7 year old child, and was adorned with toys and little ceramic angles. The 3rd and 4th images in the slideshow above are detail shots from that particular grave. I've visited a number of cemeteries in my travels, many of them far older and more picturesque than Dunk's Bay Cemetery, but most of those visits were less affecting, for whatever reason. The place felt haunted. Enjoy!
It's thanks to this book that I now know that Potted Meat Food Product is a thing that exists. It's a kind of canned meat, similar to Spam, I guess. Potted Meat is a blend of a variety of animals and organs; the typical ingredient list involves beef tripe, pig skin, "partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissue", and "mechanically separated chicken". This last ingredient, in case you were wondering, is "a paste-like product made by forcing crushed bone and tissue through a sieve to separate bone from tissue". Yet another reason I'm happy I don't eat meat...
Anyway, enough about Potted Meat the "food product", which sounds fucking horrible, and on to Potted Meat the book by Steven Dunn, which is absolutely fucking fantastic. Potted Meat is a kind of coming of age story that follows a teenager in a dying town in West Virginia through a troubled adolescence that is marked by poverty, domestic abuse, racism, crime, alcoholism, and lack of opportunity. The story is told in short fragments, each one a small snapshot of a difficult life. There are moments of brutal violence, there are moments of hope, there are moments of crushing disappointment. It's amazing to see how much emotional power Dunn manages to squeeze into these short narrative fragments; most are only a few pages long and yet several of these little snippets seem to take the breath away. (Indeed, the whole book is really more of a novella than a novel, it's only about 100 pages long and yet it never feels incomplete. Some reviewers on Amazon seemed unhappy about the how short the book is, although this didn't bother me. Frankly I think that if this narrative were drawn out over several hundred more pages the story would likely be far too emotionally draining for most readers.)
At times I was reminded of a novel by Katherine Dunn (no relation, the shared last names are a coincidence as far as I know). Katherine Dunn's Truck is a wonderful novel that is vastly underrated, perhaps because most reviewers feel compelled to compare it to her career-defining masterpiece, Geek Love. In any case: both books describe rather unconventional coming of age stories, both employ somewhat unorthodox narrative structures in places, and both authors share an admirable gift for conveying a deep and dirty physicality with their prose. Some of the most squirm inducing scenes in Potted Meat involve descriptions of food, or uncleanliness, or bodily function. These are often nearly as upsetting as the descriptions of violence and child abuse. On learning the definition of "mechanically separated chicken" from Wikipedia I found myself musing on the analogy between the preparation of this commercial product, and the long, gruelling process by which the narrator of Potted Meat extracts himself from his home town. I don't know if this kind of analogy is what Steven Dunn intended with his choice of title, but it certainly struck a chord with me.
Finally, I can't help but mention the cover art by Angel Whisenant. Obviously this is the kind of thing I can't help but love. I mean, fuck me, just look at that cover. Beautiful.
Maurice Blanchot's Death Sentence is a wonderfully enigmatic novel. The book has a reputation for being confusing and inaccessible, and this reputation is well deserved. The first half of the book consists of a fairly straightforward account of the final days of a terminally ill woman. These are recounted by our narrator in some detail. On the surface the narrative feels mostly banal and uneventful, but these early pages are filled with anxiety and dread. Port of this atmosphere comes from the obvious fact that we are watching a woman die, but this isn't really what makes the book fascinating. Indeed, the reader knows very little about this woman other than the fact that she's ill; we are not particularly invested in her or any other characters in the story. Rather, the disquieting feel of the book seems to stem from the narrator's oddly detached approach to the situation (he remarks at one point that illness has made this woman more beautiful) and from the sense of something almost like a supernatural horror looming behind the scenes. This sense of looming horror is subtle and difficult to pinpoint, but it persists throughout the novel. There is a wonderful moment, for example, when the dying woman's eyes seem to follow something invisible through the room. There is a mysterious "treatment" that has been administered to the woman by a shady doctor. There is a strange insistence by our narrator that his blood chemistry has been altered in some way, and his curiously inconsistent perception of temperature. The narrator frequently reassures us that he is going to be honest and tell the truth about events, but we are frequently left with the exact opposite impression. This is the kind of literature that I sometimes call "non canonical horror", which is to say this is a novel that deals with horror themes and elements, but nevertheless is not usually considered a piece of genre work.
The second half of the novel is rather less straightforward than the first. The "plot" here mostly concerns our narrator's relationship with another woman. Again, very little happens and, again, the book feels strangely unnerving. There is a moment that initially seems like a hallucination (or an encounter with an undead apparition) but is, ultimately, quite banal and easily explained. The "climax" of the narrative is similarly at once empty and somehow also feels filled with a sense of looming dread of death. The fun of this book lies in its inscrutability, so perhaps there's little point in trying to dissect the "meaning" behind all this. My best guess is that the second half of the novel -- focused mostly on the mundane relationships and daily grind of the narrator -- is the true titular "Death Sentence". Perhaps the point of all this looming menace that haunts the banality of the narrative is simply this: Blanchot wants to remind us that, from the moment of birth, we have all been issued a death sentence.