Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Beauty of Accidents

Click any image for larger view.

Click any image for larger view.

MANY YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS YOUNG AND FIRST FINDING MY WAY as an artist (or, at the very least, training my eyes to see), my college art professor said:
“Don’t be afraid of accidents! Learn to work with them, explore what they give you and learn from them.” I thought about that and began to see that an accidental drip of paint could become a good thing, or that the color I mixed by mistake just might be better than the color I had intended to make.

When you think about that, it’s a rule that should be learned by everyone. How many “accidents” in the science lab has resulted in new products? How many favorite foods have we enjoyed by a mistake in the kitchen? Or, how many times has a wrong turn led you to something wonderful?

And so it goes with art. The pictures above, of “photo mistakes” are from the collection of one of the most important collectors in snapshot photography today. Robert Jackson, whose incredible collection of snapshots was shown at the National Gallery of Art in 2007, shared these images with me because he is the kind of collector who is always searching for new meanings within the vernacular photography field. Robert’s book, The Art of the American Snapshot, can be found here on Amazon. It is a fabulous book to have in your library.

With photography today, you rarely see mistakes such as these. The reason for that is that the process has gradually been improving, so you don't have “in-camera” mistakes like lens flares, light leaks and processing errors anymore. Light sensitive emulsions occasionally go awry, especially with the instant photos like Polaroids. Of course, some of the mistakes in older “found photos” could come from fading colors or even damage from water or sunlight— but the point made is that occasionally mistakes can actually create a more interesting photo. Other mistakes can come from human error—like forgetting to advance the film (resulting in double or triple exposures), or accidentally having your finger in front of the lens.

So, enjoy these rare mistakes for what they are. Mistakes don’t necessarily make a photo great—they just add to the overall visual process of “seeing.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Most Amazing Group of Drawings

(Above) The slave named Pona.

(Above) The slave girl named Marqu.

(Above) The slave named Little Kale.

(Above) The slave named Kimbo.

(Above) The slave named Kezzuza.

(Above) The slave named Grabo.

(Above) The slave named Saby.

(Above) The slave named Bar.

(Above) The slave named Bana.

(Above) The slave named Suma.

IN 1839, THE SPANISH SLAVE SHIP AMISTAD SET SAIL FROM HAVANA to Puerto Principe, Cuba. The ship was carrying 53 Africans who, a few months earlier, had been abducted from their homeland to be sold as slaves. The captives revolted against the ships crew, killing the captain and others, but sparing the life of the ships navigator so that he could set them on a course back to Africa. Instead, the navigator surreptitiously directed the ship north and west. After several weeks, the Amistad was seized by the U.S. Navy off the coast of Long Island and the Africans were transported to New Haven to await trial for mutiny, murder, and piracy.

Slavery advocates held that the Amistad prisoners were slaves and thus they should be punished for their uprising and immediately returned to Cuba. Abolitionists, on the other hand, argued that though slavery was legal in Cuba, the importation of slaves from Africa had been outlawed; thus, they claimed, the prisoners were not slaves, but freemen who had been kidnapped and thus had every right to escape their captors and even to use violence to do so. The case was important to the proslavery-abolitionist debates that were raging in the U.S., and to the international debates about treaty obligations with regard to slavery and the legality of the international slave trade.

After two years of legal battles, their case was successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841 by former President John Quincy Adams and the Amistad captives were freed. They returned to Sierra Leone in 1842.

History of the Collection

New Haven resident William H. Townsend made pen-and-ink sketches of the Amistad captives while they were awaiting trial. Twenty-two of these drawings were given to Yale in 1934 by Asa G. Dickerman, whose grandmother was the artists cousin. Townsend, who was about 18 years old when he made the drawings, is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery.

The Collection includes 22 pencil drawings by William H. Townsend (1822-1851), varying in size, 18.3 x 14 cm. and smaller

© All images copyright Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Select Pics: Be-hold Auction is Today

(Above) Mike Disfarmer: Soldier’s Family, 4 3/8” x 3” gelatin silver print, vintage early 1940’s.

Complex portrait of the 3 figures, their relationship to the camera and to each other. The wife appears possibly pregnant. One of those photographs by Disfarmer that engages us in a mystery just below the surface.

Pre-Auction Estimate: $7,000 to $9,000
Minimum bid: $3,000

(Above) Mike Disfarmer: Ola Mae Morgan, 5 ½” x 3 ½” gelatin silver print, vintage early 1940’s, subject’s name written in pen on verso.

The boots reflected on the dimly-seen table make the child seem to be standing on white blocks. She is isolated within the frame, giving this a psychological dimension that is part of what makes Disfarmer’s photographs so fascinating.

Pre-Auction Estimate: $7,000 to $9,000
Minimum bid: $2,500

(Above) A. Aubrey Bodine: Five Fireman, 12 ¼” x 16 ¼” vintage chloride print, 1936, on original mat titled, signed and dated by Bodine in pencil on the mat recto, with 16 exhibition stamps on verso, with title and information in Bodine’s hand.

A masterful image and print, in a fine modern frame.

Pre-Auction Estimate: $5,000 to $7,000
Minimum bid: $4,000

(Above) Robert Doisneau: Cafe Noir Et Blanc, 7” x 9 ¼” gelatin silver print, 1948, printed later.

Has Doisneau’s “46 Place Jules Ferry” red stamp, Rapho agency stamp, other stamps and notations in pen pencil on verso. A fine print.

Pre-Auction Estimate: $3,000 to $4,000
Minimum bid: $2,000

(Above) Andrzej Jerzy Lech: Tamworth Ontario, 1995, 9” x 12” sepia gelatin print, printed in 2003 for an exhibition in Florence Italy.

Lech, born in Poland, now lives in Jersey City. The Journal of Contemporary Photography, wrote a beautiful long article on Lech’s photographs. It begins: “I do not think anyone could look at a photograph by... Lech and not immediately be struck by its ghostly beauty, its brilliant artistry and craftsmanship, and finally its genius.”

Pre-Auction Estimate: $1,000 to $1,500

(Above) Doris Ulmann: South Carolina, Two Women, 8” x 6” platinum print, vintage ca. 1920. Signed by Ulmann in pen on the mount beneath the image.

Label on the verso from the NYNEX collection.

Pre-Auction Estimate: $3,000 to $4,000
Minimum bid: $2,000

(Above) Ormsby: Beautiful Indian Portrait, 8 ½” x 6 ½” glossy brown toned gelatin silver print.


A great portrait with a strong character.

Pre-Auction Estimate: $600 to $1,000

(Above) Walker Evans: Residential Area, Morgantown, West Virginia, 8” x 10” gelatin silver print, 1939, printed ca. 1950. Walker Evans stamp and “111/ 3” in pencil within boxes on verso.


The print shows the full borders of the negative.
Provenance: Harry Lunn to present owner

Pre-Auction Estimate: $8,000 to $10,000

Minimum bid: $6,500

LARRY GOTTHEIM’S BE-HOLD AUCTION 53 will be held today, April 28 beginning at 4pm. It will held at the Radisson Martinique Hotel, 32nd Street at Broadway. The preview is on the Sunday and Monday before, from 10am to 9pm, and the day of the auction from 10am until the auction. Or, you can bid online for the item you want.

The eight images above are some images I think are highlights of the auction, but here are a lot of gems available for any taste. Register to bid at: Be-hold. Even if you are not a buyer, it is fun and educational to look at the variety of lots available on line.

Note: Today’s post has a few font issues that I have not been able to solve: I apologize for the inconsistencies.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography

(Above) Cover of the book/CD: Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890 – 1950

(Above) River baptism, location unknown; c. 1920s.
Click for larger view.
(Above) Baptism in stream, location unknown; c. 1900s.
Click for larger view.
(Above) Baptism in pond, location unknown; c. 1920s.
Click for larger view.

FOR MOST OF HIS LIFE, COLLECTOR JIM LINDERMAN has searched high and low for authentic things—unique and special objects that define the artistic culture of the American experience. From folk art to popular culture, from pulp fiction to Delta Blues— Jim is a walking authority on so many things American they are too numerous to mention. One thing is certain— his collecting interests are for things that have fallen through the cracks, those things lost and forgotten—the box of material under the table at the flea market booth. If it wasn’t for dedicated collectors like Jim Linderman— so many important objects about our culture would have surely been lost to time and indifference.

TAKE ME TO THE WATER: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890 – 1950
is Linderman’s first book. The 96-page hardcover book (8.75 x 6 inches) has 75 sepia photograph reproductions from 1890-1950 and is accompanied by a CD of rare gospel and folk recordings from original 78-RPM records (1924-1940). It features recordings of artists like Washington Phillips, Carter Family, Tennessee Mountaineers, and lesser known and rare groups like the Belmont Silvertone Jubilee Singers, a vocal quartet in 1939. Included as well are rare vocal recordings of sermons and preaching which highlight the fervor leading up to the moment of cleansing one’s soul in immersion baptism. Certainly, allowing oneself to lie backwards into deep river water for the washing away of sin would be a powerful moment in anyone’s life.

is another gem in the renowned publishing record of Dust-to-Digital, the brainchild and passion of 2009 Grammy winner Lance Ledbetter, who is an expert in music of American vernacular musical field recordings, specifically bluegrass, gospel and Delta blues. Linderman’s collection of immersion baptism photographs is extensive and was recently gifted to the International Center of Photography in New York. The original 78-RPM records from which this CD was made came from the collections of Joe Bussard, Steven Lance Ledbetter, Frank Mare and Roger Misiewicz. As a bonus, the book is beautifully designed and art directed by John Hubbard and Rob Millis.

Writer Luc Sante wrote this in the introduction, which I think sums up my feelings quite well:
“Whether you have ever actually experienced a baptism or not, whether you are a believer or not, these pictures and the music that accompanies them transmit all the emotional information: the excitement and the serenity, the fellowship and the warmth, the wind and the water ... You would have to have a heart of tin not to recognize this as one of the happiest collections of archival photographs ever assembled.”

I firmly believe that this will be one of those rare books that, in a few years, you end up saying to yourself: “I wish I had bought that.” If you are interested in vernacular photography, history, sociology, religion, great authentic gospel music or just great books, this book/CD compilation is a must for your collection. Buy it while you can.

Jim Linderman maintains a most interesting blog about the most amazing things from his collection—a site he calls Dull Tool Dim Bulb,” the only curse words his father ever uttered. I love it, and read it everyday. Check it out!
Take Me to the Water will be released May 26, 2009, and you can pre-order it now on Amazon. Just click above!

And, for you audiophiles,
here are the track listings on the CD:

1. Baptize Me (Rev. J. M. Gates)
2. Denomination Blues part 1 (Washington Phillips)
3. John the Baptist (Rev. Moses Mason)
4. Bathe in That Beautiful Pool (Dock Walsh)
5. On My Way to Canaan’s Land (Carter Family)
6. Old Time Baptism part I (Rev. R. M. Massey)
7. Old Time Baptism part II (Rev. R. M. Massey)
8. Go Wash in the Beautiful Stream (Southern Wonders Quartet)
9. I’ll Be Washed (Carolina Tar Heels)
10. Wash You, Make You Clean (Elder J. E. Burch)
11. Baptist Shout (Frank Jenkins of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters)
12. At The River (Tennessee Mountaineers)
13. Wade in de Water (Empire Jubilee Quartet)
14. Baptism at Burning Bush (Rev. Nathan Smith's Burning Bush Sunday School Pupils)
15. Sister Lucy Lee (Bill Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers)
16. Wade in the Water and Be Baptized (Belmont Silvertone Jubilee Singers)
17. I’m Going Down to Jordan (Ernest Thompson)
18. Go Wash in Jordan Seven Times (Rev. J. C. Burnett)
19. Wade in the Water (Birmingham Jubilee Singers)
20. Goin’ Down to the River of Jordan (J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers)
21. Baptism by Water, and Baptism by the Holy Ghost (Elder J. E. Burch)
22. Go Wash in the Beautiful Stream (Moses Mason)
23. Wade in the Water (Sunset Four Jubilee Singers)
24. Down To Jordan (Ernest Stoneman's Dixie Mountaineers)
25. Take Me to the Water (Rev. E. D. Campbell)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Protective Shield from Ethiopia

I LOVE NATURAL OBJECTS. RUSTED METAL. OBJECTS FROM NATURE, enjoyed exactly as they are found (rocks, shells, bones, twigs, leaves) are pretty incredible. But sometimes you may find a natural object that has been transformed— like this C. 1920 (or older) hippo shield from the Sidamo people in Ethiopia. This is a fascinating piece, and very rare. It’s made from the rough hide of a hippo, and was used for hunting and protection. It was definitely used, as evidenced by the four stitched and actual old repairs where it was pierced by spears or animals. It is very thick and tough, and has a well worn handle in the middle of the inside. It is just over 2 feet wide and tall and over 6 inches thick.

I found this on 1stdibs. It is priced at $1,800 through the Mary Ann Jones Antiques in Los Angeles. Phone: 310-391-0072.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nick Cave: Moving Towards the Fantastic

Click any image for larger view.

Click any image for larger view.

NICK CAVE IS A FIBER ARTIST, PERFORMANCE AND CONCEPTUAL ARTIST. Transcending class, race and sexuality, Cave’s fantastic costumes completely conceal him in a shamanistic, protective covering. He has been quoted: ‘I believe that the familiar must move towards the fantastic. I want to evoke feelings that are unnamed, that aren’t realized except in dreams.’ His work, which builds upon the collective power found in historic African ceremonial costumes, Mardi Gras and Carnival costumes—is powerful art of this day. Cave calls his works “Sound Suits” because of the sound his costumes makes when he performs.

Cave, who studied fiber arts at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Fashion Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Martin Venezky and Appetite Engineers

(Above) Homepage to Appetite Engineers.
(Above) Cover art to Brian Wilson’s That Lucky Old Sun, produced by Capitol Records. Click for larger view.
(Above) Front and back panels to Brian Wilson’s That Lucky Old Sun. Click for larger view.
(Above) Page of stamps, inside piece to Brian Wilson’s That Lucky Old Sun. Click for larger view.
(Above) Page of stamps (detail). Click for larger view.
(Above) Cover to the book, Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, published by Abrams. Click for larger view.
(Above) Inside spread to Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo. Click for larger view.
(Above) Inside spread to Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo. Click for larger view.
(Above and all images below) Playing cards from the “Double Down” playing card project, by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Click for larger view.
Click for larger view.
Click for larger view.
Click for larger view.

I FIRST MET MARTIN VENEZKY TWO YEARS AGO when he and I were paired together to give a talk to the Boston chapter of AIGA. At the time, I was showing my collection of found photographs at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Since Martin uses found photographs and other ephmera in his design, the museum and Boston AIGA thought that we would make for a good talk to their membership and others who attended. We became friends and hence, this interview for you today.

] Hi Martin... thanks for doing this interview. I’d like to take you for a ride in the “way-back machine” to when you were a kid. We’ve talked about this in the past and I think your childhood is worth sharing, if you do not mind. What were the precursors to your life now, as a world renowned designer. Were you a collector, did you draw, paint, listen to music, read comic books—what kind of things made you who you are today?

] I was a painfully introverted kid. I spent most of my time inside the house, even during the summers. Yes, I collected lots of stuff...the usual things like Life magazine, postage stamps, Hardy Boys books. But I also created some unusual archives. Because I lived in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, I discovered that if you called a congressional office and asked for information on their home state, you get big packages filled with brochures, magazines, and maps delivered to your mailbox. (Postage is free for Congressional offices). I amassed boxes of these, and tried different methods of filing state, by type, by size.

My uncle was an expert calligrapher and cartographer and he bought me a basic Speedball pen and ink set which I treasured and practiced with. I started drawing my own maps of imaginary countries, and collaged pictures from the travel brochures to indicate the geography. It was an elaborate project, but one that helped distract and calm me down. Through all of this I became deeply drawn to the radio. I listened all the time to top 40 stations, but also came across the radio work of Jean Shepherd, whose New York shows were rebroadcast in Washington at night on the FM dial. I’ve recently listened to a number of them for the first time since I was young, and they are still mesmerizing. Wow! They bring back a flood of memories.

Sadly, my parents divorced in 1973, when I was in high school. My dad decided to sell our family house (my mom had already moved out and I was living with her), and gave us just a few days to clear out all of our stuff from the basement. That was where all of my collections, my drawings, my inked maps were stashed. I couldn’t recover all of my stuff by my dad’s deadline, so he threw it all out just as he threatened. I didn’t think he would really do it...and I couldn’t believe it was all gone, just like that. That really hurt a lot, not just that I lost it all, but that he cared so little about it as an archive of his children’s lives.

] You told me once that you spent some time as a DJ. That’s kind of fun. Tell me about that.

Martin] The radio was my first love. Since I was very young I had always wanted to be a radio DJ, but felt I would never be able to that. (Why, you ask? Well, at the time, all radio stations performed charity work by fielding basketball teams to play against school faculties for fund raising. I knew I couldn’t do that. I sucked at sports and I was so terrified of being in public. It’s an odd kind of reasoning, but that’s what being a kid is all about, huh?) When I was older I started collecting records and really liked the way that people responded to music. I also liked the idea of being behind the scenes manufacturing the entertainment rather than being a guest at the party itself. It was a more comfortable place to be (...and not unlike being a designer...) Because I had a really good record collection and was knowledgeable about music, I decided to try out for a part time night gig as a club DJ while I was working as a graphic designer during the day. The clubs were really bars that had small dance floors, and the kind of music I played at first was mostly Motown, pop, college-frat type stuff. Pretty easy and forgiving. But I became more and more intrigued with dance music so I shifted over to venues where the focus was more on the club and dance floor. My mixing skills were primitive, but my enthusiasm made up for it.

Most of the audience was relatively uninformed at the time (this was the early 80s), and “Thriller” was still the penultimate dance record for these folks. But I was able to weave in odd selections that the crowd came to enjoy. Early Madonna, some simple rap tunes as the evening progressed, unusual European mixes of things they already knew. It was really great fun, and was the main component of my social life at the time. When I moved to San Francisco in 1985, I knew that my skills were nowhere good enough for the clubs, so I just stopped. I continued to buy the records for several years, and still have a huge stash of vintage dance 12” vinyl, some barely ever played.

] I can totally see how the process of being a DJ could influence a budding designer. By selecting music, you were in control of a crowd’s entire actions. Put on “Thriller”— the crowd goes crazy… and you made that happen. DJ’s are puppet masters (like designers! Ha!). And, it’s a completely creative, interactive act.

Let’s go forward a bit later, when you were at Cranbrook. You were older than most of the students. You mentioned to me that your pre-Cranbrook work was rather conventional. Did your current style emerge and begin to take shape there in some way?

] Yes, although the hand skills that I had learned on the job, and as a kid all came in handy and still do to this day. I graduated from Cranbrook in 1993, and at the time, the desktop culture was still being formed. Computers were still clumsy, slow, and aggravatingly crashable. Almost no one owned their own...there were no laptops, so we had to share. I was able to shift back and forth between hand work and digital work...more out of necessity as aesthetic preference. But those skills have helped me today. I also really began collecting ephemera and incorporating my own interests—both visual and content—into my work.

There was a darkroom that was part of the Cranbrook design department. But no one had used it for years. I was able to get it up and running, along with a fantastic state-of-the-art photostat camera that was installed just as the demand for photostats withered. So after scraping away the dried chemicals, finding an old manual and a source for supplies, that, too, became a favorite tool.

John] You had one of the coolest jobs ever, being the Art Director of Speak Magazine. What was that like?

] You can find a terrific history of the magazine on the Speak website (, written by the publisher and editor, Dan Rolleri. I think he captures the time very well. For most of the 21 issues, it was just myself and Dan sitting across from each other in a very large warehouse space. There was no money in it, and lots of pressure. Lots of insecurity, too, since neither of us had worked on anything like this before we were never sure how we were doing.

] I loved your recent work with Capitol records, the Brian Wilson “That Lucky Old Sun” CD. Did they give you any direction or restrictions on that?

] I worked very closely with Tom Reccione, the Creative Director at EMI/Capitol. We developed a terrific working relationship and could bounce ideas back and forth. Tom was able to pull together a ton of great material from which I could choose for the package. I also contributed a bunch of things from my own collection of ephemera. Throughout the whole project we seemed to be on the same page. His suggestions and critiques were always on-the-money, and I was able to surprise him with my own twists on the project as it developed.

] So, what’s new, Martin, what’s coming from Appetite Engineer’s next?

Martin] Right now I’m working on a line of products for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art... t-shirts, bags, mugs, all using the typographic collage method that I love doing. Two books that I had a strong design hand are set to be released in the coming months: Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo from Abrams and Finding Frida Kahlo from Princeton Architectural Press.

I’m also about to leave for New Orleans to lecture at Loyola and meet with the graduating design students. Teaching is a big part of my life (I teach full-time at California College of the Arts in San Francisco in the graduate design program), and most of my traveling centers around lectures and workshops I give for students and designers.

John] Martin, I just want to say thanks so very much for this insightful interview about your life and your work. It was great!

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