“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” — David Byrne
A few years ago, after being invited to serve as a critic for final reviews at an MFA graphic design program, I found myself riding home with two designers and an architecture critic. Each designer had an MFA from a different program, and the architecture critic was working on a PhD. I have a BA. All of us teach at the graduate level while working actively in the profession. After catching up a bit with one another, our discussion returned to the critique. “Why do the students talk about their personal lives so much in explaining their work?” the architecture critic asked. “What do their biographies have to do with it?” While it is certainly valid to question the place of personal histories in a professional context, to talk about ourselves and our stories, it nevertheless seems a persistent inclination among designers to so. We hardly know weʼre doing it — look, I’ve opened here with an anecdote drawn from my own life story.
Perhaps part of this is that there is no one else to write these stories for us. Whether overtly biographical or simply self-referential, design remains even today in the peculiar position of having its history and criticism written largely by and for its own practitioners. Since most of us are involved in making things, we write quite naturally of the hows and whys of making them in a collective effort to evaluate a design’s production. But what’s gone into our own production? How are designers produced?
A stunning bit of writing from William Gass, by way of his essay “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence” from his collection Life Sentences:
"The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman." The rhythm of the sentence not only propels the sentence forward, it helps to organize its significant units — its phrases and clauses. The reader is made, not merely to see the sentence, but to sound it, because it is now a small mouthful. These sounds are not those of ordinary speech, but the spectral mimicry of things said to the mind, heard only by the mind, in the arena of the mind — in the subvocal consciousness that exists during reading.
The saleman’s sentence seems quite sure of itself. It is direct; it is definite; it has no room for reservations. Yet without altering a word, its epistemological and ontological status can be radically altered. That is why I called these verbal instruments, transformative operators. For instances, we could lower the sentence’s degree of assurance. “[I thought that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman.” “[I guessed that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but Gertrude was of quite a different opinion].” Amphibolously: “[Harold said that if] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [he was a monkey’s uncle].” Or change tone and attitude: “[I certainly hoped] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [otherwise I’ve just now bought a cat’s brush to comb my beard].” “The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but what if he were also the exhibitionist who has been frightening the neighborhood?]” More radically, we can put it in another realm of Being. “[While seated before the fire in my dressing gown reading Descartes’s Meditations, I dreamed I heard a knocking. Then a cuckoo popped out of its clockhouse to announce that] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman. [I realized, when I was awakened by my desire to answer his knocking, that I had been dreaming inside a dream not altogether mine.]”
Layers of reality, degrees of uncertainty, ranges of attitude, levels of society, depth of contextual connection, modulations of tone, the ramifications and complexities of concept, and, above all, the vocabulary of the denoted world, must be taken into account, managed, and made the best of.
Late in the evening, with a glass of wine, I’m sitting in a dark room trying to consider the packaging of an album by an Estonian composer named Arvo Pärt that will include a piece of his called “Fratres,” which is nearly 12 minutes long. Mine is an imaginary job, a problem for thinking through after dinner. But suppose I were to be faced with it. Suppose I were to try to contain this piece of Pärt’s, a piece that arises from design and vanishes from it just as quickly. How could it be done?
Memories strike first and hardest, and I begin to sort through them. The first time I ever heard Pärt was Thursday, 12 March 1998 on a cold night at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. That night, the sun set at 6:16pm according to the Almanac, but new snow and a full moon kept the city looking bright and blue well after nightfall. Earlier that day I had been at the Walker Art Center to see a show by the artist Robert Gober, and, by chance, I picked up a brochure that said “Sound Visions Spring Music.” I still have the brochure in my files today, and getting out of my red chair, I set down my glass to find it.In my hands is a CD-booklet-sized, 16-page brochure printed in black and cyan only. The typography is neurotic—four weights of Akzidenz Grotesk including the Condensed and Bold Condensed weights, a rounded vernacular gothic, and close-set Clarendon caps. Looking at it today, I think what it said was more important than how it looked. A “rare opportunity,” a “hypnotic vocal tapestry” in an “acoustically superb sanctuary.” The language now sounds as clumsy as the type. But at a time in my life when I thought Minneapolis to be so provincial that any rare opportunity was one worth taking, here was a promise to hear something beyond hearing. I remember walking to the box office to buy tickets immediately. Hours later, sitting in the Basilica, the singers’ voices started the “Kyrie” of the Berlin Mass. There were no words for these sounds, nor shapes to give them form. The music existed as an encounter with thresholds, like standing on the firm earth over a void. The encounter was thrilling.
Once I was aware of him, I began to encounter Pärt more and more often. I remember finding him in the listening library at college by accident when someone had left a CD in the wrong tray. Then again at a friend’s debut recital in New York City. His music seems to inhabit the films I watch: Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Michael Mann’s The Insider, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Julie Bertucelli’s Since Otar Left, and Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line. You will find him in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, of Werner Herzog, of Mike Nichols and Michael Moore. I fell in love with a girl as I watched Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, where Pärt plays more than once.
As I consider the package, trying to bring a form from facts, I consider the process of listening itself. It is a process of building and unbuilding. The music I hear is first built for me, note by note, and I simply apprehend it. Then, with more listening and repeated playings, I break the shimmering thing back into pieces in an effort to understand its whole. There is, must be, a reason the filmmakers I watch, the designers I work with, the people I love, hear these sounds of Pärt’s and respond as they do. We all want to know: is what we’re hearing about Pärt or about us? Who is this package for, and what do its contents yield?
Part of me thinks of “Fratres” as a design. Its structure exists independently from its orchestration. It exists already as a piece for strings and percussion, winds and percussion, eight cellos, string quartet, violin and piano, and MIDI sequencer. Its phrases of four, six, and eight notes are voiced in three voices—high, middle, and low—over nine variations, or three triads of three. “Fratres” has three beginnings, three middles, and three ends in each of its three movements, and the arrangement of the three phrase-sets in the three different voices of each of these three movements creates first one, then two, then—just barely—three tonal centers to the piece. More than a third of the tonal experience of “Fratres” comes from the overtones that result from the three perfect intervals played—the octave, the fourth, and the fifth. So nothing exists: no given orchestration, no single experience, not even all of the notes on the page. This is fitting: Pärt often tells the story of a Russian monk he met, who, when asked how to improve oneself, said he knew of no way. Pärt said he tried by writing prayers and setting them to music. The monk shook his head. “You are wrong,” he said. “All the prayers have been written. Everything has been prepared. Now you must prepare yourself.”
This preparation comes from transcendence. In Pärt’s music, what is unknown is summoned from what is known through the natural variance of incantaton—of reciting something over and over—like the casting of spells and the saying of prayers. With no preordained thematic drive to obey, the music literally goes nowhere and operates with great drama by placing you where you are, intoning the same tones again and again to create a world of very few parts, a space that holds only the players, the sounds they play, and the person listening.
Though I am describing the music to myself now, the package I’m trying to design is no closer. Here is what I hear: “Fratres” begins quietly. A beat maps the space, a pulse. Then, a breath, the drawing of bows, timed with the beat. Four notes, arching like a sunrise, then six in a similar pattern, then eight. The four return again, slightly different but hopeful, then six, then eight. The players are quiet and find the pulse again. Now four tones dipping like a valley, more laboured on their journey uphill. The same pattern of six then eight. Four. Six. Eight. The sound is broadening, rounder. The pulse. The beats are a rhythm, an organiser for the arrangement of the notes, sounding as they did before, but more insistently now. Two forces in opposing directions. The movements in this interval are laboured and driving forward. At last, the sound rings. The pulse returns and the first third is complete.
More falling than rising, the opera is greater. The drama of the second third. Beat, beat, beat. Beat, beat, beat. The music insists and refuses to resolve, simmering, then vapourising the structure it found before. Now it finds itself in two states at once. Beats and then the weather. A thunderclap and air fronts inside and out. The music hall trembles, tensing for the storm.
The final third begins. The warmest sounds so far, like a folk dance or children running in a ring, yelling with joy. The pulse of night-time beats with the regularity of vespers. A hushing when the sounds resume. The quieter of the two voices is found lower down. On the refrain, it is quieter still, sounding as if, in an icy forest, someone has just stopped walking. The pulse trails off, drifting. Now, after the storm, the wind settling, the intensity of resting after a hard day, of releasing breath. A good job. The pulse, calm, falls silent.
Ideas from Pärt of a typographic sort: the tabula rasa (or blank slate)—his name for a skittering piece written for the violinist Gideon Kremer. The package is empty. When I was younger, learning to play the piano by ear, I would play intervals that made the best shapes. The beauty of a perfect interval is more than sonic. The Estonian alphabet has 32 letters. Bracketing those that are only used in foreign words, 27 letters remain. Three nines, each of three threes. Pärt’s process for composing much of his music, including “Fratres,” is one he calls “tintinnabulation,” which takes a certain chord and inverts it several times over to evoke the pealing of bells, modulating its register in a manner that suggests overtones. This is the beauty of well-chosen arrangements. The sound is simultaneously static (the chord is not changing) and in flux (the chord is permuting). The triad sounds over and over again as instruments trade its notes, passing them through the auditorium as other, quieter voices wander afield, uprooted. These bell-like overtones are slippery, toning and overtoning and changing between the soundings. Something happens when metal is struck with that kind of force, I think to myself. Something else resonates.
I am searching for answers by considering form. I pour another glass of wine. Digging through a pile of articles I’ve made on the floor, I find Pärt searching for answers, too:
Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this unimportant thing appear in many guises, and everything that is unimportant falls away.
I am frustrated by the answers I am getting. Maybe it’s enough just to enjoy the music. As quickly as I can ask, “Is Pärt a designer?” I am asking myself, “Should I try to be claiming him as one?”
With “Fratres” on the stereo, I am on the noisy internet, and it is getting later. I find I can type F-R-A-T-R-E-S with one hand. When I translate a French interview with Pärt, the word for “composer” comes out “type-setter.” I find that Pärt’s birthday is 11 September 1935—66 years (two 33s) before the towers fell. In his music, he says, the second iteration of the triad represents “terror.” I find the moment of Pärt’s musical transformation from his early serialism to his later minimalism coincides to the month with my own birth. I find a quote about the packaging of his music that coincides with this coincidence: Alex Ross of The New Yorker writes, “Even the packaging of the disks, all crisp lines and monochromatic fields, is a beautiful exemplar of minimalist style.” I find each of the package designs and note the typefaces: Palatino, Palatino Titling, Trajan, Gill Sans, stretched Avant Garde, Garamond Bold, Akzidenz Grotesk, Times Roman, Frutiger, Rotis Serif. These facts refuse me.
We must count on the fact that our music will come to an end one day. Perhaps there will come a moment, even for the greatest artist, when he will no longer want to or have to make art. And perhaps at that very moment we will value his creation even more—because in this instant he will have transcended his work.
We reach a consensus on things, and these things should be noted down. Here is one: the Estonaian composer Arvo Pärt. Here are my notes. The wine is done. The room is quiet. As I get ready for bed, I remind myself that there is, in fact, no problem here to be solved.
This article first appeared in Dot Dot Dot #9. © 2004 Rob Giampietro.
"The Neuland Question comes up regularly, and alas without much resolution…." —Jonathan Hoefler
The “Neuland Question” to which Jonathan Hoefler refers involves not just Neuland, a “display” typeface hand-carved in 1923 by Rudolf Koch (Plate 1), but also Lithos, another “display” typeface digitally created in 1989 by Carol Twombly (Plate 2). The Question can be put simply: How did these two typefaces come to signify Africans and African-Americans, regardless of how a designer uses them, and regardless of the purpose for which their creators originally intended them? The investigation of this question has four parts: first, an examination of the environments in which Koch and Twombly created the original typefaces; second, an examination of the graphic culture that surrounded African-Americans prior to the creation of Neuland through a close viewing of tobacco ephemera; third, an examination of the Art Deco (French Modern) style, the graphic culture most prevalent in the United States at the time of Neuland’s release; and finally, an examination of the ways designers use Neuland and Lithos today.
It would not be unfair to compare the thematic architecture of this year’s Venice Biennale with that of Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center. The 50th Annual Biennale, called “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” was staged in two primary exhibition venues: the Giardini della Biennale, built in 1895, and the Arsenale, a former shipbuilding yard located on the outskirts of town. The Giardini house the enormous Italian Pavilion and 29 other national pavilions built by the participating nations themselves. The recently restored buildings of the Arsenale are home to independent satellite exhibitions and other large-scale shows. Thus, the Giardini, with their bevy of national pavilions, are like EPCOT’s “World Showcase,” the northern half of the park, where landmarks and typical structures from nine countries are presented around a lagoon in a miniature world tour of cultures and cuisines. And, with the inclusion of “Utopia Station”—an exhibition organized by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—the far end of the Arsenale has become an analogue to EPCOT’s “Future World.”
Like a lot of designers, I’m fascinated by photography. But, like so many designers that entered the field after the computer had become the norm, I initially thought of myself more as a technician than an artist. I didn’t think of what I did on the computer as being informed by photography; I thought of it as being informed by itself. Design of the past, I thought, legislated design of the present. But if design in the last few years has become more self-referential, this is because its means of production have become more distinct from those of visual art and visual culture as a whole.
Up until a few decades ago, this was not the case. Design and photography as disciplines were commonly taught in the same department. Part of the reason for this was technical—in order to make design, design students had to understand photographic processes—but part of the reason for this was pedagogical. “Graphic design” became distinct from “fine printing” due to the efforts of the Bauhaus, the founders of which equated design with the democratic possibilities of the machines that were reshaping their societies. The ultimate image-making machine at the start of the 20th Century was, of course, the camera. László Maholy-Nagy—himself a designer, photographer, and Bauhaus professor—was not the first to join design and photography, but his playful essay “Typophoto” from 1925 is probably the best articulation of this idea. Essentially, design and photography were like two boys growing up on the same block: everyone just assumed they were brothers. This essay celebrates that assumption. You’ll find no argument here; just a story about how design and photography, for me, came back together again. The writer Lawrence Weschler has a name for these kinds of visual comparisons: he calls them “convergences.”
On a chilly winter several years ago, I enrolled in “Introduction to Photography.” Within three weeks, I was failing the class resoundingly, having shot 40 or 50 rolls of film and not a single photograph of substance. Like many of my fellow verbally literate and visually illiterate undergrads, I could talk about photographs, but I didn’t know how to make photographs worth talking about.
Working this out on a walk with a friend one snowy day, I tried to explain how I thought that mastering the alignment of forms was the first key. When he looked puzzled, I made a frame with my fingers, tilted my head backward to face the blank February sky. Branches littered my view above. “The photograph is not here,” I said, viewing the hastily-cropped tree. I took a few paces forward. “It’s here.” The sky was a page, and, faced with the forms above, the typographer in me moved to arrange them and give them meaning. And while this inclination toward celestial ordering is as old as humankind, it is still very contemporary. Novelist Italo Calvino writes in Invisible Cities that “In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant….” I had now learned this with my eye. Later that week, a grad student showed me Lewis Hine’s photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building from 1930-1931. Motivated by impulses similar to the Bauhaus, Hine’s images brought the workers from heavy industry and the abstract shapes of early 20th-Century design into the a single frame. Against the foggy backdrop of the city, girders became playful diagonals and scaffolding became a modernist grid. There was suddenly, in my mind, little difference between Hine’s workers, miles above the ground, and the Suprematist paintings of Kasimir Malevitch: they were shapes tumbling through space, airplanes in flight. And Hine, later the chief photographer for Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, had given these shapes a tremendous social value through the new medium of photography.
These initial “convergences”—first the episode of the tree, then my introduction to Hine—were formative. As I tried to work out what they meant to me, my teacher continued doing slide lectures on the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson coined the term “The Decisive Moment” to describe the instant in which the disparate forms of the outside world organize themselves in the camera’s viewfinder to create meaning. The fewer elements in the frame, I reasoned, the easier it was to understand how this moment was created. I began collecting photographs that stunned me with their blankness. Richard Avedon intensified the character of the assorted drifters he encountered in the American West by photographing the forms of their bodies against a stark white of a bedsheet. Walker Evans found the stark blankness of the Southern sky a frame of fitting sobriety for his studies of churches commissioned by Hine for the WPA. With books piling up around me in the photo collection at the art library, I found the German photographer Karl Blossfeldt, whose work surveyed the natural forms of plants. Blossfeldt’s images reminded me of another German photographer, August Sander, whose work surveyed the forms of the German people themselves. Sander, who followed Blossfeldt, seemed to be followed by Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose work surveyed the industrial architecture created by many of the workers that Sander photographed decades earlier. I finally realized that the relationship between Hine and Cartier-Bresson was not a unique one: photographs everywhere began with forms. Russian photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko, like László Maholy-Nagy, was a designer and photographer, and the compositions of his photographs were directly influenced by Malevitch’s paintings. Edward Weston’s pepper reminded me, suddenly, of Blossfeldt.
I had started to develop a working method for myself based on principles of inclusion and exclusion. First, exclude verbal descriptions from my visual process. Writing about what I wanted to take pictures of would produce a lot of essays and not too many pictures. It’s a visual medium: respond visually. Second, exclude the visually unnecessary. Empty the frame somehow and reintroduce elements to compose as I would if I were starting from a blank pasteboard. Found visual situations were controlled by composition. Constructed visual situations were often inspired by it. Being a designer, composition was a principle I responded to; I naturally began constructing more images. My collection was beginning to swell with works of a different sort. Alfred Hitchcock’s production stills from Psycho had found their way into my file. These images were controlled, blank, but also part of a larger narrative, pieces to a bigger story. Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits referred to these Hitchockian constructions without including the story. More recently, Gregory Crewdson has done for Spielberg what Cindy Sherman did for Hitchcock: appropriated him.
In the end, I survived “Introduction to Photography,” barely, and fumbled my way into “Intermediate Photography” with Catherine Opie, and outstanding teacher and photographer in her own right. In that class, I met two designers who were also in the process of coming to terms with photography in similar ways. Kristin Tomsits saw in lawns what I saw in Lewis Hine’s sky and Walker Evans’ churches. One of her photographs shows the pristine edge of a lawn as it meets the pavement. It is a photograph, on one level, of the way a line divides a plane into two distinct colors. On another level, it is a banal observation of Suburbia. Another of her photographs depicts the electric green Astroturf of a Mini Golf course, complete with a cookie-cutter bench that’s as fake as the grass it’s sitting on. The bench’s fakeness reminded me of Thomas Demand’s photographs. Demand builds miniature recreations of famous sites out of paper and photographs them to look real. When the photograph is complete, the construction is destroyed, giving the photograph an imperceptible sense of loss, which is tied to its referent. Tomsits’ bench looks like Demand’s photograph of his reconstruction of the diving board from the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi-occupied Berlin. Tomsits’ photographs, though, had a sense of loss that differed from Demand’s: full of flat, unvarigated surfaces, textural, and tonal bump-ups, all set at sporting sites in wintertime, they spoke to the lonliness of winter and the suburban landscape.
Leslie Tucker, the other designer in Opie’s class with me, took photographs of abandoned building walls. These great, flat walls were venues for typographic observation within a constrained formal set. So in the same way that Tomsits’ photographs shuffled elements like “Lawn,” “Pavement,” and “Goal,” Tucker’s photos shuffled “Wall,” “Tree,” “Fence,” and “Window.” Against a blank sheet of wall, Tucker made squares with windows, lines with trees, tones with fences. The photographs brought beauty out of overlooked urban space, and, as in Tomsits’ suburbs, these spaces were uninhabited. These were photographs in the literal sense. These were picture-writing. They were graphic, sometimes even typographic, like Tomsits’ later photographs for the class, deadpan renderings of signs for “Syosset Lanes” and “Oasis Food.” Tucker’s depictions of used glassware at thrift stores, the patter of forms on lines against a moiré of pegboard, like the Bechers’ watertowers against blank German skies, were a study of sorts, a typology, a reading. Both designer/photographers in my class owed a huge debt in their work to the American color photography pioneer Stephen Shore, whose deadpan observations of walls, signs, houseplants—and everything in between—left some of the nostalgic allusions of black-and-white photographs behind in order to show the present surreality of the everyday.
The designer/photographers in my class—and their visual forefathers—taught me that the process of inclusion and exclusion—really, of editing—was essential within the frame. As I broadened my view of designers taking pictures and the photographers that seemed to influence them, I began to understand how this kind of editing took place in the presentation of their images as well.
Rudy VanderLans’ photo-fantasia Supermarket, a found word for a found landscape, folds together themes similar to those of Tomsits and Tucker over the course of a drive through Southern California. These photographs summon a familiar loss and lonliness and raise questions about the everyday and the banal. Here again we see lawns, deserts, skies, and flatness. Here again are some of Shore’s signs and plantlife. VanderLans includes snatches of his sonic environment in his presentation, a kind of audio typography. There is a radio playing in his car as he drives. The D-shape of his car window becomes a major formal element, a lens used to classify the anonymous landscape. In 171 pages, not a single human being is depicted. Instead the work is a catalogue of like forms, the grid of four into which the photos are slid a kind of compound view, like that of a dung beetle or a closed-circuit television. Quadrants sputter alive with speech or images and then return to a blank, sandy beige. Each drugstore snapshot is horizontal, uniform, consistent, like the frames of a film whizzing quietly by.
VanderLans’ project is a formal stepchild to Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, itself a catalogue of forms, of inspirations, of photographic brainstorming, a mapless map of a placeless place, Richter’s mind’s eye. When I first opened Atlas back in the art library years ago, it was like opening my own eyes to the world. Landscapes, seascapes, city plans, and foggy roads. The faces of dead white men. Daubs of colored paint in harsh light. Branches, flowers, and clouds. Glaciers, meadows, and country roads. There is almost no portraiture until the end, when Richter includes studies of his wife and child. It is an album not of people but of potentials, a viewbook and a vantage-point. Like VanderLans, Richter uses a system to organize his images: all are mounted on sheets of paper derived from a single size. This kind of photographic uniformity is aided by design in its conceptual thrust, so the debt in making Atlas is mutual. The clarity of Richter’s worldview is reinforced by its constancy, as it is in the Bechers’ work, image after image of incremental difference; and totality, as it is in Sander’s work, with a breadth that draws not just on the German landscape, but on that of all the world. Richter’s view includes everything we see and everything we’ve ever seen. It is Platonic: not a single landscape, but the idea of a landscape. And it is Socialist: each potential landscape is equivalent.
John Baldessari’s work also uses this tactic. His photographs, like Richter’s sixteen different arrangements of a wine bottle and apples by a window from Atlas, show a process of arrangement either by movement of objects within the frame or by movement of the photographer himself, and, because of this legislated sequential movement, the photographs can evoke gameplay and even rudimentary cinematic montage, as VanderLans’ photographs do. Both are simple narratives in which a limited set of forms plays out in succession. In Baldessari’s “Choosing (A Game for Two Players): Rhubarb, 1972,” seven vertical color 35mm photographs represent a simple game. Three rhubarbs are shown, top-to-bottom. Player 1 chooses the center rhubarb. Top and bottom rhubarbs are replaced and it’s Player 2’s turn. The criteria for judgment are deliberately elided, but we can assume them to be formal, or at least aesthetic. Baldessari’s work helped me turn a corner in my own thinking about photography’s use and its reason for looking a certain way. His photographs were neither fiction nor documentary but evidence. The processes governing them were not illusory but arbitrary. Their aim was not to represent a reality but to represent the choice involved in all representations of reality. What, after all, could be more arbitrary, less nuanced, than a rhubarb? We have no sign structure for it. The rhubarb is an operand.
Baldessari is upfront about this. His list of quotations from an introductory textbook on photography is telling:
- What the camera has done is to show us what to concentrate upon; and, consequently, what to leave out.
- The photographer can change his position, but the result would be another kind of picture.
- Without design a photograph will be but an announcement.
- In a mere photograph there is a real danger of losing a picture’s chief attribute, its design.
- At first glance a photograph will often appear to add up to the conditions of an adequate composition.
- Here is a typical case of a striking photograph that contains elements from which a good composition can be made; as it stands, it cannot be literally copied without asking for trouble.
Baldessari’s interest, like Richter’s, is not so much in photography but in the epistemology of photography, in which design plays an intimate role. What are photography’s limits? What constitutes a photograph in and of itself? And who gets to choose one from another, Player 1 or Player 2? Players 1 and 2 may have the agency of operators, but they are without identity. It is easy to build identities around them, however. Perhaps one is the viewer and the other the viewed. Perhaps one is the artist and the other the audience. Evidence photography, after all, is not found photography: it is made to look found, but still it bears a maker’s mark. Who is the maker? Who is the photographer? What constitutes a photographer, and how is the photographer involved in the pictures he takes? It’s a conceptual hokey-pokey. Do you put your whole self in or leave your whole self out?
These final issues, of identity and authorship, are dramatized in the American photographer Lee Friedlander’s self-portrait, “Albany, New York, 1967.” Taken five years before Baldessari’s “Choosing,” we find ourselves inside a similar-but-different game. The horizontal frame is split in half top-and-bottom. Below are Friedlander’s feet. Above are three portraits of young men, perched on the edge of a thrift store window. In this simple image, Friedlander raises the stakes of choosing: Are we choosing his identity? Is he choosing his own? Are we choosing ours? Is he choosing for us? In the moment of passing by a show window, Friedlander ties our most basic questions of self to the act of photographic consumption. If we’re playing this game by Baldessari’s rules, after choosing one of the portraits, another two would replace those we did not choose. The process of identification would be ceaseless, and the role of photography in the process would be increasingly essential.
August Sander chose to typify the people in his world by vocation, and in our world this standard has gained widespread acceptance. If part of who we are is defined by what we do, what is happening when designers photograph? The process of many art photographers is to use photographs to chip away at notions of self, and they are aided in this by the development of a body of work, of a life in pictures, constructed or otherwise. Designers do not have this benefit; photography is not the thrust of their life’s work, or they would be branded “photographers.” This is not to say that one cannot be both; it is only to say that in being both, in our world, you cease to be either. Photographs that designers take, like photographs that painters take, are consigned by their critics as sketches. “Here they are,” they say, “in the process of working something out.” And there is truth to this. But there is also a great deal of critical gerrymandering. Earlier, I sought to draw formal lines in the sand; now I wish to draw conceptual ones. If we make a distinction between photographs and Photographs, which may a designer take?
The answer to this final complication may not come from the individuality of our selves but from the ubiquity of our machines. Everyone’s a photographer, in other words, because everyone has a camera. Taking pictures, especially lately in the U.S., seems more a right than a gift. I now have a camera attached to my phone, a device no bigger than a chocolate bar. And with it, the city has changed for me. I use my camera to talk to objects the way I use my phone to talk to others. The format is a bit taller than square and never intended for making prints. The matchbook-sized images it generates are paperless, objectless, just data skimming through the air. I meet a friend in a café, and we trade stories through looking at things, like the Academics of the Balinibari School of Languages in Gulliver’s Travels, who speak by trading objects carried on the backs of hearty servants. I beam him a standpipe. He beams back a pumpkin and a floppy disc. My brother calls and his face appears. “Where’s your headshot?” he asks. With a mirror the size of a nail’s head mounted next to the lens, I take a portrait to send back. Back at home, Friendster’s JPEGs are supermarket of acquaintance. Ebay’s are a general store of the everyday. Our populist photographs are more syntactic, more typological. Not photography as such but photography as a thread in visual culture’s vast forum. Photographers are speaking in this forum. And, as they always have been, designers are speaking, too.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of AIGA InForm.
A discussion between Rob Giampietro and Rudy VanderLans about guilt and loss in graphic design.
Rudy VanderLans, editor, Emigre: When writer/designer Rob Giampietro approached me a few months back with the idea to write an article about graphic design in the ’90s, he brought up an unrelated topic during our conversation that I found intriguing; he mentioned the term “Default Systems Design.” He said it was the topic for another article he had been working on for the past few months. It’s curious how certain ideas reach critical mass. In Emigre #64 a number of contributors, independently from each other, each made note of the emergence of a new kind of graphic design that seems to rely heavily on the use of systems and defaults. Just when you think graphic design is in a coma, something’s taking root. Reprinted here is how we arrived at the topic, as well as edited segments of the rest of the dialogue.
To start, when I say the typographic “modern,” I don’t mean Modernity, even though the written distinction is typographic. The project of Modernity spanned a century or more; the novelty of modern typography lasted a few decades at best, and had its heyday in the latter half of the twentieth century, in the twilight, or perhaps even in the aftermath, of the Modern Age. Typographic theorists and thinkers were far less acclimated to philosophical tracts than they were to artistic manifestos, which were themselves generally non-comparative and often stridently rhetorical. So, as the manifesto-writers repackaged the philosophers, the typographers repackaged the manifesto-writers, and, here we have typography in its typical position: twice-removed. Contemporary designers Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller explain, “writing is… a set of signs for representing signs. The design of letterforms is removed one step further: it is a medium whose signified is not words but rather the alphabet.”
In recent months, so many important jazz albums have been reissued that it almost seems trendy. The flood of rediscovered albums is a wonderful complement to the complex, eclectic jazz being made today. Often these reissues are not classic recordings at all, but particularly avant-garde works by noted performers that have slipped through the cracks. Such is the case with Meredith Monk’s forgotten Dolmen Music. Following up on the success of Monk’s recent work, ECM has reissued this subtle and complex early recording.
The deepest of the album’s pieces is “Dolmen Music” itself, nearly 30 minutes long, which is as haunting as it is unique. Stonehenge, composed of dolmens (a type of rock structure scattered throughout the countryside in France and England), is the main influence. In this site, steeped in the mysteries of the cosmos, Monk finds a metaphor for the unpredictability of improvised music. Its circular formation is also important here, and the piece alludes to this through its looping vamp lines and in the nontraditional staging of the vocalists, who sit in a circle, surrounded by stones.
In “Overture and Men’s Conclave,” the first of the piece’s six movements, the sound of wind (summoned by an airy cello) becomes a recursive chant, then collapses into the murmurs of a men’s congregation that speaks in tongues. In “Pine Tree Lullaby,” an eerily soothing cello hints both at music’s power to bring sleep and at its vitality, persistent despite the darkness of the forest at night. The two elements—death and life—now brought together are held in tension with the final two movements. “Conclusion” loops back to the beginning, repeating the themes once more and making it seem as if death and life coexisted all along.
Monk’s eclecticism sometimes makes the music difficult to appreciate—as is the case with the other tracks on the album. But when it is poised in a situation as demanding as that of “Dolmen Music,” this eclecticism, a property intrinsic to Monk’s voice itself, shines as both the rock from which the others in the archway are hewn and as the gravity by which those rocks press the earth to reach, together, toward heaven. It is the voice that, pre-lingual, summons music and magic from these stone gates that are agape and singing silently—the mouths of God.
An enormous, abandoned, unreachable hotel; a delusional, axe-murdering psychopath; a clairvoyant, telepathic child; and a frail, scared young woman: a cursory list of elements in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining would seem to position it squarely within the horror film genre. Couple this with the fact that it shares these elements with an earlier novel by Stephen King, who has built an entire literary career out of manipulating the narrative conventions of the American ghost story—a genre that has been part of our oral history since the start of European settlement in the 1600s—and you might have the beginning of argument that places King’s text at the center of the film’s success. Kubrick’s adaptation does share several key elements with King’s original, including a certain foundation in genre, but few critics attribute the film’s success to King. Even King’s fans do not claim it as one of “the master’s.” In a pamphlet entitled “The Films of Steven King,” enthusiast Michael R. Collings admits, “the best approach to Kubrick’s The Shining is to divorce it from any connections with Stephen King—not because Kubrick failed to do justice to King’s narrative, but simply because it has ceased to be King’s.” Cultural critic Frederic Jameson takes this argument even further, writing in his book Signatures of the Visible that “the genre does not yet transmit a coherent ideological message, as Stephen King’s mediocre original testifies.” Indeed, as Jameson suggests, Kubrick’s adaptation, while it maintains elements necessary to cue the genre of the horror film, expands King’s work of popular entertainment into a thoroughly postmodern work of art.