1. IRIS GARDEN photos by William Gedney, Text by John Cage, Little Brown Mushroom
I saw a maquette of this book in Alec Soth’s studio in the summer and was told only: “That’s an upcoming project with material from John Cage.” The maquette was simply a white slip case with a bunch of unbound, blank folded pages inside, seemingly the book version of Cage’s famous composition 4’33”, which seemed pretty bold and brilliant: to make a blank book in memory of Cage the composer. However the final result is something much more powerful and less gimmicky: Soth edited Iris Garden by pairing photographs by William Gedney from the Duke University archive with texts from a lecture series Cage gave, in which he would read short stories all in the span of one minute. If the text was longer he would read it quickly, if shorter he would read slowly, sometimes achingly slow. Despite all the books this year that knocked my socks off, this one did that and transported me back to when I was 16 and longing to be an experimental modern composer, or just longing for something artistic. Cage is one of the most perfect blends of candour, humour, experimentalism, bravery, and silliness. He was everything I wanted to be as a teenager, and LBM’s book reminded me of that desire.
I contacted Alec to ask him a few questions about the book, and found that the book served a similar function for him.
What is the origin of Iris Garden? When did you first encounter Cage and Gedney, and why put them together in a book now?
Alec Soth: I fell in love with Cage when I was in high school. In retrospect, it was always his words I loved. I had a couple of his albums, but it was his book Silence that really affected me. When I got a bit older, I sort of dismissed him. I’m not sure why, but I guess it felt naïve, or too soft, or just not cool. In any case, he was pretty deep in the background. But then a couple of years ago I went through some changes and consciously tried to scrape off some of the cynicism that had attached itself over the years. As a result, I got back in touch with the person I was when I was 17 and Cage emerged. Re-reading him was a revelation. In particularly, I loved his Indeterminacy writings. These little stories of his aren’t corny at all. They are funny, smart and emotionally complex. They are short and straightforward. They remind me of photographs, and I knew they’d work well alongside photographs. Gedney immediately came to mind. I’ve loved Gedney ever since encountering his work in the late great DoubleTake Magazine. Over the years I’ve looked at his pictures online at the Duke University website and knew there was a ton of great material, including his pictures of Cage. I did some rough drafts where I put his pictures next to Cage’s words and it just worked.
Gedney is someone who seemingly never got the due amount of attention he deserved. How would you describe his work and style to those who’ve never heard of him?
Gedney is a classic photographer’s photographer. His work isn’t about developing a signature style or subject. It is attentive, understated and naturalistic. But there is a sadness at the core of Gedney’s work, and a feeling that he was holding onto secrets. For me, this is both what makes his work special and the thing that kept him from finding a wider audience. I feel a quality of distance in Gedney. I imagine that he envied Cage’s open spirit.
One thing you have talked a lot about is what you call ‘The Eggleston Problem’ of photographing everything. Cage seems to be a perfect mirror image of Eggleston in the world of music, placing the emphasis on sound itself and getting away from music that is telling a story or moving through time in a perceived sequence. Gedney also focuses his camera on the ordinary. How does all this come into play as you interpret their work?
Gedney is actually much more thematic and project-based than Eggleston. The randomness in Iris Garden was created in response to Cage’s text. But I agree that Cage’s world-view bears some resemblance to Eggleston’s notion of the Democratic Forest. Here’s the thing: the world only needs one John Cage. As much as I might learn from his approach, I don’t really want to turn on the radio and hear I-Ching inspired compositions all day long. In the same way, the world only needs one Eggleston. But when I turn on the photo radio, I hear a whole lot of music that sounds like Eggleston.
Why do you think Cage’s stories match up with the photographs so well? Do you think his incomplete narratives match the incompleteness of information in photographs better than more traditional writing?
With our various LBM projects, I always picture a balancing scale. The goal is always to balance the text and the image and the book itself – its design and construction – is the scale. (And maybe I’m the blind woman holding the scale). In the case of Iris Garden, I felt like the balance was really perfect. And yes, I do think it was the nature of Cage’s text that made it works so well. They actually remind me a lot of Brad Zellar’s texts for Inspector of the Moving World. What usually works best with photographs, I think, is short, straightforward storytelling without a lot adjectives or other verbal flourishes.
How did you balance the freedom of being an objective outsider, since you were working with other people’s material, with respecting the work of such revered artists? Or was it the same as making any LBM book of another artist’s work?
We handled the material with as much respect and craftsmanship as we could, but I did have a fundamental concern: how would Cage and Gedney feel about being paired with each other? I don’t think they knew each other well. I have no idea if they even thought highly of each other’s work. So who am I to put them together? I don’t really have an answer. Of course I worked with both estates to get permission. But still this question lingers. In the end, I made this book out of a real love and devotion to the work. So mostly I just hope that this came through in the final book and that Cage and Gedney would approve.
“During his time at Yale, Papageorge has transmitted to generations of his photographers the notion that, while “photography is fiction” and “there are no truths in a photograph,” the best images are always created from reality. For Papageorge, one cannot dream of more perfect, more telling, or more ridiculous images than one can find in real life, Kareszi said, adding that this philosophy is particularly evident in Papageorge’s photographs.”—Tod Papageorge leaves Yale School of Art | Yale Daily News (via photographsonthebrain)
Aperture In Person Collaboration: Revisiting the History of Photography
Saturday, December 7 1:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Aperture Gallery and Bookstore 547 West 27th Street New York, NY
Join Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, and graduate students from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design for an Open Lab at Aperture Gallery, as they develop the first draft of a research project that reconsiders the story of photography from the perspective of collaboration. The team will map out a timeline of approximately one hundred photography projects - in which photographers “co-labor” with each other and with those they photograph - on the walls of the Aperture Bookstore.
“I have never had any hero in my life or in photography. I just travel, I look and everything influences me. Everything influences me. I am quite different now than I was 40 years ago. For 40 years I have been traveling. I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind.”—
“The price that was paid for getting photography acknowledged as an art form, was that everything else was excluded: we have good photography, that is what artists do, and then we have a lot of bad photography – actually it’s not even photography, it’s just garbage. And they have nothing to do with each other. I see it differently: it can be everything, the very same picture can be used for advertising, it can show up in a newspaper, can play a role in a private context and it can be turned into an art form, and it’s only small manipulations which make that happen, and then shifts of context.”—Joachim Schmid (via conscientious)