• Joseph Kolb

Memories That Look Like Photographs: Thoughts on Aperture Books

Last weekend I explored Aperture‘s online listing of published books. Aperture is a not-for-profit photography foundation. They have a position open with their Books department that I applied for several weeks ago, only realizing later that I had mostly researched their magazine when writing my application. (Seeing the names Tilda Swinton, Maggie Nelson, and Zackary Drucker excited me.) Searching the site was a good choice: it was impressive and pleasing to see the variety of photographers they’ve published. Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was one of the first photography books that made me appreciate the value and impact of a body of work in its entirety. I consumed this book for the first time at The Strand, with my friends Megan, Mack, and Brenna. The four of us that fall had been in a writing circle one night a week, workshopping pieces in my Long Island basement. That particular day we had taken a trip into the city to forage for anything we could find. 

I knew of Nan Goldin from bored weekends in winter before working in Hofstra’s fine art department. On Saturdays or Sundays, I would spend the afternoons managing the open studios or the upstairs computer lab. Upstairs, a handful of people would arrive throughout the afternoon. Downstairs, I’d be lucky to get one or two, before finals week. So this managing mostly consisted of unlocking and locking the doors, maybe answering a question or two, and spending the six or so hours between biding my time, watching the white light and the shapes from the shadows of the trees cast themselves across the room. I started becoming creative in my methods of entertaining myself, only rarely working on my own assignments. I started spending hours perusing artsy.net for artists and photographers. That semester I was taking a course on the history of photography, and slowly, like a building undercurrent, my desire to have studied art history or photography grew, and I felt I had to find ways to supplement my education. 

Online, I had seen a few of Goldin’s pictures, interspersed with various other photographers in whatever tag I had been searching through. Mostly, I saw young adults lying about in yellow or red light, sometimes inside, sometimes outside. I was curious, but didn’t “get it.” Turning slowly through the pages of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in the Strand stairwell changed my tune. A larger picture was being painted for me of New York. Abruptly, I stopped seeing the pictures as moody models posing in bedrooms mixed snapshots in cars, a vein of contemporary work I had once admired but was growing tired of. No, this was strictly documentary. Nan one month after being battered cemented the reality of her work, which I finally saw was beyond images of youthful indulgence and desire, but life and lives unclouded by idealization, beautiful and tragic in their suffering. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency would begin the shift of my understanding of New York during that quarter of the 20th century.

In my own ventures into photography, I had focused mostly on conceptual portrait, yet to tap into the documentary nature and history of the art mode. In hindsight, I was interested almost solely in imagery, not photography. Peter Hujar’s Speed of Life is another collection Aperture published that further opened my understanding of the instrument’s power in shaping a representation of reality as we experience it. I had the chance to see this series of portraits at BAMPFA while I was living in Oakland last fall, fairly shortly after I moved there. Paul got us tickets for free, benefits of him being a grad student at Berkeley. He kept a postcard of Christopher Street Pier #2 (Crossed Legs) by his bed, and was eager to take me to this show. 

Hujar’s work stood out to me in his ability to capture people, often celebrities in this particular exhibit — Susan Sontag, Candy Darling, and David Wojnarowicz standing out — while maintaining his own voice as a photographer. There’s a lightness and a wry smile in every image.  My favorite was of a drag queen in devil horns hunched limberly over a toilet, hiking the tulle skirt of her gown up while baring her teeth in a grin. Later in the year, Paul would get the book for Christmas and kept it on his coffee table, the picture of Susan Sontag on the cover always catching my eye, reminding me to read As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, which I finally did in the spring. 

I’m most interested in the photography of people, work that opens up and investigates particular persons, humanity, or what it means to be alive — anything from the exploration of bodily form to the narratives of individuals through images. I believe that all great work tells us something about ourselves and/or poses questions about the world at large. Aperture has published other familiar photographers — such as Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and Sally Mann — who have notoriously and successfully pursued this. But Aperture publishes abstract and conceptual photographers too, ones I want to explore more. I’m intrigued by Gary Schneider’s Nudes, Penelope Umbrico: Photographs, and Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance for their subtle exploration of the human condition. I would absolutely love to be considered for Aperture’s editorial team. But if anything, my application process and the time on their site led me to revisit photographers I love and others I want to explore, and I’m grateful for that. Still, it’s nice to know that the books they publish invoke and reaffirm my feelings for photography. I’ll be even more eager for the next opportunity with them that arises. 

#TheBalladofSexualDependency #photography #BAMPFA #NanGoldin #nyc #photographybooks #PeterHujar #Aperture #artsy

©2020 by Joseph R. Kolb