What a Concept
By Jonathan Blaustein Apr. 20, 2016 Apr. 20, 2016 3
The comedian Albert Brooks once said there’s no special line at the bank for being ahead of your time. It may be unfair, but while some artists are celebrated as innovators during their lifetimes, others never quite become household names.
Consider Kenneth Josephson: He was a pioneer in conceptual photography and is well-regarded in the history of medium. Yet at 83 years of age, he isn’t widely known to the general public. Fortunately, he seems to be having a late-career moment, with the release of a massive monograph, “The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson,” from the University of Texas Press, and a solo exhibition at Gitterman Gallery in New York City, which runs until June 11.
Mr. Josephson, who was born in Detroit, has spent nearly his entire career in Chicago, where he taught for many years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He had studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the city’s famed Institute of Design, graduating with a master’s degree in 1960. It’s easy to see their influence in his early work, with so many modernist, dynamic, chiaroscuro urbanscapes.
Looking back, Mr. Josephson recalled what it was like learning from the two historically important instructors.
“Harry would usually just gesture,” he said. “His greatest compliment was saying: ‘That’s really a good picture. That’s a good idea. Good picture.’
“And Aaron would explain what Harry meant, because Aaron was so much more verbal.”
Befitting a trailblazer, Mr. Josephson made up the rules during his initial conceptual forays in the 1960s. In fact, he didn’t even know what to call his initial efforts.
“I didn’t know what conceptual art was, when I first started doing it,” he said in a recent interview. “Until someone said, ‘You do conceptual photography,’ and I said: ‘Oh. Do I? O.K.’ ”
As his style matured, he began to build pictures based upon ideas, and to work in open-ended series to give them shape. “Images Within Images,” which he began in 1964, offers the perfect example of how his style seemed to presage the culture to come.
In “Drottingholm, Sweden, 1967,” made during a year there on a teaching exchange, the photographer’s arm and hand jut into the frame, holding a postcard image of a royal residence in Sweden, in front of the building itself. The outstretched hand evolved into a repeating motif going forward, and that sort of self-referencing became the norm in our meta-obsessed 21st century. (As did his inclusion of himself and his family in his work.)
Another image from that series, “Chicago, 1964,” shows a Polaroid image of a tree, placed within the bark of the same tree, which he then photographed with the embedded picture. It calls into question the way in which photography is illusion, rather than an objective representation of reality, years before famed “Pictures Generation” artists like Cindy Sherman played with those ideas in the ’70s and ’80s.
So why isn’t Mr. Josephson better known for getting there first?
Stephen Daiter, his longtime dealer, who helped edit and produce the book, says that a lot of Chicago artists don’t get their due from the outside world. “The photo world has been traditionally based in New York, and a little bit elsewhere,” he said. “If you’re not in New York, you’re not seen in the same way that you are elsewhere.”
Additionally, he pointed out that Mr. Josephson is not big on self-promotion, perhaps because of his classic Midwestern humility.
“He’s shy. He’s soft-spoken,” Mr. Daiter said. “That also works a little bit against him, because he’s not somebody who will go out, and scream and yell, ‘I’m the greatest.’ He’s pretty quiet and reserved in most contexts.”
The book shows the tremendous range of image-making styles, from street photography to collage, poignant family photos, references to photo history, and cheeky nudes. It’s easy to imagine they’ll continue to resonate deep into the future as well.
Not surprisingly, the book’s cover image seems to encapsulate his art-making philosophy. “Stockholm, 1967” depicts an old black Volvo, blocking the winter sun from melting snow on the street beside it, which forms a perfectly shaped snow shadow. It’s a sly take on the photographic medium itself, which relies so heavily on positive/negative. It’s also an act of cosmic synchronicity that represents what photography does best. But Mr. Josephson feels it isn’t fair to consider it random.
“What guides me in my work, early, I learned about Louis Pasteur,” Mr. Josephson said. “He stated that accident and chance favors the prepared mind. I took that very seriously, and it’s guided me through my work.”
Jonathan Blaustein is an artist and writer based in New Mexico. He contributes regularly to the blog A Photo Editor.
Book Review: The Light of Coincidence.
The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson.
By Kenneth Josephson. University of Texas Press, 2016.
The Light of Coincidence.
Reviewed by Blake Andrews
The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson.
Photographs by Kenneth Josephson.
University of Texas Press, Austin, USA, 2016. 344 pp., 254 black-and-white illustrations, 11x12".
Kenneth Josephson, who recently turned 84, has been making photographs for over six decades. Translated into photographer years, that's almost 200 billion 1/60ths. It's a time period vast enough to spawn more than one career-spanning retrospective —he's had three, to be exact. Each one to date has been bigger and better than the last. The first, in 1983 at Chicago's MoCA, capped Josephson's most active period. Sixteen years later came another at the Art Institute of Chicago, with matching catalog (Kenneth Josephson: A Retrospective).
The most recent is The Light of Coincidence. The prints showed last spring at Gitterman Gallery in NY and Stephen Daiter in Chicago. If you weren't able to see them in person, you're still in luck. All exhibition materials and more are included in a coffee-table friendly catalog published by The University of Texas Press. The Light of Coincidence is the best book on Josephson to date. But who knows. He's still making photographs. There may yet be another.
By virtue of timing and style, Josephson has never fit easily into any photographic camp. A disciple of Callahan and Siskind, he branched away from their brand of straight modernism just as it was ascending on the wings of Szarkowski and MoMA. What he developed instead was a unique style of conceptual photography which took photography itself as its primary subject matter in an openly self-referential manner. Photographs, framing devices, and photo motifs appeared as visual material. Josephson himself was in many photos, or at least his hand or shadow. He began incorporating his own shadow into photographs as early as 1961, nine years before Friedlander's Self Portrait unleashed the floodgates.
Fly-on-the-wall observer he was not. Instead his conceptual fingerprints were on full display in most images. His photos were "a foil to the medium". The Breadbook was an inside joke presaging banal typological studies. A series called The History of Photography (still ongoing) playfully revisited common photographic tropes. Even if you don't know Josephson by name, you can probably recall some of his better known photographs from the series. A nude snapshot buried in the sand slyly recalls Charis Wilson. A ruler held in front of the Tetons pokes fun at Ansel Adams. A photograph of a ship held by Josephson's hand above an ocean horizon —the cover shot for Shore's The Nature of Photographs— breaks every photographic rule while anticipating Luigi Ghirri by a decade. Josephson's images continually posed questions about the nature of photography and what it meant to make (emphasis on make, not take) photos.
Photographs about photography have since become de rigueur, even mainstream, as contemporaries such as Penelope Umbrico, John Mann, Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay, Anastasia Samoylova, Patricia Voulgaris, and others have shown. As Gerry Badger notes in the book's introduction, Josephson's photos have retroactively developed into "an almost perfect summation of where we are at today." But in the 1960s and 70s this brand of conceptualism was still a poor photographic stepchild. Badger describes how Josephson was squeezed at the time between two worlds. On one side were straight photographers who emphasized objective depiction. On the other were conceptual artists who viewed all photography as a lesser art form.
He found a sort of home in the artistic netherworld at the Institute of Design in Chicago, where he received his Masters and taught for years. Along with ID colleagues such as Ray Metzker, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and Barbara Crane, Josephson earned the school an innovative reputation (Taken By Design, 2002: University of Chicago Press offers a well-researched history). But none of the ID crew caught much attention contemporaneously. Josephson's peak years, from the mid-60s to the early 80s, passed generally under the radar.
If he was treated by the experts without proper gravitas, it might be that Josephson's work was viewed as humorous. His photos brought a chuckle, a response often viewed with suspicion in the art world. Worse, they seemed to lack a strong emotional core. In the words of Gerry Badger, his photos were "not carefully crafted but carefully thought out". For an art struggling in the post-war years for respectability, the common prejudice leaned (and still does) toward emotional response. Photos built on humor and thinking faced two major strikes against them.
While it's true some of Josephson's photos are flat-out funny, perhaps a better way to think of them is playful. Thumbing through The Light of Coincidence, one is struck by Josephson's spirit of experimentation. He seems to enjoy making photographs, and using images to test ideas. Toss photo concepts into a pot, try a little of this, a bit of that, tweak photo history, see what works, etc. He seems unafraid to broach the ridiculous, a rare and vital trait in the arts. It's the methodology of a kid building sand castles, or else a mad scientist. This playful process can be interpreted as humorous or even quirky, but it's essentially inventive and unfixed.
As I mentioned, The Light of Coincidence is not Josephson's first retrospective. It's his third, a fact mentioned in the book's chronology, in a meta-historical way that dovetails with Josephson's oeuvre. If you already have 1999's Kenneth Josephson: A Retrospective, you may still want to add this to your library. While that book emphasized a chronology of ideas, this one contains a broader, randomized sequence. Lynne Warren's informative introduction notwithstanding, the emphasis here is on the images, not the bio. There are 300 pages worth, laid one or two to a spread and drawn from points across Josephson's career, including several new photographs made since the last retrospective. The overall effect is of looking through a box of loose prints. Indeed the excellent reproductions approach gelatin silver quality, and belie Badger's comment on their craft. No order, no dogma. Just playful mastery.— BLAKE ANDREWS