Conductors of Experience: A short interview with Brad Zellar

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…I is another – Arthur Rimbaud

The International Center of Photography Library over the last few months has been presenting an investigation of vernacular imagery in the photobook. Je est un autre: the vernacular in photobooks. These are books that utilize the found photographs, snap shots, archives and collections of others.

There is a great interest for this folk photography and for the publication of photobooks which utilize and re-appropriate this wealth of materials.

One of the most successful vernacular photobooks and certainly one of my favourites is Conductors of the Moving World by Brad Zellar.

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Conductors of the Moving World was published by Little Brown Mushroom in March 2011 in an edition of 500 (30 pages, french-fold, 6.625×7.875in, custom side stapled, B/W offset with 17 hand-tipped, color photographs) and designed by the brilliant Hans Seeger.  The story was constructed by Brad Zellar and according to the LBM website it is a tale that began in the autumn of 1972:

In the autumn of 1972, a delegation of Japanese police officials visited the United States to study traffic control in several large cities, including New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. The unofficial photographer for the delegation was Eizo Ota, an inspector with the law enforcement department of the Yamanashi Prefecture, and he produced a record of the group’s travels that might best be described as forensic tourism. Using Inspector Ota’s snapshots as launching points, Brad Zellar plundered traffic manuals, haiku anthologies, the Watergate transcripts, and The Godfather for textual inspiration. The mysterious result is a Zen travelogue through 1972 America. From a collection of 60 C-Prints, a mix-and-match assortment of 17 will be hand-tipped into individual volumes, making each book a singular work of art.

 

 

Norling

The story of “Conductors of the Moving World” began in 2008 and with the publication of the Suburban World and the meeting of Brad Zellar and Alec Soth.

MC: Brad, how did the Conductors book come about? How did it happen? How does a project like this begin? In 2002 you had unearthed a collection of Norling’s negatives from the archive of the Bloomington Historical Society and in 2008 published a selection of these images in your book the Suburban World, so you already had a history of conjuring up stories from images, but how did this project come into being?

BZ: Neither Alec nor I can remember how or when we first met –that’s how memorable we both apparently are. At any rate, I don’t think we really knew each other by the time the Norling book came out, but I was a fan of his work. It was pure serendipity that he ended up writing the foreword to “Suburban World (The Norling Photos).” One of the Coen brothers was supposed to be doing that job, but bailed at the last minute, and someone from the publisher contacted Alec and asked if he could turn something around in a hurry –seriously, I think he had maybe 48 hours to write that text. And he nailed it.

We met briefly at the opening of the Norling exhibit; I remember that. After that things are sort of foggy, but at some point he contacted me about this box of photos he’d received from the granddaughter of Eizo Ota, the ostensible subject –and photographer– behind “Conductors of the Moving World.”

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MC: Was this a collection of digital origin or a shoe box of found materials? Is it real? Was it real? Has it become real? What happened to these folks? Did you ever get to meet them?

BZ: Little Brown Mushroom was just getting started about that time, and Alec asked me if I thought I could make a book out of the Ota photographs. There were quite a few more of them than we could use, and I remember trying all sorts of failed approaches to create some sort of narrative around them. One of those approaches was biographical, and entailed hunting down his son and some former police colleagues in Japan. Eizo was deceased, it turned out, and nobody I talked to had many concrete memories of what he might have been up to on that trip to the U.S. other than that he was supposedly studying American traffic control systems.

MC: It is so mysterious and that gives the narrative a fantastic energy.

BZ: The photographic record of that trip was super mysterious. though; interspersed with all these strange and inexplicable technical photos were a large assortment of more typical tourist pictures –beaches, street views of NY, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, and a bunch of terrific shots of stewardesses, motel rooms, diners, and desolate stretches of highway.

I couldn’t figure out how to make any kind of narrative out of any of it, however, until  I hit on the idea of ordering a bunch of old manuals on traffic control from the internet. When I started reading through these things I was struck by how aphoristic and almost Zen so much of the writing was, so I also rounded up a pile of books on Buddhism, and ended up making up fake Zen aphorisms incorporating the language of traffic systems and, eventually, all sorts of other really clipped and spare texts that came to mind.

BZ: We made those books by hand in Alec’s studio, and every single book in the edition of 500 has a different and randomly-chosen set of photos. There are also some little in-jokes and a hidden text incorporated in Hans Seger’s amazing design. I love that book so much, and made a few copies that incorporated my own favorite photos and sequences. Alec’s studio manager, Carrie Thompson, also made me a special backwards version out of a dummy that was misbound.

 

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MC: “Conductors” is great. You gave all the money to the tsunami relief right?

BZ: We had the release party for “Conductors” at ICP in NY, and the book sold out pretty much before we got back to the Twin Cities, so it’s one book Alec and I did together that a lot of my friends never saw. Oza’s granddaughter, Kei, who brought the photos to Alec’s attention, was at the release party, and her father –Oza’s son– flew in from Japan as well. And yes, this was right around the time of the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan, so we donated all the proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross.

MC: ICP opening, yep I remember it, [see the pic below of crazy bloke pointing at book signing].

BZ: There’s a really funny story regarding the business card that is embossed on the front of the book, by the way. It was in the box along with the photos, and since it was in Japanese –and an English version of Oza’s business card was also in the box– we just assumed it was the Japanese version. So the card on the front of the book is reversible –the English on one side, the Japanese on the other. Anyway, Oza’s son arrived at the signing and someone handed him the book. He had this puzzled look on his face and asked –through his daughter– what the story was with the Japanese business card on the cover.
“It’s your father’s business card, isn’t it?” I said.
“No,” Oza said emphatically. It turned out the card we used on most of the covers was for some Japanese fellow who ran a souvenir shop in Niagara Falls.

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MC: I think that LBM seemed to be at the height of its powers at the time of publication. You had all series of books out and you were like rock stars. What happened? [lol] – but yeah, I mean the band – you and Alec went on to do some marvelous things and then the band split. How is Alec these days? Are you blokes still in touch? Get along? What was the back story to that?  Is the band ever getting back together again?

BZ: Alec and I ended up doing a run of projects after that one, all of which involved trying to find ways to incorporate words and pictures. They were all amazing experiences, and I’m really proud of the work we did together, but by the time we did the last LBM Dispatch I think we were both ready to get back to the reality of trying to make a living. I mean, Alec was on an amazing career roll, and here he was out pissing around in a van with me putting out our fake little newspaper.

I love the guy so much, and he’s an amazing artist. The real wonder, though, is that he’s got a work ethic and an ability to make stuff happen like nobody I’ve ever met. We still get together and the conversation just seems to pick right up where we left off, but he also has a crazy travel schedule and a family, so I don’t see him nearly enough.

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MC: What are you up to these days Brad?

BZ: I basically went right back to pounding out words in obscurity –my natural inclination is to play my piano in the closet, as I think Salinger put it. Turns out, though, that there’s no money in the closet piano gigs, so I need to scrape up some new projects.

At some point I’m going to write a book about the Dispatch experiences –that was always the plan; there were so many incredible photos and stories that didn’t make it into the papers, and by the time we wrapped it up we both had the sense that there was this overarching thematic narrative that sort of tied the whole thing together. It felt at the time like this almost hopeful State of the Union portrait of a remarkable country trying to hang onto old notions of community in this weird age of ersatz and often discouraging (and lonely) virtual connection. I felt inspired. And then, you know, Trump.

MC Lastly: What is your astrological sign?
BZ: I’m a Scorpio, of course.

Alec Soth: Ha, so great to see this, and to read Brad’s comments. I don’t have much to add other than I just love Brad so much.

the End

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for now.

 

. . .crazy bloke at book signing for “Conductors” at the ICP March 2011

mad bloke at a book signing

 

 

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Joshua Lutz’s ‘Meadowlands’

“For most people, the Meadowlands is a place to pass through and forget on their way to someplace else. Not unlike a neglected child, the Meadowlands has grown up without guidance, constantly unsure of what the future holds.” – Joshua Lutz

I grew up in Northern New Jersey with “the swamp” a stone’s throw away. While out my window I could see the lights of the beautiful NYC skyline flickering in the distance, within the frame was also Giants Stadium – so close I could feel the rumble of a loud concert or the fireworks at the State Fair (same with MetLife Stadium). The remnants of Brendan Byrne Arena –> Continental Airlines Arena –> IZOD Arena (once home to the NJ Nets and NJ Devils) and the racetrack are still there, all surrounded by mud and reeds that blow elegantly in the wind. A sports and entertainment complex lost within the marshlands of the Meadowlands – where indigenous wildlife inhabited, chemicals and landfills stewed, and hotels/motels/trailer parks claimed their spaces.

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(TR820.5 .U6.L881 2008)

In his 2008 book “Meadowlands”, Joshua Lutz captures the various aspects of the 32 miles of wetlands that, as Robert Sullivan describes in the opening essay “separates New Jersey from New York City, or, put it another way, from New York City and the rest of the United States of America.” Photos of the water, marsh, motels are among portraits of those who call this area home.

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Mark Lewis, Vicar – Episcopal Church of Our Savior (Secaucus)

Also included is a picture of what could be assumed as a dead body face down in the muck, acknowledging the storied rumors of murders as moist lands positioned so close to an airport was the perfect formula for a Mafia “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” hit. (Lutz photographed the Meadowlands under the apparent pretext of searching for Jimmy Hoffa).

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While the book is a fantastic monograph about the area’s character, it’s also a wonderful murky trip down memory lane for those from the region and for Lutz himself, as he states that the “loneliness and solitude … continues to bring me back year after year.”

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After the hotel boom in preparation for the 2014 failure of a Super Bowl and the still incomplete mess that is Xanadu / American Dream – or whatever it is being called now – a lot has changed. The auto body shops that lined part of Paterson Plank Road are now abandoned and land that was once deemed too toxic for anything now supports buildings (examples from the Carlstadt/East Rutherford section of the Meadowlands). But it’s nice to know that a flip through Lutz’s book can instantly transport you back to a time before any of that happened.

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Meadowlands State Fair in the parking lot of Giants Stadium, which can be seen in the background (East Rutherford).

And if/when Lutz releases his next book, it will do just the same for the current era.

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Zine Corner 9

Hello dear readers, the Library’s Good Boy returns for another vernacular corner 🙂

Today we are looking at “AMC2 Journal Issue 3: Preserves from the AMC Garden” AKA “London 2012 A Visitor’s Guide”. Archive of Modern Conflict’s “Preserves…” is a satirical tourist guide for visiting London during the Olympic Games. To me, this publication is especially prescient given the current protest and organizing against having the next Olympics in Los Angeles (see this excellent podcast for more information on that).

I don’t want to share too many pictures of this zine since part of the fun is the surprise of the sequencing choices, however sections include “cooking” (including a recipe for sheep brain on toast), a page detailing a stipulation making it legal to urinate in public as long as its on your own car, “Olympic History”, and a collection of fake public notices including one that says “Please No Sex Tourism”. Perhaps the neoliberal dogma of a pro-Olympic stance is summed up most succinctly on the back cover of the zine – with a sign that says “Stamp Out Sexism in Synchronised Swimming”.

A few different versions of this zine were printed, each with a different color scheme. Our copy is in burgundy, and is on view as part of the ICP Library “Je est un autre: The vernacular in photography” show.

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L.A. Women

To highlight another book in our exhibition : Je est un autre: The vernacular in photobooks Kermican Goren writes about Joachim Schmid’s book: L.A. Women:

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Joachim Schmid’s 2011 publication LA Women deals with the darkness of a collection of found images. Presenting his viewers with portraits of women, we are told that the archive’s origins are from that of a “serial murder suspect”. It is unclear who took these images, who their subjects are, and if these individuals happen to be dead or alive. “From the testimony of one surviving victim we know that the woman was first photographed, then shot…” Much like some of the other publications in the show, we are given little information about the images we see. Schmid however provides us with a context around the collection, approaching the discourse on death from a more literal standpoint. One can question a lot of the images they will encounter in this show in the rhythm of whether their previous owner’s have long passed or if an original meaning or intent has too? Yet in the case of LA Women, such questions seemingly take a back seat whilst we try to distinguish between faces of death.

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Mariken Wessels: Queen Ann. P.S. Belly cut out

To say that Mariken Wessels’ work did not plant the seed to put on our exhibition Je est un autre: The vernacular in photobooks, would be a lie. Wessels work takes a collection, examines it with a considered eye and presents it carefully. For me, where Wessels work transcends from printing a collection in book form is how she introduces herself and an unreliable narrator, which in photography involves the act of manipulation.
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This comes up in both Queen Ann. P.S. Belly Cut Off and Taking Off: Henry My Neighbor (Which I will be writing about later, and have been obsessed by all year.) Looking at Queen Ann again, I noticed the images that place the element of doubt, visually. An image of a woman in the water, beside a dock, but there is a second reflection in the water–Where is that person? In another photograph, possibly a double exposure, a ghost of a woman stands in the woods. Who manipulated these photographs? Was it Wessels, or was it Queen Ann? We begin to learn that Ann herself is fond of altering her own images: We see a family portrait where she has painted makeup and some hair on her mother and collaged a sailors suit on herself, as well as subtle examples of manipulation such as cutting out faces or obscuring them. Anne wrote on the image of her and her mother: “I drew myself and I drew myself a sailor suit. At my First Communion I wore a sailor’s dress, sadly enough no one took any photos it just wasn’t done in our days. Back then there was (no money and no worries) my father sand that all the time, well, it was just after the war.” We learn that photography and memories are important to Anne, and she finds her interventions a way to correct history.

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Then we are presented with a mystery. A series of dark and potentially violent images break the narrative. A woman runs, topless through a field or possibly on a beach, is seen touching her breast, while a nude man is also introduced. The tone in this section of the book is remarkably different than the previous and series that precedes it. The only clue that I can guess at is from a caption Anne has written about a man about her age named Piet: “HI our Piet – p.t.o. Sadly met with an accident he appeared to me in a lightweight body. I’ll tell you some time.”

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The reader is then re-introduced to Anne, but time has passed (the dark and mysterious photographs we just saw?) and Anne is holding a hand tinted photograph of herself. We see Anne hiding behind portraits of her younger self with a drawn on mustache and freckles. We are then finally introduced to Anne as an older woman and her artistic interventions in her portraits. Anne’s style is bright and poppy. She often paints scarves or head wraps that conceal her chin, implying that she isn’t pleased with her appearance in the photographs and adjusts them accordingly. However, body image issues aside, Anne’s interventions in her portraits are beautiful, she has a recognizable style and is extremely funny. In one image, she stitches two stills from a television and creates a small self portrait with a drawing of her torso montaged on top.
The last section of this narrative is Anne running through a fall scene. The aesthetic is similar to the dark scenes in the previous section, but the images are in color and Anne smiles and wears a bright red poncho. Perhaps Anne has transcended the dark period of her past.
Of course, this is all conjecture. There is little text, save for Anne’s captions or notes written on her photographs. My reading however, is that this is a transcendent story and while there are elements of pain in Anne’s history and she has some disappointments with her appearance, she is not an unhappy woman, and is in her heart an optimist. The last caption she writes “Is there any hope for me?”
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Je est un autre : the vernacular in photobooks

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The ICP Library presents:
Je est un autre: the vernacular in photobooks
Thursday November 30th 2017
6:00 – 8:30 pm

ICP Library: 1114 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10036
Opening Reception and Presentations of Vernacular Photo Collections
Creatively Organized by
Bernard Yenelouis, Emily P. Dunne & Matthew Carson

 

Je est un autre : the vernacular in photobooks – text by Bernard Yenelouis

. . . these pictures no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals. They no more depend on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does. The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards – any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed – whether coherently or in confusion . . . the surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes.

. . . What I have in mind is the psychic address of the image, its special mode of imaginative confrontation, and I tend to regard the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.

–          Leo Steinberg, “The Flatbed Picture Plane,” Other Criteria. MIT Press, 1972

The shift “from nature to culture” that art historian Leo Steinberg describes, which was a way to unpack the then new paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, can also act as a portal to understand the interest and market for photo books.

 

The International Center of Photography Library presents an investigation of vernacular imagery in the photobook. These books utilize found photographs, snap shots, archives and collections of others. The turn of the most recent century has seen an impassioned interest in these objects both for collectors and artists. With the glut of over a century of folk photography, there is an endless source of images to collect, curate, re-appropriate and digitize. The photobook reproduces the images both so the reader can collect themselves and the artist can manipulate or alter the meaning of the image.

The Vernacular manifests itself in the photobook along a spectrum, or concocting elements from variations on: The mysterious narratives of Wisconsin Death Trip and Mariken Wessels, the born-digital collections of Chris Clary and Joachim Schmidt, presentations of a hyper specific collections of raccoon hunts or sad postcards, Luc Sante and William E. Jones mining public institutional collections. They all share the unique quality of the book: a presentation of material in an intentional sequence meant to move the viewer.

We hope you can join us tonight, and celebrate the vernacular!

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Zine corner 8

Hello all, Continuing on our Vernacular Photography spree, today in the corner we are taking a brief look at Brad Feuerheim’s “TV Casualty: Ride, Johnny, ride”. This is definitely one of the more professional, “hi fidelity” zines to be featured in the corner. Information from Josef Chladek states the following:

“Softcover, limited edition of 300. Text by Brad Feuerhelm and Daniel Campbell Blight, design by Lamb + Sea, risograph print by Hato Press, published with The Archive of Modern Conflict November 2013 .

Pages: 46
Place: London
Year: 2013
Publisher: Self published
Size: 28 x 35 cm (approx.)”

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This zine is sexy – there’s no way around it. It’s a meditation on the pleasures of television, the assassination of JFK (which was definitely orchestrated by the mob), and Misfits songs about the former two topics. It’s made from collaged, found images, it comes in a black plastic bag, and it’s only red, black, and white. The “zooming in on an image until it is abstracted” is used to abounding effect here, and functions as a reminder of the image quality of 1960s television but also metaphorically links to the mystic distance of broadcasted images and information.

This book (I wouldn’t really call it a zine) is ON VIEW at the ICP Library at the ICP School in midtown. Come on over and take a look!!

-Caleb

This is just one of many beautiful books currently on display in our windows showcasing photobooks that use Vernacular images and archives. Je est un autre : the vernacular in photobooks is the title of this image extravaganza. On November 30th we will have an evening reception where some vernacular collections will be presented in a casual show and tell manner. IF you are in town – do not miss it.

 

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