Books On My Desk: Robert Adams’ Photographs (not in the way you think I mean) and Bruce Conner’s Attic

  • Post category:Art / Books

Books On My Desk is written so I can get the books off of my desk.

Companion to The Robert and Kerstin Adams Photography Collection At the Denver Art Museum
Published by the Denver Art Museum in 2022

This is an unusual book for an unusual show. It’s a book (and show) of a collection—but this is not a collection, at least not if you mean “Collection” with a capital “C.” The images were not brought together by a collector or even a curator but by a photographer and his wife—photos they received from photographer friends, prints they picked up here and there. There is no other significant premise of the book—which is certainly part of the book’s charm.

There are essays for each of the images reproduced and about three fourths of those are written by Eric Paddock, the museum’s Curator of Photography and the rest by Kimberly Roberts, the Senior Curatorial Assistant. In addition, scattered throughout the book and on paper printed green, are texts by photographers.

The essays, written by the curators for a general audience, are worthwhile reading, fleshing out the background of each photo and in some cases helping you understand just what the heck you are looking at.

The soul of the book, however, is on those green pages I mentioned, those essays written by photographers.

On one Robert Adams himself comments upon an image of Robert Doisneau, another famous photographer, seen holding his camera and laughing with evident joy. Adams’ text doesn’t so much concern Doisneau personally (in that you might conceive of a different image being placed here with minimal change to the text) but instead highlights the importance of amateur photographers (the image was made by Afonso Malato de Sousa) in serious photography, even when that seriousness expresses the joy of the medium, the joy of new friendships through photography, the expression on Doisneau’s face revealing the real reason we all do it with so little reward.

It is those friendships, the connections made through the shared practice of photography, that threads its way through the other green essays, the writer-photographers commenting on their own photographs on the facing page, talking about the image, yes, but more tellingly, sharing how that images relates to how they relate to Adams. The friendships run from deep, long and personal to more distant and connected only it seems through Adams’ images and Adams’ writings. Each essay is only a few paragraphs long but plenty is said.

I wish I had the book coming into the museum rather than buying it minutes before closing on the way out. I wouldn’t have looked at the book until after seeing the show unaided but I would also have gone back, Companion in hand.

The confusingly named 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II (there is no part one), published by the Walker Art Center in 1999.
Edited by Joan Rothfuss, Forward by Kathy Halbreich, and essays by Bruce Jenkins and Peter Boswell.

My first good laugh about Bruce Conner’s work was in 2016 at his big retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I was only part way through the show when from across the room an elaborately dressed transvestite—no doubt seeing the expression on my face and sensing a sort of kinship—made a beeline for me, then leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, “They’re really dusting out the hippie attic for this one.” Our shared laughter brightened the mood for me a bit and I enjoyed the show more in that vein—some sort of hippie art show (with, I sense, some sort of trust fund there in the background, the soft glow of mommy and daddy’s money tying things all together more than the hallucinogenic drugs).

My second good laugh (hearty and appreciative) was at that same show watching Breakaway, Conner’s film of a dancing Tony Basil (here credited with her real name, Antonia Christina Basilotta). This is the same Toni Basil who brought down upon us the poisonous ear worm “Mickey” (“Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you blow my mind, hey Mickey!”) which caused me to turn off MTV in 1982 after turning it on a few years earlier to her wonderful video of the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime.

In the 1966 Breakaway video Basil dances in various states of dress and undress while Conner zooms in and out and pans this way and that, it’s all so groovey, it sort of makes me sad that I missed it all. I make fun, but it is a compelling video, especially seeing it ten feet tall in a darkened room—the crappy presentations on the web—usually edited, often with “documentary” stuff intruding on the experience, and always with a bright frame of a computer user interface and ads all around, ruin it.

Another of Conner’s films, Crossroads, is a long version of the famous atomic test explosion films we’ve all seen—it’s the one with the ships arrayed around the mushroom cloud and the white shockwave spreading out, engulfing everything. The blast was part of the Operation Crossroads series of tests which, just after World War II, hammered the Bikini Atoll. In Conner’s film we watch the cloud ring expand and expand over the ocean’s surface, and it goes on much longer than any other version of the blast I’ve ever seen, which is in itself fascinating, and accompanying the test footage is Moog and mood music (and recorded natural sounds) by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson, which fits and expands in its own wonderful way upon the footage. Of course, you immediately notice that Conner really didn’t do much (as he readily admits) beyond splicing a few bits of film together, an afternoon’s work, at most, but if it works it works.

What doesn’t work, what doesn’t work at all, is presenting this video work in a book. The authors try, showing uncut strips, showing still frames, using leader, enlarged full page, as a sort of prelude to the book and another series of film stills, this time from Breakaway, as a sort of fade out, but if you had just seen these printed reproductions, if you had studied them and given them great thought, you would know nothing of the films. But what choice do the authors have—electronic books, which could easily show video, are evolving at a glacial pace and what is available today, let alone in 1999 when this book was published, don’t yet serve the purpose of serious bookmaking.

The problem goes deeper than that. Google Conner’s films—any of them—and you are going to have tough time finding a proper presentation, if you can find them at all. Conner in particular is said to not want his films seen online but the whole field of video and film art is this way, which has always, needlessly, stunted its growth. Ugh.