When I heard the news the other day that Bob Asman passed away I was sad but not surprised. Bob had been seriously ill for several years as he experienced a slow but steady decline due to multiple health problems. In recent months he was receiving hospice care at home, so for the friends that were in touch with him, we knew it was just a matter of time. Our last conversation took place by phone on February 11th of this year. He sounded upbeat and hopeful but yet resigned to the grim reality he faced each day the nurse came to his home to take care of his most essential needs.
We talked about photography of course and our shared experiences reminiscing about friends that we had in common in the Philadelphia photo community over the years. I didn’t think at the time that it would be our last conversation. We had made tentative plans for an in person visit when the weather finally got better later this spring. The final correspondence from Bob came in an email chain where he expressed it was kind of comforting knowing that he would soon pass during a pandemic. I suppose in his mind he was comforted in some way and felt less isolated by that reality.
The final parting words from Bob, “What an honor it is to die during a pandemic episode. I think it was deliberately planned so I wouldn’t have to die alone….instead with thousands of others.”
And so he finally did pass, leaving an incredible body of work behind for the living to enjoy until the end of our lives. Bob was one of the finest photographers I’ve ever come to know, a great person, a loving father, and the best alchemist the world has ever known. Farewell my friend. Bon Voyage.
I’m in good health right now except for arthritis, for which there is not yet a cure. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been listening to the politicians jawboning endlessly about what good jobs they’re doing, which makes me suspicious that they aren’t really doing such a hot job. Because I’m right on the border between Virginia and West Virginia, I’ve heard the press conferences by the governors of both states, as well as the pontifications of our fearless leader, President Trump. It’s interesting that our Virginia Governor is painting an upbeat picture, while his counterpart in West Virginia is painting one of doom and gloom, sounding like the captain of the Titanic addressing his passengers as the ship was sinking. Meanwhile Mr. Trump keeps saying, “We gotta get back to work.” Yes, we do, but China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and others are dealing with resurgences of the virus for relaxing restrictions too soon. I’ve listened carefully to Trump’s TV speeches, and I have to wonder if it was a slip of the tongue when he called the pandemic “artificially engineered.” Does he know something he’s not supposed to tell us?
I’ve always hated neckties, so I was delighted when our Virginia Governor, who I believe is a medical doctor, said people should not wear them, and cited a study that found that neckties harbor lots of disease germs. Down with neckties!
Here at Pocahontas State Correctional Center (PSCC) we have no cases of COVID-19 — yet. But, even though we’re on lockdown, staff still come and go freely. We’ve been given “Sneeze Guards” and required to wear them, even though they are not PPE grade masks, and accomplish nothing. Trump said wearing them was voluntary for “all Americans,” but we’re being required to wear them. I guess we’re not Americans. Mine restricts my breathing so much that I become lightheaded after half an hour and have to take the damned thing off.
People have asked me about my court cases. Unfortunately, they’re all on indefinite hold until this crisis is over. So is my review for geriatric parole, scheduled originally for March.
All courts in Virginia are closed for the duration, all court deadlines frozen, and the parole board is not meeting.
I have five active court cases right now in four different courts: My federal civil rights case against the Virginia Department of corrections (Federal District Court), two state mandamus actions to force the judge who convicted me to rule on my actions to vacate my convictions (Virginia Supreme Court), and two separate cases to get my forest land back (two different circuit courts). Nothing can happen on any of these cases until the courts reopen. And when they do reopen they’ll have a tremendous backlog to overcome. So, as a result, all of my plans are on hold indefinitely.
There’s been talk of releasing older prisoners to some sort of house arrest, but, so far, it’s just talk. Many of the men here could be released today and pose no threat to their communities. Some, like me, were never any threat to our communities in the first place. If I walked out the prison gates today, not a single person would be at risk from me.
Take a look at my profile on www.cagedkingdom.net, a new ‘social media’ site for prisoners. I had to use an old photo because our picture taking.service here is shut down right now. I’ll replace it with a current photo when I can get one taken, but no one knows when that will be.
I’ve always thought we lose print media at our peril. The ‘press’ has been vitally important to our freedom since the founding of our experiment in democracy.
One of my oldest friends just told me that The Roanoke Times has furloughed about 25% of their staff. That’s terrible!
As many know, I considered it an act of unbridled idiocy when the latest owners shut down the print version of SHUTTERBUG, where I’d worked for so many years, because they claimed with ‘only’ 100,000 subscribers they could not make a profit! What nonsense! For most of its life, SHUTTERBUG had fewer than 100,000 subscribers, and made the owner rich. Now they’ve shut down the online version, too! How do people with so little business sense end up owning magazines, and why? That magazine was near and dear to my heart, and it hurts me terribly to see it trashed by people who never should have been allowed to own it.
Anyone who has ever been in jail or prison will tell you the most important thing is having a good ‘cellie,’ (jailhouse slang for cellmate). Right now I have the very best! And that’s making this lockdown tolerable. He’s a gentle soul, a victim of police entrapment. Police should not be allowed to entice people into breaking laws, then bust them when they do. That’s simply not American, not justice. I know! They tried to do it to me. I’ll tell that story another time.
Although you cannot mail me pictures anymore, a company called Pelipost has made it possible again. You email them digital files, they print high quality 4 X 6 prints and mail them to me. It works great! I love receiving pictures! www.pelipost.com
I can be reached by regular mail at:
Robert Shell # 1201280
P.O. Box 518
Pocahontas, VA 24635-0518
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here:https://tonyward.com/coronavirus/
Born in 1958, Naoya Hatakeyama is a Japanese photographer who works closely with both natural and city landscape. While his works are mostly documentary, Hatakeyama also develops a graphic style that shows his precise composition and formal elements. One of his most famous series, which is also included in Photography (London, Stone, Upton), is named “River Series” and records Tokyo’s river channels. The slim, vertical frame is divided by the concrete construction right in the middle, and presents two separated views of the building and its reflection. The river is a natural element, yet becomes a media that carries the manmade city view. However, the hierarchy between the actual view and its reflection is erased because of the clear separation in the middle of the frame that gives two portions equal size of space. The reflection is almost presented as an individual view, a more abstract and sensational reading of urban life. A similar contrasting reflection is presented in another series of work, “Underground”, shot in 1999. Focusing again on the water tunnel in Tokyo city, both the reality and its reflection are originally unknown for the viewers, as opposed to “River Series”. The incompleteness of the reflection highlights the construction of the tunnel, and with a central light that illuminates the dark underground space, the reflection creates a color scheme that is surprisingly similar to the galaxy.
Another series shot by Hatakeyama during the 90s, “Maquettes/Light”, turns completely to the sight of urban architecture and uses black and white photography to emphasize on the light and dark contrast in the city during night time. In the photo selected, the apartment building is stripped down to the graphic pattern of its structure, mainly the lights and fire escape on each floor. While the trace of people living disappears, the numerous individual illuminations add in warmth to the emotion aspect of the picture. Just as the previous two series, viewers can have a refreshing perspective of the structure of different sights that are familiar or unfamiliar, but at the same time keep an almost romantic reading for the works.
The more recent work shot in 2005 is from another series of his, “Blast”, in which Hatakeyama turns towards the documentation of a more violent event, the explosion of limestones. Unlike the previous three photos, the selected picture, just like other ones in the same series, depicted the explosive event and provide a vivid image of the middle of a certain motion. The selected photo particularly presents a gradation effect of colors with the dust created from the explosion. In a literal deconstruction of stable structure, the hazy dust becomes a contrasting element in terms of both texture and color, adding a mysterious layer to the powerful scene.
Similarly, in the most recent “Slow Glass” series, Hatakeyama also uses water drops on glass to add another layer to the pictures. The selected photography presents the bottom half of Tokyo tower in the night time behind the glass. Opposed to the earlier urban sights that contain a clear structure, here the viewers can only recognize a general shape of the tower as the lens focuses on the water drops. The harsh lines of architecture is softened, but it still remains recognizable from the signature red color and the shape. By eliminating a clear vision of structure, Hatakeyama partially masks the tower with an ambiguous yet gentle layer for the viewers.
For this research assignment, I have chosen to exam the work of Barbara Kruger, an artist that is mentioned in our textbook as well as one I have been intrigued with since high school. Her work consists of both black and white photographic material accompanied by a collage style of bold text in black, white and red type. Her art typically deals with more feminist constructs in relation to the consumerist ideals and power dynamics that surround societal identity. Her more notable art was cultivated in the 80s and has been an inspiration to many of the artists that exist today.
The first image depicts a young girl imitating a silly posture with the word “no” layered on top. This image is particularly impactful, as I believe it exemplifies the deeper more profound aspects of some of her work. This young girl is juxtaposed against the word no. No, being a word that many girls of this era were told is inappropriate for their gender. In a time where the feminist movement was gaining a new wave of traction, Kruger was able to expand the meaning of her work by adding one simple word. I think the bold type adds fierceness to the work and juxtaposed against the youthfulness of the girl, creates a stark impression of what is allowed and questions what isn’t.
Her work demonstrates a type of elegant editorial style. Many of her pieces could be and have been utilized in more graphic publications such as books or magazines. The placement of the type on top for the images demonstrates the control of a vision and minimalist execution. In image 2, Kruger created an image that would be used as a poster for the Women’s March in 1989 in support of abortion rights. This piece was created through the use of the processed image spliced with the negative of the same image. The words “ Your body is a battleground” are layered with this imagery. The image quite literally highlights the dark sides of womanhood. However, the image does not directly address the message of abortion, but rather highlights womanhood in a more general fashion. In this way, abortion is not highlighted as the issue, but rather women.
Her work has concentrated around what it means to be female. As such, I think images 3,4, and 5 deal with the different aspects of what is expected from women, especially during the time periods in which these images were created. Particularly, in image 5, the image appears to be pinned in place. This effect is especially powerful because sewing is typically seen as a labor of women. The words “ We have received orders not to move” accompanies the image. This layering both touches on the labor in which women are more forced into as well as identifies the lack of control over their own bodies.
It is unfortunate, that while these images deal with women, they primarily address the concerns that surround white womanhood and neglect the intersectionality of minority women. Her images for the most part, are of white women and the issues surrounding a more middle class lifestyle. Her imagery, while powerful, negates many of the other experiences of minority individuals. This brings into question the oppressiveness of her work. Does her work oppress those neglected by being the societal systems that her work chooses to ignore? It seems unclear if these choices were intentional, but as the work has become more recognizable worldwide, it is hard to neglect the power behind work that addresses societal problems in relation to only those of the majority.
“For me it is not detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress” – Nan Goldin
Documentary photography, it seems, has died.
The advancement of photoshop and other image-altering apps has decidedly marked the onset of increasingly manufactured images. Even those taken to inform are buffed and staged to an inch of perfection. The Adnan Hajj controversy has metamorphosed, repeating itself in various incarnations from print to editorials. Reality seems to have traded itself in for aesthetics; candid slice-of-life captures are a dying breed.
But with Nan Goldin, whose work so delicately takes you by the hand and envelops you in them, you seem to remember what it feels like to be human, purely and unadulteredly. Since her very first published works of transvestites and transsexuals in 1973, Goldin has arguably cemented her place as one of the defining documentary photographers of the 20th century. No subject matter is too dark, too complicated, too taboo to untangle for her – through her lens, the world is made accessible, open to everyone to peer into, and asked to understand.
Nan Goldin’s expansive career began when she was first introduced to the camera at 15, in 1968 (Hals in The New Yorker, 2016). Still bearing the grief of her sister’s recent suicide four years before, Goldin found solace in the camera, with its ability to capture not only relationships but also political issues in what was popularised as the snapshot aesthetic.
“My work originally came from the snapshot aesthetic,” she says, “Snapshots are taken out of love and to remember people, places, and shared times. They’re about creating a history by recording a history.” (Goldin in Britannica Biographies, 2012)
Goldin’s work attests to such a sentiment, with works of sheer rawness capturing intimacy, her own relationships, the opioid crisis, the HIV crisis, and the queer community. There appears to be a filmic quality to some of them; Goldin herself stated that fashion photography powerhouses Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton influenced her immensely (Westfall in BOMB magazine, 1991). Her self-portrait Nan and Brian in bed (1983) is one such example where theatricality is present. A self-portrait of her and her lover at the time, golden lighting seeps through a blinded window, illuminating the smoke from the titular Brian’s cigarette. His half-turned profile seems aloof, tired; Nan, curled up in the sheets all in black, looks on in longing but also sadness. A heartbreak story appears to be unfolding before the viewer; it is, just as she said, a creation of history “by recording a history” in the most poignant way.
Other works of Goldin, however, are taken in a much more documentative manner, reminiscent of works by Diane Arbus, August Sander and Larry Clark, all of whom she has cited as inspiration (Westfall in BOMB magazine, 1991). One such example is Yogo Putting on Powder (1993). Taken on one of her trips to Bangkok, this is an example of Goldin’s broader work documenting the LGBTQ community, with particular focus on transvestites and transsexuals. From her Asian Drag Queens series, the viewer is given a clear-cut view into the ritualistic act of putting on makeup. The titular Yogo is dressed in nothing but jeans and a belt, and sits perched on a chair. Clothes are haphazardly hung up in the background, a behemoth of sparkle and ruffle and glitter while Yogo, almost nonchalantly, powders their face in a compact mirror. A blurry elbow protrudes in the left of the photo, indicating the presence of another person.
Goldin, in her pursuit of capturing emotion and the pathos of love, found a way to document even the most mundane in sentimental exposition. This is similarly seen in the tender embrace in Teri and Patrick on their Wedding Night (1987), or the tight clasp of The Hug (1980), or her own representation of opioid abuse in Aperture Drugs on the Rug (2016). Goldin’s works are annotative, captures of the relationships she saw around her (as well as of her own), but at the same time evocative, perhaps making her one of the best documentative photographers of all time. While she uses her photographs to demonstrate realities, often in her push for activism, Goldin makes you forget that you are viewing an exercise in instrumentalism. You are looking, instead, at the depths of human nature in their purest, raw forms. Her work seems to plunge its hands into the viewer, reminding us that we are looking at something incredibly human. It is humans, baring themselves wide open to other humans, offering the chance of relief in the splinters of recognition.
And what a joy, what a privilege, Goldin makes that process.