The Ghost of John Szarkowski: Bill Dane Pictures

By simply glancing at the pictures and scanning the accompanying texts, you can generally ‘get’ the subject matter of most photo books, even if you return to them at a later date and discover unexpected hidden depths. Not so with the recent publication of Bill Dane’s work. For this is no ordinary photo book.

Assumption   I mail to Szarkowski to funky crash the MoMA
Why know the MoMA   the commanding importance  regular people work here (p. 137)

For starters, it is not immediately clear where the title of the book begins and ends. Is it Bill Dane Pictures, as per the big capital letters printed on the spine? Or is it Bill Dane Pictures …it’s not pretty as per the cover? Likewise with the subtitle: is it 50 Years of Photographs? Or 50 Years of Photographs. I’m still in love? No conclusive answer can be given. Indeed, these were deliberate design choices made by Dane. On top of that, the title and subtitle are a mishmash of factual statements, such as ‘50 Years of Photographs,’ and a line lifted from a poem by Charles Bukowski. Both in its oddity and concatenation of seemingly random elements, it is reminiscent of that other strange photo book title: William Klein’s Life Is Good & Good for You in New York – Trance Witness Revels.

I approach Szarkowski thru my picture-postcards
We have lunch a couple of times   going to a cozy locals dark place near the museum  drink   listen (p.140)

Another oddity. The cover notes that this endeavour is ‘Managed with Dan Skjæveland.’ Who is Dan Skjæveland and what is his role? Typical photobook terminology would revolve around ‘edited by,’ ‘compiled by,’ ‘with a foreword/introduction/narrative by,’ but ‘managed with’ is not something I have encountered before. But more on this choice of words later. The strangeness of the text as well as the lack of a cover image – another deliberate choice by Dane – offer an intriguing hint at what can be found inside.

Look at the Wright Morris book
Words with pictures   later
I don’t want to know John    I don’t (p.140)

To wit: more than two hundred pictures, and about a hundred pages of text – a hefty amount to absorb in any photo book. So is this then a so-called photo text? This is a concept formulated by John Rogers Puckett to describe a photo book in which words and pictures coincide in space, and contribute equally to the final meaning of the publication. Design-wise, the first of these is definitely true. Many of the texts are situated on the left hand page of the spread, with a photograph centred on the right hand page. Both are surrounded by ample white margins. According to Skjæveland, a similar format for a book was once suggested to Dane by John Szarkowski.

Peter Schjeldahl directs   elegant reviews   poetic   canny guide   points-full   honest   historical
John Szarkowski directs with his feather beauties   flexible stone (p. 137)

But how do the visual and textual elements relate? The pictures certainly are not direct illustrations of the text. Skjæveland relates, however, that in the initial stages of putting the book together, the photographs were intended as such. But looking at the finished product, it is clear that the visual-textual relationship has evolved significantly since. Pinpointing the endpoint of this evolution, nevertheless, is difficult. The texts are, after all, not little vignettes of life in the style of Wright Morris in his publications The Inhabitants or God’s Country and My People.Nor are they ruminations inspired by the images, as in the case of Archibald McLeish’s paean Land of the Free, dedicated to the people depicted in McLeish’s compilation of FSA photographs.

This cant be John Szarkowski with Garry Winogrand photographs
Comes Szarkowski   shows Winogrand pictures   talks   intoxicating
Done    mail him my pictures   he can judge them or pass (p.43)

In fact, it is quite hard to determine what these texts are. To describe them as poems would make them sound too structured. Is it just stream-of-consciousness? If anything, it is almost like a radio transceiver on the blink, snatches from different transmissions tuning in and out. And a diverse range of messages they prove. Dane holds forth about his ways of shooting, his photographic equipment, his memories of WWII, his troubled relations with his parents, John Szarkowski, joining the army, Miles Davis, the evils of latter-day capitalism, the Sugar Hill Gang, travels abroad, John Szarkowski, lynchings and white supremacy, inspirational film makers, writers and painters, #MeToo, his early days as a painter, his experiences teaching in Berkeley high schools, John Szarkowski again. It is a difficult and time-consuming read, and it takes some persistence to fully appreciate the messages being broadcast.

Out   I have the politics of Szarkowski sitting with   dont grasp my privilege   27 on sophomore whirl
Takes me time to know the Szarkowski relation to Guggenheim and NEA grants (p. 230)

Intriguingly, many of the messages relate to the functioning of the art world. Dane originally trained as a painter at UC Berkeley, but in 1969 – after his paintings were destroyed in a fire in his studio, and after his second batch of works were lost in a separate fire at a friend’s studio – he picked up a camera. Dane printed his images as gelatin silver postcards and posted 69,000 of them, over a period of nearly forty years, to influential figures in the art world, including John Szarkowski, the renowned photography curator at the MoMA.  And with some initial success: in 1973 Dane was given a solo show at the museum.

Individuals and institutions grow personalities   we react
Bitter over the Szarkowski-MoMA power   many feel better now
1973 I am only conscious enough to believe he gets it right with mine (p. 148)

As any student of photography history knows, Szarkowski was a veritable kingmaker of photographers. His most notable achievements include his landmark 1967 New Documents exhibition – showcasing the work of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus – and his championing of William Eggleston’s colour photography. A photographer could not wish for a better leg up than a solo show at the MoMA early on in their career. But for some reason it never quite worked out for Dane. True, he went on to receive a couple of Guggenheim Fellowships and National Endowment for the Arts grants, he was represented for a while by the prominent Fraenkel Gallery, and he had a number of solo exhibitions, including at the SFMoMA and De Young Museum in San Francisco. But somehow Dane never made it onto the list of canonical twentieth-century American photographers. And, as Skjæveland intimates, he was curious to find out why, after such a promising start, Dane was no longer in the spotlight.

Szarkowski tells a mutual I don’t know about Bill, his work is getting a little too literal.
Everything makes sense to someones (p. 214)

The reason for this might be the photographs themselves. Even after several flick-throughs of this book it is still not immediately clear what Dane’s images are actually about. The only things that can be said with any certainty is that they are sequenced in chronological order, that Dane switched from black and white to colour in the early 1980s, that some of his earlier pictures were taken on trips outside of the US, that all of his later ones were taken on American soil, and that as time marched on, the images became more and more abstract. The photographer himself speaks repeatedly of hunting and gathering, of finding treasures in public spaces, of shooting intuitively, of following his gut, of straight photography, of flotsam and jetsam, of surfaces and layers and reflections. He states outright in the book that he does not ‘do’ themes or theories, that he is unable to explain his pictures. I am further told by Skjæveland that Dane was very concerned with creating something that not only felt new, but that was decidedly unlike anything that had come before.

Send my picture-postcards to you all    to Szarkowski at MoMA   there are 5000
Lemagny at Bibliothèque Nationale   Norfleet at Fogg Harvard   Phillips at SFMOMA

1970s is grateful me   get bubble-basics with USA-MoMA photography power (p. 210)

Coming through in Dane’s various radio transmissions is that his work became unsellable, despite his MoMA show, despite his West Coast gallery representation, despite the various grants received. Dane’s generous sharing of 69,000 of his printed postcards gratis, and the vast number of his images on his website, Flickr and Instagram accounts – including every single picture in the book – might also have worked against him. After all, it appears that Dane’s reason for mailing out his postcards originally, and for making the work available online more recently, is simply to get his pictures ‘out there’ for all to see. This ‘oversharing’ of work goes perhaps against the grain of how artists are supposed to operate.  

From the text pages, the reader also gains the distinct impression that Dane is discomfited by the way the art world functions, and finds himself instinctively kicking against the pricks. Dane’s actions and the ‘failure’ of his work to be ‘proper’ art brought to mind Martha Rosler’s seminal essay ‘Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers’ in which she argues that art, and by extension photography, does not get produced in a vacuum, but is highly influenced by the art market, in which every participant – galleries, museums, artists – plays it safe by creating content that satisfies a handful of collectors with true purchasing power. As she argues, whether the content of that art satisfies the non-purchasing masses, is considered of no real import.

2015 Photographer Dan Skjaeveland calls in the night with his dream
Book   Pictures With Words   mine (p.4)

Which brings me to the genesis of this publication. Typically, it is the photographs that form the starting point and raison d’être for a photobook. Not so with Bill Dane Pictures. Skjæveland visited Dane in 2015 and recorded twenty-four hours of conversations with Dane over a period of five days; a second visit yielded five more hours of material. Skjæveland’s primary reason for reaching out to the artist was to learn more about Dane’s work and to hear his opinions about Skjæveland’s own photographic practice. As the latter worked his way through the transcripts, the idea arose to turn it into an extended interview-type publication. As Skjæveland puts it, the text came first, the pictures later. In other words, the recordings laid the groundwork for the final text pages included in this volume.

This cool gracious Viking does not settle for a cup and bull   Book   Pictures with Words (p.4)

For the next five years, Dane extensively reworked and reworded the texts in the book and the pair collaborated on the selection of images and final book design. From my conversation with Skjæveland it becomes clear that this book would not have come into being without the latter’s admiration for Dane’s work, his persistent and dogged belief that Dane’s work should be reevaluated and re-embraced by the photography world, and most importantly the amount of work Skjæveland carried out to steer the ship home. This book is nothing if not a labour of love, a labour ‘managed with’ the artist rather than a photographer’s oeuvre ‘edited by.’ As may have become clear, this is not an easy publication to digest, but it is one that raises interesting questions about how and what kind of art photography ultimately remains burned on our retinas.

Szarkowski does his poke  I listen
Thanks again   JS   now   leave me alone with my figments (p. 214)

Bill Dane and Dan Skjæveland
self-published, 2020

All Rights Reserved: text © Karin Bareman; images © Bill Dane