Sunday, January 28, 2018

Steve Bollman's Almost True

 “Havana, Cuba, 2016” (Section 6, Image 4) 

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Photography is often portrayed as the paradigm of representation, which automatically harks back to Plato’s critique of imitation in the Tenth Book of the Republic (although Plato didn’t have a camera in mind). Hence, the confusion persists as to what represents what. The art of photography comes with two curses: it’s a modern medium and a machine. Whereas some derided the camera as an “exploitation of man by machinery,” others argued that photography would help fight Victorian close-mindedness by showing the latter’s flaws in the open. Photography won the dispute and claimed the Twentieth Century as its epoch.

Then came the team/spirit of postmodernism and digital photography. The first upped the reality game to inaugurate the hyperreal, which the second made common property at the click of a mouse. In Postmodern photography reality and simulation are a virtual doppelgänger: relative to point of view, culture, class, geographical coordinates, political persuasion, sexual orientation —even camera brand. This is where the title of this book, Almost True, comes in. “True” points not to facts, but authenticity; the “almost” means the game of trial and error.

“Pamplona, Spain, 1985” (Section 8, Image 3) 

Steve Bollman is quite informed about his trade, but he doesn’t take pictures to support agendas. He’s neither a Milton Brown, accusing pop culture of destroying art photography, nor a Susan Sontag depicting photography as a Capitalist tool of social control. He just loves photography and carries his camera everywhere in pursuit of the right moment —which may or may not become the right picture. It’s not that complicated. The right moment presents itself and the photographer is able and lucky to capture it. A photographer grasps the moment from the continuum of time. The picture freezes the moment and makes it transcendent. Once captured, the moment belongs only in the picture. Without the picture, there’s no moment per se.

A good picture congeals a meeting of chance and empathic competence. Bollman’s photos are “almost true” as they walk a tightrope between the reduction and the surplus of moments. When he gets it right, no explanation sufaces, except the obvious “I got it.” Bollman is a realist, which means to be true to the deep and chancy interdependence between people and things. Except, he is not doing the snap-shot realism of pioneers like Garry Winogrand, where the photo brings forth the social effervescence of the 1960s, or Nan Goldin’s 1980s photo verité of her close friends, stricken with drug addiction and AIDS.

“Viñales, Cuba, 2003” (Section 8, Image 2) 

Favoring open-ended encounters, Bollman leans toward the honest intimacy of William Eggleston’s pre-color photography, or Lee Friedlander’s black-and-white aesthetics of people and things, teasing each other and fighting each other like a dysfunctional family. He doesn’t do closeups of faces in full color, like Martin Parr. In fact, he doesn’t do color. And we’re not in the 1970s when color still had a bad reputation.

Why does Almost True avoid color? The answer is that black-and-white are colors. Bollman’s abstention from color reminds one of Picasso’s eschewing color during his Analytic period. Picasso wanted the Cubist form to be properly seen without color interference. Bollman doesn’t believe color carries a pop culture stigma (a premise which Eggleston proved false), or that color made an Unholy Alliance with the all-pervasive phone-camera photography.

“Caltanisetta, Sicily, 1987” (Section 6, Image 1) 

Almost True’s black-and-white preference points to emotional clarity, a social ethos suspended until the time comes. Then there is Bollman’s empathic style. Arriving camera in hand and unannounced, he tentatively reads his environment in search of the right moment for the picture. It’s a difficult dance on behalf of the photographer to get around the wobbly floor of people and things. Almost True presents this negotiation through a subtle arrangement. Not that Bollman arranges anything. A good picture is in synch with people and things. It’s a convergence of empathy and diligence, an irreducible moment in the drama of social life. Bollman shares Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz’s ideals that reality is amenable to the modern form.

“Havana, Cuba 2016” (Section 4, Image 1) 

In “Havana, Cuba 2016” (Section 4, Image 1) we see a man and a woman close to each other at a building’s entrance, though on closer inspection, they are not looking at each other. The building’s background column intrudes in the foreground to clearly divide their silhouettes. In “Havana, Cuba, 2003” (Section 4, Image 7) we get three pedestrians going about their daily business, keeping the same distance from each other. Though absorbed into their private affairs, they are compacted, by the abracadabra of the shot into a symmetric troika.

“Havana, Cuba, 2003” (Section 4, Image 7) 

One can notice Bollman’s subtle approach to human emotions. “Viñales, Cuba, 2003” (Section 8, Image 2) has a raggedly dressed country girl so deep in her thoughts that one immediately wonders what’s going on in her young mind. “New York City, New York, 1986” (Section 9, Image 4) shows a vulnerable instant of nocturnal self-absorption. “Berkeley, California, 2016” (Section 9, Image 7) portrays an old man’s desperate attempt to rescue a sound memory from the lingering synapses of his own dementia.

“Berkeley, California, 2016” (Section 9, Image 7) 

Finally, there is Bollman’s exploration of the human gaze. In “Caltanisetta, Sicily, 1987” (Section 6, Image 1) we share a flash of magic surprise and complicity with a little girl, as she candidly walks by the hand of a nun. “Pamplona, Spain, 1985” (Section 8, Image 3) we meet defiance in the eyes of a butcher inside a dreadful slaughterhouse. From “Havana, Cuba,” again in 2016 (Section 6, Image 4) Bollman gives us the unadulterated point of view of a child playing in the open, the Homo Ludens looking straight at the camera.

Almost True is a rare gem, an on-and-off effort of years, an assemblage of love and persistence, a worthwhile archive of the many connections of the eye behind the camera and between people and things.

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