Alex & Me - Review by Dr Elizabeth Reeder for NOTES Letters to photography magazine.

Alex & Me - Review by Dr Elizabeth Reeder for NOTES Letters to photography magazine.

In Wayne Kostenbaum’s book, Notes on a Glaze, he discusses how‘glaze refers to the patina of the photographs themselves, to the gazes of the captured subjects, and to the roundaboutness of my procedure [of writing]’ but he also talks about how ‘glaze may give the impression of being in hot pursuit of knowledge, yet glaze is actually a heightened, delirious state of unknowing.’


To me these multiple ideas about glaze – as a process, subject and as effect – give us alternative, possibly concurrent ways to view James Pfaff’s Alex and Me.  This is a work that is a book of photographs – a photo-essay, if you will – that includes a high degree of editorial attention and is conveyed to us non-chronologically and includes Pfaff’s paint-interventions.  When read together with his blog, the book also digs down into the process of making of the work (a process that was slow, intricate, and full of dialogic partnership with Francesca Seravalle, his curator).  The resulting work includes unresolved ideas of love and breakup as explored via autobiographical narratives that build a conversation with the bound images.  When read together, the images, interventions and text have the potential to agitate something in us as readers. 

 

If we lift our eyes and look to other art forms and other practices, we know that these types of interventions and editorial decisions are not unique, nor are Pfaff’s and Seravalle’s decisions particularly radical when looked at from a multi-modal, multi-disciplinary perspective (many artists, writers and thinkers use variations on image/text/memoir/intervention to produce their work).  However, in Pfaff’s and Seravalle’s hands these choices are compelling and create a beautifully produced, curiosity-inducing work.  Something does not have to be radical to be impactful.

 

The non-linear ordering of the photographs allows for a large amount of play around story and ‘character’, especially of Alex, an ex-girlfriend of Pfaff’s who is the main subject of many of the photographs.  The layout disrupts our expectations and makes us look differently, look again. There’s the satisfying transformation of Elvis Presley’s Sun Studios into Sin Studios because of how the spine breaks the word, which might be unintentional, but emerges from an intentional playfulness with the formatting. Or there’s the challenge of Alex who stands in her dungarees beside a Topless GoGo Girls neon-sign.  I am not this thing, she asserts through the photograph, her face a glaze, but she is no less on display, beneath our gaze.  Red permeates the book as an abstracted lampshade or the red line of paint James imposes again and again, and this red is something familiar, a slash of blood, of emotion, and yet, it is not easy to pin down.  I like that it is not read/red in a singular way. 

 

Pfaff’s writing is sparse, and he has spoken about how slowly he writes, how the words are hard-fought for. His text can be plain and direct, occasionally clichéd, and yet produces moments of a higher pitched possibility that show the potential in James’ future writing and projects.

 

Overall, the quality of the photographs and of the publication itself should not be contested – they are beautifully rendered and the book has been organized, designed and printed with incredible talent, care and attention. Add to this the showmanship of the painting (James has painted the books live at bookfairs) and the reveal of the blog posts, and James Pfaff with his first artist’s book, Alex and Me, has produced a visually powerful and intimately disruptive work.

Read More

Alex & Me - In Context - After.

Alex & Me - In Context - After.

My trip with Alex would encourage a period of selfish free living with my camera as a constant companion. In the following months I would visit New York, Florida, Hawaii, Tokyo and Hong Kong. I set out to find experience and to see colours anew, before I might have to say sorry. I made thousands of images and wrote hundreds of pages of text during this prolific period. I had been inspired to open my mind and explore. The camera would be my foil.  At times I was not myself.

This period, a legacy of my trip with Alex, would end, had to end, and did begin to end round about 2010. I changed and so did my photographic practice.

For my second artist book, with the working title The Artist and Japan, I will draw on the period between Alex & Me and today. Like Alex & Me, The Artist and Japan will be my contemporary response to the images I made in Japan (but sometimes elsewhere). My relationship with Japan as a theme was an easy decision; it was the destination I visited most often, that moved me most. It had become an obsession, not least because it was the place where I would find so much beauty.  The Artist and Japan will take time, and I’m finding it to be more artistically and personally challenging than Alex & Me. I need to mention The Artist and Japan now because it’s important for me to place Alex & Me in its wider context.

Read More

Alex & Me – Expression, Communication, Paint and Text.

Alex & Me – Expression, Communication, Paint and Text.

Combining photographic images with the media of paint and text can be powerful. I want to tell you about my mindset in this regard so you can understand the choices I make.

Paint.

I have talked before about how I used paint illustratively in the physical construction of Alex & Me but I’m also using paint expressively. I’m using paint to stir and show emotion, always seeking to move closer to something more sensual. I’m making my colours with care; looking for the most beautiful I can find, and laying them down (mostly) with aforthought. Adding paint to photographic prints is a real challenge and often ends in failure but when it does work it can be very beautiful.

Text.

If the painting of Alex & Me was hard then the text I wrote for Alex & Me was perhaps the most difficult artistic challenge of the whole project. In the beginning I expected someone else to write the text (along with designing the book) but as the project became increasingly more personal it became clear that it would be down to me. At this moment I had decades of photographic practice and at least a decade of experience of working with paint but writing the text, for publication, was a new and daunting proposition.

It would take me a long time to finish my painting and to complete the text and I learned a great deal during this time. Perhaps the most important lesson was this. It’s my feeling, and only my feeling, that with a personal project like Alex & Me the words need be your own, from your heart. When you are this close to the bone a quotation or someone else’s text does not feel right. With painting, the paint you lay down should be from your own hand, expressing the emotions of the moment. That is all that can be done.

With paint and text (unlike photography) you never really finish or complete the work at hand - it's more a case of abandonment and until I can say that I have mastered paint and text to a point where I can find some peace, I would say that authenticy of expression is more important to me than any perceived failings of ability.

Read More

Alex & Me - What's it about?

Alex & Me - What's it about?

◼︎ She would encourage and I would respond. In fact, I continued to work with this dynamic when I was making my book. In the spread above, you can see Alex’s blue cigarette pack and my blue line of response. Everything in Alex & Me comes from Alex & Me.

A lot of people have asked me this question.  Let me say from the start that Alex & Me could be considered as two books in one. The first a simple story, the second a much more complex proposition after Francesca Seravalle and Alex’s interventions.

I understand very well the appeal of the well-rounded artist book, and on one level, Alex & Me meets this artistic challenge. But because this is a very personal book and an evolving story it is messy at times and it’s meaning to me, and my feelings toward it, are ever changing and evolving. So sometimes for these reasons I find this a difficult question to answer. It’s like this.

In the beginning it was easier. I worked with the notion of Alex & Me being a tribute and a gift to a strong and inspirational woman.  A woman who would help me grow. A book about change.

Then things would become more difficult. If Alex would encourage me then Francesca Seravalle, my new curator, would challenge and provoke. She would force me to question everything about this story, it’s reconstruction, and it’s legacy.  She’s the second strong and inspirational woman in this story.

And then of course, unexpectedly, my gift to Alex was unwelcome.

So in the end Alex & Me has become, for me, many things all at once…

For today as I write,

It’s a simple story, and then again a complex one.

A love story, and then a broken love story.

A gift, and then an unwelcome gift.

A catalyst for change.

And then,

An artistic struggle.

A fight to understand myself.

A dilemma.

An unfinished story.

A human story.

A tribute and a gift to strong and inspirational women everywhere.

Bitter-sweet. Painful …

Now however, Alex & Me is no longer just my story, it’s for others to see and react in their own way. People have started to express what they feel. One woman told me about how it rekindled memories of her own similar experience about the time I was making my journey with Alex. She told me that for her it had some echoes of Sophie Calle’s No Sex Last Night. She could understand my story. To hear her story, her feeling, and that of others is very satisfying.

 

Read More

Alex & Me - Unfinished.

Alex & Me - Unfinished.

I've written unfinished on the cover of Alex & Me. I can't remember why or when but now I find it has a new and unexpected meaning. Alex & Me has an unwritten final chapter.

For 16 years Alex adored the photographs we made together. She was the first person I could really talk to about photography. About art, about life. She was my muse. She was so excited about my attempts to make this book from our trip together.

2 years ago as the project was being finalised she suddenly asked me not to publish. Someone close to her did not like my book. I could understand her situation.

I went against her wish. I agonised over the choice I had to make. People close to the project and me knew about my dilemma and the pain I felt. I guess I may have disappointed them in my weakness to be strong and decisive. Nevertheless they were very supportive. In the end I realised this would be my choice and my choice alone.

I have not spoken with Alex since.

I very much hope that one day you will see a photograph of us together as old friends in happier times. Then I will be able to say to you that Alex & Me is finished.

Read More

Alex & Me - Time Will Tell.

Alex & Me - Time Will Tell.

◼︎ Top of image, Alex & Me (Maquette) by James Pfaff.

◼︎ Bottom of image, Nagisa Hotel by Hajime Sawatari/SUPER LABO.

I recently purchased a new book from L'Ascenseur Végétal.  It’s a nice one called Nagisa Hotel by Hajime Sawatari/SUPER LABO.

The image above (of the girl with the mirror) is one of my very favourite images from the publication. Everyone knows I love personal human narratives like this one. What happened next? Where is she now? How’s her life?

I read somewhere that Sawatari had tried and failed to publish these images shortly after he had made them in 1963/64 - a similar situation I had with Alex & Me. Photographs can be like that sometime - they need some time to make sense. And if you’re very lucky they will age well too.

Read More

Alex & Me - A Beautiful Journey.

Alex & Me  - A Beautiful Journey.

A few days before my 50th birthday I made a short trip back to Hamburg. Ahead of me one last artistic challenge to finish Alex & Me - to write the accompanying text.

I had met Alex in Hamburg and I wanted to finish my book there.

Hamburg is much changed in the intervening years but one of our then favourite places remains largely unchanged - The Café Unter Den Linden in the Schanzenviertel. Here surrounded by the many ghosts of my past I finished my text.

My journey with Alex changed me.  In the very end Alex & Me has become an emphatically autobiographical book with change as its core theme.  Now that it’s finished, and looking back at the artistic process - which was sometimes very challenging - I’m once again surprised by just how much.

A beautiful journey.

Read More

Alex & Me - A long Shadow.

Alex & Me - A long Shadow.

◼︎ From Alex & Me: Top, Untitled, Toronto, Canada 1998.

◼︎ From Blue Diamond: Bottom, Untitled, Barstow, California 2007.

Another example of a reoccurring theme first seen in Alex & Me. Empty spaces.

As I mentioned in my last entry, the first diner image (from 1998) would have been made in a unconscious way, but the second one here, (from 2007), was made with a much greater understanding of what drew me to the original, which was, aesthetics aside, to depict a feeling of nostalgia. I can only imagine the numerous human interactions that have taken place in the seats above. Good times, bad times, getting together, falling apart, Alex and me.

On a personal level I can say I succeeded in my depiction, as both of these images leave me with a feeling of nostalgia. But not only that. Loneliness & hopelessness are there too.

Read More

Alex & Me - A Long Shadow.

Alex & Me - A Long Shadow.

◼︎ From Alex & Me: Left, Untitled, Memphis, Tennessee 1998.

◼︎ Right, Untitled, Germany 2012.

I appear visually only briefly in Alex & Me but never the less you will find a lot of me in the book. Many of the photographic themes in Alex & Me continue to appear and re - appear in my work to this day.

Because I wasn’t photographing Alex & Me with any intent, I feel this is photography by pure instinct. And my instinct must have been good because many of the themes from Alex & Me have become leitmotifs and continue to fascinate me to this day. A long shadow.

Read More

Alex & Me - In Context - Before.

Alex & Me - In Context - Before.

◼︎ Unknown Woman, La Concha Motel, Las Vegas, Nevada 1998.

This image also predates Alex & Me - but only by a few months. It’s one of my very favourite images from this period when I was trying to find my way forward artistically. In my last blog entry I discussed the idea I had of using my camera as a foil to record & explore my own life and that of others. This image is a perfect example of this.

Read More

Alex & Me - In Context - Before.

Alex & Me - In Context - Before.

◼︎ The Network, Gun Club, Hamburg, Germany, c., 1997.

I made this image in Hamburg’s Gun Club. It’s one of the very first images that I made for myself and predates Alex & Me by about a year.

Sometimes in life you can be lucky with the people you meet. Some people change you, bend you into a new shape - hopefully a better one than you were before.

Although I had already begun to make my own images like this one above - as opposed to commercial imagery - meeting Alex and our journey together would solidify the idea of using my camera as a foil to record & explore my own life and that of others. It’s for this reason, amongst others, that Alex & Me is, for me, such an important body of work.

Looking at Alex & Me I think you can see how this trip (and knowing Alex) has informed much of what I do to this day. And for that, I’ll always be thankful to have met Alex.

Read More

Alex & Me - Precious Things.

Alex & Me  - Precious Things.

This faded print is the only surviving fragment from my journey.  The only direct connection I have left. The negative is missing, and for me, it is a precious thing. I have it in a safe place. Keeping & appreciating ephemera like this is an important part of what makes us human.

Inside Alex & Me, in an envelope, you will find - along with a text - a copy print of this image.

Read More

Alex & Me - Everything Changes.

Alex & Me - Everything Changes.

◼︎ The Stem Diner in 1998.

Hurricane Katrina would change the very fabric of the photographs I made in New Orleans. My New York night scape has lost its twin towers. In Toronto, The Stem Diner has closed and New York’s Baby Doll Lounge (where I photographed Alex smoking a cigarette) is now a pizza restaurant. Much has changed since I made these photographs.

 

The photographs I made of Alex and our journey together clarified a way of seeing that I had been developing whilst living in, and being inspired by Hamburg. It would prove to be the template for a photographic life. But my journey with Alex didn’t just clarify a way of seeing; it changed how I would live my life for the next decade and a half.

 

Now as I get older and can feel the need for change, I discover the very process and challenges of making Alex & Me has helped me understand some of the past and to prepare me for the future. The closing of a circle…

Read More

Alex & Me - Paint Intervention.

Alex & Me - Paint Intervention.

◼︎ My hand painted shoes from 2008.

In Glasgow I knew a girl who painted everything silver, in Hamburg I was introduced to man who liked to paint everything white. Since then I have been adding paint to my photographs - and other objects.

Nearly all of the panels and some of the photographs that make up Alex & Me have a paint intervention. Because I wanted everything in Alex & Me to come from Alex & Me the hand painted panels feature colours sourced from the photographs I made during my journey. For example, the white painted wooden buildings that I photographed in Canada and in the Deep South inspiring the white painted panels.

This artistic self - sufficiently is very much in keeping with the concept of Alex & Me having it’s own universe, unaffected by outside influence.

Read More

Alex & Me - Curated By Francesca Seravalle.

Alex & Me - Curated By Francesca Seravalle.

After working together for 2 years there is not one single aspect of Alex & Me that has not been scrutinized by Francesca Seravalle.

Alex & Me was never imagined with a book in mind and my first serious attempt to make one from the material was in 2007. Ever since then the project has been on & off and it has been a real challenge for me to develop the work into a meaningful book.

Francesca didn’t just bring artistic oversight, fresh ideas, and a new edit and sequencing of the images, she also brought along her amazing energy and passion for the project.

Read More

Alex & Me - Photography At The Digital Dawn.

Alex & Me - Photography At The Digital Dawn.

Alex & Me was photographed on film. We called people from roadside call boxes, the Waffle House jukebox played real vinyl, gas was pumped mechanically and if you visited Elvis Presley’s Graceland in 1998 you would have been guided around with a cassette player like this.

The film strips that make up Alex & Me have not been treated as best as they might. Processed on the road in 1- hour drug stores and stored in brown paper envelopes they are showing signs of attrition. Of course because Alex & Me is not trying to be a perfect artist book these defects (along with the irregular film grain structures) are most welcome which in turn makes me question if this book could even exist in it’s present form if I had used a digital camera?

Read More

Alex & Me - Handmade.

Alex & Me  - Handmade.

Alex had a scrapbook when I met her and it inspired me to keep one too. Since then I have kept many scrapbooks & journals myself and it was a natural design direction for my vision for Alex & Me.

Every element of Alex & Me was made by hand. The cover, the photographic prints, the pages… The result is a simply designed artist book - imperfect, irregular and with lots of raw texture.

Of course the book is only a facsimile of this handwork - but it keeps all the feeling of its original component parts.

Read More

Alex & Me - The Beauty Of Imperfection.

Alex & Me  - The Beauty Of Imperfection.

Alex & Me is not just a book - it’s an intimate object too. It has it’s own universe and quiet confidence.

When I started to make Alex & Me I tried to recreate a scrapbook aesthetic. Of course nothing looked right however hard I tried… Everything seemed contrived. The solution? To harvest some of the books elements from pre - existing material never intended for publication and created without pressure. The imperfect became perfect.

Read More