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All photographs copyright J. A. Ginsburg
All photographs copyright J. A. Ginsburg
photographer, curator, editor, writer
When I was a freshman in college, my uncle sent me a copy of Robert Frank's The Americans. It opened my eyes to what photography could be. I was hooked.
I was also lucky enough to be at Indiana University, where Henry Holmes Smith had established one of the first fine arts photography departments in the country. I cannot be sure, but my darkroom may have been Jerrry Uelsmann's at one point. Between the heady scent of fix, the burble of water and the dim red glow of photo-safe lights, I imagined that a little bit of Uelsmann's genius for bending time and space still enchanted the enlarger. I never came close to matching his technical abilities, but loved to play with long exposures, multiple exposures and combined negatives.
Photography is at once rooted in reality and an abstraction of it, a medium whose mystery is right on the surface. Yet it wasn't until I saw Robert Frank's work that I began to understand how powerful a thin slice of captured time can be.
For years I wore at least one of three cameras around my neck almost all the time: a 35 mm Canon SLR, my dad's vintage Mercury II half-frame (which could fit twice as many negatives on a roll of film) and a twin lens Ciroflex. I pored over books of photography. I went to shows. Working at the Chicago Tribune, I spent hours in the library (known as "the morgue"), looking at old press photos stashed in manila folders that were crammed into shelves stacked floor to ceiling.
I was fascinated by the unfussy brilliance of news pictures. There was no debate about whether or not they qualified as art. Who had time working on deadline? These photographs were made to round out news stories and sell newspapers. Wax pencil crop marks delineated what was important, while leaving in details that didn't make the cut. The passing of decades can make such details more compelling: a record of past fashions and antiquated technologies.
I thought a lot about how time affects photographs while working on the Mickey Pallas retrospective. The archive spanned the mid-1940s through the early 1960s. Photographs have a unique way of weaving together past and present. A photograph is more than an image. It is also what we bring to it.
When the darkroom became digital and pixels replaced chemicals, I began using a small handheld video camera to make photographs. Now my favorite camera is now embedded in a phone.
The slideshow at the top of this page features photographs from a project called News from the..., which began as a way to stay in touch with far-flung family through a picture-a-day. Now in its third year, this accidental assignment has opened up whole new worlds to see: the shadows cast by a leaf, the jewel-like lenses of water drops, the jubilation of zinnias, the handsome beauty of a snow beach.
A 10x iPhone-compatible olloclip lens, which tucks neatly into a zippered compartment in my purse, makes it possible to share the wonders of all things small. A Proscope 20x to 80x lens allows me to go even deeper in the realm of the tiny. I have learned that the wings of a common brown moth are spectacular. Even a no-see-um-sized fly on my kitchen table is a marvel up to behold.
Once more I am playing with merging images and perspectives. Every night by the glow of a laptop—rather than the ruby shadows of a darkroom—the world around me fades into pixels on a screen and time and space are reimagined. What joy!
In the late 1960s Beaumont Newhall, MoMA's first director of the photography, and his wife Nancy, a noted critic and curator, were asked to create a collection for Chicago's Exchange National Bank. The 250 photographs they selected became the core of the one the most extraordinary corporate art collections in the world. When LaSalle Bank bought Exchange, the collection continued to grow to include the work of more than 350 photographers. As lead writer, editor and production director, I oversaw the development of Photographs from the Collection of the LaSalle National Bank.
For the exhibition catalog to the Mickey Pallas Photographs show, I interviewed dozens of people—from Studs Terkel to Roger Ebert— who had either worked with or been photographed by Pallas.
These photographs were part of a group show documenting the last months of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Station, a building that as Pulitzer-winning architecture critic Paul Gapp wrote at the time, "did not deserve to die." A set of exhibit prints are now part of the collection of the Burnham Library of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago.