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© Pavel Maria Smejkal. From the 'Stars' series

For some, my deliberations about Bruce Gilden/Haitians might seem tepid compared to Pavel Maria Smejkal‘s use of people-as-props for his photographic art.

Smejkal’s Stars series is potentially about the reversal of fates, wasted potential, chance events and turns of fortune. It is also potentially insulting.

The question for me is whether digital composites of Auschwitz inmates and the faces of silver-screen stars is a good way to communicate an actually important philosophical position. Mrs. Deane (Beierle or Kei­jser) can’t say that Smejkal’s work is a success or not because they stumble at its first requirement to recognise the faces of inserted celebrities! Which is a nice side-step.

I too intend to hang up my judgement on this and simply pass on notice of the project for you to decide. My editor said a few months ago that Western culture – and photography in particular – had no sacred cows left to slaughter. In the manner in which sentiment and controversy whirl past without touching the sides these days, right now, I am inclined to agree.

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Just as a footnote, Smejkal’s Stars series reminds me of Agan Harahap’s work Super Hero.
Samuel F. B. Morse's Daguerreotype Equipment, by Thomas Smillie, 1888, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Samuel F. B. Morse's Daguerreotype Equipment, by Thomas Smillie, 1888, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Source, and more here.

Little Electric Chair. Andy Warhol, 1965

Little Electric Chair (Detail). Andy Warhol, 1965

Merry A. Foresta, Director Smithsonian Photography Initiative, informs,

“In addition to being the Smithsonian’s first staff photographer, Thomas Smillie was also the institution’s first photography curator. Interestingly, in 1896 when a formal Section of Photography was established Smillie was titled “Custodian” and the first objects he collected – bought for the sum of $23 – were the daguerreotype camera and photographic apparatus used by Samuel Morse, one of the first Americans to experiment with photography…”

When I saw the deathly familiar blue of Smillie’s cyanotype, I was thrown back to the electric hues of one of Warhol’s many electric chair prints.

From the rarest, unique image to the mass produced commodity. Both images of apparatus; both apparatus a steal on time and both definitively (institutionally) American.

The Smithsonian has operated Click! Photography Initiative for a couple of years now. They publish sporadically on The Bigger Picture Blog with a variety of essays about every imaginable application and interpretation of photographic culture in society. Contributors include high school kids to photography greats such as Robert Adams and a wealth of respected curators and educators including Wendy Ewald and Sandra Phillips. There’s even space for you if you wish to try you hand.

The project also nudged me back into the mind space and work of Bay Area heroine Carla Williams. Read her blog and your life will be better.

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