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Book Review: The Light of Coincidence.


Book Review The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson. By Kenneth Josephson Reviewed by Blake Andrews Kenneth Josephson, who recently turned 84, has been making photographs for over six decades. Translated into photographer years, that's almost 200 billion 1/60ths.
The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson.
By  Kenneth Josephson. University of Texas Press, 2016. 
 
The Light of Coincidence. 
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson.
Photographs by Kenneth Josephson.
University of Texas Press, Austin, USA, 2016. 344 pp., 254 black-and-white illustrations, 11x12".



Kenneth Josephson, who recently turned 84, has been making photographs for over six decades. Translated into photographer years, that's almost 200 billion 1/60ths. It's a time period vast enough to spawn more than one career-spanning retrospective —he's had three, to be exact. Each one to date has been bigger and better than the last. The first, in 1983 at Chicago's MoCA, capped Josephson's most active period. Sixteen years later came another at the Art Institute of Chicago, with matching catalog (Kenneth Josephson: A Retrospective).

The most recent is The Light of Coincidence. The prints showed last spring at Gitterman Gallery in NY and Stephen Daiter in Chicago. If you weren't able to see them in person, you're still in luck. All exhibition materials and more are included in a coffee-table friendly catalog published by The University of Texas Press. The Light of Coincidence is the best book on Josephson to date. But who knows. He's still making photographs. There may yet be another.

The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson. By  Kenneth Josephson. University of Texas Press, 2016.

By virtue of timing and style, Josephson has never fit easily into any photographic camp. A disciple of Callahan and Siskind, he branched away from their brand of straight modernism just as it was ascending on the wings of Szarkowski and MoMA. What he developed instead was a unique style of conceptual photography which took photography itself as its primary subject matter in an openly self-referential manner. Photographs, framing devices, and photo motifs appeared as visual material. Josephson himself was in many photos, or at least his hand or shadow. He began incorporating his own shadow into photographs as early as 1961, nine years before Friedlander's Self Portrait unleashed the floodgates.

Fly-on-the-wall observer he was not. Instead his conceptual fingerprints were on full display in most images. His photos were "a foil to the medium". The Breadbook was an inside joke presaging banal typological studies. A series called The History of Photography (still ongoing) playfully revisited common photographic tropes. Even if you don't know Josephson by name, you can probably recall some of his better known photographs from the series. A nude snapshot buried in the sand slyly recalls Charis Wilson. A ruler held in front of the Tetons pokes fun at Ansel Adams. A photograph of a ship held by Josephson's hand above an ocean horizon —the cover shot for Shore's The Nature of Photographs— breaks every photographic rule while anticipating Luigi Ghirri by a decade. Josephson's images continually posed questions about the nature of photography and what it meant to make (emphasis on make, not take) photos.

The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson. By  Kenneth Josephson. University of Texas Press, 2016.

Photographs about photography have since become de rigueur, even mainstream, as contemporaries such as Penelope Umbrico, John Mann, Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay, Anastasia Samoylova, Patricia Voulgaris, and others have shown. As Gerry Badger notes in the book's introduction, Josephson's photos have retroactively developed into "an almost perfect summation of where we are at today." But in the 1960s and 70s this brand of conceptualism was still a poor photographic stepchild. Badger describes how Josephson was squeezed at the time between two worlds. On one side were straight photographers who emphasized objective depiction. On the other were conceptual artists who viewed all photography as a lesser art form.

He found a sort of home in the artistic netherworld at the Institute of Design in Chicago, where he received his Masters and taught for years. Along with ID colleagues such as Ray Metzker, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and Barbara Crane, Josephson earned the school an innovative reputation (Taken By Design, 2002: University of Chicago Press offers a well-researched history). But none of the ID crew caught much attention contemporaneously. Josephson's peak years, from the mid-60s to the early 80s, passed generally under the radar.

The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson. By  Kenneth Josephson. University of Texas Press, 2016.


If he was treated by the experts without proper gravitas, it might be that Josephson's work was viewed as humorous. His photos brought a chuckle, a response often viewed with suspicion in the art world. Worse, they seemed to lack a strong emotional core. In the words of Gerry Badger, his photos were "not carefully crafted but carefully thought out". For an art struggling in the post-war years for respectability, the common prejudice leaned (and still does) toward emotional response. Photos built on humor and thinking faced two major strikes against them.

While it's true some of Josephson's photos are flat-out funny, perhaps a better way to think of them is playful. Thumbing through The Light of Coincidence, one is struck by Josephson's spirit of experimentation. He seems to enjoy making photographs, and using images to test ideas. Toss photo concepts into a pot, try a little of this, a bit of that, tweak photo history, see what works, etc. He seems unafraid to broach the ridiculous, a rare and vital trait in the arts. It's the methodology of a kid building sand castles, or else a mad scientist. This playful process can be interpreted as humorous or even quirky, but it's essentially inventive and unfixed.

The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson. By  Kenneth Josephson. University of Texas Press, 2016.

As I mentioned, The Light of Coincidence is not Josephson's first retrospective. It's his third, a fact mentioned in the book's chronology, in a meta-historical way that dovetails with Josephson's oeuvre. If you already have 1999's Kenneth Josephson: A Retrospective, you may still want to add this to your library. While that book emphasized a chronology of ideas, this one contains a broader, randomized sequence. Lynne Warren's informative introduction notwithstanding, the emphasis here is on the images, not the bio. There are 300 pages worth, laid one or two to a spread and drawn from points across Josephson's career, including several new photographs made since the last retrospective. The overall effect is of looking through a box of loose prints. Indeed the excellent reproductions approach gelatin silver quality, and belie Badger's comment on their craft. No order, no dogma. Just playful mastery.— BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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