Philipp Scholz Rittermann: Emperor’s River

As many of you know, I go to a lot of exhibitions, but rarely do I get to go to one that is literally one mile away from my house. Two days ago I was fortunate enough to receive a call from long-time friend Philipp Scholz Rittermann inviting me to a tour of his exhibition at the Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College. I have known Philipp since my Kodak days, but we typically go for long stretches with zero contact and then suddenly run into each other all the time.

Here is a little official news about Philipp and the show.

“Emperor’s River” represents a multi-year project Sholz Ritterman conducted in China. Large scale photographs from the exhibit were recently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.

The photographer’s work is included in more than 100 public, private and corporate collections, from MoMA, New York to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France. Scholz Rittermann exhibits in national, and international venues, and he was honored with a mid-career survey at the Museum of Photographic Arts San Diego, which published the monograph “Navigating by Light”.

Scholz Rittermann has been teaching photography for more than 30 years in the United States and abroad. He is represented by Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco.

Allow me to translate. Philipp has his act together. He is a serious guy. I don’t mean his personality is serious because he is always smiling and laughing, but his career, his work, his planning and his ideas are very well structured, thought out and complete. I’d heard about this project long ago, and I’ve seen countless stories regarding China, but knowing Philipp as long as I have I knew his project would be different, and it is. My personal experience with China is limited. I’ve made two trips to Hong Kong and one short trip into Southern China, but my overall impression can be summed up in one word: overwhelming. So what I love about Philipp’s work and this particular project is that he managed to reduce the incredible scale of China into something I can get my head around. He did this by using the anchor of the Grand Canal as as viscous artery that winds it’s way through the soul of China and the cerebral cortex of the viewer. We see layer after layer of apartment buildings. We see hyper-modern, futuristic convention centers and seafood markets that stretch endlessly into the inky Chinese night. A world with thousands of years of history is being brought up to modern speed in a remarkably short period of time. We wonder when the dust will settle and the answer we see in Philipp’s photographs is perhaps “never.”

But there is more to this story. Philipp’s technique is to a photograph a scene with a multitude of exposures and compositions then stitch them seamlessly together. The result is an image incredibly rich in information, detail and exposure. And, to top it off, many of the images were done handheld! Images required days, sometimes weeks, to composite. Philipp’s prints are large but not crazily so, and after a brief overview I found myself being pulled in, FAR in to each and every print. I found myself studying and being completely content with tiny portions of each print. Ultimately, what I enjoy the most about Philipp’s show is that the images remind me how much of an enigma China really is. I’m left with so many questions. I find myself wondering how this China story will end. Good photography doesn’t always answer every question. Good photograph also creates mystery, and that is how I feel about Philipp’s work.

David Hume Kennerly at Orange Coast College

As the photo-world changes around us it is easy to see the differences in not only our photo-society, but also the photographers that inhabit this world. Our industry, in some ways, is a reflection of society’s attention span, and with the near-overload of visual stimulation, the average attention span has been reduced to nearly nothing. Take for example the average time a person spends in front of a painting at a museum, around four seconds, and you learn where we are headed.

Consequently, the idea of a legacy, of depth in our work has also been altered. In the “Old Days,” magazines like The National Geographic had seemingly endless assignment times and photographers worked for YEARS on projects before they were considered worthy of attention and consideration. Today ushers in the micro-assignment, the two-day photo-essay and the first-year photo student who thinks their work is instantly relevant.

Recently, due to Canon USA’s Explorers of Light program and the photography department at Orange Coast College, I was able to take a step back into the past and spend a few hours with a photographer who is a perfect representation of the industry of old. David Hume Kennerly is by no means retired, and continues to build on his legendary archive, but is also a perfect example of someone with depth and a lasting legacy of imagery that will, chances are, never be duplicated in the “modern age.”

Kennerly, if you don’t already know the name, is perhaps most widely known as the personal photographer of former president Gerald Ford, but Kennerly’s history goes way beyond this period of his life.

His career began at age 14, and catapulted him into the center of most of the memorable events of the 1960’s, 1970’s and beyond. The night after shooting the Ali-Frazier fight in New York, on the eve of his 21st birthday, he boarded a flight for Vietnam where he was to spend roughly the next two years of his life. Vietnam, as it did for most journalists to witness this war, changed Kennerly’s life. He left Vietnam older, wiser and with a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.

Back in civilian life Kennerly was asked to be the personal photographer for Gerald Ford, a job he accepted on two conditions: he only reported to the president directly, and he requested total access, anywhere at anytime. He was granted both and immediately began to make pictures that would forever change history and how photographers covered the president. Just a sidenote…we have not seen coverage like this since, and probably never will. In fact, the subsequent press secretary for then president Carter said when asked about who the photographer would be said, “Well, I know we are not going to have another Kennerly running around.”

The efforts of his time with Ford have recently been published in “Extraordinary Circumstances”
Post-Ford, Kennerly continued to cover major news events for publications such as Time and Newsweek.
During his lecture at OCC, Kennerly spoke in a relaxed but focused manor. I’ve been to MANY lectures, and I have to say, he is really good, AND, Kennerly is one of the few photographers out there that could speak to high school students or a senior citizen group and totally pull it off. His work stands up over time.

He described his work as being simple, but I’m not sure that is quite the right word. In some ways, compared to the tilted frame, overly complex, somewhat overdone images of today, you might look at Kennerly’s images and think they look simple, but I see a skill level that surpasses most photographers working today. Remember, the bulk of these images were done on “stoneage” equipment, manual focus, meter/no meter,etc. They were tack sharp, exposed correctly, AND, they were probably made in ones and twos, not thirties and forties as we make many images of today.

Most people do not spend their days analyzing images, and sometimes the pictures that end up running today are so sophisticated it is clear they are intended to influence only a tiny portion of the viewership. I think it is good that pictures like this are created and used, but sometimes you have to ask “Who are we trying to reach?” Are we trying to win an arts award or are we trying to educate our viewers. Let’s call these thick images and thin images. Kennerly’s pictures are thick.

On a sidenote, I first met Kennerly when I worked for Kodak, and ended up being the van driver for his workshop class at the Eddie Adams Workshop in New York. It was Kennerly, an editor from Newsweek, a bus full of rabid workshop students and me. Was it fun? Yes, but the hours SUCKED and I didn’t get to shoot anything. Good news, we didn’t lose any of the students.

In short, if you get a chance to hear this guy lecture, make the effort to go. You will get a chance to see one of the rare individuals who has managed to survive, reinvent, continue to make pictures and enjoy photography as much today as he did when he was 14.