Thursday, September 2, 2021

Crit: James Cockroft, Eid al Adha on expired film (and Small Art)

If it occurs to you to make some sort of comment about religion here, maybe don't.

Disclosure, I like James, I know James a little bit, I am predisposed to like pretty much anything James does.

James Cockroft made this zine, which you can read about in his blog post about it, where you can also see the photos in their original form. It's about his family's celebration of Eid al Adha in 2021, and he made it on some expired Lomography film he had in the fridge. Stick with me, ok? I know, I know, shut up. Just... stick with me.

Here's a video flip-through, so you can see the zine itself. Note the typo in the title.

So what is this thing? It's vernacular photography, for sure. It's not done in anything like a traditional photographic method, where you shoot a bunch and throw most of them away. There are 31 photos here, which is most of the roll. James doesn't seem to say what pictures, if any, he cut, but at a guess they're the ones that were literally unsalvageable. Roughly, he went and shot a few pictures and put all of them out there, in something a lot like chronological order. You can see the narrative, which is simply a sequence of things happening in the order they happened.

In terms of what you're supposed to do as a photographer, this is virtually the complete opposite.

Technically, the photos are terrible. They're grainy, unsharp, the colors are wonky, the framing is haphazard, etc etc. We could go on for days beating these things up for technique.

It is furthermore clear from James' discussion that there is no conceptual rigor here, he's not formally rejecting the strictures of photography to criticize photography, or whatever. There is no Serious Art Practice in play here, it's some dude dicking around with shitty film in a worse camera.

I love this thing. Unambiguously. I think it is simply fantastic.

Why on earth would I love this thing? There are two reasons, one concrete, the other abstract. Concrete first.

I don't know James' deal. What I tell myself is that he's a white dude who married into Islam for love, converted (as one does) and has embraced a religion that is widely despised in America, perhaps especially in his home state of Texas. He's all in, he appears to give not a single shit about the idea that there are probably rednecks nearby who would spit in his face.

In these pictures, he's documented something which is to my eye wonderful. I'm an ignorant agnostic, raised Christian-adjacent, but this looks to me like some apotheosis of Islam in America. The settings are relentlessly American, the people equally relentlessly Islam. We're used to guys in robes with cell phones but they're all Saudi princes, not J. Random Dude sitting on a leather couch somewhere in Texas just like any Dallas Cowboys fan. We see, without even realizing it, how that melting pot business works. Islam can be perfectly at home in America, there is no baked-in conflict. Any conflict is something we're making up (which does not make it less real, natch.)

The expired film look fits perfectly here, because there is something very much American to the shitty, faded, grainy, snapshot. Sure, people took photos everywhere all the time, but at least to me the Old Snapshot is distinctly a piece of Americana. A European or an Indian might just as well recognize these things as marks of their own personal history, their own family ephemera. That would be all to the good, if these pictures root equally well in your own personal history, so much the better.

But keep in mind, these are all things that I am adding. None of this is really in there, it's stuff that occurs in my mind when I study the book. What was in James' mind when he shot it, and when he made it, is almost certainly not any of this at all. His intentions seem to nothing more than family, and faith, the joy of those things, and maybe a bit of the mundane minutiae of life. The book is pretty clearly no more or less than life unfolding.

I see these things, this "cultural criticism" or whatever, not because the artist is telling me shit, but because the artist is cheerfully saying "Yo, here's my life, cool huh?" and I, by observing these slices of his life, perceive (or imagine I do) the cultural milieux that underlies them.

The second reason I love this, the abstract one, is that this is something I am calling Small Art, and I love Small Art.

What on earth is Small Art?

Let's think about Big Art. The Serious Art Photographer (see also painters, sculptors, and so on) generally wants to make things that are at home anywhere. The object is to make things that can live, can breathe, can speak, in a gallery or a museum or in a wealthy patron's home. Placing your work in those places is, after all, how you get paid. I get it, I am not opposed to Big Art in this sense. Big Art, though, is a rat race and a maze of gatekeepers and tastemakers whose job it is to create much of the value here.

Small Art is art that isn't that. It's Art that only lives, that only speaks, in a narrow space that generally is not a gallery or museum or patron's home. Being constrained, maybe it only says Small things, but it needn't.

Theater, I am going to claim, is Small Art. It only lives on the stage, and for the audience. Once it's over, it's over. Tomorrow night, there will be a new show, and it's a new thing. Probably very similar to tonight's show, but not tonight's show. Record it, broadcast, and it dies. Maybe it also becomes something else, but the original thing is dead.

I can attest that Arthur Miller in a small theater with 30 people in the audience absolutely fucking sings. With 2000 people in the audience in a large and fancy theater it's on life support already. Record it and it's all over. You can make a movie, but that's a new thing, a different thing. The same words and ideas can translate, but the movie isn't the play, it's a translation of the play.

Small means something about the natural home for the Art. It can be small in terms of time, or of place, or both. It can be small in terms of specific place, or general type of place. You can do Arthur Miller anywhere, but I swear to you that a really strong bunch of actors and a small theater is going to be the best possible home.

Nobody would claim that Arthur Miller's plays say only Little Things, or that they are not Serious Art. They manifestly are. But they only live in small spaces.

Back to James' book.

The natural home for this work, per the intention of the artist, is a zine.

Imagine this thing as a book from MACK or any serious publisher of art books: it wouldn't be this book, it would be an overly precious reproduction of this book. It would be a copy, intended to be over-examined, over-thought, to be reviewed and placed into context with other Serious Artists, and all that stuff that you do with Big Art. It would die in the hands of any Serious Publisher. Not because Serious Publishers are clumsy or stupid, but because this object's home is somewhere else. It isn't made for that.

You could make something in an edition of 400 with heavy cream colored paper with just the right texture, a foldout or two, and massive heavy cover boards, but it wouldn't be this. You can make a passable movie starting from an Arthur Miller script, but it's not "Death of a Salesman" on a small stage. Not even close.

Such a thing would probably be understood as a bold criticism of contemporary photographic practice, or as a political statement about racism in America, or, or, or. Some Big Statement, not a Small Statement. Now you can, and I did, make some pretty Big Statements about James' zine, but those are things that I made and added, they're not things the artist put in there. A Steidl book would make the Big Statement for me, would tell me. A Steidl book would probably add an essay to tell me, but even if it didn't, the sheer weight of the book would let me know that Big Statements are lurking.

Just take a moment to imagine a book, or a gallery show, or a collectible 16x24 (inches or feet) print. Visualize it and sit with it a moment.

James' zine, being Small, permits me to do what I want, to say what occurs to me, but it makes no demands. It does not insist on Bigness, it can just be some snaps of joy, of faith, of life.

The artist put in something profoundly honest and straightforward, something local, something personal, something in that sense Small.

Small Art won't pay the bills, generally. But it is closer to the people, closer to the audience, more accessible, than Big Art can ever be.

If you want people to see your photos, staple them to lampposts.


  1. Rule of thumb might be that Big Art is anything that the BBC makes a documentary series about. :)

  2. The Japanese potter Shoji Hamada prized Korean ceramics because, 'they made it without noticing.'

  3. This post resonated big time-much more than the ones criticizing critics that I've never heard of and am not going to bother looking up. Probably it's because I've been doing small theater art for over 35 years and really small photographic art for even longer. Big Art requires more talent and resources than I'll ever muster, and I suspect it wouldn't be nearly as much fun, anyway.

  4. "When you live for your soul and not for seeking validation, you glow differently. Also the radium smoothie."