About Dick Blau with Help from Jane Gallop
Dick Blau was born in 1943. He is self-taught as a photographer and has been making pictures since 1968. Since 1975, he has lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught filmmaking at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
His career encompasses several different kinds of projects: two multi-year collaborations with ethnomusicologists Charles and Angeliki Keil that took the form of the books Polka Happiness and Bright Balkan Morning; a book collaboration with sound artist Steven Feld and ethnographers Agapi Amanatidis and Panayotis Panopoulos called Skyros Carnival; a collaborative video with Cecilia Condit called Oh Rapunzel!; a 31-minute 16mm film collaboration with Jehuda Yannay, Jerry Fortier, and Jake Fuller called Jidyll (1989); the 16mm film Tintinnabula (1986); the 16mm film Up the Block One Sunday (1982); the photographs for Jane Gallop’s book Living With His Camera; and the as-yet unpublished book project that includes 44-years of family photographs, Thicker Than Water.
I have known Dick Blau since 1986, and at the time that I met him, he was in the midst of shooting the film Jidyll, traveling to Chicago periodically to photograph polka parties for the book Polka Happiness, teaching in the Film Department at UW-Milwaukee, and was about to have the first of the two children that he has raised with longtime partner Jane Gallop. After that baby (Max) was born and while I was still in high school – so, 1987 or 1988 – Jane had a full-time teaching job in Texas and was commuting back and forth to Milwaukee on the weekends, and Dick was the primary parent.
As I said, I was in high school at that time, and I was not yet concerned with the question of how I would live my life, what it would look like, who I might share it with, and how, against-all-odds, I might continue to make my own artwork; in fact, even though I had started to take and print my own photographs, I did not yet identify as an artist. What my experience with Dick Blau (and Jane Gallop) has meant to me, in retrospect, is something about fashioning a life and making art within it.
Dick Blau is older than me by a little more than twenty-five years, and maybe some of the patience and courage that I see in his career as an artist is from the point-of-view of an era that is differently determined by time. My era feels fast and anxious, with an imperative to produce new artwork regularly, if only because the attention span of the gatekeepers is short and easily drawn toward other things. I try not to let my awareness of that affect my thinking and feeling and making, but still, I am aware of it.
What I see in Dick Blau is steady work from interest, not from external attention. Steady work made in the context of a life that is also full of responsibility. For such a long art- making career, he has shown very little. And yet, he continues to make new work, finish ongoing projects, care for his family and teach his students.
Because it is this lesson about being-an-artist-in-life that I feel drawn to in Dick Blau’s artwork, I want to concentrate on Blau’s as-yet-unpublished book of photographs Thicker Than Water. I quote from his website:
Blau explores two major relationships through a set of individual portraits and a series of domestic scenes. In these photographs, he looks at both the ordinary and the extraordinary aspects of family life. Love, ambivalence, and pleasure; dailiness, conflict, and drama; the birth and growth of children, the death of a marriage: all this unfolds in his photographs as he negotiates the complicated terrain of feeling in family life. (www.DickBlau.com)
Blau, who is the child of actress Beatrice Manley, further goes on to describe this body of photographs as a chamber play:
These pictures are spontaneous transcriptions of my experience, an ethnography of family life, a phenomenology of domestic emotion. Sometimes I think of them as stills from a long-running chamber play, where real feelings are acted out in real time for one another and for the camera. By selecting a moment, then stilling and framing it, I try to retain some feeling of the event itself. At the same time, I use the abstract nature of the picture- making process to clear a space for reflection. (from Blau, “Mirror Stage,” Intervalles page 1)
I would like to highlight here Blau’s use of a term that connotes drama and fiction when speaking about a genre of photography – family photography – that is perhaps more conventionally contained within an idea of documentary veracity: that something happened just as we see it in the photographs. Wikipedia describes a chamber play as a play that usually consists of three acts and “can be performed with a small cast and practically no sets or costumes in a small space.” (Wikipedia on ‘chamber play’) In this case, the ‘chamber play’ is acted out in Blau’s own domestic space – an apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – by his own family members (by turns his now ex-wife Heide, his daughter from that marriage Anna, his longtime partner Jane, their two children Max and Ruby, and Blau himself who, as the photographer, is both implicit and explicit, even when not visible).
In discussing truth in fiction and faithfulness to the moment in the photographic image, I would like to enlist the assistance of Jane Gallop, Dick Blau’s longtime partner in art and life. In the passage I am about to quote, Gallop is writing about Derrida who is writing about Roland Barthes, on the occasion of Barthes’ memorial service:
On the very last page of his memorial to Barthes, Derrida tells us he is looking through , “almost at random,” the book Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes and (in a parenthesis) he confesses: “I try to understand how he could write ‘I don’t like … fidelity’ ” (97, 67, ellipsis Derrida’s). Struggling to be faithful to Barthes, Derrida discovers much to his confusion (“I try to understand how he could”), a passage where Barthes says he does not like fidelity. How to be faithful to someone who does not like fidelity?
Trying to understand this surprising opinion, Derrida speculates, “I suppose … that in this case he didn’t like a certain pathos that fidelity easily takes on, and above all the word, the discourse on fidelity the second it gets tired, becomes drab, lukewarm, faded, forbidding, unfaithful (infidele)” (97, 67). Whatever Barthes might have meant by saying he does not like fidelity, Derrida connects it to the place where fidelity reaches a limit, an excess (“gets tired”) and becomes infidelity.
….we might note that getting tired, becoming lukewarm, fading, are all processes that happen over time…In trying to understand Barthes dislike for fidelity, Derrida envisions it in a temporal dimension. Fidelity, of course, is all about temporality; fidelity is a promise to remain constant, unchanging over time; it is a promise to resist temporality. (Gallop, 80-81, The Deaths of the Author)
Gallop has, in fact, written a book in which she discusses Dick Blau’s photographs at length; the book is called Living With His Camera. Gallop’s larger project within the chapter in a different book in which the above passage appears is a discussion of Derrida’s thoughts on quoting an author within a piece of writing that is being delivered on the occasion of that author’s death. Derrida’s concern is something about how to be faithful to his recently deceased friend while also avoiding “killing” his friend all over again by committing the violence of being “faithful” to his words by quoting them.
There is something within Jane Gallop’s discussion of Derrida’s discussion of fidelity and infidelity within the larger context of quotation and the death of a beloved friend that I feel like Dick Blau’s photographic work Thicker Than Water is engaged with.
I would argue that Blau’s work in Thicker Than Water, while existing in the realm of family photography, is also resisting fidelity. He is construing his family life within the terms of theatre…. in order not to be too faithful, and in order, as Blau says (in the quote above)…”to clear a space for reflection.” I think that it is exactly the theatrical matrix of the “chamber play” as enacted by the camera and the “family” members within the frame that is the mechanism that “clears a space for reflection.” In other words, the result of fictionalizing the real with the camera, is that there is enough space, in the image, for a viewer to use those images to perform a kind of self-reflection.
Blau, Dick. dickblau.forestfriend.ca
Blau, Dick, Keil, Angeliki V., and Keil, Charles. Polka Happiness. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1992.
Blau, Dick. www.dickblau.com
Gallop, Jane. The Deaths of the Author. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.
Gallop, Jane. Living With His Camera. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Keil, Angeliki Vellou and Keil, Charles. Bright Balkan Morning. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, Connecticut, 2002.