Photographers gather to celebrate ‘Blind Spot’ and tell funny stories about picture-taking

Tim Davis and Robert Flint (©David La Spina/Blind Spot)
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“Humor is life’s lube,” photographer Tim Davis deadpanned to the audience Sunday afternoon, before launching Blind Spot’s photography and humor event at the Cabinet event space in Gowanus with a story about an nauseating roller coaster ride and the commemorative photo he was sold right after. (The punchline, better seen than described, is Davis’ dismal expression as those around him scream with joy).

The Sunday lab featured a neon green-jacketed Davis presiding over eight storytellers—Richard Mosse, Corinne Botz, Joel Smith, Penelope Umbrico, Nancy Davenport, Christopher Miner, Pete Mauney, and Ben Coonley—as they riffed on humor and photography, specializing in the latter and showing flashes of the former. Tod Papageorge, head of Yale University’s photography department, also made a surprise appearance, dropping by to share a story about photographing Garry Winogrand as he shot his iconic image of a well-dressed biracial couple walking through Central Park carrying two equally well-dressed monkeys.

The event was partly to celebrate the release of the new issue of Blind Spot, which Davis guest-edited, and partly an excuse to let photographers hold court. Turns out when they’re funny, it’s fairly macabre. Richard Mosse, whose recent work is set in the Congo, noted the sartorial similarities between rebels and rappers; then, in one of the afternoon’s weirder moments, screened a short video of himself shooting a goat. (If there was some lesson there, it might be about the humor-skewing effects of spending too much time in a war zone).

Following Mosse, Corrine Botz discussed a series in which she photographed houses believed to be haunted, then recorded the owners talking about their relationship with their ghosts. Most were on good terms—except when they rejected paranormal home-decorating advice.

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Finally, Nancy Davenport shared an anecdote about the summer she spent in Dresden trying to figure out how to make a video about the construction of the city’s war museum. Serendipitously enough, she was inspired by local events: that year, an annual neo-Nazi march was thwarted by a city-wide "No sex with Nazis" campaign, which culminated in a cocktail party scheduled same time as the march. Davenport’s resulting video featured a Wile E. Coyote–costumed character attempting—and failing—to disrupt construction of the museum.

The funniest speakers included Ben Coonley, a film professor at Bard College who screened two commercials he had made with the famed New York subway system ad star Dr. Zizmor (the dermatologist of a million thank-yous); and Christopher Miner, who couldn’t make it in person, but sent an eleven-minute recording about his relationship to the evolving world of Internet porn. He began by reflecting on his reaction to the death of Whitney Houston, whose 1985 album images inaugurated his introduction to self love, and concluded with a paean to masturbatory modesty (i.e., why bathing-suit shots are better than high-res smut). Penelope Umbrico, for some reason, played a short video of a plastic bag pulsating in time to a techno song.

The afternoon didn’t offer many conclusions about what binds photography and humor, though Papageorge did observe that it “works best when it becomes something like wit,” citing Winogrand as an example. Things fail when they become desperate or strained, and for Winogrand, he said, the difficulty was always in the problem of taking a photo that overcame the obviousness of its humor.

Which was a good set-up for the final speaker: Pete Mauney, the founder of the blog Global Pillage, which uploads negatives and slides of found and thrift-store photos. Mauney’s images—of topless women with whips, fifties housewives awkwardly posing, and misguided glam shots—aren’t meant to be funny, but they consistently are, in a family album kind of way. Perhaps humor just works best when you don’t force the issue.

The latest issue of 'Blind Spot' hits stands next month.