We met in prison. And that’s where the David Allan Coe/Merle Haggard shtick terminates, because John Shimon and Julie Lindemann are photographers, and I am a writer-for-hire, and we were sent to the Big House under the aegis of a popular magazine. A freelance gig. A single afternoon, in and out. Medium-security, no less.
Still, it was a distinctive introduction — we were, after all, photographing and interviewing lifers, men who had killed other men — and it led to a wind-down in the back room of a small-town tavern. Turned out we were all three products of rural Wisconsin. John’s dad raised hogs, Julie’s father was a cheesemaker. My family milked cows and raised sheep. We talked 4-H, FFA and lambing, and parsed the virtues of Holstein production versus Jersey cream. We discussed the desperations and satisfactions of the freelance life.
The shared affinities served as a nice ice-breaker, but my interest in Shimon and Lindemann remains sustained because it has given me reason to ponder what it is we are striving at when we tag something — a process, a lifestyle, an art form — with the “alternative” label.
The discipline of photography has a history of serial abandonment. Old technology and process are discarded for new. Inevitably, some visionary Luddite protests, pointing out that “new” is no synonym for “improved.” In 1902, the visionary was a man named Alfred Stieglitz, who maintained that the photographic orthodoxy had become stultified by the pursuit of the perfect image. By obsessing over trivial details and compulsively retouching their work, said Stieglitz, mainstream photographers were pandering to mass taste, trading soul for slickness.
Country music fans will recognize the nature of the contention. Reverting to processes that drew on the past and yielded more visual ambiguity, Stieglitz and his group of like-minded contemporaries formed the Photo-Secession movement, eschewing meretricious perfection for a rougher but more compelling look. You might call it “alt-photography.”
Shimon and Lindemann are Photo-Secessionist descendants. Their experiments with vintage equipment began in the mid-1980s, and were born, according to Julie, “out of poverty — we couldn’t afford new equipment.” When we met in early 1999, they had just purchased a circa 1913 12×20 Folmer & Schwing banquet camera — essentially, a 30-pound box of lumber and glass.
The primitive, often cumbersome nature of the equipment, coupled with limitations in depth of field, requires the photographers to slow down, to focus intently on subject and composition. The imperfections and metallic characteristics inherent in “historic” development processes infuse the images with artistic power and substance. Finally, by incorporating elements of modernity (harsh electronic flash, stark urban backdrops), Shimon and Lindemann charge their subjects — elderly artists, small-town strippers, backwater punks and junkies, clean-scrubbed farm kids — with an iconic immediacy, at once timeless and contemporary.
Freewheeling discussion of any “alternative” movement is inevitably gummed up with qualifications, asterisks, and aspersions. Like alt-country, alt-photography spawns a spectrum ranging from hard-core purists to outright gimmickry. Some artists — the duo of McDermott and McGough, for instance — remove themselves completely from contemporary life, to a place where flash bulbs are heresy. Others grab a wooden view camera to focus as much attention on themselves as their subjects.
Those of us looking and listening are a skeptical lot. We will not slap the “authentic” label on something just because the artist used vintage tools, be it a Telecaster or an 8×10 Deardorff. I like the work of Shimon and Lindemann because I feel they have struck the balance. They respect their audience by respecting their subjects, who, while forced into extended poses out of deference to the archaic nature of the equipment, address the camera full-on, often with stark intensity. Plain or eccentric, strong or downtrodden, you get the sense they are standing there under their own power, in every sense of the phrase. Alternative in their own way, they are a reminder of the well-remarked irony that “alternative” can in fact be euphemistic for “authentic.”
In a parallel sense, the most “alternative” element of the Shimon and Lindemann self-portrait, “Re-Ringing The A”, is not that Julie is mechanicking in her black vinyl bra, but that John is truly putting new rings in his grandfather’s tractor.
It helps, I think, that Shimon and Lindemann work among their own people. After a valuable post-adolescent stretch in dislocation — art school, pink hair, punk band (Hollywood Autopsy), music zine (Catholic Guilt), a stretch in New York City’s East Village art scene — they have been working out of hometown Manitowoc, Wisconsin for the past 13 years. When they pull the black hood over their shoulders and peer into the Folmer & Schwing, the image on the glass is upside down and backwards. By now, it just seems natural.