Vince Aletti has a way with words, an ability to cast an image in your mind’s eye as he describes a moment caught forevermore, with the photographic precision of the medium about which he writes. Equal parts critic, reporter, and curator, Aletti’s prose is poetic, perceptive, and always a pleasure to read, beautifully complementing the experience of the photograph itself.
The photograph has had a special place in Aletti’s life dating back to his childhood. He recalls, “My father was a camera club photographer, so I grew up with a darkroom in the house. I remember being with my father in the darkroom, watching photographs appear. It was like magic. It had a profound effect on me.
“My dad died when I was young and he left his archive of US Camera Annuals. On rainy days, I’d spend hours looking through those photo anthologies, going back again and again to images that fascinated me, like Irving Penn‘s 'Summer Sleep,' and Avedon‘s portrait of Anna Magnani, and George Rodger‘s picture of naked Nuba wrestlers. Those books introduced me to photographs and photographers that still move me today. They gave me a deep background.”
Winner of the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for writing in 2005, Aletti is currently a photography critic for The New Yorker and Photograph. He was also the art editor of the Village Voice from 1994-2005. But for the first twenty years of his career, Aletti was a music critic. He was the first person to write about the emerging disco scene for Rolling Stone in 1973. Aletti’s book, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York's Underground Week by Week (Djhistory.com) chronicles his famed column in Record World magazine; the book, first published in 2009, is now out of print and sells for over $100 on Amazon and is considered essential reading on this chapter in music history.
Yet his love of photography never left him. When offered the opportunity to begin reviewing photography shows for the Village Voice, he took it. Aletti remembers, “It was a break from the usual descriptions of club music. It gave me a good chance to expand. At the time, I was close friends with Peter Hujar. Spending a lot of time with him, seeing him at work, affected my thinking and writing about photography. I saw it not as an exalted undertaking, but as a way to for someone to make a living and express themselves at the same time in a very real way. For Peter, it was like putting life and feelings down in a picture, which is not what most people care to do these days. I’ve always been most excited by people whose work was soulful and based in their lives and feelings.
“After a few years of doing brief exhibition reviews, one of the first things I started to write at the Voice was profiles of photographers, one-page critical essays on people I was curious about, like Dawoud Bey. I wrote about new and emerging photographers--Andrea Modica, Sally Mann, Marco Breuer, Barbara Ess, Fazal Sheikh--and why they did what they did. Personally, I’m very drawn to portraiture, and work that resonates in our lives, from Nan Goldin to Ryan McGinley. But I am also a huge fan of people who work with process and abstraction, like Adam Fuss and Mariah Robertson. I couldn’t be writing about nearly every show in town if I had narrow interests.
“When it comes to portraiture, a photograph records what is in front of the camera in a way that can be very revealing. Although they are only dealing with the surface, if a photographer is really looking and has a desire to connect with the other person, they can get at something beneath that surface. Nothing is quite so direct, confrontational, and revealing as the photograph.”
Aletti has also contributed essays to photography books including Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 (Abrams), Peter Hujar: Love & Lust (Fraenkel Gallery), Hedi Slimane: Rock Diary (JRP/Ringier), and the forthcoming A Respect for Light: The Latin American Photographs 1974-2008 by Mario Algaze, which will be published by Glitterati Incorporated in Fall 2014.
Most significantly, Aletti contributed to Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century (PPP Editions/Roth Horowitz), a tremendous undertaking. Aletti recalls, “I wrote half the descriptive texts. It was an education for me. Many of the books I had never seen before, or even knew about. Roth had a rigorous approach and he set strict criterion. The book had to be conceived as a unit, it had to be unique. I was conscious of the sequencing, scale of the photograph on the page, the typography, the quality of the reproductions, the binding of the book. It made me aware of how important all these thing were to the experience of the book. That got me deep into photography books and what makes them work.”
As a form, the photography book is over one hundred years old. It has a quality of permanence that sets it apart from all else. As Aletti observes, “The book is lasting. It preserves an exhibition for a much longer period of time. I love exhibitions because you can see the photograph in actual size and get a real sense of its presence--an experience of the physicality of the object. You won’t get that in a book. But a book lasts longer and can cover a whole large project better. Plus, I like the permanence of a book.
“So many photographers can do their best work in books. It’s many photographer’s first choice as a way of putting their work into the world. An exhibition can be more of a compromise. But if an artist has control over a book, it’s more expressive. The explosion in self-publishing has affected publishing in general. Young photographers can make books and have total control. That’s so important and energizing. I go to Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair every year. It’s encouraging that there are so many young and self-published photographers looking at the quality of books in a different way. There’s more attention to books generated by the photographers themselves. Alec Soth is one of those photographers who is really book oriented. He gets into and works through interesting projects, and the end result is a book. It can also be a show, but it won’t include all the quirky elements that he can fit into a book.”
Indeed, it is the distinctiveness of the form that makes the book unlike any other object, except, perhaps, the magazine. As a collector, Aletti observes, “I’m always picking up things at flea markets. I don’t think I’ve ever been so immersed in photography as I have been over the last few years. Being a curator, a collector, a writer connects so many parts of my life. I’m living with it in a very real way with pictures on my wall. Most of my collections are of vernacular material, things that I’ve been able to afford from small photo sales. But much more of my collection is magazines and books. I have a huge collection of fashion magazines, full of pictures by Avedon, Penn, Beaton, Blumenfeld, Helmut Newton. That collection is more important than the photographs that I own. It allows me to access a much larger world in my own apartment.”