Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why Photo Reviews Don't Hire Kittens

1. Reviewers sidetracked by relentness need to pounce on identification lanyards.

2. Kittens can't focus on anything for more than 7 seconds, requiring review times to be reduced to one minute sessions. Still not enough time for kittens to absorb basic information, nor for in-depth critique. 

3. Some reviewees discovered they could sway kitten opinion with catnip, creating unfair critical disparity. 

4. Cuteness rivets reviewees and renders them helpless to do anything but stare fawningly across the table at the reviewer.

5. Hairballs.

6. Kittens fall under the feline critical wing which argues that the unchecked proliferation of photographic images has created a "chronic voyeuristic relation" between photographers and their visual prey. If the Studium is a sort of education, the Punctum's condescension to mere meaning is not easily synthesized into formalist constraint, at least to a kitten.

7. Kittens don't have the right gallery and publishing connections.

8. When the bell chimes between review sessions, all hell breaks loose in a room full of kittens and prints.

9. Too few photographers willing to pay $800 for feedback from a kitten, even if the kitten has an MFA in photography.

10. Kittens can't talk.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Do The Math

I seldom post naked commercial pitches here but this one is too good to pass up, plus Missy promised me a cut for traffic passing through my site to hers. For every 10,000 paying customers I send her way, I win a brand new Camaro, just like the one in that picture of hers. You can do the math: 30,000 pass-throughs equals three Camaros, enough for myself and two close buddies to cruise in. Who says photographers can't live the high life just by doing what we love? 

Well, maybe Missy for one. She needs to buy more film and somehow get to Mississippi this Fall. So she's selling prints for a goddamn reasonable price: 10 for $40 or 20 for $75. That's almost as inexpensive as it gets for handmade darkroom prints. Almost.

I've seen these prints in person. They're the real deal. So is Missy, and together we're on a mission. When these prints sell out and you see me blow by you the next day in my three new Camaros, don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Some Spots Do

I stopped briefly in Tonopah, Nevada on a family road trip in March. It struck me immediately with a strange vibe. There was no time to really explore — three kids waiting in the car and we had to make Vegas by evening— so we gassed up and left. But it seemed inviting. It felt like the sort of place that might be pregnant with photo ops if one poked around: desolate and tucked in a mountain armpit and speckled with old buildings. Can I use the word godforsaken? Is that too strong? There was a deserted mining museum and an old hotel with scaffolded marquee. Tonopah was one of the few places on the road between Reno and Vegas to force an actual turn in the highway. So that was something. 

When I saw Bryan Schutmaat's photo hanging in Newspace a few months ago, I recognized the place immediately. Why, I know that town, I thought. I've been there. And his photo pretty much sums it up. 

Anyone who is reading this now in Tonopah is about to have a shit fit. I know what you're thinking: this picture does not sum it up. No more than Migrant Mother sums up The Depression. OK, point taken.

Hey, relax. I know there's more to your town than derelict cars and tarpaper shacks. I know people grow begonias there too and discuss Foucalt over espresso. Maybe. But the view above makes for a better photo. It captures the spirit not only of Tonopah, but central Nevada and the whole Great Basin, at least as seen through the eyes of a hip urban photographer-on-the-road passing through. 

Turns out Schutmaat isn't the only person to photograph Tonopah. He's not even the first to see it from that particular perspective. Here's a shot by Bruce Haley made near the same place in 2005, several years before Schutmaat's:

According to Bruce his vantage shows "an overview of the town, perhaps three-quarters of it, and in the lower right you can see the area where Bryan Schutmaat made his image seven years later (obviously much of the detritus hasn't moved in those seven years).  I photographed just about the entire town plus its outskirts, and spent quite a bit of time working in the same area of Bryan's  image  -  and I would have to say that that particular neighborhood is the oldest and most run down/impoverished, and certainly the most 'photogenic' if you're looking for the houses with the greatest amount of junk piled around them, the most abandoned cars in the yard, etc. etc.  However, the entire town certainly does not look that bad, though admittedly it has seen better days  -   being historically mining-centered and thus prone to boom-and-bust cycles, it is unfortunately more in the 'bust' portion of the cycle these days."    

I think it's interesting that Bruce and Bryan were drawn to almost the same spot. Maybe it was the distant mountains, or the high vantage. Or the tendency for photographers to mistake entropy for significance. Or, or...something. I'm not sure what. Looking at these photos I feel that I too might have been pulled to that place if the kids hadn't been so impatient. There's just something about it. 

Some spots work. Most don't. Finding the ones that do is the bread-and-butter of photography. That's pretty obvious for landscape shooters. But I think it's just as true for all other types. You've got to have a nose for geomorphology and angles. Drop 10 strong photographers of all styles in Tonopah and I bet they all wind up eventually at the place above.

By the way, Bruce has a new blog. It's just a few weeks old but it's been interesting to read so far. Check it out when you get a chance.

Monday, September 8, 2014

September 1989

My mom's been on one of her purging kicks lately. One of the things she no longer wants is a small binder of old negatives she made long ago while taking a black and white photo class. She asked if I wanted them and I said sure. I'm on the opposite of a purge kick. Always have been, especially when photos are involved.

Like most people taking an intro class she was just putting her foot in the water, so there are only a handful of rolls to deal with. They begin in September 1989 and go through the fall. If my math is right that's exactly a quarter century ago. 

I was spending some time at home then, so I became an unwitting model in many of her photos. I had no interest in photography and no awareness of her shooting me, so it was a bit jarring to have this time capsule pop into my lap recently. I had forgotten some of this period, and these pictures filled in missing memories. I wouldn't remember any of these scenes without the photos

Here's me at the family table reading a magazine in September 1989. I was twenty. 

Sigh...another goddamn longhaired hippie kid. Just what the world needs. 

The truth is I should've been in college but I was taking a year off to "explore my options." That was code speak for "I don't know yet what to do with my life so I think I'll drop out of school for a while until I sort it out," which was code for "Stop bugging me, this magazine is important." 

The college dropout above had just returned from Alaska where he'd spent the summer working in a park near Fairbanks, digging trails by day, playing guitar by dusk, and looking for beauty and meaning, man, if only the fucking mosquitoes would lay off. Now I was back home for a few weeks plotting my next move, which turned out to be pretty predictable: I needed a VW camper van, preferably the kind with fridge and spinning front seat and Jerry's voice annoying the neighboring lanes. A chick magnet? Not exactly. But I could sleep anywhere in the country for free, which seemed more important than just about anything.

The plan was to live in a van for a few months while I explored the United States with the two guys in the photo below. That's Jason on the right and Andrew in the middle. And a fixer stain center-right.

You may be wondering if that's a washing machine in the rear by the refrigerator. Why yes. Yes, it is. And a stove nearby too. The rest of the kitchen is out of frame to the left. This is the corner of our one-room home that had running water, so all of our appliances were bundled together. The woodstove to the extreme right provided all heat for the room and was sometimes the warmest place in the house by 20 degrees. No utilities or sewage. Walker Evans would've hit paydirt here for sure, but my mom beat him to it. 

My dad is also in this photo (background in white T-shirt) but he wasn't coming cross country. He'd already driven coast to coast several times in his own VW van decades earlier. Now it was our turn. Andrew I were battle tested. We had just driven 2,000 miles down the lonely Al-Can from Fairbanks. So we felt ready, just as soon as we could find time to take a shower. And, um, a van. 

In late September the three of us made a weekend trip to the Bay Area where we stayed with Andrew's aunt while we hunted down various van leads in the newspaper. There were only a few Westfalias but they were spread around the city so it took most of a day to see all of them all. The one we came back with is in the photo below: a 1983 Westfalia with watercooled engine and 50,000 miles on the odometer. That became my home away from home for the next 4 years until I moved to Portland.

In the photo above we hadn't yet gotten around to that shower. If we look haggard, it was a calculated expression. The truth is we were psyched! We felt like big game hunters in this photo returning from the kill with the van slung over our shoulders. It had electricity! And running water! And a mini-fridge. We were ready to take on the country. 

But first, a day trip to the Sinkyone Wilderness to test out the van and enjoy time with friends. I think I would've forgotten this trip if my mom hadn't taken these pictures. It turned into a good photo op for her class. 

This photo shows a bunch of us hanging out in a meadow which is about 200 feet directly above the Pacific Ocean. To this day I still think it's the most beautiful spot in the world. I've had some good times there.

Here's another photo from the meadow showing Andrew on the left, me in the center, and Lynn sitting down who is now my neighbor in Eugene. Small world. The guy on the right is my high school buddy Bret. 

I hadn't seen Bret in a while, and in the midst of catching up I mentioned we were about to drive around in a van for the next few months to see what was out there. Bret was enrolled at UC Santa Cruz that fall but was thinking about "exploring his options" too. He asked if there might be room in the van. We said sure. So he dropped out of school and we recruited him. Then where were four of us. 

I'm not sure why my mom took the photo above. She was still wrestling with concepts like focus and exposure but despite that the photo really pops. It's got great form. I like to imagine it shows Bret in the very act of deciding to come with us. Or maybe dropping a deuce. One or the other. Photos can be ambiguous at times. In the photo below, for example, Andrew has just had a heart attack. Or maybe he hasn't.

The first week of October we left on our trip. We drove north through Oregon, then east, then hit 47 out of 50 states. We had many many many many misadventures and discoveries along the way. I was on a stupid health kick. I'd stopped drinking but was open to hallucinogens and backroads. We broke down in Ithaca. We slept in a sorority house. We cleaned up after Hurricane Hugo. We backpacked naked. We had fun.  

I wish I could show you pictures but there aren't any! None of us were photographers nor even casual snap-shooters. And this was before cellphones, Instagram, Facebook, or any easy recording options. We had no camera. So we spent 3 months driving around enjoying life, buzzing with youthful exuberance, leaving no record and documenting nothing. It was definitely the best road trip of my life.

I take that back. I did have one method of documentation and that was audio. My dad had given me a tape recorder at the beginning of the trip, and I used it over the next few months to record snippets of conversation, found sounds, and whatever audio events struck my interest. Looking back, maybe that was the beginning of my life as a photographer. It's not much different than what I do now visually. But this was with sound. 

At the end of the trip I had two full 90-minute cassettes of weird noises. I listened to them a few times and they were very entertaining. They made no sense. They were just pure surrealist collage. There were normal conversations mixed with unintelligible absurd stuff. But having been on the trip I could remember certain sounds and where they were recorded, and it was sort of like reading an old journal. I stored them with some other cassettes in a rental house before senior year of college (I wound up returning eventually) and my roommate wound up tossing the whole lot in the trash by mistake. What a bummer! Nothing lasts.

So we drove around 3 months photographing nothing, and when we returned my mom was just finishing up her photo class. She used as subjects. Here's Jason, me, and Bret a few days after returning to California.

Do we look wiser? Or more world weary? Along the way we'd left Andrew in Providence, where he'd stayed to resume school. Somewhere in a remote campground in the Blue Ridge mountains I'd asked Jason to shave my head, and Bret had found a beret in New Orleans, and there we were.

I'm still in touch with all 3 these guys. Sort of. Well, not really actually. We're in that weird limbo with intermittent email contact but I haven't actually visited with any of them in over a year. Andrew lives in Portland. Jason and Bret are in California. It's amazing you can live 4 feet away from someone for 3 months until you know them better than your favorite T-shirt. You can't imagine it'll ever change. How can it be different in 25 years? But it always is. At least I've got these photos. At least they haven't yet been thrown out.