Thursday, May 28, 2015

Quiz #32: Album Covers

It's time for another round of The Album Cover Quiz.

Below are 14 noncommissioned photographs used as cover art on music albums. Score 1 point for identifying the photographer, 1 point for identifying the photograph's title/year, and 2 points for identifying the album. One photograph below is used on two separate album covers. Each identification scores 2 points. If you've never won a B quiz, give yourself 8 bonus points (Sorry, Alexandros).















There a total of 66 sinister points possible. The first person to email me the response with the highest point total before Sunday, June 7th, at 9 AM PDT wins a fiber print, a CD mix featuring music from the above albums, and everlasting glory. Good luck!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Starboard Twist

I'm tired of album reviews. From now on this blog is going to focus on old keys. Here's a few that turned up recently under a storage tub in the basement.

1. Can't remember what this key goes to but it looks like the old kitchen door key from my Taylor Street house in Portland. The gold patina and USA banner lend a patriotic flair, while the letters SCI seem to identify something which might have been important once but has been long since forgotten, raising questions about the essential unreality of the mind.

2. This looks very much like the front door key to my house but I tried it and nope, sorry. The paired triangular windows offsetting a central diamond explore the repetitive practice of seeing and comment on the Amity-like transparency of hyper-securitized culture. Or at least they used to when I knew what this key opened.

3. My best guest is that this is the entrance key to a kayak shop where I worked for a few years in the late 90s. On the river what starts out as contemplation soon becomes corroded into a hegemony of distress, which is fortunately the gateway to artistic creativity. Traces of corrosion on the reverse —unseen (unseeable?)— side of this key foreshadowed my later shift to photography, a transition which proved key for me.

4. Pretty sure this is an extra key to my old Suzuki Sidekick which I owned from roughly 1994-2008. Great car. I wound up driving it into the ground, then selling it on Craigslist for parts. The fact that this is a replica key made at a hardware store comments on traditional notions of originality, authenticity, and copying, while leaving behind a sense of discontinuity and the unlikelihood of a new beginning.

5. No clue what this key unlocked. The transcendent brassy texture hints at a life of performance, while the notched shaft creates an engaging visual environment of line, color, and groove, leaving only a sense of chaos and the chance of a new reality. If memories are carpet lint, the past is a Hoover vacuum on full power, ruthlessly internalizing. Could've been my old garage key maybe?

6. This was a key from an old bike lock long since discarded. I'm guessing it was replaced when I lost the key. Kryptonite has since turned to a more generic —and, it must be noted, phallic— form, the locks of which are harder to pick with bobby pins, and with no key forms available at the local True Value. Ties to consumerist fetishism and midlife subcultures thus stripped, this old key is free to resume a traditional identity.

7. This small wrench attached to my keys served as a physical memento rather than the useful tool its shape presupposes. The neighboring keys convey the diminutive scale, far too small to fit many nuts or screwheads. I found the wavering derivatives too distorted to allow much personal screwing or unscrewing, always a bad sign. Nowadays I keep a more utilitarian tool on my keyring: A bottle opener. It gets plenty of use.

8. Every year Blue Sky Gallery distributes monikered tchotchkes to its members as thank you gifts. The 2003 date on this keyring helps date the entire set of keys to the early millennial era. I probably lost them shortly after that year, and grew very irate as I realized they would all need replaced. I imagine I screamed at the walls as I looked a hundred times in the same drawer. Losing keys sucks. Finding them 12 years later doesn't help. The viewer is left, perhaps jarringly, with an epitaph for the limits of our future.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nasal Retentive Calliope Music

I'm tired of photography. From now on this blog is going to focus on album reviews. Here's a few that have recently passed through my house:

Hadley Murrell Presents The Best Arizona Garage Bands 1967-1970

Uncovering old gems has always been fun, but the urge has been given a huge kickstart in recent years by the internet's amazing ability to collect, fragment, and deliver material in targeted micro-bursts. With this compilation Hadley Murrell takes a turn as archivist, showcasing some of the favorite bands he produced around Phoenix at the tail of the the sixties. It sounds specific, but forget the "Arizona Garage" label for a moment. This serves as broader snapshot of national musical strains during a rapidly evolving period. Tunes cover the gamut from surf to garage to psychedelia to blues to straight rock. Some bands —The Carnations or The Matadors, for example— are closer to mid-sixties R & B. Others set the stage for 1970s electric exploration. I'm thinking in particular of Bliss, who existed in a parallel desert universe alongside Deep Purple and Band of Gypsies, but in relative obscurity. Their 8 tracks are the highlight but the whole album worth exploring. It's a great find for those into 60s/70s rock and/or looking for historical underpinnings to the current psych-revival, the equivalent of finding a stash of old unheard records in a bin somewhere, fully annotated and ready to go. I love shit like this. Maybe you will too.

Chris Washburne and The Syotos Band — Low Ridin' 

According to the liner notes, these songs were the soundtrack of Chris Washburne's youth. He's not alone. Ohio, Feelin' Alright, Stairway, and other tired warhorses form the backbone of so-called classic rock, and will be very familiar to a certain musical demographic. But unlike earlier generational touchstones by Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin, few 70s FM staples have been yet tapped by the jazz world for interpretive potential. With Low Ridin' The S.Y.O.T.O.S. (See You On The Other Side) Band attempts to set things right while paying tribute to early musical heroes. I know you've heard these melodies a jillion times already but set your preconceptions aside a sec and give the album a listen. The latin jazz arrangements are unusual and exploratory, in some cases barely recognizable as their original content. You won't know whether to hum along or kick back and get lost. Instrumental solos have some room to stretch out, especially the sax and Hammond B-3, locking into pleasant grooves. In less skilled hands, an album of classic rock covers might've resulted in something far lamer than this. But Washburne and company have instead produced a fun little gem.

Swahili — Amovrevx

Swahili is a five piece band from Portland (via Reno in 2010). This is their second album. Based on the jacket design, song titles, and online interviews (Lead singer Van Pham describing the music: "A multidimensional sling-shot…It begins on a crossroads – then travels around this mysterious interior world, visiting many different sonic landscapes along the way.") I expected an exploratory, new age vibe. I suppose it does have that, but the album is mostly mired in a musical bardo of synth-loops, chants, and knob-play. The songs never quite arrive on the other side where something concrete can occur. Nice female lead vocal, soothing chants and ethereal rhythms. I think Swahili secretly wants to be Goat. They aim for international cross-pollination but the effort is thin, missing African chorus, rhythmic interplay, and about five liters of kava. The moniker Swahili is especially ironic considering this music seems aimed squarely at young white English speakers. RIYL Stereolab, Dee-Lite, Kraftwerk, the Kaleidoscope festival, or having your Tarot read in a headshop with Nag Champa assaulting the nostrils. Could be worth a road trip to see live. Bring No-Doz and glow sticks.

Eat The Sun — The Djerassi Sessions

Eat The Sun is a trio out of Oakland (not the Denver math rock group) featuring guitar, bass, and Japanese koto combined in "songs" that are largely improvisational with no obvious time signature, key, or melody. Add it all up and you get one hell of a spacey album. On the structure/cohesiveness scale this is on the far side of Grateful Dead drums/space jams. If you like Nels Cline, Bret Hart, Henry Cow, Alvarius B, or mid-career Fahey, or if you've just ingested psilocybin, you'll feel right at home here. It's entertaining for what it is but don't expect hooks or resolution. I'd recommend playing one of these tracks as a change of pace between pop/disco hits just to fuck with expectations. Don't let your ears off easy. Play this. Tell yourself it's the latest from Beyonce. Maybe in another universe it is.

D'Angelo and The Vanguard — Black Messiah

I'm not sure whether to consider Black Messiah an an homage to Sly And The Family Stone or outright identity theft. Either way I'll take it.  Black Messiah —D'Angelo's first album in 14 years—  brings the promise of salvation to those who've felt empty since wearing out Sly's Fresh back in 1973. Any of these songs could pass unnoticed on that album or 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On. Remove the slight nasal quality of Sly's voice from Fresh and you get D'Angelo's music: meandering/dominant bass, chill aural gumbos, and a motherfuckin ton of laid back groooooove. Oh yeah, did I mention he plays a mean guitar solo too…plus every other instrument on the album? Is he a control freak or just oozing talent? Who cares? If you like Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, early Prince, or especially Sly, you will like this. But that's a dumb condition because of course you like those acts. You dig soul/funk, right? So loosen up, shed a layer, and slither into one of the best albums of 2014. Play it loud and often. It may be a while till D'Angelo makes another.

The Von Trapps — Dancing In Gold

Mix four young voices, a ukulele, and the ancestral ghosts of a landmark Broadway musical, and you get the Von Trapp siblings: Sofia (26), Melanie (24), Amanda (23, and chief songwriter August (20). If they harmonize beautifully, it's because they've been singing together since they were wee tots. Plus they grew up carefree, roaming the-hills-are-alive-with-music in Montana, chasing butterflies and learning Austrian folks songs at the knee of Grandpa Trapp. Or so I imagine. The upbeat cheeriness of this album reminds me of Sound Of Music, but it ain't Broadway. Instead, it's neo-chamber-folk in the tradition of Blind Pilot or Fleet Foxes. Dancing In Gold is the first EP of a planned trilogy due out in the next few years. Hopefully the ones to follow will have the same awesome packaging. They've ditched the plastic case and created a novel sleeve straight out of the multiverse. I can't say the music has the same original vitality, but it's pleasant. This would make a good soundtrack to accompany your next warm stroll in flowing skirt through a Eugene meadow. Oh yeah, did I mention they're from Portland along with every other fucking band in the world?

She Keeps Bees - Eight Houses

This is the fourth album from the Brooklyn based duo of Jessica Larrabee (guitar/voice) and Andy LaPlant (drums), and it's the first one produced by Nicolas Verhes who I guess is some sort of bigshot. Meh. The mood is pretty solemn throughout. Sultry cocktail/folk/rock with a slight reverb, creating an overall vibe very close to Cat Power or maybe Neko Case on Quaaludes. It's kinda nice but kinda forgettable too. But maybe that's the goal, to play just a fleeting moment through recessed speakers at Starbucks or something. Is that what the young bucks and buckettes are shooting for now? Is that where the dough is? Cuz it sure ain't in Spotify or iTunes. Instead it's in the Latte! If you like Sharon Van Etten you'll probably like this. In fact she makes a guest appearance on the last track.

The Budos Band — Burnt Offering

“This isn’t just more of the same," says Budos drummer Brian Profilio about their new album Burnt Offering. But yeah, actually it is. Fans of March Fourth will dig this revved up marching band music that falls somewhere between New Orleans Brass and Triphop/Funk. It's ok for what it is but don't expect any grand revelations, at least not on a studio recording. I suspect the live experience may be more worthwhile. Some of these songs set the stage for potentially interesting improv. These guys have chops, but on a CD they're hemmed in. The songs just sit there, then wiggle back and forth before giving way to the next track. File under Instrumental-Background.

Tiny Moving Parts — Pleasant Living

These guys are young. They have a new album. They're touring the country. They've got their whole lives ahead of them. So why do they sound so angry? OK, sure, there's a history of youthful uprising and Fuck-You attitude in rock from Little Richard to Nirvana to Ty Seagall to ?? in the future. But the rebellious spirit only works when it's tied to real grievance, or at least when a band can project that illusion. Otherwise it comes off as whiny pouting. Which brings me to Tiny Moving Parts. The songs on Pleasant Living attempt to project vehemence but they don't come close to selling it. The effect is of a seven-year old screaming about his missing crayon. One wants to ask, what are you screaming about? Just settle down. Your crayon fell under the table. Not that these guys don't have skill. There's some nice guitar interplay and gradual build up in the songs. They've been playing together since Junior High and it shows. But every song winds up in the same place, with the lead singer screaming insufferably over power chords. When Iggy did it it felt real. This feels cheap. But who am I to judge? Is this what the young'uns want to hear? Fine, just shoot me now. God I sound like my dad. 

Crown Larks — Blood Dancer

Crown Larks are a six piece experimental/psych band out of Chicago, and they wear crazy masks and let their hair roam free range in the back forty, so you know they're the real deal. Check out the crazy cover art to confirm. The typical song pattern is a slow build up into a drone groove, setting the stage for the main event to take root: the inevitable jazzy experimental freakout featuring a kitchen sink of instruments, flute, sax, clarinet, flugelhorn, sleep machine, and whatever else was handy in the studio. They manage to get pretty far out there on most tracks, and it probably sounds just groovy blaring through the side door of a van in the parking lot. Whether the music ultimately arrives somewhere satisfying is up to the listener. Jazz and Prog fans will find some nuggets here. Those seeking sonic closure? Maybe not. RIYL Can, Irving Klaw Trio, Soft Machine, OOIOO, etc. 

Architecture in Helsinki — Now + 4eva

It's hard to imagine that Australian indie band Architecture in Helsinki were once critical darlings. I suppose even in the glory years they had a bubblegum pop side, but it was well balanced. The multitalented crew played a range of instruments and some songs were allowed to wander off course. It was pop, sure, but it was interesting. Since then like a rising politician they've gradually charted a course toward safer and safer territory. With Now + 4eva the transition is complete. They've crossed over finally to the dark side. I'm sorry to report there's just not much here. Most songs are mere filler. The nadir may be Dream a Little Crazy, whose blandness would possibly be less noticeable if they weren't trying so darn hard. The earnest crooning of insipid lyrics borders on self parody. If only they were just another over-the-hill band going through the motions, the descent of AIH might be easier to take. At least it could be dismissed as typical. The tragedy is that it sounds as if they still care and, worse, don't know any better. Two thumbs down.

Papadosio - Live

The central question of jam bands is, who exactly are they playing for? Do they aim to please themselves? Or is the music instead geared to an audience? Perhaps ideally there is some confluence of factors, so that when a band goes off on an exploratory tangent it can fuel a sense of personal revelation while also feeding off the crowd. Some of the finest jams by Beefheart, Miles Davis, or Zappa achieve this. There's a propulsive sense of mystery and interplay when not even the band knows where it's headed. When a musical group is really on its game, improvising in synch, it can create beautiful worlds. But Papadosio seems unsure which direction to go. They want to sing happy songs, then putter around a bit. But they never seem to fully get behind either enterprise. I think they want to please themselves but feel compelled to give the audience what they think it wants. The result is a live album of feel-good mush which never quite achieves liftoff. Most songs punch the timeclock at around 8 or 9 minutes. Organs, guitar and Barney Miller-toned bass dominate. Nice harmonies that Fleet Foxes might be proud of. The songs are probably groovy to listen to in the parking lot before the show. But in the time it takes to wallow through one you could pack in 4 strong classics by Ray Charles.

Dylan Shearer — Garagearray

If Ornette Coleman and Horse Feathers made an album together it might sound like this deceptively simple soft pop album where up is down, "wrong" turns abound, and seemingly no chord progression is untested. The arrangements are sparse, dissonant, and wonderful. It's mostly Shearer singing over guitar and simple backing band, the same basic formula as a thousand singer/songwriters, but here twisted beautifully into surprising pop gems. The chord charts to this album must look like a drunkard's walk, broken, haphazard, and weird. Who knows where he came up with it? The pace and vibe are mellow, in the realm of Nick Drake, early Eno, or Bon Iver, while the odd melodies take their cue from Syd Barrett. But really it's silly to compare. Dylan Shearer has his own unique sound.

Mark Ronson — Uptown Special

Hip-Hop / R & B Albom işbirlikçileri barcha-yulduz ro'yxat bilan Britaniyada joylashgan Mark Ronson jamoalar Oxir-oqibat gol urish yoki sog'indim Ba'zi yorqin marta xos ishlab chiqarish uchun. Ba'zi tunes - za'faron, Feel o'ng, Uptown Funk, Breaking yozgi - Buxgalteriya Jeyms Brown yoki shahzoda kanalize tomonidan ajratish erishish. Boshqalar -Heavy va Fire-tovush Yakka Pearl yilda Rolling Crack, ko'proq kabi Aja Don qolding. Har ikki holda ham diqqat markazida 70s uchun ochiq. Men u FM oziq tinglash bir oz vaqt tomosha Boulevards qilib yotipti taxmin qilyapman, va men u Nyu-York klublari DJED Keling, aslida, bilsangiz. Har ikki ta'sir bu erda aniq bo'ladi. Kameya san'atkor sifatida Stevie Wonder tanlash-bo'lishi mumkin shuningdek up tutmang (ikkalasi ham qo'shiq ustida) natijalari buyurtma, chizilgan bortida ilohiy ilhom Tuyulardi. Fojiali albom eng yaxshi qo'shiqlar (Feel o'ng) tufayli KWVA la'nat so'z (signal juda ko'p orospu bolalariga) uchun Qo`yib bo`lmaydigan hisoblanadi. Ha mayli. Za'faron yomon nedime emas.

Willis Earl Beal - Experiments In Time

After stints in Chicago, the U.S. Army, Albuquerque, and New York, self-made underground sensation Willis Earl Beal is now based in nearby Washington. For his third album Experiments In Time he's dropped the band, the label, the producer, the distribution, etc, and decided to do it all himself. An admirable move, though one fraught with pitfalls. If the result is an unmediated window into Beal's soul, what we see is one very Caaaaaaaalm dude. Give yourself plenty of space for these songs to unwind because this guy is in no hurry at all. He makes Nick Drake sound like Metallica. Sometimes the voice is falsetto, sometimes gospel, but always aimed heavenward, and skewed through his own spiritual/individualist prism. Most songs are awash in atmospheric effects, vibrating synths and ethereal hum, parking the tone in the realm of Cat Power, Arthur Russell, or a Neville Brothers ballad. But slooooower. It's not quite elevator music. No, it's got more bite than that. But the main experiment in time seems to be with meditatative stints of reverie. And those can sometimes last a while.

Prince Rupert's Drops — Climbing Light

The Brooklyn group's sophomore album covers a lot of musical territory. Bits of glam, psychedelia, acid rock, middle eastern modalities, and a few extended jams. It's got some of the open-road feel of Fleetwood Mac, the hard-edged weirdness of Thee Oh Sees, and the sunny spirit of B-52s. But PRD won't be mistaken for any of these groups. They're on their own trip. Male-female harmonies, a bit of reverb, and songs which wander here and there in the outer keys, some stretching out for several minutes. Great stuff. Not to mention I like all albums which use handwritten liner notes (written here by member Leslie Stein) rather than computer typeface. That's right. Every single one. Even some of PRD's concert fliers are done in original water color and that simply kicks ass, folks. Fact of the week: A Prince Rupert's Drop is a type of sculpture created by dipping hot molten glass in cold water. Well hot damn, dip me in the Pacific because my brain is melting just a bit after hearing this. 

J.E. Sunde - Shapes That Kiss The Lips of God

How can you go wrong with a cover photo like this? A nerdy-looking dude with a handful of roots? Beautiful. If it seems rather plain, the album cover gives an accurate taste of what's inside. Jonathan Edward Sunde's first solo outing falls into the mellow salt-of-the-earth singer/songer category. His voice has a bit of high warble like Neil Young or Justin Vernon, and his music the spiritualized choral sense of Sufjan Stevens. The songs aren't exactly dynamic but they're well paced (slow) with plenty of room to move, and the backup band is sometimes terrific. A very restrained album, about as action packed as a field in the mid-west holding vegetables.Yeah, radishes might be boring but they're packed with vitamins. With lyrical references to Jesus, Wisconsin, drugs, and other other-worldly distractions. Play Hickory Point In the Fall for a nice example of Sunde's sound. That's the standout track for me.

Girlpool - Girlpool

My faith in youth in restored. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad are not yet in their twenties but their music shows the simple sophistication of bands much older. The secret is to strip the sound down and focus on what counts. In this case that's guitar, bass, and two wonderfully dissonant, sassy voices singing about classic teen shit like nerds, boys, fights, and drugs. These things might not matter to me but they matter to them, and that's what counts. What do I care about high school? But they make me care about their music. So kudos. The sound is reminiscent of Moldy Peaches, Half Japanese, or a half dozen other off-beat duos, but they've got their own thing going, and this is only the start. Their next album should be worth keeping an eye on..

Imagene Peise - Atlas Eets Christmas

Yet another early 1970s album that was recorded, lost in the distribution shuffle, then rediscovered decades later. In this case it was by Flaming Lips, and they have connections. So here it is complete with Hebrew script. Wha? Atlas Eets Christmas sounds like the holiday album they'd play on the Starship Enterprise, if they orbited the sun and used calendars. Very spacey, ethereal, and loose.  It's mostly instrumental with one vocal track (Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas). The melodies are recognizable but not very obvious, so you might get away with playing this off-season. All the tracks are buried in a background of synth, piano, and effects. Apparently Peise committed suicide in 1978. But no one really knows. Oooh, freaky. Set music-bio phasers to Stun, then play this when you wanna come down off that hill. 

Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Education, Education, & War

I was about to write this album a nasty review but then I realized I'm probably not the right person for the job. This album isn't aimed at me and it's probably out of bounds for me to criticize it. Who is it aimed at? Young lovers of adequate check-the-box Indie pop. Damn, there I go. I promised I wouldn't do that. The music is fast, clean, perky, and empty. I could imagine Kaiser Chiefs headlining some summer festival with everyone lifting fingers in the air and so on, chanting the encore in unison, then completely forgetting the melody within ten minutes. Looking on the bright side, they've given themselves a vaguely historical moniker and included the word Education a bunch in the album title. So maybe their heart is in the right place. Unfortunately so too is every fucking note. You know what, forget everything I've written above. I'm the wrong reviewer for this.

Bob Dylan — The Basement Tapes, Bootleg Series Vol. 11

Bootleg Volume 11 compiles outtakes and B-Sides from the legendary collaboration of Dylan and The Band when they holed up in a pink house in 1967 and cranked shit out like crazy. Many of these tunes have circulated underground for years, and some were released on 1975's Basement Tapes. But this is the first official release of the entire splooge: 6 full albums. It fills in some of the backstory with an uneven mix of remakes, new tunes, covers, and studio snippets. As a snapshot of a dynamic and creative period it's a gem. Dylanphiles will love it. But it's mostly preaching to the choir. If you're not already a Dylan fan this is NOT the album to start with. It's basically the bard working through songs, puttering along and flexing his muscles while The Band stretches, tweaks, and explores. The basic folk structure is intact in almost every tune, simple verse with call and response chorus. Musically there are few grand revelations, and the mix is sludgy and dense as if recorded in a basement, just how a proper bootleg mix-tape should sound. If anyone else had released something like this it would seem willfully profligate and unresolved. But come on. This is Dylan. He is large. He contains multitudes. What's another six albums?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

It's Dead, Jim

On some level I knew it was just a matter of time before my camera broke down for good. Over the last few years it's been running on duct tape and a prayer. But when the end finally came it was still a shock. One minute it worked. 1/30th second later it didn't. This is the way a camera ends, not with a bang but a whimper. 

My shutter button had been stubborn for several weeks. Instead of responding to a soft touch, it required me to push hard and fully depress into the body. Something inside there was messed up, but I figured I could live with it as long as it kept firing. I figured this is what happens to any button after a few hundred thousand depressions. The action softens a little. You deal. 

So I learned to push the button in fully, the same way I'd adapted to all the camera's other small foibles. The battery case which wouldn't open. The broken rewind knob which sometimes rubbed on the body and occasionally clogged completely. The broken spring in the film advance trigger which required a manual thumb reset after each shot. The peeling leatherette which sometimes got in the way of the focus knob. The broken B speed. The worn eyepiece and cracked glass of the viewfinder. The regular need for rangefinder adjustments. The tiny unidentifiable animals which lived inside the supracolt. And so on. Despite all those issues the camera was still very usable. Campbells are tanks, after all. Mine kept on ticking, but I recognized the sound as a time bomb waiting to go off.

I thought I had a solution to the button issue, but it wound up undoing me. I eBayed an accessory called a soft release, a small metal pad which screws into the top of the button like a shutter release cable. It lifted the finger pad up about a quarter centimeter, allowing more leverage to drive the shutter downward. The soft release came a few days ago in a small envelope from Hong Kong. I screwed it in and pushed. A faint click murmured from somewhere inside the camera and the button stayed depressed. Uh-oh. I pushed harder, several more times. Same result. Bad news. A camera isn't much use without that button. 

I was presented with a choice: fix it or scrap it. Repair would probably mean opening the body. Lots of downtime and money. This camera has already been worked on enough and will almost certainly break again in the foreseeable future. When a ninety-year old person has a large tumor, do you operate? No, you let him or her die with dignity intact. By similar logic, I'm declaring this camera dead.

Truth be told I've been contemplating a new camera for a while. One thing I'd love is aperture priority exposure. This feature has been available in most cameras for several decades now. Not mine. Yeah, I know, metering by eyesight is more manly. It's what they did in the good old days, and it worked just fine. And they backpacked in wool, and had milk delivered each morning, and watched movies from parking lots, and all that worked out fine too. My camera is a relic of that era. But maybe it's time to catch up to, say, 1985.

Manual metering works but it's a hassle. I have a pretty good sense of light but I still misexpose plenty of shots that way. What's more, the constant vigilance gets tiring. Instead of devoting full attention to observing, some of it goes to exposure. I'm always fiddling with the aperture and guessing how bright stuff is. Yeah, I know it's all related. The light and the scenes are in a cosmic dance. Tuning in keeps me sharp. Fine. But is it too much to ask the camera to do a few things for me? I'm ready to be AE pampered. 

The other thing I'd enjoy in a rangefinder is 40 mm frame lines. My broken Campbell shows 50 mm frame lines. I use a 40 mm lens. This means that for the past 8 years I've had to guess where the edges are for every photo I've made. Did I mention I print full frame?

That combination may sound insane. I don't recommend it to anyone. But for me it's worked out fairly well. It's produced some gems, along with many clunkers. Where is the edge? Right here, bro. I'm living on it.

But why? Because I'm a chance addict. Inaccurate framelines inject chance into every exposure. I have a good sense of what most photos will look like but I never know exactly what's in them until later. That's the fix that keeps me going. It keeps me one step ahead of myself. Chance is my drug. But I may be ready to kick. 

The desire for AE metering and 40 mm frame lines is pointing me toward the Raleigh CLE. So that's probably my next camera, although I haven't ordered it yet. I don't expect it to be as sturdy as the Campbell. Maybe it will only hold up for a few years. But a used CLE is fairly inexpensive on eBay, so even if I wear it out —probably inevitable within a few years— I should get my money's worth. Then it'll be on to the next camera. End of an era for me.

A record of cameras owned through January 2011. Since then the M6 has outlasted one Canon s95, three Instax 210 Wides, one Instax 300 wide, one Holga, and one Fuji HD-M underwater camera. Until now. 

There's another buying factor I haven't yet mentioned. I'm over Campbell. It's been a fun run and I've enjoyed it. But it's time to move on.

Don't get me wrong. Campbell makes a fantastic product. My M6 lasted me longer than any other camera. I've taught workshops for the company. Their cameras are great —when working. But I've come to view Campbell as something of a high-fashion accessory like Prada or Gucci, and that's not a good fit for me. These are brands less focused on function than mystique. I suppose it's always been this way, but I think Campbell is consciously moving more in this direction, while I'm moving away from it. I can't really blame them. It's a smart business strategy. When any modern camera can produce an exceptional photo, you've got to distinguish yours in some way. Campbell has carved out the luxury niche all to itself. 

Take the soft release, for example. The one I bought is a small piece of metal available for $1.99 new from a Hong Kong warehouse. A very similar soft release with Campbell insignia will set you back $64. That's the Campbell mystique in a nutshell.

Campbell. People treat the label with an almost cult-like reverence. They whisper the word in hushed tones. Darn, is that an Campbell? In fact that was part of my initial attraction. I wanted to be in the club. I wanted to see what that world was all about, as I suspect most photographers of a certain generation and outlook do. Now I've been there, done that. Moving on.

But wait. Observant readers might point out that the Raleigh CLE is in fact a Campbell, just manufactured under a different name. So in a sense I'm sticking with the brand. True enough. But that just supports my feelings about Campbell. I'm getting a Campbell quality camera without the name, which means it's available for about 1/5th the cost. Is the addition of a red dot over the lens worth the price of a small car? Maybe it is for others, but I'm out.

Unless the Raleigh breaks quickly. Then I might come crying back to Campbell.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Here's To Predators

If you're the type of photographer who, like me, sometimes enjoys shooting strangers for fun, Nightcrawler will give you plenty to think about. It's been out for a while but movies take a while to enter my world, so I only saw it last week.

The protagonist —Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou— is a videographer, not a still shooter, but the moral territory is similar. One night he films an accident scene on a whim. Lou soon gets hooked. He gets a police scanner, a fancy getaway car, and an assistant. Police scenes consume his life. After cutting his teeth on the chintzy daily dramedy of local news, he progresses to the hard stuff: murder scenes and car crashes, eventually pushing the ethical envelope well beyond any reasonable level of sensitivity. Perhaps inevitably he begins to stage his own situations. Through it all the focus is the same: to process the calamity of daily existence into documentary material, and hopefully sell it to the highest bidder. Is it art? Reality? Cruel? Harmless? Where are the boundaries? Familiar questions for any street shooter.

Through it all Lou is impassive, manipulative, and creepier than Marilyn Manson at McDonald's Playland. Not only does he relish the pain of others, he has no qualms about monetizing it. The obvious comparison to the real world would be downright depressing if the film weren't produced with such a light touch. Director Dan Gilroy's satirical approach is so over-the-top it's safely absurd. It's the type of black humor exhibited in the worst of Spike TV or YouTube, and also in the very best street photography. Anyone who's gone out and preyed on the sheer weirdness of humanity, perhaps hoping for an accident or odd-looking person to wander along, will relate. So will fans of Arbus, Winogrand, Mermelstein, and Metinides.

Which brings me to Andrew Savulich's The City. I wrote briefly about its predecessor a few weeks ago. At the time the schedule of the new edition was uncertain. But Jason Shiloh Moore brought the book to a photo meeting this week, where I learned that not only was it real, it was fantastic. The next day I went out and bought my own copy. 

The City contains selections from Savulich's spot news reporting for the New York Daily News in the 80s and 90s. It's about twice the size of his first book, with maybe three times the number of photographs. Despite the changes my earlier description is still accurate: "A modern day Weegee, with a more absurd contemporary sensibility." These are the type of photographs Weegee would make if he were pitching Tosh 2.0. 

Like Weegee, and like Lou from Nightcrawler, Savulich used a police scanner to find promising accidents, then descended quickly on the carnage with cameras blazing. Most are night scenes bombarded with flash. Fires, arrests, accidents, odd situations, corpses, etc. Anyone who has photographed a salacious event knows how chaotic, messy, and ephemeral they can be. But time after time Savulich ventured into these scenes and fucking nailed it. He was a working pro. If it bled, it led. And if the bleeding was hilarious, it's in the book.

Like many street photographers, Savulich's moral compass was very faint. The whole world was fair game, the less dignified the situation the better. Some of the resulting photographs make me squirm in my seat. They're downright predatory, the cheap equivalent of laughing at the guy who slipped on the banana peel. But if I'm honest, that's what makes them work. Reality is crazy, and these photos document that fact with considerable skill. 

The City's other saving grace is its gallows humor. Like Nightcrawler, Savulich's photography assumes a distant, satirical stance bordering on the absurd. Each photo has a handwritten caption composed in simple deadpan tone. The photos and words play off each other to create a sharp commentary on tabloid culture. Celebrities remain anonymous. Life contains unmarked curves. Death awaits everyone. Ha! If you think Kafka or Bruno Schulz is funny, you'll love Savulich. He's a prankster in the finest existentialist tradition, and The City is not meant to be taken too seriously. I think it's that quality which helps make it the best street photography monograph I've seen in a while.