Thursday, October 23, 2014


On the way to visit my parents last weekend I made a quick photo stop in Eureka to rephotograph the Shore/McDonough restaurant. It's now called Kristina's. Here's how it looked October 18th, 2014.

This is taken from the same vantage as Shore's forty years earlier:

I now know why Shore picked that spot. It's from the second floor landing of an adjacent motel, probably where he stayed the night before. The motel is still there so I walked up and shot the scene. But my rephotograph was from memory so the framing is slightly off.

There isn't much special about my photo. Everything has changed since 1974 except the parking lot, but it still remains a dumb recording of a mundane place. Maybe it would've been more interesting with bird shit across the lens. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Soft-Sell Conclusion

Bruce Hall is an intimidating physical presence. He's about six three with a thick build and a trim goatee on the business end of his chin, and when he has a camera in his hands he feels free license to get in your face. There is a bit of Texas swagger about him supplemented with beach bluster from years of living and surfing in Southern California. It's my wave, Buddy. Back off. It goes without saying that the guys without that swagger don't get many rides.

Such an attitude can lead to friction when shooting photos. One person's wave might be considered another person's face. Or kids. Or privates. Did you shoot me just now? Yeah, and what are you gonna do about it? I've photographed alongside Bruce many times and I've seen squabbles arise. Actually it happens just about every time we go out. In some ways Bruce is just a fight waiting to happen.

So how is that he makes photographs of such extraordinary sensitivity? One look at the photographs in this book and it's clear they aren't made by a raging bull. They're made by a butterfly. Don't mind me, says the camera, just floating through. And oh yes, nailing it. Time after time he's in the right spot, paying attention to the right thing. Friction? Did I say friction? These pictures have as much friction as maple syrup. They look downright inevitable.

So that's the paradox of Bruce Hall. He's both a surf punk and wallflower. But how? What's the secret? Simple. Bruce went native. Living in Los Angeles for a decade, he became finely tuned to its rhythms. He learned the light and the characters and the plot, he could guess who would likely be where, when, and how. He became a regular fixture downtown, the big guy with the camera. 

Many of these photos were made on Broadway in downtown LA. In the 1980s it was a ramshackle artery of vendors, grit, marquees, and hopes in limbo. I'm guessing that what attracted Bruce is that there was no gloss, no false veneer. In the center of a city built on image, Broadway was just…well, Broadway. It lay there naked. No layers to undress. For a photographer that was appealing. The Promised Land. So Broadway and the nearby streets became his stomping grounds. And throughout the eighties the photos in this book accumulated. 

Normally photographs from 30 years ago would serve as a timepiece. They'd show a past world that had since changed and we could compare then and now. The irony with this work is that Broadway has changed very little since the 1980s. You can go there today and see pretty much what Bruce saw. The Promised Land? Visiting Broadway today, that phrase seems less societal pact than declaration of unfullfillment. Yes, fashions have shifted, and cars, and a few other cursory traits. But the infrastructure of Broadway is largely intact. More importantly, the mood is the same. It's a place that feels bypassed. It's a place that feels like it will always exist in black and white.  

The same might be said of street photography itself. It may still have some adherents, but it's a genre that has largely been bypassed by other photographic currents. The idea of just walking downtown with no plan, looking for moments —the core of this book— would be considered passé if practiced today. So perhaps this book belongs in the past, along with Frank and Model and Faurer and all the other tough, sensitive souls capturing shit that will never ever happen again, will never be recorded with such gut-wrenching fidelity, and that no one could ever imagine if they hadn't shown us. 

Because, Dude. Once you surf that wave it's gone.

—from my afterward to Promised Land, a new MagCloud publication by Blue Sky Books featuring photographs of 1980s Los Angeles by M. Bruce Hall. Preview/Order here

Friday, October 17, 2014

T'Mershi Duween

I'm packing up this morning for a long drive to visit my parents in Northern California. My dad turns 70 today. He doesn't want to make a big deal about it but it's kind of a big deal. Seventy! Plus he's selling the house I grew up in, so I've gotta make the trip.

I'm reminded of my last drive down there in August. I spent a few hours loading the car, checking off my list and doublechecking, then climbed into the driver's seat. It was only then that I noticed the most massive streak of bird shit I'd ever seen on the windshield. It was about 18 inches long and perfectly positioned above the steering wheel between me and the road.

I don't know what kind of bird leaves a load like that but I can recognize a beautiful form when it presents itself. Even more beautiful was the timing, because Tab and the kids were visiting her parents in Maine. I know my wife pretty well and I guarantee her initial instinct would've been to clean that shit off the windshield. That would've been like her very first move after seeing it. She's just like that. 

But Tab was out of the picture. Better yet, I was about to embark on an 800 mile road trip. I'd carry that shit with me everywhere. It would be my travel muse. I'd have hours to model it in front of different backgrounds, and if I saw something promising my camera was in the passenger seat. And if the photos looked enough like milk, perhaps there would be a market later. I could hardly wait to get on the road.

I'm not going to bore you with all the bird shit photos that didn't turn out. Just a few of them. This is the I-84 bridge crossing the Snake River into Idaho.

I spent a while trying to line up the thin streak far right with the white line marking the highway boundary, but none of them really worked out. The parallax on that camera is a bitch from that close, plus it's hard to position the lens properly while going 60 mph on a windy road, especially when you're changing out the roll on your Leica with the other hand. So there were lots of mistakes, but I like the one below taken on Route 1 just north of Fort Bragg. The blob and centerline are engaged in a complicated foxtrot.

I forget where this next one is from. Near Provo, I think? I was trying to match the white streak with the white car and...yeah, didn't really happen. But if I didn't tell you it was birdshit you might guess that the white blob was due to misdeveloped chemicals in the print, and I like imagining that. But I guess I told you already what it was. You know what, forget I ever mentioned it. Then look at this one.

The next one is from near the Missouri/Kansas border. I positioned the camera at the top of the windshield in the area tinted to reduce sun glare. Caught just a bit of the white blob and the distant moon.

The problem with the Instax is that it offers too much clarity, whether or not that's wanted. I think that's the trouble with color photography in general. It's not sufficiently transformative. What I'm usually after is the opposite of clarity. I want obfuscation, layering, visual distress. I want things to look wrong. Otherwise I wouldn't have packed the Spiderman outfit. 

That's why I shot plenty of 35 mm black and white too. In monochrome I can start blending worlds. 

Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing here but to me the birdshit looks cheerful in the photo above. And in combination with the earlier photos, the full portrait of this birdshit is beginning to flesh out as a multifaceted being with personality and quirks. But the picture isn't yet complete.

There. That's better. Stasis.

Trees of Mystery in Klamath is a regular stop for me going to and from California. There's a giant Paul Bunyan statue that talks to you. It keeps the tourists distracted so they're easy to shoot. But in August I was there early morning. No tourists. Just the white streak and Babe's horns.

These gulls were just moping in a parking lot in Montana. I'm pretty sure the birdshit on my windshield isn't from a sea gull or they would've acknowledged it somehow. But no. No reaction at all. None.

Yessiree, a guy can get pretty lonely driving on the open highway. After a few days you'll talk to just about anyone or anything that happens to be on your windshield. It's not until the bird shit begins talking back that you really have to worry. Then it might be time to pull over for a bit.

Photography has a strong tradition of road-tripping. Robert Frank is Exhibit A. But of course the list goes on and on. Lee Friedlander. Stephen Shore. Joel Sternfeld. Jim from the delivery room. Amy Stein. Simon Kossoff. The Google Street van. I think it has something to do with exile and being an outsider. When you're on a road trip those things come with the territory. Yup, it's the good ol' alienation card. Photographer Paydirt. You pull into some small cafe in a little town and BOOM. You're the only stranger in the place. And that charges up the batteries and activates the scene. Just look at the Paul McDonough photo I posted a few days back. Would he have shot that near home? Maybe not.

It's like a play. The protagonist is projected automatically and it's YOU. It's a different dynamic than walking down a familiar street in your neighborhood. And you've been staring at bird shit all day, lining it up with this and that. So when you walk into that cafe it's with both barrels blazing. Your eyes are on fire. You didn't bring that Spiderman outfit along for nothing. It's gonna pay dividends.

So that's what I'm dealing with this morning as I pack up. All those expectations.

But no bird shit. At the end of the August trip I knew I had to clean up the windshield. Tab was coming back in a few days and I knew if I didn't get to it she would. But the day before she arrived a miracle happened. A soft rain came and lasted all day and washed the streak away. It was the first rain since June. Its timing was impeccable. About 1,000 people had gathered to watch the concert at Pan-gyo Techno Valley, a newly built town that houses many high-tech companies south of Seoul, the capital, local news reports said. Local television stations showed a gaping hole where the ventilation crate had disappeared. They cited witnesses as saying that a small crowd of people, including office workers from the neighborhood, had climbed onto the grate to get a better view of the performers, including a popular girl band called 4Minute. 

You know the more I think about it, I'm convinced that streak might've been on my lens and not my windshield.