Sunday, February 7, 2016

Old school

Charles Le Moon, courtesy of Eugene Weekly
I stopped in yesterday on a strange little pop up show. Charles Le Moon had turned his small Eugene house into a photo gallery for the weekend. The living room walls were plastered with photocards. They spilled down the hall and into the dining room. Hundreds of photos which wouldn't fit on the walls were stuffed into postcard racks in the center of the floor. He'd been shooting for 25+ years, and had collected so many photos he wasn't sure what to do with them all. Typical photographer's dilemma.

What made Le Moon's show unique —and perfect for Eugene— is that his process is deliberately retro. He makes one print of each negative and that's it. Each print goes on a unique card. There were several hundred on display yesterday, and he's got another 15,000 or so in the pipeline. He refuses to digitize any photographs, under the premise that it would add an artificial layer, and somehow remove the one-to-one personal bond with the viewer. Never mind Instagram or Flickr. Le Moon bucks the web outright. He does have a website, but it has no images, which for a photographer is, well... unusual. I've felt the non-web instinct before. My web presence sucks. But I've never seen it taken to such extreme. He's basically living in 1970 still, even as the photo world rockets into the digital realm. 

This stance may be pure but it raises all sorts of questions for a photographer. The very nature of photography is copying, and the magic of photographs resides in part on reproducibility. Or maybe not. I dunno. In any case he is probably shooting himself in the foot in the publicity department. But he seems content.

Le Moon's isolationist instinct came through in the photos. There were plenty of visually sterile barns, flowers, and creeks, as one might expect from a hobbyist. But spicing up the mix were countless original captures, the type of photos that only someone disconnected from the art world might see. He has a painterly sense of shadow, light, and the overlooked vernacular. If he could weed out the chaff, he'd have a brilliant book which might rub shoulders with Ernst Haas or Saul Leiter. But, alas, the chaff might be integral. It almost always is.

After some time browsing, I wound up with two cards. I could've easily chosen more. I'd show them here but it would break the non-digital pact. Oh well. I had no cash so he let me have them on the honor system. I'll drop a check off later this week. Retro.

If you're in Eugene, check it out. The show ends today. 1095 E 35th St.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

eight line post

In early January each year I take stock of which photobooks came in over the holidays, what's still on my wanted list, and what's available. Then I put in an order for a handful of titles. I buy most sight unseen based on hearsay. Some prove worthwhile. Others don't. That's how I discovered Maude Schuyler Clay's wonderful new book Mississippi History. If I could go back and revise my best-of-2015 list, this one would be on it. Oh well, hindsight is always 20/20.

Clay is a wonderful portraitist with deep roots in genteel Mississippi. She's a friend of Bill, and shares his natural feel for the rural Southern color palette. I like to imagine one hand clutching a mint juleps as she steadies the camera with the other, although I have no idea what her process actually is. She likes to shoot on bright mornings when the warm sun pours slowly like molasses across her subjects. By all rights this light should be harsh, but somehow in Clay's photos it isn't.  

One of her go-to portrait moves is a disruption of the face, putting one eye in light and the other in darkness. Here are some examples:

It's a large book and my scanner won't fit the full pages, so I've cropped these photos to emphasize the face. I'm not sure what Clay's intention was, but for me the effect is psychological. If eyes are the windows to the soul, these subjects seem scattered, complex, divided against themselves. Maybe slightly mad.

Visually the effect is similar to Heterochromia Iridum, differential coloration of the iris. This trait is not as uncommon as you might think. It runs evenly throughout the general populace, celebrities included, although the prevalence in humans is much less than in cats and dogs

The day after the Maude Schuyler Clay book arrived David Bowie died. Bowie was a rare bird for all sorts of reasons, but near the top of the list for me were his eyes. I found them mesmerizing. Even if he had made boring music —which he didn't— with those eyes he would still be a star, at least in my book. 

Technically Bowie's syndrome wasn't Heterocrhomia but Anisocoria, differential dilation of the pupils. Like Heterochromia, this syndrome can be either genetic or caused by physical damage. In Bowie's case, he suffered an injury as a teen which caused permanent dilation in the left eye. While everyone around him could adjust their inner F-stop, Bowie viewed everything thereafter at f/1.4 —at least through one eye. 

What was it like to look out of that head? Perhaps his brain was forced into some strange organic HDR calculation, trying to combine bright and dim, depth and shallowness, focus and blur. Sound and Vision? Whatever it was, Bowie's face for me was the penultimate expression of cool, detached, offbeat, arty. He personified The Other. Just another wild eyed boy from freecloud.

Even before Bowie died, I sometimes wondered why his split iris look was not more fashionable. Colored contacts are widely accessible. Everyone worshipped Bowie, and anyone could be him. So why didn't heterochromia ever catch on in the pop world? Why aren't there more humans walking around with eyes like the white cat above? They should be everywhere. Instead they're as rare as asymmetrical cars or McNuggets. 

I suppose I could point the finger at myself as easily as others. The closest I ever got was mismatched socks, a habit that began in college —inspired by Bowie— and continues to this day, at least on winter days too cold for sandals.

In the aftermath of Bowie's death another asymmetrical face was in the news most days —the unwashed and slightly dazed visage of Ryan Bundy, as he embarked on a new career in a new town. Like Bowie, Bundy's facial asymmetry was due to a childhood injury. A car ran over his head at age seven. After his traffic stop last week he may have felt he was always crashing in that same car. 

Ryan Bundy, AP

Bundy's face is yet another gentle reminder that asymmetry, not uniformity, is the law of bodies. Whether it's nipples, genitals, ears, or what have you, differences between left and right are common. Thus, any portraitist searching for a perfectly symmetrical face will be disappointed. In photography the struggle for perfection is often a fool's errand, the exact wrong direction. That leaves photography wallowing in the muck with the other arts, and that's just fine. 

Maybe this is what Clay is getting at with her disruptive portraits. Or Martin Schoeller with his detailed facial closeups?

Steve Carell, Martin Schoeller

A sideways nose hasn't slowed the cracked actor career of Owen Wilson

Just as a sideways eye —Strabismus, to get technical again— didn't slow down Sartre.

John-Paul Sartre, 1946, Henri Cartier-Bresson

I've wrestled over the years with my own wandering eye. None of my vision is 20/20, not hindsight, foresight, nor insight. Sometimes the eye behaves. Sometimes it has a mind of its own. At the least opportune moment its gaze might fall on a beautiful body nearby. Or the texture of a nearby moss garden. Or the distant horizon. Anywhere it seems but the task at hand, which is to point where the other eye points. That's usually into a camera. 

Selfie, 2006

Note that I'm talking about my third eye, so even if it wanders I have two others which work ok. But it's still a problem. In fact I think a wandering third eye might be the worst type to have, since it's an important location for Chakras, Chi and other touchy-feely crap.

A wandering third eye is bad enough. But when it's accompanied —as in my case—by wandering brain, essay, and socks it's a wonder I can get any photography done. My attention is all over th...

I'm sorry, what was my left side writing about? Kooks? Shapes of things? My right side whispers, Hang onto yourself.  After all. It ain't easy. It's OK. If I'd wanted my posts to be perfect I'd have made them Bowie eyes. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Q & A with Rupert Jenkins

Portrait courtesy of CPAC
Rupert Jenkins is the former Executive Director of Colorado Photographic Art Center and a recent transplant to Eugene.

BA: What brought you to Eugene? What will occupy your time here?

RJ: My partner Christina Kreps, who is an anthropologist, joined the faculty of the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts. I left my position as director of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC), based in Denver, to join her. Right now I’m enjoying some down time after four years running CPAC, although I just returned from Paris and London where I met with a group of students from the University of Denver for a photography interterm class. 

Are you still teaching for University of Denver? Or was that just a one shot trip? 

I teach interterm classes once or twice a year. I was never a faculty member – this is something I do informally with the university.

Why London and Paris? What's there that's essential for students?

The significance of London and Paris is immense from both cultural and historical perspectives and students take full advantage of being there. For some the priority is a visit to the Louvre or British Museum, for others it’s a visit to the Bataclan Theatre memorial or the London Eye; but it could also be a pilgrimage to Track 9 ¾ at King’s Cross or a Lady Gaga concert. Photographically speaking, we arrive in Paris right after Paris Photo so there are always amazing exhibitions to see. For instance, this year we viewed “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers” at two museums on Paris that presented an in depth survey of pioneer women photographers from the 1850s through the mid-20th century.  For our class, that exhibition cross referenced a Lee Miller show at the Imperial War Museum and two Julia Margaret Cameron shows in London. And while we expose the students to contemporary and historical photography during excursions, we also try to improve their own photography through critiques and reviews during the class. 

What did you know of Eugene before moving here? What are your first impressions of the city as a place to live?

Portland, OR, 1980, after Mt. St. Helens eruption

I lived in Portland back in 1980 so passed by Eugene but never actually visited the town. Before moving here I certainly knew of its reputation as a university town – it turned out that quite a few friends and colleagues in Denver had studied at UO and enjoyed living here a lot. Christina graduated and received her doctorate here so she knew Eugene well, and we had often discussed moving back to Oregon from Colorado.

Describe Eugene in 3 words.

Peaceful, bipedal, communal.

Describe Denver in 3 words.

Growing, emerging, vivid.

What if anything had you heard about the Eugene photo scene before moving here? What are your first impressions of the photo community?

Chris Rauschenberg had given me the names of a few photographers to meet with in Eugene but the photo scene itself was completely unknown to me. My first impressions are that UO has a very solid faculty and its members have been very generous in welcoming me, which I appreciate a lot. My interests lean toward contemporary photography; outside of the university I’m not seeing much of that but as I’ve only been here for a couple of months it’s too soon to draw any conclusions.

Your first impressions are spot on. There is not much interest in contemporary photography here outside the U of O. And the academic community suffers from ivory tower syndrome. Not much interaction with Eugene as a whole.

What, if anything, do the following names mean to you? Thom Sempere. Bernie Fremesser. Ron Jude.

Thom and I meet regularly. We were colleagues in San Francisco and I’ve participated in the Photo Alliance reviews there, which he organizes. We’re speaking together on a panel at the Schnitzer Museum March 5. I wasn’t aware of Bernie Freemesser’s career until you asked that question. I haven’t met Ron Jude yet, although I know his work superficially. I’m sure he’s a great addition to the UO faculty. 

Were Thom or Ron among the photographers suggested by Chris Rauschenberg? 

No. He gave me Craig Hickman’s name and a few others; I think Terri Warpinski was another.

You headed CPAC in Colorado. In your opinion, could such an organization work in Eugene? Do you have any plans to start one?

Like I said, it’s too early for me to make judgments about what would work or has worked in Eugene. I know from my time in Denver that sustaining a successful photo organization – non-profit or commercial - is very challenging. Eugene is not exactly an economic powerhouse and I assume it has a small collector base, which is necessary even for a non-profit. I certainly don’t have any intentions to start anything like CPAC in the foreseeable future!

How did you first become interested in photography? What holds your interest now?

My interests are more in the book publishing and editing arenas right now. Actually, Blue Sky was very inspirational to me when I lived in Portland. I used to go there a lot and became friends with Terry Toedtemeier, for instance. I started experimenting with photography and took myself quite seriously as an artist, which was probably misplaced but it did propel me to become involved with a Blue Sky-type of gallery in San Francisco when I moved there in 1981.

Are you referring to Camerawork? 

No, the first gallery I was involved in was the Eye Gallery, which was a small collective in the Mission District founded by social documentarians and rock music photographers (a strange mix!) After a couple of years I started being paid for administrative tasks and after it became a 501c3 Tom Ferentz (one of the founders) and I became the first “official” co-directors. I joined Camerawork soon after leaving Eye Gallery.

I am curious to see your early photo experiments form the 1980s. Are they online somewhere?

Yes, on Flickr. There are a couple of albums – “Early B&W” and “Micropets” – and there is also an album of projects I’ve worked on, although that needs updating.

Your Flickr stream is mostly personal snapshots. Do you consider those photos a meaningful body of work? 

Nagasaki Journey, 1995, Edited by Rupert Jenkins
As you say, most of my photos are personal or are taken on trips so I’m essentially a vacation photographer. I certainly don’t consider myself a photographer in the sense of having an artistic career. But my photos are often meaningful to me, and I’ve made a few books of my personal work that people have responded to positively. I am a curator and a writer, and I have directed non-profit and municipal galleries for more than 30 years, so those are my professional strengths. Right now I am discussing a variety of photo book projects with colleagues that range from a book and exhibition about drug-related disappearances and murders in Colombia to a series on “social practice” art. I’m also hopeful that a book on the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that I edited in 1995 will be republished for the 75th anniversary of the bombing in 2020. Boiling down my interests, documentary and socially engaged work is the most important to me.

I enjoyed looking at both albums you mentioned ("Early B&W" and Micropets"). Street photography is my first love, and I will always have a soft spot (pun intended?) for plastic camera work. So I'm a natural audience for both. 

Laurie Price, San Francisco, 1982, from Micropets

I'm curious about your decision to concentrate less on your own work and more on curation/publishing of others. At one point you were very serious about your own photography. And somewhere along the line you realized it wasn't your calling. When did that transition happen, and was it difficult? Or relatively smooth? I think that realization is fairly common, and I'm wondering what insight you can offer as it applies to you or to others?

What happened was that I started getting shows but realized that there was a lot of time and expense incurred with framing, shipping printing etc., as well as the need to publicize the shows and generally self-promote (this was before the internet – perhaps promotion is easier these days via social media but getting bodies into galleries is more difficult now. The relevance of galleries in general is a complex issue that we don’t have room to discuss here). 

In my emerging role as gallery administrator and curator I had also started to interact with artists whose work was far more developed than mine. Very soon I realized that I was more interested in curating other people’s work than I was in promoting my own. Essentially it all comes down to whether you identify as an artist or not – for me the litmus test is whether you driven to create new work each day. When I asked myself that question I had to say “no.” I have a good sense of composition and am happy to make the occasional successful image but it’s far more satisfying for me to interact with “real” artists for whom I can offer exposure in a gallery or elsewhere.

I’ve been able to provide a leg up the art world ladder for many photographers and have worked with hundreds of artists who are far more talented than I am. For me that’s been very fulfilling; it also proves the value of having a vibrant not-for-profit sector serving its arts community. In San Francisco that’s definitely the case – here in Eugene and even in Denver I’m not so sure.

Santa Fe, Spring 2015

What do you mean "the relevance of galleries in general is a complex issue which we don't have time to discuss here"?

Generally, I think that galleries essentially remain relevant to artists, who as a species want to show their work, but otherwise galleries are not all that important anymore. Certainly attendance is defined by generation more than anything, and venues are becoming culled by the need to respond to specific demographics rather than trusting in a cross-cultural/cross-generational response to "good work," which is the old paradigm.

As a "gallerist" (I hate that term but it's appropriate here) one wants to attract a diverse audience, and certainly one wants to engage with youth. As far as I can see, though, Gen Z is defined by the need to document itself more than anything, and to be entertained by the mob or the phone, with little in between. And Generations X and Y —pretty much everyone of working age actually— are preoccupied by the need to make a living, in league with just about everyone under retirement age, which further limits audience potential. 

In Eugene the Jacobs Gallery is closing. Personally I don't know why, but it's probably as much to do with a failure to connect with an audience in terms of entertainment as it is to do with the art they show. I see crowds at First Fridays but there are as many shows in business spaces as there are in galleries; I see this as a form of gentrification that leverages art to entice people into a business or a neighborhood, ultimately with the goal of making a profit without any significant benefit to artist or arts community. 

Situating Robert Adams, 2012, Curated by Rupert Jenkins
I just got back from NY and I visited a couple of big museums that seemed more to be places to be seen in, rather than places to see things at. Any and all icons were more selfie zones than places for contemplation; I'm including meteors and Egyptian tombs as much as paintings when I say that! So spectacle and entertainment are increasingly important audience drivers, which is not exactly news, but when it comes to the smaller galleries, especially non-profits, it's a difficult challenge to face.

My experience with CPAC - and from informal discussions this counts for most of my peers as well -was that beyond the opening reception visitation was so low as to question the need for a gallery, outside of providing a venue for the artist(s) on show. Whereas before (in days of yore) students were regular visitors, now they only come as part of a class visit or for extra credit. Certainly, the internet has attuned people to look at art online, which is wonderful, but the concept of a personal, introspective interaction with an artwork is close to being lost. So unless galleries find ways to entertain as well as educate, enlighten, or sell, I think they are an increasingly less practical and/or viable arena for appreciating art.

You were one of the jurors for a $10,000 grant awarded for the idea of sending home photographic prints with newborns. Have you followed that project? If so, how is it going? 

I think it’s going fine. I talked about it recently with the award sponsor, Jennifer Schwartz of Crusade for Art, and she told me there’s interest in repeating the project in several other cities, which is exciting. The intention was to award innovative ways of disseminating photography to non-traditional consumers – that is, to communities outside of the usual art market circus. The project we funded stood out for it’s unique approach and we felt it deserved funding, if only for it’s out-of-left-field quirkiness!

I joked with some other photographers that parents of infants might be the worst possible audience to build a new collector base. Their attention is very much devoted toward another direction, creating blinders to anything else. That said, I give high points for thinking outside the box.

Good! Those swag bags given to new parents are full of consumer crap. So a photo seemed like a nice addition for those few who would appreciate it. Certainly it would be naïve to think that everyone would appreciate it but the idea was that it could become a treasured memento of the birth, or perhaps even spur a lifetime appreciation of photography.

Who are your 3 favorite contemporary photographers? 

Rineke Dijkstra, Phil Toledano, Ed Kashi.

3 favorite music albums?

Soft Machine Third, Patti Smith Twelve, Cowboy Junkies Open.

What is the professional litmus test of "no ducks"? I'm throwing this question out there in reference to the Ducks sports teams. They are huge here, as you'll find out.

I already have found out – we know when there’s a Ducks game because the parking spots on our street fill up early morning. To be clear, I made that rule for CPAC so it had nothing to do with the UO Ducks! It ruffled a few feathers, if you’ll excuse the pun, but the litmus test is exactly as it reads – do not expect to exhibit pictures of ducks in my gallery. If you are the kind of photographer who takes pictures of ducks, no matter how professionally rendered they might be, you need to look for a different venue, and a different gallery director, to support your work. 

I understand the thought behind this. Still, I don't like to exclude any subject. Even ducks might be ok under certain circumstances. What other subject matter falls under the "no ducks" label for you? What else is off limits? Barns? Sunsets? Other stuff?

To answer your own response to the “no ducks” – it’s a general litmus test that was a knee jerk response to all the mundane landscapes and nature photos we would receive as entries to our members show and at reviews when CPAC relaunched in 2011. Each year we were pleased to see that entries got stronger and less mundane, to the point at which last year’s show was by far the best in years. 

Are you equating mundane photography with weak photography? Would photographers like the Bechers or John Gossage or Penelope Umbrico be weak by that standard?

Stockholm Ferry, 1984

No, no. When I say mundane I’m talking about very naïve pictorial imagery that is superficially pleasant but lacking any meaningful content - not in any way comparable to work by the artists you cite. I am talking about images taken that are lovely in a sentimental sort of way but entirely without artistic merit beyond base sentimentality.

That largely reflected a change in philosophy from “let’s show something by everyone because we want our constituents to be happy” to “let’s be tough and push entrants to conceptualize, improve, and work hard to be better photographers.” There are certainly down sides to that in terms of everyone NOT being happy, but the upside is a more developed program that opens up opportunities for career development among photographers who are serious about their practice.

Off the top of your head, what was Colorado's record last year in football? The U of O? 

[Colorado went 4-9 in 2015; Oregon was 9-4]

No idea. I’m a soccer fan. Go Brighton!

What about the Timbers? 

So far the MLS hasn’t moved me. I did used to see the old Portland soccer team at the Civic Stadium back in 1980 and saw many aging icons of the game like George Best and Johann Cruyff. I will make a special effort to see the Timbers this year!

(all photos above by Rupert Jenkins unless otherwise noted)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hollywood Star Map

For the past several months, Emmett and I have been playing eight ball in the basement most evenings. We play best 2 out of 3 games. Last spring these rounds didn't last long. I'd quickly win two games and that would be that. After all, the kid was only 9. He could barely reach the pool stick over the table, never mind with any consistency. So it wasn't a fair fight. I beat him every time, although I can't say I took much pleasure in it. 

But times have changed. With steady practice Emmett has developed into a solid player. He's larger now and more contemplative, and uses both traits to his advantage. He plays good, deliberate positional pool, and rarely chokes on the gimmes as he used to. He has his own stick with name engraved —a Christmas present— with which he beats me regularly. It's a changing of the guard, the latest in a seemingly neverending string of them as my kids move through adolescence.

As I write this I'm coming off a fresh loss. But instead of admiring Emmett I'm thinking of all the things I did wrong. For pool is one of those few games —like golf, horseshoes, and darts— where you control your own fate entirely. Unless your opponent runs the table (a non-event in our basement) you will get a crack at the balls. And if you play them right, you can win every time. Note that "can" is the operative word here. More often the result is "can't" or "didn't". I'm not saying it's easy. But at least in theory, victory is possible with every turn, and your opponent is helpless to prevent it. Ultimately the struggle isn't against the opponent. It's internal.

After our pool game a few nights ago I caught the end of the Steelers-Bengals game. It was one of those contests where each team battled itself as much as the opponent. It was back and forth. Both teams had their chances. Near the end Cincinnati sat on the best opportunity of the night, with a two point lead, 1st and 10 deep in Pittsburg territory, and 1:30 left in the game. They controlled their own fate entirely. But they imploded. The Steelers survived another week, although they didn't have much to do with it.

Shooting photographs follows a similar equation. As one moves through the visual world, photographic possibilities are everywhere. One can find them on busy streets, in suburban cul-de-sacs, at the breakfast table, out the back door. Potential photograph are Everywhere! Not that finding them is easy. In fact it's often quite difficult. The world can feel aligned against you. Subjects won't juxtapose properly or lighting is wrong or your fingers are freezing, or you just aren't feeling it for whatever reason. But the photos are always out there. There are five world-class photos in front of you right now as you read this. It's a pool game. You can run the table any time you want. Any opposition is imagined.

Seeing photographs is the part you control. The part you don't is what happens afterward. There are measures you can take to influence their reception, but it's largely a crapshoot. People will like them or they won't, and there's not much you can do about it. Sometimes the wind of luck is behind you. Sometimes it's in your face. Navigation is tough. And that's while you're alive. After you die, there's no hand on the rudder. 

This might be where the concept of fate comes in. What is fate? Don't ask me. I don't understand it. But it feels true. Or, to be more accurate, it has felt true to me at certain points in my life. Taken to its logical extreme —which astrologers and Tarot readers do— fate might be said to determine everything that happens from birth. Just a star chart or mix of drawn cards lays out the course. By this logic we're all helpless pool balls being knocked here and there by the rules of Laplace's demon.

Making photographs it's sometimes hard to know where the edge is between free will and fate. Some photos walk right up to you and announce themselves. Others cower in the bushes. Is the difference serendipity? Luck? Chaos? Should you search harder? Or with indifference? Does it matter? 

I don't know the answers. But if someone was reading my start chart way back in 12/29/68, they would know with certainty that I'll be in Los Angeles this week.

Sunday, January 10, 2016