Monday, December 31, 2007

Saul Steinberg's Illuminations

(Note: All Steinberg images in this post © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Over the recent holidays I spent some time with Saul Steinberg's Illuminations, a book which includes much of a show that I actually had a chance to see in person last summer in Washington, DC. Although he's not a photographer, Steinberg's images have a lot to teach about photography.

The general economy of his work is brilliant. If a line was needed he included it. If he didn't need it, he left it out. How he knew which lines were necessary is a mystery, but the lesson is there for photographers. Include what you need and not a bit more.

Steinberg was prolific. His published images are only the tip of the iceberg, the visible portion of a mountain of doodles on napkins, clothing, paper, wood, whatever at hand. He was constantly on, probably always had a pen nearby while awake. The model for a certain style of photography is obvious: camera in hand always. Only from constant practice and failure can perfection emerge.

Steinberg's drawings are dense with ideas. There is a LOT going on in them, and it takes a while to sort through them intellectually. The eye needs to move around the image and usually the thing that draws you in does not end up being the primary subject matter. Since I tend to approach art with my mind before my emotions I find a lot to latch onto. Steinberg's images take me longer to digest than most photographs.

It's interesting the Steinberg primary medium was drawing on paper. He used crayon, pencil, pen, stamps, the tools of a preschooler. In the highbrow art world, the general assumption is that serious artists paint on canvas, and it must've taken a special confidence to defy that pressure. A parallel situation exists with 35 mm street photographers. For the photographic mainstream, 35 mm is the tool of the beginner. Anything shot smallframe is questionable, and street photography in particular is the lowest most base form of expression. The other side of the coin, Steinberg's side, is "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", the belief in a purity inherent in the use of simple tools. There is a connection between simplicity and absurd poetic whimsy which I do not completely understand, but it is there in Steinberg's drawings and in the finest 35 mm images.

Steinberg even toyed with photography in some of his work:

If you get a chance to see this book or other Steinberg collections, they're worth a look.

Happy New Year to all...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Obligatory Year-End List

I'm 39 today. Here are 39 favorite things that I first encountered during my 39th year.

1. Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (Originally released in 2000)
2. Deerhoof, The Runners Four (2005)
3. Waylon Jennings & Willlie Nelson, Waylon & Willie (1978)
4. Clash, Sandinista (1980)
5. Peter Tosh, Equal Rights (1977)
6. Bonnie "Prince" Billie, Ease Down The Road (2001)
7. Joni Mitchell, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
8. Medeski, Martin, & Wood, Combustication (1998)
9. Califone, Roomsound (2001)
10. Madeleine Peyroux, Careless Love (2004)

11. A Man With No Talents, Oyama Shiro (2005)
12. Oh The Glory Of It All, Sean Wilsey (2005)
13. Rogue River Journal, John Daniel (2005)
14. Tulia, Nate Blakeslee (2005)
15. Brutal Journey, Paul Schneider (2006)
16. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2005)
17. My Detachment, Tracy Kidder (2005)
18. The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer (2005)
19. The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell, Jonathan Crawford (2006)
20. The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant (2005)

Photography books:
21. 108 Portraits, Gus Van Sant (1992)
22. e, Masao Yamamoto (2006)
23. OK OK OK, Mike Slack (2006)
24. American Independents, Sally Eauclaire (1987)
25. Lucky Strikes, Toby Old (1995)
26. At the Beach, Ernest J Zarate (1999)
27. Rites of Fall, Geoff Winningham (1979)
28. Landscapes From the Middle of the World, Frank Gohlke (1988)
29. Life Below, Christophe Agou (2004)
30. Come Sunday, Thomas Roma (1996)

31. Junebug, Phil Morrison (2005)
32. The King of Kong, Seth Gordon (2007)
33. Delicatessan, M. Caro & J-P. Jeunet (1991)
34. United 93, Paul Greengrass (2006)
35. Borat, Larry Charles (2007)
36. Pan's Labyrinth, Gillermo del Toro (2006)
37. 49 Up, Michael Apted (2005)
38. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito Montiel (2006)
39. Art School Confidential, Terry Twigoff (2006)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Q & A with Michael Northrup

After I mentioned Michael Northrup in an earlier post, he was kind enough to answer some of my questions via email. Northrup has been a practicing photographer for over 30 years. Beautiful Ecstasy is a collection his photographs published in 2003. His work can be seen online here (recent work) and here (earlier work).

BA: Why did you choose to sell the earlier work as stock photographs? This is a different path than many fine art photographers choose and I'm just wondering the advantages and disadvantages of it, compared to say marketing the work as fine art prints. Are you successful selling it as stock work? Do you feel it changes the work at all by stripping it of any context?

MN: As I went commercial in 1990 I found a whole new "appreciative" audience. I was in a bunch of group shows in University and small private galleries while teaching but nothing really came of it, even though you could say I had a somewhat successful exhibition record. I would send my work out and a month later get it back. I'd write it on my resume. The end. Going commercial I loved the fact that I actually got paid to do artwork, it would be seen by thousands and it was published. It was refreshing to be seen by designers who didn't care about a resume but who put all the weight on the work and not some track record. Things happened much faster in the design field than the art arena. I found showing to be very sleepy, rarely a sale. A catalog isn't really "publishing". Very few people see the work. And galleries schedule their shows at a numbingly slow rate. As I would interview at design firms for photo jobs I found they loved the challenging art work much more than the slick commercial work. Sometimes a job would use my existing work and so I decided to make everything available on a stock site. That site also serves as an idea springboard for designers looking for solutions. And if they couldn't actually use that specific image, often I could do something similar that hooked into the problem. So the Strobophoto site served both art and commerce. I mean it's not about the frame or the matt board, or your resume, or a slick presentation or putting some snappy titles to the work. IT'S JUST ABOUT THE FRICKIN IMAGE!!! and I can't drive that point enough. I really don't sell off that site but it brings people to the work and sometimes ends in a sale once I'm contacted. As for context, they're created in a way that shows things already out of context.

I'm curious if your "snapshot" aesthetic, for lack of a better word, has made it hard for your work to gain acceptance in the fine art photo community, and if so does that bear on your decision to market your work as stock. Sort of a thumb in the nose to the fine art world? Or maybe I have it all wrong and galleries have welcomed your work?

Well I must admit I do have a big thumb in the "eye" of those fine art types and your question was perceptive. Yes, I'm somewhat shunned. But when they do bite, they bite hard. I found this out when after 15 years of commercial work I took my most personal images to 2 fine art portfolio review organizations 2005 and 2006, Photolucida in Portland and Fotofest in Houston. I was (negatively) blown away by most of the work I saw. It was a lot of travel and landscape as I'd seen a thousand times before. Much of the work was of things with no real point. Then there was other work that relied so heavily on some concept that the images were inconsequential. Then there was work that was so self conscious and geared toward "showing in a gallery" that it had a kind of gallery slickness that was more about show than substance. Then there were those who put EVERYTHING in their work on being big. Instead of traveling light to these reviews, some were bringing these gigantic images that needed to be laid out on the floor. WTF!! Showing my work at these things either got hugs near tears of enjoyment and praise but more often I got a blank stare.

I think one of the things that reduces my audience is that my work is not wrapped in a nice neat package. If you want to look at it as a series, it's an ongoing, never ending, 30 year running series that's more narrative and autobiographical than anything. It's about those quirky moments in my everyday life that somehow, once photographed, makes a lasting image that is somehow compelling. When I make a photograph it's more about "seeing" than "thinking".

I'm glad you see the structure in my images instead of just the objects. For me structure is key even if it looks loose. At the risk of sounding like I'm name dropping I've got to share with you those people I had a chance to spend some intimate study time with back in the early 70's so you might see the underlying influences in my work. My last term in undergrad at Ohio University I traveled to California to study with Jack Welpott and Judy Dater living with them for 3 months. Through them I was introduced to Frederick Sommer and spent a couple weeks with him in Prescott, Ariz. Then a year later I worked in Boston for a few months and wrote Minor White that I would like to meet him. At our first meeting he asked if I'd like to join his private study group at his house in Arlington. I was greatly influenced by these people and figured a way to spin all that in my own aesthetic.

Which other photographers have been important to you?

I'm all over the place with that question. Like Nirvana, I didn't like Walker Evans until several years after seeing his work in Photo History. I can't get into the Starn Twins or Cindy Sherman at all. Barbara Kruger was pretty heavy and an interesting bridge between fine art photo and graphic design. Joel Peter Witkin's work is beautiful. Frederick Sommer had a huge brain. Weston was important. Diane Arbus go to me. I love the spirit in Les Krims work. Then there was a burst of people using the "on camera flash" aesthetically during the late 70's early 80's. that influenced me. I've shot with flash loving its affect for years and years. These days I can't get a handle on any one person there's so many photographers out there. As a NY designer once told me, "I could throw a nickel out the window and hit 5 photographers with it".

I find it interesting that many of the photographers you refer to as influences and reference points have done work that on its face is very unlike yours. Weston, Minor White, Welpott, Sommer, etc. these were folks using a tripod with large format b/w focusing on formal previsualized images, seemingly the opposite of your spontaneous wide-angle handheld flash style.

Around 1970 when most everyone were using 35mm I was working with the view camera. And at some point during that time I was mimicking White, Welpott, and Sommer. I think I pulled all those influences forward and kind of streamlined them. I dropped the view camera for an easier, quicker medium format camera. And I gave up natural light for the flash. Then other contemporaries started influencing me. But without some degree of those formal elements that Weston and others dealt with, for me, my images would be lacking. Also the wide angle lens was not used for effect but because it more closely matched my peripheral vision.

Perhaps the thread that connects your work to theirs is that all of you are primarily interested in exploring the nature of photography itself rather than using photography as a blunt instrument to promote external ideas.

Man you hit the nail on the head here. Conceptual work and especially conceptual work that is done in "series" is the hot ticket and the anti christ of my work. I don't work in series and I rarely work with preconcepts. Creating work for a show as a series is kind of like mass producing one idea. For me my focus is one picture at a time. It's always about "the photograph". For me ideas are secondary to the image itself.

Whereas Winogrand photographed to see what things would look like photographed, you seem to be taking that a step further, asking "What would it look like if I flashed it at wide angle [threw something in front of it] and photographed it?" That is, you're more actively creating a disturbance in your subject matter. I'm thinking of the shot of traffic cones in snow, and the painting on the wall with reflected glare. These are great photos and I'm wondering what caused you to take them since it must've been difficult to know how they would turn out.

There's a little Winogrand in me and I'm always photographing to see what things look like photographed. Mark Cohen was an early influence, as was Les Krims as was Edward Weston and Minor White. Very early I thought I would like to find a place in my work that brought Les Krims and Edward Weston together (kind of being an informal formalist?) I think most photographers, after 30 years at it, have a pretty good idea how things will photograph. As for those orange barrels in the snow, I knew exactly how that would come out. Now with digital, I can see exactly how an image is "coming out" right then.
And I've got to note that I absolutely embraced the digital camera. I can't stand the photo process anymore after being completely submersed in it for 20 years. I like working in a lighted room, in a nice big open room, no fumes, no more chemical poisoning through the skin, no more loading a reel.... such a waste of time for a beginning student to learn all that crap. IT'S ABOUT THE FRICKIN IMAGE! and for the life of me I can't see how loading a tank and adjusting enlargers, easels, etc. help with making a meaningful image.

Within the snapshot aesthetic, there is a pretty fine line between shots which work and ones which don't. The photo depends on coordinated forms, and a misplaced arm or eyeball looking the wrong way can ruin the entire thing. When a photo does work, it seems not just miraculous but almost willed into being by some hidden universal order. I'm talking about the photos you see on the contact sheet and just go, "Holy Crap! How did those things line up! That's beyond chance!" What do you think makes these shots happen? Is the photographer tapping into some higher order, or is it just pure chance, or what? Does a belief in god help? Not help?

It's magic. I've tried to reshoot some things feeling I'm close to getting it right. But I can never seem to get whatever was making that first image work. It's luck and a lot of just looking for this stuff. Case in point this photo

I carried a 3 ft match around with me in the car and waited for something to work it into. I came on this kid raking and burning leaves. I threw that match up maybe 2 or 3 times. But the way it aligned with his rake, the zig zag of the flames, the match head at the start/top of the fire, and the way it looks like his pants are burning... all that just came together in one of 3 shots. It was effortless as it is with most of my shots that work. I've got to admit this happens frequently enough that I think I'm just "plugged into" something. Maybe I'm just finally plugging into "me". That's why almost all my personal work is from my daily life. It's like when something happens that's greater than fiction, and someone says, "you can't make this stuff up". That's kind of how I see my daily life, greater than fiction.

Your more recent work, on the second site you showed me, seems less snapshotty. The lighting is generally more even, the framing more careful, less concerned with the moment. Would you agree with that assessment? Is there something in the work now that you felt was missing in the snapshot style, that caused you to plan things out more in your recent work?

That's very perceptive. Yes the light is getting more even and there's more concern with composition. I never really aligned entirely to the "snapshot" aesthetic but that's where most of the magic lies. I always had this underlying concern for compostion that I'm sure was influenced by Welpott, Sommer, and White. To me the image is held up by its structure. Also composition helps to piece together the story.

You tend to cut off a lot of heads and also show many people in masks. Is that just toying with photographic possibilities or is it more of an intentional reference to photo and art history, to Meatyard, EJ Bellocq, Peter-Witkin, etc? I guess what I'm asking is, is there some archetypal image of headlessness that, perhaps unconsciously, drives you to take those sorts of photos? Playing with the nature of identity and disguise? Or are they just fun snapshots? Or both?

The cutting off of the heads came from being more interested in body gesture in the environment than being portrait. When you take the person out of it bodies and gesture become more narrative. And it pulls a little context out of things. Also eyes tell too much. The mask thing is more coincidental than anything. But I do like obscuring things. I love the flatness of the photo.

What were the circumstances of getting Beautiful Ecstasy published? Did J & L approach you or vice versa?

Here is where I was blessed. One of my best friends in this life is Paul Sahre, a great graphic designer with a great reputation, especially in book design. Paul and I met in Baltimore during the 5 or so years he lived here in the 90''s. We formed a great friendship that followed him when he moved to NYC around 1998. So Paul, who had been interested in my earlier lightpainting work, was by the later 90's getting me to re-examine my earlier work. He thought there was a lot more soul and a lot more of me in that work. And as I began to show that older black and white and color work around to more designers the reaction was fantastic. That experience got me back on track and is the way I continue to shoot.

So around 2000 Paul met and did some work with Jason Fulford, another photographer, who had just finished his first book and had been traveling trying to get it into bookstores, museums, and distributors. In so doing he made some valuable contacts. So he decided to publish more photographers whose aesthetic had a certain quality that he identified with. Finally Paul got Jason to take a look at my work and the next thing I knew they were down here going through boxes of images. They showed me the ones they were interested in taking and in a few weeks I had a dummy book sent to me. Paul and Jason did everything. The deal was I pay for the printing and Jason does everything else, including flying to Korea for a press check. Paul's idea was not to do a monograph. He was more interested in it being, poetic, open ended and it was "about the book as much as the work" so you could look at this as a collaboration. Paul wanted it to just be images, no words..... the words are in the images. He also did something that shocks the fine art types. He ran the gutter down the middle of each image. And although that's kind of destructive to the image, since it was done on every image, it became a design element and it played with the fact that I almost always center the main subject.

I like the photos of Pam. Will these be published as a book at some point? How much of an active participant was she in the photos? I mean, did she come up with poses and props on her own or did you prompt her, or both?

I pray The Pam Book happens. She was a great participant, very responsive, and would come up with stuff. Mostly I would initiate the shot. But after 9 years of marriage I wore her out with it. As for the kids it greatly depends on their age. The more self conscious they are the fewer shots you'll get. Early teens is usually tough.

Did your shooting ever interfere with your relationship with your family? Were you ever so intent on getting a certain shot that you were less mentally present as a husband or father?

I've never forgotten a story about, I think, Dorthea Lange. There was an event she always regretted. When her daughter was about 5 they were having a picnic and her daughter was running around picking flowers. When she returned with a boquet and started to hand it to her mom, Dorthea leaned back and away and put her camera between her and daughter and snapped the picture. She always regretted not having reached out to receive her daughters gift. I don't remember my shooting my family had any negative effect at any time or at least it was so rare I can't think of a moment. More often it would do more to get my daughter and me together. She loved having her picture taken. I think in the long run though, over the years, it wore my wife out. By our 9th year of marriage she was completely uninterested in posing anymore. But in recent conversations with her she said that my photographing made her feel important and was flattery.

You made a mention of shooting all digital. What are your general reactions to the digital age? Is there anything about film that is lacking with the switch to digital? How do you store/sort all your film archives?

In the late 90's I was so tired of the photo process that I was barely shooting. When digital came out I embraced it and it got me going again. I was now processing images in a 25 foot wide room with 15ft ceilings and beautiful light cascading in..... instead of a dank little compromised room in the basement, or under some narrow stair well, or inside some tiny closet, the only space you can find to make light safe. The only thing I miss about film is the lattitude, the range of values. Digital still can't match it, especially in the whites. But as for control, digital is supreme. Commercially it was a godsend. Clients could see the work as it's being shot and walk away with a little disk full of hours of work. And for their clients to view I can take the disc to my studio and post it on the internet in a matter of minutes so that anyone in the world on the internet can see it.

As for my archive it's deteriorating rapidly, especially the color work done in the first years that the process was simplified and stable and made readily available to the public, 1980. There was grit in a lot of the water in some of the places I lived over the years and it scarred many negatives. The scans allowed me to save some good images that would have been impossible to repair via the darkroom. Around 2002 I bought a good high end scanner to save my archive. It took 2 years scanning at least 5 days a week for 6 to 8 hrs a day. I selected any image that could possibly be bought by anyone. I made a raw scan and a tiff cleaned and balanced for output that was as big as I could get it, around 36"X29"@360dpi. I've made 2 copies of all the scans and have them stored at 2 different locations. I store on drives with everything backed up on disc.

I'm curious how the ability with digital to see images right after you shoot them has impacted your editing process? Many photographers (me among them) find it helpful to separate shooting and editing by waiting a week or longer between shooting and looking at photos, so that the memory of the shoot doesn't prejudice the interpretation of the photos. Is that at all an issue for you?

I use the viewing screen on the digital camera for immediate viewing primarily to check exposures or motion. I don't review them on the back of the camera to decide if it was worth taking. I do that later on the computer when there's more to see and more time to consider. I'm not sure about that week delay in seeing the image as helping much, although distancing one's self from the act of making the picture does give a little more objectivity in decision making. In fact I think if you have to wait a week to see your work that you're loosing valuable time. One of the things I hated about the process was waiting for the contact sheet. And that 1" image is a pretty crappy format to use for editing. I once asked Fred Sommer if he ever gets real excited when composing an image. He responded, "If I do I immediately have a martini."

Monday, December 24, 2007

You will fail, get over it

Christmas Eve is probably as good a day as any to consider what lessons Christ can teach us about photography.

Since I am not a Christian this should be considered speculative but if I have it right, Christianity is about coming to terms with imperfection. Everyone has failures. No one is perfect, so G-d sent Christ down to lead a perfect life to atone for our imperfections. Christianity teaches us, "you will fail, get over it."

"You will fail, get over it." This should be the mantra of all photographers. Failure is integral to photography. The vast majority of all photos taken are unsuccessful. It has always been that way and it always will be. As I write this I am surrounded by several hundred thousand negatives that didn't work out, that I will never print. Embedded in them are the few hundred or so that I consider my successes, maybe one in a thousand. Why do I keep the others? Because they seem essential somehow, because photography is about failure, and to keep the winners and throw out the losers would somehow disrupt that relationship. Failure is integral.

I have a simple test to decide if a photo is successful or not. When I'm looking at the photo I imagine I am omnipotent and can go back in time to rearrange elements in the frame. If the photo would be improved by rearranging or removing any elements, the photo is a failure. As you might guess most images can be improved somehow, and are thus failures. That's why painters have it easy. If they don't like something they paint over it. Photographers can't. Photographers fail over and over and over again day in and day out.

Once in a while I shoot one that can't be improved.

The feeling these photographs give me can't be improved.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Offseason photos

Looking today through my photographs from just a few weeks ago (late November), I was surprised how different the scenery looks than what is outside my window now. In the photos many of the trees still have bright fall leaves. The air seems crisp rather than wet. People are not wearing hoods.

It's now about a month later, the second day of Winter. The whole landscape seems visually quieter but the change was by such gradual degree I barely noticed. Thank you, photographs.

Photographs have an extra impact when you look at them offseason. In the midst of summer shooting I was printing a lot. I'd look for

interesting gestures and forms, absurd signs, the usual stuff that sates my b/w habit. When I look at those photos now I don't see those things first. Instead I notice how warm and bright everything looks. People are sweating. They're wearing t-shirts. They have sunglasses. The gestures and forms, the essence of what I thought I was shooting, are somewhat buried in the season.

Of course the opposite is true too. In summertime, photos of snow and ice seem especially powerful. Lisa Robinson's photos had a strong run on the critical circuit last summer, as did Camille Seaman and Joel Tettamanti's project Qaqortoq.

What would these photos look like to an eskimo, or someone else who lived snowbound most of the year? They might still be strong photos but perhaps without the visceral impact of the exotic. All I know is that Eugene Richards photo above looks more inviting now compared to the last time I saw it in September. Getting wet this time of year is too routine to be fun or even noticeable. The computer keyboard too becomes more familiar in winter.

And now for a short blurb having nothing to do with photography

While Google tracking this morning I stumbled on another Blake Andrews out in the etherworld. Yes, there are a few of us out there including a stage hynotist and until recently, a gay porn star. But I hadn't seen this one before today. The site is a shopping profile on the portal. Here are the categories by which allows users to define themselves:

1. Friends
2. Things I Want
3. Things I Have
4. Places I Shop

Yeah, those categories pretty much describe all that's important about a person.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Michael Northrup

What would you get if you mixed equal parts Mark Cohen, Bill Zelman, and Jacob Holdt? Probably something like this, which I stumbled on today courtesy of 40 Watt. If you're a fan of candid snapshots Michael Northrup is for you. Great moments, rich colors, and just downright bizarre in a beautifully creative way. These are photos by someone with the ability to laugh at himself, and in a deep love affair with photography.

The design of the website differs from most art/photography sites in that it's set up to look like a stock photograph company. I can't tell if it's meant to be ironic or if he actually generates stock business from the site. If it's ironic, it's a nice twist on the normally deficient fine art sales model. If it's not ironic, hey that's nice too since it means these photos will meet an unprepared audience out there somewhere. Either way, the site navigates well if you don't mind titles like C82-5-60a.

I suppose my final judgement can be summed up by the fact after checking out his website, I ordered his book Beautiful Ecstasy sight unseen.

What you see is not what you get

Rangefinder: What you see in the viewfinder has infinite depth of field. The resulting image will always have less depth of field than what you see.

SLR: What you see in the viewfinder has the smallest possible depth of field. The resulting image will always have as much or more depth of field than what you see.

Any camera: What you see in the viewfinder can never exactly equal what the camera records at the moment of exposure.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Noncontrol Freak

"I used to worry about things like the edges and if there were dust specks. Now I just look for little fragments that capture my eye and I forget about the rest of it." --Marsha Burns, Blue Sky Lecture, 6/13/02

This quote has been in my mind lately as I've been learning the boundaries of a new lens. The lens is a 40 mm. My camera doesn't have 40 mm framelines. The viewfinder shows 50 mm framelines and by pushing a lever I can get 35 mm framelines to appear. Toggling between framelines I can see a rough sense of what will be encompassed by 40 mm but it is just an estimate. There is no way to precisely place things into corners or along the edge. The other side of the equation is that I print fullframe and never crop 35 mm negs, meaning whatever is in the frame stays in the frame. So the exact composition of my photos is now beyond my control.

Photographers have a tendency to be anal. A lack of precise control would drive many of them crazy. But I have actually come to embrace it. I'm following Marsha Burns' advice, just looking for fragments and letting the rest of the image fall where it may. The feeling is similar to when I first began using the Noblex. I used it handheld at very slow shutter speeds, and combined with a very approximate viewfinder I often had less than a foggy idea of what I'd captured. I think part of the appeal of Holga or Diana cameras is a similar lack of control.

This attitude is the polar opposite of the f/64 mentality which dominated American photography for so long. Can you imagine Ansel Adams taking a photo without total awareness of the frame's edges? Even Henri Cartier-Bresson, though more of a risk taker than Adams, made a point of composing in the viewfinder. He rarely cropped, and his influence in this regard was pervasive. Control is of course required, but there is a give and take. Too much control becomes a limitation. The photo looks too planned. I think a little chance is essential to good photography, and to good life in general, and lately the 40 has helped inject that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Two soldiers

Consider this photo by Peter van Agtmael from the current Iraq war:

When I first saw it (over at Conscientious) it got my attention for a little while. No doubt it is powerful. The injured soldier gazes off into space. Who knows what horrors are being remembered behind those eyes? We fill in the blank with our most violent ideas and the photo gains life. It's the perfect archetype of what we imagine a war photo should be. That's what bothers me about it.

The man looks delivered from central casting, or worse, Madame Tussauds. Just look up for a second, hold it,...a little to the left, good....Got it. War photo, check. I realize it may sound unbelievably inhumane to criticize a war casualty, and I don't mean any harm. It's just that this photo seems a bit plastic to me. More than plastic, the photo looks contemporary. It looks thought out and studied. Efficient. Illustrative. In short, it looks like much of today's successful fine art photography (concise roundup here of what is "hot").

Now compare the van Agtmael photo to this one, shot during the Veitnam war 35 years earlier:

Superficially the second photo is similar to the first. A soldier is looking away from the camera. The viewer must fill in the blanks. What is he thinking about? Is he going to the front lines? Is he going home? Is he injured? Is he in danger? Is he sad? Relieved? Alert? Sorry, can't answer any of these questions. I can only say that this soldier looks like a real person. He's not the one you'd order from casting and that is not the pose you'd shoot him in if you were trying to make an archetypal photo. Instead, this is a real pose shot by a real soldier of a real soldier. Both names are now lost to history. The snapshot was found by Binh Danh and included in his 2007 exhibit One Week's Dead shown at Lightwork gallery last Fall.

The Agtmael photo is real too, in a sense. The soldier is real, and presumably the situation is not staged. What's interesting is that in such a real situation, Agtmael (perhaps unconsciously?) composed a scene which looks as if it could be staged. I think this choice, especially constasted with a "real" snapshot from another war, says something about where photography is at now, and where it's likely heading: toward perfectionism, advertising, convenience, repeatability, etc. It's being drawn toward most global trends. In fact it could be the art form you'd order up from central casting to exemplify those trends.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


One of the unexpected differences of shooting with an older manual camera is that the first few frames are now alive, whereas before they were quiet. With my auto-advance Nikon, I inserted the film and the camera automatically advanced to frame 1, which was prefaced by a few completely blank frames back to the black of the takeup tab.

But loading manually the black mark marches right up into the initial frames. The frames seem to emerge from darkness like waking from sleep. The first half-black frame and maybe the one after are unfocused visions that are recorded randomly as I advance the film. These feel like groggy blinking as the camera gains consciousness. Then the thing is alert. The vision becomes tuned and accurate for the rest of the roll. All in all the film feels more alive, if film can feel that way.

When I cut my film now I am careful to include some black as well as the random frames. I think an interesting photo project would be to print them as a series. Pure random chance frames, yet as a series perhaps they would say something. Maybe I always hold the camera at a certain angle while advancing. Maybe the focus is always set a certain distance. Maybe the photos would tap into some unconscious feeling, some dream state.

Intriguing. I'll never do it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Five second beautiful scene

Often the photos I don't take form a more lasting memory than the ones I do take. As I write this a scene from yesterday is burned into my mind. I was at a flea market half holiday shopping and half shooting photos. I turned down an aisle and the most natural beautiful shot was right before me. Two women were crouched over a counter showing an item to a potential customer. Their hands were laid before them but woven together so you couldn't tell which hands belonged to whom. The customer was carrying a box with a strange abstract design that matched their hands. If I'd shot it in black and white the effect would've been even more interesting, the confusion increased. I didn't need to move at all, the scene was right there for the taking. But for some reason I still can't figure out I didn't shoot the photo. Perhaps it seemed too transitory, like the scene would only last a moment and would likely disappear the moment I put my camera to my face. Perhaps I got a case of stage fright, afraid they would question me. Whatever it was, instead of taking the photo I just stood there transfixed as the moment lasted one...two...three...four...five seconds. Plenty of time, had I acted. After they moved their hands apart and I'd gone away I thought about that scene the rest of the day. I thought about it much more than if I'd taken the photo.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


A link at A Photo Editor reports that Kodak will cease production of their HIE infrared film after this year. While I suppose this was inevitable, it still makes me sad. In the early years of this decade I shot HIE fairly regularly, probably every 10th roll or so. You never knew exactly how the photos would turn out. The film was great on summer days when bright mid-day light made normal film look blown out and boring. Good any old time actually. I gradually stopped using it because it was expensive and because it had become somewhat of an artistic crutch. Any photo shot with that film is really dominated by a certain look.

There are a few substitutes out there but I never liked them as much as HIE. Anyway I suspect all infrared films will eventually go the way of HIE and perhaps all films period.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Procession as Production

Photographing the grid usually makes me nervous. The neighborhoods are often places that I don't know very well, so I feel somewhat like a foreign traveler. What are the customs in these parts? The project is by nature invasive. I am constantly sizing up people's yards and private dwellings, and when things looks right I point a camera in their direction. I often imagine that someone is in the home I'm photographing, or behind me in a home across the street, wondering what in the world is that person doing with a camera and why are they acting so sneaky and come to think of it he looks half Communist. The situation has some tension, which is part of why it is fun.But photographing in the grid on Thursday there was no tension at all. It was my old hood and I felt more relaxed than I had in a long time. Walking the residential area between Ankeny and Pine, I shot yards and cars and porches without a care in the world. I walked up into several driveways and peeked over fences and anyone that walked by I asked for a portrait. It was really on a roll, seeing things everywhere, in the type of zone that makes photography really enjoyable. Of course I haven't seen the film yet. It could turn out that I captured nothing worthwhile the whole day, but maybe that's the whole point. For at least a few hours Thursday it was as much about process as product.

After I'd used all the day's light I made my way to the park blocks. After a cursory trip through the Michael Kenna show at Hartman (his photos looked about like you'd expect them to look. Nothing more, nothing less) I made my way to Blue Sky. Zelman's Isolated Gesture project is somewhat similar to my guerrilla portraits but closer, braver, and more carefully tuned to minutiae. He walks up to people with a wide angle lens and from about 3 feet away flashes them to freeze interesting gestures. The effect is somewhere between Mark Cohen and Bruce Gilden. Since the subjects are unprepared, their gestures show a beautiful purity. The prints are old school black and white fiber, printed from 35 mm film, the sort that you don't see much in galleries anymore. All in all, a great show.

I think the most impressive thing about these photographs is that they were so meaningless. Maybe meaningless is the wrong word, but you could tell they were taken out of love of photography and without some ulterior motive beyond an interest in human form. No social drama, no deep canyon to stand in awe of or oppressed tribe to feel guilty about, just pure photography for its own sake. In today's world such photography is rare and becoming rarer. At Blue Sky especially it is unusual to see this type of work. Most of what they show requires backstory.

Looking at at the show I formed an impression of Zelman. He was probably in his 60s, a longtime street shooter buried in obscurity but quietly collecting these private moments which after years of toil could now have their moment in the sun. But reading his artist bio turned all of that on its head. Not only was he young --just 35-- he was a commercial photographer with a slick website. He did fashion, editorial, advertising, album covers, the stuff that is all about product instead of process. He wasn't obscure. He was in the mix. He was in today's world after all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Below chance

My comment a few posts ago that "photography is 90% mental" may have raised a few eyebrows. My guess is that most people would disagree with that statement. You're supposed to take the photo when it "feels" right, and appreciating fine photos in a gallery is all about responding emotionally to prints. Does the work hit you in the gut or not?I've never felt this way about photography. I approach it intellectually the same way I've always approached everything. I'm one of those left-brained nerds completely out of touch with my feelings, and I'm ok with that. I'll take Friedlander over Frank any day, Ken Josephson over Robert Adams, and Michael Bishop over Eggleston. For me John Pfahl's Altered Landscapes leaves Power Places in the dust. You get the drift.

And this is how I take photos too. I look for form, absurdity, synchronicity. Emotion is way down the list, below chance. I realize it's a limitation but that's my composition. For me, a rough guess at photography's ingredients would be

90% mental
38% form/composition
33% f8 and be there
9% random chance
8% emotion
1% photos that actually work out

I realize those percentages don't add up to 100 but how do they make you feel?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Complete portrait lesson in 72 words

"Disfarmer was just a small-town portraitist, yet he avoided the usual portrait studio artifice, popular elsewhere, which turned each subject into a mask of smiling sameness. He developed a strong, personal style, a style perhaps best characterized by its artlessness... Disfrarmer did a minimum of arranging and posing of his subjects, and obviously never tried to coax a smile or gesture. He pressed the shutter when his presence was least intrusive."

--Julia Scully, from her introduction to Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946

My color tutorial 3

We've been watching Deadwood season three the past week. There are almost no shades of blue in that show. It's like an old yellowing photograph in which even the sky looks more green than blue. The only thing blue in Deadwood is sky which you only see if you're bellyup in a stagecoach rut.

I don't think I would've noticed any of this before shooting color.

Monday, December 10, 2007

First impressions after a day with the M6

1. Feels more like a precision instrument than a camera. If you could take my dad's transit (he is a retired land surveyor) shrink it to 1/10th scale and put it in a bulletproof shell it would feel like a Leica. In contrast, most modern cameras, especially digital ones, have a feeling more akin to a shrunken TV set.

2. Leica makes a big deal of how accurately their cameras focus, but for the type of shooting I do this seems to be a nonissue. Accurate focus is only possible with stationary objects. In dynamic street scenes yesterday I found myself zone focusing 95% of the time. Most of my attention is between 5 and 25 ft. Focused at 10 ft at f8, that area will be in focus and stopping to focus more accurately only slows me down. Autofocus may be faster, but still not as fast as zone focusing.

3. Using a meter again feels like going back to student photography days. I'm so used to aperture priority that I'm sure I misexposed (mostly over) several frames today forgetting to stay on top of shutter speed. Good reminder to slow down and pay attention, which is a good reminder in general when photographing.

4. The use of an all mechanical camera might be considered eco on some level. Then again, film carries a pretty high embodied resource cost compared to digital. But where the Leica is potentially a very green product is in its longevity. Here is the list of 35 mm cameras I wore through before buying the Leica: Yashica SLR, Canon AE-1, Nikon F4, Nikon F90X, Nikon N50, Nikon N80, Nikon N90s, Konica Hexar, Contax G2, Konica Hexar (#2). That's 10 cameras in 14 years. If the Leica lasts me 5 years I am way ahead environmentally. Big if...

4a. Related question: Will anyone in the world who is shooting digital still be using the same camera in 5 years?

5. The appeal of the Leica is 90% mental. Zeiss makes a virtually identical camera with more features at half the price, only difference is no red Leica logo on the front. Fortunately photography is 90% mental too, so it's a perfect fit.

6. Will they still be making film cartridges when I'm ready to pass this camera to my kids?

7. Why did I wait so long to get one?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Thoughts on Style

Shawn Records (I keep referencing him. Do I sound like a broken Records?) has been blogging the past few days about personal style in relation to photography. The basic dilemma for photographers (and all artists?) is to find their voice without the voice becoming prescriptive, since art dictated by a style can seem stale and dogmatic. Finding the balance point poses a delicate challenge.

As with many topics Winogrand was in the forefront addressing this problem, claiming that if he ever looked through the viewfinder and saw something that looked like one of his photographs, he made special effort NOT to take the photo. Of course he did this enough that it became his style.

Mike Johnston addressed the issue earlier this fall at The Online Photographer, coming down firmly in support of having a strongly identifiable personal style, at least if a photographer wants to make memorable photos.

Finally Alec Soth on his late great blog put it in terms of The Sentence, a phrase whose penal conotations give an inkling into his perspective.

Records cites Mitch Epstein as an example of someone who is not stylebound. His book The City has a wide range of styles from candid color street stuff to staged black and white portraiture. I am less enamored with The City. While it's nice to have a diverse range, this book is too scattered. If he weren't Mitch Epstein surely he would be sent to a corner to re-edit and re-submit his work.

I think a better example is Lee Friedlander's Portraits. In one sense this book is all over the place. There are close ups, wide angles, indoor, outdoor, subjects all over the frame, flash, natural light, people looking at the camera, or not, celebrities, normal folks. Going from one photo to the next we have no idea what to expect. For me this is exactly why the book is successful, for it has escaped the tyranny of prescriptive style. Yet the book holds together. Every photo somehow looks like a Friedlander.

The other end of the spectrum is something like Disfarmer's Heber Springs Portraits. Talk about stylebound! He uses a minimum of backdrops, similar lighting, they're all posed. You see a Disfarmer photo and there's no doubt who took it. This strong stylistic bent kept me from appreciating the book for a long while, for I felt the style fell into the pitfall of being generic. Yet just recently in the past few months (as I've gone out to take portraits?), I've really grown to like this book. Many of these photos are just dynamite, and I think the strong style helps. Instead of blurring the subjects together, the setting and backdrops are so uniform that our attention is forced on the people and we notice how unique they are. Disfarmer is not so much trapped in his style as he is a master of it.

As with all photography there are a zillion approaches and it's up to each to find their own. My own outlook tends toward the Winogrand camp. I would like for my photographs not to follow any style, even though this is probably as impossible as not having unique handwriting. I'm scared shitless of being identified with X picture or X project. I think this is why I've been enamored with portraiture lately. I am such a novice at it that I have yet to consciously follow or avoid any style. For example here are two portraits I shot last week which have little in common, yet I think each works in its own way.

Do these two photos look like my handwriting?