Sunday, May 31, 2009

Not another art show announcement

All friends within driving distance are invited.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

What To Do #30

88. Columbia Slough, Portland, 2005

89. SE Belmont, Portland, 2003

90. SE Hawthorne, Portland, 2003

(WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen b/w photos. This week's photos are from the series Accidental Neighbors)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rephotographing Shore

Here is the original Stephen Shore photo referenced in Tuesday's quiz.

5th and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974
Stephen Shore from the cover of Uncommon Places, 2nd Edition

Bob Crivello's used car lot is visible in the center rear of the image. I remember Sambo's Restaurant from my boyhood in Eureka (where I lived from from ages 5 to 8, during the time of Shore's photo). The mascot of the menu was a small black boy with exaggerated pink lips. In backwoods upstate California this passed for diversity training, but that's another story.

One of the great things about Uncommon Places is that the captions are mechanical, listing only the precise place and date. Just the facts, Ma'am. I think Shore did this to encourage a dry reading of the photographs, part of his effort at making them seem effortless.

Thirtysomething years later many of Shore's locations have been reshot by a photographer that is even drier and more clinical than him: Google Street View. This is Just the facts, Ma'am taken to the nth degree. Plug in Shore's addresses and the Street View lookup is simple. I believe Dalton Rooney was the first to explore this in a February blog post. Here are a few of my own examples.

Center St. and West Third St., Little Rock, Arkansas, October 5, 1974
Stephen Shore

Center St. and West Third St., Little Rock, Arkansas, 2009
Google Street View

Sixth St. and Throckmorton St., Fort Worth, Texas, June 13, 1976
Stephen Shore

Sixth St. and Throckmorton St., Fort Worth, Texas, 2009
Google Street View

West Fifteenth and Vine St., Cincinatti, Ohio, May 15, 1974
Stephen Shore

West Fifteenth and Vine St., Cincinatti, Ohio, 2009
Google Street View

Lincoln St. and Riverside St., Spokane, WA, August 25, 1974
Stephen Shore

Lincoln St. and Riverside St., Spokane, WA, 2009
Google Street View

No one would ever mistake the photos of Google Street View for Shore. They show the same locations but that's about it. Where Streetview gets interesting is in the interactive mode. You can program an address, bring it up on the screen, then walk up and down the street or turn in a circle to see various perspectives. For the Shore photos, this is a bit like being in his head. Why did he choose to photograph certain corners? Why did he aim the camera one way instead of another?

Of all photographers, Shore seems to be the perfect foil for this. Not only does he give us the exact address of his photographs but the scenes are mostly static and thus easily rephotographed. Also, there is something in the nature of his photographs that seems to invite second guessing. At first glance they seem so arbitrary, so unimportant. Walking around in Street View helped me realize that the subjects he chose were anything but arbitrary. They were the zenith of editorial precision.

At the rate things are going most of the developed world will wind up eventually on Google Street View. There is already a site dedicated to filtering out some of its better images, and I expect more of these to pop up. We'll need them because most of Google's shots don't stand up on their own. As individual photos they fall flat but as general background reference they provide a fascinating context. In the future we'll be able to look up the location of any urban photo and get in the head of the photographer. Can you imagine if Google Street View existed during the life of Atget or Evans?

Christopher Rauschenberg has a saying, "any photograph taken today, even the least interesting ones, will become interesting in 50 years." Google Street View may be the final proof of that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Quiz #14

I'm now back from California, where on Sunday walking back to the car after photographing this, I happened upon the scene below. I didn't have my color camera with me at the time but I captured it later using Google Streetview.

If it looks familiar, that's because it probably is. This scene is a background element on the cover of a well known photography book. The first person to correctly identify the book gets a free print.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What To Do #29

85. Zane, 2002

86. Leo's birth, 2002

87. Emmett, 2008

(WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen b/w photos)

I'll be on the road once again for the next few days, this time to visit the most progressive town in America. Regularly scheduled posting will resume next week.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Drooker covers Hine, recovers Icarus

The cover of last week's New Yorker was a nice homage to the great Lewis Hine.

New Yorker, May 18th, 2009, Eric Drooker

Empire State Building, 1931, Lewis Hine

Made shortly after the 1929 stock market crash, Hine's photo must've been seen at that time as a symbol of hope. The heroic worker builds a foundation, then lifts himself by his own bootstraps. The tone of Drooker's image seems darker but the message is similar. In the midst of tough times there's room for optimism.

If the New Yorker is any barometer of art tastes photography is on the ascent. The Drooker issue features 8 art blurbs, half of which review photography. You'll need to go back several months to find an issue in which the majority of the art reviews are not about photography. Half a century ago only one non-museum in America showed photographs. Today we've conquered the art world. We've built the foundation and lifted ourselves up close to the sun. There's room for optimism, so long as we don't forget it's a long way down.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Shoot first, ask questions later

Of all the photographs I saw at last month's Photolucida Portfolio Walk, I think my favorites were by Gordon Stettinius.

The Thing...What Is It?, Cochise, AZ, Gordon Stettinius

Stettinius isn't the type of guy to dream up some grand project and then execute it. Instead he carries a camera with him everywhere, usually one with a plastic lens, using it to gather visual nuggets wherever he is. The resulting photos show a wonderfully sharp eye and warped sense of humor.

Walker and Henry, Richmond, VA, Gordon Stettinius

The photography-integrated-into-life method is decidedly unfashionable. The huge majority of photographers I saw at Photolucida were more project oriented. The prevailing model is to develop a concept of something that has photographic potential —often of personal interest but not always— and then methodically take photographs of that project until a body of work is created, with the ultimate goal of showing the work at Photolucida or similar venue.

Mike, Gordon Stettinius

The potential pitfall of this method is that the resulting photographs can seem secondary to the project. Often the artist statement conveys all the information required and you needn't look at more than a few photos to get the gist of it. Such projects may be appropriate for the idea-centric art world but they enslave photography as a tool, not a lifestyle.

With Megan, Tucson, AZ, Gordon Stettinius

I think photographs should come first. Arrange them in projects later if you must or else leave them as is in a big loose stack. Either way, photography that is integral to life seems to me to be the strongest because it comes from purest motivation: the very simple need to translate the world into photographs. Of course I am biased because this how I approach my own work, but it's what I like to see in others too.

Bunny Tail, Gordon Stettinius

Is this enough? For most curators, collectors, etc, probably not. I'm guessing that Gordon Stettinius' photos received a lukewarm reception at the reviews. He was probably told he should edit, focus, develop a storyline, whatever. He was probably told his photographs don't serve any broader story, that they're just observations. Exactly! Observation is photography's central requirement. Thinking is secondary. Shoot first, ask questions later, perhaps in a blog post.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


If 1000 words just aren't enough for you, check out Camera Obscura which only runs articles longer than that. So many words, so little time. Here's a thousand more:

Untitled, 980, from Thousand by Philip-Lorca DiCorcia

Monday, May 18, 2009

Plunge right in

Although the soaking of art collectors is a long and venerable tradition, the liquid immersion of actual art is much less developed. Hirst's shark comes to mind, and of course Piss Christ. But after those two the falloff is dramatic. And when it comes to photography the field is quite barren.

Humble Arts lays the foundation for a good soaking

Fortunately this situation is about to change. With its recent publication The Collector's Guide to Submerging Art Photography, The Humble Arts Foundation has laid the groundwork for collectors everywhere to soak their photographs safely and comfortably. Billed as "an invite only, unique 180–page source book distributed to collectors, art dealers, gallery directors, photo editors, museum professionals, and independent curators" this is a step by step guide to submerging photography.

The key insight of The Collector's Guide is that every photograph is unique, and so requires a unique approach. There are many possible methods of immersion. The guide carefully describes them all. For smaller prints like postcards, polaroids, and the daguerreotype shown below, a quick dunking in a fishbowl will suffice.

Most photographs can be submerged indoors in just a few minutes

For larger framed photographs like the Arbus prints shown below, a fish bowl is not sufficient. The prints would feel very cramped if submerged in such an environment. Instead, most collectors will find a large backyard receptacle to be more suitable.

Photographs should be tossed with care to minimize any damage to the frame or glass

Of course Humble Arts realizes that the majority of collectors wouldn't be caught dead dunking valuable photos in a fishbowl or tossing them into a pool. These are both shallow experiences compared to photographic diving.

Photographs by Katy Grannan and Richard Avedon add a touch of class to any underwater scene

According to collectors in the know, there is nothing like frolicking underwater with framed prints. To pull their wire hangers or feel one nuzzle against your diving apparatus is an incomparable experience, but one which requires training and preparation. Fortunately more than half of the guide is devoted to the practice of full submersion.

Because art photography submersion is an emerging practice, many collectors don't yet appreciate it. The initial reaction is often confusion or outright hostility. "Why would I want to do that?" asks the typical collector. This turns out to be a good question. After all most photographs turn into a soggy dripping mess when they get wet. Where's the payoff?

This is where editing is crucial. Many photographs survive just fine. The key is determining the specific soakability of each photo. It can make or break any submersion. Fortunately the guide's last three chapters describe the editing process, and in so doing they will help bridge the gap for hesitant or unapproachable collectors.

The Collector's Guide comes along at the perfect time. After the recent housing crash many homeowners find themselves underwater already, and the extension to photography is a natural fit. After reading the guide anyone should be ready to plunge right into submerging art photography.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What To Do #28

82. Arcata, CA, 2004

83. Seaside, OR, 2004

84. Gresham, OR, 2004

(WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen b/w photos)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Government vs. Photography, again

As good as Obama has been so far, he's had a few stumbles recently regarding photography. The decision this week to block the release of additonal prisoner abuse photos is antiquated and miscalculated. The argument that the photos will somehow strengthen the enemy is the same tired premise that every head-of-state drags out to muffle embarrassing documents. Worse, the whole effort is futile. One way or another those photos will become public and Obama may as well get on the right side of history before it happens. Wake up, Obama. Information wants to be free, and it will be.

Air Force One occupying a pre-Photoshop mental airspace

The week before was the incident with the Air Force One photo op over Manhattan. What were they thinking? Not only were citizens alarmed but many authorities were caught by surprise, including Obama himself.

My question is why couldn't they just recreate the event in Photoshop? Why photograph the real plane instead of just pasting it into a background? Normally this type of photo tampering would bother me but with such an obvious PR image, what's the difference? An Airforce One postcard isn't journalism. It doesn't need to reflect any real event, a fact that for some reason the plane's PR handlers did not comprehend. Heck, you could paste Air Force One into any old background you want.

Air Force One occupying a post-Photoshop mental airspace

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Photography never interested me"

Nice to see Jacob Holdt getting a little love recently from the photo community. Holdt is a shooter of remarkable dexterity, vision, and plain old fashioned balls. What makes him so intriguing is that he doesn't consider himself a photographer. According to his website he fell into photography by accident as a way to describe his travels:

Jacob Holdt in 1972, six years into growing his current beard

"My parents - in disbelief of my written accounts - sent me after one year a pocket-size Canon Dial for my birthday asking me to send some pictures home. I had never photographed before and saw it first as my visual diary helping me to remember all the people who gave me hospitality and food in more than 400 homes over 5 years as a 'vagabond'. This is my term for a hitchhiker who with no exception says yes to every invitation he receives and thus throws himself into the arms of many abusive people whom - at least I - had been brought up to avoid in my safe Danish rectory. The half-frame camera took 72 pictures on a roll, so by selling my blood plasma twice a week for $5 each time, I could afford 2 rolls of film a week. Often I hitchhiked enormous distances to go to e.g. New Orleans, where the blood banks paid $6, but during the last two years I made small picture books to show to better-off drivers after which I often got small donations – the highest was $30 from a businessman in Philadelphia.

"Since I had to economize with the film I often sat for days with people whom I lived, not using the camera before I saw 'the right face' which I felt showed the situation before the interference of a stranger – and then shot just one or two pictures. My first priority was always survival - housing and food – and the photography only my extravagant hobby. Since American Pictures became a success in 1976, I have of course for 30 years been re-visiting all those friends – including my former muggers and rapists – and found it interesting that only a few of them can remember that I discretely had photographed them the first time I stayed with them."
Rich Girl With Maid, Jacob Holdt

With no formal training, using a half-frame camera, shooting flashlit color when social documentary work had traditionally been done in available light b/w, Holdt compiled an astonishing series of photographs of the American underbelly.

Unfortunately the first effort to distribute the work had some flaws. The 1985 book American Pictures may appeal to social workers but it doesn't really belong on a photographer's shelf. The layout is dense and the photos small. Most of Holdt's color shots were converted to grayscale, presumably to make publication easier.

Mother and Child at Stove, Jacob Holdt

The more recent United States 1970-1975 (Steidl 2007) made huge strides toward correcting things. Edited as much for photographic interest as for social impact, the book firmly anchors the joint between Robert Frank and Zoe Strauss. Well sequenced photos sit comfortably one per page. The colors and production quality are great. Not only is it a photographic force but I think its more subtle nature makes it a better tool for social change than American Pictures.

Love in the Glow of the Oil Lamp, Jacob Holdt

Which brings us to Holdt's website, probably the most massive of any photogra...,er, sorry, camera user on the planet. According to Holdt there are 20,000 of his photos online, not to mention slideshows and commentary. The strategy here is to hit the viewer over the head with social poverty, and if that doesn't work do it again. I think most people will get the message after browsing for five minutes. The site is impressive but, as with the original book, it would probably be more effective with some editing.

Pool Player, Jacob Holdt

Not that Holdt cares. "Photography never interested me," he says in a recent interview, a statement which would be easier to take if he weren't such a damned good photographer.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sunday my prints welcome

My work prints went to Europe last weekend without me and all they brought back was this lousy T-shirt. Grazie, Joni!

Friday, May 8, 2009

What To Do #27

79. SE 47th and Belmont, Portland, 2004

80. SE 33rd and Stark, Portland, 2004

81. Gilbert Museum, Salem, OR, 2004

(WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen b/w photos)

I will be on the road for the next several days, going here, then here, and finally to share cookies and prints with these folks. Expect limited posts for the next week or so.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Least Wanted

Just one more comment about passports and then I promise I'll stop. Compiling my brief history I'd scoured the web for passport images. I found a few but unfortunately I'd missed the motherlode. It wasn't until after the post that Mark Michaelson —aka leastwanted— sent me a link to his Flickr page of antique passports from all over the world.

Assorted passports from Leastwanted's Flickr site

But passports are just the tip of the iceberg. Leastwanted's full set of images compiles hundreds of badges, medical photos, and other miscellaneous documentary images. The common thread is that none of the photos was originally conceived of as "art" and so they offer a relatively unfiltered view into the past. The primary focus is mugshots, many of which were published as a book by Steidl in 2006.

from Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots
by Mark Michaelson and Steven Kashner, 2006, Steidl & Partners

For anyone interested in found photos, Leastwanted's Flickr site will become a mostwanted bookmark providing days of browsing pleasure. Any future histories of passport photographs should include it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Payment plan

I'm a chronic photographer. If I'm walking around I need to be making photographs or I get restless. A lot of times I'll force a photo to happen when it really shouldn't, just to sate my habit. What this means is that I wind up taking a lot of shitty photographs, like this one from last week for example.

I shot this in a park in Corvallis while waiting for this photo show to open. Although there may have been a potential photograph in this scene I didn't get it. I wasn't patient enough or not in the right spot or missed the moment. I'm not sure. All I know is I wound up with yet another stillborn image. It wouldn't even be worth reproducing here if not for what happened next.

I walked around some more, checked out the show, bought a funny used book, and drove home. Tab had stacked my mail on my desk with the New Yorker on top.

Strange! Although the details are hard to discern in the photo, the statues are extremely similar. The same pose, the same bare limbs, the same round pedestal. To encounter this twice in one day was downright weird.

What does it mean beyond that? I'll probably never know, but it's reaffirmed my sense that there is a strange order to things not easily understood. We catch glimpses of it here and there, and occasionally our photographs can capture it and show it to us if we are receptive.

Pay attention to what you see. That's the lesson. Photographers above all others, pay attention.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Routine break

I fear that B is getting too predictable. I think what it needs, what every blog needs in fact, is a set-of-twelve-polaroids-shot-by-my-kids-some-of-which-have-inverted-colors-arranged-in-the-shape-of-a-giant-polaroid. So here it is:

There. Betcha didn't see that coming.