Sunday, February 28, 2010

Northern Exposure

Critical Mass Book Award winners were announced last week. While I won't say that you have to document a small Northern outpost to win this contest, based on results from the past few years it certainly can't hurt your chances. In 2006 it was Donald Weber:

Followed in 2008 by CĂ©line Clanet:

2009's co-winner, announced last week, was Birthe Piontek:

I don't want to homogenize these projects too much since each photographer has his/her own distinctive, strong approach. But the similarities are too glaring to ignore.

The recipe seems to call for spending several months living among a snowy people, examining their inner life by photographing a mix of rural social landscape, portraits, and poetically unkempt interiors, with perhaps a few hunting photos thrown in for grisly impact. I mention the hunting photos because for me they raise an interesting question: How much do these photographs rely on exoticism for their power?

For example, presumably most Critical Mass reviewers don't hunt for their sustenance. How does that effect their perception of freshly skinned meat? If the Critical Mass reviewers happened to live in a simple, Arctic culture like those in the photos, would these same projects win on the strength of their vision alone? Or would the winners depict what we think of as mundane, perhaps manicured lawns and Starbucks outlets? I don't know the answer but I think these are questions worth asking.

Whatever the answers, one thing is for sure. Next year's submissions are sure to contain many photographs --perhaps even a critical mass-- of Northern outposts.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What To Do? #61

181. SE 34th and Belmont, Portland, 2003

182. SW Barbur Burger King, Portland, 2005

183. SW 4th and Salmon, Portland, 2003

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

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Questions without answers

This past week I've been enjoying the book Visions and Images by Barbaralee Diamonstein. If the name rings a bell, it's probably from Diamonstein's Interview with Garry Winogrand which circulated on various photoblogs last year.

It turns out that was only one in a series of interviews with American photographers conducted by Diamonstein in 1981. Visions and Images compiles transcriptions of fifteen interviews, all of them heavyweights. In addition to Winogrand, there's Kertesz, Metzker, Meyerowitz, Siskind, Callahan... the list goes on. They are all available on YouTube, but I almost prefer reading the transcription to the video. I can go at my own pace, and I find here's something almost photographic about a transcribed interview. Like the capture of a scene through a lens, the conversion of video to writing mediates directly without altering the essence.

The interview I found most intriguing was with the elusive Elliott Erwitt. Talk about a reluctant guest. His answers are so evasive you'd think he was running for office. Time and again Diamonstein lobs probing questions at him, but he refuses to field any of them. It must've driven her crazy.

At first it put me off. I thought, why won't he just answer the question? But the more I read, the more refreshing Erwitt's attitude was. Here was a photographer who wasn't afraid to say "I don't know". It seems the perfect counter to today's culture of specificity, in which photographers are expected to plan out their projects top to bottom and be ready to explain them in a concise three paragraph spiel. For many photo projects nowadays the explanation often takes precedence over the images. You read the artist's statement and you don't even need to see the photos.

Erwitt is the antithesis. Photographs before theory. Can you imagine any of today's hot young photo stars being brave enough to give answers like this?

Diamonstein: What are really saying [in your photos] about the whole question of personal identity?

Erwitt: Gosh. Nothing, I guess…


D: Humor is a very central part of your work. I've often wondered how you're managed to skirt that very difficult line between humor and sarcasm.

E: I wish I could answer you. I don't worry too much about things like that. I just do what I do, without thinking too much.


D: What are the strategies you use to achieve the results we see in your work?

E: Well, let's see, strategy….I do take pictures of dogs and I bark at them sometimes. But that's really to attract their attention more than to convey a message to them.


D: When did this "humanist" wit begin to emerge in your work?

E: Oh gosh, I don't know…


D: [John Szarkowski] has said that you're known for almost confusing understatement in your photographs; that they deal with the empty spaces between happenings, and with anti-climactic non-events. [He] callsl them anti-photographs. What do you mean by that, and what do you think he means?

E: Well, I don't know what he means, but it sounds good to me. As for anti-photographs, I was looking for a catchy title for my book, and a copywriter friend suggested it. He explained what he thought it meant, but I've forgotten.


D: What advice would you give to a you or beginning photographer? Is there any special schooling, or any special technique that you would suggest?

E: No, my only suggestion would be to develop interests and pursue them -- nothing more.


D: There are certain recurring themes ini your work. We've talked about dogs, but we haven't talked much about beaches. What is the constant attraction to the beach?

E: I'm very often by the sea or the waterfront, and I find that's a good place to take pictures. Like with dogs, I find the beach is in most places.

D: What do we reveal about ourselves at the beach that you find particularly engaging?

E: I don't know. I just go there and take pictures, and I hope if there's anything to be revealed it'll be in the pictures.


D: I read that during [your father's] long travels away from home, he encouraged you to document the everyday circumstances of your life in his absence. Did that discipline and your diaries have any effect on the way your document the rest of the world now?

E: Perhaps. I have no idea. I really don't try to look for reasons for everything. I think it's a mistake to look for a motivation for everything. You just go out and do what you do. Don't think too much about it, because it takes the spontaneity out of everything.


D: Did you ever expect your life to unfold as it has?

E: I don't know that I had any particular expectations. I don't look too far forward. I just live as it comes. I don't have any particular projections. Actually, you got me to talk about my projections for books. I don't think I've ever thought that far in advance.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

This is a publicity photo accompanying a recent email alert about an upcoming class called Digital Perfection with Photoshop:

I have not altered the photo in any way.

I don't mean to poke fun at Mark Fitzgerald. I've taken classes with him and he is a total pro. But this doesn't seem like the photo to use when advertising perfection. Just saying.

Monday, February 22, 2010

It Ain't Me Babe

I've known for a while that I share a name with various Googlegangers, including a stage hypnotist, a gay porn star, a playboy slash beer distributor, and several white collar professionals. Now it turns out there's another photographer named Blake Andrews. If you want to order photos from your wedding last September, or from any other wedding, it ain't me you're looking for.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Potter Bathtub Telephone

When it comes to sequencing photographs, I follow Potter Stewart's doctrine. I can't define what makes a good sequence but I know it when I see it. The latest La Pura Vida show curated by Greg Flanders certainly qualifies, one of those rare sequences in which the order of the photos makes each one stronger.

Photo by Steven Beckly from January La Pura Vida show

Some will criticize the photo to photo connections for their lack of subtlety. In my book that directness is exactly why the order works. When you play telephone you don't have to mangle the message on purpose. You can trust that mistranslations will occur on their own.

Flickr is a tower of Babel. The photos pull in a billion directions and it's hard to make visual connections. To choose sixteen and make them flow nicely is impressive, and perhaps a prescription for curating in the digital age. So where can I get me some more of that?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What To Do #60

178. Mt. Washington, NH, 2001

179. Pacific City, OR, 2003

180. Portland, 2006

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

Friday, February 19, 2010

Filmy bubble

I realize I live in a film bubble. I shoot film and most photographers I know shoot film, but I realize we are a small minority. I know that most photographers shoot digital and they will never go back to film. So while I'm content in my bubble, I hold no illusion my world is like the outer world.

Eugene Saturday Market, 2000

Maybe it's my imagination but it seems that in recent weeks my bubble has expanded slightly. Are people returning to film? Or maybe they never left? I noticed Mark Tucker first, then Jake Stangel. This morning it was Mike Johnston of all people. I'm not sure what's going on. Maybe this is nothing, just a few outliers. Or maybe it's a sign of some wider backlash. I don't know, just wondering out loud, realizing that all bubbles face the same fate eventually.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Hidalgo County, Texas, 1939, Russell Lee

My favorite thing about this image is that it looks so different from other Russell Lee photos. Nothing against his work. In fact I'm a big fan. But virtually all of his photos --what I've seen anyway-- are more humanist than this. He was one of the original "concerned photographers" even before that was a term. Ramshackle towns, creased cheeks, that sort of thing.

In the context of his other work, this image looks like an alien spaceship. All those hinges! So chic, so modern, so factual. I'd be less surprised to see this photo in Sultan/Mandel's Evidence rather than Russell Lee: Photographer, which is where I did find it. Doesn't it look like some premonition? Evidence of the future?

Sometimes photos will do that. Kid photos mostly. You look at a snapshot of your 7-year old and you can instantly see what he'll look like as an adult, but when you look straight at him you can't tell. The photo serves as crystal ball.

I think that for Russell Lee this was that sort of photo. I'm not sure he knew what he had but he must've known that it looked different, and that was enough.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Moments of levity

If you happen to like this photograph,

Ballycotton, Eire, 1968, Elliott Erwitt

it doesn't necessarily mean you'll like this one.

Here's why not. Thanks to Lisa G. for the tip.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Highlights in disguise

Below are various quotes I highlighted this week while reading Richard Benson's The Printed Picture. The book purports to be a comprehensive survey of printing, but I think it is actually a history of photography in disguise.

"All photography is fictional, by which I mean that any photograph is a picture, not the world from which is was generated. But these little bits of early photography [tintypes] pull that fiction closer to the world than any other pictures known. Many other photographic techniques make pictures that 'look' more like the world, but the early direct-positive photographs on glass and metal bear the actual stain of light from the past."

"A great platinum or palladium print is a wonder, and can convey photographic description in a manner unlike any other process. The secret here is not to judge these prints by comparison to other processes but to view them by themselves. Comparison drags things being judged down to their common denominators, and clouds our eyes to the special qualities of each one."

"We simply have to mention sepia toning. It is probably the worst thing that has ever happened to photographs but, like neckties and hair dye, it's out there and has long been around to make things look silly."

"In some ways we can say that the history of photography has been one of steadily shortening focal lengths. From the classical, distanced view of the painter, photographic description shifted to encompass wider and wider angles of view. Both Eugene Atget, the great French photographer who so often worked in cramped spaces, and George Eastman, the American entrepreneur, moved photography a huge step in this direction through their adoption of radically descriptive wide-angle lenses."

"Woodblocks printing, engraving, etching, lithography, and even the more basic picture-making practices of drawing and painting —all of these technologies were tremendously influential in their day, but each has moved away from the broad cultural forefront and shifted over into the narrower realm of art. This is happening now with photography: the new digital methods convey a great deal of photographic description, but they don't look quite like chemical photography, and they will look less and less like the chemical forms as digital photography evolves. There will always be artists using the earlier technology in vital and effective ways, to make pictures that simply can't be produced with the new methods. Art is like some sort of backward country where old cars are sent to be kept running indefinitely, while modern times and new models race on ahead elsewhere."

"We must be very clearheaded about this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with altering or otherwise doctoring a photograph in the computer. Photographs cannot be relied upon to render any sort of truth about the world from which they have been made..."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Proposed Olympic Events for Photographers

Opening Ceremony. With much pomp and circumstance, photographers are formally introduced to the public. Special one-time only clothes are worn by participants as they make the obligatory circle through the gallery smiling, waving, and gladhanding, only to arrive afterward exactly where they started. The crowd ranges from high-ranking dignitaries to common gawkers. This is a powerful moment because at this point the future is unwritten and anything is possible! If the opening is successful, the artist's torch is lit and shines brightly for the next four years.

400 Meter Darkroom Door Hurdles. Photographers race around an oval track with revolving darkroom doors placed at 20 meter intervals. Contestants must run through the doors as quickly as possible without knocking them over.

400 Meter Darkroom Door Hurdles

Slow Synchronized Swimming. Photographers compete as eight-member teams. Team members swim choreographed routines of four-minute duration while carrying waterproof cameras and shooting slow-synch flash photos. Points awarded for creativity in choreography and photography, as well as synchronicity.

Biathlon. Photographers travel through a series of stations using cross-country skis and carrying an SLR mounted with 500 mm lens. At each station, photographers stop to shoot at a distant target. Points awarded for time and shooting accuracy.

Photographer's Biathlon

Technology Jumping. Photographers on skis attempt to jump as far as possible over a pile of obsolete gadgets from last year.

Weightlifting. Photographers place all their camera gear in a pile, including both working and broken equipment, then attempt to lift it above their heads. Unlike normal weightlifting, contestants are not allowed to throw down the weight after lifting. Gear must be set down gently, and points are deducted for dropping or damaging any equipment.

Camera Gear Weightlifting

File Prep Medley Relay. Teams consisting of 4 members work to convert images as rapidly as possible from RAW format to exhibition print. The first team member converts RAW to properly sized and leveled working file, second member fine tunes spotting, noise, and sharpening, third member masters adjustments and color management, and fourth member makes print after print until a satisfactory exhibition proof is produced. Points awarded for time and final print quality.

Monopod Javelin Throw. Photographers throw a monopod mounted with continuously shooting camera as far as possible. Points awarded for distance and for best shot taken by the camera while airborne.

Monopod Javelin Throw

Portfolio Review Gymnastics. Photographers compete in a series of floor exercises including jumping through various hoops, reaching for brass rings, and swinging on bars which are set progressively higher. Competition is judged by a panel of inscrutable and seemingly capricious officials.

Marathon. Contestants devote themselves to a shadowy, misunderstood, financially draining craft. They pursue it like an addiction day after day, year after year for the bulk of their adult lives. Points awarded for sheer endurance.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Optic Parable, 1931, Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Kitashinagawa, Shinagawa, Tokyo, 1986, Hiroh Kikai

In a recent interview with Marc Feustel, Hiroh Kikai says that he never looks at the work of other photographers, worried that "I will be destabilised by the fact that some of them are much better than I am." Assuming that is true, the pair of photographs above seems remarkable. How could two photographers working 55 years apart come up with such similar images independently?

Of course there is the possibility that Kikai knew of Bravo's image, in which case his pays homage. Who knows which explanation is right? Perhaps it's better not to know, since wonder tends to be a stabilizing effect.

Addendum 2/15: Reo Speedwagon guitarist Bruce Hall, who is an avid amateur photographer, sent me the following photo today which I think goes nicely with the first two:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What To Do #59

175. The Fifteen, Portland, 2003

176. Oregon Zoo, 2004

177. Santa Cruz, CA, 2003

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

Friday, February 12, 2010

Prevailing sentiment

I don't get it.

When Zoriah advertises post-earthquake photojournalism workshops in Haiti he is excoriated. "You are a parasitical opportunist--plain and simple, and a disgrace to the profession," writes JM on Zoriah's blog, in a comment typical of the prevailing sentiment. And properly so. To charge folks $4000 to glamorize someone else's misery is disgusting.

A man cries after is wife is shot dead by police during looting in downtown Port au Prince, 2010, Zoriah

So why is it that when Peter Turnley shows post-earthquake photojournalism from Haiti, he is treated as a hero? Mike Johnston can hardly contain his excitement as he posts the "world exclusive" shots. The praise is universal. "Eloquent story telling!" writes a typical commenter. Is it?

A food distribution near the Champs de Mars in central Port-au-Prince. Feb.1, 2010, Peter Turnley

If there is much difference between Zoriah and Turnley, I don't see it. Yes, Turnley shot on his own rather than selling the thing as an adventure. But basically it amounts to the same thing. Human suffering makes for great photographic subject matter. I won't deny that fact, but to capitalize on it in any way is pathological. Both men do so, and to treat them so differently seems hypocritical.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Improv Everywhere

In the grand tradition of subway photography comes this stunt.

6 Train, Car 9 — September 6, 2009 — 3:30 PM

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Photo Booth

Apple's Photo Booth has become the latest favorite toy of my kids. Our version (3.0.1) has all sorts of entertaining effects from funhouse mirrors to moving backgrounds to Lichtenstein halftones. My kids sit on my lap or stand nearby. Sometimes we don't even take photos. We just put ourselves on the roller coaster set and roll tape. Other times we snap away. It's a source of endless amusement and a fun way to introduce young ones to photography.

Blake, Zane, Emmett in Apple Photo Booth

Apple's Photo Booth is of course a digital version of the real thing. Although there are pockets of revival, Photo booths are slowly fading into the past. Most people below a certain age —my kids, for example— have never seen a physical machine. Soon those little four-photo strips will be as rare as cartes de visites, a small nugget of the photographic past to be shown in a scrapbook or museum. The site, which does a pretty decent job of describing every single photobooth location in America, has taken on the feeling (albeit upbeat) of an obituary page. The stream of photo booth decomissionings is constant.

From the Gallery at

I suppose that by using Apple's version I am part of the problem. I realize that fact but it doesn't change the basic equation: Why go to a special location and pay money to do something that I can do comfortably for free in my own home? With kids especially, the computer is liberating. Kids burn through film like wildfire, but a computer? Shoot away. And no need to make costly prints. The results can be seen instantly on a monitor.

All of which is just a microcosm of the broader photography world. It's never been cheaper or more convenient to make images. Billions of new ones are made each day, a small fraction of which are ever printed. Most exist on monitors like the hundreds of Photobooth shots my kids have taken. I've never printed any of them.

In the computer age, the vertical strip gives way to the four-square

I know this isn't news to anyone, and there's certainly no turning back the clock, but when I think of photo booths the situation seems somehow more tragic. Photo booths aren't really about making photos as much as they're about ritual. There are easier ways to make portraits, but you choose the photo booth to mark an occasion. You step inside the private space, almost always with another person or two or three. You close the curtain like a confessional and you're in your own world, visible to outsiders only as legs. You press the button and 4 photos (why always 4?) are made in succession. It's like being in a snippet of a movie strip, with slight changes frame to frame but not enough to disrupt the essential character of the act. A few minutes later out comes the vertical strip. From that point on, that strip is the reference. Every time you look at it you remember the whole ritual.

Always ahead of his time, Andy Warhol treated photo booths with digital nonchalance

Apple's Photo Booth isn't like that. There's certainly no curtain. No confessional. When I look at the shots later they all blend together. I have about 500 of them and I can't remember what I was doing in any particular one. Messing around mostly. They're like cheap songs on an iPod shuffling by, not tied to any event or moment, not "Live" in any sense of the word. When I turn the device off they stop existing.

I just wish making them wasn't so much fun.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Daily reminder

I've been preparing for a show in March and I have an extra print of the photo below. I'll send it to the first person who requests it. (Update: Sorry, no longer available)

Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, 2009

Friday, February 5, 2010

What To Do #58

172. Portland, 2005

173. Portland, 2004

174. Eugene, 2005

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

Thursday, February 4, 2010


The shit hit the fan this week over at the formerly hilarious Awkward Stock Photos, where all photographs have been removed at the request of copyright overlords, replaced instead with this generic label:

I don't know. To me it seems slightly less funny than the actual photos, but that's just me. In any case I'm glad they removed the images. Whoever took the time to capture them and put them on the web, I'm sure the last thing they'd want is for anyone to see them. So, mission accomplished.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bizarrest Czarist Russia

I discovered these photos a few weeks ago thanks to Bruce Hall, and they've been great fun to look through. I think this must be the oldest color photo series I've ever seen. They were made by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii in pre-Revolution Russia by exposing three sets of glass plate negatives through red, green, and blue filters. A brief description of the process is here.

Self Portrait by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

Log buildings in the Ural Mountain Region; c. 1905 - 1915, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

I find these pictures mesmerizing. Some of them look like they could've been made yesterday. Others have unmistakable traces of their age like old artifacts or wooden buildings or strange dress codes.

I've seen many similar photographs of this time period, but always in black and white. To see them in color is surreal. It's like a Calvin and Hobbes strip:

We are so used to seeing photos from that era in black and white that we imagine the world was black and white. Try a mental test and imagine your great-grandparents in their living room, or a sidewalk scene from 1900. I'm guessing your mental image is in black and white. It's been conditioned by seeing photos. The past looked somewhat like this, right?

New Jersey circa 1905, Detroit Publishing Co. via Shorpy

Now imagine a scene from 1500, before photography. I'm guessing it's in color. Or imagine any contemporary scene now that color photos dominate every media. Photography has a huge effect on perception and on imagination. I think that's why these old Russian photos seem so jarring.

Isfandiyar, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Khiva), c. 1910 - 1915, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

They look imagined, and in fact one reaction is to suspect they must be doctored. The comments field below the Denver Post's article is full of accusations back and forth about the veracity of the photographs. The fringing looks Photoshopped or the colors look too bizarre or orange didn't exist back then or whatever.

Trust me, they're real. Those scenes existed in color and so do the images depicting them.