Saturday, May 31, 2014

Questions For Discussion

1. What was the photographer's message? Did the photographs express it effectively?

2. How did the gallery's presentation affect your interpretation of the photographs?

3. How does this work fit historically into photographic tradition?

4. Would the photographs have been more effective if reproduced at a smaller scale, for example some size less than six feet tall?

5. What do you think of the photographer's decision to scratch his signature prominently across his artworks using a penknife?

6. Were you at all put off by the mural-sized piece immediately beyond the entrance depicting a rusty sewing needle penetrating a drop of blood on white background, labeled Untitled #17 (For The Forgotten Seamstress) ?

7. According to the photographer's artist statement, the show was intended to "transmediate a cross-pollination of historical imagery including personal scrapbooks and obscure FSA outtakes collaged with nonconsensual portraiture, exploring their currency while challenging the dominant patriarchy, but they could also be considered a response to terrorist reportage." Do you think the photographer achieved this? If not, do you think this objective could be achieved by hanging the images slightly lower on the wall?

8. The photographer wore ripped shorts, Circle Jerks T-shirt, bike messenger cap, and handlebar mustache to his opening. What do you think these choices expressed?

9. During the photographer's brief remarks at the opening, he made reference to "owning you all now." How did you interpret this?

10. What did you think of the photographer's decision to cluster near local press representatives throughout the evening, explaining his importance in terms catered to laypeople, while brushing the sunbleached dreadlocks from his forehead several times, allowing him to show off the OCCUPY! tattoo emblazoned on his forearm?

11. Is $5 the common going rate for Pabst Blue Ribbon at art openings?

12. At the opening the photographer made a decision to drink heavily. At one point he removed his shirt and attempted to ride one of the gallery attendants (using his words) "Like a stage horse! Now carry me home Carlee!" How did this decision transform your understanding of the work?

13. The work in the show was priced at $9,000 per piece. Would you rather own one of these photographs than a small used car? 

14. When you greeted the photographer warmly, he seemed to look right through you as if you did not register, and did not acknowledge your presence. You have met this photographer on four separate occasions in the past. What the fuck do you think his problem is?

15. After waking up the next morning passed out in the alley behind the gallery lying in vomit and cardboard and missing a shoe, and with no memory of how he got there, do you think the photographer was forced to reconsider the meaning of his work?

Friday, May 30, 2014

How To Make Butter Photos

Perhaps the most important equipment for any photographer is a good pair of walking shoes. If your feet hurt you won't be mobile, and you likely won't be a good mood to take photos. Duh. I know it's obvious but it's important.

I needed shoes last fall and went to the local Big 5, where I stumbled by accident on a pair of Fila Memory Deluxes. These shoes are scanty. They're just a memory foam sole attached to a thin mesh upper. Wearing them is almost like being barefoot. 

The moment I put them on they immediately became the most comfortable shoes I'd ever worn. There was no break in period. No adjustment. Just beautiful podiatric unison. I couldn't even feel them on feet. Instead they felt like butter on my toes. Not that I've ever stepped in butter but I can imagine. And after wearing these shoes, I imagine that making photos while walking in butter is magnificent. All the tension in my life drains out through my feet. It never makes it into my photos. 

But there's a downside. The reason these shoes are comfortable is they have very little internal support, and without structure the shoes wear out quickly. After wearing mine almost daily for 6 months they were completely shot. They looked sort of like my battered Leica M6. But made in China out of nylon.

So I went back yesterday and bought another pair. Exact same. I don't think I've ever done that before. Maybe I'm turning into one of those old men with a closet full of identical leisure suits. No problem getting dressed each day, no choice necessary. Am I turning into that? I don't know. I just know my feet need to be comfortable. Summer is right around the corner and I will be on my feet a lot. And given all the options I might as well walk on butter. I mean, why not?

I swear I don't work for Fila. I have no financial stake. I'm just calling it like I see it, and since my toes can't talk I'm calling it for them too. We've found our shoes. Best photo equipment I've purchased this year.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Halloween heads up

For street photographers October 31st, 2014 may be a decisive moment. OK, I know HCB's photos may be old news for some of you. They sometimes seem too familiar for me to enjoy any more. But he's been on my mind lately. I've been reviewing his recent book Here and Now, and I plan to check out the show at Centre Pompidou next week. HCB is sort of like an old forgotten record that you can return to years later, and that sense of wonder is rekindled and you remember what it was that first grabbed you by the nuts and then wouldn't let go. 

Well, it's 2014 and he's still got a firm hold. So even though I've seen The Decisive Moment online and in libraries and the photos have been everywhere —we've all seen them a hundred times— I for one am looking forward to the reprinting. It's about time.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Son Of Camera As Artifact

It's been a year and a half since this post. Here's how my camera has aged since then.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wir Leben Immer...Noch

My buddy George has been having fun with his new Fuji X100 lately. Like most newer digital cameras it has a stitching mode which knits images automatically into panoramic photos. You pan the photo slowly between exposures and the camera figures out the rest. 

This mode would be pretty boring if it weren't for the fact the camera is easily tricked. By stopping and starting and moving imperfectly during the panning capture, unusual images can be generated. Here's one of George's captured during a photo meeting last year. Steve doesn't actually have 12 heads but he was moving to the left in synch with the pan.

When George first showed me these photos I had a flash of recognition. They have a similar effect to photos I made about ten years ago with a swing-lens panoramic camera.

The similarity makes sense if you think about it, because a swinglens camera basically replicates the stitching effect in analog form. Light exposes the film not all at once, but sequentially over time through a panning slit. Like the digital effect, this technique becomes very entertaining when you trick the camera by moving during exposure. The slit goes where it shouldn't and then all hell breaks loose.

You can even photograph the same person twice during one exposure. Jeff Bridges has a great series of these made using a Widelux.

In the early 2000s I went through a period of experimenting with this effect on downtown walks. There's always some guesswork involved with film —that's what keeps it fun—but during this time it was extreme. I often had absolutely no idea how the images would look until I saw them a few days later. 

Then eventually my Noblex broke and that was that. I moved on. I haven't yet tried it with digital but others have. The results have been collected in various places online —here and here, for example— usually treated as cheap gags photos, Panoramics Gone Wrong! But sometimes they're incredible. I mean, who could dream up a photo like this?

Or this one

I'm not sure exactly how this shot was made —if it was a complete accident or had some conscious intent— but Asger Carlsen would be proud. 

The effect is beginning to spill over into other arts. This recent painting by Willard Dixon is based directly on a mis-stitched photo. Maybe we can call it Neo-Cubist?

Google Earth's stitching algorithm is subject to similar glitches. These have been mined and exploited in various places, most notably by Clement Valla.

It raises the old question (revived by Alec Soth a few years back). Why go through the rigor and expense of producing fine art photos when casual snapshooters often come up with work that's just as entertaining? Very few photographers have made work as good as what's in Evidence, for example. They are brilliant by any standard. But they were made by untrained photographers during science experiments. The recent rash of found photo books works by the same principle. I have a book edited by Robert E. Jackson called The Seduction of Color. It contains some photos as good as in any other book I own, but no one knows who took them. They're all anonymous snapshots. 

With the rise of the internet, the sheer number of images out there guarantees that some anonymous snapshots will be brilliant. But now the equation has expanded. It's not just casual snapshooters making great work. It's machines. It's brainless stitching algorithms. More than ever the emphasis is on photographer as editor. What do you want to say? OK, your camera made a stitching error. Now what? Maybe it always was that. But now that actually shooting photos has been removed from some processes, the focus becomes intellectual. What is the message? 

For those coming from the art world, and who would like to see photography move in that direction, this is service on a platter. What is the message? That is the central question and it always has been. Fine art is more concerned with ideas than appearance. Screw the work, just show us your thesis statement. Or something like that.

But I don't really live in that world. Mostly I live in the world of images. For me the photo is just about the photo. Each one is self contained. Some images are magic, most aren't, and no amount of thinking or editing can alter that. 

This is why I sometimes find great snapshots depressing. The idea that you can work your ass off, pace the streets, take thousands of images and still fall short of an old anonymous album photo is a bit of a downer. Sometimes I don't know why I keep trying. I think it has something to do with time. I keep tossing messages forward to be received by myself in the future, but it's only by looking back that they slowly resolve themselves. Between those two processes, sending and receiving, sometimes I can trick my brain by moving my ideas during the exposure. Then all hell breaks loose.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


This has been the most amazing week for clouds in Eugene that I can remember.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

More thoughts on Maier

I finally got a chance to see Finding Vivian Maier recently. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Going in I wasn't sure what to expect. I have mixed feelings about Vivian Maier and the way her legacy and has been handled. And this was a debut film by an untested film-maker which had received a range of reviews. Was it just a big commercial? Would it reveal secrets? I couldn't tell. I didn't even know if I wanted to see it. 

But I'm glad I did, because it was a very entertaining film. John Maloof and Charlie Siskel have made a strong human interest story which comes alive on screen. I was impressed. It even turned out to be a good date movie. Tab liked it. I liked it. Note that mutual agreement is not always the case in such matters.

The title is no accident. To the extent a documentary can have narrative arc, it's the tale of Finding. Maloof has rounded up a wide range of people who knew her in person —maybe all of them?— and through their comments a detailed character study emerges. It's largely the Vivian Maier we'd known before —Mysterious, dowdy, street smart, eccentric, intensely private, sometimes good with kids, sometimes definitely not— but fleshed out more fully. We see the neighborhoods she lived in, she small French village she visited, her Chicago street haunts. Given her private nature the viewers of this film may know her as well as anyone ever has. 
Whether she would want millions of strangers to know her is another story. I think not. But it's too late now. She's been thoroughly found.

At the center of it all, wrapped up inextricably with her story, is John Maloof. If Maier is famous for her self portraits, Maloof has taken a page out of her book for this film. It's as much about him as her. Where would she be without him? He is the yang to Maier's yin. Whereas she was private to the point of pathology, Maloof is a public relations whiz. He is a natural on camera, a star in the making. He's got, what do they call it? —screen presence. In some ways the two of them are an unlikely pairing. But they say opposites attract, and Maloof's passion for Maier drives the film. In casual conversation he refers to her familiarly as "Vivian"— as if they were old friends. The kids she nannied remember her name differently —"That's Miss Maier to you," and don't forget it.  

If you still believe in the American Dream, Maloof is Exhibit A. He's found a niche, he's worked his ass off to develop it, and he now stands to reap the benefits. He's made it to Hollywood! This is what makes Maier's lifestyle so confounding to Maloof. Why didn't she pursue the American Dream? She had amazing talent —Hollywood level talent. Or at least New York level. So why did she remain a nanny rather than try for a career in photography? For someone with Maloof's ambition this is the central riddle  —it's the root of the dream, dammit— and it becomes the crux of the film. If the job of nanny is uncreative and of low social rank —the film's dubious premise— wouldn't she be happier in her true calling?

That question will probably never be answered, but let's take a stab. For one thing, it's not as if one can just push the Fine Artist button and launch a photography career. For someone in Maier's social position during that era, and especially considering the transgressive material she was producing, it would've demanded a convoluted path. It would've required a motivated patron who could develop art-world connections and a collector base. Someone like Maloof, in other words. But he wouldn't come around until many years later, and Maier was not the sort of personality to achieve this on her own. So that was a barrier.

But that's presuming she would rather be a full-time photographer than a nanny. The fact is her lifestyle allowed her to be both. It's not as if she was washing dishes in a windowless room, then pursuing photography on the side. Maier practiced photography on the job every day. She used her kids as foils and took them on photo adventures. Far from being unfulfilling, nannying was perfect. Unlike most jobs she could actually get some meaningful work done while on the clock.

Nannying may have been ideal but it was, alas, a job, and had many non-photographic responsibilities. I think that when it all boils down, the main reason she was a nanny is the same reason most artists have day jobs: she had to make a fucking living. Simple. Ask any barista what they really care about and you'll get the same story. Because the best photography is generally not made by full-time professionals. It's made by clerks, copy writers, bakers, landscapers, taxi drivers, auto mechanics...and, yes, nannies. Buried talent is not an anomaly in America. It's the norm. 

Seen in that light, the mystery of Vivian Maier becomes less confounding. But there's still the question of her photography. I think most photographers —at least outside of MoMA— have a sense of Maier's magic, but it's difficult to convey, and almost impossible to imagine what could develop such astonishing talent. What was her training? What photographers did she study? Who did she talk to, see, or like? What stages did she pass through? What's the story

Unfortunately the film offers very little background. We see some reproductions, some gallery shots, and there are short interviews with Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark saying why they think Maier is great. If you're a nonphotographer you'll just have to take their word for it.  

"But why are they so great?" Tab asked me afterwards. I wasn't sure what to tell her. They're great because Joel Meyerowitz said so? Because they're raw and real and incredibly tender? Or because they were taken by an unknown nanny?

"We'll have to wait for the sequel," I said.

Monday, May 12, 2014

How to Become a Phone Actress

How to Become a Photographer:

"Act like you’re going on an adventure, like sailing a boat: drop the sails. Go to Valparaiso or Chiloè, be in the street all day long, wander and wander in unknown places, sit under a tree when you’re tired, buy a banana or some bread and get on the first train, go wherever you like, and look, draw a bit, look. Get away from the things you know, get closer to those you don’t know, go from one place to the other, places you like. Then, you’ll start finding things, images will be forming into your head, consider them as apparitions."

"Felix is a massive gearhead and general technology enthusiast, and the only staff member based outside of the U.S. (namely in Germany.) He joined The Phoblographer back in early 2012, when he was still working as a research associate in his original field of training, historical linguistics. In late 2013, he left his academic career to focus on working as a freelance writer in the photo industry, with The Phoblographer being his main occupation."

"Well, I'm really not too sure exactly what I want to do. But I think the main thing you have to do is…be kind of involved with other people, you know? At the same time you're helping people, but, uh, you make out all right yourself. I mean, you know, you get money and stuff. Also and, uh, I don't know, just try to live, you know. Not just go around doing just being by yourself, not doing anything for anybody else. That's just more existing than living…"

How to Become a Pornographer:

"[Larry Flynt] lost his own virginity at the age of nine, to a chicken. He describes penetrating its egg sack, and how 'when I let the chicken go, it started towards the main house, staggering, squawking and bleeding' – so he immediately killed it. Did you feel bad for the chicken? 'What? No. It was a' – long breath, gasp – 'chicken.'"

"Advice? I don't have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you're writing, you're a writer. Write like you're a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there's no chance for a pardon. Write like you're clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you've got just one last thing to say, like you're a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God's sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we're not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don't. Who knows, maybe you're one of the lucky ones who doesn't have to."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Eight Short Reviews

Thomas Frederick Arndt
Men In America

I think Thomas Arndt is one of those photographers dependent on packaging. If you grab the wrong book of his, say Home: Tom Arndt's Minnesota, he'll be indistinguishable from a lot of other 20th century documentarians. Pictures of flags and cowboys and fairgrounds, all designed to tug just so on your humanist heartstrings. Nice stuff, if only it didn't seem so familiar. 

Fortunately for me, I stumbled on his other book first, Men In America (part of a very good Smithsonian Series published in the 90s, but that's another story). OK, the title is pretty lame, and the premise itself is a bit artificial. As far as I can tell this wasn't any grand project, just a bunch of photos by Arndt which happened to show men. 

But don't worry too much about that. Because Thomas Arndt can shoot. The book has 50+ photos and I don't think there's a bad one in the bunch. It's traditional old school b/w film pushed to graininess, then printed full frame. It's not innovative or flashy, but it's damn solid. Dare I say exceptional? Packaged as photojournalist Arndt fades into crowd. But packaged as a master street shooter he elevates his game. If you're into traditional street photography, this is the best $3 book out there.

Maciej Pestka
The Life of Psy

The Life of Psy follows a simple concept: photographs of fans going crazy at a celebrity sighting. Arms lifted, ecstatic expressions, young women smiling, various nightclub settings. Since I have no personal experience of that world, I'll have to trust the photos to bring it to me. And sure enough it looks about like one would expect: meh

The twist here is that the celebrity is not real, but merely someone who looks like the singer Psy. He happened to be in the right place, right time. So he played it up and had a good time, and Maciej Pestka was on the scene documenting. The resulting book has several nice features which lift it above the milling rabble. Stitched pamphlet binding, an elegant cover, and some of the most finely rendered text I've seen in any photobook. From the imitation title to the slickly branded site, it's clear a lot of care went into The Life of Psy

The reader is left wondering to what extent personal identity matters at all in the world of glamour and facade. If it's all fluff, does that mean anything goes? Elvis impersonators gotta live too, right? But what about the original? In this case, no harm no foul. Psy was happy. The fans were happy. The photos are nice. The book is nice. The only thing spoiling the mood is a legal disclaimer letter reprinted at the end: "Cease and Desist, Bla Bla Legal Bla..." Now that's a real Hollywood ending. 

Gintautas Trimakas
Miestas kitaip

What's the most accidental photo you can imagine? Well, a pinhole image is pretty open to chance. There's no viewfinder, lens or timing mechanism. Even in the hands of an experienced pinhole shooter nothing is certain or perfect. Now take the pinhole and stick under a bike seat facing the sky. When the bike stops, the camera takes a photo. Is that accidental enough? That's Gintautas Trimakas' method. His book Miestas kitaip (City. A Different Angle) collects photos made in European cities over the past decade or so using the technique above. 

The resulting photos are probably an acquired taste. I'm not going to claim they're well composed or thought out or tell much about the scenes depicted. They are much closer to abstractions. They're shot on large format black and white film and printed full frame, with bits of building and line and sky mingling with film manufacturing info in odd compositions, along with the ever present bike seat. 

This is a very unusual book in just about every way. It's plenty weird. But you know what? The photos are kind of beautiful. By discarding any premise of control and still coming away with entertaining photos, Trimakas gets to the heart of the matter. What does good photography require? Maybe not as much as supposed. He may be rooted in 19th century technique but his work anticipates the 21st century wave of Google Street View, Surveillance imagery, and re-authored found photos. 

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger
The Photobook - A History Part III

This is the one book lovers been waiting for, and it doesn't disappoint. Parr/Badger III seems to be more of a mishmash than the two previous editions. The chapters mop up a lot of territory but don't have much in common. I suppose one could quibble with the name. The Photobook - A History is too grand a claim. A more accurate title would be Personal Favorites From the Libraries of Parr and Badger. If the choices are subjective, and sometimes mysteriously so, that's just the nature of the beast. The photobook world has grown too large to summarize, so any such book lends itself to second guessing. Fortunately Parr and Badger generally have good taste. I found many personal favorites listed here, and was also turned on to plenty of unfamiliar works.   

Parr/Badger is dense with minutiae. It's more of a chocolate fudge book than a bowl of popcorn book. After several pages my head is full and I've got to take a break. And it's 300+ pages of smallish print. So it's been on my bedstand for 2 weeks and I'm still only halfway through. Which is sort of frustrating, but gratifying too, because not many books have that staying power. I keep a pen and paper with the book to jot down book titles that look interesting. The bummer is that most books in Parr/Badger are inaccessible or expensive as a result of being listed. Tail wags dog. Oh well. 

19th and Kern

The corner of 19th and Kern downtown has featured a rotating cast of eateries in recent years. Although this is a prominent location in the South End, for some reason —high rent, the ugly awning along the North wall, bad juju, or maybe some combination of factors—  no restaurant has managed to hang on there for long. 

Darla's, owned by regional restaurateurs the Easton Brothers, is the most recent enterprise to take a stab. Since its soft opening in November the restaurant —a sort of upscale diner— has steadily picked up traffic, mostly by word of mouth. Despite the promising beginning, a recent visit leads this reviewer to believe the success may be fleeting. 

Arriving at 6:30 pm to a sparsely attended dining hall, our dining party was inexplicably forced to wait 15 minutes before being seated. After the first table proved inappropriate —a young family in the next booth spraying food and noise over a five foot radius— it then took another 10 minutes to change tables. Flustered, we ordered quickly . However it was another 35 minutes before the first course was served, an asparagus and turnip hors d'oeuvre which was too spicy to do more than sample. It was a palate cleanser of sorts, yet with nothing yet in our stomachs it only created waves of salivation.

Once the burgers came we were finally sated —in part. The meat was excellent, suckled in a nest of baby dandelion blossoms with a sprinkle of kükendorf, yet the portions were so small that all felt unsatisfied. A side of local organic onion rings and kale slaw barely staunched the hunger. The impending sense of defeat was only confirmed when the bill came listing ambience fee, table cloth tax, and onion unearthing surcharge. This reviewer will not be returning, at least not until another business is established there. Judging by recent experience that may not be long.

Lee Friedlander
Family in the Picture 1958-2013

The Friedlander juggernaut rolls on with yet another photobook of old favorites. How many has he published in the past decade? I've lost track. His publication history is like a game of Battleship. There've been some hits, some misses, and a few large tankers plunging to the bottom. Family In The Picture may be a tanker of a book, but it's got the goods. This is the best Friedlander book since the Galassi retrospective (was that merely 6 or 7 books ago?).

Basically FITP is a chronological record of family photos by (and sometimes of) Lee Friedlander and his family. He's never been one to hide personal moments. For such a private photographer (he rarely gives interviews) he has been very open with family shots. They've been published before in various places, but never in such volume and in one all-encompassing book. Friedlander die hards will find some familiar photos here. But I'd guess at least half the material is previously unpublished.  

We see Lee's history through his eyes, from very early photos of Maria, through parenthood, weddings, deaths, grandkids, and other major (and sometimes minor) life events. There are pictures of Erik and Anna from childhood to the present, and various photo luminaries like Thomas Roma, Garry Winogrand, John Szarkowski make regular appearances. Just another day in the life of Friedlander. Actually it's just another day in the life of anyone. You'd find similar material in any old family scrapbook, but not executed with such skill and wit. 

Charlie Rubin
Strange Paradise

Conveyor Editions continues to innovate with the book form. Coming on the heels of last year's Wildlife Analysis, which had no definitive page sequence, Charlie Rubin's Strange Paradise explores more raw territory. A melting titled cloth cover opens onto end pages embossed with what looks like a Colonial tin ceiling. Then come the party favors in an old drug-store envelope. And a blue poem. The sheer physicality is touching. By the time several photos have come along, the reader's head is spinning. Wha...? 

Unfortunately the material doesn't keep pace with the design. The photos are weird, sure. But are they more? Roe Ethridge, are you out there? Maybe you know? Appropriated material mixes seamlessly with Rubin's photos, off-color scanning accidents, and other visual flotsam. A shopping bag? A torn stub? The variety of size, layout, and cropping is dazzling, but ultimately feckless. I for one can't tell what the fuck this books is about. But maybe that's the point. To be fair I haven't yet browsed it stoned or on shrooms. I suspect with those aids the content could clarify. Maybe at that point strange can be paradise. But from where I'm sitting now it's not.

Agustin V. Casasola
(Photo Poche Monograph)

Why oh why did the Photo Poche series have to end?* Published in the 1980s and 90s by the Centre National De La Photographie in France, they remain some of the best guides to historically important photographers. The editing and photo reproductions were excellent. They were small and could tuck into a jacket poche at a boring party. Why, you could fit an entire photo library of conveniently numbered Photo Poches into a small closet. Who cared if the text was in some foreign language. French or something? When it comes to paroles mystérieuses, a picture is worth 100,000. These books were gems, which is why they still command very high prices on the used market.

If it weren't for Photo Poche I'd never have discovered the Mexican press photographer Agustin Victor Casasola. As far as I can tell Photo Poche 52 is the only book about him. That's a huge oversight, because this guy was dynamite. I'd put him in the same class as Weegee in terms of both skill and style. He was basically a photojournalist and on location portraitist, but with an uncanny eye for odd details, off moments, and vice. I'm guessing Enrique Metinides must've known and been influenced by Casasola's work, but until recently I had no clue. But that's part of what makes book browsing fun. You kick a hundred dirt piles and you never know when a little gold dust will surface.

*See Comments

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Into The Pool

Most content I post online is ignored. This post, for example, will probably only be read by a few regulars. A typical graph of blog page view activity might look something like this. Ho-hum, poking along. 3:00 AM and all is well.

It's the same with my photos. I post new ones every day on Tumblr and they too are generally ignored, and I guess I've made my peace with that. I realize I suck at social media, and the fact is I don't even try. My philosophy is sink or swim. I throw the content in the deep end and it's up to that content to survive on its own. Quick drownings are common, but some live. The fact I can never predict which will do what is tantalizing, and usually frustrating.

Of course this is the exact wrong approach online. Content generally cannot survive on its own. Without a boost it's probably going straight to the pool bottom. The next Robert Frank could be out there today posting the next The Americans on Tumblr. Without tweets, relinks or influential plugs, no one will give a shit. Welcome to the pool drain, Mr. Frank. On the other hand, a short plug from Martin Parr can sell out a book in days. Any book at all, it doesn't seem to matter. 

Fine. We all know the game and its benefits and deficiencies. Sometimes the wrong stuff gets promoted, or the right stuff goes unpromoted. And much of the time there's a good match. In any case, the visibility/popularity of online content generally has more to do with platform/promotion than quality. For example this photograph by Zach Klein currently has 233,000 notes on Tumblr, and counting.

Is that a good match? Does the popularity match the quality? I don't know. At least she's made it to the surface. I guess it's a nice photo, but...I just don't know anymore.

This picture by Ansel Adams is one of the most popular photos of all time. It's been transformed into calendars and posters and tote bags and it's everywhere. Many people who know nothing about photography know this image, and they know the name Ansel Adams. Does that mean it's a good photo? I don't know.

Seeing hyper-popular photos like this used to bother me more. What's the secret formula? How do I tap into that? Now I'm ok with it, sort of, but I still wonder. Last week I asked Alec Soth the question directly:
Do you think popularity can tell us anything meaningful about a photo or piece of creative content? If a song is #1, does that mean anything? Or is there a complete disconnect? 
I think we can learn a lot from analyzing popularity. Of course it doesn't mean something is "good". But if provides information.
And Shane Lavalette a few weeks earlier:
Can popular opinion convey any meaningful information about a photograph? Or about any piece of art? 
Art is a subjective experience and things that may not have value to the art world or culture at large are not necessarily insignificant objects or ideas. That said, there are a lot of things we can glean from popular opinion, even just in the basic sense—for example, the way that images or videos go viral or are understood as controversial, problematic, or meaningful by a culture at large. This is a very interesting phenomenon which we are able to watch more rapidly and globally than ever before.
Um, OK then. Neither answer tells us much. Maybe what they tell us is that this is a difficult subject to address without sounding whiny or elitist. But seriously, why do some things become popular while other things don't? Record company executives are paid millions to figure this out, and they still can't. With photography it's even more mysterious.

I saw the film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me recently. #1 Record and Radio City were as good as any albums made in the 1970s, but no one bought them. Why not? Fuck if I know. But it must've hurt to be Big Star in 1975, to watch Elton John and Peter Frampton run laps around their album sales. It killed Chis Bell, spiritually and later literally. What's in that Frampton and John? What have they got they I haven't? 

Looking around online I'm usually left wondering the same thing. But once in a while I hit paydirt unexpectedly. That's what happened with Monday's 10 Rules of Street PhotographyI sent it out there as usual, sink or swim, then didn't think more about it. 

The next day the page views went haywire. I'd hit some kind of nerve. Within two days it received more traffic than any other post on B in eight years. All of this without any help from Martin Parr. Instead of Ho-hum, poking along, the graph made a beeline to the surface. Spike!

May 6th shows a burst of popularity. Popularity! I've joined the cool kids temporarily. Now if only I could figure out what I've done. I've mixed the formula but with no recipe, and I can't repeat it. In a few days the buzz will die and the hump will pass left, leaving a curve something like this.

The graph above describes any viral activity online. The exact quantity is unimportant. Whether it's a jump of 20 notes or 2,000 notes, the pattern is the same. There is a sudden rush of interest, the attention peaks, and then slowly fades into a long tail

Sometimes the spike is preceded by its own long tail. Shit My Photography Professor Says, sat quietly ignored for three years before it was reblogged recently by POTB, and then leveraged into popularity by content scavenger PetaPixel. Spike! It has ten times the notes it did last week. The content is unchanged. So can notes tell us anything?

I guess the lesson is there's always hope. Things last indefinitely online. Something might sit there for a while before it's noticed. Maybe it hits just the right place and moment. And when that does happen, it's just as if it was created yesterday. The buzz spikes immediately, then fades, leaving a warm glow on everything. 

Photo by Larry Clark

I've never shot heroin but I imagine the pattern is similar — the sharp rush and gradual descent. And in the long run, just as addictive and ultimately ineffectual. 

Come on, regulars. Do you think the shape of that graph is an accident? There are no accidents.

When I started this essay I had no idea I'd write about heroin. Heroin? That's an insurance policy against popularity. What is that doing here? What's in that Heroin? What has it got that I haven't? And should I even worry about it? 

Photo by Ken Josephson

In the end all of the spikes and record sales and dirty needles, and the notes and swimming pools and Parr and the Grand Tetons —especially the Grand Tetons— are beyond my control. I can't worry about any of it. I've just got to poke along, Ho-hum.