Saturday, August 30, 2008

Everything dies eventually

I'd gone almost six months since last breaking a camera. I guess I was due. In the past week I've broken the takeup spools on both my Noblex and my Diana. The Noblex will need to be sent out for service. The Diana is too cheap to bother fixing. It broke like some cheap plastic toy from China. I guess I should expect that from a cheap plastic toy from China but still frustrating.

In related news I've just discovered some great Diana work from the 80s made by an overlooked photographer. I'll be posting pix and interview soon. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 29, 2008


Portland's Camerawork Gallery has just gone online with a new website. For me, the most informative part of the site is an index of past show cards dating all the way back to the gallery's start in 1970. I find these interesting in a few ways. As artifacts from the past they show historical trends in layout, typography, and design, as well as photography. But their real strength is as a body of work. Taken together they provide a wide overview of almost 40 years of the Portland photo scene. What a resource! Thanks, Scott Jones, for putting this together.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

We've met the enemy and he is us

I'm in a group show which just opened in Portland. It's a showcase of this project and will be up until mid-2009, so there's plenty of time to see it.

The good news is that of all the shows I've had this one seems to be the best fortified against terrorist attack. The bad news is that access to the show is somewhat limited. In order to see it, you'll need to spend several hundred dollars on a ticket, submit to a strip search, empty all liquid containers, remove your shoes, and go through a metal detector. Hopefully you were already planning to do all of that anyway.

from K7, October 2007

Photos from the Portland Grid Project are on view in Terminal A of Portland International Airport through June 2009.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I've revamped my website. It's now able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Alex Chilton

I found these images of William Eggleston's old notebooks at his website. It's hard to make much sense of them. I just thought they were sort of beautiful in their own way.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Elephant in the room

My friend Bruce has this photo in his study:

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979
by Stephen Shore

The print is roughly 10 x 12, matted and framed out to something like 16 x 20. It's a vintage C-print, presumably by Shore himself. Aside from the fact that it's a wonderful image, what interests me most about this photo is how it presents itself: intimate and formal.

If Shore were printing this photo for a gallery today, my guess is that it would be printed large. The 8 x 10 negative would give plenty of leeway to enlarge as expansively as desired. Maybe 30 x 40, 50 x 65, larger? The only size limit nowadays seems to be available wallspace, and given that many galleries find themselves in renovated warehouses or industrial spaces, the tendency is to Go Big! Fill that space!

Not only would the print be large but it would probably be displayed unmatted. Over the past several years, I've witnessed a seachange in gallery display. From the early 20th century until fairly recently, the standard was a dry-mounted image overlaid with white matting. This style was a bit Victorian —the equivalent of putting on top-hat and overcoat before venturing out in public— but nevertheless it had tremendous staying power, remaining as the standard until late in the past millennium. Initially the matted prints were all framed the same, in dark wood or metal. Gradually this gave way to matted prints displayed on their own behind glass, no frame.

Now the matte itself seems to be following the frame into history, or being replaced by it. Many shows I've seen recently are of prints in unmatted frames. The prints are either hung by the corners or from behind to allow a gap between photo and frame. Another trend is it dispense with the frame entirely and mount the photo to a stiff backing like wood or sintra, with no glass to help with self reflection. Then again, why use any mounting at all? More and more I see photos hung as is, with no support whatsoever.

A recent show at San Francisco's Photo Epicenter. Go big! Go ceiling!

Although there is a certain direct honesty in this style which I find appealing, I can't help feel that photography is still looking over its shoulder at Painting-capital-P, which has been frameless for decades, not to mention big and colorful.

Back to Bruce's photo. To really see the thing I was forced to stand close and look close, and the matting funneled my vision to the proper spot. There was no mistaking that photograph for any other art form.

I don't mean to complain or say things were better the old way. I actually think recent framing changes have been for the better. I just want to point out that they are happening. For whatever reason, I haven't seen much commentary on a change which seems widespread and symptomatic of deeper trends.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eight short reviews and a personal discovery

My last few weeks have been particularly dense with photos books. Here are some favorites that I've either purchased or borrowed from U of O library, and one that I didn't.

I never thought a book of barn animal photos would grab me the way Alessandra Sanguinetti's On the Sixth Day has. This book is gorgeous, from the production/design by Nazraeli to the photos themselves. Shooting 6x6 usually with limited depth of field, Sangunetti finds small life-cycle dioramas all across the farm. Her timing and framing betray her Magnum/street influence, and the colors seem richer than you'd find on a gallery wall.

Richard Billingham's Ray's A Laugh might seem at first to be rather cruel. The photos document Billingham's parents. His father is a drunk and his mother is not typically photogenic. Many photos show them having arguments or hungover, not the sort of photo you'd normally broadcast to the world. But the more I look at this book the more I like it. Not only is it like reading a deeply personal memoir but the photos integrate well to complete a detailed story. Each one gives a little nugget of insight into a strangely compelling life. The intimacy of these photos is on a par with Nan Goldin, if she substituted a bottle in place of libido.

Robb Kendrick's Still is a massive project. Kendrick spent years roaming the west making tintypes of cowboys, the best of which are compiled in this book. Many of these portraits are stunning. Kendrick has a gift for capturing honest expression, and in keeping with that the tintypes are honestly reproduced with all their scratches, stains, and emulsion foibles. Between every several photos is a cowboy monologue describing life on the range. What comes through most strongly in the photos and monologues is how deeply satisified these cowboys are. Unlike probably 80% of society, they've found their calling living a 19th century life in the 21st century. They're downright happy. Oh yeah, and they never go outside hatless.

Probably the most famous book published this century, Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi needs no introduction. Unfortunately this title has been in and out of print the past few years making it very difficult to pin down, so when the third edition came along I figured I'd take advantage and buy it. Soth seems to have spawned a whole cottage industry of social landscapes interspersed with intimate portraits that seems to be the rage now in some circles. Unfortunately the combination of such disparate subject matter can be jarring in the wrong hands. Which makes Soth's work that much more powerful. Somehow Soth makes it work quite well. Something in the editing and sequencing is deeply evocative. I'm still trying to figure out what it is, and perhaps the best thing about it is that its power is mysterious and dreamy, helped along by photo after photo of beds and reclining figures.

Ken Ohara's With is one of those titles I stumbled on by accident at Powell's. We started out as strangers, but wound up going home together. Ohara exposes one-hour portraits using an 8 x 10 camera. Since no one can sit still for that long the effect is of blurred and soggy people set in front of sharp backgrounds. This sounds gimmicky, but it actually works. Not only does each photo seem to capture the ghostly essence of the person involved, but the portraits are remarkably varied with different backgrounds, perspectives, and photographic ideas. For me the most arresting part of a portrait is usually the eyes. Some of the eyes in these photos are completely melted away, leaving the viewer to guess at the person based on body shape and surroundings. Many show white light trails where the eyes have moved during the hour, an effect which seems halfway between living and dead. And in fact that's the overall effect of these portraits. They seem to skip over the material world going straight for the aura.

Martin Parr's Small World is another title that was difficult to find before its recent rerelease. This book seems to be the link which joins Parr's early figures-in-the-right-spot street style and his later in-your-face ringflash style of Mexico. As someone who much prefers the earlier style, this book has enough of it to satisfy. It's cynical. It makes fun of innocents. But hey, that's Parr for the course (sorry, couldn't resist). Now if only some publisher would reprint Bad Weather!

Taking its name from the land of Faulkner, Alain Desvergnes' Yoknapatawpha is a beautiful book of black and white images of southern culture. The reproductions are small, barely larger than the 6x6 negatives. They feel intimate, like a scrapbook. Desvergnes has a great eye, whether capturing the industrial vernacular or barber shops and beauty pageants. Yeah, it's subject matter we've seen a thousand times, but this time with a soft enough touch to stand out.

Lastly, Peter Fraser's Nazraeli monograph is a book I pondered over for a long while before finally deciding not to buy it. Some of that was the price (discounted, but still $45) and condition (big stain across the cover) but in the end I just couldn't embrace Fraser's photography the way it needed me to. Fraser's thing is the everyday and close-at-hand. A glass on the floor. A dirt pile amidst some weeds. The stuff we walk by every day Fraser gets down to peer and flash. He's got a great eye and a wonderful way of sequencing. Browsing the book is like a gymnastic workout for the brain, bouncing here and there without any idea what's next. But in the end I just couldn't summon the enthusiasm for such ephemeral detritus. What was my connection to any of it, and what was Fraser's? It seemed just photographs for the sake of photographs. Normally this is right up my alley. But..., perhaps my tastes are shifting and this book showed me how...


I've given my blog a makeover. Quiz #5 is to identify the two photographs used in the new masthead above. First person to correctly identify photographer/title of both images wins a free print.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Quiz #4

Below is a list of birth years and birth places for 10 well known photographers. For each date and place, you must determine the photographer. When you've completed the list, the initials of the photographers can be rearranged to form the name of another well known photographer born in Calcutta, India in 1815.

The first person to correctly identify all 11 photographers receives a free print.

1. 1840, New York, NY
2. 1902, San Francisco, CA
3. 1907, Poughkeepsie, NY
4. 1913, Budapest, Hungary
5. 1923, New York, NY
6. 1923, Graz, Austria
7. 1928, Paris, France
8. 1934, Detroit, MI
9. 1937, Orange, NJ
10. 1953, Washington, DC

Friday, August 15, 2008

Miscellaneous roundup

Last spring I posted thoughts by Colin Wood, the subject of Diane Arbus' famous Grenade Boy photo. Following up on that, I've just discovered a Washington Post article (courtesy of The Year in Pictures) in which David Segal interviews Wood along with several other Arbus subjects, including the twins on her monograph cover. Great reading!

Anderson Cooper photographed as an infant by Diane Arbus

In other news, Chas Bowie has finally grabbed the reigns and performed a service that was long overdue: A regularly updated monthly critique of Portland photo shows. Thanks Chas! It's amazing that with all the photographic activity in the city Bowie is the first to tackle this. (I ran a top 60 photo shows list when I lived in Portland but it was less of a critique than compilation of personal preferences). Bowie is a smart critic and terse writer, and hopefully he can offer insight and guidance into what has become an exciting scene. His August review seemed to hit the nail on the head for each show.

Closer to home, two Eugene shows last month perfectly summed up the city's somewhat schizophrenic nature. Photozone had its annual group show at Emerald Art Center. I will probably ruffle some feathers when I say the show was generally amateur and cliche-ridden. Oceanscapes, waterfalls, hyper-saturated digital creations, you get the idea. Did I mention weathered barns? I guess I knew what to expect going in but still couldn't help feeling disappointed. After all, Photozone is supposedly the area's premier photography club. Oh well. Images from that show were quickly supplanted as I stopped on the ride home to catch Edward Burtynsky's photographs of China, for which the Jordan Schnitzer has wisely dedicated the entire main hall upstairs. The Burtynsky stuff was big and powerful in every way, from the size of the prints to the scale of the industrial scenes depicted to the general scope of modernization sweeping through China. If you have a hard to getting your head around the maelstrom of change that is contemporary China, this show is the pinprick that will explode your mental bubble. I couldn't help come away from the show with my nagging sense further affirmed that we as a planet are all fucked. Maybe a nice happy waterfall photo would cheer me up?

From Edward Burtynsky's China series

I know it's not fair to compare Photozone to Burtynsky. I just thought the fact that both shows sat side by side for a month really crystallized the nature of the arts scene here. On the one hand, Eugene embodies more intellect, expression and culture than should be expected of a city its size. On the other hand, it is basically a provincial outpost struggling to find identity in the post-timber age.

Lastly, in June I posted a note about the remaindering of Jeff Mermelstein's No Title Here. Looking through the latest Daedulus Books catalog, it seems the cover price of that book has been slashed even further, this time to $7.98. That's right, for about the price of two rolls of film you can buy one of the best photo books out there. If you are at all interested in street photography, you should own this book. No excuses.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What's so special about the Eiffel Tower?

I shoot a pretty wide range of subject matter. Perhaps the thing that best ties it all together is that I am interested in my immediate surroundings, in the visual vernacular. I don't have much interest in visiting exotic countries or shooting celebrities, or anything else that has been deemed culturally "special". I know it sounds cliche but to me, the special is in the everyday.

Eugene Atget, Le Cirque

The more I shoot this way, the more amazed I am that Atget never shot the Eiffel Tower. Never! He took up photography in the 1890s shortly after the tower was completed. From that point onward he must've seen the thing popping above streets and roofs from all angles. Every journey into some Parisian neighborhood, the tower was present in the background. It would seem to be a natural draw for a photographer. Iconic. Romantic. Powerful. It would be like visiting Yosemite for 40 years and never shooting a waterfall. Wasn't he tempted, at least once? What made that guy tick? What kept him so focused on "nonspecial" subject matter?

I'm thinking about this today because I've been going through film from the past few weeks. The photos that seem to work best, the scenes I am drawn most to, are those with a wide range of distance. You can seem something close by, something a little further, a third thing at maybe 100 feet, and then some hills or trees in the distance. These are the scenes that seem to best convey the nature of my surroundings, and that best array visual information.

From the Big Pink series

If I was shooting this style in Paris, the thing that would pop up in a lot of backgrounds is the Tower. The Tower would be my visual plaything. I would layer it, compositionally squeeze it, hide it, put it in windows, treat it like photographic silly putty the way I've treated Portland's Big Pink. It wouldn't be in every photo but it would at least be in some of them.

Not Atget. But why not? Why did he, as appears evident, make an effort not to include it in any photos? It wasn't that he was averse to documenting iconic structure. When he chose to he could send a viewer's attention to the skyline:

Perhaps the answer to this question reveals a key to Atget, something that explains why he's Atget and I'm, well, just me.
I think Atget considered the Eiffel Tower too much of a celebrity. Sure, it was vernacular, but it was also culturally "special". I want to reach back through time and tell me, "It's OK, Eugene, the thing's right in your backyard. People might consider it special but it belongs in your immediate surroundings. You can shoot the thing." Would I be lying?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Candid Camera

A lot of Jackass isn't that funny. There's only so much one can take of people flipping golf carts or punching each other in the scrotum. It's amusing but not deep. The Jackass scenes that I do find funny are the ones which mentally tweak bystanders. For example, in one scene they call a cab for the airport. As the cabbie is lifting luggage from the curb, one of the duffels unzips and a dwarf emerges naked and bound in ducktape who begins running away shouting for help. WHAT IN THE...?!? This scene is repeated a few times with fresh cabbies and each time the cabbie jumps about a foot in the air.

What makes this funny-slash-absurd is that an incongruity is being forced on someone who doesn't expect it. You're shoving something mysterious in someone's face and the question becomes, "How is your worldview going to encompass this?" At that precise moment of shock is an "Aha!" moment, a zen-master's slap with a slick, the type of awakening a good street shot can create.

I have a few ideas for Jackass scenes. I'd like to do one in which a person emerges soaking wet from the restroom of a crowded airport, perhaps O'Hare or Hartsfield-Jackson. Another idea is to visit the scene of a long line, perhaps at a concert or sold-out sporting event, or maybe just at a supermarket around 5 pm. I'd like to walk in front of the line and cut in with no explanation, just to see how folks react. I believe worldviews would get pissed.

O'Hare's United Terminal designed by Helmut Jahn

Last weekend at the NW Reviews I came up with another. At the end of the weekend there was a big rooftop soirée on top of the Blue Sky building. All the participants and reviewers were there along with assorted Portland photographic glitterati. Movers and shakers were moving and shaking. I thought it would be a great environment for a telephoto lens. I'm talking about the huge lenses you see at pro sporting events, the ones which are so big and bulky that the camera body hangs off one end like a little speck. The rooftop soirée was the ideal environment to hang one of those around your neck. Like, here I am! I'm a BSD, and my lens is longer than yours! Perhaps a loud Hawaiian shirt would complement the effect. I wouldn't use the lens, it would just hang limply. Maybe I could swing it around to knock over a drink. I don't know. I just think it would be funny to see how fine art photographers reacted to such a spectacle.

I'm guessing the lens would not look to them like a zen master's stick.

Sigh,...I think I've been living alone for too long. Tab and the kids return Monday from Maine.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Everyday photos

When I printed at U-Develop in the 1990s, a man whose name escapes me used the darkroom sometimes. For one of his projects he limited himself to one exposure per day. At the end of each year he would line the U-Develop stairwell with a grid of all 365 images, some of which were quite strong. This was back in the days of film, and each of these photos was processed and printed by hand. It was quite a project.

In the digital age, the one-photo-per-day idea seems to have caught on like wildfire. There are a huge number of such projects out there, ranging from the personal work of Doug Plummer or Joseph O. Holmes to composite filters such as Flak Photo, to the sublime weirdness of Noah Kalina's self portraits, just to name a handful.

July 31st, 2008 by Joseph O. Holmes

Generally I approach these projects with a leery eye. The constraint of finding one photo per day seems a bit artificial. Some days you might take five great shots and it could be another week before another good one turns up. That is the rhythm of photography. To package this rhythm into a one-a-day box seems a bit forced. Also, there's a certain motivational factor lurking in the background --"I'm going to kickstart my photography by forcing myself to keep my camera handy and find a photo today!" -- that I find bothersome. To me, the urge to take photographs should be so strong that no project should be necessary. I mean, it goes without saying that a photographer is naked without a camera.

August 3, 2008 by Doug Plummer

All of which is prelude to my discovery of Byron Wolfe's (no relation) book Everyday. When I first came across the title at the U of O library my inititial instinct was to pass, based on all my prejudices outlined above. But the name Byron Wolfe rang a bell. He'd been involved with Mark Klett's Third View series shown at last year's Blue Sky grand opening, and some of the more intriguing photos in that show had actually been taken by him. I started thumbing through the book and I liked what I saw. It went into the takehome pile, and later that evening I had a chance to study it in increments while waiting for negs to scan.

What emerges from the book is an intimate portrait of the everyday life of Byron Wolfe. After looking through it I feel as if I've read a year's worth of his diary. I know his kids, his yard, his work environment, his garden, his chickens, the inside of his car, the repeating syndrome of spills near his kitchen table, all of the small things that make up an everyday (there's that word again) existence. The current that holds everything together is the seasonal cycle. The project begins shortly after Summer Solstice, on Wolfe's birthday, and ends one year later. Many of the images focus on vegetation and weather events, and as the year progresses we see the seasons in the background. We see his young kids age, and by the end of the book we know Wolfe's a year older, and the whole experience made me think for a while about the aging process, about life's cycle, about time torrenting along like a river in flood.

The book is helped along by Wolfe's light touch. These are not crystalline f/64 shots from a tripod. They are not the broad cinematic vistas of Third View. They are snapshots, spontaneously exploring all visual aspects of Wolfe's life. Most of the photos are captioned in a natural, offbeat manner that offers alternative perspective. They celebrate the normal, the vernacular, the nonspecial, and in so doing Wolfe has actually created something special.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Photographing Jefferson Park Glacier

One of the truisms of photography is that photographs seem to get more interesting as they age. Even the most boring photos made today will probably be interesting to future viewers because they give a window into our world. At the current rate of societal change the world will look quite different in 20 or 50 years, and photographs will serve as a visual reference to the past.

This past weekend I climbed Oregon's Mt. Jefferson with some friends and was reminded of how quickly the past recedes. Twelve years ago I'd climbed the same route but it had looked completely different. Back then the routefinding had been straightforward and direct, right up the center of the glacier. Now twelve years later the crevasses are larger and the route zigzags around them. Most impressively, the upper bergschrund where Jefferson Park Glacier attaches to the mountain has tripled in size. The route used to depend on snow ramps and bridges to get across it. Now the glacier has shriveled like pruned skin and no snow bridge could surmount it. The route goes far right, and up a small headwall into the glacial moat above the schrund. At the current rate of melt, I expect this headwall will be gone within 10 years. After that, who knows if the route will exist?

I expect that within 50 years, there will be very few glaciers in Oregon and photographs like the ones below will seem like something out of a fairy tale. I think that if I live that long and look back on these photos, part of me will feel as if it has melted.

Here's Tom at the base of the Jefferson Park Glacier. The red line shows the route through crevasses above.

Geoff and Tom ascending the mid-section of the glacier.

Tom leads the headwall on the far right side of the bergschrund. Within 10 years, this photo op will be history.

Geoff on the ridge above the glacier. The red line below shows the route up the headwall and into the moat.

Tom descending Whitewater Glacier on the opposite side of the mountain. Behind him, in order, are Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Washington, Three Sisters, and Broken Top, each mountain surrounded by glaciers that will vanish within 50 years.

If this blog is still around in 2058, check back in and see how the photos look from a future perspective. Upon doing so, feel free to let your heart melt...