Sunday, November 30, 2008

Quiz #6

My cousin Adam has recently been sending out photo rebuses that he's created from web searches. I had so much fun with them I thought I'd share. Below are two of his and three that I came up with, the solution to one of which is photography related.

The first person to correctly identify all 5 wins a free print. (Freudus, you only need identify 4 out of 5).

Monday, November 24, 2008

What To Do? #3

What To Do? is a weekly installment of old, previously unpublished photos from my archives.

This will be my last post for a week. I'm leaving tomorrow for Thanksgiving with California kinfolk. I give thanks to all B readers for tuning in.

7. SE 15th and Pine, Portland, 2006

8. Annie at the door, 2008

9. NE 28th and Alberta, Portland, 2005

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Grid shooting

The weather has been dry recently giving me some opportunities to go out shooting. I spent one morning last week in Eugene's grid E8, and a few days later I made it to P11 in Portland. I'd never spent much time in either area so both outings were very fun. There is really no feeling in the world like exploring new territory with a camera.

In fact I think a lot of the appeal for me of these grid projects is just that: the opportunity to explore uncharted areas. The photography is a side bonus. Sometimes I'll hit a corner with a lot of photographic possibilities, a lot of text or people or decay or dense visual fabric or whatever. In places like this the thing I should do is just hang out for an hour and look carefully for photographs. But I can never stay anywhere longer than five minutes before I have to see what's around the corner. Although my photography may suffer at the expense of my wanderlust, I think in the end it recoups the cost.

P11 in Portland

The streets of P11 form a pretty thick grid of intersections with no strange diagonals or curvy streets to complicate things. I spent a few hours walking block to block without any direction. At each intersection I'd look down the 3 ways I hadn't explored yet and walk the next block in whichever direction looked most interesting. At the next intersection I'd do the same thing. I did this over and over, photographing things along the way, until I'd traced a 3 hour drunkard's path all over the neighborhood. To not know where you'll be in five minutes is like a rare precious gem in our hyperplanned society.

When exploring the grid I always view myself as an outsider. I try to hit the back streets. There's no reason to be there unless you live close by or you work for a public agency like mail or utility. And here I am a scraggy looking guy pointing my camera at private yards and houses. It's a good way to invite questions. Sometimes I invite myself. As I take photos I wonder in the back of my mind, "What if someone asks me why I'm standing in their driveway photographing their swingset? What do I say?" Sometimes people do ask and I say I just love the way that tree lines up with that soccer ball if you stand right here and I point to where I'm standing and they look at me like What the? and the situation is defused. One time a man chased me down the street in his car demanding my film but I talked him down. The whole situation is beautifully uncertain. If there was no tension it would be less fun. I would ask myself less questions.

E8 in Springfield

The streets of E8 in Eugene do not form a grid and in fact they aren't even in Eugene. E8 is across the river in neighboring Springfield, in and around the core of its downtown. Springfield is a photographer's wonderland. Every time I go there I feel like I'm the only photographer who's ever paid attention to it. It's like the wild west and I'm O'Sullivan or Jackson venturing out to show the rest of the world what's in Springfield. Even the name --Springfield-- is perfect. How homogeneous, how nondescript, how general in its specificity.

In the south part of E8 the roads are a hilly patchwork of dead ends and gravel strips with an old millrace running through. I couldn't do the drunkard's path or I'd wind up deadending and retracing steps. Instead I carefully planned out a route that would let me explore every part of every road in the area. This is another great way to wander, one which leaves you fairly assured you've missed nothing.

P11: SE Clatsop St., Portland

On D St. I found an amazing yard with an old mossy radar dish that must've been 10 ft diameter. Out front was a row of strange cactus that filled the parking strip, and applying something to this cactus was a man wearing a space-age herbicide backpack that looked like it might blast upward at any moment. The scene was perfect! I'm very bad at asking for portraits but I've been trying to consciously change that, and this was one situation I couldn't walk away from without at least asking. I approached the man and tried to strike up a conversation. "Say," I said, "that's more cactus than I've ever seen in one place around here." Which was true. It rains a ton in Western Oregon and cactus aren't common.

The man didn't say anything. He stared at me silently. I know he heard me because his stare wasn't bland. It was menacing. He didn't have to say "What the fuck do you want?" because his stare said it for him. Outsider alert! I thought, Oh shit, now what? "Nice talking to you," I said in a lower voice then kept walking, leaving the photo behind.

E8: 2nd and Mill, Springfield
Shot before I put away the Mamiya for good

For about the next twenty minutes I couldn't take any photos. I kept imagining people in the houses watching me, friends of his. He'd called them and warned them about the weird guy walking with a camera. Paranoid I know, but mood is everything. If I'm in the right mood I can go up to anyone and take their photo without saying a thing. But after an incident like that I was in the flat out wrong mood to make any photographs for a little while. The funny thing is I think the photos I didn't take that morning made a perfect portrait of Springfield. In some parts of the wild west you're liable to have your camera shot out from under you. Those parts don't get photographed, which is exactly how they look or don't look.

I've been bringing 3 cameras along with me lately, a Mamiya 7II with color film, a Leica M6 with b/w, and a Diana with b/w. On sunny days I put away the Mamiya and shoot just b/w. I like colors in damp overcast light but sun seems to wash them out. This was the case on my trip to E8. I kept the Mamiya in the pack and shot mostly Leica. The thing about my Leica is the rangefinder is out of adjustment and the meter is broken, so I zone focus and guess at the light. I can usually get the exposure within one stop. And most of the stuff I photograph is within hyperfocal so the rangefinder isn't an issue. In the end I wind up treating my Leica almost like a Diana.

When the meter broke my first thought was to fix it. Now I'm not so sure I want to. What winds up happening now is that I shoot the light I see. If a scene looks bright I might overexpose unconsciously because, well, that's how it looks. The process of making the picture becomes more interactive and interpretive, and this shows up on the finished roll. Instead of 36 frames of 18% gray, a roll of unmetered frames looks more like a checkerboard of light and dark, which is perhaps more like the real world, or at least more like my reaction to it.

P11: SE 82nd and Flavel, Portland

On very bright days I shoot the Diana. It seems to respond best to high contrast situations. (Now that I think about it that's probably a good reason to do the exact opposite thing and shoot it on dim days). Since it's been nice lately I've been burning film through it. I have to hold myself back not to shoot more than a roll a day. For such a simple device, the camera continues to confound me. I can't even guess what any image on the roll might look like, and the only way to find out seems to be to shoot more. I shot a few rolls in both E8 and P11. I have no idea how they'll turn out and that's ok. Maybe the images will take a right turn or maybe it will be a left.

Shoot more. For most things photographic that is the way forward. All of this submitting work here and there and commenting on this and that and thinking about photo history or fawning over photo books and Blogging is all secondary. The central act for any photographer is to go out and shoot photos. Shoot first, ask questions later...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Good old fashioned street work

Before Portland photographer Mark Barnes began using an 8 x 10, he did good old fashioned street work. Here's a random scattering from that period. I like it a lot. Why are there so many 35 mm b/w street shooters here? Something in the water maybe. Many days that something is us.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bruce Hall: What Was He Thinking? Part III

This is the last installment in a three part series with Portland photographer Bruce Hall. These color images are from Bruce's longterm photographic study of Mexico. Part I | Part II

"This came from a day trip around lago de Patzcuaro in Michoacan. It was midday and very hot. I had stopped to check out a traveling circus set up on the side of the highway. I saw this kid with the horses from a distance and knew instinctively it had potential. After I finally realized there wasn't anything happening that interested me at the circus tent, which was closed, I turned, walked across the street and shot this photo. The boy never said a word and neither did I. I felt later that this frame really conveyed what it felt like that day."

"I was checking into a hotel in Manzanillo where I had stayed several times before. I was standing at the desk waiting for the clerk and saw this guy. I knew I had to take a picture so just turned, raised the camera and shot one frame. He looked really tired and sort of pensive. I think he saw what I did but apparently was not too concerned one way or another."

"About a year and a half ago I spent a month in Oaxaca. I was at the end of a trip where I ended up driving about 10k miles in six months. This was my longest time in one place and I really relaxed and enjoyed my time there. I would walk every day with my camera. I usually have the focus set at about 15 feet. I really don't remember much of anything about this frame other than intuitively responding and hoping for the best. More often than not those kind of situations produce out of focus, confusing images but I was lucky with this one."

"I stayed in Puerto Vallarta for a few nights a couple of years ago. It's pretty touristy and not such an interesting place but being a compulsive photographer I had a go at it anyway. This shot was made on a short pier which unofficially separates the tourist and local beaches. It was Sunday and, as is typical in Mexico, families were out in force with beer, food, umbrellas and the resultant trash that accumulates at any such gathering. I was hoping to get a frame that described some of that happy and chaotic Sunday ritual. I think this one does and it's also interesting formally in the way it's split down the middle by the pole and railing. It flattens the space which heightens the sense of closeness."

"This is probably one of my favorite photos I've made in Mexico. It was at the harbor in Vera Cruz where these kids dive for coins the tourists throw in. The light was going fast and it's backlit as well so it was a little dicey. The kid with his hand to his mouth was imploring people to throw coins so he could eat. The guys in the foreground were trying to get into position to dive in. There were a lot of people preparing to throw money so it was a bit like a feeding frenzy. Things were happening quickly and I was trying to shoot fast and not end up in the harbor myself."

"Throughout Mexico I've seen so many people sleeping in public that it seems almost iconic in a way. I have numerous photos of the subject and this is one of my favorites. I was in Oaxaca and it was late morning. I suspect this guy may have been living out of doors more or less permanently and was sleeping on what I think is a colonial era bench. I felt in that moment that this represented a metaphor for the history of Mexico: indigenous cultures destroyed, colonial era exploitation and resultant wealth along with the all pervasive graffiti and extreme poverty of this time."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Szarkowski's paradox

Once in a while a Daedelus Books catalog shows up in the mail and I have a fun time perusing the photobook remainders. Right now Frank Gohlke's Mt. St. Helens and Andre Kertesz' Early Work can both be had pretty cheaply. The Gohlke book is great and will appeal especially to photographers in the Northwest. I haven't seen the Kertesz book but for $5 how can you go wrong with early Kertesz?

The listing that jumped out at me from the most recent catalog was John Szarkowski's Photographs, a comprehensive retrospective of the late MOMA curator's personal work. When it was released just a few years ago I figured it would be shortly out of print. But here it is three years later selling for less than $20. You can never tell.

Spitzenberg, 2001 by John Szarkowski

Not to overstate things but Szarkowski is about as central to current photographic thought as the four apostles are to Christianity. By singlehandedly championing Friedlander, Winogrand, Eggleston, and Shore (among many others) he basically created the taste of an entire generation of art photography to follow. Who knows? If it weren't for him color might never have caught fire. The snapshot might still be relegated to family albums, safely quarantined from museums.

John Szarkowski

The irony is that Szarkowski's photographs —the ones which make up the bulk of his remaindered book which I don't plan to buy— look nothing like the work he helped establish. Instead it seems trapped in the pre-Szarkowski era. His photography is of the Weston school, large format b/w previsualized on a tripod with a heavy emphasis on natural forms. Trees, shadows, and rustic homes shown in infinite detail, the same junk we've all seen a million times. Although there are many current practitioners of this aesthetic I can't help consider it a little dated, and judging by the sales of his book I don't think I'm alone. Szarkowski himself must have sensed its tiredness, and that probably motivated him to expand photography's reach.

yellow Pine in Birches, 1954 by John Szarkowski

Yet even as his curatorial work was helping this style into obsolescence, his own photography never varied from it. To me this seems like the central paradox of his life. How was he able to see the work of others with such a fresh eye, and yet not have the same vision when viewing his own work? That question should be a spur to all photographers to look carefully at their own work and try to see it as others might.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bloggus Interruptus

Mykonos, Greece, 1981
from the series Pictus Interruptus by Ray Metzker

After a brief but wonderful run which I lauded last summer, it appears that Chas Bowie's That's a Negative has followed the path of Tim Atherton's Muse-ings and Alec Soth's blog into longterm dormancy. I'm not sure what's going on with Chas. When I ran into him at a Lightleak meeting in August he made no mention of any changes to the blog. I hope to see it resume at some point. He's a talented critic.

On the topic of dormant blogs, all of you photobloggers out there please feel free to remove Alec Soth's blog from your blogrolls. It was great while it lasted but he's not coming back. Chop chop, stay current.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What To Do? #2

(What To Do? is a weekly installment of old, previously unpublished photos from my archives)

4. SW 1st Ave., Portland, December 1999

5. Santorini, Greece, April 2000

6. SE Grand and Oak, Portland, April 2003

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Anxiety's upside

Willie Nelson by Brian Lanker

The Eugene Register-Guard ran an interesting profile today on Brian Lanker, the city's only nationally prominent photographer. Lanker's latest coffee table book Shall We Dance? is a photographic essay on, you guessed it, dancing. While I'm not crazy about the photos, anyone who's been in the business that long has picked up some interesting insights along the way. Here're some of Lanker's thoughts on digital photography...

“A lot of great photography over the years has come out of anxiety and fear. Do I have it? Do I have the right photograph? Have I really captured it? You keep pushing yourself and keep expanding. You’re not constantly looking at the back of the camera and saying, ‘OK, I’ve got this, let’s move on.’ 

...the future of photojournalism...

“They’ve been saying for years that photojournalism was dead. They said that when ‘Life’ died the first time. But then photojournalism took root in newspapers. There was a great appetite and hunger for good photojournalism on the local level. And now it’s moving to the Internet. Where that is going to go, I’m not sure. I’m not a huge fan of viewing photography on the Web. I like holding a newspaper.”

...and on finding good photos:

“Probably a lot of it goes back to a strong sense of understanding the photographic process when I was in school. One instructor in particular really showed us a lot of great work from the masters. You got this warped sense that every time Eugene Smith took a photograph, it was monumental. So for me, I translated that early on into: That must mean there is a good photograph there, no matter what. If Henri Cartier-Bresson were here, he’d find a good photograph. So I’d better get to work. You find out it’s almost true.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bruce Hall: What Was He Thinking Again?

This is part two in a three part series with Portland photographer Bruce Hall. The following images are from Bruce's longterm photographic study of Mexico.

"This one is from Carnaval in Vera Cruz, Mexico last year. I was walking back to my hotel along the route of one of the many parades when I saw these dancers taking a break. Most everyone was drunk or in the process of getting that way, so it was an atypical scene within the larger context. It struck me as a sweet moment of human bonding in the midst of the chaos."

"I rented an apartment in Oaxaca a few blocks from where I made this photograph. I walked past it almost every day and was immediately taken by the way at a certain angle it looked as if the telephone wires were emanating from Christ. I shot it with color and black and white film and liked the pictures quite a lot but it wasn't until I was there a year or so later that I made this picture. I was with two other photographers at that time and to my surprise neither of them seemed particularly interested."

"This guy is one of a group of poor, young men in Vera Cruz who dive into the polluted harbor after coins that tourists throw in. They are there most days when the weather permits, and as far as I can tell it's how they get by. I shot mostly color film of them on two or three separate occasions. One of my favorite color shots from all my trips to Mexico is from that time. There was a break in the action and I asked this guy, who seemed to be the oldest and a bit of a leader, if I could shoot some pictures of just him. He was reluctant, but I gave him 20 pesos and he seemed ok with it then. He sort of ignored me as I photographed him smoking his cigarette."

"This is from Tlacotalpan, a small town about an hour and a half south of Vera Cruz. They have a festival there every year in February to celebrate their patron saint and regional music. Also it's an excuse to drink and have a big fiesta. On this day they were running six 1500lb Brahman bulls through the streets as they do every year. They first swim them across the river one at a time guiding them to the sand ramp they've built under this tree, which allows the bulls to come up into a street lined with thousands of drunken people. These kids were some of the smart ones who had placed themselves out of harm's way."

"Here one of the bulls is just up from the water and really pissed off. I can't adequately describe the feeling of seeing this thing rise up out of the river and charge the crowd. It had an almost apocalyptic feeling. I was running for my life and hoping not to end up face down picking my teeth up off of the pavement. I had a slight wide angle lens and was shooting at arms length. Last year two people were killed. Deirdre, who was with me on this trip, photographed from the second floor of a building one of the guys who died in the moment before his demise. He had dropped his can of beer and turned around to pick it up as the bull charged. The bulls are not intenionally harmed during this event and many people put water in front of their homes for the bulls to drink. Any kind of violent behavior toward the bulls is not tolerated."

"This is from a family's house in Tlacotalpan. They save and rehab injured animals and have converted part of their home into a museum open to the public. I asked this kid if I could photograph him and he picked up this white pelican which had been caught in a fishing net years before to pose for a picture. I shot a number of frames. This one is my favorite. I made a nice 16X20 print and took it to him last year when I returned."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Honesty isn't everything

Last night I watched The River They Saw on OPB. Timed to coincide with the massive photo exhibition currently at Portland Art Museum (the book produced for the exhibition weighs in at 9 lbs), the show chronicles the early history of photography in the Columbia River Gorge.

Cape Horn, 1867, by Carleton Watkins

Naturally the first photographer profiled was Watkins, whose steamship trip upriver in 1867 was the first major photographic exploration of the gorge. Within just a few weeks we was able to make several photographs that remain iconic more than a century later.

Cape Horn Near Celilo, 1867, by Carleton Watkins

As much as I love Watkins' photographs, they've always left me uneasy. There's something strange about them, some surreal quality which until last night I'd never been able to pinpoint. It wasn't until about midway through the program, during the profile of Sarah Ladd and Lily White, that I realized what it was. Watkins' photos have no clouds!

Now this might not seem at first like a big deal. Much of early Western photography featured cloudless skies.

Timothy O'Sullivan's darkroom shot by him in the Nevada desert under cloudless skies, 1867

The blue-sensitive emulsions used in this period helped heighten the effect, turning skies into blank featureless shapes which landforms could play against. And when existing skies weren't suitable photographers back then weren't shy about mixing and matching different negatives to get whatever effect they wanted. So it shouldn't be a big deal if Watkins showed calm white skies in his gorge photos. The choice was his, right?

The Dalles, 1867, by Carleton Watkins

And yet anyone who's spent any time in the gorge knows that it's virtually never cloudless. It rains a lot, and if it's not raining chances are it's overcast. I mean, there's a reason that the mountain range which creates the gorge is called The Cascades. It's a rainforest. The fact that Watkins' photographs make it look like the Nevada desert leaves me uneasy.

It wasn't until last night that these thoughts really began to precipitate, and it was brought on by show's feature of Sarah Ladd and Lily White, two Portland photographers who explored the gorge in the early 20th century.

A Storm in the Palisades, by Lily White

Their photographs seem to me much closer to the reality of the gorge: misty, hidden, and wet. What's interesting is that Ladd and White use many of Watkins' same devices, such as the monumental form reflected in water, the deliberate use of small foreground branches to break up the background, the symmetrical but not too symmetrical framing of glorious wild nature, etc. I think all three photographers must've had similar influences. But Ladd and White's photos seem more honest.

An Early Morning Scene Above Vancouver, by Sarah Ladd

I realize that honesty in photography isn't everything. I think Lewis Hine was right when he said, "photographs don't lie, photographers lie." Photographers have been twisting the truth for years, to good effect. In the case of Watkins, I think much of the power in his gorge photos comes from the uneasy feeling produced by their blank skies. To any northwesterner, they seem downright weird. Surely Ladd and White's photos were a much truer reflection of reality, and yet it's Watkins who has become part of photography's canon while the other two remain footnotes. A good lesson there.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What to do?

Looking through a box of old work prints today I found myself asking the question which I'm sure many photographers out there can relate to: "What the heck am I going to do with all these photos?"

Stacked in shelves behind me as I write this are about 300,000 negatives and 8,000 work prints. What am I going to do with them?

Well, gee, I've got this blog. Why not post them? For the next several months until the rainy season ends, I plan to post 3 old prints every Monday. I can't say in advance what type of photos, only that they won't be photos from my website. Here're the first three:

1. NW 21st and Kearney, Portland, November 2003

2. Upstate Maine, August 2004

3. Taylor St. dining room, January 2006