Saturday, October 31, 2009

American Prospects Revisited:
McLean, VA 1978

Halloween seems like an appropriate day to think about Sternfeld's best known image: McLean, Virginia, December 1978. I've spent some time this week, as I do every year, visiting the local pumpkin farm with the kids. After a long search —pumpkins are as individual as snowflakes— we came home with three pumpkins and yesterday spent some time carving elaborate jack-o-lanterns into their sides. Tonight they'll be silhouetted in flames. So when I look at Sternfeld's photo the subject matter seems immediately familiar.

McLean, Virginia, December 1978, Joel Sternfeld

At first glance this is among the most beguiling of Sternfeld's photographs. A fireman buying a pumpkin while the house burns behind him? What's going on here? Shouldn't his attention be on the fire? And who buys pumpkins in December? Wouldn't they have rotted in the fields by then?

As has been pointed out in numerous places (including Nick Turpin recently on B) the fire was no accident. It was a training exercise for the McLean Volunteer Fire Department.

A few weeks ago I called Clyde Clark to get a firsthand account of what happened. Clark was a member of the MVFD back in 1978 (he's since risen through the ranks to become Chief) and was on the scene the day of the exercise.

According to Clark, a developer had bought the property planning to build a subdivision but before he could proceed he needed to raze the existing structure. He offered the house up to the MVFD to burn in a controlled way. The MVFD would get some practical training and the developer would be rid of the structure. A win-win situation.

The exercise began in a very controlled way, room by room. It wasn't until late afternoon, around 3 or 4 pm, that the conflagration became big enough to consume the entire house. Joel Sternfeld (In Clark's words, "Joel Sternberg or whatever his name was...") happened to be driving by. He saw the fire, pulled over, set up his 8 x 10, and made the photo before anyone realized he'd done it. According to Clark, Sternfeld had made no prior arrangements and he knew no one on the fire crew. But chance favors the prepared mind, and Sternfeld found himself in the right place at the right time.

It wasn't until later when Sternfeld sent the MVFD a copy of Life Magazine that the fire crew realized they'd been photographed. Sternfeld's photograph was the magazine's centerpiece. Later Sternfeld sent a signed print to the MVFD which has been dutifully put on display in the firehouse, where it provokes the occasional question about its history. On top of that, Clark says they get a few inquiries a year from students or historians curious about the photograph and occasionally they will lend it out locally.

The house is now long gone, replaced by a large housing development called The Hamptons.

The December date still stumps me. I know Virginia is a temperate climate but could they grow such things that time of year? The photo was taken late in the afternoon. In December it would be nearly dark at 4 pm. All of which tempts me to think the date may be mislabeled. I asked Clark but he was unsure of the exact month of the exercise.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Maps for photographers

The Pencil of Nature


The Linked Ring

The Photo-Secession

Camera Work


Naked City

The Rule of Thirds

The Zone System

The Family of Mann

Toward a Social Landscape

The New Topographics

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mixed Review

(Due to certain financial arrangements not worth going into, I'm obliged to devote occasional blog posts to reviewing mixers. This post marks the first in the review series.)

Today's review: The KitchenAid RRK150

Much of the best in mixer design of the past generation has concerned itself with giving permanent form to the ephemeral. This concern has expressed itself not only in the analysis of that swarming flux of movement within the whippers and the beaters, but also in the approach to subjects that the casual observer might think static. For example, the frame of the mixer does not move in the conventional sense, but it changes constantly in other ways, most notable through the agency of spilled batter.

KitchenAid RRK150 325 Watts Stand Mixer

Within the previous decade, manufacturers —most especially KitchenAid and Kenmore— have begun consciously to explore the expressive potential of that spilled batter detail: the part that would represent the whole. This approach has produced a new breadth and simplicity in mixer design, and equally important, a new poetic ellipsis in cooking's approach to significant content. This new intuition allows chefs to use the mixer directly and realistically, and at the same time abandon the kind of leisurely, discursive literalness that has characterized most earlier straight mixing.

From a typical 20th Century mixing apparatus, one might have built a rough imitation of the original —and in fact thousands of rough imitations were built largely on the basis of outmoded countertop tools. The Kitchen Aid RRK150, on the other hand, would not be of much use to an appliance plagiarist, but it conveys a tangible and immediate sense of the space and scale and drama of the great construction. It deals not with the concept of mixing styles, but with the adventure of cooking grandly —and with the confidence of heroism, eternity, and time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

American Prospects Revisited:
San Antonio 1979

The Space Shuttle Columbia lands at Kelly Air Force Base
San Antonio, TX, March 1979, Joel Sternfeld

Boca Raton News, FL, Wednesday, March 21, 1979, Pg. 2A

Monday, October 26, 2009

Recent Developments

The Vivian Maier saga continues. For more information and backstory (including some Maier color work) look here, here, and here.

Earlier in October I speculated about how and when the Source List of Ten Photography Blogs You Should Read might be completed. I knew I should've put money on number ten having a beard and glasses.

In July I complained about the lack of negative photography criticism on the web. Dalton Rooney recently found a good supply of negative takes from an unexpected source.

In May I ran Stephen Shore's photographs with their modern day Google Street View equivalents. Turns out there is a wider project comparing Google Street View shots to a variety of historic images from Flickr Commons. It's primarily focused on Australia for now but that should expand.

In March I made the decision to dump this idea. I've since reconsidered that decision, which will probably turn out to be a bad move. Stay tuned for further developments.

In February I recounted my experience applying for a new passport. Although we didn't make it out of the country last summer I did use the passport —with terrorist haircut— as ID without incident. Here are passport photos for the rest of the family:

In January I wrote that I'd gained access to a local color darkroom and was cranking out prints. Sadly, the darkroom was torn down over the summer. The good news is that my basement has become the "long term storage" location for all that obsolete equipment. I'm currently hunting around for a good place to set it up.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Last night I finished reading The Photographer. What an original work! I think it must be the only book to combine contact sheets with illustrations in graphic novel format. Initially I was drawn to it because the protagonist is a photographer, but as it turned out photography is only a sidelight in the story. It's mainly a travelogue and cultural exposé about Afghanistan in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union was trapped in a situation very similar to the current U.S. position. Highly recommended for photographers, comics enthusiasts, and armchair geostrategists.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What To Do? #46

136. W Burnside and Broadway, Portland, 2003

137. Greyhound Station, Portland, 2003

138. SW Park and Stark, Portland, 2003

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

Friday, October 23, 2009

The many faces of George Kelly

Speaking of photographers being overlooked because they have no web presence, George Kelly in Portland has been plugging away at his street work. He shoots film. He makes prints in his home darkroom. Once in a while he has a show, but for the most part his photos don't get very far out into the world. That's a crime.

Party, Norman Mailer's 50th Birthday, New York, 1973
Garry Winogrand

Facial expression is a consistent theme in George's photos. He is a master of capturing odd faces, and his photographs leverage that facet to give them interior power. It's the same tool Winogrand used to pull viewers into his photos, culminating in Public Relations which is still the bible of street facial expressions. Like Winogrand, George builds his photographs from the inside out, starting inside someone's head which we read through the face then letting the rest of the image work around that fact.

Here is a sampling from the past few years:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

New Color / New Work

Some photos from my August trip to the East Coast:







New Jersey



New York


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Freeze Frames

While in Portland last week I stopped in at Ampersand, partly to see Mark Menjivar's fridge photos but also because I hadn't been there for a while and I wanted check in. The place seems to be going strong. Powells' photo section may be better in terms of quantity, but when it comes to choice book selection Ampersand is the best in town. Miles seems to have a good sense for what's out there and he doesn't stock crap, making for a very dense browsing experience. Somehow I escaped with my wallet intact, barely.

The store's found photos get the same treatment. I have no idea where he finds them all. He must sort through reams of filler to find the gems stocked in the store, all nicely packaged and organized. He's done all the work, leaving the fun part to customers.

Short Order Cook | Marathon, TX | 2-Person Household | She can bench press over 300 lbs | 2007, Mark Menjivar

As for Menjivar, it was great to see his photos large and in person after being limited to 72 dpi screen shots. I don't usually go for typologies but these held my interest, and the prints were rich and sharp. I think examining someone's fridge contents feeds into my natural voyeurism.

As usual, Eggleston was among the first to plant his flag in this territory.

Memphis, 1970, William Eggleston

Who can come up with the best Menjivar-style demographic description for Eggleston's freezer? E.g.: Bus driver | Memphis, TN | Bachelor | One of twelve siblings... Surely someone can do better?