Monday, October 31, 2011

Strange creatures and virtual costumes

A Facebook profile picture is a strange creature. As the image most closely associated with your online persona it operates a bit like a brand or logo. But unlike a logo, a profile picture needn't bring the person to mind. It can be completely disassociated.

Some Facebookers show their kids or spouse. Sometimes it's an abstract scene. Many photographers throw up a disguise. Until recently my profile photo showed hands playing piano on an old TV. Some folks have kept the same picture for years. Others change their photo every day. There's no hard and fast rule. Unlike the scrapbooks of old, the virtual album is a malleable experiment.

After my cousin died recently I noticed that many of his parents' Facebook friends began changing their profile picture to Colby's. It seemed like an easy way to pay my respects so I did it too. There was no mass alert. Everyone did it on their own.

I'm not sure if this is a common form of homage. It's the first time I've participated in such a thing. If others have done something similar I'd be curious to hear about it since it seems like a very contemporary form of memorial.

Most people viewing my Facebook page probably have no idea who's in the photo. They might assume it's one of my kids or me as a child. For the minority who recognize Colby the photo has a very different meaning.

I find this dichotomy —a simple photo's ability to radically shift depending on what the viewer brings to it— appealing. If I can pay homage and toy with ambiguity at the same time, count me in.

I'll leave the photo up for a few weeks or maybe longer. We'll see. For now it's my online Halloween mask. Today and for the foreseeable future I'm dressed as a small angelman.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Spring fashion preview

I just about blew a gasket when I came across this haute couture advertisement in the recent Esquire. Apparently there's a new line of clothing based on the apparel of photographer Miroslav Tichý. List price for the greasy sweater: $1600. Not sure if the homemade camera is included.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


It's been a strange and somewhat shitty week. Last Friday I flew to Tulsa for the funeral of my four-year old cousin. I'd barely gotten unpacked when I was told that I probably shouldn't bring my camera to the service the next day. My family knew me pretty well. Sometimes I can be obnoxious with a camera.

Saturday morning we drove in a caravan to the church and I was careful to leave my camera in the car. It turned out the service was heavy on photography anyway. A large screen overhead showed a slideshow of Colby's life, followed by video clips. It was heartbreaking.

As I sat in a pew fighting tears, my inner photographer wouldn't go away. I couldn't help seeing potential shots nearby. The poster near the pastor. The row upon row of police in uniform. Raw emotions everywhere. I imagined Larry Clark in my shoes. What would he shoot? How had he kept it together during those funeral scenes? Then I caught myself. Is this how I react during crisis? Have I gone totally overboard? I was glad not to have the camera.

from Tulsa, 1971, Larry Clark

Afterward we all retreated to a nearby home to share memories and company. We set up chairs in the driveway where Colby's accident had occurred. At first I thought the location was a bit strange considering the home had a large backyard. Wouldn't we be more comfortable there instead? But thinking about it later I realized the location was very meaningful. By meeting in the driveway we were reclaiming the space. Not to erase what happened there but to renew it with a happier memory.

I asked around if anyone had heard of Tulsa but no one had. Before last weekend that book had provided my main mental image of the place but the Tulsa I saw was pretty different. There were no junkies or gunplay or rundown homes. The only similar feeling was the sense of death, and everyone circling helplessly around it.

I had my camera with me now in the driveway but more as a security blanket than anything. I didn't feel like shooting. It just felt good to hold.

That feeling lasted a few days. Sunday morning I found myself in the Tulsa airport terminal where I saw the perfect scene. A pilot's hat upturned on a countertop formed a very strange shape, and behind it a bald man in uniform sorted through blank printer paper. It took me a moment staring before I could decipher it visually. What's going on here? What is that thing on the counter? I'd never seen anything like it.

It would've made a beautiful photo but I didn't even raise my camera. I just held it tightly and kept walking.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bremser Image Telephone

Who needs Google Image Telephone when there's Wayne Bremser? While most Tumblrs fire mortar rounds here and there, It's Never Summer is a rocket on a mission. Where does he come up with the connections? What will be next? And how can a rocket fly zigzag?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quiz #27: Uncommon Places

The first person to explain this map wins a print.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Q & A with Stephen A. Scheer, Part 2

During my initial interview with Stephen A. Scheer posted in June, I learned of his experimentation with multiple exposures. Many of these photos were published in the 1991 book Wave Hill Pictured, which is long out of print but still available on the secondary market. It's well worth seeking out. After seeing the book I probed Scheer about some of the images. Unless otherwise noted, all images shown here are from Wave Hill Pictured.

B: How did you get the idea to do multiple exposures?

SS: My work with multiple exposure photography began as an experiment, where I wanted to do something unusual with lighting that I had not done before. I used a lot of strobe in those days as a commercial photographer and my interest in controlled light carried over deeply into my art work. What I liked about technique in photography was problem solving. That is how the multiple exposure work began.

Were you shooting other stuff with that method at the time? For example, did you shoot city scenes with double exposures?

I did some street work in New York with multiple exposures, but only for a short while. An interesting method I used was a form of re-photography, where I photographed projected slides of people onto previously exposed films of architectural subjects. LOTTO-NYC, 1989 is an example of that. The mailman in the blue suit with a cigarette in hand was shot as a 35mm Kodachrome slide. The smoke shop facade was shot in 4x5. I projected the 35mm slide onto a white surface and re-photographed a masked portion of it right onto the previously exposed 4x5 film.

LOTTO-NYC, 1989, Stephen A. Scheer

How planned were the pairings of your exposures? How much control did you have?

I devised several ways to make the pictures, but they all worked by mixing strobe light with available light in carefully controlled ways. For the square pictures, I used two cameras with a film back that could go from one to the other.

Hands, Guitar, Hat, Wheels, Chair, NYC, 1988, Stephen A. Scheer

For the rectangular pictures, I only had one camera, which was more challenging by way of its limitation, but with experience I managed it. All the pictures were in-camera. They were not manipulated in processing. I used b&w Polaroid film to create them and color negative film to keep them.. I did some still life and figure work in the studio too, as in Hands, Guitar, Hat, Wheels, Chair, NYC, 1988, but most of the work was landscape with still life elements that required a responsive awareness of the changing natural light as I improvised with strobe.

How often did you look at the Polaroid and realize the negative wasn't worth pursuing? Or were you usually successful from the start?

I used Polaroids to physically make the pictures in a step-by-step fashion, to see what I was doing in the making. If something wasn't working, I changed my approach. I made Polaroids of each component separately, and then a Polaroid of all the components together before I committed to using the color film to do the same.

When thinking of combining two images what were you looking for? Formal elements, or colors, or subject matter? What made you match X photo with Y photo?

An in-camera multiple exposure picture is an accumulation of the light used, in a synthetic way, to make a new picture that is different. A piece of film is continuously sensitive. If you light up individual things you can string them and blend them together. So, instead of matching X photo with Y, I was actually thinking about making Z photo from XY parts, where Z is the end product and entirely different. In the Wave Hill pictures I was most interested in putting together architectural elements with lush landscape scenes to make new pictures with changed contexts for each element, to reorient the expectations of the viewer.

Do you think multiple exposures have any art or future now with the dominance of Photoshop? It's so easy to combine images now, is there something in the original film method that's missing with Photoshop?

I can’t compare my methods to Photoshop, except to say that my work was in-camera, in the live moment of photographing, and Photoshop is a post-production tool that allows for after thought. My landscape work was spontaneous, improvisational and time restricted, whereas Photoshop is timeless and repeatable. Both methods are deliberate, but with film you can only add as you go, you cannot take away. Photoshop allows for reduction, where you can eliminate things that you don't want. I usually manage to avoid things I don't want, rather than accept them with the insurance that I might discard them later.

I think what I'm asking is how or if the process is fundamentally different. With in-camera multiple exposures you don't know what you've got until you make the image (although Polaroids can let you see it quickly). Whereas with Photoshop it seems more fluid and experimental. You can combine and match images in a second, then reverse steps and try something else. I'm curious if you think either process leads to a particular type of image that you might not get from the other process.

I think you may have answered your own question about Photoshop, about its fluidity...and I have not used it to make multiple image pictures yet. But, it seems to me to be more like collage and less like transparency, because it is done with combined layers instead of continuous light. But, Photoshop is clearly the ultimate way to edit the contents of a picture, for example, to put together a seamless combination of disparate images that reads as continuous. Photoshop does this better than it does simulations of multiple exposures.

How do you see these multiple exposures fitting into your career as a whole? Were they just an experiment long ago, or do they relate more closely with your other photography? To me they seem quite different but maybe you see them as more related?

Generally I would agree, that they seem quite different. But, the same person made all the work. I think a photographer experiences "flow", as a sustained intuitive production, when their subject is clearly realized and defined. When the subject is understood, the work just comes. I know I experienced this with the Maples work, the Texas work, and I am experiencing it now with my New York architectural work. There were other times when I made interesting work, maybe even great work, but I might have been reacting to another person's work.

With the multiple exposures, particularly Wave Hill, I knew I was doing something that hadn't been done before, or at least hadn't been done very well, and that was - multiple imagery done in-camera, with natural and artificial light, in color and on location. The nominal subjects were not as important as the creativity of the process, and I experienced that as "flow" too, where what I was doing, and how I was doing it, was more important than what it was actually of. So, the multiple exposure work is different in how it defines itself, as process driven more than subject driven, but the spirit of the work is similar to other things I have done.

Can you briefly discuss what went into making these two images?

Wave Hill Pictured, Plate sixty-three

Wave Hill Pictured, Plate sixty-two

How did you choose the pairings? How conscious were you of how the forms would line up? Can you put the images into the context of process?

In these two pictures, the idea was to put the architectural element, like the bench or the columns, into the landscape, in such a way as to make a new still-life picture.

Plate Sixty-three was made with two stationary roll film cameras in two locations about 100 feet apart. First, the bench with foreground leaves and gravel were made with one camera. The front part of the bench was illuminated with strobe light and the rear part of the bench with sunlight. The background was left underexposed.

Polaroids made in preparation for Plate sixty-three

Next, the magnolia blossoms and branches plus background and sky were made with the second camera, using strobe light on the branches plus a fair amount of daylight everywhere to raise the shadow and mid-range values throughout the scene. The different variations of image clarity, see-through transparency, and layers of illumination were controlled by the mechanics of the camera and strobe light, while the natural light moved and changed. The film was transported from one camera to the other with the second exposure following the first exposure right away. It probably took about four hours to complete, which meant that I had to plan ahead in anticipation of the movement of the sunlight.

Plate sixty-two was made with one view camera in two locations several days apart. The cement columns, lit with strobe, and the background lit with available light, were both part of the first exposure.

Polaroids made in preparation for Plate sixty-two

The second exposure, done days later at a different location, was of the flowering blossoms and stems, as seen through hanging boughs, in the middle of the picture. They were lit with strobe. The major difference here was that I could not go back to the first location to redo the first exposure if I did not like the way the second exposure was working out. But, the final image was on a single piece of film, as was the case with all my multiple exposure pictures. That defines an in-camera multiple exposure as compared to sandwiched negatives, multiple printing or Photoshop. It is done in the camera on one piece of film.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

From moonrise to sunset

We have never thought that we could or should carry around a library of our favorite fine art photographs in digital form for handy display and reference. But why aren't fine art photographs analogous to pop songs? Why doesn't it make sense to want Moonrise and Chez Mondrian and hundreds of others on my iPad or other display device so I could re-experience them repeatedly?

—From a possible way forward in the digital world.

Q: What do you think the function of a fine art portrait is?

A: To make a record of the photographer

Q: What do you think the function of a fine art self-portrait is?

A: To make a record of the thing photographed

—From an interesting survey about smiling in portraiture

I guess maybe a book is my ultimate goal. And then I read something online about how every photographer wants a book, and I was like, “Fuck, of course, that’s me.” I mean, am I really any better or different than the average person on Flickr? I don’t know.

—From a good short essay on the photographic life.

Later, in his studio, he turns those digital photographic images into oil paintings. Although they are realistic, they have absolutely nothing to do with photorealism, at least as defined by the bright, hard-edged, post-pop art oil and acrylic paintings of the 1960s and since.

Instead, Xie seems to be making paintings of — not based on — those original photographs. Photographic devices such as narrow depth-of-field and motion blur, familiar to us from about a billion contemporary journalistic and advertising photographs, are translated into creamy brush strokes. The combination is extraordinary.

—From a review of a show photographers in Eugene should see.

Applause for the sunset is a common tradition in beaches and along the boardwalk. There’s a precise moment to do it and the impatient one that claps too soon gets disapproving looks. Families and friends gathered around the mate celebrating life’s simplest joys. Another beautiful tradition that often brings tears to the eyes of foreigners.

—From a team of photographers currently taking Uruguay by storm.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Google Image Telephone

I have always loved the game Telephone. I remember playing it as a kid, and now that I have my own children we sometimes play it together, although recent rounds have degenerated into a competition for creative cuss phrases. Which isn't so fun. But the roots of the game still appeal, I think because they show that even the most orderly transformations are inevitably unpredictable. When order results in chaos or vice versa, I'm generally all over that.

Telephone Booth, NYC, 1963, Lee Friedlander

Lately I've been experimenting with Google Image Telephone. This is like Telephone except instead of whispering in your neighbor's ear you upload a photograph into Google's Image Search engine. When Google attempts to identify the image (usually successfully) it also returns 7 or 8 visually similar images. You choose whichever looks most interesting, re-enter it into Google Image Search, and the process repeats. After 10 or 12 cycles, the original message has usually been thoroughly scrambled. That's Google Image Telephone. It's sort of a silly game but strangely addictive.

Here's an example. I started with a photo from Bill Miller's Ruined Polaroid series.











12 rounds later the image looks nothing like the original.

So what does "visually similar" mean exactly? Only Google's proprietary search algorithms know for sure. As far as I can tell Google looks to match shapes, pattern, color cast, and sometimes meta information such as authorship. In the initial images above the search treated the white Polaroid border as part of the image, returning only images with white borders. On top of all that search results change over time. A search for an image one day might return different results a few days later. So generally it's very mysterious. When you upload a new image you're never sure what's going to come out the other end. It's far less predictable than TinEye, whose search function maintains such fealty to the original that little evolution is possible.

Google Image Telephone doesn't work as well with famous photos. When you input a well known image, it's as likely to return other photos by the photographer as something "visually similar". For example this Eggleston photo,

Returns other images by Eggleston, not necessarily farm animals.

But a search based on a generic photo with similar subject matter,

Reliably turns up other farm animal photos.

What's the exact algorithm? Only Google knows.

One way to get around the famous photographer vortex is to use a lesser known image. I've been enamored lately with Stephen Shore's Amarillo Postcards —I'm making a similar series based on Eugene— so I thought it would be fun to feed one into the Telephone engine. Although it recognized Shore as the author, all of the matches were non-Shore photos.












Not that far from where we started, although I couldn't get Shore's image to come up in the search.

The two image chains above show different possibilities for the game. One method is to deliberately choose dissimilar images, to see how far removed one can get from the original. The other angle, as shown in the Shore example, is to venture far from the original image and then attempt to link back to it. Or perhaps it could be a game for two with photographs emailed to a partner who would conduct a search, then return a new image. Or an email chain with multiple participants, a sort of Google Exquisite corpse. There are all sorts of ways you can go.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A marriage proposal

I've been thinking about a wedding I went to a few weeks ago. The setting was spectacular, a ridge overlooking the foothills of the Colorado Front Range. Where it widened into a flat grassy knoll someone had built an 8-sided prayer house. After mingling outside, we removed our shoes, went into the house, and sat in a circle around the interior. The guitar player plucked a tune, the groom and bride and their families entered and walked to the center. A hush fell over the crowd as the ceremony began.

The wedding location, photo found in someone else's wedding pix

It was a picture perfect moment, which was exactly the problem. As I looked on all I could hear was the steady din of cameras going off. Click Click Click Click Click! Do you take Click Click Click Erica to Click Click be your Click Click ever loving Click Click Click wife? I do Click Click Click Click!

Does this experience sound familiar? Maybe I'm more tuned to camera noise than some people, but to me it was obnoxious. The act of observation was altering the thing observed. Call it the Heisenberg wedding principle.

It made me wonder what a wedding ceremony would be like without cameras. I realize a total ban would be impractical. Everyone brings a camera to weddings, and perhaps they could still use them for pre- and post-ceremony photos. But what about keeping the actual ceremony camera-free? It worked fine 200 years ago. Why not revive the idea?

I think the benefits would be threefold:

First, no camera noise.

Second, wedding guests would find themselves more engaged in the experience of the ceremony.

Third, the memory of the event would take on added significance. You had to be there. In this case it would really be true. Each person at the wedding would remember it in their own way, and taken as a whole the collective memories would form the lasting document. Which to me seems more meaningful than 500 separate photos of the bride and groom kissing.

There could perhaps be one exception, a professional photographer with a silent shutter who would remain unobtrusive. That person would serve a sort of ATM security camera role, documenting events for the official record, and I suppose they could post a few public images for everyone to share. But for all other guests, no Click Click Click.

Of course I've already had my wedding so it's easy for me to foist this idea on others. But maybe some young lovers out there want to consider it? Has anyone ever attended a wedding ceremony without cameras? Is such a thing possible now?