Thursday, November 29, 2012

Here, There, and Everywhere

"My interest in snapshot photography began because, every now and then, I would come across a picture that was startling in its directness. Made without pretense to art, these images were without artifice, and their simplicity gave them a special vitality. While there are certainly visual conventions among snapshots, at their best they are seemingly unmediated and unconditioned, the result of an accident or chance. This immediacy has become rarer and rarer as people are more and more exposed to images, and it indicates a path toward understanding, by contrast, what part of a typical photograph is the overlay of visual convention."
--Stephen Shore here


"Picasso famously said that it took him a lifetime to paint like a child. I takes many professional photographers that long to strip their pictures of artiness. How humbling to realize that simple mechanical reproduction can offer so much more than creative interpretation."  

--Alec Soth there


"It rarely occurs to such a photographer to take a picture of something, say a Venetian foundation, without a loved one standing directly in front of it and smiling into the lens. What artistic results he obtains are almost inevitably accidental and totally without self-consciousness. Perhaps because of his very artlessness, and his very numbers, this nameless picturetaker may in the end be the truest and most valuable recorder of our times."

--Jean Shepherd here


"I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to the truth. The snapshot is a specific spiritual moment. It cannot be willed or desired to be achieved. It simply happens to certain people and not to others. Some people may never take a snapshot in their lives, though they take many pictures."

--Lisette Model there


"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

--Shunryu Suzuki everywhere


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Unlisted

Are you ready for listmania? It may be November but the annual year-end lists have already begun, with favorite photobooks of 2012 by ICP and Alec Soth posted recently. Both have some interesting picks, although there is a mildly depressing amount of crossover duplication. I expect many more lists to come in the next few weeks, after which we'll have a good sense of which books had the biggest impact.

As usual it's hard for me to judge these lists because I haven't seen most of the books in person. I don't often receive review copies. It's just little old me and my local library and used bookstores, with occasional visits to Ampersand, but even they don't carry everything. So these lists always give me the same feeling. They remind me that I'm out of the loop.

That said, I am currently enjoying a photo book which I doubt will wind up on anyone's list, because it's not a monograph. It's a historical book. The recently published Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Tim Egan is a fascinating account of the life of Edward S. Curtis. I hadn't known much about Curtis before aside from his photos. But the guy led an amazing life. He was raised in poverty, moved to Seattle as a teen where he supported his family until mortgaging the homestead to invest in a small photo studio, which he quickly built into the most respected in the city. He hobnobbed with Roosevelt, Pinchot, JP Morgan, and various power brokers.

Then he ditched everything --family, business, daily comforts, Seattle, etc-- to embark on a 30-year non-stop roadtrip documenting North American Indians. No one thought he'd complete the project, but the resulting 20 volume (!) set is a classic of both photography and ethnographic study. Eventually he faded into obscurity before his reputation was revived posthumously. Pretty interesting guy.

Photography plays a side role in the book. Most of the focus is on Curtis's various travels and relationships, and the closing of the American frontier which occurred concurrently with his project. But above all this is a study of North American Indians, and how they were basically fucked every which way imaginable during America's westward expansion. It's a story we all know but still worth the occasional reminder, lest we forget. And Egan is a great writer, so it's fun to revisit this period through his words.

So enjoy the upcoming season of lists. But if you find yourself tired of looking at monographs and just want to curl up on the couch with a good read, Egan's book is highly recommended.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The bomb and the trade

One of the more interesting photographers to come to the attention of In-Public recently is Jan Meissner. Although some in the group had known of her for years, most of us including myself discovered her this fall through a profile on the Leica Liker blog. A brief glance through her portfolio showed us that she was someone to be reckoned with. Her photos displayed an acute sense of spacing and of the moment, as demonstrated in photos like this. 
This particular photo seemed to drop out of the sky like a bomb into the In-Public discussion board. What the heck? It was nearly perfect. Who was this savant? 

According to our Meissner contact, she'd only taken up street photography a few years ago at the age of 60! Most of her earlier life had been spent as a painter. That would help explain her remarkable sense of composition, but still. How does someone with relatively little experience find scenes like the one above. Or this one?
Such a beautiful moment plucked from the river of life, with bodies spread evenly across the frame and subjects mirroring and playing off each other. And capped by a delicious sense of the absurd with the PARTS sign! Street photographers wait for decades for scenes like this to appear, and here was a relative novice who'd shown an uncanny ability to discover them repeatedly. Had we discovered the next Gary Stochl? Or Vivian Maier? 

If there was any criticism it was that she relied a bit heavily on flat compositions. Most of her photos, like the ones above, were shot straight on into static backgrounds. They showed a distant eye and one which shied away from complicated angles. Some of the same backgrounds reappeared in multiple photos. For example the PARTS sign photo above was one of several in her portfolio from the same corner.
Clearly she was staking out these scenes patiently, just waiting for the right moment. And probably shooting from a tripod. Some street shooters frown on tripods, but in this case it seemed to work. In fact it seemed like the natural course for someone with a painting background. 

As with any such work coming out of left field like this, I suppose it's only natural that doubts began to surface. Sure they were great photos, but some of them looked almost too great. Even more problematic was that the great ones shared room in a portfolio with many average shots. Why was there such a variance in quality? Were these in fact real street scenes, or were some of them perhaps composites of multiple exposures? 


Quash the thought! Our Meissner contact assured us that these were the real deal. He knew Meissner well and had shared many meals. She was legit. But she was a former painter, so perhaps she didn't yet know how good some of her photos were. To me this made them seem even better. I loved the idea that an amateur with little background could create instant classics. It seemed further proof of the democratic power of photography. 


Unfortunately the group had begun to smell blood in the water. Questions came flying. What about the man carrying the sign? someone asked. Where's his shadow? Forget the shadows, said another. If a guy is running at you that close, you look upAsk to see her raw files, another suggested. 


These comments caught me by surprise. Upon first viewing the photos I'd never considered the possibility of them being anything but straight photos, but now I began to look more closely. Were they comps or were they real? I gave all of them a long second look. I honestly couldn't tell.


The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601-02, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

I suppose the more important question is, does it matter? To most of the photography world the answer is no. Photographs are no longer expected to be "truthful", whatever that phrase means. We've moved past that. We're almost to the point now where comping is not only accepted but expected. The emphasis is on the final product no matter how it's made, whether in camera or using Photoshop later

In a sense photography has finally come of age. We don't expect paintings or sculptures or novels to be faithful to reality. We can appreciate Caravaggio painting even if it has no physical relationship to an actual scene. So why should photographs be any different? 


Strangers in the Light #7, Catherine Balet

Yes, I know the "does it matter?" question has been with us forever, and it's probably boring to those of you who've settled it in your minds. People have been altering photographs since the beginning of the medium. In recent years as tools have improved, not only have alterations become more seamless, so has their acceptance into the mainstream. 

Lindisfarme Boats, David Byrne

No longer do we marvel over the technical wizardry of Jerry Uelsmann or Robert Heineken. Now we have people like Catherine Balet or Matthew Baum making photographic collages with barely a mention of technique in any accompanying text or review. Julie Blackmon abandons candid technique for pastiche mid-career and it hardly merits a footnote. Or we see countless photographs like David Byrne's Lindisfarne Boats which circulate easily with various other generic landscapes, unless someone happens to look more closely at them and stir up a fuss. But a case like David Byrne's is the exception. For most art photography, manipulation is no longer very noteworthy, and maybe it never has been.

But there are a few pesky corners of the photo world still clinging to the old ways, and one of them is street photography. For street photographers, reality vs comping does matter. Why? Because the bread and butter of street photography is not imagination. It's simple observation. When you mix the two, it's no contest. Imagination can always create a more fantastic image than what can be seen in real life. That's why we have a porn industry or new car ads. 


But that imbalance works the other way too. It's what gives street photography its strong kick. Because when you do observe a fantastic scene in real life and manage to capture it with a camera, it's a rare treat. You can see how someone who spends hours and days and weeks seeking out such a scene might take it personally when a photographer comps one together artificially. In traditional street photography they don't mix. 

If Meissner was indeed mixing the two, her work immediately lost its shine. But was she? The Leica profile made no mention of comping. Her artist statement was vague. The only thing we had to judge by was her photos. We are good observers. We had time. We now held the photos to even tighter scrutiny than before:

1. The lady with the orange cowl to the right of the frame has no reflection in the window. 
2. There are three dogs in this shot all ignoring each other completely. 
3. The metadata gives a shutter speed of 200th/sec yet a pigeons wings are completely frozen top left. 
4. One of the two centre figures has a shadow beneath while the other mysteriously doesn't.
Plausible responses came forth:
1. Reflection could be directly behind her and not visible from the camera - and this is an open-shade exposure, thus reflections are muted anyway. 
2. Centre dog is running, not paying attention; front two dogs beginning to look at each other. 
3. Pigeon is coasting in slowly, not flapping at moment of exposure, and might be slightly blurry if seen larger. 
4. I will grant that the shadows beneath the figures may have been inconsistently burned or dodged. There is a shadow under the woman in the center; the green and streaky bicycle lane pavement paint also mutes it. Notice how faint the shadow is under the running figure with the flowers. The man carrying the sign also has a black briefcase and a pack, increasing both the size and density of his shadow.
I still wasn't sure what to think. Honestly I could've been swayed either way at this point. Many good points had been raised, and all of them potentially rebutted. And we probably could've kept going down this path for a while with no concrete decision. I wanted to believe. I think we all wanted to. "To find they are comped would be a little like finding out father christmas doesn't exist!" wrote someone on the IP board. 

The point that kept coming up again and again was that they just didn't look right. Something seemed off about the photos, something that couldn't easily be put into words. After thinking more about this complaint I think it's the same something that's apparent in any of the photos shown above in this post. Something just doesn't look right about them. At least to a street photographer it doesn't. To a street shooter, a picture of screen junkies looks something like this:


George Kelly, 2011

It looks right because it's not perfect. The photo is imbalanced and awkward, but that's what makes it real. A picture like the one below? Something just doesn't look right. And Meissner's photos shared some of that quality.
Strangers in the Light #2, Catherine Balet

Finally someone suggested we ask Meissner directly. By this point I don't think anyone was surprised by her answer:
The photograph that you specifically want to know about was built. A time came, last December, when I taught myself to bring frames together, and this was the most extreme example, a kind of prototype, a way for all the people, and the dogs, that I had captured in a twenty minute shooting spree, to come together. I felt them there together, wanted them to be together, passing, touching one another, and I learned how to make this happen. But I was definitely suspicious of what I had done--and I definitely had feelings of real ambivalence about the value of this way of working. I still do.  
But, as Whitman said, on his daily walks through these same streets, he passed "thousands of lovers." He had momentary and serial love affairs--one was not enough--and in his mind these lovers came together. I claimed this as a kind of partial explanation of my desire to bring all those moments, those lovers, together into one sprawling moment. 
It was a poetic explanation but it didn't hide the basic facts. Father Christmas didn't exist after all. Oh well. We fumed for a while, then moved on.

Something didn't look right. Street shooters are an observant lot. If something looks off in a street scene  they will generally notice, and those off moments are sometimes the kernel of great photos. But when it comes to looking at photographs the opposite is true. Perfection itself is often the clue that something isn't right. If a scene doesn't look off, it looks off.


A week after our In-Public discussion I put a link to Meissner on the HCSP discussion board. I was careful not to include any clue about whether or not the photos had been altered. I just wanted to get honest reactions from the street community. It took less than a day for doubts to begin surfacing. Were the photos real or comps? A back and forth discussion ensued on HCSP similar to the one on IP, before the general sentiment coalesced around comping.


Street shooters have a third sense about comping. I could probably put Meissner's work in front of any street group and they'd eventually detect manipulation. As for the broader photo world I'm not so sure. Not only is there a general sentiment that comping doesn't matter much. The unwritten assumption is that most photos are comped to one degree or another. Maybe to a future group of photo critics, such photos will look right. Or worse, they'll no longer care. They'll view them as we view a Caravaggio painting from hundreds of years ago, with no burden to bear any indexical reference to reality.


But I would trade every Caravaggio in the world for a crappy vintage 5 x 7 snapshot of St Thomas, if such a thing were somehow possible. Any photograph from that period would be more fascinating than a hundred paintings of it. Assuming the photo wasn't comped.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Camera Night At The Ivar

The Ivar in the 1980s
I was in LA for 4 days last week. Most of my time there was spent shooting the streets (more on that in a future post) but I did manage to squeeze in a visit to a single photo exhibit. And boy was it worthwhile.

Camera Night At The Ivar at Drkrm Gallery documents a period during the early 80s when The Ivar Theatre in Hollywood opened its doors to photographers Sundays and Tuesdays. This was back in the heyday of strip clubs before dance poles or shaving, and public genital displays still bore the tint of hidden mystery. No TVs or T-bone steaks for distraction, just a woman on a bare stage with 5 minutes to undress and spread em.

Since most strip clubs expressly prohibit candid photography, Camera Night was a unique opportunity. The scene drew photographers from all over, many with national reputations. Collected in this show alone are Norman Breslow, Bill Dane, David Fahey, Anthony Friedkin, Michael Gurske, Ryan Herz, and Paul McDonough. Judging by the number of shooters visible in the photos (Winogrand can be seen lurking in the background of several) that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Ryan Herz, The Ivar Theatre, 1982

I suppose one could get similar photographs paying a studio model to expose herself, but the resulting photos wouldn't be much different from common porn. What separates the Camera Night photos from such pictures is that they depict not only the strippers but the crazy voyeuristic scene surrounding it, a sort of sociological study of shared sexual experience, ritual observation, and male fantasy. Photographers cluster around the vaginas like paparazzi around celebrities, some mere inches from the origin of the world. Many in background also peer through cameras. Some men in the audience stare bug-eyed. Some masturbate. A few look bored. Some manage to do all at once. 

Regardless of activity all attention is unified. Everyone watches the stripper. But alas, even the center cannot hold. After looking at photo after photo in Drkrm the strippers fade in importance and the real subject becomes clear: voyeurism. These photos depict the act of photographing as an animal instinct. Observation, patience, stalking that delirious moment of proper shutter release, and then exposure.

The scene feels real. The photographs feel real. It's an authentic look inside a fleeting moment in history. Then as now, nothing was as mysterious as a fact clearly described.

The prints in the show are excellent. Most are vintage black and white silver gelatins. Using a flash 12 inches from someone's crotch one might expect flesh tones to lose shadow detail, but instead they disport a rich tonality. These guys were pros at printing as well as shooting. Some of the close shots depict a pubic form as intricate and convoluted as an abstract painting. They resemble ariel photos of a verdant jungle, or perhaps graffiti drawn by a very fine hand.

A few of the images --by Paul McDonough and Bill Dane for example-- have appeared in various books over the years. But the vast bulk of these have never been shown. They were curated by Drkrm for this single exhibition which is unlikely to travel or be repeated due to its graphic nature. Even Los Angeles has turned a prudish eye, with no local press willing to review it. The show ends on November 25th. If you live in the LA area, I'd highly recommend seeing it this week. An exhibition catalog (cover left) is available here in both print and digital form.  


Camera Night At The Ivar is at Drkrm Gallery, 727 Spring St., Los Angeles, CA through 11/25/12



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Eye On PDX: Clarke Galusha

Clarke Galusha is a photographer based in Portland. His most recent body of work featuring tintype portraits of children is on display through November at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland. I've sprinkled some jpgs from the show throughout the interview below, but they are merely facsimiles of the real thing. I encourage readers to see them in person at Newspace if possible. (See past Eye On PDX profiles here and here)


Why do you shoot tintypes?

I’ve always enjoyed working with alternative photographic processes. When I was in college, I worked for a photographer who was making images on a modern version of the tintype that used a liquid emulsion. Because of this experience, I was already quite proficient at pouring various liquids onto metal plates. When I learned to create tintypes this summer, I picked up the process quite easily. But, to answer your question, I shoot tintypes because I love the immediacy and unpredictability of the process. I love that the tintypes are one-of-a-kind objects that cannot be infinitely reproduced. But throughout the project, my favorite part has become how amazing portraits of people, especially children, can look with this process.    


Quetzal

Aside from headshots I'm curious what other subjects you've photographed using tintype.  

The wet-plate collodion process is relatively new to me. Although I’ve been a photographer for years, I just learned to make tintypes this past summer. Other than the numerous tintypes I’ve made of my wife and my son and the huge amount I made of the 49 kiddos I shot for the show, I’ve also made a few plates of my garden and my boston terriers.  


Most photographs in the show are not for sale. Is that a conscious decision to avoid the art market? Or is it just because these photos are one of a kind and belong to various parents?  

Through an email that started out going to just the parents of the kids at my son’s playschool, I offered all of them first dibs on the purchase of their kid’s tintype that I’d be using in the show. For all of the kids I shot, I offered the parents at least one free tintype just for participating in the project. I ended up giving the parents all of the outtakes. I was somewhat surprised that the majority of the parents ended up getting three or four outtakes and purchasing the tintype in the show. This was not the wisest choice for me from a financial standpoint and has made it impossible to have a future show using the actual tintypes. However, I kept the promise that I’d made to myself and to the parents in the email that, “I am not looking to make a profit with this venture. My goal is to make an amazing gallery show.” 


Davy

Tell me about the process of photographing small children. I know they have a mind of their own, and don't always cooperate with the photographer. Does it take a lot of energy and/or shots to get the right one? Do you try to translate some of a shoot's uncertainty into your photos?

I did my best to not direct or suggest any poses to the kids, other than asking them to look at the lens. Also, I absolutely did not ask them to smile. Because of the amount of time it takes to prepare and develop the tintypes, the majority of the time the kids were at my house for the session, they were running around and playing. In a hour long session, I’d only be able to make 3 or 4 tintypes, meaning that they’d only have to sit in front of the camera 3 or 4 times. I really wanted to try and capture the kids being themselves. However, sitting a kid on a stool in front of a huge 8x10 view camera, a massive softbox and a gigantic umbrella in the garage of a stranger’s house, hardly leads to a natural expression. Despite all of that, I think that the quick exposure times, the limited amount of shots over the session and the excitement and participation of the parent(s) helped in making some great images.  


Why kids?

Being a younger sibling, the youngest of 17 cousins, and one of the youngest on the block, I didn’t have much exposure to little kids until my son was born 2.5 years ago. I have been totally amazed and overwhelmed by the depth, knowledge and complexity of young children. My son and his little friends amaze me every day.  

Alder



What's the most profound thing a kid has said to you during a portrait session?

Maybe not so profound, but the most memorable response was from a little boy after seeing the first tintype of himself, “Oh, that is the other me!”


Do you think a portrait can describe what's in a person? Or does it just show someone's surface at a given time?  

I think that most formal portraits of people are incredibly telling. For many of the subjects in this project, this might have been the first picture-taking experience where they were not asked to smile. Usually, it worked out that the first exposure was the one that I chose to use in the show. After getting the kid(s) to stand still or sit on the stool, it would take me a few minutes to get the image mostly composed and focused. The kids seemed to get over their initial jitters and didn’t know what to expect. I think the first shot best captured the kid’s natural expression and depth at that moment in time.

Thor

Name one favorite portrait photographer.  

Sorry, I don’t want to say just one, but I’ll limit myself to five:  Sally Mann, Larry Clark, Bruce Davidson, Nicholas Nixon, and Harry Callahan


What are you working on next?  

I’m going to continue to explore the wet-plate collodion process.   For this show, I shot 49 kids in 36 days. I just haven’t had the time to play around with the process, push the limits and make big mistakes. I’m really looking forward it. I hope to have the opportunity to show at more galleries.


How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?

The “scene” seems to be alive and thriving. The city is full of amazing photographers, and there is constantly new work being shown in the local galleries. In my experience, I’ve mostly just met other photographers and artists through The Newspace Center for Photography. One artist I met there, whom I’d like to mention is photographer Ray Bidegain. He taught me how to make tintypes last summer and has been a great friend and mentor ever since.   



Saturday, November 10, 2012

For the Bloggers

Doonesbury 11-8-12, Garry Trudeau
This one is for the other bloggers out there. You know who you are. Sometimes you just gotta laugh at the whole enterprise.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tour of Babble

My review of Mikhael Subotzky's Retinal Shift was posted on Photo Eye yesterday. If you're curious about the book I encourage you to read it, but if you just want a good chuckle I think the version below is much more entertaining. I've sent my original review around the world through Google Translate, from English to Swahili to German to Vietnamese back to English. I think the general ideas still come through, sort of. But in a way which refreshing is academic similar photograph schooling.

The first thing that is a stain on retinal Shift Mikhael Subotzky its size. 490 pages, two inches thick and weighing more than 5 kg, the retina to change the giant picture book I have ever experienced. There is a sense of Magnum Degrees size or landscape view. Or simply Magnum, Subotzky think his tome. Publisher Steidl has not held again.

Change the number of the retina is due to the fact that they are actually from a smaller number of essays (relatively long) images, some of which. Interspersed throughout the book, some blocks are interwoven into their own, and some are a little of both types explaining Help other readers out important book starts with the most power mobile phone. If you give more help essay interprets by Anthea buy and Shawn O'Toole. This book can be used as book reviews she has a Shift retina self-reference is read. We also see portraits Subotzky, images from other images, image image image, and of course, include the title, refers to the very act of seeing.
"This book can be used as book reviews she has a Shift retina self-reference is read. We also see portraits Subotzky, images from other images, image image image, and of course, include the title, refers to the very act of seeing."
If it looks a little like this type of show is why. Shift retina is a physical manifestation of the Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition Subotzky Bank, access, major museums in nature Subotzky travel from South Africa, this year and next. Show offers a wide range of materials, from your photos to headshots get surveillance footage and more. This involves a series of 1911 and on the walls in the form of museum design, including videos, slideshows, and traditional print is not displayed.

I'm not sure any book can really experience the museum so vast and the fact that he intends to Subotzky. "My aim," he explained, "is to produce two lines of different but relevant work is not an example of a book exhibition, but a discrete form that take the work with a different way. "
Nevertheless comparisons between the book and the exhibition are inevitable. Flip through the pages of character wandering through an art museum. There is no strict order is very important. You can see in this position, then this. There are some guidelines to explain the way. If the museum experience is probably different for everyone, depending on the time you spend in each position and the tool.

It is only gradually after visiting many rooms that you get a feel for what is Subotzky by: saw action. Not. It is up to the photographer. But you see, this can be done by any blunt object. If it is the cctv or headshot optometrist or or tour guide or if the material is Subotzky themselves behind the camera is relatively important. And in fact, much work not Subotzky. Acquired from external sources. And to drive home the point that the engine cover is left. Photos show front and rear of retinal Subtozky. Screening optometrist your left and right if the subject of the image, Subotzky is the right time of the contract blindly.

But it's not so bad, if he can see, or if it is "writer" these images, however, that time can be explained. Go to the era of the single photographer is to hunt with a camera for the remaining images. Rather it is a photographer choice, the person in charge and managed through a huge selection of accessories from all possible sources, each presents a unique way of looking. The company has never before have so many recording techniques and experimental retinal image Shift keys together as much as possible.
"But it's not so bad, if he can see, or if it is writer these images, however, that time can be explained. Go to the era of the single photographer is to hunt with a camera for the remaining images."
For me, this book is the middle part of Who's Who. This is a range headshots running full page in the book, gray portrait show for ten years from the Who's Who of South Africa. The first group is from 1911, and from the point of view that the portrait step decentralized and loose threads and tone. Not only is a great way to explore the critical value changes, but they have the quality artwork that is interesting. As in any book of all images not lftones. However, the original image itself is not the lftones Subotzky added particle dominated. If from a very narrow image blur in the total reminder that each image is considered to be a clumsy presentation. In the last camp of 2011 tons in a pixelated jpgs 1/2 brand are turned up a large proportion of modern photography. Historical research in a variety of ways.

How many names Steidl, spent time in Göttingen Subotzky and Gerhard Steidl in the production of the book, and in collaboration with other designers in the United States. Although the resulting book feels a bit complicated and also very private. If we look at and between the retina, an important lesson is clear. It contains gray matter behind them.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Map

Photo book lovers in San Francisco are in luck. Wayne Bremser has created a custom Google Map of city locations selling new and used photo books. I think it would be great if every major city had one of these. Agree? Create a local photo book map, send it to me, and I'll post here.


Also on the subject of maps, Jen Bekman's 20 x 200 today released a new watercolor map of Portland by Stamen Designs. Unlike Wayne's map above it's not very good as a practical tool. But it sure is purty to look at. And it does work in a roundabout way. Place a finger anywhere on it at random. You'll probably be near a used bookstore, at least a coffee house showing photos.



Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Not like wrestling or football



"I can’t get the high any other way. I like aggression but I don’t like aggression put on me by someone else. I like pulling hard on a hold and using my muscles. Doing something that is scary but I don’t have to worry about anyone else injuring me. It’s not like wrestling or football." --Clayton Cotterell

Read more about Clayton in the latest installment of Eye On PDX now up at Prison Photography.

I appreciate Pete shouldering the Eye-On-PDX load in recent weeks while I tackle some other things. Nothing that important. Just, you know, I dunno, things. But I promise to be a good boy and post another of my own profiles soon. Stay tuned...  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

DIY Distribution

DIY distribution is a great way to get your photos out in the world. Unlike traditional exhibition methods like galleries or online portfolios, the key to DIY is to embrace the surprise element. I like to distribute photos with absolutely no information. No name, no website, no statement, just the photo. The goal is not to get your name out there. It's to make people ask WTF? Why is that photo there? DIY distribution is not like handing out business cards. You're spreading fucking art, dude. Or maybe littering, depending on who's keeping track. So just keep that in mind.

As a general rule deliberate placements receive more attention than "accidental" ones. A photo which is lying on a park bench may have been placed deliberately or it may have just blown there. Without careful placement no one can tell, and very few people except other artists will examine something which just blew there. But a placement which shows conscious intent usually gathers attention. So if you want to reach a wide audience you must make your placements appear deliberate. All DIY placements below follow that rule.

A multitude of Library DIY possibilities
1. Library Books. My preferred method. I check out a handful of photography monographs each month from my local libraries. Before I return any book I always insert a workprint randomly in the pages. The prints are held flat and protected from light. For books with low circulation sometimes they aren't seen for years. But when the time comes, surprise!

2. Telephone poles or kiosks. Treat these like rock posters. The most efficient system is to take a stack of hundreds of prints, a swing stapler with plenty of ammo, and just carpet the street pole by pole. One photo per pole should be sufficient. When distributing many photos in close proximity it's important to avoid reprints. Every photo needs to be original. And no photo should have any info. Just thinking about some stranger encountering those poles makes me chuckle. WTF?

3. Chain link. Most chain link fences have links which are perfectly spaced to receive and hold a 5 x 7 print by the corners, or two photos back to back. I love the way a fence holds a photo against the sky in a sort of semi-transparent framing. In fact I'm surprised more galleries don't use chain link framing. Chain link is probably closer to litter than other methods. The prints will likely blow away into the street soon and lose their deliberate feeling. So I like to ration these carefully, maybe one or two per block. For back alleys you can probably double that amount.
Chain Link, Lee Friedlander, 1963
4. Gallery desks. Most galleries have a public desk for local exhibition announcements and photo related flyers. These are great places for DIY distribution since they're generally out of the wind and rain. A small stack of photos can last several months with little deterioration. As a bonus the gallery crowd is a bit unique in that many of them actually give a shit about photography. So your target audience has a higher degree of specificity.

5. Phone booths and newspaper boxes. Both of these structures are on the wane. In another decade or so they may disappear entirely. One way to celebrate their swan song is DIY distribution. Most booths and boxes are relatively weather proof, although elements will eventually penetrate and degrade the photos. I like to prop my prints out of the muck using tape. Staples usually won't work here.

Car wipers awaiting DIY placement
6. Car windshields. This is a very short-term method. The photos will only remain until the driver returns. But that's fine since windshields are in full weather and photos won't last long anyway. It's imperative to place the photo carefully under the wiper to show intent. Otherwise it might appear accidental and be dismissed as simple garbage.

7. Hand outs. Standing on a street corner handing out photos has its ups and downs. As a method of displaying intent, this is the most effective tool available. Your photos will definitely not appear accidentally blown by the wind, although what your exact purpose is may still be ambiguous. The downside is that you lose the WTF? element. People can attach a name to the photos and thus dismiss the whole effort as a publicity stunt. To obviate this potential I like to scream loudly while I'm handing out my photos "THIS IS NOT A PUBLICITY STUNT!" That usually helps me regain the surprise element.

Let your photos rain down like confetti
Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle / ONLINE_YES
8. Bridge toss. I'd save the bridge toss as a last resort. If you're having trouble with the above methods a good one-shot distribution method is to find an freeway overpass with exposure to cars below. Rush hour is the best time when traffic is slow. Not only do drivers have a chance to look around, they will be bored and hungry for a diversion. Let the stack of photos rain down like confetti. Some will land on cars, most in the street. Maybe one in a thousand will actually find its mark and penetrate an open window. But all it takes is one. That photo which got inside someone's car is special. Odds are good that it'll get looked at, especially if it pokes the driver in the cheek or something. Congratulations and welcome to the bigtime! You've finally found someone who cares about your work!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Pivot

One of the more interesting talks at this year's Northwest SPE conference was by Erik Palmer. Palmer's basic philosophy is that photographers should spend more time interfacing with social media, and less time worrying about actual photography. Things like camera operation, technique, and printing should be pushed to the back burner, or even relegated to hired staff. Instead photographers should prioritize online networking with Twitter, Facebook, etc. Palmer paused several times for naked appeals to tweet his lecture (which bore immediate fruit), and to follow him on Twitter and Tumblr .
erikpalmerphoto.tumblr.com
Palmer calls this shift in priorities The Pivot, and it forms the backbone of the photo curriculum he's developing at Southern Oregon University. Students coming out of that program may not know what an f-stop is, but they will know how to structure a visually pleasing Tumblr, how to tweet in appropriate amounts without being spammy, and how to generate likes and followers across a variety of platforms.

As one might expect Palmer's talk generated a heated discussion afterword (which spilled over into my scheduled belly button lecture, but that's another topic). There were the Luddites who rejected computers as evil, the branding experts saying the internet will lead to salvation, and many opinions between. The audience consisted mostly of photo teachers. So not only were they articulate, they were on the front lines. All in all it was a great exchange.

My feeling is that Palmer is basically right. If you want to develop a career as a photographer, the actual making of photographs is relatively unimportant. Everyone makes photos now. What sets some above others is networking. So if the goal of a photography program is to convert fledgling students into successful photographers --and that's a big if-- The Pivot makes sense. Social networking tools are the most essential skills one can learn.

But let's go back to that big if. Should career development be the goal of a photo curriculum? I'm not so sure. I tend to think photo programs should concentrate on image making. Students should learn how to see, how to be curious, how to put a picture together (assuming those things can be taught). Perhaps most importantly I think schools should develop students into interesting people with rich inner lives. Because those are the people who will make strong photographs, not the folks spending all day on Twitter.

Maybe all of that that sounds pretty fluffy and Liberal Arts oriented. And maybe I'm completely wrong. Maybe photo programs should be essentially technical. It's an open question, and I'm willing to consider other views. I don't teach photography and I've only taken one photo course in my life. So I don't have the boots-on-the-ground understanding of Palmer or other professors. I just know how I interact with social media, and it's not entirely healthy.

I have sort of a love/hate relationship with blogging. Readers of B may have noticed a general increase in posting over the past several weeks, and a general decrease in the length of each post over the same period. Those trends are not unrelated. The more I post here, the more I feel obligated to post, and the less I tend to develop thoughts into longer essays. My posts tend to become short bursts, things I just thought of sharing that day but which won't necessarily stand up over time.

Maybe short thoughts are good in some ways. They're immediate and zenlike. But an entire culture of zen minds will not create much of lasting impact. When I felt my thinking compressed by B earlier this year, I had to quit blogging for a while. And I may have to do that again.

I know I could hold off and develop longer essays, then post them occasionally. That's what I'd like to do. But it's not what happens. I think there's something in the nature of blogging and all social media which favors the fleeting and the ephemeral. It values NOW. And it sucks you into that world. I don't tweet but I can imagine that Twitter is an even greater jump into that mindset, into The Pivot.

I think The Pivot is probably here to stay but it makes me nervous. With a new generation focusing on social media, where does that leave the making of photographs?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tress test

Somehow I thought Arthur Tress in person would be, well, weirder. I don't know what I was expecting exactly. Maybe his face would be in permanent shadow? Or he'd dress in black? Or have wild piercings or tattoos or something? I know it's silly but I was basing my expectations on his photos. Images like this.
Superman Fantasy, 1977, Arthur Tress

You'd have to be a bit twisted to come up with stuff like that, right? But the Arthur Tress who lectured at SPE last night in Eugene seemed completely normal. Bespectacled, well mannered, wry, jovial even. You'd barely notice him sitting next to you on a city park bench. It was a bit jarring to have this friendly uncle figure up at the podium show us one disturbing image after another. Where did those ideas come from? Where was this guy hiding his dark side?
Stephen Brecht, Bride and Groom, New York, 1970, Arthur Tress
He told a story of writing a journal entry about twins. The next day walking on the beach with a camera he encountered a pair of twin sisters and made their portrait. Did he find them by chance? Or was there some door in his mind which had already been unlocked?

"Photographs are a projection of your mind onto the world, not vice versa," he said. In other words every photograph is on some level a self portrait. In staged or conceptual work the relationship is more obvious. But even straight documentary photography is essentially about the photographer, not the subject. That's the Tress philosophy and I think he's basically right.

Some of Tress's outlook is rooted in circumstance. Take a gay Jew raised during WWII and send him globetrotting for 5 years in his early 20s during a time of mass societal upheaval. That person's photos might naturally display a healthy imagination and the strong tint of exile. In the case of someone like Tress it might manifest as a dark fantasy world. I think there's a bit of that world in all of us. In order to be a photographer, to objectify, one must be an outsider on some level. But most are unable to channel and express this alienation as clearly as Tress has. 
Untitled, from San Francisco, 1964, Arthur Tress
Most will be familiar with the magic realism photography which has become Tress's hallmark. But he's equally talented as a documentary shooter. San Francisco 1964 shows a fantastic street eye, and one which foreshadows the absurdity of his later work. In recent decades Tress has shifted back into that straight documentary style, and he's been pumping out Blurb books in rapid fashion. If you haven't revisited his photos for a while it might be time to take a fresh look. He might just surprise you.