Thursday, March 28, 2013

No Warning

The weirdest internet circle happened to me last week. 

After my recent print giveaway I received a few requests. I sent the print to the first reply, filed the others away, and removed the offer. Didn't think much of it. 

The next day I saw some great work on Eric Kim's blog by a guy named Todd Gross. I'd never heard of him but I liked his photos. They showed patience, intelligence, and a nice absurdist streak. I showed the link to a few friends, filed it away, didn't think much of it. 

Every week or so I go through old emails and delete the ones I don't need anymore. A few days later I was in the process of deleting the print giveaway emails when I noticed the name on one. It was from Todd Gross. Weird! Or maybe not so weird. It was almost like sending a message to myself in the future, but from someone else, and to my past self. Yeah, just like that. 

One my favorite images by Todd is this photo of two flies screwing:

It's just plain strange. Who would stop to notice something like that? I know I probably wouldn't. You're walking down the street shooting pedestrians and all of the sudden a half inch scene catches your eye? How does that work?

What I like best is the flies are perfectly anthropomorphized. Their pose is straight out of a porn movie. And doesn't the top fly almost have an expression of determination? I'd never seen an image quite like it, at least not in a street portfolio.

The very next day I was doing research for my upcoming San Fran trip. It turns out Little Big Man Gallery has moved across the bay and into the big city. Browsing their site one of the first images I encountered was by Jason Nocito. It shows two flies screwing:

How about that? In a single day I'd doubled my fly-screwing intake! 

Although it was nominally the same subject, this photo felt very different than Gross's. It wasn't part of a street portfolio, but a series of Nocito and his girlfriend and their relationship, and showed various stages of nudity and intimacy. So the photo wasn't really about a weird found moment and all that implies. It was about straight up sex, or at least that's how I read it. Birds do it, bees do it, flies do it, etc. Heck, even mattresses do it. Here's another photo from Nocito's portfolio:
It's just two pieces of junk in an alley, right? But in the context of Nocito's project these mattresses take on a sexual dynamic. I think I can sense determination in that boxspring. If this photo is any indication mattresses don't have a dynamic sex life. You wouldn't want to take just any old mattress to bed.

When it comes down to it there's not much difference between that shot and this one:

Adults fuck. We've all been there. No biggie. I know photos like this are traditionally squirreled away in closets or under the sock drawer. In the online world they might be quarantined behind NSFW disclaimers or restricted to porn sites. I don't really see why. Why is this any different than two flies or two mattresses getting it on? Or six or ten or twelve adults of different genders, ages, races, professions, or who cares really?

I think I've gotten to the point where I have no photo boundaries. I can't think of any photograph which should be off-limits to any adult. Sometimes I give myself mental tests. A Nazi chopping through infants with a chainsaw? War dead crawling with maggotsA photo of Karl Rove's trademark smirk? Such images may be repulsive but if that's what you want to express, fine by me. Just don't harm anyone making the photo.

Well, maybe some of the more extreme mindfuck photos could be dangerous. In the wrong hands those could really mess a person up. Send them off the deep end. Probably shouldn't give those away to just anyone without proper warning.

I think the photo below counts. Two cars getting it on. 

This is a thoughtograph produced by Ted Serios back in the 1960s. He held a blank piece of Polaroid film to his forehead and created the image psychically. It doesn't get much more mindfucky than that.

Here he is about to make a thoughtograph. Can you see the determination on his face? He and that camera are about to go places we can't even dream of.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Steal this post

One of my Tumblrs had an unexpected spike this week. Normally the photos on Instax Gratification will collect just a handful of notes. Ten would be considered a lot. But on Monday the photo below by Lisa Gidley went on a sudden note terror, collecting likes and reblogs in clumps. It's now up to 134 and counting.

Swatched, Lisa Gidley, 2011

It was pretty easy to trace what had happened. On Monday Mark Peter Drolet had reblogged the photo. I have no idea how many followers his Tumblr has but I know it's a lot. Mark is like a viral spotlight. Anything that winds up on MPDrolet is immediately seen by hundreds of people and will begin collecting notes as a matter of course. And that's a service which Mark is providing for free.

For me this experience brought home the viral power of Tumblr, which works not so much as a standard viewing platform --à la Flickr-- but more as a huge leveraging service.

I think it is this aspect which separates it from the previous paradigm when it comes to image reproductions. In the old world --way, way back, say 5 years ago-- copying jpgs was viewed as outright theft, and photographers discouraged it. But with Tumblr, you want your images to be copied. Reproduction equals distribution, and distribution can lead to good things. It's a complete sea change within just a few years.

Unfortunately much of the photography world still hasn't caught on. Mark recently received a note from Getty requesting that he remove certain photos from his Tumblr stream because their reproduction was unauthorized. Getty owns copyright and they asked nicely, and so Mark complied with their request. But to me it seems Getty is wasting a huge opportunity. Why not get those photos out there? Why keep them hidden? It's like a record company producing an album and then refusing to allow its songs on the radio. How is anyone going to discover that music?

I see where Getty is coming from. They view photographs as intellectual property. It's just that their perspective is through an old fashioned lens. To them a photo is like a bicycle leaning against a porch or a Rolex in a safe. It's ripe for theft. If you consider a jpg in the same way, you might go to great lengths to protect it. You might ruin it with a watermark, thus ensuring that it'll never be stolen --or even looked at. Or you might lock it away and ask others not to copy it. Until quite recently that's how I too viewed photographs.

Maybe in the old world a photo operated like that. Nice prints exist in limited quantities, and each edition has a specific monetary value. Photo books still operate that way today, and thrive in that environment.

But I'm not sure a web jpg works the same way. A jpg is just the digital expression of a visual idea. It has no value. You can't sell it. You can't convert it into a nice print. Maybe you can't even steal it, since if you "steal" a jpg from a website, it doesn't remove the photo. Probably the closest you can come to theft is to copy a jpg, remove its identity, and represent it as your own. This abhorrent behavior may occur sometimes but I think it's rare in the Tumblr world. The much larger problem is unattributed reproductions, which is less an issue of theft than inattention. 

"Photographers ultimately need to make money by selling their images," explains Getty. "Often, we or the photographer are trying to limit exposure so that certain images can be sold exclusively." This reasoning would've made perfect sense 20 years ago. It's the logical basis for imposing limited editions somewhat unnaturally on the photo world. But does it make sense online? It's difficult to understand how reposting to Tumblr imposes a financial burden. I think in most cases it fosters the opposite effect.

I'm not calling for outright civil disobedience. If Getty or a photographer asks you not to repost their images for any reason, I think it's their right and the request should be honored. But I think the logic behind that request becomes more strained by the day. For most photographers I think it works against their best interests. If we're going to spend so much energy making images, why not use every tool at our disposal to distribute and make them visible? Right now the main tool is Tumblr. Make a note of it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Just received an interesting email from Bill Dane. Apparently he's having a sale on his photos, $99 apiece, any size, any place, any way. Good deal. But the really trippy part is the headshot on his site. I hadn't realized before that there's more than a passing resemblance between him and Chuck Close. Here, see for yourself:

Maybe this is a common thing. Can you think of other photo-twins? If so pass them along. Grist for a future post. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Q & A with Richard Kalvar

Richard Kalvar is a photographer based in Paris.

BA: Where did you grow up? 

RK: I grew up in Brooklyn (before it was fashionable). Lower middle class, only child. Good in school, which put me in contact with other kids good in school, which opened up my horizons.

Can I infer you were surrounded by people in Brooklyn? A ripe scenario for someone to shoot people later?

Well, it wasn't teeming Bombay, but Brooklyn's part of NYC, which has quite a few people. Where I grew up wasn't as dense as some other parts of the city, but I wasn't raised on a farm. My high school had 6000 students!

How would you briefly describe your adolescence as it relates to your later development into a photographer?

I had no interest in photography, and was a curious ignoramus with regards to art. But I loved playing with words and ideas with my friends, in ways that struck me at the time as deep and funny.  When I later fell into photography, one of the most wonderful things was that, without intending it, that playing found a natural outlet in taking pictures.

18th Arrondissement, Paris, 2001

Did your parents have any interest in photography or art?


What did they think of you becoming a photographer?

By the time I became a photographer my mother had died. My father thought anything I did was okay: photography or anything else. He thought I knew what I was doing, probably more than I thought that.

Did he understand your photos?

Not especially.

Do you wish he did, or does it matter to you?

I suppose it would have been nice, but it was beyond my expectations.

Maybe that's a general question too. Do you think most of the general populace gets what you do? Or is the audience composed more of photographers. Speaking of your street work here. 

I wouldn't generalize, although I guess photographers on the whole are probably looking more. But I know plenty of photographers who don't seem to have a clue about what I'm up to, or at least don't appreciate it (including Magnum colleagues). I also have had great reactions from people who have no connection whatsoever to photography. I think anyone can get it; they just have to look, which seems to be demanding a lot. By "street" I guess you mean my personal photography.

I'm glad you mentioned Magnum because that was my next question. What do they think of street photography? I know there's a range of personalities there. But some of them don't get it? By street I mean amateur unplanned candids.

As you say, there's quite a range. I get the feeling inside of Magnum and outside (especially outside) that a lot of people think it's an old-fashioned approach: not taking unposed pictures, but having my particular sensibility. I think that I do what I feel like doing, which may not follow contemporary fashions but which comes spontaneously from the heart, the guts and the brain. To me, that's what counts. 

You've written before about the division between your amateur work and professional stuff. I know Erwitt also makes a similar division. Is that common with Magnum? Most of the stuff on the site seems very professionally motivated. But maybe people have personal photos they don't want to share?
France, 1994

I've written a little about this in my brand new blog, in posts called Schizophrenia 1 and 2. I take pictures because I like to. I also have to make a living, and do that with my camera. It's a problem on many levels: how to focus on the important stuff, how to spend one's time and energy, possible contagion; but I'm an adult, and not independently wealthy, so I deal with it. I don't agree that on the Magnum site there's mostly "professional" stuff. You can find my best pictures, Erwitt's, Koudelka's, Parr's, etc. You can also find the other work. We're trying to show, but also to sell. Elliott, to my mind, mixes his very good professional pictures and his superb personal ones, not just on the site. I think that's a mistake, but smart viewers should be able to make the distinction.

Mixing personal and professional photos is a mistake?

In my humble opinion, mixing journalistic and advertising pictures with his unbelievable, for want of a better term, "street" photographs in the same book dilutes the force of the street stuff. But there's nothing wrong with doing professional and amateur work, and Erwitt is great at both. 

When you say many in Magnum feel Street is an old-fashioned approach, do you mean that many in the group don't wander around on their own looking for candids? Much of the work on the site seems assignment-driven. Not necessarily amateur or "street" motivated. I think it's true of the broader photo community in general. There is less room for un-tied photos, loose looking, which to me is a very fun part of photography.
New York, 1975

There are lots of ways of taking pictures, and always have been. At Magnum a majority of photographers did journalistic work, either for others or for themselves. The Cartier-Bresson crowd, which I guess I belong to, was always in a minority. For my personal work I've always felt like an outlier. And you can do personal work on assignment; it depends what the assignment is and who's doing the assigning.

What motivated you to get more active with the Magnum blog?

The site was redone, the possibility suddenly existed, and there was a lot of talk (or hot air) about each photographer controlling his own channel. I also had a few things to say that I rarely had a chance to express (mostly in interviews), so I thought I'd give it a try. It's a peculiar experience. Very few people make comments, so I have no idea if anyone is actually reading it. I don't know if it's a totally futile activity, but I do feel that I say some personal things that I think should interest a few people.

I know the feeling. It's like talking to a room blindfolded, not sure who's there. 

If anyone. Exactly.

Maybe sending photos out into the world is similar. 

Well, on the blog I also put up photographs, which correspond to and play off of the text, and since no one makes comments...

In your interview with Michael David Murphy in 2007 you described your photography as relatively unknown in the U.S. Has that changed? Have you had any shows in the U.S. since that interview? What are your thoughts on promoting your work?

I had a big retrospective show in Paris at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2007, and my book, Earthlings, was published at the same time in French and in English.  For many years I had been putting aside my good pictures, waiting for the right moment to spring them on the world. But when I went to the US to try to get an equivalent show, I felt like Rip Van Winkle, suddenly waking up to find that the world had moved on. No one was particularly interested, and I could barely get my foot through gallery doors.  It was a very humbling and not overly pleasant experience. I realized that I was paying the price for staying in my corner for twenty-five years, instead of going out and flogging myself.  I finally got a nice little show from Rose and Jay Deutsch at the Leica Gallery in New York, but I had been hoping for something bigger.

I think that there's so much photography out there that not many people pay attention to my pictures. I have a certain confidence in the value of what I do, but I'm not sure it's widely appreciated. I just wrote a blog post in which I said that I'm looking forward to enjoying recognition thirty years after my death.

The After-Death method seems to be one popular route to prominence. Look at all the current fuss over Winogrand. Or Vivian Maier recently. But it's tough to enjoy when you're...well, dead.

Winogrand had a lot of recognition during his lifetime (not always deserved, in my opinion). Vivian Meier, I believe, was not a misunderstood genius, but someone who chose, for whatever reasons, not to show her pictures.

Not a Winogrand fan?

I think Winogrand took an awful lot of pictures, including a lot of pretty bad ones. It's great that he had that obsession and drive (I wish I always had it), but he wasn't very disciplined in what he showed. When I take that kind of picture (I'm talking about the ones that don't work) I get angry with myself for not getting everything right. That didn't seem to stop him. 

I think you and Winogrand are probably looking for different things in a photo. His pictures are messy and imperfect. Yours are generally cleaner, with a more direct visual punch. A punctum to use an overused academic word. My 2-cent analysis.
Republican National Convention, 2012

Messy and imperfect for me is easy. That's an important word for me. Set-up pictures, photoshopped pictures, messy and imperfect pictures are easy; finding something that really works is hard. Good photographers know about that; not too many other people.

Maybe the hard part is creating messy/imperfect pictures that somehow work despite that. Like some of Winogrand. Or Nancy Rexroth comes to mind. Or Stephen Gill. Or Louis Faurer.

When looking at your own photos, how often do your own tastes match those of your audience? Are there certain photos of yours which have become iconic which you don't like that much? Or ones you like a lot which have never gained currency? Or do the tastes generally mesh?

I have a number of pictures that I think are particularly "photographic", i.e., they play with the nature of photography and its relation to reality. Those aren't the ones that seem to have the most success, but I think they're good. My dog picture, on the other hand, which has a lot of fans, is not my favorite. It's easier and anecdotal, but maybe not too deep.

14th Arrondissement, Paris, 1974

When you consider your photographic work as a whole, what meaning do you think it ultimately has for you or for others? Is it just about an observer catching beautiful moments? Or do you think those moments add up to some greater statement about the world? 

I'm trying to create little dramas that lead people to think, to feel, to dream, to fantasize, to smile… It's more than just catching beautiful moments; I want to fascinate, to hypnotize, to move my viewers.  Making greater statements about the world is not my thing. I think there's a coherence in the work that comes not from an overriding philosophy but from a consistent way of looking and feeling.

When you're out with a camera, what do you look for? I notice a fascination in various photos with bushes/hidden things, and also hand gestures. Maybe other things or scenes? Can you describe your process of looking?

I don't look for bushes or hands. I look for something that catches my interest, and I have no idea in advance what it might be. The next step is getting up the nerve to approach the subject without disrupting the scene or getting my face punched in. Then I might start taking a picture or two. In general, the result is pretty lousy, but every once in a while something unexpected happens (in reality, or in my brain) and I get excited. And then, even more rarely, I might succeed in making it into something special. 

One thing you mentioned in the Murphy interview is you always investigate conversations. Can you explain why?

That's true. They're good raw material for me, because they involve the interaction between people (or the lack of it), and that's what I like to play with. I like hands and bushes; it's just that I don't go out looking for them. But they often hit me over the head. 

St. Peter's Square, Rome, 1978

So what happens when you nail a good picture? Do you think there's some divine intervention? 

That might be a little strong... Let's just say that it's very satisfying. And nailing the picture is a two-step process: first photographing, then discovering if it really works on the contact sheet (or now on the computer screen). 

Are you religious at all? Not asking as a bible thumper but as a more general question about coincidences and hidden order in photos.

I'm not openly religious. I'm agnostic, with possibly a quiet tendency to feel a connection with something beyond.

And do you feel that connection through photography?

I feel that connection through anything that touches the heart, including photography. 

And by the way, getting back to Winogrand: he has a number of great pictures; I'm just annoyed at the photorrheia, and the low standards.

Photorrheia! Great term. 

Accurate, don't you think?

Which photo of his is your favorite?

I can't tell you, because I'd like to look at them in light of all that I've written above, to see whether I'm full of shit or not (not impossible). 

Maybe full of shit but at least not full of photorrheia.

That's for sure! Maybe photographically constipated, in fact.

Maybe if Winogrand had limited his output to 60 nice images he'd have a stronger legacy? I actually think much of his fame comes from the sheer irrationality of his Photorrheia. The idea that someone could just leave all that film untouched. It's a great American folktale.

By the way, for the last twenty minutes I've been trying to remember the name of his great contemporary, one of my favorite photographers. He did seemingly messy photographs that were brilliant and funny, always working on the edge of the messy and the banal. Help me! What's his name???

Hmm. That's not specific enough. Papageorge? Meyerowitz?

No, and no. But you're getting warmer. Also a Jewish name...

Alive now? Friedlander?

YES!!! Friedlander!

I love his work. Great stuff. Also prolific but more restrained than GW

Ah, the little cloud above the Yield sign. How banal! How wonderful! Sometimes too prolific (lousy factory pictures, for example) but when he's on, he's on.

I actually like the Factory Valley pix. Not a huge fan of his recent square stuff though.

I saw Friedlander's factory pictures for the first time about five years ago. I couldn't see what the possible interest was.

Different strokes for different folks.

Absolutely, although anyone who disagrees with me is obviously mistaken.

Speaking of other photographers I want to throw two more names out. You say in your In-Public bio that Paul Strand and Walker Evans "leave you cold." Can you elaborate a little? Can you pinpoint what it is in their work that you don't like?

It's not that I don't like them. I admire them, but I'm not moved by them. I love HCB, Robert Frank, Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Erwitt... I'm a sucker for heart and humor. I have a youngish colleague named Trente Parke that I really like, too. And others. 

What about Zoe Strauss? 

I only saw what she presented to Magnum last June. The jury (in my head) is still out.

Is she shaking up the old-boy network a bit?

I haven't been in contact with Zoe, since I'm not in New York. She'll probably wait until she's been made a member and has tenure before she shakes up the old-boy network.

Thinking about Evans, I'm not sure any of his photos really feed on emotion. He was much more intellectual. Sort of a walking breathing security camera. To me. But that's OK. I get intellect. It works.

Evans was very perceptive, very observant. But where's the schmaltz?

I think that was going to be his next book title: Where's The Schmaltz?
4th St., New York City, 1970

Can I ask about one specific photo, the woman eating a popsicle near the foot? That photo was sort of the entrée into your work for me. After I saw it I got very excited and looked up all your work. This was maybe 10 years ago. What was going on there?

First let me address the question "What was going on there?" in general. I try to avoid answering, because when I do, people generally stop looking and turn the page. If you kill the magic and the mystery, what's left but humdrum reality? But just between you and me and the millions of people who read your blog, there was a woman eating a popsicle, a guy playing the guitar, and a another one taking a sunbath on the roof of his beat-up station wagon. He was kind of beat up, too.

So you don't ever explain any of your photos. As a rule?

It's tempting to satisfy people's curiosity as to what was "really going on" in a scene, but it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If there's a mystery, the viewer should try to unravel it for him- or herself, subjectively, through intelligence, imagination and association.  I want people to keep looking, not just move on to the next thing.

Sounds like something Winogrand might say. That to explain the photo kills it. And I agree. But I'm still curious.

Of course you are! Keep looking! (Actually, what could I say beyond what I've said above?) Photography being a visual and not a verbal art, that's what a lot of photographers would say. Maybe conceptual photographers somewhat less.

That's part of the magic of photography. Look at a picture and you have no idea what was going on. The only thing you can know is what's visually depicted, and we all know photographers lie. That's where the fun comes in. To be able to tell a lie with "reality" is a very tough trick.

That's been my game from day one.

How do I know that's not a lie?

Aha! You are now caught in my web...

And you are caught in my web interview.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Mystery photo

This photo really threw me when I first saw it. I've known this photographer for several years now but he's never looked quite like this. Because this portrait is from 1972, way before we met. And the photo had been buried until yesterday when the shooter posted it to Facebook. I'd tell you who took the photo but that would take away all the fun. Does anyone out there in Photoland have a guess? Some of you will be seeing a lot of this guy in a few short weeks. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Boys will be boys

What happens when a pack of pre-pubescent boys has free access to a digital camera and visual effects? They take self portraits, then add a bunch of cool shit like guns and sharks and lightning. Same thing you or I would've done at age 10.

I guess the results aren't too surprising, but I think there's real vitality and energy in these mashups made recently by my kids. I mean, honestly the things they come up with are completely ridiculous. No adult would ever dream of them. But that's exactly what I like best. They're completely original and unfettered, and sort of primal. They also seem a bit off-limits. These would never be allowed in school or on any other respectable photo blog.

For the record I've got three boys, ages 12, 10, and 7. These photos include them and a few friends. They used an iPad to shoot the photos, then VFX App to add effects.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bracket your exposures

Here's how I see things shaking out eventually:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Forty year itch

(Above) Variable Piece #101 by Douglas Huebler, made 40 years ago this month and found recently in this old library book. Love the sense of playfulness in this piece, and in Berndt Becher. Who knew he was such a cutup?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cutting room floor

Ideas for rebranding film in photography's digital age: 

1. Oprah film-of-the-month club

2. 37 mm film offers 6% more surface area for the same price

3. Every cartridge is wired as an orgasmatron

4. Biodegradable cartridges

5. Secretly earmark $500 million film-purchase-to-nowhere into highway bill

6. Golden ticket placed into one lucky cartridge wins tour of Kodak factory

7. Bulk film is absorbent, odor free, and cheaper than standard kitty litter

8. When in doubt, remember sex sells anything