Thursday, April 30, 2015

Amnesia Vivace

Back in the early days of B one of the first posts I wrote was an open inquiry about a photo I'd seen somewhere. I couldn't remember the source, so I asked for help. This was back when I would write short posts every day no matter how inane, like this lost photo alert:

It only took eight years but someone finally dug up the source. Federico Rubio in Uruguay sent me a note last week telling me to look in Sally Eauclaire's New Color / New Work (Abbeville, 1984). I pulled out the book and sure enough there it was, the photo I'd been wondering about all these years. To tell the truth I'd forgotten all about it. But Bingo anyway.

New Color / New Work (photo by Federico Rubio)
As the original post suggests, this photo lives a hermetic existence. As far as I can tell it only exists in this one place, tucked away in an old book. It's not in any other monographs by Meyerowitz, including Cape Light and Redheads which he was compiling contemporaneously. I don't think it belongs to any print collections. It doesn't exist online. If it weren't for Euaclaire, all public evidence of the photo might vanish. And I'm guessing that would be fine with Meyerowitz, because the subject matter is sensitive. It shows his daughter Ariel naked, wearing knee-high disco boots, and standing happily on a shore wall. She looks about 12. 

Ariel Meyerowitz is now an art dealer. I have no idea what she thinks of the photo now, but I'm guessing she is just as happy to have it remain out of circulation. So I won't post here. But if you want to see it, look in your copy of Euaclaire, page 166. If you don't have that book, please buy it already. Heck, buy the trilogy. It's an essential reference.

People say things live online forever, and it's often true. But in this case it's the opposite. This photo has no online presence. It's been preserved only in physical form. It's an ironic twist and a reminder of the long tail of history. Only 10 to 15 percent of published books are still in print. Recorded music has a similar legacy, as do human beings. Only 6.5 percent humanity's history is alive today. The past contains most of what's been created. Sometimes it clings to material quite tightly, offering it to the present in unpredictable chunks. 

That's a potential problem for children posing nude. Maybe Ariel Meyerowitz was fine with her photo as a kid. Maybe she no longer likes it. Or perhaps the opposite of both presumptions is true. Either way it's not going to disappear so long as copies of that book are out there. In the Internet age most people are aware that potentially compromising images can linger and are generally circumspect about what goes online. But back in 1984 the photo world was more naive. It could be compartmentalized and nerdified, and not many outsiders were tuned in. A nude photo of a kid might be exhibited one month, or tucked in a book, then pass into history unnoticed or unremarked. Or so people imagined.

Few people are more aware of these issues than Sally Mann, whose children are the main subject of Immediate Family. If you don't have that book, please buy it already. A new edition is about to be released and copies should be easy to find. "It is to photography what William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor are to Southern fiction," writes Mike Johnston, and I'm with him. I consider it a landmark, and, as with many such books, it wasn't published without controversy. Only a small portion of the photos showed nude children by they were enough to get folks excited. No, I'm not talking about those folks. Forget the sickos. I'm talking about general prudish society. Immediate Family's initial publication in 1992 created an uproar and sent Mann's life through the public ringer, along with her children. Perhaps seeking to head off attention raised by the new edition, her extraordinary essay a few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine (presumably excerpted from her memoir Hold Still due out May 12th) discussed the book at length and put the photo world on alert. Not only was she a world class photographer. She was a damned good writer and very thoughtful parent. And, like some of her best photos, she was invigorated by her flaws. 

I read the Times article with great interest because I too shoot my kids, sometimes in potentially embarrassing or disturbing situations, and sometimes nude. Childhood includes a healthy dose of all three, at least in my home. It's not a kid smiling with a puppy. To me it looks more like two boys throwing rocks at their helpless younger brother. I find that interesting, so I've documented my family along with most other things around me. And like Mann I've wrestled with what to do with these photographs. I don't mean to put myself in her class as a photographer —although one of my sons is named Emmett— but I think all parent/photographers face similar questions of consent, publicity, our sometimes conflicting roles as parent and photographer, and how all of these factors might change over the course of all our lifetimes. And good parenting is sort of like good photography. Neither one usually offers clear answers.
Woodward Cover Story, 9/27/92

Mann might say her troubles started with Richard Woodward's essay on Immediate Family. That was the review that galvanized national attention, some positive and some negative. But what about her decision to create the book in the first place? All parents photographs their kids. Very few put them in books. She could've stored the photos in a box or album, but with the step to public authorship Mann consciously thrust her children into the spotlight. 

It was a big step and I think that decision weighed on her. Maybe it still does. She expressed ambivalence at the time, initially choosing not to publish the photos. According to the Woodward article it was the kids who changed her mind, demanding that she reconsider. And so she did. But even as she proceeded to publication it was with the expectation — false hope?—  that the book would have minimal distribution. This was 1992, before the Internet, and it was still possible for photographs to vanish without a trace. Many photo books were market flops. Her previous book had taken a decade to sell through its run. With luck maybe this one would fade quickly into the out-of-print bins. She even hoped to keep it out of Lexington bookstores and confined to the rare-book room of the local library. 

Basically I think Mann suspected she was about to unleash Pandora's box and was torn about the way forward. She fantasized about having it both ways. By shoving the book aside after publication she could gain the accomplishment of a major monograph while sheltering her vulnerable subjects. Or so she imagined. But that dream was more cognitive dissonance than reality. The book did not disappear quickly. It became a breakout hit and made Mann's reputation. In some ways that was the best and the worst possible outcome.

In her recent essay, Mann seems to deflect partial responsibility for publication onto her children. Her kids were "visually sophisticated, involved in setting the scene..., and in editing them...I gave each child the pictures of themselves and asked them to remove those they didn't want published." I agree they share some of the burden for what followed. But it's an open question if young children can understand the dynamics of that situation or give informed consent. Most kids want to see their faces on TV. A book? Sure. Great. It might exciting at the time but they may not be thinking about how those images are perceived in 30 years, or how they might come to define their identity. 

For me it's similar to the issues faced by parents of Hollywood child-stars. At what point does a child gain decision making power over their life, image, and identity? I'm sure Mann has thought long and hard about these questions, as have the parents of Shirley Temple, Harry Shearer, Fred Savage, Macaulay Culkin, etc, not to mention Richard Woodward. Sometimes it works out fine for child actors. Sometimes it doesn't. What's the best answer? Damned if I know. 

Jessie's Cut, 1985, Sally Mann

Mann's internal logic was to separate her roles as mother and photographer. "Taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering," she writes, and several images in Immediate Family support her. To shoot a bloody nose, a wet bed, or your daughter being stitched in the hospital requires a remove from maternal instinct, or at least an objectification of it. "The fact is that these [pictures] are not my children," she wrote recently. "They are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind, and shade." 

It's the old photographic credo: A photograph does not equal reality. I get it. But untangling the roles of mother and photographer is not as simple as she lets on. If it were, then it would be no trouble to splash a photo of your youngest on the cover of Aperture. After all it's just an image, not a child, right? And if the Wall Street journal later came along and drew crude bars across its bare flesh, they'd be doing to it a photo not a person. But Mann's infuriated reaction suggests she knows the line is not so clean. People in photographs feel the weight of being represented. And when it's a kid that weight can be unpredictable

How might that weight might change over time? For me that's the $64,000 question. "What [will] Emmett, Jessie and Virginia think about these photographs and about their mother, if not this fall, then in 5, 10, or 15 years?" asked Woodward in 1992. It's now 23 years later and by most accounts the photographs have had little negative impact on them. The Mann kids are well adjusted young adults. They like the book. But how could Mann know that at the time? An interesting comparison is to Larry Rivers, whose nude photographs of his young children became a torment to them later, causing real emotional damage and endless legal headaches. The photo of Ariel Meyerowitz mentioned earlier is another example. Or the case of Michael Northrup, whose wife consented to his photographs of her as they were made, but later opposed their publication. 

The future is uncertain for everyone, but with kids even more so. All directions are open. They go through incredible changes on the way to adulthood. Who knows how they'll think of the photos later? Shooting children is fraught with moral hazards. Mann has negotiated them probably as well as anyone could hope, but that doesn't negate the fact they're there.

I'm glad Immediate Family came out when it did. I don't think a book like that could be published today as original material. It came during the only cultural window available to ti. As Mike Johnston notes, the book seems more like a capstone to the 1970s than an influence on what would follow. I think that nostalgic feel, which keyed on Mann's own childhood —"The land was still wild where I grew up, a feral child running naked with the pack"— was responsible for some of its success. I can relate. My childhood in 1970s felt pretty similar. On hot summer days, a mass of local hippies would gather at the pond or river. Everyone stripped their clothes and swam naked, adults and kids together. No one thought twice. It was idyllic but that world is gone. When Mann asks, "How bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark?" it roots her work firmly in the past. Not only would kids be wearing suits now, they'd likely eschew riverplay for screentime. 

Napalm Girl, April 30th, 1975, Nick Ut

By 1992 the spark of the seventies had been snuffed and the culture wars were heating up.  Nudity was politicized, and Immediate Family became a touchstone for broader preconceptions. But as prudish as society was in 1992, it's become even more vigilant now with regard to the privacy of children. A casual photo-op of unknown kids nowadays is enough to spark World War III. Could Nick Ut get a candid nude of a crying girl published today? I'm not many papers would be brave or foolish enough.

That's a good thing in some ways, since images can sometimes proliferate in unwanted directions. But the flip side is that helicopter parenting has eliminated an entire category of images from our visual culture. We see virtually no nude photographs of children in books, magazines, or newspapers today. They're certainly not on TV or film or social media. The one outlet in which they might be shown and rationally interpreted, fine art photography, has largely eliminated them as subject matter. Alain Laboille is an exception, along with a few others. But looking back now, 1992 seems like the glory days. An alien observing earth now through satellite signals might wonder, do children here posses skin or bodies? But forget aliens. The more pressing problem is future humans. They're sure to wonder too, and also about what other categories might be missing.

The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, Sally Mann

I'll leave that for future generations to decide. Personally I'm mostly done shooting nude kids. My children are older now and they no longer roam naked as they once did. They're usually clothed, and they'd generally rather not be photographed at all. I often get a hand in front of my lens or a back turned toward me or an "Oh, dad" sigh. Whatever. I was a preteen kid once. I know parents can be irritating. So that project's window has probably closed. I'm guessing Sally Mann faced a similar situation as her kids grew older. The title of her photograph "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude," suggests an ending point, capped by his defiant gaze.

Not the last time Emmett modeled nude, 2008

I'm done making those photos. But now what? In one way I'm just like all parents. I'm sitting on a large stash of unseen kid pictures. But it's with the extra caveat and possibly deluded notion that others might find them interesting. Forget the subject for a moment. I feel strongly about some as unique photographs, just as I'm sure Sally Mann felt strongly about hers. But I'm less confident than her about the decision to release them into the world. There are a few —maybe my favorites?— I'm certain I'll never show anyone beyond immediate family. Some are nudes. Others might be embarrassing in other ways. I think photographs which pry a subject open lay it bare are often the best, and by that logic some of these are quite good. But to pry open and expose my kids? Hmmm. 

In the end I'm left I'm hemming and hawing, and admiring Mann's fortitude. To release her photos into the world couldn't have been easy. But she did, and I've been enjoying them very much since.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

City Of Tiny Lites

Only a few more days until Photolucida portfolio reviews begin Thursday in Portland. It's usually a fun weekend. I've seen this event from all sides over the years, as reviewee, reviewer, volunteer helper, and detached observer. That's my role this time attending some of the events. If you're visiting from out of town, please say hi. Here's a recent portrait to help you find me. 

Of course I won't be dressed in overalls. I'll have the yellow silk suit on just like all the other locals. My "big city" suit. 

There are many photo shows up around Portland during Photolucida. It's a true visual smorgasbord. I wish it were like this every month, but alas, in another week the city will return to normal. So take advantage now.

If you don't want to chase down shows, the portfolio walk at PAM Thursday evening brings hundreds to one location. The buzzline is: "See more photography in one evening than most people see in a lifetime." I'm not sure if that's true but I will verify it's a ton of photos. I can usually absorb photographs until my eyes bleed but by the end of portfolio walk I'm pretty fried. And ready for a beer. If you are too, please get in touch.

Monday, April 20, 2015


Thanks to everyone who submitted replies to Quiz #31 a few weeks ago. Sorting out the answers was more involved than I'd expected, because I received many varied responses, and some of the questions turned out to have multiple correct answers. Also, one of my reference sources (this book, which is good for many things but apparently not dates) led me to a few inaccuracies in the quiz. Sorry, my bad. Taking those factors into account, I was generally lenient in grading the answers, and gave respondents the benefit of the doubt where ambiguities were involved. 

The winner, with 43 out of 45 correct, is Alexandros Konstantinakis-Karmis of Greece. Alexandros is a quiz-answering machine, having also won the last two album cover quizzes on B. Congrats, Alexandros, and stand by to receive your lovely prize package. 

I appreciate all the responses. Hope it was fun. Below is the answer key with my intended answer first (followed by acceptable alternatives in parenthesis).

1. Tina Modotti, Lotte Jacobi
2. Minor White, Imogene Cunningham
3. Jamie Livingston (Boris Ignatovich, Chris Marker)
4. William Claxton (P.H. Emerson)
5. Fritz Henle (J.D. Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere)
6. Jeanloup Sieff (Peter Lindbergh, Tazio Secchiaroli, Charles Beijer, David Eustace, David Doubilet)
7. Pierre Boucher (Gilles Bensimon, Hal Gould, Don Ornitz)
8. Abbas Attar
9. Gyula Halasz
10. David Szymin
11.  Mike Meyer
12. Edward James Muggeridge
13. Yasuhiro Wakabayashi
14. Israelis Bidermanas
15. Keresz Andor
16.  Emmanuel Radnitzky
17. Gaspard-Felix Tournachon
18. Arthur Felig
19. Rober Capa and Alberto Korda
20. Nobuyoshi Araki and Tim Page
21. Alfred Steiglitz (Massimo Vitali
22. Graham Nash (Max Vadakul, Arnold Hardy)
23. Arnold Newman (Glen Friedman, Johan Persson)
24. William H. Jackson (Johan van der Keuken, Jack Cato, Max Dupain)
25. Alex Webb (Roger Mayne, Robert Vano, 
26. Clarence H. White (Scott Kelby, Bruce Hudson, Francis Browne, Bruce Conner, Robert Demachy)
27. Brassai
28. Daido Moriyama (Julius Schulman, Thomas Rusch)
29. Carleton Watkins  (Sam Haskins
30. Ihei Kimura (Tom Kelley)
31. Paul Strand
32. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
33. Berenice Abbott
34. Ilse Bing
35. Weegee
36. Walker Evans
37. Philippe Halsman
38. Yousuf Karsh
39. David Seymour 
40. Werner Bischof
41. Eugene Smith
42. Helmut Newton
43. Ernst Hass
44. Tony-Ray Jones
45. Lars Turnbjork

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tax Season

I hadn't been to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum for a while so I stopped by yesterday to see what was new. I was surprised to see this photo prominently displayed near the entrance to the second floor galleries.

Phantom, 2013, Peter Lik

That's right. It was none other than Peter Lik's photograph Phantom, the very one which had sold for a record $6.5 million last fall and sent the fine art photo world into a tizzy. Despite the public outcry, his photo had made it into a museum after all.

I gotta admit the print looked pretty nice. It was fairly large, about 5 feet wide by 3 feet high, mounted regally behind glass in a gigantic black frame. The print was on metallic paper with bright spaceship tones, signed at the bottom Peter Lik 1/1.  Nearby was a label with a brief paragraph by Lik describing how he made the record-setting photo. One minute his Native American guide was flinging sacred dust into a light well, next thing he knew the Guinness Book was calling. Aw shucks, it was nothing. Just f/8 and be there. Plus a lot of Photoshop.

Phantom hung on the wall between two other Lik photos, neither of which I'd seen before. They were similarly printed and framed, and each one signed the same: Peter Lik 1/1. Reading the museum captions I realized they were Eternal Moods and Illusion, the two photos that had sold alongside Phantom to the same buyer (for $1.1 million and $2.4 million, respectively). I was looking at the record-busting trifecta. Ah, I thought, so that's what ten million bucks of pictures looks like. 

But what the heck were they doing in Eugene? 

Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, Francis Bacon

Avoiding taxes, that's what. I'm no tax expert and this article explains the loophole better than I can. The upshot is that Oregon is one of a few states which can lower the tax burden due on recently purchased art. Display it in a public museum here for three months and the taxes are reduced. After that it's yours to do as you wish in your home state. For expensive art like Lik's, this can result in significant savings for collectors. The other states are New Hampshire, Alaska, Delaware, and Montana, none of which has a major art museum. So Oregon it is.

It's the same loophole that brought Francis Bacon's triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud to the Portland Art Museum after it sold for a record $142 million in 2013. The paintings were there for three months and attracted huge crowds. I drove up to Portland with my parents to see them. Special trip. Special bullet proof glass case. As for the art? I don't know. I guess they looked ok. Showed me what a hundred million bucks of pictures looks like.

The Bacon and Lik loans are just two examples. We see all sorts of stuff in Oregon that has no business being shown here. Bacon should've exhibited in New York or Paris, not Portland. Eugene gets its fair share too. In fact the JSMA has an entire wing devoted to tax-avoidance. Of course it's not called that. The official name is Masterworks On Loan, but it amounts to the same thing. Expensive art gets hauled here from around the world for three month tax sheltered stints. Masterworks On Loan is where the Peter Lik photos were hanging yesterday, alongside Albers, Lichtenstein, Richter, Frankenthaller, Modigliano, and whatever else sold at auction last Fall. If you live in a major city you might laugh. But hey, we'll take what we can get, and it's often pretty good.

JSMA Tax Shelter (Wikimedia Commons)

It was kind of fun to see the Lik photos in a museum, even if it's just temporary. Those photos caused such a shit storm last year. Remember? They're not art! They're not investment grade! He's a snake oil salesman! Boo hoo, he's not in our club! How dare an outsider subvert the auction houses!  

Yes, Lik cleverly manipulated the market to inflate speculative value, then convinced rich collectors to invest. In other words he did exactly what every successful art dealer does. But he did it without an art pedigree, and that pissed people off. I love it when art snobs get their tighty-whities in a bunch, so for me the Lik sale was a golden moment. And now the photos were in a museum. This was even better! Artforum and ARTnews just threw up a little in their mouths. I'm guessing the show will not get a write up there, nor in the local Eugene press because very few people here pay attention to photography. (*4/16 addendum: Bob Keefer wrote about the show today.)

I'm not defending the content of Lik's photos. I think all three at the JSMA are boring. But a lot of boring stuff winds up in museums. Why not these? Curatorial judgement is not always about aesthetic merit. It's also about careers and taxes and influence and all sorts of factors. And if a lousy photo in a museum upsets people and makes them question their preconceptions, isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what art is supposed to do? 

But don't listen to me. Check it out firsthand. Attention photographers (and/or accountants) in the Willamette Valley. The Lik photos are on display at the JSMA through June. Come see for yourself what ten million bucks of tax-free pictures looks like.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Selfie Stick Alternative Uses

Fencing Match Documentation Aid

Personal Mustache Groomer

Smartphone S'more Stick

Fake Kite For Calm Days

Canine Pole Vault Pole

Surprise Purple Laser Attack On Capitol

Vanity Mirror Extension

Unibrow Parasol

Personal Space Enforcer

Film Camera Disposal Tool

Humility Detection Probe

Kitten Spear

Hula Hoop Training Scaffold

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Quiz #31: Birth And Death

Below are 45 questions related to birth and death. Some photographers in the quiz are more famous than others but all names will be generally recognizable to photo nerds. 

Score one point for each correct identification. 45 points possible. The first person to email me the answer with the highest point total before 9 AM Pacific, Monday, April 20th, 2015, wins a mint copy of Trent Parke's Minutes to Midnight plus handmade bonus gift. Good luck!

1. What two photographers were born August 17, 1896?

2. What two photographers died a day apart, June 23 and June 24, 1976?

3. What photographer died on his birthday?

4. What photographer died the day before his birthday?

5. What photographer died during a Super Bowl?

6. What photographer was born on Thanksgiving?

7. What photographer had a birthday once every four years?

What are the birth names of:

8. Abbas
9. Brassai
10. Chim
11. Disfarmer
12. Helios
13. Hiro
14. Izis
15. Kertesz
16. Man Ray
17. Nadar
18. Weegee

19. What two war photographers died on May 25th, each more than 4000 miles from their birthplace. 

20. Name two photographers born on that date.

Palindromic birthdays (multiple answers possible). Name a photographer born on:

21. 1/1 (January 1st)
22 2/2
23. 3/3
24. 4/4
25. 5/5
26. 7/7
27. 9/9
28. 10/10
29. 11/11
30. 12/12

Identify the photographer:

31. October 16th, 1890, New York — March 31st, 1976, Orgeval, France

32. July 20th, 1895, Bacsborsod, Hungary — November 24th 1946, Chicago

33. June 17th, 1898, Springfield, OH — December 9th, 1991, Monson, ME

34. March 23rd, 1899, Frankfurt, Germany — March 10th, 1998, New York

35. December 6th, 1899, Zolochiv, Ukraine — December 26th, 1968, New York

36. November 3rd, 1902 St. Louis — April 10th, 1975, New Haven, CT

37. May 2nd, 1906, Rigo, Latvia — June 25th 1979, New York

38. December 23rd, 1908 Mardin, Turkey — June 13th, 2002, Boston

39. November 20th, 1911, Warsaw, Poland — December 10th, 1956, Suez, Egypt

40. June 24th, 1916, Zurich — May 16th 1954, Peruvian Andes

41. December 30th, 1918, Wichita, KS — October 15th, 1978, Tucson, AZ

42. October 31st, 1920, Berlin — January 23rd, 2004, Los Angeles

43. March 2nd, 1921, Vienna — September 15th, 1986, New York

44. June 7, 1941, Wells, Somerset — March 13, 1972, London

45. February 15th, 1956, Boras, Sweden — April 11th, 2015, Stockholm

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Paired Au Pair

Chicago, 1970, Vivian Maier

San Francisco, 1960, Henri Cartier-Bresson

New York, 1954, Vivian Maier

Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984, Nan Goldin

Chicago, 1952, Vivian Maier

1963, Carl Mydans

1953, Vivian Maier

Cabana, 2000, Larry Sultan

Chicago, 1962, Vivian Maier

Versailles, 1975, Elliott Erwitt

Date and Location Unknown, Vivian Maier

Luxembourg Gardens, 2000, Richard Kalvar

Chicagoland, 1971, Vivian Maier

Untitled (Biloxi, MS), 1972, William Eggleston

1976, Vivian Maier

New York, 1982, Lee Friedlander

All Vivian Maier photos from A Photographer Found (Harper, 2014)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Half Dome

Approaching Yosemite from the west via Highway 120, the first glimpse of the valley comes from several miles off. There's a small cliff turnout with a plaque describing the view. That's a good thing because even at that distance the scene is strong enough to distract drivers. It's best to pull over, and the parking lot is usually full of shutterbugs obliging their base urge. Yosemite's landmarks are laid out against the eastern skyline, Cathedral Rock, The Three Brothers, Bridalveil, etc. Bringing up the rear is Half Dome

Photo by Tony L. Lee, 2004

The valley contains many spectacles. Maybe for others the highlight is El Cap or Yosemite Falls or the Merced River. For me it's Half Dome. It's had a spell over me since I first saw it on a school trip at age 17. What...The F...Is...That!? 

DNC Logo
Of course I knew what I was looking at. I'd internalized countless photographs of Half Dome by then, as do most people growing up in America. I'd come across various books, calendars, and posters. It was the very symbol of Yosemite, not to mention California, the NPS, and everything outdoorsy. Eventually it would appear on California quarters, driver's licenses, and as the default image on Apple desktops. Back in 1986 its caricature appeared merely on every mileage sign in the valley and as the logo for DNC, the park's resort concessionaire. So yeah, Half Dome was in my head at that point even before it was in my field of vision. How could it not be?

Still, seeing it in the flesh seemed unreal to me then. It had a magnetic celebrity presence, like being in the same room with Jack Nicholson or Oprah Winfrey or the Mona Lisa. Wow. So...that's really it. How about that. Is that being actually in front of me right now? Yes it is. 

It had the same star power 150 years ago. Here's how Josiah Whitney described it in 1868:
"[half dome] strikes even the most casual observer as a new revelation in mountain forms; its existence would be considered an impossibility if it were not there before us in all its reality..." 
George Anderson on Half Dome 
by S.C. Walker, 1877
He went on to predict that no one would ever climb Half Dome (it was climbed just a few years later by George Anderson). To the casual observer today his judgement is understandable. The beast looks insurmountable from every vantage, and indeed it would be very difficult to climb if not for cables up the back side which are installed every summer by the Park Service. 

Ah yes, the cables. They're freaky. They were built in 1919 before society became hyper-litigious, and by this point they've been grandfathered into perpetuity. But I'm still surprised they're allowed, or that more tourists don't slip off them and kill themselves. One misstep and you're toast. But somehow almost everyone makes it up and down safely.

Knowing the cables were in place during my initial visit, I made immediate plans to climb it with some buddies. Good thing I was young and dumb. The reality of hiking 19 miles and 4800 vertical feet in a day didn't really sink in until after I'd done it, and by then it was behind me. Ignorance is bliss. So was being on top.

I got a pretty good look at all sides of Half Dome on that hike, and also on several subsequent trips to the valley. But no matter how many times I've seen Half Dome, it still looks unreal.

Sample 2010 CDL featuring Half Dome (upper right)

Half Dome's been on my mind lately because I spent most of last week camping in Yosemite with my family. My kids are probably too young to make the trip to the top, and I might be too old. The cables were down so we couldn't test those theories. But I felt Half Dome above us the whole time, looming over Curry Village from its perch in the back of the valley. 

One morning Zane (age 14) and I hiked the cruelly misnamed Four Mile Trail from the valley floor to Glacier Point. From the small concrete landing at the summit we looked across the upper Merced valley, and there just a few miles across the chasm was Half Dome Glacier Point has been called one of the world's great viewpoints, and the scene before us had been shot billions of times from exactly where we stood. It was commemorated on the back of a quarter. Still, it was irresistible. We took a few photos, then had a snack and hiked back. 

It wasn't until later that night that I had some time in the lodge to look up other Yosemite photographs online. Some of the earliest photographs from near Glacier Point were by Eadweard Muybridge (sometimes known as Helios). But strangely, they weren't exactly from Glacier Point. Odder yet, they didn't bother to show Half Dome, or tis-sa-ack as it was known then in the language of the Ahwahnee natives. They've since been exterminated and the name tis-sa-ack bestowed on a rock climb. But that's another story.

One of Muybridge's best known photos is from Panorama Rock, a point on the Panorama trail several hundred yards south of Glacier Point. It's curious that Muybridge would choose that location to set up the camera. Even if Glacier Point hadn't yet been annointed as a world class photo op, it was easily identifiable as a natural terminus. It's where the plateau drops away 3,000 feet. A good place to dump burning coals. Not hard to find.

But for whatever reason, Muybridge ignored that point and kept walking. He set up further along, aimed directly across the valley...and then cropped tis-sa-ack from the scene. The big dome in the center of this photo is Liberty Cap not Half Dome. WTF?  

Muybridge, circa 1872

From a modern sensibility, the omission seems willfully neglectful. And half of me thinks it might've been on purpose, in the same way that Atget deliberately excluded the Eiffel Tower from his photographs. Powerful subject matter can dominate a photo, sometimes to deleterious effect. At least that was the old fashioned thinking of the pre-celebrity era. 

That ideology has been mostly rectified. When Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe's rephotographic project tackled Yosemite in 2002, they incorporated the Muybridge photo into a montage. And make no mistake, this time they were sure to include Half Dome. It's the prominent mountain given center stage at the peak of the montage. If it looks sleepy, that's just the back side. Trust me, the north face is wide awake.

Four Views From Panorama Rock, 2002, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe

The other important Yosemite photographer during Muybridge's time was Carleton Watkins, and he knew an icon when he saw one. He stood on Glacier Point and shot the view of Half Dome that's since been replicated a billion times over, the same one Zane and I shot. It's possible he had the help of Muybridge and/or C.L. Weed, but it's hard to confirm since photo records from the time are sketchy. In any case Half Dome looks as unreal as ever. Is it my imagination or does it appear semi-phallic, erupting into the sky under granite foreskin hood? If the idea of a giant penis bothers you, think instead of Darth Vader's helmet. 

Carleton Watkins, possibly with Muybridge and/or C.L. Weed, from Glacier Point, 1872

OK, so Watkins stood over 3,000 feet of air and checked phallic peak from his bucket list. But even then I'm not sure he considered the mountain iconic. In his "Best General View Of The Valley" Half Dome is a mere blip on the horizon, a third tier sideshow to the main event, which oddly seems to be a tree with its lower branches removed. 

Watkins, Yosemite Valley from "Best General View", 1866

Or consider the later Watkins grouping "Views Of Yosemite", presumably a representative sampling of valley highlights. Where is Half Dome? It's faintly visible beyond the forest in the center left image. Is that any way to treat an icon? 

Watkins, "Views of Yosemite", 1878

The thing is, during Watkins era, I'm not sure it was yet an icon. When Muybridge, Watkins, and Weed were fishing around for photos, everything in the valley was impressive. Half Dome was there among the other sites, but hadn't claimed a hold yet on the popular imagination, or on theirs. It hadn't yet been posterized or made into a logo. 

Beirstadt's depiction in oils reflects a similar outlook. Grand vistas. Huge cliffscapes. No Half Dome. 

Alfred Beirstadt, Looking Up The Yosemite Valley, Circa 1865

What these images suggest to me is that Half Dome's icon status was conferred later. In fact I'm going to take that hypothesis one step further and argue that iconic status in general is a relatively contemporary phenomenon spurred along by celebrity culture. Icons march to prominence hand in hand with the increased mediation, commodification, and distribution of all visual images. The irony is that this has occurred in conjunction with the mass popularization of photography and a flood of visual images from all sources. A rising tide lifts all boats, but I think some are lifted higher than others. Like Oprah Winfrey. And like Half Dome.

We have a young kitten in the house and she likes to explore. Sometimes I'll come downstairs in the morning to find Zooey sprawled on the kitchen counter or between stereo speakers or on a shelf in the pantry. There's no predicting where she will be. Not even the cat knows. She hasn't yet learned it's impolite to step on my french toast. Zooey behaves like William Henry Jackson sent out to survey the West. The great space is a level playing field. No location is yet iconic. Maybe he'll find Yellowstone Falls. Maybe he'll find the lame end of the river. So you get photos like this mixed in his archive with world class landmarks. 

W.H. Jackson, Southeast arm of Lake Yellowstone& Yellowstone  River, 1871

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few. In the cat's mind? Mostly nap time for them.

I love photographs like the one above that focus on the "wrong" subjects. In fact they're just about the only ones which interest me any more. I used to think Stephen Shore's Uncommon Places focused on the wrong scenes, and that's why the book appealed to me. Now I think maybe they were the right ones, and maybe that's their problem. It's the same wonderful dilemma stirred up by Masao Yamamoto, Adam Bartos, Joachim Brohm, and various other masters. While other photographers concentrate on the Half Domes of the world, they walk through the world as if it's still 1860. That's not easy. It takes years of unlearning. 

Half Japanese's David Fair applies the same ideas to guitar. He's been a musician for decades. He's long ago internalized the "right" notes and chords and can probably play them without thinking. But for him it's more interesting to approach the instrument like a kitten in a big house. "Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion," he writes. "If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. That that's absurd. How could it be wrong? It's your guitar and you're the one playing it.

The Yosemite encountered by Muybridge was basically an instrument not yet tuned. He could play it any old way he wanted. Not that Muybridge completely ignored Half Dome. It appears in a few of his photos, but always from a distance or the "wrong" perspective. Take the photo below for example, shot from oblique angle. Can you imagine this converted into a corporate logo? I think not.  

Muybridge, Circa 1872 

Muybridge did manage to depict the north face's sheer drop in other photos. But alas, from too far away and buried in the forest. I'm guessing the photo below was made from somewhere between Union Point and Glacier Point. Zane and I must've hiked right by this.

 Muybridge Circa 1872

Eadweard, Eadweard, Eadweard... That's not how you shoot an icon. This is how you shoot an icon, dammit. Make it dramatic.

Moon and Half Dome, 1960, Ansel Adams

Moon and Half Dome has come to be one of Adams' best known photos, and his account of its making is worth reading (in Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs). It reveals almost nothing about his feelings for Yosemite or Half Dome or photographic theory, but instead goes into extensive technical detail discussing lenses, filters, and luminance, etc. It has all the charm of a chemistry manual. Finally, with a few sentences near the conclusion he casually dismisses Watkins' effort as "horrible, both in the photograph and in the landscape." OK then. Drama queen.

NF Logo by David Alcorn, 1971
Whatever you think of Adams, it's his Half Dome photograph which has become the most iconic. It appears on a million posters and thousands of licensed prints. It was probably the inspiration for the North Face logo. It's the mental image of Half Dome many people carry in their mind now, and I think it colors the experience of park visitors before and after they see the real thing. 

Moon and Half Dome's power lies in its dark mystery. Adams used a red filter to great effect, converting a peaceful alpine scene into a horror set. The photo feeds into the popular notion of nature as an impassive, scary force. Armchair adventurers in a dorm room or suburban den love that shit. Eat it up. Same way they dig Darth Vader. 

Or maybe it's the lunar thing. Don't put a bird on it, put a moon on it. The moon framed in the sky over any ol' thang adds instant drama. Adams knew that better than anyone. 

Last fall was a bad wildfire season in the Sierra and flames scarred big chunks of the park. Michael Fry was one of many photojournalists to shoot the fires from Washburn Point (a pullout just south of Glacier Point). He knew full well a billion photos had been made from the same spot, but he did it anyway. And unlike silly Muybridge, he knew the money shot had to include Half Dome.  

Michael Fry/AP, Sept 7, 2014

It's a great photo now, but if the California drought persists, such a scene will become commonplace. It might become so right it's wrong.

We've been back a few days now, and still living out of a cooler since our fridge conked while we were away. It's sort of like camping but with no Half Doom looming over us. The cooler has been great entertainment for Zooey, a new space to explore. It's not yet iconic. Nothing is, at least for her.