Thursday, July 24, 2014

Carving the rubble

Garry Winogrand,
Showing at the Met,
June 27th - Sept. 21, 2014
There’s an old joke that sculpture is easy. To make a statue of something complicated —say a violin— just take a block of marble and remove everything that’s not a violin.* Simple, right?

I think the same premise could apply to Winogrand’s legacy. Finding his good photographs is easy. Just remove all the thousands of shots that fell short and Voila. A violin! 

Simple, right? No, not exactly. As with sculpture the crux is in the gleaning. That chore was tough enough in his lifetime, with his (sometimes grudging —culling was not his calling) input. Now that he’s dead it’s quite a challenge. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. His massive oeuvre has been carved up in all sorts of ways. Maybe the result can garry a tune. Maybe not. One thing you can count on: there will be strings attached. 

The most recent effort is Leo Rubinfein's Winogrand exhibition and book. Rubinfein knew a blank hunk of marble when he saw one. "There exists in photography no other body of work comparable in size or quality that is so editorially unresolved," he wrote before sifting through it carefully frame by frame. I blogged briefly about the results last year when they premiered premiered at SFMoMA, with links to some of the hoopla generated at the time. Now the show has moved on to the Met and generated a fresh round of reactions, with reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, Design Arts Daily, Vice, Hyperallergic, The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, Feature Shoot, and probably other places too. It's spurred concurrent shows. Even Winogrand's old nemesis A.D. Coleman has been inspired to join the fray, though not exactly inspired to rethink his 1980s review.

Why all the attention? Most of Winogrand's best photos would bore the crap out of people if they were shown as singles without his name attached. Yet the press fawns. What gives? Why does Vanity Fair alla sudden care? 

Beyond the obvious cause and effect —many media outlets received a press release from the Met in June and knee-jerk reacted soon after, and because the photos are finally in New York!— one reason Winogrand entices is that his photos don't explain themselves very well. "Nothing is as mysterious as a fact clearly described," he described them, somewhat mysteriously. The only certainty is that his images visually record the subjects captured within the frame. What are they about beyond that? Who knows? The answer probably varies depending on who's asking. 

One trend in recent reviews —and I think the wrong one— is to cast Winogrand as social pundit. "Garry Winogrand," writes Justin Jones, "... captur[ed] the monumental era of rapid social change and economic prosperity post-World War II climate while documenting the traumatic assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the violent reactions to an impending Vietnam War." Jonathan Jones writes, "Perhaps more than any other photographer he documented the hopes as well as the hysteria of 1960s America." For Holland Cotter, "the Met show is engrossing, especially, I would guess, for anyone who had an experience of the world that Winogrand moved in, cared about and recorded with a fanatical vigor. And that world, early, and really always, was middle-class life in New York City." In other words he was like Gene Smith. But artsier, with tilted horizons. 

I think this is Rubinfein's view, and he's organized the show accordingly. From Down From the Bronx to A Student of America to Boom and Bust, the curatorial emphasis is on post-war history. And from a certain angle even Winogrand seems to support this view. One of his quotes, cherry picked into the Met's press page: "You could say that I am a student of photography, and I am; but really I'm a student of America." One can hardly blame the press for adopting Rubinfein's perspective. Not only are they seeing the show through his point of view, they're press. Being socially concerned is their job.

Then again Winogrand said a lot of things. It doesn't take much digging before his quotes begin to contradict one another. He also said "Photography is not about the thing photographed. It's about how that thing looks photographed." and "Photographs have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface." So you could cherry-pick those quotes and come to conclusion he didn't care much about society. 

If it's confusing I think a lot of the obfuscation was deliberate. Winogrand enjoyed ambiguity. He cast off zen aphorisms like dead skin, geared more at the mountainside cave than critical analysis. "Every photograph is a battle of form versus content," sounds more like Ram Dass than Henry Horenstein. By plan. Winogrand put the photos out there, sprinkled some quotes near them, and then it was up to the viewer. 

In my opinion Winogrand was concerned mostly with photographs for the sake of photographs. New York and the post-war boom may have appeared in his images but only as an artifact of circumstance, because it's where and when he lived. If he'd lived in 1930s Japan or 1980s Argentina his photos would've shown those worlds instead, but they wouldn't necessarily comment on those societies. They'd be more about the never-ending puzzle of squeezing the world into a four-sided frame. "I really try to divorce myself from any thought of possible use of this stuff," he said. "That's part of the disclipline. My only purpose when I'm working is to try to make interesting photographs, and what to do with them is another act - a consideration. Certainly when I'm working I want them to be as useless as possible." In other words, shoot first ask questions later. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm trying to squeeze him into a box of my making. But that's how I see his photos. 

Carl Gunhouse sympathizes with this view: "Not like other art types of the early to mid 60's Wingorand was looking to find a place for himself artistically and first and foremost the work is about him and his general emotional state which tends to be bleak and nihilistic. Now for the run of his good work mid 60's-early 70's making bleak and nihilistic work in America featuring the strangers as your actors, you can make a case for a general commentary on the state of things. But I would argue his importance was pushing art photography more directly into the personal expression instead of being a formalist endeavor or about a greater social themes."


So some viewers cast Winogrand as socially concerned. Some don't. Fine. Perhaps the major factor in how you view his work is if you've tried to do that sort of thing yourself. If you've walked around with a camera looking for photos that stand on their own you realize it's damn hard. To come up with as many as he did might seem impossible actually. On the other hand, if your main experience of photography comes to you in digested visual chunks through media outlets or displayed on a wall, you might think of photographs in a different way. They might tell you the daily news. And if you're a photo critic sitting at a desk most of the day, who knows what you'll make of them.

That might describe the difference between Paul Graham's reaction and A.D. Coleman's. Graham has been shooting photographs for many years, and his late colleague's skill excites him: "It's awe-inspiring to me, that ability to marshal the world and the flow of life into those few little, extraordinarily powerful moments. We all recognize the Amazonian river of life flowing post us continually, and we usually find a quiet little corner to contemplate in. Winogrand was someone who said, 'Give me the rapids,' and he swam across them many times."

Meanwhile, far from the Amazonian river of life, A.D. Coleman has a different reaction. Um, scratch that. Actually he has no reaction at all because he stubbornly refuses to see the nearby show, but proudly clings to his 26-year old dismissal: "Winogrand’s main usefulness to the medium will be seen to have been his willingness to go down this dead-end path and explore it to the bitter end — so that no one needs to pass that way again." 

Sorry, Mr. Coleman. We're passing Winogrand's way again, and probably not for the last time. That block of marble is pretty sure to be carved up again by someone in the future. I'm not sure what they'll find. Probably a lot of photos that look pretty boring, and maybe  a few new nuggets. People will argue about which is which. Maybe we'll see Winogrand's photos on soft drink containers or rephotographed in street view or in yet another book or collaged into a snapchat feed. I suspect he'd be happy to see them used in all sorts of ways. he's probably sitting up there right now enjoying the spectacle of people still trying to understand him. And wishing he had a camera.

"For me," wrote Winogrand, "the true business of photography is to capture a bit of reality (whatever that is) on film...if, later, the reality means something to someone else, so much the better." Then again he said a lot of shit.

____________________________________________
*I'm remembering the example as a violin but it could have been some other object.  I can't find the joke online so for the sake of this post I'm sticking with my hazy memory and violin.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Q & A with Bryan Formhals

Bryan Formhals is a photographer and personal injury lawyer based in Astoria, Queens

BA: We chatted a while back but we've been drifting in different thought patterns since then. I’m trying to figure out where you're at with street photography. You seem down on it lately. 



BF: Yeah, I don't like it very much.



What don't you like?



I don't really know. It's a mix of stuff, I guess. I try not to get too locked down in any ideas. I'm one of those types that's non-committal and will jump around. I guess POTB would be a good indication, no?



Sometimes you show streety stuff there. 

Oh sure. I like street photographs. Or candid photographs in public. But you asked about street photography and I assumed you were talking about the culture that has developed around it, especially online. That I don't like.



The culture of the high priest street photographer going to Mount Broadway to bring back the visual tablets for the rabble. That whole thing?



Yeah, that sounds pretty good.



I agree there's a lot of bullshit surrounding street photos online. But I don't go along with the premise that the whole thing is bunk. I think it's still a valid form. Do you?



Sure, it's valid.



You just don't like the egos and baggage? Or what is it?



Yeah, and how it's sort of turned into this "calling" for people, there's almost a weird religious aspect to it that bugs me, and makes me uncomfortable. But that extends into other forms of documentary photography as well. The heroic photographer. The visionary. The seer. Street photography as self-help.



Or maybe photography in general as self-help. It's one of the most accessible arts after all. That attracts dilettantes.



Yeah, for sure. But I think it's great that photography can be therapeutic. People need hobbies. And photography is a good one. It's my hobby of choice.
Was it Keenan that set you off? That was a good rant by the way. He seemed to hit a nerve with you.



That's all theatre. Just cranky guys sitting at the bar talking smack.



Those threads led to some interesting philosophy around street work. Because he's working under the model that I think you find fault with. He's going out to hunt for scenes that express some "vision". Then returning with his fresh kills. It's the same system we all use. Which is what makes it hard for me to discredit entirely. But I think you're ready to bag it.



The internet is kind of like street photography. You wait around and watch a bunch of shit go on and then every once and a while something interesting actually happens. The internet creeps me out.

Would you call what you were doing on your now deleted Tumblr street photography?



Um, which stuff? The color photographs from New York? 
That's mainly what I was thinking of. 
Yes, for sure, that's street. I also showed a longer edit of a Los Angeles book. The B/W. But it’s street photography too I guess. Personal documentary, diaristic.




from Los Angeles 26, Bryan Forhmals











I'm wondering how much your thoughts and doubts about street photography contributed to you dumping that stream.



Eh, that was more to do with the concept of  "the stream". I tried an idea. Showing a longer edit. Then deleting the edit, starting with a new edit. I think that way of thinking can work, but I got bored with it. But yeah, the photographs are certainly in the street aesthetic. That doesn't bother. Older stuff. Nothing I can do about it, except re-edit and remix it.
One aspect of street photography that is a bit, well, fake, is the tendency to put images out there with no context to reinforce their mysterious aspect. And it works well for some. The less you know about the scene the more effective the photo is. But I think deliberately adding written context could be an alternative approach. Go out and make good photos, then describe the incidents.



What was he thinking!??!?!?!? Yeah, or nothing to do with the incident. I mean, what I love about street photography is the walking.



But that's a separate thing maybe than just straight photography. Maybe it's not even the same art form.



Yes. But I think photographs can and do stand on their own. I love a great photograph. BAM!!!! That's it.

Doesn't that put photographs in a heroic position? It's the great white trophy hunting street shooter going out to find that very thing. Photos that stand on their own. So what's not valid?



I don't think I said anything was invalid. It is what it is. I love trying to make a great photograph.



Sorry, bad wording. But you have a problem with that model. I'm trying to pin it down.



Getting messed up film and shit. That rocks. I enjoy making candid photographs. That's kind of fun. But at the same time it creeps me out these days. 

Do you see value in photographs that exist in and of themselves, or do you think the special part comes later in editing? Maybe any photos at all can work if they are edited/sequenced properly?
Sure, I see value in that way of working. I think the concept of the 'special moment' is something I try not to think about. When I'm out working, I'm looking for photographs and scenes, compositions. I don't know if they're special or not. It's an equation, and you certainly don't know what you have until you start editing. You might have an initial hunch but that's something I'd be skeptical about in terms of leading to a decent photograph.    
I certainly think that photos tend to work better in a nicely edited and sequenced book. There's almost an infinite number of ways that various photos can be edited and sequenced, and that excites me. I spend a good amount of time in my archive trying to find new patterns and ideas. I'm starting to share some of that stuff on my Journal which is a format I'm enjoying right now. It helps me think and stay organized, on task.

This goes back to the street issue because I feel very strongly about street work and certain photos hit me hard and I think I know why. But what are you drawn to? What makes you tick with a camera? 



The mix. My tumblr is perfect. I want that to be my photography. I want to appropriate all styles. How do you do that?



Yeah, I meant your own shooting. I know what you put on POTB. But if street photography is suspect, where does that leave you?



Well, right now I like shooting with the Mamiya 7 most. So that makes me a boring landscape photographer. No matter what you do, you fall into a trope or genre.



Where are these boring landscapes? Online?



Nope. I'm going to finish the book first. But it's more than landscapes. It's my first attempt at something more along the lines of psychogeography.

Psychogeography?
Psychogeography is about navigating the city in an improvised manner in order to gain a different perspective from the standard paths we walk. It's also about how the built environment impacts our psyche and emotional state. Basically, walk out the door, look around, and allow your eyes, intuition and feelings to lead the way. 

OK. I will wait and see. 

I'll show you some photos soon. But I don't want anything published on the web. I'm going to start working on the edit. And make a bunch of prints. I have an extensive journal from every outing as well.



So that's the root of the new journal Tumblr?



Kind of. I've been writing for the last year and half as well, but not much on the web. Basically, the photobook as novel approach. Like Kwiatkowski. We're working on a book as well.



Can you talk about the Kwiatkowski book?



Yeah, sure. It's a riff on true crime. Well, true crime TV shows. About people disappearing.



Not creating any mental image yet. With photos?



In specific landscape. Photographs and words.



It's your writing and his photos? Or a mix?



A mix. We've transcribed a bunch of shows which we're mixing in. . We have some text from scientific studies, conspiracy theories, etc.

Fictional?



Yeah, it's fiction.



I can't get my head around it at all. I've gotta see the final thing I guess.



Yes. We don't even know how it's going to end. We're just taking the ride.
You seem to be constantly stopping, starting, reworking, rethinking. Going back to LPV even. And now the new journal...Do you have any thoughts or nostalgia about LPV? 
No, not really nostalgic. I want to take it off the web too. And will at some point.



Why?



Don't want to renew the domain? I don't know. I'm just thinking it might happen. Not soon.

It's still a good resource. 

I got a bunch of flak when I removed my blog last year. I suspect you'll face the same shitstorm.



In five years? Nobody will have the slightest clue what it is or was about.



I can't really think that far ahead. Maybe that's a problem.



I don't advise it. It doesn't end well for any of us.



Why did you end LPV? Is there a simple reason?



I didn't enjoy doing it and wanted to focus my limited time on my own stuff. Also, I was sick of being a promoter. That type of publishing is difficult. You've got to be good to make it worth it.



You didn't promote it that hard.



It was fun. But I don't like magazines. I don't read them. Why should I make one? The game is book publishing.



What about the Kwiatkowski book? It's the same equation. You'll be a promoter. Or the one with Stephen?




Photographers' Sketchbooks, Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals, Coming Fall 2014





Yes, that's true. It's not my favorite thing to do.


I think with a book there's an increased expectation of impact. You know or hope that it will be around a while and lay down a marker.  Maybe a magazine can do that too but it's more difficult. But for someone or for a culture immersed in ephemeral streams all day, a book is a like a rock on shore to grab hold of.



Yeah, books are cool. I should buy more. Ha.

What did you learn about your photo process when working on the photo process book with McLaren?
I learned that every photographer struggles with many of the same issues. No matter how successful one becomes, every new project or book comes with the same set of challenges. It was also inspiring to learn that many photographers are consistently working on several projects or edits. The most interesting photographers are always challenging themselves and pushing forward. Or just going for walks. 



I could never just work on one thing at a time. I've got about 10 projects going right now. I've been photographing the internet as well.



How do you do that?

Taking pictures of the screen. Digging around. Going into archives.



Like Michael Wolf? Or Ryan Brubaker?



Yeah, but not Google street view. Other people's photographs.



Taking actual photos of the computer? Or screen grabs.



Actual photographs. I mess up the lens. Smear stuff. All that dumb kind stuff.



OK, so what's the project about?



No idea yet. It'll be some narrative though. Mixed with text again. Probably with a sci-fi angle.



It's always a narrative for you. Or is it?



Yes, for the most part. Wannabe filmmaker.



Can a photo just exist for its own sake, not part of an edit or story?



Yes, absolutely. That's probably when they're most enjoyable. Photographs are awesome.



Yes they are. What pictures do you rephotograph? Is this a work project?



I've been rephotographing from my Flickr and Tumblr favorites. That's the source material.

Bryan Formhals

What do you put on the lens?



I put hand sanitizer on the lens. I do double exposures as well.



What does that look like in a photo?



It looks cheap. And digital and fake. But also kind of weird. I don't have the guts to show this stuff yet. Ha. Digital is so ugly.



Hmm. So it's sort of about the nature of the internet? Or about the culture of screens? I think you showed some photos of TV screens a long while ago on your Tumblr or somewhere? Can't remember where I saw them.



Yeah, all of that pretentious stuff.



What's ugly about digital?



It's either too clean. Or it has a cheap look to it. I like it. The internet is ugly as well. It's visually unsettling.




"The internet is ugly...It's visually unsettling."




I don't understand.



The aesthetics of the internet. Look at all the random information. But your experience is going to be different than mine....naturally.



I think your information streams are much wider than mine. I've got to funnel my internet into a little tidy box or it overwhelms me. That's why I'm not on a lot of platforms, just a few that I can manage.



Right. And also, the amount of time spent online. I'm in the web most of my waking hours. I read too much of that stuff.



Yes, that’s good and bad. But I think most people have considered this issue and come to some personal resolution.



Yeah, talking about the internet is annoying.



I'm less concerned with it than with what I can discover online. But it's the ether we all breath. The soup. It's like fish discussing water.



Ha. Yeah. I like information.



Are you still going to downtown NY to shoot those busy street scenes? Or were those from a phase that ended?



I'm probably done with that. For candid stuff, it'll be with the Mamiya. Or the random snapshot when I'm walking around.



What was the motivation when you were doing it?



I walk on 34th everyday for work. The moving masses. I wanted to try to work that as much as I could. Fly into the crowd. That type of stuff. Winogrand.

 Most of it is on 34th. Some on 5th Ave. Some in the East Village.



Why the Mamiya? Why not the X10?



Oh, I love the X10! But I’m not going to shoot candid street stuff with it. Any more....



Why not?



Done with that. It's too aggressive for me. I don't like sticking a camera into a scene that way. It's exhausting shooting like Winogrand. I like staying back with the Mamiya. Yeah, landscapes with people in them.... I like Nguan too. The Hin Chua style. Ha. 



Did he put his name on it? I think others have done that. 
Didn't you call it low entropy? Ed Panar. Irina Rozovsky.
I can't remember if I called it that. Social Landscape? It's usually less dependent on reflex. More considered.



That's what I enjoy the most right now. And shooting with off camera flash. I'm into taking trains now. I'm exploring the LIRR.



As photo fodder?



Well, I've only made one trip on the LIRR. I went to Port Washington and wandered around for a few hours. I'm shooting mostly landscapes. Delta 3200 with the Mamiya 7. I don't know where the project will go but the plan is to hop on the train and get off at random stops and then never go back. I'm becoming fascinated with Long Island.  




Bryan Formhals


The great white photo hunter getting on the train... One of the 10 ongoing projects.
  



Yep. Will probably take a few years. Or maybe a few months? I have no idea.



I have a psychologist friend who does research on multitasking. Apparently it creates some unhealthy mental repercussions. At least for kids.



I don't consider it multitasking. They’re just ideas. Depends. I haven't formulated a story yet.



If your attention is divided 10 ways, where does that leave any one project?



No idea. It's my personality type. I like playing around. I recently figured out I'm an ENTP. We like to start stuff and never finish it.



I think I was diagnosed as letters once but I forget what the label was. Is there a label for people who forget stuff like that?


I don't know how other people do it. And it's futile to try and do it any other way. It'd be like asking me to start walking backwards.



I've seen that done. 

Is there an optimal way to make art? A formula? Does one require the right personality? Or habits?



The optimal way is to follow your gut I think.



Something like that. If I get bored, I stop. Ha.



Who have you discovered online recently that excites you?




Elizabeth Huey.



What's her story?


Elizabeth Huey


She's a painter. And makes snapshots. Street scenes. The camera looks really cheap. I mean, the photographs look like they were made with a cheap digital point and shoot. I visited her website and spent more time browsing around than I normally do.

I'll dig her up. Have you seen this guy? Cliche subject. But done with skill.



Yeah, tropes are fine. Typology. Whatever.



Elizabeth Huey sounds perfect. The ones who don't come into photography invested with ideas about method or perfection or ideology are usually the freshest. I'm just speculating based on the fact she's a painter. And she does "cheap" work.



Right. Just make photographs. I guess I'm trying to play some filmmaking fantasy. But I don't mind.



What filmmaking fantasy are you talking about?



I wanted to be a filmmaker coming out of college.



You studied filmmaking, right? Or film theory?



No, not in college. But two of my good friends from college did. So it rubbed off on me. They got me into thinking that way. Also about novels and shit.



I wanted to blow perfect bubbles that drifted into the sky before bursting. And after all these years my dream has paid off. Novelists don't think like photographers. But you knew that.



Yeah, I have no idea how they think. Ha. Writing is hard.



Novelists and filmmakers think like you. They think in narrative. They have 10 stories going on in their heads. Photographers think about that perfect bubble sailing away.



I can do that too.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Do's

(Excerpted from Charles Traub's Maxims from the Chair)

-Do something old in a new way
-Do something new in an old way
-Do something new in a new way, Whatever works . . . works
-Do it sharp, if you can’t, call it art
-Do it in the computer—if it can be done there
-Do fifty of them—you will definitely get a show
-Do it big, if you can’t do it big, do it red
-If all else fails turn it upside down, if it looks good it might work
-Do Bend your knees
-If you don’t know what to do, look up or down —but continue looking
-Do celebrities—if you do a lot of them, you’ll get a book
-Connect with others—network
-Edit it yourself
-Design it yourself
-Publish it yourself
-Edit, When in doubt shoot more
-Edit again
-Read Darwin, Marx, Joyce, Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, McLuhan, and Barth
-See Citizen Kane ten times
-Look at everything—stare
-Construct your images from the edge inward
-If it’s the “real world,” do it in color
-If it can be done digitally—do it
-Be self-centered, self-involved, and generally entitled and always pushing—and damned to hell for doing it
-Break all rules, except the chairman’s

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ours In the Summer Sun

I was as stunned as anyone by Germany’s dismantling of Brazil yesterday. One lesson for photographers was the methodical calm of German attackers near the opponent's goal. When Miroslav Klose's first shot was rejected (23’) it was no problem. He coolly reloaded and stuffed the rebound in the corner. The Toni Kroos goal at 26’ was just as casual, a simple jab to the back of the net. When André Schürrle put in his first at 69’ he barely broke a sweat. Around the net the Germans acted as if they were at midfield. They passed impassively. No pressure. No worries. Goal... Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal.


A Brazilian fan contemplates future expectations (Photo: AFP/Patrik Stollarz)

Brazil’s behavior was just the opposite. Throughout the game they had several good scoring chances. In the end they actually wound up with more shots on goal than Germany. They also had more corner kicks and more time of possession. But near goal they played in panic mode. Every shot (except Oscar’s last) seemed rushed and poorly positioned. You could almost read their thoughts in the penalty area: “I’m near the goal now! Gotta shoot quick! Hope something good happens!” The results spoke for themselves.

Expectation infects experience. Every single time.

It's no great leap sideways to extend this situation to the photo world. Good photo ops are like free balls near the goal. They're relatively rare. You might go a whole day seeing just one or two. So naturally when they come along there’s a tendency to get excited and treat them as special. The adrenaline floods. Thoughts whir. You’re near the photo! Gotta strike hard! Burst mode! Spray and pray! 

Needless to say that's almost always the wrong approach. Better to relax and shoot methodically. You’re at midfield. Nothing is at stake. So just calm down and execute.

Easier said than done. Even though I've committed the above lessons to memory, sometimes in live action situations a good photo op will cause me to just fucking freak out. My brain says calm but my gut says flies-on-meat, and it often wins. I turn into a spazz like Brazil. The photos suffer.

I realize this tendency in myself, so on recent photo outings I've been balancing my freak flag with a handful of tiggercorns in my pants. I usually carry eight, four in each pocket, and I'm pleased to say they've worked better than I'd hoped. I've found that the red tipped ones work best but that's just personal preference. Yellow or orange might work just as well for others. Shop around until you find your tiggercorn.


One day's supply of tiggercorns

When a good photo opportunity presents itself, instead of rushing into the scene I stay back, calmly fingering a red-tipped tiggercorn. I stroke it for a few seconds. Patience. I watch. I feel. When the moment is ripe I pull the tiggercorn from my pocket and I chuck it into the woods, shouting "GOOOOOAAAAL!" 

I do this as many times as it takes until I'm at mental midfield. I'm soaring over the camera's rainforest. No worries. No pressure. Then and only then do I shoot the photo. 

Yeah, soccer is a strange game.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Art of Noise

If you're ever wandering around Paris and you find yourself in need of a toilet, there's a nice clean restroom near the center of town. It's in the basement of a large building called The Pompidou. Can't miss it. It's some kind of museum and they must've run out of money because the plumbing and ventilation haven't yet been walled in. But whatever. They have the toilet working, and unlike the one in Les Halles it's free. 

Once I discovered this location all my troubles faded. I was free to roam the streets in any direction, knowing I could circle back whenever I needed to relieve myself, grab a drink, glance at the map, and plan the next photo raid. Before I quite realized what was happening, the toilet had become my command center.

My last circuit through was on a Monday afternoon around 2 pm. I popped in to take a leak. Then the skies followed suit. When I came out of my command center the sun had been replaced by storm clouds. Within five minutes the light had gone from f/16 to f/4. Then the wind picked up and the rain started in earnest. It looked like it might last a while. 

No shooting! What do to? Someone had given me an extra ticket to the museum, and one option was the large Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition upstairs. It looked enticing but the line was an hour long. Screw that. Instead I ducked into the Pompidou bookstore.

The Pompidou bookstore is a strange place. It's similar in some ways to other museum bookshops, except that it's incredibly massive and well stocked with recent interesting titles. The photography selection was more comparable to Dashwood or Ampersand than the cursory canon-goulash found in American museums, with many small-press and European books I'd never heard of. 



My command center (photo)
That caught me off-guard. But the oddest thing was that the aisles were filled with browsers engrossed in books! It was a regular photobook party. I could barely squeeze in sideways to see the shelves. Maybe people had been driven in by the rain, or maybe it's always that way. I don't know, but in any case there they were. And not only were they were looking at books, they exuded the unmistakable air of giving a shit about photography! They appeared consumed. But these weren't hardcore photo junkies. I can sniff out that crew and this wasn't it. None carried cameras or snuck secret glances or squinted through the plate glass. Instead they seemed to be just average museum-goers who'd come from the exhibits. But they cared! 

I was floored. I'd known already on some level that I was in Europe. But it was in the Pompidou bookshop that my displacement assumed the scale of a truly continental shift. For in America photographers are outcasts. No one understands us. No one worries much.  I can't think of one non-photographer friend who has a sense of what I do, and I suspect that may be true for others. There's no place for us except within a narrow community of other photographers, gallerists, and misfits where we grovel for crumbs of attention in a steady downward spiral of mutual nonsupport. I feel that all the photographers in America could go away tomorrow (except the working pros who have a prescribed societal function) and no one would notice. it would be like the winos dissolving. Or the life coaches. Or Pinterest. Maybe that's why American photography has such a strong tradition, because it's a de facto outsider art.

But in Europe, photographer is a valid occupation. It's like poet, auteur, flâneur, or some other quasi-market participant. The culture has a place for you. Maybe not everyone understands what you do but they sense why it might be important. It's respected. And when they go to the bookshop, that curiosity expresses itself. Many display windows in Paris showcase old photos or journals or books. As if they actually mattered to someone! In America that stuff isn't cherished. It's auctioned from a storage locker on reality TV. But I was a million miles from Storage Wars. Ooh, Baby, was I feeling European. 

One book in particular caught my eye, the Louis Faurer retrospective edited by Anne Wilkes Tucker, severely discounted to ten Euros.  I remembered this book vaguely from when it had first been published in 2002. It hadn't made much of an impression at the time, and I hadn't seen it or thought much about it since then. I'm not sure what it was doing 12 years later in the Pompidou. Perhaps the vaguely French sounding name had caused someone to order it? Or the fact that the American Faurer had lived for a few years in Paris?

In any case, this time he made an immediate impression. This time Louis Faurer struck me as a goddamn genius. Years before I had thrown him in a mental pile with the Photo League and mid-century humanists. I could categorize him and thus dismiss him. But this time I noticed his mistakes. There was something wrong with every photo and the problems were beautiful. 



The photo above for example has all sorts of issues. Faurer is too far away. He's awkwardly clipped off the figures to either side, and included distracting background elements and too much floor. The whole thing is slightly out of focus. But somehow it works, and not in spite of all those elements but because of them. 

Or this one, possibly Faurer's most well known —can that phrase be applied to him?— photograph.




I'd always thought this was taken through a window as a partial reflection. Turns out it's a complete accident. He'd double exposed the boy with older footage of a wedding. Bing, bang, presto. The final result has just the right mix of What the hell's going on? and Ooh Baby I'm in Europe now (Times Square actually).

One thing that drives Faurer's images, and what I hadn't clued into on first viewing, is a very high noise-to-signal ratio. He's saying something, but the message is wrapped up in what he's not saying. His photos have the charm of an old scratchy record. You can barely hear the music over the static but somehow that makes it better. I suppose you could call the extra stuff —the noise— in his photos mistakes. But they're the sort of mistakes that enhance the signal. Sometimes in fact the noise is every bit as interesting as the signal. Perhaps the noise is the signal. 

Remember the Magic Eye posters that were in every college dorm about 20 years ago? If I show you a picture of a race car, it's pretty boring. 



But if I hide the race car in Magic Eye noise, it gets more interesting. And if you're stoned enough it gets downright mystical. You can stare at one of these for hours. Groovy...How does that wooork? But before you reach that point you should ask yourself, would a European do that? I think we both know the answer.






Faurer had embedded his race cars in mistakes. His book was chock full of visual problems. Every single photo had issues of one sort of another. But he owned them. He made them his. And that's a very tough nut for a photographer to crack. What's more, his were the sort of mistakes that mimic the public settings where he photographed. Those places weren't clean. They were busy urban settings. They were messy and moving and problematic, and that's how his pictured looked. How could they look any other way? 

I've been watching a fair amount of World Cup recently, and also playing rec soccer on the side, and I think soccer has many of the same issues. If it were possible for an American in the 1950s to like soccer, Faurer probably would've like it. In some ways it's a very precise game. When played by world class athletes the level of skill and finesse is amazing. But there's a degree of inaccuracy which can never be eliminated, even at the highest level. Because kicking a ball with a foot is inherently less precise than, for example, shooting a free throw with your hands. That's not always the case —some soccer shots are dead on within an inch. But over time and many samples, there's a consistency of imprecision that makes soccer what it is. Turnovers abound. Kicks go awry. The best team does not always win or even score. The noise-to-signal ratio is higher than in just about any other sport except baseball. It's called The Beautiful Game for a reason. Because it's like a Faurer photo.


A Faurer subject paralyzed by the Magic Eye?

Joan Baez came to Eugene this week so I spent some time fishing around for a song of hers to play on my radio show. I realize I don't like her solo work —her tone is too heroic, like a folk version of American Idol— but there is one duet sung with Bob Dylan that I'm fond of, Mama, You Been On My Mind recorded on Halloween 1964 at Philharmonic Hall. Their voices harmonize in perfect counterpoint. And then they stumble. They remember most of the lyrics, then forget them. They stop and start and engage in banter mid-song. "It's not a good performance," according to one critic. "He's clearly stoned."  I can't confirm which drugs either of them were on at the time, although marijuana might explain the noise-to-signal ratio. Luckily there was no Magic Eye back then to distract them. In any case the recording is messy, and that's exactly why it works. So the song went on the show, along with several songs about soccer.

Precision has been an ongoing issue for photography ever since it began. If you're recording reality, how faithful should you be? That's the basic question, or at least one of them. There's never been any good answer. The pendulum has swung back and forth, and in recent years the bias seems to lean toward perfection. "We are in the midst of the Age of Precision," wrote Loring Knoblach a few weeks ago, and I think he's basically right. Which leaves Faurer firmly in the retro camp.

Knoblach laid the fault at the feet of Digital: "The digital revolution" he writes, "seems to have reinforced the existing paradigm rather than disrupted it. The vast power of software manipulation appears to have lead to increased formalism, aestheticism, and staging, rather than increased eccentricity and chaos. " In other words, less noise-to-signal ratio. Or less "ferocity", to use Knoblach's term. I'm not sure if digital is actually to blame, or if it's simply the most current incarnation of a long march toward mechanical accuracy. Photography is rooted in tools. Tools improve. Bing, bang, presto: Visual precision becomes irresistible.

But then there's the pendulum. Even in the midst of precision, its backlash has people attempting to inject mistakes artificially into their work. The rise of Holga, Diana, wet collodion, and neo-Pictorialism is pretty easy to trace, and of course Instagram and Hipstamatic effects (catchphrase: "Digital photography never looked so analog."). I think photographers subconsciously want their photos to look like Faurer's. They don't want that race car to be too obvious. But they're not quite sure how to get there. Can we just apply a filter? Do the photos have enough problems yet? Do we own them now? 

Sorry. No easy answers. Let's just say it's very hard to make photos like Faurer because he was a goddamn genius. And if you're stoned enough his photos get downright mystical.

After a while in the Pompidou bookstore I went back into the main foyer but it was still raining hard outside. What do to? What about Christian Marclay's The Clock? It was playing upstairs. I ducked in to find the large theatre packed solid with viewers, every seat taken. Those fucking Europeans again with their cultured taste! I found a spot on the floor. 

A film still from The Clock





The Clock is easy to summarize. Marclay spliced thousand of old film clips together into 24 hour montage which plays continuously in a loop. The clips are from all years and all styles. Big Hollywood films, small budget, etc. I recognized some snippets but many were unknown. At every minute, and sometimes more often, film clips show brief segments of clocks or feature actors mentioning the time. And these incidents correlate to real time. The film always plays at exactly the same time every day. So the film segment above would be shown every day at exactly one o'clock. It's very convenient. The film tells you how long you've been watching, and gives a friendly reminder of the time at regular intervals. 

I won't say The Clock was downright mystical but it came close. Let's go one step lower and just call it a simple mindfuck. Groovy...How does that wooork? How did he pull it all together? What does it mean? How are we supposed to get lost in the film with these constant reminders of time and the outside world? There's a reason malls don't have clocks, and this wasn't it. 

Was there anything at all in the 24 hours to latch onto? None of it computed. I found myself laughing out loud at several points. The sheer absurdity of it! Maybe the clocks were the signal, or maybe they were just noise. Or vice versa. I don't even think Marclay knew, yet he'd somehow combined bits of fleeting chaos in the most precise way possible. 

I watched from 3:24 to 4:17 pm, then went out to see if the rain had stopped. The sky had cleared. I went outside and spent the next 5 hours making photographs.