Thursday, July 2, 2020

Chopped


Alas, Seattle's CHAZ is dead. It was always a precarious endeavor, but the nail in the coffin, literally, was a string of recent shootings, two of them fatal. That proved too much for authorities to take, even in anything-goes Seattle. So on Wednesday they shut it down.


For the few weeks it existed, CHAZ was a source of intrigue for me. Here it was, a real life Temporary Autonomous Zone, exactly as Hakim Bey had predicted all those years ago in those weird books I plowed through at 1 am on the dorm roof. And this particular T.A.Z. wasn't all that far away, just a few hours north on I-5. But of course T.A.Z.s are by definition temporary, so my clock was ticking to get up there. 


After weeks of hemming and hawing, I finally managed to squeeze in a visit last Sunday, which was just under the wire as it turned out. A Seattle airport run provided the perfect opportunity. After dropping Zane off at Sea-Tac I hustled over to Capitol Hill, an old Bohemian/Hipster neighborhood propped on the eastern shoulder of downtown. I parked near Madison and Boren, and began walking with my cameras. 




But first a bit of background on Seattle. The entire city is growing like a cancer. I mean, I know it's like that everywhere. But Seattle is next level. Developers are in a mad rush to tear down the old shiny things and put up new shiny things. And Capitol Hill is no exception. The pace of development is maybe a little bit less frantic there than downtown, but still. It's enough to freak everyone out. Seattle's hopped up like an ant hill that just got peed on, digging new tunnels everywhere, and I suspect the general sense of disruption played a role in the creation of CHAZ.


By the time of my visit CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) was no longer CHAZ. It had been renamed CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest). Regardless of label it amounted to the same thing. A six block section of Seattle had been taken over by protestors during the BLM demonstrations in early June. The initial impetus was created by police evacuating their Capitol Hill satellite office. Protestors filled the vacuum immediately, then gradually expanded their territory to include a nearby park and surrounding neighborhood. 


Large concrete barricades in the streets marked the approximate boundaries of the autonomous zone. Their girth was impressive. Someone must've had some serious power equipment to put those things into place. Looking around at the forlorn squalor of the nearby tent villages, such motivation was hard to imagine. But the barriers were physical proof. Someone in the recent past had been energized.



That was weeks ago. But what did CHOP look like now? Take a tagged up subway car from 1970s New York, add an extra layer of graffiti for good measure, mix in one part rainbow gathering, one part BLM, one part Occupy, and a steady parade of gawking tourists (like yours truly) and you'd be in the ballpark. 


As in many U.S. cities (Eugene included), the words "BLACK LIVES MATTER" was painted in huge letters across one street (Pine, I think?). Seattle's version was prettier than most, painted in patterned colors rather than straight yellow. 



Taking these words as a cue, CHOP residents had gone on to paint things on other nearby surfaces. Pretty much all of them actually, by my unscientific count. Virtually every bare wall and street within a quarter mile radius was plastered with spray paint, murals, wheatpaste signs, and plywood placards. The opinions expressed ranged from general unease to outright ACAB fried bacon anti-police rebellion. Many of the businesses along Pike and Pine were boarded up. Tents were scattered along the sidewalk, clustered in small encampments. Someone had set up a kiosk near the mural selling BLACK LIVES MATTER T-shirts. There was a bubble machine. The vibe was friendly and peaceful.



CHOP was roughly centered around a large park covering a few blocks, half sports fields and half natural area. A large section of this area was taken up with various encampments. This is definitely the part I would've staked out had I been camping. I mean, who wants to sleep on pavement when trees and grass are nearby? But I don't know how it worked. Maybe there was some strange territorial arrangement about who got to stay where? First come first served, as in the pioneer days? (But without the imperialist pioneer statues.)

 


I made a rough circuit of the entire area, shooting occasional photos but mostly keeping my camera at bay. CHOP seemed almost a private space, like someone's back yard, so shooting photos felt sometimes invasive. Plus there were signs everywhere like this one:



Why are you photographing? Ack, I never know how to answer that question. But as a Non-Black photographer, I felt obligated to think about it. Was I photographing for personal gain or to help the movement? Hmm. I wasn't quite sure. Why was I photographing? Because it's there? For Art? Compulsion? Ack!


Another sign reminded me that, as a white person THIS ISN'T A FUCKING SUMMER CAMP. Good wake up call.



The why-are-you-photographing-summer-camp issue came up again when I saw this BLACK LIVES MATTER sign in a restaurant window. 



Combining it with SUM formed the type of visual pun that I really enjoy photographing. But hmmm. Should I take a photo that poked fun at such a grave matter? By now you know the answer. Hey, settle down. It's just a photo. I stand fully with the BLM cause. I mean, duh. But I'm still a humorist, and if I see a sign pairing like this I cannot resist. Privileged white dude, I know. Moving on...


Up on the back field, taggers had spray painted the reservoir cap with various messages. One said COPS NEED LSD. A pretty blunt statement, but one which I could get behind if the LSD were somehow applied methodically. You wouldn't just dose any cop willy nilly without asking. That's a recipe for crazy armed SWAT teams. But if some segment of the openminded ones could be teased out, then shown a more expansive thought process, well, who knows where it might lead? It's very hard to see anyone applying a knee to someone's neck post LSD-awareness. I mean, after you realize you're one with everything, you'd basically be choking yourself, right? So there's that.


But cops might be just a starting point. Once they were onboard, perhaps we could introduce LSD to congress or the court system? Or the CEO class? Or what about developers? Could we create a skyline inspired by Antoni Gaudi instead of Mies Van Der Boring? Just thinking out loud here. Or is that the voices in my head which are yelling out loud




I guess the main idea behind CHOP is self-governance. It's Don't Tread On Me, an outlook which is very American, and connects the back ends of libertarianism and peace loving flower power. Less regulation, less police, less societal oppression, more autonomy. The freedom to do what you want when you want. You might encounter the same prerogatives in backwoods Idaho or inner city Baltimore. And I think in each person's heart of hearts there's a part which desires this basic degree of liberty. When you think about it this way, is our nation really so divided, after all? 


Well, yes. Maybe. Don't answer that.


I could definitely sense a libertarian streak in the pickup basketball game which soon got going in one corner of the park. It was street ball with flashy moves, trash talk, not much passing, 3s jacked up every minute, and hard knocks D. This was every man for himself, and the players seemed to relish their independence. Bodies and sweat were flying. Nary a mask in sight. I thought of Jefferson: That government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves. But this game hewed closer to another code: no blood no foul


I watched for a little while, making mental comparisons to my middle aged white, gravity-laden pickup game at the Eugene Y (now suspended due to coronavirus). The Y game was definitely more team-oriented and structured. But the crew I was watching would steamroll any picayune Y team. So who's to say which strategy was best?


Near the basketball court was best sign I saw at CHOP:



On that note I eventually circled back to the main thoroughfare on Pine Street (BLM mural), where a sign declared that protesters would meet at 5 pm in the nearby baseball field every day for speeches and a march. It was 5 pm and I didn't see much activity. Were those people laying on the grass in centerfield waiting for a speech? Or just lounging in the sun? Hmmm, hard to say. I walked some more, came back in 15 minutes, and the scene was the same. No sign of any gathering, and looking out at the field of sunbathers and campsites it was hard to imagine anyone stirring into action. I gave the scene one more round, coming back around 5:30. Still nothing, so I ditched CHOP to walk Broadway, Pike, and downtown Seattle. The afternoon light was perfect, but very few pedestrians were out. 


Walking toward the bay from Capitol Hill I was reminded of another trip to Seattle back in 1999, when I'd parked in almost the same spot and walked downtown to photograph the WTO protests. I'd spent that day wandering the core in a state of disbelief as the protests grew larger and larger, and then finally tipped over into outright anarchy as dusk arrived. That evening Seattle become a citywide CHOP beyond the reach of any authority.



Before that point I thought I might enjoy anarchism as a societal structure. But walking Seattle's streets of chaos, tear gas, burning dumpsters, and leaders in full retreat convinced me that I was a wimp when it came to governance. And that was more than twenty years ago. I've grown even more mild lately in middle age. Just give me a simple government that works efficiently to keep order and collectivize infrastructure and I'm good, thanks. Maybe national health care too, while you're at it.


Three days after my visit CHOP was gone, erased in a pre-dawn raid. Where everyone went I don't know. I think the graffiti, photos, and memories will be harder to wash away.

Monday, June 8, 2020

14 Pictures & A Secret

For the latest round of Fourteen Pictures And A Secret just completed, I used small black notebooks for the main body. These are made by Borden and Riley. Each one holds 40 pages of 100 lb watercolor paper. I get mine from Jerry's Artarama but they're available online in a variety of places. 



The cover label usually peels off easily, although it can sometimes pull bits of the surface with it.



For the interior photos I use 5 x 7 RC darkroom prints, which I accumulate gradually over months of printing. These are test prints made on the way to my final versions. They are photos I like but for various reasons the prints are not quite perfect. Nevertheless they're good enough to be usable in books. Every 1000 prints or so, I take a stack of them...



...and winnow them down to 350 favorites, ditching photos with obvious marring or defects.  I then divide them into 25 piles of 14 pictures each. The groupings can follow all types of logic, but most often they follow none, and are intentionally sequenced as non sequiturs. The only general rule (broken a few times) is that no photograph is repeated in any book. 



Since the pages are slightly narrower than 5 x 7, I trim a bit from the sides to fit the book. 



I use a waterbased paste called Nori to cement the photos into the book. It's nontoxic, archival, and easy to clean up. Newspaper laid out under the whole project helps contain the mess.



I use a flat putty knife to spread a thin layer on the back of the photo (much thinner than shown here)...



Pressing the photo onto the page, I'm careful to align top, bottom, and right side flush with the edges. If it's off a bit, the photo can be adjusted slightly before the paste dries.



I learned the hard way that it's best for pasted photos to be pressed flat as they dry. Otherwise the page tends to curl from water absorption. Luckily I have the perfect tool for this, a large bronze B which my mom gave me long ago. I don't know exactly what it weighs but let's just say it's quite heavy. 



While one photo is being pressed I work on the next one, trimming, pasting, and prepping. If I feel a photo requires it, or even if not, I sometimes hand color accents using sharpies.



I space the pictures every few pages throughout the book until all fourteen are placed. Next I paste a colored envelope inside the back cover, following the same steps as the photos.  






Inside the envelope I place the titular secret. I'm not at liberty to reveal it here. But I will say it comes with a purple baby and some highlighter marks. 




I seal the secret inside the envelope. Then I press the entire book under the B where it dries flat for a few hours.



When the book is dry, I run through the whole thing to make sure no pages are stuck together. I remove the blanks, leaving a couple pages at the start and finish. The blanks make good scraps for grocery lists and daydreams. 



Next I handwrite the title page with blue fine point sharpie and yellow highlighter.



On one of the back pages I handwrite the colophon and stamp it with a red seal which means something in Chinese. I'm not sure what it says but it looks cool. Hopefully it doesn't say Pigfucker or something like that, which would be embarrassing. "1 of 25 such books pigfucker edited shot..." Yikes. But no, I'm pretty confident it doesn't.



Next comes the exterior. For the first two editions, I taped Instax photos with silver duct tape to form a cover. For this edition I switched to books with a heavier cover, and I thought I'd mix it up. I trimmed the borders off Instax prints.





Without the protection of the white border, the Instax print can be peeled into its constituent layers.



The Instax photo layers can be combined into collage, to which the pink layer can be added as a translucent overlay.





You can find more samples of these on my Instagram page.



Each book is unique. I've made 3 editions now of 25 books, 14 photos in each. That's 1050 images so far plus covers, and I've barely scratched the surface of my archive. I have a lot of theories on books which I won't go into here. But let's just say I'm partial to unique objects, and handwriting, and DIY, and that sort of thing. And these books scratch all those itches for me.

When I'm done enjoying a book I slip it into a clear pouch with the recipient's name, then ship it off to some far corner of the world. 



I like to imagine that collectively they form the components of a sprawling global museum. Only 8 billion more to go...

I guess my current plan is to keep making these every few months as I build up batches of darkroom prints. They're fun to make, and it's a good reuse of photos. I would like to leave behind a trail of 50,000 different photos tucked in 50,000 corners of the world, avoiding any style or connection between any of them. I'd like them to follow the old folktale about elephant parts and blind people. 

That's my ideal. But who knows, things may change. They always do.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Dogshit

I've been struggling in recent weeks to come up with a good metaphor for social interactions during the pandemic. I'm happy to report I've finally got one: dog shit. If everyone rubbed themselves in dog shit before heading out the door, public interactions would be roughly comparable to what I've experienced under coronavirus: pedestrians crossing the street to avoid me, turning their bodies away from me while passing, face coverings, gloves, no attempt at engagement whatsoever. 

Dog shit or coronavirus, it all amounts to the same thing: isolationism.


Amid the societal wreckage there is one small flicker of hope. My community darkroom in Portland has opened up again, so I've been making regular trips there the past few weeks to print. Before plunging into darkness I usually spend an hour walking around some part of Portland. These are photo outings primarily since I'm looking to make pictures. But I also view them as a quick temperature check. What's the lay of the land? How is Portland faring under the shutdown? The s
hort answer: not well.

My last walk a few days ago was around lower east Burnside between the bridge and Sandy. Before the pandemic this area might've been considered up and coming, or gentrifying, or vibrant, or maybe a more pejorative term depending on your degree of class consciousness. The area was in transition and still a bit gritty, but there were all sorts of interesting shops and people and a feeling of untapped potential in the air. The whiff of optimism? The future in action? Maybe that's why I always found it a good place to photograph. 


After 2 months of pandemic all the polish has worn off of lower Burnside. What's left is just grit. It's still rather interesting from a photographic point of view, maybe even more so. But from an urban studies perspective, I find the changes extremely depressing. The neighborhood has fallen off a cliff. Most stores are closed, many for good. Some are boarded up with plywood, and a lot of that plywood is defaced with graffiti. There are For Lease signs on many buildings. Not many pedestrians or street activity of any kind, and most people out in public seem
 to be living on the streets or down on their luck in some way. Anyone I got close to treated me like I'd rubbed myself in dog shit. Oy vey.

I've visited downtown Portland a few times recently and it isn't much better. Empty. Dead. The main difference between the core and east Burnside is the many small encampments which have sprung up along the sidewalks in old town. Summer weather is here, and there is a moratorium on disbanding the street camps. So parts of downtown have basically become tent cities. It looks like something out of a Dorothea Lange photo.




This description won't come as a surprise to anyone. We know it's bad out there. But I think it's worth eyewitnessing for those who've been sheltered-in-place or unable or unwilling for whatever reason to venture out. Fair warning, when you eventually come out of your bomb shelters, be prepared. Chances are your city is a wreck. Or your suburb or small town or wherever you live. 


Of course, for a lot of places this may not feel too different. For example, downtown Eugene has been hit just as hard as Portland. But it was mostly a ghost town even before the pandemic. So the change there is less noticeable. The same might be said for many other places, perhaps even most of them. If you live in the rust best, for example, or the northeast corridor, or any post-industrial region infected with urban blight the description above will sound familiar. Walk downtown in Springfield, Mass or Augusta, Maine or Detroit or Baltimore. The heart was sucked out of these places long ago. 


But Portland? Holy fuck. Three months ago Portland probably had the most vibrant mid-sized downtown in America. There were no chinks in the armor. I have walked every block in the city and never felt unsafe or weird or lost. Every part of it felt cared for. In just a few weeks, Zap! 
All of that has evaporated, replaced with dog shit. The contrast is dizzying. I'm sure it will recover eventually. But it will be a looooong road, and probably not a very enjoyable one. 

In the meantime, perhaps there's an upside. Artists thrive in low rent wastelands. The more down and out a place gets, the better it sets up for creativity. So maybe this pandemic is the financial bust that will allow Portland a rebirth. We'll see. For now the rapid decline is tough to watch, and I fear the downward cycle is only beginning. So maybe I'll just hole up in the darkroom a while...

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Q & A with Jonathan Sherman

Jonathan Sherman is a photographer based in Toronto. 



JS: I have no idea why it took this long but I finally have decoded your handle.

BA: It's a Serbian term describing a small squirrel native to that region. At least that's what Google tells me.

What a coincidence. It’s your name spelled backwards as well.

Oh wait, is it? HOLY CRAP!!!

Haha.

How's the pandemic in Toronto?

It is what it is I guess. Collectively we're handling it well. Flattening the curve as they say, but still it’s pushing forward and times are troubling. How’s Eugene?

Same as ever. It's a pretty quiet city in normal times. But even quieter now. How is the pandemic affecting your photo routine?

It’s affecting it significantly. I haven't left my house in about 6 weeks. No new pictures in that time. I’m excited to make more once things become less worrisome.

Is 6 weeks a big gap for you? 

Yes, quite a big gap actually. I typically make pictures on a regular basis. Whenever I feel like going outside. 





Do you ever shoot photos in your house? 

I have in the past but I haven’t had the urge to make any lately. I rely a lot on chance encounters and those just don’t happen at home often. The rest of my "photo routine" has stayed relatively consistent. I’m processing a lot of film and catching up on printmaking.

I think there's a certain level of raw familiarity which is tough to overcome at home. That said, chance moments are everywhere. Everywhere! Including home. So there is material if approached with the right mindset. But I think this pandemic is fucking with everyone's heads. Me included.

Yes definitely. I’m sort of treating this period like abstinence. 

Abstinence sounds too much like celibacy to me. Depressing! 

Hahaha.

If not at home where do you find most of your photos?

Very close to home actually. Mostly around my neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto. 

Have you traveled to other cities or countries to make photos? Or just Toronto?

I don’t travel much so the vast majority of my pictures are made in Toronto. However when I do travel I make it a priority to photograph as much as I can. Photography alone has never brought me anywhere. It’s always something like a destination wedding, visiting relatives or road trips for a deal on equipment that will provide me with opportunities to make pictures abroad. 

I don't know Toronto at all. I was there once for a day like 30 years ago. What is the west end of Toronto where you shoot? How would you describe that area?

The areas are very dense as well as culturally segregated. The side streets are all visually similar, up until lately it’s been all mid-century semidetached housing. Recently a lot of property has sold and new homes are popping up. The main streets are basically just strips of coffee shops and clothing boutiques. There are 5 coffee shops on my block and it’s not a particularly coffee driven neighbourhood. I wish I had something exciting to say about it but I don’t. Toronto is supposed to be the New York City of Canada but to me it’s fairly slow and unexciting.




The photos you currently have on Instagram. Were most of them shot in that neighborhood?

Oh yes, a stone’s throw from my apartment actually.

How long have you lived there?

I’ve lived in this area of Toronto for a little over 10 years.

Where are you from originally?

A small suburb of the city. About a 5 minute walk from the sign that welcomes you to Toronto actually. I got into skateboarding pretty young and would spend most of my free time coming downtown to skate and hang with friends. I was already well accustomed to downtown living before i made the move down here myself.

Skateboarding was a gateway into photography for some others like Matt Stuart and Ed Templeton. Do you there’s any overlap in the skillsets between skateboarding and photography?

It’s not uncommon for skateboarders to get hooked on other creative practices, but that could be anything from music, painting, sewing, wood working etc so long as its repetitive in nature. Photography is just one of them. 

How'd you first get into photography?

There is no romantic beginning to this story. I was pretty much just looking for something to do with my time. I had other creative pastimes but I lacked control over them. After a while I stopped enjoying the process and more or less quit. When I was in my teens I made skate videos with my friends and through that got accustomed the optics of the camera. At that time I didn’t have an interest in still photography. One day I just decided to give it a go. I’m not really sure what propelled the decision, but I did have an instinct that I could trust my eye or learn to develop it. It’s been a long and bumpy road. At the time I really underestimated how difficult it is to make a good picture. 

When was this? What year and what age?

This would’ve been around 2014 at age 25. I’m not sure what was driving me for the first year or so of making pictures to be honest. It was just something I thought I could try and was interested in learning. 

You said with other hobbies you were "lacking control". Do you think photography gives you a feeling of control?

To some degree, yes. But not complete control. I like pictures that are taken from real life moments and there is little control over those, but I feel comfortable behind the camera. It’s familiar and interesting to me. 




Do you generally interact with the people in your photos? Or how do you navigate the real-world relationships? 

I interact with them in the sense that I am photographing in a shared space, but other than that not so much. An odd thumbs up or a smile, but I typically keep to myself. I really enjoy the mathematics of it all.

What do you mean the mathematics?

Just the calculations for flash lighting relative to ambient light. It’s like a puzzle which I enjoy trying to solve on the fly as opportunities present themselves.  

That flash stuff can become heavy math if you get into it. I tend to let the camera do my thinking. But I'm only using simple on-camera flash. Your flash is like Zeus level! I can see it bounce off people 50 feet away. Not to get too much into gear talk but what's your basic setup?

Hahaha, well I have 5 different flash units which I use for different applications.

It's already getting mathy...

I’ve built a variety of diffusers for them for different types of situations. I even wear a white t-shirt so I can use myself as a giant reflector. The most powerful strobe I use can get f/4 exposure on 400 speed film over 500 ft away. It’s fun to experiment with the possibilities. 

So when walk out the door you're carrying 5 flash units?

I pick and choose depending on what I feel I might encounter. A slimmed down version is one camera and one thyristor flash like a Metz 40 mz or Sunpak auto 124. But when I feel I will need a lot more juice I use a battery pack powered studio light. The ones with a dish. Sometimes I leave the house with two cameras. It really all depends on how I’m feeling and how much weight I want on my shoulders.

How do you take something like that out in public without becoming a big distraction yourself?

Visibility helps in making my pictures. I think it helps a lot actually! Also my demeanor with the camera. I think I must be friendly looking or something. I seem to be accepted.

You mean you want to become a distraction?

In a perfect world I would be entirely invisible, but in the reality which I live, visibility seems to render me invisible. People notice me, I linger, then they no longer notice me. I’m not sure exactly how I manage this but I seem to be able to blend in to my surroundings.

How did you learn lighting? Did you teach yourself or did you have some training?

A lot of experimentation. Also many of the photographers whose work I look up to use flash lighting, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at their books with a critical eye.

Like who?

Tunbjork, Parr, Jokela, Reas. All of whom used color film, 6x7 format with press flash lighting. Sort of the staples for the genre of pictures I enjoy most - new color wave photography. Mostly Nordic and British documentary with a twist.  1984-2001 was the era for that stuff.

Do you know Michelle Groskopf’s photos? She’s from Toronto originally, shoots street portraits using powerful daylight flash. She’s in LA now.

I do know of her work actually. I’ve seen it on the Internet. I had no idea she was from toronto. I’m not particularly a fan of the pictures but I do respect her as a photographer. My window of interest is quite small. I tend to either dislike the work or obsess over it and not so much in between. 

What about Otto Snoek?

Give me a moment to Google Snoek 

No worries. 

Jesus Christ his pictures are intense. They don’t hit me exactly how I like it though. 




So you basically taught yourself photography, just guided loosely by what you found?

Yeah that’s fair to say. I’ve never had a formal lesson or training or anything.

Love it!

Photography is still just something to do with my time. I never know what to expect and I don’t put too much pressure on myself to produce, even though my life totally revolves around it in some way or another now.

I only just found you on Instagram a few months ago (hat tip to John Sypal). Were you sharing photos in some way before that platform? In shows, zines, prints, or anywhere?

I’ve had a few pictures in group shows over the years but nothing I’m particularly proud of. In the summer of 2016 I made a few zines but then sort of stopped putting my pictures out there to see. I also stopped using Instagram. I just spent my energy looking at books and trying to make new pictures without worrying about where they'd end up. I built my darkroom in 2017 and just sort of kept my photography to myself from then on. I only recently started using Instagram again as a platform to share pictures.

Wait, you built a color darkroom?

Yeah.

Congrats. I know how finicky those things are. I used rental color darkrooms for a brief period back when I was shooting color film (late 2000s). I was glad that someone else handled the chemicals. 

Haha, yeah they can be a bit much at times. Luckily I’ve rigged up a decent ventilation system and never had to deal with much open chemistry to begin with. I started with Jobo tanks and now I run an old Cibachrome RT processor which I modified to work at RA4 temp/speeds. It started quite small and bare but as equipment comes available it’s been able to blossom into a fairly productive workspace.

Is it just yours or do you share it? 

Its just mine! All from home. It has taken over my kitchen. I haven’t cooked anything but film and paper in that room in years. Now due to the pandemic I have a hotplate in my living room so I can cook from home again. Up until recently I had just been eating out. 

What else can you tell me a little about your photo lab?

It’s basically just a way for me to feed the beast so to speak. To keep me active behind the camera and a means of exploring the medium at a subsidized cost. I started processing film for friends of mine to have steady throughput and to keep my chemistry working strong. The word spread quickly and before I knew it I was receiving packages from all over the country. It’s been my full time job since 2017. I only really offer process and scan services though. I tend to keep the print aspect of my darkroom just for my pictures.  

Did you ever shoot digital, back when you were starting out? Or even now?

I used a digital camera for one night in 2016. i lost interest very quickly and made very bad pictures with it.  

Do you think your photos would look very different if you weren't using analog processes?

I would assume so but I wouldn’t know until I tried. To be honest the process is what has kept me going. I enjoy it and haven’t felt a need to change it. 

The darkroom process?

Yes definitely. I love print making. Developing the film is a bit of a bore but the rest of it is quite interesting. I enjoy the process of going through the contacts and blowing up what I think could be a winning frame and then playing with light to get the print just right. It’s such a rewarding feeling when it all works out.




Well I gotta say, you sent a print here and I had no idea what process you'd used. I kinda figured you'd outsourced it through a lab maybe. But I had no idea. I just knew it was a solid print.

Haha, thanks. I’m glad you enjoy it.

I'm a hardcore darkroom nerd too. But b/w, not color

I’ve only used one black and white roll in my 5-6 years making pictures.

I feel pretty competent in a b/w darkroom. I can get what I want usually. But the color darkroom was tough sledding for me. Very difficult to pinpoint colors and get the tonality the way I wanted. Maybe I just wasn't patient enough. 

I’ve never really had the need to use a b/w room personally. I had my first go at b/w printing in late 2018 I believe. I started with color making my first prints in my kitchen.

What do you usually listen to in the darkroom?

I went through a big Sonic Youth phase in there, but then it quickly shifted to my comfort music like ‘90s hip hop, disco and RnB. Lately a lot of Dusty Springfield and Shangrilas. It really depends on my mood and what I’m printing!

I wonder if music comes through in the prints somehow. For example if listening to Sonic Youth you’d make off-tone prints with colorcasts and light leaks or something? Prints made with hiphop would be more polished in appearance? I dunno. 

I usually have an idea on how I want to print something before I turn on the radio. 

If I need to do a lot of dodging/burning I can’t have music playing. I have to pay close attention to the metronome on the timer. Well, I do like all the references to "getting that paper" in 90's hip hop. Makes me laugh every time.

Do you find yourself listening to things in the darkroom which you'd never listen to outside it? I like to play a lot of reggae/ska in the darkroom. Which I almost never listen to outside it. Something about the backbeat helps with agitation maybe? I also tend to listen to more long, jammy stuff in there. Where I can just turn my brain off and vibrate.

That’s pretty funny. I don’t think the darkroom really dictates what music I play. I just like to have fun while I’m working so I typically listen to good time music. Side note - I’m not sure if you already do this but you can set your iPhone screen to emit only red light so its safe to use in a b/w room.

You know that the period of color analog film is winding down. In 5 years there will probably be few color darkrooms anywhere. Is that part of attraction for you, do you think?

It was dead here when I began actually. Since then two schools have sort of reopened their spaces. Ryerson university and OCADU. Sometimes I have to sneak into OCADU to use their automatic paper cutter. I use Kodak paper which only comes on by roll now so instead of cutting it by hand I cut my sheets there and lug all the boxes home. I try not to think about the future of analog photography to be honest. I just take things one day at a time and try and enjoy what I’m doing while I’m doing it.

Good pandemic advice.

Apparently the color rooms in New York were getting busy again before the pandemic.  A new one even popping up.

Let's step away from the analog thing a moment. What are you trying to express with your photos? 

Hmm, that’s sort of a multi faceted question.

I know, big question. Sorry.

I don’t know if there’s any one particular thing that I’m trying to express. The pictures are just the result of my desire to try and make an interesting picture at that moment in time. I think my main goal is to twist a narrative and I like to see if I can do it with the camera. It’s not so much an intellectual process at the time of exposure, but it is right beforehand when I have to crunch numbers.  

It seems like math equations and photographic seeing are pulling at two opposite corners of the mind. How do you balance both at the same time?

Photographing has become a way for me to escape my mind and my thoughts. when I’m out with my camera it feels like I’m drifting in space, quite surreal. The technical aspects have sort of become second nature now. I rely on instinct and lessons learned from past experiences, and since I use film, there is a huge margin for error so long as I err on the side of caution (over-exposure). 

I understand the motivation to tweak reality. I think that's pretty fundamental to a certain branch of photography. I'd probably put myself in that camp. But then the question it raises, what is the "fictional narrative" about? What is it trying to express? I'm just throwing out the question. I don't have a good answer, and I've been asking it for a while.

I think it may be self reflective. It’s not so much just creating fiction per se, but rather finding a form of truth in reality that is desirable to the person creating it first, or at least more desirable than what is offered simply by just being present.

Hmm, well what about a more direct version of reality. Like a straight Robert Adams photo of a cottonwood, for example? Wouldn't something like that be a more direct path to self-revelation? Or is there something about fiction, or about tweaking things, which gets more fundamentally at the self. For you, at least?

The latter is definitely the case for me. i’m less interested in a straight document or recording of a place or event. To me the power of the medium is in its ability to change, enhance or create anew. Like turning lemons into lemonade, so to speak. 

So maybe you're creating this photographic scenes? And on some level you want them to be real? To enter them and take part or something?

Well they are real of course but I view them from the perspective of a person with a camera who’s trying to making pictures, not as a participant. Maybe there is some longing for inclusion to some degree. I had never thought about that before. 

There's a recent photo you posted of some people near a house with a tree in the foreground very brightly lit. And some people are on the roof. what's going on in that one?

Oh. the one with the guy in the tree?

Yes.

That was a university's homecoming. I asked a friend who was going if I could come and make pictures. It was in a small town a few hours outside of Toronto. There is another picture on the feed from that morning as well.

The one with the light burst coming in upper left? Kids hopping a fence?




Yes that one. I wasn’t able to go back last year, and this year will likely be cancelled to some degree, but I’d like to return. I saw so many things that weekend that were unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it before. 

What was unbelievable? Can you elaborate?

Everything. I wasn’t prepared to witness what I had seen. I had never experienced anything like that with regular human eyes let alone photographer eyes. It was electric. There were thousands of kids climbing onto roofs of houses at sunrise, hundreds of them painted purple head to toe. Strange unique-to-this college traditions I had never heard of. At one point a group of maybe 50 students removed their leather varsity jackets and started whipping them in unison against the ground as if they were putting out an imaginary fire. For what reason I couldn’t tell you. 

What's your philosophy regarding Instagram? How do you decide what to post, and what/when to delete? 

For a long time I really disliked Instagram. I’ve lately been opening up to it. Every once in a while I will delete a picture if I feel it doesn't mesh well with the rest. 

Do photos there get the reaction you expect? 

I don’t really have any expectations for responses from others. That aspect has very little merit for me and I tend not to pay mind to it. 

Maybe that's why I was an IG skeptic too at first. But still I find the reactions  thought-provoking. They almost never conform to expectations. No matter how IG-savvy I feel I am they often surprise me.

I just like to make the pictures that I like so that aspect is entirely self serving. I can’t expect for people to like what I like since it’s such a specific taste. There isn’t much progressive photography on Instagram. It’s mostly just safe pictures. Books are really important for me.

I don't think Instagram reflects tastes that are much different than what you'd find outside of it. I mean, photography is no different than most creative arts. Generalized taste centers around the average, by definition. So Instagram is sanitized in that way, and also with the nudity and violence restrictions. 

I mean that sort of stuff definitely makes it onto Instagram anyway. I’d be remiss if I said I didn’t enjoy nudity, but the implication of it without showing it is much more interesting as photography. One of my favourite photography books is Larry Sultan’s The Valley. It gets away with showing almost everything without actually showing anything. It’s a masterpiece. Contrary to nudity, I don’t like violence in real life and so I certainly don’t want to see it in pictures. If you can make a picture feel violent without showing a violent act then that’s pretty cool.

You say books are important. Which ones? 

Everything Tunbjork put his stamp on. I Love Boras was the first book of his I found. I went to sleep with it the first night I had it in my possession. I had never seen anything like it and it completely opened me up to what was possible with this medium. I discovered him the day he passed, quite early in my attempt at making pictures.




That's weird. Pretty cosmic actually. Where did you come up with the name normalandboring?

Ha! Well there are no ties with that and my pictures. There was a female influencer-type whose name I forget now, but her bio section read "sporty and rich”. Normal and boring was just a spoof on that.

Oh wow, was she serious?

Very serious. Mostly selfies in expensive athletic gear.

Hmm, lack of self-awareness or ability to laugh at yourself. Not good. Very Trumpian. 

That’s Instagram for you.

All photos above © Jonathan Sherman