Thursday, October 30, 2014

99 Cent

A recent Facebook posting alerted me to this Flickr page, where in 2004 a woman named Lyza Danger uploaded a photograph of a local supermarket (a Fred Meyer in Portland).

After posting to Flickr, Danger opened up the image rights to Creative Commons, leading to widespread circulation. The image has been copied and reused many times online, sometimes with permission and sometimes without, often in articles about overconsumption and the food industry. Since 2004 it has received 94,000 page views and hundreds of comments.

By her own admission, Danger's photo bears some resemblance to a well known photo by Andreas Gursky. For reference, here is the Gursky photo, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001). It's a two part photo but often represented by just one half.

There's a strong similarity but they're obviously separate photos. So far, so good. 

But then things get weird. Over the past decade the photos have become confused online and their identities intertwined. The Flickr comments give a flavor. The early ones accuse Danger of copying Gursky's style. Then there's a gradual shift. Recent comments accuse her not only of copying the style of but of applying her name to his photo. "This image IS an Andreas Gursky image," wrote Engelfoto a few days ago (since deleted). "Look him up on Google Images and you will see this exact image..." 

The problem is he's right. When you do a reverse Google Search for Danger's image, this is what turns up: 

But it gets worse. Gursky's 99 Cent is a very famous photo and has countless online references. But several of them are illustrated with Danger's photo instead of Gursky's. For example, this art photo profile which uses not only Danger's picture but also Gursky's right next to it, as if they were two versions of the same scene. Here's a nice little essay about Gursky's 99 Cent, illustrated with just one photo. But it's the wrong one. Here's a list of the most expensive photos in history, ranked by sale price. I'm guessing they meant to include Gursky's, not Danger's. But it's in another language so it's hard to say for sure. The title of this site is unintentionally ironic. It's called Art Intelligence. The short essay uses a lot of big fancy words. But unfortunately the most important element —the image— is wrong. Here's an extensive PDF about photo history in an unknown Asian language. Shouldn't historians know the right photo? Here's yet another site expressing astonishment at the Gursky sales price. I hear ya. Still, it's the wrong fucking photo. Presumably a site with the word Art in the title would be discerning in their image choice. But no. Not this one. Here's one touching on food distribution. I think they used the right image. Just wish they hadn't captioned it incorrectly by Gursky. Here's a site which answers the question of why 99 Cent  is considered a masterpiece. I'm assuming they meant to use Gursky's photo but they didn't.

OK, I could go on with more examples but you probably get the idea. The two photos have been out there for a decade together online. Gradually their histories have blurred and their DNA has mixed. If you don't have a clear image of Gursky's photo in mind it's easy to mix them up, especially during an online search. In another few decades maybe the blending will be complete.

Thank goodness there's still an original reference point. A simple search for Gursky 99 Cent turns up the correct image:

But wait a minute. That's not quite it. Or is it? Upon close examination it's slightly different from the Wikipedia 99 Cent linked above. It's not even the same as half of it. Are there multiple versions floating around? Maybe we should look in a book.

OK. But what about this other book?

It turns out there are two versions of 99 Cent. Gursky made the first one in 1999 and called it 99 Cent. In 2001 he revisited the image, modified it into a diptych and titled it 99 Cent II Diptichon. This is the one which sold at Sotheby's for $3 Million plus. I'm not sure how much the first one is worth. But they are distinct images.

Maybe you realized all of this, but until recently I'd been plodding along thinking there was just one 99 Cent. And the weird part is I don't even know which one it was. I've even seen the photo on the wall before shown as a massive C-Print at Pier 24 in San Francisco. But which one was it? In my memory it's lodged as something about grocery store racks with bright colors and a deep recessive background but nothing more distinctive. That's sort of what Lyza Danger's photo looks like. Can you blame people for confusing it?

And if Danger's photo has intertwined with Gursky's, the situation with the two Gursky's is even worse. They're inseparable. A search for Gursky 99 Cent II turns up more wrong images than right ones:

Here's a site that uses both photos, one on top of the other, both under the same caption, with no recognition they might be different. Even the 99 Cent Store history page gets them confused. It's a big fucking mess. 

Maybe this was Gursky's intention all along. By creating two very similar images of a generic setting he knew there would be confusion. Perhaps he intended to bring attention to the sheer malleability of the scene. Because although the raw material here depicts a a real place —the 99 Cent store in Hollywood— Gursky's process involves manipulation, blending, and trickery. He could digitally compose just about any scene he wants and call it 99 Cent. Or leave the photo completely unaltered and call it the same. To someone shelling out $3 Million for the photo it's the idea of 99 Cent that matters, not what's in it.

For me this photo behaves like an overplayed song on the radio, Yesterday or Tangled Up In Blue or something I've heard a thousand times. I know the song so well that when it comes on my brain shifts it to the background. I don't listen carefully because I think I know it. But do I?

And with 99 Cent it's the same. Until just this week I'd never looked very closely at it. And judging by Google Search results I'm not alone. Multiple versions have passed unnoticed with blended DNA, names, and visual reference points. 

The 99 Cent Store in Hollywood where Gursky shot his photo

Next time I'm in Hollywood I'm checking out the inside of that store. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Q & A With Art Paul Schlosser

Photo by Martin Saunders
Art Paul Schlosser is a street musician based in Madison, WI.

Where did you grow up? How did you become involved in music?

I grew up in Madison after we moved from the Chicago area. I got first interested in weird comedy songs by my dad's strange taste in both Allen Sherman and Tiny Tim. My mother continue to influence me by sharing with me other weird songs. My sisters Mary and Sue turned me on to the Beatles and Monkees and I liked the more novelty songs like I Want To Buy Me A Dog and Yellow Submarine. As a very young kid I liked to sing because music was everywhere around me but my sisters told me I didn’t have a good voice. But when I heard Mick Jagger sing I said to myself I could sing if he could. It wasn’t until I was in a theatrical group when I was older and encouraged to write lyrics that I decided to write songs. After my mother gave me a guitar for my 19th birthday I started to write songs. When I was 26 I became jobless and decided to try street performing after watching Allen Hill make money doing it.  

I Want To See Your Smile Perks
What sort of music do you enjoy listening to?

Novelty songs and Comedy songs like Weird Al or other strange stuff on YouTube. Or a lot of woman singers like the group Pomplamoose and Regina Spector 

Who are your primary creative influences? 

Allen Sherman, The Beatles, The Monkees, Bob Dylan, Tiny Tim, Hank Williams Sr, The Dr. Demento show and all the weird 45s and albums my mom used to play on her record player when I was a kid.

How prolific are you as a songwriter? How many songs have you written and how many do you normally write in a week?

Well, I can make up any song just on the spot. I have over 800 songs on Apple iTunes but I might have over a 1000 because not all my songs are on Apple iTunes. However, some of those are repeats like live versions of the same song or a slightly different version that I decided to record again. I can’t really say how many songs I write weekly because I don’t record all my doodles. Also I could get an idea for a song but may practice it for a while before I record it. I really have to have a recording session before I write down songs.

Have you ever written a song about photography?

I have written two. One is called Smile You’re On Kandid Kamera about the government spying on us and the other will be on my new CD called I Want To See Your Smile. That one is called I’m Taking MY Selfie.

What, if anything, does music have to do with photography?

Language. They are both a form of communicating. They say a picture paints a thousand words. Music also communicates. Music says things we may not  know how to say in words. 

Who are your favorite photographers?

Well I generally don’t like photography as much as paintings or drawings but in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on State Street here in Madison they are having an exhibit of Alec’s Soth’s America and I like some of the subjects he took. MMoCA's website has some photos by Alec Soth and tells you a lot more about him. 

Another photographer I like is a friend of mine David Hilgendorf who volunteers for Madison Street Pulse, a newspaper I write for. Madison Street Pulse is a paper that helps the homeless make money here in Madison. You can see some of David’s photos on their website.

Why were you drawn to Alec Soth's photographs? What did you like about them specifically?

Well, what happened was MMoCA had a poster outside with one of the weird photos that Alec took so I was curious to see what the other pictures looked like. When I got up there and saw all the interesting photos I wasn't disappointed. I like the fact that he took photos of odd subjects like a Pastor’s wife with a picture of a cloud that looked like an angel, theaters in Texas, pictures of what he ate, and sport drink cans … 

Bonnie (with a photograph of an Angel), Port Gibson, Mississippi, 2000, Alec Soth

What other sorts of photographs do you enjoy? 

Usually I like odd subjects and Black N White Photos of people. Or if I don’t know what something is I might type it in Google and look at the images of it. 

Why black and white photos? Why not color?

Not just any Black N White Photos but Black N White Photos of people, especially blues musicians. But I like color photos too.

Have you seen it yet?

I went to it and like some of it and think it was a pretty good show because it was an eclectic mix of styles and it has been said variety is the spice of life.

What was your favorite photo in the show? 

I guess I kind of like the photos of the lady in the wedding gown stuffing cake into the different mens' faces because the men were all different and you wondered if one was her husband or was she just serving cake to everyone and which one was her husband.

Do you take photographs? If so, of what?

Pink Pants, 2014, Art Paul Schlosser

I like to take pictures of my artwork to sell to fans. And Selfies so people can see my weird clothes I find. You can see them in my photo section on Facebook.

I like your photos of artwork. But I'm wondering if you ever take photos of other objects, to have the photo itself be a piece of art. Like Alec Soth photographing a Pastor's wife or something.

I guess that is why I paint. It is easier for me to make a painting look different than real life and it is harder for me to make a photo be real art and not be what I am taking, or is what I am taking art? I mean the line between a photo of something as art or just a photo of something is thinner than the line between just a portrait and an artist painting an artist expression. So I don’t, but I did try it once and I found it not to be my forte.

Do you consider yourself an outsider artist?

Well, if I say yes then according to outsider artist opinion I’m not. I guess what I consider myself is a singer songwriter who likes to write in many different styles including humor, gospel, protest, rap, and children's songs. I just happen to sound really weird the way I sing and the strange subjects I think of to sing about. Hey, but what do you think

Who do you consider the audience for your work?  Does art require an audience? Or does it mostly exist to satisfy the artist? 

I think the artist is also the audience. When I create I find I am usually entertained by what I am creating. My audience is anyone that is open to see what I have to share, plus myself.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


On the way to visit my parents last weekend I made a quick photo stop in Eureka to rephotograph the Shore/McDonough restaurant. It's now called Kristina's. Here's how it looked October 18th, 2014.

This is taken from the same vantage as Shore's forty years earlier:

I now know why Shore picked that spot. It's from the second floor landing of an adjacent motel, the only accessible high point around. Maybe he stayed there the night before. The motel is still there so I walked up and shot the scene. But my rephotograph was from memory so the framing is slightly off.

There isn't much special about my photo. Everything has changed since 1974 except the parking lot, but it still remains a dumb recording of a mundane place. Maybe it would've been more interesting with bird shit across the lens. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Soft-Sell Conclusion

Bruce Hall is an intimidating physical presence. He's about six three with a thick build and a trim goatee on the business end of his chin, and when he has a camera in his hands he feels free license to get in your face. There is a bit of Texas swagger about him supplemented with beach bluster from years of living and surfing in Southern California. It's my wave, Buddy. Back off. It goes without saying that the guys without that swagger don't get many rides.

Such an attitude can lead to friction when shooting photos. One person's wave might be considered another person's face. Or kids. Or privates. Did you shoot me just now? Yeah, and what are you gonna do about it? I've photographed alongside Bruce many times and I've seen squabbles arise. Actually it happens just about every time we go out. In some ways Bruce is just a fight waiting to happen.

So how is that he makes photographs of such extraordinary sensitivity? One look at the photographs in this book and it's clear they aren't made by a raging bull. They're made by a butterfly. Don't mind me, says the camera, just floating through. And oh yes, nailing it. Time after time he's in the right spot, paying attention to the right thing. Friction? Did I say friction? These pictures have as much friction as maple syrup. They look downright inevitable.

So that's the paradox of Bruce Hall. He's both a surf punk and wallflower. But how? What's the secret? Simple. Bruce went native. Living in Los Angeles for a decade, he became finely tuned to its rhythms. He learned the light and the characters and the plot, he could guess who would likely be where, when, and how. He became a regular fixture downtown, the big guy with the camera. 

Many of these photos were made on Broadway in downtown LA. In the 1980s it was a ramshackle artery of vendors, grit, marquees, and hopes in limbo. I'm guessing that what attracted Bruce is that there was no gloss, no false veneer. In the center of a city built on image, Broadway was just…well, Broadway. It lay there naked. No layers to undress. For a photographer that was appealing. The Promised Land. So Broadway and the nearby streets became his stomping grounds. And throughout the eighties the photos in this book accumulated. 

Normally photographs from 30 years ago would serve as a timepiece. They'd show a past world that had since changed and we could compare then and now. The irony with this work is that Broadway has changed very little since the 1980s. You can go there today and see pretty much what Bruce saw. The Promised Land? Visiting Broadway today, that phrase seems less societal pact than declaration of unfullfillment. Yes, fashions have shifted, and cars, and a few other cursory traits. But the infrastructure of Broadway is largely intact. More importantly, the mood is the same. It's a place that feels bypassed. It's a place that feels like it will always exist in black and white.  

The same might be said of street photography itself. It may still have some adherents, but it's a genre that has largely been bypassed by other photographic currents. The idea of just walking downtown with no plan, looking for moments —the core of this book— would be considered passé if practiced today. So perhaps this book belongs in the past, along with Frank and Model and Faurer and all the other tough, sensitive souls capturing shit that will never ever happen again, will never be recorded with such gut-wrenching fidelity, and that no one could ever imagine if they hadn't shown us. 

Because, Dude. Once you surf that wave it's gone.

—from my afterward to Promised Land, a new MagCloud publication by Blue Sky Books featuring photographs of 1980s Los Angeles by M. Bruce Hall. Preview/Order here