Saturday, December 15, 2007

Procession as Production

Photographing the grid usually makes me nervous. The neighborhoods are often places that I don't know very well, so I feel somewhat like a foreign traveler. What are the customs in these parts? The project is by nature invasive. I am constantly sizing up people's yards and private dwellings, and when things looks right I point a camera in their direction. I often imagine that someone is in the home I'm photographing, or behind me in a home across the street, wondering what in the world is that person doing with a camera and why are they acting so sneaky and come to think of it he looks half Communist. The situation has some tension, which is part of why it is fun.But photographing in the grid on Thursday there was no tension at all. It was my old hood and I felt more relaxed than I had in a long time. Walking the residential area between Ankeny and Pine, I shot yards and cars and porches without a care in the world. I walked up into several driveways and peeked over fences and anyone that walked by I asked for a portrait. It was really on a roll, seeing things everywhere, in the type of zone that makes photography really enjoyable. Of course I haven't seen the film yet. It could turn out that I captured nothing worthwhile the whole day, but maybe that's the whole point. For at least a few hours Thursday it was as much about process as product.

After I'd used all the day's light I made my way to the park blocks. After a cursory trip through the Michael Kenna show at Hartman (his photos looked about like you'd expect them to look. Nothing more, nothing less) I made my way to Blue Sky. Zelman's Isolated Gesture project is somewhat similar to my guerrilla portraits but closer, braver, and more carefully tuned to minutiae. He walks up to people with a wide angle lens and from about 3 feet away flashes them to freeze interesting gestures. The effect is somewhere between Mark Cohen and Bruce Gilden. Since the subjects are unprepared, their gestures show a beautiful purity. The prints are old school black and white fiber, printed from 35 mm film, the sort that you don't see much in galleries anymore. All in all, a great show.

I think the most impressive thing about these photographs is that they were so meaningless. Maybe meaningless is the wrong word, but you could tell they were taken out of love of photography and without some ulterior motive beyond an interest in human form. No social drama, no deep canyon to stand in awe of or oppressed tribe to feel guilty about, just pure photography for its own sake. In today's world such photography is rare and becoming rarer. At Blue Sky especially it is unusual to see this type of work. Most of what they show requires backstory.

Looking at at the show I formed an impression of Zelman. He was probably in his 60s, a longtime street shooter buried in obscurity but quietly collecting these private moments which after years of toil could now have their moment in the sun. But reading his artist bio turned all of that on its head. Not only was he young --just 35-- he was a commercial photographer with a slick website. He did fashion, editorial, advertising, album covers, the stuff that is all about product instead of process. He wasn't obscure. He was in the mix. He was in today's world after all.


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