Friday, February 29, 2008

Problem Solved!

In the 19th century, photographing a crowd was problematic. People moved. Emulsions were relatively insensitive and required long exposures. Pededstrians in photographs tended to look like some slow moving liquid.

Of course someone could've come up with this, but they didn't.

Can you imagine? Someone would've been burned at the stake for a stunt like that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Richard Bram: What Was He Thinking?

"As a general note, I rarely go out looking for anything specific other than always having a camera with me, and trying to keep aware of what's going on around me. Most of my photos are made while I am just passing through. I don't shoot many frames of any particular scene as there isn't time to make more than one or two when I see a potential something. I find that if I'm really working a scene, shooting lots of frames, there is rarely anything there when I look at the contact sheets. I'm an editor as much as a shooter. I do think when I shoot, but think hardest when I'm looking through the contacts and see what the final little rectangles look like."

"In September, 1996, I was in Germany as part of a Sister Cities' exchange program between Mainz and my then-home of Louisville, Kentucky. I'd been shooting on the streets of Mainz for a week. At the end of the art festival there was a competition followed by an awards ceremony. Drained from trying to follow lengthy speeches in German, I walked outside into the street for a bit of fresh air and immediately felt the emotional intensity, the heat of this couple gazing into each other's eyes, not kissing but clearly oblivious to all around them as I took a couple of frames. They and their gaze, noses touching, are in sharp focus - all else is softer, intensifying the feeling.

I took two frames, the first a bit farther away. Their eyes are open and there is no one else in the frame and it's nothing special. As I moved a bit closer a moment later, the other people moved into the picture and it took life. There was just enough time to take a similar frame in color. (At that time, I always carried two camera bodies - one color and the other black and white.) The color photo is far less satisfactory - the little girl in the center background is wearing a brightly-colored jacket of pink, purple, yellow and red and the eye goes immediately to her, although she isn't important to the visual narrative. As someone said 'In black-and-white you look at the faces; in color you look at the clothes.' "

"By March of 1998 I was living in London. Going home one afternoon, I went down onto the Underground platform at High Street Kensington station. Just up the platform I saw the man in the dark coat in front of a vodka poster and realized the possibilities. In exactly the right spot to make the photograph work was a group of three or four people who noticed the same thing. As I moved up to them quickly, one said 'Look at that - don't you wish that you had a camera?' I said 'I do have one and I have to stand right there! Please excuse me.' Bemused, they made room for me and there was time to make four frames before his train came and the angel vanished.

An interesting follow-up: In early 2001 I was asked to join Shortly after, we were featured in a series in The Independent newspaper here in London, and they ran this photograph. A couple of days later I received an e-mail from a man through the site asking me the circumstances of the photo and wondering if it might be him. His brother had seen the image and pointed it out. I replied and we had a pleasant phone call about it. I sent him a fine print and have not heard from him since, though this photograph has become one of my signature images. It is rare that one has the chance to encounter someone photographed in the ambience of street life, as most of my subjects don't know they have been photographed until after the exposure has been made, if at all."

"This photo is an exception to my opening remark. In early March 2003, I'd gone up to Oxford Street on the first pleasant day of the year to intentionally work the shoppers. (It must be said that I was badgered by Matt Stuart, David Gibson and Nick Turpin, all of whom were out shooting on Oxford Street that day.) I went through about three rolls of film in a couple of hours. We had joined up for a moment in front of Selfridge's and were sitting on a bench talking. As we sat, this lovely woman stopped in front of us and I made a frame. She then threw her head back, reveling in the warm Spring sun. I made two more; she lowered her head and went on her way. It was by far the best of the day, for the emotional moment as well as the visual elements of the shadows on the pavement and on the pilaster behind her."

"This is one of two frames from January 2003. It was that time of the mid-afternoon when nearly everyone gets a little drowsy and I was on my way into Canary Wharf. The first frame was of the young man on the seat snoozing, but wasn't really interesting. As I took it, though, I noticed the standing man yawn. Feeling very sleepy myself, I thought it might happen again, and had my camera ready when, as I'd hoped, he yawned again. I love this photo - it just says 'It's nap-time.'"

"While attending a friend's wedding in Montpellier, France, in April, 1996, I saw this Afghan hound padding by on a windy day. He stopped, looking back and waiting for his master. The way his hair was blowing in the wind made me laugh. I took one frame. He seemed put out that his dignity was diminished by the breeze. Even dogs have bad hair days.

Since Elliot Erwitt published his nearly-encyclopedic compendium "Dogs Dogs," it has been hard for anyone else to show a dog photograph. But the beasts are everywhere, in all sizes and shapes and hair-dos. If one is to photograph life, there will be dogs."

"Like the Angel, this one was a gift from the Gods. My wife and I were heading down the escalator at Bank Station to go to dinner. She saw the couple first and elbowed me. I had just enough time to focus and shoot one frame as the escalators quickly drew us together. Only later on the contact sheet did I really see the countdown posters on the wall that make the photograph rise above being just another photo of people kissing.

I began my photographic career in Louisville as a public relations photographer specializing in big public events. Placing an event sponsor's banners in the background of a shot made me aware of signs, posters and billboards behind the protagonists in a photo. When shooting for myself, I still notice these things and they often can make the photo. The hard part of this is that the poster must integrate into the narrative of the image and not be the subject itself. It is all too easy to descend into cliche, into a photograph that is just a 'one-liner.'"

"One evening in March 2004, after dropping off some film at Metro Imaging in Clerkenwell (I haven't hand-processed film in many years) I was walking back to the Tube through a back courtyard. This man hanging outside a window immediately caught my eye. Out of curiosity - what was he doing? Burgling or perhaps just fixing the window? - I got as close as I could and took 4 frames before he ducked back inside. I love the ambiguity as well as the way he nonchalantly stood on a tiny ledge outside of a window three floors off the ground. As I looked at the enlarged photo later I realized it was the latter - he was working on the windows as part of a renovation. But there is still a mystery to the photo, perhaps brought on by the darkness, by the scale of the streetlamp in the foreground or the converging verticals that makes it one of my favorites."

More of Richard's work can be seen here and here.

Eugene Grid Project

One of my alltime favorite photographic endeavors is the Portland Grid Project. This is a powerful project on a number of levels, but for me it appeals in an every-day personal way. There is only one rule: "Go into a certain part of the city and make photographs", with no restrictions or directions beyond that. Since this is what I'd be doing anyway, taking part in the project is a snap, and by providing a geographic focus and a guaranteed audience, the PGP offers even more incentive to go out and make photographs.

When I lived in Portland, I could cover pretty much an entire grid (roughly 2 square miles) in a month. By the end of each month I'd seen and at least contemplated photographing every publicly visible space in that grid. Now I no longer live in Portland but I am still part of the project. I visit the city in spurts, as a visitor, and these spurts do not allow time to cover an entire grid in a month. Instead, I need to pick and choose spots that seem interesting. Although this seems to be the strategy of most grid participants, it defeats part of the project's mission. By self-selecting "interesting" areas, I am subverting the PGP's premise that interesting things can be found anywhere.

So I'm beginning a grid project in Eugene. I've divided the metropolitan area into 58 grids, drawn them at random from a hat, and contacted a handful of local photographers to join me. Our first grid is F3.

At roughly one grid per month, the project should last about five years. I expect to cover each grid completely, so that after five years I will know every street in Eugene. What a great way to learn a city! Expect to see periodic grid photos appearing on this blog over that time.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Hmm. Judging by some of the comments to my last post, some readers may have misread my intentions. I meant not to praise image stabilization but to bury it. Since some of my favorite photographs involve camera shake, I thought it would fun to revisit them and consider how they might have been "improved" using modern technology. Thank God Capa did NOT have image stabilization technology or his photo would suck just as bad as that Hanks photo.

Image stabilization has its place. It is probably useful in many circumstances. The thing that bothers me about it is that it presupposes that accidents are always bad. In my view accidents are central to photography, just as they are central to any creative act. Eliminate accidents like the occasional shaken camera and you kill a lot of great photography. My guess is that each of the four photos I used as examples was to some extent an accident. The photographers may have had a rough sense of how they would turn out, but not exactly. Sometimes, one must have faith in the photo-gods.

I view this uncertainty as healthy. I view most contemporary art photography (magazine photography, I called it in the post) as built on certainty. I feel photography is threatened by this trend and I meant to draw ironic attention to it, but in such deadpan fashion that apparently my sarcasm was taken for earnestness. So, sorry for any confusion.

Most of the time camera shake does indeed result in a crappy photo. Once in a while it makes for a very special photo. When I go over my contacts I keep an eye out for the nicely shaken ones, which I collect in their own box. Several months ago I was invited into a group show and I decided to use the opportunity to showcase four camera shake "accidents":

Three cheers for accidnts!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Instability Happens

Image stabilization (IS) technology seems to be the photographic tool du jour. Most new lenses released nowadays come with built in stabilization technology, and many digital cameras have it built into the body. I'm a big fan of this technology. My only regret is that it wasn't developed earlier. For example, although I have always loved this photo of Capa's

the amount of camera shake bothers me. Granted, Capa was being shot at by Germans while attempting to establish beach cover at the time he took this. You can't really fault him for having jittery hands. If ever there was a perfect opportunity to use image stabilization technology that would've been it. Instead of the fuzzy dim image above he might've come up with something like this:

Now tell me honestly, which photo is more pleasing? Is a nice clear image of Tom Hanks easy on the eyes or not?

The great thing about image stabilization is that it simplifies photo taking. With IS, now anyone can take photos just like the ones in magazines. But image stabilization didn't just drop out of the sky. It is merely the latest in a long line of photographic tools designed to help everyone take the same high standard of photos. First there was automated metering, then automated flash and fill flash, then zoom lenses, autofocus, face recognition technology, and on and and on to our current ability to transfer any image onto a computer screen and manipulate it pixel by pixel. These were all nice developments, but without image stabilization they fell short. There was still a chance of someone like Nancy Rexroth shooting this photo

or, say, Sylvia Plachy forgetting her darned tripod again:

Not to mention Robert Frank:

Alas, poor Robert. What a shame you built your ouvre without proper technology. Aside from the obvious need for image stabilization, the photo above would benefit from fill flash and face recognition technology. Maybe a zoom lens would help. I'm thinking it should look more like this

You don't have to hang out at Sotheby's to know which is the more financially successful photograph.

We can now look back on these shaky old photos and see them for what they are, little glitches in the system. Imperfections. Fortunately with IS, everything at this point has been more or less corrected. Now making photographs is a uniform process, and all photographers can enjoy working together toward the same goal of shooting perfect magazine photos.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Man Walking Through Litter in the Right Shirt

I have to admit that Tod Papageorge's Passing Through Eden was somewhat of a disappointment for me. Knowing he'd worked with Winogrand and seeing snatches of his work here and there through the years, I'd expected his first book to show me the goods. But when I finally got a copy in my hands, it wasn't really what I was looking for. Passing Through Eden is more of a conceptual piece, with strong images separated by dull grey vegetation studies, more about the book than the photographs. All in all, I found it a bit sleepy.

With this is mind I was hesitant to have any expectations about American Sports, 1970. Yesterday the book arrived in the mail and all I can say is WOW! This is the book I'd been waiting for.

American Sports, 1970 was shot within the span of one year at and around American sporting events. Subtitled "Or, How I Spent the War in Vietnam", the book is meant to compare the destruction of war to the casual meaninglessness of sports rivalry. This may explain why Papageorge chose to wait 38 years before publishing the work until another time when sports are king at home while we are mired in wars abroad. For me, the contrast doesn't really add much to the photos. Yes, war is insanely horrible, and sports are silly in comparison. We knew that. So what?

Luckily the photos are strong enough to escape any political statement. After all, these are street photos and their strength should be in their zen meaninglessness. American Sports, 1970 contains some of the finest street work I have seen. It is hard to believe one person could take such a strong suite of images within the span of one year. Holy Fuck was that guy in a zone!

The obvious comparison for American Sports, 1970 is Public Relations, which Papageorge wrote the foreword to. If you don't like that book you probably won't like American Sports. For most of the images, Papageorge's work could easily pass for Winogrand's. For example, this Papageorge photo would fit in either book

As would this

What makes Papageorge similar to Winogrand, and what makes both of their work so beguiling and attractive to me, is their amazing ability to find subtle visual moments in crowded dynamic circumstances. I would classify both of them in the Cartier-Bresson tradition rather than Robert Frank. Rather than attempt to create a mood through photographs, they are searching out singular moments. Papageorge follows the HCB tradition, but with the twist that his decisive moments are wonderfully improper and understated. Papageorge is Coltrane to HCB's Beatles. (Frank is Dylan and Winogrand Miles Davis..)

As an aside here, let me lament the fading art of singular moment street photography. Quickly, of the photo shows you've seen in the past few months, how many have been of dynamic events? How many depended on seizing a moment that would disappear in the next second? And of those very few which might be described like that, how many depict groups of people? There may be a few people working like that today but very very few with the skill of Papageorge and Winogrand. To go into a crowd of people and come away with a coherent singular moment that surpassses that moment --that can provide meaning when stripped of the context of the moment-- approaches the impossible yet both of them did it consistently.

Of course many great street photographers have staked their reputations on doing exactly this. Plucking moments from crowds is the bread and butter of street photography, whether by Cartier-Bresson,

Tony Ray-Jones,

Leonard Freed,

Raghubir Singh,

or any other number of a long list of likely suspects. What make Papageorge different is that his logistics of exposure are so obtuse. With all of the photographers just mentioned, there is usually some central subject matter or visual form which is obviously the reason the person took the photo. Granted, the subject is elusive and often only visible in the final photo, and recording the image requires great skill. Yet afterward looking at the photo we generally have a rough sense of how the photo happened, what made the person aim his camera at something. With many of Papageorge's images I often see no reason for taking the photo, no specific event being depicted. Instead each image is a visual collection of small occurances and it's up to the viewer to decide which might be important. For example, at first glance this shot

might seem to be a photo of two sets of matching arms. Presumably that is what made Papageorge press the shutter. It isn't until examining the thing further that we notice a man sticking his tongue in his partner's face. The visual elements are so understated they almost seem accidental. I think this accidental/snapshot quality is why his photos --along with Winogrand's-- don't appeal to some. Because the motive isn't visually clear, it's presumed not to exist.

It's hard to imagine any of the four photographers above taking one of these shots

These images are as sloppy, ambiguous, and imperfect as reality. Reality isn't a guy frozen in air over a puddle. It's a man walking through litter in the right shirt.

I'm showing a lot of images here because, if you can't tell, I really like this book and am excited about the photos. It's the type of book that leaves me wanting more. Luckily on the Aperture site are three images not included in the book. I suspect they were in the mix until very late in the edit and were some of the final images cut, and the Aperture website hasn't yet caught up with reality. For those who can't get enough, here they are (sorry, only small versions available).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

White Water Cafe

Eugene has received more than its share of skyborn white water this winter. This shot is from Blue River, about 30 minutes east of town.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Loose washers

My Leica made it two months before following the path of all cameras and developing a problem. That's longer than some of my cameras have made it but not quite what I'd expected. The whole point of spending on a simple, mechanical, reliable camera is that there would be less potential problems.

Oh well. The good news is that I can fix the camera, at least for the time being, by carefully rewinding the rewind crank 20 times between rolls, after which it works fine. Seem Bizarre? A complete description is here.

Score another win for the internet. Without an online community of Leica users I would be SOL on this problem. If cameras had internet access, the word in the camera chat rooms would be "Watch out for that guy! Don't fall into his hands no matter what..."

Monday, February 11, 2008

Deliberate Grace

A few weeks ago I wrote about my dilemma photographing friends at a dinner party. I wanted to highlight one reader's response to that post, because I find it especially illuminating.

Joe says,

"Deliberate Grace! I think that's the secret....i think there is a certain grace in being deliberate in what you do, whether it's crossing the street or raising your camera, framing an image, collecting the image, bringing the camera back down to your side, and walking on to collect another image somewhere else, maybe only a footstep away.

i'm convinced people love deliberate people around them, maybe it resonates something that makes them think everything is ok....i really don't know, but i do know that you can deliberately collect an image of someone that is standing right in front of you without them taking offence, but even if you're standing across the road from them and you have even an ounce of anxious emotion inside of you, in the seconds that it takes for you to raise your camera the entire block of people will be looking at you as if you are about to mug them!

Personally i 'try' never to collect, and i 'do' never "provide-back" an image of a person that i would not feel proud to confess to if one day i came by chance to be playing pool with them in a pub. I always had this ethic, but it wasn't until i was in a local bar and this actually happened to me that i appreciated that this was actually my ethic. i think having an ethic can give you a feeling of entitlement to confidently collect images of public spaces."

Deliberate Grace! What a beautiful term, and yet another affirmation that good photography --street photography in particular-- depends more on mental state than environment. Sometimes you're in the right frame of mind and photos happen easily. But if you're feeling anxious or pessimistic, you can walk down the exact same street and miss everything. Thanks, Joe, for the insightful comment.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Recent cultural landscapes from Clearwater, Florida:

And Eugene, Oregon:

Friday, February 8, 2008

Outdated and entrenched

Because I have been away from home for much of the past few weeks, I've amassed a small horde of film cartridges awaiting development. I keep them on the hallway bookshelf above the reach of children. Every day I develop one four-cartridge tank, hang the film to dry and then sleeve it. This slow pace allows me to make steady progress but without it feeling like drudgery. I have developed as many as five tanks a day in the past, and believe me, at that point it begins to wear on you. But one tank a day is fine. At the rate I'm going, and assuming I still shoot one or two rolls per day, I have enough film to last several weeks.

Having a large pile of undeveloped film around is comforting. I feel less urgency to shoot. It's like I've built up a little cushion and can relax my pace a little. When I've run through all my development and have no rolls on the bookshelf, I feel empty. I feel like I really need to go shoot more immediately. When described in these terms, photography takes on the flavor of an addiction or obsession, which of course it is. This probably helps to explain why I shoot film instead of digital. it's not a rational choice, but more to fill a psychic void.

In my old house in Portland I developed film in the basement. It was gloomy, no windows. The only entertainment was a small radio. Our new house I use the downstairs bathroom, which is fairly bright and airy. The main difference is that above the rinsing sink is now a medicine cabinet with a mirror, and so while I develop I spend many minutes looking at myself. In the basement I could never do that. Now I have a chance to become very familiar with my face. I look in the mirror more than most teenagers. It's the perpetual self-portrait. Each time I look it's me but different. Sigh...yet another way photography encourages solipsistic behavior.

As I was preparing to cut and sleeve yesterday's negatives I got a shock. I opened a fresh pack of sleeves and somehow I'd ordered the wrong type from B&H. They were Savage top-loading sleeves. I've never heard of such a thing. Sliding in from the side was fine. Top-loading? It was cumbersome and insecure. If it ain't broke... Anyway I'd ordered them in 7 strips of 5 instead of my normal 7 of 6. This meant I would have to eliminate one or two frames from each roll. To find these frames I'd have to slowly sift through the roll before cutting the negs rather than afterward in the sheet. Throwing away one or two frames may not seem hard. At least half of every roll are obvious losers so there's usually lots to pick from. But for me it was torture. How could I throw frames away forever? Even losers? It took a while to cut those four rolls.

The fact that I'm a packrat is probably also why I save the little black end-rings from the cartridges. I have no idea what I'll do with them but they seem like they might be useful. A rattle? A necklace? Yard art? Game tokens? I just can't bear to throw them out. All that tin that went into them, the big mining operation, milled down to perfect circles, just to be tossed in a landfill? I have a cardboard box to collect them for whenever they might come in handy, the same type of box I keep my workprints in.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A flat spot photographed

I spent last weekend sharing a ski cabin with some friends from high school. I've known them for over twenty years, since before I was a photographer. The subject of high school yearbooks came up and I mentioned a photo from our yearbook that has grown in importance for me since I first saw it (click to see larger).

When I first saw the photo in 1987 I barely noticed it. It was just another group portrait in the yearbook's club section. I didn't know anyone in the farm club, and nothing made the photo stand out at the time. This is easy to track now because photos of things I noticed are adorned with goofy salutations in loopy handwriting.

But when I look at it 21 years later, the photo takes on new significance. It has transformed into a snapshot of the time and place I grew up. In one grainy moment it seems to capture the feeling of my hometown. Miranda, CA (I grew up 40 minutes west) lies in one of the most physically isolated regions in the contiguous U.S. My high school was 40 miles from any other, and it took an hour to drive to a stoplight. The background of the photo, the high school football field, was one of the few large flat spots in an extremely mountainous region.

The funny thing is that the geography of the place seems to come through in the photo. Even if I didn't describe it, you might be able to surmise what I've just written from looking at the people in the photo. These are not city people. A photo that can describe an entire region while showing virtually none of it is special.

But what really makes the photo work is its Disfarmeresque combination of carelessness and earnestness. You can imagine the photographer saying "Just stand over there a sec, ok kneel down in front, good...", then running off two or three shots as the girls try to get their sheep looking straight ahead. The blocking is off, weighted right. One of the boys is picking his nose, while another's face is completely obscured. Yet all of these "faults" actually help the photo work. They make it the quintessential small-town photo, so far from being art that it closely approaches it.

When I mentioned the photo last weekend no one remembered it and in fact if I weren't a photographer I wouldn't remember it either. Guessing which photos from today will be remembered in 21 years is largely a crapshoot.

This particular photo seems to support that idea that the more "artful" a photographer attempts to be --the more referential and self-conscious-- the more quickly it is forgotten, while photographers who record reality in less stylized documentary way eventually gain recognition. Some of the greatest photographers of all time --Watkins, Jackson, Atget, Disfarmer, etc-- didn't think of themselves as artists so much as documentary recorders. The recognition as art came later, as artlessness became arty.

In contrast, most of the photos I see in galleries today are done by people trying to make not necessarily photographs but art. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but the motivation for nearly all is to make art. I suspect that motivation will prove hollow in say 21 years or so.