Saturday, January 31, 2009


If you think the universe is a stable place, just look closely at negatives shot at 1/15th of a second handheld. The whole thing is in flux! Every single second there are countless shifts. Nothing is stationary.

Life is a blur. Get used to it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

National photographic identity

My involvement with In-Public, burnished by my recent brush with HCSP, has reinforced the sense that there are a lot of street photographers in the UK. Surely Great Britain must be the current center for street photography. I'm not sure why that is, but for me it raises the larger issue of national styles. Can specific countries and/or cultures be identified with certain types of photography?

One thinks immediately of Japan. A lot of what I've seen from that country seems to follow the Daido Moriyama pattern of grainy, b/w high contrast snapshots. Eikoh Hosoe, Nobuyoshi Araki, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Shomei Tomatsu, and Kikuji Kiwada are just a few that come to mind. I don't mean to brand the entire country in this style. Obviously there is a variety of work being done there, but when you think tortured Tri-x don't you think of Japan?

Daido Moriyama

Germany is another country with a clear photographic identity, thanks partly to the influence of the Bechers but also apparent in the pre-war work of Sander, Renger-Patzsch, and Blossfeldt. The German approach seems to dry, scientific, and thorough. The written equivalent of a German photo might be an encyclopedia entry laying out just the facts in the clearest manner possible. Gursky and Struth are probably the prime examples. Again I don't mean to stereotype every photographer in the country but I do think some German photography reflects a national sentiment.

Times Square, 1997, Andreas Gursky

French photography shows a strong streak of romanticized perfection. A kissing couple perfectly under an arch at dusk, something along those lines. Doisneau is probably the exemplar, but also Ronis, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Riboud, etc. These are all masters of composition, mood, and the moment, and together they've forged a 20th century French style closely associated with those characteristics.

Lovers of the Bastille, 1957, Willy Ronis

The mention of Brassai brings up Hungary, where he was born (he moved to France at age 3) along with a slew of other prominent photographers: Kertesz, Munkacsi, Moholy-Nagy, the Capas, Plachy. What do these photographers have in common other than relentless sense of exploration? Don't ask me. I just think it's curious that a relatively small country has produced so many strong photographers. What's in the water over there?

A Floating Screening, August 29th, 2005, Sylvia Plachy

So what about America? As with many facets of my country, its photography scene is a melting pot of styles from which it's difficult to extract any dominant strain. That said, I think the f/64 style has had a prominent run that continues to this day. You know the style. Adams, Weston, Sexton, Caponigro, etc. You find some formally interesting slice of nature, previsualize it in all its majestic perfection, then capture it in the clearest way using a view camera (or the latest-release maximum-pixel digital SLR). This style seems to attract many American photographers who aren't really sure what else to shoot. It is definitely the default mode for the average coffee-shop wall art. If they'd learned photography in Japan they might be aiming at commuters on a train. Here they follow f/64.

Even American photographers who don't follow this style, and there are many, I think are influenced by it. The unexplored Western Frontier and our collective sense of manifest destiny show up in the open spaces of O'Sullivan, Watkins, Jackson on up through the New Topographics to today. Exploration is prized. Nature is glorified so long as it can be compartmentalized, which suits photography just fine.

As you can see these are incomplete thoughts, less of a scientific analysis than back-of-the-napkin musings. All of the examples above are stereotypes for which there are many counterexamples. But I think the question is worth considering. Do some countries have a national photographic style and to what extent does it effect each of us? I'd be curious to hear comments from folks in the countries I mentioned or from other places. How do you think your national heritage has effected your photography? Or maybe you think I'm full of it and the question is silly. Either way please let me know.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The originals

Congrats to Paul Russell who finalized the solution to Tuesday's puzzle with help from Derek and the crew at HCSP, where the drawing game has taken on a a life of its own.

For comparison's sake, here are the photographs on which the quiz drawings were based:

1. The Steerage, 1907, Alfred Stieglitz

2. Family, Texas, 1938, Dorothea Lange

3. Sumner, Mississippi, Casssidy Bayou in background, c. 1970, William Eggleston

4. Blast Furnace Heads, The Bechers, 1988
(this is not the drawn image but it was the closest I could find. Hey, a typology is a typology, right?)

5. Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson

6. Trixie on the Cot, NYC, 1979, Nan Goldin

7. The Clay Mill, c. 1886, Peter Henry Emerson

8. Bed, Tenant Farm House, 1935, Walker Evans

9. Country Doctor, 1948, W. Eugene Smith

10. Mark Stevens, 1976, Robert Mapplethorpe

11. San Francisco, 1964, Garry Winogrand

12. Cabbage Leaf, 1931, Edward Weston

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Quiz #8

I just got a copy of Charles Woodard's delightful little handbook The History of Photography in Pen and Ink. The drawings are very primitive, about the equivalent of what my kids can do. But as with children's illustrations, this deliberately skeletal approach manages to attack the essence of each image. Some of the drawings are quite obvious, for example this Strand image:

Others are far more ambiguous. When I saw the drawing below I thought for sure I was looking at the oven in Eggleston's Guide (at right). It's actually a drawing of Ed Ruscha's Hollywood Bowl, 1967.

So here's the game. Your mission should you choose to accept it is to identify the twelve photographs drawn below. These are all well known photos and they will be familiar to most photographers. The first person to correctly identify all twelve wins a very gently used copy of Camille Seaman's 2008 monograph The Last Iceberg. Please do NOT enter the contest if you have access to the Woodard book, since that wouldn't really be fair now would it? To start you out, the clue for one of them can be found somewhere in this post. Good luck.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Release imminent

Through a friend who teaches there, I've arranged to use University of Oregon's color darkroom this term for a nominal fee. I'm stoked! Finally I can start clearing out my backlog of color negatives from the past two years. I've made scans and looked at them on the monitor and made inkjet prints, but for the vast majority of my negatives I've never had a chance to make an honest C-print. I made a few yesterday and it again reminded me how beautiful that process is. The prints really sing. After two years of color constipation it will feel good to unload. In order to celebrate, I will be regularly giving away C-prints on the blog, starting with image below. The first person to contact me gets a signed 8 x 10 C-print on Fuji glossy.

Yard Sale, October 2008

Sunday, January 25, 2009

What To Do? #12

34. Arcata, 2008

35. Portland, 2006

36. Eugene, 2008

(What To Do? is a weekly installment of previously unpublished b/w photos from my archives)

And now here it is, your moment of Zen...

By Syndey Harris, Published in The New Yorker, 11/11/91

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Quality Pictures

I was sad to see Portland's Quality Pictures go belly up last week, and quickly too. According to Alexis Pike who had photographs in the most recent show artists were asked to pick up their work just a few days before the locks were changed.

QP covered a part of the photography world that the city had been missing and it's hard to see how that void will be filled. If Blue Sky focuses on "emerging" photographers and Hartman on established vintage prints, nearby QP had the Los Angeles angle, treating art as an inscrutably precious commodity sold for thousands in white walled backrooms. Every time I walked in I felt like I'd been transplanted to some undisclosed cutting edge location. Was I still in Portland? QP wasn't necessarily concerned with photographs as much as with Photography capital P, subsection of Art capital A.

Last fall I heard gallery director Erik Schneider lecture on the dynamics of selling photography. It basically confirmed my suspicion that the art world is a confidence game. Prices and publicity are not necessarily a function of quality but of buzz. The more buzz someone has, the more they can charge for a photo. How someone gets buzz is anyone's guess, although hard work and luck are not insignificant components.

The graphic below shows one of the lecture handouts. Everyone gets a ranking based on age and promise. The market determines the rest. I think anyone who hopes to get rich from photography will find the graphic useful. For the rest of us it's still amusing.

From what I can tell Schneider saw his job as generating buzz and feeding off of it. He wanted to bring to Portland people who'd made a name for themselves while helping Portland photographers work their way up the ladder. Although Hartman and Blue Sky are both adequate for these purposes, I don't think it's their primary motive the way it was for QP.

In its brief 2-year run QP showed a pretty amazing array of, well, quality pictures. David Hilliard, Oliver Boberg, Roger Ballen, Vic Muniz, Brian Ulrich, Jason Fulford, Chris Verene, etc. These are photographers you usually see in magazines or online. To nose up to real prints on the wall was a treat. But alas, in order to keep showing artwork like that there needs to be someone out there buying them, and at $5000 or $10,000 a pop that market is limited. In the end the whole setup proved to be just one global financial meltdown from financial meltdown. R.I.P. QP.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


This interview is great. Thanks, Bryan, for the link.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bumper sticker

I took this photograph in North Portland in May, 2007. At that point Barack Obama was barely a blip on the radar and the idea that he might become president was unthinkable. This was the first time I'd ever seen this bumper sticker (I've since encountered it many times), and it instantly resonated with me. Its power was that it didn't refer to any person, just the date. The sticker didn't care who took over (although I'm glad it's Obama), only that on that date someone, anyone, would wake us from our national nightmare. At that point 1-20-09 seemed so far away it would never get here. I've been waiting for it like a kid counting down days to Christmas. Today eight years of tyrannical incompetence has finally been put behind us.

Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK Jr. on photography...

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that."

-Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength To Love, 1963

...and photography on MLK Jr.

Dr. King shortly after his bus boycott arrest
Alabama Police Mugshot, February 22, 1956

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What To Do? #11

31. Yahtzee, 2008

32. Rovente Pizza, Portland, 2006

33. Portrait of Pirkle, 2004

(What To Do? is a weekly installment of previously unpublished b/w photos from my archives)

Now circulating

James Carroll is a NYC street photographer who recently came to my attention through In-Public. He's been shooting for over 40 years. He's a friend of Helen Levitt. Beyond that I don't know much about him, and in that respect I'm not alone. His work has not seen much circulation. Here are a few of his images that caught my eye. I suspect there is an apartment full of others where these came from.