Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Transmitting data by nozzle

Photo history is a long litany of the lost and found. Reputations rise and fall; trends and tools come and go. A photographer might be the toast of the town for a time, then fall into oblivion a few short years later. William Mortensen, anyone? The opposite of Mortensen might be someone like Mike Disfarmer or Vivian Maier who bursts onto the scene from nowhere and is quickly integrated into the canon. Critical variance seems more the rule than the exception, and the pace of that variance has only increased of late as we plunge further into the end-times. 

Which brings me to David Freund. Coming of artistic age in the 1970s, his approach blended perfectly with the zeitgeist of the time: 35 mm handheld black and white photography, with a careful eye for serendipitous juxtapositions in the so-called "social landscape" (for want of a better term). As Freund describes the hunt: "I look to dance or jazz: engage the body, have good chops, pay attention, and aim for surprise. Such photography boils down to transmitting data as experience." 

The best known data transmitter is probably Lee Friedlander. But Freund and several others —including Henry Wessel, Burk Uzzle, Philip Perkis, and Gus Kayafas— found plenty of room in the 1970s to stake out their own territory. Each was a poet of sorts, mining the visuals koans tossed onto roadside shoulders. Put just about any scene in front of them and they'd compose the elements in-camera into a monochrome gem. For a short while in the 1970s —think Jonathan Green's Snapshot— this approach not only flourished but became dominant, the style du jour. When Mike Mandel's 1975 baseball card series included several shooters in this vein, he not only cemented their individual reputations, but the entire approach. A Leica loaded with Tri-X ruled the world!

Well, times change. Forty years later these shooters have mostly fallen off the map, and almost taken David Freund with them. Since the 1970s his work had become gradually harder to find. When I tried to research his work a few years ago the trail was faint indeed. There was not much in print or online, just a few grainy portfolios in old camera journals. A 2007 retrospective at Ramapo College (where he teaches) helped put him back in the public eye. But the big jolt was a chance meeting with Gerhard Steidl during a time Freund was contemplating a gas station project of photos made in the 1970s. As Freund describes it to me, "I put a page on it in his hand, and he responded. Lightning." 

It's the type of fairy tale breakthrough that never happens. Yet in Freund's case it did. In 2017, a few years after his chance encounter, Gas Stop was finally published by Steidl in a handsome four-volume set. 

This project can be viewed in any one of several ways, but one primary characteristic is its sheer profligacy. Any one of the volumes could be a nice monograph on its own. The combination of all four into a slipcased set —574 photos, 720 pages, weighing more than a gallon of gas— is massive indeed, and requires repeat visits to digest fully. Perhaps the colossal scope is a comment on the outsized importance of gas in American culture? Maybe not. In any case I spent about a week with it —longer than I've spent so far at the pump this year— browsing one book roughly every other day. By the end I hadn't yet grown tired of the photos. I was, well, pumped.

Freund made his gas stop photos between 1978-1981 traveling through forty-seven states. Each volume tackles one region of America. A cover graphic on each book charts the course of a gas needle as it moves from empty (south) quarter tank (east) to two thirds (west) to full (midwest). It's probably reading too much into the graphics to interpret them as a comment on regional favoritism. But let's do it anyway. My least favorite region politically speaking, the south, is dead last on the gas gauge. Coincidence? Who knows. But the south makes up for its political slant with a richness of vernacular material no other region can match. In the 70s-80s photo ops grew like kudzu down there. Maybe's it's still like that.

Within each book the photographic approach is similar. Most of the gas stations are in rural or suburban settings which tend to homogenize location. More importantly, Freund's keen vision dominates any regional specificity, so pinpointing locations is tricky without looking at the captions. I spent some time focused on this aspect, to see if I could identify a region from its gas stations alone. It seemed like it should've been easier than it was. 

But let's take a step back. Gas stations? Why gas stations? Gasoline was on everyone's mind in the 1970s. This was shortly after the OPEC crisis. Gas was king. Gas ran the world, perhaps more so than today. But even apart from that time period filling stations have been a locus for all sorts of photos and projects, from Frank to Shore to Soth to Ulrich to David Campany. So Freund wasn't the first to hit on them as a subject. But his effort is probably the most sustained and prodigious. 

To hear Freund describe his project's epiphany, "I became aware of gas stations as a locus for many elements that characterize America." Here are some American characteristics: advertising, chintz, autos, grit, wires. His photographs depict all these things and more but perhaps what identifies them as American is the generous sense of open space. The photos are as focused on the surroundings as the subject. Foreground and background contribute equally, both combining in that inimitable photographic way that typified the monochromatic 70s. 

Perhaps their most American trait is the sense of possibility left in the frame. Most of the images fall off along the top or side into an open patch of sky, vegetation, or new development. They exude a sense of optimism, as if one could wander into them and never hit the wall. Looking at Freund's photos peak oil, end-times, and other concerns fade like carrier marks into the margin.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Q & A with Ernesto Bazan

Ernesto Bazan, Photo: Francesco Pavia
Ernesto Bazan is a photographer based in New York City, and the author most recently of Before You Grow Up, a book of family photographs designed by Kevin Sweeney.

BA: Tell me about the process behind Before You Grow Up. Why this book and why now? It seems like a slight departure from your other books in that it's much more personal.

EB: The book was a naive idea that I had of documenting my kids' life since they were in their mom's womb. Then life made it much more complicated after my father's passing and leaving Cuba. I don't even know how I managed to photograph my mother standing by the coffin or the smoke of cremation the following day.

There is a page in the book about your dad. So his death helped motivate the book?

Not necessarily as a source of main inspiration, my own family was, but then in the midst of the making I realized that I couldn't leave my Sicilian family out. They are an intrinsic part of me and who I am both as a man and a photographer. I'd only say that it hasn't been an easy process and I'm so happy it came out and I have given copies to my kids, wife, mother and brothers! I took it off my chest and now I can concentrate on new projects leaving behind something that will always accompany my kids.

I like how the book comes full circle from your childhood through to your parenthood.

Yes, in the end as you saw it has a positive message and hope for my kids' future, but it's a sort of roller-coaster of everybody's life I guess.

I don't mean to sound morbid but it does have the general tone of a letter meant for after you pass away. Something for the kids to remember you by. But hopefully that's not for a while.

Yes, it could also be perceived this way whenever that moment will come, but at 58 I feel strong and full of life , and ready to take on new projects as they unfold in my life. The last page of the book in which I tell the story of my uncanny and unexpected return to Cuba is an affirmation of the beauty that life is!

What about your other photographic artifacts? What will happen to them? Your negatives and prints and equipment?

To be honest I never thought about this. Have you? Hopefully they all will be shared with a bigger audience.

It sounds like your father's passing reminded you of the life cycle and things left behind, etc.

My father's passing touched very raw chords within me and the presence of death has never left since he let us. The impermanent feeling of life that we often forget about, luckily, that things can change in a second. I'm an optimist overall, but I was deeply marked by that moment.

That's what photographers are for, right? To make moments permanent. Or give them that illusion.

Exactly. Yes.

You're an optimist. How important do you think optimism is for photographers? Can you find good photos if you don't expect to find them? Can a pessimist find good photos?

Like anybody, depending on the mood I find myself in, I can be the greatest optimist, other times you can fell blue. Actually when I first look at my contacts I always feel kind of sad as I wrote in the first book of my Cuban trilogy: 

“I look at my contact sheets. A feeling of utter depression seizes me. I sense a huge loss within me. And what’s worse is that there is nothing I can do about it. I want to cry the silence of the empty room. A reminder of how difficult it is to take a damned good picture. I can only accept the verdict as a sentenced prisoner.” 

I can only add that if I have a few good images after one of my workshop or trip I feel very delighted and grateful!

There's a part of the book where you say your father didn't like you being a photographer at first. Did he later change his mind?

In spite of them he was so generous with me and supported my studying at SVA here in NY. Later on he was happy to have a son that like him followed his path, his passion and not just a profession. On top of that he was happy to have had his only grandchildren who he loved so much and predicted that one of the them was going to follow his footsteps and become a doctor. We are four brothers and none followed that path.

What about your twins? What will they be?

If you look at the part devoted to my father, you can read the dedication he wrote to them on a medical book he had written. At the time, my kids were 13 and he already knew who was going to follow his footsteps. It's quite uncanny considering that we all forgot about the book, the dedication in it, and it was about to be tossed out by my wife and then it was rescued by the cleaning lady who took it out of a garbage trash bag.

Nice save! Why would you toss that out? By mistake?

Yes by mistake and the cleaning lady in Mexico without being told by anyone went and rescued it from total oblivion.

I remember that part about your dad. There's a photo of your sons watching a surgery. Did one or both of them go on to pursue medicine? 

Pietro my son like me has been dreaming of becoming a doctor when he was 10. I dreamed of becoming a photographer at 17. My wife dreamed that I could return to Cuba after so many years.

I don't know the full story there. Why did you leave Cuba and are you planning to move back?

I was forced out because of my workshops in 2006. Then exactly 10 years later I returned. I just go back sporadically whenever I feel like. I was persona non grata for 10 years in exile.

I don't understand. What did the workshops have to do with it?

Frankly not sure. I was a foreign correspondent and could take all the pictures I wanted but not teach. It was a blessing in disguise to give my Cuban family complete freedom.

So they booted you and your family. Terrible. You moved to Mexico. And now you have moved to New York? Is that correct?

Yes. I've been leaving in NY since 1979 but then I lived in Cuba on and off for 14 years. Then 9 years in Mexico and then back here. I'm printing in the darkroom. Still using film, still processing it myself.

Great. Me too!

Wonderful. So you know what it takes.

Why have you continued to use analog processes? What is it about film and darkroom work? Do you use digital equipment at all? 

Simply because I love the entire slow and long process. I love the quality that you get from film negatives, the fact that both film and contact sheets are tangible; they are journal pages of your existence. When you go back to them you can remember many details that your memory is slowly losing, you can smell and feel the moments long gone. And I also love to go back to my contacts because I can be surprised in finding images that had been totally neglected before for the simple reason that my intuitive eye with which I took each single image (good and bad) is always light years ahead of my editing eye, which needs years, at times, to recognize a good image that I intuitively took. The more I shoot, the more I do my books, the more I know that I need to return to all the proof sheets of that specific project and invariably something new pops up! With each single book of the Cuban trilogy I was able to find good images (which are now in each book) that had been unnoticed in the first selection viewing. 

I’ve been using a digital camera because it was given to me and wanted to see how it felt like to be shooting digitally. I’m using it for a specific project mixing digital with film images. I like that there is the same vision behind all of them, but quite a different look to the digital files.

I think that sense of analog commitment comes across in your book's design. It feels very organic like a scrapbook. 

Yes, definitely. I also wanted to give the reader that family photo album scrapbook look.

Plus all the handwriting. Maybe there is a connection between someone using analog photo processes and writing text in handwriting.

I'd say so.

Did your family help with the choice of photos and layout/design?

They all hated my drawings and then when the book finally came out they all loved them. I started drawing at the urging of my designer to make it more organized and move away from a perfectly designed book. I just did it because I felt I wanted to convey my feelings with different medias. I will use the lesson learned in future projects.

You wanted to move away from perfect design. Is there something photographically appealing about imperfection? 

I think my best images are about imperfection, oblique horizons, tilted angle, but they seem to work for me.

What is your next project?

It will be about the work I’ve done in Bahia, Brazil, my new Cuba as I like to say. I’ve been going there for over a decade and I’m beginning to finally understand the reason why I keep returning. Unlike my Cuban work, the Bahia work is definitely about the African diaspora, the incredible resiliency of these former slaves to find within themselves the strength to carry out their faith, customs and culture despite having arrived on the other side of the ocean as slaves. I find it very moving and inspiring. I must have been an African black man in some of my past lives. It’s no surprise that my life companion Sissy is Afro-cuban and our sons are the result of this special encounter between two apparently “different” races. We are all one!

All images above from Before You Grow Up© Ernesto Bazan

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A million pebbles in the driveway

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a young photographer to publish an eight pound book called "Monument". That's basically what Lee Friedlander did in 1976 with the first edition of The American Monument. If the title didn't get the message across, the mammoth size did. This was not  a mere collection of monuments, but a Monument —capital M!

Friedlander was a cheeky forty-two at the time, and beginning to loosen the reigns of his tightly packed documentary style to incorporate vegetation, open space, and reverie. As Szarkowski described it, the shift was "away from irony, from the glittering visual joke, and toward a more direct (and complex) description of subjects that he found important and beautiful." Eventually his subject matter would be expanded to include, well, everything. But in 1976, for his second photobook, Friedlander focused on monuments.

As luck would have it his social circle at the time intersected with Richard Benson, just coming into his own as world's premier photographic printer, and Leslie Katz, a high-end publisher. Together they formed a sort of Holy Trinity of photobook production. 

Katz's Eakins Press took its stylistic cues from the archaic world of its namesake, and The American Monument felt like something one might find in an antique shop. It had a thick cloth binding, with regal type and gold flourishes garnishing the cover. The tome was roughly 12 inches by 17, its wide pages (91 of them, with 213 photos) mounted on detachable screw posts to allow removal for display. They'd look beautiful framed on a wall—the duotone separations prepared by Benson were immaculate— but it's doubtful many owners took advantage. The book was just fine as is, thank you, and too precious to tinker with. An unadulterated copy now fetches roughly $2,000 on eBay. 

For book lovers with less disposable income there's good news. Eakins Press has just released a second edition of The American Monument. In most ways it is indistinguishable from the first. There's a slightly altered cover design and a new afterword by Peter Galassi. The paper stock is reported to be slightly different. But in other ways this is essentially the original 1976 edition now made available to a wider audience. Granted, at $150 it still ain't cheap. You gotta want it. But for those that do, the reprint brings it finally within reach.

As grand as the book is, its subject matter is not treated with the same reverence. After all this is Friedlander, the master of deadpan absurdity. Civic boosters looking to spotlight the grandeur of local monuments, listen up. Lee Friedlander is not the photographer you should hire. The American Monument shows scant spirit of pride or boosterism. As with most of his oeuvre, it's tough to read his personal feelings one way or another. Some of the photographs, for example Fireman's Memorial in New Jersey or Buffalo Bill Monument in Wyoming, seem openly celebratory. In others —perhaps the majority of photos in the book— the monuments are disregarded as so much visual filler. The well known photograph of Mechanics Monument in San Francisco tosses the eponymous statue to the side of the photo near an old truck and juxtaposed with a distant liquor store. Other frames leave the reader scrambling to find any semblance of a monument buried in the visual detritus. There's a certain Where's Waldo? quality, which is rewarded each time after sufficient searching.

Mechanic's Monument, San Francisco, California, 1972

There's no consistent formula, and that's the charm of Friedlander. It's the vital force which has allowed him to shoot such a variety of subjects over decades. Through it all he's remained astoundingly receptive to possibility. Each visual scene is approached anew. 

If this comes across in a book of monuments as moral ambivalence or even anti-Patriotism, I suspect he is not particularly bothered. "It's a generous medium, photography," he once famously said. Statues are merely one visual element in the American vista loaded with other information. Some views are more visually generous than others. Some less so. But it's not his job to worry about which is which. His task is merely to document everything in his own inimitable way: "A bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway…" Add monuments to the list.

Beyond receptiveness, Friedlander's other notable trait is his prolificacy. The American Monument was made during his 35 mm Leica years, a format which allowed him "to peck at the world" in great volume. He shot and printed thousands of photos for the project. They came from all parts of the U.S., though primarily east of the Mississippi where monuments and nationalism run thickest. In the end only 213 photo made it into the book. This may be a curtailed figure, yet it's still enormous by any general photobook standard. Some photos get their own spread. Most are forced into shared space with others. The book comes in waves, with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and sometimes 9 (!) photos at once on a page. The onslaught never lets up, a reflection of Friedlander's manic pace. In the time it took you to read this paragraph he just made four new photos somewhere.

As with any photos made decades ago, these images have an inherent historic quality. Many of the scenes depicted are now altered, removed, developed, or otherwise changed. The American Monument is a timepiece, each photo freezing a a slice of the past, and taken as a whole the book is a portrait of America at a certain point in time. Browsing the photos one is impressed with the mundane statuesque quality of old American memorials. Heroic figures abound with arms, guns, and flags pointed skyward. They seem dated, antediluvian even, made before the flood unleashed by Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial. As Peter Galassi points out in the afterword, the timestamp applies also to the format: "The book is an artifact of the analog age." Shot on film and printed in a darkroom, the project is a throwback.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania, 1974

The historical imperative has taken on some newfound urgency of late, as the United States enters a new era of monumental reconsideration, evaluation, and often, outright removal. All of the sudden monuments are a hot button issue. Who would've thought? Certainly not Friedlander in the 1970s. To him their inconspicuous nature was an attractant. 

They've now become politically charged (Geoff Dyer wrote articulately on this topic in his October review). Which ones to remove? Which ones remain? How to decide? Not that Friedlander's photos pass any judgement. In fact quite the opposite. "An act of high artistic patriotism," Szarkowski calls them, "an achievement that might help us reclaim that word from ideologues and expediters." For some of the photos recorded in this book, that achievement is the only trace extant. The American Monument's second edition will ensure they remain around a while. As sure as any monument.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


The current Stephen Shore retrospective at MoMA looks great, but unfortunately it's 3,000 miles away. So I've been making due with the show catalog, which is great. I can't think of too many other monographs organized alphabetically like an encyclopedia. Factory, Fashion, Food, Gallatin County, Montana...The topics come in a sort of ordered shuffle, perfect for a scrambled Gen Xer like myself. It's the same reason I alphabetize my socks. It rejuvenates a body of work which might feel too familiar if ordered chronologically.

Forget it.

Browsing the book sent me down a new rabbithole of Streetview sleuthing. As longtime readers know I went through a heavy period of Shore rephotography about ten years back before finally kicking the habit. Somehow this image escaped my re-photographic impulse during the first wave. 

El Paso St. is a great photo and one of Shore's streetiest images. In the new MoMA book a few important pictures are singled out for a lengthy critique by David Campany, and this is one of them: "A photograph that has been structured to feel like a world unto itself is, in a way, a negation of the cutting that is a fundamental aspect of the medium. Or, more accurately, it is a disavowal of it..." 

The review went on but I couldn't understand it. Something about cutting corners or disavowing that act. Who knows. I was curious how this corner is cut now so I tracked it down. The title gives away the street name and Mills St. is visible in the right side of the frame. Thus finding the intersection in Streetview was straightforward. Here's how it looks today from roughly the same vantage point.

Streetview can't visit the exact location, which is just behind the frame to the left. But this is approximate enough to get the general gist. If this view is any indication, El Paso is now far more boring and ugly than it was in 1975. But of course photos can lie, even when they have no author. Maybe especially then.

Depending on which version you have, there are only one to three Uncommon Places photos from my home state of Oregon. Shore shot them on consecutive days, July 20th and 21st, 1973, while traveling south on US 97 down the state's bulging gut. The best known is US 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

For the non-Oregonians the mountain depicted is Mt. Hood, Oregon's tallest point and one of the more iconic peaks in the west. But where exactly is that wasteland behind it? The photo's title US 97 offers a clue, but that's a long piece of highway. There's no exact address in the caption, not many features in the background, and a lot of central Oregon looks pretty similar. All of which I'd found daunting during my first rephotography plunge. But the new Shore book had given me a second wind. Streetview, start your engine.

The shading on the billboard scaffolding indicates that the photo looks north. This is odd since Shore was traveling south at the time. He must've pulled a Frances McDormand U-Turn at the weird sign. In any case the shadows eliminated half my search, since I didn't need to look south. Aiming north I started at the stateline and Streetviewed my way up 97 one mouseclick at a time until I found the spot. Bingo! It was about 10 miles up, halfway between California and Klamath Falls.

The billboard is long gone but the gate, fencing, and telephone poles are the same, as is the distant horizon. Looking at this photo I'm glad we have Shore's photo to enjoy instead of Streetview. The lighting and framing here leave a lot to be desired. But of course authored photos sometimes lie worse than the others.

Two up, two down. Next up was the most problematic image yet, Shore's Merced River, Yosemite Valley, August 13, 1979. 

I've written about this photo a few times on B, once using it as an example to test online color variation, and once about the print at my friend Bruce's home (he's since moved, nearly to El Paso, before settling in Mexico). Not only is it one of my favorite Shore photos it's one of my favorites by anyone. The view is ambiguous. It's hard to pick out any landmarks or direction. Unlike many Yosemite photos there's no drama, no magic. It's just a lonely beach somewhere in the valley. Maybe that equals magic. Or drama. Or maybe it just equals sunbathing. 

Fortunately Christian Storm had already done some of the Streetview legwork. His Virtually Common Tumblr showed Shore's scene in 2014, shot from a bridge over the Merced. This was helpful but still didn't pin down the view.

David Campany's analysis proved to be a red herring: "On the hazy horizon, he included Half Dome, perhaps as a nod to Adams, but to integrate the mountain into his own picture, Shore mirrored its distinctive profile with that of a tree at the extreme right of the frame." 

Hmmm. Anyone who spends a few seconds with this photo will see that Half Dome isn't in it. But I'm slow and it took me a while to conclude this. I thought at first that Half Dome might be hidden or faint, or strangely angled or obscured by clouds. The only way to view the Half Dome from the valley floor is from the west, but the shadows in the photo bent toward Shore. Odd. Who swims mountain streams in the morning? Once again Campany was no help: "Casting shadows like sundials," he wrote, "each person appears suspended in time." Fine, but what did those sundials say? 

It didn't add up, at least not until I widened my search process up to other valley landmarks. Within a few jpgs I knew exactly what I was looking at. This wasn't Half Dome. It was Cathedral Rocks viewed downriver from the east. Cathedral Rocks —Damn, I should know that cliff. I climbed the east buttress of Middle Cathedral in 1998. But alas that was an earlier version of me, a version so unrecognizable he'd never turn up now on Streetview. Campany: "Behind the boy in the water, up on the rocks, is a man." Um, not quite.

To be fair Campany got it half right. Shore's photo pays homage to Adams. But not to Monolith or any other famous Half Dome image. Instead it's this Adams photo: Cathedral Spires and Rocks, 1949

This is the unmistakable formation on the far right skyline of Shore's photo. Instead of relegating it to the horizon it's been singled out for a glorious sun bath, as was Adams' wont.

If Adams tended to romanticize Yosemite he couldn't help it. In fact he was continuing the tradition of those before him. Here's Alvin Langdon Coburn's photo of Cathedral Rocks from 1911: 

Here's how Edweard Muybridge shot them in 1872:

And Carleton Watkins before that in 1861: 

Yes, Cathedral Rocks have a place in photo history. These older views tend to isolate and lift the formation to lord over mundane surroundings. Not Shore. He vacuumed up the whole valley in one scene, rocks, people, beach, river, trees,...a goddamn stroller for crisake. It was the shuffle approach, then in its infancy but about to be ushered into vogue with Shore's help. 

Shore's intent with Merced River went beyond shuffle, and beyond mere documentation. Ever the true photo nerd, he was paying tribute to predecessors, four at once! Of this Campany caught a whiff but not the full story. 

There are few other photos in Uncommon Places (perhaps none?) which rephotograph famous vistas. This one holds a special place. It may be the centerpiece of the entire series, a tangent to the flyfishing quote. This scene is irresistible. I want to shuffle into the frame, strip off my clothes, and sunbathe on the shore, 3,000 miles from any worry.