Thursday, March 26, 2020

Shore's Transparencies

It may be hard now to imagine a time when people didn’t routinely shoot photos of meals. But until just a few decades ago the practice was rare. Stephen Shore was perhaps the first major photographer to go there. Beginning in the early 1970s, while on various photographic road trips, he seldom left a restaurant table unphotographed. Food was just one small component in his daily captures, along with motel rooms, dirty clothes, parking lots, toilets, ceilings, shops, nightstands, appliances, and all the other artifacts of his domestic explorations. Everything was fair game, his appetite for material seemingly insatiable. 

So it’s fitting that a dinner photo introduces the hefty new Shore book Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 (Mack, 2020). It may be the only such one in the book, but it sets the tone for what’s to come. By showing an ordinary fast-food Mexican taco/enchilada combo, split by beans and rice, harshly flashed, and, well, downright ugly despite the nicely choreographed blue napkin and green tabletop, Shore establishes his credentials. “I’m not picky,” he seems to be saying, “It’s open season on any subject.”

Of course other photographers had taken aim at the quotidian before Shore. But their efforts were typically highbrow. Think of Weston’s Pepper No. 30 or Siskind’s Gloucester glove, for example, both the product of men seeking grandeur in the mundane. Shore’s aesthetic, which would eventually come to dominate fine art photography, was a deliberate effort to avoid these modernist trappings. Instead he looked to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan factuality for guidance. As Britt Salvesen explains in the book’s afterword, Shore mined the vernacular for material. Inspired by postcards, commercial signage, and snapshots, he developed a direct, non-fussy style which stripped away any highbrow pretentions to framing, lighting, or the picturesque. “Some photographers go out and want to make beautiful photographs," Shore once told Gil Blank. "I think that puts the cart before the horse. Good photographs are the by-product of some other exploration, or some other intention." 

Shore’s approach proved prescient, and we’re still dealing with the aftermath. The idea that image is secondary to intention is now the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, Shore is busy mining his early archives. Transparencies is the merely latest in a recent slew of books to explore them. A new edition of American Surfaces is due soon. I’m guessing other books may follow. The more the better, as far as I’m concerned. It’s rather amazing to look back and realize that none of these early photos were published as books contemporaneously. The first edition of American Surfaces didn’t arrive until 1999, and it wasn’t until 2005 that a more comprehensive edit came along. So if a book world recounting is overdue, I say bring it on.

Transparencies focuses on the mid-seventies, the period just on the heels of American Surfaces and when Shore was transitioning to the view camera. That larger format work would eventually produce the project for which he is still best known, Uncommon Places. But even while consumed by that project, he hadn’t quite given up on 35 mm. True, he’d ditched his trusty snapshooting Rollei 35. But in its place: a Leica M2, a handheld workhorse. It went everywhere with him, stocked with Kodachrome. It’s fun to browse through Uncommon Places now realizing this duality. Shore probably had a Leica on his shoulder as he made that famous photo, and this one, and so on. 

How did that Leica see differently? The book shows a sampling of what Shore found, 112 photographs, generously sized, without captions, preceded by a miniature prologue of highlights (leading with the Mexican dinner photo). Transparencies compares with Uncommon Places in the ways one might expect. Beginning with a shaky series of indistinct road shots, the photos exude the loose energy of 35 mm. Some frames are cockeyed, or seen through a windshield, or suffer from camera shake, or are helped by it. There are generally more pedestrians caught in Transparencies than in Uncommon Places, though that might be a function of editing as much as format. And whereas Shore using a tripod could stop down his aperture to get entire scenes in focus, his 35 mm depth of field was often restrained by slow film and unreliable lighting. 

Even though the work was shot concurrently, there’s seemingly only one scene shot by both cameras. That’s a boat harbor in Miami in 1975, huddled under a massive highway interchange. Britt Salvesen’s afterword offers an instructive comparison of the two photos —one photo is flat, the other deep— but leaves the reader wanting more. Can that be the only pairing? It’s hard to believe there aren’t others. A moot point in any case, since they don’t appear here. 

With no other direct comparisons, the reader looks to the work for hints of Shore’s thinking. Transparencies is sequenced chronologically, and as we move through the seventies some familiar themes arise. One change which becomes immediately apparent is the transition to outdoors. Whereas most of American Surfaces featured indoor snapshots, Shore’s Leica found much of its material in public settings, presumably lured there alongside his view camera. The change in backdrop seems to echo a broader switch in Shore’s approach, from internalized snapshots of a very personal nature toward the dispassionate open landscapes typical of New Topographics. Whether the Leica work was “a parallel iteration of an iconic vision… like a piece of music played in a new key,” as Mack describes it, or simply the waning efforts of a photographer whose style had already moved on, the results are fascinating.

The formalism of Uncommon Places manifests more and more as the reader wades deeper into Transparencies. The opening photos are blurred and dreamy, but they quickly firm up. Soon we see storefronts shot head on, alleys opening into distant vistas, delicately composed parking lots, an affinity for cars, pavement, signs and vernacular material. There’s even a brief taste of Europe before the book returns stateside. By the time late in the book when the reader encounters a street corner fronted by plywood walls, angled just so, the world has shifted convincingly toward Uncommon Places. 

Regardless of camera, whatever Shore photographed in the 1970s was with an intense visual hunger. It’s the same motivation fueling all great photographers and all lasting works, that restless need to swallow the world with a lens. “I wanted to be visually aware as I sent through the day,” he is quoted in American Surfaces. “I started photographing everyone I met, every meal, every toilet, every bed I slept in, the streets I walked on, the towns I visited. Then, when the trip was over, I just continued it.” With Transparencies, we finally have sense of where that continuance led: not very far from the present.

Note: This is the full "Director's Cut" of this piece, initially published here in abridged form.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

My first pandemic

“Hmm,” observed my mom in a recent email, “Never been in a global pandemic before.” 

This is my first global pandemic too and, based on my experience so far, I hope it’s the last. Pandemics are no fun at all. There are roughly 7.8 billion people out there who'd probably share the same sentiment.

With almost surgical precision, and in a span of just a few weeks, the Covid-19 virus has sucked the joy from public society. No gatherings, no travel, no YMCA basketball. No concerts, no dinner parties, no hugs. Ugh. No eating out, no March Madness buzzer beaters, no random conversations with strangers. No high fives, no indoor ventures, no touching any surfaces. Fuck me.

I realize these might all be considered small pleasures in comparison to the big thing: staying alive. But still, ugh. It’s the minor comforts which are the spice of life. And right now they're all missing.

Friday I biked into town with my cameras to get a lay of the land. I’ve been mostly housebound this week —Governor’s orders!— and this was my first visit to Eugene’s city core in a few days. Most stores were closed and the general activity level was subdued, more like a sleepy Sunday morning than a Friday afternoon. Some people were out and about, but they kept to themselves.  Since I was on my bike, social distancing came naturally. I talked to no one. Once in a while I’d hop off my seat to take a photo, but I was mostly observing. More than ever I realize that a central requirement for seeing and making good photos —perhaps the only one, aside from good walking shoes— is a sense of optimism. And I haven't felt very optimistic lately. Every time I touch my phone or look at the news it's another visit to Debbie Downer. It's injected bad juju into the pit of my stomach. It’s there when I wake up and it stays with me most of the time until sleep. So I haven't made many photo outings lately.

Nosiree, pandemics are no fun at all.

My main question: where does this all end? It's very hard to know at this point. We're experiencing a watershed event on the scale of 9/11 or WWII, but it's taking place in real time over the course of weeks, with the situation in flux, changing daily. Gradually the noose tightens on public interactions, with this new restriction or that one, each one unimaginable just a few weeks earlier. I can't keep track of what's ok or not, so I'm mostly staying home. 

The old Fear Of Music lyrics ring true: "I haven't got the faintest ideaaaa...everything seems to be...up in the a-ir..." The only certainty is that however we make it through this pandemic —and I assume we will, although individual survival is not guaranteed for any of us— what’s on the other side is going to look very different physically, culturally, and economically. I keep hearing rumors through the grapevine of this local business or that business in trouble, friends out of work. Maybe they can hold on for a few weeks or months, but not indefinitely. Yesterday came the rather unsettling news that Powell’s Books was in trouble. If they go under, boom! That would leave a gaping cultural crater in the Portland landscape, bigger than Mt. Hood. In Eugene I have to assume many stores will not survive. Downtown is already sketchy, and the vacancies will spread. Incomes with languish. Foreclosures > unemployment > decay, etc. Not good. More of the culture will move online, which is perhaps just an acceleration of an inevitable trend. But the physical world will look quite different.

There will probably be some lingering effects too on interpersonal behavior. Social distancing may become more customary. Will handshakes and hugs become bygones? Will we think twice before approaching a stranger for directions? Will Eugene's vaunted friendly vibe fade away? Paranoia off and running.

I can't help thinking of cancer as a metaphor. A common treatment is chemotherapy. This basically poisons the cancer, but it's also poison to the body. Social distancing seems like the same sort of treatment. Kill the virus, sure. But you'll kill a lot of the culture in the process. Kill the restaurants and theatres. Maybe kill the economy too? Kill the health care system? Kill all social norms?

Sign on the door of my local camera shop Dot Dotson's

One saving grace amid the turmoil is that Spring is here finally. The past week in Eugene has been just fucking gorgeous, each day with blue skies and moderate temperatures. My family has been taking walks each day, and yesterday afternoon we even ducked into a park to meet some friends for a beer and frisbee. We kept six feet away from one another but it still felt a bit like cheating. Please don't judge me. We're all just trying to maintain some sanity. Considering the rain is in the forecast and that clampdowns on social gatherings are likely to tighten soon, I've got to take what I can get. Up yours, Coronavirus.

We've been watching some good films at night —The Swimmer, The Landlord, Headhunters, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and others from Leo's DVD collection. They're entertaining and weird and satisfying. But, regardless of when or who they were made, all feel like another era. There are so many scenes of humans in close proximity, and touching one another casually, and sitting in restaurants or dancing. I'm sure no one thought anything of it at the time. But to watch those scenes now...well, perhaps nostalgia applies? Or some other emotion? Exoticism? Jealousy? I can't quite tell.  

As has been my habit since childhood I've been plowing through one book after another. The past few nights it's been The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown. A fantastic book, which, um, happens to be about the Donner Party trapped in the Sierras. I know, I know, grim. But it's extremely well written. I have the general outline of what happened in my mind, so it's not suspenseful in that regard. But still it's a bit eerie to sit above them as Brown narrates their daily routines, and their slow plunge into catastrophe. They did the best they could. They were reasonably happy, for a time. No one could guess what the future held, not then or now.

If this post isn't too depressing and you want another dose of pandemic reaction, I'm playing a Coronavirus-inspired set of music tonight, 8-10 PM (Pacific Time) on KWVA, 88.1 FM in Eugene, or streaming online at kwvaradio.org. This is my second show inspired by the pandemic. The first was a few weeks back and more light-hearted. Tonight's will be more somber, possibly soul-crushing. Listeners may want to get set first with a big shot of whiskey before tuning in. Stay strong and healthy. This too shall pass...

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Q & A with Jason Tippet

Jason Tippet is a filmmaker and photographer based in Los Angeles. 

(An abridged version of this interview was published originally on the Photo-Eye blog.)



Blake Andrews: I first learned about you through a mutual friend, Aaron Wessling. And then when I got your book I noticed he's acknowledged in the back. 

Jason Tippet: Oh get out. Such a big fan of his.

Yeah he's good. He prints at my darkroom, PDR up in Portland. He's one of the founders actually.

Ohh, ok! Yeah, guy is so talented, I love his attention to detail. His notes on my book were by far the most specific and detailed and helpful and really appreciate his taste.

How do you guys know each other?

Let’s see.... I was directing a show in NY and he was taking photos for the show and I was asking him about his Pentax 67 he was using.....then he mentioned he was gonna take a trip to Coney Island over the weekend and I asked if I could join. We'd walk around and take some photos and stop into bars, found this Russian dance hall that had a live band... such a good time with that guy.

Small world. Yeah he's cool. And he's a master pumpkin farmer if you ever need like an 800 pound pumpkin for anything. Maybe a film prop?

Haha, I saw that! Oh my... that shot of the pumpkin in the back of that truck makes you realize how big that pumpkin was. Sorry if I'm all over the place. I had this dream last night that felt so real and I never remember any of my dreams.

No, man. Go all over, no worries. Maybe the pumpkin was just a dream?




It's possible man!

What was the dream?

I was walking with my mom home from dinner and we got mugged and we were trying to run... and in dreams you can't really run too well, it turns out. Woke up so gross and sweaty.

Chase dream. I think that's a pretty fundamental archetype. Can't remember what it signifies. The usual shit, I guess.

My girlfriend was worried, I woke up yelling... she was like, "holy shit, you're soaked.” So that's the cool shit I have going on.

Wow, sounds intense.

Can you remember your dreams?

Sometimes but just briefly. Because I don't write them down. I should but I don't. Too lazy.

I can only remember one other dream I've had.... I never remember them.

It helps if something wakes you up artificially. Like an alarm clock or loud noise. Then I think you're more apt to remember. But I could be wrong just a theory.

Ha, oh yeah.

Anyway, about the book. Congrats on getting it made and published. 




Thanks man, feels good to work so hard on something and finally have it out there.

What is the book’s origin story? How did it come about?

Well, I wanted to make a documentary that followed these two older guys going to the Santa Anita race track... shoot over a period of months but cut it to feel like it happened in one day. I grew up going with my dad and my uncles and it's something that's fading away, for a good reason, but still breaks my heart a bit looking at old photos of that place packed... but couldn't find funding for that film and my buddy Carl McLaughlin was going out shooting a lot during that time, so I'd join him. He was taking these really gorgeous night shots of Chatsworth, CA and developing and printing at his house. He had these photo books out and I'd look through those. I thought the idea might work better as a book because I could bring a film camera in no problem... so started that project, but that felt like it was going to take a while, so started bringing my camera around where I lived.

What were some of the photo books Carl had that inspired you? Do you remember a few?

He had a Fred Herzog book Modern Color that really stuck out to me.

Yeah, I can see some commonality.

Then I became really interested in Martin Parr.

You had some good models!

Every time I'd leave my place something slightly off was happening and I just really enjoyed capturing it and showing friends at first. Then Carl showed me there was a great community of photographers online and that's when I started to get motivated about turning these projects into books.

Did you wind up photographing the two guys at Santa Anita? Are they in the book?

Yeah, they'll be in the book. Have you been before? 

I've never been. Is that the track where the horses died? 

Hah, yeah, that's the track. Going now it feels like an abandoned cruise ship... empty rooms everywhere, vacant stands, feels like it's on its way out. it's terrible.

So was the idea to film a documentary there based on the deaths? Or unrelated?

No, nothing to do with the deaths... or making a comment on horse racing. Fredrick Wiseman has a film called Racetrack he made during the heyday of racing and I thought it might be a nice juxtaposition to see it now when the sport isn't as popular.

Now I'm browsing through the book trying to guess which guys are on their way to the racetrack. Maybe the guy in the pink polo shirt?



haha, yeah.

And the guy chomping the cigar in front of Bill's?

I just see that guy around the neighborhood, but he's got a cigar in his mouth walking around every morning. You see the same people everywhere... I don't know what that says about me, but I see these same guys at the bars I go to and run into them at the track, small world.




There's only about 50 people in the world. They just keep recirculating to give the illusion of more. Pet theory.

I believe that. The same 50 degenerates.

I'm still not sure they do the optics on those big stadium crowds to make them seem like more than 50. Must be Photoshop magic.

Haha.

So you set out to make a film but wound up making photos instead. How do you think those processes compare? What do you think a photo does that a motion film can't?

It's a different challenge to me, I don't look at them as the same thing other than technically I understand shutter speed and ISO and film speed, that transfers over.... Some things work better as moments, and might not need a whole story. And it's so difficult to try and explain a story in a photograph, catching a moment at the right time so you understand what someone wants or what they're dealing with, people’s expressions... and doing it before they realize you're taking a photo. People are aware of video cameras, and people don't trust them.

Do you think still cameras are more trustworthy?

I rewatched this short Heavy Metal Parking Lot recently and people are sticking their heads in the shot to be on camera. You can't make that the same way now.

I don't know much about filmmaking. But I feel that way about photography. People are very suspicious of my camera.

Yeah, people are still suspicious…But I think still cameras aren't as intimidating... and when they do notice I've taken a shot, I always compliment them on something. "I love that hat" or whatever drew me to take it. I use a camera that looks pretty amateur so people usually don't care.

Is it a T3? Looks like it in the last photo. Great camera.

Ahah, yeah man, good eye. A T2.

So the shooting process has some similarities. But I think the output is different. I tend to think of photographs in terms of what they leave out. The more a photo crops out or obscures or avoids the more power it can have. At least for me. But for filmmaking I think it's maybe the opposite? Another pet theory...

I think it can be similar.... this new film I'm making I'm playing around with just holding on close ups through a whole scene instead of showing other people talking around the room.

When you shoot a documentary film you're trying to tell a story, shot by shot. Maybe a photo book can work like this. But I think individual photos kind of work the opposite. By hiding information.

Yeah, having to tell a story is usually my least favorite part of making a movie. 

Haha. I think narrative is like brain candy. 

I’m so much more interested in subjects or the people you're documenting. American Movie wouldn't be anything without Mark and Mike Shank. I feel like a lot of what I see now is so story heavy.

Is your book Heading to Bill's meant to tell a story of some sort? A story of the neighborhood?

There's this documentary Tchoupitoulas that takes place in one night shot over a few months.... but I liked the idea of someone feeling like they got to spend a day hanging out with me around Atwater Village. It’s supposed to feel like starting your day til the end when you go home. 

I hadn't noticed the lighting before. The photos go from morning light to afternoon to dark.

It's me out running errands, getting food, stopping by the market... getting cigarettes. It’s more of a feeling. A lazy day. And for some reason photos can bring out those feelings more often for me. Tree of Life gives me a similar reaction.

That's a trippy film. Isn't that the one with the big dream/surreal sequence in the middle?

Ha, yeah.

Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes.. That refers to you? Is that your spot for cigs?

Yeah, I'm usually there once a day. Beer, cigarettes, laundry detergent. The other thing about photo books I appreciate is, people have to concentrate on just that. You can't open your computer and do other things while you're flipping through a photo book. well you could. People throw on Netflix and don't pay attention to half of it.

I'm flipping through your book as I type this. But I know what you mean.




Haha, yeah, I might be wrong about this. I just appreciate giving proper attention to something, and for me photo books relax me and slow things down.

So a photo book is more self-contained than other content. Anything that might come through a screen nowadays is by nature open to distraction. Because that's the nature of anything digital. Anything on your phone is always in a fight with other content for your attention. Is that right?

Absolutely, it isn't given the same level of respect as something tangible for some reason.

I kind of feel that way about movies. You walk into a theater and you are in that world for 2 hours, nothing else exists.

Completely.... I went to see The Irishman in theaters cause I knew I'd be stopping it and get distracted at home.

But photographs! Holy shit they are at the bottom of the totem pole. No one pays them much attention, or values them, or looks for more than 2 seconds. Perhaps a book makes photos different. I'm not sure. That's part of why I like identifying as a photographer. There's a certain persecution complex inherent. We get no respect, haha.




I know what you mean. We see so many photos throughout the day it takes a lot for us to stop on one and appreciate it. It's a challenge to take a photo that stands out nowadays.

I see lots of strong work online every day. But also a lot that just floats by without sticking.  When you were making the photos for the book were you also shooting film footage at the same time? I'm asking because I saw a few snippets on IG which seem to go along with certain photos.

No, I made those videos afterwards to promote it. Those guys are such characters... The Italian guy —I’ll probably make a short about him. It's incredible what people want to get off their chest if you put the time in to listen. I love it, and the reason for this is meeting people, I love meeting people like that. 

That goes back to what I was saying earlier. If you make a photo of that guy it's one thing. The photo gains power by making you wonder about him. But if you spend a few minutes shooting footage of him it transforms into a flood of information. It works in an opposite way I think.

Yeah.... It's tough to tell in a photo that he thinks his landlord is poisoning him.

Yes, to convey that in a still photo is a great challenge. perhaps Arbus could do it.

Haha, Jill Freedman's books have also had a big impact on me. Her book on Fire Fighters.

She was rad.

That's how I'd like to approach future projects.

How?

Picking a subject and following it along, similar to how I'd shoot a movie but with photos. Her picking that firehouse.



So you plan to make future photo books?

Oh, I'm hooked. I have another smaller book ready to go.

Do you see yourself shifting from filmmaking to still photography?

I'd like to stick with what I'm excited about, and right now that's photography. I work in the film industry. It’s something I still want to do and mainly do for work right now... I'm sure one day I'll get excited about it again.

What about applying Drunk History to photography? You get really smashed then go out shooting?

Hahaha, I'm into it. I don't usually shoot with other people, but my buddy Carl and I will take the train downtown and stop in at a few of our favorite bar and then wander around and take photos. You definitely feel a bit ballsier. Might take that shot instead of hesitating and overthinking it.

Yeah there's a balance. Slightly buzzed makes more confrontational and usually better photos. But completely drunk? Then the photos are a crapshoot. Speaking of drinking, Oscilloscope's press release compared you to Eggleston: “The Eggleston Of the Instagram Generation." Kinda catchy. What do you think of that description?

Ha, I mean Eggleston liked to have a good time and enjoyed getting into memorable situations. I think as far as my work, I have a long way to go. I just enjoy saying yes to things and seeing where it takes me. oh, like putting myself in an uncomfortable situation for a story.

I think Eggleston must've been half-cocked to see some of the stuff he captured.

Haha, oh absolutely. 

What's the smaller book you mentioned?

The smaller book is called, My Cousin's Second Wedding. It’s really unflattering, bright flash, bad wedding shots.

Cool. From your cousin's wedding? Did you shoot "bad" photos on purpose?

Yeah. 

I'm not even sure what "bad" is.

Right. I guess I went in trying to take photos most people wouldn't like... people eyes closed, people heads cut off

Curious to see it. Have you seen Ian Weldon's wedding photos?

No! I should take a look.

I don't have the book. But it looks good from what I've seen online.

These Ian Weldon photos are incredible.

Weddings are a potential goldmine. As are "bad" photos. Will Oscilloscope publish this one too?

It might be, I love working with them. I think it'll depend on how these books sell. But right now they seem to be selling which is exciting. Have you made a book before?

I've never made an official book. Made some handmade small edition stuff, that’s it.

That's how I'd like to do that wedding book.

How much oversight/editing did they provide with the Bill's book? Did you pretty much come to them with product ready to go? Or did they shape it?

Putting out movies with them and now putting out a book, it's the same process working with Oscilloscope. They want the artist to be happy with what they're putting out. They have great taste so I'd ask for their opinion, but in the end they let me make exactly what I wanted to make. I hope they keep putting out books.




The Smyth Sewn binding is novel. Was that your idea?

Dan Berger who runs Oscilloscope sent over the Smyth Sewn option and it stood out to me. Even though it was a bit pricey I'm so grateful they went for it. It feels nice to flip through and the pages stay open.

Yeah, it's cool. But maybe hard for the book spine to be noticed on a store shelf? 

Oh yeah... yer right. Didn't think about that.

Well it works with the book. So that's the key thing. Glad to have a copy.

Still can't believe it's out, I was working on that for a while. Actually, a few years isn't so bad, Rob Hornstra spends years documenting these people and places.

How many years were you working on yours?

...including shooting, 4 years.

Yikes!

Haha, yeah.

Must be a lot on the cutting room floor. But well worth the time. 

(All photos above by Jason Tippet, except book spreads by me.)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Howl

"For it not I, just a mouth swimming in a complicit stream of filth, chipped and calcium-deficient canine teeth gnashing chapped and chaffed lips actively conjuring a dark profanity and a darker blessing from the raft of a newer medusa set upon seas of inanity? Listen, the weight of a heavy set foot dragging across the floor boards above unmoored by concern for the splinter in the attic above, the same attic two floor removed from the wet-smelling basement where deer hides are tanned with Borax soap and there hidden below a smokey waft of disgruntled air emanates from the flannel coverings hanging on a rusty nail from the mite-pocked post as though the steam of the human once warmed within could efface its merit of tone by conflating that cold presence still clinging from the outside winds where outside fires meander but small embers from their oil barrel fatigue and find rest placated on the winds, like spring fireflies evaporating in two-minute mists. Howl."
This is a sample paragraph from a photobook review published recently on a popular site. I had to read this several times before I could glean much meaning, and even now I'm still not sure what it says. Something about Borax and fireflies? And howling?

If the meaning is ambiguous, that might be just fine. Because I don't think the intention of this particular review is to impart useful information. Instead it is to make the reader feel stupid, and to make the author seem unapproachably wise in comparison. At least that's my take. Seen in this light, adventures in grammar and syntax aren't necessarily problematic. A stream of long words is just another adventure in fluidity. It's poetry, man, improv...high art! You can't expect the simpletons to get it.


All of which might be easily dismissed were it not for the fact that this appeared on a widely read and respected photo site. And it seemed to go down easily, no complaints, no uproar so far as I can tell, just another critical log on the streaming, steaming pile. But still. Oy Vey! If this is what passes for critical analysis nowadays, count me out. 


I may have an old fashioned outlook, but I think the purpose of good writing is to convey ideas with clarity. I would like to feel inspired when I read something, not inadequate. I'd like writing to transform me somehow, point me in a new direction or down some fun rabbithole. There are all sorts of approaches, but please, less complications! Ideally good writing should operate a bit like good photography. Think of Atget or Evans or Shore. Just show the thing and get out of its way already. 


Some photo critics still write in this manner, but most don't. Critical thought online tends more often toward the clunky, self-absorbed, or market-chasing. All of which are fine traits I suppose, if they serve a purpose. But purpose seems elusive. To see oneself in writing — Does that count in and of itself? To some extent all critique is self analysis. So...yes, perhaps.


Still, what remains online is a critical body which, like many of the photographs it references, operates a bit like a genome. Only a tiny fraction is functional, while the vast bulk is essentially navel-gazing garbage. Perhaps the blog post you're reading now might qualify. Regardless, the online world is a sea of various distractions and deadends. But critical writing suffers too in physical form. I gave up on Aperture long ago. Foam and BJP aren't much better. If Robert Adams edited a photography periodical I would subscribe in a heartbeat. But alas, that ain't happening. 
Go back in time a few years and read something like Carl Chiarenza's reaction to Winogrand (republished, ironically, in same forum I critiqued initially). You will feel like a visitor to another planet. Who invests that level of care anymore? 

Perhaps blogs can provide some minor relief. As a longtime blogger I still have an affinity for this platform. Some of the old guard is still going strong —Colin Pantall, Stan Banos, Tony Fouhse, Joerg Colberg, e.g.— and their blogs are entertaining for what they are. But, as Colberg noted a few weeks back, blogs are yesteryear's fancy. "The world of blogging as it existed around 2007 or 2008 was a lot more vibrant than whatever we’re witnessing now," he writes. True dat. And what is it that we're witnessing now? "Social media have essentially atomized a vibrant community," he writes. 

The results of that atomization— Instagram, Facebook, Twitter— are where we pick up bits of information now, in a flood of bite-sized digestables over morning toast and coffee, and at lunch, and in the evening, and during late night insomnia attacks, and also many of the small moments in between these affairs. But these platforms are designed for small thoughts, not longform essays. The daily jab of this or that sentence rebutting some original provocation, perhaps evolving into a thread. Is this a supplement for critical discourse? Again, Oy fucking Vey.

Perhaps it isn't critique we seek online, but community. After all, it's called social media for a reason. Online streams are the equivalent of a virtual bar. Grab a stool and shoot the shit for a while. See who pops in. Certain people arrive in certain forums at certain times. Hopefully there's some interchange and perhaps a sense of common endeavor. Still, social media seems way less fun than bars IRL.


One potential way to bridge the gap between bite-sized social media content and long-form writing are targeted mailing lists. As Colberg notes, several such lists have popped up recently. It seems to be kind of a thing now. So perhaps this is the wave of the future. It's probably a more effective distribution method than just remaining undercover and counting on folks to discover you (my method, with diminishing returns). But meh. I must admit I have a mental block with such lists. They feel invasive and probing. Just about every website I visit lately wants my email address to add me to some list or other. I'm sure they mean well —haha— but still. I'll be damned if I'm giving my info out to any more bloodsuckers.


Does anyone remember the term surfing the web? This was my primary form of online engagement before the rise of social media. Maybe yours too? You'd look up a site. Then a link on that site might take you to another site, perhaps a completely unrelated topic. A link there might lead somewhere else, and so on and so on. This could go on for hours, bobbing and weaving virtually down one rabbithole after another. There was a sense of adventure in it —who knew what the next page might bring?— but more importantly agency. The user controlled the path of exploration. Like a surfer, I suppose.

That's mostly gone now, replaced with algorithmic content. Instead of actively moving through the web, the user now signs up for ("follows", to use the term du jour) certain streams —Instagram or Twitter, or an email list, e.g.— and then relies on their steady feeds for a constant drip of information. It's still possible to see a wide variety of great content online, but more and more it comes to the user, and not vice versa. If the previous metaphor was surfing, what we do now is more akin to a feeding tube. I suppose in one sense it's similar. Content is the most important thing, no matter how it's arrived at. Still, it's tough for armchair explorers to expand any boundaries. 

"There was a general sense of excitement," Colberg writes about the early days of blogging, "of producing something new, something that would bring value to the world of photography. That’s all completely gone." Well, Colberg does have a tendency to dramatize. But I basically agree. My blog runs mostly on fumes at this point. I'm not quite sure why I'm even posting anymore. Readership has dried up like a digital stream, and fuck if I'm going to start an email list. Community? Self-analysis? Nostalgia? Howl.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Q & A with Scott Hurst

Photo by Marc Manabat
Scott Hurst is a photographer based in San Antonio, TX.


BA: Thanks for taking time to do this.

SH: I'm an on-time freak...

Me too. I think it's genetic maybe, passed down in the family. All my relatives are like that. It might help with photography. Like if you're 1/500th too slow it can fuck up the photo.

I don't talk to many relatives. I always wanted to be left alone, haha.

Well, we can get into that later maybe. Or not. I don't know much about you. Where'd you grow up?

Western Nebraska, close to Wyoming.  I don't know much about you either, but I've been hearing about you for a long time.

Shit, the secret's out. Maybe you heard about me through our mutual friend Faulkner?

Yeah, how's Faulkner? I never see anyone anymore...

He's in full Dad mode and enjoying it. But non-family photography has kinda taken a back seat.

Faulkner in K-Town with Fuji Instax, 2010

That's so odd to me, haha.

Happens to the best of them. He's a good dad.

I bet. His dad is rad!

I've never met his dad but I feel like I know him through Faulkner's photos. Kind of a 70s renaissance type.

He's exactly the kind of serious freak that I like. On his own trip.

Were there many freaks in Western Nebraska?

Only me... I had to leave immediately.

When was that?

1990, I moved to Denver.

How old were you?

18, summer after high school.

I'm guessing Denver was a bigger scene with more freaks? What were you doing there?

I did a lot of drugs and hung out with goth girls...

What kind of drugs were you doing? Do you think they led you to photography?

I was mostly doing acid in Denver and yes it probably is still a big influence... Where did you grow up?

Northern California.

Oh nice...

I had kinda the opposite situation from you. Everyone was a freak...

Most of my friends are like that.

But I knew almost no photographers.

I didn't know any photographers either.

Do you know any now locally? Is there a photo scene in San Antonio?

I know a bunch, yeah. There is a small scene of folks that shoot. Shit I know two people with Leica MP’s, haha never even seen one before here.

San Antonio seems kinda underground still.

Eugene is definitely underground. 

Haha. Yup. The photo scene here is lame though. Maybe too underground.


San Antonio, 2019

San Antonio’s a place that I don't want anyone coming to. Go to Austin, don't come here...

But I've got an MP. I'll fit right in there. 

You'd love it here. It was 70 degrees and sunny today. San Antonio is like if late '80s Portland was in Mexico. If all rainy days were 100 degrees instead. Do you still like Portland?

Yes, it will always have a place in my heart. Very special city...to visit. I'm not sure I could live there anymore though. Too much corporate money washing over everything. It just twists everything to shit.

Yeah, development fuckin' sucks...

The development in Portland is out of control. But I’m talking more about the culture. When you inject that much money into a scene it just warps everything. No one can evaluate what’s real anymore. Taste goes south. People become plastic. All these rich idiots with Ikea dens and weekly haircut appointments, no thanks. I sound like a backwoods snob, sorry. 

I agree with money warping culture. San Antonio is a very poor city where you can still eat lunch for five bucks. I hope that never changes.

Money aside, the photo scene in Portland is very strong. That's where I learned photography back in 1993. It's where I absorbed photo culture and developed artistically. If I'd lived somewhere else, it's probably a different story. Even now I still go up there for my monthly photo group (with Faulkner, among others). I have a group in Eugene too but it's not quite as fun. Not as hardcore.

Yeah, your Portland scene is really tight and cool. I started off there. Don't know why really.


Portland, 1999

But wait, we're getting ahead of the story. When did you get into photography? Was it in Denver?

No, I didn't get into photography until the mid-90's, and not seriously. Well I still don't take it very seriously. It became a habit in like '99 I suppose.

Where were you then?

Portland still.

When did you move to Portland from Denver? 

I only stayed in Denver for a year. I was frying my brain too fast, so I moved to Lincoln, NE, then I moved to Portland from there. I made a feeble attempt to go to college in Lincoln.

U of Nebraska?  

Yep, terrible place.

I think John Sypal went there if you know him? He's about your age.

I tried to hang out with him in Tokyo, but he was hanging out with Ed and Deanna instead, haha...


Tokyo, 2016

He's a big Templeton fan.

Yeah, I met Ed, he's very likable. I'm not a huge fan of his photos though...

I love Deformer. All-time top ten photo book for me. But after that I'm less enamored with his straight photos. Oh well, it's hard to maintain the platinum standard after a book like that. 

I don't know it. I'm not too versed in modern photographers or books.

I think it was one of his first books. It's sort of a graphic memoir with personal photos mixed with collage and painting, and it tells the story of his adolescence and how he met Deanna, etc. His life was kinda fucked up. Mixed up kid. Broken home, etc. It's an incredibly open and honest book.

I met him right before I left LA and we just talked about Japan.

Deanna is in the book naked and those photos hit me hard, like who the heck is this gorgeous woman? And then it turns out they got married later, story came full circle. Now they’re partners in everything. Gotta admire Ed Templeton. He's cut his own path straight to the top with no compromise. Just doing his thing. No bullshit artworld maneuvering. I guess the powers that be took a liking to him. It’s a mystery how that stuff works.

Yeah, I'm jealous of that. I want to be famous in Japan!

One reason I like your photos is they show little outside influence. Very pure.

I've shed my influences over the years I hope. I definitely have them.

Let's go back a few steps. How'd you get into photography?

I'm not sure. I was trying to write a novel for a while and then I got a camera. I was always kind of an adventurer or wanderer and it went with that lifestyle quite well.


Blackwell, Oklahoma, 6x7, mid-2000's

What were you shooting early on in the first few years?

Canon AE-1, but disposables and polaroids before that.

Did you have friends who did it? Or anyone to show you the ropes? Any books? 

No. I didn't look at any photos until I'd been shooting for a few years, maybe that's my real style, haha. Primitive.

I kind of group you, Faulkner, and Sam Prekop together in my mind as photographers with a pure, wide open approach. Not cutesy or clever, just straight recording. I guess it’s in the ballpark of Eggleston, but less stylized. Maybe you could start a movement or something, or a non-movement.

The inherent beauty and mystery in photography is that art-wise at least, there are no rules and there is no way to fully understand what makes a good photograph good. It’s what makes it so interesting and perplexing and why it’s difficult to do over and over even if you know how. Then if you figure something out that you can repeat you almost have to change because it isn’t challenging anymore, so yes, primitive, uncomplicated, style-less style is style, definitely American. That’s my style.

Could we call it American Primitive? Like John Fahey translated to the lens?

I love Fahey, he's a huge influence.

How does Fahey translate to photos?

It's the attitude. I love an outsider lifestyle.

Yeah, he never quite fit in anywhere. 

Someone with no grasp of how to exist haha. He was drinking moonshine with Bukka White, I mean that's insane.

Speaking of outsiders, Reuben Radding posted on IG the other day about Eugene Chadbourne's birthday. I looked and it took me a while to recognize the guy. I was like that's what Chadbourne looks like now? Then I went down the Chadbourne rabbit hole for a while on bandcamp listening to his bizarre music. Another pure outsider. At least that's how I picture him.

Yeah, I haven't thought about him in a long time. But probably in the same vein.

He's playing bars and the local circuit in North Carolina clubs. The occasional trip to Europe. Never accepted or widely known in the states, just doing his thing. but talentwise he's on par with anyone out there.


Parking Lot Experiment

I love guys like that. Fuck the world.

Well, the world often gets it wrong. But still I love the world. The world's beautiful! Anyway this sort of goes back to photography. The way you got into it, and the way Eugene Chadbourne probably got into music, is just finding the path organically. Can you imagine if he'd gone to music school? It would've crushed him.

Oh yeah, school is fuckin' awful...How to sell yourself and kiss ass haha, forget it. I don't wanna make money off of photography. I hope you’re not a teacher!

Nope. I like the DIY School. But I'm not anti-teaching. Can't ditch it entirely. Other photographers and study have definitely helped me on my path. So education can have a place, so long as it isn't didactic. But if it’s like “do it this way,” then screw that. In photography, I think the most important thing is to find your own personal voice, your way of seeing that's like your handwriting. If a teacher can help students find that visual voice, hooray! Unfortunately I don't think many photographers ever reach that point, regardless of schooling.

Your knowledge of photography is light years beyond mine for sure...I know some photography teachers that are interesting and take good photos. I could never teach anything myself.. Don't look through the viewfinder for a day, stuff like that maybe haha.

Is that something you've tried?

I've tried everything, I guess. Well not everything, but yes.

Any promising tips?

No, 99% of the photos are slightly off haha.

Well isn't that the goal?

Perfect photos definitely don't interest me. I mean most photos don't haha, including my own.

What kind of photos interest you? 

Photos that I haven't seen...but it's so goddamn hard. It's luck really. I think that you understand from seeing your stuff.

I agree luck is integral. But it's a difficult ingredient. It can't really be mastered easily. How do you inject chance?

I think that you create it by being curious and open to it.  Have you seen the movie Repo Man?

Yup. Not for a while though.

There's a scene where the guy that drives off at the end in the Malibu is talking to Otto and burning trash, he pretty much describes what I think luck is...haha.

How do you inject luck into an exposure? What if you come up on a scene and it might be a photo. If it's a dynamic scene there's some luck involved with timing and composition.But what if it's static, which I think is most of the scenes you shoot? How do you get out of your own way and let fate take over? 

Don't think. If you do think, don't shoot cuz it's pointless at that point.

Same strategy applies to jump shots. If a basketball player has a few milliseconds to line up the shot they'll usually miss.

Same philosophy yeah...Thinking fucks things up.

So if you turn your brain off and you're not thinking, how do you know what scenes might make a good photo? Is it just visual?

Seeing and thinking are different things.

True. And photography is mostly about seeing, I think. But there's a component that comes at the end, when you see a resulting good photo. It appeals to the brain too, and photography is actually a pretty cerebral discipline. I think that’s part of its appeal for me.

I just know that once I've thought about a photo 99% of the time I shouldn't have shot it, it's totally ruined.I think that you start to make photos that are familiar when you think about them.

Is that part of why you moved to San Antonio. To inject unfamiliarity?

Yeah. I knew that continuing my LA stuff was going to be repetitive and boring for sure. The stuff I've shot here I'm not really ready to deal with yet, though I've shared some of it on Instagram. I was trying to slow my life down really.

Have you explored most of the city by now? Or are there untapped areas?

I've got it covered, but South Texas has much to offer. But once again, don't come here! Austin is really cool.


South Texas, 2019

What's your photo routine? 

I'm working 5 to 6 days a week, so only shooting 1 or 2 days a week, depending.  I don't mess with the rest, I only shoot. I have about 300 rolls to process from the last few years...I just got 25 rolls back yesterday.

What’s your day job?

I manage a warehouse that was converted to an art gallery, art studios, and apartments.

What’s your editing process for photos?

Almost nothing makes the cut nowadays...There's so much stuff I don't want to see.

The search gets harder as the bar gets higher. But the good news is you get better so hopefully you can meet the rising standard?

I wish I could put a shock collar on my shutter finger, haha.

Same here. Many of the frames I wind up choosing now are outtakes and grab-shots, the ones I have less control over. Does that mean the worse I get the better I get? Who knows. 

I like that.

If I line up a photo and take 5-6 pictures it's almost guaranteed none will work.

That's kinda what I meant earlier... The feeling I'm trying to find is so elusive.

I think I understand, just trying to sort out the implications. Like, if practice and technique don't lead to better photos, what's the best way forward?

Who's your favorite photographer?

That's a tough question. I'd say most influential is probably Friedlander. But favorite? It changes day to day. Hmmm. Winogrand is probably the obvious choice. But I feel like he doesn't have much more to teach me at this point. I like Henry Wessel a lot. There's a mischievous quality to his photos. Then there's Mermelstein, Eggleston, Charity Conkle... I dunno, who's yours?

Walker Evans, but Keld Helmer-Petersen is a close second. I'm loving Winogrand's late late period photos as well. 


Keld Helmer-Petersen, Fence & Bridge Pattern I, 1950s

The ones from LA that get shit-canned by everyone? What do you like about these? Do you also like his early stuff?

I like most of Winogrand's photos but the late LA stuff is mysterious and strange and I like them the most. I'm very much looking forward to seeing a book of his kodachrome stuff. I like Wessel too. And Baltz is great.

I have no idea who Helmer-Petersen is. Guess I’ve got some studying to do.

Oh shit. He's amazing...Fragments of a city...I like Callahan a lot too.

Walker Evans leaves me a little cold, gotta say. Too clinical.

Yeah, he's more of a philosophical influence. I love his cold camera stare though. What do you think about Robert Adams?

Hit or miss for me. I love some of his photos. But a lot of them I don't connect with. Which maybe makes sense because I think he shoots in a very personal way. They probably mean something very different to him than to anyone else. But the political stuff, meh. I only need to see one clearcut photo, not fifty. Then again I live in Oregon so maybe I'm not the target audience for that work.

Haha, he just loves to get deep into misery...

I generally am annoyed at photos with a political message. I think photos should just be photos. Leave politics out of it. Photos of rallies, protest signs, climate change, burning forests, oppressed natives, etc, all tend to put me off. But that's just me.

Yeah, I shot some stuff in LA, like protests and shit, I guess because it was there, but I don't care about it...Do you know Anthony Hernandez?

Hernandez is good. Some of it. His Rodeo Drive series is excellent. He's often touted as this pioneering LA street shooter. Which is a badge of accomplishment, but it tells you more about the state of street shooting in LA than about Hernandez.

He's made some amazing photos... My favorites are probably the bus stop large format stuff from the 70s. He's virtually unknown there which is crazy to me.  His new photos through a bus stop style screen are awesome... I met Anthony out shooting in LA...

Cool, what’s he like?

He was in some bushes with a Hasselblad on a tripod, wearing a photographers outfit kinda like Friedlander would, the vest and stuff...

Creepy.

HAHA.

Hiding in the bushes with his 300 mm zoom, vest pockets bulging with unknown stuff.

Totally. Photographing a fence.

Photographers must seem like an alien race to most people.

Who knows...we should bring back the photographer vest, so we can identify each other easily...

No, I've got it. How about a big red P pinned to the breast?

I have a lot of strange alien encounters here for sure...People are like what the fuck is that weirdo doing?

I get hassled occasionally. I take it as a sign that I must be doing something right. 

Getting hassled is par for the course. It often leads to interesting situations.

You get a lot of shit there in San Antonio for taking photos?

Portland, 2002

Yeah, for sure. I got some guns pulled on me early on...

Do tell...

San Antonio Speedway, abandoned racetrack... Purple paint means don't come here, you'll get shot apparently, but I didn't know. The guys first tried to take my two Leicas, then told me to call the cops on myself, then eventually invited me to go dove hunting with them...It was very Deliverance. Actually Purple Paint is my new project title.  Thanks, Blake!

You gonna change your IG now to Purple Paint?

It's probably taken. But it is time for a change.

What's your strategy with that? You change your IG name every few months. And erase the old posts.

I just try to make it fun for me.

And is it?

No not really, haha.

Is there a covert component with the name changes? Like keeping one step ahead of discovery? 

I don't care about attention, I'm not going to be a successful artist, so I guess it's just fun to mess with the whole idea of this is a serious thing that deserves respect. It's not and I don't care about it and I encourage others not to care as well...

I think you've changed your IG handle 3 or 4 times since I started following you. The first few times reading the new handle was a bit mysterious but I have to say you have such a recognizable style that I can tell it's you even before I see the new handle. Maybe that's a good thing? Or not?

I've been wanting to create a fictional character online for awhile.  Kinda like Blind Joe Death...

John Smith.

Blind John Smith, photographer. The best kind.

Your home keeps moving too. Denver to Portland to LA to San Antonio... Maybe some other city next? What’s behind the restless spirit? 

I read too much Kerouac and listened to too much Hank Williams...

Here's a good test. Change your IG name every day for a month or so. See who can tell it's you, or what's up. Instead of one fictional character, you create 30.

The Flea Market Series, Ongoing, 2006

I was changing daily for awhile...people seemed annoyed, haha.

That must've been before my time.

I don't know but I'm glad you found me. I feel terrible that we never hung out more when you were in LA...but you were this phantom person that had always just left before I got there haha.

I’m heading down with the Portland crew in early Feb. It'll be fun but this might be the last trip because the city's getting too familiar. Maybe San Antonio next year?

No, purple paint! Austin is super cool though.

Well, Slacker is perhaps my favorite film. But I don't think Austin is like that anymore. I think it’s more like Portland or Seattle now? 

Slacker is amazing and Austin is not like that anymore, no.

They coulda made that film in Eugene, no shit. Every day I pass a river of characters straight out of the twilight zone. It could be a movie set.

San Antonio is like Austin 20 years ago if it was in Mexico, as described to me by people from Austin...

Eugene is like Portland 40 years ago if it was in Idaho, but secretly run by Phil Knight.