Saturday, May 31, 2008

Humans belong outside

Some may have noticed the frequency of my posts has fallen off lately. This is mainly due to the fact that it has been nice out and I'd rather be doing things outside, like making photographs to take one f'rinstance, instead of indoors looking at a screen. Expect the sporadic posting to continue through the summer, with posts gaining momentum again in November...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Class Portrait

This came home with my son recently. It is his first grade class portrait:

It's nice. It shows what all the kids look like. I'll certainly save it. The only problem with it is that, well, it isn't really a class portrait. Instead it is a collection of individual portraits arranged into a grid. Seen together all of the shots give a rough sense of what the class looks like, but that still doesn't make it a portrait. In my mind, a class portrait looks like this

or this

These photographs show everyone together at once. They show not just faces but whole bodies, and interrelations between those bodies. They show a background which will probably be loaded with meaning when this photo is seen 50 years after the exposure. Above all they show one moment, just one, and by doing so they memorialize a gathering in a way that only a photograph can.

I suspect the trend is away from this type of portrait and toward the composite. Who knows, in 20 years the group portrait may be completely extinct. And why not? Group composites are easily produced, can be personalized by the enlargement of individual photos, individuals are easily reshot, and best of all the photographer doesn't have to hassle with getting everyone in the shot to look nice at the same moment. Honestly, getting a good group shot --memorializing a moment-- is a pain in the ass. Or, put another way, it is a difficult art. Someone like Eugene Goldbeck, who I've written about here, staked his livelihood on his ability to get good group shots. What would he think of composite portraits?

If the trend is real, it's fun to speculate about what it might symbolize. That society is increasingly atomized? That kids are seen as moveable, malleable cogs? That the focus of consumer society puts the individual above the group? That photographic elements such as background and interrelationships are seen as irrelevent? That kids are so hyperscheduled that it's difficult to get more than a few of them in the same time and place at once? Who knows? Maybe none of these are true. I just know that something is being lost here and we should be conscious of it.

Any other parents out there have experience with composite portraits?

Wow, reading back through this post I realize I'm turning into an old fogey. "Why in my day, let me tell you..."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sabrina Harman: What the *&%# Was She Thinking?

When Chuck Graner took this photograph,

I'll bet he didn't expect it to become perhaps the most analyzed snapshot in modern times. Thanks, Errol Morris!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Print Swap Chain

As I've mentioned earlier on this blog I am a fan of trading prints. I've wound up trading prints with a few blog readers and I've been pleased with the quality of photography out there. I'd like to propose a more formal print trading system for any readers who are interested.

Here's how it works. You send me your name, address and email. I collect these addresses into a database. At the end of each month, I email one address at random to each person. You send a small-medium sized (somewhere around 11 x 14) gallery quality print to the name/address. You receive the same from another person in the database. So, at the end of each month you send out one print somewhere out into the world and receive one print. Within several months you've built a nice small collection, and your prints have found loving homes across the globe.

The prints can be old or new but whatever you send out must be your own work. I will change the order of addresses each month so that no one receives more than one print from anyone else.

Anyone who would like to join the print swap, please contact me either via email or through the comments field.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My arcane habit

My online photo viewing habits have changed pretty radically in the past few years. Five years ago my browsing was through photographers' web sites like this and this. Now it almost entirely through blogs such as this. I check in on a number of blogs through the week, including the ones listed in the right column and maybe 20 others on a more sporadic basis. I hardly ever check on a personal website more than one time. If the traffic to my sites is any indication, the trend away from regular sites and toward blogs is widespread. This blog, which I established just 6 months ago, receives roughly four times the traffic of my regular website which has had six years to generate readership.

There are probably a number of factors effecting this disparity but I think mostly what it comes down to is that the web craves novelty. Since blogs are more regularly updated than photosites, they attract more frequent traffic.

The king of frequently updated blogs has to be Jorg Colberg's Conscientious. Colberg is absolutely prolific, posting anywhere from 2 to 5 times every day. And unlike TOP, another prolific blog, it's only one person writing all the posts. I have no idea where he finds the time. In terms of influence too, Conscientious is right at the top. It has assumed somewhat of a curatorial role for online photography, pointing out worthy sites here and there as well as photo related articles. A mention on Consciencious is an instant vault out of obscurity and into the web's limelight (or, as the case may be, its soft LCD glow).

If Conscientious shows us the pulse of the contemporary fine art photo world, then it is pretty clear that black and white photography is passe. Color has finalized its slow 40 year trek from illegitimate form to complete dominance. A quick browse through the year's posts on Conscientious (2 to 5 posts per day, remember, for 130+ days) yields a scant 4 black and white images (excluding memorializing snapshots), three of which are not even contemporary (Civil Rights mugshots posted 2/6, an old Meatyard image posted 2/8 and an Avedon photo posted 2/11). Only one current image in the past four months, this shot by David Prifti, has been monochrome. That this last image is a wet collodian photograph tells something about b/w's place in the contemporary scene. It is seen of interest historically and to those pursuing arcane methods, but really its time has past. Now that color is just as cheap and easy as b/w, the general attitude seems to be why not shoot it?

As someone who shoots roughly 80% of my photographs in b/w, I find this a bit unsettling although not surprising. By this point I have succumbed to the probability of being permanently marginalized. Still, it wasn't until scrolling through Conscientious posts that I had such a concrete sense of how total was b/w's eclipse.

So why shoot b/w? I'll tell you why I shoot it. Because it injects a level of uncertainty that I can't seem to find using color. I can look through my finder at a scene, compose it, and get a pretty good idea of what the final photo will look like before I press the shutter. Yet when I see the image later, it is invariably different. It has been magically transformed into b/w, often in such a way that the raw structure of the image becomes more visible. If Ansel Adams preached previsualization, I subscribe to its opposite. If you can previsualize something, why photograph it? The whole reason to take the photo is, as Winogrand said, to find out what it looks like photographed.

Seen in this light, I can't help thinking that the general shift to color photography is a sign of some deeper societal shift away from mystery, away from uncertainty, and toward the staged and secure. Culture seems to follow a naturally reversed entropy toward order, dragging along with it all of the arts including, sadly, photography.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

George Kelly: What Was He Thinking?

1. L.A. b├ęsbol

"I was wandering lost some place in West L.A. when I turned down an alley where a couple of kids were hitting a tennis ball with a broom handle. I like to take pictures of things that move, and I also like things bathed in sunlight so I stopped, without asking, and took a couple of pictures. It was only after I had developed the film that I noticed the parallel lines. Chance is the most important ingredient in a random photo taken from life. But if you're not out there pointing your camera at something luck won't happen."

2. Dr. WU

"I had parked my car to eat a sandwich. I think I parked there because of the tooth. The "Dr. Wu" reminded me of Steely Dan, whom I'm not really crazy about. It was a reference anyway. The lady staring around the corner is probably just checking to see if the bus is about to arrive. She looks as if she were spying on the guy down the street. Anyway, I took the picture with the shadow of my Subaru wishing I'd had a slightly longer lens on the camera.

It's fun to make a mundane occurrence take on a fictitious meaning. That's why I hate the practice of photojournalism. It does just that but pretends it doesn't."

3. Fire & Ambulance

"I like spot news. In a small town like Portland, things don't often happen right in front of you. So when I turned the corner and ran into this scene of a homeless man having a seizure, I walked right up and took a picture. Again chance played a huge role in this one. I always wonder what it would be like to live in a more bustling city. Probably just more chance of getting yelled at, chased or beaten up. The rescue workers and a nearby cop really laid into me for preying on this man in his moment of weakness. To me it's just a fiction."

4. Target Checkout

"Taking pictures of kids these days is dicy business. So is taking pictures in big corporate stores and shopping malls. I once got hauled into security at a local mall for taking a picture of a teenage girl. The head security officer screamed at me like a drill sergeant and 86ed me for five years. Anyway, I thought this mother with three little kids in tow epitomized the modern consumer family trying to buy cheap to make ends meet. I pulled my camera tight on its strap around my neck, zone focused and hoped something would turn out."

5. Sandy & 33rd

"Trying to adhere to a self-imposed rule (never pass up a potential opportunity, even if it means arriving somewhere late), I forced myself to circle back once I'd seen this odd event from my car. The lady was about ninety and was wearing a coarse wig. I couldn't figure out why she was sweeping up the windshield glass from the car that had demolished this pay phone. There was no residence or business anywhere near the site. Just someone trying to maintain order in a chaotic world."

6. Garage Fire

"The fire engine blocked my forward progress on this one-way street. By the time I realized it, there were already several cars behind me. Stuck for half an hour, I decided to get out and take a couple pictures with my car camera--a nikon that always sits on the floor of my back seat. There's really not much happening. I guess I kind of like the girl's shadow, and that of the political lawn sign hidden behind her."

7. High Rocks Hi-jinx

"This is one of those white trash spots where teens and ex-cons hang out and deposit their empty beer cans wherever they please. That's Interstate 205 passing over the bridge in the background. With my heart pounding out of my chest, I pointed the camera, took the picture and prayed that no one was looking for a fight. I over exposed the negative, which gives the picture a grainier quality than I would have liked, but I'm glad I recorded the moment. The girl's hand on her own breast is rather sexy."

8. Clark County Fair Neck Bite

"I have wandered many county fairs and taken many cliched boring photographs. So many photographers have done so much better with this subject matter. But for some reason I keep paying the admission fees and trying my luck. Thus photo isn't necessarily a carnival shot--it could be anywhere. It's just that the noise and the activity allowed me to take an intimate picture without being detected. This time (august 2007) I'm glad I spent the five bucks to get in."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

A small selection of images from the book Rauschenberg Photographs (Pantheon Books, 1981):

Route Q




Winter Haven, Florida

Savannah, Georgia



Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Morale Booster

Along with Lynn Stern and Boris Mikhailov, add war photojournalist Peter van Aegtmal to the list of photographers whose art world embrace puzzles me. On the heels of being named Concientious photographer of the year, van Aegtmal has just been named a Critical Mass book award winner. With all the commotion I figured it was worth spending a while on his website. Clearly he is a very fine photographer. He's a master of framing and color, and he captures fleeting moments as well as static ones. But pouring over his war photos, they seem like...well, like a lot of war photography. War sucks, the photos show it, the end. Show me something I don't know. It's very well done, but for me it doesn't really rise above what it is depicting.

I can't help thinking part of van Aegtmal's success is due to the political climate. The debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged down the morale of the nation, yet we generally feel powerless to put a stop to them. Praising van Aegtmal is a way of keeping these wars in the spotlight, and to cast a soft vote against their continuation. If he had made the exact same photos in, say, Colombia, would he receive similar recognition? It's similar to what happens with the Nobel Peace prize, where the award is as much a political tool as a token of appreciation. Maybe I'm completely off base but that's my take.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


When I began this blog at the start of this past rainy season, one of my first posts was on Deerhoof. I think have finally found the equivalent to Deerhoof in the photographic world: Roger Ballen. Both make work that is ingenius, formally advanced, and that at its heart is totally inscrutable. Note that by inscrutable I don't necessarily mean subtle. Stephen Shore, for example, is subtle.
There are all sorts of things going on in this photo that aren't immediately evident, that take a while to sort through, and maybe after some time with the photo one comes away with a changed understanding of it. That's subtle.

Roger Ballen on the other hand is inscrutable.
Let's see, there's some primitive markings, a chicken, dirty legs, uh huh, hmm. You could spend a while looking at this photo before arriving at pretty much the same point you started which is, "What the fuck?..."

The thing is, I think Roger Ballen is fine with that reaction. After hearing him lecture a few nights ago in Portland, my understanding of him is roughly as thin as before. "Not every question has an answer," he said. "The world has mysteries and that is fine." This was one of many vaguely prophetic pronouncements made through the night while Ballen paced head-down in small circles under a spotlight. Watching him was like visiting some strange photographic oracle. Ballen spent much of his early life underground in mines. There was a lot of time to think down there, and not much space to do it in. So now any time he visits the earth's surface he takes advantage and does a lot of thinking --in this case out loud-- and pacing. The effect was more slo-mo poetry slam than commanding expository. Watching him I couldn't help wondering to myself WTF? But in a good way.

Ballen showed slides from Shadow Chamber, his most recent book. While walking home one day he'd stumbled on a building and realized immediately he had to go inside and make photographs. And lucky he did because the thing was 3 floors full of freaks of all ages including schoolkids, along with an assortment of various barn animals and wall markings, which he proceeded to photograph regularly for two years until one day the building was gone. And that work became Shadow Chamber. WTF?

What do his photos mean? In his lecture Ballen seemed to go out of his way to avoid projecting meaning into his work. He described his photography very much in terms of how it was made. A photo like this

might be described by Ballen as a cat watching a rabbit near some springs and metal shapes which the rabbit thought he could hide behind, and Ballen happened to be walking by that door as this occured. When an audience member asked how active a participant he was in setting up the photos he played coy, "Well maybe I placed the rabbit in the corner and maybe I didn't, I really can't remember," but he said it in such an absentminded fashion that one realized that he was right, that it wasn't really important what had happened, that only the photo was important.

Perhaps one reason Ballen prefers to talk about his work in concrete terms is that he is a complete master of that world. Compositionally the guy can really put together a photo. Repeating shapes, patterned tones, just the right amount of random elements in random places, and a lot of things that look like they shouldn't belong yet somehow do...Ballen juggles all of them before inserting them precisely into his photos. That he uses live models and animals, two types of compositional actors which can throw a frame out of whack in a heartbeat, is quite amazing. Throughout the evening Ballen made several references to hidden forms in his photographs, pointing out the relationship between say a hanging wire and a jawline, as if that were the most important thing in his work.

Still, one can't help wondering what it all means. The ideas in his photographs didn't just appear. They were created by him, presumably in an effort to express some message. I have no clue what that might be but his photos are nonetheless quite powerful. After his lecture I walked out of the hall under the glow of a pleasant photo buzz, wondering calmly WTF?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Wedding photography

Lightleak is a photo group in Portland started a few years ago by my friend Bryan. We meet once a month to share whatever photos we're working on at the moment. I've been going pretty regularly, even after the move to Eugene. Photography can be a lonely pursuit and I think it's good to defy that possibility by showing work in progress to others. Although one can do this online, it doesn't quite compare to meeting in person and looking at real live prints.

This past week we met as scheduled, with one difference. Instead of bringing work in progress, everyone brought work from 15 or more years ago. I have seen enough of each person's newer work to have a pretty good idea of their styles, yet this was the first time I'd seen anyone's photography from before about 5 years ago. It was a very enlightening experience. Each person's work was obviously still their own --the raw roots of their visual strategy was evident --yet strangely different. Rawer. More direct. Perhaps more transparent? It was a bit like when you go to someone's wedding and meet their oldest friends and their parents and siblings, and it shows you a way of looking at that person you hadn't considered. For me it cast a new deeper perspective on everyone's current photography.

If you have a regular photo group, especially one that's been meeting for several years, I suggest you try this for just one meeting. Everyone bring old work that is unfamiliar to the others, that is hopefully radically different from what you are doing now. It's certain to generate intellectual sparks.

2006 Lightleak meeting by Bobby Abrahamson

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Colin Wood: What Was He Thinking?

Last night I watched episode 5 of the BBC's Genius of Photography series. For a discussion about Arbus, they tracked down and interviewed Colin Wood. Although his name might not be familiar to photographers his image is. This is what Colin Wood looked like for a split second in 1962:

Amazingly, Colin Wood is recognizable 45 years later as the boy in the photo. The thin frame and eyes are unmistakeable. Perhaps even more amazingly some of the nervous manic energy that Arbus captured still comes through today in Wood's personality. Here's Wood's take on his portait:

"I was absolutely beside myself with energy. I used to eat Junket, which is this pure dessert. I don't know what they made it out of, some like Dow chemical. I think, I think it was about four ingredients away from Napalm. And I used to eat this stuff, like, raw, out of the box, and by the time I was finished with the Napalm or the derivative, I was like walking on the ceiling.

"So along comes this pacific character with really no connection to the inner world of violence, you know, who's wandering around like a cloud with a Hasselblad.

(showing photo) One of the things I like most about this is these grenades, and I had two of them, and probably the reason I don't have the other one in my hand is because I threw it out the window where we used to live to see if I could blow up the alley.

"From the contact sheet I can see she took about maybe fifteen photos of me, and I was a curiosity for her. And I'm a ham, so in the photos I'm definitely having a pretty fun time, and my feeling about her is that there was this, uh,... I think I liked her because I can see in my face, and definitely here I feel a collaboration, that there would be an encouragement for me to sort of do something a little wacky. She was giving me a little piece of direction. I don't say she suggested I do this, but obviously thematically for her since the other photos don't contain the hand grenade it was important that it be there.

"This is absolutely in many ways capturing an aspect of my life. At the time my mother had just divorced my father, there was a lot of tension at home, I was really very I would say very lonely, but what she was seeking and got which was what her genius is, is the reflection of her own self in many ways, which was very very true, and it was in me."

Friday, May 2, 2008

World health watch

After years of being out of production, the Diana camera has recently been reintroduced to the market, this time with pinhole and 6 x 6 format capabilities. Several weeks ago curiosity got the best of me and I took the plunge on one. For such a simple camera, the learning curve has been fairly steep. I think the overriding principle is that you just don't know what you're going to get on the negative. You can take the greatest shot in the world and have it blown out by a lightleak, or (more often) an accidental exposure seems to be imbued with oddly serendipous properties. You just don't know. In a world increasingly driven by the twin engines of convenience and perfection, the injection of some good old fashioned uncertainty may be healthy. Here are some initial shots: