Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Saturate Before Viewing

Yesterday I found a copy of Pieter Hugo's Hyenas and Other Men at the library. This work has gained a lot of attention in the past year, and justly so. The images are otherworldly. The hyenas look like a cross between dogs and mythical creatures. Combined with the level-gazed portraiture of their human captors, the effect is pretty daunting. I was glad to have a chance to see a printed version of these images rather than just the web images I'd been limited to.

One thing that struck me about the work, perhaps because I've been spending so much energy lately on color management, is how desaturated its palette is. The colors are so muted that they verge on being black and white, or perhaps a better analogy is hand-colored black and white. Like a nomad in the African Savannah, your eye wanders the photo looking for a patch of color. In every photo a few can be found, a patch of red here or blue there, to which you're immediately drawn.

What's that, you say? Black and white? But these look pretty colorful? In fact, these aren't the correct images. They've been doctored by me in Photoshop to amp up the saturation. Here are the undoctored images from the book:

I think seeing the saturated images first really emphasizes how colorless the real images are. Taken at face value, they look wrong. So why is it that as a group they somehow look, well, right?

The desaturation must be an intentional effect. Many of Hugo's other images are conventionally saturated but this particular series is printed in a muted way, so it was a conscious decision. It's interesting to speculate on his motivation. There is no mention of it in the book's text. It goes against the trend in contemporary photography toward rich colors, archival pigments which hit the eye like a furnace blast and last 200 years. So perhaps Hugo printed this way as a reaction against that. Perhaps he wanted to showcase the dry, arid surroundings of his photos. Hard to know, but I do know it helps create a unique and cohesive look for this body of work.

Hugo's images are only one example of a photographer breaking rules on purpose. I love it when folks do that. For example Roy DeCarava printed way too dark:

Bill Brandt's photos have no middle tones:

Ron von Dongen must've misread his light meter on this one:

These images must drive the typical previsualizing f/64 disciple crazy. Yet no one would dispute they're masterful photographs. They work not just despite the rules, but because they break rules. In the same way, Pieter Hugo has created for himself his own personal color space, and I say more power to him because of it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Let's Review

Great Faith. Great Doubt. Great Effort.

--Three qualities necessary for zen training, from The Wisdom of Zen Masters, by Irmgard Schloegl

About a month ago I signed up for Photolucida's NW Reviews. At the time it was sort of a whim. The registration was filling up quickly and I figured I would sign up just to reserve a space. I could always cancel later, but at least this held the door open.

I've been stewing over my decision ever since. Some days I am gung-ho and can't wait to show my work. Some days I'm sure it's a mistake. Whatever I decide, my summer has already taken on several added degrees of stress. In fact one of the reasons I haven't been posting much lately is that these reviews have dominated my photographic thoughts. I've had a hard time looking at photo books lately, and even making new photographs has been difficult (a rare experience) because I'm devoting so much mental energy to the reviews. I know this may sound pathetic. It's just a two day event and I shouldn't build it into a life crisis. I think the reason it's been so consuming is that NW Reviews raises all sorts of major questions about my photography, why I pursue it, what I want to get out of it, and ultimately who is it for?

Arguments in favor of doing NW Reviews:
--A national event comes right to my backyard
--Forces me to edit and think about how to present my work which is valuable no matter what happens
--Smaller, less expensive, and less consuming than other reviews
--No man is an Island. At some point I need outside feedback and this is a great chance to get my work out there
--Could meet some cool photographers and see some good work by others. Swaps?
--Curiosity to engage in a new experience
--Wife and kids will be out of town, so timing is perfect
--Could be my last chance to avoid permanent entrenchment outside the mainstream photo community

Arguments against:
--I'll need to spend all my spare time indoors preparing during the nicest season of the year
--Although cheaper than other reviews, $475 is still a lot of money for an uncertain payoff
--Why do I need affirmation from any outside source?
--The type of work I am fond of --small format street work printed in a darkroom-- is decidedly unpopular and will be dismissed out of hand by many reviewers. I have a pretty good inkling of how these reviews will go even before they start
--Opens me up to potential humiliation or (worse?) indifference
--I don't work on projects, yet the format of the reviews favors conceptual, execution-based projects
--What's so bad about permanent entrenchment?
--I still need to figure out how to make gallery grade color inkjet prints

I have a feeling that I've already decided, and that I made the decision a month ago.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

At the risk of pouring fuel on an inferno, I'd like to add my two cents about the ongoing Flickr threads questioning street photography's legitimacy.

To get everyone up to date, the spat began June 3rd when Noel Rodo-Vankeulen explained why he never posted street photography on his blog We Can't Paint. "So much of this type of photography seems to only provide answers instead of questions," he said. Which was somewhat inflammatory, but it wasn't until Joerg Colberg excerpted the quote on Conscientious, basically agreeing with the statement, that the shit really hit the fan. Flickr's Hardcore Street Photography forum launched a long discussion, stirred up by Michael David Murphy at 2point8, who then created his own Flickr discussion forum on the topic. Fur flew, fingers pointed, feathers ruffled, etc.

Although I am not part of the eponymous Flickr forum I would classify myself as a hardcore street photographer, and so in these discussions my inclination is to sympathize with that perspective. It may surprise folks when I say I think there is some truth to Rodo-Vankeulen's statement. Some street photography, perhaps even most of it, attempts to provide answers rather than questions, and in doing so becomes rather boring. At its worst, street photography becomes the equivalent of a knock-knock joke.

Knock-knock. Look at this. Isn't it clever? Ha-ha. This sort of photo doesn't ask much, and whatever it asks is quickly answered with the only correct reply possible.

The image above is from a recent email of the type I receive fairly often from non-photographer friends who think I might like them. Judging by how often I receive them I think these images must be all over the web. I suppose that when people think of street photography, this is what they think of. And in fact, a lot of street photography tends to follow this pattern, the quick gag, the visual gimmick, the one-line joke. A few more from the same email:

My hunch is that Noel Rodo-Vankeulen and Colberg associate most street photography with this type of gag, which is why they don't give it much attention. Taken as a whole the contemporary photo art community leans toward the same dim view. They'd much prefer photos with no easy answers that can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, the pendulum has swung way too far into the mystery column. Browsing through the 20 x 200 site, which is a pretty fair assessment of what is young and hot in photography, there is no risk of finding any answers layout about. I'm not sure what to make of images by Brad Moore

Kirby Pilcher

or Rebecca Loyche

Sure, they've escaped the trap of the visual knock-knock, but it seems to me they've become too inaccessible. These are like knock-knocks in an obscure foreign language. Perhaps they mean something to a small number of native speakers, but most of us are left with nothing to get a handle on at all. We are forced to give the work our own meaning almost without regard for the work itself. Instead of being dependent on the photographer's expression, the work is more about us, the audience, and what we bring to it.

This approach may be fine for some folks. But for me personally, a photo it has to at least meet me halfway. I'm ok bringing something to the photo so long as the photo keeps up its end of the bargain. For me, the best photography has a balance between the question and answer that is similar to a zen koan. Like a koan, a good photo may seem blank and inapproachable, yet it pricks the brain in a certain definite way. It has an answer. It isn't completely wide open. I'm thinking of photos by Eggleston,

Carl de Keyzer,

or Henry Wessel,

to take just three examples. It's no coincidence that --at least for me-- the photos that best strike this balance tend to be documentary or found objects, often of people, in nonstatic environments. In other words, street photos. At their best, as in the three photos above, the tie to a real scene prevents the photo from being completely mysterious. Whatever questions the photo brings up, the fact that the scene existed brings everything back down to earth, and anyone who looks at the photo can generally agree on the scene's original visual elements. On the other hand, photos like the three above have enough ambiguity to avoid any easy answer. There is no punch-line to these photos, just as there is no punch-line to life or general reality. Street photos in the form of knock-knocks may seem real, but don't really reflect the world.

Friday, June 6, 2008

San Francisco

Twenty five photos from my April trip to San Francisco, or about one per every hour that I spent photographing over the course of the weekend:

Monday, June 2, 2008

Temperature Check: Untitled Work

Jeff Mermelstein's No Title Here, recently remaindered by Powerhouse Books: $10.70

Richard Prince's Untitled (Cowboy), recently sold at Sotheby's auction: $1,248,000

I don't know about anyone else but I'm pretty sure which one I'd rather look at.