Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Processed world

For the NW Reviews, I made C-prints in U-Develop's color darkroom. The choice to use a darkroom instead of printing digitally probably made things harder on myself. Instead of printing in the comfort of my own home I had to live out of my car for a week while spending my daylight hours immersed in pitch black. Also, I hadn't much experience in a color darkroom. Up until last week I'd spent all of about 3 hours printing color. But I got up to speed quickly, and at the end of the week I was glad I'd chosen to make C-prints. The richness and separation of the colors was really spectacular. I think it would be very difficult to get similar prints from an ink jet printer.

Beyond that, there was something deeply satisfying about using an old analogue process which circumvented the computer. It felt more like craftsmanship, like making jewelry or gardening, like part of me had been invested into each print. I think that C-prints will become rarer and rarer. U-Develop is the only rental color darkroom that I know of, perhaps the only one on the west coast, and so making C-prints has become a relatively scarce craft. At the reviews, I believe there were only two of us (out of 80) showing color C-prints.

At the end of the week I laid all of the prints I'd made across all the tables at U-Develop and I asked George and Faulkner, who were there printing, which ones they liked. George tore up small pieces of metallic paper to place on top of their least favorites. Luckily none of the least favorites turned out being one that I really liked. As a thank you I gave George and Faulkner their choice of prints from my pile of extra 16 x 20s. These were prints in which either the color, timing, or easel blades were off. Some of them were very nice, just barely off. Some were far worse, unshowable, with light streaks from an enlarger bulb gone haywire.

George chose an image of an orange fence going back into some woods. Faulkner's choice surprised me at first, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made. He chose an image of two fences facing each other across a road. The print had a huge red streak from a light leak across the left half of the photo. It had narrowly escaped the garbage bin, and I'd kept it in the pile as an afterthought. It turned out to be Faulkner's favorite. To him a photograph is as much about the process of photography as about the image. The fact that the print had a streak told him something about me making it.

One time I was at Faulkner's house to look at his work. He'd made some prints from a roll of film his dad had shot in Mexico. The camera was laying around a while and some ants had found their way into it, and they'd walked across the film as some of the exposures were made. The photographs were absolutely freaky. They were normal backyard snapshots, but with giant ants attacking from the corners. Most people would probably throw that film away but not Faulkner. He made 16 x 20s so that the ants could grow even bigger. The prints were fantastic. Another series of prints was from some 35 roll film that he'd run through a medium format camera. The images bled all through the roll to the edges where they were regularly pockmarked by the film's sprocket holes. What the? To him it's about the process, and about staying open to possibilities anywhere along the creative chain.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Northwest Reviews Review

Well, Photolucida NW Reviews has finally come and gone, and I've had a day for decompression and thought. It will be difficult to sum up the whole experience in one post so I'll make a stab at it today and add more thoughts in upcoming posts.

Since the core of Photolucida is the review experience, that's where I'll begin. For the reviews I printed up two portfolios. The first was a tightly edited sequence of b/w street shots taken from my In-Public portfolio. The second was a more current portfolio of medium format color work showing suburban fencing in the Willamette Valley (not on my website yet but stay tuned). With these two radically different portfolios I thought I could cover most bases.

Over the course of the weekend I had 9 twenty minute meetings with various photo luminaries, and a few less luminous. It was a bit like speed dating. You meet, have a conversation, and at the end of twenty minutes you decide if the relationship might work out and if you want to go on another date. Although I exchanged plenty of handshakes and business cards, no one wanted to keep dating me. Oh well. At least now that I've gotten my work out there I can feel better about storing it back in the closet.

Twenty minutes may seem like a short time to bring someone up to speed on your work, but it was actually sufficient. Speaking personally, within five minutes of first looking through someone's work I know whether or not I want to see more of it. The reviewers were even more experienced. By and large they've seen it all, and within five minutes of seeing my work I got the sense they'd come to a decision about it. Which left fifteen minutes for platitudes and generalities.

"You should edit this down more."
"What do you hope to do with this work, a book, a show, a magazine?"
"How long have you been shooting? Where did you go to school? What shows have you had?"
"You should make small work prints and play with them on a table to work out the sequencing."
"There are a lot of folks out there doing this type of work."
"Who have you shown this work to?"
"Why in the world are you still shooting film?"

These are all valid comments, but they didn't have much to do with the work itself. They might apply to any reviewee. I didn't get many specific comments like, "I really respond to this image because of x" or "These ones work because they have x in common whereas this one doesn't do y." One person said she liked my photos that were more mysterious but when I asked which ones those were my question became an unsolved mystery. By and large, the focus was much more career based, much more about how my photography might fit into the broader world than about the process of making it. Which is about what I'd expected.

The exception came from the one reviewer I saw who was an active photographer, Raymond Meeks. Thinking he liked landscapes, I showed Meeks the color first. He wasn't impressed. I showed him the b/w which he seemed to like better. But it wasn't until I showed him a small notebook of family shots that he made the most perceptive comment of the weekend, "I get the sense you're excited when you take these. These show passion. Your color work feels much less risky, much safer." Damn, had he nailed it! I said, yes, I felt the same way. What did I give a shit about fences for? I didn't at all! It was merely a thematic construct applied after shooting. But the family shots...The family shots aren't made with any future intent. If something interesting is happening I'll whip through a roll in five minutes. I said that with the color work I was much more precise. I thought long and hard about making each photo before exposing it. He physically winced at that comment. I said surely you must run into that shooting sheet film? You don't think about whether the exposure is worth it after going to the hassle of loading your 4 x 5? He said he never ever thought about the film. He ran off as many shots as necessary until he captured what he wanted. He said I'm a photographer. I do whatever I need to to get photographs. I might have to run through box of film to get a shot but if I get one shot --one-- from the day I have done what I set out to do.

That review was definitely the most worthwhile of the entire weekend. More comments in future days...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Storyville Story

In February I wrote about films featuring photographers as main characters. A few nights ago I watched another: Pretty Baby, a film made in 1978 by Louis Malle loosely based on E.J. Bellocq's involvement with a New Orleans brothel. Featuring Brooke Shields as a 12 year old prostitute, this is a movie that would never get made in today's moral climate. Today we realize that kids have absolutely no curiosity about sex, but back then the question was still up for discussion.

Anyway, what makes the film interesting for photographers is that, unlike most of the movies mentioned in my earlier post, Bellocq's Storyville portraits play a central role in the film, forming the speculative background for several scenes. One shows the making of this photograph, perhaps Bellocq's best known image

Another shows Bellocq making this one

A third scene shows the young Brooke Shields scratching out the faces on several exposed glass plates, a reference to one of the more mysterious features of Bellocq's photographs.

Of course, all of these scenes are speculative. This is not meant to be a documentary about Bellocq, and since we know so little about his life it would be difficult to ever make such a movie. Yet based on the limited amount we know, this probably comes as near as possible. Bellocq's primary legacy isn't his biography but his photographs, and it is these that Polly Platt has based her screenplay on. It's as if she leafed through Storyville Portraits and fleshed out scenes straight from the images, and these form the structure of the film.

I have been making a ton of photos and thinking a ton about photography but I can't blog much until next week after Photolucida. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated

from Augustus Sherman's Ellis Island Portraits, 1905-1920

No, I haven't forgotten about the blog, but I've been delightfully removed from computer range, having just returned from a multi-week journey into the heart of northern Maine visiting my wife's relatives. I believe this is about as far from the world of contemporary photography as one can travel within the lower 48. No one there could understand what it was I did. To them, a photograph is the shot of the family picnic hanging along the stairwell. Why anyone would take a photograph of a stranger or a parking lot was not really worth going into. I love Maine.

My only problem is that I didn't bring along enough film. The last few days I was forced into an uncomfortably deliberate style which felt very unnatural. It's impossible for me to take good photos when I have to stop and consider whether the exposure will be "worth it". Such conditions almost guarantee that no photo will be. I suppose I could get around this by shooting digital but then the opposite effect sets in. When there is no need at all to consider whether an exposure will be "worth it", that also guarantees that none will be. The middle ground seems to be in between: use film freely but expensively.

from Tim Davis' My Life in Politics

We did make one overnight sojourn into the artsy fartsy end of Maine. In Rockport along the South Central coast is one of the country's great photography bookstores, Tim Whelan's Photography. I wound up with a few used titles including Tim Davis' My Life In Politics, Augustus Sherman's Ellis Island Portraits, and an old Contact Sheet profiling Bill Arnold. I'd never heard of the latter but his style intrigued me. He shoots old fashioned b/w film, heavy on the grain. It's the type of title that stands out in a bookstore because no one is doing that now, so after briefly flipping through the booklet it went in the "buy" pile. It wasn't until later that evening that I could spend more time with Bill Arnold, and at that point the work starting looking a bit thin. Maybe it was the nature of the book, a grab-all retrospective. I don't know. Some of the shots were strong but others seemed pretty amateur, and not really in a good way. Some photo books are like that. They make a great first impression but then get more hollow.

Ralph Gibson, John Collier, Robert Frank from Bill Arnold's Contact Sheet

Some work the other way. They grow on you slowly. Below Rockport we hit Portland, where I found a book that worked the second way, South Central by Mark Steinmetz. Browsing through it in the bookstore, this one hit me about as strongly as Bill Arnold. Good documentary b/w, a consistent voice, a steeply discounted price, Sold. It wasn't until later in the hotel room that I took the time necessary for the photos to sink in, and at that point South Central really walloped me. Very strong portraits with a few scattered social landscapes. The photographs seem sleepy at first until you realize that's the nature of the place Steinmetz is documenting (Knoxville, TN). The vibe takes over. Before you know it the work has snuck up on you like the bottom of a Schnapps bottle and you're really feeling it. Strong!

from Mark Steinmetz' South Central

Two books that seemed about the same in the bookstore wound up giving me very different experiences. This seems to parallel the way that photographs themselves behave. When making exposures, one can never tell exactly which ones will have that gut punch effect. A lot of them feel that way as the shutter is released. It's only later that they sort themselves out into weak and strong. The funny thing is, it's impossible to tell which is which at the moment of exposure.

I think it's the uncertainty that keeps me going.