Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cosmic, dude

I've been making color photographs for a few years now but it was only recently that I realized I haven't been correcting for cosmic background color. Damn! I knew something seemed off. Now I'll have to reprint everything, unless of course I can find another universe to move to with better light. For the time being fiat lux gets an asterisk.

Here's the universal color cast for anyone curious.

Rather boring actually. Not sure what the universe had in mind there. Believe me, the next good one that comes along I'm so outta here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Lamp Posts of Skinner Butte Park

"Skinner Butte Park runs along the Willamette River in Eugene, Oregon. An older portion of the park is illuminated with substantial iron lamp posts which have been repeatedly painted over the years. Corrosion interacting with the paint has left the posts with remarkable texture, color and beauty."

So reads Craig Hickman's short description of his latest photo project. Aiming his camera squarely up one of the most overlooked subjects in the contemporary landscape, Hickman has created a surprisingly diverse typology which hits just the right mix of discovery, banality, and physical history. Imagine the bastard love-child of Misrach's Seguaros and The Bechers' Watertowers. Better yet, you don't have to imagine. Here's a sampling:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Threat Level: Magenta

After polling my extended family about my passport photo, the general consensus was that I should get it retaken. My family thinks that looking like a terrorist in a State Department document is an invitation for trouble, and they're probably right.

Fortunately I know my family pretty well and I had guessed what they might say, so I'd submitted my application before asking for their advice. Yesterday the passport came in the mail:

I think any potential terrorist connotation is muted by the superimposed graphics and the bizarre magenta facial shift.

Then again, so what if it isn't? What if I do look like a terrorist? The thing is, as a street photographer I'm used to being viewed with suspicion. Aiming a Leica in certain directions is a bit like wearing a Kafiyeh or dreadlocks. You're going to get hassled by authorities, period. Hopefully this will change eventually but for now it's reality.

So when it comes to an airport or border crossing, it's just like a sidewalk. I expect to be stared at, questioned, and asked for ID. And so long as I'm going to be treated like a potential terrorist I figure I may as well look the part.

I'm curious to try the passport in a real life situation, perhaps while holding a camera and with long hair. The next time I cross an international border I'll post an update.

4/29/09 Addendum: From Bryan Wolf in Portland comes this passport.

A self described "long haired photographer who looked like a textbook drug smuggler," Bryan says he's been hassled at borders but due more to his appearance than his passport. I see lots of potential to stash Communist leaflets or nuclear blueprints in that thick beard and hair. Even so, he reports his camera gives him more trouble with authorities nowadays than the long locks.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I expect disagreement

Songs about photography: my personal top ten...

1. Mission of Burma, This is Not a Photograph
2. Hank Thompson & His Brazos Valley Boys, An Old Faded Photograph
3. R.E.M., Camera
4. Johnny Cash, Send a Picture of Mother
5. Tom Waits, Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards)
6. Larry Towell, Leica Camera Song
7. Antonio Carlos Jobim, Photograph
8. The Kinks, Picture Book
9. Wilco, Kamera
10. Paul Simon, Kodachrome one favorite photographic album cover:

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pinhole for pinheads

Today is World Pinhole Photography Day. Here's a recent pinhole photograph of mine that I've really grown to like:

Photographing pinholes is harder than it might seem. With just a hole and some surrounding nonhole, there's not a lot to work with. But this sheer simplicity leads to interesting problems. There's the question of whether to center the hole perfectly or, as I chose to do, leave it slightly ajar. The contrast/brightness of the hole/nonhole relationship has many variables, and don't even get me started on white balance.

The one thing I found deceptively easy was making the pinhole itself. I'd been led to believe that making a pinhole could be an involved process requiring hours of work. But really it only took a second to prick a pin through a sheet of paper. I don't know why everyone makes such a fuss about it. It's photographing the actual hole that requires time and attention, not to mention the nonhole.

I'm really excited to know that people all over the world will be making photographs like this today. Good luck everyone!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What To Do? #25

73. SE 82nd Ave., Portland, 2004

74. SW 6th and Jefferson, Portland, 2004

75. Heceta Head, Oregon, 2007

(WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen b/w photos)

Friday, April 24, 2009

From the 2009 series White Trash

A signed 8 x 10 C-print of this image goes to the first person to request it via email (Sorry, this print is no longer available):

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Lost Cloud, New York, 1937, Andre Kertesz

From a conversation yesterday between me and my 8 year old son Zane:

Z: What did you just take a picture of?

B: That cloud up there.

Z: But what's so special about that cloud?

B: It doesn't look like any other cloud. That cloud is going to disappear and no other cloud will ever be like it.

Z: But there are thousands of clouds. Another one will come along as soon as that one disappears and you could photograph it instead.

B: It wouldn't be the same cloud.

Z: So that one is different? What does it look like that makes you want to take its picture?

B: It looks like itself. Make sense?

Z: Not really. Can we go to practice now?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A mirror in space

When I was a kid in the late 70s I spent about a week on a jigsaw puzzle of this image.

This view of earth is from one of the early Apollo space missions. Although there were many such photos taken from space during that period, this is the one which became iconic. It was turned into posters, T-shirts, and jigsaws.

This photograph has become so commonplace that I think we underestimate its transformative power. It's one of those before-and-after historical points like 9/11 or the invention of mirrors. We had one understanding of the world before the photo and a radically shifted paradigm afterward.

The Mark On the Mirror Breathing Makes, 1977, Dieter Appelt

I think some of our current cultural divisions can be traced to that paradigm shift. For the generation which came of age before this photo —Cheney, Kristol, Limbaugh, et al.— the earth was viewed as an unlimited storehouse of resources there for our taking. Their understanding of economics and regulation can be traced to that notion. The current "debate" over global warming, e.g., is premised on the fact that some people view the earth as too vast for humans to effect.

For anyone who has come of age since the photo, that view is impossible. The fundamental fact of this photograph is that the earth is finite. All the clouds, oceans, and land may appear as a perfect disc of resources, but beyond that is black space.

The other fundamental fact of this photograph is that it's an exterior view. The camera is here but the earth is out there. Looking at this photograph is a bit like traveling in a foreign land. Often it isn't until we are outside a situation that we can see it clearly. From 100,000 miles away the earth appears as our morning mirror in space reflecting the truth of what our home looks like. It is "a fact clearly described," to use Winogrand's term. And indeed, nothing is more mysterious.

I don't mean to get sappy or turn this into a political diatribe. I just want to say on Earth Day that I love this planet with all my heart.

So happy Earth Day, buddy. Here's to another 4.5 billion years and, by the way, nice portrait.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

One small request

With all due respect to Will Steacy and Sarah Small, this is fucking ridiculous. With its darkened room, carefully choreographed pregnant pauses, and suspenseful background music I felt like I was watching The Apprentice or American Idol. Must everything in our culture be dragged into that format?

I hope not, because that is the format of complete artifice. Worse, it is artifice masked as reality. Photography is not a courtroom drama. It's far more messy and beautiful.

Judges Hegel and Debord about to weigh in with a verdict

This isn't a comment about the work of Steacy or Small. I think they're both great photographers. But to all you video producers and other tentacles of the Spectacle looking for subject matter, please leave photography alone. Thanks.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Web guide 4.20

Ever wonder what happened to the great tradition of French street photography? This question and many others are explored on Nick Turpin's new blog sevensevennine. The site should appeal to all photographers but street junkies in particular should bookmark it. The Anatomy of a Street Photograph video nuggets alone are worth the link.

Nick Turpin picks up the French street torch in
Gare de Lyon-Perrache, Lyon, France

Speaking of street stuff, Turpin's In-Public cohort Nils Jorgensen was recently profiled in the rotating gallery at Too Much Chocolate, which follows a novel method of curating/sequencing. Each week a new photographer is selected and interviewed by the previous week's photographer. It makes for a wonderfully unpredictable sequence of thoughts and images.

A recent photo by Zé Nogueira,
currently profiled on Too Much Chocolate

Portland photographer Lisa Gidley has been running The Daily Thing for a few months now offering a wide variety of cultural tschockes, one per day. Subjects run the gamut with an emphasis on photography, music videos, and web games. Gidley knows you're busy so she keeps the blurbs short and sweet.

CBGB's bathroom, from Lisa Gidley's The Daily Thing April 17, 2009

Finally, Guy Swanson has set up a Twitter feed for photography related happenings in Portland. The biggie for this week is Photolucida. A schedule of events can be found here, but you knew that.

Photolucida puts the kleiglights on Portland this week

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sex, love, and money

After the Larry Sultan lecture last week got me all hot and bothered about his work, I dug around on the web to see which of his books might be available. I found several used copies of The Valley for around $50 but decided to pass. It contains some very fine photographs but the whiff of hardcore porn was just too strong. Perhaps befitting its content, the book is oversized, another turnoff. I like to think it's not the size of the book that matters. It's how you use the book.

The Valley, Larry Sultan (Scalo, 2004)

Next I looked for Pictures From Home, published in 1992 and out of print for several years. The lowest price for a used copy was around $250 and prices went up from there. I found two new copies, one for around $1000 and the other for...

Fifty bucks. Huh?! I looked closer to make sure it wasn't a typo. Maybe there were pages missing? Heavy shelf wear? No, it was a brand new book sold by a London dealer. Now came a strange moment as I asked myself how much I really wanted this book and why. It contained some excellent photographs, and I generally like family portraits. But was I in love with the book? I wasn't sure. I'm a deal hunter. Fifty dollars is more than I usually pay for any photo book unless it's a true love affair. Back in 1992, if I'd seen this on a shelf with a stack of others, all for $50, I'm not sure I would've bought it.

Pictures From Home, Larry Sultan (Harry N. Abrams, 1992)

So why should the situation now be any different from 1992? Yet somehow it was. I had to admit that because this book was selling elsewhere for hundreds of dollars more, it became more desirable. I was unlikely ever to see it for $50 again. If worst came to worst and I wound up hating the book I could turn around and resell it at a profit. Did I mention I'm a deal hunter?

As you've probably guessed, I ordered my shelf trophy.

The next day Jeff Ladd came out with his commentary on the state of photobook market, the basic premise of which is that collectors and profiteers have driven up prices and limited the availability of certain photobooks. Guilty! The irony is that I totally agree with him. I've made the same argument on B. Book prices have gotten ridiculous. People are buying them as much for investment as for their contents. Many great books are inaccessible. Yes, yes, and yes. Yet I bought the book anyway, partly motivated by profiteering. That I'd done so on the eve of the commentary seemed strangely serendipitous. Was this fate trying to teach me a lesson?

I received a confirmation from London that they got my order but no word on when it will ship. Do they even have the book? Maybe the whole thing never happened. If I wind up receiving it here in my small Valley, I'll post a Picture From Home as Evidence.

What To Do? #24

70. Paris, 1998

71. Springwater Trail, Portland, 2003

72. Tucson, Arizona, 2004

(WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen b/w photos)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Tate's six typologies of urban photography

1. Blind

Blind Woman, New York, 1916, Paul Strand

2. Photographers at Work

Diane Arbus, Central Park, NY, 1969, Garry Winogrand

3. Fear of the Other

Transvestite in a Police Van, 1941, Weegee

4. Peeping and Posing

Vienna Workshop, 1921, Madame d'Ora

5. City Sleepers

from the series Sleepers, 1999 - 2006, Francis Alÿs

6. Portraits of Pride

Bikram, 2007, Sunil Gupta

—from Street and Studio: An Urban History of Photography (Tate Publishing, 2008)

Settle down now. I'm sure you all have your own urban typologies which are different than these. No need to holler them out. This is just one way of categorizing things which I found interesting. Nothing more, nothing less, but maybe something to consider the next time you're out shooting.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sultan of photography

From his opening parable about Moses and the burning bush to his pre-Adbusters billboard hijackings to suburban porn sets to the final comments on the differences between shooting his family vs celebrities, Larry Sultan's lecture last night at the U of O kicked ass!

Evidence of Larry Sultan's visit to the University of Oregon

I've been to a lot of photo talks over the years and I almost always find them interesting in some way. Often they're by young photographers in the midst of some project, and I can gain insight into their process or thoughts.

Larry Sultan's talk last night was a cut above. This was a man at the full height of his powers, amazingly grounded, articulate, and just plain wise, somehow able to package thirty-five years of theory and practice neatly into an hour and a half. "Photographers are ventriloquists," he said. "We send out our photos into the world, and through them we speak." After years of hearing Sultan's voice through his work, it was wonderful last night to see and hear him in person. If you ever get the chance to catch him speak, do NOT pass it up.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Everything real eventually yellows

Winogrand's obituary was posted last week on Photo Ephemera, almost twenty-five years to the day after he died.

It's interesting to see this reproduced as a photocopy of a physical object. Quick poll: when Helen Levitt died recently how many read her obituary in a physical newspaper? I'm guessing not many. If you're like me you read it online, either on the New York Times site or some other digital version. Maybe you went out later and bought a physical copy as a souvenir but that was after you'd read it online. So to see an actual obituary snipped from newsprint and yellowing like a poorly fixed photograph is a flash from the past, one which seems to mesh with Winogrand's era and his oeuvre. Few things in this life are more tangible than the dateline above an obituary. Stepping in puddles, sex, good street photos, ...maybe some other things but not many. Certainly not blogging.

It's remarkable that Winogrand's his legacy hasn't changed much since 3/21/84. He is still "the central photographer of his generation," although that generation is now in its twilight. It's rare in the art world for any reputation to remain relatively unchanged for so long. Art history is malleable. Some photographers fade into obscurity over time while others are rescued from it. By contast, Winogrand's obituary is an immovable line in the sand. Take away the yellowing and it could've been published last week, which in a way it was.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Boystown / Scorpio

In Powell's last week I stumbled on two photo books which couldn't be be less alike, yet each worked in its own way. It was another reminder that there is no one true method.

Boystown: La Zona De Tolerencia is a collection of photos taken in bars along the U.S./Mexico border. These were shots taken by house photographers in the bars with full consent of the subjects to remind them the next morning of the fun they had obliterating their memories the previous night. Although the names of the photographers have been lost in the shuffle, the physical photos remained property of the bars. Over the course of many years they were meticulously scavenged by collector Bill Witliff and published as "Boystown" by Aperture in 2000.

Boystown is the raunchiest photo book I've seen in a while. Drunken leering slobs, illicit gropings and groupings, barflies passed out on the floor, etc. It's not a book for the prudish. But if you can stomach the depravity, these are among the purest moments I've seen captured on film. In many photos the drunken louts are completely blissed out while their female companions, most of whom appear sober, stare with bored or resigned looks. The simple juxtaposition of happy and sad caught up in the same flash is quite visceral. I haven't seen expressions so pure and unmediated since my kids were babies. The group shots and a few frontal nudes are just as honest, the sort of wonderfully unconsidered snapshots that folks take at parties all the time but refined by Witliff to the best, choicest moments. If any of these photos were by established photographers they'd be widely distributed but instead they're completely unknown and unappreciated, and —this is the best news— so is the book. I found a used copy at Goodwill in Seattle (via ABE) for around $10.

If Boystown projects the energy of Never Mind the Bollocks..., Mike Slack's Scorpio (The Ice Plant, 2006) is more akin to Music for Airports. Like Slack's previous book OK OK OK, Scorpio is a beguiling series of Polaroids which upon first glance have nothing to do with each other. The scenes jump around interior and exterior, far away and close, in and out of focus.Like Eno they slowly accumulate and simmer in the Reptilian brain, forcing you to ask yourself what is going on here? Why do these photos work?

I think the answer lies in the sequencing, which seems to have settled on the exact midpoint between order and chaos. The photos don't at all relate to one another yet...they do. Perhaps theirs is the rhythm of the natural world with all its starts, stops, catalysts and resting points. For example every time through the book I am stopped cold by the same image of unfocused city lights. Seen on its own it might not stand out, but primed by the previous photos my brain thinks it's seen a ghost. What was that? It doesn't seem quite real (in contrast, Boystown is hyperreal).

What ties Scorpio together is exactly that thing which Boystown is missing, the voice of one author. To enjoy Scorpio one needs to take a leap of faith that Slack will show you the goods. His voice is not only the glue, it's the gesso too.

I suppose Witliff plays that role for Boystown since he bore the duties of collecting and editing. But Boystown depends less on a universal voice than on the strength of its individual images, and in fact the very lack of identifiable author is part of its charm. Book publishers have produced a good run of these anonymous snapshots collections lately, and I think their continued appeal rests on the sense of mystery behind the photos. Who took these? Who are these people? And taking a step back, what, if anything, separates some dusty old scrapbook item from the work on a museum wall?

These are good questions to ask about any photo. Since there is no one true method, the answers will be as countless and varied as words overheard in an airport.

4/13/9 Postscript: As I expected, this post spurred a massive jump in sales for both books. Boystown spiked from #489,359 on the Amazon rankings all the way up to #489,353 before slipping back a bit. Scorpio did even better, leapfrogging 10 spaces over several out-of-print romance novels to land at #789,225. I just wanted to take a moment to give myself a congratulatory slap on the back for wielding such awesome influence.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What To Do #23

67. NW 19th and Marshall, Portland, 2005

68. Chehalis, WA, 2004

69. SE 12th and Taylor, Portland, 2004

Friday, April 10, 2009

Everything that rises

Adjudication is in the air. On the same morning I received my first jury summons in over ten years I got a heads up from Pete Brook about his recent post comparing the photos of Abu Ghraib to Roger Ballen's Shadow Chamber. Looking at the two sets of images I have to admit there is some strange similarity, although as Brook points out no firm causal relationship. But maybe that's the magic. I love when authors show me how seemingly unrelated things connect, especially in photography. Lawrence Weschler has compiled a very entertaining book of such visual occurrences.

A caged beast in the shadow chamber courtesy of Winogrand

The funny thing is that when I saw Roger Ballen lecture last summer, he gave off a sort of imprisoned energy. He paced the floor like a caged wildcat. His speech was sharp yet meandering, a bit like a prisoner of conscience shouting through bars. You know in your heart of hearts I'm right mixed with Can anyone hear me? I think some of that feeling is in his photos.

Brook's Prisonphotography blog is good reading from an under-represented point of view, and potentially practical too. Considering the trend in anti-photography legislation there's a chance any shooter can land in the pen. Just pray you don't wind up in the Shadow Chamber.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lukas Vasilikos: What Was He Thinking?

Lukas Vasilikos is a photographer based in Athens, Greece. More of his work can be seen here and here.

1. Dreams

"This photo is taken in a ship, traveling from Athens to Heraklion, Crete. What I first saw was the young woman. The window creates an excellent frame. The beautiful woman staring at the sea could be a photo by itself. But what excites me more in photography is the creation of interesting stories. So I chose to tell a story about these three people, an elderly couple and a young woman. The contrast is between the dreamy environment of the exterior and the realistic, down to earth environment of the interior. His woman is sleeping but it seems like the man is having an exciting dream. Some details such as the binoculars and the Exit sign give a more dramatic tone to the shot."

2. Streets of Barcelona

"I took this shot in Barcelona. The city is a paradise for photographers. When I saw this scene, I thought the robot puppet was spying on the young couple. It seems like the robot is trying to understand what exactly they are doing, like it is thinking, 'How strange people are, what strange habits they have!' ”

3. Wet

"This shot is taken at Christmas time, at Heraklion, Crete. I had wandered to the sea wall looking for my next shot. The moment I saw the man with the bicycle and the Santa Claus balloon, I knew that that was going to be my next photo. I just waited for the right moment. I was very lucky that he went and stood exactly where the biggest waves were. I took the shot a moment before a wave stroked him and made him wringing wet."

4. Jump

"A bridge at a Stockholm suburb. The curves attracted my attention. I had the perfect location above but I had to wait for my protagonists to show up. I waited for a long time. Many times you have to be really patient. The little girl made her appearance. She started jumping the curves and the old lady was looking at her, somehow envying her for the game she had just invented. At the last moment and while the girl was jumping the last curve, I saw the old lady joining her in the game and jumping with her. Fortunately it was the moment I pressed the button."

5. Untitled

"This shot was taken at Syntagma Square, Athens. In the background we see the Greek Parliament. At first glance I saw five different stories in one shot and many interesting contrasts between them. The two girls with the green balloons, the couple at the right, the lonely guy, the tourists and of course the three-legged dog in the center, creating just the right balance. Looking longer, I saw the contrast between the parliament with the Greek flag and the “pornstar” graffiti at the stairs. Life in modern cities can be so crazy and interesting."

6. Reading the news

"Taken at the center of Athens at rush hour. I saw the old man standing there reading the news and behind him the TV showing beauty products ads. I thought it showed a nice contrast between the real world and the imaginary, perfect, and fake world of television and advertisement. I tried to set the old man and the TV apart from the crowd that was walking by which was quite tricky to say the least…"

7. Mirror

"Taken at Monastiraki fleamarket, in Athens city center. First, I saw the mirror of a tricycle and I thought it would be interesting to make a photo with its reflection but I had to wait for a long time and take many shots before getting the one that satisfied me. Patience is a key in my photography. The body of the man at the first level that seems to be separating from the head is the central subject. Around this, the couple with the hats, the old lady and the other persons create interesting details of the photo."

8. The ice cream

"2008, Stockholm. In one of the many circuses of the city, a religious festival was taking place. At first I saw the old man eating his ice cream next to the placards with the religious messages, a funny and interesting contrast. Then the little girl came and stared at him, envying his ice cream. I loved her serious face expression and the way she crossed her hands. It seems like the old man is the child and the girl is an elderly."