Sunday, July 26, 2009

The other global recession

Every summer since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1992 I've spent time on the glaciers here. A glacier makes you feel small like nothing else does, not even the ocean.

I think the world would be better off if its presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs could feel small once in a while.

While researching this summer's glacial outing I found these images by Steph Abegg on a random trip report from the North Cascades:

The amount of glacial recession shown in these rephotographs is stunning. 30 years is like 1/1000th of a second to a glacier. It's nothing. Yet look at the change! At this rate some local glaciers may disappear completely within my lifetime. Here's me thinking about a world without glaciers:

Every year I make a similar mental note about glacial recession, and every year they recede a bit further. Yet it isn't until I look at photographs like the ones above that it really becomes tangible and undeniable.

I know global warming is old news and not very exciting. Everyone knows we're irreversibly reaming the planet so there's no sense preaching about it. I just want to say that it's very real, real enough to be photographed.

I know how to make it even more real. I need to go into the mountains for a while. This computer is a damn sorceress and I need to break her spell. I'll pick up B again at some point in the indefinite future...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What To Do? #38

112. San Francisco, 2002

113. White Salmon River, WA, 2004

114. Kailua, Hawaii, 2004

Friday, July 24, 2009

Celebrating The Negative

Photoephemera recently posted an old review of Robert Adams' The New West which I found pretty fascinating. The review is from an issue of Popular Photography printed in 1974 just after the book was published.

Attacking Adam's fundamental tenet that suburban development was eclipsing the Western landscape, Alice S. Williams writes
"People wouldn't live in these areas in these houses if they didn't like the area or didn't have to live there for one reason or another..."

Then Williams takes on Adams:
"What right does he have to protest? That the photographs are meaningless and dull just points out that he isn't a good photographer, not that the new West is becoming meaningless and dull...Rows and rows of endless roads take up space in the book. These pictures are not pretty, rarely enlightening, and not even striking. They are merely dull."

Ouch! Now that is what you call a negative review. Nevermind the fact that I totally disagree with it. When I read that it jarred me, I think because it is so rare nowadays to encounter negative reviews.

"Rows and rows of endless roads take up space in the book"

This is the age of reference and, it seems, reverence. The internet is awash with links and recommendations about all sorts of photographs, most of them glowing reviews. Surely they can't all be great. Where are the links which say, "This work sucks. Avoid it."? I know such work is out there but if such reviews are I haven't seen them.

Perhaps some of it is due to the fear of winding up on the wrong side of history as Williams did, or Hilton Kramer with his infamous pan of William Eggleston's MOMA show:
"Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly...He likes trucks, cars, tricycles, unremarkable suburban houses and dreary landscapes too, and he especially likes his family and friends, who may for all I know be wonderful people, who appear in these pictures as dismal figures inhabiting a commonplace world of little visual interest."

There are probably many people still who find Adams and Eggleston boring but few would dispute their contributions to photography. So that may be part of it, the fear that a negative review will be remembered later as an example of sciolism.

"A commonplace world of little visual interest"

But I think the larger reason is that the photography world is an informal pat-on-the-back society. If you plug my photos I'll plug yours. Or I'll show my photos in your gallery if you write something positive. It's one big happy family so long as no one rocks the boat with a harsh critique.

Great, but that doesn't change the fact that not all of the photography out there is exciting. Surely some of it must rub some of us wrong. Let's write about it.

"Reeks of trivial high school melodrama"

Which brings me to Jeff Ladd's recent lambasting of Nan Goldin at Arles, probably the most negative photography critique I've yet seen online. I think it took some guts for Ladd to post this. Goldin's star may not be as bright as it once was but she's still Nan Goldin, one of photography's few undisputed superstars. Mr. Whiskets comes out swinging:
"Unfortunately there was NOTHING in this installation that did not reek of trivial art school melodrama - from the use of religious imagery and paintings that opened the show, to the bad videos that littered the screens. The most infuriating of all is that Nan's incompetence at creating anything beyond cliche was actually an offense to the memory of her sister..."

Whether or not you agree with Ladd you have to credit him with an honest appraisal which pulls no punches. The blogosphere could use more of these. Otherwise it's just a sea of warm feelings. The doldrums.

So let's hear it. Tell me what you don't like. If a certain body of work bores you, let it out. If you think this post is full of shit, tell me. If you know of a particularly eviscerating review somewhere on the web please pass it along. Stir the pot. Create some waves. Celebrate the negative.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Cave A Canoo

Eggleston may be the king of mass-produced album covers but when it comes to limited edition vinyl Faulkner Short is about to become the undisputed champ. He and his sister Shelley are currently wrapping up production of a limited vinyl release of Shelley's new album A Cave A Canoo on Portland's Mississippi Records. The cover of each record features an 11" square pinhole C-print handmade by Faulkner and assembled into a unique jacket collage by him and his sister.

Faulkner is as analog as they come. He's so analogy there's no good analogy for it.

There are 25 total images in the series, for which Faulkner printed 12 each for a total of 300 records. The first 100 have been presold, with the rest expected to follow suit, er, Shortly. The CD version will be released on Hush Records October 13th featuring this image from the series on the cover:

I think this is a pretty exciting project which circumvents one of the major conundrums facing both music and photography. If anything digital is easily replicated, how does one gain compensation for creating unique works? A limited edition LP with hand-printed photo is certainly one way to do it. There will never be more than 300, no two are quite the same, and they cannot be copied. Problem solved.

Did I mention the photos kick ass? Here are nine more. To see the rest you'll need to track down the record.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rephotographing Killip

Crabs and People, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, 1981, Chris Killip

Skinnigrove, North Yorkshire, 2009, Gary Shrimpling

Monday, July 20, 2009

Public Relations

I belong to three photography groups which meet monthly to share work and talk shop. These are Lightleak, Portland Grid Project, and Eugene Grid Project. I generally look forward to these meetings since photography can otherwise be a socially isolating activity. I shoot alone. Very few non-photographers understand what I do. To really push forward I need to connect with other photographers. Although this is possible through the web, it isn't the same as being in the same room talking with real people and looking at physical prints.

Lightleak, 2005: (L to R) Chris, Lyla, George, Lisa

I usually bring 50 or 60 work prints to each group, with virtually no overlap between them. Each photo gets shown only once to one group or another. Whatever meeting happens to be next sees 50 or 60 new ones. The next morning they go into a box in my office. Sometimes I show that work here as WTD? but for the most part I'm not interested in showing it online.

Of my three groups Lightleak meetings are the most informal. We meet in an old warehouse. We know each other pretty well. We drink. It can go late. Photographs are our sustenance. These are the best photographers I know and it's always interesting to see what they've been up to. They shoot film. Very little of it winds up on the web. The only way to see their work is to make the meetings.

We always begin Lightleak by looking at photo books. People bring whatever books they've acquired or borrowed recently and we sit around and browse them, and kvetch or praise. A few months ago I brought Lay Flat's Issue 01. We spread out all the photos on the table and had a look. The hands down favorite among our group was this photo by Richard Barnes. I'm not sure why, whether it was because he was an older photographer or because it was the only b/w photo in the batch or what.

Murmur 21 Nov. 26, 2006, Richard Barnes

After we look at work by others we show our own, generally by laying work prints on a large table. Everyone walks around at their own pace pointing out favorites or discussing photography or the game last night. For Lightleak I do it a little differently. I put my prints in the order I want them seen, create a small stack, and send it around the room. It's like a little unbound book of here's-what-I saw-last-month.

Looking at photos this way is qualitatively different than looking at them spread on a table, or on some website where they last forever. You can't linger. You see a photo for a moment, then it's gone to the next person and into your memories. I think showing photos this way mimics the nature of seeing them. You walk around for a while, nothing happens, you shoot a bunch of crap, then BINGO you catch a moment. A second later it's gone forever. That's reality, and that's how I like to show my photos.

Lightleak, 2008 (L to R):
Bryan, Faulkner, George, Screaming arrested guy, Chris, Blake

Occasionally my groups engage in a portfolio swap. We each pick an image, create enough prints for the group, then pass them around. Everyone winds up with one print from everyone else. I've just done two of those in the past few weeks and they're great! I wound up with some fantastic work. Real live prints, not jpgs.

I tried to initiate something similar last year through my blog. I proposed a giant print swap but it didn't really get off the ground. I think one reason that it failed is that it was an internet-only enterprise. None of the photographers had physically met. There was no real-world rapport to serve as swap infrastructure.

I think this gets at the difference between groups which meet physically every month and ones which exist only on the internet. I belong to a few internet photography groups. We share work. We discuss things. We sort through logistics. We can do all of this 24/7 instead of just once a month. But the weird thing is I've never met any of these people. I've never seen any of their work except on a screen. I don't know their voice or their smell or their signature, and I suspect that will always be a limitation. The irony is that here I am publicly relating my thoughts on this to a bunch of strangers in a blog post.

In the end there's really no substitute for being in the same room talking with real people looking at physical prints the way it's been done for years. I look forward to that every month.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Reading Photographs

Anyone interested in more Eggleston covers should follow Ben Levine's tip and check out Karl Baden's Covering Photography, which lists eleven book covers by Eggleston.

Eye Trouble by Martha Ronk (1998)
featuring the photo Tears by Man Ray

Although eleven covers might seem like a lot it's far from the most. According to CP, Man Ray tops the list with forty-one noncommissioned covers including the one shown above. Below are the next ten. No real surprises but still interesting I think.

2. Dorothea Lange (36)
3. Andre Kertesz (30)
T4. Walker Evans (26)
T4. Bill Brandt (26)
6. Joel Meyerowitz (24)
7. Ralph Gibson (23)
8. Henri Cartier-Bresson (22)
9. Brassai (20)
T10. Bruce Davidson (18)
T10. Julia Margaret Cameron (18)

What about photographs? Which ones appear on the most book covers? I haven't found an easy way to check this other than sorting through covers individually. Some top candidates are Dorothea Lange's Tractored Out (4), Berenice Abbot's James Joyce (4), Andre Kertesz' Martinique (3), Bruce Davidson's Brooklyn Gang (3), Bill Brandt's Nude (3), and Rudy Burkhardt's Brooklyn Bridge (3). Can anyone out there find a photograph that appears on more than 4 book covers?

Covering Photography lists over 2,500 photographic covers, each with publication information, a cover shot, and often some supporting text. It's quite a site. After spending a few hours researching just a handful of Eggleston albums, I humbly give props to Baden's huge effort. Someone should create a similar site for album covers. Any volunteers?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

What To Do? #37

109. SE 45th and Washington, Portland, 2004

110. SE 35th and Hawthorne, Portland, 2006

111. San Diego Zoo, 2007

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

William Eggleston's (Album Cover) Guide

Something about William Eggleston's photographs makes them perfect for album covers. Perhaps it is their uneasy mood, or that they are nonspecific enough to be easily re-appropriated. Maybe it's that as his work is gradually acknowledged to hold a more seminal role in contemporary photography, the music scene tags along. Or maybe he just has musical pals or an agent with good connections.

Whatever it is, Eggleston must hold the record (pun intended) for the largest number of noncommissioned album covers. Many of these were on display at his Whitney show last winter. For those of us who couldn't attend, what follows is a short survey of his album covers. I'm probably missing some covers, and I know I'm missing the titles and dates of a few photos. If anyone out there can help with additional info I'd be obliged.

Eggleston's first cover was the classic Big Star album Radio City released in 1974. Lead singer Alex Chilton knew Eggleston from the Memphis arts scene and was an early champion of his work. Although the photograph (Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973) has since become very well known, it was relatively obscure at the time. Eggleston hadn't had his MOMA show yet, color was still vulgar, and the choice of photo was fairly radical.

Big Star, Radio City, 1974

Chilton later used Eggleston's 1970 hood ornament shot from the Los Alamos series as the cover of a solo album.

Alex Chilton, Like Flies on Sherbert, 1979

When Big Star, long since disbanded, reformed in 1993 to release a live album, they chose an Eggleston photo for the cover. Unfortunately I don't know the photo's name or date or how seriously it was cropped. (Update: Thanks to Gabrielle Harhoff for identifying the photo as "Washington, D.C., 1990" from the Hasselblad Award 1998 book.)

Big Star, Live at Missouri University, 4/25/93

Eggleston's Memphis connections helped him onto the cover of Gimmer Nicholson's album Christopher Idylls. The album was produced in 1968 by longtime Memphis friend and fellow photographer Terry Manning (Eggleston helped Manning edit the photography on his 1970 album Home Sweet Home) but not released until the late 70s on limited edition vinyl and 1994 on CD. I don't know the title or date of the photo.

Gimmer Nicholson, Christopher Idylls, 1968/1994

The 80s seem to have been Eggleston's missing years (as they were for so many of us). He published no books or album covers until the end of the decade, when Green on Red put Near the River at Greenville Mississippi, c. 1983-86 on the cover of Here Come the Snakes (released the same year as his monograph Democratic Forest).

Green On Red, Here Come The Snakes, 1989

The Green On Red cover photo was probably spurred by band guitarist Chuck Prophet, an Eggleston fan who later used this 1975 image for the cover of his solo album Age of Miracles.

Chuck Prophet, Age of Miracles, 2004

Scottish band Primal Scream used a cropped version of an Eggleston photograph (c. 1971-73 from the Troubled Waters series) for the cover of Give Out But Don't Give Up.

Primal Scream, Give Out But Don't Give Up, 1994

Primal Scream liked Eggleston. They went on to use his work for the covers of Country Girl (a non-Prophet version of the Age of Miracles cover)...

Primal Scream, Country Girl, 2006

...and a cropped Los Alamos photo for Dolls.

Primal Scream, Dolls, 2006

Until the new millennium, Eggleston's album covers came about through personal connections or fan base. As Eggleston has gained increasing notoriety in the past decade and become something of a crossover cultural star, his photographs have become a sort of high-brow stock catalog, appearing on a variety of album and book covers with little or no connection to Eggleston.

Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American is probably the most successful Eggleston covered album in terms of raw sales, some small percentage of which must be due to photographers seeking out the cover's cropped version of Memphis, Tennessee, 1968.

Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American, 2001

Robin Holcomb used Eggleston's Southhaven, Mississippi, 1980 for the cover of The Big Time.

Robin Holcomb, The Big Time, 2002

Next came this anniversary compilation from Paramount. I haven't heard this album and I'm not sure I want to. I don't recognize the photograph although sources say it is Eggleston.

Paramount Pictures 90th Anniversary Memorable Songs, 2002

The Derek Trucks Band used a cropped version of Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi, c. 1969-70 from Eggleston's Guide for Soul Serenade. The band, the photo, and Eggleston share Southern roots which is probably why the image was chosen.

The Derek Trucks Band, Soul Serenade, 2003

Forgetting about photography for a moment, the music on Tanglewood Numbers by Silver Jews is my favorite of any Eggleston cover album. Singer Dave Berman, as dark and poetic as ever, is joined by wife Cassie on vocals and bass and a roving lineup including Stephen Malkmus and Will Oldham. The cover photograph from 1971 features busts of JFK, MLK, and RFK in an arrangement that seems distinctively Eggleston, not to mention the album was recorded in his home state.

Silver Jews, Tanglewood Numbers, 2005

I don't know much about the Eggleston cover shot on Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band's eponymous EP. It looks similar to an untitled tree (pg. 79) in Democratic Forest, yet not the same. Maybe someone out there can identify it? (Addendum 8/12/9: This photograph is called "Kenya, 1980" and appears in the book Ancient and Modern)

Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band (EP), 2007

I have a feeling this is just the tip of an impending iceberg. Eggleston's work seems poised to conquer the pop culture world the same way Ansel Adams conquered the 1970s. For Adams the main vehicles were calendars, posters, and postcards, items woefully inefficient in contemporary branding. To gain cultural saturation today requires a commercial piggyback like an album or book cover, or an advertising campaign. Look for the Eggleston meme to spread like ivy in the years ahead...