Tuesday, September 29, 2009

City Stills

I'm in Seattle shooting the streets. Good light here. The blog will be still for the next few days...

Self-Portrait, 1901 by Jacques-Henri Lartigue,
currently exhibiting at Gibson Gallery in Seattle

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Willard Clyde Feldman 1923-2009

Willard C. Feldman died in his sleep Saturday. He was 85. His contributions to photography were enormous, and he will be missed.

San Francisco, 1943, Willard Feldman

Although he was probably best known for his early and innovative adoption of color, Feldman left a wide legacy that is beyond categorization. His early career in the 1940s focused mainly on under-represented segments of society. It wasn't until the early 1960s with Life and Look magazines that his signature use of color really developed. In an era of staid traditionalism he embraced camera shake, lightleaks, and unconventional framing.

Seals Stadium, 1955, Willard Feldman

This continued through the 1970s and 1980s as his work somehow became both increasingly radical and uninflected. In 1989 he abruptly abandoned color to return exclusively to b/w, this time using large format lithography film to make his famous livestock studies. To the end he never stopped exploring, and he was creating new photographs right up until his last days.

Church, 1969, Willard Feldman

Although his photographs are widely distributed in collections, Feldman always flew a bit under the radar. He retired from public view in the early 1990s and much of his work is barely remembered today. That he was not computer savvy didn't help. It's very difficult to find anything about him online, either biographical or actual images. But that shouldn't diminish his legacy.

He is survived by his wife, two sons, and 7 grandchildren. Truly he was a giant in the field and an inspiration to all.

George and Monroe Feldman, 1974 by Willard Feldman

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What To Do? #42

124. Emmett in Redding, 2008

125. Emmett at Laughing Planet, 2008

126. Emmett in the Jetta, 2008

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

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Variations on Hurter-Driffield

HD characteristic curve for Tri-X film:

Recognition curve:

Street photography curve:

Curve for everyone but Josef Sudek:

Life curve:

Zen curve:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

American Prospects Revisited

One of the attractive aspects of American Prospects is that many of its photos depict the aftermath of dramatic events. I don't know if Sternfeld carried a police scanner on his cross country travels but at the very least he was paying close attention to headlines and steering the car accordingly. His journey seemed equally informed by Uncommon Places and Naked City.

Yet unlike Weegee he was no news photographer. Rather than explaining situations, his photographs tended to muddy them. Images of a car upside down in a gulch or firefighter buying produce, e.g., leave the viewer wondering "What the F_ is going on here?"

Simply Add Boiling Water, 1937, Weegee

McLean, Virginia, December 1978, Joel Sternfeld

If he was no Weegee, neither was he Shore. The photographs of Uncommon Places are so drily descriptive that they are better referenced by Google Street View than by newspaper accounts. In contrast, Sternfeld was drawn to specific events.

With the digitizing and archiving of old newspapers these events can now be revisited and seen from the perspective of their times. Seen, in other words, as Sternfeld saw them. Perhaps finally after all these years we can gain a sense of "What the F_ is going on here?"

Back in June I made an initial probe in this direction, investigating the back story of Sternfeld's whale shot. A few months later Michael David Murphy wrote a similar profile on insig.ht, this time about Sternfeld's elephant-in-the-road photo. That's two down, leaving several dozen to go.

This post begins a new series investigating some of Sternfeld's shots through the lens of old news articles, beginning with After a Tornado, Grande Isle, Nebraska, June 1980 (image 23 in the 2003 version of AP). Here is the image (sorry for the poor scan):

After a Tornado, Grande Isle, Nebraska, June 1980, Joel Sternfeld

And here is the situation as described by The Toledo Blade in an article published June 4, 1980:

I'll have more Sternfeld photos to follow in the upcoming weeks...

The fortes of various mechanical chronometers

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Beauty Flex shot by John Sypal for Tokyo Camera Style

I recently discovered John Sypal's Tokyo Camera Style courtesy of We Can't Paint. I'm not usually an equipment freak but there's something soothing about looking at all these old film cameras and knowing that they're still on the streets getting use, and the short descriptions of the camera users are just as fascinating. How does he find all these people?

Here in Oregon on the opposite side of the planet it's a different scenario. When I'm out shooting I will often see others with cameras, especially during events or photo-friendly situations. But I doubt I've run into more than a handful of people using film cameras and all of them have been in Portland. In three years living in Eugene, I have never seen another person shooting film. I suspect there are a few out there but if so they keep well hidden. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to shoot enough film to compensate for the rest of the city.

Strange how film thrives in the heart of one of the world's most modern cities, yet in Oregon which typically embraces the retro and the rootsy, digital rules.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What To Do? #41

121. Coleman Glacier, Mt. Baker, WA, 1994

122. Boston Glacier, Mt. Buckner, WA, 2000

123. Northeast Ridge, Mt. Triumph, WA, 2003

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

Friday, September 18, 2009


Nick Turpin has spawned an interesting dialogue about the nature of street photography over at Seven Seven Nine, leading to a longer discussion at HCSP. Both posts and comment threads are well worth reading for all street photographers. (Although the word street photography is a bit of a misnomer I use it here to mean any unplanned handheld photographs made in public)

Nick claims that 99% of the street photography that he sees is not worth looking at. I would put the figure slightly higher, perhaps closer to 99.98%. In other words the world is awash in crappy street photography. As the submissions pointman for In-Public, I see a lot of it. Yes, we get a fair amount of interesting work but the vast majority of it looks more like this:

In Public submission, 2008

or this:

In Public Submission, 2008

Now maybe these photographs have merit on some level. They could be part of a larger project on bikes or homeless, e.g., or the photographers could be working through various versions of the final shot, or perhaps the photographers are using these subjects to hone skills or test equipment. I'm not sure. But I do know that as stand-alone "look at me" street photographs, there doesn't seem much imperative to send them off into the world.

Multiply this photo by a few hundred million and you have the current world of street photography. Like suburban shopping plazas these millions of photos have no integrity or style. They're just taking up mental space, 99.98% of it to be precise. That's a problem.

So what's to be done? According to Nick, more editing. "Edit, edit, edit," he says, and I have to agree. If street photographers paid better attention to what they distributed, it would improve the lot for all of us. If we could get that crap percentage down to just 90% I would be stoked.

I think, however, that that is unlikely to happen. The ease of photographic capture and distribution today has totally flooded the visual marketplace, and I see that flood increasing in the future as these tasks become even easier.

But let's back up a moment. Maybe the question to ask isn't "Why don't people edit better?" but "Why do people take street photographs?" What motivates all these folks to pursue a relatively narrow, obscure, highly challenging avenue of photography? Why don't they shoot landscapes or portraits or barns or something? Indeed people pursue all these avenues, but street photography in particular seems the most attractive to casual shutterbugs. Why?

I think one reason is that street photography has become a sort of catchall for much of the non-project oriented photography out there. If you're not a conceptual artist and you like to let your camera guide you, what do you do? You wander around with a camera and shoot what you find. If you're in an urban setting, this becomes photos of pedestrians and bums and pets and billboards and whatever. By default it becomes street photography.

But categorizing all of these pet shots and billboards as street photography is a bit like calling a child's drawing abstract expressionism. Technically the description is accurate but there is a huge gulf separating the photos above from, for example, this one by street master Helen Levitt:

This photograph could enchant anyone into pursuing street photography. All Levitt did was wander around with a camera and no plan until she found this. No special equipment, no studio, seemingly anyone could do it.

Malcolm Gladwell says that to master a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. That's roughly 5 years working a 40-hour week. For street photography, I think 20,000 hours is probably a more suitable figure. In other words, to make a photograph like Levitt's requires decades of shooting. Yet Levitt's photo seems to mask this effort. And indeed that is part of street photography's magic, that it seems so directly accessible. As a result we get many people wandering with a camera and no plan, with results that often don't hold up.

I think another primary reason street photography attracts many shutterbugs is that it's become a style. HCB's man leaping over the puddle may have been original at the time but it's spawned a cottage industry of shooters waiting for pedestrians to get in just the right spot. The same thing could be said about all the common street motifs, the figure making the same pose as a background figure or the spatial disruption creating visual ambiguity or the anthropomorphized pet. We all shoot these things. I'm as guilty of it as anyone. Why do we do it? On some level it's because that's what a street photograph is supposed to look like. You hang out on the corner and look for certain things because the tradition of street photography contains them. There's a history out there for folks to emulate, something to aim for, and it winds up drawing photographers in.

Behind the Gare St.-Lazare, 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson

HCB Knockoff by Blake Andrews, 1999

I think the first two photos at the top of this post are probably results of this instinct. The photographers had seen some well-known photos of dogs or of a sleeping bum, and so it became ok to cover this subject matter. It's a well worn path, yet one which inevitably leads to dead-ends. Followed over and over by many people it will result in a crap percentage pretty near 99.98%.

I realize this is a fairly negative take on things and I don't say any of it to be mean. I admit I am a photo snob. I'm simply calling it like I see it. Most street photography that I come across is not yet ready for primetime, and the ideas above are an exploration of why that is.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gus Powell: What Was He Thinking?

Gus Powell is a photographer based in New York City. The photographs below are from his series Lunch Pictures, many of which were published in his 2003 book The Company of Strangers.

A Whistler Follows His Tune

"There is always some initial thing that gets me excited about making a picture at a specific spot. Long ago I wanted to do a project called 'Chewing Gum Constellations.' The plan was to shoot the surface of the street and look for Cassiopeia, Orion, etc in the patterns of abandoned chewing gum. This particular piece of pavement has always reminded me of that idea. The way the sidewalk slopes up towards the horizon – a bit like the opening credits for Star Wars – has always pleased me. Then I also get seduced by the reflected light that all of the glass buildings bounce through the city streets – the way it creates that sort of ripple or current on the sidewalk. So it’s all these sorts of things that I am thinking about when I start to invest some time looking at a specific location. What follows is seeing how I want that space to be inhabited and used by people. I love this guy in red pants. I love the way he’s cutting a trail that is slightly off the grid and the way the other figures in the space line up in descending order in the frame. In my mind mr. red pants is like the street photographer. He’s feeling out his own way in public space."

Four Heads

"One of my favorite images by William Klein is titled Four Heads. It’s the vertical that has a Cop, and lady in a hat, and two others all filling up the frame – each one going in their own direction but all locked together. I actually think it is probably cropped out of a larger frame. My picture has almost nothing in common with Mr. Klein’s image – but it’s got four heads in it – and was probably made within a mile from where his was. First I took pleasure in the light on that corner, then I took pleasure in how the two heads that are inside the cafĂ© are faux reflections of the faces of the two men on the sidewalk."

Paso Doble

"I am walking East toward Fifth Avenue on a side street in Rockefeller Center. Twenty paces or so ahead of me I see this couple in some sort of a paso doble inspired stand off in the center of the sidewalk. I know I want to make some kind of picture of them but I know that they are not going to go anywhere. I have a little bit of time to add things onto their story in the center of the frame. I pick up my pace a little bit so that I am just a few steps behind the delivery man in green (it’s a bit like driving a car and getting into the ideal lane). I can see through the glass corner at the left that others are coming to round the corner. While walking towards them I keep trying to organize more into the frame and make this single picture."


"The first time I went to the Sistine Chapel I thought it was amazing but also ridiculous. The spectacle of these giant wingless muscle men floating high up in the sky was preposterous. . . but then perhaps it isn’t. These wingless putti floating above Fifth Avenue getting a little work done at their own pace, enjoying the view. They are like the stagehands at the end of the opera sequence of Citizen Kane. Perched high above the pedestrian theater they call it like they see it."

The Juggler

"I was, and am, very inspired by Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s streetwork. I like the light that he brings to his pictures and the way he uses it to amplify an open-ended moment that would normally not grab one's attention. I make a lot of pictures that use the natural reflected light that bounces around the glass city. This was a spot that I returned to at different times to work. I love the idea that these twelve or so people have really nothing to do with one another but they are now forever stuck in this awkward moment together. I think of the man at the center as a juggler in control of those distant light fixtures above him, as if they were balls in the air."

For J. Singer Sargent

"I am mostly interested in making narrative images of insignificant non narrative moments (The Juggler might be an example of that) but I have a few pictures that I refer to as more from the Parisian school of street photography. This would be one of those. A romantic but detached moment on the street.

There’s a painting by J. Singer Sargent called Madame X that I have always loved. When it was first shown in 1884 it created quit a stir since it featured a woman with one strap of her evening gown hanging down off of her shoulder. It troubled his patron enough that it was touched up so that the final version of the painting (as it can be seen today at the Met in New York) has the strap of her dress firmly up on the young ladies shoulder. When I was looking at this girl and saw her strap fall off her sholder, I thought to myself: 'This one is for J. Singer Sargent.' "


"I made most of these pictures on my lunch breaks while working a fulltime job in midtown Manhattan. Some days I had a lot of time to shoot and other days I had ten minutes. This forced me to try and see and feel something in less and less of an 'event.' The act of going out to shoot was me trying to get some exercise and nourishment – it was me trying to reach for an itch that needed scratching. I saw this gentleman trying to scratch an itch that was just out of his reach. I followed him for a few blocks and remember passing him more than once. Shooting him from the side, the front - burying him and his gesture into the crowd – but it was this simple picture that I liked best. There are few things in life as satisfying as scratching an itch that needs to be scratched."


"I often get seduced by the light at a specific location and then decide to stay and work there. One thing I think about often is how generous the sidewalks of New York are. If you have an idea for what you might like to see . . . and if you are ready for it . . . it often comes. I knew that I wanted to play with that shadow on the wall - and make it feel like it was a beam of light. I had to wait a bit for the sun to move so that the shadow would just skim across the wall but the sidewalk would still be illuminated. Once that came together it didn’t take long for a set of protagonists that interested me to arrive and fall into place. If you know what you want – you are ready for it when it comes."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Unknown Territory

I'm giving a talk this Friday in conjunction with the Eugene Grid Project photographs currently showing at DIVA in downtown Eugene.

I'm not a natural talker and I'm not sure what I'm going to say. If you live in Eugene and you relish watching someone squirm before a live audience, you should come see it. Friday, 9/18 at noon at DIVA.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sorry I couldn't handwrite this post

"I couldn't pull a Migration Assistant without bringing over all my bad settings along for the ride, so it turned into a Windows-like upgrade. First, none of my external hard drives existed anymore. I had to grab a new driver for my eSata card. I reinstalled all my apps from disks and download backups, and pulled over data from the Tiger backup disk, which is where I started running into more problems. I couldn't import a bunch of mailboxes, and lots of folders came over with no RW permissions and the dreaded red no-go icon. When I tried to set up a Final Cut scratch disk, I found that half my disk drives had errant permissions."
— from a recent post on Doug Plummer's photoblog Dispatches

Doug's blog occasionally ventures into geek-speak, but this seems like a particularly acute case. Is this what writing and thinking about photography has come to? In many cases I think the answer is yes. My guess is that many photographers spend countless hours on a computer mastering an ever evolving set of digital skills, or else spending money on constantly revised software. To be a working pro you need to. But the skillset seems to be spinning further and further from photography's essential activity which is simply seeing. All those hours of keystrokes and mouseclicks used to be spent photographing.

I am thinking about this as I begin my second week gradually re-adjusting to computer life. While in Maine I went for about three weeks without posting and without reading any other photo blogs. I checked in briefly for essential email but that was about it. I shot film and collected the exposed rolls in a ziplock. In some ways film is a hassle (try asking airport security to handcheck 40 rolls) but at least it liberates a person from looking at screens.

Reminder: Poltergeist was meant to be a scary movie,
not a societal proscription

But alas, now I'm back and the computer has crept steadily into my routine. It's like a vicious drug. You barely notice you're using until suddenly it's come to dominate your free hours. You check all the photoblogs, you post your own, you shoot various messages here and there. In the most extreme cases, you can't photograph without it.

With that in mind my new resolution is to slow this blog down a bit. Instead of posting nearly every day I plan to spread out and take my time. Write fewer, longer posts. Spend my precious free hours pressing on a shutter instead of a keyboard. That's the plan anyway. We'll see if it sticks.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What To Do? #40

118. Maine, 2003

119. Maine, 2005

120. Maine, 2008

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

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Robert Johnson: What Was He Thinking?

Robert Johnson's prolific website offers a nice dose of street photography from its heyday in the 1970s. Some of Johnson's current work can be found here.


"I am not really a morning person. On this day it was about 6 am, and it was only me and the dogs on the street. I very rarely ever take more then one image but I did that day. This is the best one. Dogs were free to roam the streets back then. A fun thing to witness."


"I can remember being in the back of a pretty small vehicle operated by a friend of mine. His girlfriend on the right was a shy person and did not get involved in a lot of conversations. The commutation with her was mostly through her eyes. I hope that it shows with this image."


"I shot this at a pizza parlor that I would often frequent during the evening hours. It was a busy place with a homey feeling. And, if you wait long enough people do look at each other. Sometimes all at once."


"This was shot on a pretty busy street at the time. The window of a neighborhood bar. I guess that not much was happening inside the bar that day. They all thought that the guy pointing a camera at them was the most interesting thing at that moment."


"This was shot at a mall that was a big deal at the time. They had to rip down a big percentage of the established small shops that made up our real downtown to build it. The mall was an almost magical place to visit back then, but after a few years the magic faded away. The the mall faded away. They did try to revive it a few times. It is now slated for destruction."


"We were about to take a drive to nowhere as we often did back then. My cousin was showing his dog some affection before we left. Click…"


"This is a very early street photo of mine. I had wandered into a local skating rink and was going to take a picture of the group of kids and the arcade gun. As I hit the shutter the owner jumped to kick me out! He made the shot!"