Monday, July 26, 2010

Fred Herzog

Now that color has come to dominate contemporary street photography, the art world's gaze has turned to the past, to see what color gems we may have overlooked during the b/w era. The trend started several years ago with Winogrand 1964, which published many previously unknown color photos. A few years later, Saul Leiter was uncovered. Recently we've seen color monographs published by b/w stalwarts Mark Cohen and Barbara Crane, and this fall Palm Springs 1960 by Doisneau and a new consideration of Haas will be published. The early color gold rush is on, with many tailings yet to sift through.

As long as we're reconsidering early color, I think it's worth taking a fresh look at Fred Herzog. His color work is on par with the folks mentioned above, but I suspect he is less well-known than any of them. Now approaching 80, Herzog just finished up an exhibition at Laurence Miller Gallery in NY. The selections below were pulled from the website of Equinox Gallery in Vancouver. You can order a gallery catalog from the site for $20 plus postage.

New World Confectionery, 1965

Jackpot, 1961

Magazine Man, 1959

Man With Bandage, 1968

Quebec City, 1969

Paris Cafe, 1959

Granville St. from Granville Bridge, 1966

Black Man Pender, 1958

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Yesterday I popped into a used bookstore in Waterville. In the back room was a single dusty shelf of photography books, the usual suspects mostly: nature monographs, TIME-LIFE compilations, a few Geddes titles. I was all set to leave when I noticed a thin spine tucked against a corner. I pulled it out. Holy Crap! Could it be?! It was Work From the Same House by Friedlander and Dine. In 20 years of hunting for photobooks I'd never seen a copy before.

This one was in rough shape. It was 40 years old and it showed. The paperback cover was slightly torn and yellowed. Some of the pages had separated from the spine. To the casual browser the book blended with the rest of the crud on the shelf. Would the store owner know what it was worth? Maybe I could score a deal? I checked the title page. $200 penciled in. Damn. The owner did know.

Untitled (Shoes), 1965-1969, Lee Friedlander/Jim Dine
from Work From the Same House

I sat down and leafed through. There were roughly 40 pages of Friedlander photos paired with weird hairy quasi-sexual etchings. About 1/3 of the photos were new to me. The rest I'd seen in later Friedlander books. But this was the primordial cauldron, his first book, before he'd really decided how to organize his work. The short bio on the back cover was perfect. "Born in Aberdeen, WA, 1934, nothing else is known about him." Or something to that effect. So even back then Mr. Lee had been elusive.

Any self-respecting Friedlander fanatic would've bought the thing on the spot. When you stumble on a book like that you were meant to find it. You don't pass it up. You bring it home and it becomes a cornerstone of your book collection.

On the other hand...$200 for a crummy old book that I might look through once or twice? A book with many photos I had in other books? And etchings I didn't really appreciate? A book that was well on its way to disintegration?

I don't need to tell you what I did. You already know.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Labor of Love

"The film comes out of the BOTTOM of the camera. I always feel I am delivering a baby or praying to a cameragod because I pull the film out on my knees. The pod end comes out first."

Elsa Dorfman describing the birth of a Polaroid

Elsa Dorfman in her Cambridge studio

I stumbled on a great radio interview with Dorfman yesterday while driving back from the Cape. You can hear it here starting around 32:05. She uses one of the six 20 x 24 Polaroid cameras remaining in the world. Truly old school.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Continental drift

I'm now well into my second week of vacation on the East Coast. It's been a whirlwind tour. First we visited with Tab's extended family, then my dad's extended family, then my mom's extended family, and now I'm in Cape Cod with Tab's brothers and sisters. Over the past week and a half I've had conversations with roughly 70 different relatives, most of whom I see only once a year.

Today I had the realization that not one of those people has asked me about my photography. No How's your shooting going? Any shows coming up? What projects are you working on? Nope. Nothing. No interest.

I'm not complaining about this, just making an observation.

It might be different if I was a working pro. Then people could ask me about my job. How's work? Any interesting clients? Business trip anecdotes? That's a frame of reference that most people can relate to, even if they don't necessarily care about photography. Career chit chat.

But a guy devoting his creative life to art photography? With no immediate recognition or reward? No one has the foggiest clue how to approach that. They know I carry a camera. On some level they know I'm involved in that life, consumed even. But my daily routine and activities are beyond comprehension, beyond curiosity. I may as well be painting rocks in the driveway or tossing grass seed from an overpass. Just as productive. What's there to talk about?

I suspect this is why some folks eventually move to the West Coast.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Balancing act

This article in The Times a few days ago caught my eye. I think any photographers shooting their own kids as part of a public body of work should read it. Granted it represents a worst case scenario, but the ethical issue is always there. What is the balance between the parental urge to photograph children and a kid's right to control his or her own image?

Larry Rivers and his daughter Emma, 1981, by Daria Deshuk

I think everyone photographing their own kids has to find that balance on their own, maybe in coordination with their children. For someone like Sally Mann the balance is slightly more invasive. For someone like Elizabeth Fleming or Byron Wolfe it's probably more accommodating of personal space.

The thing that makes the Rivers story so riveting is that he didn't have any sense of balance. To him his kids were like paints or fabrics, pure property to use as he saw fit and screw the personal ramifications. The irony is that it may have made his work stronger —or at least less filtered— and it's intriguing to wonder if it takes that level of tunnel-vision to really break through as an artist. Maybe. But at what cost? The whole situation seems to encapsulate the classic dilemma. How much of your soul would you sell to secure a place in history?

The reason this issues strikes such a chord with me is that I photograph my own kids. I have always done that but until recently I never made the images public. I kept them in a private scrapbook, just as most families do. I think the main reason I've put them out now there is that many of them are my favorite photos and they seem to form a cohesive body of work. It seems silly to keep them hidden. But even then there are limits. I don't publicize disparaging or explicit shots. Sometimes the photos poke fun, but hopefully not in a mean way. Sometimes the kids are naked but not in any perverse way. If these limits make the work tamer and less racy, that's fine.

Thinking about all of this today as I hang out with my kids and my cameras in the Maine backwoods.

Addendum 7/18: Yesterday the Times posted an update on this story.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Q & A with Joe Reifer and Troy Paiva

(Recently I chatted with California photographers Joe Reifer and Troy Paiva about abandonment porn, UrbEx, and long desert rides, among many other topics.)

Blake: I know each of you likes to photograph in abandoned spaces. What is it about those spaces that is attractive or photogenic?

Joe: Why is a junkyard dog a junkyard dog? It's a tough question. I feel like I can talk about abandonments all day long, but I'm not sure there's a one sentence explanation that I like. Troy wrote a book on urban exploration. Maybe he can summarize in a sentence.
Blake: It doesn't have to be one sentence. Just as an example, one type of photo you see a lot is the old beaten down barn. Maybe it was popularized with Walker Evans, I don't know. But that subject now seems to come up again and again. Is there some primal urge to shoot that?

Negro Cabin in Hale County, 1935, Walker Evans

Troy: It goes back much further than that. Humans have always been attracted to all ruins on some primal level.
Blake: But why?
Troy: It's just how we're wired as a species. Were explorers by nature, so we're always gonna explore the stuff left behind by our ancestors.
Blake: Is there something particularly attractive to decaying objects? I find myself attracted to broken fences and litter and general disrepair, but I probably wouldn't look at the same fence if it didn't have a hole in it. What is it about broken down things/abandoned things?
Joe: There is a meditative aspect to shooting things and places at the end of their lifespan. Confronting the ephemeral.

Exit Row, Troy Paiva

Troy: Yeah, humans brim with emotion when confronted with their mortality. But while the love of ruins is as old as civilization itself, I do think it's changed in the last 20 years. Today people are obsessed with the finite nature of our own civilization, not just ancient civilizations.

Blake: As opposed to 20 years ago?
Troy: Yes, the nature of ruins has changed.
Blake: How so?

Troy: Humans built (and abandoned) more structures in the 20th century than all the rest of human history combined. We invented and discarded whole ways of life, whole infrastructure systems. Modern ruins are totally different from ancient ones, because they are more familiar.
Joe: Historically there are times of building and times of decay. The seacoast fortifications near the Golden Gate Bridge show this continuum from the late 18th century up until the Cold War. Moving from canons, to bigger canons, to missile sites. Now we're in the time of abandoned missile sites.
Troy: And with the military base closures there's whole cities, just abandoned, all over the US.

Battery Davis at Fort Funston, Joe Reifer

Joe: It's the golden age of these types of ruins. Some of the places we've photographed in the last 5 years are already gone.
Blake: So you guys are sort of visual archeologists.
Troy: Inadvertently, yeah.
Joe: Troy and I have very different styles of documenting these places.

Troy: I'm more of an aesthetician than an archaeologist. I just wanna move people with purty pichers.
Blake: What about the terms abandonment porn or ruin porn? The word porn seems to reflect some addictive quality or unsavory quality.

Big Melons #13, Joe Reifer

Troy: It IS addictive as hell. And no question, it's considered unsavory by a large part of the populace.
Joe: Maybe it's because these places are exciting to some, but something to hide for others. The term certainly seems a bit pejorative. Always makes me think of Detroit. You know, the Disneyland of ruin porn?
Troy: Never heard of it.

Blake: Speaking of Detroit, Andrew Moore tackled that with his book Detroit Disassembled. Also, Will Steacy's Down These Mean Streets might be labeled ruin porn. So there definitely seems to be a movement afoot.
Troy: There's a LOT of ruin porn out there these days. The sheer volume of it out there indicates that the post-industrial generation just ‘gets it.’

from Andrew Moore's Detroit Disassembled

Blake: Is there something to the forbidden nature of what you're photographing that's attractive which could also explain the attraction of UrbEx? Do you guys ever do UrbEx without cameras, just to explore?
Troy: Sure, but I did that more when I was a kid. I've been exploring abandonments since the mid ‘70s and shooting them at night since 1989. If I find a location during the day now, I will certainly check it out, even if it's just to scout it, and shoot it later.
Joe: I try not to leave the house without a camera.
Troy: The term UrbEx wasn't coined until 1995.
Joe: Before that it was called "being a teenager." Some people just never grow out of it.

Blake: It's funny because when I was around 20 I used to do that stuff but I didn't know it had a name. It was more just a sense of exploration and illicit acts. I used to crawl around in sewers and locked buildings and fire escapes, and I think I climbed every building on campus in college.

Tilting with Venus, Joe Reifer

Joe: So Blake, what made you stop?
Blake: I got caught a few times, which wasn't fun. Then I got older, settled down, kids, etc. I guess I could still do it but don't have the same urge. But it's a good question. I'm not sure how to answer that.
Troy: Yeah, a VERY typical story. See, I just never grew out of it the way everyone else does. But you're right, almost every teen and pre-teen goes thru it, but once they get to be older and more responsible, it ends.
Joe: Getting chased around by security guards is not fun.
Troy: Chased by feral dogs is worse.

Blake: Troy, I read on your website that you usually get permission now before photographing a place. Does that take away some of the thrill?
Troy: Heh, I'm 49 now, a wizened old geezer. The thrill aspect of it has grown much less important over the years. Today it's more about capturing the atmosphere and feelings in these places than the thrill of sneaking in.

Lane Porn, Abandoned bowling alley, San Francisco, CA, Troy Paiva

Joe: Getting legitimate access is preferable, but sometimes, gray areas in accessing a site allow you to shoot first.

Troy: It’s just much easier. You don’t have to hide and worry about your lighting being seen. Plus you can publish the work without worry, if you have permission.
Blake: What about the nighttime aspect. How important is that?
Troy: That wonderful feeling of being small in a very large world that people get in Yosemite Valley? I get that in abandoned military bases and amusement parks. At night, all that emotion and feeling is amplified, times 10.
Joe: Shooting under the full moon is like having magic hour light for 7 hours, but you only have it 5 days per month.

Troy: Throw in the weather as a factor and it's actually a much smaller number than that. Plus you can't do this kinda lighting work during the day without a bazillion dollars worth of gear that you need 3 assistants to hump around and set up.

Joe: The atmosphere created by making long exposures under moonlight is integral to the blend of real and surreal that creates our photographic aesthetic. My work is the real with a touch of surreal, Troy turns real into the surreal.
Blake: How did you two meet?
Joe: Through a group of night shooters associated with the Nocturnes.
Troy: The interwebs opened my eyes to MANY new night shooters in the digital age. Joe and I just hit it off right away.
Joe: We went shooting at an abandoned dynamite plant. Troy was slinging a beat up Canon T90 on a tripod, a Mountain Dew, and a package of Sweet Tarts. That's all he had with him.

Troy: My teeth ache just thinking about it. That location is gone now.

Blake: Troy, how has the return to film been going? Is there anything about it you feel missing with digital, besides the headaches?
Troy: I think I'm pretty much done with film. As you say, it's a total pain in the ass for night work. Especially when you're light painting because of the lack of chimpability.
Joe: I like shooting 6x7 sometimes for 45 minute exposures. Film looks like night photography. Digital can look digital if you don't post-process carefully. I don't light paint a lot, so film would work fine for me.  But the exposures are twice as long due to reciprocity failure, so it's a productivity issue. Sometimes I carry 2 setups, but I probably need to get a porter or a burro.

Troy: My film hit-rate is much lower than digital. If I do 15 setups, I get 1 or 2 keepers with film. With digital, I get at least 10. The only thing that draws me to film is the ability to so 30- or 60-minute exposures.

Race Control, Troy Paiva

Blake: I know the productivity is lower. I guess what I was asking is if there's anything integral to film like its look or tangibility or rustic character that appeals. For people interested in abandoned ruins, maybe there is something appropriate about shooting them on an abandoned ruin material.
Troy: Rustic, I like that. You mean shitty looking?

Blake: Yeah, like an old barn.
Joe: Aren't you supposed to photograph those with a 4x5 camera and black and white film?
Troy: For many years, that was a big part of my ethos. The idea of shooting forgotten discarded junk with junk gear.
Blake: Like Stephen Gill's Hackney Wick.

Troy: Exactly, only I did it when he was still in diapers.

Joe: We've probably had 40+ photographers come through our night photography workshops, and nobody shoots film.
Troy: I shot all the work in my first book with a 40 year old flea market 35mm body, a few cheap no name lenses and $5 garage sale flashes. It all looks like Holga work. Dirty, soft, skronky. It suited the broken down subjects.
Blake: That sounds like another porn. Toy Camera porn. Definitely addictive.

Photo by Joe Reifer

Troy: Yeah, I did it long before the toy camera craze. It was definitely an intentional aesthetic. At the time other photographers kept telling me I HAD TO shoot with better gear, but feh. To me that lo-fi toy camera aesthetic, combined with night, fits ruin porn.

Blake: Why did you move away from that style?

Troy: The lo-fi cameras match the lo-fi aspect of the locations. I stopped shooting entirely in 2004 when all my E6 labs closed. Shooting film just became a pain in the ass. In 2005 I saw the first night work done on CMOS-sensored DSLRs that were noise free, so moved to digital. I'm still shooting with that same 5 year old Canon 20D, which you can now buy on the used market, for sofa cushion change, so it could be argued that I'm still shooting with lo-rent, orphan gear.
Blake: Tell me a little about the copy-cats.

Troy: [crickets chirping]
Joe: The first rule of night photography, is you don't talk about night photography.

Blake: I like that you don't seem to take yourselves too seriously. One thing that irks me about fine art photography is how un-humorous it can be. Long words and advanced degrees and all that stuff really bring it down.
Troy: Preaching to the choir. I’m an uneducated mongrel, so I have no idea how to approach the intelligentsia, except to let the work speak for me.

Blake: So, about copy-catting, were you two among the pioneers of the moonlit, colorgel style?
Joe: Troy is the guy. I don't use colors. I started doing night work after seeing Troy's first book in 2004.

Troy: Near as I can tell, I invented this specific aesthetic. Sure, night photography’s been around since the beginning of photography, and light painting, for almost as long, and we’ve already discussed the ancient attraction we all have to ruins, but I was the first person to take those 3 ideas and combine them. When I was starting out, I studied guys like Chip Simons and Bill Lesch, taking their color and light sensibility, and running with it in an entirely different direction.

Joe: I'm much more documentary.
Blake: How so?

Joe: No extreme wide angles. No colors. Subtle light painting only when necessary to highlight a subject or fill shadows.
Troy: Yeah, Joe's much more subtle than I am. Most people don't even realize that he's doing ANY light painting.

Joe: Most folks that want to learn this stuff are big fans of Troy's work.
Troy: Joe's influenced by the New Topographics thing and I am too, but I'm taking it to a much more artistic, theatrical and playful place.

Blake: Who do you like of the New Topographers, Joe?
Joe: There isn't anyone in New Topographics that I don't like. I'm really excited about the exhibit opening at SF MOMA in a couple of weeks!

Blake: I'm coming down for that next fall.
Troy: Yeah, anyone even remotely interested in what we’re discussing here should go to that.
Blake: I can see Baltz or maybe Adams as abandonment porn.
Joe: The Bechers are related to this genre. The photos are sometimes of functioning industry, but it's big rusty stuff.

Hilla and Bernd Becher

Blake: Oh yeah, the Bechers are abandonment porn stars.

Joe: Becher porn? Their later work is my favorite. When they step back a little bit and show more of the surrounding landscape. I'm also a big Lynne Cohen fan.

Blake: I want to switch gears a minute. Joe, I read an interview that you don't read the paper or watch the news. Sort of a willfulness to tune out the contemporary world that seems related to your interest in relics. Am I reading too much into that? Or is it more political, because the media is so slanted?
Joe: It's not politics. After working at a paper for a few years in the mid-90's, I did a news fast to cleanse my system. I'm just happier without it.

I love watching movies. If they had a Criterion Collection channel, maybe I'd get cable.

Troy: Me too, big movie hound.

Blake: What movies should photographers see?

Troy: Anything with Roger Deakins as the cinematographer. Wanna learn how light creates emotion? Study his work. And Vittorio Storaro, Juan Ruiz Anchia, James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Michael Chapman, Conrad Hall, I could go on all day. I'm way more influenced by movies than I am by photographers. Rent "Visions of Light", the doc about cinematographers. I loved that.

Joe: Michelangelo Antonioni's recently re-issued Red Desert is stunning and features extensive shots in industrial settings. Jacques Tati is a master of the subtle detail -- his film Playtime is amazing. I've watched Jean-Pierre Melville's classic gangster noir Le Samourai many times just to study the cinematography.

Blake: What about bands named blank and the blanks?

Joe: It's a road trip game. Troy's favorite is Mike and the Mechanics.
Troy: Schweet. ? and the Mysterians too.
Joe: It's a 7 hour drive to the desert. We usually listen to a lot of Frank Zappa.
Blake: ...and the Mothers of Invention

Dirty Santa, Troy Paiva

Troy: Check out my band aid!
Joe: Exactly.
Blake: That sounds like a long ride.
Troy: I love the drive. I lived in Albuquerque for a time in the early 90s. Thinking I was gonna be right in the thick of the region and I wouldn't have to travel very far to shoot anymore. I ended up hardly shooting at all. The drive is a big part of the mental preparation of night shooting for me.

Blake: Are you saying the drive is integral to the photos? If the scenes were right nearby you couldn't shoot them?

Troy: No, that's overstating it, but this kind of night photography is about the distortion of time on a couple of levels: recording blocks of time actually tangible to humans, instead of the usual 1/125 of a second, and recording the entropical passage of time in these old, abandoned places.

So staying awake for 24 hours and driving 1000 miles adds another layer of time distortion to the whole project. I love the disorienting aspect of doing this work.

Joe: You gotta put your camera in front of something interesting, and I love the desert. By the time you get there, sometimes you're not sure if it's a dream or not. That's an interesting feeling that I'd like to photograph.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tweet Tummer

It's nice out! Screens pale in comparison. So does my skin. B is on sporadic summer schedule until August. Run outside & play now…

Odds and Ends

Last year I wrote about the lack of left-handed cameras on the market. Turns out the latest design of the Holga D takes care of that with a handy swivel-top panel which spins to accommodate either hand.

Not only does the Holga D fit lefties, it's the first digital camera without an LCD screen, precluding the temptation to chimp while shooting. Great. Only problem is the camera doesn't exist yet. At this point it's merely an exercise on Saikat Biswas' drawing board. Drat.

After my post last month about sprocket holes, Karl Baden sent some images of full-roll self portraits he did in 1980. These images and many other of his portraits were published in Contact Sheet 106. I thought it was interesting to see the progression from film in sleeves...

To contact sheets...

To exhibition (Decordova Museum, 2002):

The sprocket holes have pretty much vanished in the final product but you get the idea. They're there in spirit.

In January I designed a photo quiz around the game Six Degrees of Separation in which the object was to connect photographs using as few steps as possible. Someone has now built a handy Musician version of the game which is quite addictive. For the time being it's the closest we've got to a photographer's version. Surely some programmer out there can remedy this?

In May I lamented the lack of publicity for the local Weegee show. I've since gotten some info on that show, as well as the accompanying Weegee exhibition in Portland.

Photography collectors Ellen and Alan Newberg will give two talks in Oregon this summer on their collection of Weegee photographs currently on display at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Eugene, and The White Box at the White Stag Building in Portland.

The Newbergs will lead a gallery talk on Wednesday, July 28, at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at 5:30 p.m. The exhibition, “Weegee the Famous,” is on view now through August 15 in the Focus Gallery. Included in the talk will be many personal stories, thoughts and observations about Weegee’s photographic career.

On Thursday, July 29, at 5:30 p.m., they will speak at The White Box at the White Stag Building in Portland. An exhibition drawn from their collection, “The More Things Change…Relocating Weegee Photographs,” will be on view at the gallery from July 1 - 30, 2010.

The Weegee photography collection came to the Newbergs from Wilma Wilcox, Ellen Newberg’s aunt. For over 30 years, Wilcox was Weegee’s assistant and life partner. Weegee maintained a studio in their home in New York City.

I will be out of town during the talks but they should be good. I've seen both photo shows and they are excellent. If you live in Oregon, DO NOT miss them. That's an order.

Weegee currently showing at White Box in Portland

Speaking of Portland shows, currently up at at Elroy Artspace, 1720 NW Lovejoy, is what is billed at The Largest Show of Tilt-Shift Photographers ever in the Northwest. The show is organized by Tilt Shift America and it's worth checking out. Of course if you're into that sort of thing, why not just do it the easy way?

Finally, San Francisco now has its own grid project. The trend is on. They're spreading like, well, not exactly wildfire. Which city will be next?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Two birds killed

Back in June, Quiz #21 was successfully solved by Marc Feustel. As part of the reward, I agreed to mock critique the photograph of his choice. Here's what Marc sent:

Octopus, Yumiko Utsu

Initially this was fine, but when my sponsors got wind of our arrangement they were flummoxed. How was it, they wondered, that I had time to review outside images when my review of the new Cuisinart CHM-3 hadn't yet been finished?

CHM-3, Cuisinart

So I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone. The following review applies to both the Utsu image and the CHM-3.

The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces, in contrast to the open arms of a common hand mixer. Yet just as the mixer moves with subtle differences through a sort of twilight zone, a region seemingly remote and marginal when compared to the known world that rests on the solid foundations of habits, and is made up of places firmly anchored to everyday human activities, the portrait captures delicate moral texture and not mimicry.

In Yumiko Utsu's image above, the octopus reflects the face of decadence, shown not only for what it is but for the endless stories and whole lives that its undersea nest retains as a memory, a blurry but indelible trace, a Victorian color. And just as a specific photograph is never distinguished from its referent, the mixer must operate on pre-original batter in order to reclaim itself. Is it any wonder then that the winged tool's attempt at liftoff is invariably shot down?

Stepping back a bit, kitchens may shift to become the same aboriginal places from which to flee, as memories and regrets, and perhaps even hopes. The goal of course is integration, that moment when individuals coalescence into a flock, even if the result is sometimes, though not always, too burred/skilled. This is the essence sought by all images and countries, not to mention animals of the netherworld. One might well ask, how can an octopus ever be joined to a face? The answer lies in Utsu's dream, manifested with conviction in this oil painting. The intricate ocean canvas is nothing but a threshold to cross, a symbolic neck that once penetrated becomes as commonplace as a hand mixer, and from which leaving is a final vision, riding that great white beast, renewed and stronger, suction-cupped, and, yes, battery operated.

At this point some of you, especially relative newcomers to B, might be wondering What the F-ck was that about? Rest assured it's a perfectly valid response. But I'm afraid I can't answer that question at this time.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Q & A with Craig Hickman

After my recent post about Craig Hickman's work, I caught up with him to chat about Facebook, his latest work, and how not to sell photographs.

Photobooth self-portraits, 1979, Craig Hickman

B: I'm curious about your distribution model. What gave you the idea of giving away prints? How is it working out?

C: It dawned on me that I was spending a great deal of my life working on photography and I had a very small, if any, audience. When things went digital it became much easier to make prints. It seemed much better to have my prints in somebody else's box in a drawer than in my box in a drawer. It also became clear to me that probably the fate of photography, because it was now digital, would be that of music with mp3 file sharing.

B: Do people ever refuse to take them on the grounds there must be a catch?

C: I think at first people do wonder what the catch is, but soon realize that I really mean it. A few months ago when I was doing a residency in Portland I was giving two pictures a week away. I had a number of extra prints and I told a couple of people they could have any they wanted. They were reluctant to take more than a couple. After I told them that any left over would go into the shredder, they took them all.

Colleen, 1967, Craig Hickman

B: I think a lot of photographers shoot themselves in the foot charging $500 for a print with very limited audience. But for me it's intriguing to wonder if that $500 price tag actually promotes distribution. The question is, if the same print was free would people take? Or is the $500 tag a sort of seal of official value? Along the same line of thought, maybe the thing to do is charge $10,000 to show the print is really desirable. Which of course some folks do.

I've tried all the strategies myself. I give many prints away through my blog, and in gallery shows I've charged anywhere from free to $12,000 with about the same results. You're the only other person I know doing the free route and I'm actually surprised more photographers don't, since most people —both photographers and potential buyers— realize that the marginal cost of producing a digital print now is virtually nothing.

C: The problem with charging $500 is that you then need some kind of distribution system, like a gallery. When you give them away you can do that in all sorts of way.

B: You can give them away free in galleries but the galleries don't like it much.

C: That is true, but from my experience most photographers don't have gallery representation. They always hope that one day they will so they leave the prints in the box in their drawer. If your prints do become valuable you can always stop giving them away and start charging.

B: It's ironic. Galleries are supposed to help facilitate the distribution of art but they can actually block it from being acquired by incubating inflated prices.

Marat and Ann, 1976, Craig Hickman

C: Yes, I think they mean well, and provide an important public service by making their shows generally free to the public, but there are other viable distribution methods available now.

B: Do you see galleries as obsolete then?

C: At the moment art photography is still a print based medium, though I believe most people see the vast majority of pictures online. Also galleries offer a social space that's different. Probably the most important thing, however is that galleries offer the opportunity to show work that wouldn't work online at all, like large prints, installation work and anything else that requires the physical presence of the work. Also, while work can look really good online if done properly, a print still has much more detail in pixels per inch terms. I do see galleries taking a secondary position in the future, however.

B: Getting back to the mp3 comparison, why give away the prints? Why not give away a digital file on a CD?

C: That's a good question. The logical extension of what I am saying is that one should just give the file away. I guess for me, at this point, that is where I draw the line. Also, I'm a little fussy about how they are printed and don't want anyone making crummy prints of them.

B: So Facebook is a good outlet. You can get the work out there but the files are small enough no one will actually try to print one.

C: It's been an interesting experiment. The best thing is to be able to make a picture and have people look at it immediately and sometimes offer comments. I guess I would have to say about Facebook distribution that it's fun. It came about because I had a Facebook account and just thought I would try it.

from Someplace Else, ca. 2000, Craig Hickman

B: I'm not sure if you saw this but after my initial post about you, someone commented with a link describing Facebook's control of images posted on its site. Is that a concern at all with your use of Facebook to distribute photos?

C: While I haven't read this specific material, it's about what I expected. If my work were selling like hotcakes, especially low res versions like I post on Facebook I might worry, but I can't imagine when this would be a problem.

B: I can see that point of view. I think it would be a different standard for someone like Gursky or Sherman who can sell their work for millions. Obviously they don't want to turn over rights to Facebook. But for most photographers any avenue which increases exposure is probably worth considering.

C: I've been trying any possibilities that come up. I also have a place in front of my office where I put a print that anyone can take. That seems to work quite well. This summer I'm not in my office very much so I haven't been able to put new prints up on a regular basis.

B: If you make your prints available for free, does that eliminate the future possibility of showing in galleries? You made reference earlier to putting work in a box until it's collectible but galleries are very price-savvy. If something is perceived to be free, can value ever be added later?

C: As long as I would stop giving the prints away, I think it would be ok. I think the important thing is that the price always goes up.

Mammoth, 2009, Craig Hickman

B: It can only go up from zero. Unless you pay folks to take them.

C: That's right.

B: What has been the general reaction to your free prints?

C: People asked for prints immediately after I posted the notice about giving them away, but no one has asked for one for a while. I guess I should post a notice again. People who get them seem to be very happy.

B: On the internet folks have very short memories. If it wasn't in a twitter feed five minutes ago it's ancient. Anyway, I like the fact that it's sort of underground knowledge available if you're paying attention, but not obvious. It's the same way a good photo should work.

So what are you doing lately with your photos? Your fictional series seems to be morphing into a more verbal/symbolic phase, if that's possible. Less messy scenes and more iconic stuff.

C: I am always trying to put a new wrinkle in my work. I have been going for the simpler. Also, when I started putting the work up on Facebook, I had a large backlog of unseen work so I was posting one or two a day. I have shown all those now, so if I am going to keep up I need to make one a day. Simple helps.

Temporal Apartments, 2009, Craig Hickman

B: You're still making one per day? That's brutal. Do you feel an obligation to keep that pace? What about settling down for a week on one piece?

C: I'm doing my best to keep up. It reminds me of when I was a photographer for the my college's daily newspaper.
At the moment I am going to try to keep up, thought I didn't post one on Saturday.

B: So the pace is actually influencing the art, which I guess it always does but in this case it's more direct.

C: That's right. I also am trying to not worry so much about every picture being really good (at least in my terms). Ultimately I will try to put them into some other form, like a physical or electronic book and I will have a lot to choose from.

B: A book? Do people still read those things?

C: I think the photo book is the highest form of book. Now that we have reached that pinnacle books don't have anywhere to go from there.

B: In a way you're replicating 35 mm shooting where not every shot is gonna be a keeper but to get good ones you need to shoot freely and often. Then go back later and edit.

C: These pictures are a little different because they are constructed. I choose the base picture in the usual way of shooting a lot and picking a few. I have a really hard time telling what my best pictures are until I have looked at them for months or even years. I often get excited about an idea and later see that it was't that interesting. It also works the other way around.

B: That's when it's best I think, when you realize you've shifted and can see things now you didn't. Have any one or two in particular hit a nerve with you or with people requesting?

C: There was one that seemed to reinforce gender stereotypes that some people commented on, though I think everyone knew that the picture was kind of playing a role of a character in the Randy Newman sense.

Home Economics, 2009, Craig Hickman

The ones people request seem to be, for the most part the ones I find strongest, though some of the ones I find strong no one requests or comments on. They tend to be the ones that are a little more puzzling, not that they aren't all a little puzzling.

B: Maybe that's the online influence. When someone sees something on Facebook they expect to understand it immediately. If it's puzzling or requires more thought it might be more easily passed over. This points to why you might want to put them into book form.

C: That's right. In a book I can sequence them in a way that they inform each other.

B: Do you ever buy photos from other photographers?

C: I mostly trade.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

What To Do? #78

232. SE 49th and Taylor, Portland, 2004

233. Taylor St. House, Portland, 2002

234. Sel├žuk, Turkey, 2000

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

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A post that doesn't look like it should

I've been trying to make photos lately that don't look like they should. Like this one.

Which raises the question, How should this photo look? I'm not sure. I just know that the way it turned out is the complete opposite of picturesque, and that's enough to go on for now.

It's just a friggin tailgate and some garbage. The colors are jarring, the corners are fuzzy, the point of view is pedestrian. There's nothing special about this photo but in the past few days it has really penetrated me despite my best intentions to escape it. If I tried to go out a take another photo like this, I couldn't. Because it looks like it shouldn't.

I don't know if Dave Woody likes this image but he's getting a print. Dave supplied the film in response to this modest proposal. Wherever you are, Dave, thanks and heads up. This photo is aiming for you, and it may penetrate deeper than you expect.

For everyone else who sent me film, you should either have your prints already or expect them within the week.

And what am I going to do now that I've finally gotten everyone's prints out to them? Tonight I'm going to turn it loose with the silver bullet!