Monday, November 29, 2010

Q & A with Nancy Rexroth

This was meant to be a placeholder post to share the interview in draft form with Nancy Rexroth on an outdated backchannel. The final edit of the interview can be found here.

Street Photography Now

I've had a month now to sift through Street Photography Now and I still can't decide what to make of it. As a quick coffee-table read, it is amazingly fun to browse. I can turn to any page at random and be immediately drawn in by the photographs, not to mention the impeccable layout, design, and reproduction quality.

Photo by Johanna Neurath

I've read the book straight through and it holds up quite well that way too, full of interesting perspectives and anecdotes.

It's only when held to a slightly more demanding standard --as a component in contemporary photo history/criticism-- that the book's beauty marks begin to show. In the words of one online commenter,
"this ain't scholarship… more like a collection of 3-point shots and flying lay-ups...T&H is trying to ride today's street photo craze with a relatively inexpensive book of eye work designed to appeal to semi-casual practitioners rather than scholars"
I don't know if I'd go that far, but there is perhaps a grain of truth in that sentiment. SPN seems intended more as a glossy survey than a probing one.

In comments on 2point8 Joanna Neurath and Sophie Howarth both make it clear that the book was not intended as a serious academic study. Instead, according to Neurath, the target audience was three-pronged: "1) Those who study the history of photography or those who are dedicated street photography fans. 2) another audience, a more general reader, one who doesn’t have as much knowledge as the people who read these forums for instance. 3) A reader who mainly wants the images."

Fair enough. But even if the aims of the editors were clear, confused reactions were perhaps to be expected. As the first broad street photography book to be published since Bystander in 1994, comparisons to that book were inevitable, especially considering the title which seemed to play on that multiyear void. You've waited 16 years…until Street Photography Now. But SPN is not a sequel to Bystander. Its approach is quite separate, and I think the differences between the books illustrate changes not just in street photography but in general photographic scholarship.

While Bystander came at the tail end of pre-internet era, Street Photography Now seems intimately tied to the web. Maybe I'm wrong but I'd speculate that most of the research for the book was done online. I say this not just in response to various citation snafus (documented here and here) but in response to the material itself. The selection of photographers seems young, global, and web-savvy, with a substantial dose of HCSP, Flickr, and In-Public members.

Meanwhile, some street stalwarts who aren't daily participants in the online world are left out, e.g., Charles Traub, Sylvia Plachy, Daido Moriyama, Friedlander, and Henry Wessel, not to mention the patron saint of candid street photography, Elliott Erwitt. Joel Meyerowitz is included even though he hasn't been an active street shooter for 40 years. Could it be due to his strong online presence? If it's an homage to his pioneering streetwork, the other exclusions seem odd.

The selection of resources in the appendix also seems peculiar. Why is Papageorge's Passing Through Eden included instead of his much more streety American Sports? Mermelstein's pedestrian Twirl/Run nudges out his brilliant No Title Here? If you're going to list Paul Graham, wouldn't you choose Beyond Caring rather than Shimmer of Possibility? Or Meyerowitz's Wild Flowers instead of Legacy? Does Uncommon Places really belong on a street list? Or two entries for the same Friedlander book? My point isn't to quibble over particular selections but to show that the list of resources seems scattered and arbitrary. To me it looks like the type of info that often results from a quick online search (maybe of this list?).

Well, so what? What's wrong with online research? Nothing. I use it all the time, including many times in this post. But as I've noted above it does color the general tenor of the material. Whereas Bystander was dense with historical background, SPN (true to its title) doesn't have much memory. In many ways the book feels like a simple byproduct of the online street photo community, with that tie continuing after publication. Bryan Formhals makes a similar observation: "there’s a synchronicity between the planning of this book and the rise of the vibrant street photography communities you find on the web today at places like HCSP and others." Would the book be better titled Street Photography Online Now?

Perhaps an internet-centric book is appropriate. After all the web, not the street, is where many Street Photographers Now congregate. Alec Soth's recent From Here To There seems to derive similar inspiration from the web, and maybe these are two of the first books in a growing movement. If people are still reading books in 50 years, my guess is that they'll look like these. But I can't help wondering what this movement is leaving behind. Don't street photographers need to visit the real world occasionally? Isn't that the whole point of it?

I don't mean to come down too hard on SPN. In case I haven't been clear, this is a book worth owning for anyone interested in street photography. The photography is generally great and, as many have noted, you're virtually guaranteed to discover work that'll be new to you. If you enjoy looking at street photography online you'll love reading this book. Just bear in mind, those are two very different activities.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What To Do? #91

271. SE Hawthorne, 2006

272. SE Belmont, 2007

Hartman Gallery, 2008

WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen photos.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Quiz #24: Cover Art Reprise

It's time for a holiday edition of The Album Cover Quiz. If you're looking for something to do over Thanksgiving break with family, gather them around the computer and have a go at it. Good luck!

Round one. Below are 10 noncommisioned photographs used on album covers. Score 1 point for identifying the photographer and 1 point for identifying the album.











Round two. Score 1 point for identifying the photographer, 1 point for identifying the meta-photographer, 1 point for the album.


Round three. The photographs below were not used as actual cover art but served as rough models for album covers. Score 1 point for identifying the photographer and 1 point for identifying the album.



Round four. For 3 points, name a photograph which appears noncommissioned on an album cover and on two book covers.

There are 30 points possible. The person who first emails me the answer with the highest point total before next Wednesday, 12/1, at 8 am PST will win a copy of In-Public's 10 along with an original print from the book.

Happy Holidays. I'm off for the next few days.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book lists

Elizabeth Avedon wrote an interesting post recently speculating about the best selling photography books of all time. She polled a variety of photo folks and came up with suggestions ranging from The Americans to In the American West. But unfortunately there was no way to pin firm numbers on any of the titles. Many popular books have been around for decades through various reprints. Print runs are hard to determine and sales figures are even harder. Avedon's conclusion was that The Family of Man was probably the all time bestseller but she couldn't be certain.

While measuring all times sales is tricky there is an accurate way to measure contemporary book sales and it's Amazon. Here are the top 100 best sellers in what Amazon calls Photography Collections & Exhibitions, which is a (sometimes very) rough approximation of fine art photography titles.

Amazon sales have a natural bias toward recent titles, books still in print, and generally less expensive editions. Amazon also lists separate entries for multiple editions of the same title so the numbers for very popular books are diluted somewhat.

For all these reasons Amazon rankings do not reflect total historical sales. Nevertheless they're fun to peruse. Here are the Amazon rankings for many of the books mentioned in Avedon's post, as well as a few other noteworthy titles (as of 10 am, Pacific time, 11/20/10).

918. Tim Flach, Dogs (top selling fine-art photography title)
5,529. Robert Frank, The Americans
8,529. Lee Friedlander, America by Car
8,889. Susan Sontag, On Photography
10,930. Anne Geddes, Beginnings
14,052. Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places
20,485. William Eggleston's Guide
21,756. Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
26,494. John Szarkowski, The Photographer's Eye
38,149. The Family of Man
42,982. Larry Clark, Tulsa
45,188. Diane Arbus Monograph
46,161. John Szarkowski, Looking At Photographs
111,997. Newhall's History of Photography
407,319. Alec Soth, Sleeping by the Mississippi
512,655. Nan Goldin, Ballad of Sexual Dependency
577,045. Edward Weston, The Daybooks
595,021. Garry Winogrand, The Animals
949,287. Robert Frank, The Lines of My Hand
967,826. Joel Sternfeld, American Prospects
973,986. Robert Capa, Images of War
1,484,097. Joel Peter Witkin, Gods of Earth and Heaven
1,624,634. Richard Avedon, In the American West
2,353,814. Eliot Porter, In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World
2,558,555. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment
5,716,330. Josef Koudelka, Exiles
7,274,943. Walker Evans, American Photographs

On the topic of book lists, there is one resource which I think stands head and shoulders above all others, and that is Building a Photographic Library published in 2001 by The Texas Photographic Society.

Despite the misleading title it's more of a research study than How-To guide. The authors polled 100 prominent people in the photo world asking

"We would like to know your six favorite photography books. Please list them and a brief description of each book and/or a statement on how the book has influenced you?"

The book is a compilation of answers received. It's fascinating reading but unfortunately like many photo-related books this one is out of print and difficult to find (Amazon ranking: #4,072,441).

Here are the books most commonly listed (with number of mentions) by those polled in 2001.

1. Robert Frank, The Americans (27)
2. John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs (17)
3. Edward Weston, Daybooks (13)
4. Szarkowski and Hambourg, The Work of Atget (10)
5. Diane Arbus Monograph (9)
6. Walker Evans, American Photographs (7)
7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (7)
8. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (6)
9. Ansel Adams, The Negative (6)
10. Michael Kenna, A Twenty Year Retrospective (6)
11. Josef Koudelka, Exiles (6)

With a few exceptions, this list looks a lot like Avedon's initial chart of suspected bestsellers. I'm not sure how well they've sold but they're all classics. I'd say at least the first 6 of these belong in every photographer's library (I've got Szarkowski's Atget (Amazon: #352,418) instead of the massive 4 volume set co-written with Hambourg (Amazon: #4,900,134)).

I'm going to make that my six. How about you? What are your six favorite photography books?

Sunday, November 21, 2010


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He who controls the present controls the past. he who controls the past controls the future stop end message.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What To Do? #90

268. Kitchen table, 2008

269. Bryan's house, 2009

270. Spencer Butte, 2009

WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen photos.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Soul provider

I received my 8 x 10 of Amy Stein's Powerpuff Girls in the mail last week.

This is only the second time I've bought a print from 20x200. The first time was a few years ago. I liked the photo on my monitor but when the print came I was disappointed. It looked like an inexpensive mass-produced computer generated copy, which probably shouldn't have surprised me. After all that's what it was. I don't know what I was expecting but anyway it went in a box and I hadn't bought anything again until now, even though I like much of what I've seen on 20x200.

So why now? One reason is that Amy Stein hand printed these in an old fashioned color darkroom. I know from personal experience that making 800 prints in a darkroom is a royal pain in the ass, so when a person goes to that trouble I like to reward it.

There's also the fact that I generally find darkroom C-prints more impressive than inkjets. Amy Stein's print is no exception. It looks great! The colors are spot on. The image is sharp and luminous. I've held it next to my other 20x200 image and it really blows it out of the water. Both may be inexpensive mass-produced copies but one's got soul and one doesn't, Amy Stein's soul in particular. And some of those little girls' souls too.

I don't mean to turn this into an old fashioned darkroom v. inkjet debate. Or maybe I do. I know inkjets have come a long way, and they're probably more archival, and they've made color printing far more accessible. I've seen some very good ones. It's just that when I see a well done C-print it seems to have a character which is missing in inkjets. Something in the purity of color? Or the clarity? Or maybe it's just personal, like preferring vinyl to an mp3. In any case, it's hard to imagine any digital version of Amy Stein's image topping my C-print.

Meanwhile I've just finished shipping out the first round of workprints from my offer a few weeks ago. 1500 hand-printed bits of my soul, each one unique. What a pain in the ass. My soul feels lighter after unloading them all.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Blogger profiles profiled

I had fun last week reading Wired's list of favorite photobloggers. I discovered a few sites I wasn't familiar with, and for those I was familiar with, it was nice to match blogs with portraits of the people behind them.

Browsing the profile pictures I was struck by a certain similarity among some of the bloggers. Maybe you notice it too?

Marc Feustel

Tony Fouhse

Joerg Colberg

Bryan Formhals

Jeff Ladd's photo is a clever attempt to throw us off the scent...

Jeff Ladd

but a little sleuthing turns up this shot.

So what is it with male photobloggers and 1) thick framed glasses, 2) gruff thin beard, and 3) short hair? Is it a secret cabal? Did I miss the private email outlining personal grooming habits? Or maybe myopia and three day growth are a natural byproduct of spending long hours in front of a computer. (Believe me, I should know.)

Did Rob Haggart miss the email too? He's got the beard and glasses but the haircut is definitely non-bloggy.

Andy Adams? Same story.

Matt Lutton and M. Scott Brauer made the cabal even with longish hair but we'll let them slide because they're young.

I have to believe St. Ansel would be blogging today if he were still alive, assuming of course he nixed the beard and grew some five o'clock stubble in its place.

Then again, a bushy beard hasn't held back Andrew Hetherington.

Does Michael Stipe have a secret photoblog we don't know about? He looks ready for the part.

Or perhaps Elvis Costello is this year's model?

Maybe Moby?

Meanwhile, those of us who missed the secret email are left to our own devices, at some risk to our personal glamour. For example, here's what can happen when you let a blogger choose his own headgear with no guidance.

As a disclaimer I must say those are prescription goggles. Doctor's orders. The gum too. It's been helping me quit. I've almost got Pranksterism behind me. Just a few more years and I'll have it licked.

Hopefully I don't piss off the entire photo community before then.

In all seriousness, congrats to all the bloggers profiled in Wired and a big shout out to Pete Brook for making it happen. Please keep me in the loop on any future secret emails.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The five stages of exhibition grief

With apologies to Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross...


The opening is only a few days away and you've been putting off the task of preparation. You have a rough idea for the show but you're not sure exactly which images to use. You convince yourself that at some point in the next few days you'll find the time to edit a cohesive show, make exhibition quality prints, matte and frame them, hang them in the gallery, write a statement, and update your website to reflect the new show. Yeah, right.


Somehow the show comes together. Now it's up but it's hard to gauge response. There is no feedback, no inquiries, no review, no comments. You ask your close friends what they think but none of them have managed to see it yet. And in fact you can't tell who has seen it beyond the few brave souls who made an appearance at the opening, probably there for the free cocktails. For the next month you live in an angry unknowing vacuum. Grrrrr!


There's been a sales inquiry. They're wondering if you'd cut a deal for one of the prints. They'd like it smaller, unframed, and at a quarter the price. And oh yeah, they're curious if you can make the colors pop a little more and could you print it on canvas like those gorgeous Thomas Kinkades they saw at that one shop. You say you'd like to sell the print as displayed in the gallery, at that price. You never hear from them again.


Closing date. You take down the show by yourself. The gallery walls are now blank. You go home, remove the prints from their frames and resort materials into their places. The frames go on their shelf, mattes on their shelf, prints in their box. The artist statement gets recycled. After a few weeks you begin to wonder if the whole thing ever happened or you just imagined it.


Gradually, after many shows, you realize that each one follows the routine described above. What's more, it's likely that any future shows will follow the same pattern. So you stop organizing solo shows, a decision which frees up a chunk of time you can now to devote to practicing photography in earnest.