Monday, January 31, 2011

Ten photographers

Below are some recent photos of Oregon photographers. I was in the process of adding these to the section of my site where I keep such stuff when I realized that no one looks at websites anymore and that I may as well show them here instead. Maybe they'll wind up on the site at some point, we'll see.

I realize that many of these violate my recent space alien test. Some are smiling. Some are blank.

Whatever. I don't claim to be a great portraitist, and I didn't spend much energy on these photographs. They're just folks I ran into here and there. To me the core of photography isn't made of shows or collections or movements or equipment or rhetoric or blog posts or anything immortal. No, I think photographers are the core, so when I meet up with good photographers I like to document them.

Colin Andrew, Eugene

George Kelly, Portland

Ann Kendellen, Portland

Craig Hickman, Eugene

Sika Stanton, Portland

Faulkner Short, Portland

Debbie Williamson and Robin Cushman, Eugene

Gene Faulkner, Portland

Krista Wheeler, Portland

John Bauguess, Eugene

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Space Test

If you were a space alien visiting earth and your first introduction to humanity was the current Moments of Being show at Wallspace, you wouldn't think our planet is very happy. Out of 38 portraits in the show, not one person is smiling. Instead most of us humans look rather bored.

Days That Are Gone, Antonio Ysura

Or preoccupied.

Jack Kennedy and Mardee After the Service, Savannah
Elizabeth Clark Libert

We like to hang around shirtless (16 by my count).

Mark, Leon Alesi

And recline when possible (7).

K, West Virginia, 2010, Michael Sebastian

And sometimes we do all four at once.

Yoni Thinking, Russ Osterweil

But a genuine eyes-crinkled openmouthed smile? Humans don't smile. Humans aren't happy.

These portraits make an interesting comparison to greeting cards received over the recent holiday season, which tend to take the opposite approach. Out of 35 family photos we received this year, every single one shows the subjects smiling.

By my count, only one shows a person reclining.

And two cards show people shirtless.

I don't think my examples are exceptional. Each is representative of broader trends. The recent show 100 Portraits — 100 Photographers curated by Larissa Leclair and Andy Adams offers only slightly more cheer than Moments of Being. By my count, 5 out of 100 of these portraits show smiles, most of them thin Mona Lisa smirks that could go either way really. And I'm sure that anyone looking at their own recently received holiday cards will confirm for themselves that smiling is a widespread greeting card strategy.

There seem to be two separate standards. The standard for fine art portraiture is to show an expressionless gaze, while for holiday greeting cards mouths must be upturned. So what's going on here?

I think there's a common supposition in fine-art portraiture that too much emotion can interfere with revelation. To get at someone's true character one needs to dig beyond flitting moods like happiness or brooding. Those get in the way, and in fact it takes work to avoid them. To get the shot you hang around a person. If they happen to be laughing you wait it out, and you certainly don't ask for a smile. Finally when the moment is right, when they're showing nothing, you have them stare at the camera and the image magically shows who they are. That's the idea anyway.

Of course the deadpan gaze isn't new. It goes back to the early days of photographic portraiture (and if you want to drag painting into it, even further back). In the 1800s, it could be excused by the fact that exposures might last several minutes. It was hard to hold a genuine smile for very long, so a blank face became the default.

Edouard Manet, 1874, Nadar

Of course even back then some managed to flout convention.

Organ Grinder, 1898, Eugene Atget

OK, so a space alien visiting Atget in the 1890s might think humans are happy. But he's an outlier. By and large the empty gaze was dominant then, and has remained so through the contemporary era. It can't be excused any longer by technical considerations, since cameras can operate faster than thought nowadays.

So why has fine art portraiture remained so stoic? Part of the reason is that maybe there's something to it. Emotion can interfere with revelation. Not always, but sometimes a person is revealed best while expressionless.

But I think the larger reason has to do with cheesy snapshots. Artists want to separate themselves from the common rabble. Since smiles are what you see in greeting cards and yearbooks and weddings, the best way to show that your work doesn't belong with those is not to show smiles. It's the age-old dilemma of photography. When everyone's a photographer how do you keep low-art and high-art from mixing, or, if you're going to mix them, how do you ensure the mongrel still qualifies as high-art? In this case you axe the smile.

But at what cost? What about a shot like this one, which I think is one of the more revealing portraits I've seen in years?

Pima County Sheriff's Office, 2011

It's a simple mugshot, definitely low-art, but there's something in the photo itself which sticks, which is real. It shows that even a casual grin can sometimes be powerful, more so in this case than a more traditional portrait.

Jared Loughner yearbook photo, 2006

Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that cheesy greeting card grins are always expressive. Most smile-for-the-camera snapshots tell very little about a person and I certainly don't think fine art portraiture should copy that style. But must it steer so reflexively toward the opposite extreme? Can't a portrait show genuine warmth, a happy person reflecting on life?

Easter Sunday in Harlem, 1940, Weegee

This one is 70 years old. Quickly, off the top of your head can you think of a well-known contemporary portrait which reveals so many happy teeth?

I suppose the space alien standard isn't totally fair. It's not necessarily the responsibility of any curated show to "reveal" humanity. Not even Family of Man could do that. But I think photographs —straight ones anyway— should tell something about the society that made them. I suspect these are the photos which will prove most interesting in 50 or 100 years, whether they're holiday cards, fine art, or mugshots. And humans in 2011 have been known to smile. Just saying.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Grid Thoughts

Robert Frost

It's been warm and clear the past few days and I've spent some time shooting the Eugene Grid Project. This month's square, F10, is on the outskirts of Springfield. It's rural land that's slowly being converted into residential development, except at the very southern edge which is parkland along the Middle Fork of the Willamette. I took the dog out on an exploratory trip the other day and I couldn't stop. The trail just kept going along the shore. The river was brown and churning with snowmelt. Finally after a few miles I figured I was out of F10 but I needed an excuse to turn around. I couldn't just stop without a reason. So I asked the next person who came along if the trail had an end and he said yeah, Doris Ranch. Another 4 miles probably. So that became my excuse and I turned back. I'd shot maybe 6 photos in an hour, but I'd seen an hour of new territory.

That sums up my photographic strategy lately, and maybe forever. If I'm standing on a corner and one direction is familiar and the other is new I will always take the unexplored route, even if it doesn't seem to have as much photographic potential. The Robert Frost approach to photography? At its core, I think exploration is what the grid project is really about. Photography is integral but it's a byproduct thrown off from the core.

Suspicious Activity

A few days later I came back for the northern half of F10. It's developed in an ugly way. The trees are young and scrawny. The houses are cheap and new and bland. The neighborhood doesn't feel worn in or well loved, like the residents are just biding their time before bolting to some other generic housing plot. Every few blocks I saw a sign like this:

Who knows what counts as suspicious activity? Maybe photographing, maybe not. I've seen these signs occasionally in other areas but they were particularly thick here. I don't know if it was in response to actual crime or just paranoia, but I have noticed a trend. The blander and quieter the street, the more common these Neighborhood Watch signs are. In a busy Jane Jacobs neighborhood with kids playing on the sidewalk and people eating on the front deck, they're rare. It's the dead zones with no people in them that rely on signs.

The 100th photo

Even though there were no people around, it took a half hour in this neighborhood to warm up photographically. It's always that way. Taking those first photos is sort of like coming late to a party. I'm conscious of my newness. I'm an outsider and there's no reason for me to be there studying the houses. After I've walked and shot a while my shutter loosens up and I find myself being nosier, poking into truckbeds and bushes, engaging in "suspicious activity". It's like this in other situations too, busy cities, train stations, malls, whatever. The 100th photo is always easier to take than the first. It's the old saw, a journey of a thousand steps begins with one. I know it's cliché but it's true.

The Merge

After F10, the next grid is the downtown Eugene grid, E5. Coincidentally, Portland Grid Project will be shooting downtown Portland (L8) during the same time period. It's going to be a dense few months and I'm excited. No longer will I have to choose: should I drive out to bumfuck to shoot the grid or shoot downtown? For a few months there's only one choice. The grid projects will merge with street photography, and in both cities at once.

The Changing Bag

I started on L8 last week. Instead of using my normal 35 mm camera I've decided to mix it up and shoot color Holga, which I seem to be doing a lot lately. The flash works well in dim winter light. Sometimes instead of flash I just push the shutter a few times to expose enough.

When I bought the camera it came with foam padding to keep the roll tight inside the body but the foam fell out after a few weeks. I can't find a good substitute so what I do now is carry around a changing bag. I know the roll will be loose so I unload it in the changing bag, tighten it up by hand, stick the roll closed, then remove from the bag.

The whole process takes about five minutes and it's a bit of a pain but it's worth it and here's why. When I'm sitting down with the bag on my lap tightening the roll, it's a very odd sight. It looks like I have some sort of covering over my private area and I'm carefully manipulating something in that area. It could easily give the wrong impression. Last week in L8, every time I finished a roll I made sure I was in a busy spot, and I watched people walk by as I changed rolls inside the bag on my lap. Talk about engaging in suspicious activity! Not one person looked me in the eye. I know they saw me. I was right there. But I wasn't someone to mess with.

Screening Process

This other grid task this winter has been editing images for the latest revision of the website. This is fun but daunting. I keep the photos in small boxes. It takes about an hour to sort through each grid. It's the first time I've seen the photos in years and sometimes it's like visiting an old friend. Oh yeah, I remember that one! For the website they need to be winnowed to a max of 10 per grid, a very difficult task sometimes. It brings up all sorts of issues about what the photos should show. Should they represent the city, or document a time period, or just be personal favorites ignoring any grid connection? When in doubt I go with the Robert Frost rule.

Spending time in front of a screen editing images seems to be the way of photography nowadays. For my last few shows I haven't even made prints. I've just sent someone a file. It's Photoshop this, Facebook that, Flickr the other thing. Here I am this morning, typing this. Sometimes it's hard to remember the joy of daily practice, just walking by a river on a nice day with a camera.

A Workshop

Planning A Workshop: A Workshop

Saturday, March 26, 2011, 10am – 5pm
Newspace Center for Photography, Portland, OR

Cost: $495
Enrollment limit: 12

Workshop students learning the teaching of workshops

Course Description:

Making a living as a photographer can be difficult. How does one generate revenue while balancing work and art and all the other responsibilities of life, all while staying true to oneself?

One fundraising method successfully pursued by many photographers is the teaching of workshops. A well-run workshop can generate a substantial revenue stream. As a hypothetical example, a simple class of 12 students each paying $495 will generate well over $5,000 in income with very little overhead, all in one day. That's money in your pocket which you're free to use for cameras, entertaining potential clients, or to plan another workshop!

In this special one day workshop Eugene photographer Blake Andrews teaches the keys to successful workshop planning. In this workshop you will learn how to:

• Decide on the time, location, and materials necessary for your workshop

• Identify and pursue the target audience for your workshop

• Find the proper pricepoint which brings in revenue without discouraging enrollment

• Market your workshop effectively to your target audience through print and digital media

• Learn to close the sale and convert potential enrollees into paying students

• Learn how to reaffirm workshop value in the mind of participants, and convert students into re-enrollees with ongoing revenue stream potential

• (For advanced students) Learn to teach your own workshop on teaching workshops

Are you a dreamer? Could $5,000 help you achieve your dreams? Then this workshop may be for you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Who is Elmo Tide?

I can't get an easy handle on Elmo Tide (link via John Gomez) and that's probably the way he wants it. He's part street shooter,

part Lucha Vavoom,

part subterranean,

and part social critic.

"Frank and Fellini go to the carnival." That's how NPR described the style, and it seems as good a description as any. It's a strange dark fantasy world, but I can't quite grasp it. What is he trying to express? What drives him? Who is this person sneaking around LaLa land at all hours with a camera?

The dilemma is that Elmo Tide is anonymous. He's posted twice on Flickr and left it at that. No contact info, no forwarding address, no name. Just 81 photos and a goofball pseudonym. Not much info but enough to go viral.

Intriguing. It's pretty hard nowadays to disappear completely. To mask all digital fingerprints and remain anonymous takes determination. It makes me wonder about him and his photos, and maybe that's by design. Maybe that's his schtick. In a world where billions of photos are made and posted daily, maybe there's something to be said for Elmo Tide's strategy, if he has one.

Ok, fine. Mystery can be a catalyst. But I want to get to the bottom of this. Does anyone out there know who the heck Elmo Tide is?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I found my truck

Transcript recorded by an interviewer 12/14/75 at the New Topographics show at George Eastman House, and recently published in Steidl's New Topographics:

CHRIS: I just don't like this at all; [I prefer] people, pictures, something that tells a story. Route 66, big deal, it doesn't mean anything.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the photographer had any intent?

CHRIS: He must have, for a layout like this. He couldn't have been doing this for his enjoyment, because they are very dull pictures in my opinion. Jack, what do you think?

JACK: They mean something to me because I've never seen them before. I think he's trying to get at...I'm still working on it...

INTERVIEWER: Do you think these pictures really capture the feeling of the places?

JACK: They really do, very much so. At first they're really stark nothing, but then you really look at it and it's just about the way things are. This is interesting, it really is.

CHRIS: Look at this picture. I just...why? What is he trying to show?

JACK: You said there are no people here, but there are people, all over the place. Everywhere you look there's people.

CHRIS: Okay, you look at this you can imagine somebody checking out of the hotel, but it's gone, there's nothing for you to identify with except, what, dirty sheets? I don't like it. I'm sorry! I don't care for that kind of...Are you a photography student? What kind do you prefer?

INTERVIEWER: Do you think there's any difference between the [photographers] in the show and what they were doing? Do you like anyone better than the others?

CHRIS: I really can't comment because we've only been in just this one area [Shore, Schott], looking at just these, so I can't say as to what I prefer.

JACK: I found my truck. I can't believe it, it's my truck, right there.

INTERVIEWER: Robert Adams, got your truck.

JACK: Just interesting. You know I think there's a lot of people, I really do, there's people, it's a way of life. It's how it is. It's interesting.

CHRIS: I don't like them. They're dull and flat. There's no people, no involvement, nothing. Why do you like them?

JACK: Because I've been there. This is what people have done. [The pictures are saying] 'This is it, kid—take it for its beauty and its ugliness.'

CHRIS: I don't like to think that there are ugly streets in America...but when it's shown to you, without beautification, maybe it tells you how much more we need here. What do you think, Jack?

JACK: Try not to, it hurts.

CHRIS: You're the one who enjoyed them.

JACK: I enjoy everything.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pranks for the memories

As a prankster I can't help being a natural fan of Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan's billboard project. In what has to be one of the alltime greatest pranks, Sultan and Mandel replaced various outdoor advertisements with strange images and diagrams. Sometimes it was covert, but often they did it in broad daylight while dressed as sign workers.

Chicago, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

This was a photographic project at heart, so during the process and after the sign was completed, they would document their work with photos.

Mike Mandel photographing "Alaska" original

Since they looked official no one bothered them. This was back in the 1970s. You might run into more hassles now.

The images they used were quirky, noncommercial, and seemingly meaningless. Often they had mundane captions.

Oranges On Fire, Mandel and Sultan, 10 locations
San Francisco Bay Area, 1976

Kansas Counties, Mandel and Sultan, From "Sixty Billboards"
San Francisco Bay Area, 1976

I love these not only because they poke fun at advertising but because they tweak everyday expectations. I like to imagine someone driving by one of these signs on their daily commute and just being totally flummoxed. What the heck? What does that mean? How do I buy oranges on fire?

Ooh La La, Mandel and Sultan, Boulder, CO, 1982

Again, this was a few decades ago when outdoor signs were expected to be direct. Nowadays advertising is often so obtuse and ironic that one might just assume "Ooh La La" was an ad for Levi's or something. But back then a sign like that might be a mental wake-up call, a zenmaster's stick tapping on your skull. What? Huh? Why?

Ties, Mandel and Sultan, 2 locations, San Francisco, 1978

Japan, Mandel and Sultan, From "Trouble Spots" series
Los Angeles, 1988

I can't help wondering where are the photographic pranksters of today? Where has the subversive spirit gone? We have plenty of galleries and reviews and magazines, but they all seem motivated to some extent by self-aggrandizement. What about doing something for the simple sake of pranking, to just tap a stick on someone's skull and ask "Have you seen me before?"