Sunday, February 27, 2011

I Love Lucy

Text from Parr by Parr, pg. 38. Artwork by Charles M. Schulz.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The end of photobooks

This conversation has gotten me started thinking about the end of photobooks. Not The End, but how certain books end. One passage in particular caught my attention:
Colberg: Just in general, for you what makes a good photobook? If you think about your favourite photobooks what is it that you like about them?

Meeks: This is subjective, of course, but a book has to be tightly edited. But for me the most important thing is that it has an open-ended quality, that it doesn’t feel like you close the book, and it’s somehow resolved.

I'd been spending a lot of time with Iowa recently, so when I read this I immediately thought of that book. The final image is pretty memorable just because it is so different from what comes before.

White Sky · Chauncey, Ohio · 1976

Talk about open ended! I think that qualifies.

It got me wondering, what about other well-known books? How do they finish?

On the one hand it's a superficial question. There's more to a book's lasting impact than the final image. Still, I think the last photo often carries extra weight. When you come home from a concert you don't remember the 5th song (deadheads not included), you remember the encore. For me it's the same with photo books. The last thought is the one we're left with, and presumably the photographer or book designer plans accordingly. So what can we learn from those images?

Probably the most famous final photo is the last image in The Americans. In one fell swoop it sums up Frank's months on the road while putting his own very personal imprint on the entire project.

US 90 en route to Del Rio Texas, 1955, Robert Frank

Frank derived much of his inspiration from Walker Evans, not only in terms of documentary style but in his careful attention to sequencing and editing. Frankly the final shot in American Photographs has never resonated with me. It looks like a photo you might see at a state fair. But I know its placement must be no accident. What was Evans thinking?

Tin Relic, 1930, Walker Evans

The last image of Immediate Family sticks with me as much because of its caption as the image itself. It puts the cap on things while dredging up all sorts of new thoughts.

The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, Sally Mann

Maybe Mann had Exiles in mind? Its final photo has a similar structure to the Emmett shot. The last image in Koudelka's book seems to hint at the future direction of his photography, away from Gypsies and toward Chaos.

from Josef Koudelka's Exiles

While the last photo in The New West shows where we're all headed eventually.

Pioneer Cemetery. Near Empire, Robert Adams

Or perhaps we'll just wind up as piles of bones, like the last photo in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. This photo works well but it's hard to know how intentional its end position was, since Ballad is basically the printed version of an ongoing slideshow with no firm ending.

Skeletons Coupling, New York City, 1983, Nan Goldin

Goldin's photo makes a good companion to the final image in The Animals. I have to say I find this photo pretty boring. There are so many classic images in that book and he chose this one? Knowing Winogrand he may not have paid much attention. His life was more a stream of photos than of individual projects. Maybe with this photo he's saying it could've ended with any one of them, and it did, though no one knows which one exactly.

New York, 1969, Garry Winogrand

The final image in Eggleston's Guide is typical Eggleston. It's so banal it almost seems meaningless. Yet I've always found this picture loaded and menacing. Peaked hoods in the south creep me out. I wouldn't make this my last image before bedtime.

Near Jackson, Mississippi, 1970, William Eggleston

Maybe the last picture in Social Graces would work better. It closes the door on a warm upbeat note.

Pat Sabatine's Twelfth Birthday, Larry Fink

American Prospects? Not so upbeat. But if Sternfeld was forecasting the decline of empire back in 1983, his prediction has proven fairly accurate.

Kansas City, 1983, Joel Sternfeld

If any book manages to capture that post-decline zeitgeist it's Sleeping By the Mississippi. For such a symbolically loaded book it ends on a surprisingly literal note. The last photo below is one of only two in the book depicting a bed and the title river.

Venice, Louisiana, 2002, Alec Soth

I can't tell how Friedlander's Self Portrait finishes. In my 1997 copy it's with this photograph.

Canyon de Chelly, 1983, Lee Friedlander

But I know that isn't the original ending. It's too recent. Perhaps the next-to-last photo below used to be the finale? Or did he rearrange the entire book? Hopefully someone with a copy of the first edition can chime in here.

Haverstraw, NY, 1966, Lee Friedlander

I've got the same problem with The Decisive Moment. I have no idea what the last photo in that book is because it's impossible to find, even in most libraries. There used to be a website faithfully depicting every page in the book but it's been pulled, presumably under legal pressure. Excuse my rant but this situation is completely ridiculous!! One of the most important books ever made and few people know exactly what's in it. Pardon my French hero but that's fucked up.

What's that? You want to hear Sgt. Pepper's? Sorry, but the only way to listen to that album is to pay $3000 for an original pressing of the LP. Take my word for it, it ends with a bang not a whimper.

I think I'm going to make my own HCB ending. Every day for the next week this post will conclude with a new HCB shot. Maybe it will change the dynamics of the entire post. Maybe not. Either way you're bound to find the last image more memorable than whatever that 5th photo was.

from Portfolio magazine no. 3, "Cartier-Bresson in the Orient"

Belgium, 1931, HCB

World's Fair, Brussels, 1958

Matera, Italy, 1971

Photo by John Loengard

San Francisco, 1960

Egypt, 1950 (the last image in The Decisive Moment)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Just add a little knows Greece

Alexandros Konstantinakis-Karmis has turned the tables on me and conducted a What Was He Thinking? profile about some of my photographs. There's one small catch. It's written in Greek. Hope that isn't an obstacle for anyone. Enjoy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I've been photographing for years and using public urinals for even longer, but until recently I'd never had any luck combining the two pursuits. Finally a few weeks ago I made what I consider to be my first successful (insert your definition here, here, or here) photograph of a urinal.

I could tell you what was happening but it's probably better if I don't. Suffice to say I was waiting in line to pee and there he was. I wasn't nervous taking the photo. It had to be taken, so I did it.

That's not usually the case. Usually in public urinals I find it very hard to make photographs. There's always that question hanging over you. What are you going to say to someone who confronts you? Some photographic mumbo jumbo about magical light and mirrors and toilet forms? Something about punctums maybe? Trust me, it won't fly. Taking a photo of an unzipped stranger is a good way to get a fat lip.

That's why a lot of my urinal photos look more like Matt Bialer's below, shot in a nervous hurry.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great shot. But it's not a calm one. The angst of the photographer has seeped into the timing, and in fact it's part of the photo's power. What if he gets caught?

Despite the difficulties, some have succeeded. My alltime favorite urinal shot is by Nils Jorgensen.

The toilet forms are beautiful, not to mention the gorgeous drum and guitar. If confronted Jorgensen might plausibly use them as cover. "They had to be photographed," he might say, and he'd be right. Maybe that would work and maybe not, but even if that explanation resulted in a fat lip it would be worth it for that shot.

Of course, as Elliott Erwitt has shown, a lot of public peeing occurs outside of urinals, outside of buildings even.

Western U.S., 1954, Elliott Erwitt

Sometimes all it takes is a dead-end alley.

Ireland, 1976, Josef Koudelka

Or a picturesque summit.

The Three Graces, 1994, Sally Mann

A row of porta-potties can provide some shelter.

The Stralsund harbor, 1997, Stalsund, East Germany, Leonard Freed

Or a simple subway wall.

Japan, 1977, Elliott Erwitt

Freed and Erwitt are just the tip of the Magnum iceberg, so to speak. Many of their colleagues have also taken on the urinal challenge, with varied success.

O'Hare International Airport, Chicago, IL, 1997, Martin Parr

Will Rogers State Beach, Los Angeles, 2000, Jim Goldberg

Calcutta, India, Raghu Rai

Byblos Discoteque, Riccione, Italy, 1996, Alex Majoli

But the king of public urination photos has to be Magnum's Peter Marlow, who seems to have a particular fascination with bodily excretions. His Magnum portfolio contains everything from public urinal shots,

London Beer Fest, 1979, Peter Marlow

To band photos,

Members of the Prague rock band, 'The Plastic People,' on tour, Czechoslovakia, Peter Marlow

To handheld closeups.

The Rencontres d'Arles, 2004, Peter Marlow

Is there nothing he won't photograph? To be honest I've taken some version of that first-person peeing shot many times. Don't act so shocked. You know you've done it too, if you're a hard-core male street photographer. It's an inevitable byproduct of carrying a camera everywhere and needing to pee several times per day. Luckily it only takes one hand to operate each instrument simultaneously. And the bonus is it's the one type of urination shot that's unlikely to result in a fat lip. If someone confronts you, you get to ask them what they were looking at.

Unfortunately it's hard to make this type of shot really work. The tendency of pee is toward uniformity. If you've seen one first-person piss shot you've seen them all. And if by some chance you haven't seen them all, there's always the next pee break.

Addendum 4:30 PM: After reading this post, Richard Bram sent along the following lovely photo he shot while living in Kentucky:

I may regret doing this, but if anyone else wants to send me their favorite (tasteful) urinating photos, either your own or by others, go ahead and email them to me. If I get enough good ones I'll publish them in a future post.

Addendum, 2/21/11: Last night I went to see Yo La Tengo at the WOW Hall downtown. I hadn't paid much attention beforehand to the full bill but when I arrived at the show it turned out the opener was none other than The Urinals, a seminal band from the early LA punk scene which is still very much alive and kicking. The Urinals were awesome! And of course so was Yo La Tengo, and yes I took some photos in the men's room during a set break. Strange the twists life takes...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Q & A with Nancy Rexroth

Self Portrait, Athens, Ohio 1969, Nancy Rexroth

from the preface to Nancy Rexroth's Iowa

Since its publication in 1977 Nancy Rexroth's book Iowa has become an underground classic. Shot in the small rural country of Southeastern Ohio using a Diana camera with a plastic lens, and named after her childhood memories, the book is mysterious on many levels. It has long been out of print and copies are scarce. I found one at the University of Oregon library, quickly fell in love with it, and eventually tracked down its author to ask some questions about Iowa, Diana, and photography.

Nancy Rexroth is represented by The Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, MN. All illustrations included with this interview were made from published duotone prints, not from original prints.

B: Can you tell me how you first got started shooting the Diana.

Nancy Rexroth: I was in graduate school at Ohio University in 1969. The courses were very technical for me, and we were studying the Zone System. I was so frustrated with it ALL, all things technical. An instructor had discovered the Diana in Chinatown, New York, and brought it back for use in the beginning photography classes. I saw him use the camera, and I realized that he had somehow loosened up……and he was almost silly while using the camera….

That's one thing I love about Iowa. The photos feel very loose and spontaneous.

I bought a Diana, experimented for two weeks or so. I made a number of unremarkable photographs with it. At one point, I made an interior photo of a woman’s bed. After that image, I just got into a groove of feeling, with the camera.......And I continued...

A Woman's Bed · Logan, Ohio · 1970

So at that point you shot exclusively Diana and gave up other cameras?

Yes, I was mostly using the Diana from then on. Although I did have a few other projects after that: Platinum prints of 4X5 head shots of women, and later on using the “Polaroid SX-70 Transfer” method. In 2000, I also experimented with color imagery, using a cheap digital camera called the Digipix. I do feel that my work with the Diana is my best, so far. I keep my Nikon camera around, and use it for snapshots of friends.

Did you know of others shooting Diana at the time, apart from your instructor? The reason I'm curious is because I think Iowa was the first book to really explore that camera technique and in retrospect it seems to have popped out of thin air. I'm curious what the context was at the time in the mid 70s. Was there any community to compare notes with or were you just exploring on your own?

No, I didn't know of any other people using the Diana, and that remained so for quite some time. Twenty years later, I did find out that Jerry Burchard had his graduate students at the San Francisco Art Institute use the camera as well...with clear intent to be artistic, and spontaneous.

I did discover a sort of renaissance going on at that time - an interest in snapshot photos, with the relaxed, simple beauty that they often seem to have. Also, in the mid-1970s Jonathan Green edited an Aperture volume, The Snapshot, exploring the wonderful casual feel of these images, often taken on the fly.

It's funny you mention that. I just pulled that down from the shelf mid-comment. It's one of my favorite books and you're in it.

I think that the whole notion of a plastic camera was quite ripe and ready for discovery. It was just a given that it would be discovered by fine art photographers.

I think they're now being rediscovered. Dianas and Holgas have become very popular. There's a current of thought that it's a reaction to the digital age of perfection.

Yes, the plastic cameras will always be discovered by photographers who are in need of Poetry in their lives......often, not for long, but still worth the stop in with the lovely Diana, or whatever else takes you back to an “easy” sense of the beginning.

Plastic cameras are a simple and loving tonic for those who are frustrated and needing joy in their art work. How can you be at all serious, while using a camera that makes the sound of a wind-up toy every time you advance the film?

Of course the irony is that The Diana and the Holga are all film cameras, and each roll has to be developed in a darkroom, not a spontaneous thing. In the sense of immediately seeing the image result, the digital cameras have it all over the plastic ones, and in the end have their own kind of spontaneity……

He Demonstrates · Ironton, Ohio · 1974

I do want to make it clear here that my main attraction to the Diana was the sort of images I could make with it. The fact that it was a toy camera was not the striking draw at all, for me. I quickly began seeing the Diana as just another camera, nothing but a tool. I have always wondered why people get so into the Diana camera, and obsess over the cuteness, and the retro-ness of the camera. I guess the Diana can easily be a gimmick. And this makes it hard to fashion something original with the camera.

It has become a cult sort of camera. I remember about 15 years ago, I was using my Diana camera in a park and someone said "Oh yes, the cult of the Diana," and they sounded quite scornful. I didn't really respond because, well, IT IS a cult.....

Original Diana, top; New version, bottom

In the last 5 years or so, the Lomography Society has remade and reissued the Diana Camera. I experimented with this new version. I was very excited to try it, because of the many lenses it has, especially the wide angle lenses. But the new Diana is not the same. The sweet spot is gone, replaced by mainly just some vignetting around the edges. The writings of the Lomography Society encourage people not to know anything about what they are doing when using the camera. They equate this sort of blindness with spontaneity. “To hold, point, and shoot a Diana implies a conscious decision to relinquish control”. We are told that the Diana is “magical”, and that the camera is the creature making the pictures, not the photographer. Loss of control and loss of responsibility are totally encouraged. To me, this is a very unfortunate idea. It is a sad thing, an ignorant thing…..Of course, the new Diana is here now, and it will have its own life…..(Please prove me wrong about the Lomo Diana).

It is odd to see plastic cameras sold in museums now and even in the clothing store Urban Outfitters. It is strange. What does it mean? Well, it means that it is there, morphing away, part of the zeitgeist of our culture and what a strange future will evolve with The Fair Diana! She definitely has her own personal life.

Group Portrait · Albany, Ohio · 1974

Was there anything you didn't like about using the Diana?

I never did like the fact that the Diana was prone to light leaks, or that the viewfinder was imprecise, or especially that there was a parallax problem with the camera. My earlier work had been done with an SLR Nikon camera, in which I could see exactly the image that I was taking. Composition has always been extremely important to me. While I enjoyed the freedom of the camera, I did try to control what it was doing….I was also obsessive about making the best possible prints from those Diana negatives.

What did I like about the camera? It was the dream, the liquid dream of the images that I could make with it. I went somewhere with the camera, into my own private landscape, a real mental spot, of needing, of longing, and with a real love of the beautiful.....When I was photographing, it seemed that I was awake and dreaming at the same time. This connection was an actual fact.

So when you made the Iowa photos you were in some state of heightened consciousness? Being pulled along and elevated by the camera?

Yes, but please note, it was not the camera but what could be done with it. I was never in love with the Diana. And over time, I found that Iowa could be anywhere, for me……Iowa was a state of mind.

Children and Leaves · Shawnee, Ohio · 1974

As I understand it, a place from your childhood? Were you making the Iowa photographs with an eventual book in mind, or did the book come later?

No, a book was not in my mind until I had worked with the camera for at least 5 years. I had made those images, not caring, or knowing why I was using the camera. I applied for a National Endowment grant, and realized that my "project" needed a name. Somehow I thought of the name Iowa, because I could identify that memories of childhood Iowa were the actual core of the web of images I had been spinning out of that camera, and onto paper.

What do you remember about your childhood visits to Iowa?

I need to repeat here that I was not consciously looking for childhood memories while shooting with the Diana. That approach would have likely been a contrived and hokey group of images. I was photographing mostly from the back of my mind, and not even aware that the photos had any theme to them.

Nancy With Aunt Martha, Arlington, Virginia 1951
Photo by Florence Rexroth

I did say somewhere a long time ago that I shot some Diana photos with my eyes closed. But that is just not true, although I must have said it. I did my best to control the camera and its images, just as much as with any camera that you might use.

[For the Iowa series] I photographed in many small towns of southeastern Ohio, all very sad and unpopulated places. Sometimes, I would just knock on doors and ask to photograph inside. I was pretty trusting back then to have done that. Nowadays, I would feel the possibility of never leaving one of those houses…..Perhaps I would receive the blow of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” coming down on my head…..and not take that chance.

Did others help you edit the work into a book?

I hardly did any editing of the book. At one point, Victor Schrager and Larry Miller of Light Gallery did a sequencing of the work, on someone's living room floor…they tossed the prints around. I took a few of their suggestions, but I was just too naïve to get other feedback. A book is written in stone for sure! If I could do it over I would pare down the images to say 50 or so photos, and I would eliminate many of the “Winter” photos, in the first part of the book.

But I guess I do have a chance now to redo Iowa, because Gerhard Steidl in Germany has shown an interest in possibly republishing Iowa. This happened through Martin Weinstein, of The Weinstein Gallery. I am now in the process of going through all my old Diana negatives, and making sure that I did not leave some good images behind.

Will the new edition be a substantial revision?

I would want the new publication to have a number of never before seen Diana images. I would like the book to be very reimagined, and partly new. I am hoping to have a greater percentage of photos of children....choosing them to be the new core/anchor for Iowa......the longing and the joy of children, children flying high, and with the needing and urgency of childhood.

I would certainly want a new title for the book, perhaps something like The Country of Iowa, or Iowa: The Children Are Here….

Boys Flying · Amesvilles, Ohio · 1976

So you will be more in control of editing this time? How will the editing be divided between you and Steidl?

I should say here more clearly that a Steidl republication is not a done deal. If it doesn’t happen then I will certainly look elsewhere.

I have talked with people whose work Steidl has published, and it is a great, creative experience. All of the publishing goes on in one building, in Göttingen, Germany. The artist travels there and has a hot-house sort of experience of collaboration, with Gerhard S. They eat their meals there, and they stay in a small apartment that is right next to the building.....Artists refer to this collaboration experience as "Steidlville". The presses are on the first floor, there are proofing rooms, there is a library. Steidl documented this process and posted it at For example there is a series of about 30 images, showing Steidl working with Robert Frank on the book Storylines.

Speaking of the book and its republishing, one thing I've always been curious about the original is the variation in image size and toning. Some images are small, some are sepia. Most are medium sized and greyscale. Is there any rhyme or reason to which images are shown in certain ways? Will it remain the same in the new book?

About the different print sizes in the book: Early on I realized that for me the Diana images were just too out of focus and soft to be printed very large. They would lose their visual integrity….looking large, and blobular. So I settled on 4 inches square for the images. But I would periodically find negatives that I very much wanted to print, that wouldn't hold up at 4 inches. So I began printing some of them smaller. There was no aesthetic reasoning for this in terms of the imaging sequencing, and I guess over the years people have wondered the why of my different sizes. Perhaps all images will be the same size next time around.

Personally I think the softness is part of the images' appeal. But regardless of why you did it, it's a neat touch because it's an extra layer of mystery. I've always wondered about it.

About image softness: Well, I can tell you that I made a whole lot of blurry, out of focus photographs with the Diana! But I was very fastidious in choosing which images to print. In my sub-mind, I was looking for what you might call “The Integrity of the Blur”. I had an unknown set of multiple rules regarding what to blur, and what not to blur ……I aimed to have the degradation/bluring of the image seem as though that was ACTUALLY how things looked, at the time: “My world is looking like this to me, and you are welcome to enter inside…..We are together in this”. The blur had to “work”- on several levels.

While I was shooting, I would often hand- hold the camera, for a blur caused by body movement, or flick the bulb setting of the shutter, laying down 2 or 3 sets of exposure, slightly out of register. This flicking could give the image a feeling of movement, as with “Waving House” Vanceburg, Kentucky 1975.

Waving House · Vanceburg, Kentucky · 1975

What about the toning?

The toning in the last, and 3rd part of Iowa, is sulfide toning with gold over it. It gives a wonderful pinkish glow to the images. I used these glowing photos for the last part of the book.

I am glad that you "got" the toning. No one ever really talks about questions.....

I don't know if I "got" it. But it did catch my attention. Again, I think it works just because it's different and makes you wonder.

The last part of the book was interiors, and this fecund sort of stewing kind of thing, which seemed to work well with the pinkish tones. I don’t know if this toning would work in a new publication of Iowa.

Do you recall the general reaction of friends and critics when the book came out?

General reaction? There wasn't much of a reaction as I remember. I was living alone in Albany, Ohio at the time, and was very isolated. I was quite the hermit before and during the making of Iowa.

The book did sell for a number of years through Light Impressions. It did slowly sell.

Who is Emmet in the book? He appears in several photos. I'm curious partly because I have a son named Emmett.

Emmet? Oh, a son, well that is a great name. I met Emmet in Pomeroy, Ohio. I photographed him 3 or 4 times. He had worked on the railroad his whole life. His wife had died a few years before. Emmet was quite lonely, but he was up for fun. I photographed him dancing one time.

Emmet dances the jig, first image of section II

Yes, Emmet and I went to Krieger Falls Ohio, where he was born, but which no longer existed. Still, standing near an empty woods, he felt moved to dance. I also made an image of the bed where his wife had died. You could see the shape of her body still in the bedcovers, or so it seemed to me. That image was not in Iowa.

Emmet Dances the Jig, Krieger Falls, Ohio, 1974

You wrote in the book's introduction that after 6 years the excitement of Diana wore out a little and became less interesting. Can you talk more about that?

Yes, the excitement of the project did wear off. It felt like eating too much food. But lately, I have been going out into the Ohio and Kentucky countryside with my boyfriend, just using the camera again. And I find that the slight mania of the thing, the joyfulness, is still going on. I enjoy the Process of shooting Diana again......and what a surprise, and what fun!

When you shoot with the Diana now are you looking for the same type of shots as before?

Well, yes, I find that I can get into the pace and feel of it again, easily. You know, Iowa was in my own head anyway. Apparently I have Diana access again. I am shooting now things that I left out of original Iowa, such as landscapes…. I do love those old Ohio houses. And this new photographing is like the best of food. I am eating, and enjoying…You know what they say: “Better then Sex.”

I don't expect that more than a few of these newer images would now work, this time round....It will be interesting to see if newer images can be inserted into that old work. I am a different person now. I will soon be an old lady.

Nancy Rexroth, Athens, Ohio 1974
Portrait with Diana camera by Ron Rubino

Nancy Rexroth, Lake Kincaid, Kentucky 2010, by Jerry Rush

What about incorporating color?

Color? That would be a lovely thing to explore. I did try color Diana at one time. The colors can be wonderful. I would have gone that route, but color work in my darkroom was so expensive and time consuming then. I would have needed to do the printing myself. I have always been so very picky about the printing of the work. It took often 10 or 12 hours to do even one print in black and white in the picky......color now? No, I want these recent images to be able to go into the new Iowa. I don't have the time for a dead end........well, why not.....I will think on it......Color.

What would I say to all the people buying and using plastic cameras, now? Have great fun with the camera. Enjoy its simple blessing. But know that the camera actually works, and it is not a toy.