Saturday, November 19, 2011

A chat with Bryan

From an online chat over beers last week with Bryan Formhals:

B: Hi Bryan, Have you got a beer handy?

Bryan Formhals: Ha. Yeah, just cracked one.

Great. I don't really have a script but I know you think a lot about online culture. What do you think is fundamentally different about looking at photos online vs. other ways?

Beer and chatting have been cultural cornerstones since prehistory

The quality is fundamentally different. And you spend more time looking at books than looking at photographs online.

What's the longest you've ever looked at a photo online?

A single photo? Maybe a minute. I go through slideshows pretty quick as well too, but I might play them back a few times. When I'm editing a body of work, I'll take more time to look at the photos. But it's more of an aggregate type situation, rather than just looking at one single photograph. Sometimes I'll find one that is weird and try to figure out how the composition works, or what's actually happening in the photo.

It's also hard to compare a portfolio from a project to a completed book. Viewing a portfolio online I mean...

I guess my question was about the nature of online objects. If you saw a photograph in a gallery you might take a while to examine it, whereas I think there's an attitude that things online require constant refreshing. The exact same image might only get 10 seconds of your time on a monitor.

Yes, also you normally see photos grouped together, like in a blog post where you might be looking at 12 really quickly.

I think the web has turned photographs into caricatures. You look at them quickly, gain the easiest visual features, then move on. What I wonder is how much that's shaping the actual image making, if people are making simpler images just because those are the ones easiest to digest in a small jpg. I think this might apply in particular to street photos.

I think that's true. You can see it in HCSP to some degree. Then again, does that also apply to portraiture?

Hmm. Possibly. I think many portraits reveal what they're about fairly quickly.

Right. So for me it applies more to candid, documentary type work. And also certain types of landscape work. With landscape work, it's hard to really grasp the depth of the scene when it's backlit.

Harudakenuma #17, 2006, Takeshi Shikama
Currently showing in real life here

Do you think landscapes or maybe some other types are underrepresented online?

I don't think they're underrepresented, just not nearly as popular. People enjoy photographs of other people. Looking at landscapes I'd say is generally boring for most viewers. I think looking at landscapes requires a bit more attention in order to really experience the depth and detail they offer.

This brings up the bigger question of how online photography differs from the real world. You said something in an email about online culture being separate from galleries, etc, who may not really know what's going on online. I wonder how much online culture even matters, since the history of photography is being written by curators, collections, etc. Or is it?

I don't think online culture matters that much to the real world art market. The web is still viewed as primarily a marketing platform I think.

When I was at Photolucida I thought I'd recognize more of the photographers from online, but really it was a whole different segment of the photo world. Pete Brook and I were the only bloggers there. It was a bit of a reality check for me. Literally.

Right. When I go to gallery openings, I try to not even say that I'm a blogger/editor! Because nobody really cares.

Many of my photographer friends have no idea I'm a blogger. Blogger. I said it like it's a dirty word.

I maintain that online is still very much underground and on the margins. Sure, there are a few high profile blogs that some curators might check out, but not many. Mostly the web is for photographers seeking out new work, and new connections. However I think this greatly changes when you start to think about editorial photography because I think photo editors and buyers are looking online for new work.

I can see the application for marketable photography but what about the rest of it? I'm asking under the assumption that most important photos of the past century have been made for noncommercial reasons. What does the online photo culture offer? What is its influence?

Online photo culture is great for making connections with other photographers. And I think there's some decent writing being done here and there but not much.

‪What will the online photo world look like in 5 years?‬

In five years I think it'll be much more commercialized. Most major mags and newspapers have photo blogs now.

But are the magazines/newspaper sites really blogs? I tend to view them as journalist-style reporting.

Yeah, sure. I don't consider LPV a blog either.

So what is it?

A magazine.

You're also seeing the more ambitious bloggers/editors making an effort to turn their websites into a full time gig. What I'm seeing is that people are now starting magazines and blogs because they see it as a way to break into the establishment.

I think the essence of a blog is that you need to feel the person's presence behind it. I think this is why some of that has shifted to Twitter, Facebook, etc. Because those types of entries even if they're just a few words feel very intimate and personal. They're like notes passed in class.

Yes, that type of entry has absolutely shifted to Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.

When I first heard of blogging I thought it was ridiculous. Or Twitter. Why would a stranger care about the details of another person's thoughts or life? But now I see the appeal. From the specific comes the general.

Well, most people don't care! If I have 1,400 Twitter followers, I'd guess about 25 are actually paying attention.

What about editing? The other day on LPV you wrote that online photos invite user edits. I think many photographers would like to keep that under their own control, so there's some tension there. I wonder if the cat is completely out of the bag now. Do we each just make our own big mix tape? Should photographer's expect any say in how their work is edited online?

Yeah, I think that element is fascinating. I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it, but I think there's something to the idea that photographers like to assemble others' work. In fact, I've started to think of LPV as sort of a collaborative 'art' project. Meaning, I get creative joy from assembling all this work. I don't necessarily do it because I believe photographer A deserves wider recognition. I do it because I saw a selection of photos that I thought could be assembled in an interesting the format we have on LPV.

But, there are far more interesting issues too. Ansel Adams is a good example. If we could access all his work, think of the edits that could be made? The interpretative aspect of online photography is interesting and something I think about often these days. Although, the way I'm describing LPV makes it seem kind of superficial :)

I saw your Ansel Adams comment on LPV, and Bremser's post, and the ones before. He's an interesting case.

That's definitely one thing that online culture has opened up that didn't exist before. All these photos out there searchable at the touch of a button. If I want a Freidlander picture I look it up in 2 seconds. Whereas 20 years ago that was much more difficult. So the mixing and matching possibilities provide fodder for blogs and Tumblrs.

You can see this sort of playing out with younger photographers who just throw up tons of photographs. Tim Barber or Jason Nocito, for example.

from Oh Brother, Jason Nocito

Even the edits are open to editing. Someone might come along in 10 years and put together a new edit of 10 LPV edits.

Yes, absolutely. I've been saying that people could start an online magazine in about five minutes. We could program four issues right now off the top of our heads. Just go look at the top blogs, and pick the work that resonates with you. Send the photographer an email, get the images, get the statement. Booom! You have an online magazine.

Maybe it would be more fun to edit those four issues into a new edit.

Are you still making photographs for yourself?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I just scanned 15 rolls. And I'm editing a series I've been working on for a few years. I'm planning on putting out a couple zines of my LA work in the next few months. Really interested in playing around with MagCloud for my personal work.

What sort of photos?

Mostly just random stuff. Looking for color, and more complex black and white scenes. Not much candid people type stuff. I want to just shoot for a long time and start to build up piles of and white, color, medium format, just a big mix of stuff. I'd like to make some portraits but I don't know how.

Bryan Formhals, 2011

Zen mind beginner's mind. Sometimes knowledge of how to do something gets in the way.

Yes, true. But I've been with a few photographers while on shoots, and the way they work with people is just something I don't really have right now. Also, do I want to photograph strangers on the street? Friends? Physicists?

Also, and this maybe flawed thinking, but I feel there's more responsibility on the photographer when making a portrait than when they're just shooting random stuff. Responsibility to the subject anyway. I don't know. Like I said, flawed...

Yes, portraiture is definitely a skill. But skill isn't all it's cracked up to be. I guess I'm thinking of Tichy who I've been enthralled with lately. Just pursuing his own muse with no training really. And coming up with gems.

Yeah, it's really an internal battle. But I'm also not really in the mood to work with people at the moment. At least photographically....

I know what you mean. Sometimes I have a hard time shooting people, and other times it's easier. So maybe part of the "skill" is recognizing those times when you're ready to shoot certain things, and when you might be forcing it.

Snapshots don't seem to have that problem. I've been diving into flea markets recently and finding photos that are so good they make me question if I should quit. If some old snapshot is better than what I can come up with, what's the point?

Snapshot found a few weeks ago at a Eugene flea market

Yeah, I think about that often. Which is why I've stopped trying to think about projects, themes, etc. I got caught in that stream the last few years, which is fine, but I don't think it's really who I am.

I'm all about taking photos first, then finding out what the project is.

Yeah, and what I've been thinking about recently is that photos can be used for multiple projects.

But most of the time they don't wind up in projects. Just an endless stream. Which is maybe the project after all.

For example, I'm thinking of just making a big pile of my photos from the last five years and starting over completely blank. Why can't that be a different project?

Treat them like LPV would treat a Flickr stash.

Like, when I say I'm going to make a Blurb book I don't really mean a "book" as in an epic project. More like, I want these 40 photographs to be viewed together at this moment. Yes, that's what I'm thinking. Just mix them all up and try to cut the pre-existing associations they have with each other.

Do you think someone in 10 years is liable to stumble on any of the photos we're making now online?

Yes, I absolutely believe people will have access to all these photos. We may in fact just be worker bees tidying up piles for future historians and anthropologists. Really, all this photography and online culture stuff might have less to do with art and much more to do with history.

It's the raw material of history but someone has to come along and shape it.

The machines!

They'll have access to our photos but they'll also have access to 40 trillion others.

Yes, there are billions of photographs but I believe the technology to search and organize will greatly improve. So much so that we can't really even comprehend it right now.

One thing that always grabs me about flea markets is the tangible quality. The only reason I'm able to thumb through old snapshots is that someone took the time to print them. Whereas nowadays very few photos are printed.

I understand the anxiety over the tangible quality. People should print their photographs. It cost like 22 cents for a 5x7. I can make a magazine in MagCloud for about $10.

It's not really anxiety. Just reflection.

Well, I think there is some very legitimate anxiety, especially over archiving, file formats and that stuff.

In a way, Flickr is like one big flea market. But who's going to sift through all that stuff? Some of the pleasure of sifting through real prints is that it's like a treasure hunt. It's like panning for gold. When I sift through Flickr, not so much. Maybe search algorithms will improve but how can a machine create artful edits. How does a machine know what's gold and what isn't?

Sorry, had to find this article for you.

Thanks. Hadn't seen that. Erik Kessels consistently hits the mark.

I think a machine can create artful edits. Joking of course. I think as the tools become more powerful, we'll have the ability to organize, categorize, edit, aggregate all this material in fascinating ways. Maybe our creativity is evolving and we can do more than we could in the past. I really believe that there's so much art, creativity, and photography out there that we can't really comprehend it. Sort of like trying to really comprehend how ling it take to get to the next nearest star (Alpha Centauri I believe).

It makes the traditional role of photographer just wandering around viewing the world seem antiquated. Maybe the future is in Rickard style curating.

Sure, but then isn't setting up a studio just as antiquated?

Don't know. I've never used one.

Roaming around and making photographs is pleasurable.

Like the title of Badger's book.

Yeah, like Badger's book, which I should probably read! If there's pleasure to had, I think people will continue to do it. Will it have any merit in the art market? Who knows? But then again, who really gives a fuck? I think so much of this stuff becomes less interesting when it becomes about what the art market is doing or wants.

It's a bit of a quandary. We talked about writing history before and to some extent the art market writes history. It determines which photos will be remembered in 30 or 40 years. I agree it operates in an inscrutable fashion but you can't ignore it completely. That's the quandary. Who gives a fuck, but you sort of have to.

Sure, you're talking about meaning. If nobody remembers or cares about your photographs in 40 years, then what's the point in making them in the first place?

The pleasure principle.

About the art market, I'm talking more about money than meaning. In order to get curated, collected, incorporated into the canon, a photo needs to develop market value. So the market writes history oftentimes regardless of meaning.

Look at that Gursky photo which just sold for $4 million. The photo itself didn't really matter. It could've been a birthday snapshot. It could've been an old shopping list. What gave it value is who made it and which other institutions own a copy. For better or for worse that's now a photo that will be remembered in 40 years.

An old shopping list found here

Yeah, money fucks it all up. And honestly, I think $$$ is a very powerful undercurrent in the online photo world.

Well, at least this chat is free.


Tiffany said...

*tink* :)

Zisis Kardianos said...

The pleasure of reading a good chat. You've certainly tackled on many interesting photography related subjects.
One of the questions that regularly haunts me is the one asked by Bryan, "If nobody remembers or cares about your photographs in 40 years, then what's the point in making them in the first place?"
I remember what Kudelka once said when he was asked.

Frank Horvat : But what else counts for you? Is it important that your photos be preserved after your death?

Joseph Koudelka : It never seemed important to me that my photos be published. It's important that I take them. There were periods where I didn't have money, and I would imagine that someone would come to me and say: "Here is money, you can go do your photography, but you must not show it." I would have accepted right away. On the other hand, if someone had come to me saying: "Here is money to do your photography, but after your death it must be destroyed", I would have refused. Do you understand?

Frank Horvat : What matters is that the photos exist.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting discussion. What surprised me was the large gap between the online and physical photography worlds, as you mentioned with your trip to Photolucida. I think that the problem with the online world is that it's constantly changing and evolving, often without reason or necessity. It's hard to settle in to the familiarity that you get in the physical world. Often the method of online delivery/presentation overshadows the actual photography. It's difficult to develop a single thread of reasoning when you have to keep learning new platforms. At least in the physical world you know what to expect and have a solid history to provide a reference point to what you are seeing, or reading. I still feel that the online world is akin to light entertainment. I can plow through the blogs in 10 minutes before I check out the latest sports scores, whereas in the physical world it is more of an event that takes some effort on your part and perhaps the payoff has more meaning as a result.

Blake Andrews said...

Interesting, Zisis. If a photograph falls in the woods and no one sees it, did it exist? I can see Koudelka's point but I don't think I could follow that path. Part of a photo's life is finding an audience. Some of the activation occurs with interpretation, and multiple interpretations.

Reminds me of Kafka's decision to destroy his unpublished writing when he died. Fortunately Max Brod disobeyed.

When I die I want all of my undrunk beer destroyed.

Matt Weber said...

I know an older photographer who did quite a bit of very good work in the 1960s & '70s and wants all of his work destroyed when he dies. His dealings with the "art world" have left him hating the gallery owners and curators. I understand his feeling that they are all vultures, but don't think I could trash everything I spent most of my life creating...

bryanF said...

I'm still shocked that even 10 people will comment on one of my photographs on Flickr.

I've met a few guys in their 50s-60s who have been making photographs for decades but never really showed anyone. Then they found Flickr and found an audience.

For them, it was like they'd been discovered! They simply appreciated the fact that other people looked at their photographs and enjoyed them.

I constantly try to remind myself of that when I interact online.

spence said...

The thought has been swimming in my head for sometime now is that all photographs in the world have been made and that there is nothing left in the world that hasn't been photographed. And essentially everything that is currently being made is simply derivative of that. This can apply to more than just photography (music, art, theatre, film, etc). So the question I'm left with is if all photographs have been made, then what is the point of making photographs? Is it so I can receive adulation from people who don't know the history of photography? If I want to make a good photograph, aren't I better off just finding one on flickr or digging into a Garry Winogrand book and taking a photograph of that image? It's a lot less work than going out and trying to find one on my own and if the end result is the same, then what value is there in me making the image vs. someone else?

Blake Andrews said...

I don't think it's as bad as that, Spence. There are plenty of new photos to be made, and plenty of new art, music, theatre, etc.

I realize digging through old photos has become a new sort of game, especially with Google Street View. People have been coming up with interesting new combinations and curations. Artists have always mined the past. But that doesn't mean new photos are dead. In fact they may be the most vital thing left.

spence said...

I don't doubt that there are new ways of putting old photographs together, but creating new photographs-I'm really having a hard time wrapping my mind around. I'm curious why you think that they might be the most vital thing left?

Blake Andrews said...

I admit I have a biased opinion. I'm a photographer, so naturally my inclination is to think new images can be vital.

I think most photographers are natural optimists. We always hope that the next exposure might be "the one" which is part of what keeps us going.

If everyone stops making images and it just turns into a giant game of recycling and reinterpreting, that seems like a less interesting world.

Phill said...

"If I want to make a good photograph, aren't I better off just finding one on flickr or digging into a Garry Winogrand book and taking a photograph of that image?"

Spence, I must say that's seems a particularly glum view of art/photography. I'm certainly glad musicians don't feel that way, otherwise there wouldn't have been any new music for many, many years.

Stan B. said...

The disparity between the online photo community and the "traditional" photo world of galleries and print magazines is a wide gap indeed. And it's all about the money. The online community talks about the monied photo art world; they in turn do not talk about, think about, or even notice us- at least those that do not have their feet in both worlds. Sadly, it seems more and more blogs are going a more commercial route- less on creating and maintaining meaningful dialogue with readers (as here), more on how to make some money out of it all. That doesn't mean that certain bloggers can't make the occasional wave (think OCCUPY)- you may even garner some attention, but you won't be greeted with open arms, you certainly won't be an "equal," and you will be marginalized. Unless, of course, you command money with your action(s).

As for what's new in the "art" of photography- not much. And it shouldn't matter all that much. Each day is new, and tomorrow is filled with "new" people, "new" situations and circumstances waiting to be made into "new" photographs. Eventually, they all get old, a scant few will somehow get noticed, fewer still will actually survive. Hopefully, you'll have a bit o' fun just making 'em- or why bother?

Mark Powell said...

greap conversation. thanks