Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lee Jumps The Shark

For fans of Lee Friedlander, his recent book Mannequin offers good news and bad. The good news is that the master has returned to the 35 mm format with which he established his reputation during the first half of a sterling career. The bad news is that he appears sorely out of practice. I'm not sure what's going on. Perhaps years of shooting Hasselblad have permanently shifted his vision away from the rectangular. Or maybe he's just old and tired. Whatever the reason, the resulting photos are dull and formulaic. Instead of capping a career with a bang this publication is more of a whimper.

from Mannequin, 2012, by Lee Friedlander

Shop-window mannequins are one of the great clich├ęs in street photography. Perhaps the temptation to revisit and add to a seemingly tired form is what attracted Friedlander. It's been shot to death, but is it dead? Just to be sure Friedlander shot it several more times for good measure. There's no risk of these bullet ridden corpses rising again.

Most photos in the book follow a similar pattern, juxtaposing a building's reflection with a mannequin behind plate glass. Again and again this motif is repeated until it verges on typology. But to what end? For me one or two such photos would express the idea adequately. The book has 103.

from Mannequin, 2012, by Lee Friedlander

If I seem to come down especially hard on Friedlander it's only because I hold his earlier work in such high esteem. He is probably the single most influential photographer for me. For many years he has been as prolific, unmoored, and curious as any shooter out there. But what attracted me most to his earlier work was its playfulness. There was a sense of absurdity and deeply surreal humor which revealed a wise soul behind the lens. Time and again he injected that playful spirit. It's so vital and so rare! Try to find a playful spirit in any contemporary art photographs. Go ahead. I dare you. But sadly Friedlander offers no respite. His new work does not show the old spark.

For me this has been building for the last several years. Even as Friedlander's pace of publishing has increased —to a rate of 2+ books per year recently— I've found it more difficult to follow his whims. Like any good student I've studied each new book thoroughly, but with mild interest, more out of duty than passion. The sad fact is that I've begun to view these books with the same growing suspicion with which I view much contemporary photography. Could it be that the emperor has no clothes? Until now I've given Friedlander the benefit of the doubt, but Mannequin heightens my suspicions.

from Mannequin, 2012, by Lee Friedlander

The book is published by Fraenkel in conjunction with a recent gallery exhibition. Jeffrey Fraenkel has tirelessly championed Friedlander for decades. I can't help wondering what he must have honestly thought of the work when Friedlander first brought it to him. Were they really "unsettling and radically new compositions." Was Friedlander really "working at the height of his powers." Perhaps Fraenkel really thought so. The more cynical view is that he realized the work was half-baked yet chose to release it anyway, knowing that any book with Friedlander's imprimatur was guaranteed to sell. In any case no amount of fawning copy is going to breath life into these photos. I'm very sorry to report that they are as static and lifeless as any shop-window mannequin.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The light in Oregon

Tyler Green: I want to get into some questions about the way you use light in your pictures. And I think to start with those…you live in Oregon now, you've lived in Oregon since the 1990s, and probably the place to start is to ask why you moved to Oregon from Colorado?

Robert Adams: That's a hard one to answer fully, but part of it was that we had been coming to Oregon for summers, and for the odd winter shooting time, and I knew I loved the place, and I also found that it was,….it was a rest, actually, from the electricity of Colorado. It often was like somebody just running high voltage through me to work there. In fact there were times, Kerstin would tell you, I would come out of the darkroom and I don't know whether it's my imagination or not but I swear I could tell in the darkroom when the sun went under and then came out from a cloud. It's just extreme. And coming out to Oregon it was like somebody turned off the switch somehow.

So I knew there was something out here that was pleasant. And I also knew that for a while anyway that I was exhausted not only by the light which is beautiful but by the problems in Colorado. So we came to Oregon and then of course being the contrarian that I am we weren't here very long before we headed inland and found problems here in the landscape that then took us in new directions. But it is very different to work out here as opposed to Colorado. The light here is soft for almost all seasons the whole year round and it doesn't change quickly or abruptly. It's more like somebody's constantly fooling with the rheostat, sort of dimming it slowly and brightening it a little. So it's a wholly different experience. And I have to admit that at the moment I'm very homesick for Colorado. So there you have the very truth of it.

‐Excerpted from MAN Podcast 8/16/12. Thanks to Wayne for the tip.

View from the Adams house in Astoria, Oregon, by Robert Adams

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adventures in ownership

My father-in-law is named Adrian but the family calls him Gump. It began as a cute name for the grandkids to use, then spread to everyone. My first night in Maine two weeks ago I tagged along with Gump to visit a neighbor who was going through hard times. Reggie was 94 —that's 140 in Maine years— and beginning to slow down a bit. But the real trouble was his wife. Her Alzheimer's had progressed to the point where she had become a walking fire hazard, so he'd decided that next week they'd separate. He'd keep the house. She'd go into an inflammable group home. He was depressed. She was calm but oblivious. I thought they'd make a nice portrait sitting in their living room so I asked if they minded. "Sure," said Reggie.
The one that got away. Finders keepers
No sooner had I taken a photo than Gump plucked it out of the camera and offered it to the couple. Now I had a problem. Whose photo was it? Normally this isn't an issue for photographers. When a person takes a photo that person is the owner. That's why it's called "taking" a photo. But with the Instax it's a bit different. The only record that exists is a small 3 x 4 object. Like anything else in the world it's up for grabs. Finders keepers. So it was theirs now. I decided to take another. Then Gump shot one of me with the couple (above). And I took one of the cat. And another interior shot from further back. After a minute there were five Instax photos sitting on their counter and I didn't feel like I owned any of them. Which was fine. They'd be happy with the photos. They deserved them. But it really brought home to me the idea that authorship of a photo might not automatically equate to ownership. What killed me was that my first photo of the couple was a fantastic shot. They had beautiful expressions and the scene was completely natural. I had a strong desire to own it, but I wound up leaving it with along with the others. I'll never see any of them again. A few days later I had the Instax at the Brochu family reunion. Instant photos are kid flypaper. As soon as the camera spits one out every kid nearby wants to try birthing their own. I passed the camera around but then I had to reclaim it. The big kid pile was just too tempting and I had to shoot it. The problem was each kid I shot wanted to see the result. They'd grab the photo, shake it, stick it in a pocket, and that's the last I'd see of the thing. I managed to look at a few before they disappeared, and some were wonderful. I'd love to own them, and in theory I guess I do. But as a practical matter it's the opposite. In Instax photography as well as in land use possession is nine tenths of the law. Several weeks ago Joni Kabana ran into this situation when she made a portrait of author Cheryl Strayed. Afterward she gave Strayed a few prints. Who owned them at that point I'm not sure. Kabana owned the copyright, but Strayed was pretty sure the prints belonged to her. After all, there they were sitting on her desk like the pens she owned and the paperclips she owned. So when the New York Times asked for an author portrait to accompany an interview, she sent along one of these photos. Then all hell broke loose. The NYT turned the photo into a silhouette. Kabana's credit was lost. A stink was raised. In the end they decided that a photo should probably be treated differently than a paperclip.
Silhouette of Cheryl Strayed based on a photo by Joni Kabana
Unless it's an Instax photo. Or, perhaps, an old scrapbook memento. At the Brochu family reunion, Tab's aunt Lucy set out 20 old photo albums on a table. She was tired of keeping them and offered them up to everyone. We could open up the sleeves and pick and choose singles. Even inlaws like myself. Many photos were pedestrian, about what you'd find in most family albums. But as with any unsorted collection, tucked here and there were some absolute nuggets. I took roughly 10. The negatives are long lost. Only one copy of each exists in the world. I suppose I own them now.
A mysterious picture from one of Lucy's old albums
Back in Skowhegan a few days later I stumbled on the hidden studio/gallery of Steve Leakos. It was right on Main Street —marked by a small ticket booth with a mannequin— but somehow I'd never noticed it before. I rang the bell and Leakos let me into his cluttered space chock full of paintings, boxes, circus displays, and antiques. It was technically a gallery but not much had ever sold, and after talking to him for a while I began to understand why. He made no effort to market it. I was his first visitor in a few days.
Empire Grill, Skowhegan, Maine, by S.P. Leakos
w/ handmade proof of ownership attached
Leakos makes what the art world colorfully terms outsider art. He is self taught and occupies his own private universe. Not only is he unknown in art circles, he's unknown in Skowhegan and proud of it. Not even the students at the famous Skowhegan School of Art know about him, and that's fine by him. Snobby kids, he has better things to do. Like paint, which is what he's devoted most of his time to for the past 60 years. He knows his works are masterpieces and they're priced accordingly. And if the world doesn't realize his genius, tough shit for them. I'm no expert but I have to say I liked his paintings. They showed quite a bit of skill. But in the art world that's only half the battle. You're not going to get anywhere keeping all that stuff in a basement. I tried to explain this to Leakos but he'd already settled the issue in his mind. We went round and round in circles discussing how his art fit into the broader scheme. He knew there was a disconnect but he didn't know how to solve it. Didn't even want to. Leakos was 76 and seemed happy, but his outlook was laced with a strong tinge of bitterness. He'd given up the idea of anyone taking an interest. He was on his own and knew it. Of course this was all familiar territory for me as I'd wondered about all of these issues in relation to my own art. If there is a divide between creation and promotion I lean toward Leakos' side of it. But to what end? Standing in his studio crammed with old boxes and half-finished paintings gave me an unsettled feeling. By this time I'd resolved the Instax ownership dynamics, so when I asked Leakos for a portrait I offered to make an extra for him. Easy, I said. It's an instant photo. I stood him in an doorwat, shot two, then gave him the choice to keep whichever he wanted. He liked the first one best. On the bottom of it he carefully wrote the date and my name for his records. But after a moment he demurred. On second thought he decided he didn't have room for any more stuff, not even a little snapshot. He handed both photos back to me but not before snipping off the handwritten caption on the first. There I was holding nine tenths of a photo. Legally.
Steve Leakos in his Skowhegan studio/gallery
The folk myth is that certain tribes are opposed to photography on the grounds that taking a picture of someone steals their soul. Of course we know that's not really true. But the thing is, it actually is true. Photographers are soul snatchers. Maybe a better way to say that is that a portrait is a collaborative endeavor. Any snatcher requires a snatchee. I don't speak for everyone but for my own photography I have the sense that portraits should be owned 50/50. I think any person in a portrait should have some control over how that image is used, and I think the photographer should also have some control. This works great in my own little world since I don't take many portraits. I may physically possess the negative but in a way we both own the idea of the photo. And if someone doesn't want a certain picture made public or used in a certain way, that's fine. I'm not out to offend anyone. As for the broader photo world, control is a bit tougher to sort out. Not only can any image online be reproduced easily and without limit, a good proportion of them actually are. Reproductions are the lifeblood of Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and many other sites, often with authorship information removed or indirectly referenced. Tracking down ownership is a headache. In fact the very idea of "ownership" online isn't very simple. Asking who "owns" the photos on a personal Pinterest board is a bit like asking who owns the heartthrob posters tacked to a teenager's wall. If a poster was torn down would the original photographer require compensation? Or the teenager? What about the photographer who makes a screengrab of someone else's "property" (Umbrico, Rickard, etc). The reproduction has exactly the same pixels as the original. Who owns which? Or what about Michael Wolf using a camera in the "real" world to photograph an image on a computer screen? Has he somehow claimed ownership of the image? As I said, a headache. With Instax it's much simpler. One object exists. Someone owns nine tenths of it. Done.
Fruit Display, Skowhegan State Fair
The following Friday at the Skowhegan State Fair I found a nice subject in the goat barn. The goats were tied to a circular ride, the fence had some red cowboy hats tied to it, and the ride operator was the spitting image of Travis Bickle. It would've made a dreamy photo. But a sign on the fence said "$5 Per Photo". I guess I could've paid my money and shot him but I didn't. The sign soured my mood. It meant that goatherd Bickle owned every photo taken of him. It wasn't even 50/50. I don't know if the guy was a photo scholar or what but he really made me think. What if I shot an Instax photo and gave it to him instead of $5? Or turned around and charged him $5 since presumably that's what it was worth and there was only one which I clearly owned? What if I paid him $5 and then reproduced the photo several times on Tumblr? What if I offered him $2.50 for a photo with control over its use? The goat barn got me thinking, and thinking is the death of shooting. So I didn't wind up with many good photos from the fair. I spent most of the time watching cow teams pull a sled full of cinderblocks, thinking about ownership. When I came home Gump was hot for a boat ride. It was dusk. We had the dog along. It seemed ripe for a photo op so I brought along the Instax and a beer. Pretty soon we were doing 50 down the center of the lake. The boat had two small headlights up front which scattered mixed light on the spray from below. The dog was frantic. The sun was sideways in the sky. It had all the visual fixings. I ripped off several Instax pictures but unfortunately each one sucked. I don't know what it was. I just couldn't find my juju.
Instax, boat, dog, and just a hint of juju
It was dark by the time we pulled the boat in and I figured I was done shooting for the day. I lodged my camera in the bedroom, then went outside to help Gump move a life-size fiberglass horse statue to its place near the porch. I don't know why we'd waited until dark but anyway. The horse was bolted to a large sheet of plywood sitting in the bed of his pickup. We needed to lift it and carry about 50 feet, but first we had to clear some gravel away from the house and level a spot. Gump grabbed a shovel while I stood opposite the horse from him and slightly lower. I glanced over at Gump and Holy Crap! There was the photo! Horse legs, his legs, and a shovel all juxtaposed in confusing lighting. It had Instax written all over it. But Fuck, no Camera! I had to let that one go. Losers weepers. The next day we visited Gump's temple and this time I was sure to bring a camera.
Gump's temple near Kingfield, Maine
This is the mysterious project in the Maine woods which I wrote about last summer. No one but Gump really understands what it is or what it's for. I use the word temple because it looks vaguely spiritual and I'm not sure what else to call it. But I'm not certain what it is. The only certainty is that it's a constant work in progress.
Machu Picchu, photo by Culture Focus
Since my last visit Gump had been to Chichen Itza in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru to get a sense of how past civilizations had tackled structures like his. Based on that research he'd created a drivable stone foyer into the basin, deepened the interior, and widened the surrounding plateau by several acres. Once he finishes burying the electric lines the plan is to host a country music festival this fall (ironically his insurance prohibits "rock" concerts). Maybe a few weddings. A backdrop for portraits. The possibilities are many. I think Gump's general guiding principle is to build something that can't be found anywhere else. There's only one temple like his. He owns it and it can't be reproduced. And nowadays there aren't many things that can be said about. (More recent Instax photos of Maine here)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Return, briefly

Back from Maine today. Turned on the computer and started catching up on various links, and found the photo below by Ania Vouloudi. It's so good I can't help sharing.

More on Maine later...

Saturday, August 11, 2012

I'm Sorry

I'm sorry. I have tried my best. I have tried carrying my digital camera with me everywhere this summer. I have shot thousands upon thousands of photos with it. My camera has few limits. I can shoot and shoot to my heart's content. I can apply any effect. I can zoom hither and yon.

Although the results have sometimes been rewarding, the overall effect is one of emptiness. I look at my digital photos on a screen and they remind me of stills from a video game, and they feel just about as consequential. I feel I could erase every one with a button click just as effortlessly as I made them. It would be like swatting a mosquito. No big deal. How much easier my life would be if I felt something for that screen! And I've tried. I just can't go there.

This isn't meant to be a film vs digital rant. I know that battle has long been settled. I know digital is the future, the present even. I know most others have moved on and that I'll be left behind. No, this isn't an argument meant to sway opinion. Instead it's just an honest observation from a long-time photographer. Digital capture has no soul. It doesn't feel real to me and I doubt it ever will.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Q & A with Mark Steinmetz

Photographer and teacher Mark Steinmetz is based in Athens, Georgia.

Blake Andrews: Many of your photo projects have a dated look, for example the book trilogy South Central, South East, Greater Atlanta feels very 80s-90s. I think this is because you sometimes wait several years to organize and show photos. What is your reasoning? Does it take that long to think through them? Or is there something about photos and their connection to past/history that you're trying to tap into?

Mark Steinmetz: The photos in South Central were made in the early 90s and the other two books were made in the mid-late 90s and the 00s - I think the most recent photo in Greater Atlanta was made in 2009. They don't feel that dated to me - just the recent past. Summertime, which is the latest book, dates back to the 80s, but not the other ones. The hairstyles and clothes and cars in Summertime are particular to that time - you can't find them now.

A few of the photos in the books were shown near the time they were taken, either in photo magazines, or literary reviews, or in shows. But these mostly pre-date the widespread use of the internet so in today's terms it's as if they never took place, except for the various people at the time who saw the work and perhaps took something away with them.

There were offers of publishing the work earlier as a book, but mostly everyone wanted me to bring money to the table. I was pretty poor and any money coming my way had to go to rent, food, and film, etc. - I couldn't afford to divert any money to a book and really knew of no one wealthy to ask for some financial help anyway. There wasn't anything like crowd funding in those days.

But the books are better for having waited. The edit is much better and the general quality of printing in photo books today is better. I don't advocate looking for short cuts or for being in a rush - one can always tell.

from South East by Mark Steinmetz

In what way would the edit be different if you'd published them at the time you'd shot them? I guess another way to ask that is, how has your understanding of the photos shifted since that time? And more generally, how do you think our appreciation of photos shifts as they recede into the past?

When I was young, I was too unorganized. I rented one-bedroom places and the bedroom was sealed off and became the darkroom. The print washer was out in the kitchen and I would sleep in the living area or hallway. I made my prints on small scraps of paper and nobody was really interested - not in any way that would lead to financial remuneration. It was like that for about fifteen years. Now I have a spacious darkroom that's separate from my house and my mind is more orderly. I have a better loupe and light table. When you are young, you spend a lot of energy trying to figure out your place in the grand scheme. Other people's realities get wedged into your subconscious and other people want you to walk down paths that aren't necessarily yours to walk - it takes a while to extricate yourself from that. Maybe back in the day I would have selected photographs for their complexity or difficulty; now it often seems to me the simplest ones are the strongest.

It's hard to say how our appreciation of photos will shift over time. Hopefully, if a photo is well made it will (like a fine wine) seem fresh and alive years after it was taken and in some way transcend its era. I don't think I give many points for nostalgia but perhaps others would.

Who do you think is the intended audience for your photos? Is it generally photographers? Or do you think they can appeal equally to a general layman audience? What does your family (both immediate and extended) think of your photography? Do they "get" it?

I went to a liberal arts college where I spent too many Friday and Saturday nights reading books and writing papers in the stacks of the library. The classes were usually small and maybe a dozen or so of us students would sit around a table delving into novels by Proust or Dostoevsky, really getting into the nihilism of Russian literature or whichever subject. There's no way I would have been able to do the work I've done in relative isolation for so long without having been fortified by this experience. So maybe my work is mostly for people who have done a careful reading of at least a few books and who might still be able to fathom the magnificence of literature (I include photo and film as literary forms). Photographers who know the medium well might get something out of my books that others who lack a background in photo history wouldn't, but for me, anyone sensitive and smart will do. I would be happy for my work to be known beyond the photo book ghetto. My family has been able to get my work well enough.

Photography is at its most basic a method for sharing. You stand in front of something, take a picture, and then someone else in a different place and a different time might be touched by it - so I think photography is just about always for some kind of audience, even if it's an imagined audience.

from South Central by Mark Steinmetz

What do you look for when you're out photographing? When you are out walking around, what makes you stop and make a photo?

This question I can't really answer. I just want to mess with the photography gods (mess with their minds).

"Mess with the photography gods." That phrase infers that some portion of the act of photographing lies outside the photographer's control. Do you consciously seek out uncontrollable situations? Do you think some photographs (by others) are too controlled?

Most everyone wants to control their circumstances, to dictate outcomes, but I would say life gets better when you relax and embrace your powerlessness. I like to think (and sometimes it really feels this way) that we have unseen helpers and maybe in the realm of photography there's a heavenly pantheon of photographers like Evans, Atget, or Kertesz watching over us - and who behave like the gods of Greece - (this gets back to the question of exactly who is your audience) and who smile upon those who practice photography with sincerity and diligence and mischievous audacity. I am more interested in a photography that collaborates with chance events. Photographers who are too controlling come up with pictures where the viewer has little free will - the experience of looking at the photo is over-determined and so there's not so much lasting pleasure. You get their point and then move on.

Under the Eiffel Tower, 1929, Andre Kertesz

Why do you shoot in black and white? What does this show that color can't? Do you ever shoot color? 

I've shot a fair amount in color and like color photography a great deal, it's just that the materials have always been problematic for me. The green of the grass often seems off (like it's a strange chemical concoction) and the color of flesh can be a weird unconvincing orange, etc. If you carry your print from the processor you are shocked at how it changes as you pass by a window with daylight coming in or go under fluorescent lighting and then tungsten. I recognize I'm fussier than most, especially when it comes to my own work. The type C print is plastic, not very well washed, and if you live long enough, you'll see the colors shift. But matted, under glass, well lit, a Stephen Shore print from the 70s can look great and exciting - so I'm not really saying much of anything here. Digital ink prints on paper is the way to go I think but so often they have a nervous quality - each object in the print seems separate and distinct from every other object - some sort of relaxed harmony is lacking. But maybe others have already pointed this out and somebody somewhere is working on this technical fine point as we speak.

I think it's very hard to make truly legible color photographs of complicated scenes - like a busy street scene. Little things in the image that you don't care about so much, such as the red tail light of a parked car in the background, rise to claim undue attention - red is so aggressive - the tail light way in the back muscles its way to the forefront of the image. That's one reason so many color photographers tend to photograph in weaker, subdued light or de-saturate their images. Shadow areas, black hair and pants, etc. tend to be feeble in color prints - b/w tends to be more purely about light and structure, and as a technical object is vastly superior (it's silver on paper after all).

Also, color is very active - kind of loud and rowdy. The elements within a b/w photo are more at rest. In a color photo of a sunset, it always seems to me that that sunset is being forced upon you. What's there to ponder? In a b/w photo of a sunset, more is asked of your poetic imagination. (Please note: I am not a fan of sunset photos.) But it would seem b/w is becoming irrelevant to the larger world and not much can be done about that. Maybe today's viewers can't quite navigate (feel) their way through a b/w picture or they don't really make the effort and dismiss it as something belonging to the past. I still feel you can be completely modern in b/w. I'll probably get a digital camera one day and work in color and that will be that (or maybe not). As I said, I am interested in color - I see its allure - but the big drawback for me is the technical nature of the final print.

So the decision basically comes down to technical matters? The difficulty in making a satisfactory color print is the main obstacle? Does that same difficulty effect your decision to print b/w in a traditional darkroom? Thankfully you are one of the few people still working that way. I'm curious if you can explain why.

Difficulty isn't quite the right word. Printing b/w is difficult. So is developing all the film you've ever exposed yourself. Color materials are slightly disappointing which is a different experience than encountering difficulty. I really admire my friends in what were for me the olden days who had to make their color prints using slow-going tubes - this was before color processors. Their prints all shifted to yellow in less than a decade but they were pursuing color photography because it was exciting, because the b/w world was well-known and continuing working in that vein seemed boring to them. Now color is the norm and perhaps we are reaching a point of over-saturation with it. In oil painting, the artist has a true involvement with the choices of color. In color photography, there is much less involvement; much of the work you see in galleries is outsourced and it shows.

Color photography is more about color than it is about light (though I am on dangerous ground trying to untangle the two). If you suspect that this world might be an illusion, then b/w does us the favor of stripping away one of the veils of our illusion. I wonder if color photography can ever produce work as profound as Atget's or Evans'.