Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Bryan Formals is a photographer based in Queens, NY, and the editor of LPV Magazine and Photographs on the Brain. The following conversation is edited from a series of short chats conducted over the past few weeks.

Blake: You seem to take issue with the idea of trophy-hunting photographers. Which I sort of buy into. The problem with that outlook is that photography in general is built on that model. Isn't the whole endeavor a sort of trophy hunt, weeding out what's worth showing vs. what isn't? Some photos ARE more special than others. Right?

Bryan: "Weeding out what's worth showing vs. what isn't" - Showing where? That'd be my first question. But yes, of course you make edits the moment you push the shutter.

Showing as a photo. As a photographer choosing what to photograph.

Don't you ever make a photograph that you know might not be special? I make photographs of random stuff all the time. Perhaps it's just for research at times. Or because I want to remember a visual idea.

Yes, but that doesn't mean some aren't special. You can identify those later.

I think I take offense to the term "special". I mean, do some have more visual value in certain contexts? Yes, I think they do.

You don't think Special has meaning? Your criticism of Richard Kalvar revolves around his trophy-hunting aesthetic. He is the classic street shooter seeking out rare situations, then isolating them. Isn't that sort of a refined version of what we all do as photographers?

Yes. But I think my criticism is more about the editing. In fact I think he may have even more "special" photographs that he's not showing.

So he's not a good editor?

Hard to say. But I think he's editing for only one type of presentation, which are books I'm guessing. And who knows, Kalvar could have dozens of dummy books laying around that he just shows his friends. Which would be awesome.

He's only published one.

I don't think it's him in particular I have an issue with.

I'm just using him as an example because that set off the reaction. But I think he represents a certain photographic outlook which you may be reacting to.

A particular moment seized in 1982 by Richard Kalvar

Yes, I agree. And that outlook may in fact be the way to go.

Don't go wishy washy on me.

But I'm not sure it's the most interesting RIGHT NOW.

I feel the tension between shooting for certain frames vs. trying to tie those frames together into structures that may have less to do with specific moments. But really I've always been a single frame guy. Honestly.

I don't know about that. I think all your photographs flow together and overlap in interesting ways. That's the beauty of it. You can cut them up in a variety of interesting ways. It's like the guy from Beijing Silvermine. He doesn't want to make a book because he doesn't want there to be an "authoritative" edit of his work. He wants multiple interpretations. Multiple perspectives and view points.

It's the Rubinfein vs Winogrand issue. Whose voice is that SFMoMA show representing?

Yes, who is editing the photographs and for what purpose. This all gets really confusing with the internet though. Which is why I'm sometimes wishy washy.

Well, 100 years from now I think whatever edits we come up with will have washed away. I think it's just gonna be single images surviving. So they need to be strong.

Hmmm. Well, I think they'll all be in a huge archive. Again, I don't know what strong means really. Maybe aesthetics will change drastically. And all the stuff we thought was garbage were actually the gems. What's a good photograph? Don't ask me. I'm very skeptical of my own taste.

But you know it when you see it? Like pornography and Potter Stewart?

I don't know anymore. I've noticed my flaws. And changed my mind on stuff.

But if I read you right you're critiquing Kalvar's edit as too much of a greatest-hits type flow. All punch and no slack?

Yeah, something like that. I think maybe my objections are more conceptual. Or something like, "that's good for him, but I don't want to think that way."

You quoted another piece on your Tumblr recently which I think ties in, about the Found photo editors:
"For Foster, a print’s history is far less important than its visual beauty and the response it inspires. “It doesn’t really mean anything to me, who shot the image,” says Foster. “But when I do find an image that’s one of the best, I just flip out about it. I like thinking that it could be a Lee Friedlander or a Diane Arbus or a Henri Cartier-Bresson.” Years of photo-hunting have helped Foster train his eyes to recognize an interesting composition among the thousands of snapshots at flea markets and antique shops. “I’ll pick up a handful of a hundred, and I flip them like a deck of cards, because I can tell that quickly whether they have any intrinsic visual power at all or not,” says Foster. “Out of a hundred, I might find a single one that’s even a maybe. That goes to show you how many average, boring, mundane, same height, same scene, same everything is repeated in these old images.”
That's pretty devastating actually.

That passage assumes that some images are "special" and some aren't. That even in a pile of junk snapshots some photos might rise up just by virtue of a singular moment.

Yes, and again, they may be right. But I'm skeptical. I mean, how many minutes on earth have there been?  In all 4.5 billion years? We've only been imaging for how many of those seconds? So, in that perspective, I think everything is special.

Give or take a few hundred million.

But you see what I'm getting at? We're talking about art, right?

What the fuck is art?

Well, exactly. Some guy going through my negatives might like the picture I took of my feet because it was weird and twisted. But from a historical perspective I think my documentary work would be better, or stronger or more special. But perhaps not. And perhaps I'm fooling myself. There's always a chance of that.

But show your negatives to 500 people, and they might generally agree on the same set of images. Not that popular opinion matters but they might reflect some judgement about which photos "work".

I would be very curious.

Which infers that some do and some don't, regardless of sequencing, etc. The ones which Foster might like. The ones which Kalvar is after.
Spread from The Present, Paul Graham

Unless you put two or three together. Which ones work in The Present? Do they all work? I mean, some of them I think are absolutely horrible. Dreadful, like some of the worst shit I've seen.


Yes. I mean, there are some fucking awful street photographs in that book! But I weirdly like them in the context. I don't know why. Well, I kind of do know why.

I haven't seen the book but I don't really like what I've seen online. But that's fine. I wouldn't use him as an example of photos that "work". Maybe they only work in conjunction with others?

Yes, I think so. They only really work in the book. And on the wall. From what I remember. But the book is terrible. It's tough to stomach. I also love it.

What do you love about it?

I love how he shows that the moment before and moment after the 'decisive' photograph are important and can have value. They're like a bridge that gets you to where you need to go.

Those moments have value?

Yes! They are special. It's very true from my perspective as a street photographer.
I'd probably disagree.


I'm not dogmatic about it being one Decisive Moment. But you can't just pull shit out of your ass and slap a "value" label on it. I mean, pull anything off of Flickr that's a mistimed moment. Call it special. Just because he's Paul Graham he gets a pass? It goes back to trophy hunting. I guess I'm a trophy hunter.

I don't think he pulled it out of his ass. He's been making photographs for years. And has fine tuned his sensibility. He knew what he was doing when he pushed the shutter.

I have to see the book. But I'm skeptical.

I said the book was terrible. I think we are getting caught up on the baseline good/bad dichotomy. That's not what I'm really talking about. Naturally there are just garbage photos that we all toss out. What I'm more interested in are the A/B/C definitions. If there are 60 photos in the book, what's the break down? And what value do the B/C photos have in the online world? For me, this is when it gets more interesting. But people like Kalvar seem to have the "only show your very best photographs" mindset. Which does makes sense I suppose...but it just doesn’t seem like the reality these days. And I think with the way we're archiving work online, it might turn out that our B/C photos are the most interesting.

Hmm. I'd rather look at A photos. Especially with so many flooding every orifice now. Why bother with second-best? Of course determining which ones are A photos is a whole different problem. What do you do with your B/C photos? Do you keep them in a separate folder?

I use LightRoom.

Do you label them according to which are "best"?

I use the star system. Just looking at A photos is so boring. I don't even understand that logic. It's this hierarchical thinking that I find counter intuitive. I look at the whole pile. Good is only in relation to the other photographs around them. A photos compared to what? In relation to my other photos, they might be MY best. But are they better than Eggleston? OK. No. So are they still A photos? Should I even bother showing them if they're not better than Winogrand, or Eggleston or Koudelka?

So because they don't compare to Eggleston you're going to show your worse photos? I don't get it.

I'm saying, my BEST doesn't compare to Eggleston or Shore or those guys, so why even bother showing anything? If the whole game is to just show the best photographs in the world, how can you ever win? Why even compete?

That's a bit defeatist.


And if you're going to show anything at all, I'd recommend showing your best. 

I don't agree. That's not the reality on the web either, at least in my opinion. 

Ok, so where are you going with this? You want to show B/C photos? Toward what end? Just to play with editing?

Sure, and to share, and to archive. Because how do I know I'm choosing the BEST photos?

The standard system as it's handed down to most of us, is you shoot a ton, thousands. You edit down to the one or two or maybe none that live up to whatever standard you want. That's Kalvar's approach. And the general street shooter's outlook. So if I understand you, you're taking a different approach.

Perhaps someone looks at my Flickr and comes up with a different interpretation.

But that's so wishy washy. It's putting aesthetic decisions completely in the hands of editors. Which I'm not discounting. I think there's value there. But some photos work, and some don't. Regardless of edit.

I'm opening up the process. Not leaving everything to editors.

What does that mean?

It's like showing the fucking contact sheets.

Ah, now we get back to Graham finally...

Maybe not contacts…but longer edits. I wouldn't show EVERYTHING. Not by a long shot.

I'm with you in a way. The reason I never mark up my contacts is because I have this fantasy that I may come along later and choose different frames. And the marks would predispose me toward my first edit. But of course I never go back and look at them again.

But you might.

If I lived to be 1000.

I mean, for Genesee I went back to the negatives about four different times after I thought I had an edit locked down. I ended up finding 4 photographs that made the book. It's confusing.
from Genesee, Bryan Formhals

And if you went back in 2 months maybe 4 others would surface.

Right? That's what bothers me.

That's what makes me nervous about making books.

Exactly! But don't be wishy washy! Ha. Maybe you’ll make a better edit in 25 years. To me, that's kind of fucking awesome. I mean, dude, this is a game to me. It's for my amusement. I love the entire fucking process and I want to play with it.

OK. Let me ask you straight up. Are some photos better than others as singles shots? They will get an A which never goes away? Regardless of edit.

Yes. I'd say so. I could certainly pick the photos of mine that I think are the best. It's a tough feeling to ignore.

But you don't necessarily want to show only those.

No, not really. Because I like the photographs that I'm not certain about. Basically everything I'm doing now. I honestly don't know. I think if I did make any decent photos in LA it might have been a fluke.

Yes, there is that middle ground which is a problem. Maybe it is The problem. The photos that don't quite make the cut yet there's something about them. They aren't trash either.

Yes! It's that bad feeling.

That could be a book. Maybe LPV 7. Deliberate middle ground.

That would be tricky. It's so fluid.

What do you think about Frank's Butte Montana hotel window photo?

I love it.

I'm guessing it wasn't on his A list.

Tough call. But no, I don't think so. It would be interesting to hear what an actual editor or publisher has to say. Jack Woody or Michael Mack. It's an interesting time for books.

OK, but those guys are basically re-affirming the A-List. They're defining it. At least for books.

Sure, but I'm wondering how they go about trimming 200 photos down to 60. That's what I was talking about. Do they create a pile of A photos? B? C? Or do they start sequencing right away? Do they create piles by subject? That's the stuff I want to know about. Did you see the Michael Mack interview? I thought that was really good.

Yes. Great interview. Great books. 

The mechanics of it all....

Maybe the process is different for each book. Pull some D list photos out just for kicks. That's what The Pixies would do.


And those D photos raise the quality of all others in comparison.

It's interesting how some bands won't play their hits because they're so fucking sick of them. Music seems much more liberating than photography.

I've always hated Greatest Hits albums. And I think your philosophy leads into why. If it's just hit hit hit that grows boring. Whereas an album with foibles and weirdness can seem stronger.

I think that's accurate.

I'm just nervous about the arbitrary nature of picking "hits" and "misses". It takes a lot of craft to find the balance. The Americans is Exhibit A. It's not a greatest hits monograph. Or The White Album.

I guess I don't really think about it that much.

I think you've thought about it. As an editor...
I guess I'm drifting more into the artistic mindset.

Just what we need. Another fucking artist.

Yeah, exactly. I guess you could call it the photographic mindset. I could be doing everything wrong. But I'm doing what feels right.

I hate printing my "favorites". I feel like once I've printed them nicely they're done. And I never want to show them again. I just made a print by request of that broken sidewalk photo again. I don't think I want to look at that one for a while.
Yeah, they become boring.

But I could get just as sick of my B/C prints if I printed those. I just have a short attention span.

I'm so bored with my Genesee book now. I couldn't go back and do anything with it if I wanted. It's just not there anymore.

But I haven't even seen the book. Where is it?

It's on Blurb. But I'm calling it a dummy. I set the price at $250.

I guess you gotta really want it.

I don't want anyone to buy it.


I just want it archived on Blurb. I'm going to send it to select people. I sent one to my parents.

What was their reaction?

"Cool photos!" I'm not sure they're all that interested in photography. Ha. Unless it's my mother taking photographs of the family.

But that's a perfect audience, with no preconceptions. You don't think they really understood them in the way you intended?

I'm not sure it's that hard to understand. It's basically, "Hey, here are some color photographs I made while I was in LA!"

Is that how you'd explain them to a photographer?

Depends on the day and depends on the photographer. But yeah, I think that's the gist of it. I could make up some stuff about psychogeography I suppose. I'd rather just tell stories about walking around LA. I prefer conversation. But we live in an artist statement kind of world.

I was just at Photolucida where everyone had their canned five-minute introduction to their work ready at hand. The photos seldom did all the talking.

I'm going to send a couple copies to friends in Cali. They're in the book.

So Blurb is just the production vehicle. Not for sale.

Yeah...maybe. Don't know. I'm trying to figure it out. I thought the printing was much better than I'd seen. I used the high quality paper. Also, I want a copy for myself. So I have the photographs printed in some form or another.

If you buy one for $250, you just made like $150 in profit! You should buy 500 copies.

Yeah I guess. I'll keep track of who I send them to. There's a very good chance that I'm using my own work to practice making books. I have a feeling I might get into publishing books.

Cool. It seems like a natural step.

Yes. I don't know though. Hard work! At this point, I don't really have anything else to do. I'm sort of stuck with photography and myself. 

I hope you weren't offended by my advice about publishing your work in LPV. It was just my opinion. It's your magazine. You might ask what others think. I'd be curious.

Alfred Steiglitz's vanity project

Yeah, most people have said go for it. I think most of these magazines are vanity projects anyway.

But that move sort of cements it. Was Camerawork a vanity project?

Probably. Was Aperture? What's the risk? If people don't want to follow, fuck them. I'm tired of this attention game. It's corrosive. I think it's the best set of photographs I've made.

From where?

I've been photographing the neighborhoods under the 7 train in Queens.

Where are they? Online somewhere?

Nope. Haven't shown anyone.

So LPV is the big splash?

Yes. Along with an essay. But, we'll see. I may just publish it to Blurb and send it to my parents.

[After more deliberation Bryan decided against publishing his own work in LPV]

Chris Verene posted on FPN about deliberately holding back work online, to allow photo exhibits some space to make an impact outside of the web. I think Lauren Henkin took the same approach a few years ago.

That's probably smart.

I do the same thing but no grand strategy. I'm just backlogged. So nothing new is ever posted.

Yeah, I have other stuff to publish.

But it's a deliberate act to hold back. It must be killing you not to share.

No, not really. I think they're good.

Now you've got me curious. I guess I'll see it when I see it.

Well, they're just photos, street photos.

I saw a bunch of stuff at Photolucida that was new to me. Too much really to digest. It's just a little corner of the photo world but so much shit out there to keep track of. 

Yeah, it's impossible. I was at AIPAD a few weeks ago. It's crazy.

Name one thing you saw which impressed.

I don't remember anything. I liked looking at the old documentary prints.

See that's the problem. The photos swamp you. You can't take it all in.

You want to know it all, right?

Soth touched on this in his Photolucida talk. He wants narrative. That's his filter. If he can't make it into a story, it can't grab his interest. So those are the photos he makes and likes. A good way of filtering, but not the only way.

Yeah, I think there's something to that.

His camp this summer is geared toward that. Socially awkward camp for storytelling. It turns photographers into novelists or oralists. Oralists? Bad choice of words. So that's one way of editing, through narrative. Which I think is dominant now partly thanks to him. I'm open to it. I just don't want that to be the only way. Everyone now seems to want their photos to tell some obscure story.

I asked on Twitter if you could pursue philosophy through photography.

Only if you're a photographer. Any response?

A couple witty comments. For me going on long walks is about much more than just making photographs.

You can probably pursue philosophy through any profession. Carnival barker? Slaughterhouse technician? Taxi driver?

Sure, if they ask the right questions.

But do taxi drivers Google chat for hours over endless rhetoric? No, probably not.

What's the quote I just saw? Something about photographs without discourse

"In my essay I argue that, without discourse, art loses density. I set up the interview blog to begin with so that art online wasn’t just re-blogs, “likes” and comments, but had some real sentiment and context to feed the viewer’s imagination and understanding of the art. In the introduction I’m talking about art that rarely leaves the Internet, because it’s seen as inherently amateurish, valueless or net-kitschy. We can freely self-educate now and as a result there’s a wealth of brilliant artists online, getting next to no real exposure. They deserve it! Ultimately, this problem really gets me going; there’s so much to talk about that hasn’t entered contemporary art discourse yet."

A reaction to what we might call abbreviated culture? Where thoughts and reactions are translated into simple likes and reblogs? 

Well, yeah. That's for people that want status in the art world.

That was the spark of my Approvals post. I'm into discourse but I suspect its best days are behind it. We are now into another era. No time for discourse. I get scared by the idea of all these photos sort of floating out there with no aesthetic value assigned. 

Scared of what? I don't see what would be scary.

Scared of someone, Joe Schmo, coming along and editing them in a certain way. And that then takes on the heft of real criticism. ____  ____ defining the era. That scares me. When who knows why they picked those? And someone else might choose some completely different work. And, maybe the real problem, some of the work I see being curated in this way is definitely B/C work. They're not trophies in any respect.


Common Sense said...

A splendid example of two dilettantes spewing BS back and forth at each other. All we need now is for a certain Korean American to somehow make a workshop out of this conversation.

P.S. Don Hudson should have his head examined for allowing Formhals' "From The Archives" afterword to go to print.

John said...

It's weird when the interviewer isn't the bolded one. You're going against convention B!

matty said...

Thank you so much both of you for a fascinating and inspiring read. If only all blogs contained as much food for thought.
Its like the reverse editing problem: just as it's hard to edit down, its equally easy to dismiss B/Cs and be hard on yourself. I would like to think they have a place - well, one outside of the proofs box/ fridge door. Somewhere between "Kalvar" and "Graham" would be ideal for me. The question being what works, and not what's best.

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Ben said...

And then throw your questions through the filters of: a page in a book; pixels on a screen; or a print on a wall. The permutations are mind boggling. Butte Montana was nothing to me in the book. Couldn't figure out why it was there. Saw the print in a show and absolutely loved it. Still do.

Kind of like music you never liked until it was a soundtrack in a film you loved (eg, Leonard Cohen music in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Give Robert Altman the credit.)

Stan B. said...

CS- Not a conversation I have a particular interest in, but the "dilettante" accusation is fairly off key. There are those who might call you very much the same for your self anointed pseudonym.