Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Field notes

Browsing one of Northampton's many used book stores yesterday I stumbled on an interesting title, Xiu Xiu The Polaroid Project, a 2007 book of photographs made by the band's manager David Horvitz during three of their road tours. I'm not familiar with Xiu Xiu's music. Apparently they're very experimental and avant grade, and some fans fawn over them. I can't comment on that one way or the other. But I've developed a bit of a soft spot lately for Polaroid images. A big soft spot actually. More and more the Instax has become my Go-To camera. It's so primal. Just shutter -> print, with no other process or thought involved. Good, because mediation often fucks things up. Not always, but often. So on the odd occasions when I see Polaroid projects tucked into a bookshelf I am drawn to them.
Page Spread from Xiu Xiu: The Polaroid Project

The photographs in Xiu Xiu aren't half bad. They kick butt on Mike Watt's tour photos, to take a music-related example. But they're not on par with, say, Mike Slack. Some show the band. Most are vernacular scenes. Horvitz's style is very loose and casual, and uses a wide variety of locations and subjects and lighting conditions, enough to stay surprising throughout. I'm not saying they're masterpieces. Actually that's part of their charm. They're snapshots.

But what really sucked me in was the backstory. Horovitz shot these while on tour, then offered them up for free at shows to whoever requested one. That's a pretty special thing to do with any photo but especially a Polaroid. They're friggin one-offs! I can't bring myself to part with my good Instax photos. They're sort of precious. But Horvitz did, then took it one step further. If a fan brought him their own Polaroid film and SASE he would shoot the film, then mail out the prints. Before giving anything away he made scans. Otherwise there would be no book. As for the originals? They're scattered around the world. So three cheers for that project. In one fell swoop Horvitz subverts pretentiousness, collectibility, galleries, and most expectations. And he's not even a photographer! Maybe that's why he succeeded.

I'd skimmed the whole book and was set to buy it when yet another bonus sealed the deal. Tucked into the back cover was a CD of field recordings made by Horvitz while on tour. I'm always searching for weird stuff to play on my radio show and as far as that goes, field recordings are the gold standard. In the right context they can be quite jarring.  I've written about how mixing dates can impose variety subconsciously. The deliberate mixing of production standards can have a similar effect. And since many field recordings are lo-fi and primitive, they combine well with just about anything made in a recording studio. I think they go especially well with disco, house, and, well, just about any pop music made in the past 10 years.

If you're a fan of Redheaded Peckerwood you already know this. Many of the images in that book are basically field recordings. Notes, evidence, documents, crime photos, etc. Patterson combines these smartly and jarringly with slickly produced images of indefinite origin. You have no idea what's coming next, and in today's planned world that can be a wonderful outlet. Of course Patterson isn't the only one. Wolfgang Tillmans, Ari Marcopoulos, Roe Etheridge etc. These guys are half Alan Lomax and half Quincy Jones. 
A field in Park City recorded by Lewis Baltz

I like to think of Polaroids as field recordings. They're often primitive and uncontrived, and a lot can go wrong with them. All of those traits confer a sense of purity. Believability. Maybe it's an illusion but it's there. I think Ruscha attempted to make photographs which were field recordings. And Baltz in his less formal stage. And maybe Shore at one point. And Rickard, Rafman, and the GSV crowd. And all of the recent found photo curators. I think all of these folks were looking for the same thing Alan Lomax and Harry Smith were. What is that thing? Who knows. It's hard to define. It's hard to even look for. But I usually know it when I see it in a used bookstore. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Missy Prince: What Was She Thinking?

Missy Prince is a photographer based in Portland. More of her work can be found here and here.

I took this in The Dalles, Oregon. It was 102 degrees on a Sunday and the streets were deserted, which made for nice uncluttered views of downtown. I was originally interested in getting a photo of the little building that is in the background of the photo. I tend to take a lot of dead-on shots, and I have to remind myself to think of layers. I was trying to figure out how to make the thing I was interested in only a part of the photo rather than the obvious focal point, so I drove around the block and came to this vantage point. I knew it was the one. I didn't even step out of the car all the way. When I put the viewfinder up to my eye the Dodge Dart rolled into the frame. I was so stunned by how perfect it looked I almost forgot to take the photo. I took another one without the car just to have the version I was originally after, but it wasn't as interesting. 

It was one of those days when I was frustrated at having driven so long without seeing anything remarkable. I was a few hours from home up in Washington and kept telling myself to turn around and start the long drive back, but I didn't want to until I found something decent to photograph. I pulled over to look at the map and this is what I saw when I looked up. I figured it might as well be the photo that allowed me to go home. It was too pretty so I included the sign, which seemed relevant to my lack of photo hunting luck. I didn't expect much. I didn't even care much about the image when I saw it, but it has grown on me. I like how bright, clean, and cartoonish it is. I ended up getting a couple of ace photos on the drive home. 

Whenever I go to Mississippi to visit my parents I partake in their daily breakfast routine at Hardee's. Every morning they pick up their friend Reuben and head out for greasy biscuits and watered down coffee with a group of retirees. There is a lot of photographic potential at these gatherings, but so far I haven't figured out an approach that doesn't feel predatory so I never make a move. I took this photo on the way back to the car in a last ditch effort to somehow capture the experience before it was over. The man in the photo is Reuben. The woman is my mom in one of her get ups. Unfortunately you can't see the best part, a Romney placard pinned to the left side of her hat, but the jacket packs enough power without it. I'm usually pretty slow, but I took this one very quickly in a moment of desperation. When I composed it I thought it would be a mess, so I tried to anchor the chaos by cutting a vertical line through the middle with the edge of the wall. I can't believe I was able to think about all that in just a matter of seconds. It's a lesson in trusting first instincts.

This is in one of the neighborhoods right next to the Las Vegas strip. It was a quickie that pretty much turned out as I expected. The color coordination of yards and buildings was interesting, and the tree on the orange side leaning over into the green side struck me as funny. It's a one liner. 

I was having trouble with my Land Camera. Some of the photos were coming out black because the battery was loose, but I thought it was because the film pack was defective. I took this photo through a window just to use up the pack. To be honest I have no idea what happened. It was a happy accident. Without that sphere of light it would be a throw-away.

I went to the Clark County Fair in Washington with the intention of photographing the demolition derby, but it was a bust. Fears for everyone's safety have widened the gulf between spectacle and spectator, and getting close to the action is impossible unless you are an EMT or the guy with the fire extinguisher. The berm around the cars is so high you can barely see them. Annoyed that I had endured a long bus ride for nothing, I wandered around the fair looking for consolation photos. I don't really care about taking photos at fairs, but I tried to keep a positive attitude. I figured it could at least be good practice for stalking people with my camera. The kid on a leash was pretty great. Despite his father giving me the evil eye I took the photo. I felt like a creep, but it was worth it. When I saw the photo I didn't think it was very good, but when I posted it on Flickr people went crazy. That made me think about what makes a good photo. I had been concerned about the shitty fluorescent light and wasn't thinking about the content being meaningful enough to transcend aesthetic flaws. Sometimes I'm overly concerned about form and aesthetics and I miss the content boat. Now I really like the image. It's more dynamic, less still, than my usual fare. It has the feel of street photography, which I've always admired.

I tried to get this place for a couple of years before I finally succeeded. Daytime, nighttime, with people, without people, and from all angles. It just never worked. I had pretty much decided it wasn't meant to be. One day I was driving past and saw the Cadillacs glinting in the sun, so I stopped. This drunk guy was hanging around ranting about someone who hit him over the head with a two by four. I took quite a few photos of him flailing his arms around trying to appeal to someone's sympathy, but this one of him in the bigger picture with the cars and the club brought all the right elements together. It was especially serendipitous, because the place closed about two weeks after that. One last miracle at The Miracles Club.

I was wandering around the woods by the river in North Portland and this guy emerged from the brush with a bike on his shoulder. It looked like he was up to no good but he seemed friendly enough, so I talked with him in the hope of getting a photo. I knew he was the detail that could convey the feeling of that place. He told me a bunch of stuff that sounded like tall tales. He told me about people who live in the woods and murder unsuspecting passersby by dropping boulders on their heads but are afraid of him because he was a champion boxer of some sort at one time. Jake McFlurry, he called himself. When I asked to take his portrait he seemed uneasy about it at first and didn't want the bike in the photo, but I convinced him. I took three photos. In the first two he was kind of stiff. In the third he became Jake McFlurry. It was a great move, a great surprise, him posing like that. I told him to hold the pose because it would be a long exposure, and he was very cooperative. Whenever I get a portrait I like I wish the person could see it, but I rarely take steps to make it accessible to them. I'd like to put a 20x24 print up in those woods, but it's probably exactly what he doesn't want.


The intersection where this adult book store is located is photographic gold. My original urge was to show everything together, to fit a lot of information into a wide view to give a sense of the neighborhood. I scoped some all-encompassing angles, but every one of them promised to offer little more than a boring Google Street View style snapshot. I eventually noticed that the cheap motel across the street was reflected in the window of the book store. It was an exciting solution, the exact opposite of a wide view. All the information you need about the neighborhood is right there. The close up works well for such lurid subject matter. Whenever I look at this photo I think I should move in close more often.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The slanted post

San Francisco has a great photo scene, and I got to hang out and talk shop last weekend with several wonderful locals. I enjoyed gallery hopping, street shooting, coffee, beers, and meals (in varying amounts but roughly chronological order) with Stephen McLaren, Wayne Bremser, Jack Simon, Nick Haymes, Stan Banos, and Joe Reifer. Thank you all for your hospitality and company, and for sharing your wonderful city with me! Especially Stephen, who graciously offered a spare bed just minutes from the downtown core. I am eternally grateful. 

Stephen lives just around the corner from skid row. Every city's got one. Usually they're tucked away but San Francisco's is proudly displayed front and center, adjacent to City Hall and skyscrapers and tourist central. Can't miss it. Interesting sights and smells, and I left plenty of work prints around, but I found it hard to shoot there. I was more comfortable in the surrounding, less downtrodden areas.

I enjoyed walking around the Mission neighborhood. Here's a photo by Jack Simon taken around 24th and Alabama. That's me asleep against the wall on the far left with backpack, and Stephen McLaren walking in front of the light pole. I'm sizing up the scene for my own photo. I took a few but I have no idea yet how they turned out.

It was fun wandering around with Jack. He showed me a store which specialized in pirate supplies, owned by Dave Eggers I think. I'd never been in one of those before. They sold lard, muskets, lanyards, anything a local pirate could ever want. You wouldn't think there'd be enough demand to keep a store like that afloat, but many of the hipsters on Valencia were dressed as regular customers, although none of them looked capable of shooting a cannon. They'd have to put down their iced double swiss mocha lattes to do that. 

At Rayko I found a great little book by Sam Grant called La Rue. Never heard of him before. I looked pretty closely at the images and there is absolutely no tint of the contemporary world in them. They look like photos from 100 years ago, even though all were made recently in modern cities. That's hard to pull off unless you're shooting pure nature or nudes. And it was only about 5 inches wide and fit easily into luggage, so I couldn't resist.

SF is chock full of photo galleries, and many hosted multiple shows of classic work. I can't list everything, but Little Big Man was a highlight. It was great to finally meet Nick Haymes and browse his awesome book shelves. He's got quite a little empire going, with many exciting projects in the pipeline. Then he and I drove to an opening in the Tenderloin with 3D photos mounted to pressed board. I think that's the first photo show I've seen where the photos present physical hazards to viewers. You really had to watch your head near them. Then Nick had to go feed his kids so he dropped me back in the heart of skid row and I caught up with Stan Banos nearby for a few pints. 

The most pleasant surprise gallerywise was Michael Jang's work at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, a photographer I hadn't known about before. It only took a few photos to make me a convert. I looked at the one below for a while. As my father in law is fond of saying, Holy Darn!

A photo like that can't be planned. Heck, you can't even photograph it unless you're pretty special. And why is there no flash on that window? Jang's the real deal. Here's me near another photo by him, shot by Joe Reifer with whom I was gallery hopping that day.

This was a weird coincidence. We'd just come from Modern Book Gallery upstairs and I'd picked up a souvenir card there of Brian Duffy's Alladin Sane cover photo of Bowie. Five minutes later we walked into Wirtz and this was one of the very first photos on the wall, a child holding that same album, printed at the exact size as my postcard. WTF? I was in a b/w mood after seeing that.

Here's Joe (with camera) and I an hour later at the nearby Buddha Bar trying to figure out what just happened. Why was Alladin Sane playing on the Jukebox there? And what about the red street posts Joe had photographed at a slant? A few beers later we were no close to figuring any of it out. The world was starting to blur...

I grew up in the marijuana capital of the world and I'm no stranger to pot, but even I was surprised by the extent to which weed has infiltrated the daily fabric of San Francisco. Walking around downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, the smell of good strong pot lingered on many street corners. I saw it smoked openly and without hassle, and no one gave it a second thought. This acceptance is probably coming eventually to the rest of the U.S., or at least to its coasts --Oregon is about 5 years behind-- but in San Francisco the future has arrived now. For all practical purposes, prohibition is over. Hooray. Wish I was 22 again with more brain cells.

So what about the Winogrand show? Ah yes, I suppose that was the reason for my trip. Or an excuse to plan around. What can I say that hasn't been said? I'd studied the book and checklist already, so none of the images was a huge surprise. But to see them nicely printed and displayed on a wall...Well, that's an experience a book or screen can't convey. The vintage prints were generally fantastic, if maybe clustering toward the dark end, and the new prints were also excellent though maybe a bit flat. Not complaining exactly, just commenting. 

I know Winogrand's work fairly well but looking at room after room of it was a reminder of how often he just nailed it. Every wall had two or three photos which made me mutter, oh yeah, that one's fucking fantastic. You can say all you want about editing and compulsiveness and style, and read whatever theories you want into his life and work. When it comes down to it, the proof is in the photos. Some of them anyway, but that's a big some. I think it's greater than the some of its parts.

I was with Wayne Bremser for Winogrand. Then we went to the roof for coffee where Wayne shot me with his cannonball-sized camera before we took the stairs down. One level below Winogrand was a small selection of historic street photos that would've headlined any other gallery, but was rather dwarfed by Winogrand. Still fun to see though. 
Christian Marclay, from Things I've Heard, at Fraenkel Gallery
On that same level was Christian Marclay's The Clock. Everyone I met over the course of the weekend encouraged me to see this, but the line was at least a half hour long and I wasn't patient enough to wait. At heart I'm a just smalltown hick who avoids lines. And judging by Marclay's photos which I saw later at Fraenkel, I think I made the right choice. They were OK I guess, in the vein of a thousand Eggleston imitators who focus on the immediate world around them and show how special it is, but not really in a special way. Sorry, that sounds harsh, but I think that style of photography works best when it conveys something about the person behind the viewfinder. These felt anonymous. But hey, I hear anonymous is in. Anyway I think he may be more suited to filmmaking. The Clock is supposedly amazing. Just couldn't find the time for it.

My last night I crossed the bay to visit with an old high school friend for the first time in 4 years. I've known him for about 30, since before I ever picked up a camera. We had dinner and then a few beers and the subject of photography didn't come up once! So see everyone, I'm not a total nerd. I can talk about other stuff sometimes. When I have to. 

The morning of my departure my airport shuttle was late. I'm anal about time --that's why I couldn't wait around for the clock. I paced and brooded, then finally began tossing items overboard. Somehow my Leatherman had made it through security on the flight down, but I didn't like my chances flying back. It usually turns up in X-Ray, and then you need to mail it to yourself and go through the line again. The thought of all that delay made me nervous. I decided to jettison. I put it in the bottom of a nearby newspaper box, then carefully laid the last of my work prints over it. My gift to anyone curious enough to look closely at a photo. Probably worth at least a two day fix to someone on skid row.

I came back to Eugene yesterday with 35 rolls of who knows what, plus plenty of Instax photos. Home sweet home. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Another serendipitous photo pairing, this time in print. Photos below from Weegee (left) and Arnold Newman (right), encountered just a few minutes apart during last night's reading. I like them both quite a bit.

I guess those things are everywhere if you're looking for them. I just seem to be noticing them more lately, maybe spurred on by the Tumblr aesthetic, or who knows why. One of those weird cycles. Is it still a cycle if it's lasted 15 years and shows no signs of letup? 

The Weegee image is from the current New Yorker. The Newman shot (Steel Workers, Gary Indiana, December 11, 1950), which I had not seen before, is from a new book called Arnold Newman at Work. I'll have a full review on Photo Eye soon, but for the time being it might be fun to post a few nuggets. The book is full of interesting flotsam from Newman's life, including newspaper clippings, press badges, marked up contacts, holiday cards, passports, and more. 

A weird handmade negative carrier labeled OREGON: 

A typewritten letter from Helen Levitt: 

A dodging mask carefully designed to expose a photo of Cocteau:

These are the sorts of objects which tell a lot about someone. They fill out the backstory, and they are disappearing rapidly since the digital generation is not leaving any similar physical legacy. Photoephemera used to post items here with regularity, but that blog now seems dead. Sigh. 

How I wish the new Winogrand book showed similar ephemera from his life, instead of mere photo after photo. Just one letter from his wife or maybe a sheet of marked up contacts, or a passport photo or something. Not asking much. Those would be enough.

Only two more years and I'll be even with the cicadas. Sigh.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Stockholm Syndrome

In-Public's workshop series is ramping up. There are still a few spots available for our street photography workshop in Stockholm, May 31st - June 2nd, 2013. In addition to Nick Turpin and myself, we've added Matt Stuart as an instructor and increased the capacity of the class to 20. So if you thought it was full, please check again. Details and registration info are here
Brian Sparks, Stockholm, Sweden, 2013
I probably shouldn't admit this since I am one of the teachers, but I've never taught a street photography workshop. Folks who've already signed on are now muttering with alarm, "Wait. What? Really?" Sorry, it's too late to unregister. And it gets worse because I'm not sure that seeing street photos is a skill that can be taught. Heck, I don't even know if I am a street photographer. 

Of course I'm kidding, sort of. Stockholm is gonna rock. I'm fully confident that registrants will have a wonderful and satisfying experience. You will come away both recharged and spent, receive the best feedback we can provide, and hopefully create a few keepers in the process. Nick and Matt are pros. As for myself, I've been busy the past few weeks writing down all of my accumulated street photo tricks, tips, and general wisdom on little scraps of paper. Wherever I am, if an idea strikes I write it down on anything handy. Twenty years of shooting...You should see some of these tips! They're just darn swell. At some point before the workshop I plan to track down all of my little paper scraps and do something with them. Maybe I'll tape them into a big collage. Or paste them into a notebook. Or maybe they could be a flag or something, at least all of those ones I left in the park could, if those guys living down there haven't burned them yet. 

Or maybe...maybe I'll just forget them at home when I leave for Sweden. But that won't matter because most of it's in here (pointing at brain) and in here (pointing at shutter finger). And when the times comes to unlock those secrets, they will gush like a fire hydrant. Saturation awaits! And possibly Satori. Workshop participants may find themselves bombarded, and developing a twisted sense of empathy and compassion for the pedestrians holding them captive. Or for me, Nick, and Matt. You've been warned. Sign up now to see what happens next...

Friday, May 3, 2013

All Down The Line

Collecting photo related tunes for an upcoming show. The iTunes list so far...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mayday Twins

Two photos encountered online this morning independently and within one minute of each other:

Andrew Fedynak, from Argyle Lane Project, 2012

Robbie McClaran, Mardis Gras, New Orleans, 1979