Thursday, October 30, 2014

99 Cent

A recent Facebook posting alerted me to this Flickr page, where in 2004 a woman named Lyza Danger uploaded a photograph of a local supermarket (a Fred Meyer in Portland).

After posting to Flickr, Danger opened up the image rights to Creative Commons, leading to widespread circulation. The image has been copied and reused many times online, sometimes with permission and sometimes without, often in articles about overconsumption and the food industry. Since 2004 it has received 94,000 page views and hundreds of comments.

By her own admission, Danger's photo bears some resemblance to a well known photo by Andreas Gursky. For reference, here is the Gursky photo, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001). It's a two part photo but often represented by just one half.

There's a strong similarity but they're obviously separate photos. So far, so good. 

But then things get weird. Over the past decade the photos have become confused online and their identities intertwined. The Flickr comments give a flavor. The early ones accuse Danger of copying Gursky's style. Then there's a gradual shift. Recent comments accuse her not only of copying the style of but of applying her name to his photo. "This image IS an Andreas Gursky image," wrote Engelfoto a few days ago (since deleted). "Look him up on Google Images and you will see this exact image..." 

The problem is he's right. When you do a reverse Google Search for Danger's image, this is what turns up: 

But it gets worse. Gursky's 99 Cent is a very famous photo and has countless online references. But several of them are illustrated with Danger's photo instead of Gursky's. For example, this art photo profile which uses not only Danger's picture but also Gursky's right next to it, as if they were two versions of the same scene. Here's a nice little essay about Gursky's 99 Cent, illustrated with just one photo. But it's the wrong one. Here's a list of the most expensive photos in history, ranked by sale price. I'm guessing they meant to include Gursky's, not Danger's. But it's in another language so it's hard to say for sure. The title of this site is unintentionally ironic. It's called Art Intelligence. The short essay uses a lot of big fancy words. But unfortunately the most important element —the image— is wrong. Here's an extensive PDF about photo history in an unknown Asian language. Shouldn't historians know the right photo? Here's yet another site expressing astonishment at the Gursky sales price. I hear ya. Still, it's the wrong fucking photo. Presumably a site with the word Art in the title would be discerning in their image choice. But no. Not this one. Here's one touching on food distribution. I think they used the right image. Just wish they hadn't captioned it incorrectly by Gursky. Here's a site which answers the question of why 99 Cent  is considered a masterpiece. I'm assuming they meant to use Gursky's photo but they didn't.

OK, I could go on with more examples but you probably get the idea. The two photos have been out there for a decade together online. Gradually their histories have blurred and their DNA has mixed. If you don't have a clear image of Gursky's photo in mind it's easy to mix them up, especially during an online search. In another few decades maybe the blending will be complete.

Thank goodness there's still an original reference point. A simple search for Gursky 99 Cent turns up the correct image:

But wait a minute. That's not quite it. Or is it? Upon close examination it's slightly different from the Wikipedia 99 Cent linked above. It's not even the same as half of it. Are there multiple versions floating around? Maybe we should look in a book.

OK. But what about this other book?

It turns out there are two versions of 99 Cent. Gursky made the first one in 1999 and called it 99 Cent. In 2001 he revisited the image, modified it into a diptych and titled it 99 Cent II Diptichon. This is the one which sold at Sotheby's for $3 Million plus. I'm not sure how much the first one is worth. But they are distinct images.

Maybe you realized all of this, but until recently I'd been plodding along thinking there was just one 99 Cent. And the weird part is I don't even know which one it was. I've even seen the photo on the wall before shown as a massive C-Print at Pier 24 in San Francisco. But which one was it? In my memory it's lodged as something about grocery store racks with bright colors and a deep recessive background but nothing more distinctive. That's sort of what Lyza Danger's photo looks like. Can you blame people for confusing it?

And if Danger's photo has intertwined with Gursky's, the situation with the two Gursky's is even worse. They're inseparable. A search for Gursky 99 Cent II turns up more wrong images than right ones:

Here's a site that uses both photos, one on top of the other, both under the same caption, with no recognition they might be different. Even the 99 Cent Store history page gets them confused. It's a big fucking mess. 

Maybe this was Gursky's intention all along. By creating two very similar images of a generic setting he knew there would be confusion. Perhaps he intended to bring attention to the sheer malleability of the scene. Because although the raw material here depicts a a real place —the 99 Cent store in Hollywood— Gursky's process involves manipulation, blending, and trickery. He could digitally compose just about any scene he wants and call it 99 Cent. Or leave the photo completely unaltered and call it the same. To someone shelling out $3 Million for the photo it's the idea of 99 Cent that matters, not what's in it.

For me this photo behaves like an overplayed song on the radio, Yesterday or Tangled Up In Blue or something I've heard a thousand times. I know the song so well that when it comes on my brain shifts it to the background. I don't listen carefully because I think I know it. But do I?

And with 99 Cent it's the same. Until just this week I'd never looked very closely at it. And judging by Google Search results I'm not alone. Multiple versions have passed unnoticed with blended DNA, names, and visual reference points. 

The 99 Cent Store in Hollywood where Gursky shot his photo

Next time I'm in Hollywood I'm checking out the inside of that store. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Q & A With Art Paul Schlosser

Photo by Martin Saunders
Art Paul Schlosser is a street musician based in Madison, WI.

Where did you grow up? How did you become involved in music?

I grew up in Madison after we moved from the Chicago area. I got first interested in weird comedy songs by my dad's strange taste in both Allen Sherman and Tiny Tim. My mother continue to influence me by sharing with me other weird songs. My sisters Mary and Sue turned me on to the Beatles and Monkees and I liked the more novelty songs like I Want To Buy Me A Dog and Yellow Submarine. As a very young kid I liked to sing because music was everywhere around me but my sisters told me I didn’t have a good voice. But when I heard Mick Jagger sing I said to myself I could sing if he could. It wasn’t until I was in a theatrical group when I was older and encouraged to write lyrics that I decided to write songs. After my mother gave me a guitar for my 19th birthday I started to write songs. When I was 26 I became jobless and decided to try street performing after watching Allen Hill make money doing it.  

I Want To See Your Smile Perks
What sort of music do you enjoy listening to?

Novelty songs and Comedy songs like Weird Al or other strange stuff on YouTube. Or a lot of woman singers like the group Pomplamoose and Regina Spector 

Who are your primary creative influences? 

Allen Sherman, The Beatles, The Monkees, Bob Dylan, Tiny Tim, Hank Williams Sr, The Dr. Demento show and all the weird 45s and albums my mom used to play on her record player when I was a kid.

How prolific are you as a songwriter? How many songs have you written and how many do you normally write in a week?

Well, I can make up any song just on the spot. I have over 800 songs on Apple iTunes but I might have over a 1000 because not all my songs are on Apple iTunes. However, some of those are repeats like live versions of the same song or a slightly different version that I decided to record again. I can’t really say how many songs I write weekly because I don’t record all my doodles. Also I could get an idea for a song but may practice it for a while before I record it. I really have to have a recording session before I write down songs.

Have you ever written a song about photography?

I have written two. One is called Smile You’re On Kandid Kamera about the government spying on us and the other will be on my new CD called I Want To See Your Smile. That one is called I’m Taking MY Selfie.

What, if anything, does music have to do with photography?

Language. They are both a form of communicating. They say a picture paints a thousand words. Music also communicates. Music says things we may not  know how to say in words. 

Who are your favorite photographers?

Well I generally don’t like photography as much as paintings or drawings but in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on State Street here in Madison they are having an exhibit of Alec’s Soth’s America and I like some of the subjects he took. MMoCA's website has some photos by Alec Soth and tells you a lot more about him. 

Another photographer I like is a friend of mine David Hilgendorf who volunteers for Madison Street Pulse, a newspaper I write for. Madison Street Pulse is a paper that helps the homeless make money here in Madison. You can see some of David’s photos on their website.

Why were you drawn to Alec Soth's photographs? What did you like about them specifically?

Well, what happened was MMoCA had a poster outside with one of the weird photos that Alec took so I was curious to see what the other pictures looked like. When I got up there and saw all the interesting photos I wasn't disappointed. I like the fact that he took photos of odd subjects like a Pastor’s wife with a picture of a cloud that looked like an angel, theaters in Texas, pictures of what he ate, and sport drink cans … 

Bonnie (with a photograph of an Angel), Port Gibson, Mississippi, 2000, Alec Soth

What other sorts of photographs do you enjoy? 

Usually I like odd subjects and Black N White Photos of people. Or if I don’t know what something is I might type it in Google and look at the images of it. 

Why black and white photos? Why not color?

Not just any Black N White Photos but Black N White Photos of people, especially blues musicians. But I like color photos too.

Have you seen it yet?

I went to it and like some of it and think it was a pretty good show because it was an eclectic mix of styles and it has been said variety is the spice of life.

What was your favorite photo in the show? 

I guess I kind of like the photos of the lady in the wedding gown stuffing cake into the different mens' faces because the men were all different and you wondered if one was her husband or was she just serving cake to everyone and which one was her husband.

Do you take photographs? If so, of what?

Pink Pants, 2014, Art Paul Schlosser

I like to take pictures of my artwork to sell to fans. And Selfies so people can see my weird clothes I find. You can see them in my photo section on Facebook.

I like your photos of artwork. But I'm wondering if you ever take photos of other objects, to have the photo itself be a piece of art. Like Alec Soth photographing a Pastor's wife or something.

I guess that is why I paint. It is easier for me to make a painting look different than real life and it is harder for me to make a photo be real art and not be what I am taking, or is what I am taking art? I mean the line between a photo of something as art or just a photo of something is thinner than the line between just a portrait and an artist painting an artist expression. So I don’t, but I did try it once and I found it not to be my forte.

Do you consider yourself an outsider artist?

Well, if I say yes then according to outsider artist opinion I’m not. I guess what I consider myself is a singer songwriter who likes to write in many different styles including humor, gospel, protest, rap, and children's songs. I just happen to sound really weird the way I sing and the strange subjects I think of to sing about. Hey, but what do you think

Who do you consider the audience for your work?  Does art require an audience? Or does it mostly exist to satisfy the artist? 

I think the artist is also the audience. When I create I find I am usually entertained by what I am creating. My audience is anyone that is open to see what I have to share, plus myself.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


On the way to visit my parents last weekend I made a quick photo stop in Eureka to rephotograph the Shore/McDonough restaurant. It's now called Kristina's. Here's how it looked October 18th, 2014.

This is taken from the same vantage as Shore's forty years earlier:

I now know why Shore picked that spot. It's from the second floor landing of an adjacent motel, the only accessible high point around. Maybe he stayed there the night before. The motel is still there so I walked up and shot the scene. But my rephotograph was from memory so the framing is slightly off.

There isn't much special about my photo. Everything has changed since 1974 except the parking lot, but it still remains a dumb recording of a mundane place. Maybe it would've been more interesting with bird shit across the lens. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Soft-Sell Conclusion

Bruce Hall is an intimidating physical presence. He's about six three with a thick build and a trim goatee on the business end of his chin, and when he has a camera in his hands he feels free license to get in your face. There is a bit of Texas swagger about him supplemented with beach bluster from years of living and surfing in Southern California. It's my wave, Buddy. Back off. It goes without saying that the guys without that swagger don't get many rides.

Such an attitude can lead to friction when shooting photos. One person's wave might be considered another person's face. Or kids. Or privates. Did you shoot me just now? Yeah, and what are you gonna do about it? I've photographed alongside Bruce many times and I've seen squabbles arise. Actually it happens just about every time we go out. In some ways Bruce is just a fight waiting to happen.

So how is that he makes photographs of such extraordinary sensitivity? One look at the photographs in this book and it's clear they aren't made by a raging bull. They're made by a butterfly. Don't mind me, says the camera, just floating through. And oh yes, nailing it. Time after time he's in the right spot, paying attention to the right thing. Friction? Did I say friction? These pictures have as much friction as maple syrup. They look downright inevitable.

So that's the paradox of Bruce Hall. He's both a surf punk and wallflower. But how? What's the secret? Simple. Bruce went native. Living in Los Angeles for a decade, he became finely tuned to its rhythms. He learned the light and the characters and the plot, he could guess who would likely be where, when, and how. He became a regular fixture downtown, the big guy with the camera. 

Many of these photos were made on Broadway in downtown LA. In the 1980s it was a ramshackle artery of vendors, grit, marquees, and hopes in limbo. I'm guessing that what attracted Bruce is that there was no gloss, no false veneer. In the center of a city built on image, Broadway was just…well, Broadway. It lay there naked. No layers to undress. For a photographer that was appealing. The Promised Land. So Broadway and the nearby streets became his stomping grounds. And throughout the eighties the photos in this book accumulated. 

Normally photographs from 30 years ago would serve as a timepiece. They'd show a past world that had since changed and we could compare then and now. The irony with this work is that Broadway has changed very little since the 1980s. You can go there today and see pretty much what Bruce saw. The Promised Land? Visiting Broadway today, that phrase seems less societal pact than declaration of unfullfillment. Yes, fashions have shifted, and cars, and a few other cursory traits. But the infrastructure of Broadway is largely intact. More importantly, the mood is the same. It's a place that feels bypassed. It's a place that feels like it will always exist in black and white.  

The same might be said of street photography itself. It may still have some adherents, but it's a genre that has largely been bypassed by other photographic currents. The idea of just walking downtown with no plan, looking for moments —the core of this book— would be considered passé if practiced today. So perhaps this book belongs in the past, along with Frank and Model and Faurer and all the other tough, sensitive souls capturing shit that will never ever happen again, will never be recorded with such gut-wrenching fidelity, and that no one could ever imagine if they hadn't shown us. 

Because, Dude. Once you surf that wave it's gone.

—from my afterward to Promised Land, a new MagCloud publication by Blue Sky Books featuring photographs of 1980s Los Angeles by M. Bruce Hall. Preview/Order here

Monday, October 20, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

T'Mershi Duween

I'm packing up this morning for a long drive to visit my parents in Northern California. My dad turns 70 today. He doesn't want to make a big deal about it but it's kind of a big deal. Seventy! Plus he's selling the house I grew up in, so I've gotta make the trip.

I'm reminded of my last drive down there in August. I spent a few hours loading the car, checking off my list and doublechecking, then climbed into the driver's seat. It was only then that I noticed the most massive streak of bird shit I'd ever seen on the windshield. It was about 18 inches long and perfectly positioned above the steering wheel between me and the road.

I don't know what kind of bird leaves a load like that but I can recognize a beautiful form when it presents itself. Even more beautiful was the timing, because Tab and the kids were visiting her parents in Maine. I know my wife pretty well and I guarantee her initial instinct would've been to clean that shit off the windshield. That would've been like her very first move after seeing it. She's just like that. 

But Tab was out of the picture. Better yet, I was about to embark on an 800 mile road trip. I'd carry that shit with me everywhere. It would be my travel muse. I'd have hours to model it in front of different backgrounds, and if I saw something promising my camera was in the passenger seat. And if the photos looked enough like milk, perhaps there would be a market later. I could hardly wait to get on the road.

I'm not going to bore you with all the bird shit photos that didn't turn out. Just a few of them. This is the I-84 bridge crossing the Snake River into Idaho.

I spent a while trying to line up the thin streak far right with the white line marking the highway boundary, but none of them really worked out. The parallax on that camera is a bitch from that close, plus it's hard to position the lens properly while going 60 mph on a windy road, especially when you're changing out the roll on your Leica with the other hand. So there were lots of mistakes, but I like the one below taken on Route 1 just north of Fort Bragg. The blob and centerline are engaged in a complicated foxtrot.

I forget where this next one is from. Near Provo, I think? I was trying to match the white streak with the white car and...yeah, didn't really happen. But if I didn't tell you it was birdshit you might guess that the white blob was due to misdeveloped chemicals in the print, and I like imagining that. But I guess I told you already what it was. You know what, forget I ever mentioned it. Then look at this one.

The next one is from near the Missouri/Kansas border. I positioned the camera at the top of the windshield in the area tinted to reduce sun glare. Caught just a bit of the white blob and the distant moon.

The problem with the Instax is that it offers too much clarity, whether or not that's wanted. I think that's the trouble with color photography in general. It's not sufficiently transformative. What I'm usually after is the opposite of clarity. I want obfuscation, layering, visual distress. I want things to look wrong. Otherwise I wouldn't have packed the Spiderman outfit. 

That's why I shot plenty of 35 mm black and white too. In monochrome I can start blending worlds. 

Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing here but to me the birdshit looks cheerful in the photo above. And in combination with the earlier photos, the full portrait of this birdshit is beginning to flesh out as a multifaceted being with personality and quirks. But the picture isn't yet complete.

There. That's better. Stasis.

Trees of Mystery in Klamath is a regular stop for me going to and from California. There's a giant Paul Bunyan statue that talks to you. It keeps the tourists distracted so they're easy to shoot. But in August I was there early morning. No tourists. Just the white streak and Babe's horns.

These gulls were just moping in a parking lot in Montana. I'm pretty sure the birdshit on my windshield isn't from a sea gull or they would've acknowledged it somehow. But no. No reaction at all. None.

Yessiree, a guy can get pretty lonely driving on the open highway. After a few days you'll talk to just about anyone or anything that happens to be on your windshield. It's not until the bird shit begins talking back that you really have to worry. Then it might be time to pull over for a bit.

Photography has a strong tradition of road-tripping. Robert Frank is Exhibit A. But of course the list goes on and on. Lee Friedlander. Stephen Shore. Joel Sternfeld. Jim from the delivery room. Amy Stein. Simon Kossoff. The Google Street van. I think it has something to do with exile and being an outsider. When you're on a road trip those things come with the territory. Yup, it's the good ol' alienation card. Photographer Paydirt. You pull into some small cafe in a little town and BOOM. You're the only stranger in the place. And that charges up the batteries and activates the scene. Just look at the Paul McDonough photo I posted a few days back. Would he have shot that near home? Maybe not.

It's like a play. The protagonist is projected automatically and it's YOU. It's a different dynamic than walking down a familiar street in your neighborhood. And you've been staring at bird shit all day, lining it up with this and that. So when you walk into that cafe it's with both barrels blazing. Your eyes are on fire. You didn't bring that Spiderman outfit along for nothing. It's gonna pay dividends.

So that's what I'm dealing with this morning as I pack up. All those expectations.

But no bird shit. At the end of the August trip I knew I had to clean up the windshield. Tab was coming back in a few days and I knew if I didn't get to it she would. But the day before she arrived a miracle happened. A soft rain came and lasted all day and washed the streak away. It was the first rain since June. Its timing was impeccable. About 1,000 people had gathered to watch the concert at Pan-gyo Techno Valley, a newly built town that houses many high-tech companies south of Seoul, the capital, local news reports said. Local television stations showed a gaping hole where the ventilation crate had disappeared. They cited witnesses as saying that a small crowd of people, including office workers from the neighborhood, had climbed onto the grate to get a better view of the performers, including a popular girl band called 4Minute. 

You know the more I think about it, I'm convinced that streak might've been on my lens and not my windshield.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Inca Roads

Paul McDonough's new book Sight Seeing came in the mail today. I sat down at lunch and gave it a quick thumb through. Just a few pages in this photo caught my eye.

Coffee Shop, Route 101 West, 1971

Holy crap, I thought. I know that scene! I whipped out my copy of Uncommon Places and there it was on the cover. Same restaurant. Same background. 

5th St. and Broadway, Eureka, CA, September 2, 1974, Stephen Shore

McDonough's photo was made in the southwest corner of Sambo's looking toward Highway 101. I ate there a few times as a young kid, probably not long after Shore's photo was taken. 

Tough to say what's happening here. McDonough made his photo before Shore, so he had no idea the place might be significant. But did the Uncommon Places photo influence his editing later, or (more likely) maybe he doesn't realize even now that it's the same place? It's not at all obvious, especially online. You have to examine the background very closely and the caption is slightly misleading which doesn't help. I'm guessing it's a complete coincidence, but who knows.

Anyway, that spot has some history in photoland. I rephotographed it in GSV. Turns out Paul McDonough beat me to it. What's it all mean? Nothing. Just weird. And it confirms that everything's been photographed already. 

I'll have a full review of the book on Photo-Eye in a few weeks.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Q & A with Michael David Murphy

Michael David Murphy is the Program Manager for Atlanta Celebrates Photography, currently taking place in Atlanta.

How did you get into photography to start with, and particularly street photography? 

I took a class here and there in High School. Weird, but our high school's photography program (Amherst, MA) churned out two good photographers — Tim Davis and Tim Barber.  My name's not Tim — that'd be a trifecta.

I'd just finished an MFA in writing from the University of Washington. I'd spent two years on a deep dive into poetry - and as I was coming-up for air, the first digital cameras were coming out. I could suddenly afford to photograph, in a way I hadn't been able to, before. 

I've gotta go back one step before U-Dub. You were at University of Oregon. Why did you choose to go there?

I wanted to be in the Northwest because I really appreciated the idea of being in the upper left-hand corner of something.  It seemed like a good place to begin figuring it out, so to speak.  That, and Reed didn’t want me to transfer in.

Hitch-hiked from Alaska to Eugene for my junior and senior years. Wasn't thinking about photographs then.  

What were you doing in Alaska?

I was working for an Iditarod musher.

No shit?

Took a year-off from college and worked at a candle factory in Massachusetts and for a musher west of Fairbanks.

Same here. I took a year off college to work in a park near Fairbanks. Summer of 1989. Drove the Al-Can. But I had my own car. Hitchhiking is crazy.

MDM, 2010, from Certainty Principle

WOW! What park?

Chena River St. Park about 30 miles east of town. 

That was just north of where I was. Brooks Range was right above us. 

How did you get a job as a dog musher?

I was fortunate that my mom worked for a guy who knew a guy who knew a musher in Alaska.  And I wasn’t a musher — I worked at her kennel.  Mushing was a small part of keeping the kennel running smoothly.  I was the puppy person.  I had thirty puppies to feed, water, clean-up after, chase after, and take on walks in the woods.  It was an incredible time.

Did they offer dog mushing at Chena, when there was no snow? I remember a park offering that — in the summer.

People had dogs. I was there in summer so I didn't really explore the winter culture. I think the river froze over and became a highway into town.

Gotcha. Alaska is an incredible place. I lived there as a little kid, in Sitka. Then went back as a 19/20 year old. It's hard to believe it's America. Feels like another country. 

I'm sure you have some fine hitchhiking stories but maybe that's off-topic. Were you collecting material for poems and creative writing, or just being young and adventurous?

I wasn't really writing then — I was writing letters to people on birch bark, but that was about it. Bark makes great paper!

Yeah, that sounds about right, living in the north and writing on bark. You're confirming all the stereotypes. John McPhee made canoes from it.

What an incredible book. I'm conflating two books, I think. The bark canoe and the Alaska book.

Yes, two separate books. Coming Into The Country and Survival of The Birch Bark Canoe.

Also strange that it was the summer Chris McCandless went "Into the Wild".


No, I think it was 91ish. 92. scuze me. That's when I left —he went into the wilderness there as I was coming out. I couldn't hitchhike fast enough back to the Lower 48.

What brought you up there? I'm trying to tie it to your creative life later? Was it a sense of exploration? Or something about revisiting Sitka?

Definitely trying to revisit the place and carve something out for myself. Some kind of connection to my earlier life. We grew-up in a military family — always moving. Wanted to go back and see if it made sense, which it both did and didn't.

Hitching the Al-Can I'm guessing you spent some nights on the ground in the middle of nowhere.

Yes. With grizzlies nearby. It was full-on adventure.

Burning birch bark to ward them off, then scrawling life notes in the charcoal.

More like standing in the middle of the Al-Can with my hands waving like a crazy person, stopping the first 18-wheeler to come through after Mr. Grizzly wandered over.

OK. Back to Eugene, where I live. What were your impressions of it in the early 90s?

Sleepy place. Still in the shadow of Prefontaine. A not very diverse utopia, like quite a few college towns. 

True, it is quite homogenous racially.

Like Boulder, like Burlington…It was wonderful place to figure it out. I started writing there. Charles Wright (the new, and well-deserved Poet Laureate) gave a reading there that kind of changed my life.

Wow. What did he say?

With Wright, it wasn't necessarily what he said, but how he said it. Poetry can be that way — it's not so much the facts, but how the news is delivered.

How did he say it then?

Most of his poems are about God or Dante, and I just can't relate, but it's his delivery, his searching, his teasing-out of the essential phrase, nugget, or nuance that completely altered how I looked at words, language, and how one might go about making sense stringing it all together.

Do you think photography is like that too? That it's not necessarily the message but the messenger? McLuhan: The medium is the message.

MDM, 2006, from Moonshots

It can be like that, for sure. I'm going to try and go long with a thought here...

MDM going long. He's got a man open in the end zone...

When you're young, you tend to find friends and loves who are similar to you — they like the same things you like. They reinforce your world view. And as you (or me, rather) get older, you realize that you can love and learn from people who can be 180 degrees different from view, but their expression of who they are, and how they live in the world, can completely resonate. That's what I learned from that Wright talk, and I try to keep living that way...

The openness to difference – in that what difference delivers is surprising and enriching, rather than confirming and re-confirming and re-confirming. Not too deep, but interesting.

I made the catch but only got one foot in.

There is a strain of reversal or deliberate antithesis in your website. The unphotographable, for example. Or the removal of a tennis ball from a match or removal of punches from a fight. You're a contrarian.

I love omission, retraction, obfuscation, misdirection, nuance, ambiguity and hypocrisy. Other stuff, too! 

And you trace that to the Wright talk?

Not really.  In grad school I studied the surrealists, and they’re the root of much of that.  In Wright I saw someone who had an air of failure — if you keep looking up at the heavens, asking the stars about salvation, you’re going to have a lot of unanswered questions, but you might as well keep asking, right?  That’s what I learned from him; the persistence of vision, and embracing failure in a way that mollifies it to the point where you can put it in your pocket and save it for later.

OK, so you're a young poet with an MFA. How did the conversion to photographer happen? You bought a digital camera and then what?

I bought a digi-camera and like everyone else (in 2001) caught the bug. Went on a major binge of self-teaching. I'd hole-up for days in the San Francisco public library, teaching myself the history of the medium. Their photobook collection was incredible. I realized that photography was allowing me space to creatively explore in a way that was more free (and easy) than putting words on a page.

I'd probably choose the word accessible rather than easy. A low bar to entry but a high bar to mastery.

Perfectly said, Blake.  It’s an unpopular attitude, but for me, there is an ease to photography, when compared to writing.  Others feel the exact opposite, but writing (or writing well) has a degree of difficulty that has always stupefied me.  Day to day, it’s the most challenging, least understood thing I do.

What about your poetry at this point?

I stopped writing and started standing in the street with my camera. Ditched one for the other completely.

This is around the time I discovered you via 2point8.

I thought I'd try and write about my experiences learning photography. Which is when 2point8 happened. I spent a year shooting the intersection of Grant and Post. 

No-Flash Corner. You were immersed in street shooting. Why? What was it about that style?

My favorite photographs were street photographs. So I thought I'd try and make my own.

I can't find any of your old SF street photos online. They're not on your website. Maybe they're on 2point8 somewhere? What do you think now about the photos you were making then?

They're fine. Not great — typical student work. They're searching for something and only finding it once in awhile. I should put No Flash Corner on my site, though.

MDM, 2005, Ways of Working, from 2point8
So you view that period as a learning period, and maybe not as something you can still stand behind? But I have to say the writing you did during that period is still quite valuable, especially to younger street shooters trying to sort out what's happening. Each time you posted one of those Ways of Working I felt like a student going to class.

In hindsight, it was the writing and the photos that made sense together. The charting of a process. I didn't have any photographer friends who could talk to me about all this dumb stuff. So I just wrote it all up and clicked "Post" and there it was.

It's written by someone who's in the full-bloom of love for photography. Yeah, that sounds weird, but it's that headlong rush, and you probably know that, or remember that yourself, Blake. Right?

Has the bloom faded?

The flower's changed. And I moved from a city that was well-suited to that way of working, to one that most definitely is not.

How so?

Atlanta isn't a pedestrian city.

I haven't spent much time there. But surely there's some sort of downtown core?

There is. It's a core in that it bears so little relation to the rest of the place, it kind of feels like a miniature model of what a city is, or can be. Shrinky-dink'd. There are people walking around, but it's not the life-blood, the pulse, the movement or the force and power of the place. There's a school, and some office buildings, and a park, but it just doesn't make any urban sense to me. Photographically, and non-photographically.

Does Atlanta still not make sense to you? Can you elaborate?

Atlanta doesn’t make much sense to me, geographically.  I keep looking for the ocean or the mountains, so I can frame exactly where I am.  As a city, it's making more and more sense every day.  The city’s changing in unexpected ways.  People are ditching their cars and biking more, and there are so many great upstart arts organizations doing great projects and transforming the place.

MDM, 2010, from Certainty Principle

Is it the geography or is it you? Maybe you were just ready for a different type of shooting.

Could be me. It's me!

How would you describe the photography you're doing now?

The photography I'm doing now is called video. LOL

You do have many videos online. Some are quite entertaining. So that's where your energy is going?

When I first started working with video I realized I was looking at it in the same way I looked at people walking toward me on the street -- when I was photographing in San Francisco. I looked at the street as a stream of information, of potentialities, risks, failures.  When I started working with video, I saw the same exact thing. I wondered how I could slice it or sequence it and represent it in a way that meant something, to me, or not. Most often, I'd have an idea like, "what would it look like if I erased 14 of 15 frames from this video of Meb Keflezighi winning the New York Marathon. Could I then rebuild his stride so he's running 16 times faster than normal? Yes, I can. Wow.

Yes they definitely twist reality in a fun way.

I made these videos five years ago, when I was really interested in the amount of information that could be contained in a single frame of film. This video stuff comes directly from my photographic interests. How do we read photographs? What do you see first? What's revealed over time? Can that process be slowed and/or choreographed?

Are the original photos yours?


That's the convergence of photo and video right there. And monitor/mouse culture. 

Exactly. And there's something very meaty in that, for me. 

So these were made early on in your transition from photo to video?

Yup, in 2009.

When did you move to Atlanta?

I moved here in 2006. I was still photographing, but was becoming very interested in video. Then our lab in town went outta business, and that really slowed my photo output. 

I think what you're forcing on the viewer is a bit similar to the experience of walking down the street looking for pictures. There's a lot of information there and you've got to take it a bit at a time and focus on parts here and there. Of course your videos are more directive. You're choosing the point of focus. And maybe causing the viewer to reflect on that process.

Yeah, over time, it's morphed into other things, but that was the initial observation — realizing that found footage (in particular) is very much like walking out your door with a camera to see what can be seen.

So what do you do with the videos?

Videos are submitted to be shown, and get shown. I've exhibited them along with my still photographs. So I'll show both photo and video work in exhibitions. Sometimes just video! There's no real "end goal" in mind. I make the thing because I want to see what it would look like if someone made the thing, and no one's already made it, so I go ahead and do it.

In other words, you make videos to see what material looks like videoed.

You couldn’t have said it better yourself.  ; )

Speaking of off-beat projects, what about the Grateful Dead tuning collage?

Yeah, there's that!

MDM, 2012, Grateful Dead Tuning '77
Were you a Deadhead?

I guess so! Never self-described, but factually, yes.

I spent a few years in my youth going to lots of shows. Autzen Stadium 1994. I brought my parents to that show. Their first. Maybe you were in Eugene then?

I saw you in the parking lot! I was the guy selling Sam Smith Tadcaster!

I was the guy in the tie die with a pony tail. Were you really there?

Too funny. Yes. And I remember telling you a few years ago I worked at The Kiva back then through junior and senior years at UO. They didn't have a good football team back then.

On the tuning thing... I wanted to do a project that mined something from the Internet Archive. So I spliced together every recorded bit of the Grateful Dead tuning from 1977. Listening to it is an act of performance art. LOL.

I've tried listening to a long segment but I tune out (no pun intended) after about 10 minutes. Have you ever listened to it all the way through?

I have.  And unfortunately, I listen to it in the way you would if it were something you composed - I hear all the faults and flaws in the editing.  Could have been better!

It's almost a willful rejection of any final project. Just pure process. What is it about those tuning sessions that's attractive? I think to someone not into that style of music it's ridiculous. But listening to some of it I found myself entranced. It never goes anywhere. Some would say none of the Dead's songs do either. But this is more in your face about it. I think I'm going to play the full clip on my radio show, just to fuck with listeners.

It's that suspended state of waiting. Pure anticipation with no pay-off.  

Like shooting film but never looking at the results?

Yes. It's weird but there are threads of these ideas through my other projects. Tense moments that never get relieved.

The funny thing about your Tuning '77 piece is that if you don't listen closely it sounds very much like a normal Dead show. They would stop and start and putter around for minutes between songs going nowhere. This has a very similar flavor in small amounts. And the segues between clips are very clean so it's easy to dismiss as a normal Dead recording. I think they may be the only band you could do this with and pass it off as real. So maybe there's a reality vs. composite duality thing at work. Or I'm just reading too much into it.

But anyway, that's why I want to play it on the show, so it sounds real but to make people wonder WTF?, or perhaps not notice anything amiss. (Postscript: I wound up playing about 11 minutes of Tuning '77 to finish my September 30th show)

Some guy in LA wanted to do a limited-edition vinyl run of Tuning '77 which would have been another world of awesome.

What happened with that?

It stayed in the realm of ideas, unfortunately.

The photo world is very concerned with final product. Packing photos into tidy projects with statements, in a group of 30 or 40, or in a book or whatever. The idea of an endless stream of photos or ongoing tuning session has little credence in the fine art community. Maybe it's only suited for Tumblr. I feel like I'm caught photographically in an indefinite tuning session. And I have to say it's wonderful.

I may not be shooting currently, but I'm still very much in photography. I help run an annual photo festival here: Atlanta Celebrates Photography. Every October, city-wide. Hundreds of events and exhibitions. It's full steam ahead time now. 

ACP probably brings you closer to the world of finished products. How has your experience been there?

Honestly? It's been great. I totally love what I get to do for a living. Running a small non-profit that's dedicated to photography is a gift. It feels like the "good work".

But to your point I wish more photo-based artists thought a little outside-the-box about what they're doing, how they're presenting their work, and what they want their work to do in the world. That's where photographers need to think creatively. Anyway... [Stepping off soapbox.]

Can you elaborate? Do you mean photographers should be more socially engaged? Or display their photos more creatively? Or what?

I have a hard time when photographers say they want to "see their work in a gallery."

What's the matter with wanting to be in a gallery?

There's nothing wrong with galleries, or the desire to be in them, but it shouldn't be the end goal. It seems too narrow of a focus. Maybe your photos would work best if you teamed-up with a street-artist who could wheat-paste them on that huge underpass, you know?

Zoe Strauss?

Interesting — yes to Zoe, and I wasn't even thinking about her! Was more thinking about JR. And generally, this great organization in Atlanta called Living Walls.

Who is JR?

French street artist who works photographically — with wheat-paste murals.  And remembering an artist...who took photographs of icebergs in Argentina. She was a student here in Atlanta. And when it came time to show her work... She figured she'd build a few lightboxes, and find a loading dock on Peachtree that was accessible to people... And put her lightboxes of icebergs in this cold loading dock in October. Which I thought was so great!

How was it received?

I'm still talking about it five years later! Best installation of iceberg photographs I've ever seen!

I kind of feel like the need to be in a gallery is a fear-based need. And if you can relieve that fear — the fear of failure, or recognition, or whatever it is — and start seeing how your work might live in a wider (maybe weirder) way, things can really take rewarding, surprising turns.

I've bypassed the gallery world for the streets. I leave lots of old work prints around town and on telephone poles. And I mail them to whoever will take them.

YES. I took one!

In your position with ACP do you have a chance to give this sort of hands-on advice directly to photographers? Or is it more of an administrative job?

It's a bit of both. I've done some teaching. And I've led some workshops... Day to day, yes, I have an administrative position for a visual arts non-profit. It's only two and a half of us, so we all get to do the admin work! ;)

Is there a strong tradition of photography in Atlanta, either historically or now? Lots of photographers around and energy?

Lots of energy and photographers around, yes. Traditionally, there's been a strong commercial photography industry here, but that's changed recently. The good news is that there's been big and sustained support of the photographic efforts of the High Museum in the last five years; they've done great shows and have an excellent collection. An incredible resource for the city.

Is it Coke money? Or TBS? Or big $ funding the arts? CDC? (Kidding)

None of the three. It's more individual support from patrons of the arts. There's a lot of quiet money in Atlanta, and it's great when it pokes its head-up and endows a curator, or lends its collection and makes some noise.

MDM, 2013, from We Are The 15 Percent

Tell me about your 15 Percent project.

It's been an incredible 14 months or so. It's a crowd-sourced photographic archive that's charting the changing face of the American family. Every single day I work on it, I feel lucky to be able to be stewards of the project — it's a collaboration with my wife, Alyson. We've been overwhelmed with submissions and support for the effort. We have thousands of photographs still to post. And receive new ones every day.

How many submissions? 

We've posted about 1,500 so far. And we have three thousand in the backlog.

Do you edit them? Or post everything?

Our goal is to post everything. We don't edit them, but we try to post them in ways that create a visual continuity, over the course of a few days or a week.

Wow. You may have to increase the rate of posting.

Yes, probably. We're currently working on a book proposal for the 15% -- so that should come together in the next few months.

What about Unphotographable? Is that still active?

Unphotographable is very much active. But I'm just not experiencing them as much as I used to. I'm not seeing pictures that I can't take for one reason or another. They're as rare as good photographs. And as fleeting.

When you're not actively photographing, everything falls into the unphotographable category.

I have a book-length edit of Unphotographable that needs to be published at some point. I'd like to put a bow on it.

Will Steacy edited a book based on a similar idea. Yours are more poetic I think, and with the graphic forms a bit different. I'm guessing you've seen it.

You're guessing correctly.

Why the urge to publish these projects as books. Isn't it similar to the photographer blindly wanting a "gallery" without knowing why?

I don't see it that way. Gallery shows are so finite - they're there and then gone. Books of both projects would ultimately be quite different from their digital representations — another shape or form. Substance. It's more like making a print of a picture vs. keeping it on yer hard-drive. Or that's how I see it.

Yeah. Just playing devil's advocate. What about making a book of 2point8 advice? I know 2point8 is still online and probably still useful for many people. Is it a deliberate choice to keep it public as a resource? Do you ever hear feedback now about it?

I still receive feedback about it. It kind of pre-dated social media, so it's a bit unknown now, but people still dig it up, and find value in it. Which is why I've just left it there, running. So many of the links and images are broken now, which is a shame, but if it's useful to a few people here and there, I don't see a reason to take it down.

Broken links. Unknown. Withering. That could be motivation for a book.

I've never considered that, but it's an idea! I feel like the guy who wrote that site is someone I used to know. But I feel like a new person every four or five years, so that's about right on time.

MDM, 2011, from Barthesbybarthesbybart

What does that mean? You can't relate to yourself as a street shooter?

It feels far away. It was me, but it's a me I don't have direct and constant access to these days.

Do you miss that you?

Most definitely. It's always easy to be sentimental about yer past. But my present is really great and new and incredible in ways I would have never imagined. I'm glad I was there looking at Friedlander's "Monuments" in the library, and then taking my Leica out into the streets and trying to make sense of how one might fit into the vast photographic stream -- but it's not a present concern. I miss the great coffee and living in an incredibly vibrant, pedestrian-oriented city, but it's okay to leave a place you love -- especially for a great unknown. Atlanta is Alaska, in that way.

Wait, it still feels unknown? How long can that last?

No, it's no longer unknown. I'm very much an Atlantan now. Seven years! Going strong!