Friday, December 29, 2017


As 2017 draws to a close it's time to look back and take stock. Politically the year was an annus horribilis. In fact it was perhaps the most horribilis of all past annuses. A terrible horribilis no good very bad annus, if you will. If you're reading this post at some point in the future, trying to get a sense of what things were like way back in 2017, let me tell you. America's government is currently held hostage by a spraytanned used car salesman. He rules impulsively like a child-emperor, and we're enslaved to his every twisted whim. But sadly this isn't an HBO script. It's our waking reality.

Future readers, drop everything this instant and get in your time machine. Come back to save us now! Unless of course it's already too late. Perhaps you're far enough in the future that the child-emperor has bankrupted the country or started WWIII and you're living in caves, excluded from the few viable wealthy enclaves by electrified border walls. In that case there's not much to say. Dig through the rubble until you find a good book. Maybe you can find an old couch to read it on. Sorry we trashed your country. Hey, nothing lasts forever.

But enough about the terrible horrible no good very bad orange conman. Let's talk photos. 2017 threw me a few curveballs. The first half proceeded without much fanfare. Good times in Oregon, LA and SF, a few photo exhibitions, many exposures, ....Then boom! In July Newspace went belly up. I was as shocked as anyone by the sudden closure. In addition to being the de facto nerve center of Portland's photo scene and a regular gallery stop, Newspace housed the community darkroom where I'd been printing once a week since it opened in 2002. Within ten days they'd shut down and sold off everything at auction prices. If only it were a midsummer night's dream. But alas, it was all too real. 

My printing ground to an immediate standstill. Meanwhile, the shooting went on. The gulf between exposure and print yawned wider. At one point it seemed bridgeable. But now, probably never.

I've since revived my printing process at the local University of Oregon darkroom but it's not quite the same. There's no local printing scene and I never run into other photographers. The equipment is funky and I'm restricted to tray development, which means I can print at most 25 negatives in a session. This compares to maybe 75 or 80 negs in a day using two enlargers and the RC processor at the old Newspace. Long story short, in 2017 my print production slowed waaaaaaay down. I doubt it will ever return to earlier levels, and maybe that's a good thing. I was out of control there for a while.

With my print production crimped, I decided to fold up Penonomen where I'd been posting daily b/w workprints for the past few years. Honestly the end had been brewing for some time. Tumblr was once quite active, but it has hollowed out recently as photographers have flocked to Instagram. As we enter 2018 it's essentially a photo graveyard. If a photographer posts photos in the woods and no one sees them, do they make a sight? I'm not so sure. At one point I could convince myself it didn't really matter, that I was mostly posting photos for me. That was kinda true, and still is. But a little feedback once in a while wouldn't be so horribilis. Tumblr offered almost none. In June I left, pretty much for good.

It was the same story with B. For the past few years the blog had bogged in the throes of my mid-blogging crisis. What was I doing investing time and energy into something which offered no money, feedback, or prospects in return? At one point it offered some minor sense of community, but that had faded as well. I could tell myself it was mainly for me, just like Tumblr. 

But still. Social media had clearly moved on to other realms. Maybe it was time for me to do so as well. In July I quit cold turkey, just to see how it would feel. Turns out it felt pretty good. A weight lifted. A few weeks stretched into a few months. 

Around the time of these changes —roughly mid-summer— my old phone died and I upgraded to a modern smartphone. You can guess where this is going. For the first time in my life I was able to Shazam unknown songs, Mapquest directions, and blast imitation fart sounds in a crowded elevator. More importantly I could finally shoot phone photos of decent quality. 

What to do with all these new photos I was taking? For most of them the answer was the same as before: nothing. But a few I began posting to Instagram. 

Instagram? Horror of horrors. I've taken my share of potshots at Instagram over the years on this very blog —and I still think it has major flaws as a sharing platform— so it might come as a surprise to learn I've joined. If you'd told me back in January that I'd be posting daily phone pix to Instagram in December I'd have laughed in your face. Never!

I guess the joke's on January me, because I've grown to like it. I look forward to it. I've got to It takes five seconds to share a photo, no need for continuity, and there are many great photographers posting regularly. Best of all IG offers a modicum of online community. There's interaction, personality, stimulation, and engagement. This is the void I'd found missing recently with Penonomen and B. After one week on Instagram my photos generated more reaction than in three years on Tumblr. I feel like I'm part of something, even if it's ephemeral and stupid. 

The irony is they're not even good photos, just silly snapshots. My b/w work, which I consider the "real" work, remains mostly in shoeboxes. I suppose I could scan this b/w stuff and put in on Instagram, but that seems counter to the Instagram ethos. It's a phone platform, built for quick sharing and quick looking. Prints be damned. Aside from that, I'm having too much fun making new iPhone photos to bother with scanning. 

In fact I've gotten so caught up in phone shooting I'm not even sure what the "real" work is anymore. Maybe I should take these phone photos more seriously. Sure, it might kill them, but who knows. I've never printed any, never looked at one for more than 10 seconds. I feel my entire frame of reference has shifted to accommodate this strange new medium, and I'm still sorting out the ramifications.

If I said "I don't really know what I'm doing anymore" it would mimic the comments of three photographers who've told me the same thing in recent months. All three are great photographers, one widely known. All are talented but adrift, a wonderful condition. Aimlessness is a trait not highly valued in society. In other words, aimlessness is invaluable. Not all who wander are lost. It may be a bumper sticker platitude but with a kernel of truth. So cheer up, photographers and political junkies. Being utterly lost may be a precondition for progress.

The territory may have shifted but as I enter 2018 the way forward remains the same: Observe. Shoot. Repeat. Hopefully the aftermath will amount to something meaningful. In any event it will be prolific, and one year from today, my 49th birthday, more massive still.

For those reading this is 2017, Happy New Year! 

For the time travelers, sorry again for the mess we left. 



2017 Favorite Albums


1. Paul Major: Feel The Music, Vol. 1 (2017)
2. Shadow Expert, Palm (2017)
3. (Self Titled), French Vanilla (2017)
4. Bob's Burgers Music Album (2017)
5. Wildflower, The Avalanches  (2016)
6. Atrocity ExhibitionDanny Brown (2016)
7. Try, Faith Healer (2017)
8. English Tapas, The Sleaford Mods (2017)
9. Fly Or Die, Jaimie Branch (2017)
10. The Asylum Tapes, Marvin Pontiac (2017)


1. Home Is Where The House IsMalik Ameer and Lorin Benedict (2010)
2. Cool TruthLittle Howlin' Wolf (1985)
3. State Of The Union (1996)
4. I Don't Wanna, Henry Flynt (2004)
5. Stations Of The Crass, Crass (1979)
6. The Black GladiatorBo Diddley (1970)
7. The People Who LeftKeith Kelly (2014)
8. Gaia, Lionel Loueke (2015)
9. TzomborghaRuins (2002)
10. Colour Green, Sibylle Baier (2006)

2017 Favorite Books


1.The End Of My Career, Martha Grover (2016)
2. Jungle Of Stone, William Carlsen (2017)
3. The Stranger In The Woods, Michael Finkel (2017)
4. Daring To Drive, Manal Al-Sharif (2017)
5. Born A Crime, Trevor Noah (2016)
6. Logical Family, Armistead Maupin (2017)
7. Trying To Float, Nicolaia Rips (2017)
8. Trump And Me, Mark Singer (2016)
9. Ultimate Glory, David Gessner (2017)
10. Killers Of The Flower Moon, David Grann (2017)


1. Girlbomb, Janice Erlbaum (2007)
2. The Hypocrisy of Disco, Clane Hayward (2007)
3. Boy Kings of Texas, Domingo Martinez (2012)
4. 100 Essays I Don't Have Time To Write, Sarah Ruhl (2014)
5. Made In Detroit, Paul Clemens (2006)
6. The Voyeurs, Gabrielle Bell (2012)
7. Kook, Peter Heller (2010)
8. Brother I'm Dying, Edwidge Dandicat (2008)
9. The Lost World Of The Old Ones, David Roberts (2015)
10. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami (2009) 

2017 Favorite Photobooks


1. Americans Seen, Sage Sohier (2017)
2. Chainlink, Parties, and The American Monument, Lee Friedlander (2017)
3. Le Gendarme Sur La Colline, Alessandra Sanguinetti (2017)
4. Gas Stop, David Freund (2017)
5. Novokuznetsk, Nikolay Bakharev, (2016)
6. Country Limit, Ronan Guillou (2016)
7. Lost Coast, Curran Hattleberg (2016)
8. Reading Raymond Carver, Mary Frey (2017)
9. The Difficulties Of Nonsense, Robert Cumming (2016)
10. Salt'n Vinegar, A-Chan (2017)


1. SolosLinda Connor (1980)
2. Photographing The American DreamSolomon D. Butcher (1985)
3. Prom, Mary Ellen Mark (2012)
4. A Gathering Of The Juggalos, Daniel Cronin (2013)
5. Circle The Number You Love, Cross Off The Number You Hate, Dirk Wales (1992)
6. Wilted Country, Roger Eberhard (2010)
7. Our Hollywood, David Strick (1988)
8. Site Specific, Olivo Barbieri (2013)
9. Grid-Portraits, Stu Levy (2010)
10. Les Faits Secondaires, Christophe Agou (2013)

2017 Favorite Films


1. Raw, Julia Ducournau (2016)
2. Get Out, Jordan Peele (2017)
3. Cameraperson, Kersten Johnson (2016)
4. Manchester By The Sea, Kenneth Lonergan (2016)
5. The Shape of Water, Guilllermo Del Toro (2017)
6. Creative Control, Benjamin Dickinson (2015)
7. Carol, Todd Haynes (2015)
8. Catfight, Onur Tukel (2016)
9. Baby Driver, Edgar Wright (2017)
10. Weiner, Josh Kreigman and Elyse Steinberg (2016)


1. Humpday, Lynn Shelton (2009)
2. Spoorloos, George Sluizer (1988)
3. Felicia's Journey, Atom Egoyan (1999)
4. I Love You Alice B. Toklas, Hy Averback (1968)
5. Tusk, Kevin Smith (2014)
6. Wake In Fright, Ted Kotcheff (1971)
7. The Last Season, Sara Dosa (2014)
8. The Beguiled, Don Seigel (1971)
9. Beware of Mr. Baker, Jay Bulger (2012)
10. Twister, Michael Almereyda (1989)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Launches

The rush is on. We're well into December and the year-end photo book lists have been amassing online for a few weeks now. I've been trying to compile my own list. As happens every year I stumbled across a shitload of photo books this year. The problem is that most of them were secondhand titles published before 2017. So it's tough for me to make a 2017-specific list. I like to tell myself that photo books get better with age like fine wine or vintage autos or old blog pages. Maybe that's true. Who knows. But even if they're getting better, and even if bought them this year, it's hard to justify putting old things on a new list.

Maybe one way around this problem is to stick a 2017 date on an old book. This was the case for my 2017 favorites. Most were reprints. Pictures From Home, The Solitude of Ravens, Sleeping By The Mississippi, Iowa, The American Monument, Bystander... It seemed very time I turned around some old classic was being republished. (I've reviewed most of these reprints here).  

Technically these titles could be included on a 2017 list, since they were republished this year. But it feels kinda wrong. And unfair too. These old books are critical darlings. I mean, they're reprinted for a reason. How's a new young thing supposed to compete?

Larry Sultan's Pictures From Home (Mack, 2017)

There've been so many reprints I'm tempted to call 2017 the year of the reprint. But in fact this trend has been building for a while. In the past few years we've seen new editions of Streetwise, Exiles, In Flagrante, Valparaiso, Nicaragua, and many other old classics. Shimmer of Possibility, She Dances On Jackson, and Waffenruhe are on tap for early 2018, and I see no signs of the wave slowing down. Mack in particular seems drawn to this path, with several reprints this year and also in the pipeline. And as Mack goes, so often goes the photo book world.

For publishers like Mack, investing in a reprint makes good financial sense. Printing a new unproven photo book is an inherently risky venture. Sure, a few sell like hotcakes (Souza's Obama has made the NY Times bestseller list five weeks and running). But most are harder to move. And you can't often tell which will be which until after publication. In fact it's worse than that. A book's sales prospects seem largely divorced from its contents. Every time I visit Powell's I see must-have books sitting unsold on the shelf at bargain prices, while silly books I can't fathom sell-out in days. The publishers must notice the same phenomenon and it must drive them crazy. They're tossing darts in the ocean hoping for a kill. But hey, welcome to photography. (Jรถrg recently brushed on this topic here.)

With a classic reprint, the risk to the publisher is smaller. There's a built-in demand for many out-of-print books. A publisher is filling a market void, with virtually guaranteed sales. Better yet, the material has already been developed. It's been shot, edited, proofed, and laid out. Paste on a supplementary text, update graphics, and it's good to go. Of course some publishers take things a few steps further. 

For poor slobs like myself reprints are very welcome. A door into history is opened, a door which had previously been locked. Information wants to be free, or so I've heard. Maybe photos do too.

Feng Li's White Night (Jiazazhi, 2017)

These reprints are such a joy I want the feeling to last forever. I'd love for every photo book to remain in print indefinitely. Unfortunately that's far from the actual situation. And the year end lists tend to exacerbate the problem. Up until last week Feng Li's White Night was widely available. Martin Parr put it on his 2017 favorites list. Then it immediately sold out. I was lucky to see it at a friend's house last week. It's a very good book. It would be nice if others could see it too. But that won't happen now, at least until if/when it's reprinted. Until this year, books like Iowa and Pictures From Home were in the same boat: mostly inaccessible and unseen. 

Because book access is controlled by the market, photo history itself is subject to same forces. To a varying extent this is true of all the arts (except music, where almost every important recording is now at your fingertips). But it's especially true in photography, because photo books play such a central role. Books are the vehicle of choice. Books are how photographers share ideas. When important books are inaccessible, the stream of ideas is dammed up. 

Imagine if you were a young photographer in the 1960s who had no chance to see The Americans or The Decisive Moment or American Photographs? We might be looking at a very different photo landscape today if those books were invisible to an earlier generation. Well that's essentially the world we live in today. Unless they are lucky, wealthy, or have access to a strong library, few photographers will ever see White Night. Or Golden Palms. Or Tokyo. Or Teenage Lust. Or a thousand other out-of-print books. Sigh. They're essentially pulled from circulation and broad influence. Who knows what their impact might've been?  

Josef Chladek's Virtual Bookshelf

I don't think the entire photo world has quite come to grips with the situation. But some have. Inaccessibility was the driving motivation behind Errata Editions, the publisher "dedicated to making rare and out-of-print photography books accessible".  Their books may be kinda smallish and dinky for my taste, but they're generally well crafted. More importantly they fill in a few major holes in photo history. 

It would be great to see an Errata reprint of every classic, but that's not gonna happen. The next best thing might be digitized books. Josef Chladek has made serious inroads here. His site reproduces thousands of photo books —including many out-of-print classics— page for page. Who knows where he finds them all, or if it's even legal. Not my department. But I'm happy he's doing it. At some point his site might develop into something like the Spotify of photography. Pick any page in any photo book to stream immediately. That's a ways off still, but I think it's coming. 

In the meantime we're stuck with the present situation, which ain't bad. After all, this is still the golden age of photo books. There are plenty of great ones around at quite reasonable prices. Stick to the used shelves, estate sales, Bookfinder, and your local library, and you'll do just fine. Keep your eyes peeled for the occasional reprinted classic. And above all, trust your gut over any year-end list. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Driving while phoned

For as long as I can remember I've had a camera beside me while driving. Any time I'm behind the wheel it sits nearby on the center console. My camera is always a temptation, but since Oregon made cell phones illegal for drivers on October 1st, the attraction has grown stronger. Suddenly the outlaw life I've always fantasized is right there at my fingertips, ready to be plucked like a ripe peach. And the appeal of the illicit is well coordinated with life events. I've recently upgraded from a flip-phone to a smartphone. For the first time in my life I can actually make decent phone pictures.

Wheeee! Down the rabbit hole I've plunged. Since the beginning of October, just about every time out I've made photos of the world passing my car. Not only is it great road entertainment, but every push of the button is a minor taboo, a small act of defiance. Take that, system! Best of all the photos are easily deletable. This is a very handy trait because, let's face it, most of these photos don't turn out. Sperm cells might have a higher hit rate.

This time of year the drive-by shooting is great. There is often dew or rain or frost on the windshield before I get in the car. We haven't had snow yet in Eugene, but that'll come soon enough. Whatever the water form, it serves as a built in visual effects filter between me and the world. I think my favorite is frost. The ice crystals are intricate and incredible, and bring the very planet into question. Long flowing drips are nice too. They can lend an impressionist feeling to whatever's behind. Monet's windshield lilies, anyone? Straight rain is kinda meh, often too busy and chaotic for artistic use, although the pitter-patter soundtrack can be relaxing. No matter the weather conditions, my third visor frit is a constant, a good general purpose filter for skies and other upper frame material.

Of course to take full advantage of conditions requires some sacrifice. Using wipers or defrost kills filters quickly, so I try to avoid them while driving. Moving through the world in my unwiped murky icebox it's easy to let my imagination free. I crank up the radio and forget I'm driving at all. Destination be damned, traffic signals be damned! I'm on a photo hunt! If it's just mist or light rain outside I can usually make out the rough features of the roadscape through the sheet of water running down my windshield. The same can happen with dew or interior condensation. Both can be seen through with practice. With ice it's tougher, especially when there's more than a quarter inch or so. It's drivable, but iffy. I've found that if I scrape a small clearing in the side window I can usually see enough of the road and mirror to get by. If I use a fingernail the thin scrape marks can create an interesting frame. I know what you're thinking, and I agree. It's a huge bummer to have that small section missing its filter. But as I said, some sacrifice is required. 

One of the hazards of getting a new phone later in life is that I'm too dumb to figure all of it out. My phone has a "Driving Mode" feature which I can't seem to turn off. Before I can shoot any photos in my car I need to unlock the "Driving mode will turn on automatically while driving" tab on my screen. The swipe button is small and hard to see, so it's sometimes a hassle to do this in heavy traffic or while driving at high speeds. But I manage. Then I bring my phone up above the wheel where I can see the outside world clearly on its screen. The intoxicating call of the pixelated road beckons.

I can use my smartphone camera with one hand but honestly it's easier with two. As I mentioned earlier I don't use defrost or wipers, so my hands are freed up from those chores. With wrists at 10 and 2 o'clock and applied to the steering wheel with pressure, I've gotten pretty good at general locomotion. In fact wrist steering is surprisingly effective. The only exceptions are when I hit a very sharp turn, parallel park, or tow a trailer. Those are tough. That's why I don't have many photos of those situations. But for normal driving wrists are fine. My fingers dangle above the wheel, both hands free to manipulate the phone screen. 

Disclaimer: this style of driving requires sharp focus. If you're not paying close attention you can easily miss photo ops. Sometimes sharp braking or quick acceleration is required to get just the right angle, especially at night or in heavy traffic. Fortunately I've found that most other drivers are pretty good about avoiding me if they see I'm using a phone or driving erratically. After all it's in their interest not to hit me, just as it's in mine. Car photography is win-win, a breeze. I can't help thinking that if everyone shot photos while driving, there'd be no accidents at all. 

When you consider how safe and effortless it is to shoot a phone camera while driving, Oregon's cell phone restriction seems silly. Compared to my Leica, for example, shooting a cell phone is a snap. Oh sure, a Leica's viewfinder plastered to your forehead may allow you to keep one eye behind the camera and one on the road, but that's not an ideal way to drive. You'll miss a lot of photos that way. Worse, a Leica has manual exposure settings and manual focus. That means it requires two hands to operate, plus a good chunk of attention to your immediate proximity. I can't tell you how many shots I've missed while fiddling with my camera settings. And believe me, changing out a roll of film while driving is no picnic. The bottom plate and sprocket with it's tiny film slot —what a bitch. Over time I've gotten pretty good at it (Pro tip: always wait for the straightaway to load film), but only after a few narrow scrapes. Then there's the silly shoulder strap which always seems to get caught in the seatbelt. My cell phone is strapless. Yup, there are a lot of arguments to be made that film cameras should be illegal while driving, not cell phones. 

By that same logic, if the law is going to restrict film cameras, I think it should apply evenly to all the arts. Why is photography always the bad sheep? Restrict painting while driving too. And don't stop there. Sculpting while driving, blogging while driving, ceramics while driving, and group sex while driving all seem pretty dangerous to me. There oughtta be a law. Just sayin'. 

The legal restriction may be a moot point, because unless you're using a very bright flash unit inside your car or swerving more than a normal amount, or driving a convertible, it's very hard to be caught by authorities photographing while driving. They've got other stuff to worry about. High speed sculptors and drunken painters and such. That's probably how Friedlander has escaped the cops all these years. 

Friday, December 1, 2017


Musicians have it easier than photographers because a song doesn't have to be about anything in particular. 

Don't get me wrong. A songs can have a strong message. Nina Simone and Public Enemy were put on earth for a reason, after all: Wake the fuck up, you! But a song can be nice too just because it's beautiful. Or mysterious, or simple, or hummable. A Bach cantata? What the hell is that about beyond pure pleasure? Such songs can get stuck like tar in your ears even if they're not about anything in particular. Everyone reading this knows and enjoys such songs, and maybe also inuits that tar eventually hardens into the canon.

So why do most photographers fall into the trap of making their photos about something? Just this morning online I browsed a photo essay about gay performers, and another about kids with genetic conditions, another about an airport carpet, and one about body image. And so on. The web is crawling with them. It seems to me such photographs serve as mere functionaries. They hold roughly the same strategic position as advertising illustrations or roadsigns, sacrificing all their energy toward a larger purpose.

And indeed, without pitching in toward a larger purpose, a photo will have a hard time making its way in the world. Good luck making a book, or attending a portfolio review, or inciting social media coverage, or earning a degree with photographs about nothing in particular. Even a photographic Bach would have trouble. Every pressure in the world pushes photographers toward artistic bureaucracy. And they happily oblige!

But I like to think some photos are still made just for the sheer joy of seeing. They aren't really about anything bigger, and that's ok. You see things, you put them in a 2D frame. It works or it doesn't. The end. As Lee Friedlander once put it, "The pleasures of good photographs are the pleasures of good photographs." I guess he would know.

Musicians have known this for a while too, and have embraced it, and it has not held them back. A song doesn't have to be about anything in particular. 

If you are out there making type of photo, don't be discouraged. You have value.