Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Q & A with Alice Christine Walker

Alice Christine Walker is a photographer based in Portland.

BA: Tell me about your photobooth pictures. How/when did you get started?

ACW: My first photobooth pictures were back in high school when I lived in London. 

You went to high school in London? What brought you there as a kid?

A typical story. My parent's job was transferred to the U.K. They had the analog booths at train stations and my friends and I would take pictures as we traveled in and out of the city. I still have all those strips. When I moved Portland 10 years ago, I started noticing the B&W booths at bars around town and used the booths in the traditional way, capturing pictures with friends during boozy nights in bars.

Every year I would go to the Ace Hotel on my birthday and started incorporating the element of time into my images, documenting my aging. It wasn't until one night at The Florida Room when I conceptualized a story arc with a strip did I realize the photobooth could be more than pictures with friends.

When and how did you transition into pieces incorporating multiple strips together?

The first time I made a multiple image strip was on a trip to Italy. I found an analog photobooth randomly on the streets. Me and my partner at the time, conceptualized a piece where we interacted in two strips side by side.  It hasn't been until recently that I have really pushed the number of strips I've used to make a piece.

In these initial photos was there much planning or staging? Or just chance moments?

There has always been a high degree of planning and staging. This includes props, order of people and facial expressions to name a few variables. The flashes happen so fast, I had to visualize what I want the outcome to be in order to be ready for the speed of the booth.

What is the gap between photos? 

It is about 2-3 seconds between photos.

Is it possible to tinker with the machines to make that gap longer?

I am sure there is a way to make the time between longer but the camera shutter can be fickle and I try not to disrupt it.

Bene Gesserit

Portland is a big center for photobooths. Is that true of London too? Or was it true there 10 years ago?

I am not up to date on where there are analog booths in London anymore but I have seen first hand the chemically processed booths replaced by digital ones all around the world. There are still instant photo machines in train stations, grocery stores, etc all over Europe and the UK but they are marketed as "passport photo booths". The same thing is happening in Portland. The city used to have twice as many as they do now. However most locations have been poached by a competing company's digital booths.

(Florida Room)
Same story as record jukeboxes and old school arcade games. They’re mostly gone from public life.

This is the best resource I have found to help locate analog booths around the world.

Maybe this is a dumb question but what does an analog photobooth offer that a digital one doesn't?

There is a basic difference in size and shape. The analog photobooth was designed as a dip and dunk method in chemical baths with special paper to produce a positive image. Behind that door is a machine in a darkroom with a complex mechanical process. It can only produce a vertical set of 4 images.

Behind the door of a digital booth is a digital camera and a digital printer. The options for digital are vast in comparison, vertical versus horizontal or 2x2. Color or B/W. You can artificially manipulate the picture by adding objects or retake the image if you don't like it. It can be argued that the digital one actually offers "more" than analog.  But analog has the origins of the history of photography behind it. The same irrational, emotional and somewhat intangible magic quality that keeps photographers using film and printing in a darkroom.

For my project, I embrace the analog with flaws in the mechanical and chemical process. These flaws of degraded chemicals or misfired camera shutters don't exist with digital.

We should probably mention at this point that you are Portland's photobooth guru. You handle all the chemicals in the city's booths and keep them running smoothly.

Haha! Yes, that's true. I approach the photobooth from the unique position of being the darkroom photographer and the subject. Well, mechanic/photographer...

The main photobooth I use is at Blue Sky. The strips smell like fixer when they come out. I don't think any digital photobooth can replicate that smell, but maybe I'm wrong.

No digital booth could ever replicate that smell!

Not yet. I bet some programmer somewhere is working on it.

Haha! I can image someone trying to make printer ink smell like rotten eggs.

On Being A Woman

So analog photobooths are fading away, and you are their main caretaker in Portland during this change. How much of your project is inspired by a sense of nostalgia, and/or trying to preserve this disappearing technology?

Nostalgia and preservation are both of the utmost importance to me. There is a division that is true in all photography, for some people what is important are the ends and not the means. Therefore it doesn't matter if an image was made using chemical process or digitally.

I am not one of those people. The means and the ends both matter to me. At this moment in time, the mechanical parts that still exist for the analog photobooths are all that are left over from the 20th century. Although once abundant, there was a large purge of these machines into scrap yards where there were destroyed. There are very few of these machines left and fewer people who know how to keep them working. I am one of those people now. Analog photobooths are also at risk of losing the one Russian supply source for paper as well as fewer companies making the chemicals. It is true that one day, supplies/parts might dry up and they will just fade away.

Oh wait, I didn't realize the paper and chemicals were disappearing too. Isn't it just normal photo paper and chemicals? Or is there something different?

Yes, the paper and chemicals are a different process than working from a negative. The camera exposes the image directly onto the paper so in the chemical processing you need to produce a direct positive. The paper is special in its size (it is cut to fit into the film magazine and to fit into the strip holders for the chemical baths) but also unique in that you can put it through a special chemical reversal bath and have the positive image appear.

Wondering out loud…. How would that paper react if treated like normal paper? Say you exposed it to a negative in the darkroom and then developed in D-76?

I have these questions too and my goal is to start experimenting in the darkroom soon!

Hmm, ok. I'm learning something here. How did the paper manufacturer happen to be Russian? Were the booths made there? Or what's the connection?

Anatol Josepho with Terrier
Unfortunately I think it is the same story that has played out with many analog products. Demand decreases and companies stop making a profit or there are regulations that change the availability or cost to make a product so the company stops production. Polaroid, Kodak, etc have all had to adapt. I'm sure there were booths made in Russia but most booths in the west were made in the United Kingdom or the US. A company in Russia just happens to be the only company still making the special paper and cutting it to the specific size. Although it should be noted Anatol Josepho, the inventor of the photobooth, is Russian. He created the first photobooth in NYC.

What else can you tell me about him?

This is directly from online but I think it is more concise than I can be! The Photomaton took years to create, as Josepho tinkered with chemical formulas in hopes of finding a faster-developing process while maintaining picture quality. After running a successful photography studio in Shanghai, Josepho decided to relocate to America to secure financial backers to build his machine. He later raised $11,000 (approximately $150,000 these days), building the first Photomaton in midtown Manhattan and opening for business in 1925. Lines quickly wrapped around the block, with as many as 7,500 people a day paying a quarter for a strip of eight photographs (that's $1,875 a day in 1925 or more than $25,000 in 2017 dollars.) The Photomaton became known as Broadway's Greatest Quarter-Snatcher.

I hope the booths can hang on.

Me too!!!

So your project is a race against time. 

In both senses! I am racing against the obsolesce of these analog machines as well racing against the speed of flashes in the booth.

Tell me about the images you're making. How would you describe them? And how did you develop the style you have now from the photos you made in your initial photobooth experiences?

There are so many limitations when working with the photobooth. I find myself challenged and really pushed to my creative limits trying to break through those limitations while embracing the uniqueness of the medium. My style has come from trying to overcome those limitations.

Chris Rauschenberg, a great local photographer you may know, has a quote about that. Paraphrasing, it is something to the effect of Limitations are essential for artists. They spur creativity.


I agree with Chris! He actually gave me the name for the Instagram account I will be using to show some photobooth work: PhotoBooth Strip Club. Perfect for Portland right?!

I am making a variety of images. Some images use the basic format of four vertical images to tell a story. I am using multiple strips to build pattern and repetition to create a larger image. I am exploring the idea of future obsolescence to talk about consumerism in our society and in my life. I am making art that talks about my own experiences of being a woman in Western society and the pressure of beauty. I am exploring the freedom of identity and anonymity that happens behind the curtain. My work is now art where as before it was documenting a moment or friendship.

Yikes, that's a lot to unpack. Did you wind up buying your own photobooth yet. 

I absolutely would like to own my own booth one day but they are very hard to find in working order with all the parts. There are 10 booths left in the Portland area. As part of my maintenance route I test each photobooth once a week. If adjustments need to be made I will test it twice. I am making my art one strip at a time over weeks and months. Each booth is slightly different so I am intentional about which concepts I am working on in which booths. It's a slow process.

So you only shoot one strip per week in each booth? But if you're working a certain topic you might want to shoot multiple strips in one session, no? Or does that wear down the machines or something?

It doesn't wear down there machines but it does wear down the profits for the company that I work for! So yes, I am only shooting one strip per week in each booth. After changing the chemistry or the film magazine I do have to shoot multiple strips to make sure the booth is ready for the next paying customer. I use those opportunities to make multiple strips on a certain topic. 

Is it too technical to ask which photos work best in which booths? What are examples of some of the differences between booths?

Not technical at all! The backgrounds are different. Some curtains you can change and some are set designs. The size of the booths are slightly different so one might have a larger field of view than another. Some cameras have a different focal length than others. Technically, the flash strengths might be different in different booths, and in all the booths the chemicals are always at different points in their life span. Through working with all the booths, each one has a slightly different personality to me. I would say that is something I noticed and loved about photo booths from the start. I have always sought out as many booths as I could find to try them out and thus have my favorites.

If you had to pick one in Portland, which one is your favorite?

Probably the Cruzroom Annex.  The background is a black reptile texture and the strip is slightly larger than the rest.

Do you know of other photographers currently making work with photobooths?

Jared Bark in NYC still has shows and I believe is still making work. Daniel Minnick is more contemporary and I find his work incredibly inspiring but I do not know if he has made work in a few years. I heard rumors that there is a female photographer in Portland who owns her own booth and has been making work but I have not found her yet.

If she's out there, seems worth tracking down.

I agree! I secretly hoped it was photobooth artist Jan Wenzel but I think she lives in Germany. Photobooth.net is another great resource for the purpose of researching photobooth artists. I think great art is being made in these booths every day but working with them as your main medium can be cost prohibitive.

I found Jared Bark's book in the local university library and we've talked about him. He made photobooth work in the 1970s and I think there was a miniboom in that period of photographers doing photobooth stuff. What do you think inspired that boom? And are we in the midst of another (smaller) one? Or am I just imagining both booms?

Photobooths were more affordable in the 1970s. You hear stories of Warhol arriving with a model and rolls of quarters to a booth in NYC and taking it over. Pop art was the trend in the 70s which gave cultural validation to instant art like the photobooth. I would call it a boom. I would love for us to be in another boom now. I might be in the middle of it but I can't see it from the outside? I feel that in our individualist culture everyone is try to be unique as possible. The photobooth might be playing into that as access to the medium is not readily available to all photographers.

Has the work of these prior artists been influential for your own work? Or did you discover those folks later, after you'd already gone down the photobooth rabbit hole?

I discovered most folks after I went down the rabbit hole.  Art history is important and artist don't exist in a bubble.

I have no idea if we're in a boom, but for whatever reason Jared Bark is getting a new wave of attention, and you're doing your thing, and photobooths seem like a thing. So I dunno.

What goes around comes back around. I am glad Jared is getting due recognition.

I'm curious about the logistics of shooting with a photobooth. It seems like a chancy process, and also irreversible just like any analog tool. There's no healing brush. What is your general hit ratio? I mean, how many strips do you usually wind up tossing for every one that works out?

Optical Evolution

I find my mood going into the photo booth affects my hit ratio more so than anything else.  Some days it is just a job and I sit and look into the camera blankly with a grumpy face. As I am in the process of beginning to show and share my work I am uncertain how the world will respond to it. Like all art, I know what has significance and meaning to me but that might be very different than what society values or deems worthy. I keep all the strips and hope that even the failures can be used in totality to create a successful piece.

Between Places
Another trait of photobooth pictures is that you're always work in series. You've got to think about how frames interact with each other, in the same strip and also in multiple strips. Which seems like a different approach than most photography. I'm not sure if that's a question or maybe I'm just making an observation.

I'd say that is a great observation and there is a small degree of luck. I've included a couple pieces where you can observe my planning. Often I have to bring a note pad into the booth to keep straight which direction I should be looking etc.

I looked for some of your photobooth pictures online but couldn't find any. Is that because it's still in the beginning stages? Or are you holding it back for some specific time or project?

Honestly, I am still trying to figure out how to share it. Also, many of the larger pieces are still in process.  I will be updating my website this month to have a page dedicated to my photobooth work. I will also be debuting most of it in September in the rear gallery at Blackfish Gallery in Portland.

Cool, looking forward to that. What about right now with the Coronavirus pandemic? What's been the impact on photobooths?

It's been a wild two weeks. I actually had to shut down all the booths during this quarantine period so no art is being made right now. 

For the immediate future, I am in the same boat as a lot of people. Until bars and restaurants open again, the booths will stay off.  There were a couple booths that we tried to keep open like the Ace hotel but even they have decided to close until May 1st.  

Also, because the photobooth development process is darkroom based, the chemicals will degrade naturally if left sitting for an extended period of time.  In addition, with Portland's shelter-in-place, photobooth maintenance should not be considered essential services.  So I'm hanging tight and focusing my creative energy on my other photography work. I am going to start experimenting with photobooth chemicals and regular darkroom paper.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Shore's Transparencies

It may be hard now to imagine a time when people didn’t routinely shoot photos of meals. But until just a few decades ago the practice was rare. Stephen Shore was perhaps the first major photographer to go there. Beginning in the early 1970s, while on various photographic road trips, he seldom left a restaurant table unphotographed. Food was just one small component in his daily captures, along with motel rooms, dirty clothes, parking lots, toilets, ceilings, shops, nightstands, appliances, and all the other artifacts of his domestic explorations. Everything was fair game, his appetite for material seemingly insatiable. 

So it’s fitting that a dinner photo introduces the hefty new Shore book Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 (Mack, 2020). It may be the only such one in the book, but it sets the tone for what’s to come. By showing an ordinary fast-food Mexican taco/enchilada combo, split by beans and rice, harshly flashed, and, well, downright ugly despite the nicely choreographed blue napkin and green tabletop, Shore establishes his credentials. “I’m not picky,” he seems to be saying, “It’s open season on any subject.”

Of course other photographers had taken aim at the quotidian before Shore. But their efforts were typically highbrow. Think of Weston’s Pepper No. 30 or Siskind’s Gloucester glove, for example, both the product of men seeking grandeur in the mundane. Shore’s aesthetic, which would eventually come to dominate fine art photography, was a deliberate effort to avoid these modernist trappings. Instead he looked to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan factuality for guidance. As Britt Salvesen explains in the book’s afterword, Shore mined the vernacular for material. Inspired by postcards, commercial signage, and snapshots, he developed a direct, non-fussy style which stripped away any highbrow pretentions to framing, lighting, or the picturesque. “Some photographers go out and want to make beautiful photographs," Shore once told Gil Blank. "I think that puts the cart before the horse. Good photographs are the by-product of some other exploration, or some other intention." 

Shore’s approach proved prescient, and we’re still dealing with the aftermath. The idea that image is secondary to intention is now the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, Shore is busy mining his early archives. Transparencies is the merely latest in a recent slew of books to explore them. A new edition of American Surfaces is due soon. I’m guessing other books may follow. The more the better, as far as I’m concerned. It’s rather amazing to look back and realize that none of these early photos were published as books contemporaneously. The first edition of American Surfaces didn’t arrive until 1999, and it wasn’t until 2005 that a more comprehensive edit came along. So if a book world recounting is overdue, I say bring it on.

Transparencies focuses on the mid-seventies, the period just on the heels of American Surfaces and when Shore was transitioning to the view camera. That larger format work would eventually produce the project for which he is still best known, Uncommon Places. But even while consumed by that project, he hadn’t quite given up on 35 mm. True, he’d ditched his trusty snapshooting Rollei 35. But in its place: a Leica M2, a handheld workhorse. It went everywhere with him, stocked with Kodachrome. It’s fun to browse through Uncommon Places now realizing this duality. Shore probably had a Leica on his shoulder as he made that famous photo, and this one, and so on. 

How did that Leica see differently? The book shows a sampling of what Shore found, 112 photographs, generously sized, without captions, preceded by a miniature prologue of highlights (leading with the Mexican dinner photo). Transparencies compares with Uncommon Places in the ways one might expect. Beginning with a shaky series of indistinct road shots, the photos exude the loose energy of 35 mm. Some frames are cockeyed, or seen through a windshield, or suffer from camera shake, or are helped by it. There are generally more pedestrians caught in Transparencies than in Uncommon Places, though that might be a function of editing as much as format. And whereas Shore using a tripod could stop down his aperture to get entire scenes in focus, his 35 mm depth of field was often restrained by slow film and unreliable lighting. 

Even though the work was shot concurrently, there’s seemingly only one scene shot by both cameras. That’s a boat harbor in Miami in 1975, huddled under a massive highway interchange. Britt Salvesen’s afterword offers an instructive comparison of the two photos —one photo is flat, the other deep— but leaves the reader wanting more. Can that be the only pairing? It’s hard to believe there aren’t others. A moot point in any case, since they don’t appear here. 

With no other direct comparisons, the reader looks to the work for hints of Shore’s thinking. Transparencies is sequenced chronologically, and as we move through the seventies some familiar themes arise. One change which becomes immediately apparent is the transition to outdoors. Whereas most of American Surfaces featured indoor snapshots, Shore’s Leica found much of its material in public settings, presumably lured there alongside his view camera. The change in backdrop seems to echo a broader switch in Shore’s approach, from internalized snapshots of a very personal nature toward the dispassionate open landscapes typical of New Topographics. Whether the Leica work was “a parallel iteration of an iconic vision… like a piece of music played in a new key,” as Mack describes it, or simply the waning efforts of a photographer whose style had already moved on, the results are fascinating.

The formalism of Uncommon Places manifests more and more as the reader wades deeper into Transparencies. The opening photos are blurred and dreamy, but they quickly firm up. Soon we see storefronts shot head on, alleys opening into distant vistas, delicately composed parking lots, an affinity for cars, pavement, signs and vernacular material. There’s even a brief taste of Europe before the book returns stateside. By the time late in the book when the reader encounters a street corner fronted by plywood walls, angled just so, the world has shifted convincingly toward Uncommon Places. 

Regardless of camera, whatever Shore photographed in the 1970s was with an intense visual hunger. It’s the same motivation fueling all great photographers and all lasting works, that restless need to swallow the world with a lens. “I wanted to be visually aware as I sent through the day,” he is quoted in American Surfaces. “I started photographing everyone I met, every meal, every toilet, every bed I slept in, the streets I walked on, the towns I visited. Then, when the trip was over, I just continued it.” With Transparencies, we finally have sense of where that continuance led: not very far from the present.

Note: This is the full "Director's Cut" of this piece, initially published here in abridged form.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

My first pandemic

“Hmm,” observed my mom in a recent email, “Never been in a global pandemic before.” 

This is my first global pandemic too and, based on my experience so far, I hope it’s the last. Pandemics are no fun at all. There are roughly 7.8 billion people out there who'd probably share the same sentiment.

With almost surgical precision, and in a span of just a few weeks, the Covid-19 virus has sucked the joy from public society. No gatherings, no travel, no YMCA basketball. No concerts, no dinner parties, no hugs. Ugh. No eating out, no March Madness buzzer beaters, no random conversations with strangers. No high fives, no indoor ventures, no touching any surfaces. Fuck me.

I realize these might all be considered small pleasures in comparison to the big thing: staying alive. But still, ugh. It’s the minor comforts which are the spice of life. And right now they're all missing.

Friday I biked into town with my cameras to get a lay of the land. I’ve been mostly housebound this week —Governor’s orders!— and this was my first visit to Eugene’s city core in a few days. Most stores were closed and the general activity level was subdued, more like a sleepy Sunday morning than a Friday afternoon. Some people were out and about, but they kept to themselves.  Since I was on my bike, social distancing came naturally. I talked to no one. Once in a while I’d hop off my seat to take a photo, but I was mostly observing. More than ever I realize that a central requirement for seeing and making good photos —perhaps the only one, aside from good walking shoes— is a sense of optimism. And I haven't felt very optimistic lately. Every time I touch my phone or look at the news it's another visit to Debbie Downer. It's injected bad juju into the pit of my stomach. It’s there when I wake up and it stays with me most of the time until sleep. So I haven't made many photo outings lately.

Nosiree, pandemics are no fun at all.

My main question: where does this all end? It's very hard to know at this point. We're experiencing a watershed event on the scale of 9/11 or WWII, but it's taking place in real time over the course of weeks, with the situation in flux, changing daily. Gradually the noose tightens on public interactions, with this new restriction or that one, each one unimaginable just a few weeks earlier. I can't keep track of what's ok or not, so I'm mostly staying home. 

The old Fear Of Music lyrics ring true: "I haven't got the faintest ideaaaa...everything seems to be...up in the a-ir..." The only certainty is that however we make it through this pandemic —and I assume we will, although individual survival is not guaranteed for any of us— what’s on the other side is going to look very different physically, culturally, and economically. I keep hearing rumors through the grapevine of this local business or that business in trouble, friends out of work. Maybe they can hold on for a few weeks or months, but not indefinitely. Yesterday came the rather unsettling news that Powell’s Books was in trouble. If they go under, boom! That would leave a gaping cultural crater in the Portland landscape, bigger than Mt. Hood. In Eugene I have to assume many stores will not survive. Downtown is already sketchy, and the vacancies will spread. Incomes with languish. Foreclosures > unemployment > decay, etc. Not good. More of the culture will move online, which is perhaps just an acceleration of an inevitable trend. But the physical world will look quite different.

There will probably be some lingering effects too on interpersonal behavior. Social distancing may become more customary. Will handshakes and hugs become bygones? Will we think twice before approaching a stranger for directions? Will Eugene's vaunted friendly vibe fade away? Paranoia off and running.

I can't help thinking of cancer as a metaphor. A common treatment is chemotherapy. This basically poisons the cancer, but it's also poison to the body. Social distancing seems like the same sort of treatment. Kill the virus, sure. But you'll kill a lot of the culture in the process. Kill the restaurants and theatres. Maybe kill the economy too? Kill the health care system? Kill all social norms?

Sign on the door of my local camera shop Dot Dotson's

One saving grace amid the turmoil is that Spring is here finally. The past week in Eugene has been just fucking gorgeous, each day with blue skies and moderate temperatures. My family has been taking walks each day, and yesterday afternoon we even ducked into a park to meet some friends for a beer and frisbee. We kept six feet away from one another but it still felt a bit like cheating. Please don't judge me. We're all just trying to maintain some sanity. Considering the rain is in the forecast and that clampdowns on social gatherings are likely to tighten soon, I've got to take what I can get. Up yours, Coronavirus.

We've been watching some good films at night —The Swimmer, The Landlord, Headhunters, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and others from Leo's DVD collection. They're entertaining and weird and satisfying. But, regardless of when or who they were made, all feel like another era. There are so many scenes of humans in close proximity, and touching one another casually, and sitting in restaurants or dancing. I'm sure no one thought anything of it at the time. But to watch those scenes now...well, perhaps nostalgia applies? Or some other emotion? Exoticism? Jealousy? I can't quite tell.  

As has been my habit since childhood I've been plowing through one book after another. The past few nights it's been The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown. A fantastic book, which, um, happens to be about the Donner Party trapped in the Sierras. I know, I know, grim. But it's extremely well written. I have the general outline of what happened in my mind, so it's not suspenseful in that regard. But still it's a bit eerie to sit above them as Brown narrates their daily routines, and their slow plunge into catastrophe. They did the best they could. They were reasonably happy, for a time. No one could guess what the future held, not then or now.

If this post isn't too depressing and you want another dose of pandemic reaction, I'm playing a Coronavirus-inspired set of music tonight, 8-10 PM (Pacific Time) on KWVA, 88.1 FM in Eugene, or streaming online at kwvaradio.org. This is my second show inspired by the pandemic. The first was a few weeks back and more light-hearted. Tonight's will be more somber, possibly soul-crushing. Listeners may want to get set first with a big shot of whiskey before tuning in. Stay strong and healthy. This too shall pass...