Monday, May 31, 2021

That low hanging bar

The pandemic's grip is gradually loosening (at least in the U.S.). A few days ago I found myself in a real-life, nuts and bolts bookstore. Smith Family Books in downtown Eugene, to be specific. Their used photobook section had been a regular haunt in pre-pandemic times, but of course Covid, bla bla bla. You know the story. 

Aside from my mask it was just like old times at Smith. I can't say their selection had much changed from a year ago, but it hit me differently this visit. Tastes shift over many months. Some books which I'd previously ignored struck me with new interest. Meanwhile, others seemed less exciting now than before. After browsing for a little while I wound up coming home with two, Mark Klett's After The Ruins and Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories by Mell Kilpatrick. Both books discovered by chance and acquired together for about the price of a six pack. That's the sort of experience that's hard to replicate online. And trust me, I've tried.

As a comparison, I ordered Meg Hewitt's Tokyo Is Yours a few weeks ago. There aren't many people who live farther from me than Meg, and it's been entertaining to track her book's long meandering journey from Australia to Oregon. In fact it was in Eugene just this morning. Now it's in Springfield. Hmmm. I guess it's not quite ready to settle down yet.

Along the way I Shot Tokyo has made stops in Singapore, Vietnam, Korea, Anchorage, and Kentucky. Yikes, this book has traveled through all sorts of exciting places. I'm jealous. It's been a spectacular tour. But when these exotic locales are filed into a rote shipping list, they transform into something rather ordinary. 

Have I merely found the banal in the spectacular? If so, Car Crashes takes a similar tack. The book (with excellent printing, by the way) is a recent edit of lost work, the archive of a bygone photojournalist rediscovered by curator Jennifer Dumas decades later. This lost/reborn schtick is a recurring theme in photoland, but I haven't tired of it just yet. 

Mell Kilpatrick was a self-made autocrashdidact who bullied his way into a late career at the Santa Ana Register at age 47, simply by hanging around and obsessing. Soon enough he was head of their photo staff. From that point he became something of a regional Weegee, documenting the never ending stream of local accidents and crime scenes in 1950s Orange County. His pictures are in the same general ballpark as the great cigared one, and also Enrique Metinides. But they are rawer, gorier, and less consciously artsy than either. Kilpatrick shot police scenes more like a technician, pure kill shots recording blood, guts, and debris with the mechanical efficiency of an old school reporter. Just the facts: What, How, Where, Who, etc. Looking at his pictures at my kitchen table last night, it struck me that Kilpatrick had found banalities in the spectacular, like a book shipped around the world.

I think much of contemporary photography is headed in the opposite direction, away from spectacle. I could name some examples (such as this, this, thisthis, or this) but I'm sure you can think of your own favorites. The spectacular has long been vanquished in most photo quarters. The vernacular humdrum carries the day. One could trace it to back to New Topographers perhaps, or art schools, or maybe just general societal malaise. Who knows. Pandemic restrictions have only exacerbated the situation.

On a recent edition of his podcast A Small Voice host Ben Smith asked Bryan Schutmaat What advice should young photographers be leary of? Schutmaat noted that art photographers in MFA programs are commonly taught to avoid exotic/spectacular subject matter, and to focus instead on plain material found nearby. In other words, they're told to shoot like Robert Adams, not Ansel. In this brave new world spectacular car crashes might be far down the list, somewhere below a decrepit shop front or a blade of sidewalk grass. 

All well and good. But the potential problem with this approach according to Schutmaat, is that boring material can lead to boring photographs. How true! He cited Adams, John Gossage, and Paul Graham as tantalizing counter examples. All have photographed seemingly plain scenes, often in interesting ways. But of course those guys are exceptional. They make it seem easy, and most students attempting the same trick will get caught in the weeds. To convert the everyday into something noteworthy requires experience, and a measure of talent, and even then it's a challenge. So we're awash in boring photos—at least I feel that way most days—and it's hard to parse out the noteworthy.

I had a chance to shoot my own spectacular car crash a few months ago. I was driving home from Portland to Eugene one evening, the same drive I've done a thousand times, straight highway, 65 mph, enjoying some tunes. But this time was different. Just past Salem was a row of semi trucks backed up in the right lane, moving very slowly. By the time I saw them and slammed the brakes it was too late. 

People say time slows down during an accident, that your entire life passes through your eyes or whatever. That wasn't my experience. It all happened pretty fast. But there was a strange normality to the chain of events. Even as my van was slamming into the rear of the semi in front of me, part of my brain was observing patiently, as if it were just another daily event. Once again I'd stumbled on banality in the spectacular. 

If you've ever noticed that bar hanging down near the back tires of 18-wheelers, that's what stopped me from plowing straight under the trailer. Instead I came to a rather abrupt stop, my car in a heap. Airbag deployed, engine block totaled, the full deal. The good news is I was fine, and I don't think the semi-driver felt a thing. Maybe a mosquito-sized nudge. A few good Samaritans helped my car off the road, cops came, medics, a tow truck, etc. There was a routine quality to their actions which felt reassuring.

The pandemic has shifted all judgements about what is or isn't mundane. It's the most unusual event of my lifetime. I've never experienced anything remotely similar. Yet within just a few months of its onset, I had adjusted my mental compass. Social distancing and masks and quarantining felt, well, not quite normal. But they were part of the everyday fabric, no longer worth noticing. When things like that become routine, who knows any longer what is unusual and what is common? 

In 2019 I would have been very excited to see people in masks on public streets. A great photo op! How special!  That was then. Now I'll be happy if I never see another mask again. When all of this craziness is over I'm going to collect my mask stash in a pile (they now number a few dozen) and incinerate them. It should be spectacular.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Q & A with Dan Shaffer

Dan Shaffer is a photographer based in Albuquerque, and the other of the recent book Joe Deal's Albuquerque Then & Now.

BA: Can you tell me briefly about your background in photography.

DS: I was fortunate to get an early start in photography, getting a Kodak Starflash camera in fourth grade in 1959. My father was always shooting and experimenting with different cameras. Much of my youth was in East Africa so wide open vistas were what I loved to photograph. I worked on the high school yearbook and college yearbook. My first job after college was as a pasteup artist at a printing company and then I became a freelance graphic designer for 10 years. I was never technically oriented so usually hired better photographers for projects like motorcycle billboards that I did for several years.

I’m tempted to ask about Kenya but probably should stay on topic. 

Yes, Kenya and Tanzania. I experienced the transition from colonial to independent countries and was taught to be comfortable in a mud hut or in an embassy function.

What brought your family to Africa? 

My grandparents spent their entire careers as Protestant missionaries in Kenya from 1925-1955. My dad was born and raised there and returned as a public health medical doctor so I spent most of my youth in East Africa, coming back to the US for college. I was drawn to New Mexico since it has a lot in common with East Africa —high altitude, blue skies, wide vistas, multicultural population, hot food, etc.

When did you first become interested in rephotographs?

My introduction to rephotography was with "Albuquerque Then & Now" by Mo Palmer and "New Mexico Then & Now" by William Stone and Jerold Widdison. I’ve always enjoyed contemporary rephotographyI suddenly realized there was a  project I could do like that. A friend introduced me to the New Topographics movement on Facebook which I have been following for a long time. That’s how I discovered the New Topographics exhibition in Rochester and the fact that several of the photographers were based in Albuquerque when they were at UNM getting graduate degrees. I moved here about the time they were here, Joe Deal and Nicholas Nixon in 1972. Nixon photographed the Boston area for the big show but Joe’s pictures were all local and I was fascinated and intrigued and determined to find and shoot them all and I have finally succeeded after about six months. I self published my own book with about a dozen of the pictures that I had found.

Did you know Joe Deal's pictures before discovering New Topographics?

No, I learned about the exhibit from the NT Facebook page. If I do a second edition I think I will include all 18 of Joe Deal's Albuquerque scenes from the New Topographics exhibit with my rephotography versions.

Which ones are in the first book?

Only the eleven locations I had found and just wanted to get this project into print. I have since located all eighteen Albuquerque scenes.

So the second edition would be the full Joe Deal rephotography book. 

Because of Covid I’m having trouble getting UNM at all interested in what I’m doing. I would think they might have some archives from his two periods at UNM for MA and MFA. Jim Stone is UNM photography professor emeritus who I gave a book to and may help me make some progress at UNM.

How did you go about finding the locations of Joe Deal’s pictures?

I could easily tell these shots were in Albuquerque but because the horizon line was cut off it was a little hard to locate them. I was puzzled how he got so high up above the homes he was shooting. I finally realized he had climbed boulders to achieve almost every single one of these shots. He was carrying a 2 1/4 camera on a tripod. I used a Lumix FZ 2500 with a mono pod which came in handy as a walking stick. The Sandia Mountains create a practically vertical western face at the edge of town and millions of enormous granite boulders have tumbled down over eons. It was a scramble to achieve the right viewpoint and sometimes I’d have to jump to the next boulder up or sideways. Not using the exact same lens as he did provided frustration. I could get the scene framed exactly in one corner but in the other opposite corner the composition might have changed. I didn’t worry too much about that variance though.

So all of the photos were from the same general part of town. The western edge near Sandia Mountains?

Yes. From about 5 miles north of interstate 40 to 1 mile south of interstate 40 where it emerges from the canyon. From the north it’s Glenwood Hills, Supper Rock, and Four Hills neighborhoods.

What do you think attracted him to that area? Was it the high vantage? Or maybe he lived nearby? Maybe it was a rapidly changing area?

The shots have the irony of the man altered landscape, just beginning in these neighborhoods in the mid-1970s. But his special touch was getting an elevated viewpoint. He more likely lived in the UNM area as most students did. This neighborhood seemed very far away at that time and now is surrounded by shopping centers and/or homes with very few empty lots.

You mentioned that you even tried to time your photos at the same time of day as him?

It’s not hard to get good lighting in New Mexico! But yes, I did try to go in the morning so the angle of light was similar. I was photographing in October, November, and December so it was never very hot. Don’t know when he was shooting. Another help in finding these locations was access to annual aerial surveys in the 1960s and 70s by Dick Kent, a local commercial photographer. I am volunteering to scan hundreds of his 4x5 negatives. He would fly from one edge of the city to the other on clear days, often on assignment for businesses.

Maybe you should rephotograph his pictures too, haha.

I will order a high altitude drone trying to rephotograph Dick’s aerials. 

Can’t tell if you’re joking? 

Joking. I don’t know if drones can fly that high. At least I wouldn’t have the expense of renting a plane for every aerial survey. I noticed Dick Kent usually chose clear days to avoid the black shadows clouds would cast on the land.

A Dick Kent photo is on the back cover of my book. Dick’s son was very encouraging. The father of a 60-year-old man who let me in one of these houses was in a photo that Joe took. 

Oh, that's amazing. The guy standing in his garage in the shadow, is that the man? That's on the only photo that seems to have a person in it

Right, hardly any people. That’s a NT thing. Yes, the man in his garage I think is the photo. 

Did he know about the Joe Deal photo of his house?

No, it was a surprise to him and I gave him and his 80-something mother a copy of the book. They have lived in the house since they built in 1968 and it looks the same as it did then I’ll bet. They offered to let another group that I belong to called Modern Albuquerque come in and photograph the interior. That group is fascinated with mid century modern architecture, interior and exterior. I am more interested in documenting the world than in creating fine art.


I think I read a quote from you on your blog describing the difference in photographers who think about what they are going to shoot before they shoot as opposed to those who shoot what they see on their walks. 

Everyone has their own way of doing things. For me the photographs are always first. If I get ahead of them, I wind up in trouble. Photos are a continual source of information and new leads and entertainment. They have a lot to offer already, without me and my thoughts getting in their way.

I like that attitude. Except when I am rephotographing then I do think in advance about what I’m going to shoot.

I don't know Albuquerque at all. But if it's like any other western city I imagine it has seen steady growth. Eugene is the same (but smaller). So it's not surprising to see lots of new development in your rephotographed pictures. What I found more surprising was the amount of new vegetation since Deal's photos. His photos show natural desert scenery. Yours are much more vegetated.

We are heavy water users but are learning to water less and less. In Joe Deal’s time the civic authorities believed there was a water source the size of Lake Superior below us, no kidding. But it’s all chambered in inaccessible sections so we actually use most of our water from the Colorado River diverted through dams in northern New Mexico, then the Chama river and back to the Rio Grande. Then it’s pumped up to dozens of large water tanks scattered through neighborhoods and distributed by gravity to homes. The increase in vegetation is what most people comment on when viewing my book.

So the city uses more water now than in the 1970s, but from a different source?

I’m told it was a desert like San Diego area until irrigation. The city has tripled in population from 250,000 to 750,000 in that time. We have always used river water from early colonial days for irrigation in the field in the river valley. But needed a lot more when suburban development crawled up the mesa towards the foothills. Complex legal agreements between Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas share the Colorado river water now. Phoenix will dry up without it.

May I divert to another project I’m dreaming up? It would be to rephotograph the many other scenes of Albuquerque by other photographers like Ernst Haas, Lee Freidlander, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, Frank Gohlke, etc

That would be a massive project. 

You are right the next project is huge but I’ve only been retired two years and have plenty of time ahead. 

Ernst Haas, Albuquerque, 1969

How is it going so far?

I am slowly accumulating a list. What I cannot seem to get an answer for is if this is an allowable fair use without a copyright permission. I actually have Ernst Haas’ daughter Victoria‘s permission to use his Famous Central Ave., Albuquerque scene. I thought with that I might get more approvals from other photographers estates or heirs or representatives. 

Dan Shaffer, Albequerque, 2020

The safe answer is I would not be comfortable putting them in a book. Maybe it’s ok online or a small zine. But not anything with wide circulation. 

I have put the Joe Deal book as a gallery on my website.

Even a website is kinda iffy but no one is probably going to pursue that. But a book is a fatter target for lawsuits. Maybe Jim Stone could help with this. Does he have connections? Could he help get some permissions?

Yes, Jim stone is a good suggestion. Maybe he can crack something open at UNM and he may have good ideas about contacting or not contacting other photographers.

I don't know much about that world. Once photographs reach the gallery scene or museums or $ involved, everything gets weird.

Yes, I only printed 25 copies but since Walgreens screwed up the color registration of the black type they printed another 25 at no charge so there is an edition of 50 copies with only five left. I gave away half to nonprofits and people who helped me and sold the rest for cost.

Nice. Did Gary McLeod ever buy one? I sent him your info. He's in Japan, writing a big book about rephotography.

I don’t recall Gary’s name. Albuquerque is an important place in photography. In 1976 I worked in a copy shop near UNM and would make copies for Beaumont Newhall! A quiet tall gentleman.

Very cool. did you know of his importance then?

Yes, I was an avid photographer and spent time in friends’ dark rooms. But I was not inclined to academia and did not think about applying to grad school in photography at UNM.

You mentioned that you found the Winogrand driveway kid shot. How in the world did you find that? Do the people who live there now know about that photo?

Regarding the search for Winogrand's baby in the driveway classic, my friend Nick Tauro Jr. has a post about reshooting it called Worth a Thousand Words: Garry Winogrand and so does Joe Van Cleave: In Search of Wingrand’s ‘New Mexico, 1957.

Which other ones have you rephotographed at this stage? Any Shore photos? Friedlander? Doesn't Danny Lyon live near Albuquerque?

Yes, in the next town north, Bernalillo.  I remember his shot of a kid shooting a basket outside the trailer home with the Sandia mountains in the background. Winogrand's baby in diapers, Ed Ruscha’s Frontier gas station, Ernst Haas’s Central Ave, Lee Friedlander’s intersection, Thomas Barrow's dart.

Thomas Barrow, 1974

Dan Shaffer, 2020


Awesome. The dart must be a well known landmark. But how do you find the more obscure places?

I even contacted the Haas estate that they had miscaptioned the Western Skies neon sign as being in Colorado, so I did a drive-by and took the same shot out of the driver window to show the mountains in the distance that matched. That’s when Victoria Haas wrote me back and thanked me and said they could not change books that have been printed but they have changed it on all their electronic versions.

I can relate to Haas. I think misfiled photos are just part of being a photographer. 

I honestly think growing up in Kenya gave me a sense of scouting out locations. As a very little kid my nickname in Kikuyu language was Macharia, or wandering one. I’ve always liked history and photography and rephotographing combines them.

Ed Ruscha, Albuquerque, 1962

Dan Shaffer, Albuquerque, 2021

When you visit the sites now do you get a sense for what the photographer might have seen or thought? Can you tell why they looked in a certain direction or shot certain things? 

No, most of the shots are pretty mundane scenes for most people. But for photographers who like to share what current life is like it’s like candy.

What's like candy?

For me, the candy in an ordinary scene is usually lines and shadows that form an appealing composition. Shadows are my mainstay. They are everywhere every day - almost - here in New Mexico. 

It's funny you say that. Amid all the buildings and structures and trees that last for decades, and various changes and similarities, shadows are the most ephemeral part of all of it. Speaking of ephemerality, is the legacy of Joe Deal well known in Albuquerque? The people whose homes are in his photos, do you think they have any idea? Or is it just a nerdy insider thing.

I think it is the latter. I showed the book to a neighbor of one of the scenes. He got excited, but he’s a realtor so more likely to appreciate the history of the street. He pointed out that a still-empty lot was soon to have a house built on it, and to make sure I got that shot before construction. But of course it will be on my list for taking after construction too!

Is there something about New Topographics that makes them especially appealing to you for rephotographing? I mean, there are all sorts of pictures of Albuquerque in all styles and authors. Why do you think you're drawn to NT, or Joe Deal? Maybe Beaumont Newhall has some Albuquerque photos? Why not rephotograph his, for example?

I don’t mind following in other peoples footsteps, even if it means clambering over boulders. Good idea about Beaumont Newhall photos, although I usually think of Manhattan when thinking of him. 

Sure you could find others. But is there something in the New Topographers that invites revisiting? The pictures are generally static and open, with lots of space. Maybe they leave room a lot of room for development, in the mind and/or in reality?

As I said I am not the academic type, but the more literal documentarian. What I wish I could find is an essay by someone about Joe Deal and why he shot this way to include in a second edition. Or maybe Stone could give a photo grad student at UNM the assignment of writing an essay.

I just picked up a great book on Joe Deal with a pretty lengthy essay. But it's focused on California. Maybe you've seen it. it has blue lettering? It has a lot of info about him and his thinking, but no photos from NM.

Yes, I think I have it. I’ll check the title. Southern California Photographs, 1976 to 1986.

Yeah that’s it. Great photos. You get the sense he could be parachuted into any place and find pictures nearby. Actually it was that book I bought a few weeks back that reminded me of you. Which is when I emailed you. Full circle, zing.

I picked it up at a used bookstore before I knew about New Topographics. You are right I am attracted to that style because even though the scenes may seem boring and empty to most people, they are always well composed and usually have some irony or even humor about them. I read a definition of the word “ironize” from irony the other day that made me laugh. Never heard that word before.

Ah, so you did know of Joe Deal before NT.

I guess you’re right. I did know about Joe Deal by buying his book but had not heard of New Topographics at that time.

Do you know the Christopher Rauschenberg book Paris Changing? He rephotographed some of Atget's pictures in and around Paris.

Love Atget. Things I resent are how uptight many photographers are about how super sharp a picture is, ignoring that half of Atget’s and Cartier-Bresson’s photos are fuzzy.

I've never found that to be a prob with Atget.

For me an impactful image does not need to be sharp or need to be in a 3 to 2 format or need to be shot with a certain lens. It just needs to appeal.

Photographers can be technical nerds sometimes. Pixel peeping, fine resolution, etc. I think more than other creative fields just because mechanical tools are integral to the craft. So sometimes people get wrapped up in tech stuff. No worries, just gotta like what you like, no apologies.

From Paris Changing by Christopher Rauschenberg, (L) Atget / (R) Rauschenberg

What's fun about the Rauschenberg book is there's a section at the end called Atget's Footsteps where he doesn't rephotograph the old pictures. But instead he tries to find his own scenes in Atget's style. That's where it gets kind of interesting, when you put yourself fin the photographer's shoes and try to mimic not only their pictures but their thought patterns.

There's a mention in the book that Covid shutdown helped inspire the project, or provide time for it. Do you think it would've happened during "normal" times? Or would you have been tied up with other stuff?

Yes, I think I would have done this without Covid but not until I had retired and had the free time to go out and spend an hour or two or three going to locations and shooting.

Have you explored Albuquerque much photographically outside of the rephotographs? Your Kenyan nickname the Wanderer. Does that apply outside this project?

Most of my career I have been in outside sales so was moving around the city or country all the time with a camera within arm’s reach. Thanks to those employers for allowing me to sneak a few pictures in when the light and shadows and composition presented themselves.

Nice. What about now that you're retired. Are you exploring on your own? Or mostly through this project?

I am Macharia, so I am always wandering and exploring my hometown and this intriguing state. I rarely come home from a morning run without having taken a dozen photos on my iPhone. Flowers, architecture, roadrunners that abound here, and of course shadows.

The subtext is that one of the most essential ingredients for making photos, or any type of serious art, is free time. Just the ability to explore with no deadline for a few hours. I have never done that without getting at least a few good photos, and often many more. In fact photos come in almost direct proportion to time spent looking. Joe Deal was a photo student while in NM. So I suppose that gave him opportunities to shoot. It's something you don't think much about looking at the work now. But all of those bigwigs from the past. Their output is largely just a function of time.

Yes, I tell people I am always scanning around where I am. Luckily I have developed an eye to spot a good shot and since I carry a camera can get that shot and don’t have to go back and hope that it’s there again.

Haha, I've done that before. You drive by something and tell yourself you'll check it out tomorrow. But it's never the same. Photographer pitfalls 101.

I do believe in luck as well. There are times when I go out on a walk or a drive and one good shot after another just pops up for me. Especially nice when that happens during the golden hour. Or photographers’ happy hour. No thinking required, just noticing and using what is presented with the right composition and angle. Then when I think I’ve got the shot looking at it again to see what I missed and maybe move backwards or left or right to reassess the scene

I know the feeling but I'm not sure if it's luck. I think it’s more to do with mood or mental outlook, but I admit I don’t fully understand how photos happen. Let's put it this way. I find it harder to spot the first photo than the 10th photo. That’s been consistently true for the past few decades.