Monday, July 31, 2017

Art Fairs and the Four Os

I went to the Bellevue Art Fairs, BAF, last Friday.  Yes, “fairs” plural.  In addition to the main (and biggest) of the three, sponsored by the Bellevue Arts Museum, there are two sort of salons des refuses for those who were not accepted in the main fair -- or that were put off by the entry fee, previous rejection, or just annoyed.  As always there were a lot of walk-by booths but also a lot of booths with well executed work — much of which doesn’t appeal to me, but that’s my problem.  There were a lot of photographers. 

Last year there were a lot of photographers, too, one of whom is Vitali (  In the spirit of full disclosure, Vitali is a friend of quite a few years standing.  His passion is painterly, mostly moderately-sized landscapes, largely from eastern Washington.  There were several other (well, quite a few more) photographers whose work was in a similar vein but — in my biased view — his stood out from the crowd.  The rest of the work shown was pretty much interchangeable from booth to booth.

Last year I also went to the Seattle Art Fair, SAF, held at the CenturyLink event center.  This is an enormous, big name event with galleries from all over the world paying huge bucks for display space.  (I’ll go to the 2017 SAF later this week.)  There was a lot of photography shown there also.  Apart from big names from the past — Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Sally Mann, Gordon Parks … — almost all the remaining, more contemporary photography was, to my eye, best described by the three Os:


The Seattle Times reviewer, Michael Upchurch, commented “If you’ve seen one gaudy anime-inspired painting, frankly, you’ve seen them all.”  Not only do I agree with him (there were a lot of those) I would add “If you’ve seen one oversharpened, oversaturated, oversized, landscape or nature photograph, frankly, you’ve seen them all.”  (and there were a lot of those, too).

Which circles me back to this year’s BAF.  With only a few exceptions, the photography was oversharpened, oversaturated, oversized, landscape and wildlife work — with the addition of a fourth O, Overpriced.  A few thousand bucks for a photograph (or triptych of photographs) is not only way outside the range of my art budget but, since it’s about the size of a ping-pong table it wouldn’t fit on any wall in my house.  

Duane Michals once quipped “I never trust any photograph that’s so big it can only fit into a museum” and “An eight-by-ten inch photograph by Robert Frank can be heroic.  An eight-by-ten foot Gursky is just a billboard with pretensions.”  

Beyond that, the Four O photographs just hurt my eyes.  Especially with the addition of high dynamic range (but I couldn’t think of a word for that beginning with “O”). 

Just this morning the light bulb over my head came on.  Last year’s big photography thing from upscale galleries at SAF became this year’s big photography thing for the way-less-prestigous BAF.  I’ll bet that if I had paid more attention to the paintings in both events the same phenomenon would be visible there.

Vitali was there again this year — with painterly, mostly moderately-sized landscapes from eastern Washington (different images from last year) — and his work stood out from the crowd even more than last year.  He is doing the work that moves and interests him rather than leaping on whatever square-wheeled bandwagon happens to be rumbling by. 

I do that, too.

I wonder what will be the big noise at the SAF this year?  Will it filter down to the provinces by this time next year?  Maybe it will be small, black and white, silver prints mostly about people (but I won’t hold my breath.)

RIP Newspace

Portland's Newspace Center for Photography abruptly closed as of July 7, citing financial distress.


When Blue Sky opened in Portland it was a counterculture answer to the Cameraworks gallery -- founded by Minor White students and firmly dedicated to that genre of photography.  (Cameraworks recently hired a new curator and has become quite a bit more eclectic.)

Newspace, 15 year-old NFP was, in my opinion, a counterculture answer to Blue Sky's emphasis on cutting edge and experimental work.  But it was also a lot like Photographic Center NW (PCNW) in Seattle was in its earlier days.  They had a rental darkroom, rental studio, and offered classes and workshops staffed by local photographers in addition to having a gallery space.  They were in a low-rent light industrial building in NE Portland -- a bit off of the beaten path but only a few blocks from the streetcar line.

My immediate mental image was that of their landlord wandering in and announcing a 150% rent increase to cash in on the gentrification of the neighborhood.  

Well, I don't know if it was 150% but Blue Sky's newsletter had an item bemoaning the demise of Newspace and it emphasized how lucky Blue Sky was to own their space.   Hmmmmmm.  

It's wonderful that PCNW and Blue Sky each had a sugar daddy (or mommy) to help bankroll buying their space but it's too bad that Newspace didn't have one too.   

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Smelly old Pallets as Art

We recently bought a new chunk of limestone to replace our broken fireplace hearthstone.  How it came to be broken is a mystery clouded in the mists of a household that then contained teen-aged children. 

The new hearthstone, some 300 pounds of it, was delivered on the ubiquitous wooden pallet — a particularly scruffy instance of it.

While preparing to break it down into pieces that would fit in the trash pickup bin it reminded me of an art project I saw a few years ago.

At that time, the county’s Arts Commission had a small gallery space in the venerable Smith Tower — a wonderful old  1914 office building complete with marble staircases, brass filigree gates over the elevator doors and human elevator operators.  The gallery was (and, in its new location about a block away, still is) one of the stops on my frequent gallery strolls through Pioneer Square.

On one such visit, very shortly after the opening of the monthly show, I found the gallery full of scruffy wooden pallets.  They were stacked, as I recall, three wide by six across and nearly all the way to the ceiling.  There was room to walk around the stacks of pallets but that was about it.  The pallets were accompanied by an artist statement so baffling that I began to doubt that it was actually written in English.  My visit to the gallery that month was rather brief.

A few days later there was a small item in the Seattle Times about it.  A few days after the opening, tenants of the nearby office spaces began to grumble to the building maintenance folks about a, well, unpleasant odor coming through the ventilation ducts.  The building staff tracked the source of the odor to a stack of wooden pallets that were unexplainably in the building.  With a suspicion that a huge stack of tinder-dry wooden objects arranged with plenty of space around them for air circulation might constitute a fire hazard they asked the safety folks to take a look.  The pallets were outta there the following day. 

I was apparently one of the few admirers that saw the exhibit except for those that came to the opening.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Portrait of Julius Eastman

45 years ago (sigh) I photographed a concert of experimental music in Buffalo, New York. The light in the venue would be best described as “somewhat less than total darkness.” There was a slide screen upon which the score for the piece being performed was projected and there were stand lights for the handful of musicians. Needless to say, the negatives were very thin and very contrasty.

I did salvage a near-profile portrait of one of the composers, Julius Eastman. At the time he was a professor at the State U. of NY at Buffalo. I also was able to enlarge and make a positive transparency of one of the pages of score of his piece “Trumpet”. Printing the portrait under the transparency so that the music cascaded down over his face did make a pretty snazzy portrait.

Time passed. Lots of time passed. In January of this year Julius Eastman was profiled in New Yorker. After his time in Buffalo he had become a leading light in what was then called “minimalist music” before his death in 1990.

Well, says I, that’s a good reason to revisit my portrait of him. I made a new (and much better) print and posted it on my website as the “Print of the month — or thereabouts” for February. I even sold a copy of it.

Last week I got an email from the head of a the Bowerbird Foundation in Philadelphia, mentioned in the New Yorker article, that is organizing a museum show and likely concert series honoring Eastman. He said that he had few if any photographs of him from his Buffalo days and asked if I could give him more details about the portrait and if I had more photographs from the concert.

I answered him with what little detail I could remember, including that the score for which I had a page photograph was for “Trumpet” and that I did have more photographs of very poor quality. His response came quickly — the score for “Trumpet” had been lost and my photograph was likely the only scrap of it in existence. As it turned out I had a photograph of a second page also. His speculation is that with those two pages to show how Eastman scored the piece and the audio recording of it that he had in hand, a sharp-eared musicologist could reconstruct the entire score. He was delighted.

With the magic of Photoshop I was able to bring up some detail in my very thin, very contrasty negatives — that showed two other musicians as well as a dim view of the venue. I sent him thumbnails and promised higher resolution versions if he wanted them.

His next question was about the venue. He had thought that the concert was held in a concert venue in Buffalo called DOMUS but that my photographs didn’t look like that space. He asked if the venue might have been the Unitarian church in downtown buffalo where he knew that concerts in a Black and White Arts Festival were held.

He also mentioned that one of the musicians shown in my photographs (the flutist) was the founder of an experimental music ensemble that still exists and that he had spoken to him very recently.

I told him that, by chance, I know the minister at that church and that I would send her a couple of the photographs and ask her if she could verify that. Another quick response — yes it was their church, that their music director was a fan of Eastman’s music, and that one of his pieces would highlight their music service later this month.

So here’s a photographer in Seattle making a connection between a curator in Philadelphia and a musician in Buffalo with a negative made 45 years ago.

Isn’t the internet wonderful sometimes?

Postscript:  The church music director recognized the second musician that played in the 1972 concert.  Another connection made.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Outwin 2016 at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM)

"Outwin"? Ever hear of it? I hadn't until the email from TAM announcing the opening came a while back.

Subtitled "American Portrature Today", it is a triennial competition sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian) and is juried by a panel of curators from the Portrait Gallery and, significantly, working artists. It is open to any artist, professional or Sunday only, working in any medium, in the United States. This, the 4th Outwin, drew over 2500 entrants and was winnowed down to 43 -- a size just about right for two of the north galleries at TAM. This is the first venue after it hung in the Smithsonian.

Why "Outwin"? Virginia Outwin Boucher was a passionate supporter of the National Portrait Gallery and volunteered there for nearly 20 years. She and her children endowed the competition in her honor.

I can't say that I was particularly excited by "Miss Everything", the first prize winner that illustrated the email announcement from TAM but Barbara and I were ready for a brief road trip so we took the arduous journey down I5 to see it yesterday. Three years or so back TAM received a mammoth gift of vintage and contemporary art of the American west from the Haub family (along with the money to build a new wing to house it -- wouldn't it be nice to have the loot to afford to do something like that?) and much more recently a smaller but similarly impressive gift of contemporary Northwest art from the Benaroya family (along with the money to build yet another new wing to house that). But I digress again.

Outwin 2016 includes sculpture -- including a cast glass bust -- drawings, paintings, a good deal of photography and two installations. The skill level and attention to detail throughout is exceptionally high. Most of the works are straight-up representational -- the originality demanded by the jurors achieved through content and approach rather than avant garde technique. 

The work that strayed farthest from strictly representational was the installation Caja de Memoria Viva II. I'm not keen on installations as a rule but I'll make an exception for this one. It is housed in a large hollow cube suspended from the ceiling at a height such that the viewer can walk under it. The front/back/left/right views of a kindly, wrinkled, older man's head are done in charcoal on the sides of the box. As you walk under it you are looking up into the hollow cube that is decorated with snapshots and letters and a soft, nearly unintelligible voice speaks to you -- you are literally "inside his head".

The other installation, "A Moment in Time" is a set of 17 small photographs housed in a large, wall-mounted case -- one portrait for each decade since the invention of photography. They begin with a jewel-like Daguerreotype in a tiny, ornate case labeled "1850" and progress with the technology of photographs through ambrotype, tintype, albumen, silver, polaroid and digital (labeled 2010). Only when I read the wall tag did I realize that all the portraits are self-portraits of the artist -- costumed to match the fictional time of the photograph.

With the exception of the photographs in "A Moment in Time" all the photographs were digital prints and all but two of these were color. One of the latter, “Haints at Swamp II” was a faux toned C-print mounted behind a crystal-clear thick glass that gave it the appearance of wet-plate or even aureotype. 

With no exceptions the pieces in this show stood on their own as portraits apart from the fame or obscurity of the sitter -- David Hockney no more nor less than a homeless African-American man on a San Francisco street corner.

Many of the portraits dealt with social issues -- homelessness, gender inequality, racial tension, transgender acceptance, mental and physical disability -- but the issues were beneath the surface of the portrait that was first and foremost an image of a human worthy of attention and respect.

Many of the artists, in their statements that accompanied the art, commented on their artistic debt to the great portraitists of the past. It was easy to see, for example, Edward Hopper's "Night Hawks" in "Audrey, 2014", Vermeer's use of side light in "Becky, June, Jessica, and Mary" (perhaps my favorite of the show), Sally Mann's ability to show childhood as both idyllic and threatening in "Mavis in the Backseat", August Sanders' respect for his subjects in "Hiede and Lilly"

As for grand prize winner, "Miss Everything" -- it is one of those artworks that I didn't appreciate until I saw it in person. In this painting, a young African American girl in a partly polka-dotted dress, white gloves and a scarlet hat stared fixedly at the viewer while holding an outsized teacup. Her skin is grey (although my eyes obediently saw it as a chocolate brown). At a glance it resembles a "naive" work but, like Jacob Lawrence's paintings, the longer I look at it the more sophisticated and carefully done it becomes.

"Outwin 2016" is on view at TAM until May 14. The small but well-produced catalog is available in the gift shop.

I plan on seeing it again. 

(and as an aside, the blogspot editor is a real pain to use -- this is hardly the format I had in mind but I'm throwing in the towel)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

PCNW Revisited

(I’m really on a roll on blog posts — that’s the influence of a couple of snow days last week that gave me the unexpectedly uncommitted time to edit several latent posts.)
A while back, well 2013 to be truthful, I wrote a post grumbling about the MFA show at the local flagship university and how much more to my taste was the "thesis" project show at Photographic Center Northwest (PCNW). I found the work there to be a good deal closer to the mainstream and nowhere close to attempting (and failing) to be innovative and original.

How times change.

In the interim between then and now the advisors at PCNW have seemingly changed their approach. The thesis projects that are the capstone of their certifcate program run to the conceptual and introspective -- characteristics that in my opinion are not well addressed by photography.

Moreover the number of students finishing a certificate is dwindling. Only four were in the most recent (July 2016) show. I suspect that the decline in numbers is strongly related to the fact that a prominent local aerospace company changed its policy on employee education benefits to exclude anything not directly related to job skills. But I digress.

I went to the opening of the show and it was a cheerful party with a goodly crowd -- much bigger than I expected.

Two of the four projects in the most recent show were conceptual -- one of these involved large panels of cyanotype material exposed by laying them in the shallows at the edge of a Salish Sea beach. The lapping of the saltwater and the sunlight partly filtered through the water yielded an abstract pattern. The panels were hung without flattening so that the wrinkles in the paper were intended to suggest the lapping of the waves.

The third project was very, very personal and was undoubtedly meaningful to the artist.

The final project was a series of carefully staged and beautifully executed portraits of Jewish women. It was intended to comment on the place of women in the artist's own conservative Jewish community. They were sweet, loving, respectful (too big for my taste) color portraits printed on Japanese rice paper then coated with beeswax that gave them a slightly muted, dreamy look and a vague halo around the highlights. The content -- commentary on women's roles in the community -- wasn't obvious to me as an outsider but the prints were very appealing.

Talking to several of the other guests, the unusual size of the crowd was driven by members of the artist's community who had come to congratulate her and to see how her project turned out. They were delighted with it, as was I, and several of her pieces already proudly wore red dots. Nothing from the other projects had been sold by the time I left.

On the subject of sales -- and pricing -- the pieces in this show were priced in the several hundreds to a couple of thousand dollars. Well, that explains the dearth of sales except to the subjects or families thereof of the portraits. I later discussed the issue of pricing with an experienced arts administrator who explained it all to me. It seems that art speculators (oops, collectors) haunt graduation shows hoping to snap up an early work by a graduate that they believe will turn into a hot market item. Ah. Perhaps pricing to that potential buyer is a good idea if the show is of MFA graduates from Yale but I'm pretty sure that it more often merely gives the freshly-minted graduates an inflated expectation of the market value of their work.

Ray Bidegain, an established Portland photographer, prices his lovely platinum prints to sell -- in the range of $250 matted -- with the goal of making them available to a wide audience. As a result, he sells a lot of them. He openly says that when he can't keep up with printing them then, and only then, will he raise his prices.

LensWork’s Brooks Jensen sings the same song — saying that if you want your work to sell then it needs to be priced at a point that appeals to an audience beyond the wealthy collector.

My friend Katrina for many years did stunning underwater photography. Her large, color prints of tiny sea creatures were expensive. The same images in smaller sizes, on greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, bookmarks ratcheted the price down to a few tens of bucks, a few bucks — or less for a bookmark. Do you want to guess where most of her income came from?

Lomography, Plastic Cameras, and Simplicity

While looking for something else I found this post that I wrote and then forgot to post. (sigh)

When a computer program behaves in an unexpected (and usually undesirable) fashion, the nearly universal tongue-in-cheek comment by the developer is “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature.”  But even we software developers (a notori ously opportunistic group) don’t have the balls to jack up the price and tout such features and the things the program doesn’t have in our advertising.
On the other hand, that’s exactly what the Lomo website does as reasons for buying their camera.  A hundred and fifty bucks for a 35mm, zone-focus, auto exposure, plastic camera with a lens that vignettes?  Is this for real?  Of course for your $150 plus $15 shipping you also get 2 free rolls of Lomofilm (36 exposures each) and free lifetime membership in the Lomographique Society – nearly as valuable as membership in the International Freelance Photographers Organiza tion for which you also get a membership card, a handsomely engraved certificate and a lifetime subscription to their magazine.  However, IFPO membership is only $39.95, leaving you just over $140 that would buy about a half dozen of Porter Camera’s plastic 35mm zone-focus cameras and a cheap light meter. 
The Lomo promotion, IMHO, is perhaps the biggest PR hype I’ve ever seen – blatantly created to capitalize on the popularity of plastic camera photography and sell lots and lots of their cameras at an amazing profit margin.
Having gotten that off my chest and lowered my blood pressure a bit, I may as well stick my foot in my mouth even further.
While I’m at it – I don’t understand the plastic camera phenomenon, either.  Not that I dislike plastic camera work on principle.  Apart from various swap prints (many of which I like very much, thank you very much) I actually bought three plastic camera prints – not because they were plastic camera prints but because I like the prints.
I certainly understand the notion of using tools that make photography less intellectual, less considered, more spontaneous – to loosen you up and help break out of ruts.  However, I don’t understand why it is more liberating to do so with a plastic camera than, say, an Olympus Stylus or even a hyperfocused Nikon.
I understand the notion of using a plastic camera because it is fun and reveling in the unpredictability of the results.  Now unpredictability makes me crazy so it isn’t fun for me but that’s my problem.
I also understand (and highly respect) the notion of a skilled artist consciously using ‘primitive’ tools and working in a ‘primitive’ style to achieve a desired effect.  The three plastic camera prints that I bought are certainly in this category.  The artist would have had a hell of a time making them work with his Hasselblad.
What I don’t understand is the notion of plastic camera art being art because it came out of a plastic camera.  Much of the plastic camera work I see in exhibits looks like the artist worked his or her butt off in the darkroom to get a halfway acceptable print out of an impossible negative.
Is this liberating?  Is this spontaneous?  Is this fun?  Strikes me like watching a dog walking on its hind legs.  The amazing part is not that it does it well but that it does it at all.
Neither do I understand the notion (epitomized by the Lomo website headline “DON’T THINK!”) that plastic camera work is somehow superior to, more art than, more pure than other varieties of photography.  This strikes me as another square-wheeled bandwagon in the continuing parade of photographic fads.
I have been pondering the “don’t think” issue.  ‘Think’ is a very slippery word.  At the risk of getting academic about this, Webster’s New Collegiate has (in part):
• to form or have in the mind
• to have as an opinion
• to reflect on (ponder)
• to devise by thinking
• to determine by reflecting
• to center one’s thoughts on
• to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference
• to have the mind engaged in reflection
• to consider the suitability
• to have a view or opinion
Most of these definitions emphasize the analytical side of thinking and if you change “Don’t think.” to “Don’t overanalyze.” I couldn’t agree more.  Making art is a matter of synthesis not analysis and it is clear to me that paralysis by analysis leads to puzzling photographs and critical writing that are useless both to the artist and viewer, PSA salons (the bastions of going by the form book) all looking alike, and (may the saints protect us) deconstructionist theory. 
You can also change “Don’t think.” to “Don’t think about the process.” and I’ll still agree.   I can not-think about the photographic process either by using equip ment that is brick simple – an auto everything or a fixed everything – or by becoming so familiar with my equipment that knowledge of how to use it is in my fingers rather than in my mind.  If you can hold the camera above your head and still nail the framing  you aren’t using a camera you picked up yesterday.
Beyond these restatements I have increasing trouble agreeing with “Don’t think.”  I read the two definitions “to center one’s thoughts on” and “to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference” as edging us toward “We photo graph with all our senses”.  The ability to synthesize data from all our senses is one of the truly mysterious happenings in our heads.  However, the reality is that we photograph by pointing the camera and releasing the shutter.  It seems incon ceivable to me that we can do this better, in the long run, by not looking than we do by looking.  Moreover, we cannot photograph a smell or a sound or a feeling or a taste – we can only photograph to suggest the other senses. 
I suggest that statement is more accurately “We decide what to photograph with all our senses.”  If that is the case then the blindfolded photography exercise is an attempt to sharpen our attention to what our senses other than sight are telling us.  Taking better pictures when blindfolded isn’t equivalent to not thinking.  It is a wake up call about being so dominated by vision that other sensory input isn’t getting though -- and that sure as hell is a problem but I doubt that photographing blindfolded will cure it.