Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Stendhal Syndrome Anyone?

Once in a while some piece of art or music catches me out and I have a very physical response to it.  I call it the "weak knees and cold chills" response. I love it when that happens.  It leaves me feeling very alive and at peace.

The finale of Mahler's Third Symphony does it every time.  Live performance is better but the CD of the Berlin Philharmonic will do.

As does "In Moses Soyer's Studio" (photograph by Larry Fink -- Portland Art Museum has a copy) does it, too.

So does "Paris Street; Rainy Day" (painting by Gustave Caillebotte -- at the Art Institute of Chicago)

The queen, however, is "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (Painting by Vermeer -- at a show in the de Young in San Francisco).  I walked from left to right in front of it.  When I got to the far right my eyes met the sight line of the girl in the painting.  I stood there dumbstruck until my wife came and dragged me away.)

Turns out a visceral response to art isn't that unusual.

I stumbled across "Stendhal Syndrome" while looking for something else (the only way I find unusual bits of information).  The first definition according to Professor Google:

"Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal's syndrome or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects or phenomena of great beauty"

I have a mild case of it and I wouldn't want to lose it.

Any other sufferers out there?

Friday, May 17, 2019

A Contrarian View of Garry Winogrand

Apart from seeing a print or two in books on the history of photography I have had only three brushes with Winogrand’s work: the book “The Man in the Crowd, The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand” (Fraenkel Gallery and DAP, 1999), the retrospective at San Francisco MOMA (“Garry Winogrand”, 2013) and the recent PBS program (American Masters, 3306, 2019,

His photography was the hot item at the time I was becoming serious about photography and it puzzled me.  In fact, it still puzzles me.

The American Masters episode combines a good deal of Winogrand’s work with interviews and commentary by photographic luminaries and Winogrand’s three wives as well as by Winogrand himself.

The director’s statement that “His ‘snapshot aesthetic’ is now the universal language of contemporary image-making.” strikes me as considerably more than a bit too broad.  One writer, Leo Rubenfien opined that Winogrand was the defining photographer of the American 1970s in the same was that Robert Frank was for the American 1950s and Walker Evans for the American 1930s.  I believe that is a more accurate statement – but still not very satisfactory to me.

The “American Masters” program set me to thinking about my mixed reactions to Winogrand’s work.  I went through the 1999 book (again) and read my own journal entries about the 2013 SF/MOMA show.  I’m still sorting out my thoughts and I have come to some (tentative) conclusions about his work that I find more satisfactory. 

Winogrand was your prototypical brassy, outspoken, pushy, often sarcastic New Yorker.   He had no use for those that philosophize about photography – a position with which I whole-heartedly agree.  His statement that he “photographed to see what things look like photographed” or that “Anything and everything is photographable.” are about as analytical as he got.  When a critic stated to him that his work was “very subtle” Winogrand’s answer was “Subtle?  My work is about as subtle as a sour pickle.”  He also was adamant about being purposeful in his photographing.  When asked how often he shot without looking through the viewfinder.  He hotly stated that “I never shoot without looking through the viewfinder.”

Digression:  It would be easy to think that he didn’t look through the viewfinder.  Videos of him at work show him continuously fussing with his camera (and likely doing nothing but keeping his hands busy and looking like he wasn’t ready to take a photograph) then raising it to his eye for perhaps two seconds before going back to fussing with the camera and unobtrusively advancing the film.  One tidbit from the PBS show was that he worked with a 28mm lens.  That allowed him to hyperfocus the lens to get enough depth of field that, combined with his “in your face” practice of being close to his subjects he rarely had to focus – and depending on the legendary latitude of Tri-X for shutter speed left him with nothing to do but glance through the viewfinder and tag the shutter button.  He had done that so often and for so long that he was able to see what was about to happen and in the 2 seconds or so the camera was at his eye get the negative – sometimes.  Thus endeth the digression.

That is not to say that Winogrand was an unpleasant person or that his taste in photography was narrow.  All the interviewees in the PBS show seemed to have warm regard for him.  Robert Adams, landscape photographer and writer about photography says: “Garry Winogrand’s subject was, I now believe, also perfection, though many of his street scenes appear to tip under the weight of roiling confusion – so much so that for a long time I did not appreciate his accomplishment.  I even wondered if I would like him in person, though when I met him one afternoon at a conference in Carmel I certainly did, as anyone would have.  He was cheerful, ardent, and without pretense.  … After Winogrand died, a mutual acquaintance told me that he had said he wanted to make pictures related to mine.  I could hardly believe it because our work seemed so far apart …” (Robert Adams, “Why People Photograph”, Aperture, 1994, pp18, 19)

In the following paragraph Adams noted “he was accepting of complexity in a way that I admire.” (op cit, p19)

And that statement, after several more leaps of thought, kind of turned on another light bulb for me.  I propose that Winogrand was one of photography’s equivalents of the great Louis Armstrong.  In the world of jazz there are a handful of musicians that are respectfully called “horn changers” – that introduced a new way of using an instrument.  Armstrong was one of them – probably the best known outside of jazz circles.  Before Armstrong came on the scene small group jazz was almost exclusively that of collective improvisation by the entire ensemble reacting to what else was going on and hoping for the best.  (Playing that way is really fun, by the way.)  Louis Armstrong introduced the notion of featuring a single instrument, trumpet in his case, improvising a melodic line with the ensemble reacting to what the soloist was playing.  He added a new way to play jazz – but by no means invalidated the older way nor did it become a universal language for future jazz musicians. 

Winogrand’s “accepting of complexity” (I would say “chaos” or “disorganization”) was in a way a reaction to the then-gospel notion of “the decisive moment” (more accurately translated as “images on the run”) pioneered by the great Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Did Winogrand invent the snapshot aesthetic?  Well, no.  Every family album full of 4x6 prints on glossy, deckle-edged paper has lots of them.  What Winogrand did do was to take that style of photography from the (private) family album to the (public) arena.  Did he add anything?  Well, yes.  He was very good at what he did.  And he took it there to an extreme that could never be matched until the dawning of the digital age.  His thousands of rolls of film are no match for the billions of photographs on photo-sharing websites now.

I also quarrel somewhat with his statement that he “photographed to see what things look like photographed”.  He left thousands of rolls of film, many not even developed, when he died.  In that way he could be compared to the much less famous Vivien Maier – who also left a lot of undeveloped film when she died and seemed to be obsessed with leaving a record of the world around her.

Which brings me around to the SF/MOMA Winogrand show of 2013 and the much smaller Photographic Center Northwest show of Vivien Maeir, also in 2013.

The SF/MOMA show was about half of negatives that Winogrand selected and either printed or were printed under his direction.  The other half were selected after his death – by friend and fellow photographer Tod Papageorge and printed by Tom Consilvo, who printed for Winogrand during the last decade of his life.  The great John Szarkowski, who championed Winogrand’s work from the beginning, commented that he felt Winogrand’s later work, largely from Los Angeles, was losing its edge – an opinion that was hotly debated at the time.  I agree.  In my opinion neither the content nor the print quality had quite as sharp an edge as the prints from negatives that Winogrand himself selected.  Whether that reflects a change in Winogrand or, in my opinion more likely, the difficulty of going through thousands of somebody else’s negatives and trying to second guess what Winogrand would have selected and how he would have printed them.

Vivian Maier made few prints during her lifetime and was, it seems, an indifferent printer.  Her show was made from negatives selected by a person who had never even met Maier and was printed by a master printer using his own judgment. 

Both shows were a peek into the world in which the photographer lived – one the uneasy streets of New York and Los Angeles and the other the gritty streets of Chicago’s south side and snooty streets of an upscale suburb. 

In discussing Winogrand’s work with my wife she noted that in a way both of these photographers may have been trying to record and even make sense out of the world around them and that the eventual artifact of a print was a side effect.  The act of photographing may have been the important bit – almost in the way of a hoarder or perhaps a diarist trying to compile a record of their life and times.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Call me old fashioned (well, I am) but I'm not on Instagram

On the train into Seattle a few weeks back the morning sunlight streamed in the window and onto the face and wonderfully braided hair of a young Latina woman sitting in front of me.  I asked her for a photograph and she said it was ok.  After a few photographs I gave her my card and my standard “Send me an email so I can send you a print.” then showed her a couple of samples of my work that I “just happened” to have in my shoulder bag.  I  She oohed and aahed at them and asked if I was on Instagram.  I allowed that I was not and she said “You should be!  People would see your photographs!”

I get that comment from time to time. 

I’m certainly not averse to people seeing my work.  Rather to the contrary.

I do have a website.  The traffic to it is, well, modest a couple of hundred page views a month (not counting mine).  I have made some contacts, met (in a virtual sense) some interesting people, sold some prints, sold some books through people finding my website by keyword search.  One as far away as Poland.  So far it’s just enough to make keeping the website up to date worth the trouble.

I do have a subscription newsletter with a vanishingly small (by internet standards) audience that grows slowly.  (Unpaid advertisement:  see to subscribe) However, the “open” rate is 80%.  The average “open” rate for an online newsletter is 20%.  Hmmm.  I would rather have my newsletter go to a few people who are interested in what I’m doing than go to a larger audience most of whom don’t even bother to open it.

But Instagram?  I suppose I could let those who subscribe to my newsletter and those who reach me through my website know that I’m on Instagram and ask them to “follow” me.  So what?  I just looked it up:   there about 40 BILLION photographs on Instagram and 95 MILLION go up each day.  The probability of anybody who isn’t already familiar with my work finding it amidst that tsunami of images is vanishingly close to 0.00000.  If I went full court press and did all the right things with marketing tricks to bring my work up out of the noise level maybe I could get the probability up to 1% (but I doubt it).

This leads to an interesting question.  How does an aspiring photographer “get the work out there”?  The signal-to-noise ratio of the image sharing sites is so low that’s no it.  Neither are the portfolio reviews that (see a previous rant) are little of anything more than a cash cow for the sponsor.  “The media” is depending more and more on underpaid gig photographers or volunteer PWC (persons with cell phone).  You don’t get your work in a gallery without a reputation and you don’t get a reputation without gallery representation. 

It is no shock that in an annual survey of professions “photographer” was rated as one of the worst both in getting into it and in making something vaguely resembling a living out of it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

“Here’s a Thought”

Warning: grumpy post follows.
Brooks Jensen is publisher, editor, designer, and probably janitor of the magagine “Lenswork.”  There is a lot to admire about him.  He and his wife thought up the idea of Lenswork and made it happen – and keep making it happen – with a barrage of marketing ideas, some luck, and a whole lot of hard work.  They moved Lenswork from a home-printed rag one step above a memeographed newsletter to a very high quality, tri-tone printed monthly with state-of-the-art reproductions of photographs and a high-quality digital edition that even publishes color.  He does workshops on project development, has a podcast and even gets some of his own photography done.
He writes a column for Lenswork and his latest project is a “usually daily” short video – a minute or less – called “Here’s a Thought” – available free to Lenswork subscribers. 
All that said – his field of view on photography is very narrow and he is very prone to grabbing an idea and pushing it to what I consider an outlandish extreme.  Which statement brings me to the grumpy part.
I watched a sample edition of “Here’s a Thought” in which he was discussing how big a print can be made from a given sized negative (and, by extension, a given sized digital file.)  His going in position is that a well-exposed and carefully developed negative can make a 3x print.  That is, a 2 ¼ square negative could be enlarged to 6 ¾ x 6 ¾, a 35mm negative to about 3 x 4 ½ inches.  A fine negative can go up to 4x and an exceptional negative to 5x.  Beyond that the smooth mid-tones begin to break up, the grain begins to show, the print isn’t critically sharp.
He has just dismissed nearly every photograph not made from a 4x5 or larger negative.   Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, Eisenstadt, Boubat, Doisneau, Ronis, Mary Randlett  – you folks all missed the boat.  I’m sorry (no I’m really not) to say that I have seen spectacular prints – not only content but print quality – made by each of these folks and many others in sizes way more than 5x.   Even some of mine look pretty good.
The problem here tracks back to an observation made by Ted Orland in the book “Art and Fear”.  Orland was Ansel Adams' printer for several years and his own photographs were, by his own statement, baseline west coast, tack-sharp, 10-zones, fine-grain prints with lens-cap-to-horizon depth of field.  But then, in a blinding lightning bolt of insight, he realized that he doesn’t lead a tack-sharp, 10-zone, fine-grain life so that kind of print does not express what he wants from his photography.
All Jensen had to do was to add “To make the kind of prints I want to make …” to the beginning of his pontifical statement to make it an expression of his taste rather than a sweeping generalization.
I am often annoyed by his apparently narrow view of photography but this one really got me.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Let me count even more ways.

My friend, Christopher, added to my list of ways to neglect details in the darkroom.  (my responses in red).

  • have you ever put the negative in upside down? Yes
  • have you ever forgotten to stop the lens down after focusing? Yes
  • have you ever forgotten to close the door tight? No, but in my former darkroom there was a crack under the door that needed a throw rug pushed against it -- that I forgot from time to time.
  • have you ever forgotten to rinse AND dry your hands before going over to the dry side (sorry, i couldn't resist)? No, but likely only because I wear a glove when sloshing about in the trays.
  • have you pushed your chemistry past it's pull date? Only very mildly -- "one more print to do before I quit for the day"
  • have you ever missed the stop bath, putting your film in the fix right after development? No, missed that one.
  • this is one of my favorites, have you ever forgotten your prints in the wash, leaving them there for a couple of days? Yes
  • and can't forget, have you ever left the wash water too warm, remembering just in time to see your print's emulsion peeling away? No, but I did do that to a tank full of Ektachrome once.  Does that count?
i didn't think it fair to mention leaving a throwaway work print on the bottom of the sink to dry emulsion side down and over the drain hole.  Yes.

It's reassuring to hear that photographers whose work I respect klutz it up too.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Meeting Mary Randlett

Mary Randlett died last week at the age of 94.  Her passion was landscape photography -- done with a 35mm camera in defiance of conventional wisdom about landscapes.  Her modestly-sized prints, 16x20 or smaller, were very nice indeed.  My favorites of her work, however, are portraits.  She did portraits of artists, writers, art administrators, curators ... for decades, largely for the Seattle PI.  Dozens of portraits, hundreds of portraits.  Most of her portraits are casual and all are in available light. She was friends with nearly every heavyweight in the Northwest art scene.

Her reputation was that of a kind of Imogen Cunningham "I don't put up with much." person who did her own thing and wore comfortable shoes.

She continued to work in her darkroom nearly every day until a couple of years ago.

While I heard her speak a couple of times later, I had the pleasure of meeting her only once -- at the time of her wonderful show at the Tacoma Art Museum in 2007.  She was scheduled to give a talk about the show on, I believe, a Saturday afternoon.  Always unsure of traffic, I got there about an hour before the talk was due to begin.  Pulling into the nearly-empty parking area behind the museum I saw an older woman getting out of her car and pulling a portfolio box out of the back seat.

Suspecting the best I went over to her and asked if, by chance, she was ... and offered to carry her portfolio box into the museum.  With an obvious "I'm perfectly capable of carrying it but since you offered." attitude she handed me the portfolio box and we walked in together.  We had a friendly conversation about scouting locations, care and feeding of portrait subjects, film, the craft of printing, the upcoming show -- for about 15 minutes until TAM's curator grabbed her to begin getting ready for the talk. 

Another hero gone.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Let Me Count the Ways!

I am getting back into the rhythm of printing once a week since my darkroom is (finally) finished.  Sloshing about in the darkroom is a good time to think – even with music playing on the stereo.  (Jock Sturges says “It’s a dark room, not a quitet room.)

I have a rather orderly work flow in my darkroom.  I contact print my negatives then stare at the contact sheets for a while before marking the negatives that look promising.  I make 5x7 (or so) work prints on RC paper of each of these and stare at them for a while before deciding which ones that look good enough to finish print.  I make all the work prints using a #2 filter and a guess at the exposure time based on the look of the contact print.  This makes the work print a good source of further guesses on how to begin a finish print.

First I decide what HAS to be right – in most of my photographs that is the skin tones – and I make one or more (usually more) test prints until I’m satisfied with that part.  Then I make further test prints to make the remainder of the print look like I want it to.  Now since I do not live a Zone System life, by this stage of the game I have used at least two contrast filters and added dodging and burning with each of them.  It’s not unusual for me to have a dozen or so steps (written down, by the way) before I’m ready to make the final prints. 

Here’s where the thinking noted above kicks in.  During last week’s darkroom day I was making a mental catalog of the various ways to botch up the final print ….

Forgetting to close the cover on the filter tray so that when the enlarger light comes on white light fogs the paper.

Thinking about changing:

a.       Enlargement factor,

b.      Filter grade,

c.       Exposure time,

d.      Or f/stop
is not equivalent to doing so.

Dropping the dodging tool on the floor and not being able to find it without turning on the room lights.

Forgetting one or more steps.

And my very favorite – after I have the printing strategy in mind I usually rehearse it a time or two before actually putting paper in the easel – forgetting to put paper in the easel.  

Have I missed one that you do?

-- and one more from my printing session yesterday.

When using more than one filter on a print, forget to take the first one out of the filter tray before loading the second one in.