Wednesday, March 3, 2021

How to Respond.



This is a bit heavier than my usual blog post content but this has been on my mind a lot.

 Philip, a photographer friend, and I were talking (virtually of course) about how we as photographers could/should/might work in response to the pandemic, the political upheaval, social unrest ….

 Both of us had been carrying a camera while walking around our respective neighborhoods. Photographs illustrating isolation, “social distancing” … are a dime a dozen. What are we not photographing? How are we not photographing.

 Certain photographs, like the recent photograph of the nude woman facing down a wall of heavily armed and armored officers in Portland, will become icons -- much like the photograph of the single protestor in Tiananmen Square facing down a line of tanks – or of the sweet faced young woman putting a flower into the muzzle of a rifle at Kent State – or the horribly burned child fleeing from her napalmed village in Viet Nam. They each record a powerful, moving incident in a specific dangerous, chaotic time and place. Not knowing the time and place would be likely to make me ask “what was going on here?”

 David Douglas Duncan’s “Captain Ike Fenton” does a bit more. Its anti-war message does not require you to know that it was Korea, 1950, that the company he commanded was low on ammunition, pinned down by artillery fire, and could not expect immediate help. But you know that something terrible has happened – is happening – and that this is the face of a man who has stood at the edge of the pit, looked in, and cannot turn around. It gives you enough visual cues to imagine a time and place – or maybe the specific time and place don’t matter.

 But Philip was thinking more along the lines of Picasso’s “Guernica”, works that are conceived from the get-go to comment or express the artist’s response to what’s happening in the world. I would add the likes of John Heartfield’s pre-WWII anti-Nazi posters and illustrations (which resulted in him departing through a window as the Gestapo came up the stairs to his studio).

 Philip’s question was what can we photographers do apart from photojournalism -- if we are not (choose to be not) eye witness to momentous events.

 But that question bumps us up against one of the basic facts about photography. Photographs are spectacularly good at showing what something or someone looked like at a specific time and place but are seldom spectacularly good at showing “about”. How do photographs translate from “images of:” to “images about”?

The great Henri Cartier-Bresson, during World War II, said “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are still photographing rocks.”

 Photography is not good at allegory – as evidenced by Henry Peach Robinson’s “Fading Away” -- or historical or literary references – as evidenced by Gertrude Käsebier’s “Blessed Art Thou Among Women”. George Bernard Shaw, a photographer himself, noted that “The painter gets hold of a pretty model, paints her as well as he can, calls her Juliet, and puts a nice verse from Shakespeare underneath, and the picture is admired beyond measure. The photographer finds the same pretty girl, he dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet, but somehow it is no good — it is still Miss Wilkins, the model. It is too true to be Juliet.”

 I don’t have a clue how to conceive of a photograph from the get-go to comment on the pandemic, to comment on the disruptions in our cities, to comment on the apparent crumbling of our own government.


Monday, February 8, 2021

I Hate Zoom


I hate Zoom.

This nonsense of sitting in front of a computer and staring at artwork on a screen instead of staring at the real artwork is getting pretty old.

While I’m at it, I hate sitting in front of a computer looking at a face in a little box instead of looking at a real face .

Moreover I hate looking at art on a screen, Zoom or not.

One of the pundits said that the history of art as you see it in a textbook is really the history of artwork that will reproduce well in a quarter-page illustration.  Michelangelo's David is the same size as a Japanese netsuke.  My addition to that is that all artwork looks the same represented by a 1024x960 pixel jpeg created on a computer screen with unknown color balance and viewed on another computer screen with a different unknown color balance.

A friend was the judge for a show at a not-quite-local gallery.  He chose about 125 prints out of the 2000 or so that were submitted -- by jpeg -- from all over the country.  He told me that when the actual prints arrived about 20 of them were so different from the jpeg (and not better) that he didn't want to hang them.

All that said, just today I watched a lecture by Todd Hido (photographer in the Bay area) arranged by the art gallery of the University of Kentucky.  About 100 people attended from all over the western world.  I regularly attend a critique hosted by a Portland (Oregon) photographer — with attendees from upstate New York, Tennessee, Burnaby BC, northern California, Chicago, Calgary. 

Tonight I have a Zoom meeting with a local group of photographers with whom I have met in person for about 20 years -- sitting around a table with actual prints strewn over it, looking at them and at each other.  

I guess that Zoom and it’s ilk have a place, an important place.  But, dang!  It’s not the only place.

Back to the real world ASAP


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Aperture Strikes Again -- rant follows


Since the pandemic hit I have been reading the, I believe, weekly newsletter from Aperture – part of my “any port in a storm” approach to staying in touch with the photographic world without leaving my lair.  I confess, however, that my usual examination of it consists of the first couple of paragraphs of some of the articles and looking at the photographs, usually with as much puzzlement as amazement.

Today I received an email from Aperture from their “development” department.  The bait to induce me to donate to their annual fund drive was an interview with Dawoud Bey titled “Changes to the Photography World in the Twenty-First Century” and it was worth a careful read.  I became a fan of Bey’s work when I saw some of his portraits at the Tacoma Art Museum (an institution that takes photography seriously) in the biennial portrait competition sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery.  Seeing his work in the flesh, so to speak, is a different experience than on a computer screen.  In fact that distinction appears in his Aperture interview.  He goes so far as to state that to him “photograph” implies a physical object and “picture” applies to what we see on a computer screen.  “Picture” seems too generic to me and I believe that we need a new word for “image captured in some light-sensitive way but displayed on a computer screen”.

Bey’s 29 year old son works in  social media production for a living and is advising him on how to create a presence on Instagram and make it useful.  However, Bey confesses a degree of skepticism and puzzlement about how that can happen.  (I’m with him there!)

The interviewer for this piece is the executive director of Aperture.  Speaking of the changes in their magazine that they recently introduced, he stated that: “Hello, Photography” (Spring 2013), an optimistic assertion of the value of photography; the Aperture magazine issue we did with Magnum Foundation, “Documentary, Expanded” (Spring 2014); and Charlotte Cotton’s book Photography Is Magic (2015), among others. I think Photography Is Magic was the apotheosis of a distinct ontological moment in photography.”  Holy Dektol, Lensman!  Bey lowered the artobabble level in his response to that statement. 

But that brings me to the rant section of this piece.  Asked how he became visible to Aperture, Bey says: “I was surprised, one day, to get an email from one of the editorial staff at Aperture saying that someone (a mutual friend, whom I knew from the Studio Museum in Harlem’s administration) had told them they should take a look at my work. The email went on to ask, “What kind of work do you do, landscapes?  What colossal arrogance!  The writer of that email didn’t even have the courtesy to spend five minutes or less to find out what Bey’s work was like.  Getting even an uniformed tickle from the rarified heights of Aperture was enough?

Alas, that has been my opinion of Aperture for a long time.  I subscribed to the Aperture and to Art News for several years and found the writing in both, well, dense.  I kept feeling that I should be able to untangle the articles but somehow never did.  I dropped both subscriptions after reading a letter to the editor in one of them.  The writer stated that he was a trained librarian and had read the magazine regularly for nearly a decade.  The previous issue, he was glad to report, contained an article that he actually understood.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Where did you get the delusion …

Some years ago – to be honest about it a lot of years ago (try 40) – I took a portfolio of my photographs to a review for the first time.  In fact it was the first time that I had the temerity to show my photographs to anyone but my wife and a couple of friends.  I was searching for a direction for my work and for sure was still struggling with technique.  I tried 4x5, doing it until I was convinced that if I stayed with it I could do so with some facility.  In a flash of insight I noticed that I wasn’t having fun so I stopped doing it.  I tried color negative printing, doing it until I was convinced that if I stayed with it I could do so with some facility.  Another flash of insight squashed that idea.  Same with gum bichromate printing.  Same with several other alternative processes.

In that remotely distant past there was a short-lived institution, “The Factory for the Visual Arts”, housed in a repurposed school building in Seattle’s Green Lake district.  It sponsored a variety of classes, rented studio space in wonderful old second-floor classrooms with tall windows, had a small performance space, and even hosted the student company of Pacific Northwest Ballet for a couple of years. 

When they announced a weekend photography event I signed up immediately.  The speakers were from the university and their talks and the portfolio reviews were, well, more than a bit cerebral and not helpful to me either in finding a direction or improving my technical skills.  One of the reviewers, an MFA student at the university, said to me: “Where did you get the delusion that anybody would be interested in photographs of people that they don’t know?  It was also obvious that she regarded those of us without an art degree as naïve and underprivileged.  These were bitter pills for a midcareer engineer with a passion for photography to swallow.

Years passed – about 15 of them – with me still looking for a direction for my photography but enjoying what I was doing and struggling a whole lot less with technique.

At that still long gone and lamented time Rainier Photo Supply, a local photographic supplies vendor, sponsored an annual Saturday event at a local community college.  It included a modest trade show and talks by local and regional photographers.  One of my favorite memories of it was a talk by Wah Lui, an excellent portrait photographer, who famously said “One of the less effective ways of becoming a photographer is to go to college.  In college you intellectualize about photography until nobody knows what the hell you are talking about.  I’m puzzled that people go to school to learn photography.  Imogen Cunningham once said that ‘as soon as one learns to print, go off on your own to make pictures.’  There is some value in workshops but after the fourth workshop it’s a waste of money.  The money would be better spent on film.”  That made me feel a lot less self-conscious about my autodidact approach to learning photography and I scribbled his statement down in my notebook as fast as I could.  He also said that one should keep an eye out for books of photography that excite you – and if you have fewer than a hundred of them in your bookshelf to look harder.  Even at that early day the count on my bookshelf was way over a hundred.  His statements made me feel a good deal better about my autodidactic approach to learning photography.

This event also offered portfolio reviews.  The reviewers were mostly photographers as opposed to curators and gallerists.  There was quite a demand for reviews so they were short, as I recall 15 minutes, and you registered for four reviews – who you got for a reviewer was pot luck.  Three of the four reviewers I drew gave me a lot of help with technique – both with the camera and with printing.  To my confusion and later amusement some of what reviewer A said and some of what reviewer B said were mutually contradictory.

But I digress.

Many more years passed but the “Where did you get the delusion …” statement still haunted me – and to some extent still does. 

Arnold Newman photographed the likes of Igor Stravinsky seated at his grand piano.  Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed John Paul Sartre on Pont Neuf on a foggy day.  I may not know Igor or John Paul personally but I certainly know who they are.  Does that count?  Would those portraits lose their significance if the subjects were unknowns?  I think not!

In the lexicon of art a “tronie” is an image of a person but not a specific person.  Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and Frans Hals’ “Merry Drinker” are tronies.  They were almost certainly painted from a live model but not as representing a specific pretty girl or specific ruddy cheeked man.  Yet a lot of people still seem to be interested in these and many other images like them.

It was only after I discovered the work of the likes of Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, and Edouard Boubat that I realized how compelling photographs of ordinary (read: not celebrity) human beings can be.  Yes, a photograph is by its very nature much more specific than a painting.  Can a photograph of a person be a tronie and be of interest on its own without the context of “knowing”?  I hold that I do not have to know who Lella or the winemaker are in Boubat’s “Lella, Brittany France 1947” or Ronis’ “Winemaker, Gironde 1945” to be interested in them.

I don’t know a lot of celebrities (you can say that again) so what I hope for my photographs of people is that they will be tronies.  I recently showed some of my photographs, including this one, to a small group of non-photographer friends and was delighted when one said: “You make ordinary people look so wonderful.  I’ll take it.