Friday, March 13, 2020

Spying on a Memory

The great Henri Cartier-Bresson noted that "Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.  You cannot develop and print a memory."

One of the very few nuggets that I mined out of the heap of words in Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida" is this (paraphrased).  Photographs more than any other medium can create a window into the past.  

So while you cannot develop and print a memory, if you have the negative then you can at least catch a glimpse of the past -- spy on a memory. I use this title "Spying on a Memory" for my long-term retrospective (gee, that sounds pretentious) project of combing through my negatives and reprinting.  I'm a bit over 600 prints now.  But I digress.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic reminded me of an incident of spying on memories that are not mine.

For a very long time my wife and I spent at least one long weekend a year at the Seabeck Conference Center on the Hood Canal.  For those not of the northwest, the Hood Canal is a body of saltwater between the Olympic Peninsula and the mainland.  We had become friends with the then newly installed manager of the center. As part of a very successful effort to build good will between the local population and the center he invited the "old timers" from the community to a spring barbecue on the beach adjacent to the center.  He asked them to bring along any photographs of the village that became the conference center in the early 1900s from their family albums.  He also asked me if I would photograph and copy some of these to hang in the center's buildings.  Of course I would!

The barbecue was a lot of fun and I photographed 60 or so vintage prints from the 200 or so that were there on the spot so that the owners could take the originals home again.  Over the next few months I made 8x10 or so copies of them.  Along in the fall he organized a second barbecue for the "old timers" and I brought along the new prints.  I laid them out on a long table for everybody to see.

When Seabeck was still a thriving village there was a dock at which the "Mosquito Fleet" steamboats called.  These were small coastwise boats that swarmed (like mosquitoes, thus the name) around Puget Sound carrying passengers, cargo, and mail among the many isolated villages.  One of the photographs was of the dock with a boat there, men in flat caps were unloading cargo and a couple of women in fancy dress with umbrellas and a man in a derby were walking towards the camera.  An elderly man with a white shoe brush mustache looked at my print and said "That's the (I can't remember the name of the boat.)  I was a deck hand on her -- that picture was from before 1923 because in 1923 she hit the dock in (somewhere I don't remember) and the pilot house didn't look like this any more."  I got his address and later sent him a copy.

But now the connection to the current pandemic.  Another one of the photographs was taken in a bedroom in one of the village houses that became part of the conference center.  Two small girls in white dresses, perhaps 6 and 8, one with a big white bow in her hair, were seated on a bed.  A tiny elderly lady in a print dress looked at it and tears came to her eyes.  "That's me and my sister.  Our father was the first manager of the conference center.  I remember when this photo was taken.  I knew it existed but never saw a copy of it.  It was 1917 -- I know that because my sister died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic."  I made a copy of that print for her, too.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

RIP Bumbershoot, Long Live Bumbershoot

“Bumbershoot” was (is?) an annual festival held at Seattle Center over the Labor Day holiday weekend.  “Bumbershoot” as in an umbrella for a festival of music, art, dance, and general good cheer.
The notion for Bumbershoot was pretty much hatched by Anne Focke — an arts administrator for the City of Seattle — as a morale builder during the “Last Person Out of Seattle Please Turn Out the Lights” days of the late 60s as the City Arts Festival.  By 1971 it had evolved into Bumbershoot, a goofy, volunteer-powered, community event with free admission (later low cost admission) that featured mostly local music in a wide variety of styles, an extensive visual arts exhibition, and a steady stream of impromptu performances.  Each day of the festival there was at least one ad hoc parade of some kind, often accompanied by a lusty if inept brass band.
“The Big Naso” was leading one such parade.
So Bumbershoot remained for perhaps thirty years.  A combination of volunteer burnout, declining individual donations and reduced support from the city during the recent recession precipitated a search for a sugar daddy to pay the bills.  Enter AEG, a national promoter of music festivals, who contracted with the city and One Reel but took over booking and management of the event. 
Over the next several years, AEG morphed Bumbershoot into a high-priced, high-intensity, headliner-driven, music festival that eliminated or downsized areas for dancing, squeezed out most of the visual art, seriously restricted pop-up performances, buskers, and prohibited cameras with interchangeable lenses, ostensibly because the headliners “don’t permit photography during their performances.” 
Three years ago I was denied admission even with a paid daily pass because of my vintage Canon SLR.  (Hmmm, how do the modern pancake 20 megapixel digital cameras with ISO 10,000 and 20:1 zoom lenses fit into this picture?)
I haven’t even bothered to go since then long lines of people waiting to get into the headline venues (all staring at their smart phones) don’t seem like good photograph fodder to me.
The tide may have turned once again.  AEG, noting a precipitate drop in patronage and a national overabundance of headliner festivals, declined to renew their contract with the local One Reel organization and the city after the 2019 event crowds were less than 50% of expected. 
My opinion: good!
One Reel took over once more as the festival organizer and says: “While the details won’t be announced until early next year, we can tell you this: Everyone at One Reel is excited to usher in a new era for Bumbershoot that embraces the festival’s long legacy of multi- generational programming and community participation.  We are currently working with the City of Seattle and Seattle Center, to create a new model for Bumbershoot that honors both the festival’s origin and history, while ensuring the festival is sustainable for the long haul.”
My opinion: hooray!
Best of luck to One Reel, the city and a small army of volunteers.  This will be the 50th Bumbershoot and all of us ol’ timers are holding our breath.
My cameras still work.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Acquiring a tiny bit of art karma

At a place and in a time I do not remember I bought this button.  I thought it was a giggle and I agreed with the statement it makes.  I have worn it on various sweaters and sweat shirts for years.

I have received quite a few comments on it -- most recently from the toll booth at the ferry terminal in Anacortes where the attendant looked me over and said "Ok, I'm not afraid." as he handed me my change.

A couple of months ago at the Pike Place Market the young woman behind the cash register at the tea shop said "Ooooh, that's a Miripolsky!"

Does the name Miripolsky ring a bell?  (It didn't with me.)  But I said "It sure is."  and looked him up as soon as I got home.  Turns out that Andre Miripolsky is a big-name pop artist from Venice California (where else) and this was kind of his break-out piece.  Ok, cool, here's an 81 year old geek like me running around with a pop art icon on his sweater.

Earlier this month I went to the opening of a middle-school student art show at the local community center.  The event was fun, mostly because the kids from all over the school district who had pieces in the show were having such a good time.  The I believe 6th grader who took the first price was a rather shy girl.  Her piece had a cartooney, kind of goofy look that reminded me of Miripolsky so after the awards were all done I asked her if she would show me her piece and tell me about it.  

She was obviously pleased to have a random grown up take interest but told me with a straight face that she wasn't good at talking about it.  Then she treated me to an articulate, well-reasoned explanation of why she did that particular piece and what it meant to her.  I loved it.  As we walked back towards her proud parents she very quietly said "I really like your button."  What would any softhearted parent do?  I gave it to her and she pinned it on her blouse.  I also wrote down the url to Miripolsky's website for her.

That ought to improve my art Karma just a bit.

I also ordered a couple of more of them from the website -- having one to give away suddenly seems like a good idea.

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.