Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Milton Rogovin just had his 100th birthday.

Milton Rogovin was born in New York city and educated at Columbia. He has lived in Buffalo all his adult life. He is a social activist and documentary photographer who became a full time photographer when his optometry practice was devastated by the McCarthy era witch hunt. His book "The Forgotten Ones" is one that I come back to again and again. For it he photographed the people of the working-class neighborhood in southeast Buffalo near where he lived. Then he photographed them again, as many as he could find, 20 years later. Then he photographed them again, as many as he could find, later yet (he said that he wanted to wait 20 more years but wasn't sure he would live long enough -- turns out he did). He is also a grade-A human being who has deep family ties and community connections.
His archive of something like 30,000 negatives is in the library of congress. That's a lot of rolls of 120 film pulled through his Rolleiflex.
There is a major show of his work at the Burchfield-Penny art center in Buffalo, posters of his work in the Buffalo subway stations, a smaller show of his work at the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington and the public TV station in Buffalo threw a major birthday party for him including showing the recent film "The rich have their own photographers" about him and his work. Not bad for a guy who was once castigated as "the biggest red in Buffalo".
I met Mr. Rogovin a time or two about 35 years ago. We had mutual friends in photographic circles when I lived near Buffalo. I wish I had known him better. Long may he wave.

(By the way, I am sure I'm not going to keep up this pace on posting. Nor are all the posts going to be primarily about photography -- just most of them.)

How I Learned Not to be a Photojournalist

I just finished rereading "How I Learned Not to be a Photojournalist" by Dianne Hagaman. The first time through, a couple of years ago, I couldn't figure out why it irritated me so thoroughly. This time through I think I got it.
The author was trained as and was working as a photojournalist. At the time of writing she had just completed an MFA. The book began as her MFA project. In a nutshell, her starting points are these:
- Most newspaper photography is hack work.
- Newspaper photographers get no respect from the "word people"
- Female newspaper photographers struggle to achieve any semblance of equality with their male counterparts.
- All newspapers want from a photograph is to attract readers to the story.
- Newspaper work doesn't allow the photographer to develop a project that requires time and developing personal connections.
She briefly dismisses "concerned photography" in order to set up what seems to me to be a straw horse specifically constructed to be knocked down later.
Her response to these points was to begin a long-term project on her own time. It was initally about alcoholism among urban Indians. It morphed into being about the missions and social agencies that serve that population. From that it morphed into being about the religious organizations that sponsored the missions. From that it morphed into being about religion itself. Somewhere along the line she also began working on an MFA, which effort she credits with helping her change herself from a photojournalist to some other kind of photographer. The basic points of change were:
- Slow down
- Back up to show more context
- Go for photographs that aren't a "quick read"; that depend on careful examination
- Use photographs to express an idea rather than surface appearance.
She illustrates the book with photographs from her project as she progressed from a straight-ahead photojournalist to the something else she wanted to become.
I agree with much of what she says. Having never worked for a newspaper I have no opinion on her statements about the newsroom status of photographers, male or female. Yes, most newspaper photographs are hack work. Most newspaper photographs are of hack situations -- it's hard to make a grip and grin shot anything but a grip and grin shot.
I could argue for leaving the photograph out but that would violate the next issue. Yes, newspapers principally want photographs to attract attention to the accompanying text. The grip and grin shot doesn't tell you much without the text and I defy a photographer to take a photograph of such an occasion of, say, an award presentation that tells the story without text.
But that doesn't account for the exceptional newspaper photographer who produces excellent work (back to the portrait of Bruce Davidson I mentioned in the previous post). I suspect that the percentage of newspaper photographers that are producing excellent work is about the same as the percentage for any other kind of photography.
No, newspapers are seldom interested in long, complex, visually rich projects. That's not the business they are in. Her response -- to start a project on her own time and dime -- in order to give herself the rewarding experience of doing such a project seems perfectly appropriate to me.
As for her key learnings, the first three "slow down", "back up", "go for complex images" seem like good general purpose advice except possibly for sports or wildlife photography. It also seems to me that the best of any type of photograph (back to the portrait of Bruce Davidson) shows them.
Here are my big itches.
"Photojournalism" is not exclusively newspaper photography. The French term "photoreportage", the documentary essays in the lamented Life and other picture magazines, the concerned photography of Salgado that hangs in art galleries -- I consider all photojournalism: telling a story with photographs, often with photographs and text.
Photographs by themselves are really good at showing what something looks like. She uses a straight-ahead, three-quarter portrait of a man standing on the sidewalk as an example of the newspaper style work from which she started -- a rather rugged, good-looking fellow in work attire and a big silver belt buckle. She's right. It's an excellent portrait and a good newspaper portrait because it would draw your attention to the story. Without the story you wouldn't know whether he was a fisherman, a tribal elder, or one of the street Indian alcoholics with whom she was working.
On the other hand, photographs by themselves are really bad at expressing ideas. One of Hagaman's photographs is of a shelter resident napping on a bench in a hallway. Above him is a bulletin board with, among other items, a picture of Jesus. She claims that the photograph shows that the mission in which it was taken is putting religion (represented by the picture of Jesus) above the subservient residents. Well, ok, I can claim that the photograph shows that religion (represented by the picture of Jesus) is standing guard over the sleeping man and protecting him. I could also claim that it shows a tired man catching a catnap. The idea she wished to express is only clear to her.
That's the point at which my "aha" light came on. The ability of visual art to express ideas is completely dependent on the artist and the viewer sharing symbols. To her (a former Catholic) the picture of Jesus carried the connotation of heirarchy and even repression. To me (a flaming religious liberal) it did not. I believe that a lot of conceptual art fails for just this reason.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why am I doing this, anyway? Why me?

Why am I doing this, anyway?

That's a very good question -- it's not as if I have a lot of time hanging heavy on my hands. I suppose my biggest single reason for doing a blog about art is how irritated I get at the lack of coverage of visual art in my local media -- and how lame the little coverage that visual art does get seems.

The immediate spur came from my friend, Joe, giving me a full-page article from the NY Times of Sunday, November 8. It is about one of my heros, Bruce Davidson, whose work is the subject of a new, three-volume retrospective published by Steidl as well as two concurrent shows in New York. The article is informative, witty, carefully researched, and articulate. It is accompanied by several photographs by Mr. Davidson and an excellent environmental portrait of him by a NYT staffer, Damon Winter.

Dang, what a concept! Real writing and in some quantity about visual art? I'll bet I would have to scrape bits and pieces from the local paper for at least a month to make up a full page. The only bit I can remember from the last few weeks that was accompanied by a photograph was about the closing of Benham Gallery (that, by the way, was the best and longest running photography gallery in Seattle). Oops, I let slip where I live (almost) so you can now identify the local paper. Oh, well. I might as well add that they just finished a three-part, front page series of articles on sports fans.

Not to be entirely down on the local Times, they do have reasonably good coverage of books since Seattle is a very booky town. They do have reasonably good coverage on music, even classical. They have reasonably good coverage of movies, especially the Film Festival and NW Film Forum. Visual art? Well, not so much. When Seattle Art Museum has a blockbuster show it gets some coverage. The other museums and the galleries .... pretty slim.

A couple of years ago a new magazine "City Arts" appeared on the scene with three localized editions. It is a side effect of the publishing company that does the excellent programs for most of the local performing art venues -- opera, symphony, ballet, theater. What a good idea. It looked promising for a while. Between the economy flop and their merge with the local music magazine, the prospect for a lot of visual art coverage beyond the calendar doesn't look good. Their feature articles are beginning to look sort of like "what the hip artist is wearing".

Why me?

Another excellent question. I do not claim to be an authority. I do not have a degree in art history or studio art. I don't even claim to be an artist. I am a photographer. Some of what I do is art, some is just for fun, most of it is trash -- just like every other photographer, painter, sculptor, (writer). I read about art a lot. I look at a lot of art. I have a lot of strong opinions about art. Considering a lot of what gets published, I'm not a really bad writer.

So why not me? I have no good notion of how this blog is going to help, how it is going to shape up, even how long or how often I will continue to write for it.

Stay tuned. The first real post will be a book review.