Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What is it with BIG?

Today I was a participant in trying to put a group show of photographs in order to hang in a local gallery. It was fun if kind of a zoo to watch nine people moving framed prints back and forth with no guiding hand. I’m not at all sure that the hanging order was converging by the time I left.

{The following secondary rant is a digression from the main rant. I’ll notify you when it’s over.} I am dubious, for several reasons, about judging for an art show based on jpegs viewed on a computer screen. Only one of these reasons is germane to today’s rant. The jpeg gives you no idea of the physical size of the piece. I’m sure that the judge for this show was told that there were [some number] of running feet of gallery space. The mental arithmetic that followed was something like “Well, at an average print size of [insert guess here] that means I can select [some smaller number] of photographs.” The trouble with that mental arithmetic is that in these days of wide-carriage inkjet printers the average size is, well, bigger than that. In the absence of the real prints I think it would be only fair to provide the judge with a spreadsheet that chalked up the available space each time a print was selected. Today we had about 20% more prints that wall space. The entire show is crowded and the very few smaller prints wound up hung over and under -- overwhelmed by the bigger works. {end of secondary rant about judging from jpegs – now back to our scheduled rant.}

Somebody said to James Burke (Dizzy) Gillespie: “MAN, why do you play that (some frenetic bebop standard) so FAST!” Dizzy’s legendary answer: “Because I CAN!” An important but unspoken corollary is “… and nobody else can.” I understand that he later recanted and observed that, in his youth, he played everything way too fast.

The corollary doesn’t apply to today’s world of wide-carriage inkjet printers that are, however, still new enough that “Because I can!” is a common if unspoken reason for making a huge print.

Brooks Jensen (editor of Lenswork) posits a test having to do with print size (paraphrased). Stand at a distance from a print and admire it. Move closer and admire it again. Keep on doing this until you stop seeing something new. If your nose isn’t very close to the glass, the print is likely too big.

In a spirit of full disclosure, I don’t do big prints because big doesn’t suit my work or what I do with it. I am not opposed to “big” on principle.

My friend Bryan does big. He does so because big suits the work he is doing – complex, often collaged, layered work that he prints 40” or so high by [very long]. His big prints pass the Jensen test. When my nose is 8” from the print I’m still seeing new things.

For contrast, there was a beautiful still life in the show I was muddling about with today. A roughly hemispherical glass cup sits on a bare tabletop against an indistinct background. Looking carefully at the liquid in the cup you can see the upside-down reflection of the buildings across the street from the window behind the photographer. The size of the print, perhaps 16”x30”, diminishes its impact on me. Printed much smaller it would be a tiny jewel and I would love to have a copy to hang.

I am especially unmoved by street photographs printed big. There are two color, street photographs in the show – printed perhaps 30”x40”. They would pass the Jensen test printed much smaller and I would find seeing 5 or 6 prints in the same wall space much more satisfactory. Besides, in the gallery where the show will hang there isn’t a wall to put them on that will allow them to be seen from sufficient distance to appreciate them.

MAN, why did you print that so BIG? Before you fire up your Epson 9600, think of an answer.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Men Like Me" -- missing Bill Jay

I never met Bill Jay. I wish I had because I’m guessing that he and I would have gotten along just fine thank you very much. He was insightful, articulate, passionate about photography, and sharply critical of those who lard photography up with a thick layer of abstract, even metaphysical, pseudo-meaning. His writing was clear, to the point, and often very witty. I recently met one of the legion of students that passed through the photography program at Arizona State during Jay’s long tenure there. He confirmed my suspicion that Jay was an inspiring teacher who demanded a great deal of his students and no less of himself. I’m sure he could be cranky and without doubt highly opinionated, too – I like that in a person.

Jay’s death at 69 last year left me feeling as if I had lost an old friend.

I just finished re-reading his “Occam’s Razor: an Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography”. This 1992 book is a compendium of several, loosely connected, short articles about the then-contemporary art photography scene. The tone of the book is of “pointing with pride and viewing with concern”. It is positively frightening that this book has not become dated: the directions in which he points with pride and the vistas over which he views with concern are still with us 20 years later.

One of the “viewing with concern” bits has to do with those are striving to be different and who disdain the history of the medium because they do not want to be influenced by the past. In the essay “So much for individuality”, he quotes Lionel Trilling who said, “The immature artist imitates. Mature artists steal.” Keep this quote in mind for later.

Early on Bill Jay decided (well, after a dope slap from his lifelong friend, David Hurn) that his career in photography lay as a historian, teacher, and author rather than in doing photography. Not that Jay didn’t take photographs – or that he wasn’t good at it. Over the years, he made a point of photographing most of the photographers that he interviewed. “Portraits of Photographers: 1968-2006” was published, I believe, in 2008. It is a wonderful book of sensitive, technically adept, portraits -- mostly men because many of the women photographers he interviewed declined to be photographed.

After retiring from teaching in 1999 he moved to a California beach community. His early morning wanderings led him to the acquaintance and “a feeling of kinship” with a community of “over-the-hill, sartorially challenged, with abundant facial hair” men. Nazraeli published his heavily cropped portraits of them in 2005 as “Men Like Me” – and Jay’s face is one of those in the book. Portraits from this project were also featured in Lenswork (for which Jay wrote a column for several years) and in Black and White magazine. The response from the art-photography world was a mildly grudging “Jay has finally done something original.’

Two weeks ago I was at the opening of a photography show at the Larson Gallery in Yakima (in which I have six photographs, by the way). In addition to the work on the walls, the curator had placed a selection of books from their library on display to give the opening-goers a view of photography’s history. Among these books was a retrospective of Bill Brandt’s work. I opened it at random to “Left Eye of Max Ernst: 1965”, a closely cropped portrait of a heavily seamed man’s face. Several similar portraits followed. Brandt was one of Bill Jay’s all-time most admired photographers. He could not possibly have been unaware of these portraits. Bill Jay, in doing this project, was not only presenting an honest, revealing, bold view of these men but was also “cocking a snoot” (as he often put it) one more time.

“Mature artists steal.”  And I'll bet that this one snickered, too.

Monday, October 4, 2010

An Afternoon with Sandra Kroupa

Sandra Kroupa was recently interviewed for a series in her professional journal on “dream jobs”. She enthusiastically concurs that she has one. Her official job title is “Book Arts and Rare Book Curator” for the University of Washington’s Allen Library. Last Friday she met with a gaggle of photographers from the University of Washington Photographers’ Group (UWPG) to talk about and show examples from the library’s collection of art books emphasizing books of photographs and art books that use photographic processes. See:

for a wonderful interview with her.

Ms. Kroupa brought a heaping library cart full of examples from the collection, all in tidy archival boxes made by the library’s conservation department. She gave us an overview of the book arts and rare book collection, part of the “Special Collections” section of the Allen Library. “Special Collections” is best known for its superb Northwest Collection but has over 14,000 items in the book arts and rare books collection. She emphasized that the collection is much broader than she could begin to show us in a short program. It contains, for example, books that are important historically, or that mark milestones in the technology of printing and publishing. For instance, she showed us a first edition with dust jacket of “On the Road” and a first edition in English of “The Decisive Moment” with the dust jacket illustration done by Henri Matisse. Neither of these books are remarkable as art objects. “On the Road” is straight text and the catalog of the recent Cartier-Bresson retrospective shows HCB’s work to much better advantage. However -- in the world of jazz certain artists are referred to as “horn changers” – those whose playing changes forever the way in which a given instrument is regarded. For the trumpet, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis are “horn changers”. These books are “horn changers” and there is something about seeing the original articles that I found very moving.

She then turned to books produced by conventional printing and binding technology that either are of photographs or that incorporate photographs into more complex images. The reproductions in these books are very high quality but are produced in fairly large quantities – tens, hundreds, or a few thousand – that are aimed at a connoisseur or collector market. Denise Wolf of Aperture did an excellent talk on this niche market at Seattle Art Museum earlier this year. One especially beautiful example that Ms. Kroupa showed us was of photographs of broken glass paired with poems by Silvia Plath. The rich warm blacks and open, slightly soft midtones of the photographs reproduced splendidly in offset printing on a creamy paper. Alas, I cannot remember the name of the artist.

Ms. Kroupa then moved on to her real passion – books that are art objects in themselves as well as in content. These are one-of-a-kind or are in very small, limited editions. Every aspect of them, from the materials to the printing to the binding, are part of the artwork. She refuses to enter into the debate about “What is a book?” that has been raging in the academic world for some time. She also refuses to enter the debate about whether a one-of-a-kind object belongs in an art museum or in a library. Instead she casts her net as widely as she can for materials that she feels are important in the development of book art. Only some of the unusual work that she showed us:

• A book of a few pages printed on cloth that combined cyanotype and brief texts with glass (perhaps acrylic) rods stitched together as a spine.

• A doll-sized bed with handmade stuffed mattress, quilts, coverlet and pillow. Each fabric surface was stitched with text taken from a historically important text by a 19th century woman author.

• “Panorama” – a pop-up book for grownups – that on alternated pages with fold up revealed text on the issues of climate change and species extinction and pages with exquisite, layered pop-ups that combined text and hand-painted art.

Ms. Kroupa is quick to point out that, while many of the items she adds to the book art and rare book collection are very expensive, her acquisitions budget is miniscule. Most acquisitions either are outright gifts or are heavily subsidized by generous donors.

She is a passionate believer in the importance of the physical object (as opposed to viewing on a computer screen) even for art books that could be scanned page by page. She feels that experiencing the object as the artist intended is an integral part of the experience. However, she does not disdain the notion of using computers to create work from scratch as book art.

She concluded by noting that if you called and described your special interests you could make an appointment to visit the Allen Library and view items from their collection (an invitation that I certainly intend to accept).

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I don't understand why Amy Blakemore's photographs are important.

Seattle Art Museum just opened a show of photographs by Amy Blakemore. There was a gallery talk by the artist and SAM’s Marissa Sanchez (a former student of the artist) last Thursday.

As an aside, SAM’s photography gallery is really a hallway on the 3rd floor. It’s a nice hallway, broad and with good light. I suppose the traffic through it is good since it leads to the Jacob Lawrence gallery. It’s a whole lot better than no space dedicated to photography (which is what SAM had until the new building opened) but it’s still a hallway.

I had not seen Ms. Blakemore’s work except in reproductions. Two photographs I had seen in a magazine are in the show. One is of an airplane on its landing approach. There is an out-of-focus tree in the foreground and the out-of-focus airplane is near the upper left corner of the frame. The colors are muted, mostly blues. The second is a photograph of a huge folk-art or advertizing statue in Houston. It, too, is partly ocluded by out-of-focus trees. I went to the talk to see some real prints and with the hope of gaining some insight her work. Unfortunately, the hallway was crowded and noisy so I only heard about half of what she and Ms. Sanchez had to say.  I wanted to ask her some questions but gave up.

Ms. Blakemore is an artist and teacher based in Houston. Her prints are square, roughly 20 inches on a side, from 120 negatives, some color, some black and white, all from a collection of original Diana plastic cameras. She was originally trained in “the documentary tradition” (which she referred to as the documentary tradition) at UT Austin but switched to plastic camera work while doing a fellowship at Houston’s Museum of Fine Art.

She noted that she does not work in projects and that is easy to believe. Her show at SAM is a few portraits, a few landscapes, a few still lifes, a few street photographs ….

Alas, I didn’t see a single print that I found compelling. I still fail to respond to the two prints I had seen in reproductions. Ms. Sanchez called out a portrait as one of her favorites in the show. It is a color image taken at close range near sunset in warm, nearly orange light. The subject’s blurry head and shoulders are a bit off to the right in the square frame, she looks directly at the camera.
Here is an excerpt from her artist’s statement (ArtDaily, September 5, 2010):

… Amy Blakemore compares the act of taking pictures to the experience of serendipitously gathering broken bits and lost objects during a long walk. …

She wanders around with her camera and photographs what catches her eye.  I do that, too.

Blakemore’s photographs have maintained a tantalizing sense of interrupted or incomplete narrative –

She wants you to be intrigued and make up a story to go along with her photographs.  I want that, too.

what at a glance may appear to be a banal mise en scène becomes with further inspection a mysterious and psychologically penetrating view of the world we live in.

I’m sorry but they remain banal mise en scenes to me no matter how hard I stare at them. This is my complaint with conceptual art – if the viewer doesn’t get it then there’s no way to get it.

Blakemore's work is in part defined by her embrace of low-tech cameras with limited range of focus.

What is “limited range of focus”?  Her work is certainly "defined" by the Diana. It seems to me that her work is about the toy camera as opposed to interesting photographs that happen to be taken with a toy camera. Nick Hansen did the latter – I own three of his prints. Diane Stefanich does the latter, too.

Her use of such idiosyncratic tools can bring a number of unpredictable irregularities to her compositions, including partially blurred passage and a compressed depth of field that, at times, becomes vertiginous.

What is “blurred passage”? What is “compressed depth of field”? I don’t see “vertiginous” in her prints.

At the same time, her compositions are rigorously composed.

I can believe “carefully” but what does “rigorously” mean in this context?

Through skillful printing techniques she coaxes a remarkably nuanced palette in both black and white and color, and she manipulates the idiosyncrasies of her photographs,

Now I can get behind this statement! Ms. Sanchez noted that Ms. Blakemore is a master printer and I find that very easy to believe. Making 20x20 prints from Diana negatives sounds like a challenge at best and several of the prints were wrung out of negatives that I wouldn’t have a prayer of printing.

capturing the ways in which memory at once records and distorts visual information.

Well, memory certainly both records and distorts visual information but these prints don’t read that to me.

I'm glad I went to the talk -- I think -- but I don't understand why her photographs are important enough to merit a show in a major museum. 

Monday, August 30, 2010


Every year some periodical (NY Times?) has a contest to create new words by changing one letter in an existing English word.
I can never think of a good one but this is close.  I'm adding a single letter.
"Monoblog" - a blog that is read only by the author.
That's what I seem to have here, a monoblog.  Oh, well.  I write the entries mostly to get my thoughts in order anyway.
.... Still it would be nice ....

“After you say ‘It works’….”

Our young friend, Ed, is a passionate fan and promoter of the graphic novel. The notion of the graphic novel either as an art form or as a literary form has puzzled me for some time. Some time ago Ed twisted my arm until I read “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993). McCloud wrote it, cleverly enough, using the concepts that he is explaining in each chapter. 
“Understanding Comics” cleared some of the fog and gave me a good understanding of the techniques used to make text and art work together to tell a story.

It did not convince me, however, that the graphic novel was a form that held any interest for me. I’m not a big fan of the superhero genre or the zombie/vampire/horror genre and those seems to dominate the graphic novel titles. The only one I had even tried to read was Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (several editions) when it was newly published but had to put it down – it was very well done and effective but it gave me nightmares.

Early this year I read of a series of graphic novels commissioned by the Louvre. There will ultimately be eight titles in the series. I believe that only two are published so far. The Louvre’s requirement to various artist/writers is simple – the Louvre must appear as a significant element in the plot. The announcement I read was for “On the Odd Hours” by Eric Liberge (NBMComicsLit, 2010 for the English edition). The premise, the “hook” if you will, of this book is that all museums secretly employ a special curator whose duty is to care for the souls of the artworks in the museum. The protagonist in “On the Odd Hours” is the young intern to the Louvre’s such curator. This sounded so appealing that I promptly ordered a copy.

Arnold Newman, the famous portrait photographer says: “After you say ‘It works.’ (or ‘It doesn’t work.’) then you can discuss the details.” (my addition in parentheses.)

“On the Odd Hours” doesn’t work. The drawings are very good indeed. Set among the art in the Louvre it certainly is visually rich. The hook is wonderful. But it doesn’t work. The text and the artwork don’t work well together. The graphic layout fails to convey the passage of time and space in many places (at least to me). The plot isn’t visual – it depends too much on understanding the protagonist’s situation, history, and mental state – difficult to express in graphic novel format. It should have been much shorter or much longer – the plot as presented is too short to be a novel but too complex to allow full development at its current length. I keep thinking what a wonderful short story Ray Bradbury could have written over the basic idea. Which also led me to ponder which of the Ray Bradbury short stories would be well-served by a “graphic novel” format. “The Dragon” certainly. There is a recent edition of “The Homecoming” that is already in very close to graphic novel format.

But I digress. After another long talk with Ed (who had not seen “The Odd Hours”) he suggested that I read “Bone” (Jeff Smith, Cartoon Books, 2004) as an example of a graphic novel that he felt works very well. He had to think a while to come up with one that was not a horror, zombie, or superhero plot. “Bone” is a straight-ahead heroic-quest fantasy, complete with a hapless but loveable protagonist who finds his courage, a dim but faithful sidekick, a wise grandmother, a beautiful princess estranged from her heritage, sundry monsters and villains, an evil force to be overcome and even the occasional dragon.

Ed was right. “Bone” does work very well and I enjoyed it even though my taste for fantasy isn’t very keen either. I would not have read it in a text form. It would have been just another fantasy potboiler and, in fact, I doubt that it would have been published.

Jeff Smith’s drawing style, his use of the drawings and the text, and his means of suggesting passage of time and space are straight out of “Understanding Comics”. “Bone” was written in installments over several years so I suppose that the evolution toward sophistication of the drawing style could be just from the passage of time but I think it was more conscious that that. As the story jelled and worked its way into a more complex world, so did the drawing.

OK – so a graphic novel can work. The issue with “The Odd Hours” is not that the graphic novel can’t work; rather that this particular graphic novel doesn’t work.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Why me? (Is anybody out there?)

In my initial post on this blog, I answered "Why not me?"  That's still the best reason I can advance.  I tend to write stuff down a lot so a great deal of what I post here comes more-or-less directly out of my journal.  However, it would be entertaining to know if anybody other than me ever looks at it.  If you do (and you're not me) please leave a "Yup, I read it." comment or something.

Photography show at "the hutch"

If you need a reminder of how beautiful a black and white silver print can be, may I recommend a visit to the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.  A benefactor recently donated a collection of photographs to the center’s art collection.  43 (count ‘em) from the collection are now on display in the main lobby of the Arnold Building on their main campus near Lake Union.  The display is a who’s who of the arguably golden age of silver photography. 
  • 7 Ansel Adams prints, including the best print of “half dome” I’ve ever seen and a beautiful “aspens vertical”.
  • 4 Brett Weston prints
  • 5 W. Eugene Smith prints, including the iconic “walk” and “row houses” and one that I had not seen “waiting for survivors, Andrea Doria” that is my new Gene Smith favorite.
  • 7 Edward Weston vintage prints including “Shell, 1926” that is absolutely breathtaking
  • 1 Max Yavno
  • 3 Andre Kertez but none of the icons
  • 1 Robert Doisneau – a print I had never seen from one of my favorite photographers
  • 1 Clarence John Laughlin
  • 1 Josef Karsh – the portrait of Pablo Casals playing his cello
  • 1 Henri Cartier-Bresson but not one of the icons
  • 2 Ilse Bing but not particularly distinguished ones
  • 1 Robert Mapplethorpe – a still life
  • 1 Aaron Siskind
  • 1 Jerry Uelesman
  • 1 Josef Koudelka – the icon of the skyrocket launch
  • 1 Jean Claude Gautrand – and here I thought he was solely an editor and curator.
  • 1 Stella Simon
  • 1 Tina Freeman – “the window, London, 1979”.  I had never heard of her.  I believe that I tracked her down on the web but there is no evidence there of her having done black and white.  This print goes into my pantheon of “If money was no object …” acquisitions.
  • 2 Michael Smith
  • 1 Stephanie Dinkins
Good grief, there are a lot of museums with less to show than that!  All but a small handful of these prints are ones that I knew from books and only the last four names are ones with which I was not familiar.  What a feast.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Term Limits for Curators?

A short postscript to the last post “Why I’m not …”.  Yet another interesting comment from Mr .Wride was that he had been looking at a whole lot of photographs for many years – “probably more than is good for me”.
A year or so before Marita Holdaway closed Benham Gallery I talked to her shortly after she returned from the portfolio review at the biennial PhotoLucida.  I asked her if she saw anything that she thought was really outstanding.  Her reply was that she had looked at thousands of portfolios over the past 20 years and “it takes a lot to get my attention.”

One of Susan Sonntag’s essays concerns the desensitizing effects of long-term exposure to photographs of violence.  Maybe overexposure desensitizes one in other ways, too.  Maybe we need term limits for curators, gallery owners, portfolio reviewers.

My musician/mathematician friend, Fritz, (mentioned in an earlier post) made the conscious decision not to become a professional musician after he heard a professional violinist lament that one of Brahms’ symphonies was “sooooo long.”  His response to himself was “I never want to feel that way about a Brahms symphony!”

Maybe that makes my path of waiting for a half-century or so until retirement kicks in (as Ted Orland postulates) seem more reasonable.  I sure haven’t lost the delight in seeing well-done photographs or drawings or paintings – even if they aren’t from the cutting edge.  (Or maybe I’m just rationalizing.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why I'm not at Tim Wride's Saturday workshop.

Here is my disclaimer. I don't know what art is. I don't know what art isn't. I mistrust anybody who asserts that he or she does. What I do know is that I see a lot of what is displayed as art and I read a lot about what is regarded as art. A lot of what I see and read about I understand and like -- or understand and don't like -- or don't understand. There are semi-permeable and constantly shifting membranes between these groups. Regard the remainder of this post with an appropriately sized grain of salt.

A second disclaimer. The editor that blogspot supplies drives me crazy. Stray line spaces and bullet points with no text are artifacts. Please ignore them.

A couple of evenings ago I went to a talk at Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle by Tim Wride. Mr. Wride is the former curator of photography at LACMA and is now an independent curator, writer, lecturer, and founder of the No Strings Foundation. According to their website, the No Strings Foundation “is committed to providing direct assistance to photographic imagemakers in an effort to facilitate and enhance their creative opportunities and endeavors.”  Sounds like a good idea to me.

His talk on Wednesday evening, “What’s up in photoland” was a warm-up for a half-day program on Saturday or a full day seminar on Sunday about looking at photographs (other peoples and your own) critically. Apart from being a bit puzzled myself about “what’s up in photoland” the evening talk seemed like a good way to find out if I wanted to spend the money and, especially, the time to attend one of the weekend programs.

Mr. Wride is certainly an articulate, passionate speaker and it is a treat to hear somebody stating his views about art directly and in plain English. Moreover, I agree with much of what he had to say. The short summary of “what’s up in photoland”:

Contrary to the buzz that the sky is falling, art photography is alive and well but not yet acclimated to the “new normal”.

• The art photography market circa 2008 was bloated with both less-than-spectacular work and less-than-discriminating collectors who were buying it like dot-com stocks.

• The bubble burst in 2009 along with the economic bubble that was providing the money for it.

• He believes that a significant regrouping in the art photography world is now happening with the second-rate work disappearing (or at least diminishing in quantity), far fewer people making any semblance of a living in art photography and collectors becoming more discriminating. Cynically, I read the latter as “buying more of what I suggest or promote.” Ironically, his No Strings Foundation has failed to attract investors/supporters.

• One result of the burst bubble is that there are a lot of people who were making a living at art photography then who aren’t doing so now. His opinion, that I share, is basically “good riddance”.

• A second result is that a good deal of work, much of it “second rate”, is being donated to museums. Some of this will wind up in permanent collections and, in coming years, be regarded as representative of what was was up in photoland in this decade. Well, that’s true – and that is what was up.

Mr. Wride then presented a list of what he regards as red herrings in recent art photography:

• Blurry doesn’t make it art. It just makes it blurry.

• Big and colorful doesn’t make it art.

• Using toy cameras doesn’t make it art.

• Depth of field doesn’t make it art. (I’m not sure what he means by this. I suspect he is referring to the use of swings and tilts to create an implausible relationship between fore/mid/background. If that is it, he’s my man.)

• Euro-installation doesn’t make it art. (I had never heard this term. My interpretation of how he described it is “hanging work very high or low, hanging it in random groupings …”)

• Good art direction doesn’t make it art.

I hasten to add that he was not suggesting that the presence of any of the above precludes it from being art, either. Instead he was disdainful of the use of them, or any other technique, as a gimmick; an attempt to find the Photoshop “Cntrl-P for profound” key postulated by Ted Orland. I would add to his list:

• Beautiful doesn’t make it art, but neither does banal or ugly.

• Spectacular print quality doesn’t make it art but neither does disregard or disdain for print quality.

• Important doesn't make it art, but neither does trivial.

He then suggested that one opportunity facing us is to reconsider the work of underappreciated photographers from recent history. His list included:

• The pioneers of modernist photography: Ralph Gibson, Wynn Bullock, Minor White.

• The feminist photographers of the 70’s, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Judy Dater, Kiki Smith, Diane Niemier (my addition)

• The New Topographic school, the Bechers, Nicolas Nixon, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams

• The postmodernists, Victor Burgin, Philip Lorca-Dicorcia, Sherrie Levine, Paul Berger

• At least one more group that I can’t recall

Mr. Wride closed his talk by discussing where he felt art photography was going from here. During this discussion he dropped an obita dicta – words said in passing that give the game away. He regards art photography as primarily idea-based rather than image-based – as conceptual art. He openly stated that an exciting visual was not enough to get the work over his threshold - that visual interest is neither sufficient nor necessary. Aha! That explains a lot about his list of underappreciated photographers.

For example, Ralph Gibson’s preference is to show his work in books. In my opinion, book reproduction does not show his work well. His “The Somnambulist”, for example, is weighted (so Gibson says) with deep layers of meaning that I have never seen. Perhaps it is solely my problem but if a conceptual artist wants to convey an idea, it is wise to leave the door open a crack so I can get in. On the other hand, when Benham Gallery showed Gibson’s work I was blown away by some of the work from The Somnambulist. It still isn’t my favorite book but I can now look at it with some appreciation for what he was about.

Far be it from me to demean the socio-political value of the work done by the feminist photographers of the 70’s. It was and is important, valuable and memorable in the same way as the anti-nazi agitprop of John Heartfield. However, part of his admiration for the feminist photographers of the 70’s was that they were struggling against the current (true) and largely forced to wedge their art into a life dominated by making a living and raising a family (true). I see that as not fundamentally different from the situation of, say, Ralph Eugene Meatyard who had a day job, a family, and wedged his art into weekend photography and a yearly paroxysm of printing for a couple of weeks.

The New Topographic work has always struck me in two ways. Both of these ways include appreciation of spectacularly well-done prints. Some, like the Bechers, are of spectactularly well-done prints of spectacularly banal subjects – seen one European water tower, seen ‘em all. Others, like Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, and some of Nicolas Nixon, are of spectacularly ugly landscapes. These are, in my opinion, important as environmental statements but no more new and different than photographs of spectacularly beautiful architectural subjecs or landscapes.

Next I must confess yet another bias. I believe that it was Ralph Hattersly who wrote, “Above all, post-modern art is post-audience art.” It reminds me of the heyday of “cool” jazz during which the disdainful musicians would turn their backs to the audience during a performance so that they would not be distracted. After audiences stopped coming, cool jazz fizzled out. Similarly, it seems to me that most post-modern art is directed at a spiralingly smaller audience – the same people who know anything about, say, Paul Berger’s work are largely the same people who know everything about his work. I’m an exception; I know something about his work. He may be a pivotal figure in the recent history of photography but his work certainly eludes me. The ideas that he attributes to his work aren’t visible even after reading his statements. An artist/poet/filmmaker friend (one of whose short films is in the collection of NY/MOMA) described Berger’s first book “Seattle Subtext” as “another academic screwing around with a camera and a Xerox machine”. My opinion isn't quite that harsh.

In general, I have a lot of trouble with photography as conceptual art. It has always seemed to me that photography is very good at showing what something or somebody looked like at a particular time and place and that photography is very bad at expressing an idea. Words have the edge there.

A second obita dicta was Mr. Wride’s statement that “Photography is a very big place, just as is painting. There are painters that paint houses and painters that produce art. If you want to produce art you better belong to the art world.” What I heard from that and the context surrounding it was “you better produce work that is different from what I saw yesterday or last year or you are more like a house painter than an art painter.” That is a noble goal but not one that can be achieved by pursuing it directly (back to the list of Cntrl-P activities). A local photographer whom I shall not name once openly told me that he was looking for a new angle that would make him famous. He hasn’t found it yet. Edward Weston once commented on a contemporary “He doesn’t have to try to be different. He is different.” That’s more like it.

A third obita dicta was his expressed disdain for those who “have some other career and then decide that they want to be a photographer.” Perhaps that’s why he didn’t include Ralph Eugene Meatyard in his underappreciated list.

So ….. since I am one of the untouchables who had another career, since my work is not new and exciting, since my work is ostentatiously visual and not intellectual – I chose to stay home this weekend and play in the darkroom. I am currently on a lunch break from doing so and Mr. Wride’s Saturday workshop is in progress.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Preston Singletary glass

Today Barbara and I went to see the Preston Singletary show at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.  We planned to also go to an afternoon dance performance (our grandson is a professional dancer) but, alas, I had the day wrong and the performance was yesterday.  I'm still pretty sandpapered at myself for that.  But back to the Singletary show....
Mr. Singletary is a young, compared to me at least, Tlingit artist who uses traditional motifs and designs but realizes his pieces in blown or cast glass which he "sand carves" and sometimes paints or adheres gold leaf.  He has several works in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum -- where we first saw his work a decade or so ago -- and in an impressive list of other institutions and prestigious collections.  If I had a lot of money, I'd own some of them, too.  His show at the Museum of Glass is a "mid career" show and it is a large show, indeed, with some of his earliest works as well as pieces that he completed while doing a residency at the museum's hot shop late last year.
Two examples -- "Raven Steals the Sun" (there are two in the show, I'm enamored of the smaller, earlier one) is about half a meter high, the stylized face of the raven, vertical, gleaming jet black, with the gleaming orb of the stolen sun triumphantly clenched in the open beak.  It is adorned with the raven design of traditional Tlingit art.  "Wolf Hat" is blown glass in the shape of the basketry hats made by many Northwest tribes.  It is a bit bigger than life-size, perhaps 3/4 of a meter across the brim, and mounted upside-down.  Translucent, pale-blue glass, it is decorated with traditional wolf figures sand-carved (like sand-blasting but much more delicate) to make the surface of the glass translucent.  It is lighted from directly above so the piece casts a wonderful shadow on the plinth upon which it is mounted.  However, the wolf image in the curved shape of the hat projects on to the flat surface of the plinth as a frog.  It literally gave me cold chills to stand and look at it.
Now please understand that glass is not my most favorite medium.  I'm not a Dale Chihuly fan (lighting may strike any second now).  I'll make an exception for Singletary's work.  Apart from the fact that I really like it, I am a sucker for an artist who does what he/she does VERY WELL!  (back to the passionate virtuosity, I suppose).
Singletary is going to be in the museum's hot shop as a visiting artist for a few days in April.  Sounds like another trip is in order.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It’s all about content?

A couple of years ago I had a few prints in a group show along with a gaggle of other local photographers, several of which are friends from Group f/5.6 ( if you are interested – or even if you aren’t.) One of these friends, looking through the show, said to me “Well, your photographs are all about content and not print quality.” I was rather taken aback since I happened to think that the prints I had hung were pretty well made. However, when I looked carefully at his prints (he is a very good printer indeed) I believe that I understood what he meant.
To me, print quality is a means in the service of better expressing what I want the print to show. To him, print quality is an end – his goal is to produce a print of eye-popping quality and stunning size. The content is secondary.
Barbara and I saw the traveling show of “late” Edward Weston prints at the Art Institute of Chicago. Frankly, many of his prints strike me as kind of sterile – though spectacularly well printed. Brett Weston printed many of the prints in this show under his father’s supervision. [How two such towering egos could work together so closely and seemingly so amicably has always been a puzzle to me.] One such featured the surface of a shallow salt-water pond. Brett Weston had rendered the surface of the water with such skill that it seemed as if it would drip off the bottom of the frame. The surface itself, the leaves floating upon it, the aquatic weeds growing beneath it were all in their places. The bed of the pond was “zone I dancing with zone II” as Ralph Gibson says. I was dazzled. Barbara caught up with me, looked at this print, muttered appreciatively – and walked on. Talking about it later, we concluded that you have to know how hard it would be to do that before it is dazzling.
There is music like that. The Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto (known as Rack 3 to pianists) is a technical tour-de-force but at least to my ear not as emotionally engaging as numbers 1 and 2. Not that any of them are within reach to most pianists. Perhaps we’re back to the Barth quotation about PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Passionate Virtuousity

Barbara and I attend the monthly art history lecture by Rebecca Albiani at the Fry Art Museum in Seattle. My first contact with her was when our daughter-in-law Shannon was a student at the local community college where Ms. Albiani then taught. Shannon came to me, eyes sparkling, and said, “You have got to hear this woman who teaches my art history class!” She was right. I tuned in to the college TV station for a couple of her lectures and, even faced with an auditorium full of nearly art-illiterate teens, she was magic.
Her lecture at the Fry this month was on the feast paintings of Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). In the spirit of full disclosure, that is by far not my favorite period of art and Veronese’s paintings had left me lukewarm – both in books and in person. However, if Ms. Albiani is going to talk about them, I’m more than willing to go listen.
Magic, again. She brings so much information to the lecture that it, too, is a feast. She wove the work into the then-contemporary art scene, the artist into his culture and contemporaries, and both into the political, religious, and cultural environment of the time and place. Her discussion of individual works becomes a grand tour.
Speaking as one who has done a good deal of stand-up teaching, her lectures are incredibly well organized. I would suspect her of reading them from a script – but her answers to questions from the audience are equally well organized and articulate. She just knows the territory.
The icing on the cake (keeping the feast theme) is that she seems to be having such an impossibly good time – her manner suggests that there is absolutely nothing she enjoys more than telling people about some aspect of art that she finds fascinating. One of my favorite quotations is by John Barth: "My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but what you really want is PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY." That’s her. Just being around people who show PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY about their art – or science – or craft – or life -- charges my batteries.
I’m still not ready to put the Veronese paintings on my favorite list but the next time I see one in a museum I will certainly look at it more closely. Ms. Albiani is going to do a series on Vermeer beginning next month. I can hardly wait.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Seeing with two sets of eyes

Alex is another of the small group of photographer friends with whom I meet every other Monday. He, too, is mostly a people photographer so we have a lot to talk about. Alex is a city kid – born, raised, and lives in Seattle. Moreover, he and I are also from pretty much nuclear families. I have no siblings, he one much older brother. His wife, however, is from a large, extended family that has been on the ground in very rural Kansas for over a century. His wife’s family has made him very welcome and he thoroughly enjoys being in their midst – he quickly became the staff photographer, as it were. Alex still regards Kansas and the warmth and goofiness of large family gatherings with a mixture of curiosity and amazement. This set me to thinking of a show at Benham Gallery some years ago – I believe 1999 – by Concha Navarro and Kevin Bjorkland.

Ms. Navarro is originally from a small agrarian village in Spain, Mr. Bjorkland is, I believe, originally from Salt Lake City. They visited her home village in Spain and both of them photographed extensively while they were there. Their joint show was very successful – it even got a rave review (getting any review at all is rare) in the Seattle Times. Both of them were photographing the village and its people: both were there long enough that their work was not a “drive by shooting.” [Isn’t that a wonderful description of what some tourist photography looks like? Amanda Koster,, used it in a recent lecture and I shamelessly appropriated its use.] Both of them are excellent printmakers.

What Barbara and I both found most interesting was that we could stand back and look down the row of prints on each wall and guess which were hers and which were his – not subject matter, not shooting style, not technical skill but something else. We finally concluded that the difference was in the reaction, or lack of reaction, of the people in the photographs. He was a visitor, a welcome visitor to be sure but still a visitor. The people of the village noticed him and he was seeing them as an observer. She was Senora Navarro’s little girl. They could remember when she was six years old and had black braids and they were seeing her as part of the village. I wished then and wish now that they had done a book of the prints in that show. I’d sure buy one. We did buy a single print.

Neither of them appears still to be active as photographers. At least I can’t find any recent traces of them on the web. That’s a shame.

This, in turn, led me to thinking about a project I did several years ago. Before I retired I traveled a good deal on business. When in the midwest I would spend a weekend with my parents in the small, agrarian town in Illinois where I grew up – a small enough town that, even though I was only there once or twice a year, I couldn’t walk into the hardware store or the one local restaurant without having somebody ask me how my dad was doing. If the weather wasn’t exceptionally dreadful I would almost always take a roll or two of film. After a couple of decades there was quite a bit of it and I decided to see what I could do with it. I made a thick stack of 5x7 work prints, likely a couple of hundred, but couldn’t get an idea to jell. At the time I was studying off and on with a wonderful local photographer/teacher Nick Hanson so I showed my stack of work prints to him. He spread them out on his floor, stared at them for about 15 minutes and then began to shuffle them. When he finished he told me that it was obvious that I didn’t have a project here, I had three projects. In one of them, I loved this place. In the second, I hated this place. In the third, I was just an observer. In a sense, I sometimes I was Concha, sometimes Kevin. (I don’t know who I was in the “hated this place” stack.)

It’s too bad that Alex’s wife isn’t a more dedicated photographer. I would enjoy seeing a “Concha and Kevin” show from Kansas.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Conceptually I Usually Don't Get Conceptual Art

I have a lot of problem with conceptual photography – it seems to me that a photograph is very good at showing what something/somebody looked like at a particular time and place. It also seems to me that a photograph is very bad at expressing a concept or idea – especially without accompanying words.

Conceptual art is a lot like a joke. If you “get it” then you think it’s funny or you don’t. If you don’t “get it”, well, then you don’t get it – it isn’t funny and you can’t figure out why it should be. If somebody explains the joke to you then the most likely response is a shrug and “Whatever.”  Conceptual art is often like the joke that I don’t get.
Conceptual art is hard for any artist. The artist always “gets it” but has to provide enough clues so that some segment of the viewing public will “get it.” Or maybe not. A respected colleague speculates that some conceptual artists aren’t interested in having just anybody “get it” – their art is aimed at an in-crowd. There are jokes like that, too. I don’t understand wanting to make art only for the in-crowd. A poet acquaintance once told me that she would be happy if she could spend her time writing poems that nobody but her could understand. I don’t understand that, either. I once attended a concert of new music at which one piece consisted of a solo violin playing music based on the EKG of a laboratory rat on LSD. The vocal accompaniment was based on the scientist’s notes. I didn’t understand that, either.
Conceptual art is especially hard for a photographer. It’s hard to photograph an idea. I recently heard one of the luminaries of conceptual photography say (not quite verbatim) that a photograph is not a collection of shapes and spaces that somehow relate to one another but an image of a collection of objects. What is important is the relationships among those objects and “composition” only is important inasmuch as it helps the artist show those relationships in the way intended. (I can’t see any evidence of this statement in the artist’s work, by the way.) Working an idea into that framework is a pretty formidable challenge. I don’t know many photographers who can do it.
You can certainly argue that all art is based on some idea, some concept, that the art is supposed to illuminate. At one extreme it’s “I find this (collection of objects in some kind of relationship that my photograph illustrates) to be [beautiful, ugly, appalling, amusing,…]. I hope you do, too.” At the other extreme, there is the very intellectually crafted and idea-based work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Parke-Harrison, Joel Witkin, Duane Michals, ... Somewhere between these extremes the work becomes “conceptual”.
Conceptual art is hard for the viewerm too. It forces the viewer to intellectualize about the piece in addition to processing it visually – to see it in the context of personal background and experience. If you aren’t hip to the conventions of B-movies then the “Untitled Film Stills” are pretty mysterious. Reading the subtitle text generates a “Whatever.”. At the visual art show at Bumbershoot a couple of years ago there was a bigger-than-life-size head and shoulders portrait of Benjamin Franklin made out of various sizes of keys. After a pause – “Oh, I get it. He’s riffing on Franklin’s kite-string and key experiment.” The artist had left enough clues that most people who were educated in the U.S. could “get it”. I still found it pretty dull. The makers of a lot of conceptual art don’t leave enough clues to allow me to “get it.” I’m sure that the artist would maintain that is my problem and that’s likely true. Whatever.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Blowing in the wind (or even slight breeze)

Barbara and I went to see the Calder show at Seattle Art Museum yesterday. Our goal was to see both it and the “Michelangelo Public and Private” show but the latter was so crowded we gave it up for a bad job after a quick look and will go back on a weekday before it closes. My initial impression was that it wasn’t as spectacular as I had hoped. There are a few studies and sketches from Michelangelo’s own hand and a spectacular, full-scale photomural of “David”. I was hoping to see some more completely worked up drawings. It seems like the show is more interesting from an art-historical view than from the art itself.

The Calder show, however, was a delight to the eye. There are several of his full-scale works showing, including several of the ones you see in the books. None of them is as big as the giant piece that hangs in the central hall of the National Gallery – but that on is in a class by itself. There is a possibly apocryphal story about Calder that I love. The story goes that a collector/patron wanted to commission a mobile with the vanes made of gold sheet. Calder agreed to do it only if he could paint them flat black. I hope that’s true.
As appealing as the larger works are, my eyes were on the smaller pieces and the wire sculpture. The latter remind me of the very sparse drawings – only a few lines – that Matisse did, or maybe Hirschfeld. With only a piece of bent wire they define both shape and volume. Besides which you have to smile at them, especially the cow and the “standing woman”. Some of the small sculptures were made as maquettes of larger pieces but some must have been made just because he wanted to. In fact, my impression is that he did a lot of his work just because he wanted to.
The show also has quite a few photographs of Calder in his studio and a delightful video of Calder and his toy circus. For a man with such a forbidding appearance, he seems to have been extraordinarily light-hearted and able to keep his sense of play alive -- to become older without ever growing up. Joan Miro must have been like that, too.
Many of the works in this show are from the collection of John and Mary Shirley. They certainly have good taste.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

No Man's Land

My friend Craig and I are both members of a small group of photographers that meets every other week to discuss work in progress and keep each other motivated. He, among other admirable traits, is a skilled and meticulous printer. Like me, he tends to work in projects – aiming at a body of work rather than at single prints. When one of his projects is finished, it is really finished. He selects the size, materials, process, toning, and mat board to suit his vision of what the specific project should look like.
Craig does both silver and platinum/palladium printing. His platinum/palladium prints are mostly from in-camera negatives but he sometimes makes them from digital negatives enlarged from 35mm film.
He is beginning a series of photographs of early 20th century gravestones. Many of these, especially in the decade during and after WWI, were adorned with small, usually oval portraits of the deceased. The portrait was covered with glass, often slightly convex, to protect the image. The glass has cracked or shattered on some of these gravestones so the photograph has become stained or damaged. His photographs are of the portrait itself and enough of the surrounding stone to give it context and surface texture.
Craig has been playing with ideas on how to print and present these for some time. Last Monday he brought the first one of the series to our regular meeting. He scanned the 35mm negative and surrounded it with an ornate border scanned from a framed portrait from the same era. The platinum/palladium print, made from a digital negative, is about 6x8 inches so that the original oval portrait is roughly full size.
The portrait is of a young man in WWI uniform with campaign hat at a jaunty angle. His expression is the straight-ahead, uninflected one that you often see in photographs from that era but his eyes are those of a man who has stood on the edge of the pit and looked in. There is a David Duncan Douglas portrait from the Korean War “Captain Ike Fenton, USMC” that has the same eyes and Craig’s print haunts me in the same way.
Craig is still playing with ideas on how to present this project. My fantasy is that of a small show, maybe 20 prints, with each print accompanied by a short poem in the manner of the Spoon River Anthology and a recording of Tommy Makem and Ian Clancy singing “No Man’s Land” in the background. (Nothing is hard for the person that isn’t going to do it.) No matter how Craig decides to present this work, if he can come up with a few more prints with the depth of this first one (no doubt in my mind that he can) he is on to something really good.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A brief postscript

I also know the king of the alternative to waiting for retirement to kick in. Fritz is a very good violinist, concertmaster for a very capable semi-professional orchestra and leader of a very competent string quartet. He made the conscious decision while still in high school that he didn’t ever want to become jaded and bored with music like some of the professional musicians he had met.
He studied mathematics and became a very competent mathematician – he has made a very satisfactory mark applying his mathematics to computer algorithms. He has the remarkable and admirable ability to throw a mental switch into the “mathematics” position or the “musician” position – to completely focus on one or the other.
This approach didn’t work well for me. Before retirement kicked in I was just as likely to waken in the wee hours thinking of software or of art. This led to a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, as they say.

Wait for retirement to kick in

Ted Orland suggests several strategies for sustaining yourself while doing art. [“The view from the studio door”, Ted Orland, Image Continuum Press, 2006. Available from his website This is not a paid advert. On the other hand, it is a book that I highly recommend and that I read about once a year just to keep my perspectacles on straight.] One strategy is to find something other than art to do to make money. Below this there are two sub-strategies: pursue your art simultaneously or do the best you can and wait for retirement to kick in. I recently met the king of the latter path, Charles (Chuck) Guildner.
Chuck is a mid-70ish fellow who retired 20 odd years ago and jumped full time, headlong, no excuses accepted, no delay tolerated into his photography. He went back to school to study photography as a craft and as an art. He photographs, he makes his own black and white prints, he teaches, he inspires (well, he inspires me for sure). I have not seen any of his pre-retirement work but I’ll bet it isn’t bad either. I have seen his post-retirement work and it is spectacular.
He is also the king of the notion of using your art to explore people, places, and situations about which you are passionate – as opposed to latching on to a technique or medium and then finding something to use it for. His website will convince you of that.
Current theory dismisses the notion of art as a precious object, of craftsmanship as an essential part of art making, of beauty (whatever that means) as a necessary or even desirable characteristic of art. Not in his universe. His prints are a reminder of how beautiful a silver print can be.
His landscapes are, well, beautiful. My immediate response was “Boy, you sure get a beautiful print when you start with a large-format negative.” Some of them are from large-format negatives – even a few 8x10’s. However, some of them are from medium-format negatives, too. At 16x20 or 20x24 it takes careful examination to see the difference.
I am especially moved by his portraits – straight-ahead, no frills, no Avedon or Penn artifice, no Newman carefully controlled environment (I admire all of these photographers, by the way.) I compare his portraits to those of August Sander. They have a similar feeling of just being there. In the “Buck Buckles and His Team” portrait, Mr. Buckles is leading two of his enormous workhorses out of the barn. The two horses seem to me to just about as camera-conscious as their boss.
Sadly, Chuck is no longer making silver prints. He is scanning his negatives and then sending them to the state archive in Nebraska. His digital prints are beautiful too but …