Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Regular Customer" project

I'm nearly done scanning negatives for my “Regular Customer” project (aka: “50 years at the Pike Place Market”). About a year ago it popped into my head that it soon would be 50 years since we moved to Seattle. We have lived here for 43 of those 50 years. I was one of the modern nomads, an aerospace engineer, so we moved away and came back twice.

Both of us were flat-landers, raised in Illinois, college in Indiana, and neither of us had ever lived in a city. Barbara had been in Seattle once as a child and I had never gotten farther west than central Missouri. We found a 2x4 apartment in the heart of the city with the notion of spending a year figuring out where we wanted to live, bought a machine that roughly resembled an automobile and declared ourselves natives. We kept stumbling on to places that gave us the “Toto, I don't believe we are still in Kansas.” feeling and one of these was the Pike Place Market. Before many weeks passed we were on a first-name basis with some of the merchants, had learned what fresh salmon tasted like, and knew how to navigate the maze of shops on the lower floors.

Not long after that my interest in photography turned from the random family slides – I still had the camera I bought in Germany the summer I played on a USO tour band – to developing my own black and white and making (absolutely awful) prints in my makeshift darkroom. The market became the place I would go to photograph just for fun or just because we were going to be there anyway – I got pretty good at photographing with one hand while holding a grocery bag in the other and balancing a kid on my back. I decided that I really had become a native when I noticed a tourist taking a photograph of me. Time passed and a lot of film wound up cut into neat strips, contact printed, put into plastic protector-pages, and filed in three-ring notebooks.

Did I have enough photographs of the market for a book-length project? I flipped through the contact sheets and my film log (thankfully, I started keeping notes after a couple of years). I counted up well over 300 rolls of film that had at least some market photographs on them. Yeah, probably enough. For just over a year I have been plodding through those rolls of film, ignoring the uninteresting or obviously unusable negatives and scanning the rest. “Plodding” is the right word. Some wag noted that all human progress is made by people who don't understand what they are getting into. If I had realized how long a job this would turn out to be I likely would never have started. But now I'm nearly done – only about 15 more rolls of film to go through – and I have about 850 scanned and lightly edited photographs of the market and its people ready to …. do whatever comes next.

I intend to edit the 900 or so “first cut” photographs down to about 200 but before I start editing I had better have at least a rough idea of how the resulting book is going to be organized. I'll let you know when I do.

I have no idea how this project is going to turn out. I have even less of an idea of whether or not I can get it published if I ever do finish it. On the other hand, it has been fun to slog through nearly 60,000 negatives most of which I have never printed. I have become quite efficient at editing the scans to the “good enough” state that will allow me to make informed choices for the second cut. Which leads me to another observation: I would never have undertaken a project of this size if I were going to do it in the darkroom – I can edit 6 or 7 prints an hour to the “good enough” state. I would be lucky to print 6 or 7 prints a day in the darkroom. Since my goal is an ink-on-paper book I'm eventually going to have to have digital files for each print anyway. When this is all done, the book is published and I'm getting rich off of the royalties (yeah, right) I may well go back and silver print a very select few of the final cut for a portfolio.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why is Portland a better photography scene?

I just got the monthly “what's happening in Portland” email from Guy Swanson. Guy is a tireless promoter of photography, ex-gallery operator (Photographic Image Gallery in Portland's old town), retired PR man, docent at Portland Art Museum (PAM) and part-time taxi driver. Part of his email this month is a note from Julia Dolan, PAM's recently-hired curator of photography. She came to PAM after the untimely death of Terry Toedtemeier, who held the post for only two years after it was created (for him). Before that, Mr. Toedtemeier was volunteer curator of photography for several years as well as an active photographer himself and a geologist.

PAM takes photography very seriously – it shows photographs along with contemporaneous work in other mediums, it has an outstanding permanent collection, it has a very nice gallery in which to show work from their collection as well as traveling shows, and an active Photography Council. Their council is 100+ members strong with an active volunteer board and an agenda a yard long. PAM is currently showing Ray Metzger's work and expects to acquire several pieces for their collection using funds raised by the council. Ms. Dolan calls them out in her note as being a major reason for PAM's position in photography.

There is a lot that I like about the Seattle Art Museum – but its institutional attitude about photography isn't one of them.

In my last post I muttered about the Seattle Art Museum’s Photography Council (or lack thereof). SAM did have one some years ago, during Rod Slemmons’ tenure as curator of prints and photography. I was not always keen on Mr. Slemmons’ choices although the Lee Friedlander “Like a One-Eyed Cat” show that he curated remains one of my all time favorites. What I was always keen on, however, was his passion for photography and his unceasing promotion of photography as part of the museum’s offerings. After he departed from SAM, first as an independent curator and then to the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Photography Council shriveled and then was absorbed by the Contemporary Art Council. At the time he left SAM I strongly suspected that he had gotten tired of pushing a rope. His successor, Trevor Fairbrother, seemed to regard photography as print-making's poor cousin. He left SAM, I believe as part of a retrenchment that eliminated his position and folded prints and photography into contemporary art.

SAM has never had a permanent photography gallery. It now uses the hallway leading to the Jacob Lawrence gallery to show photographs. It is relatively well-lighted and relatively wide. It is a nice hallway – but it's still a hallway and symbolic of photography's near-orphan status.

It was never clear to me what the Photography Council’s role was supposed to be from the museum’s viewpoint. The other councils – Contemporary Art, African Art, Asian Art – appeared to me to be composed mostly of wealthy, influential collectors and the purpose of the council is to both provide and round up financial support for the respective collections and for exhibitions. The Photography Council was mostly composed of, well, photographers – not a group noted for a plethora of wealthy, influential individuals. Council chairmen that I remember are Nick Hansen (photographer and teacher), David Johnson (photographer and teacher) and David Clarridge (photographer and free-lance accountant).

It was clear to me what the Photography Council’s role was supposed to be from the viewpoint of its members – to promote shows of photography at SAM (difficult since I can't remember ever seeing anybody from the museum at a meeting), reaching out to the photographic community on behalf of SAM by sponsoring lectures, portfolio reviews, and workshops (there were a few), provide a few bucks for purchase of photography. The latter came to a screeching halt when the council made a donation and the museum, without including anyone from the council in the decision, purchased a relatively expensive print from a then-trendy photographer that to my knowledge has never been exhibited.

PAM and SAM are the major institutions in Portland and in Seattle. I cannot believe that the difference between the vital and growing photographic scene in Portland and the current doldrums in Seattle aren't at least partly a result of the difference in approach to photography by the museums.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why I don't take my portfolio to portfolio reviews.

Portfolio reviews are a popular event these days. They have morphed from half-day or one day local events sponsored by the likes of the Photography Center Northwest (PCNW) in Seattle and the Photography Council of the Seattle Art Museum (when it had one – but that's the subject of another rant) to multi-day nationally advertised events. The two biggies are the semi-annual FotoFest in Houston and (on the alternate years) PhotoLucida in Portland, Oregon. Local organizations still have them – PCNW, Newspace in Portland, the Photography Council of the Portland Art Museum and so on. In all cases, the format is very similar. The sponsoring organization rounds up an appropriately sized gaggle of curators, gallery owners, teachers, editors and other luminaries as reviewers and hopes that an appropriately sized herd of aspiring photographers will bring their portfolios for review.

In addition to face-to-face portfolio reviews, there is a burgeoning crop of internet/digital based virtual reviews. The giant of these is Critical Mass – connected to PhotoLucida – that carries the process to an even bigger scale with a three-stage process. Thousands of portfolios are sent to a few of the hundreds of reviewers for an initial cut. The lucky winners in the first round get an in-depth review by a select group of reviewers who see all their portfolios. Winners in the second round (now down to 50 or so) each have a piece in a traveling show and a chance to grab the brass ring of a solo show and publication.

The hopes brought to the event by the reviewees are four:
1. the hope that a curator or gallery owner will see their work and offer a show, a publication, or gallery representation,
2. the hope that they will get leads for potential shows, publications, or gallery representation,
3. the hope that a wealthy collector will see their work and buy some,
4. the hope that they will receive guidance either in improving or marketing their work.

All worthy hopes. I have them myself. So why don't I take my portfolio to reviews? Well, I did so a few times. I also spent a fair amount of time schlepping my portfolio around to galleries for one-on-one discussions.

Regarding hopes 1 and 2: I met one (1, uno, ein, un) such person who felt that showing my work was a good idea. Alas, his institution was Seattle's Museum of History and Industry so, since my work is neither historical nor industrial, he didn't hold out much hope of showing it and didn't have any good leads for me.  I am going to get back to him if I ever get my "50 years at the Pike Place Market" in a presentable form.
On the other hand I had several reviewers who were openly dismissive of the kind of work I do. One flatly said “Why would anybody want photographs of people that aren't family or famous?” A gallery owner whose opinion I respect very much told me that my street photography was very good and he would be glad to show it if my name was Cartier-Bresson and/or I was dead. OK – that's useful information I guess. My work is so out of fashion that there is little hope of showing it in a gallery or museum (until I've been dead a few decades).

Regarding hope 3: I didn't meet any of these.

Regarding hope 4: One of the local photo supply stores, Rainier Photo – sadly now out of business -- used to sponsor a one-day photography meeting once a year. In addition to vendor displays and programs by vendors and local photographers, they had working photographers do portfolio reviews. Boy, were they useful! I can't say as much for the reviews by curators, publishers, and gallery types. I threw in the towel after a portfolio review at Seattle Art Museum. The first and last of the four reviewers clearly had no interest in my work and were trying to think of something polite to say to fill the allotted 20 minutes. The second hated everything about my work. She latched on to one print and used it to explain why my approach to photographing people was hopelessly voyeuristic, why the quality of my printing was mediocre, and why the presentation of my prints was quaint at best. With tail between my legs I went to the third review. He was very complementary about my work and latched on to the same print to praise my approach to people photography, the quality of my printing, and the clean, simple presentation I use for my prints.

There is also the little matter that portfolio reviews, especially the biggies, have become quite expensive. Juried $how$ and portfolio review$ have turned into $ignificant $ource$ of ca$h for the $pon$or$.

I am proud of my work – well, some of it – and I'm happy to show it either to someone who has some likelihood of showing or publishing it or whose opinion I respect enough to ask for comments about it. But, what with one thing and another, I don't find it worth my time, effort and money to take my portfolio to a review.

Monday, April 11, 2011

But sometimes big really is good.

Barbara and I are just back from a weekend gallery crawling in Portland. We started at the opening of “The Photographic Nude” at Lightbox, www.lightbox-photographic.com, in Astoria (in which show, I’m proud to state, I have a print). Michael will have jpegs of the entire show up on their website soon. But I digress since the size of the prints in this show ranged from modest to tiny.

Blue Sky gallery in Portland, www.blueskygallery.org, on the other hand had two shows of very large prints by Michael Light and Mitch Dobrowner. Mr. Light (nice name for a photographer, eh?) does aerial photographs of southern California and of Arizona. They are sort of a view-from-above riff on David Plowdon’s “Hand of Man on America”. One of his prints, for example, is of a golf course with verdant green fairways glued on top of an arid mesa in Arizona. I find Light’s work both much more moving and much more visually appealing than Richard Misrach’s “Desert Cantos”.

The wall-hung prints are inkjet prints on aluminum sheet. The metallic sheen of the matrix puts a gleam on the highlights and makes the blacks look hard and cold. …. And the prints are BIG! They are 36” or so square and framed without glazing in aluminum frames. They are dazzling! He also makes huge books with pages about the same size as the wall prints that he displays on what I believe are retired studio camera tripods. The books are clearly labeled “Do not turn the book pages. Ask for gallery assistance.”

The other half of the show is Mitch Dobrowner’s photographs of storm clouds and storms. They are also inkjet prints but printed on rag paper. Mr. Dobrowner recently had a portfolio of these photographs in Lenswork magazine #91, www.lenswork.com. His work looked good indeed in the magazine and, to my taste, the glossy surface of the magazine page suited his prints better than the softer rag paper. But I digress again. At Blue Sky he showed prints in three sizes --medium (16x24 or so), large, and huge. I would characterize them as excellent, splendid, and dazzling.

Both Light and Dobrowner are photographing BIG subjects! Both expect the viewer to stand close to the print even though the prints are BIG! Both sets of prints pass the Brooks Jensen size test (see the December 1 blog entry). MAN, why did you print that so BIG? Oh, wait – this time I know the answer to that question.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Still Like a One Eyed Cat

The performance by Eric Friedlander (previous post) set me to thinking about his father’s family snapshots – Eric and his sister splashing in the surf, the family (minus Lee, of course, who was always behind the camera as all good fathers are) squinting in the sun at picturesque places in the southwest. Some of them, however, had the quirky humor and lightning eye of Lee Friedlander’s “serious” work all over them. He once referred to photography as a “generous medium” – his photographs are filled to the edges of the frame with detail (just like mine are) but somehow his often make sense (just like mine often don’t). In his best work every fence post, rock and billboard reinforce the ostensible subject of the photograph.

One of my favorites of his is “Laughing Dog”. At a glance, it is a low-rise city street scene with a kind of L.A. suburban look – bright sun and hard shadows, quite a bit of space at the edge of broad, vacant streets at a corner. A small black dog sits alone on the curb. Pretty dull, eh? Look more closely and note that the dog is yawning – the angle of his jaw looks like he is laughing – and the angle of his open jaw repeats endlessly all over the entire photograph. The curbs, street sins, building details … keep looking. I don’t know that he saw that at the instant he took the picture, but if he didn’t there would have been little reason to push the shutter button.

Friedlander, born in 1934 in Aberdeen, had built himself a solid (as in: making a living) career as a commercial photographer doing album covers (jazz and blues being his other passions) and assignments for magazines and corporate annual reports. His breakout show in the art world was in 1967 at NYMOMA with Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand. He and Winogrand were the stars of the then-new snapshot aesthetic. What I saw of the snapshot aesthetic in local shows left me baffled. I had seen reproductions in magazines of both Friedlander’s and Winogrand’s work – that had also left me baffled. In 1989 the Lee Friedlander show “Like a One Eyed Cat” was at the old Seattle Art Museum in volunteer park, curated by Rod Slemmons (then curator of prints and photography for SAM – now curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago). My reaction to it was “OH, that’s what all the fuss is about!” Friedlander’s are well seen (Edward Weston’s term), meticulously printed photographs presented as if they are casual snapshots. At first glance that is exactly what they are but a second, more careful look shows me that they are much more. I had the same reaction to seeing a show of Gary Winogrand's prints a year or so later. Most of the other snapshot aesthetic work I have seen before or sense is, well, casual snapshots indifferently printed and presented as casual snapshots.

Barbara and I were speculating about what distinguishes Lee Friedlander’s work from Cartier-Bresson's. Both make relatively small prints, both insist on excellent print quality, both record the instant that the frame fills with an edge-to-edge coherent image. Barbara perceptively notes that if Cartier-Bresson’s prints are theater then Lee Friedlander’s are improv. HCB’s photographs give me the impression that he was watching a carefully rehearsed performance put on specifically for him to photograph. Friedlander’s are as if he happened upon the improvised performance and was delighted by it. Lee Friedlander notes that when he was about 15 he heard Charlie Parker’s music for the first time and instantly understood what Parker (the ultimate improviser) was trying to do.

I confess that Lee Friedlander’s more considered later work – the landscapes and the photographs of the cemetery in Italy -- are not to my liking. He street photographs and his compelling portraits of jazz musicians, however, remain on my A-list.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Famous? Whom?

Barbara and I went to a performance by Eric Friedlander at the Kirkland Performance Center last Friday. He is a cellist and composer – but not what you think. He writes and plays jazz, folk-rock, indie pop and other genres not often associated with cello. Moreover, he not only bows his cello but plucks it – think guitar (his other instrument) with four strings. He has played for and with many big name artists but this was a solo performance of his own music. He played, spoke directly to the audience to explain the context in which his music lives, and showed photographs taken by his father, Lee Friedlander. (You just knew there had to be photography in here somewhere, eh?)

Until Eric was 17 or so his family took an extended road trip – a couple of months – every summer. These were working vacations for his father who both photographed for his personal work and for the many assignments he did for commercial clients – and he took family snapshots. The family, Lee and his wife Maria, Eric and his sister gypsied back and forth across the country in their pickup truck with a camper shell on the back while Eric and his sister watched the world go by, daydreaming from the over-cab picture window of the camper. The music in this performance represents memories – wonderful or not so much, exciting or tedious – of these trips. The photographs Eric used in this performance were a few of the family snapshots his dad took. A filmmaker friend supplied Eric with grainy, home-movie looking, black and white film of (mostly) southwest scenery viewed from a moving car. The films ran during most of the music.

I’m often not keen on multimedia performances but this one really worked. Much of the music is dissonant and harsh but heard in context and accompanied by the visuals it was very effective. There is a CD of the music, “Block Ice and Propane” (the two staple necessities for an extended camping trip) but I doubt that the music would interest me by itself.

As an aside, Eric Friedlander uses a cello with a carbon-fiber body for his traveling instrument. Nearly indestructible, it is a beautiful, graphite-silver grey with a clear, commanding, exceptionally strong voice. He even used a practice mute on it for one moody piece that demanded a soft, dreamy voice.

He stated in his introduction that he had been reluctant to put this program together because he didn’t want to use his father’s fame to promote his own career – a valid concern for an artist with coattails that he could easily grab. Lee Friedlander has some pretty serious coattails – three Guggenheim fellowships, landmark shows at NYMOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and most other major art museums (SAM in 1989), roughly ten published books of his work.

Still, my next thought was that outside the more-or-less hardcore photography community Lee Friedlander’s name is likely not a household word. Just for fun I did a brief, unscientific survey of about 60 well-educated, literate acquaintances. The oldest is nearly 90 and the youngest 16. I excluded only those acquaintances that I know to be passionate about photography. The survey question: “Do you know who Lee Friedlander is?” Exactly one person answered yes.  I should have excluded her because her late husband was a devoted photographer. Three people proposed that Friedlander must be associated with the local jewelry shops of the same name.

I’ll bet that there were more people at the performance because of Eric Friedlander’s having played for Courtney Love than because of his dad’s photography.

“Famous” – at least as measured by name recognition – and “photographer” seem not to play well together unless the person in question is Ansel Adams or, perhaps, Annie Liebovitz.  I’m sure that the same is true of other artists. A couple of years ago, the Seattle Symphony featured John Lill, a spectacular British pianist with a string of accolades a yard long, who played Tchaikovsky’s 2nd piano concerto. I had never heard of him even though I’m pretty passionate about classical music. My daughter tells me that a world-ranked bagpiper, Jori Chisholm, lives in the Seattle area. Did you know that?

Now an NFL quarterback or Lady Gaga would probably fare better on my survey.

Part 2 of this post (coming soon to a computer near you) will have to do with Lee Friedlander’s photography – seeing some of it at his son’s performance reminded me of how much I like it.