Friday, January 20, 2012

The New Kodak?

I took the Kodak plant tour some 35 years ago. It was, of course, their corporate heyday. Kodachrome was king and their black and white films and paper were the industry standard. Their industrial chemicals (including, by the way, the smell that is added to natural gas so a human will detect a leak before something explodes) were largely by-products of their major products. Their research departments attracted the best chemists and engineers. They were model corporate citizens – reclaiming nearly every drop of their solvents – recycling plastics, even the film cans – returning their waste water to Lake Ontario cleaner than it was when they drew it out. They paid their employees well and most of them considered their jobs as long-term.

Kodak declared bankruptcy this week -- and with a gazillion dollar loan from Citibank to keep their corporate officers paid their huge salaries their spokesman promised that they would emerge from bankruptcy a smaller but stronger company. A second announcement, published in the British Journal of Photography, was a scramble to assure the gravely concerned world that their film division was profitable and that they intended to stay in the film business “as long as it remains profitable.”

It seems to me that thinking smaller but stronger might have been a good idea some time back. Yes, the market for film has declined – but it sure hasn’t vanished. Yes, the market for Kodachrome declined to a few percent of its peak. Yes, the market for black & white film in 220 lengths declined. Umm – wouldn’t that have been a good time for smaller but stronger thinking? Seems to have worked for Ilford (now part of Harmon – that was astute enough to pick up a good thing and keep it going.)

But big corporations aren’t good at getting smaller, or even appreciating a small, profitable market. Having spent a good part of my career at Boeing, you can trust me on this one. Every time the market for airplanes declines the mantra of “diversification” can be heard in the halls of power. As soon as the market for airplanes recovers, the mantra changes to “core competency” and the smaller and (usually) profitable sidelines are thrown to the wolves as being not worth the company’s attention.

Will Kodak get the picture and really emerge smaller and stronger? I’ll bet not. A huge, hierarchical company is a lot like a giant cruise ship – it turns very slowly (Kodak purposely slowed their entrance into digital photography because it endangered their very profitable film division) – it costs so much to operate that it has to have lots of income – it has a single purpose and changing it to do something else is nearly impossible.

Kodak’s recovery strategy for the past several years has been to sell off patents (of which they own a huge number) and sue for patent infringement on the ones they keep. They decimated their research activities, and laid off a large number of employees by outsourcing their silver paper production – and Kodachrome processing – and …. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for long-term stability to me.

I’ll bet that their corporate inertia is so huge that they will not succeed at “smaller but stronger.” as a sort of holding company for their smaller divisions. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they sold off their film division as too small to be viable in their corporate environment. I hope so – maybe Harmon will buy them and start making Kodacharome and TXP in 220 length again. After pretty much jettisoning their research department, I doubt that they will achieve a prominent position in the digital world. Not a rosy prognosis for a company that once was so respected.

As a film and wet darkroom hanger-on, I want to support the companies that are stating that they are in it for the long haul in a niche market, not just as long as it is profitable.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

“Super Nanny”

This week’s New Yorker (January 16, 2012) has a brief review (Critic’s Notebook, p 6) of the Vivian Maier shows, yes plural, in New York City. On the one hand, I’m delighted that a show of street photographs got such good press and a positive review.

[Background information follows: A couple of years ago a Chicago historian, John Maloof, who was working on a history of a specific neighborhood bought a lot of negatives from an unclaimed self-storage company in the hopes of finding photographs of the neighborhood he was researching. He didn’t. What he did find was a treasure trove of thousands of street photographs by an unknown photographer named Vivian Maier who died in 2002. After some further detective work he acquired the other half of her negatives and has spent considerable time, effort, and money to get her work in the public eye. The discovery of her work – and the quality of her work – has been on the photographic blogosphere for a year or so. Power House published a book of her work; Vivian Maier, Street Photographer in 2011. Lenswork published a portfolio of her work in its issue #97, Nov-Dec 2011. The first gallery show of her work was in Chicago last year and now two shows in NYC. The “nanny” reference in the New Yorker review alludes to her day job. Here endeth the background information.]

That said; I take a couple of issues with the review.

First is with the “Super Nanny” title. Yes, she had a day job. So did Henri Rousseau. The French art establishment’s labeling him as Le Douanier Rousseau was a not so subtle way of setting him apart from the real artists of his day. Perhaps I am spring-loaded to the sensitive position (having had a day job myself) and perhaps “Super Nanny” is only intended to be clever but it reads to me as a similar “not a real artist” label, especially when attached by a polished writer and critic.

Second is with a phrase later in the review, “Though apparently untrained, she was a keen observer …” “Apparently untrained” – do tell! It’s certainly not apparent to me. Again this reads to me as a “can’t be a real artist without an MFA” statement. A fair statement would be “Though there is no evidence that she had formal training, …” Ms. Maier was, from what little is known of her, an intensely private person – who knows what formal training she may have had. She lived most of her teen years in Paris, then in New York and in Chicago. Who knows what classes she took – what exhibitions she saw – what photographers befriended a quiet, solemn-faced young woman? Speculating about her background is interesting and fun but it’s still speculation.

Not that it keeps me from doing so, of course. It is certainly possible that she was, like Jacque-Henri Lartigue, somehow born with the instinct of knowing which way to point the camera. Looking at her work, though, and knowing that she started photographing seriously about the time she returned to New York in 1951 here’s my guess. Post-war France was a hotbed of street photography. Released from the repression of the German occupation, illustrated newspapers and magazines popped up on every street corner. There were 34 daily newspapers in Paris alone. The giants of photoreportage – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Izis, Brassai, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat, Willy Ronis, and many others – were nearly household names. How could she not have been aware of – even immersed in – the aesthetic that shows so clearly in her own work? The exhibition “Four French Photographers” (Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Brassai, and Izis) at New York’s MOMA introduced this style of work to the United States in 1951.

Let’s see. When did Vivian Maier return to New York? Why, 1951. My mental image is of her going to MOMA to see that show, feeling like Paris had come with her and deciding that she could do it, too. Or maybe she had been yearning to do it but it was too expensive in post-war Paris.  By the way, the New Yorker reviewer compares her work to that of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus. I find a better comparison to be to Helen Levitt and, especially, Willy Ronis.

As for technical training – I’m guessing that she had some, even if it was the counter man at Central Camera. Her beloved 1950s-era Rolleiflex, sans light meter and automation of any kind, isn’t the most friendly of devices to use. Unless she threw away the first several (hundred) rolls of negatives, I would expect her early work to be, well, uneven. According to the interview with John Maloof in the Chicago Tribune, it was not.

There are very few artists who really work with no consideration of audience. Perhaps Vivian Maier would have been embarrassed or even distressed by the notoriety that her work is receiving. Since she left a thousand or so rolls of film undeveloped maybe it was the act of photographing that mattered to her -- or maybe she just couldn’t afford to have them developed.

The Power House book of her work is beautifully printed and many of the photographs are wonderful. I would love to see the gallery show – alas, digital prints not silver but ….

Thursday, January 12, 2012

So I took my portfolio to a review anyway.

Not so very long ago I posted “Why I don’t take my portfolio to reviews.” It isn’t that I’m reluctant to have somebody whose opinion I respect review my work. However, the big review sessions such as PhotoLucida and PhotoFest seem to me to be mostly a cash cow for the sponsor and a lot more about marketing than work development. I’m not against marketing, by the way, but I’d prefer truth in advertising (and much lower prices).

On a whim, I signed up for a portfolio review with Jock Sturges at PCNW a couple of months ago. The price was right, I admire his work (and know him slightly through an internet group to which we both belonged once upon a time), and they were trolling for a few more people to make it go.

[Digression follows: Sturges went digital for a while because he had trashed his back schlepping about his 8x10 view. His back is better so he has gone back to film but is doing color. I saw some of his earlier color work, printed by a lab in San Francisco, at Butters Gallery in Portland a few years ago and, while I still prefer his black and white, it was stunning! He is currently scanning and printing his own negatives and, alas, they do not have the same razor edge. He has also fallen prey to the “make it big” demon. His new book will be an elephant folio (a little book biz talk here) so that the plates will be the size of exhibition prints. Here endeth the digression.]

By the time the day of the review came there were seven people signed up and a motley crew it was, too.

The format was a bit different than the “normal” one-on-one session with the reviewer. The entire group sat in on all the reviews, Jock had to insist on that format but the gallery director, who was there for a review, agreed that it worked. I thought it worked, too.

Three of the seven were pretty much raw beginners still struggling with the craft and flailing around trying to find a direction. I suspect they got the lion’s share of benefit from the reviews. His comments were very insightful.

Seems to me that a necessary ability for a reviewer is to completely divorce what he does from the work presented for review. Jock isn't quite there.  His work depends on building long-term relationships with the people he photographs and he makes carefully selected and composed large-format negatives. He is much more conscious of (and concerned about) the formalities of composition – especially figure/ground, positive space/negative space, edge boundaries … What he does, how he does it, and the market for which his work is intended tints, in my opinion, how he sees other kinds of photographs. His discussion of the “no people in the frame” work (four of the seven) was a good deal less influenced by how he does his own work than of the other three.

I took my “Work of the Weaver” portfolio as well as a box of street portraits. Jock was openly dismissive of the Weaver portfolio as well-enough-done but documentary, an approbation in his vocabulary. He suggested that I should get a lot closer, mentally and physically, and pay more attention to simplifying the backgrounds in my street portraits. It was worthwhile to hear Jock’s opinions but I’m to the point of having strong enough ideas about what I do and how I do it to take them with a film can full of grains of salt.

Going to this review was fun, price was sort-of right, and I learned some – primarily that I don’t benefit much from portfolio reviews unless the reviewer is really good. I have had the good fortune to show work to two exceptionally good reviewers – Nick Hansen and David Johnson. Nick is the king. He, the education director at PCNW a couple of decades ago, could look at a group of prints and invariably say something about them that I would never have seen. After he left PCNW following a dustup with the management he taught privately for a while – the sessions with him in his living room in Ballard were what I keep hoping for. In the very unlikely chance that you have contact information for him, please let me know.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I'm puzzled about Post-Modern Art, too.

(I would have sworn I posted this about six months ago, but I didn't.  Maybe I ought to read my own blog.)

Isaac Asimov, describing his approach to writing science fiction, once said something like: “Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll write a story in which everything else makes sense.” This strikes me as, with only small modification, a good general purpose statement.

“Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll describe a theory of economics in which everything else makes sense.”
“Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll build a system of government in which everything else makes sense.”
“Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll start a political movement in which everything else makes sense.”

“Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll start an art movement in which everything else makes sense.”

Since this is largely a blog about art let’s not go into trickle-down economics, communism, or the tea party. We could take a look at social realism in the former Soviet Union but that horse has already been beaten sufficiently.

I’m re-reading “Criticizing Photographs” by Terry Barrett (an excellent book, by the way) to see how much difference there is between my vintage first edition and the current one.

[Pause here for a short digression. Barrett tells me that the supposed (my adjective) point of Les Krims’ photographs is that he is poking fun at art in general and photography in particular. Krims’ “How to Make Chicken Soup” pokes fun at concerned photography – in his estimation no more effective than chicken soup for a bad cold. Oh, really? I fail to see that point in his book – but then again, I believe that chicken soup is good for a cold. Here endeth the digression.]

Re-reading a book of non-fiction that I really like is an interesting exercise for me — I’m almost always a bit delighted at how much additional insight I get from doing so. In his chapter on the categories into which photographs can be separated he discusses how the post-modern movement fits into his scheme of things. That started a train of thought.

As I understand it, the post-modernists:

• Reject the notion of the genius of the individual artist,

• Reject the notion of the value of art as physical objects,

• Reject the notion of the value of craft in art making,

• Reject the notion of beauty as either a necessary or sufficient component of art.  (But seemingly accepting "ugly" as both.)

If you accept one or more of these assumptions then post-modern art makes sense — from Sherrie Levine’s “appropriation” of Walker Evans (and others) photographs — to Joseph Kosuth’s conceptual “One and Three Chairs” or Ed Ruska’s “Every Building on Sunset Strip” — to the Becher’s catalog of German water towers — to Matthew Barney’s sculpture made of petroleum jelly — to JJ’s (artist in “Doonesbury”) “Bagel on Floor”.

Perhaps the post-modern aesthetic is at least partly responsible for much of what I see and hear in popular culture that puzzles me.

Tens of thousands of photographs are posted to Flickr every hour. If everybody’s work is of equal value then this makes sense (if still an unmanageably large number). I wonder why baseball teams don’t recruit using a post-modern approach – they wouldn’t have to pay such outrageous salaries, tickets would be cheaper, and I would find the games a lot more fun to watch.

I recently read a report of a well-conducted survey of relatively young (as in: still enjoying youthful hearing) music listeners. The prevailing opinion was a preference for MP3 sound – not just that the MP3 player was small and convenient but that they preferred it to a higher-quality recording or even to live music. If craft doesn’t matter this makes sense. Would it be even better to electronically reproduce the sound of an Edison cylinder? That would be an interesting experiment. Parenthetically, I also suspect that the preference for the sound of compressed music would be a lot less strong if the music was typically more complex, nuanced, and subtle – but that’s getting back to the value of the artist.

Pop musical groups are lined up against a concrete block wall and photographed with on-camera flash. Profile portraits in New Yorker look like they were done by Richard Avedon on a particularly spiteful day. Much fashion photography seems to be purposely contrived to make the subject look sullen, unkempt, disheveled – men with three-day beards and torn jeans, women faring no better. If beauty doesn’t matter – or is even a detriment – this makes sense.

What really bothers me is not what’s happening in pop culture but what’s happing in museums and galleries.

Alas, I’m more aligned with Tom Stoppard’s assertion that the whole notion of art depends on the fact that some people do things very well that most of us do badly or not at all. Yes, that is an elitist statement.

The only problem is that if you are not willing to grant the couple of assumptions then nothing that follows makes sense — whether it’s tea-party politics (Oops! Strayed away from the subject there.) or post-modern art..

Paris in the Springtime -- or whenever.

Just last week I finished the printing for a small portfolio from negatives that I took in Paris in 1978. I was there, alas, on business, for 10 days each in early April and in early October. With my twin, brand new Canon AT-1’s in hand, one loaded with Tri-X and the other with Kodachrome, (I'm still using those cameras, by the way.)  I had a wonderful time in the limited time left over from being an engineer.

In addition to having a day job in 1978 we also had four kids around the house ranging in age from 17 to 7. I didn’t print a lot of the negatives at the time nor did I do much with the slides.

About four months ago I took a third or fourth or fifth look at Peter Turnley’s book “The Parisians” and wondered if I had enough photographs from Paris to do something with them. I have made a desk calendar each year for six years – did I have enough, roughly 55, to use for this year’s calendar. Apart from scanning the slides (all my slides – some 5500 of them) a couple of years ago I hadn’t seen either the slides or the negatives for a very long time. Fortunately, I have a filing system for the negatives and scanned slides that allowed me to round them up with a modest amount of rummaging around.

Here’s an aside: when Kodak stopped making Kodachrome they did the world of photography a great disservice. Not only were those 30-odd year old slides unchanged from the day they were processed but the scans of them were creamy smooth and beautiful – a joy to work with.

After I scanned a bunch of the negatives and did black and white conversions of another bunch of the slides I had plenty for the calendar and it looks pretty good if I do say so myself.

That was so much fun I decided to make a small silver print portfolio selected from the Tri-X negatives. Twenty is a magic number – that is the number of prints, mounted on 2-ply board with tissue interleafs, that will fit in one of the handsome 11x14, black, 1-inch deep boxes I buy from Lumiere (unpaid advertisement). Besides that, twenty is a nice number – enough prints to make a nice small show but not so many that it turns the portfolio into a major project.

“11x14?” you say. That is a conscious choice on my part. I believe that the BIG PRINT rage facilitated by wide-carriage digital printers is often overkill. Last summer I saw Mitch Dobrowner’s beautiful prints of gathering storm clouds at Blue Sky in Portland. They needed to be big – and they are – and they are spectacular. That does not mean that bigger is better for every photograph. “Because I can.” isn’t a good reason for printing big. My street photographs are not of large-scale subjects and do not require large-scale prints. (Haven't I ranted about this before?).

The portfolio prints I currently make are 7” on the long side for rectangular prints and 5 ¾” on a side for square prints. With these dimensions all prints can be mounted on portrait-orientated mats with the title printed below directly on the mat. This makes a handsome presentation and the small size invites you to come up close to look at the print. I finished mounting the prints over the weekend and I’m pleased with the result. Now I need to hustle a show for them.

A couple of observations: What I am interested in photographing hasn’t changed much in the 33 years between taking these negatives and making prints from them. Along about 1989 I took a workshop with David Bayles (co-author of Art and Fear) on “finding your direction”. After looking over what I regarded as my hopelessly directionless portfolio of 50 or so prints, he assured me that I already had a direction – that I was working in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Ronis, Boubat, Eisenstadt … -- and, since that clearly was what I enjoyed doing, to do more of it.

On the other hand, I sure make better negatives than I did 33 years ago. Several of those negatives were real darkroom challenges. I also am a better printer than I was 33 years ago. I dredged up copies of the few prints I made shortly after returning from Paris but I don’t intend to show them to anybody.

Doing this portfolio was good for me. I revisited a very pleasant episode in my life, I wound up with a finished body of work that I’m proud of, and I got in a lot of darkroom time. I wonder what else is lurking my shelf full of three-ring binders full of negatives.

What is composition good for, anyway?

My friend Doug and I have an ongoing conversation about the principles of composition – or “rules” or “commandments”, or “suggestions”, or whatever they are. You can probably intuit already which side of the discussion I am on.
Once upon a time, being the linear-thinking kind of guy I am, I decided that what I needed to improve my photographs was a good introduction to composition. This notion was promoted by what I saw every month at the print competition of the camera club to which I then belonged. Critiques ran heavily to pointing out the presence or absence of crash points, eye magnets, negative and positive space, full stops, leading lines, etc. Since I hadn’t a clue what most of these terms meant it made learning about them sound necessary, even vital.
A quick trip to the library and the used book shop equipped me with a book aimed at beginning drawing students and another one specifically about composing photographs. As I recall, I also rounded up a Photographic Society of America (PSA) booklet about competition guidelines with a good many pronouncements about good composition. After a certain amount of study and considerable flailing about I had two prints ready for the monthly print competition. One was a grab-it-when-you-can street photograph (what I usually do) that I was pretty proud of. The other was carefully composed with all the properties that it needed to be well composed – problem with it, however, was that it was completely and utterly boring. Do you want to guess which one scored well in the critique?
A light bulb came on! The camera club’s competition used composition as a yardstick to evaluate rather than as a vocabulary to describe. However, “good” composition is neither necessary nor sufficient to make a “good” photograph. It is way too easy to come up with counterexamples to believe than the principles of composition make an accurate yardstick.
Expressing that opinion did not get me thrown out of the club as a heretic but it was close. I was already on the suspect list for asking why a “good” photograph always has to have at least some sparkly white and some dead black.
Just for fun I briefly joined a second PSA-oriented camera club and found the same attitude.
Moreover, my newfound knowledge of the principles of composition was not helpful to me in doing the kind of work I wanted to do. In fact, as soon as I started thinking in terms of composition I got fewer negatives that I liked – scary.
OK – So are the principles of composition useful in taking photographs as well as for describing them after the fact? You sometimes hear (often with a bit of a sneer) that there is a difference between taking a photograph and making a photograph – are the principles of composition involved in this difference?
My friend Doug finds the principles of composition to be very useful in his work. He prefers to work with camera on tripod. He usually photographs plants, urban landscape details, and sea/lake shore scenes. His goal is to make the most exquisite image capture he can and then manipulate it very little. He consciously thinks about the principles of composition both before and after he takes a photograph. His work is beautiful with a quiet elegance that mine almost never achieves.
Just last night Doug reminded me that John Paul Caponigro goes so far as to sketch how he intends to compose a photograph before he even gets out his camera.
I find the principles of composition of no use whatever in my work. I never think about composition when I am photographing. Well, that’s not quite true – if time permits I often glance around the edges of the viewfinder to see if a half-step will get rid of a dangling tree branch or disembodied arm. I rarely work with camera on tripod. I usually photograph people – mostly informal portraits and everyday activities. My goal is to get the most interesting negative I can and then do whatever I can to turn it into a print that celebrates the moment. When I am printing I do not consciously think about composition in cropping or manipulating the image.
In our frequent and pleasurable sharing of work-in-progress Doug often uses the vocabulary of composition to describe what is going on in my prints – sometimes just to explain why he thinks a print “works”, sometimes giving me an idea that will improve the next version. When I look at Doug’s prints I often can say “I believe it would work better if ….” To which he may reply “You’re right – if I did that then the (noun from the composition vocabulary) would (verb from the composition vocabulary).
I am coming to believe that his use of composition and mine are somehow analogous to improvising in music. There are amazing improvisers whose skill is built on a thorough theoretical knowledge of music – Dave Brubeck, for instance, studied with composer Darius Milhous before turning to jazz. His improvising is a flood of rhythmically and harmonically complex music akin to J. S. Bach’s legendary keyboard improvisations. There are equally amazing improvisers whose skill is built on, well, listening to and playing a lot of jazz. Charlie Parker’s formal training was, to be charitable, modest. Yet he played long, lyrical, intricately complex lines, often lasting several minutes that have the integrity of well-crafted poetry.
There are photographers like that, too. Sticking to my heroes, the French humanist photographers, consider Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau.
Cartier-Bresson – whose catch phrase “The Decisive Moment.” is more accurately translated as “The moment at which everything comes together.” – had considerable formal training in drawing and painting before taking up photography. His style when photographing hardly allowed for careful consideration of formal composition but he vehemently stated that his intent was not to push the button until everything was in the right place. I didn’t find any counterexamples in a couple of passes through the catalog of his retrospective show. Does that mean that he was spectacularly successful at doing what he intended or does it mean that he edited carefully?
Doisneau, on the other hand, had essentially no formal training in art although he was trained as an engraver and had considerable technical skill at drawing. His style when photographing was considerably less athletic than Cartier-Bresson’s. He stated that Cartier-Bresson was a hunter and he was a fisherman. Many of his photographs also exhibit good formal composition. That said, several of Doisneau’s best (in my opinion) can serve as counterexamples.
Doug photographs based on conscious, careful, study and attention to principles. I photograph based on looking at and taking a lot of photographs. We each can work the way we do party because of what we choose as subject matter – or maybe we each choose our subject matter in response to how we prefer to work. There’s an entirely different can of worms to pry open someday.