Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Massively Critical of Critical Mass

I went to the opening of the “Critical Mass” show at Photographic Center Northwest tonight.  Critical Mass is an event that is under the umbrella of Portland’s PhotoLucida but it takes place each year rather than every other year.  My cynical opinion is that, among other things, it is more than a bit of a cash cow for PhotoLucida.  Here’s the process:
·       There is an open, world-wide call for photographers to submit 10 photographs from a body of work, jpegs of course, along with an entry fee.
·       A small body of reviewers winnows the gazillion entries down to 200 and the semifinalists pay a substantial fee to continue.  Digression: It seems to me that this is the narrow middle in the hour glass.  While I certainly agree that sending all gazillion entries out to all the reviewers isn’t practical, these reviewers are the gatekeepers as to what the larger body of reviewers see.  This gives them enormous leverage – really more than the reviewers themselves.  Here endeth the digression.
·       The 10 photographs of each semi-finalist go out on CD to, I believe, 200 world-wide photography professionals; teachers, curators, publishers, critics, gallery proprietors (significantly to me, no photographers.)
·       When each reviewer’s score sheet is in hand, they tally up the votes to select 50 portfolios.  These are held up as representative of this year’s state of contemporary photography.
·       A single curator, this year Darius Himes of the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, chooses one photograph from each of these 50 projects to make up the show that is currently at PCNW and will travel to Newspace in Portland later in the spring.

It seems to me that making a cohesive show out of 50 prints each taken from a different portfolio that the curator had no hand in choosing is a daunting task.  Instead, Mr. Himes quite reasonably chose to emphasize the diversity of work being done as part of the contemporary photographic scene.  He chose a purposely vague title for the show – “Love, Hate, (several other words), and everything else.”  He then divided the prints into several groups, numbered, but I could certainly not divine the characteristics that made a given print fall into group N rather than group M. 

Digression:  Since he had no hand in selecting the portfolios, I suppose that they do represent the contemporary scene – at least in the opinion of the gatekeepers and the 200 reviewers.  Does that mean that nearly everybody working in contemporary photography is obsessed with the disheveled, despairing, despondent, disadvantaged, disorganized, and angst-ridden?  Has “Art does not have to be beautiful.” mutated into “Art may not be beautiful.”? There isn’t much evidence to the contrary in this show.

A notable exception is one of Mitch Dobrowner’s stunning thunderstorm photographs.  It was the one print in the show that cried out to be printed big.  (It wasn’t.)  There were many that did not benefit from being printed big.  (They were.)

Or maybe the 200 semifinalists represent the tastes of the gatekeepers.
Here endeth the digression.

Mr. Himes was here to give a talk on the state of contemporary photography and to describe how he curated the show.  He is well educated, articulate, and obviously passionate about photography as an art form.  He is steeped in contemporary theory – a firm advocate of the position that what matters in art is the idea and the process and not the result.  He is also an advocate of semiotics as a vehicle for decoding art – regarding the visual content of art not as visual content but as symbols of coded meanings -- peeling off the outer, superficial, visual layer to expose the layers of hidden meaning that the artist may not even have intended.

He anchors his position on the 1985 “The Spiritual in Art” show at LACMA that attempted to show how the geometrical paintings of Piet Mondrian et al and the abstract expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko et al were bearing the torch of spiritual content dropped by the demise of representational painting – expressing the deepest, most personal yearnings of the artist/human being.  Moreover, he holds that the rising tide of university-trained photographers is building on that foundation to take contemporary photography to new heights of depth and idea-content.  He then showed photographs, mostly chosen from the show, to illustrate his position.

Mark Rothko insisted that his color field paintings were window looking into deeply felt ideas and emotions.  

They do? 

I’m sure Mr. Himes would agree – he showed a color block painting and a very similar color block photograph and observed that they are really commenting on the objectivity -- or maybe it was lack of objectivity – or maybe it was the irrelevance of being objective or not being objective -- of older and more superficial art.

I completely agree that what a photograph is “of” – what is shown in the print – and what the photograph is “about” – what the photographer’s intended to convey and/or the viewers opinion about what the photograph conveys – are often not the same.  I get lost, however, with Minor White’s “What else is the photograph about?” and that, as I understand it, is the basic method of semiotics – identifying elements of the photograph as coded symbols (both Steiglitz and Minor White called them “equivalents”) that carry meanings hidden from the superficial viewer and unconnected with the visual content of the photograph.   In my opinion, that is the point at which the connection between artist and viewer is lost unless the artist is consciously building the semiotic structure of the photograph – and the artist and the viewer read the same books.  Painters in the renaissance certainly had a lexicon of coded symbols that they consciously used, but a modern viewer who does not know that a small bird perched on the portrait sitter’s finger represents innocence and purity may mistake it for a small bird.  Idea-based art in general is a lot like a joke.  If you “get it” it is either funny or not according to your taste in humor.  If you do not “get it” then having the teller explain it to you rarely gets more than a shrug of your shoulders.

If you grant Mr. Himes his assumptions, then everything he said makes sense.  If you do not (and I do not) then it doesn’t.  I hold steadfastly that photography is very good at showing what something or somebody looked like at a specific time and place.  It is often good at conveying an attitude or emotion illustrated by the visual content.   It is not very good at expressing ideas and the more abstract the idea the worse it gets at doing so.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

I hate change (in my darkroom)

I’m not much of an experimenter when it comes to photographic equipment, materials and processes.

Early on in my romance with photography I tried quite a few developers and films and even played with some alternative processes – gum bichromate, cyanotype, litho film, and a color transfer process the name of which I cannot remember. I dabbled with 4x5 and did a bit of color printing, both positive and negative.

With a rare bit of insight, it occurred to me that I didn’t enjoy the excitement and uncertainty of experimenting so I began to zero in on subject matter, cameras, and materials that I did enjoy and, when I found something that worked for me, to stick to it like Gorilla Glue. I have process instructions posted on the wall above my darkroom’s wet bench – both on how to mix the chemicals and how to use them.
The first how-to book on darkroom technique that I bought recommended Kodak Tri-X and Plus X films, D-76 film developer, Dektol paper developer, Rapid Fixer, and Hypo Clearing Agent. Those choices, apart from a few brief dalliances, lasted a very long time.

I changed to Ilford HP5+ film in about 1985 when a friend convinced me that it was a lot like Tri-X but with a longer tail into the shadows. I also changed to Ilford FP4 just because. I changed to Heico fixer about the same time when I got very tired of buying a hardening fixer and then throwing out the hardener. Heico Permawash replaced the Kodak Hypo Clearing agent because it is liquid and a lot easier to mix. In the mid-90s Kodak introduced XTol film developer as a much less toxic alternative to D-76 and it’s a lot easier to coax into solution, too.

My first how-to book also recommended Kodak single-weight, graded paper and I stuck to that until they introduced the variable contrast “fine art” double weight paper. I had a brief romance with a couple of other papers but the box-to-box variations drove me nuts so I stuck with Kodak until they outsourced their paper manufacture and their box-to-box variations drove me nuts. I switched to Seagull paper and loved it – until they went out of business. I started using Ilford Multigrade fiber paper and RC paper about 1995 and am still using it.

This sounds like a lot of leaping and jumping for somebody who claims not to be an experimenter but consider that I have just summarized nearly 50 years of splashing about in the darkroom. Moreover, each of these changes was accompanied by a period of dithering and complaining (ask my wife for verification).

Since the tidal wave of the digital revolution in photography, there has been such an enormous shake-out in the black-and-white, film-and-paper world that curmudgeons like me have felt very uncomfortable. Consider:

• About a year ago, Ilford abandoned packaging HP5+ and FP4 film in my favorite 220 roll length. My backup for 2 ¼ was Plus X and Tri-X professional in 220 rolls but Kodak stopped packaging those, too. OK – so I use HP5+ and FP4 both in 120 and 35mm.

• Heico fixer and Permawash are still nominally available but they aren’t on the shelf at the one remaining local source for darkroom chemistry. Late last year the darkroom guy told me: “We order them but they never come.” OK – switch to Ilford fixer and ZonalPro wash accelerator, figure out how to incorporate them into my darkroom work flow, and make new charts for the wet-bench wall.

• The last time I stopped in for chemicals, the ZonalPro wasn’t on the shelf. “We order it but it never comes.” Heck, I hadn’t even gotten use to having it in my work flow and I’m forced to change again.

So what’s my point?

I want to concentrate on making prints and not figuring out how to use an unfamiliar chemical. Besides, it seems to me that we throwbacks to the analog age should be very aware, appreciative, and supportive of the companies that are making a continuing commitment to the materials we need.

• Kodak has filed for Chapter 11 reorganization and claims that it will emerge from it a “smaller but stronger company” – they have long since abandoned black and white paper and the speculation is that they will sell off their film division as too small a “profit center” to fit their new model. They claim that their photographic chemicals division – pretty much a side-effect of their industrial chemicals division -- will continue to exist “as long as it is profitable”. Hmmmm.

• Ilford sold off their paper and chemicals divisions and the purchaser states that they intend to serve the smaller but still viable niche market of black and white photography for the long haul.
• EcoPro has a full line of black and white chemicals with the additional lure of low toxicity and environmental impact. They also claim that they intend to be around for the long haul.

• I’m sure that Photographers Formulary and Bostic and Sullivan will remain the places for raw materials and alternative processes – but I likely have a lifetime supply of ferricyanide bleach and that’s the only raw material I buy.

Fortunately, I’m already using Ilford films and paper. I spent quite a few hours this week pouring over the technical specifications for the EcoPro paper developer, film developer (gratefully just like XTol), fixer and hypo wash. I think I have all the numbers straight now. I have new charts up on the wet-bench wall (again). I even think I’m going to like it after I get used to it – but I’m an old enough dog that I’m not fond of new tricks.