Sunday, December 15, 2013

Regular Customer -- quick update

Lucy Almeleh Spring (daughter of Pinhas Almeleh to whom my book "Regular Customer" is dedicated) died this week at 80.

I am so grateful for the help she gave me and I'm so glad that I got a copy of the finished book to her while she could still enjoy it (which she did).

Adio, Lucy.

(I hope I got that right -- Farewell, Lucy)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Regular Customer -- finally done

The long silence about my book was caused by three more months of flailing about followed by a very satisfactory launch of the finished book. The short version goes like this:

I went through it and changed all instances of "The Pike Place Market" to "The Market" -- that's ok by me; nearly everybody who has any interest it knows where The Market is. The director of the PDA had the gall to tell me that he "really didn't want me to have to do that" but wouldn't relent on the trademark license.

The 5th draft turned into the 6th draft and my friend Joe (a retired art director) went over that one with #000 sandpaper and turned it from pretty good to polished. Draft 7 went to Snohomish Publishing (good guys) for a proof and then 200 copies. It looks good -- not at the quality of Lenswork or the Vivian Maier book but still good.

The curator at MOHAI was enthusiastic about the finished product and did, indeed, want a copy of the 20 silver-print portfolio for their collection.

One of the first copies went to Lucy (daughter of Pinhas Almeleh to whom the book is dedicated) who helped me a lot with names and places. She is now on hospice care so I'm so glad that I got her a copy of the finished book while she could still enjoy it. Another early copy went to Sol at the fish market (his father opened the shop -- his grown grandson now is behind the counter.)  After I gave it to him he flipped it open and I could see tears welling up in his eyes. When I wandered by about 15 minutes later he was still leaning against the stairs up to the shop office going through it. Those two copies paid me back for the effort.

Between copies sold and given away the press run is about half gone. Since you only have to sell about 5 books to get your Lulu or Blurb book into the top 10% I'm going to consider it a best-seller. It's placed in a small local book shop where it is selling well. I've done two book signings and two show-and-tell programs. The copies keep dribbling out so pretty soon my out-of-pocket expenses will be paid and I'll stop even caring -- in fact I already have.

Now I need a new project.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Remembering Dutch Schultz


While looking for something else I found this portrait of Dutch Schultz.  When I took it in 1985 he was 75 – my age now.   He died in 2006 and was working in his sculpture studio until shortly before that.
I met Dutch (actually Elias) Schultz in the late 70s and we somehow hit it off and were immediately friends.  He was a cantankerous, opinionated, outspoken, perceptive, very smart, vigorous, talented guy.  We didn’t see each other very often but when we did we pretty much took up where we had left off the previous time.  There were a lot of people that had that relationship with Dutch.
He was born in Harlem – son of Austrian Jews.  As an adult he worked as a longshoreman on the NYC waterfront where he picked up the nickname “Dutch”.  It was a tough job in a tough world, especially for a Jew.  Dutch was a rabid anti-fascist so when the Spanish civil war began he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and fought there until the fascists, with the help of the German nazis, won.  He came back to the waterfront until the U.S. entered World War II then he enlisted and served as a ski-trooper with the mountain infantry.  He fought in Italy and then in the Aleutians.
After WWII ended Dutch used his GI bill benefits to study woodcarving in Switzerland, Italy and finally with a master woodcarver in London who was working on restoring bomb damage to the houses of parliament.  When Dutch was ready to come back to the U.S. his master was ready to retire and sold Dutch his vintage tools.  Most of the handles were walnut and the steel was legendary Sheffield. 
Back on the waterfront, Dutch found himself blacklisted by the unions because of his service with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – the McCarthy-era zealots had declared it a communist organization.  (It was still on that list when I filled out my first security clearance application in 1961.)  After a couple of years doing the longshoreman jobs that nobody else would do – like unloading wet animal hides from reeking ship holds – Dutch moved to the west coast and wound up in Seattle where he continued to work on the waterfront until 1973.  After retiring Dutch spent full time and extra on his sculpture, mostly wood carving but he later also took up metal.  Many of the pieces had a strong social or political flavor and many had a touch of humor.  My favorite is a carving perhaps two feet wide and three feet high.  It shows heads and shoulders of three men (his in profile and two longshoreman friends almost full face) one friend has a fist prominently stuck under the other’s nose.  It is titled “Three Longshoremen Discussing.” 
To his great pleasure he was asked to do a major piece for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade’s memorial museum.  He also did a lot of commissioned pieces for government buildings and many liturgical carvings for major churches around Puget Sound.  While doing an altar piece, one of the church’s staff came in to watch and imprudently started making some suggestions.  Dutch said that it was about time for him to come down for lunch so he scrambled down off of the scaffolding, handed his mallet and chisel to his critic, said “Here – you do it.”, and stamped off to have lunch.  When he returned from lunch a new sign on the sanctuary door stated “Do not disturb the artist.  He is very temperamental.”
My favorite “Dutch” anecdote, however, dates from when he was about 85.  The preceding time we had met he complained that he might have to give up carving because the thumb joint in his right hand was worn out from decades of pushing on a chisel handle.  He was going to have a joint replacement (who knew that you could have a thumb joint replaced) but he was anxious about the success of doing so.   When we met this time I asked Dutch how his new thumb joint worked and he waggled it at me cheerily.  In his still-strong NYC accent he said:  “Yaaaah, they put in a teflon ball and socket and it woiks as good as new.  Told the surgeon that if he’d installed a teflon dick while he was at it I’d be good for 30 more years!”
One of Dutch’s long-time pals and Abraham Lincoln Brigade comrades, Abe Osheroff, wrote in a tribute to Dutch:  “Above all, Dutch was a mensch, an authentic human being, whose thoughts, words and deeds were cut from the same cloth.”
I miss him and will not meet his like again.


Photographing Fremont

(I wrote this post just after the summer solstice and put it aside until I got around to finding the photograph I wanted to use with it.  Of course, I promptly forgot about it until looking for something else today – sigh.)
I photographed at the Fremont Solstice Parade yesterday.  This hardly qualifies as a news flash since I do so nearly every year.  The photograph above, taken a couple of years ago, pretty much sums up the ecstatic, even manic energy of the event.  This mob, accompanied by boisterous music, broke into a full-scale, whooping and yelling charge for no apparent reason about fifty feet before they reached where I was standing.  Fifty feet beyond where I was standing they were back to a normal pace, still laughing and yelling.  There are a few photographs from the parade on my website, 
[Digression:  Just in case there is somebody reading this who is not from the Seattle area; Fremont is a Seattle neighborhood on the north side of the ship canal that connects Puget Sound to Lake Washington.  Formerly a blue-collar neighborhood of ship chandlers, boat builders, and mill workers, it morphed into an arts/crafts neighborhood and is in the process of morphing again into a high-tech live/work neighborhood.  This year was the 25th Fremont Solstice Festival -- an arts/crafts/music street fair and a wonderfully goofy parade.  The parade allows no motorized vehicles, no commercially-sponsored entries, and no text.  The entries all have a home-cooked flavor to them, whether a ragtag marching band, the entire student body of Salmon Bay School -- a Seattle alternative elementary school -- riding unicycles or (my all time favorite in the year that the theme was "fertility") an elaborate float that was a veritable mountain populated by a bevy of beautifully costumed and ostentatiously pregnant women.  The official start of the parade is traditionally but unofficially led by a posse of bicyclists wearing elaborate and beautiful body paint but little or nothing else.  Some even skip the body paint.  Here endeth the digression.]
I staked out a place on the curb about an hour before the parade started and struck up a conversation with the guy on my left.  Before long a youngish couple, man and woman, strolled up and joined us on my right.  The man was shirtless and, less expectedly, she was too.   I must have done a bit of a double take because she laughed.  I complemented her on getting into the spirit of the parade.  I sure meet some interesting people.
The festival organizers were expecting 20,000 or so visitors but I'll bet there were more than that present for the parade alone.  It was a zoo.  I'm a big fan of a huge, cheerful crowd but enough is enough, already.  If there were, in fact, 20,000 people there then about 5000 of 'em had one or more high-end digital SLR's, fully outfitted with oatmeal-carton-sized zoom lenses, strung on their necks. My friend Doug says that they are not photographers but PWC's (people with cameras).  They were everywhere, popping up like jacks-in-the-box or standing in the middle of the street filling up one memory card after another.  Even more numerous and intrusive were the camera-phone contingent, holding their smart phones above their heads and effectively occluding the view of anybody behind them. 
I took four rolls of film -- standing at the curb and getting in nobody's line of sight.  The parade organizers provide (for a modest fee) a "press pass" that gives you the privilege of being in the street with a camera.  Next year maybe I'll get one and walk the parade route backwards, keeping moving so I won't materially get in anybody's way – at least not for very long.  (But I digress once again.)
Of the 140 or so negatives I work-printed 14 and of those there are three or four that I will print.  That's pretty slim pickings partly because I have photographed the parade many times and it takes a pretty good image to make it into the boxes with the 80 or more that I already have printed.  The other issue is that the Fremont parade is the hardest situation I have ever photographed.  It must be a lot like photographing a sporting event from the sidelines -- you have to be able to anticipate the action and even then a lot depends on luck tobring the action down your sideline.  Even at that, in a sporting event there are usually pauses; there is a set of rules to help you predict where and when things will happen; and only the most foolhardy PWC will leap onto the field and block your line of sight.  The only rule at the parade is that the participants are mostly (but not necessarily) moving from west to east.  The only pauses come when the parade stalls and then you can guarantee that some impromptu performance will spring up.  Perhaps it's more like being a war correspondent without the explosions.   I love it but photographing it is very hard work.   I can hardly wait until next year.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"A beginning artist borrows. A mature artist steals."

I wish I could remember the source of that quotation.

Students of painting, drawing, and sculpture (at least those who are training in the classic tradition) spend a lot of time copying the works of the masters -- or at least the competent.   This practice obviously develops the student's skill with the chosen medium but it also forces the student to spend a lot of time looking at works that are deemed by somebody or other to be worthy of study.  They see, and hope to reproduce, not only how the work was executed but how it was organized and how the content was presented.   They are educating their eye as well as their eye-hand skills.

I wonder if budding abstract expressionist painters copy the works of Phillip Guston, Wilem de Kooning, et al?   If so, what are they looking for?  But I digress.

Here's a speculation.  Why don't students of photography do this?  Photography classes are rich in camera handling, darkroom or computer technique but short on looking at photographs and, especially, trying to understand how masterful (by some standard or other) photographs were made -- or how masterful works in other mediums were made.  Apart from the completely specious "Oh I don't want to be influenced by the work of other photographers." there are certainly some practical matters that legislate against trying to copy a master work -- if your goal is to copy Paul Caponigro's "Megaliths" then a trip to Stonehenge is in order.  However, studying how the light falls on the stones in Caponigro's print might be good start for photographing concrete pillars under a freeway.

This speculation floated to the surface after my second failed attempt to take a portrait posed and lighted in the manner of "The girl with a pearl earring."  I got closer the second time.

It's not easy.  In fact it's harder than I thought it was going to be.  It seems so simple -- place a pretty girl about four feet from a north-lit window or a big soft box with the camera at right angles to the window light, put a reflector behind and above her to bounce some light on her hair, ask her to turn her shoulder slightly beyond the camera's sight-line and turn her head and eyes towards the camera.  Bang!  You're done.  Or not. 

Yes, that makes a pleasant portrait.  No, it is not a convincing replica of Vermeer's studio light and pose.  Better luck next time.

This has been such a challenge and so much fun that I'm going to select several other portraits that I admire and try to reproduce the look-and-feel of them.  The next is Cartier-Bresson's portrait of John Paul Sartre on the Pont Neuf in Paris.  It's getting towards fall and we should have some foggy days shortly.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Composition once again

As I write this I am looking at a photograph that I really like -- taken by a little-known street photographer who is about my age. In it, a buxom young street performer -- acrobat or mime -- is seated on a low "horse", doubtless used in her act, with her right foot extended towards the viewer. She is in dappled shade but her face, turned to her right, is in sunlight. Her left hand holds a long-stemmed flower. She looks relaxed in the spring-loaded manner of a dancer or acrobat and her expression tells me that the sun on her face feels very good. I would guess it to date from the 70s.

The print shows deep, rich blacks in the shadows and the highlight on her upturned face sparkles. Depth of field is shallow -- her outstretched foot is soft and the background is deep into the bokeh.

Coincidentally, I recently read a longish article that examined a group of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Since HCB was notoriously laconic about his process, the author attempts to verbalize how he used composition to achieve his wonderful photographs. In it, the author calls out five principles:

1. Establishing a strong figure to ground relationship,

2. Finding a likeness in disconnected objects,

3. Shadow play (using shadows as a compositional element),

4. The art of waiting, not hunting,

5. Understanding diagonals.

Some of his examples are a bit strained to my eye but he makes a pretty good case for all but #4 as being accurate descriptors of some strong photographs in that one or more of his principles are present in each one. "The art of waiting, not hunting." doesn't show in the photographs of course. Moreover, HCB was famous for always being in motion when he was photographing. Robert Doisneau was the famous "fisherman".

All of these principles are doubtless good attributes but they are descriptions of strong photographs, not prescriptions for what it takes to make a photograph strong. The same statement holds for the rules of composition -- golden spirals, rule of thirds (that the author of the article decries), and so on.

Just for fun I analyzed the street performer, looking for the attributes listed above and then by popping a jpeg of it into Lightroom and using the composition tool overlays.

Well it certainly has good subject to background relationship. Her dark figure is against a considerably lighter ground and her upturned face is against a conveniently much darker background figure. That's 1 for 4 (I don't count the "waiting" since that doesn't appear in the photograph.) In Lightroom, it is a complete strikeout against the composition tool overlays. Would it be stronger if, for example, her face (an obvious center of interest) were farther to the left to be underneath the golden spiral? I tried it and it didn't do a lot for me.

Analysis is fine. Analysis often gives you information about how something works -- but not much help on why. My formal training is in engineering -- mostly control systems. The same statement applies there. The mathematical methods used to describe the behavior of control systems are analytical tools -- not synthesis tools. Once you figure out how a system might work then you can use them to see if, under sufficient and usually unreasonable assumptions, it behaves satisfactorily. So the control system designer tries things and checks to see if they work. The so-called "direct" methods that do help with design only work for situations so simplified that they aren't difficult anyway. (Keep this in mind the next time you are on an airplane flying at 375 knots over the ocean at 45,000 feet.)

I know that there are photographers whose work I greatly admire that carefully compose their work, even by considering the formal elements of composition (and sometimes adhering to them). That's not what I do. However, I hold that both approaches are the time-honored control systems process of trying things to see if they satisfy the eye -- whether by formal analysis or just saying Arnold Newman-fashion "Well, that works."

And as for the street performer photograph, I still think it is a strong photograph and I like it a lot. In fact, I'm proud of it -- I took it two weeks ago at Seattle's Folklife Festival.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Artist? Says who?

I see more and more photographers self-identifying themselves as “fine art” photographers.  I doubt that it is intended as a comparison: fine art, good art, mediocre art, awful art.  Nor does it seem likely that it indicates a grade like sandpaper: fine art, medium art, coarse art.  I seem to recall the terms “fine art” and “applied art” – the latter being illustrations, magazine covers, etc.

So perhaps fine art photographs are those photographs made with no other purpose than to be regarded as art.  Would that disqualify the Karsh portrait of Pablo Casals,  Carier-Bresson’s “Little Parisian”, Garry Winogrand’s “Man in the Crowd”?  Odd, I’d swear I had seen each of these in a major art museum.

So I guess I haven’t a clue what “fine art photographer” means.  I’m not even sure what “art” means.  Art is what artists make.  Artists are people who make art.  No help.

Some years ago I was snooping through a gallery operated by the local (Chico, California) arts organization.  The blue-haired lady behind the counter asked if I was an artist to which I replied “I am a photographer.”  Her response was that they didn’t regard photography as art.  I usually think of something good to say about 15 minutes after it is needed but this time I got it out straight away.  “Oh I agree – but neither is painting or drawing or sculpture. However, some photographers and some painters and some sculptors are artists.”

In the circus jargon, a performer who is among the best – clown, aerialist, animal trainer – is noted by their peers as “great”, as in the Great Emmett Kelly.   It recognizes not only skill and talent but long-term achievement.  Moreover, it is a serious breach of etiquette to misappropriate or self-appropriate the term “great”. 

I believe that it was Robert Frost who said that “poet” is a gift that must be given to you – that you cannot claim it for yourself.  Like the Great Robert Frost, I regard “artist” or “poet” or “novelist” as sort of informal honorifics to be given not taken. 

So I am uncomfortable to self-identify myself as an artist.  If somebody else wants to identify me as an artist that’s just fine.  However, nobody can disagree that I am a photographer.  I make photographs.  Most of the time the result of doing so is rubbish.  Sometimes it is a product. Once in a while it may be art.  Nobody, not even a Great, always get it right.  I suspect that even the Great Picasso had a full trash can.  The Great Mark Twain burned a lot of his drafts so that nobody could pick through his rubbish after his death. 

How often to you need to get it right to deserve the honorific?  John Nichols wrote one terrific novel, The Milagro Beanfield Wars.  That’s all folks.  The second and third books of his hastily devised trilogy after its success were just awful.  Is that enough to earn “novelist”?

It’s easy enough to understand why a photographer would like to self-identify as an artist.  Photographers do have an especially ambiguous medium.  If you say you are photographer then the next question is too often “Do you do [weddings, bar mitzvahs, kid birthday parties ….]?”  Painters probably have the same problem.  “Interior or exterior?”  Sculptors not so much – that is a much less ambiguous word.  But I digress.

Who gets to decide?  There are no board exams to qualify artists.  The opinions about what constitutes “art” or the quality thereof are hardly consistent.  As I reported in an earlier entry, one reviewer dismissed my portfolio as (insert sneer here) “documentary”.  We don’t have (thank St. Ansel and St. Henri) the French or British academy to pontificate.  Well, we do have the Photographic Society of America with its point ratings and so on but who cares.

I had a very hard time getting this entry started and now I’m having a hard time getting it finished, too.  I’m not even sure if it went anywhere between start and finish.  Anybody want to argue?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Girl With a Pearl Earring (and friends)

Some years ago, I saw Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance and Lady Writing at the National Gallery in Washington DC and was dazzled by them. I read a couple of books on Vermeer and his work but concluded that getting to Vienna for The Art of Painting or to The Hague for Girl With a Pearl Earring weren't likely to happen. When I read that the De Young museum in Golden Gate Park was going to have a show of Dutch Masters from the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, I was determined to get there to see it.

Barbara and I have been trying to get to San Francisco for several years. We've half planned a trip several times and each time some damn thing or another came up and we abandoned the idea. This time we were not taking no for an answer. We did, in fact, have a quite pleasant road trip with detours to Santa Cruz to see friends and to Carmel for some gallery crawling but the first day in San Francisco - it was to the De Young. We intended to spend some time with their permanent collection but got no farther than the Dutch Masters show and its companion splendid show of etchings and engravings by Rembrandt and his contemporaries. These were all drawn from their own collection and those of other museums in the Bay area. (but I digress)

The Dutch masters show was a treasure trove -- Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (a studio copy made either by Rembrandt himself or one of his students) a pair of portraits, husband and wife, by Frans Hals, a Cuyp harborscape .... Nearly every painting in the show was one that you see in the art history books. That said, by far the hit of the show was Girl With a Pearl Earring.

It is even more beautiful than I expected it to be. I was stunned. I was dazzled. I was mesmerized. I stood there and stared at it for about twenty minutes then had to come back later for a second helping. It was restored fairly recently so it probably looks today much like it did the day Vermeer finished it. (By the way, I cannot imagine the state of mind of the restorerers who working on it. How could you summon up the courage to begin removing the old, yellowed varnish from the surface of one of the greatest paintings of western art?) In the process of restoration, they found that when Vermeer painted the blue cloth wrapped around her head he laid the medium down on the canvas and then worked the pigment into the surface of the wet medium. That not only allowed him to use a bare minimum of the precious pigment but it lent a bit of surface texture to the cloth.

The painting was protected by a low barrier that kept the viewers a couple of feet from the surface. I looked at it from every practical angle from far left to far right. When I moved far enough to the right that I was looking straight into her eyes -- my knees literally went weak and I had cold chills. From that angle the lines of her nose and her right cheek are perfect! I expected her to blink. I am absolutely convinced that Vermeer painted it from that viewpoint. I excitedly hustled several other viewers (and one mildly puzzled museum guard) into that sight line. They all agreed with me -- perhaps fearing that I was dangerous.

David Hockney and an optical physicist, Charles Falco, recently proposed that Vermeer and many of the other painting masters used optical devices to help them with their works. I had the good fortune to hear a lecture by Charles Falco a couple of years ago and he makes a very good case. The notion that Vermeer and many others back to Van Eyck "cheated" (not Hockney or Falco's term) by using lenses or concave mirrors did not go over well -- in fact it generated a flood of invective from the purists. Hockney hotly denies that his theories represent any criticism of the heroes of western art; instead only an exploration of their methods. Personally, I don't care if Vermeer used a camera obscura, witchcraft, or black magic. The fact that he could paint like that is all that matters to me.

That said, going back to standing to the right of Girl With a Pearl Earring -- her left (near) eye and the earring are Leica-sharp, her right (far) eye is painted ever-so-slightly less sharp, and her left shoulder (much nearer the viewer) is painted less sharp. In fact, the information posted next to the painting notes that the shoulder is done with "looser" brush work. Looks like depth of field to me. Presume for a moment that Vermeer was using a camera obscura and noticed how pleasing that effect was. He was painting -- he could have chosen to paint every inch of the canvas Leica-sharp. (but I digress again)

There are only a handful of artworks that effect me as strongly as Girl With a Pearl Earring -- offhand: Gustave Caillibotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day, Marc Chagall's The Praying Jew, Lawrence Fink's Moses Soyer's Studio, Eugene Smith's Waiting for Survivors of the Andrea Doria, Willy Ronis' Rue Rambeteau and Nu Provence, Robert Doisneau's Lillies of the Valley -- but this may be the queen. For several days after seeing it this painting popped into my head every time my brain went into idle. I literally dreamed about it. I love it when this happens.

I would go a very long way to see something like that again.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I want to be like him when I grow up.

Yesterday we went to the Tacoma Art Museum to see "Beyond Books: the Independent Art of Eric Carle". Never heard of him? I'll bet you have. If you have children I know you have. So far he has authored or illustrated (usually both) over 70 children's picture books including the perennial favorite "The Very Hungry Caterpillar". TAM hosted a show of his book illustrations a few years ago and this companion exhibit shows the much wider scope of his work.

Mr. Carle was born in the U.S.A. in 1929 but his family moved back to Stuttgart, Germany when Eric was about six (bad timing). He endured ten years of "dismal" German schools, food shortages, and Allied bombing. As an aside, Stuttgart was the center of ball-bearing manufacture and the Nazis had buried the ball bearing factories deep under downtown Stuttgart. The allies correctly surmised that if they stopped production of ball bearings then the rest of the German arms manufacturing would literally grind to a stop so they went after the buried factories ruthlessly. When I visited Stuttgart in 1957 it was still mostly rubble.

After the war was over, Carle, whose talent had long been recognized, was appointed to the Stuttgart Academy of Art where he spent four years. His mentor there was so well regarded that clients came to him seeking his students for art projects. Carle's first commissions were for posters for theater productions and artwork for book covers. By age 23 he had "a pretty good portfolio and 40 dollars in my pocket" and decided to return to the U.S.A. In New York he quickly gained a reputation for book cover art and magazine illustration. His work for a children's book turned into a commission to do a picture book of his own -- and 70+ books later, he is still doing so.

Apart from his book illustrations, he does what he calls "Art-Art" -- work he does just because he wants to. Like his book illustrations, most Art-Art is paper collage using vibrantly colored, textured paper that he paints himself. His collages, even his seemingly simple, childlike book illustrations are carefully thought out and built using meticulously drawn acetate cells. He also does two- and three-color linocuts, huge brightly colored abstract paintings on Tyvek, and recently has taken up digital photography. He did a stage design and costumes for a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. (The costumes were made from Tyvek also.)

At age 84, Carle looks a lot like somebody's kindly, hearty, vigorous grandfather. He has never made a distinction between his Art-Art and his commercial work. Both are important to him; both are genuine fun to him. Even painting the sheets of colored paper is fun to him. One of the videos accompanying the TAM exhibit shows him working with a group of children in the studio of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (which he founded and partly financed) in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is very clear that working with children is fun for him, too. When he came to TAM for the show opening and book signing (Beyond Books: The Independent Art of Eric Carle, ISBN 978-1-59288-029-4, 2012) he asked that children coming to the signing bring art work of their own so he could talk to them about it.

When somebody asked Duke Ellington if he was going to retire, the response was: "Retire from what?" I suspect that would be Eric Carle's answer also. I want to be like him when I grow up.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Repainting the Word

I recently re-read “The Painted Word” – I do so every couple of years just to keep my perspectacles on straight.  (“The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1975, Bantam Books, 1976)

“Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory.  And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial – the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.”
This excerpt from a review in the Sunday New York Times of April 28, 1974 sparked the “aha!” that led Wolfe to write The Painted Word.  The very short time elapsed between the “aha!” and the publication by a major house (in fact, it was published in Harpers’ magazine a couple of months earlier) testifies both to the excitement that Wolfe felt about the subject and the chord that it must have struck with his publisher.
Wolfe states the major point of the book in the introduction.  In his not-at-all-humble opinion, art theory and criticism no longer play the role of “… establishing readable texts, in explaining obscurities and clearing up confusions in any art, in supplying background and context for the creations and creators that are difficult because of remoteness in time or place. ...of giving a jewel the setting it deserves.”  (Jacques Barzun writing in Atlantic, November 1984).  Wolfe states that art scholarship has raced ahead of the making of art to a degree that makes it necessary to establish theory (persuasive or otherwise) before the art will be taken seriously by the museums, collectors, and (especially) the critics – that the art exists to illustrate the text (thus the title of the book).
Wolfe spends the rest of the book explaining how this change has affected the art community.  He holds that it has moved the cutting edge of the art world from the studio into the hands of a relatively small number of critics and curators who play the role of kingmakers in today’s museum and gallery world.  Kingmakers who are constantly on the lookout for new movements, new faces with radical work and, especially, with passionately written artist’s statements about ways of seeing that are incomprehensible to the untutored eye.  The private collectors of art, he holds, have largely become followers of the kingmakers and the artists themselves forced, if they seek recognition, to strive for the unusual, the bizarre, the incomprehensible.
[Parenthetically, there is another artist’s approach to this situation.  The painter Od Nudrum has had at least two double page spreads in Art News in which he presents his manifesto.  He paints in the style of the Dutch/Flemish masters but uses the style to paint strangely anachronistic, not exactly surreal subjects.  In his manifesto, he appropriates the term “kitsch” and redefines it to mean what he does.  He then presents his case as to why this is the pure and vital form of painting.  He, in my opinion, is attempting to provide a persuasive theory to support what he is doing.  Perhaps he read Wolfe’s book, too.]
Wolfe then examines the course of modern art from the 20’s through minimalism to show how his ‘aha!’ explains at least some of the lurching about in the art world.  He ends with a cackle of glee that photo realistic paintings (a new wave at the time the book was published) was selling very well in spite of its lack of a persuasive theory and in spite of lofty disdain from the New York critics and curators.
I find this book compelling and much of his argument very convincing.  It also makes me feel a bit better about not being able to understand a great deal of what is written about art today.  Even if you do not agree with his sweeping generalizations (and they are sweeping, indeed) I believe that you will find food for thought. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

It's BFA season again

I went to the photography BFA show at a local university today.

It is very clear that the Department of Art, Art History, and Design is not at the top of the university’s priority list. It is housed in a handsome old college-gothic building (left over from the days in which it was a priority) with “ART” in art-deco letters over the limestone arch at the main entrance. Alas, the building could use a good sprucing up – even a thorough cleaning wouldn’t hurt. It is outright shabby inside. The hallways are dark and drab. The walls are grubby and need paint at the “It looks like hell in here – let’s paint!” level. A hastily added cable tray dribbles along the ceiling to carry CAT 5 cables for the resident computers. The woodwork looks like it needed refinishing in about 1960. Since classes were in session I didn’t go into any classrooms today but, having gone to lectures and meetings there not that many months back, they are no more inviting.

My topmost pet peeve is with the gallery in which the BFA show was hung. It is named in honor of a very distinguished painter/professor the memory of whose dual career as a working artist and inspiring educator deserves all the praise and honor that can be heaped upon it. Alas the gallery is a couple of ex-classrooms knocked together into a single space with marginal lighting and unattractive signage directing visitors to it.

(But I digress.)

I got there a bit after 10 a.m. and found that the gallery doesn’t open until noon. (It seems to me that I find this out every time I go there.) However, a group of students were in the gallery for a class so I quietly joined the rear of the pack.  It turned out the one of the students was one of the BFA candidates and was giving a short talk about her project. I was delighted. The instructor gave me a funny look but said nothing so I hung back and tried to look invisible.

Her project is hard to describe but I’ll give it a pop. The photographic part is a set of positive transparencies, probably 8 ½ x 11 inches, of what appear to be random scenes and figures printed on overhead projector materials on an office copier. There are two sets of them, each set joined end to end then formed into a circle. One circle is perhaps four feet in diameter and the other perhaps three. The two circles are suspended from a hub of two small electric motors by a spider’s web of thin cords. One motor turns the inner circle counterclockwise and the other turns the larger circle clockwise. At the concentric center of the two circles is a bare electric light bulb to illuminate the photographs. The surrounding room light is dim.

At the risk of seeming flippant about it – her talk didn’t make a lot of sense to me either. I would have loved to ask her some questions so I hung around after the class broke up but she vanished.

I regret to say that of the ten or so projects on display there is exactly zero that held my attention or even gave me a notion as to why I should be interested in looking at them. Conceptual art is definitely not my bag – especially when there are no clues to let the uninitiated viewer in on the hook – but that’s still a low average.

Now a BFA (or MFA) project is always a challenge. A 19, 20, 21, 22-year old student is asked to do something original. That has always seemed to me to be an unreasonable expectation. How many artists have found their voice (or any voice at all) at that age? Well, maybe a few. For most, the effort to define the project turns into a race to find something that nobody else does. Of the photography MFA holders that I know not one will show me the MFA project they did. Frank Lloyd Wright admonished young architects to plant ivy around their first few buildings to conceal their youthful follies.

My master’s degree is not in art (electrical engineering, if you must know) but my graduate advisor took an attitude toward his students that has some bearing on this issue. He held that the purpose of college training is to teach the student the basic skills, to expose the student to the history of their chosen field, and to develop the mental agility competently to use what has been learned. He was adamantly opposed to the demand that a graduate student produce original results of lasting interest as a requirement for granting a degree. His passionately held belief was that original work was rare enough overall and damn near extinct at the level of an emerging engineer's abilities and experience.

He assigned each of his master’s degree students a project (that he chose knowing the students general interests) instead of requiring a thesis. He expected that the student would demonstrate an ability to define, seek out, organize, and present results. “This was a bad idea!” was a perfectly acceptable outcome as long as it was well justified. This reminds me of the time-honored practice of a young painter filling in the easier bits of the master painter’s work – demonstrating skill worthy of the master’s trust.

I see no reason why an analogous process would not work for photographers. In fact, I see it work every year. Photographic Center Northwest doesn’t grant degrees but does grant a certificate that requires a final project. The certificate projects, shown in the center’s gallery, usually look more completely worked out -- display a degree of cohesion, show more technical skill, consist of more work -- than I saw at the BFA show today. Most of them are connected to the student’s interests as an artist and as a person. Each is accompanied by an artist’s statement that helps the viewer get inside even the more challenging projects.

PCNW also has a collaborative program with another local university that does grant a BFA in photography. Their BFA show is coming up shortly and I’ll certainly go see it also. Their BFA projects look a lot the PCNW certificate projects on steroids – larger, more comprehensive projects but still rather completely worked out. Their gallery space is more attractive that the one I visited today (and the building is less shabby, too).

Monday, March 11, 2013

PDA 2, Ron 0 (but it's ok now)

The trademark bonfire has burned down to ashes after a couple of more weeks of emails and a face-to-face seance with the big shot.  Short version:
  • They don't agree that the book is "fair use"
  • I'm not going to sign their trademark license agreement (7 pages of dense, one-sided legalise)
  • I told him of my plan B and that I was going to do it.
  • We parted without major upset on either side.
Given that standoff I went through the book and removed their trademarked phrases from the text.  They agreed (and I have written confirmation) that I don't have to photoshop their trademarks out of the photographs.

Boy, am I glad that's resolved.

I'm going to the annual fund-raiser for the Market Foundation (not-for-profit that administers the social services located at the market, low-income housing, senior center, medical and dental services, food bank) at the invitation of their executive director.  It will be a lot of fun and I'll shamelessly hype the book.  The current draft is looking pretty spiffy.

Later tomorrow I have another seance with the curator of photography at MOHAI (at his invitation) to get his spin on the draft I sent him. 

Maybe I'll get this done someday.  Now I'd like to get enough pre-orders to justify a decent sized press run.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

PDA 1, ronfstop 0 (rant follows)

Stand by for a rant.

After several weeks of dithering about whether to grant me a trademark license for my "Regular Customer" book, the PDA agreed that they would consider granting me a no-cost, no-royalty license for a first printing of my book.  (Good)

However, they have to take that proposal to a subcommittee (are you beginning to get nervous) for approval.  (Bad)

Then, if the subcommittee approves they must take it to their full governing council (are you more nervous yet) for approval next month.  (Badder)

After I retired from a prominent aerospace company formerly headquartered in Seattle I was cheerful at the prospect of never again dealing with a bureaucracy larded up with one-size-fits-all policies. (sigh).  Is this really an issue that should take up the time of their entire governing council?

Moreover, the  fine print tells me that, if the license is granted, I have to indemnify the PDA to the tune of $1,000,000 (count the zeros, that's right: 6 of 'em) in case (and I quote) somebody gets hurt in any way related to the book or sues the PDA in any way related to the book. Since there is no time limit I would be required to maintain the liability insurance, well, forever.  (Baddest)

Having looked up the "fair and nominative use" clause in the trademark law I proposed to my buds at the PDA that the book is clearly a fair use and doesn't require a license anyway.  All they have to do is send me a letter saying that they agree.  Considering the track record I suspect it is not a good idea to go forward without their agreeing unless I am prepared to engage an very expensive intellectual property attorney to go to court for me when they sue.

I have no idea how this will fly even though I know that somewhere in their den there is a person with the authority to say "yes." (But, again like the prominent aerospace company, it takes a whole gob of bureaucrats to say "yes" but only one to say "no".)

Plan B is to go through the text of the book and replace all offending phrases with neutral terms:  "Pike Place Market" == "Seattle's downtown farmer's market" and the like.  Then I don't need a license, they have no exposure to liability and I press on.

On a lighter note, the final edit of the book is going very well.  I'm over halfway through it and it's looking good.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Arnold Newman: Early Work

Barbara, knowing that I’m a big admirer of Arnold Newman’s work, gave me a copy of “Arnold Newman: Early Work” (Steidl, 2008) for my recent birthday.  It’s a large format, beautifully printed book with duotone reproductions of Mr. Newman’s work from 1935 or so until 1941 when he settled in New York, had his first major show, and quickly became a big name.
Knowing that he worked in a portrait studio from his earliest days as a photographer I expected his early work to be portraits.  Not so!  Think Walker Evans or even Paul Strand.  Think Helen Levitt. Well, not quite – think Helen Levitt stopping to chat up her subjects, carefully posing them, photographing them with a 4x5 camera -- and still catching the spontaneity and sense of life that is in her photographs.  
Mr. Newman’s early work shows the same degree of consideration and attention to formal arrangement as his studio portraits.  How he managed to do this with street photographs is a mystery to me.  I suppose he set up his tripod, carefully selected his position and direction, composed all the stationary objects, and waited for the crowd to take the shape he wanted.
There are a few still life photographs of a violin maker’s patterns in the book as well as the justly famous photograph of a rack of violins.  The way he arranged the violin patterns foreshadows his use of materials from an artist’s environment as props in his portraits of musicians, painters and sculptors (Isaac Stern, Piet Mondrian, Jacob Lawrence, Isamu Noguchi).  The cutouts and collaged images in the book foreshadow his use of torn and reassembled portraits (Dr. Seuss, Paul Strand, Andy Warhol). 
I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Newman twice.  The first was at a weekend workshop held at the downtown location of Yuen Lui Studios.  Mr. Newman and Wah Lui, son of Yuen Lui and an excellent portrait photographer himself, were friends.  The workshop was held in a cavernous upper floor studio graced with a high ceiling and a huge skylight.  It soon became evident that the secret to Mr. Newman’s portrait technique was largely his personal warmth and humor and his relentless attention to detail.  The highlight of the weekend was his demonstration of doing a standing dual portrait of Wah Lui and his lovely wife.  Accompanied by a steady stream of witty patter he spent about 20 minutes nudging them into the exact pose that he wanted, adjusting a couple of huge reflectors to put the light where he wanted it and getting the camera position micrometrically correct – and then 30 seconds or so to blast three double-sided film holders through the camera.  It was like watching a fine pianist play a Chopin ballade – no flashy technique, just every note in the right place and the right time.  And I’ll bet that if you had stopped him anywhere along the way he would not have been able to articulate what he was doing.  When he finished, the attendees applauded.
The second was at a lecture and reception at the University of Washington.  I don’t recall the occasion but I do recall that it also involved the painter and University of Washington professor Jacob Lawrence.  It may have been in conjunction with Mr. Lawrence’s retirement from the University.  Mr. Newman and Mr. Lawrence -- old friends; the famous Newman portrait of Jacob Lawrence was done in 1959 -- spoke of their art and poked witty, gentle fun at each other.  Both artists made it very clear that they worked in an intuitive way – playing with the materials and the process until it came out right.  Mr. Newman reiterated his famous aphorism: “After you say ‘It works.’ then you can discuss details.”  What neither of them said was that the foundation under their process was “good chops” -- skill internalized by of doing it until it is below the conscious level. 
Good chops for a photographer applies both to camera handling and to knowing which way to point the camera.  Arnold Newman: Early Works clearly shows that Newman had good chops as early as 1935.

Regular Customer -- still slogging along.

OMG!! – as they say in the text-messaging and tweeting world.  I just looked back in the blog and found that the previous post about  my Regular Customer project was in July 2011. 
“All progress is made by people who don’t know what they are getting themselves into.”  I wish I had an attribution for that quotation.  Regular Customer has become a case study to illustrate it.
 [For those who have not been hanging on my every word – Regular Customer began with my noticing that as of 2013 I would have photographs from Seattle’s Pike Place Market over a span of 50 years.  Says I: “I’ll bet there are enough negatives in there somewhere for a nice project.”  Turns out there were about 4000 of them
The sheer scope – 50 years and 4000 negatives – pointed towards a book which in turn suggested that I needed to go digital.
I rummaged through contact sheets, thankfully carefully filed with the sheets of negatives, and scanned about 2000 of them.  That was the state of affairs in July 2011 when I was four months into the project.  I’m now just over two years into it.]
From the 2000 or so scans I selected about 1000 as candidates for whatever the book was going to turn out to be.  Ah, there was the next question: What is it going to turn out to be?  Several months of dithering and sorting thumbnail images followed.  Eventually the book settled out to be a metaphorical walk through the market to show a visitor what it looks like and what it looked like years ago.  Several more months of dithering about book format and size ensued with numerous absolutely-final-for-this-week decisions, pilot trials, and back-to-the-drawing-boards.  The process eventually converged on a book of 300 or thereabouts photographs in a landscape format a bit smaller than 11x8 ½ inches.
It wasn’t too difficult to get from 1000 to 500 but then it got a lot harder.  I decided that the only practical scheme was to take what I had, put together a draft, and edit it down further from there.  I remember reading about a novelist who said that when his son was six years old so was the first draft of his first novel and the two were about the same height.  I understand.  He also said that the novel went through seven drafts, the first six of which were bad and the first three were very bad.  I understand.
My fifth draft looked good enough that I was willing to show it to a couple of people including my friend, Joe, a retired art director.  Boy, did that generate a lot of red ink!  As a result the sixth draft started to look like a semi-finished product – still close to 400 photographs however.  Before going further I needed to get reactions to it both from people close to the Pike Place Market and from people with an interest in local history.
By a stroke of sheer luck I had an opportunity to show the draft to the librarian and to the curator of photography of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).  To my delight they were enthusiastic about it and urged me to press on.  By another stroke of luck I was able to contact the daughter of one of the long-time market vendors, Pinhas Almeleh, to whom the book will be dedicated.  She, too, was enthusiastic and pointed me to the not-for-profit Pike Place Market Foundation.  Their director also was enthusiastic about it and, in turn, pointed me to the Friends of the Market – the loosely organized group founded in the 70s to oppose destruction of the market and construction of a high-rise.  I have met with them twice and find them a crusty, opinionated, funny, delightful gang of old coots (and I feel right at home with them).  What with one thing and another I now have a lot of additional caption information for the book and a lot better idea of how to edit the book down to about 350 photographs.  At that point I’m declaring victory and will be ready to produce the seventh and final draft, print a mammoth pdf and send it off to the print shop.
The only fly in the ointment is (sigh) a bureaucratic one.  The quasi-governmental Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA) now demands a license to use the trademarked name “The Pike Place Market” for any commercial purpose.  Now I never regarded my book as a “commercial” product but I would like to sell enough copies to at least partly pay for the printing costs.  I have been on “a couple of days, a week tops” for over a month now on whether I need a license, whether I have to pay the hefty fee for a license, when I will get a license.  I’m sure this will eventually work out.  I’m sure this will eventually work out.  I’m sure this will eventually work out.  I’m sure this will eventually work out.
On a lighter note, I also selected twenty photographs of market old-timers from the early years of my negative trove and made a set of silver prints of them that look just fine, thank you very much.  Fourteen of them are currently hanging in our photography group’s gallery and I’m pretty sure that MOHAI wants a set of the twenty for their collection.
I’ve done several smaller, less complicated books.  When I started, my expectation was that a book of 300 or so was only going to be six times more work than a book of fifty or so.  Silly me!  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Out of the shadows -- in more ways than one

I met an interesting character last night at the opening reception of the “Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows” show at Photographic Center Northwest (PCNW).

[For those not up on the photographic buzz – Vivian Maier lived in Chicago for most of her adult life, working as a nanny for wealthy families on Chicago’s north side.  Unknown to almost everyone she photographed nearly daily in her neighborhood and on the inner-city streets of Chicago for 30 years.  Her work is often compared to Lisette Model’s work but I find it more in the tradition of the French humanist photographers – Willy Ronis or Robert Doisneau – or city photographers such as Helen Levitt or John Gutmann.  She was more than a bit of a hoarder, renting a couple of storage lockers in which to stash her negatives and other memorabilia.  She neglected (or could not afford) to pay the storage rentals so her materials were eventually sold at auction shortly before her death.  The worth of her negatives was quickly realized and a scramble ensued to gather them together from the several people who had bought boxes with unknown contents.]

The show at PCNW is made up of 50 or so 12x12 inch silver prints selected from the 20,000 or so 2 ¼ negatives in the “Goldstein” part of the negatives left behind when Ms. Maier died in 2009.  80,000 or so negatives and color slides are owned by a Chicago realtor/historian named Maloof.  There may be more.

Both Mr. Maloof and Mr. Goldstein have published books of photographs drawn from their respective shares of this treasure trove.  Both books are worth having.  In my opinion, the Maloof  book is more tightly edited and the reproductions are superior to those in the Goldstein book.  On the other hand the Goldstein book contains a much broader cross-section of Ms. Maier’s work and has a well-researched accompanying text about her life.

Ms Maier did little printing of her negatives and her darkroom skill was definitely no match for her skill in knowing which way to point the camera before pushing the button.  Mr. Maloof and his colleagues embarked on the monumental task of scanning their treasure trove and have had several shows of digital prints made from Ms. Maier’s negatives.   Mr. Goldstein decided that these negatives would be better served by silver prints – the technology available at the time Ms. Maier was taking them.  A selection of these prints makes up the show at PCNW.

Well, unlike the situation in 1968 or thereabouts, photography labs capable of making exhibition quality prints don’t grow on trees today – not even in a city the size of Chicago.

Enter the interesting character.  Ron Gordon is a below-the-radar, Chicago-based photographer doing mostly architectural photography for his own work – and a printer who began that career in a commercial lab in 1968.  For most of the intervening years he had his own lab specializing in black and white silver printing both for commercial and artist clients.  He has retired “a couple of times” intending to concentrate on his own work but returning to custom printing upon sufficient pleading.  A mutual acquaintance introduced him to Mr. Goldstein – who showed him some of the Maier negatives – and the game was over.  Not only did he fall in love with her work but he said that it was almost certain that he and Ms. Maier were photographing at the same place on the same day sometime during the years that Ms. Maier was active: he with his 4x5 on a tripod, she with her trusty Rolleiflex.

This good-natured, unassuming, supposedly-retired master printer and his co-conspirator, Sandra Steinbrecher, have spent most of the last two years cranking out editions of 15.  His air is that of a man who is having a wonderful time. 

I hasten to assure you that master printer is exactly what he is!  The prints remind me of how pretty a silver print can be.  You can like the photographs or not (I do – at least most of them) but you cannot fail to be dazzled by the beauty of the prints.  Mr. Gordon gave an impromptu talk about the photographs, his attraction to them, and his printing of them.  It’s pretty rare for a back-room person like him to get roaring applause.

I haven’t seen a crowd that thick at a PCNW show for a long time.  Almost everyone there had seen the show at least once before.  The gallery director asked the crowd how many were darkroom workers – about half the crowd raised a hand. It seems that the age of silver isn’t past yet.

I find it heartening that there is so much buzz about a body of work that is definitely not avant garde – straight-ahead representational photography, relatively small prints, no lofty artist statements, white mats in black frames.  I suppose that the fact that Ms. Maier died unknown adds to the buzz. (A gallery director in Portland assured me that he would be glad to show my street photography if I were dead.)   I wonder how it would have been received if she had attempted to show it herself?  But that is a different rant and rave.