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.