Thursday, February 24, 2011

Saint Augustine of Arizona

I recently posted about Hurn and Jay's book On Being a Photographer. I found the book interesting enough that I decided to read on of Bill Jay's other books (one of more than 20!) called Negative/Positive. Some of the text is identical to On Being A Photographer (nobody writes 20 books without some repetition). I am only 27 pages in, and I will resist doing a long post, but I just wanted to bring up Jay's very Augustinian (in my opinion) polemic about the "Naturalistic" vs. the "Humanistic" photographer. In 1979, when Jay wrote the book, I can imagine that he must have felt like a lone voice crying in the desert (literally, since he was a professor in Arizona for 25 years). The impression I get is that Jay thought photography was going to hell in a handbasket—and fast. Moral values were rejected in favor of the superficial, the banal. The "New Topographics" exhibit in 1975 featured photographers who may as well have been horsemen of the Apocalypse in Jay's mind—or so it seems, for they represent the triumph of naturalism.

So what does he mean by "naturalism" ? If you're acquainted with the term from studying literature or art, you will just have to put that knowledge aside because he does not use the term in a way that reflects that movement. Instead, he sums up the naturalist with a quote from Garry Winogrand: "I photograph to find out what something will look like when photographed."

The "humanist" photographer is the antithesis of the naturalist. "The photographer is no longer recording what is, but what could or should be." Jay uses words like "magic" and "ritual." He speaks of icons of Christ and their function as "a visual aid towards, not an end product of, truth or meaning."

This made me immediately think of Saint Augustine's concept of enjoyment vs. use (a side effect of taking several graduate courses from Eugene Vance). I don't have On Christian Doctrine handy to quote an exact passage, but the basic idea is the "enjoyment" is something suitable only for that which is holy. For Augustine, the only thing we should really "enjoy"—or love for its own sake—is God. Everything else should be used. Yeah, that's right. You should use your friends, not enjoy them. What he means is that your relationship to the world should propel you toward something higher. It's OK to look at a flower, for example, as long as you see it as a sign of God's creation. He doesn't mean that we use people the way a sociopath does; he just doesn't want people to love people or things for their own sake.

So, back to photography. If you're a "naturalist" and you just want to photograph things to see what they look like in photos, then that's just not good enough for Jay. Photography favors naturalism and most photographers are naturalists according to Jay. The medium of photography doesn't place value judgments on what it depicts. A piece of trash is as worthy to the "objective" eye of the camera as anything else. But the "humanist" photographer dares to discern and describe according to a system of values. "Humanism in photography has been a candle in a cathedral, and the slightest draft can extinguish it," writes Jay.

Hmm, I'm not sure what I think of this polemical stance. On the one hand, I LOVE the photography of Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore and most all of those "New Topographics" photographers. On the other, I think that looking at value systems and having an opinion (even a slightly curmudgeonly one) contributes more to society than complete detachment.

If I were to try to confront my confusion after only a few minutes of thought, I think I would conclude that the real enemy is not "naturalism" but thoughtlessness. A "humanist" photographer might promote ill-conceived "values" that are just as superficial as the foil Jay has created in the "naturalist." Similarly, someone who looks at a Robert Adams photo of a piece of trash at the side of the road and then decides that they can just snap a photo of trash and have that photo be equally valid is simply not getting it. However superficial the "naturalists" might seem from the "humanist" perspective, the smart ones are seriously engaged in the world—just maybe not in the way Saint Augustine would have liked.

I guess one person's trash is another's treasure.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

point and shoot lust: Fujifilm finepix X100

Currently drooling over the Fujifilm Finepix x100. How can I resist the old school look, the solid construction, and gutsy 35mm (equiv) fixed F2 lens? A lot of people won't understand why a camera that doesn't even let you change lenses should cost $1,200, but the target market (street photographers, I imagine) will salivate along with me because it oozes quality. Of course, I still fantasize about the leica m9, but at $7k (and that's without a lens) there is just no way I can afford it. Read a detailed review and see what you think. The camera doesn't hit stores until March, so I have time to get control of my technolust. But I'm back in Paris in April and oh-so-tempted to bring along something light like this for when I don't feel like toting around my camera bag and heavy lenses.

My advice to myself:
1. Until I see some reviews that have tested the actual picture quality, what I'm really in love with is the idea and the look. If the photos aren't good enough for decent street photography, then there's no point.

2. It's ALWAYS good to wait if you can. Give it a year and the price will fall and/or something better will come out.

Can I follow my own advice? Yes on 1, very hard to say on 2. Guess we'll have to wait until March and see.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

More advice from "On Being A Photographer"

Since my last post included some notes on choosing subjects, I thought I would follow up by looking at what Bill Jay and David Hurn have to say about photo essays.

Once you have found a theme that interests you, the first thing to consider, according to Bill Jay is "What is the purpose?" Answering that question can save you a lot of time and help organize your work.

Once you have decided on your purpose, you need to ask yourself how many pictures are required.
"It might be only one image or perhaps seven prints for a magazine layout; 40 for a one-person exhibition; 120 for a major book, or whatever." (58)
Once you know number of photos required for the essay, you can divide and conquer. They suggest listing picture headings for each photo to form a sort of "shooting script" for your project. In other words, decide in advance the types of pictures you will need to take in order to avoid visual boredom. But don't think this means that there isn't room for spontaneity:
"Obviously, you do not preconceive the essay but you must be aware of the basic structure in advance of shooting." (58)
They key is to plan so that you have a frame-work that pushes you along. The authors are talking about art photography, but I think this is a well developed skill for most wedding photographers. Wedding photographers get good at narrating because they have a clearly defined event to record. They know that they need an establishment picture, they need details, they need candid shots, they need the inevitable shot of a cute little kid, and so on. The more weddings you do, the easier the process becomes—not because each wedding isn't unique or because you have lapsed into lazy cookie-cutter choices, but because you learn how to anticipate the needs of the story.

What the authors suggest, in the case of a subject that allows for repeated visits (their example: a photo essay on a club) is to start by experiencing it without your camera. Just be an observer and soak it all in:
"When you leave, write down in a notebook 12 heading or however many images you need to complete the project. You might jot down "loneliness" or "people in conversation" or "competition at the pool table" or "heavy drinkers or "flirting" or whatever stuck in your mind as an impression. (59)
Once you've done your visual research, you go back and try to photograph those headings.
"This means that if there is a club with a stripper in the corner you do not spend nine weeks out of ten photographing the stripper and one week photographing the more difficult headings." (59)
Their "stripper" example shows how having a plan can stop you from spending all your time on the easy photos.Having a plan will force you to create a balanced story. Once you have covered all of your headings, you can tack your images up on a wall (or some computer equivalent) and evaluate it. When you do this, you might find out that you have too many images from the same distance or that some images are weak and need to be re-shot. Reading their advice made me think of a book I read when I was about to start my dissertation. The book— How to complete and survive your doctoral dissertation— gave frightening statistics on how few ABDs (all-but-dissertation) ever complete that last step. So many Ph.D candidates lose their way and never finish because the task gets overwhelming and frankly, because good guidance is not readily available. The photographic equivalent to the ABD would be the photographer with shoe boxes (or discs or hard drives) full of photos that are never organized and put to any use.

As a blogger, I feel compelled to say that having a blog is a great way to do something with your photos. Thanks to blogs, a lot of people are making photo essays every day. As you get more serious about really crafting a good photo essay, however, I think that Jay and Hurn's practical advice for building a good framework is inspiring. In fact, I plan to use it on my current Utah-based project (and my Paris project if I can summon the energy).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Good advice from "On Being a Photographer"


If you want to buy a new copy of On Being a Photographer by David Hurn and Bill Jay all you need to do is go to Amazon.com and pay $489.99. No, that's not a typo. $489.99 for a 96 page paperback 3rd edition published in 2007. Yes, I know that I have posted about how fast photo books go up in value. My biggest surprise recently was finding out that the Michael Kenna Retrospective exhibition catalog I bought in Paris in 2009 for 40 euros is (at the time I am writing this) listed at $888.15. Who pays this kind of money? People who light their cuban cigars with $100 bills, I imagine. As for me, well, I don't smoke and I barely have enough change for the parking meter. But thanks to the wonders of inter-library loan, On Being a Photographer (second edition—probably worth even more) is sitting on my coffee table right now. It hasn't been checked out since 2005 and if I had no conscience I would forget to return it. But never fear, librarians, I would never do such a thing. Instead, I will take copious notes, do a post or two about it, and then send it back to sit on a shelf, unappreciated.

The book is in dialog form, which I find very appealing—especially given that both authors contribute equally. This sets it apart from the single-authored dialogic tradition in which one interlocuter expresses the author's opinions and the others are just there to be wrong (sorry Plato. sorry Diderot.) It also sets it apart from most interviews.

Realizing that the exorbitant price may raise your expectations about the content, let me remind you that the authors do not take themselves for Donald Trump, spouting platitudes for big bucks. Reading the book is more like eavesdropping on a great conversation in a coffee shop.

Here are some great words of advice from the chapter "Selecting a Subject" :

The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing visual interest, in the theme of the pictures. This curiosity leads to intense examination, reading, talking, research and many, many failed attempts over a long period of time. (30)

Let us make a point clear: when the subject takes precedence, you not only start the journey towards a personal style but you also discover the sheer joy of visually responding to the world. (31)

the photographer is, primarily, a subject-selector. (31)

The authors then go on to teach some principles of subject selection:

They suggest that you compile of list of things that really interest you, "subjects which fascinate you without regard to photography." (31) Ask yourself "What could inflame your passion and curiosity over a long period of time? Once you've got a list, then you begin to edit it based on your answers to the following questions:

Is it visual?
If it doesn't lend itself to visual exploration then cross it out.

Is it practical?
For example, I love Tokyo, but unfortunately I haven't been to Japan since I was 15, so that doesn't make the cut.

Is it a subject about which I know enough?
This isn't to say that you couldn't start learning about something new, but I really like their example, "you are not contributing anything to the issue of urban poverty by wandering back streets and snatching photos of derelicts in doorways. That's exploitation, not exploration." (32)

Is it interesting to others?
Keep in mind that they are writing for people who want to be professional photographers. My own belief is that if you are passionate enough about your topic it can become interesting to others. But I do see their point. If you are equally passionate about several things and one of them may be more interesting to others, then choose that one.

For me, the advice "Be as specific as possible" is preaching to the choir. When it comes to writing papers I always tell my students that I have never—no, not once—told a student that their thesis was too specific. I dare them to be the first, and yet every time I end up writing "be more specific...be more precise, etc." on about half of the work that gets turned in. The same goes for a photo essay. Instead of "Flowers," for example, they suggest narrowing it down to something like "Plants that Relate to Architecture," or instead of "Portraits," perhaps "Cleveland Sculptors in Their Studios." None of this means that you can't let your work grow organically, but you need a good starting point.

"What is the alternative to an emphasis on subject matter? It is a frantic grasping for instant gratification which all too often leads to works displaying pyrotechnics but of dubious depth and resonance." (34)

They are both critical of the self-absorbed navel-gazing photographer:

"Most photographers would do the world a favor by diminishing, not augmenting, the role of self and, as much as possible, emphasizing subject along." (34)

Not that subjectivity isn't inherent to the medium, but the self shouldn't be the primary aim. I really liked their idea about personal style. A lot of photographers worry more than they should about creating their own unique visual style, when it really should emerge as a by-product:

"Over a long period of time and through many, many images, the self re-emerges with even greater strength than if it were the end-product. Ironically, by starting with the self, it is missed; ignore it, and it becomes evident." (35)

A beautiful example is given—one that explains why my wife take such great photos of our children:
"Take a mother on a beach watching her child build sand-castles. She suddenly sees an expression which tugs at her heart-strings. Without a thought, she dips into the picnic basket, aims the camera, and presses the button. The moment has been captured—and will be treasured for the rest of her life."
That kind of knowledge and love of the subject constitutes 85% of what it takes to make great photography, they claim. The remaining 15%? Learning to turn the particular into the universal.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Car Wreck Art



Look at the 1993 Saab 900 ad above and you can see how integral an aesthetics of destruction is to the appeal of car advertising. Not convinced? Check out this 2007 Renault ad:



or how about the 2011 "the hard way" Lexus video in which car leather is subjected to a blow torch (just one of 11 brutal durability tests) in beautifully rendered slow-motion:



I suppose in some ways it's only natural that a century of sexualizing automobiles should steer us toward machine torture porn. Cronenberg's kinky "Crash" (1996) and Paul Haggis' touching "Crash" (2004) both use car wrecks as metaphors for social dysfunction. The first lines of Haggis' film show how unmet emotional needs can erupt into and be satisfied by cathartic violence:
"It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."
Free associate for a moment. CARS. Go.
speed. sex. safety. danger. expensive. isolation. protection. freedom. road rage. Gary Numan...what the..? How can I actually get to the photography portion of this post without first flashing back to the 80s? Indulge me:



Wow. Videos were dumb in the '80s.

Now let's talk about how it is that two of the books on Photo-Eye magazine's "Best Photobooks of 2010" list are about crashed cars: Raffael Waldner's Car Crash Studies: 2001-2010 and S├ębastien Girard's Desperate Cars. I bought both books to see what all the fuss was about. They are sitting on my coffee table alongside another car-related best of 2010 book, Lee Friedlander's America by Car. I will leave the latter book to some future post. For now, here are some of my thoughts on Girard and Waldner's books.

Desperate Cars
Desperate Cars is the second self-published book by S├ębastien Girard. His first book, Nothing But Home, is sold out, unfortunately for me. Desperate Cars copies are still up for grabs in a special edition of 100 or the standard edition of 500. For a self-published work, the distribution is impressive. Photo-Eye sells it, Colette (which, if you haven't heard of it, is the boutique in Paris that tells the in-crowd what they are supposed to like) sells it, and several other sources, including, of course, Girard's own site (which is where I bought it). The book is beautifully designed, thoughtfully sequenced, and very well printed. That's about as much as I have read in any of the reviews, which is why I want to go further and address the content.

The inside cover features a ghostly image of a car, suspended in darkness, almost speeding toward the only textual introduction, the plea: save their souls.

(see a multi-page preview at photo-eye)

Turn the page, and you see rosary beads hanging from the rear-view mirror of the first in a series of damaged, neglected, abandoned cars. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek imperative for Messianic intervention sets the tone for the a darkly comic ride into car purgatory. The book is theater of the absurd mixed with tragedy because after spending so much time anthropomorphizing cars it's only natural to feel a little guilty about their demise?

I remember a Saab commercial, maybe 1993 or so, that featured a a camera admiring every angle of the car with a voice-over, "You have a mind. You have a body. You have a soul... So should your car." In the commercial, dual air bags inflate like lungs in slow motion and a gleaming dashboard lights up like neurons firing. In contrast, Girard's book shows us wires that spill out of eviscerated heating systems, duct tape that clings to the doors like field trauma sutures gone wrong.

A predominantly steely palette accented by an occasional pop of a primary color gives the book a pleasing continuity. A photo of a tire's encounter with, um, a certain organic brown substance might be a misstep in more ways than one, but then, I'm not big on scatological humor. The sequencing and simple layout create a flow that is never heavy handed but that allows the viewer to create fragments of narrative. One spread, for example, features a photo of a broken headlight on the left page, while on the right page, a shelf with headlights cannibalized from other cars looks on. In another spread, a circular yellow air freshener stuck to a dash looks ready to plug a hole in the photo on the right page of a yellow hood that is missing a round emblem in its grill. Other spreads have such perfect balance of scale and geometry that the photos seem to belong together as sublime diptychs.

Desperate Cars has been sitting on my coffee table for weeks now and I find myself drawn to it, trying to decipher its enigmatic beauty. It's not the kind of book you "get" right away, and maybe I still don't get it. But I find it inspiring and I look forward to Girard's next book.

Car Crash Studies 2001-2010


Car Crash Studies by Raffael Waldner has an obvious thematic similarity to Desperate Cars. Both books isolate vehicles on a dark background, stripping them of their geographical and social context. Both books feature cars that have passed into the great beyond. But Girard is not Waldner any more than Stephen Shore is Lewis Baltz. In other words, you can put them in the same exhibit, but would never confuse the artists unless you're not paying attention.

Walder's obsessive project began in 2001 and includes more than 300 subjects, a sampling of which we see in in this 2001-2010 collection. One big difference between Desperate Cars and Car Crash Studies is that the latter focuses specifically on sports and luxury cars. Not only is each wreck labeled with make and model, but an index gives us both alphabetic and chronological listings of the cars. 5 Mercedes, 6 BMWs, and 6 Audis top the pantheon of the honored dead.

I feel less compelled to write about this excellent book because:
1. I can point you to 5B4 for a well written review
2. The book itself has two brilliantly written essays (Oh that every photo book had essays!). Let me give you a quote from Christoph Doswald's essay:
"This typology, researched and documented through numerous night-time forays into the scrapyards of vehicle breakdown services, is a contemporary interpretation of the Vanitas theme, and the piles of scrap metal—now functionless and desecrated by crashes—speak of the transitory nature of material power and also a little bit of the loss of the erotic in society."

3. This post is getting long and I'm tired.

When I look at Waldner's book, I feel less connection to the cars. I don't mean that in a negative way at all. I think my sense of detachment comes from the fact that I will probably never own a luxury car. My last car was Honda Civic I drove for 18 years and finally sold to a junkyard for about the price of a video game. My current car is a Honda Civic. So maybe I am experiencing schadenfreude when I contemplate the wreckage of a Lamborghini Gallardo. Maybe the totaled car as an art object is more pleasurable than the one that can zoom past me when the light turns green. When I look at Girard's book, part of me does want to save those cars' souls. When I look at Waldner's photos, I say, "Good. I like you better that way." Oddly, or appropriately I suppose, the people who can afford to buy Waldner's prints will be the same ones who can afford to drive those cars. That way, they can experience even the destruction of luxury as a luxury item.

One of the early images in Waldner's book is a damaged paint job that looks like alien terrain. From there, the objects are shown more zoomed out, but often so twisted as to be just as alien. The tortured metal looks as if the vehicles fell from the sky. Who knows? Maybe they did.

As a postscript to the zeitgeist of car wreck art, I also encourage you to check out Nicolai Howalt's series, "Car Crash Studies" (yes, that's what I said, car crash studies).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Musings on the " New York Times effect" and the world of photoblogs

While I was wandering around the house brushing my teeth tonight (peripatetic tooth brushing=deep thoughts, no cavities, and the occasional dribble of foam down your shirt), I started thinking about the RSS feeds from the photoblogs I read and how they relate to a film I saw at Sundance. The film, "Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times," is a must-see documentary about, among other things, how traditional newspapers try to adapt to an evolving media environment. In one of several scenes featuring NY Times columnist David Carr in all his cut-through-the-BS glory, a panel of journalists and bloggers duke it out over their relevance and place in 21st-century society. The arguments are predictable: The blogger accuses the newspapers of out of touch elitism and the newspapers accuse the bloggers of being parasitic narcissists. During the exchange, David Carr pulls up a printout of a popular news aggregator. The printout has large thumbnail images from a variety of sources, each image representing a popular story. "It's a great site!" Carr says, "You should check it out." He then holds up the same printout, this time with any image corresponding to a newspaper-sourced story cut out. He peeks through the empty window of the now-eviscerated page at an audience that bursts into applause. End of debate. Eat that, blogosphere! It's the kind of brilliant rhetorical gesture that makes good movies.

The fact is, people have been parasitically dependent on the Times long before the internet. People that study the flow of news discovered years ago that page one of the Times suddenly becomes news everywhere else a day or two later. The phenomenon was given its own name: the New York Times effect.

Read the "SongMeanings" site commentators attempting to decipher the Bee Gees lyrics:

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk,
I'm a woman's man: no time to talk.
Music loud and women warm, I've been kicked around
since I was born.
And now it's all right. It's OK.
And you may look the other way.
We can try to understand
the New York Times' effect on man
Yeah. I never knew those were the lyrics either.

But indecipherable falsetto disco aside, I think the "New York Times' effect on man" has been amped up by blogs. It might be the "Design Sponge" effect or the "Good Tutorials" effect or whatever, but my RSS feed is clogged up with the same stories, the same reviews, and the same trends. It's like a pool of information made up of backwash. (OK, that was bad.) I know this is turning into a rant, but it's really been getting on my nerves. Why was everyone suddenly in love with polaroid once it started to die? Why is found photography suddenly such a find? Why the love of lomo? the passion for cheap plastic cameras? Zeitgeist or laziness? Sometimes, trends just emerge from some Jungian collective unconscious. But then, sometimes they just come from a complete lack of conscious engagement with oneself. Not that there's anything wrong with loving yellow hues and lens flare or whatever. It's just that asking yourself what you want to photograph and how you want to photograph it might lead to more heartfelt, honest photography. To quote a slightly more recent song:
Say what you say,
Do what you do
Feel what you feel,
As long as it's real.
Now, the last thing I want to do is cloister myself off from what's happening in the world of photography. But the multiplication of the same stories and the same styles can hypnotize me if I'm not careful. Looking at my own tastes and interests is an ongoing project for me. And I think it's worth a little meditating. Even it is while brushing my teeth.