Monday, October 31, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Errol Morris: Believing Is Seeing (part 1)

This is not a book review. It's more of a way to collect some notes.
I have long been a fan of Errol Morris and his films, so when I saw that he had a book about photography coming out, I immediately ordered it. If you've seen any of Morris' documentaries then you already know that he can tell a story. He sets up his book as a series of mysteries—a great way to draw in the reader. His first mystery: a chicken/egg story about two photos by one of the first ever war photographers, Roger Fenton. One of the photos shows a road in the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with a ditch strewn with cannonballs:
The other photo—the one that became famous—has cannonballs littering the road itself:
(photos via Wikipedia)

The latter photo has more drama, but the authenticity of the scene has been put into question by various curators/scholars. The "authentic" photo would be the one that has not been staged (assuming, as many have, that one was staged). I admit that when I saw the winners of the 2011 International Awards, I wondered if any of the photos had been staged. When a colleague of mine saw my "angel of repose" photo (in my last post) the first thing he said is that it looked posed, which I take as a sort of compliment, in the same way we say that a plant or a piece of fruit is so perfect it looks fake.  In Fenton's case, the "it looks posed" claim was not a compliment, but an accusation. An attack on the man's character meant to raise skepticism or elicit debate about documentary photography and its claim to truth. Everyone loves a good scandal. Imagine Susan Sontag pouncing on the idea that Fenton had asked an assistant to scatter cannonballs about for the sake of drama. It makes a good anecdote and a great jumping off point for a polemical work about photography.

Morris read Sontag's assertion that Fenton had staged the photo, but unlike most readers, he stopped to question her sources. Literally. Yes, literally. He actually followed the trail from an acknowledgment (no footnotes chez Sontag. must be nice not to be burdened by documentation) and interviewed the guy. Then he interviewed another. And another. And another. Morris is a model of intellectual curiosity. He shows us his process, he lets us follows his leads, he transcribes his interviews, and he sleuths his way to the Valley of the Shadow of Death to look for answers first hand. The pleasure of a good mystery is in the process, which explains why whodunnit detectives like to narrate each step of the way. In the case of "detective" Morris, this means we get to hear about the high heels of his tour guide, about JFK watching Roman Holiday during the Cuban missile crisis, and that we get to hear him drift off into reflections such as:
War is such a peculiar thing—inaugurated by the whims of a few, affecting the fate of many. It is a difficult,  if not impossible, thing to understand, yet we feel compelled to describe it as though it has meaning—even virtue. It starts for reasons often hopelessly obscure, meanders on, then stops. (30)
Another great quote:
We want to know where we end and the world begins. We want to know where that line is. It's the deepest problem of epistemology. (37)
 Another thing I learn from following Morris' process is his method of interviewing people. When he talks with a forensic photography specialist who mentions the "CSI effect" and says "I'm sure you know what that is," Morris doesn't say "Oh, yeah of course I do. Haven't you seen my films?" He just responds, "Tell me." By suppressing his ego Morris gets more information.

more to come.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Street Stories

Since the photos are already up online at the Kiernan Gallery, I thought I'd post the three of mine that were accepted and tell you the stories behind the photos.

 "Field Trip" (click on any of the photos to see them larger)

I was wandering around Place de la Nation and noticed a group of school kids on a field trip. Their teacher tried to give them a history lesson, but the kids were more interested in the graffiti that had been scrawled all over the statues. For me, this story reads on at least two levels, depending on how much information you have. The first level is about the interplay between the boys and the cherub. It treats budding adolescent humor, curiosity, phallocentrism (if you want to get deeper). The second level would require a closer shot and a knowledge of French politics. The graffiti on the poor cherub's privates reads "la bite de Sarkozy" (Sarkozy's...). One of Sarkozy's notorious remarks when he was campaigning to be President was that the suburbs (in France suburbs has the connotation that might be given to inner city in the U.S.) should be washing with bleach. That kind of callous, racist statement did nothing to help mend the gap between the bourgeois elite and the disenfranchised, unemployed youth of the suburban projects. The statue pictured is called the "Triumph of the Republic" in honor of the French Revolution. Today, Arab (especially Algerian), and to a lesser degree, West African second or third generation immigrants are often treated as second-class citizens (or, "third estate" I should say). In that light, the photo resonates on a more political level.


I was walking around the Saint Sulpice Church (which tourists never visited until the Da Vinci Code), when I saw some girls at the side of the church doing photos in a swimming suit and a headscarf. They looked like students doing an art project. They were most likely of Moroccan or Algerian origin and the headscarf (which initially she had covering her face) with swimming suit shoot in front of a Catholic church was clearly meant (or so I assumed) as an artistic statement. They made their way to the front of the church and I followed them. I stood at the side by the church entrance where a beggar woman sat waiting for passers-by to put change in her empty Starbucks cup.  I snapped a couple of photos and exchanged a smile with the woman as she looked at the camera. Then I put some money in her cup and she commented on the shoot going on behind her. "Elle est belle, n'est-ce pas?" (She's beautiful, isn't she?). This was the last thing I expected to hear from a woman with such apparent dedication to modesty. I titled the photo "Starbucks" to draw attention to the corporate logo on the cup, which for me, brings questions of capitalism and consumerism into the story of class, gender, culture.

"Angel of Repose"

I snapped this in the metro, all too aware of the disapproving gaze of the people around me. Or maybe that was just my fear of being exploitative. As a rule, I try not to take photos that mock people. In street photography, it's easy to make people look bad. But the French humanist photographers I admire (like Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson) never treated their subjects with disdain, so my aim is to keep things in the humanist tradition. Despite my initial hesitation, I realized that the target of the photo is not the man but the ad campaign, or rather, the stark contrast between the real conditions of poverty and the carefree images conjured up by a large and expensive department store. In other words, if anyone comes out looking bad, it's the people who don't have to sleep underground. On a technical level, the photo was very dark and needed noise reduction and exposure adjustments in processing. One difficult decision was how much to correct the white balance. The metro light is dark and yellow, so I decided to leave in some of that color cast when I did adjustments.

The first and third of the above photos were accepted for the online show and the "Starbucks" photo was one of the 30 accepted for the gallery. You can see all of the photos on the Kiernan Gallery's website.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Epic Fail Update

If you've been following my "epic fail" project then you know that I had decided to take the attitude that you need to rack up a lot of failures in order to have success. If you're too fixated on the success part, you can get easily discouraged. If you take the "Edison tried over 3,000 [or was it 10,000? or was it 100?] different substances in making the filament of an incandescent light bulb" approach, then you have to figure that part of success is based on your willingness to fail again and again.

I don't think I can afford 3,000 attempts at contests since they usually cost about $25 in entry fees, so I have to be selective. Since my biggest passion is street photography, I decided to submit to the Kiernan Gallery's "Street Stories" competition. I submitted 5 photos. If I checked my email more frequently then I would have noticed the following email 2 days ago:

Congratulations on being accepted to Street Stories! Thank you for sharing your art with The Kiernan Gallery. The exhibition Street Stories received 312 photographs in submissions. Juror Debbie Hagan selected 30 images for display in the main gallery in Lexington, Virginia, and another 40 images for display in the online gallery. All selected work will be reproduced in an exhibition catalogue available for purchase from Blurb Books.

We are very pleased to inform you that Debbie Hagan selected your work for both the main gallery exhibition AND the online gallery.
Needless to say, I'm pretty happy with the failure to fail. For etiquette reasons, I think I had better wait until the exhibition is up before post my entries (and the 3 of 5 that were selected) here. For now, let me just point you to the pinboard on Pinterest where I put possible contests to enter. I update it constantly, so check it out if you are so inclined.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Watch This: Bill Cunningham New York

If you're not one of the million or so Netflix users that got so angry with their recent price hikes and other stupid business moves that you cancelled, then you can stream the wonderful documentary "Bill Cunningham, New York" by Richard Press. I'm watching it right now and loving it so much that I couldn't wait to post. It's so nice to be reminded that the best photographers usually aren't full of the vain artistic pretense that plagues so much of the art world. What an amazing character! His commitment to his work, his courage, his sense of humanity is exemplary. I don't tend to pay attention to fashion photography, but street photography is my favorite genre. Cunningham represents a hybrid of the two, and in the best possible way. He has the sense of humor and the kindness of the French humanist photographers and a democratic sort of fashion sense that comes from careful observation of the street. I love that he hates "in/out" lists because he finds all self expression valid. A quote by Bill:
"It's not photography. I mean, any real photographer would say 'He's a fraud!' Well, they're right. I'm just about capturing what I see, and documenting what I see."
Sounds like something Eugene Atget might have said. His quirkiness also reminds me of and William Eggleston. I could go on, but it's distracting me from the movie.

Trust me, if you like fashion and/or street photography, you'll love this movie.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Here's to the great one

My first computer was a Mac.
My dissertation included an epilogue about the iMac campaign.
Between my office and home there are no less than 6 Apple computers (although one is a laptop with a broken screen sitting in a drawer and another is our still-working 2nd generation iMac in the boys' room).
I bought a 1st gen iPod the minute they came out (and lost it in a burglary less than 6 months later).
I finally dumped my crappy flip phone when the iPhone 4 came out.
I stayed up to place my iPad2 order the very second they went on sale.
Every member of my family (except my 6 year-old) has an iPod of some kind.
So, basically, Steve Jobs has been/is a big part of my life.
It was sad to hear of his passing, but nice to know that he went out on top and made such a difference.
Here's to Steve.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

QR code Photoshop tutorial

As a quick follow-up to my QR code post, I will go over the basics for manipulating QR code in Photoshop.

1. Generate the code.
Go to a QR code generator such as Kaywa. There, you will be able to select text, URL, telephone number, or SMS and then select the size (choose XL) of the code. Click "Generate" and you'll have a code embedded with whatever you entered.
2. Save your image.
Right-click your image and give it a name. You will now have a .png file that is not quite ready to work with. Open it in Photoshop and we'll fix that.

3. With your image opened in Photoshop, the first thing you will need to do is change the color mode. It will be set to "Indexed Color," but you need to change it to "RGB color" or you won't be able to do fun things with it.

4. Resize as needed. If you already know the approximate size you want, then you can go to Image—Image Size and adjust. If not, you can always transform it later. Here, I resized to 5x5 inches at 300 dpi. If you haven't already unlocked your background layer (double click it and hit return), then do so now.
5. Now, assuming you want to alter the image, I would suggest selecting the black and copying it. To do this, just use the Select--Color Range from the menu, and click on the black. If something strange happens (like, say, suddenly you are getting shades of gray, then just click the eyedropper with the + and click around until you have selected everything. You can also play with the fuzziness slider.
Once you have it selected (dancing ants around all the black parts)...
then you are ready to copy and paste the code onto the photo of your choice.

6. Here's where you have to decide why in the world you want to stick QR code in a photo in the first place. Well, a few suggestions might be:
  • just to customize the QR code that will use somewhere else, like on a business card or a mailer.
  • you could make a bunch of QR code boxes into a frame around a black and white portrait and have each one give information, like cute quotes from your kid.
  • you could make a more artistic card to send to a friend with your phone number embedded in the code to say "call me"
  • you could do some sort of complex photo mosaic with links to info on the web
  • you design a product (like the pillows in my previous post, or a quilt or cross stitch or whatever)
  • you could do some artsy installation piece about the loss of privacy and add QR codes to Google map photos embedded with all the information. Since we're generating things, why not generate a bogus "artist's statement." Try it. It's pretty funny. Anyway, whatever...
So, I am not feeling particularly inspired. Since my code looks like a hedge maze, I'm going to put it on top of a French garden. (I have copied and am now pasting onto my photo):
At this point, I have a background photo and a layer of black QR with no background. I'm going to do a clipping mask (which I taught you to do way back in 2008, so look at this post if you need help).

7. If you want to do something with a clipping mask, duplicate your background photo, sandwich your QR code layer between the background and the duplicate background layer by dragging the QR layer between the other two. With the top (photo layer) active, simply place you cursor in between the top layer and the QR layer while holding down the option (or alt) key until you see two intersecting circles. Click when those little circles appear you've got a clipping mask (see the arrow pointing down).
 Now turn off the background layer to see the clipped effect:
Strange, eh?

8. Hmm. Now what? Well, maybe add a background color by creating a new layer below the QR one and using the paint bucket tool to fill it? I'll just use white, because you want fairly high contrast if possible:
 Or maybe stick my logo in the middle of this pointless creation? I'm doing that to show you that there can sometimes be as much as 30% tolerance for error and your phone can still read it.

You can experiment with blending modes, with different colors, anything.
Could this actually be useful? Maybe. I still think that QR can make a good modern pillow, but I'd have to find something I really like before slapping it on my business card. If I come up with something cool, I'll post it. And if you do, send me a link.  Until then, my fling with QR code is over.