Saturday, March 31, 2012

Just finished "reading" a Saul Leiter book and....

London Café, 2009. Marc Olivier (definitely not Saul Leiter)

...well,  do you ever see something inspired and it just makes you want to create—almost as a form of applause? After I finished going through Saul Leiter's Early Color, which has got to be one of my top 10 favorite photo books, I had to look on my computer and see if I had anything with that sort of moody, urban, color-drenched, reflective, ghost-of-a-human-presence feel. This late-night photo of a London café is the best I could come up with at 2 a.m. I put it here not because I think it's particularly great, but because it's my way of wrapping up a great read of a beautiful photobook. I suppose it's also an example of "ex post facto influence"—the term I've decided to give that phenomenon where a current influence helps you appreciate a photo you had previously overlooked. In this case, I suddenly appreciate those shadowy figures passing by the doors at the back of the image. So, there's my humble applause.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Piano Shop

I took some photos of a friend's piano shop when I got my new lens, but the store merits another visit, so I'll withhold a full post on it for now. I am liking the photo above however, so I'm putting it in a new gallery on smugmug that will become a home for featured take-out photo pics that you can purchase (just in case you see one that you've got to have).

Monday, March 19, 2012

It takes a while: the value of persistence

or as Ira Glass says, "It's normal to take a while, and you just have to fight your way through that."

A semi-recent post on A Photo Editor compares trying to make a living from photography to playing the lottery. I guess the idea behind that comparison is that many people spend a lot of time gambling on some big future payday that may or may not come. The post concludes that the "labor lottery" is not a bad thing because it pushes people to work harder—kind of a problematic comparison since playing the actual lottery doesn't involve work. I know that the post is trying to talk about work + luck, but the real conclusion ends up being "enter as many lotteries as possible," which is a euphemistic way of saying "Don't quit your day job," or as one of the comments says, have "multiple income streams."

In contrast, the Cartier-Bresson and Ira Glass quotes at the top of this post are talking about quality rather than a cash windfall. Rather than gaming the system by playing in a lot of "lotteries," I would prefer to think about Glass' encouragement to put in the work that it takes to get your skill level up to the level of your taste. You may or may not end up rich, but it might just feel like winning the lottery.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Photobooks: folly, finance, and a few favorites for your coffee table

Paris used book store. Marc Olivier.
 Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.  ~P.J. O'Rourke

Books tend to fall into types: the ones you take to the beach or the airport, the ones you proudly display in your bookcase, the ones you hide, the ones you put on your coffee table, etc. For the art snob, "coffee table book" is a pejorative term reserved for pretty "art" books with broad appeal but no real cultural value or depth (I did a post about the "snob" question not long ago). I disagree. Although tastes vary and we could argue about whether a National Geographic book about the beauty of nature is better than Yale's latest tomes on Robert Adams, either way, the coffee table book occupies a privileged place in your home and therefore merits some thought. That's why I'm going to give you some reasons (both good and bad) why you might want to update your coffee table book.
  1. It's fun to watch photo books go up in value (while your stocks tank). Money is not a good reason to collect photobooks, but I'm not going to lie to you and say it's not fun to watch how fast the prices change.  I have a document where I record all of my book purchases, including the value—a practice that I started in reaction to having seen our basement flood a couple of years ago. Then it turned into a sort of game to look at my list once in a while and track the ups and downs of the prices on Amazon. Let me give you a few examples:
 I bought this beautiful monograph of Edouard Boubat's photography a year ago for $25.94. Today it costs $172.

Less than a year ago, I bought Lee Friedlander's America by Car for $32. Today, a new copy is at least $107.

Paul Graham's A Shimmer of Possibility (the all in one paperback version) was $56 when I bought it just two months ago. Now, it seems to go up in price every time I look. Currently, $219.

Crazy, right? Not that I buy them because I'm a collector. I like to use my books. I like to read them, and I have no intention of selling them. And even if I did, it's not like cashing in stocks. You have to wait for a buyer, so those elevated prices are essentially theoretical until someone demonstrates they're willing to pay. So, even though you don't want to be the collector that Blake Andrews satirizes in his faux year-end book list post, you can still have fun watching the prices go up (of course, it's not so fun when you don't own the book and wish you did). Two final points on the ridiculous price inflation: 1. you're less likely to feel buyer's remorse  and 2. you need to hone your scarcity radar so that you get books you really want before they're all sold out.

  2. A good photo book is a true object of beauty, inside and out.
I wish I owned this gorgeous oversized Lartigue Album of a Century book. A new, pristine copy now costs $577. In this case, I'm on the outside looking in. 
Another oversized beauty ( 23.1 x 15.6 x 10.6 inches)  that you can still buy for a good price:
Todd Hido's A Road Divided. I absolutely love this book of dreamy, haunting images taken through the (often sleet-covered) windshield of his car.  Sometimes, the cover and the idea of a book end up being more exciting than what's inside:
I'll admit that I have to be in a zen mood (which rarely happens) to enjoy photo after large photo of the water on the Thames in Roni Horn's Dictionary of Water. I don't care how superficial it sounds—I like how the orange cover ties in with the orange accents of the room. Trite, but true.

As for inside of the books, it all depends on your taste. But it's hard for me to imagine people not liking Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt's How to Hunt. I love it and I don't even particularly like nature or hunting. Just look at this one: 
Vivian Maier's work is brilliant, understated, and charming and Vivian Maier: Street Photographer is only $25.

   3. Good photobooks will make you more visually literate, and they will train your eye to see the world in a different way. Have you ever tried to sit down and read a photobook with the same time and attention you might give to a great work of literature? We are so used to fast-food style image consumption that true visual literacy requires extra effort.

If you don't know where to start in getting visually literate, try Stephen Shore's classic The Nature of Photographs.  The paperback version is only $13. It's not exactly a gorgeous book, but it's a great primer on understanding the visual and physical properties of photos.

 Robert Frank's The Americans is the perfect book to study sequencing and to begin to appreciate the art of editing a photobook. The still affordable Looking In is kind the equivalent of a dvd with bonus features (no, there's no actually dvd, but it's full of "extras" like excellent essays, contact sheets, etc.) to make you an expert on one of the most important photobooks of all time.

Those are just 3 reasons to consider updating your coffee table book. I did a post in 2010 listing some of my favorites. Since I love photobooks so much, I'll share some of my favorites in future posts.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Still Searching blog gets promiscuous

"window and mirrors"
 I mentioned in an earlier post, my ambivalent reaction to the Still Searching photo blog. On one hand, I appreciated the effort to build a serious photo blog, but on the other, I was annoyed at the unnecessarily pretentious academic tone. Well, a leap day miracle must have happened, because the Feb 29 post ("Photography: A Promiscuous Life, part 1") by Aveek Sen strikes the perfect balance between scholarship and readability with just the right amount of poetic self-indulgence. It came as no shock to learn that he has a degree in English Literature.

Aveek Sen's post is an invitation to promiscuous thinking:
"The word, promiscuous, combines the Latin pro or forward and miscere, to mix. So, the promiscuous moves forward through indiscriminate mixing – a tendency that had to wait for the Victorians to become a sin."
Sen takes inspiration from the god of all photo curators, John Szarkowski, whose 1962 lecture urges photography teachers to lead their students beyond the confines of one discipline (photography as "window" rather than a narcissistic "mirror"). Sen explains:
"To break out of its documentary cage, photography must risk a kind of intellectual and existential promiscuity, an all-absorbing hunger that is at once outwardly directed and inwardly trained. It must learn to look, as William Blake had put it (well before photography was invented), not only “with”, but also “through”, the eyes."
Based on the ads on late-night TV, I don't think the world needs more sexual promiscuity. But a little more intellectual promiscuity might be just the thing to improve your photography.
Read the whole post at "Still Searching" for more inspiration.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Some work from my photography students...

From a photo essay about students sleeping on campus (hopefully not in my class)

 I'm teaching a class called "French and American Cultural Values through Photography" to upper division French students this semester, and even though they are not photography majors, I'm making them do photo essays. I think you learn more by doing. When I teach a "Theater as Virus" class, for example, I give my students a crash course in method acting and make them perform monologues and scenes to compliment/counterbalance the literary and theoretic content of the course. And when I teach brain surgery....just kidding. It's a good thing that only aesthetics are at stake when I make people dive into other disciplines.
A student's essay that started out as a Brassaï-inspired project and ended up looking more like Leiter (who we haven't studied)

Three times during the semester, my students have to do a photo essay inspired by the work of the photographers we are studying and then post their essays on the class blog. The text is in (not always perfect) French, but even if you don't read French, you may want to check out some of their work. Prior to the class, most of the students have only used photography in the way most people do, that is, posting photos of themselves, their friends, their vacations, etc. on social media sites. In class, they have to get inspiration from the various photographers we study (which, for this assignment, includes Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank, Brassaï, William Klein, and William Eggleston).

From a Robert Frank-inspired project. I love the expression on this guy's face.
It's fun to see people taking pictures of things they never would have before—like strangers, common scenes of daily life, etc.

Diptych from a project about refrigeration
One of the more difficult things to do is to work within the limitations of whatever camera you are using. If you try to make your camera do something it can't handle (like low-light situations for cameras with noisy sensors), then it just doesn't work. But that doesn't mean you have to have great equipment to do interesting work. Most students are working with simple point and shoot cameras. One is even doing everything with his cell phone.

Project about a student's dog, shot with his cell phone.

One of the hardest things to do is to assign grades. Most teachers hate grading, and I am no exception. How do you assign a score to photography. It's incredibly frustrating to a student to have their teacher say it's a "B" or a "C" and not know why. For me, using a rubric is the best way to handle the grading conundrum. If you know how you are going to be graded, it becomes less of a guessing game about what the professor wants.

I love the color in this small town Utah series.
To create a rubric, I scoured the internet to see what photography teachers are doing across the country. What I found was that there aren't many rubrics online suited to my class. I borrowed some wording from an art rubric I found, but mostly I had to decide exactly what I hoped to see.

An essay about public transportation

Just in case this might be of use to some teacher out there, I'm pasting my rubric at the end of the post. I can't insert a table in the blog post, so this might be a complete jumble, but here it is:

10Technical Merit 8-10 pts Works thoughtfully within the limitations of the camera, and exploits lighting, crop, sharpness/blur, grain, etc. in a way that supports the concept/message/theme.  5-7 pts Does not always work within the limitations of the camera. Technical issues sometimes detract from what the photo is trying to convey. 0-4 pts Multiple technical problems that in now way contribute to the integrity of the photo essay. 
10Composition 8-10 pts Shows strong internal integrity of the visual elements and purposeful visual organization. i.e. nothing needs to be added or removed. 5-7 pts Shows some problems with the internal integrity of the visual elements. Framing (crop, perspective, etc.) needs some adjustments. 0-4 pts Image lacks visual integrity. Framing/perspective, etc. needs serious reworking. 
10Sequence 8-10 pts Sequencing of images greatly contributes to the flow/narrative of the essay. Purposeful authorial intent creates a cohesive work. 5-7 pts Sequencing of the images does not always create a purposeful visual narrative. Lacks flow and cohesion between some of the photos. 0-4 pts Disjointed sequencing that contributes very little or not at all to the photo essay. 
10Text 8-10 pts The use of text complements the images and enhances the overall experience without merely explaining or describing. 5-7 pts Text does not always contribute to a cohesive essay and may at times lapse into mere description, apolgetic explanation, or inadequate and/or unnecessary verbiage. 0-4 pts Text demonstrates little or no creativity. There is a disproportionate balance between the quality of the photos and of the text. 
5"je ne sais quoi" sorry, but you just can’t boil everything in art down to a rubric. I reserve the right to give you 0-5 points based purely on my affective and intellectual response to your work. 4-5 pts I wish I had thought of that. wow! 2-3 pts good. you clearly put work into it and I can appreciate that. 0-1 pts sorry. no offense, but it’s just not speaking to me. 
Total: 45

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Is it possible to monetize your blog without obnoxious ad clutter?

Seattle Public Market. Marc Olivier
[mon-i-tahyz, muhn-]verb (used with object), -tized, -tiz·ing.
1. to legalize as money.
2. to coin into money: to monetize gold.
3. to give the character of money to.
4. Economics . to convert (a debt, especially the national debt) into currency, especially by issuing government securities or notes.
I like to keep my blog clean, but that doesn't mean I'm opposed to earning money off of it. So when I heard about the scandal surrounding Pinterest's use of Skimlinks, I wasn't scandalized; I was intrigued. When I assessed last year, I concluded that it was costing me too much money to get in shows (framing, entry fees, etc.) and so I decided that 2012 would be my year of unabashed commercialism and shameless optimism. Instead of the "epic fail" project, it's time for the "epic success" project.

I don't want to turn into one of those blog that's covered with pop-ups and flashing ads, so I decided to try SkimlinksHere's how it works:
  1. you register/apply. It's free, but they might take a day or two to approve you. (If you have content that might be offensive to their affiliates, or if it just doesn't seem like a good fit, then you won't be approved.)
  2. once approved, they give you some code to paste into your blog (or other website)
  3. whenever you link to products (and sometimes when you don't—I'm still figuring out the details), they make sure the link goes to one of their affiliate sponsors. What that means is that instead of me trying to hit up different companies for some kind of cut, I get connected to a host of merchants (such as Amazon, Target, Canon, Adobe, Macy's, and tons more) and I get somewhere between 3%–20% commission for people who click through from my site and the purchase something.
The whole process is fairly low-key—in fact, that's why it was a scandal when Pinterest didn't disclose that they were quietly swapping out links so they could make money (I say, more power to them).

Will this earn any money? I have no idea. It's not as if I'm some mega-blog with untold amounts of traffic. But since this is my year of living commercially, I thought I'd give it a year and share my experience. If you decide to try it out, click on one of the skimlinks links in this post or use the green referral bar in the sidebar of my blog (because—you guessed it—they also give you a cut for referrals).

Will this change the content of my posts? No. And I certainly won't start recommending products I don't believe in, and I certainly won't hide my motives. Just as I documented last year's "epic fail" project, this year I plan to document my various attempts at commercial success.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Camera lust redirect: how a 50 mm lens might stave off cravings for a fuji x-pro 1

fuji x-pro1 via
Is it pathetic to have dreams about camera equipment? Don't answer that.
The fuji x-pro 1 camera is expected to start shipping around the end of March, and although $1700 is not cheap (body only—around $600 more per lens), it's about $5300 less than a Leica M9—the dream that is absolutely out of reach for my budget. Not that it's in the same league. For one thing, the fuji x-pro 1 is not a full-frame sensor. But it does have that classic rangefinder styling, a sensor that supposedly pushes it into Canon 5D Mark II quality, hd video, etc. etc.  I'm not a tech blog, so I won't even try to go into specs. For that, I recommend dpreview's thorough preview. My point is that this is the most exciting new street photography camera (at least that's what I'd use it for) since the fuji x100.

But can I justify getting a the fuji x-pro 1 when I already have a Canon 5D Mark II? I'm trying to convince myself that I can't. Hence, the re-direct. I usually carry around a 24-70L lens (my favorite) and a 70-200L lens. They're such versatile lenses that I have never bothered to get a 50mm lens. But suddenly it seems like the perfect solution to stave of the higher-end cravings. If you don't already have a decent 50mm lens, watch this video (this guy has the best camera videos on Youtube):

For me, the idea of getting a lens that is less bulky, well suited to street photography, and fast (i.e. low f-number) at a good price, might be the perfect redirect. Getting a new lens is almost like getting a new camera. I could go cheap:
50 mm f1.8 II for only $118. Out of more than 1,800 reviews on Amazon, it gets 4.5 out of 5 stars. The  pro/con boils down to "sharp, fast, inexpensive" vs. "great images, poor build quality." Some say it "feels like a toy" (I'm sure that the all-plastic construction doesn't help much). In some ways, the "toy" aspect, which extends to high susceptibility to flare, might be a plus, if you're going for that look.
Then there's the faster and better built 50mm f1.4 USM for $399. A lot users report that it is not very sharp when it's wide open, but once you get to f2 it looks great. You may have to go up to f2.8 to get a really sharp picture without soft edges, which is kind of frustrating when you thought you were buying f1.4. dpreview gives it a "highly recommended" rating. More comparisons (with images) between the f1.8 and f1.4 at

Finally, there's the much more expensive option, the 50mm f1.2 L. But at $1500, it defeats my purpose of getting something new without spending too much. Although it's superior (it had better be at that price) in most ways, it is apparently not as sharp as you would expect.
Conclusion: Let me sleep on it. After doing this post at 2 a.m. will I dream about 50mm lenses instead of the x-pro 1?