Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Portland Mugshots

At Alberta's Last Thursday in June I bought some old postcards from a street vendor. One of of them was this photo of Portland which I'm guessing is from around 1970.

It probably doesn't look like much if you don't know Portland. But for someone who has lived there this photo is pretty incredible. The city looks very different now just 40 years later. Here it is today from the same spot.

The city has sprouted buildings, lights, and activity. It's been transformed from a provincial outpost to a provincial outpost saturated with hipsters and Chic design and Last Thursdays.

Once I found this shot I started digging around for others using Mt. Hood in the background as a standard reference point. Here's one from 1890 taken from slightly lower in the West Hills.




All of these are classic postcard shots. There's not much imagination to them, just pure description on a clear day from a standard vantage point. City mugshots. They're not consciously arty, and as I said above, they don't look like much if you don't have some interest in Portland. But as a barometer to measure changes over time, they're ideal.

I plan to post an updated Portland photo here in 2020. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Beautiful Game

Whirled Cup




Chip Shot

Center Cross

Bicycle Kick

The Far Post



Blown Call

Penalty Area



Stoppage Time

Golden Goal

The Beautiful Game

Credits (in order): Eugene Smith, William Henry Fox Talbot, Marc Riboud, Annie Leibovitz, Martin Parr, Robert Frank, Chris Steele-Perkins, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Judith Joy Ross, Cristina Garcia Rodero, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Barbara Kruger, Mary Ellen Mark, Josef Koudelka, Richard Misrach, Paul Caponigro

Monday, June 28, 2010

Q & A with Dalton Rooney

I chatted recently with Dalton Rooney about In the age of mechanic reproduction, his current series of images composited of photos found on Flickr.

B: Tell me how you got started on the composites.‬

D: It was all very spontaneous. I was looking through some 19th century photos of the west, and came across a great photo of Yosemite valley. The same one that Carleton Watkins took, but a year before. It was identically framed. I wondered how many people have taken that exact same picture before? So I went on to Flickr and did a search for Yosemite Valley. The sameness was awe inspiring.

The Valley, From Mariposa Trail, 1864, Charles Weed

Yosemite Valley, ca 1865, Carleton Watkins

B: So the Half Dome image was the first one?

D: Yeah, I spent maybe an hour searching Flickr for photos of Half Dome. I don't know exactly how I made the jump to compositing them... maybe I was just wondering how closely they would line up. But it ended up making a panorama view of the valley. I thought it was a pretty interesting effect.

Thirteen Views of Yosemite Valley, 2010, Dalton Rooney

B: The fact that someone preceded Watkins from the same spot raises questions about originality in photography, and I think your series really digs into that. All these images from the exact same spot posted on Flickr. It makes you wonder how to take any new picture. But by combining them maybe you have.

D: I actually have a nice print of that Watkins photo that I pulled off the Library of Congress website. When I realized that even he was copying previously known work... it was a pretty big surprise.

B: I just read an interview speculating that a lot of Muybridge's Yosemite shots were actually by Watkins and miscredited. So questions of originality and authorship have been around from early on.

D: I really liked that article! I'm reading a biography of Muybridge right now.

B: Was Watkins' photo noticeably better than the one taken a year before?

D: It's hard to tell because the earlier version by Charles Weed was not reproduced very well. But the Watkins version is phenomenal. He seemed to be pretty far ahead of most of the other guys in terms of technique and equipment.

B: What about the Rothko shot? What led you to that one?

Fifteen Paintings by Mark Rothko, 2010, Dalton Rooney

D: I don't know if everyone feels the same, but Rothko's work always felt like landscapes, in a way. The prominent horizon maybe. And I always had this feeling of liking Rothko in a very general way, but never looking closely enough to know the difference between two different pictures. I was a little less sure about doing the composites with the painters. The Flickr photos felt more natural. But I thought it was interesting, anyway. So the composite was just a "best general view" of a whole pile of Rothko paintings.

B: And the final result looks very much like a Rothko. I don't think there are too many painters for whom that would work.

D: Pollack, maybe? Some of the other abstract expressionists? But it gets away from the original intention, I think. I like the landscapes.
B: Getting back to process, how much tinkering do you do? Do you experiment with opacity and position? Do you weed a lot of images out?

 D: There's a‪ lot of tinkering. I go back and forth on the position and opacity of a single layer a bunch of times before being happy with it. But it all falls into place pretty quickly. Some of it depends on the source material, too. The barns came together really quickly. The Yosemite one took a bit longer.‬

Six red barns found on Flickr Explore, 2010, Dalton Rooney

B: Do you have some final goal in mind as you're working? For example the barns are much more abstract, whereas the Yosemite shot reflects a more uniform perspective. How did they end up that way?

 D: It all comes out of the source material - I don't know what's going to happen until I find a few images I like and start working with them in Photoshop. The images for the Yosemite and Grand Canyon composites were all from the same site and very nearly the same perspective, so it was easy to overlap them in a way that resembles the actual scene. With the red barns, I had material from a variety of different sources and just worked with it until I had something I liked. The source images for barn and the aurora borealis composites were all from different scenes, so once they were merged they became a completely invented landscape. I was free to put the mountains over here, move the trees to the foreground, add more stars to the sky. I like the idea of the series evolving over time so I will continue to play around with the format a bit.

B: It sounds like you came at this on your own. How do you think it relates to work by Penelope Umbrico or David Hockney collages? Were you thinking about them at all?

Place Furstenberg, Paris, 7,8 et 9 Août, 1985, David Hockney

D: Hockney is interesting - I definitely wasn't thinking about that at the time but looking back it makes sense. Umbrico definitely crossed my mind. Similar idea, but a very different execution, right? I've only seen one or two of her pieces. I haven't been too familiar with "appropriation art" before. It felt a little bit dirty.

B: Did you get any permission to use the original work?

D: No, definitely not. But I did go out of my way to make sure that no single photographer was overrepresented or any single photograph stood out too prominently. I think it falls pretty clearly under fair use. But I thought about how I would feel if someone did it with my photos. I decided I was OK with it.

B: Have you ever been to any of the vantage points in the photos? The Grand Canyon South Rim or Yosemite Valley, e.g.?

Best general view of the Grand Canyon, 2010, Dalton Rooney

D: When I was a kid I went to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, but it's been a really long time. I haven't seen a lot of those famous views. I am working on one of Niagara Falls, which I've seen more recently. But I've seen them so many times, I feel like I've been there, you know? Yellowstone? I would love to go there, but the pictures you see are all so familiar.

B: I think the familiarity is what makes them interesting. Grand Canyon, Half dome, sunsets. They're all postcard fodder, so to see them newly is pretty tough. But I think your collages do that.

D: I get really annoyed when I see 50 tourists looking out over the same view and taking the same picture. Why not just buy a postcard? But at the same time, I guess it gives a kind of connection to the scene? I used to do it before I started thinking about these things.

B: But that banality is exact thing you're playing on.

 D: Yes, it's definitely a commentary on that phenomenon.

Eleven images matching the search term "ocean sunset", 2010, Dalton Rooney

B: You say a tourist snapshot "gives a kind of connection to the scene". Part of what makes the the composites interesting for me is your disconnection from the scene. It's the opposite of the classic approach by say Watkins where you spend hours staking out a spot, and then the final photo has a direct tie to the location. For many people looking at Watkins the photo IS the location. So to use Flickr images at a computer with no onsite reference seems very different, and maybe representative of where one part of photography is at now. You're on a leading edge I think.

D: It's funny because most of my photography is very backwards looking, I think!

B: Well this all started looking backward to Watkins.

I'm guessing that at this point these images only exist on the web, which is sort of appropriate. But is the image quality good enough to make actual prints, if you wanted to?

D: I have done some test prints. The resolution is terrible, barely good enough for an 8x10. But I would like to make them bigger than that so I am playing around with pixelization, which works pretty well and takes the source material into account.

B: That would really press the issue of appropriation. What if you started selling prints for thousands of dollars and someone saw their own Flickr photo in one? Probably still fair use but with tension.

D: I am really unsure about selling the work. (Not that I sell much, anyway!) But I would love to make some big prints. A lot of the original photos were probably never printed in the first place. ‪Speaking of selling, did you see this?

300 x 404, Greg Allen

B: Yeah, I made reference to that picture in a blog post. I don't really get Prince in the first place.

D: Appropriation of appropriation of advertising. It boggles my mind. But the 20 x 200 print came out right after I posted the composites, so I followed it pretty closely.

B: The 20 x 200 print is very low-res but I assume it has sold some. So low-res isn't really a barrier.

D: Yeah, I like the visible pixelation. I was working on that before I saw the 20 x 200 edition, and I think it works. It is more of an ethical question.

Dalton Rooney's Flickr profile portrait

B: You said you felt "a little bit dirty" at first doing appropriated art. Do you still feel that way after completing a few?

D: Actually, I really enjoy doing them. I really like the way they came out and it's such a different way of working for me. That feeling of unease is more about sharing them, I guess. Appropriated art still seems like a hot-button issue, after all this time. Even I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

B: Can you expound on your series title: In the age of mechanical reproduction.

D: The title is borrowed from Walter Benjamin's essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin questioned the value of the original work of art in a time when infinite reproduction is possible. To extrapolate that to the Flickr age, there are very few original images, echoed back and forth over and over. Everyone has a camera, and knows what a picture is supposed to look like. The end result is a vast sea of sameness, the same picture taken again and again. The "mechanical" is the act of picture taking itself.

B: How important is the use of Flickr images, as opposed to using Googlesearch or some other stock shots? Some of the individual titles refer to Flickr and some don't. Was that intentional? Are you mixing high and low art, or commenting on Flickr, or what?

D: Flickr is by far the richest source of this kind of material. It's where I found everything except the paintings, and some of the astrophotography. The titles are somewhat random, but I think the Flickr site itself is an important part of the work. Flickr's "Interestingness" filter inspires this awful kind of homogeneity, just some of the tackiest photographs you've ever seen, and I chose to use that to a certain extent.

At the same time, I love Flickr. There are small subcultures that thrive on Flickr, and I have been part of the community and met great people there. But you really have to work for it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Simpsons are vast

I've written a few times about photographic references in The Simpsons. For example, an O. Winston Link here, and the nature of digital shooting here. Based on these cases it was clear that someone on the production team had a photo jones, but it wasn't until recently that I learned the full extent of it.

Yesterday I discovered a page cataloguing dozens of Simpsons photographic references, all in one handy-to-browse location. What a resource! Many of the photos are iconic, but there are some obscure images too. Watching a full episode they would whizz right by even if you were wellversed in photographic history. I'm not sure who the target audience was. Maybe they were inside jokes between production staffers? For amateur photo junkies like me, the page is a gold mine. To whoever researched all those photographs, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.

An example from the Simpsons Park photo page

Of course the thing that got me thinking about all this was a Simpsons episode which popped recently up on the DVR, show #KABF02 from 2007. About 15 minutes in is a sequence in which Homer remembers his life in a series of still-frames from birth. It's a direct reference to Noah Kalina's Everyday video which circled the internet like wildfire a few years ago. The homage is spot-on, even down to the original music by Carly Comando.

Kalina's project is still going, by the way, updated here. In addition to The Simpson, it has spawned countless imitators which you'll find by typing "everyday" into YouTube search.

So the Simpsons re-interpreted a video of a person re-interpreting himself every day which has set off a mini-explosion of other re-interpretations. Are we keeping track of the iterations here?

Taking it one layer beyond, Kalina's project itself was a re-interpretation of the alltime king of daily photo diaries, Karl Baden's Every Day, running continuously since 2/23/87. Whereas Kalina added music and varying backgrounds to give it some crossover appeal, Baden's project is much more stripped down. It's Baden against a blank wall, no soundtrack. Harder to imagine a Homer homage.

5.2.10 - 6.5.10, Karl Baden

I think these rephotographic projects are pretty fascinating, especially as they go on for years. Borderline obsessive maybe, but also strangely entrancing.

For some reason, neither the Kalina reference nor the O. Winston Link reference are cited on the Simpsons Park page. The Simpsons are vast. Every single episode has hundreds of cultural references, and huge gaps in the research remain. Can someone get on that?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What To Do? #77

229. Edgewood, Eugene, 2008

230. SE Morrison, Portland, 2008

231. YMCA, Eugene, 2008

(WTD? is a weekly installment of old unseen b/w photos)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Scratched from the lineup

(Card Reverse): "What can I say? For a short period in my life (1956-1959), I dreamed that some day I would appear on a baseball card wearing a Yankee cap."

I'm sure glad Joe Deal chose photography over baseball. Sadly, his photographic path is now done. Details | Some Work

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ode to the Lowly Sprocket Hole

One of the overlooked casualties of photography's digital age is the death of the sprocket hole. Just a few short years ago sprocket holes roamed the world of photography in multitudes like the great buffalo herds of pre-colonial America. Now they are an endangered species. Digital technology has rendered them obsolete.

In one sense this is nothing new, since sprocket holes have always been superfluous in still photography. When Edison's lab developed 35 mm film from 70 mm film stock by splitting it down the center, perforations were added to aid film advance. They were a functional byproduct necessary for film to function, a bit like the dissolvable cap surrounding a pharmaceutical. They were not meant as part of the image.

But the lowly sprocket hole wasn't content as a background figure. Even as byproducts they worked their way into final production. If film is agitated excessively during development, sprocket holes will ghost into the frame.

Salish Park Blog

Even with proper agitation, sprocket holes can manifest in unexpected ways.

Sprocket Hole Allison, 2005, Patrick Power

But these were accidents and deadends. In the early days of 35 mm photography, the main path to glory for sprocket holes was more straightforward. The first Leica models were not always well centered. Sometimes they exposed frames up to and across the sprocket holes. When printed full-frame, these photos helped sprocket holes gain widespread recognition, or at least potential visibility.

India, 1948, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Closeup showing sprocket holes lower right

Sometime sprocket holes made even more serious incursions into the frame. Looking at the contact sheet below, Robert Frank's choice not to print The Americans full-frame is perhaps more understandable.

from The Americans, Robert Frank

And the effects weren't limited to film. With enough use, the camera itself could become indelibly sprocketed.

Garry Winogrand's M4 with pressure plate sprocket hole marks

In the 1960s Barbara Crane was among the first to intentionally integrate sprocket holes into finished work as a formal compositional device, through her Whole Roll series.

Cosmic Forms II, 1968, Barbara Crane

This method has been carried into the present by photographers like Thomas Kellner and Martin Wilson.

Washington, Capitol I, 2004, Thomas Kellner

A Message From The Bears, Martin Wilson

Although the actual holes are difficult to see in these small web jpgs, they are there. Perhaps more important is the idea of film being integral to the image. Instead of cropping out holes and frame counts, these artists consciously include them. Today's digital equivalent might be a photograph with Metadata information printed along the border. Can you imagine the cover of The Yes Album

The Yes Album, 1970

Converted to this?

The Yes Album with Metadata

Not quite the same. No, there's a romantic quality to film and sprockets that seems lacking in digital. Even though most modern 35 mm cameras expose the frame far clear of the sprocket holes, some folks still go to great lengths to include them. It's part of what makes film look like film.

Self Portrait, Faulkner Short

Lately this urge has gotten a boost from the toy camera craze. There's a movement to load 35 mm cartridges into Holgas designed for 120 film.

The entire emulsion is exposed, sprocket holes and all. Sometimes the holes interact with the image in unexpected ways.

Lundi Matin, Flickr

Slimmer Jimmer, Flickr

Lomo has embraced this technique and incorporated it into their latest model, The Spinner. The camera uses 35 mm film in a wide body, and is perhaps the first camera intentionally designed to incorporate sprocket holes in the final image.

from Spinner Lomo Promo

Despite these countertrends, the main path of photography is running fullspeed the other direction. If sprocket holes were at one point extraneous, with digital they are completely obsolete, although attempts have been made to emulate them. To me, the results seem as soulless as intentionally distressed furniture.

For me, sprocket holes symbolizes one thing: Imperfection. This is ironic considering their precise mechanical nature. But in a photo they are the opposite of precision. They signify sloppiness, excess, or accident. Perfectionists (if they bother with 35 mm film at all) will always crop them out. So when I see those lovely holes in an image, it's a reminder that reality is imperfect and that any visual record of reality should probably follow suit.