Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day Rant

I've spent some evenings the past week with Remi Coignet's Conversations, a recent book of interviews with contemporary photographers from all over. I've always enjoyed the dialogue format and this one is an interesting read, with good conversations throughout. My one slight gripe is that the chats lean heavily on the topic of photobooks. I guess that makes sense because it's, well, a book by an author. So by definition the subject of books is near and dear to Coignet. Just as it might be natural for film directors to make movies about budding film lovers, or orthodontists to steer conversations to crooked teeth, authors are into books. That's why there are so many stupid books about becoming a writer. 

Fine. But Coignet goes slightly overboard. He reels every photographer back to books, even when they might want to discuss something else. Sample excerpt:
Remi Coignet: I would like to talk about your books. You have published about 200. Why is the book so important in your practice? 
Daido Moriyama: The most important thing for me, before making books, is taking pictures. My life is all about taking photos. I possess the energy to take photos. So it is pretty normal if a lot of books come out of it.
Remi Coignet: Yes, but I was under the impression you gave more importance to books than prints. 
Daido Moriyama: …for me a book is a time to think. Clearly it is very important.
Remi Coignet: Since your first book, Japan: A Photo Theater, you mixed very diverse subjects…
And so on. I think Daido would rather talk about making photos. He leaves the door open, and if pressed the conversation might go somewhere fun. But Coignet will have none of it. For him it's books, books, books. The other interviews follow suit in a similar vein. JH Engström, Pieter Hugo, Paul Graham, etc. Any bookmaker would put good odds on their next book being well made. But what about photomaking? 

Untitled, 1972, Daido Moriyama
Coignet's tunnelvision is a sign of a wider syndrome: everyone in photography wants to talk about photobooks. Some have labeled this "the golden age of photobooks". Others say it's notI don't know about either claim, but it certainly could be labeled the golden age of photobook commentary. Over the past decade or so, the metaworld of pundits and educators has been pulled strongly toward photobooks. Every December the various photobook lists are published online. At this point "photobook of the year" is a rough equivalent for "photographer of the year". Then come the lists of the lists. (Photolia, Andthewinnersare, Ohtopbook, HAFNY, Don't Take Pictures, Streetshootr, etc) Then comes the whining about the lists. Then the whining about the whining. Then the whining about the lists of lists of lists. You need a bookie to keep track of it all. 

Oh well, self referentiality has always been a hot ticket in the art world, and the photography ghetto is no exception. Photographers enjoy self-reflection. But why is the object staring out the mirror always a photobook? 

The phenomenon extends beyond end-of-year lists. LPV's podcast has been revamped to focus on photobooks. Concientious has transformed from wide ranging commentary primarily into weekly photobook reviews. Collector Daily, which once focused on New York exhibitions, now gives near equal weight to photobooks. Aperture slips a Photobook Review into every other issue. MFA programs —typified by Hartford's limited residency program— are oriented increasingly around the photobook. And so on. I realize photobooks have been around forever, but the increased focus on their importance seems to me very contemporary. 

from Redheaded Peckerwood, 2011, Christian Patterson

On Thursday I caught Christian Patterson's entertaining talk at the University of Oregon. Patterson might be considered Exhibit A in the shift to photobooks. He began as a protégé of Eggleston in the straight documentary mold. See the world. Capture it. Repeat. 

But over the past decade Patterson's focus has shifted to long range projects realized in book form. Redheaded Peckerwood is a brilliant book. But it's not a book of photos. It's a Photobook, capital P. Patterson spent weeks in Nebraska tracking down subjects, and he made many of the photos which eventually appear in the book. But his photos were means to an end, minor elements in the larger project. The bulk of his energy went into research, forensic study, editing, and generally constructing the final form of the book over a five year period. Fond Du Lac continued in a similar vein. Patterson spent just a few days making photos. This was followed by years of tinkering and editing to get the thing just so. For Patterson making photographs is an art tool, not a revelatory action in and of itself. For him, the book is where the revelations come. 

If you're a young photographer tuned to all of these information streams, you might think the primary goal in photography is to make photobooks. And for some it is. But in the rush to make photobooks, an alternate photographic path has gotten short shrift —the mere translation of the world into pictures. This is the path of Sommer, White, and Callahan, not to mention Eggleston. Like those towering figures it might be viewed as old fashioned or crotchety or passé. But it's still a valid path, and done well it can be as satisfying and meaningful as bookmaking.  

I'm not anti-photobook. I love looking at them, thinking and writing about them. They're often the best vehicles for photographic presentation. But I think a photobook can sometimes come at the end of the image-making process, and not always be injected from the start. That order has largely fallen out of favor, as many photographers embark on projects now with some vision of a book guiding decisions during image-making. This image will go near the start. That one is a two-page spread. I need image X to fill this sequence. Etc. Making photos becomes a process of marking off items on a checklist, and the photographs are mere pawns in the larger effort. 

A step-by-step checklist is a fine way to make a book. It also works quite well for building a model airplane or replacing a deadbolt. But what about the other way? What about photographs coming first? used to have a quote on my website, Shoot First, Ask Questions Later. This means let the photographs steer the ship. Let them push the agenda. Photographs found in the wild are like rare flowers. The hunt can be wonderful! Who knows when you might find one or where it might lead? I think this is what Daido Moriyama is talking about in the quote above, and it's what Richard Benson is referring to in this panel discussion with Lee Friedlander which has circulated online recently. 

"One of the things we're all sad about," says Benson."is that photographers don't walk around with a camera all the time and photograph without a project." Hallelujah!

Sitting right next to Benson is the patron saint of Shoot-First-Ask-Later, Lee Friedlander. His practice is to shoot whatever interests him, then figure out afterward what the photos mean and which piles to put them in. Ironically, Friedlander is a prolific maker of photobooks. Photobooks are important to him, his main mode of expression. Most of his photobooks are wonderful. But I don't think any of them were conceived before he made the photographs they contain. 

Sometimes you get the opposite outcome. Ken Graves made many brilliant photos in the seventies with a shoot-first-ask-later mentality. When they were finally compiled into a photobook decades later —2015's The Home Front— the result was horrible. The form of the photobook stifled the photographs. There are no guarantees.

In any case, Friedlander and Graves are old school. Their method is in decline. The photograph rarely comes first anymore. Why? I'm not sure. There may be some curatorial bias at work. In Paul Graham's words,
"The broader art world has no problems with the work of Jeff Wall, or Cindy Sherman or Thomas Demand partly because the creative process in the work is clear and plain to see, and it can be easily articulated what the artist did: Thomas Demand constructs his elaborate sculptural creations over many weeks before photographing them; Cindy Sherman develops, acts and performs in her self-portraits.  In each case the handiwork of the artist is readily apparent: something was synthesized, staged, constructed or performed.  The dealer can explain this to the client, the curator to the public, the art writer to their readers, etc.  The problem is that whilst you can discuss what Jeff Wall did in an elaborately staged street tableaux, how do you explain what Garry Winogrand did on a real New York street when he ‘just’ took the picture? Or for that matter what Stephen Shore created with his deadpan image of a crossroads in El Paso?  Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity knows they did something there, and something utterly remarkable at that, but... what?"
The Home Front, 2015, Ken Graves
But curatorial bias is only a partial explanation. I think there is also some generational bias against gleaning. The carefree 1970s of Friedlander's heyday are long gone. Taking its place is a 21st century is of packed schedules, amplified social stratification, and roughly 3 billion photographers. It's a rat race. A day spent searching for unplanned photographs occupies the roughly same place in society as a day of fishing or panhandling. There may be a place for it, but only among the idle or unambitious. The upwardly mobile set —and that includes the art crowd— believes in controlled time.

To wander for hours searching for the unknown requires faith. One must trust that unmarked time spent photographing will result in the world revealing itself, and that your translation of the world will be meaningful. That's a tough mindset to maintain, because sometimes photos happen and sometimes they don't. And all the while the metaworld is screaming "Books! Books! Books!" For making books, projects rooted in ideas are perhaps more reliable image generators. 

Is it any wonder the faith has waned? The one place it is strong is in street photography, a genre bogged down with preconceptions. The faith is there, and maybe even a spiritual component, but both are too often channeled into religious dogma.

If you've spent much time reading B, none of this will be new. I try to focus my interviews around the old fashioned practice of making photographs. In WWHT? I focus on the moment of perception and exposure, because that's what I'm most curious about. I make photographs, so I'm naturally interested in how other photographers make photographs. Making photobooks comes later.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Further Instax explorations

Emmett's been experimenting with my Instax camera lately. He's taken many close up flash photos of our cats, baby chicks, and various car interiors. 

But mostly it's been selfies. I suppose any post-millennial 10-year old is a natural narcissist. The me-me-me meme is strong with this generation, and Instax has fostered the selfie instinct by making extra freaky pictures. After I posted this one on Tumblr a few weeks back, fellow Instax user Attila asked me how I'd made it. 

Easy, I said. Emmett shot himself at close range and the Clayden effect kicked in, turning his face blue. 

Attila replied that he'd tried close selfies and been unable to get the same effect. 

The Clayden effect is mysterious, I explained. Sometimes it hyperexposes and sometimes it doesn't, and that's part of its charm. The fact that it's specific to thick films like Instax which few photographers care about is only icing on the cake.

You throw the line in. Sometimes a fish bites, sometimes it doesn't. That's the formula for most photographers, fishermen, and poker players. But for some reason Emmett has the magic touch, and is always able to catch something. He holds the camera about 10 inches from his face, angled slightly up, puts the flash on, and Bingo! Dark blue Clayden effect every time. Not so mysterious. Here's one he took yesterday.

After seeing Emmett's recent pictures and thinking about Attila's question I figured I'd make one myself.  I held the camera 10 inches away and fired, and got this.

Hm? Not only was there no Clayden effect, but I look butt ugly. 

I turned to Emmett, "How'd you do that again?" He grabbed the camera and calmly made another one. Bingo! 

Now I was determined. I noticed that Emmett's face was slightly further away from the camera this time. I used the same camera position, perspective, and settings, mimicking Emmett's staging exactly. But instead of fluorescent colors I got another butt ugly reminder that I need a shave.

No Clayden again! WTF? I felt like Charlie Brown pulling rocks at every Halloween house while Emmett got big chocolate bars. Once in a while might be an accident. But every time? What was going on? Instead of charming, the happenstance nature of the effect was beginning to seem rather bothersome, and not very happenstance at all. 

I decided to try one outside. I think my (normally exposed) expression shows my anxiety level.

Emmett only made matters worse when he took the camera, pushed me away, and made this photo of himself right where I'd been standing. The little fucker! Now he was just rubbing salt in the wound.

So it turns out the Clayden effect isn't so easy after all. Unless you're Emmett. 

There's an old saying that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over, expecting different results. This definition was very close to what I'd been doing with the camera. I'd controlled for all variables but one (the subject), and not only had the camera produced radically different results, but the results had held up under more experiments. If I were a scientist I might be onto something huge! But alas, I'm not. Instead I'm completely stumped. Is it something to do with paleness or my beard? Emmett and I have similar skin tone. Is the camera exposing for the inside of Emmett's nostrils, or his eyes? Is Emmett projecting some telepathic mojo onto the film? 

I've always welcomed accidents in my photography, and before this point I'd seen Clayden marks as fortuitous events. Like lightleaks or birds in flight, sometimes they appeared in just the right time and place in a photo. Their mystery was fun the way early REM was fun back when you couldn't make out what they were singing. Now that Emmett could repeat Clayden on cue it had become slightly less fun, and definitely less understandable.

Lomo'Insant Wide with Clayden Effect body
If I point a camera at a scene, leave the settings alone, and repeatedly generate inconsistent results, what does that tell me? When it happens in a Peanuts cartoon it's dark humor. But what about in real life? Dark blue/green humor? The results seem to challenge basic photographic dogma. If you can't trust your camera what can you trust? Certainly not the photo itself. Unless you're Emmett.

It's probably clear by now that my experiments defining insanity were leaving me frazzled. I had to call them off.

Last week Lisa showed up to photo group with a new version of the Instax Wide made by Lomo. In many ways it was the camera Fuji should've made but didn't. I've whined about Fuji's Instax cameras before, so no need to go into that. Suffice to say their wide model line has been static for the past decade. So Lomo beat them to the punch in December with a new wide Instax offering multiple lenses, multiple exposure, slow shutter speeds, and many of the basic features we've come to expect from modern cameras. 

When I saw Lisa's camera I thought briefly about switching over. The Lomo would offer me much more control over my photos. But the urge quickly passed. One reason I like Fuji's Instax is that it offers less control. It's a dumb plastic point'n'shoot. You toss the line in. What bites is beyond your jurisdiction. Any child can use it. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Q & A with Huger Foote

Now Here Then, 2015, Huger Foote
(one of three available covers)
Huger Foote is a photographer based in New York City. An exhibition of photographs from his recent book Now Here Then opens March 8th at David Lusk Gallery in Memphis.

BA: Can you tell me how you initially became interested in photography? 

HF: My first camera was an old, beat-up "Argus". My father gave it to me when I was about 10 years old. I was fascinated the first time I saw it, inquired often about it, until finally he handed it to me and encouraged that I go forth. I began shooting right away using only black and white film, a little each day. There were lots of pictures of my dog "Rattler", the clouds above, corners of the house and yard, whatever was around me. My mother used to have to drive to to drop off the film at the local camera store, adding to her carpool duties. 

I realized, 20 years later later, that work in my exhibitions represented a return to this approach of shooting whatever was out there, my immediate surroundings, and finding order in compositions. 

What was your approach before that return? 

I suppose I was always returning to a way of seeing that began in those childhood years.

This might relate to the Zen saying "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." At this point in your life, do you consider yourself an expert photographer?

That's a funny word, "expert". I've certainly been making images and paying attention for a long time. My eyes are trained at this point. If I'm shooting each day, things happen and ideas evolve. Breakthroughs occur. The beginner's mind, like uncarved wood.

Why did your father give you a camera? Were your parents into photography as a creative outlet? Were they artistic people?

There were no cameras in my home as a child, other than the old 1950s Argus I mentioned earlier. It was in an old shoebox in my dad's study, and when it repeatedly captured my attention, he gave it to me. My father was a writer. I witnessed his discipline and devotion to his craft. He showed me how artists get things done. The house was filled with books and music, and my parents constant reading. My dad raised me on his favorite books.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Memphis, TN.  

Do you still have the photographs and/or negatives you took as a child? 

I do have the images. There is a portrait of my mother in the new book, which taken with that very Argus camera when I was 10 yrs old.

I didn't realize the photos in the new book reached that far back. Can you describe your thinking behind that book a little. How did you choose the photos? Are they all older pictures? Or a mix of new and old? Why this book, this time, with these photos?

That portrait of my mother was taken when I was still a child. It's by far the oldest image in the book, and the only one from that far back.  All the other pictures were taken between 1995 and 2002. At that time, I was in the process of shooting constantly, creating exhibitions and books. So literally thousands of those images were never published or exhibited. Eventually, all those pictures and their negatives were archived and stored, where they remained for several years. Around 2006 I revisited them. This began an intense, three-year editing stage for the work. I was amazed by what I found. First one, then another... it was a treasure hunt, and really exciting. That's when the damage occurred to the work prints. I'd kept the negatives separate and safe, so I handled those prints carelessly, pored over them, stacked and shuffled them, swept them around in piles. This final, furious editing phase gave the prints a “patina”, added artifacts to the images themselves. Not realizing it at the time, I was engaged in an intense, and serendipitous, last stage of creation for the work, just as important to finishing the images as their original subject matter, composition, color, and light. Things were spilled on some of them, creating another chemical process. All this damage wasn't deliberate. I certainly didn't know at the time it would become intrinsic to the finished work. After this phase, the images were once again archived and stored, and remained for another four years. I moved to NYC, where a good friend encouraged me to go revisit the pictures, this time with the idea of producing a book. So, out came the prints once again, scars and all. They carefully selected and edited for the new book, Now Here Then.  

I like the process you describe above. There's a great deal of chance involved in the scarring and random wear and tear. And that chance becomes integrated and useful later. I'm curious in general what you think of chance as it relates to photography. How important are accidents in your work? They're useful for your workprints but what about as they relate to your picture-taking process? 

The later scratches and creases and stains on the work prints not only added another dimension to the final images, but mysteriously echoed the formal shapes and colors already there. Everything has its exact placement. Had those marks been caused deliberately on my part, I'm certain they wouldn't have the same perfection. It's Nature at work. My role was to recognize and discover.  

Do you have faith in serendipity or coincidences? If so, how do you explain them?

The serendipitous damage to the work prints, and its mysterious beauty, does mirror the original process of shooting of the images out in the world. It consists of showing up each day, rested and fed, tuned in, open to what's out there... each day, compositions and color combinations emerge during the shooting process. Patterns emerge, and the pictures lead the way, reflecting back, one by one, new ways of seeing. It's challenging to devote oneself to such a process, requires everything you've got, a commitment to seeking and putting things right in the frame. When all the elements are there, when things balance and find harmony, it really more like receiving a gift, or rehearsing a dance until things begin to flow. 

You mentioned a period of active shooting from 1995 to 2002. How active are you now making photographs?

Currently working on several projects, all to be revealed in time. 

(all photos above by Huger Foote from Now Here Then)

Friday, February 12, 2016

Donald Trump's Guide to Street Photography

1. Lesson one. I am the greatest street photographer who ever lived. If you follow my guide we can make street photography great again. Ignore my tips and your photographs are dead to me.

2. I've done some very nice buildings in New York. They're all over the city and they're just great. You should include them in the background of your photographs. Atlantic City and Vegas too, but those places are shit holes so I don't recommend photographing there.

3. The number one subject for street photography is a beautiful young piece of ass. That's your target. Walk around until you find one. Get close, then fire away. What you don't want in the picture is fat, ugly people. They will ruin your photographs. It's just their way. 

4. I'm very rich, and I use the biggest, best, most expensive camera. Always. That's why my photos are wonderful. You should do this too. Or you may very well become a horrible photographer, and a horrible person.

5. Ten is better than one. The highest numbers on the camera are the best. Always set controls for highest possible number. This lets your pictures become the highest too.

6. When you see a scene developing, you need to be on the attack. Get your handlers and bodyguards in position, then move in for the kill. Shoot shoot shoot. You can never be too greedy for photographs. Then hand the camera to your people. They'll let you know how much the images are worth. Get it in writing.

7. People in a city mix together like human garbage. They just don't care. Sometimes you'll need a wall to separate them into homogeneous clumps, so that you can shoot them uncontaminated. Have the Mexicans pay for it.

8. I have naturally long beautiful fingers which let me reach the camera controls with ease. If you have short stubby fingers, you will have to work harder. Or you might just want to give up. The choice is yours.

9. Most other photographers, including yourself, are terrible. It's just a fact. You should all be fired. I will always be the best but don't let that discourage you. There is hope. Through patience and practice you can learn to emulate me, and your photographs might someday gain attention if they look enough like mine. 

10. I can walk down 5th Avenue tomorrow and shoot someone, and everyone will love me. If you try the same thing you'll probably die a pauper in a dirty cell. But don't let that discourage you. Think of my greatness when you're in that cell. Let it feed your photography.

11. Don't be a pussy when you're shooting in public. You need to behave like you own both the streets and the people in them. If you're me, chances are you do.

12. When I'm walking the streets shooting pictures, gorgeous women nearby always attempt to flirt with me. They can't help it. I'm wealthy, handsome, and irresistible. That's how I get such great candid photos of their tits. But that's me. You won't have this problem.

13. Don't photograph homeless, street performers, or city workers. They are poor schmucks who don't deserve you. Photographing them will not make street photography great again.

14. If someone questions what you're doing, or refuses consent to be photographed YOU TAKE THEM THE FUCK OUT. None of that nonsense. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Old school

Charles Le Moon, courtesy of Eugene Weekly
I stopped in yesterday on a strange little pop up show. Charles Le Moon had turned his small Eugene house into a photo gallery for the weekend. The living room walls were plastered with photocards. They spilled down the hall and into the dining room. Hundreds of photos which wouldn't fit on the walls were stuffed into postcard racks in the center of the floor. He'd been shooting for 25+ years, and had collected so many photos he wasn't sure what to do with them all. Typical photographer's dilemma.

What made Le Moon's show unique —and perfect for Eugene— is that his process is deliberately retro. He makes one print of each negative and that's it. Each print goes on a unique card. There were several hundred on display yesterday, and he's got another 15,000 or so in the pipeline. He refuses to digitize any photographs, under the premise that it would add an artificial layer, and somehow remove the one-to-one personal bond with the viewer. Never mind Instagram or Flickr. Le Moon bucks the web outright. He does have a website, but it has no images, which for a photographer is, well... unusual. I've felt the non-web instinct before. My web presence sucks. But I've never seen it taken to such extreme. He's basically living in 1970 still, even as the photo world rockets into the digital realm. 

This stance may be pure but it raises all sorts of questions for a photographer. The very nature of photography is copying, and the magic of photographs resides in part on reproducibility. Or maybe not. I dunno. In any case he is probably shooting himself in the foot in the publicity department. But he seems content.

Le Moon's isolationist instinct came through in the photos. There were plenty of visually sterile barns, flowers, and creeks, as one might expect from a hobbyist. But spicing up the mix were countless original captures, the type of photos that only someone disconnected from the art world might see. He has a painterly sense of shadow, light, and the overlooked vernacular. If he could weed out the chaff, he'd have a brilliant book which might rub shoulders with Ernst Haas or Saul Leiter. But, alas, the chaff might be integral. It almost always is.

After some time browsing, I wound up with two cards. I could've easily chosen more. I'd show them here but it would break the non-digital pact. Oh well. I had no cash so he let me have them on the honor system. I'll drop a check off later this week. Retro.

If you're in Eugene, check it out. The show ends today. 1095 E 35th St.