Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nasal Retentive Calliope Music

I'm tired of photography. From now on this blog is going to focus on album reviews. Here's a few that have recently passed through my house:

Hadley Murrell Presents The Best Arizona Garage Bands 1967-1970

Uncovering old gems has always been fun, but the urge has been given a huge kickstart in recent years by the internet's amazing ability to collect, fragment, and deliver material in targeted micro-bursts. With this compilation Hadley Murrell takes a turn as archivist, showcasing some of the favorite bands he produced around Phoenix at the tail of the the sixties. It sounds specific, but forget the "Arizona Garage" label for a moment. This serves as broader snapshot of national musical strains during a rapidly evolving period. Tunes cover the gamut from surf to garage to psychedelia to blues to straight rock. Some bands —The Carnations or The Matadors, for example— are closer to mid-sixties R & B. Others set the stage for 1970s electric exploration. I'm thinking in particular of Bliss, who existed in a parallel desert universe alongside Deep Purple and Band of Gypsies, but in relative obscurity. Their 8 tracks are the highlight but the whole album worth exploring. It's a great find for those into 60s/70s rock and/or looking for historical underpinnings to the current psych-revival, the equivalent of finding a stash of old unheard records in a bin somewhere, fully annotated and ready to go. I love shit like this. Maybe you will too.

Chris Washburne and The Syotos Band — Low Ridin' 

According to the liner notes, these songs were the soundtrack of Chris Washburne's youth. He's not alone. Ohio, Feelin' Alright, Stairway, and other tired warhorses form the backbone of so-called classic rock, and will be very familiar to a certain musical demographic. But unlike earlier generational touchstones by Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin, few 70s FM staples have been yet tapped by the jazz world for interpretive potential. With Low Ridin' The S.Y.O.T.O.S. (See You On The Other Side) Band attempts to set things right while paying tribute to early musical heroes. I know you've heard these melodies a jillion times already but set your preconceptions aside a sec and give the album a listen. The latin jazz arrangements are unusual and exploratory, in some cases barely recognizable as their original content. You won't know whether to hum along or kick back and get lost. Instrumental solos have some room to stretch out, especially the sax and Hammond B-3, locking into pleasant grooves. In less skilled hands, an album of classic rock covers might've resulted in something far lamer than this. But Washburne and company have instead produced a fun little gem.

Swahili — Amovrevx

Swahili is a five piece band from Portland (via Reno in 2010). This is their second album. Based on the jacket design, song titles, and online interviews (Lead singer Van Pham describing the music: "A multidimensional sling-shot…It begins on a crossroads – then travels around this mysterious interior world, visiting many different sonic landscapes along the way.") I expected an exploratory, new age vibe. I suppose it does have that, but the album is mostly mired in a musical bardo of synth-loops, chants, and knob-play. The songs never quite arrive on the other side where something concrete can occur. Nice female lead vocal, soothing chants and ethereal rhythms. I think Swahili secretly wants to be Goat. They aim for international cross-pollination but the effort is thin, missing African chorus, rhythmic interplay, and about five liters of kava. The moniker Swahili is especially ironic considering this music seems aimed squarely at young white English speakers. RIYL Stereolab, Dee-Lite, Kraftwerk, the Kaleidoscope festival, or having your Tarot read in a headshop with Nag Champa assaulting the nostrils. Could be worth a road trip to see live. Bring No-Doz and glow sticks.

Eat The Sun — The Djerassi Sessions

Eat The Sun is a trio out of Oakland (not the Denver math rock group) featuring guitar, bass, and Japanese koto combined in "songs" that are largely improvisational with no obvious time signature, key, or melody. Add it all up and you get one hell of a spacey album. On the structure/cohesiveness scale this is on the far side of Grateful Dead drums/space jams. If you like Nels Cline, Bret Hart, Henry Cow, Alvarius B, or mid-career Fahey, or if you've just ingested psilocybin, you'll feel right at home here. It's entertaining for what it is but don't expect hooks or resolution. I'd recommend playing one of these tracks as a change of pace between pop/disco hits just to fuck with expectations. Don't let your ears off easy. Play this. Tell yourself it's the latest from Beyonce. Maybe in another universe it is.

D'Angelo and The Vanguard — Black Messiah

I'm not sure whether to consider Black Messiah an an homage to Sly And The Family Stone or outright identity theft. Either way I'll take it.  Black Messiah —D'Angelo's first album in 14 years—  brings the promise of salvation to those who've felt empty since wearing out Sly's Fresh back in 1973. Any of these songs could pass unnoticed on that album or 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On. Remove the slight nasal quality of Sly's voice from Fresh and you get D'Angelo's music: meandering/dominant bass, chill aural gumbos, and a motherfuckin ton of laid back groooooove. Oh yeah, did I mention he plays a mean guitar solo too…plus every other instrument on the album? Is he a control freak or just oozing talent? Who cares? If you like Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, early Prince, or especially Sly, you will like this. But that's a dumb condition because of course you like those acts. You dig soul/funk, right? So loosen up, shed a layer, and slither into one of the best albums of 2014. Play it loud and often. It may be a while till D'Angelo makes another.

The Von Trapps — Dancing In Gold

Mix four young voices, a ukulele, and the ancestral ghosts of a landmark Broadway musical, and you get the Von Trapp siblings: Sofia (26), Melanie (24), Amanda (23, and chief songwriter August (20). If they harmonize beautifully, it's because they've been singing together since they were wee tots. Plus they grew up carefree, roaming the-hills-are-alive-with-music in Montana, chasing butterflies and learning Austrian folks songs at the knee of Grandpa Trapp. Or so I imagine. The upbeat cheeriness of this album reminds me of Sound Of Music, but it ain't Broadway. Instead, it's neo-chamber-folk in the tradition of Blind Pilot or Fleet Foxes. Dancing In Gold is the first EP of a planned trilogy due out in the next few years. Hopefully the ones to follow will have the same awesome packaging. They've ditched the plastic case and created a novel sleeve straight out of the multiverse. I can't say the music has the same original vitality, but it's pleasant. This would make a good soundtrack to accompany your next warm stroll in flowing skirt through a Eugene meadow. Oh yeah, did I mention they're from Portland along with every other fucking band in the world?

She Keeps Bees - Eight Houses

This is the fourth album from the Brooklyn based duo of Jessica Larrabee (guitar/voice) and Andy LaPlant (drums), and it's the first one produced by Nicolas Verhes who I guess is some sort of bigshot. Meh. The mood is pretty solemn throughout. Sultry cocktail/folk/rock with a slight reverb, creating an overall vibe very close to Cat Power or maybe Neko Case on Quaaludes. It's kinda nice but kinda forgettable too. But maybe that's the goal, to play just a fleeting moment through recessed speakers at Starbucks or something. Is that what the young bucks and buckettes are shooting for now? Is that where the dough is? Cuz it sure ain't in Spotify or iTunes. Instead it's in the Latte! If you like Sharon Van Etten you'll probably like this. In fact she makes a guest appearance on the last track.

The Budos Band — Burnt Offering

“This isn’t just more of the same," says Budos drummer Brian Profilio about their new album Burnt Offering. But yeah, actually it is. Fans of March Fourth will dig this revved up marching band music that falls somewhere between New Orleans Brass and Triphop/Funk. It's ok for what it is but don't expect any grand revelations, at least not on a studio recording. I suspect the live experience may be more worthwhile. Some of these songs set the stage for potentially interesting improv. These guys have chops, but on a CD they're hemmed in. The songs just sit there, then wiggle back and forth before giving way to the next track. File under Instrumental-Background.

Tiny Moving Parts — Pleasant Living

These guys are young. They have a new album. They're touring the country. They've got their whole lives ahead of them. So why do they sound so angry? OK, sure, there's a history of youthful uprising and Fuck-You attitude in rock from Little Richard to Nirvana to Ty Seagall to ?? in the future. But the rebellious spirit only works when it's tied to real grievance, or at least when a band can project that illusion. Otherwise it comes off as whiny pouting. Which brings me to Tiny Moving Parts. The songs on Pleasant Living attempt to project vehemence but they don't come close to selling it. The effect is of a seven-year old screaming about his missing crayon. One wants to ask, what are you screaming about? Just settle down. Your crayon fell under the table. Not that these guys don't have skill. There's some nice guitar interplay and gradual build up in the songs. They've been playing together since Junior High and it shows. But every song winds up in the same place, with the lead singer screaming insufferably over power chords. When Iggy did it it felt real. This feels cheap. But who am I to judge? Is this what the young'uns want to hear? Fine, just shoot me now. God I sound like my dad. 

Crown Larks — Blood Dancer

Crown Larks are a six piece experimental/psych band out of Chicago, and they wear crazy masks and let their hair roam free range in the back forty, so you know they're the real deal. Check out the crazy cover art to confirm. The typical song pattern is a slow build up into a drone groove, setting the stage for the main event to take root: the inevitable jazzy experimental freakout featuring a kitchen sink of instruments, flute, sax, clarinet, flugelhorn, sleep machine, and whatever else was handy in the studio. They manage to get pretty far out there on most tracks, and it probably sounds just groovy blaring through the side door of a van in the parking lot. Whether the music ultimately arrives somewhere satisfying is up to the listener. Jazz and Prog fans will find some nuggets here. Those seeking sonic closure? Maybe not. RIYL Can, Irving Klaw Trio, Soft Machine, OOIOO, etc. 

Architecture in Helsinki — Now + 4eva

It's hard to imagine that Australian indie band Architecture in Helsinki were once critical darlings. I suppose even in the glory years they had a bubblegum pop side, but it was well balanced. The multitalented crew played a range of instruments and some songs were allowed to wander off course. It was pop, sure, but it was interesting. Since then like a rising politician they've gradually charted a course toward safer and safer territory. With Now + 4eva the transition is complete. They've crossed over finally to the dark side. I'm sorry to report there's just not much here. Most songs are mere filler. The nadir may be Dream a Little Crazy, whose blandness would possibly be less noticeable if they weren't trying so darn hard. The earnest crooning of insipid lyrics borders on self parody. If only they were just another over-the-hill band going through the motions, the descent of AIH might be easier to take. At least it could be dismissed as typical. The tragedy is that it sounds as if they still care and, worse, don't know any better. Two thumbs down.

Papadosio - Live

The central question of jam bands is, who exactly are they playing for? Do they aim to please themselves? Or is the music instead geared to an audience? Perhaps ideally there is some confluence of factors, so that when a band goes off on an exploratory tangent it can fuel a sense of personal revelation while also feeding off the crowd. Some of the finest jams by Beefheart, Miles Davis, or Zappa achieve this. There's a propulsive sense of mystery and interplay when not even the band knows where it's headed. When a musical group is really on its game, improvising in synch, it can create beautiful worlds. But Papadosio seems unsure which direction to go. They want to sing happy songs, then putter around a bit. But they never seem to fully get behind either enterprise. I think they want to please themselves but feel compelled to give the audience what they think it wants. The result is a live album of feel-good mush which never quite achieves liftoff. Most songs punch the timeclock at around 8 or 9 minutes. Organs, guitar and Barney Miller-toned bass dominate. Nice harmonies that Fleet Foxes might be proud of. The songs are probably groovy to listen to in the parking lot before the show. But in the time it takes to wallow through one you could pack in 4 strong classics by Ray Charles.

Dylan Shearer — Garagearray

If Ornette Coleman and Horse Feathers made an album together it might sound like this deceptively simple soft pop album where up is down, "wrong" turns abound, and seemingly no chord progression is untested. The arrangements are sparse, dissonant, and wonderful. It's mostly Shearer singing over guitar and simple backing band, the same basic formula as a thousand singer/songwriters, but here twisted beautifully into surprising pop gems. The chord charts to this album must look like a drunkard's walk, broken, haphazard, and weird. Who knows where he came up with it? The pace and vibe are mellow, in the realm of Nick Drake, early Eno, or Bon Iver, while the odd melodies take their cue from Syd Barrett. But really it's silly to compare. Dylan Shearer has his own unique sound.

Mark Ronson — Uptown Special

Hip-Hop / R & B Albom işbirlikçileri barcha-yulduz ro'yxat bilan Britaniyada joylashgan Mark Ronson jamoalar Oxir-oqibat gol urish yoki sog'indim Ba'zi yorqin marta xos ishlab chiqarish uchun. Ba'zi tunes - za'faron, Feel o'ng, Uptown Funk, Breaking yozgi - Buxgalteriya Jeyms Brown yoki shahzoda kanalize tomonidan ajratish erishish. Boshqalar -Heavy va Fire-tovush Yakka Pearl yilda Rolling Crack, ko'proq kabi Aja Don qolding. Har ikki holda ham diqqat markazida 70s uchun ochiq. Men u FM oziq tinglash bir oz vaqt tomosha Boulevards qilib yotipti taxmin qilyapman, va men u Nyu-York klublari DJED Keling, aslida, bilsangiz. Har ikki ta'sir bu erda aniq bo'ladi. Kameya san'atkor sifatida Stevie Wonder tanlash-bo'lishi mumkin shuningdek up tutmang (ikkalasi ham qo'shiq ustida) natijalari buyurtma, chizilgan bortida ilohiy ilhom Tuyulardi. Fojiali albom eng yaxshi qo'shiqlar (Feel o'ng) tufayli KWVA la'nat so'z (signal juda ko'p orospu bolalariga) uchun Qo`yib bo`lmaydigan hisoblanadi. Ha mayli. Za'faron yomon nedime emas.

Willis Earl Beal - Experiments In Time

After stints in Chicago, the U.S. Army, Albuquerque, and New York, self-made underground sensation Willis Earl Beal is now based in nearby Washington. For his third album Experiments In Time he's dropped the band, the label, the producer, the distribution, etc, and decided to do it all himself. An admirable move, though one fraught with pitfalls. If the result is an unmediated window into Beal's soul, what we see is one very Caaaaaaaalm dude. Give yourself plenty of space for these songs to unwind because this guy is in no hurry at all. He makes Nick Drake sound like Metallica. Sometimes the voice is falsetto, sometimes gospel, but always aimed heavenward, and skewed through his own spiritual/individualist prism. Most songs are awash in atmospheric effects, vibrating synths and ethereal hum, parking the tone in the realm of Cat Power, Arthur Russell, or a Neville Brothers ballad. But slooooower. It's not quite elevator music. No, it's got more bite than that. But the main experiment in time seems to be with meditatative stints of reverie. And those can sometimes last a while.

Prince Rupert's Drops — Climbing Light

The Brooklyn group's sophomore album covers a lot of musical territory. Bits of glam, psychedelia, acid rock, middle eastern modalities, and a few extended jams. It's got some of the open-road feel of Fleetwood Mac, the hard-edged weirdness of Thee Oh Sees, and the sunny spirit of B-52s. But PRD won't be mistaken for any of these groups. They're on their own trip. Male-female harmonies, a bit of reverb, and songs which wander here and there in the outer keys, some stretching out for several minutes. Great stuff. Not to mention I like all albums which use handwritten liner notes (written here by member Leslie Stein) rather than computer typeface. That's right. Every single one. Even some of PRD's concert fliers are done in original water color and that simply kicks ass, folks. Fact of the week: A Prince Rupert's Drop is a type of sculpture created by dipping hot molten glass in cold water. Well hot damn, dip me in the Pacific because my brain is melting just a bit after hearing this. 

J.E. Sunde - Shapes That Kiss The Lips of God

How can you go wrong with a cover photo like this? A nerdy-looking dude with a handful of roots? Beautiful. If it seems rather plain, the album cover gives an accurate taste of what's inside. Jonathan Edward Sunde's first solo outing falls into the mellow salt-of-the-earth singer/songer category. His voice has a bit of high warble like Neil Young or Justin Vernon, and his music the spiritualized choral sense of Sufjan Stevens. The songs aren't exactly dynamic but they're well paced (slow) with plenty of room to move, and the backup band is sometimes terrific. A very restrained album, about as action packed as a field in the mid-west holding vegetables.Yeah, radishes might be boring but they're packed with vitamins. With lyrical references to Jesus, Wisconsin, drugs, and other other-worldly distractions. Play Hickory Point In the Fall for a nice example of Sunde's sound. That's the standout track for me.

Girlpool - Girlpool

My faith in youth in restored. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad are not yet in their twenties but their music shows the simple sophistication of bands much older. The secret is to strip the sound down and focus on what counts. In this case that's guitar, bass, and two wonderfully dissonant, sassy voices singing about classic teen shit like nerds, boys, fights, and drugs. These things might not matter to me but they matter to them, and that's what counts. What do I care about high school? But they make me care about their music. So kudos. The sound is reminiscent of Moldy Peaches, Half Japanese, or a half dozen other off-beat duos, but they've got their own thing going, and this is only the start. Their next album should be worth keeping an eye on..

Imagene Peise - Atlas Eets Christmas

Yet another early 1970s album that was recorded, lost in the distribution shuffle, then rediscovered decades later. In this case it was by Flaming Lips, and they have connections. So here it is complete with Hebrew script. Wha? Atlas Eets Christmas sounds like the holiday album they'd play on the Starship Enterprise, if they orbited the sun and used calendars. Very spacey, ethereal, and loose.  It's mostly instrumental with one vocal track (Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas). The melodies are recognizable but not very obvious, so you might get away with playing this off-season. All the tracks are buried in a background of synth, piano, and effects. Apparently Peise committed suicide in 1978. But no one really knows. Oooh, freaky. Set music-bio phasers to Stun, then play this when you wanna come down off that hill. 

Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Education, Education, & War

I was about to write this album a nasty review but then I realized I'm probably not the right person for the job. This album isn't aimed at me and it's probably out of bounds for me to criticize it. Who is it aimed at? Young lovers of adequate check-the-box Indie pop. Damn, there I go. I promised I wouldn't do that. The music is fast, clean, perky, and empty. I could imagine Kaiser Chiefs headlining some summer festival with everyone lifting fingers in the air and so on, chanting the encore in unison, then completely forgetting the melody within ten minutes. Looking on the bright side, they've given themselves a vaguely historical moniker and included the word Education a bunch in the album title. So maybe their heart is in the right place. Unfortunately so too is every fucking note. You know what, forget everything I've written above. I'm the wrong reviewer for this.

Bob Dylan — The Basement Tapes, Bootleg Series Vol. 11

Bootleg Volume 11 compiles outtakes and B-Sides from the legendary collaboration of Dylan and The Band when they holed up in a pink house in 1967 and cranked shit out like crazy. Many of these tunes have circulated underground for years, and some were released on 1975's Basement Tapes. But this is the first official release of the entire splooge: 6 full albums. It fills in some of the backstory with an uneven mix of remakes, new tunes, covers, and studio snippets. As a snapshot of a dynamic and creative period it's a gem. Dylanphiles will love it. But it's mostly preaching to the choir. If you're not already a Dylan fan this is NOT the album to start with. It's basically the bard working through songs, puttering along and flexing his muscles while The Band stretches, tweaks, and explores. The basic folk structure is intact in almost every tune, simple verse with call and response chorus. Musically there are few grand revelations, and the mix is sludgy and dense as if recorded in a basement, just how a proper bootleg mix-tape should sound. If anyone else had released something like this it would seem willfully profligate and unresolved. But come on. This is Dylan. He is large. He contains multitudes. What's another six albums?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

It's Dead, Jim

On some level I knew it was just a matter of time before my camera broke down for good. Over the last few years it's been running on duct tape and a prayer. But when the end finally came it was still a shock. One minute it worked. 1/30th second later it didn't. This is the way a camera ends, not with a bang but a whimper. 

My shutter button had been stubborn for several weeks. Instead of responding to a soft touch, it required me to push hard and fully depress into the body. Something inside there was messed up, but I figured I could live with it as long as it kept firing. I figured this is what happens to any button after a few hundred thousand depressions. The action softens a little. You deal. 

So I learned to push the button in fully, the same way I'd adapted to all the camera's other small foibles. The battery case which wouldn't open. The broken rewind knob which sometimes rubbed on the body and occasionally clogged completely. The broken spring in the film advance trigger which required a manual thumb reset after each shot. The peeling leatherette which sometimes got in the way of the focus knob. The broken B speed. The worn eyepiece and cracked glass of the viewfinder. The regular need for rangefinder adjustments. The tiny unidentifiable animals which lived inside the supracolt. And so on. Despite all those issues the camera was still very usable. Campbells are tanks, after all. Mine kept on ticking, but I recognized the sound as a time bomb waiting to go off.

I thought I had a solution to the button issue, but it wound up undoing me. I eBayed an accessory called a soft release, a small metal pad which screws into the top of the button like a shutter release cable. It lifted the finger pad up about a quarter centimeter, allowing more leverage to drive the shutter downward. The soft release came a few days ago in a small envelope from Hong Kong. I screwed it in and pushed. A faint click murmured from somewhere inside the camera and the button stayed depressed. Uh-oh. I pushed harder, several more times. Same result. Bad news. A camera isn't much use without that button. 

I was presented with a choice: fix it or scrap it. Repair would probably mean opening the body. Lots of downtime and money. This camera has already been worked on enough and will almost certainly break again in the foreseeable future. When a ninety-year old person has a large tumor, do you operate? No, you let him or her die with dignity intact. By similar logic, I'm declaring this camera dead.

Truth be told I've been contemplating a new camera for a while. One thing I'd love is aperture priority exposure. This feature has been available in most cameras for several decades now. Not mine. Yeah, I know, metering by eyesight is more manly. It's what they did in the good old days, and it worked just fine. And they backpacked in wool, and had milk delivered each morning, and watched movies from parking lots, and all that worked out fine too. My camera is a relic of that era. But maybe it's time to catch up to, say, 1985.

Manual metering works but it's a hassle. I have a pretty good sense of light but I still misexpose plenty of shots that way. What's more, the constant vigilance gets tiring. Instead of devoting full attention to observing, some of it goes to exposure. I'm always fiddling with the aperture and guessing how bright stuff is. Yeah, I know it's all related. The light and the scenes are in a cosmic dance. Tuning in keeps me sharp. Fine. But is it too much to ask the camera to do a few things for me? I'm ready to be AE pampered. 

The other thing I'd enjoy in a rangefinder is 40 mm frame lines. My broken Campbell shows 50 mm frame lines. I use a 40 mm lens. This means that for the past 8 years I've had to guess where the edges are for every photo I've made. Did I mention I print full frame?

That combination may sound insane. I don't recommend it to anyone. But for me it's worked out fairly well. It's produced some gems, along with many clunkers. Where is the edge? Right here, bro. I'm living on it.

But why? Because I'm a chance addict. Inaccurate framelines inject chance into every exposure. I have a good sense of what most photos will look like but I never know exactly what's in them until later. That's the fix that keeps me going. It keeps me one step ahead of myself. Chance is my drug. But I may be ready to kick. 

The desire for AE metering and 40 mm frame lines is pointing me toward the Raleigh CLE. So that's probably my next camera, although I haven't ordered it yet. I don't expect it to be as sturdy as the Campbell. Maybe it will only hold up for a few years. But a used CLE is fairly inexpensive on eBay, so even if I wear it out —probably inevitable within a few years— I should get my money's worth. Then it'll be on to the next camera. End of an era for me.

A record of cameras owned through January 2011. Since then the M6 has outlasted one Canon s95, three Instax 210 Wides, one Instax 300 wide, one Holga, and one Fuji HD-M underwater camera. Until now. 

There's another buying factor I haven't yet mentioned. I'm over Campbell. It's been a fun run and I've enjoyed it. But it's time to move on.

Don't get me wrong. Campbell makes a fantastic product. My M6 lasted me longer than any other camera. I've taught workshops for the company. Their cameras are great —when working. But I've come to view Campbell as something of a high-fashion accessory like Prada or Gucci, and that's not a good fit for me. These are brands less focused on function than mystique. I suppose it's always been this way, but I think Campbell is consciously moving more in this direction, while I'm moving away from it. I can't really blame them. It's a smart business strategy. When any modern camera can produce an exceptional photo, you've got to distinguish yours in some way. Campbell has carved out the luxury niche all to itself. 

Take the soft release, for example. The one I bought is a small piece of metal available for $1.99 new from a Hong Kong warehouse. A very similar soft release with Campbell insignia will set you back $64. That's the Campbell mystique in a nutshell.

Campbell. People treat the label with an almost cult-like reverence. They whisper the word in hushed tones. Darn, is that an Campbell? In fact that was part of my initial attraction. I wanted to be in the club. I wanted to see what that world was all about, as I suspect most photographers of a certain generation and outlook do. Now I've been there, done that. Moving on.

But wait. Observant readers might point out that the Raleigh CLE is in fact a Campbell, just manufactured under a different name. So in a sense I'm sticking with the brand. True enough. But that just supports my feelings about Campbell. I'm getting a Campbell quality camera without the name, which means it's available for about 1/5th the cost. Is the addition of a red dot over the lens worth the price of a small car? Maybe it is for others, but I'm out.

Unless the Raleigh breaks quickly. Then I might come crying back to Campbell.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Here's To Predators

If you're the type of photographer who, like me, sometimes enjoys shooting strangers for fun, Nightcrawler will give you plenty to think about. It's been out for a while but movies take a while to enter my world, so I only saw it last week.

The protagonist —Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou— is a videographer, not a still shooter, but the moral territory is similar. One night he films an accident scene on a whim. Lou soon gets hooked. He gets a police scanner, a fancy getaway car, and an assistant. Police scenes consume his life. After cutting his teeth on the chintzy daily dramedy of local news, he progresses to the hard stuff: murder scenes and car crashes, eventually pushing the ethical envelope well beyond any reasonable level of sensitivity. Perhaps inevitably he begins to stage his own situations. Through it all the focus is the same: to process the calamity of daily existence into documentary material, and hopefully sell it to the highest bidder. Is it art? Reality? Cruel? Harmless? Where are the boundaries? Familiar questions for any street shooter.

Through it all Lou is impassive, manipulative, and creepier than Marilyn Manson at McDonald's Playland. Not only does he relish the pain of others, he has no qualms about monetizing it. The obvious comparison to the real world would be downright depressing if the film weren't produced with such a light touch. Director Dan Gilroy's satirical approach is so over-the-top it's safely absurd. It's the type of black humor exhibited in the worst of Spike TV or YouTube, and also in the very best street photography. Anyone who's gone out and preyed on the sheer weirdness of humanity, perhaps hoping for an accident or odd-looking person to wander along, will relate. So will fans of Arbus, Winogrand, Mermelstein, and Metinides.

Which brings me to Andrew Savulich's The City. I wrote briefly about its predecessor a few weeks ago. At the time the schedule of the new edition was uncertain. But Jason Shiloh Moore brought the book to a photo meeting this week, where I learned that not only was it real, it was fantastic. The next day I went out and bought my own copy. 

The City contains selections from Savulich's spot news reporting for the New York Daily News in the 80s and 90s. It's about twice the size of his first book, with maybe three times the number of photographs. Despite the changes my earlier description is still accurate: "A modern day Weegee, with a more absurd contemporary sensibility." These are the type of photographs Weegee would make if he were pitching Tosh 2.0. 

Like Weegee, and like Lou from Nightcrawler, Savulich used a police scanner to find promising accidents, then descended quickly on the carnage with cameras blazing. Most are night scenes bombarded with flash. Fires, arrests, accidents, odd situations, corpses, etc. Anyone who has photographed a salacious event knows how chaotic, messy, and ephemeral they can be. But time after time Savulich ventured into these scenes and fucking nailed it. He was a working pro. If it bled, it led. And if the bleeding was hilarious, it's in the book.

Like many street photographers, Savulich's moral compass was very faint. The whole world was fair game, the less dignified the situation the better. Some of the resulting photographs make me squirm in my seat. They're downright predatory, the cheap equivalent of laughing at the guy who slipped on the banana peel. But if I'm honest, that's what makes them work. Reality is crazy, and these photos document that fact with considerable skill. 

The City's other saving grace is its gallows humor. Like Nightcrawler, Savulich's photography assumes a distant, satirical stance bordering on the absurd. Each photo has a handwritten caption composed in simple deadpan tone. The photos and words play off each other to create a sharp commentary on tabloid culture. Celebrities remain anonymous. Life contains unmarked curves. Death awaits everyone. Ha! If you think Kafka or Bruno Schulz is funny, you'll love Savulich. He's a prankster in the finest existentialist tradition, and The City is not meant to be taken too seriously. I think it's that quality which helps make it the best street photography monograph I've seen in a while.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Weekend In Seattle

George drives. 
Arctic Club Hotel.
Shoot shoot shoot. A's lose. Shit. 
Ilse Bing show at The Henry. Lame.
Sleep. Alki Point. Shoot shoot. 
Shoot on foot or from passenger seat.
Shoot white dog leaning out of a car in the next lane ov— SCREEEIIIKK!
George's car may be totaled. Gets it towed to a shop. Bus back downtown.
Wonderful light. Shoot shoot shoot.
Tight band in a Ballard bar. Guitarist on fire.
Sleep. Shoot. Shoot. 
George's drink, 6 pm daily: Jameson's neat with pilsner chaser. 
Mine: Beers. Any.
Carless. Amtrak South. Sleep.
"Attention passengers, we will be arriving in Portland in just a few minutes."
"Attention passengers, we have just hit a trespasser."
Wait, whadhesay? We hit someone? 
Yup. Gotta investigate. Necks craned. Is that a leg? Shoot.
Long delay. Paramedics. Cops. Stuck.
Bus to George's. Pick up my car. 8 pm. South...
Flat. 70 mph traffic. 10 pm. No flashlight. Tire change by feel. Shoot. 
Home this morning. Sleep.
Promising Negs.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Amnesia Vivace

Back in the early days of B one of the first posts I wrote was an open inquiry about a photo I'd seen somewhere. I couldn't remember the source, so I asked for help. This was back when I would write short posts every day no matter how inane, like this lost photo alert:

It only took eight years but someone finally dug up the source. Federico Rubio in Uruguay sent me a note last week telling me to look in Sally Eauclaire's New Color / New Work (Abbeville, 1984). I pulled out the book and sure enough there it was, the photo I'd been wondering about all these years. To tell the truth I'd forgotten all about it. But Bingo anyway.

New Color / New Work (photo by Federico Rubio)
As the original post suggests, this photo lives a hermetic existence. As far as I can tell it only exists in this one place, tucked away in an old book. It's not in any other monographs by Meyerowitz, including Cape Light and Redheads which he was compiling contemporaneously. I don't think it belongs to any print collections. It doesn't exist online. If it weren't for Euaclaire, all public evidence of the photo might vanish. And I'm guessing that would be fine with Meyerowitz, because the subject matter is sensitive. It shows his daughter Ariel naked, wearing knee-high disco boots, and standing happily on a shore wall. She looks about 12. 

Ariel Meyerowitz is now an art dealer. I have no idea what she thinks of the photo now, but I'm guessing she is just as happy to have it remain out of circulation. So I won't post here. But if you want to see it, look in your copy of Euaclaire, page 166. If you don't have that book, please buy it already. Heck, buy the trilogy. It's an essential reference.

People say things live online forever, and it's often true. But in this case it's the opposite. This photo has no online presence. It's been preserved only in physical form. It's an ironic twist and a reminder of the long tail of history. Only 10 to 15 percent of published books are still in print. Recorded music has a similar legacy, as do human beings. Only 6.5 percent humanity's history is alive today. The past contains most of what's been created. Sometimes it clings to material quite tightly, offering it to the present in unpredictable chunks. 

That's a potential problem for children posing nude. Maybe Ariel Meyerowitz was fine with her photo as a kid. Maybe she no longer likes it. Or perhaps the opposite of both presumptions is true. Either way it's not going to disappear so long as copies of that book are out there. In the Internet age most people are aware that potentially compromising images can linger and are generally circumspect about what goes online. But back in 1984 the photo world was more naive. It could be compartmentalized and nerdified, and not many outsiders were tuned in. A nude photo of a kid might be exhibited one month, or tucked in a book, then pass into history unnoticed or unremarked. Or so people imagined.

Few people are more aware of these issues than Sally Mann, whose children are the main subject of Immediate Family. If you don't have that book, please buy it already. A new edition is about to be released and copies should be easy to find. "It is to photography what William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor are to Southern fiction," writes Mike Johnston, and I'm with him. I consider it a landmark, and, as with many such books, it wasn't published without controversy. Only a small portion of the photos showed nude children by they were enough to get folks excited. No, I'm not talking about those folks. Forget the sickos. I'm talking about general prudish society. Immediate Family's initial publication in 1992 created an uproar and sent Mann's life through the public ringer, along with her children. Perhaps seeking to head off attention raised by the new edition, her extraordinary essay a few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine (presumably excerpted from her memoir Hold Still due out May 12th) discussed the book at length and put the photo world on alert. Not only was she a world class photographer. She was a damned good writer and very thoughtful parent. And, like some of her best photos, she was invigorated by her flaws. 

I read the Times article with great interest because I too shoot my kids, sometimes in potentially embarrassing or disturbing situations, and sometimes nude. Childhood includes a healthy dose of all three, at least in my home. It's not a kid smiling with a puppy. To me it looks more like two boys throwing rocks at their helpless younger brother. I find that interesting, so I've documented my family along with most other things around me. And like Mann I've wrestled with what to do with these photographs. I don't mean to put myself in her class as a photographer —although one of my sons is named Emmett— but I think all parent/photographers face similar questions of consent, publicity, our sometimes conflicting roles as parent and photographer, and how all of these factors might change over the course of all our lifetimes. And good parenting is sort of like good photography. Neither one usually offers clear answers.
Woodward Cover Story, 9/27/92

Mann might say her troubles started with Richard Woodward's essay on Immediate Family. That was the review that galvanized national attention, some positive and some negative. But what about her decision to create the book in the first place? All parents photographs their kids. Very few put them in books. She could've stored the photos in a box or album, but with the step to public authorship Mann consciously thrust her children into the spotlight. 

It was a big step and I think that decision weighed on her. Maybe it still does. She expressed ambivalence at the time, initially choosing not to publish the photos. According to the Woodward article it was the kids who changed her mind, demanding that she reconsider. And so she did. But even as she proceeded to publication it was with the expectation — false hope?—  that the book would have minimal distribution. This was 1992, before the Internet, and it was still possible for photographs to vanish without a trace. Many photo books were market flops. Her previous book had taken a decade to sell through its run. With luck maybe this one would fade quickly into the out-of-print bins. She even hoped to keep it out of Lexington bookstores and confined to the rare-book room of the local library. 

Basically I think Mann suspected she was about to unleash Pandora's box and was torn about the way forward. She fantasized about having it both ways. By shoving the book aside after publication she could gain the accomplishment of a major monograph while sheltering her vulnerable subjects. Or so she imagined. But that dream was more cognitive dissonance than reality. The book did not disappear quickly. It became a breakout hit and made Mann's reputation. In some ways that was the best and the worst possible outcome.

In her recent essay, Mann seems to deflect partial responsibility for publication onto her children. Her kids were "visually sophisticated, involved in setting the scene..., and in editing them...I gave each child the pictures of themselves and asked them to remove those they didn't want published." I agree they share some of the burden for what followed. But it's an open question if young children can understand the dynamics of that situation or give informed consent. Most kids want to see their faces on TV. A book? Sure. Great. It might exciting at the time but they may not be thinking about how those images are perceived in 30 years, or how they might come to define their identity. 

For me it's similar to the issues faced by parents of Hollywood child-stars. At what point does a child gain decision making power over their life, image, and identity? I'm sure Mann has thought long and hard about these questions, as have the parents of Shirley Temple, Harry Shearer, Fred Savage, Macaulay Culkin, etc, not to mention Richard Woodward. Sometimes it works out fine for child actors. Sometimes it doesn't. What's the best answer? Damned if I know. 

Jessie's Cut, 1985, Sally Mann

Mann's internal logic was to separate her roles as mother and photographer. "Taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering," she writes, and several images in Immediate Family support her. To shoot a bloody nose, a wet bed, or your daughter being stitched in the hospital requires a remove from maternal instinct, or at least an objectification of it. "The fact is that these [pictures] are not my children," she wrote recently. "They are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind, and shade." 

It's the old photographic credo: A photograph does not equal reality. I get it. But untangling the roles of mother and photographer is not as simple as she lets on. If it were, then it would be no trouble to splash a photo of your youngest on the cover of Aperture. After all it's just an image, not a child, right? And if the Wall Street journal later came along and drew crude bars across its bare flesh, they'd be doing to it a photo not a person. But Mann's infuriated reaction suggests she knows the line is not so clean. People in photographs feel the weight of being represented. And when it's a kid that weight can be unpredictable

How might that weight might change over time? For me that's the $64,000 question. "What [will] Emmett, Jessie and Virginia think about these photographs and about their mother, if not this fall, then in 5, 10, or 15 years?" asked Woodward in 1992. It's now 23 years later and by most accounts the photographs have had little negative impact on them. The Mann kids are well adjusted young adults. They like the book. But how could Mann know that at the time? An interesting comparison is to Larry Rivers, whose nude photographs of his young children became a torment to them later, causing real emotional damage and endless legal headaches. The photo of Ariel Meyerowitz mentioned earlier is another example. Or the case of Michael Northrup, whose wife consented to his photographs of her as they were made, but later opposed their publication. 

The future is uncertain for everyone, but with kids even more so. All directions are open. They go through incredible changes on the way to adulthood. Who knows how they'll think of the photos later? Shooting children is fraught with moral hazards. Mann has negotiated them probably as well as anyone could hope, but that doesn't negate the fact they're there.

I'm glad Immediate Family came out when it did. I don't think a book like that could be published today as original material. It came during the only cultural window available to ti. As Mike Johnston notes, the book seems more like a capstone to the 1970s than an influence on what would follow. I think that nostalgic feel, which keyed on Mann's own childhood —"The land was still wild where I grew up, a feral child running naked with the pack"— was responsible for some of its success. I can relate. My childhood in 1970s felt pretty similar. On hot summer days, a mass of local hippies would gather at the pond or river. Everyone stripped their clothes and swam naked, adults and kids together. No one thought twice. It was idyllic but that world is gone. When Mann asks, "How bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark?" it roots her work firmly in the past. Not only would kids be wearing suits now, they'd likely eschew riverplay for screentime. 

Napalm Girl, April 30th, 1975, Nick Ut

By 1992 the spark of the seventies had been snuffed and the culture wars were heating up.  Nudity was politicized, and Immediate Family became a touchstone for broader preconceptions. But as prudish as society was in 1992, it's become even more vigilant now with regard to the privacy of children. A casual photo-op of unknown kids nowadays is enough to spark World War III. Could Nick Ut get a candid nude of a crying girl published today? I'm not many papers would be brave or foolish enough.

That's a good thing in some ways, since images can sometimes proliferate in unwanted directions. But the flip side is that helicopter parenting has eliminated an entire category of images from our visual culture. We see virtually no nude photographs of children in books, magazines, or newspapers today. They're certainly not on TV or film or social media. The one outlet in which they might be shown and rationally interpreted, fine art photography, has largely eliminated them as subject matter. Alain Laboille is an exception, along with a few others. But looking back now, 1992 seems like the glory days. An alien observing earth now through satellite signals might wonder, do children here posses skin or bodies? But forget aliens. The more pressing problem is future humans. They're sure to wonder too, and also about what other categories might be missing.

The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, Sally Mann

I'll leave that for future generations to decide. Personally I'm mostly done shooting nude kids. My children are older now and they no longer roam naked as they once did. They're usually clothed, and they'd generally rather not be photographed at all. I often get a hand in front of my lens or a back turned toward me or an "Oh, dad" sigh. Whatever. I was a preteen kid once. I know parents can be irritating. So that project's window has probably closed. I'm guessing Sally Mann faced a similar situation as her kids grew older. The title of her photograph "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude," suggests an ending point, capped by his defiant gaze.

Not the last time Emmett modeled nude, 2008

I'm done making those photos. But now what? In one way I'm just like all parents. I'm sitting on a large stash of unseen kid pictures. But it's with the extra caveat and possibly deluded notion that others might find them interesting. Forget the subject for a moment. I feel strongly about some as unique photographs, just as I'm sure Sally Mann felt strongly about hers. But I'm less confident than her about the decision to release them into the world. There are a few —maybe my favorites?— I'm certain I'll never show anyone beyond immediate family. Some are nudes. Others might be embarrassing in other ways. I think photographs which pry a subject open lay it bare are often the best, and by that logic some of these are quite good. But to pry open and expose my kids? Hmmm. 

In the end I'm left I'm hemming and hawing, and admiring Mann's fortitude. To release her photos into the world couldn't have been easy. But she did, and I've been enjoying them very much since.