Monday, April 28, 2008

My biggest influence

I've been in San Francisco the past several days making photographs and also checking out a lot of great photo shows. The biggie was Freidlander at the SF MOMA, a retrospective that covers 45 years and all of his major projects. If you're a fan of Friedlander, you already own the yellow covered book. Although it may be hard to believe, the show was even more overwhelming than the book. Yes, it was worth traveling 600 miles to see.

What can I say about Friedlander? The guy is a photo stud pure and simple. The range of what he has done seems unparalleled. Deserts, nudes, musicians, street work, portraits, cherry trees, tombstones, car mirrors, flowers stems, pure landscapes, family, monuments, in general. There is no part of the world that seems photographically uninteresting to Friedlander, and that fact is probably what defines him best. By pursuing his own whims he has greatly expanded the realm of what is photographically acceptable. It used to be a mistake to show your shadow in a photo, or to put posts in the center of the frame, or your car mirror or chainlink fence. All of that is so normal now that it's hard to realize how radical his vision was in historical context.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is he's done all of it on his own terms. He made commercial work early on, and has accepted commissions in the years since then, but his work hasn't really been driven by either of those things. It seems to exist completely outside the market, willed forward only by him and with only him as the ultimate judge. If Goldbeck is the photographer who never took a photo he didn't think he could sell, Friedlander is his counter, the photographer who took no photo with a future sale in mind (but if you have a future purchase in mind, that'll be about $5K). Oh yeah, and did I mention his son is a well respected cellist and his daughter married one of the world's best photographers? Dude has lived a charmed life.

The one part of his career which the retrospective did not cover, and which was fresh in my mind since I'd just studied the book, was Jazz Musicians of New Orleans. Considering the mountain of work that Lee Friedlander has authored, it's not surprising that some of it is overlooked. It's just sad that it happened to be The Jazz People, which I think is right up there with his best. About half the book is portraits. Some of them are fairly well known and would be familiar to the average Friedlander fan. But what really makes this book a treat are the street shots of musicians parading. Friedlander has published a lot of streetwork over the years but not often of dynamic situations. Usually it's one or two pedestrians, or a dog, or his self portrait, or more typically with no one at all in the photo. About half of The Jazz People is candid shots of jazz bands and their followers wandering the streets. These are generally from the 50s and 60s, and you get the sense that maybe Friedlander was toying with street styles back then before moving on to other stuff. The streetwork in Jazz People is as good as it gets. The photos combine his sense of layering with his gift for portraiture, all set in shifting situations.

But I'm getting off track. Showing in conjunction with the SF MOMA was a huge Friedlander show at Fraenkel Gallery, the place just up the street which has published many of his books. Called America by car, it focused on shots out the car window. I take a lot of in-car photos and I have a page of my site devoted to them (as well as one of truck racks, self portraits, also inspired by Friedlander), so I was anxious to see this show. It didn't disappoint. Friedlander has either rented or owned a lot of cars over the years, treating each one along the way as its own photographic frame. He has said that it's impossible for him to walk by a truck without stopping to consider its photographic possibilities. Combined with the car door theme, we might guess that he's trying to say something about America's love affair with cars, some ominous Frank-like message. But after seeing this show I think it's simpler than that. Car doors make interesting forms, period. And so do old trucks. Why photograph something plain when you can take the same shot bordered by a car door? To Friedlander the world is just one big visual puzzle, and it's his job to fit parts of it on a negative.

Both the Fraenkel and the SFMOMA shows are divided roughly equally between early 35 mm and the 6 x 6 format that Friedlander's been shooting for the past few decades. Although my natural affinity is for 35 mm, I have to admit most of Friedlander's square stuff wins me over. He seems to have mastered the shift pretty easily. If I can make a massive generalization, the square stuff seems a bit more carefree than his earlier work. He uses flash much more than before, and a wider lens which lends itself to camera tilt. He seems now to be generally less interested in precision than in just packing the visual field with as much as he can.

If this shift from precision to a less controlled look mirrors the general photographic history of the past 40 years, another of Friedlander's traits defies it. Over the course of Friedlander's career, many if not most photographers have shifted from b/w to color. The normal pattern seems to be that one learns b/w and cuts his or her teeth on it before moving on the color, which is more widely seen in the arts world as the real deal. With Friedlander, the trend runs opposite. He toyed with color in his early work with musicians before settling firmly on b/w as his medium. The SFMOMA show was about 98% b/w.

I saw so many photos last weekend it's hard to pick any favorites. There are a few that stick in my mind. Unfortunately I can't find them in any of my books or online, so I'll have to describe them. One is a car door shot looking out the door at the side of a road. Friedlander's face can be seen in the mirror, and enough of his camera is visible to realize he's shooting the flash backward, at himself. The effect is so subtle that it's almost not noticeable. His face has fill-flash but it's a minor part of the photo. But it made me wonder, how many photographers have ever shot a scene aiming the flash backward? It's all screwy, it breaks all the rules, yet it works. The other photo I remember is a 35 mm image I hadn't seen before of a pocket of black birds scattered across a chainlink fence, with these ghostly white trees in the background. It looks like a scene from another planet, and unlike any of Friedlander's other photos. A reminder that as consistent as his style is, it doesn't confine him to any subject matter.

My trip to SF wasn't all Friedlander. There was some backstory to my visit involving a wedding, a murder, and an old high school friend. My hotel, picked blindly through Hotwire, wound up being a one-star in the heart of downtown. If you want to get a good sense of what the hotel's neighborhood looked like visually, just think really hard about the word Tenderloin, and all the different ways that might translate into an urban landscape. Tender. Loin. Meat. Raw. Flesh...I'm sure other words come to mind. Suffice to say San Francisco is a fantastic city. A photographer could spend his entire life on it without running dry.

My last night there I stayed with an old friend in Oakland. I've known him 30 years, since before I was a photographer. I seem to have a different relationship with people who I didn't always know as a photographer. I carried my camera as usual but it felt a bit odd to take his photo, like I was stepping into an unknown role outside our normal bounds. He was game for photos but I got a bit of the "what are you doing?" vibe. His oldest kid, 8, hammered me questions about photography. Why shoot film? Why not shoot digital? What does film look like? How do you get the pictures out of it? Why do you have more than one camera? Why do you take photos? That was the closest I came all weekend to a conversation about photography.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Reversed negatives

Photography --at least the pre-digital version-- is rife with reversals and contradictions. First you take a light-proof dark box out into some surrounding light. You open a little hole to let the light go into the dark. On its way into the box, the image physically inverts itself upside down. It superimposes itself on the film as a negative, with the lightest areas the blackest and vice versa. After this business is completed, the whole thing repeats itself backward in the darkroom. In dark room, you fill a small box with light, then let it shine through a small hole backward through the negative to get the reversal of the image by turning white paper black. The whole thing is so backward, it's practically like a snake eating itself.

All of this has been in my mind lately as I adjust to using a new film holder for my scanner. For a variety of reasons not worth going into, the images my scanner creates are now reversed horizontally. It's no real biggie. One click in Photoshop and the image is corrected. But what has really surprised me is how different the images look when horizontally reversed. You wouldn't think this would be the case. It's the same image either way, same subject, composition, color, form. Unless letters are involved, the image should read about the same either way. But it doesn't.

Some images are much stronger one way than the other. It seems to be almost always the case that the "correct" version -- the one which shows the scene's true orientation-- seems stronger. I think a major part of what's going on is that my memory of the scene is effecting my judgement of the photo. It doesn't look "right" unless it looks like my memory. I consider this memory interference the ultimate photographer's sin. Shooting and editing cannot ever be allowed to contaminate each other. So I will work on that.

The other possible factor, which is more interesting, is that perhaps the reason I stopped to photograph the scene originally was that it was more interesting than its horizontal reverse. Perhaps there was something intrinsic to the scene which only worked one way, and if I had walked by the exact same scene reversed I would never have stopped to make a photograph. I find this fascinating because it injects so much fate into things. Perhaps all of the photos I've made to date would've never gotten made, or would've been of completely different objects, if I'd been coming from the other direction, or lived in some bizarre opposite universe. Or the reverse could be true, or false.

Anyway, seeing my images reversed has been a braintwist. It's a bit like trying to judge an image by looking at the negative. The general forms seem to dominate the subject matter.

Can anyone think of a famous photo which has been horizontally reversed?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fifteen Photos from George Kelly

George Kelly is based in Portland. Although he's probably the most patient, daring, and talented street photographer I've met, he doesn't spend much time on a computer and has virtually no web presence. I thought it would be fun to share some of his photos with a wider audience. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Today Eugene, Tomorrow the World...

The Eugene Grid Project is at last up and running. For those of you keeping score at home, the project takes this and applies it to that. The seven photographers so far involved are myself, Camilla Dusinger, Lesli Larson, Blake Hamilton, Craig Hickman, Jerry Jump, and Patrick Plaia. We have just finished the first grid and are off on the next. Lesli has set up a Flickr page here to show some of the work. Check in every month or so to see what's new.

If you are a Eugene photographer interested in joining, please email me.

Lambert St., Eugene, Grid F3, March 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Ruscha, LTD

In 1965 Ed Ruscha mounted an automatic Nikon camera to the back of his pickup and spent a day driving slowly down Las Vegas' Sunset Strip, photographing every bit of a two mile stretch. The book produced one year later, Every Building On the Sunset Strip, mimicked the experience of what his camera had seen. One row of photos ran across the top of the pages and another row (the other side of the street) ran upside down across the bottom of the pages. The only supporting text was an address below each building. Ruscha said that he wanted to give equal weight to everything his camera had seen without any personal prejudice. A curb was as important as a sign post or a doorway or a car. Years before Eggleston, his was an attempt at purely democratic photography.

Rushcha's effort met with mixed response. Many in the art world didn't take him seriously. The photography world mostly shrugged him off. And mainstream America? Don't even ask.

43 years later, Ruscha's effort is at last beginning to gain recognition in the corporate sphere. Last year, one of the world's largest corporations, Google, began an art project based on Ruscha's. Tentatively entitled GoogleStreet, the work applies Ruscha's subtle deadpan approach to the streets of the world's major cities. Following after Ruscha, Google will mount automated cameras on cars. These cameras will make still photographs of every part of every street in a particular city. A team of specially trained artists will collate and label the streets before they are put on the web for public perusal (an initial plan to publish the photographs in book form was abandoned after it proved unwieldy). Unlike the initial art piece, the web version is interactive. Internet gallery goers can manipulate the perspective and distance of their view.

Google art director George Shacold explained why his company initiated the project, "Google, along with most of corporate America, has always has a soft spot for Ruscha's work, but until now we hadn't found the proper way to express it. Until recently the technology just wasn't there. Finally things have caught up, and we have the means to apply Ruscha's artistic vision to a wider arena, in this case the entire world." Shacold says that the project should take 7 to 10 years, after which it will incorporate every street in each of the world's major cities.

"Ruscha's project was great," Shacold says, "but unfortunately it's limited to a two mile strip. Google doesn't believe in creating art with limits. Eventually we hope to expand this art work to encompass pretty much everything." According to Shacold, GoogleStreet is only the first in a series of Ruscha themed art works. Plans are in place to begin photographing every gas station on earth, followed by every parking lot on earth. "Twenty-six feels like such an arbitrary limit. Why not keep going?"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Quiz #3

This one comes courtesy of Matt Stuart:

What is the f-stop range of the typical human pupil?

First correct answer wins a print.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Speaking of film, I caught Tom Decillo's Delirious recently and I think it's one of the best films I've seen (behind The Killing Fields) featuring a photographer as a main character. Of course this isn't really saying much. For some reason movies about photographers tend to be bad. They range from absolute crap (Pecker and Blow Up) to mediocre (Salvador, The Year of Living Dangerously, does One Hour Photo count?). It's like the Portland curse. Any Hollywood film made in Portland (GVS is not Hollywood) winds up sucking. The same with photographers. I guess Rear Window and High Art could be placed in the positive column but the photographers in those films don't really act like photographers. There's a passing reference to their livelihood but it's buried in the script and not important to the plot. On the other hand Delirious features a photographer front and center with all his warts and imperfections. He's a paparazzi, a sleazeball, but in the end we see his soft side. As with most of DiCillo's films you need to suspend your disbelief a bit to get through to the end, but I think that's on purpose. His films are meant to be modern fables.

Has anyone else seen a film (documentaries excluded) with a photographer character they'd recommend? Hopefully these last two posts have pissed off enough film buffs to stir up some comments.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Thinking through the box

Years ago one of the first photoblogs I began reading regularly was Doug Plummer's Dispatches. In the past few months, Plummer has shifted from photography to videography (for the purpose of this post, I'm going to call all recorded moving images videography, including film), occasionally posting clips on his blog and more often detailing the trials and trevails of learning a new craft as a novice. It's been interesting peeking over his shoulder.

On their face, videography and photography seem similar. You look through a box and record what's out there. Some of the same visual skills are applicable to each craft, which is why there are many people like Doug Plummer who do both, and why the history of photography is littered with people who crossed over into film. Cartier-Bresson gave up photography for film for a few years, as did Strand and Frank. My friends Bobby and Chris have experimented with both. The two arts seem malleable and similar enough to promote a lot of crossover. Certainly pop culture associates them as interchangeables.

Speaking personally, I just don't get it. I am in love with photography and yet I feel nothing for videography. I could never cross over. Creating moving images seems completely boring and dead to me. I'm not sure why this is. Every time I read about someone like Plummer switching gears it brings up the same questions. I ask myself if the two crafts are really so different, and if not, why don't I have any interest in videography?

I think part of it is due to my love for the moment. The photographs I love best are about synchronicity and irreplaceability. They exist for a split second and are gone, and perhaps occasionally they are captured. There is something very essential, zenlike, and poetic in their nature which is NOT in the nature of any video because by nature a video captures more than one moment.

The other hangup I have about videography is that it generally attempts to record reality. Watching video footage, it is generally pretty clear what was happening in front of the camera. This is true for documentary or pure footage of the sort Plummer is pursuing, but even when actors are used or clips are manipulated in post-production, it is generally possible to interpret the reality of the original scene. With photography, this is not always possible or desirable. By nature a photograph contains less information than video footage. By withholding that information a photo can be subtle, mysterious, and confusing in delightful ways. It can tell you nothing about the original scene and for me that's great. I think this is why I have a hard time appreciating photojournalism or other photography that attempts to tell a story. To paraphrase Winogrand (who I can almost guarantee had no interest in videography), it's about the photograph, not about what was photographed.

That may not make sense but it's the best way I know how to explain it. So reading Dispatches lately has held some of the watch-between-the-fingers sensibility of a horror film. Why is he...No, Don't go in that room! Doesn't he know what's in there? And alone?! I watch with fascination as he plunges eagerly into what to me seems clearly to be a dead zone.

I'm sure others will disagree. Let's hear some counter arguments.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


During my last visit a few weeks ago to the Portland Art Museum I found myself captivated by this Eugene Goldbeck photograph. Perhaps it had been there before and I'd never noticed, or maybe it had been freshly circulated out of storage. In any case it held my attention for quite a while. There are 21,765 servicemen in the picture, each looking directly at the camera, and each face clearly visible. Not only were the logistics of such a theatrical shot unfathomable to me but the photo itself was very finely made, with beautiful tonality and clarity. I'd never heard of Goldbeck before but clearly he knew what he was doing. After looking for several minutes I made my way down past the rest of the photo hall, quickly forgetting the name of the photographer, and that would've been the end of it if a week later in the UO library I hadn't stumbled on a book of old panoramic photographs. It's rare to find panoramic stuff in books, and as a Noblex user I'm always curious to see what's out there. So when I see something promising I grab it. Lo and behold, the book was The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck. A week ago I'd never heard of the guy and now he'd come into my life twice in one week. Weird, but photography is like that. Synchronicities are its vital lifeblood.

The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck is a beautiful book. It contains twenty panoramic photos, each one printed across several folded pages. Reading the book is like having a birthday party. Every photo needs to be carefully unwrapped to see what's inside. Running among and between the photos is the main text, the life story of Eugene Goldbeck.

Goldbeck was the ultimate go-getter. He began photography at an early age, developed solid technical skills, and then leveraged these skills into a self-made business. For many years he traveled the country basically doing photography cold calls. He'd go to a new city, take a few portraits, use those portraits to generate business, and by the end of a few months he'd turned a healthy profit taking and selling photos. He used a Cirkut camera for panoramic work which helped give his photos a unique look.
After he'd finished with one city, he'd head for a new one. Eventually his travel became international and he hired a crew of photographers to work for what had become his photographic agency. He began to photograph various outposts of U.S. servicemen, and that work became his bread and butter. Throughout much of the twentieth century (the photos in the book span a period from 1906 to 1977!), Goldbeck photographed soldiers and equipment of all types, and these photographs became probably his best known work. The first photo in this post is a good example. It was shot in 1947 in San Antonio, was hand-printed more than 10,000 times and is in a wide variety of collections.

There are a few things which interest me about Goldbeck. First is his entrepreneurial approach to photography. Reading his biography you get the feeling he thought of photography more as business than art. He could've just as easily been making fine watches or furniture as photography, but with photography he'd found his natural talent and applied it. While he must've enjoyed the craft of making photos on some level, it's not clear that he was in love with it. Every photo he made was seemingly with the intent of a potential sale, and it's an open question whether he made any exposures purely for his own enjoyment. His commercial motivations effected his art in many ways but probably most visibly in his taste for large group portraits. The more people he could pack into a group photo, the more potential clients there were who might buy a print.

Of course there are thousands of commercial photographers in the same boat. One has to earn a living somehow, and this need does not always conform to personal passion. But with certain other commercial photographers, a deep personal connection to photography is more evident. While Atget, for example, ostensibly made photographs to generate income, I think his drive to photograph Paris overpowered any financial considerations. The same with Disfarmer, Weston, Gene Smith, Arbus, Avedon, or any other number of working commercial photographers who crossed over into the art world. These folks had photography in their blood, whereas Goldbeck's body seems to have circulated a less vital currency. It's fun to speculate about Goldbeck's feelings for photography.

The other thing that fascinates me about Goldbeck is his absolute command of logistics. His photographs often required weeks of planning and preparation. He liked ariel views, and to get this perspective he would construct elaborate temporary towers hundreds of feet high, which would serve as a platform for one photo op before being torn down. His command of groups was extraordinary. How do you get 20,000 people to pose in the right spot, wear the right clothing, and look up at once? Goldbeck left nothing to chance. For his large group portraits, he spent weeks outlining diagrams on paper before transfering them to large areas of ground, marking each person's spot with flags. Here, for example, is a typical preparation diagram followed by its photo.

The diagram and photo above provide a good example of the spatial puzzles that Goldbeck was dealing with. They show essentially the same layout seen from two different perspectives. Because he couldn't shoot from directly above (the perspective we take on the diagram), he needed to tweak the layout of his subject matter to create the illusion of being above. The amount of calculation and planning is just enormous. Virtually all of his group portraits, both panoramic and normal, show this attention to detail and could only be accomplished by a masterful photographer.

In recent photography the natural counterpoint to these perspectival tweaks is John Pfahl's Altered Landscapes series. I have to believe Pfahl was well aware of Goldbeck as he created his images.

The effect is very similar, only this time without people as subject matter. I'm sure it took Pfahl just as much technical diligence to work out the perspective and subject placement in his photographs. Pfahl's are a little more in your face. When you see one of his photos you realize immediately that something is not quite right. The meshing of 2d and 3d is too jarring. Goldbeck on the other hand was more understated. He drew less attention to his spatial tweaking. His images seem so balanced that most people looking at them wouldn't think twice about they were made. But in both cases the age old question is raised: What is the relationship between the subject matter and its 2d portrayal? (A question so simple a dog could answer it?)

This touches also on my post regarding lineups. In a way, Goldbeck was the ultimate liner upper. His photographs rely on a very particular camera position (often 200 feet straight up). Shot from any other place the illusion would crumble, just as with the lineups mentioned earlier.

I think The Panoramic Photography of Eugene Goldbeck may be difficult to find, but if anyone out there sees a copy it's worth looking through.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Let Photographs of Sleeping Dogs Lie

An article by Virginia Morell in the latest National Geographic discusses an interesting test of dog intelligence. A dog was shown a series of color photographs depicting dog-toys. After seeing image, the dog then had to go into a nearby room and retrieve the toy depicted in the photograph from among a stack of various toys and photographs. The dog brought back either the toy depicted or a photograph of it every time.

The fact that a dog can decode a photograph is pretty amazing. When asked what the photograph was, the dog essentially thought to itself (at least part of the time), "it's not the photograph that's important but the thing in the photo." It takes a certain amount of interpretive power to reach that point, and I doubt that any animal besides dogs or humans could do so. Humans are probably the only species that could spend 150 years retreating from it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

War is hell on cameras

This photo (by Ronen Zilberman) was on TOP recently. It shows the remains of Larry Burrows' Leica after he was killed in Laos. If the average photo is worth a thousand words, this one must be worth a million.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Compact Discoveries

Last week someone lent me a CD of Critical Mass finalists. There are roughly 150 photographers and it's taken me a few days looking it over in segments to get through them all. As with any such compilation, there are hits and there are misses. Since Critical Mass is supposed to be a way for emerging photographers to get their work out to untapped audiences, I thought I'd treat it as my own personal discovery center. Limiting my selection to photographers whom I'd never heard of before here are my 12 favorites:

Kevin Cooley

Lucas Forest Foglia

Karen Glaser

Nicole Jean Hill

Deborah D. Lattimore

Gil Mares

Teresa Ollila

Susana Alicia Raab

Sarah Small

Amy Stevens

Urszula Tarasiewicz

Pep Ventosa