Monday, May 21, 2018

Photographing People

Just a short update, I think. I've been busy with many things.

One of the things is work on a project that has lain fallow a while, because I couldn't figure out how to finish it. Eventually I realized that the way forward (well, one of the ways forward, and the one that works for me) is to interview and photograph people. So, yeah, pretty much getting right up close to people, interacting in several ways, and so on. I actually have an audio recording device, and a camera, so it's pretty invasive.

I've been working on people I know or kind of know, or at least have exchanged words with. They need to be young, so there's at least a 20 year age difference which honestly means that I don't know them that well even if I know them some.

So, it's a bit fraught, a bit stressful. I have to screw up my courage.

But it's going well. Thankfully, the pictures don't need to be anything more than mug shots. I am having trouble remembering that I need copy space, but thankfully I have a habit of framing too loosely anyways, so there's that.

Hope to have something to show off in a week or so.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Modern Pictorialists

I am inspired here by a recent article on Luminous Landscape: A Moment of Clarity which I think is members-only, but you can still look at the pictures. I will, as an aside, remark that despite the title and the pictures it is not about simply slamming the Clarity Slider all the way to 11.

No, the piece is about a technique in which you nail your camera down firmly and then take a bunch of pictures of the same thing, doing the usual HDR dance of multiple exposures to capture loads of dynamic range, and then more pictures to get dramatic lighting, and then layering it all together in photoshop to produce a composite. The line that caught my eye was "Skies can be taken anywhere and dropped in" which is a classic bit of Pictorialism (against which the Pictorialist Emerson railed at thunderous length, to be sure). The result is, by the way, invariably a sky that looks pretty good but doesn't quite work. To my eye, David's pictures look like composites, and I think it's because the light doesn't quite work. It's close, but not perfect.

This sparked a memory of a visual artist and photographer who gets talked up a bit here and there, Antti Karppinen who has a variety of weird techniques in his composites, notably hue-matching various random elements. Which certainly creates a strong unifying force, but makes the results look ridiculously fake (albeit very painterly). Note, for instance, places where someone's skin tone is actually the same hue (although different values) as the wall behind them. Say what? That's just odd. Again, this strikes me as philosophically very Pictorialist.

But let's back up a bit and think about Pictorialism more.

In these degenerate times we think of it as mainly just scratching negatives and mashing on gum-bichromate prints until they look like lousy paintings. Maybe a bit of soft focus thrown in for good measure.

Pictorialism is, though, much more than that. It is the idea that photographs might usefully be designed to look like paintings. It is a set of techniques devised for accomplishing that. It is Impressionism re-cast in photographic terms, the idea that the photograph should "give the impression of" whatever you're trying to depict. It is the idea that the photograph should not precisely reproduce the world, but that it should re-create the experience of seeing that world.

This brings us naturally around to a completely different thread of Modern Pictorialism, namely Sally Mann.

I think this reveals an interesting bifurcation in the ideas that made up Pictorialism.

While people like Antti and David are, essentially, using a set of techniques to produce pictures that look cool, people like Sally Mann are using an almost 100% disjoint set of techniques, also recognizably Pictorialist, to make pictures which are.. something else. Perhaps Expressionist. Which overlaps, as nearly as I can tell, with Impressionist but which isn't quite the same thing.

This, I think, faithfully recreates the scope of the original Pictorialist movement.

On the one hand we have work that is, well, how to put this kindly: conceptually thin? Yes yes, I get that it's Cupid and she must be Artemis, but what's the point? Is it really just to cram in classical allusions? I'm going to rudely lump Antti and David in here. Overwrought, in a fairly literal sense, kind of twee. One of more sort of thin ideas, mainly just visual ideas, thrown down onto the page into what boils down to a fairly fake looking pastiche. Cool as hell, but not really something you're going to spend a lot of time with unless you're trying to deconstruct the photoshop methods used to make it.

On the other hand, we have conceptually fairly rich material. Usually less overtly over-worked, presumably because in general when you've got actual ideas and emotional impacts to make, you spend less time screwing around trying to mashing meaning and weight in with your fists.

In a very real sense, I think we're looking at a case of same as it ever was here. It's tempting to, again, throw the baby out with the bathwater and insist that only Straight Photography is worthy, and we certainly see an exuberent school of that line of thinking.

Perhaps, though, we could strike a path based not on the methods and "the look" of the thing, but rather on whether or not the artist is successful in imbuing the work with something worth being imbued with.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Hi Jörg

So take a gander at Jörg Colberg's latest, which is playing very well with the "woke" art community, right over here: "Picturesque Photography" and then look me in the eye and tell me that our friend isn't reading my blog. So, hi Jörg, glad you can find some ideas here you can use.

It would play a lot better if his indictment didn't apply pretty much just as well to him as it does to lots of other people. Much of the tripe he's praised roundly in the last few months falls under exactly the same aegis.

As a nice young woman I spoke to on Wednesday said, "It's like Orientalism, but for the midwest" and while Jörg may be slightly less guilty of it than some, he's certainly guilty.

Friday, May 4, 2018


Let's suppose that you're photographing some basically human things. So, we're setting aside Landscapes, Abstracts, Still Lifes, Macro Photos of Bugs, and so on. This is a lot of stuff, to be sure. But let's suppose you're shooting Street, or Documentary, or something like that.

The essential hurdle photographers run in to here is People. Can you, or Can You Not, photograph people from up close and personal?

People have a sort of bubble around them, I imagine it shaped a bit like this:

The edges of the bubble are vague, the size and the fuzziness are personal and contextual. The point is that the closer you get to someone, the more likely you are to have to engage them socially. You can get closer from behind than from the front. As you approach, at some point there's a chance of eye contact, of registering your presence. At some point there's an obligation to acknowledge the other person. At some point someone's going to have to say "Hi" or risk a horrid awkward silence.

There is, for everyone, a cost associated with entering the bubble. It's going to take effort and energy. In the first place you either need to interact socially, or consciously thrust down that urge. In the second place, there is risk of rejection, of a negative social interaction. This is true, I think, for everyone. Except, perhaps, for sociopaths of a certain stripe. We're social animals, and this is part of that.

Some people can and do enter those bubbles constantly, other people never, ever, enter the bubble. The latter take a lot of pictures of people from behind, or in the distance. The latter will often have a line of patter about how they want to abstract the humanity of the scene or photograph something Universal rather than specific or whatever. And, sure, that could be a thing. Those are legit pictures too.

I have a hell of a hard time entering The Bubble myself. I'm socially competent, but not very gregarious. I'm an introvert, so these things consume quite a bit of energy.

But here's the rub. If you won't enter The Bubble, your camera isn't in The Bubble either. And that in turn means that people looking at your pictures are not in The Bubble. They're outside. People in the frame are beyond the boundary of social interaction, they are safely distant. They might be far away, they might be turned away, they might simply be distracted.

Be keeping yourself emotionally safe, by taking pictures from that safe emotional distance you make pictures which are -- duh! -- emotionally distant. It's baked in. You can't fake it. We're social animals, we know intimately, powerfully, when we're inside that emotional-engagement zone, and when we are not. A long lens is not going to make up for your timidity.

As a consequence of this the emotional palette of your pictures is limited. You can go all the way from "dystopian hell" to "neutral." If the scenes are of a sort in which we expect social things to occur, and there is nothing social in the pictures, it's going to feel off. If you simply leave people out, you're likely to end up with an "abandoned" vibe, although it's just as likely you simply waited for the moment when nobody was in-frame. If you photograph people from behind, or from a distance, it will feel anonymous, distant. Even a crowd can be photographed as distant, aloof, unsociable.

Suppose you want to photograph human scenes, pictures in which we expect some sort of social engagement. Suppose you want to project a positive mood. Well, you're going to need to get into some bubbles and engage some people. Your camera needs to be engaged, so the viewers of your pictures feel engaged.

Perhaps this is what what's-his-name (was it Capa?) meant when he said something about "If your pictures aren't good enough you're not close enough."

Thursday, May 3, 2018


Mike Chisolm reminded me obliquely that Jack Kerouac wrote a lot of haiku, and that these are easily my favorite things in his oeuvre. So I went and got out my edition of these things and whiled away a little happy time.

And then I made a picture.

The sound of silence
     is all the instruction
You'll get

I call it incisive lens-based criticism of Kerouac's poem but you are welcome to consider it this picture that popped into his head after he read the poem which I think means the same thing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

AmeriKKKa Sucks Porn

I ran across this thing this morning: Susan Lipper, trip: 1993-1999 which has, I suppose, its merits. Blah blah uniquely female perspective feminist etc etc. What it shares with a lot of other work we've seen is this vision of an America that is terrible. It is probably an "incisive critique of Trump's America" or some goddamned thing. We see way too much of this shit, because coastal elites and Euros love it.

Even middle Americans produce this garbage for the slavering effete. I'm looking at you, Alec Soth.

So I said to myself, "Self, this stuff is not only shit, it's lazy. Let's prove it."

This morning I went down to Railroad Avenue in my small city of Bellingham. I spent about 50 minutes shooting, about 1 frame a minute. The goal was to produce two completely different views of the Bellingham. I am intimately familiar with the visual landscape of this street, so I knew it would easily generate the breadth I needed, so in that sense I cheated. But really, I spent less than an hour, shot less than 50 frames, and came up with two miniature portfolios of 5 pictures each.

Portfolio A:

And Portfolio B:

I could, of course, have rendered either or both of these in high contrast black and white, probably a bit muddy. I am stretching my wings.

Now, one of these things is a profound and insightful critique which engages incisively with the problems of Fascism and poverty in America, which is populated by fucking cannibals and losers. The other is a more upbeat sketch of a fairly vibrant community. Which one is which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

Neither one is a true representation of my 55 minutes of wandering on Railroad, although that time was more pleasant than not.

It's all in the edit (both the "edit" of the sequence, and the edting the pictures), and it's not that goddamned hard.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Kitsch Machine

If you gave a budget and some sort of control over policy to an architect, you would not be surprised when many of the solutions produced by that office involved building something. Replace the architect with a sailor, and boats will start to appear in the office's projects. People tend to fit the tools they have to the problems they need to solve.

When you purchase a camera, more often than not you will attempt to buy the "best" one within your constraints of budget and other preferences, which usually means that you're buying the camera with the most megapixels you can afford. Lately, less so, because everything has too many megapixels, and even the least interested consumer is starting to realize it.

Regardless, you probably know roughly how many megapixels your camera has, and you're probably roughly aware that the more you've got, the sharper your pictures will be. Or, more properly, can be. Might be. If you do the work properly.

One of the consequences of this is that people want to make sharp photographs. In general, they spent money for the sharpness. The tool they have in their hand has, still, a single Most Important figure of merit, which is how sharp the pictures it makes can be. Like the architect above, we're drawn to making sharp pictures. We know, or are rapidly taught, the importance of obtaining correct focus, of using an appropriate shutter speed, of using a suitable aperture, all in the pursuit of sharpness.

Naturally, we saw all these things in the days of film as well. Group f/64 was all over this stuff.

I think, though, in the days of film, there was more space left in the minds of photographers for the option. Many chose the route of sharpness (curse you, Ansel Adams, and your clear, accessible books). Not everyone did.

In this era, it seems to me that sharpness barely a choice. To make an unsharp photograph on purpose is as absurd as trying to sew a shirt with a knife, the tool simply doesn't fit the job.

It requires an effort of will to conceive of and shoot this picture:

Exhibit B. My camera has a feature which is widely enjoyed by other cameras. It has a cluster of focus points, which I think of as magic dots in the viewfinder which can be used to select what the camera should focus on. You can set the thing up so that the default focus point is one of them, whichever one you select. But, here's the cool thing, set it up right and you can focus on a thing, and then as the thing moves in the viewfinder the camera will follow it. The magic spot in use will follow the child, the car, the bird, as it and the camera move. Focus, ideally, will remain locked on the thing more or less whatever it does.

Once you discover this feature, and learn how it works, you're likely to start thinking about ways to use it. It might occur to you to go to a racetrack, just to shoot cars, Because, your camera can do that. I tried to use it with kids, but it turns out that it can't maintain focus on children that have left the frame, which they always do, so it's really more of a sports-mode feature.

I have no solid read on how many people went and spent a bunch of time shooting sports of various sorts because their Nikon camera was particularly good at following cars and players around, but the answer is unquestionably more than zero.

Compare the modern camera with the ancient. The view cameras and box cameras of yore were simple devices for projecting light onto a rectangle of film. The design made little to no judgement about focus, about sharpness, about really anything. Project light however you want, it's up to you.

The modern camera adds to this a motley array of conveniences which, in their design, implicitly judge. They meter tells you what your exposure ought to be. The autofocus module tells you that your focus should be sharp. Some cameras will warn you if they think your shutter speed is too low. The design drives toward a common singular goal of the sharp and colorful photograph, whatever the circumstance. Of course, this is because that's what the market wants. It is in general what people want: a sharp and colorful representation of what's in front of the frame.

The design has enshrined this general preference of the buying public as the ne plus ultra, as the actual defining characteristic of a good photograph. The general preference of the public has become the standard by which people who ought to know better (serious photographers, whatever that means) judge pictures. Arguably, the modern camera is literally a kitsch machine.

Say what you will about my bamboo picture, you're unlikely to describe it as kitsch.

I do know that we have way too many pictures of pee-wee football players in perfect focus, and way too many pictures of brightly logoed cars whizzing by a camera on a racetrack that looks like any other racetrack in the world.

Now, for many people it appears that this is photography: learning the capabilities of the machine, and developing the skills necessary to use those capabilities to the utmost. This is a perfectly good hobby, and I don't grudge it to anyone.

It's a bit like jigsaw puzzles (and I love jigsaw puzzles, to the extent that you probably should keep me away from them since I cannot stop once I start assembling one). Every camera presents new challenges, new features that can be learned, and in the end you get a picture that shows off your success with the new one.

It doesn't produce pictures that are interesting to look at, except as evidence of the hobbyist's degree of success, and I don't care about anyone's panning skills, or their ability to correctly use Back Button Focus.

It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, nobody really wants to look at the picture you made at the end. It's just kitschy evidence that you can perform a task.