Notes from Home, Part Deux

John Hamon is my Hero

Anyone who’s been to Paris lately is familiar with John Hamon. His photo is everywhere – pasted on the sides of buildings, on street signs and street corners, even, apparently, illuminated on the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Invalides among other iconic buildings. I’d never seen him before, even though he was supposedly a thing when I last visited in 2017. Nobody knows who John Hamon is. He’s just some guy who decided to plaster his face and name all over Paris. He looks like a nice guy, friendly and convivial and marginally goofy. He makes you want to smile back.

His ‘art’ is pure promotion. He has no ‘body of work’ other than his ubiquitous face poster. Without gallery representation or pretentious statements or manifestos, John Hamon has become one of the most recognizable artists in Paris. He’s also proof that a creator should never explain his work. Much better to just put it out there and let people explain it for themselves. There’s nothing worse, in my mind, then pretentious artist’s statements. Good art comes from somewhere other than the logical mind and can only be diminished by intellectualizing it. That’s why, in spite of all the philosophical theory I’ve thrown around here in the last few years, I’ve never read a book about the ‘theory’ or ‘philosophy’ of photography that hasn’t bored me to death. My idea of hell will be being made eternally to read post-modernist books about photography and its ‘lexical’ nature and how such intersects with the ‘death of the author’ or some such ridiculousness.

I’d actually thought about doing the same thing, years ago, although not in Paris, but here in Raleigh (the “Paris of the Piedmont”). Print up a bunch of pictures on 13×19 cheap proofing paper and wheat-paste them all over downtown. See how long it took for people to start asking what the heck those weird pictures were that were plastered everywhere. Just print up photos of whatever – the more ambiguous the better. But have a theme. Paste them everywhere. Add to them weekly. Simple and hopefully, thought-provoking. Being lazy, I never got around to it. John Hamon beat me to it, and now everyone in Paris knows his name. I couldn’t help but thinking, that could have been me.

*************

John Hamon has inspired me. Paris does that to you. Find a goofy pic of myself as a kid – my high school yearbook photo would work perfectly given I have long hair, am wearing what looks like a blouse and it’s hard to tell exactly what sex I am (I was a trailblazer even then) – and plaster it everywhere. No name. See what happens.

That’s the thing about creativity. It doesn’t have to be profound and sophisticated. It just needs to be thought provoking. It helps if it’s unique i.e. not a homage to or copy of somebody else. And these days it doesn’t need the mediation of curators or galleries or publishers or critics. With the internet, you can just put it out there and see what happens. If it’s interesting, it will get people’s attention if you’re persistent enough, although you’d be better to ignore internet beauty pageants like Instagram, which kill rather than nourish true creativity by turning its production into a popularity contest. If people don’t like it, or are confused by it, so what; you woke them out of their stupor for a minute or two. John Hamon, by the simple act of plastering his face everywhere, made my visit to Paris more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. That’s something.

When I do do it, just remember: I had the idea long before John Hamon.

Notes From Home

Rome. I don’t care what my Instagram followers think: This is a great photo.

I’m back from a few weeks abroad…barely. The wife’s positive COVID test less than a day before we were set to return home gave an interesting twist to the trip; luckily she re-tested negative the next morning and boarded her flight home. She’s since tested negative again once home. Major clusterf**k narrowly averted, as the States are requiring a negative COVID test for re-entry from abroad. Luckily, we were staying with friends who offered to allow us to stay at their beautiful Paris flat while they went to their country home. It’s nice to have friends like that. Fortunately, we were both able to get home without further complications.

Speaking of friends, we received the news of my wife’s positive test the evening before departure while dining with Leicaphilia reader and contributor Dr. Henry Joy McCracken and his wife at their Paris flat. (Henry, as some of you may know, is an astrophysicist currently working on a project to send the world’s most powerful [digital] camera into space. He’s also a dedicated film shooter in his private life, the irony, of course, being obvious. I love that about Henry.) We were just opening a bottle of Basil Hayden bourbon I’d brought along as a gift when my wife checked her email and saw her positive test result… which unfortunately put a crimp in the remainder of an otherwise wonderful evening. Henry and his wife were gracious enough not to call the health authorities and have us removed immediately, but the night, which to that point had been really nice – dinner, wine, great conversation – lost its mojo.

In addition to being a brilliant astrophysicist, Dr. McCracken is a great guy. We met through this website. Henry, knowing I was often in Paris, invited me to the Paris Observatory where he works the next time I was in town. I took him up on it, at which time Henry gave me a tour of the old Observatory (second oldest in the world) and brought me up onto the roof and into the original observation area. Pretty amazing. We’ve since become friends. Let this be a lesson to all you readers who live in exotic places or do exotic things: Invite me and I will happily come and eat your food and drink your whiskey. If things go well, I’ll invite myself back.

*************

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Our trip consisted of a week in Dubrovnik with a bunch of European friends, followed by 4 days in Rome and then 4 days in Paris with Parisian friends. Dubrovnik, where I’d not been before, was marvelous. Known to be usually crawling with tourists in the manner of Venice, it was remarkably free of crowds, due, I suppose, to COVID and the travel problems associated with it. We rented a large flat overlooking the Old City and spent the week drinking Croatian wine (not bad) and beer (not bad either). I’d brought a few cameras – the M240, the MM and the Ricoh GXR – but didn’t use them much given I didn’t see much to photograph other than the usual tourist sights that’ve been photographed a million times. It certainly wasn’t a place that lent itself to any street photography, why, I can’t articulate; it just wasn’t. Frankly, the entire town was so clean and orderly it felt like a movie set. Beautiful place, nice people, but give me the grittiness of Naples any day.

The Best I Could Do in Dubrovnik. I like it (the square motif and all); Nobody else does, if my Instagram Feed is any Indication. I despise Instagram.

While in Dubrovnik I dropped my MM from a side table – the height being no more than 18 inches – immediately checked to see if it turned on (yup) and the rangefinder was still accurate (yup) and thought no more of it…until I tried to take a photo and the shutter wouldn’t work. Had it been a Nikon….or even my old ratty Ricoh GXR, it would have cranked right up and fired, no problem. But its a Leica, and now I’ve got to send it someplace far away and wait 6 months while the gnomes who work in Leica’s repair department open it up, reconnect some wire that’s loose and charge me $1000 for the privilege. To Leica’s credit, the M240 worked great throughout. Bravo Leica, a $5000 camera that actually works.

*************

Rome

From Dubrovnik it was off to Rome. I’ve been to Rome a few times, but never enjoyed it as much as I did this time around. The weather was perfect – sunny, warm, but not hot – and there were few tourists around, which made it perfect for seeing the touristy sites without battling a million other people. We stayed in a beautiful flat in the Monti district close to the Trevi Fountain – apparently its the flat Diane Keaton stays at while in Rome (take that, Thorsten Overgaard) – and spent the days walking and eating and drinking.

I’m a pizza fanatic. My favorite pizzerias are John’s on Bleecker Street in New York City and L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples, and I was looking forward to some authentic ‘Roman Pizza’, which a pizzeria here in Chapel Hill claims is a thing (what they claim to be ‘Roman Style’ is excellent – wood-fired crispy thin crust light on the tomato and cheese). Unfortunately, the Roman version of “Roman Style’ pizza seems to be, well, pizza. Nothing special, which didn’t, however, keep me from eating pizza each night for dinner. There are worse things in life than sitting at a streetside table in Rome eating good, not great, pizza.

Rome was a great place for the iPhone. The days of people getting pissed off at you for taking their photo in public are long gone, thanks to the iPhone. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is snapping pictures of everything with their phones. I rarely saw anyone with a dedicated camera – when I did, it was usually some old guy with a consumer grade Nikon with zoom looking all serious. As for me, I never bothered to use the Leicas out of doors, first because the damn MM wouldn’t work and second, because I didn’t feel like lugging them around, and third, because I had my iPhone, which works great on the street. Above, and below, are a few examples of photos taken in Rome with the iPhone. Super simple – aim, shoot as many times as you like, run what you like thru Snapseed and then post on Instagram.

*************

Marie Antionette’s Bedroom, Versailles

Ah yes, Instagram. For some reason I can’t now recalI I thought it would be fun to post a few pics from the trip to my Instagram account as the trip was happening. Unfortunately, posting on Instagram is an exercise in abject futility and personal humiliation, embodying everything wrong with photography or what’s left of it. Post something that works – the photo that opens this article being a perfect example – crickets. (The one photo I liked best from the entire trip got zero likes.) Post photos of your lunch, or pretty girls making stupid faces, and the ‘likes’ pour in. I need that like I need a hole in my head. Lesson learned: Instagram is worthless – social media monkeys chasing their tails in order to have something they post get ‘liked.’ Why anyone voluntarily submits to such indignity is beyond me.

Coming soon Part 2: Paris, Why Instagram Sucks, and Why I’m Now an ‘iPhone Photographer’

Believing is Seeing

“The amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the idea and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the beautiful.” – Paul Valery

In the Phaedrus, written by Plato circa 370 BCE, Socrates discusses the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. Socrates thought writing a bad thing because it weakened our powers of memory and thus altered our reality in a profound way, memory being the pre-condition of all culture. This explains why Socrates never wrote anything; his student Plato transcribed his dialogues and thus gave him to history.

For Socrates, writing allowed a pretense of understanding, not true understanding. What we read we really don’t understand in the way we do when we hear and speak: “For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” What’s interesting for present purposes is not Socrates’ opinion about writing but his recognition that the transition from orality to writing would lead inexorably to new modes of thinking and thus, new realities. This is also the thesis of Cambridge social scientist Jack Goody, who in 1977 wrote The Domestication of the Savage Mind wherein he traces the long-term changes in human cognition and culture brought about by the development of writing. The mode of our communication shapes what we think.

*************

David Levi Strauss’s recently published Photography and Belief, is about the photographic image and its relationship to what we believe to be true. According to Strauss, with the advent of digitization, we are in the midst of a second radical cultural transformation as profound as the development of writing- the move from a written culture to a culture of images. Strauss examines how digital technologies change how we look and how and what we trust by seeing.

Specifically, Strauss’s interest is the aura of believability that images provide. Photographic images have inordinate power to influence opinion, prompt action, create and direct desire. The question for Strauss is “Why?” Is their power based on an assumption of their truthfulness? If so, why do we assume images are true? As Wittgenstein noted almost a century ago already, such needn’t have been the case: “We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relation to such pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color or even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.”

Most would answer Wittgenstein’s question by pointing to the ‘indexical’ nature of photographs i.e. they are stenciled directly off of real things and more or less represent those things as they are. Of course, there are problems with this understanding as well. Behind the curtain of ‘indexicality’, photographs have been subject to various forms of manipulation. Questions about individual photography’s faithfulness to the real have been around since its inception, although digitization has made its manipulative capacity increasingly obvious to the lay public. For Strauss, however, the long-running debate about photography’s verisimilitude misses a bigger, more important point: what is the tsunami of images we’re deluged with doing to our understanding of truth itself?

*************

Strauss is interested in how our new technologies ultimately undermine the connection between seeing and believing and how a shift in our relationship to images may come to threaten our very purchase of the real. Instead of discussing whether we should believe images, Strauss claims that the surfeit of images we now consume has created a new type of consciousness – a quasi-hallucinogenic “optical consciousness,” borrowing a phrase from Walter Benjamin – and we aren’t going to return to an earlier mode of thinking. We are, in effect, “all in” in this new world of images, where we encounter so many, so fast, our critical faculties have essentially been disabled.

The day of a single photo hanging on a wall, a subject for critique and evaluation, is gone, replaced by images that appear “in a flow” of digital presentation: “Images that appear on the screens of our devices go by in a streaming flow. Individual images are seldom apprehended separately, as a singular trace. Singular, still images operate very differently on the mind. The images in a flow are seldom dwelled on, so their individual effect is limited, creating instead a disproportionately generalized effect.” This new consciousness isn’t predicated on a choice we make about believing, or not believing, particular images; it’s, in effect, forced upon us by the volume and rapidity of the images that deluge us. We are losing the ability to ‘see’ particular images, and with that are losing a means of believing in the real. As Strauss notes, “we no longer believe in reality, but we believe in images.”

I’m Back, Sort of….

Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of “being back.” Am I going to start cranking out thrice-weekly thousand word posts about what Aristotle would have thought about photography? Probably not, although it’s an interesting question and I think it would have fascinated Aristotle (384-322 BCE), given all its implications for the form/matter conundrum that animated Greek philosophy from Plato onward i.e. what is real – the individual thing or the ‘form’ it embodies? Does something have to be ‘actual’ to be ‘real’? Frankly, I think photography would have blown Aristotle’s mind.

So, a short diversion: According to Aristotle, no maker of anything starts completely from scratch. He/she always starts with material from which he produces something else. The maker’s materials are shapeless in a relative sense. The maker then ‘informs’ his materials i.e. forms or shapes them in a certain way to create something of a higher order. For example, the poet forms a poem from words and the poem is of a higher order than the words themselves. The material has the potential to be shaped into a higher order thing of human construction, and the process of doing so is a process of realization wherein material moves from a state of potential to a state of actuality. The maker “brings out” the material’s potential and transforms it into something with a higher reality.

The question that photography poses for Aristotle is simple: What’s the material the photographer (the maker) is shaping when he/she photographs? The thing photographed or the underlying physical substrate that creates the physical thing called a photo? If it’s the thing photographed, does the photograph possess a higher being than its subject? And what of a digital photo on a hard drive? Does it exist in actuality or does it just have the potential to exist?

One thing Aristotle would agree with: the movement of becoming a better photographer – a better maker of photographs – is also the movement to a higher level of being. The photographer realizes himself in the process turning potential into actuality. The good photographer possesses a design for the photograph he attempts to make, an abstraction that he/she makes visible to himself and others via its making. The photo he constructs is the realization of a potential. Potential of what? Aristotle would say it is the actualization of the photographer’s potential and thus a movement to a greater level of being for the photographer.

This is why you love photography: because your photography reflects the greater being you achieve via it, and love and being always increase together.

*************

So, I’m not going to be publishing as frequently as I’ve done before, at least not for the time being because, frankly, I’ve not given much thought to my photography in the last year or so. I’ve had other things on my mind. And I’ve pretty much tapped out my thoughts on the subject, until of course Thorsten Overgaard does something stupid, at which time I will mock him mercilessly. But, just when I think I’ve said everything I want to say about photography, I think of something else, so I’m fairly sure I’ll be posting more. Whether it’s worth reading is a different story.

And I’m going to sell my film cameras, as I never use them anymore. [Wanna buy a nice film camera? Contact me. Just don’t be the guy who haggles over everything and assumes the worst of the seller, because I won’t sell to you at any price.] It is what it is. I’ve got a freezer full of expired film – easily over a 1000 ft of various B&W stock [wanna buy some film?], and it just sits there while I snap away with my Leica M and MM. Which brings me full-circle: in 2013 I started the blog as a peon to film photography and its continued relevance (with a full dose of contempt for the crummy digital cameras Leica was then producing). Now I rarely shot film and I love my M and my MM. I’ve given up fighting the good fight, because it’s not the good fight anymore. Things move on, although Thorsten Overgaard will remain a really funny guy.

Signs

“Lettering and signs are very important to me. There are infinite possibilities both decorative in itself and as popular art, as folk art, and also as symbolism and meaning and surprise and double meaning. It’s a very rich field… I think in truth I’d like to be a letterer. And then broadly speaking I’m literary. The sign matters are just a visual symbol of writing. – Walker Evans

Significant Fact…or Insignificant Flicker?

“I capture reality but never pose it. But once captured, is it still reality?” – RIchard Kalvar, ‘Street Photographer

Having had looked at lots of it over the years, I’ve concluded there are three types of ‘Street Photography’: 1) photos of people on the street (go to any popular photo forum – and a lot of street specific websites – and you’ll see endless variations of this); 2) gimmicky photos of people in public spaces e.g people caught in awkward poses or fallen in the street etc; or 3) photos that attempt to say something about a person in the street, or something about the person’s relationship with someone else in the street, or or something about the person’s relationship with the built environment. (It helps as well if it also has a pleasing or interesting aesthetic i.e. it’s not completely dependent on its subject matter to generate interest). It’s only this latter type that holds any real interest…for me.

My problem with ‘street photography’ as it’s practiced by most is that it invariably falls into the first category – photos of people in the street that have no inherent interest beyond what they depict i.e. it’s just a picture of someone in the street. Below is my contribution (New York City, 2013): people in the street and not much more. While it may possess some marginal aesthetic interest, it doesn’t say anything. At most it relies on a gimmick, the juxtaposition of three people looking three different ways. So what. As a younger photographer, less aware of the subtleties that create real interest in a photo, I’d likely have picked it out and published it. Hey, look at my photo of people on the street!

New York City, 2013

Compare it with the photo below (Edinburgh, 2015). The two photos make for an enlightening juxtaposition. Same formal aesthetic – three people on the street similarly positioned. From a textbook perspective, the Edinburgh photo is a failure – bad framing, no faces. Yet, to me, the photo has a power the New York photo doesn’t, something about those rumpled clothes that talk about the lives of the people who wear them. You don’t need their faces to read into the photo a deflating reality about about the people shown; it’s there in their clothes, goods that promise so much while in the shop window but look like this once we’ve fallen for consumerism’s conjuring tricks.

Edinburgh, 2015

**************

New York City, 2013

A larger question is whether street photography can be ‘documentary.’ The legitimacy of ‘street photography’ is premised on the assumption that capturing a millisecond of arrested time in an image can reveal something true. Art critic Lincoln Kirsten thought this debatable. “The candid camera is the greatest liar in the photographic family, shaming the patient hand-retoucher as an innocent fibber. The candid camera with its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth, its visions of clipped disaster, presents an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real fact of what is going on than to explode it…It drugs the eye into believing it has witnessed a significant fact when it has only caught a flicker.” That kid above: did the camera catch something meaningful, or is that just a throwaway glance the camera insists is something more?

So, assuming we’re talking about interesting street photography of the third type, can we say that what’s being shown us is truthful, or is it trickery, an artificial reality created by the camera isolating in time something that requires a larger temporal context to be represented accurately?

Edinburgh, 2015