Category Archives: Aesthetics

Bruce Gilden Has Balls

“I’m known for taking pictures very close, and the older I get, the closer I get” – Bruce Gilden

Bruce Gilden is an American “street photographer.”  He is best known for his in-your-face flash photos of people walking the streets of New York City.  Although he did attend some evening classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he’s pretty much self-taught. He has had various books of his work published, has received the European Publishers Award for Photography and is a Guggenheim Fellow. He joined Magnum in 1998. Think about that: he’s a guy who bought a camera, taught himself the craft, and ends up a member of Magnum and a Guggenheim Fellow. It wasn’t about his contacts, or his educational credentials, or the camera he used; it was because he developed his own unique vision.

Up until the digital age, he shot in B&W. Recently, Leica gave him a Leica S and he’s been shooting in color since. He’s currently working on a project he calls “Faces”, extreme color close-ups using flash (some of them are illustrating his interview below). While you might consider these photos exploitative of the subjects (and they may be) and ugly and perverse, they’re powerful correctives to the airbrushed faux reality of most visual culture.

I like Gilden. It takes a lot of balls to walk up to someone on the street and push a flash camera in their face. Does it take some special photographic talent? No. But that’s not the point. It takes a certain unified vision. The point is Gilden has created an aesthetic unique to him and hasn’t much deviated from it in 50 years. As such, he’s created a large, coherent body of work. I’ve heard people criticize his work, claiming it gimmicky and artless, something any 8th grader would be capable of. Could your kid have taken these pictures? Yes. But your kid didn’t, and Gilden did, just like it would have been within your kid’s skill set to have painted Jackson Pollock’s Alchemy, 1947. Your kid didn’t, because your kid would have never considered the aesthetic potential inherent in the medium. The genius of Pollock -and Gilden- is having seen the aesthetic others missed.

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Imagine this Guy Pointing this in Your Face on a NYC Street

This is an interview of Gilden on the occasion of a retrospective of his work exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York.

ISP  You’ve been described as combative, confrontational, as a genius, as “one of the best street photographers currently alive.” How do you feel about these characterizations?

BG  A characterization is just like anything else. Some of it may be true, some of it may be false. Look, people don’t know me. I’m basically shy. And I guess you could say I do what I have to do. But I’m pretty good at reading situations. In other words, when you work close with a flash with someone, I have a pretty good bedside manner. If you’re comfortable doing something, run with it. When you’re uncomfortable or doing it for the wrong reasons, then you encounter problems, because people get a sense of your uneasiness. And if people feel you are doing it for commercial purposes, saying, “oh I have to get that lady with the short hair because I’m selling that picture,” it’s completely different than doing it for artistic reasons, for something that’s in your guts and in your soul. So what I do is always in my soul. I don’t take many pictures. Last year I didn’t even work that often because I decided I was really not going to shoot much more in New York City. So all my shooting has been going on outside my hometown of New York. I mean, if someone wanted me to shoot here, if I got a commission here in the city, I could do it. But now I’m starting to go elsewhere around America and see what’s there. The only problem is in America, there’s nobody on the street. I’ve been doing a lot of formal portraits in color.

ISP  How do you feel working in color?

BG  It’s quite an easy and smooth transition. If you know how to form a picture, you know how to form a picture. It doesn’t matter if it’s in black-and-white or color. I just got back a little over a month ago from the Milwaukee state fair, and I think I did some of the best work I’ve ever done.  It’s almost all formal portraits.  When I say formal portraits I mean, when I see people at the fair or in Milwaukee I ask them, “can I take a picture of your face?” And I take a picture. So there’s no studio paper. When I say formal, it means I’m asking the person I want to photograph.

ISP  They’re preparing for the shot.

BG  No, they’re just average people—my kind of people—people I’m interested in. And we take a picture, but I have an idea how I want it to look, to work. They’re very strong. So that’s what I’ve been doing the last year, year and a half.  But I’m also doing other things, too. My style might be aggressive, but I always believed in life that the people who stand back are suspect. In life, if you’re going to do something, let the people know you’re doing it. What I mean by that is you have to be somewhat—I won’t use the word “sneaky”—but… if people know you’re taking a picture and it’s supposed to be candid, you won’t get the picture many times. So you have to be smart and shrewd. But I don’t like people who stand half a block away and take a picture, because I find that sneaky.

ISP  You’re talking about the “shooting from afar” strategy.

BG  Yeah, to me that’s sneaky because you know most people—I take pictures very close—they don’t even realize I’m photographing them many times. But I approach them well. If you’re at ease, you’ll be surprised how other people many times will be put as ease by your demeanor, unless you get the wrong person, which… it happens.

ISP  Do you find that happening more now with the change in camera culture and sensitivity to pictures? With the ubiquity of cameras on the street today, the use of images has changed. As such, the response to photographers may be changing. Particularly with the rise of so-called “creep porn,” women especially might become much more aware of and concerned about being candidly photographed by men they don’t know. There are also rising anxieties about terrorism and reconnaissance, surveillance, and even pedophilia that permeate the street. Has this made your subjects more hostile? Are people really more guarded against street photographers? Do you have to work harder to capture an authentic candid picture of someone?

BG  It doesn’t change anything for me. I think it has to do with culture itself, and where you work. For example in a rich area like Kensington in London where I worked a lot, you can feel the British class system, so there’s a difference: if you’re rich and cultured, you have almost divine right, and when a plebian comes over to you and takes your picture without asking, more people will get upset than it would happen in a “bad” area. When working in a “bad” area, if you get the wrong people, it has nothing to do with the camera culture. It has to do with culture—period—which I think is more important. The rich, people in Britain, the posh and snotty, they think they own the world, ok, but if you go in a bad area, and if you don’t know how to deal with the people there or you don’t know how to feel them out or joke with them, you’ll have a problem because you’ll get that kind of response: “You’re a stranger you come in my fuckin territory and you take a picture of me!” Some people are good at dealing with that, some aren’t. You carry it in your body language.  Again, if you’re comfortable, it will be fine. I used to be a pretty good athlete, so my body language is not stiff, it’s fluid, and if you go at somebody with a fluid body motion, there’s much less chance of a problem. Then I don’t think it matters if a guy is with a woman that he’s not supposed to be with or if he had a bad day, and it doesn’t matter if you’re ten or two feet away.

It’s true though that our culture is becoming ruder, and it has nothing to do with cameras. When you walk in the streets of New York or some other large city, people are always on their cell phones. If you collide with someone on the sidewalk, even though they probably walked into you because they’re not paying attention, they’ll turn around and tell you to go fuck yourself. To go back to your question, I don’t feel that way, because I believe that if you look for that problem, you’re going to bring the problem to yourself. It’s like going into a bad area and saying,  “uh-oh, the guy’s going to pull a gun on me after I take a picture.” You can’t think like that otherwise you’ll never take a picture. I think that what I’m doing is fine. I’m not hurting anybody. And I’m doing it from my guts. I always feel that the people I photograph are my friends, even though I don’t know them. And they’re also symbols for what I see. It’s not like that person is that person. He or she reminds me of something else. It’s like being in a little movie.

ISP  In speaking about films, you’ve mentioned that working with the moving image might be hard for you because you find raising money for projects to be difficult. You’ve also found this to be the case with your photography. How much has it helped you working with Magnum? You joined them in 1998. I think we can all imagine what a highpoint that was.

BG  It helps in one way, and it doesn’t help in another way. Magnum helped me to get editorial work, which I had never really done before. But then with all this time spent at doing editorial here and there, I didn’t pursue the art market as much as I should have. Fortunately, I have been working on the Postcards from America project (I travelled to Milwaukee as part of it). Postcards is an ongoing collaborative project in which a loose group of photographers chooses a site that intrigues them and gathers there to play like a visual band. Postcards is a project on its own, but for me, as for many of the photographers involved, it’s also an experimental creative space, and it has enabled me to do very good work recently. In fact, without Postcards from America, I may not have started color. I participated in the first episode where the whole group of photographers stayed in one place.  By “group” I mean ten or eleven photographers. We stayed in Rochester. And we had to have 100 pictures in two weeks.

ISP  This was the project last year at about this time when you were with ten other Magnum photographers covering the decline of Rochester, NY in the wake of the partial halt in production at Eastman Kodak, which has its headquarters there.

BG  Yeah, and I realized—wait a second— I can’t do 100 pictures in two weeks, especially when there’s no one on the street in Rochester! That’s why I started to do the portraits. So in a way it’s good because we’re all competitive and I compete with myself: when other people are working in the same area, you don’t want to look like a schmuck and have no pictures (he laughs). It’s challenging. I borrowed a Leica M9 from Leica and I started to do digital for the first time. I did a little digital in Haiti to photograph the houses the year before because I wanted them in color at night. In Rochester I did a lot of digital work because you’re able to see what your photographs look like right away. This gave me confidence to get to that mark—to that hundred mark. I’m not saying all 100 photographs are good, but it gave me confidence. It was encouraging because you had to get a hundred pictures in a place that you wouldn’t choose to shoot. With all of that combined, I also did black-and-white, and I think the strongest pictures from that take are formal portraits in black-and-white. Doing both color and black-and-white was good,

because there was also a guy who was developing our film. We’d shoot it on Monday, and we’d get it on Tuesday. We could see what we were doing as we’d go along. And then the next place we went to was Miami, where I started to use the Leica S camera, which is the mid-size that I’ve been using since. And everything’s been in color and digital.

ISP  And what an interesting departure from the black-and-white candid work that you’ve become so famous for doing.

BG  When you’ve been doing something for so many years, it’s always nice to have a change. When I did Foreclosures, no one thought I’d do houses.

ISP  Yes, your new book, Foreclosures, is devoid of people. It’s a shocking change in subject matter.

BG  I think change is important. How many years can you do the same thing? Look, you never get a perfect picture. But also as you get older things change. My form of photography is very athletic, and I can still do it ok, that’s not a problem. Of course, you can’t bend as low, and you’re not as fast. That’s the concession to age. On the other side, on the positive side, you have more experience. So you know how to get what you want. It’s sort of a balancing act.

The transition has been quite interesting because I’ve worked in Bogotá, I’ve worked in London, I’ve worked in Miami twice, I’ve worked in Milwaukee, I just got back from the Big E Festival in Massachusetts, I’m going to the state fair in Mississippi this month coming up.  It’s exciting for me because I’d never worked in color.  And I’m doing these intense color photographs of people—my kind of people, people who interest me. I have nice conversations with them. And I don’t like asking people to take photographs, because I’m basically shy and it’s very tiring. But I’m quite good at it. If someone wants to say, “No,” they’re going to say, “No.” But I enjoy it in a certain crazy way. And if you see the pictures, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like them. They are strong.

I can tell you when something’s good of mine; I can tell you when it’s not good. We all care about our work, but I think I’m pretty clear and open. In other words, if I didn’t do well, I can admit it. Not everything that has my signature on it is a wonderful picture.

ISP  So there is also a modest side to Bruce Gilden?

BG  No, no, look: I worked hard, and I stuck with it. I’m proud of where I am, because I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth where I started. I had no inclination to take pictures. I’m not a technician. Having said that, I know what to do to correct things in the field. I’m not ignorant technically. I’m more interested in the person. But the form has to be correct. A good picture for me is well-framed with a strong emotional content. My pictures aren’t loose—my good pictures. Like today, you see a lot of people, and their form isn’t very good. They’re just concerned about getting the image—what they want in the image, that person, or that emotion or something. But the image isn’t formed well. To me that’s not good enough.

ISP  Do you think that’s largely a product of digital photography? Some have complained of laziness in framing since the rise of the easily erasable digital image.

BG  It’s not just digital. It also may be a product of not learning your craft in a certain way. For example, when I started photography I knew nothing. I didn’t even know when you look in the finder that’s what you supposedly got. But I looked at tons of books and magazines. And I knew what I liked and I knew what I didn’t like. So if I saw a picture I liked, I would see how it was taken, try to find out from the perspective what lens was used. And then you go out and you say, “Oh, that photographer put a person in the front here. That’s pretty good.” So, you use that, but eventually—hopefully—you become yourself. For example, when I started, I was compared to Weegee, Arbus, all these other people. Now I’m just myself, because I take my kind of pictures.

ISP  Now other people are compared to you. I’ve seen time and again in print mentions of your name as a point of comparison for someone else’s work.

BG  I feel good about that. But everybody has to find their own way eventually. And some are strong enough to do it, and others aren’t. I’m appreciative of that, and it’s funny to read it, but it takes time. Eventually some of those photographers will be referenced as their own. If I’m a step beyond, sometimes someone’s going to be a step beyond me. It’s just the nature of the beast. Records, like in baseball, are made to be broken. If someone’s still shooting in my vein without improving in twenty years, they’re doing something wrong.

ISP  You’re saying they have to develop their own eyes. This is something you spend time cultivating in your students. Can you talk to us a bit about Bruce Gilden the teacher? You travel the world for exhibitions, for photography festivals, like the upcoming Miami Street Photography Festival in early December where you will be featured. And you often offer these mentorship opportunities and intensive workshops that are very well-attended.

BG  In the workshops, I’m very blunt and honest. And I’ve devised a little system, which I won’t talk about in detail, but it’s quite simple. People who come to the class, some of them, their pictures aren’t very good.  And it’s not because of their style: I’m smart enough to see when someone has talent, and I don’t expect them to be little Gildens. I think the most important thing that I can tell them is to photograph something that you’re interested in, and to be yourself. Don’t listen to what anybody says unless you’re smart enough to realize that someone is telling you something that’s constructive—not destructive, because some people don’t want to see other people get ahead.

If someone has strength, I’ll give them assignments that will lead either in a direction to make their pictures stronger or in a direction that they haven’t been shooting. So it opens them up to something else that can help them get where they’re going, that I think they’re a little weak or they’re not paying attention to. If someone isn’t generally doing very good work, I started giving them assignments in my workshop two or three years ago that are usually basic portrait assignments. And I show them how much better their pictures are after they’ve done these portraits, which helps build their confidence. Some of them don’t continue doing portraits, and they don’t have to.

I’m very critical. If someone is good, they’ll know they’re good (he laughs) when they’re finished with my class. I also try not to be overly critical to people who just started photography and also the people who aren’t full-time photographers. If you are new, it’s a bit different than if you’ve been photographing 20 years. I always ask people, “Do you think your pictures are good?” I find that when people come into a workshop thinking they’re really good, they usually aren’t. Then we have to straighten them out. When I ask my students upfront, I get a sense of what needs to be challenged to help them improve. Look, I’m not a god, but I think I’m quite visual.  It’s ingrained in my soul. I give a lot of myself. By the end of a workshop, I’m quite exhausted, because I’m open. You can take what I say and think it’s wonderful; or, you might think it’s crap. At least I’m honest. I’m not trying to knock you down just to knock you down. If you do good work, you’ll know it once you’re finished with my workshop.

There’s one guy in my class who has become a very good friend of mine. He’s a bright guy. People looked at his work and said, “Wow! He’s taking pictures like you!” He started to use flash and color. And the pictures are really good. But they’re not mine; they’re his. You can tell when someone’s imitative and when someone’s doing it because that’s who they are. I don’t have a thin skin about that. I think he’s talented.  And he doesn’t even do photographs! Now he’s doing more of them. But before he was only taking pictures four times a year! Certain people have the spark, other people don’t. You have to deal with that. But if someone does something good, I tell them how good they are and how good the pictures are. We get into a dialogue. I think I’m pretty good at teaching, but I wouldn’t want to do it too often. I’m not going to be doing too many more workshops.

ISP  You do have one coming up in December 2nd – 6th in conjunction with the Miami Street Photography Festival.

BG  Yes, in Miami, which will allow me to return to these communities I’ve been photographing down there.  This started with the Postcards from America. But I may not be able to continue shooting when I’m in Miami this time, because with the Leica S I have to have an assistant to hold the light for me. It’s very tough. The camera’s heavy. And to get the person the way I want, I couldn’t hold the light at the same time. It’s too much unless I was maybe Hercules. And I’m not.

ISP  Is it difficult for you to not have the flash in your hand, to rely on somebody else for the flash?

BG  No because we discuss how it has to be done. The difficult thing is if they do the light wrong. Portraits aren’t as difficult as candid street photographs. In the candid street photograph, no matter how much control you have, if you’re combining things in the image, anything can go wrong. The person in the background who you wanted to look left is looking right, for example. But still my portrait assistant in Milwaukee said, “Hey look at this portrait you took!” It’s, I think, about the best one I took on that trip. He said, “Look at the other five pictures that we took till we got to this one. Anyone who says shooting portraits is easy is wrong!” because in the other five pictures… the pictures are terrible. And then I finally got what I wanted. You have to be able to recognize that. You also have to pick how close you want to get. My pictures are close. And it’s not like you can pick anybody. I walked all day around the state fair, and maybe I shot ten people in eight hours. It’s also about them agreeing to have their pictures taken and you deciding how you want their attitudes. Do you want their eyes more open? Do you want them to look directly at the camera? It’s not as simple as it looks. Still when you come from a candid street photography background, it is more simple because you’re working with just the face. It’s different than when you’re working with ten people in a photograph or with someone who doesn’t know you’re taking the picture.

ISP  With candid street photos, you often surprise your subjects. That shock of being randomly photographed can cause different reactions in your subjects, particularly when you use a hand-held flash. But in your new work, you don’t have to contend with not knowing how the sitter will react when you take the shot. People who realize they’re being photographed get an opportunity to prepare themselves mentally for the picture.

BG  Yeah, but with portraits, people sometimes get too self-conscious. I don’t like smiley pictures. When people realize they’re being photographed, they have all sorts of different reactions. Some are funny. One lady I photographed in London—in Essex, actually—who’s portrait will be in the forthcoming London book, her daughter said, “Mommy, do it! Let him take your picture!” Her daughter was probably in her twenties.  The lady got up, and she was so terrified of the camera her eyes bulged out of her head. I didn’t say a word, and she looked more and more intensely. Her daughter tried to put her at ease, but the lady was so stiff!  And it actually made for a very interesting picture. So there are a lot of factors involved.

ISP  You talk about your subjects as your “characters,” and whether it’s candid street photography or portraiture, there’s a truth of expression—an apparent unguardedness—to the people you choose and the ways you choose to frame them emotionally. This quality is lacking in the more prepared experiences that you’re talking about, like the smiley pictures. It seems to me that you have an aesthetic of sincerity. That honesty is of very high value to you artistically.

BG  My honesty, my bluntness, probably comes from my past and my relations with my father—everything I found out (that he was a gangster) and how I found out (in that his tire store, the young Gilden realized suddenly, was devoid of tires). I had a tough emotional childhood.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I see that most people didn’t have my upbringing. At the end of the day, someone could look back at that kind of childhood and say, if they’re not strong, “Look what they took from me, my father and mother, emotionally.”

But they made me what I am, so I guess they gave me strength that I’d never realized until I was older I had. I was always a little different in that I had a lot of energy and was very athletic. I guess I was a little bit wild, but in a controlled sense. There was a lot inside that couldn’t get out.

Photography kept me alive in many ways. So I have that to put into pictures that I think a lot of other people don’t have. I think that gives my pictures strength. If someone else shoots in the same style, but they don’t have a certain background or a certain way that they related to their background, I think they’re not going to do the same kind of picture. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to do a great picture. It’s just that I do my kind of picture.  And other people do their kind of pictures.

Take street photography: it’s always been the stepchild in the artistic world of photography. But it’s probably the hardest type of pictures to do. That doesn’t mean a street photograph is a good picture and another one isn’t. It depends on how you do it. I’ve seen a lot of bad street photography, just like I’ve seen a lot of bad photography. There’re people that are good, and there’re people that aren’t as good. There was one kid I saw who was very good, and I have a feeling that he has very good potential to be really, really good. You just feel it. He wasn’t in my workshop. He was this young guy who, when I judged the Oskar Barnack Award, he got the Newcomer Prize—a Polish guy, Piotr Zbierski. I think that Zbierski has a talent that can’t be taught. He has it in his soul. The pictures of course are a little dark, they were black-and-white.  I mean, dark in what he photographed, almost like a fairytale.

ISP  Like a Grimm’s fairy tale?

BG  Yeah, and they’re good! Most people don’t have it. He had it, and he was very young, 23 or 24. But I don’t know how he got to it.

ISP  You mention his work is dark. Your work, too, can be dark in that you often focus on what people describe as “the dark side” of people. Your photographs gravitate towards extreme and criminal subcultures.  You’ve been quoted as saying you like “bad guys” in reference to your continual return to this subject matter.

BG  My father was a tough guy, so the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

ISP  And while you are drawn to this character, you don’t romanticize it. Gangster culture, the Yakuza, the Russian mob, gangsters in the UK and Australia: you don’t romanticize them in the way that you shoot them whereas a lot of portrayals of gangster have this sheen of cool.

BG  Yeah, because they didn’t grow up with it. I learned a certain type of respect, that you don’t ask questions. I often get along with people in that culture because I know never to ask a question. I don’t want to know, because if you know, you could be responsible for putting someone else at risk. And it makes sense to me because that’s how I grew up. Look, to me, (gangsters are) just like anybody else. In some cases they can be better because at least you know who they are and what they are. So other people, like for example a corrupt policeman or a priest who’s a pedophile, you go to them for security and then they violate that. I won’t call the gangster a “bad guy,” I’ll call him a “tough guy.” Look, people take what they can; they’re not going to take liberties with tough guys, because they’re tough. And they will take it with someone else. But the thing is, I look at tough guys and see that they’re human beings. And I like them, I generally like them.  When I was in Australia with Mick Gatto, I had a great time! He was such a gentleman and a wonderful guy.  Sometimes I have admiration for tough guys—some of them. But I’ve met some I don’t like also. Those who abuse their tough-guy-ness, who try to test you, you have to stay away from them. It’s like the regular population: some people are good, some people aren’t. And they do what they do.

ISP  I see this aspect of your work not only as an engagement with your father, but also something that coheres with this critique of the economic system that I think your work mounts. Crime and criminals disrupt business-as-usual. And it seems like your work, in the most obvious way with Foreclosures, but also in your traditional street photography, poses real challenges to the way we see people as a culture, which is largely a function of economics. Your work looks where others don’t. Last year, as you’ve mentioned, at about this time you were covering the decline of Rochester, NY after Eastman Kodak cut 50,000 jobs. You’ve been

working on Foreclosures since 2008, documenting the fallout of the subprime mortgage lending crisis. You have been criticized for your use of surprise close-up flash photography in the city streets. You focus on people you describe as “the left behind” in your work. There is a truth, as we’ve mentioned, in this work often lacking in the prepared appearances of those who are ready to be photographed. That truth in itself seems to make a statement about the lack of sincerity in the visual world of ubiquitous advertising. To me, this is major source of connection in your work. Do you think your work has a central focus of economic critique?

BG  I like people who tell the truth. I hate politicians.

ISP  You recently photographed Anthony Weiner.

BG  I photographed all of them—all the New York City mayoral candidates for the New York Times Magazine—and I liked all of them on a one-to-one basis. Some more than others. But they’re politicians.

But to return to the question you raise, I can’t talk as much about Foreclosures as I could have before, because when I was preparing for it I read about 20-25 books. But that was a few years ago. It was legalized thievery, what the government did (the subprime mortgage lending crisis and its aftermath). They repealed the Glass-Steagall Act. There were no regulations on a trillion dollar industry. And there was this fantasy that everybody should own a home. It was disgusting. So no matter what I or any other people can do, we can’t come up to the heights of that. Then we bail out the banks with taxpayer money. And then you read that this quarter Chase Manhattan made outlandish profits. I mean, come on now!  Please! I’m not a fool. They say, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” I come to the topic from that perspective. And like I said, the people I photograph are my friends.

I have always identified with the underdog. I’m not coming to this like some art director who plays in the street, then goes on to do something else. I come from the street. I’ve always been in the street. It’s something that attracts me. I didn’t have your average upbringing. My father didn’t exactly model good behavior or offer moral guidance. I had nothing to live up to and nothing I wanted to be. I didn’t have to go into my father’s business, which I used to drive a scrap metal truck for. But I didn’t have this background like I’m John Lewis, III or something. I was loose that way. I always felt that I was an underdog, an outsider. For me, you also have a certain freedom when you’re left behind in that way, because you’re not enchained or imprisoned. But I don’t have to make up a whole intellectual dialogue about what I do. I do what I feel to do… when I have the money to do it. And I’m pleased with that, with what I do. And if you’re comfortable you have a chance of doing it well.

And I also always identify with poorer people. But I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal, the kind that say, “Oh, I think she had a very bad upbringing, and that’s why she knifed you in the back.” No one’s going to knife me in the back if I can help it. I had a tough upbringing, and I survived. So I expect you to be able to survive.

I’m a realist. As a realist, you know the world’s a terrible place for many people. I don’t think it’s getting any better. The have-nots are going to be getting further and further behind. So many people are left behind by our political and economic system. And that’s the project of my Guggenheim: The Left Behind. When I was in Russia, I went 70km outside of Ykaterinaburg and I wondered, “What do these people do?” We live in New York City. If you don’t travel to see these things about the world, you may not know that people in certain countries and places are really left behind. And it’s getting worse. It’s not getting better. It’s a terrible thing.  I feel better that I’m 66 and not 25. I feel bad for my daughter. Look at the ozone! Look at what’s happening with the weather now! And who’s doing it? So many people, and all just for money.

ISP  I recently read a quotation from environmentalist Derrick Jensen that said basically that if

aliens came to Earth, systematically deforested the planet, killed 90% of life in the sea, we’d declare war on them.  But for some reason when corporations do that for profit, it’s generally accepted.

BG  Yeah, that’s a great statement! There are people who are helping the planet, people who are advancing medical research, people who are doing things that are helping humanity.  And I find… well, I’m not big on the non-profit groups, though. I spent a lot of time in Haiti. And the one I really like is Médecins sans frontières. Most of the others just know how to waste money.

ISP  I’m interested to hear what you think about the Occupy movement.

BG  Occupy Wall Street? I went down to lower Manhattan for the protests, and I think you had the wrong people for the right job, at least here in New York. Half the people down there were high on drugs, running around, and playing flutes. They looked like they’d just rubbed their chests on the ground for the last three weeks and didn’t take a bath. It’s not that I’m against that either, it’s just that it was starting to go somewhere. I met a great lady in Las Vegas who runs it out there. She’s great. The Occupy movement elsewhere has been more successful. And I agree with them and with the premise. But the Manhattan protests were a mess. The problem is that a lot of the people in the tents and stuff are people who are… losers, for fault of a better term. They seem more interested in hanging out than getting things done. If you want real economic reform, you have to defeat these guys at their own game.

I believe in Machiavellian theory. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Take that rebel who’s fighting against the government, put him in power, and he’s going to become the very thing he was once fighting against.  When you get millions of dollars in front of you, how many people aren’t going to take it? I do prefer people who are—even if I don’t like their politics—who say what they’re going to do, even if I can’t stand it, like Bush (W.). I couldn’t stand him, but at least he said he would do this, and he did it. I don’t like Obama.

ISP  In that you feel he’s insincere where you found Bush to be more genuine.

BG  I feel like he’s full of shit. Look, he said he cares about the middle class and lower class. But even progressives don’t like him. Harry Belafonte can’t stand him either. And he’s always been a progressive who supported MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, all progressive agendas. He hates Obama. And I do too, because the guy walks with the swagger of someone who knows the street, which he doesn’t. He says one thing but does another in policy, too. He said we’re not going to dig for oil in America; we are. We’re going to get out of Afghanistan; and, we’re still there. In the foreclosure crisis, which I can talk about a little because of the research I did for my new book, he decided to keep Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary and Ben Bernake as Federal Reserve Chairman, who were responsible for repealing the Glass-Steagall Act (an act that had imposed financial regulation in the US, and that, once repealed, contributed to the economic crisis and its resulting financial devastation). And Geithner, whether he worked on Wall Street or not, has been working for Wall Street all along. He’s part of the reason that everything went so bad for the world economy! So if you want change, you’ve got other people to put in charge of the economy. He could have pulled in Volcker, who’s a smart, good guy in that field. No, I don’t like that guy (Obama). I can’t look at him. You know, I have my opinions. Those others guys are terrible, too. But he’s no different. He wouldn’t have gotten to be President if he hadn’t been pushed by somebody. I think he made backroom deals.

ISP  Do you have any suggestions on how to get money out of politics?

BG  Well, maybe you can’t. But to me the decision to keep Bernake and Geithner really sticks, because they were complicit in the whole financial collapse around the subprime mortgage lending crisis. So it makes no sense to ask them to be responsible for changing the problems of the economic system when they had a hand in creating those very problems themselves. How do you justify keeping people who support all that Clinton and Bush (W.) did? This all started with Clinton saying that everybody should own a home. But everybody should own a home who can afford it. Anyway, let’s get back to the subject.

ISP  It is in a sense very much the subject of Foreclosures.

BG  I’ll talk about my cat (he laughs). I have three cats! They’re very nice. Three Russian Blues. They’re sweet as sugar. They calm me. I pet them all the time, I talk to them. They’re my friends. Why don’t we move to the next question.

ISP  After the discussion we’ve just had, this may be a jarring transition. But what do you think is the future for street photography? Here we have been talking about imminent environmental or financial collapse, so it seems like a strange question now.

BG  I don’t think like that. I see what’s in front of me. I think the scary thing, not only for street photography but for the world, is that everybody’s becoming the same. The cities are more homogenous now, the shops.  If you go, god knows where, you see a Starbucks. People wear the same clothes. The world is smaller. They all listen to the same music. People more and more are losing their individuality. And I think ultimately in a hundred, 200, 300 years, everybody’s going to look the same and be the same and maybe act the same.  I’m stretching that now to make a point. Whereas I look for the differences, there’re people who look for the similarities. So it makes sense that there would be a change in what pictures look like. But I don’t know.

In 1888, Kodak first made it possible for a lot of people to take pictures. Now we have the digital age and the iPhone. Everybody’s taking pictures. Maybe more people are taking them now than then, but Kodak made it affordable then. Almost everybody can take pictures now. So it must have been quite cataclysmic when that first happened. The common man could all of a sudden take pictures. You didn’t have to pay to go to a studio photographer to take a portrait.

ISP  But now the camera phones that you mention make choices for you. They make visual choices for you.

BG  I haven’t seen that myself, but I’d heard that. And it follows along what I was saying: there’s going to be less and less individuality. If you look at the movies now, so many movies are about the effects; whereas, years ago, all the movies I liked were about relationships, emotion, love. If you listen to the music from years ago, doowop and so on, it’s about boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl drops boy, boy drops girl. It was human! We are becoming less and less human. And one thing I don’t like: we’ve become so politically correct that people are afraid to do anything because—gasp!—it’s not the right thing to be seen to do. Yet they’ll do worse things, and they’ll be accepting of worse things.

So, to answer your question, I don’t know. But I think street photography will go on until there’s no more street. It depends what you mean by street photography, too. I said to a magazine once that in street photography you could smell the street, feel the dirt by looking at the picture. You’re seeing less and less work like that. Look at most photography today, and even if it’s good, you still can’t tell who took the picture. The average picture could have been taken by 500 people; whereas, years ago, if you saw a Cartier-Bresson, you knew it was a Cartier-Bresson. You see a Winogrand, you know it’s a Winogrand. You see an Arbus, you know it’s Arbus. A Weegee’s a Weegee. The best usually have a recognizable style, a personality.

Also, a lot of street photography is confrontational, unflinching. But people don’t always like to be turned upside down. To be confronted. To think, to feel. It’s more challenging to the viewer,

some people don’t like that. But I feel it’s important as an artist to show work that challenges. If we don’t show something just because it’s difficult subject matter, who’s going to know its there? If things need changing but they aren’t shown, they’ll never be changed. I’m not saying you’re going to make a difference anyway. Look at all the war photographers, and still we have war.

ISP  What’s next for Bruce Gilden?

BG  I’m working on my Guggenheim project, The Left Behind. I got a commission in the Midlands in the UK to do a similar project. A photopoche book, one of those pocket-sized books from France, comes out this November. The London book is out this November, too. It was commissioned by the Archive of Modern Conflict and is formally titled A Complete Examination of Middlesex. But ultimately, what’s going on in my life now and in the future is my family. My daughter Nina just turned 21 and is graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston this year. My wife, Sophie, speaks better English than I do even though she’s French. She was a journalist for Libération in Paris and a radio host on France Inter. I have a good wife, I can’t complain. She’s intelligent, elegant, attractive. And we love each other. Twenty-two years. Some would say it’s impossible to stay with me 22 years, but she did it!

A Day in Paris

Paris, August 17, 2017

Has photography become too easy? I’m thinking it might have. The question, I guess, is, even if it has, why would that matter?

I’ve illustrated this post with photos I’d taken on one day, August 17, 2017, a day I spent chaperoning a first time visitor to Paris. The day started bright and clear, with increasing cloudiness as the morning progressed and, by afternoon, threatening rain.

I hadn’t even thought to take a camera with me. The day was just to be a day seeing the usual sights. Of course, I had my iPhone with me, and during the day, as much as habit as anything intentional, I took a few photos of things that interested me. Some were shot using filters – I presume I just chose a random filter for the hell of it – and others were post-processed in Snapseed on my phone.

Now, I’m not claiming any of these to be portfolio quality, but in reviewing them, I’m amazed at the quality and diversity of output I got with a simple camera phone and some free apps, all in a day’s walk around town. We used to expend a lot of time and energy and creative angst to get similar results back in the film era, weeks and months of hard labor both on the street and in the darkroom….and the results were indicative of a photographer possessed of technical competence and creative mastery. Back in the film era, the results below would have been the product of innumerable creative decisions about cameras and formats and films and developing and printing processes. Now, it’s indicative of a guy with some apps on his camera phone.

So, I’m not sure what argument I should be making…is this a good thing or a bad thing?

 

Words and Photos


“Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cow path to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides – pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a groove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.””

          Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)


 

The Reciprocal Relationship Inherent in Visual Art (Or…Be Careful Who You Show Your Photos to)

Is This a “Good Photo?” I Think So…But It Means Something to Me in a Way it Wouldn’t for You.  That’s, in Large Part, What Makes it “Good” for Me. What Might Make it Good for You? Context Maybe?


I’ve spent most of my adult life puzzling over what “good” photography is, yet it’s only been in my later years that I think I have any real answer. There’s a reason for that, as I’ll discuss below.

Photography, an art form accessible to most everyone, seems especially susceptible to muddled standards of valuation. The average photo enthusiast, the type who congregates on photo-specific websites and forums, typically falls into the trap of confusing technical competency with artistic merit. As you mature photographically, if nothing else, you should learn at least one thing: whatever creates the perfect photo, it isn’t simply technical excellence. To the contrary, the pursuit of technical excellence often hijacks creativity by directing your creative energies into focusing on technical mastery at the expense of individual expression.

So, if we’re not simply speaking of technical excellence, then what?  Aesthetic impact, contextual appropriateness, personal response, or some undefined mixture of the above? And who gets to choose? We all do, but some choose better than others, because they have a more refined aesthetic sense. This statement, standing alone, seems circular, but it isn’t. As I’ve written elsewhere, the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) get’s closest to the truth with his claim that a person of wide knowledge and experience has a better basis to make aesthetic judgments. She’s seen more, thought more, reflected more, in the process refining her judgment and allowing her to better “see” a work of art by possessing a larger and more varied experiential foundation she can use to draw out the nuances pregnant in the work. Through her experience she has given herself the means to draw latent meaning from someone else’s work, work which, depending on the artist’s competency, allows a range of meaning. It’s a reciprocal relationship, the “best” photos possessing a range of latent meanings, meanings brought to fruition by an informed, cultured viewer.

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A Simple Little Book by Dominique Pierre-Nina. It’s Full of  Beautiful Work.

Above is the cover of a small book of photographs, a gift sent me by Australian photographer – and Leicaphilia reader – Dominique Pierre-Nina. Dominique sent me the book as a Christmas present, a thoughtful gesture of thanks for the enjoyment he’s received from reading Leicaphilia. (I encourage you to do something similar). Dominique’s book “A Year with the Leica M3” consists of a written introduction and 38 B&W photographs. Sounds interesting, right? Some guy loves his M3 and wants to show others what he’s done with it. Given the parameters set by the author’s presentation, that’s the extent of what I expected, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead I found a holistic work of real effect, thought-provoking photos that work individually and collectively, clearly the product of someone who has learned the art of seeing the beauty in everyday things. The book is more than just a collection of individual photographs; Mr. Pierre-Nina has purposefully sequenced them (I assume) so that the impact of the work is a function both of the photographs as individual works and as one larger work created by the body of photographs sequenced and presented as a coherent whole.

Many of the photographs would work as stand-alone works, studies in form and content. While they do so, they benefit from being placed within the larger context. The context here is that chosen by Mr. Pierre-Nina. The context in which they’re been situated adds something to the work, something that’s not present in the individual photos themselves, no matter how interesting they are individually. Without context, you might no “see” their full content; with proper context, they transform from individual works to works engaged in cross-talk with other individual works, in doing so forming a larger coherent work, the book, the exhibition, whatever.

Two Sequential Pages – Left hand Page, Right hand Page. Ostensibly Nothing in Common…But They Work Together

It’s more than just content and context given by Mr.Pierre-Nina, however. It’s also about my receptivity to it. The Kantian critique above – the importance of the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic back-history that the photographer brings to the work – applies as well to the viewer. Visual art is always a two-way transaction between creator and viewer, its power the result of a reciprocal relationship between creator and viewer. The aesthetic value of any work will always be latent until recognized – better yet, discovered – by the awareness of the viewer. Mr. Pierre-Nina is lucky enough to have found an able viewer – in me. While I haven’t asked him, I’m certain he’s shown his book to others – family members, friends, a lover maybe –  and been met with the polite patronization all gifted artists are familiar with. Why? Because the reciprocal relation necessary to its proper appreciation has broken down on the viewer’s end. To put it bluntly, they’re incapable of appreciating the work because of their own deficiencies. The photographer has done his job – the failure lies with the viewer, who hasn’t done his/hers.

If, as I do, you agree with Kant, then both the photographer and the viewer have certain responsibilities in the mutual transaction of understanding and enjoying photographic presentations. Mr. Pierre-Nina can try to give you that context through words, or he could place them with a larger sequence where the sum of the work starts to explain what he sees as their meaning. In either event, assuming he’s done his part, you as the viewer need to bring to the interaction a basis of knowledge and an aesthetic sensitivity formed from that knowledge, to make them coherent. No matter how competent an artist Mr. Pierre-Nina might be (and a good part of that competency is presentation), you as viewer have the responsibility to draw the meaning from them.

Which leads us back to Mr. Pierre-Nina. I don’t think he truly understands his photography – in the sense that I don’t think he can articulate via words what it might mean, what it might suggest to an engaged viewer. I’ve come to that conclusion after having first read his explanation of the work and then looking at the work itself. This isn’t a criticism of him. It’s a reality of the reciprocal relationship that creates the meaning of a creative work. His explanation, reproduced here, might tell you something of what he thinks about his photos, and that’s helpful to a certain extent. But it isn’t the final word. What Mr. Pierre-Nina thinks isn’t the end of the matter. What he thinks of his work doesn’t do it justice; it’s an impoverished understanding of what is truly remarkable work. If anything, this is a compliment to Mr. Pierre-Nina, a man who possesses an admirable humbleness about his work when in fact the work is exceptional. Really.

Likewise with the photo that leads off the piece. Standing alone, it doesn’t say much. At best, you might agree that its “interesting”. It needs context to be more. That’s my role as the photographer, and I fail if I don’t give you the context to make sense of it. But you fail me if, as the viewer, you are unable to properly parse the latent meaning of what I’ve offered you, unable due to ignorance, inexperience, closed-mindedness, arrogance. What separates excellent work from simple pretty pictures can often be as much a result of what the viewer brings to the experience than does the photographer.

This should tell you something: Be careful who you show your work to.


Which leads me to my next subject – Immanuel Kant tells you How to Make Beautiful Photos of Ugly People – coming soon.

Writing About Photography

Is this a picture of a broken down hobby horse, or it it something else? Or is it both, or neither?

While there’s a lot of great photography, there are few, if any, thoughtful books about photography and what it means. Off the top of my head I can think of a few worth reading: Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Errol Morris’ Believing is Seeing, maybe Barthes’ Camera Lucida if for no other reason then everyone seems to refer to it, many, I suspect, without having read it. Most of the rest is poorly written and even more poorly thought through, crammed full of “post-structuralist” academic jargon, jargon being the best evidence that the writer doesn’t have any real idea what they’re talking about. Frankly, you’ll learn more about photographs by reading Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Theo or Naifeh and Smith’s incredible biography of him, Van Gogh: A Life, both which will give you insight into what personal vision is, how one develops it  and how easy it is to compromise it unless you steadfastly guard it.

For many of us, photography isn’t simply a technology for informing or recording. It is more about the aesthetic and emotional payoff for us as the photographer, being able to create something that communicates what we see and how we see it. Every good photo has something original in its approach,  going against the grain of common seeing, evidence of the idiosyncratic way a single person sees and thinks. Good photographers, ones who create meaningful, original work, can’t do it any other way: their way of seeing is necessarily as idiosyncratic as their mind and body, and to produce photos without that idiosyncracy would be dishonest to themselves and their audience. Apeing someone else’s style is for the neophyte or the creatively barren.

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A photograph is, to use a metaphor, a visual poem. We read a poem because we want to know how the poet “sees” the subject of the poem. We read it for what Barthes calls its punctum: that peculiar way of seeing, or writing (which in a poem is the same thing)—the poet’s style. Likewise, we read a novel or an essay not simply to learn something but to see through someone’s eyes, to follow the traces of their mind on the page as they come to terms with a theme or an idea or an experience. But it’s not a static one-way thing. It’s also about discovering what we think of what the poet thinks. Writing poetry is collaboration between poet and reader, both bringing their persons to the text.

So too with photography. A photograph operates as both a document and a creation. The level at which it gets interpreted depends on the viewer. Good photography is a collaborative effort, requiring a skilled and creative photographer and an intelligent and receptive viewer. Roland Barthes makes the distinction, in Camera Lucida, between two planes of the photograph: the studium, which is the explicit subject of the image, the information we learn from it; and the punctum, “that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty.” The punctum exists in the head of the viewer; it may change from person to person, or it may change for the same viewer at different viewings. In my experience, a photo can mean different things to me at different times.

This, obviously, has implications for one’s ability to write “about” a photograph. If “what it means” changes even for the photographer – not even mentioning the role the viewer plays – then explaining it with language seems a fool’s errand at best. There is nothing more pretentious than photographers trying to “explain” their work. My advice for those of you who think you need to: the work speaks for itself. If you feel you need to explain, the work probably isn’t very good in the first place and your explanation will simply box you in and further diminish what little impact the work itself might have. Better to shut up and let your audience decide for themselves. What they think of it may differ from what you think. That’s OK. There’s room for both, by necessity.

What Makes a Good Photograph? It Depends

Lincoln Tunnel, NYC

I’ve just returned home from a weekend trip to New York City, 18 hours there and back in a car with a 17 year old Czech girl, made to listen to an ear-bleeding mix of Justin Bieber and One Direction with some unlistenable Czech heavy metal thrown in as counterpoint. Occasionally I’d manage to commandeer the sound system long enough to attempt to educate her with examples of great classic rock and roll – The Who’s I Cant Explain, Rain by the Beatles, Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds etc – to which she’d listen politely and then switch back to some current overblown pop anthem.  If she’s incapable of hearing the simple brilliance of those songs, forget about schooling her in anything more esoteric, say John Coltrane’s Plays the Blues. Totally lost cause – not gonna happen.

We did have a great time in NYC, however. There for less than 36 hours, we walked half the city – Times Square to Central Park to the UN to Rockefeller Plaza Friday night, Saturday day starting at the Whitney Museum on the West Side to Washington Square to Soho, through Chinatown and Little Italy and the East Village to the Brooklyn Bridge, then the World Trade Center Memorial via Wall Street and then back up to the West Village to eat at John’s Pizza on Bleeker, my favorite place to eat in the entire universe. Sunday Morning back in the car at 5 AM, home to North Carolina. I made her listen to her music on her headphones on the trip home.

Nicki is our current international student, living with us for a year and attending high school here. She’s from Prague, smart, speaks English better than most American kids, nice kid, stunningly beautiful and completely oblivious of the fact. It was fun walking Manhattan with her. She’s a natural, having studied ballet from a young age, moving with an easy grace and elegance that’s impossible to ignore, made more so by the fact that she’s un-selfconsciously unaware of it. It was fascinating to watch other women watch her – well-dressed, rich and powerful women very obviously eyeing her jealously while trying to figure out what she’d be doing with an old guy like me – aging rock star with teenage girlfriend maybe? Rich old sugar daddy with young model? Dad with daughter? We have a lot of fun together, although she treats me with the casual disdain youth treat adults – no recognition of how cool I actually am, or rather, I think I am.

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Not NYC, but Close Enough

And she claims to love “photography”, although her definition of it is obviously different than mine. I’ve been trying to educate her about aesthetics and photography, inviting her to look at some of my photo books and hinting to her that a good photograph can be about more than something colorful or pretty. She seems completely uninterested in what I have to say about aesthetics, and, based on her lack of response to the photo books I’ve set in front of her, unimpressed by the photographers I revere.

How can one account for various tastes? Is it even possible to rank the aesthetic value of art? Do we have a basis for concluding that the Beatles are inherently better than Justin Bieber, or that Ray Metzker’s photography is qualitatively better than what’s popular on an Instagram feed?

Gottfried Leibniz, an 18th Century German philosopher, would say yes. He argued that there exists a definable, measurable, essence of aesthetics that makes one piece of art objectively better than another, citing canonical works like Michelangelo’s David or Mozart’s Lacrimosa as proof. Leibniz would say that there’s a reason these works have remained appreciated by successive generations – they’re inherently beautiful and aesthetically pleasing in a way few other works are. In this sense, Leibniz is a “Platonist,” an aesthetic theory  articulated by Plato wherein things are beautiful to the extent they mirror an eternal, timeless beauty of which individual things are a degraded manifestation.

Scottish Philosopher David Hume meanwhile, argued that beauty is subjective and there exists no ultimate criterion, no “Platonic form” to rank the relative merit of any artistic work. Consider the photography of Garry Winogrand, which offers a powerful aesthetic experience to some, others finding it shallow and banal. Hume would say that both opinions are correct, if by correct we mean legitimate for the person with the opinion.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw the truth as something in between. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are neither wholly objective nor subjective. Rather, such judgments  involve a confluence of sensory, emotional and intellectual impressions all at once – and, as such, depend on the state of mind of the observer and thus can, and usually do, change over time. That’s why 17 y/o Nicki can find a photograph of a sunset “beautiful” while finding work I love – Ray Metzker for example – uninteresting or ugly, while my aesthetic sensibility can be precisely the opposite. They are both the result of our individual life experiences.

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A Favorite Ray Metzker Photo

I think that Kant thus gives us a way out of the either/or subjective/objective dilemma posed by Leibniz and Hume. If all judgments of beauty depend on the viewer’s sensory, emotional and intellectual history, then one’s aesthetic sense is always valid but can ripen and mature and as one matures is thus able to draw upon more varied and nuanced life experiences when responding aesthetically.  This is just another way of saying that all assessments of beauty are individual and valid as such (Hume), but that some standards of beauty are the product of more experience and mature understanding, which itself means that there is a riper aesthetic understanding that mature experience leads us to (Leibniz).

If, as Kant claims,  taste is a function of experience and knowledge, then this suggests we can make relative value judgments about individual taste. The more experience, the more knowledge one possesses, the subtler and more nuanced one’s aesthetic sense becomes. One’s tastes can mature and become…better. This is why I’ve advocated broad learning – reading literature, listening to music, viewing photographs, learning history – as opposed to the quick fix of a better camera, a new lens, or a street photography seminar by the usual suspects. It’s only in that way – by becoming a citizen of the world with broad sympathies and varied interests – that you’ll create photography that matters.

The Enduring Beauty of Things Made to Last

Above is one of the first SLR cameras I owned as a kid, A Mamiya/Sekor 528TL. I was 12. It was an amateur’s camera, a fixed lens SLR with telephoto and wide angle attachments. I didn’t keep it long. What I wanted was a Nikon F. You could change lenses on the Nikon F. To a 12 year old, that seemed incredibly cool, the ability to change lenses. The Mamiya was decidedly not cool, so I convinced my parents that I needed a better camera and the Mamiya went wherever unused cameras went back in 1970.

A few years ago I ran across one on Ebay and bought it on a whim – it was $10. I figured, why not, I’d put it up on the shelf as a piece of nostalgia, maybe even use it occasionally when feeling in a retro mood. Once I got it in the mail I realized my initial 12 y/o’s assessment of the camera had been pretty much correct. It was a piece of junk, made in Korea, obviously thrown together without much thought to precision or longevity, a 1970’s era throw-away.

Which is unusual. Film cameras back in the day were typically built robustly, made to last, not in thrall to a consumerist ethic that required replacement with “better” technology every 18 months or so. Not that manufacturers wouldn’t have liked us to be buying a new camera every 18 months; it was just that the mechanical technology was static in a way that didn’t lend itself to constant upgrading, so cameras were typically built solidly, with longevity and robustness as a selling point. You’d buy a camera – a Nikon F or a Leica M – with the understanding that you’d keep it for a lifetime. There might be newer models to come along, something a little sexier, but basically the same technology presented in a new package.

Where it all began to change was with the introduction of electronics in cameras – meters, and then auto exposure and auto focus – and the pace of technology dictated that cameras became consumer goods, something with a limited technological shelf life that required upgrading at fixed intervals. As such, the notion of robustness, building something with longevity in mind, became an anachronism. Of course there were exceptions – the M5 and M6 come to mind, as does the Nikon F2 and Canon F1.

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This all came back to me the other day as I was out riding my new (to me) Schwinn Paramount road bike. Growing up, I admired fine road racing bikes the way I admired fine cameras. And back in 1970, at least here in the States, there was nothing more desirable and exclusive than a Paramount. I remember seeing one hanging in the window of the bike shop, a beautiful jewel of a bike, ridiculously expensive and out of reach for most people, certainly for a kid like me. One day, I told myself, I’d have a Schwinn Paramount.

The Paramount has an interesting history. It was first produced by Schwinn, a large American bicycle maker, in 1938, and remained essentially the same bike up through the mid-80’s, when bike technology started a progressive trajectory much like cameras. Schwinn hired an old world master frame maker –  Emil Wastyn – to build frames for Schwinn’s professional six-day racing team. Emil ran a bicycle frame shop not far from the Chicago Schwinn factory. Soon, a select number of Paramount-labeled bikes began to appear for sale to the general public.

During the next twenty years, Wastyn hand-built all Schwinn’s Paramounts at his shop. The earliest Paramounts followed his signature styling (balled-end seat stays, for example) and keyhole-styled lugs. Over the years, Paramounts gradually evolved their own specific style – particularly the famous slant trimmed seat stays which remained in effect for 50 years. Schwinn also produced a variety of machined components to complement the frame – beautifully crafted wide-flange hubs, stems, handlebars and even pedals, each marked with the Schwinn name in script. By the 60’s, Schwinn had brought hand-built production in shop and offered Paramounts with top of the line Italian Campagnolo components, with corresponding prices to match.

Think of the Schwinn Paramount as the Leica of American made racing bikes, the best, most refined version of a steel framed road racing cycle, a no-expense spared hand built machine with functionality as its premier design feature, nothing extraneous or thrown in for fashion. Like Leicas, they’ve become collectors items for guys my age, nostalgic for the things they wanted but couldn’t afford in their youth. Technologically, they’re simple, 22 lb fully mechanical lugged steel framed and shiny chromed artworks. Most collectors hang them on the wall and never ride them, which is a shame, because, as I’ve discovered, they’re still sublime to ride even 50 years old.

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My 1969 Schwinn Paramount P-13

Above is my Paramount, which I’ve owned for all of two weeks. I found it on a whim on Craigslist in Richmond, VA, a 200 mile ride from my home in North Carolina. It was being sold by the original owner, and he had receipts back to his purchase of the bike in 1969. It wasn’t period correct in that he had upgraded the drive train to a 90’s era Campagnolo 8 speed with modern style shifters, but it still had the same beautiful box section wheels with high-flange Campy hubs, and the drive train upgrades were top of the line Campagnolo circa 1992. And it looked in good condition from the pics he posted. And it was cheap. I called him, paypalled him the asking price sight unseen, then rode to Richmond to pick it up. The bike was pristine, obviously cared for, almost new, and mechanically, everything worked perfectly. I drove home marveling at my good fortune.

My intent had been to strip the frame, sell the vintage Campy components and replace them with a modern groupset with modern wheels. As such, I’d have the best of both worlds – a beautiful hand built steel lugged frame mated to modern lightweight components. One ride on the bike changed my mind forever. Its 10 mile shakedown ride turned into a 6 hour, 100 mile ride – without the usual earbuds and ZZ Top blasting away over the creaking of the carbon fiber frame – cruising eastern North Carolina farm roads. Used to riding 17 lb carbon fiber bikes, I assumed my Paramount ride would feel heavy and slow and harsh, probably accompanied by the metallic twang of misaligned gears and loose nuts and bolts. Instead, the Paramount rode perfectly quiet, the 50 year old hubs rolling along with a smooth effortlessness I’d never experienced before, not a rattle anywhere on the bike, everything solid and purposeful. And it felt light. Sprinting out of the saddle or climbing hills was a revelation of what a bike should feel like. In short, the Paramount offered something close to perfection, a sublime experience of a machine perfectly matched to its function.

It made me think of my Leica M4, produced during the same year as my Paramount. From a technical perspective, hopelessly outdated, laughable almost when compared to the M10 or the D800, good only for nostalgia. In reality though, it’s just the opposite, the Paramount and the M4 two examples of machines of profound elegance, perfectly made for their intended purpose, made with an artisanal pride and built to last seemingly forever, unlike today’s “imaging devices” and 15 lb carbon fiber bikes.

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Just Shoot Me If I Ever Become This Guy

I hate nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes, old stuff is just shitty old stuff, as my Mamiya 528TL proves. I don’t ever want to become that guy with the M4 and the beret who fancies himself Josef Koudelka with all the period correct lenses etc, or the old guy with the 60’s era wool jersey and the leather helmet out for his Sunday “L’Eroica” retro ride. That attitude doesn’t befit the inherent worth of the M4 or the Paramount, two beautiful hand crafted machines that work perfectly for their intended use, and as such, are not “vintage” and will never be obsolete.

I’ve been riding the hell out of the Paramount since I’ve gotten it. It’s shined up perfectly, cleaned top to bottom, not a scratch on it, but I’m intent on riding it hard, using it for its intended purpose, much like I still use my Leica film cameras. They weren’t made to put on a shelf or hang on a wall. They were made to be used, and the pleasure of their use will prevent them from ever becoming obsolete, which is not something you can say for a camera or a bicycle you can buy new today.

The Photographer as Visual Curator

 


By Andrew Molitor. Molitor is a fellow writer on photography, variously described as iconoclastic, irrelevant, occasionally right. He swears a lot. You can find him at photothunk.blogspot.com


 

Recently, in an article in The New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm told the story of how she had included – as a joke –  an artless, banal snapshot in her book Diana and Nikon, together with a number of other photographs that had been decreed by the relevant authorities to be Art. It’s the photo above, Untitled, 1970 by G. Botsford.  Interestingly enough, as time passed, Botsford’s photo started turning up here and there as an example of the “snapshot aesthetic”, itself a work of Art.  Malcolm, via her off-hand joke,  had decreed this photograph to be Art, and now people were willing to accept that it is Art in some meaningful sense.

This is the problem when considering photography as Art. Photography is not quite what we imagine it to be. The carefully crafted Fine Print is not, after all, the only pathway to true Art. Sometimes, a photograph can become Art simply because someone – not just anyone of course, but someone with authority within the art community – says it’s Art. 

We’ve seen this before. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a signed urinal as a sculpture entitled Fountain, he was doing the same thing as Ms. Malcolm, whether tongue in cheek we’re not sure.

What then is Art, with a capital A? Is it whatever some pointy-headed fellow with a title like “curator” or “Professor of Arty Artness” says is Art? That feels a little thin, a bit like a cheat; you intuitively feel that this can’t be right. The opposite end of the spectrum claims that Art requires skill, talent, and labor. Sculptures made out of marble, formed with infinite patience and a deep understanding of the properties of stone, now that’s Art!

The latter sort of thinking belongs to people who look at photography with a lifted brow. As noted in the previous post here, it’s this thinking that drove much of the Pictorialist movement in the Victorian era, and which drives much of the urge to “post-process” digital photographs today. It can’t be any good, the mindset goes, unless it’s had a lot of work put into it.

Duchamp’s Fountain, and Malcolm’s joke, disagree. They say that Art is merely whatever you think is Art.

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In my opinion, neither of these positions is correct, although each has a sort of a piece of it, a single section view. Art is whatever creates an Art-like experience. If you look at it, and it makes you think, makes you feel, enlarges you as a human being, then it’s Art. I would contend that this isn’t purely subjective, because usually if it works for you, it probably works for other people as well, unless you’re a complete weirdo. The appropriate term here is inter-subjective. The two acts – the first declaring, from a position of authority, that something Is Art and the second working very very hard, with great skill, to make something which you hope is Art – are both acts which can imbue an object with Artness.

When confronted with Michelangelo’s David (a product of labor and skill) as well as with Duchamp’s Fountain (a product of a simple declaration) we likely experience that sensation of Art. We feel, we think, we expand a little. The category of things that are Art is a bit fuzzy, the edges are not at all well defined. Are raindrops on a rose petal Art? Perhaps not. Is David? Almost certainly.

An object of Art is perhaps as much a subject for meditation as it is anything else, It’s not wrong to consider such an object as merely a trigger for a process that occurs inside ourselves. Michelangelo’s David or the “willfully bad” snapshot attributed by Malcolm to G. Botsford can serve equally as a focus for meditation, as a trigger for our own internal search.

All this presents something of a problem for the photographer as artist. There’s no getting around it, you can take a random snapshot of your own feet and if you can persuade Larry Gagosian to put it up for sale with an immense price tag, it will indeed be Art. Your blurry foot picture can serve as that trigger for thought, it can create an Art-like experience. In that unlikely scenario you personally had nothing much to do with this, it’s pretty much all  Larry G’s work, his authority makes it Art-like. That doesn’t make it fake, though, it would, in that situation, really be Art with a capital A. Unfortunately for you, you’re probably not going to get Larry on board with your scheme.

The point to hang on to here is that there are many roads to that Art-like experience.

David would probably be pretty intense to look at, even if no art critic had ever mentioned it. The knowledge of stone, the skill with the chisel, the mastery of form were not wasted. The labor was real, and produced real results. The fact that Duchamp could, with a figurative wave of his hand, turn a urinal into a similar experience takes nothing away from Michelangelo. The well, here, does not have finite capacity.

Vast labor and skill, or the mere declaration by authority, both produce Art. By analogy, we can reason that photography’s relative ease takes nothing away from either Michelangelo, nor from the photographer. It is not necessary to labor endlessly, either mashing gum bichromate prints with your hands or fiddling around in Photoshop to make your photograph worthy of the name Art. You certainly may do either, and your labor and skill may produce results.

In its very essence, though, as I see it, photography is simply selection. Not to denigrate selection, it is in its own way every bit as worthy as making. In this case, selecting and making are two different activities, which ought to be viewed on an equal footing, neither being a poor cousin to the other.

This bears repeating: the act of photography, that act of selection should be considered as on the same moral plane as the act of creation that typifies a painting, a sculpture. Think of the photographer as a curator of the visual, selecting and interpreting a slice of the real for other’s consideration.

This is the essential worry photographers have about whether photography is Art. Contrary to the regularly scheduled articles about how it has just now been settled, Photography has been comfortably ensconced as an Art for over 100 years now, in part due to Duchamp and his urinal. We saw then that selecting something could indeed be viewed as co-equal with making something. Photography being, essentially, selecting, but with an optional and open-ended add-on of making, of creating, fits into this framework perfectly comfortably.

Many photographs are not Art. Looking at them generates no Art-like experience. Mostly, they’re not intended to, they’re just a document of someone’s holiday, someone’s lunch, someone’s coffee, someone’s child or dog.

What makes a photograph into Art? As we now know, Janet Malcolm declaring it to be so seems to do it. Ansel Adams demonstrated that putting a lot of work into prints might do it, producing quite a different Art-like experience. Robert Frank’s famous book partakes of a bit of both, being on the one hand a great deal of labor, but on the other hand made up largely of what appear to be snapshots, at least in the sense that they lack the lumbering and meticulous flavor of the Adams pictures.

At the end of the day, in order to be accepted into The Canon, one needs the imprimatur of some authority figure, but let us set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re making Art for a small enough audience, and audience that will accept at least tentatively our own statement as sufficient authority. How then to produce an Art-like experience?

We’re unlikely to be able to slip that blurry picture of our own feet past this audience, they expect, demand,  more from us generous though they might be. Our authority is not Duchamp’s, even with our friends. We are granted, perhaps, a bit of leeway by our friends. Our friends feel a certain openness and generosity, but are not willing to swallow just any old thing.

I think that we do it by selecting carefully, with genuine feeling, with genuine ideas. Ansel Adams, held up as the mighty technician, literally cannot shut up on this theme. It seems that almost every page of his famously technical trilogy repeats that a picture must be a true reflection of an emotional state. Oddly enough, the Zone System people rarely mention this. His pictures are indeed sublime (although, crush the blacks and see what happens).

If we have a real idea, a real feeling, a real something-to-communicate, and we allow our pictures to reflect that, then sometimes our work might just generate an Art-like experience to someone, somewhere. We might “get through” from time to time, and it’s that communication – the curation of the visible, and the aesthetic response of the viewer –  that creates Art.

Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 3. Revisiting the Old, Tired Question: Can Photography Be “Art”?

Untitled, 2005, (20×30 Acrylic on Canvas)

Above is a painting I did in 2005. It’s previously been exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’ in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which means the gallery owner thought it appropriate to consider as ‘Art.’ Now, irrespective of what you think of the painting and my skills as a painter, chances are you don’t find it unusual that it’s considered ‘Art’ and was offered as a work of ‘Art’ by a gallery that’s in the business of selling such things. Putting aside critical valuation, we agree that a painting is a work of ‘Art.’ I took a blank canvas, took various pigments, and using a brush I made something, a thing, physically created by me from an aesthetic idea I had in my mind. Voila! Art.

Using those same criteria, photography as an ‘Art’ form can be problematic. Photography (still and moving) is a different sort of a creative medium. It has its subjective element – what’s within the frame will always depend on someone’s choice and interpretation – but generally we consider it objective, objective in the sense that it’s a mechanical reproduction of an existing set of visual phenomena. The second characteristic – its status as an objective reproduction, a truthful documentation, the fact that it’s a mechanical means to more or less faithfully record whats “out there”, is seemingly what prevents many otherwise broad-minded people from considering it ‘Art.’

The argument- Is photography ‘Art?’ – is as old as the medium itself. Early photographers naively thought to claim it as ‘Art’ by selectively photographing “scenic” things, thus mimicking the ‘artistic’ treatment of traditional subjects of representational painting – a more exacting form of landscape painting, where the goal was fidelity to the real. Later photographers, like Alfred Steiglitz, founder of the Photo-Secessionist movement, sought to claim it as ‘Art’ by rejecting the larger definition of Art and placing it on equal footing with other forms of expression commonly considered as Art:

“Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.”

This doublespeak, of course, is just another way of claiming its status as an art form without using the loaded word itself, to my mind ample evidence that, deep down, even Steiglitz himself felt a wee bit self-conscious about claiming photography to be ‘Art.’ Much has happened since Steiglitz’s era. From an institutional perspective, photography has been presented in American art galleries and art museums since the 1970’s, when “post-modernist” photographers like Friedlander, Winogrand, Arbus and Eggleston, among others, became recognized within the larger ‘Art World.’

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Whatever the official Art World line, from a lay perspective there continues to be a common-sense resistance to claim photography as ‘Art.’ Even I, who’s been involved with photography as a creative medium for most of my life, cringe when a photographer bills him or herself as an “artist”, and I’d like to explore the philosophical underpinnings of that discomfort. I suspect it has something to do with the “handedness” we associate with Art, the requirement of creating some ex nihilo, something unique and new. A precondition of ‘Art’ is that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material, whether that material be words or tones or rock or canvas. In photography, you could argue, we’re not doing that; instead we’re recording something already existent, something  whose creation resides elsewhere. I’ve touched on this subject before in a piece entitled Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statutes Be Art?).

Untitled, 2016

How about Untitled, 2016 above? Is it ‘Art’? It’s something I did in 2016. Formally, it’s remarkably similar to Untitled, 2005 above. Like the former, it’s “modern” in the sense that it’s not representational but rather its own aesthetic reality, created from the ground up by the artist. I consider it competently drawn, its color scheme consistent and complimentary, its pictorial elements situated in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I like it, and would be pleased to have a piece like it hanging in a conspicuous place in my home or, better yet, in someone else’s home, someone who valued it enough to purchase and exhibit it. Except, its not a painting. Its a photograph, a straight-up close-up of a section of a wall of a building recently torn down in the service of progress. What I did was merely isolate it from its larger context by photographing it and, with some very minor post-processing (contrast, saturation, sharpening etc), created the finished work you see, “created it” in the sense that a series of 1’s and 0’s now resides in a certain pattern on a hard disk on my computer. Its literal creation – how those pigments came to be in the manner they are – is an unintended consequence of  building paint, weather and time.

As mentioned previously, we commonly consider a precondition of Art that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material. If this is so, then the work itself – a photograph – is problematic; have I “created” anything by simply recording it? Have I imposed form on something undifferentiated, i.e. incoherent and messy, when I photograph? Haven’t I rather just seen and selected, noted for other’s benefit as it were, something that already had a certain form, essentially simply pointing out something aesthetic that already existed, created naturally or by happenstance? Could it be the fact that I isolated the view itself be the creative act? Is that enough?

Additionally, there’s the issue of uniqueness. There’s only one of any given painting. We can reproduce it photographically, yes, but we don’t consider the reproduction to be a piece of Art. Now think about that in terms of photography. Unlike a painting, I’m able to print out my photograph in any number of sizes on any number of different media, run limited editions etc, and sell each individual print as its own work of Art. Yet, irrespective of the size or the type of medium I print it on, the underlying ‘artwork’ will be the same (or will it?). [ This has become an issue with the endless exact replicability of digital capture, as opposed to old school silver halide prints where each print is a unique individual interpretation of a negative.]

I suppose I could do the same thing with the painting i.e. photograph it and present the photographic reproduction as its own work and offer it for sale in a gallery in different sizes and on various media. Why not? Except there’s something intuitively wrong with that when we’re talking about photographic reproductions of two dimensional paintings, or so I think. What’s intuitively wrong with it are two things: first, the fact that it’s a photograph as opposed to something created ‘by hand,’ and second, that it’s not the unique created thing itself.  These facts seem to change the terms of the debate.

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A Simple Picture I Took Out My Car Window Recently. If I Hung it in a Art Gallery and Titled it Untitled 2018 Would That Make it Art?

Of course, maybe the best response, and probably the closest to the truth, is the ” Institutional” definition of Art, somewhat cynical, that holds that ‘Art’ is whatever gets exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’. We decide what it is simply by defining it as such. This is what Marcel Duchamp was claiming for Art when he exhibited a toilette bowl as part of an exhibition of his work in a gallery, asking his audience to look at the toilette bowl aesthetically by placing it in a context where we are, by definition, asked to do these things. Duchamp’s definition simply requires that there be an intent on the part of the artist to have what’s presented be seen in a certain way, even if the creative act is simply the presentation itself. What then, of things created without the aesthetic intention, where the intention can be understood as conveying the state of things at any given moment, like a photograph? Can Nick Ut’s My Lai photos be ‘Art’ if they’re viewed in an art gallery? How about the found photographs  that Melissa Cantanese put together in her book Dive Dark Dream Slow that I’ve discussed before?

To my mind, learning to think of photography as an Art Form means first to recognize in a literal sense what a photograph is. It’s a two dimensional piece of paper with “indexical” markings on it. That’s it. That’s the most an Athenian citizen of Socrates’ time (Socrates himself, for that matter) or some primitive man pulled out of the forest in Papua, New Guinea, would be capable of seeing it as, because they’d not have the conceptual (as opposed to he intellectual) ability to do so, that conceptual ability given to us by the social, cultural and technical knowledge which we possess and which is a precondition to understanding it as something more. Without this embedded knowledge – what we take for granted – they literally couldn’t see the representational nature of the photo. They’d simply see the thing itself – the flattened 12×18 2 dimensional thing with a certain form embedded as part of it.

Somewhat paradoxically, I think it’s this two dimensional reality of photographs that opens the way to seeing them as ‘Art.’ Abstract painting only started making sense to me when I started thinking in non-representational terms, when I accepted the notion that paintings don’t need to be a transcription of anything; they can just be what they are, a thing, something with no function other than being its own reality. It’s what art historians term an understanding of the painting’s inherent “flatness.” Photos can be the same way. Forget for a second that Untitled 2016 was produced by a camera and in some sense depends on an existing visual arrangement contained somewhere “out there”; We can choose to see it as we’d see Untitled 2005. Just look at it, try to see what’s literally in front of you. Stop thinking of it as referencing something else. Just let it be itself. Analyse it in those terms. For that matter, there’s nothing keeping us from seeing Untitled 2018 in the same way…or is there?


This is the third in an ongoing series about philosophical issues and what they might have to say about photography. Part One can be found here, Part Two here.