Category Archives: Documentary Photography

Help a Brother Out, Part Deux

A few days ago I asked whether anyone would be interested in buying a book of pictures taken out of my car window. I figured I could guilt-trip a few of you into buying one. Surprisingly, between reader’s comments and private emails I’ve had over 70 readers request a copy and numerous folks asking for more than one. That’s really nice of you, and I truly appreciate it.

I’m not in this to make money. I’m good, thank you. What I am interested in is getting my work out there to people who might enjoy it, or learn something from it, or teach me something about it. My sole criterion in putting together the book is quality; quality of the photography and quality of the physical book itself – not some shitty POD book but a professionally done work that highlights the best of almost 50 years of snapping photos from the car. No throw-away images to pad out the work – I started with over 200 photos and edited down to +/- 80 final images. The criteria for inclusion of a given photo were three-fold: 1) does it work standing on its own; and, if so, 2) does it work as part of a larger narrative; and, if so, 3) is there a logical place within the sequencing where it maintains these two strengths? If I could answer Yes to all three questions, it’s in the book; if not, even if it’s a great single image, I tossed it. I tossed a lot, under the theory that usually less is more.

Much of it is film photography, much of it taken with a Leica of some sort, but that’s not the point. The point is to present traditional B&W photography that depends not on technical gimmickry but rather on the strength of the images themselves and what they both denote and connote, both as stand-alone works and as they’re sequenced into a loose narrative. I say ‘loose’ because photo books that focus too tightly tend not to interest me past a cursory viewing. The photobooks I keep coming back to – masterpieces like Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity – respect the viewer enough to allow him/her to create the narrative. For the same reason, there won’t be much text. You get enough of that here. In this sense, it aspires to be “Leica photography” in the best sense – quick shots caught on the run that say something, less dependent on technique than the photographer’s vision. If you’re looking for a photobook pimping for Leica or purporting to highlight the strengths of the Leica camera or optics, go elsewhere; this ain’t it. It’s not about the camera; it’s about the images.

Trim size will be 10×8 inches (width 10 inches, height 8 inches), paper heavyweight photo stock quality, sewn bindings, linen hardcover, +/- 120 pages with +/- 80 Black and White photos reproduced via CMYK printing. I’m making a limited edition run of 80 copies.

Price of the book will be $35/shipped within the US, $45/shipped worldwide.

I’ve started a “GoFundMe” site here, where you can contribute. Your contribution there will serve as your payment for the book itself. Of course, if you want to contribute less than $35, you’re welcome as well, but that would be sort of stupid because you wouldn’t be getting the book. Of course, you’re welcome to contribute as much as you want, but I don’t expect it and, if you’re feeling remarkably generous and contribute, say, $350, I’m sending you ten books.

I’ve seen proofs of a mock-up, and, it’s pretty good, not to blow my own horn or anything. It works. The last thing I’m going to do is send out bad work. Who knew photos out car windows could be so cool?

Help a Brother Out

Above is a dummy copy of the cover of a book of b&w photographs I’m intending to publish. The tentative title of the book is Car Sick. The book’s premise is simple: it will contain photographs I’ve either 1) taken from my car, or 2) got out of the car to take i.e. it’s a view from the car. Specifically, it’s a view of America from the car.

While containing an introduction written by a third party, it will be minimal. There will be minimal text throughout, as I find photo books that tackle and pin their subjects via forced explanation to be of minimal interest. The photos will be sequenced and presented in a manner that suggests a narrative, with appropriate design and production to allow the message to be accessible to the viewer…but you’ll have to work too. My intent is to engage the viewer visually, emotionally and intellectually with a mixture of beauty, banality, sentiment, and formal abstraction.

  • The book will be +/- 140 pages with +/- 80 photographs.
  • Trim size will be 10 inches (width) x 8 inches (height, spine)
  • Photo printing: 4-color on 80# matte Titan white, 510 PPI.
  • Pages: 10 pt C1S/heavy white stock (120gms) with matte layflat lamination, bleeds, prints one side only.
  • Cover: Hardcover linen with jacket
  • Spine width: 0.2901 inches
  • Binding: PUR perfect section sown bind.

I’m not thinking of the work as a ‘book of photos;’ rather the book, the physical, three-dimensional object, is the work. Physical quality – how the book itself appears and feels – will be of paramount importance. This won’t be a POD (“print on demand”) or standardized ‘Blurb’ book; the type of book cannot be arbitrarily chosen and then the content stuck into it. The book will be a thoroughly considered production – content (editing and sequence), the mise-en-page, choice of paper stock, reproduction quality, text, typeface, binding and jacket design all considered in how such choices interact to produce the finished work.

After much back and forth, I’ve decided to self-publish i.e. I’m not going to hire a book agent to solicit a Publisher and jump through their editorial hoops for a limited production run when the internet offers me considerable resources as a self-publisher.

It will be produced by Bookmobile Printing in Minneapolis, which produces fine-art books for museums and galleries among others. I chose them for the following reasons: First, books are their only business. They are artists immersed in the world of books, and every single step of the process (with the exception of the manufacturing of the metal dies for foil stamping and larger hardcover runs) is done in house. As such, they are able to carefully oversee each element of book production and constantly maintain the highest quality standards.

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Defining the audience for a photo book is incredibly important when soliciting potential publishers. In fact, it may be the most important factor. I’ve got a built-in potential audience for the work, a function of cranking out this blog for 6 years. As such, self-publishing makes sense. Most aspiring photographers make the mistake of assuming their potential audience much larger than it in fact is. In truth, small fine-art publishers often print runs of 500 copies or less, with recognized masters selling, at best, 3000 copies. This is especially true of idiosyncratic subject matter like photos out of car windows.

Who is the book’s audience? You. Readers of Leicaphilia.

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Give me this much: I’ve written over 400 posts for you, some of it marginally thought-provoking, all of it ad-free. I’ve never begged for your money. I’ve deliberately chosen not to monetize this website so as not to insult your intelligence or to guilt-trip you into a “donation.” That’s tacky and demeaning, both of me and you; we’re better than that. I write Leicaphilia as a labor of love. No remuneration needed or required. And I’m grateful for the readership I have.

So, my question is this: Let’s assume I do enough of a print run to justify selling individual copies for $30 US. Hell, I’ll probably lose money at that price, but that’s OK. Add $5 US shipping within the US, $15 US shipping to Europe/Asia. How many of you would buy Car Sick?

Car Sick

I love taking photos from car windows. They’re the sort of views people don’t give much thought to and so rarely think to photograph. Yet, many of us are in our cars for a substantial part of our day, and much of what we see is mediated through the car window.

I’m intending to publish a book of photographs out of car windows. I’ve begun the process of winnowing down what works and what doesn’t. Like all photography grouping, much of it is dependent on context and sequencing. Narrative focus is what separates good work from bad.

The initial question, before questions of context, is the innate quality of the photo itself – does it stand on its own in terms of form and/or content? This leads to issues of the larger connective theme of the work – is it content i.e. all photos taken out of car windows, or is it formal similarity i.e. a certain ‘look,’ or aesthetic? My sense is it should be both.

With that in mind, here are a few in no specific order or context. I see them as having the potential to anchor a large narrative that extends the subject both in content and formal coherence.

Josef Koudelka’s Wristwatch

Josef Koudelka, Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM

The view is in black and white, the grainy look of 1960’s era black and white film so typical of the journalistic photography of the time. The photo has the greyish cast of an overcast central European late-afternoon, what’s left of the day’s sun hidden somewhere behind a sky of low, scuttering clouds. Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer taking the photo, has framed the photo horizontally in a 2:3 format, a function of the 35mm film used by the Exacta camera he was known to use throughout the ’60s. The photo is a view onto Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia on the afternoon of August 22, 1968. 5:01 PM to be precise. The photographer’s perspective seems to be a few floors up, seemingly in the middle of the Square itself, probably standing atop whatever monument graces the center of the Square.

Wenceslas Square, stretching out to a vanishing point, is empty, devoid of automobile or pedestrian traffic, although there are a few tiny, out-of-focus bystanders at the lower-left edge of the frame, some of them crouched together in what looks like commiseration of some sort. In the close foreground, a disembodied arm with wristwatch intrudes into the frame from the lower left, the watch face and the arm’s clenched fist positioned in the lower middle of the frame where it draws the viewer’s eye as the first plane of focus, but low enough that one’s glance wants to shift fore and aft, first the arm and wrist, then the Square behind, then the wrist again and the watch with its face on display. Presumably, the arm and fist and wristwatch belong to the photographer. The wristwatch says the time is 5:01.

Absent context, it’s unclear what this photo is asking of the viewer. The choice of black and white points to a documentary intent, although the view offered by Koudelka is banal, confusing, without an easily identified subject on which to focus. The camera’s optical focus is on the arm; the compositional focus seems to be both the Square and the watch, although, without further context, we’re not given any clues to make sense of which might have priority or what the relationship is, if any, between the two subject planes. While there’s a superficial inertia to the composition created by the compositional elements – no visible movement to be seen – upon closer viewing there’s a balanced tension radiating from the composition, a tension charged with potential energy that suggests something is about to happen, soon. The wristwatch, its minute hand in a wonky, off-axis position, connotes not stasis, but its opposite, an impending action about to shatter the delicate equilibrium of the captured moment. What it is that’s going to happen seems to be in the balance. The truth of the photo seems to be a function of the past, the present, and the future, whether it be more of what appears to be a temporary lull or rather of developing conflict and sinister atrocity. It’s as if the photographer, and us as viewers, are waiting for something to happen to help us finally make sense of what we see.

Determining anything more from within the four corners of the photo is futile. To understand what Koudelka is trying to tell us, we need context.

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On Wednesday, August 20, 1968, soldiers from the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and occupied the Czech capital of Prague. The invasion was led Soviet troops at the behest of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in response to the spontaneous Czechoslovak socio-political movement called the “Prague Spring,” wherein Czechoslovakia’s Communist leadership experimented with various political and social reforms deemed unacceptably liberal by Soviet standards.

Via a declaration by Czech leaders conveyed to the “People of Prague” by radio on the morning of August 21, both the Czech Army and Czech citizenry were ordered to stand down and not engage in any provocation or retaliation, as such would be counter-productive to the stated aims of the Prague Spring: “We call upon the people of Prague, in particular, the workers – Prevent any possible provocation! At this moment, defense by force is impossible! Our defense must be a dignified, prudent approach, unswerving loyalty to the process we began in January! In response, the Czech citizens who flooded the streets of Prague restricted their outrage to shouting slogans and peaceful resistance. Yet, as more residents crowded into the streets and surrounded the invader’s tanks and troop transports, Soviet soldiers fired into the crowd, killing a number of Czechs. Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders were arrested and removed to locations outside Prague and martial law was declared throughout the country, including a ban on public assembly. By that night, given limited knowledge of the Soviet dictated curfew, the occupying forces were driving their vehicles into the crowds and shooting random protestors who remained on the streets.

The next morning, August 22, Prague’s streets were empty. But as the day progressed, the news spread that there was to be a massive demonstration on Wenceslas Square at five o’clock. It was, in fact, a Soviet provocation, meant to provide a justification for the occupiers to crack down further. Warsaw Pact tanks and troop transports idled in the streets outside the Square, awaiting the arrival of what was expected to be massive crowds of Czech resisters. Czech Radio, still in the hands of Czech partisans, pleaded with its listeners to stay inside; the alternative would be a massacre. The question was – would the residents of Prague stay home?  

At 5:01 Koudelka took the photo. His wristwatch tells you as much.

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There are two aspects of ethics implicated in the practice of conflict photography: 1) the doing of it, i.e. can the practice itself be justified ethically, or is it, as critics claim, inherently voyeuristic and exploitative; and 2), if it can be justified ethically, is a justification dependent on the specifics of the practice i.e. are some ways of doing conflict photography ethically justified while others are not?

The ethical premise which justifies conflict photography as a practice is this: the photographer will be a passive observer of what’s happening in return for being able to document it.  This presupposes a stance of non-intervention on the part of the photographer, whose role as witness precludes active participation in what’s being witnessed. This is what allows the photographer to stand passively aside while a Viet Cong prisoner is summarily executed on a Saigon street, or as an emaciated child lies helpless in the dirt while a vulture hovers nearby, waiting for the inevitable.  The act of documenting is meant to serve a higher ethical purpose, that of educating others about what’s happening, with the understanding that the knowledge imparted by the photographer’s witness will motivate others to act.

Those others are us, the viewers. As such, we’re implicated ethically as well. The unsettling reality we’re confronted with is not simply the photographer’s ethical obligation but ours as viewers. Our response, however, is dependent to a large extent on what we’re given by the photographer. The photographer is the curator of what the viewer will see and how they will see it. The photographer must choose what to show and what not to show. This is where his power lies, it’s part of his obligation in the process, and it’s where the second ethical aspect of the practice of conflict photography is implicated. How a photographer ‘frames’ what he is presenting will constrain the potential range of viewer response. By ‘framing’, I mean both the technical specifics of the photo, but also what is chosen to be seen and what is chosen not to be seen, and, to my mind, what’s most important, the context within which the photo is presented. If the ultimate end of conflict photography practice is to activate an ethical response from the viewer, then the photographer’s responsibility is to present what’s being documented in a manner both factually and ethically true to the narrative the photographer is ‘documenting.’

Conflict photography, by definition, always has a didactic purpose. This is true, to some extent, of all photography. A photo isn’t simply a statement of fact; it is always, in some sense, an argument. As Susan Sontag notes in her monograph Regarding the Pain of Others, it is “both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.” It’s only within a context that the photo can serve the purpose presupposed by the premise. A photo without context quickly floats free of any meaning imposed upon it by the photographer. If a photo isn’t given form by a narrative sequence, or description, or accompanying text, then it’s the viewer who will bring that context to the photo. And ultimately, if the viewer is left to impose meaning on the conflict photo without guidance from the photographer, the photographer has abdicated his/her ethical responsibility.

Given the didactic purpose of conflict photography, the issue of rhetorical strategy has always occupied a necessary role in the genre. Magnum Photos was founded with a moral perspective on injustice which was specific to its mission. Magnum photographer Abbas Attar, better known by his mononym ‘Abbas’, reflects the means to that end when he says “I am interested in the world, sure, but also in my vision of the world…I try to show my point of view.” As for the specific content of Magnum’s mission, Magnum member Philip Jones Griffiths epitomizes the didactic tendency of Magnum’s photography: “There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life.”

As the genre has progressed – from the ‘Heroic’ WW2 images of Capa, Chim and Rodgers to the ‘Ironic’ images of Larry Burrows’ Viet Nam era work, to 90’s era work of Giles Peress and Susan Meisalas  – conflict photographers’ rhetorical strategies have become more self-consciously evident, more an obvious feature of the work. This has been the consequence both of the imagery itself, the images “more dynamic,” the pictorial emphasis on the action of conflict itself, and, with the passing of the photo magazines like Life and Look, the narrative structures in which those images have been placed. Where Life era photographers were often constrained by the editorial prerogatives of military authority and the publishing magazine, more recent conflict photographers have the ability to publish extended photo monographs that highlight their unique ethical perspectives uncompromised by bureaucratic, social or military obstruction.

In spite of the stated ethical emphasis of recent conflict photography, much of it, when wrenched out of context, as it too often is, seems gratuitous, appealing to a viewer’s baser human motives. A glimpse of an image, usually of graphic violence and human suffering, shorn of the context the viewer would need to properly understand it, appeals to viewers’ baser motives and serves no real purpose but to titillate. Traditional conflict photography tropes that utilize images of atrocity are often counter-productive, exploiting those they mean to advocate for by re-victimizing them, while causing compassion fatigue for viewers. The “forensic aesthetic”, currently in vogue, where victim and violence remain outside the frame and the photographer documents the spaces associated with the conflict, is a response to such criticisms.

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I’ve long been an admirer of Josef Koudelka’s photography. A member of Magnum, he’s been producing exceptional photojournalistic work since the early 1960s, most notably his depictions of Roma (“Gypsy”) culture, which Magnum published in book form in 1975, and his documentation, at great personal risk, of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in 1968. Koudelka brings a unique aesthetic to his documentary work, producing some of the most beautiful and sumptuous film photography of his era. While he considers himself a photojournalist, his works can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others. It’s the tension between his aesthetics and his subject matter that gives Koudelka’s work its bite, but it also leaves him open to the standard criticisms of any documentary work that retains a strong imprint of the documentarian’s subjective eye.

Koudelka’s Wenceslas Square photo is one of his most reproduced. It’s often found in anthologies of his work, one of the iconic photos for which he is known. This has always confused me, because my exposure to it has been within the context of my appreciation of Koudelka as an artist, someone whose work I appreciated for its formal beauty and coherence. Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM, doesn’t possess the grand aesthetic beauty Koudelka is known for. It appears uncontrived, almost accidental in its form, more of a throw-away than most of his mannered work. To put it simply, it isn’t that good of a photo if one’s criterion is formal interest. Yet, it’s considered one of his iconic photos.

The reason, of course, is context, or the lack thereof. To understand and appreciate the photo the viewer must be privy to the historical, social and political context within which the photo operates. You’ve got to know the backstory, the specifics of the conflicting parties, the historical, social and political currents that are in the process of intersecting in Wenceslas Square in Prague on August 22, 1968, at 5:01 in the afternoon. If you have that context, the photo is now charged with meaning. It makes sense. You can understand what Josef Koudelka is trying to tell you.

Ostensibly, Koudelka’s subject is an “old style” subject, the heroic resistance of a nascent democratic movement with world-historical consequences. Much of Koudelka’s Prague Spring work retains that traditional didactic style, the style made famous by Capa and Chim and Rodgers. But the photo in question – the Wenceslas Square photo – has more in common with current forensic approaches. Koudelka has always been a cerebral photographer, and at some level, he meant this simple, uncontrived photo to possess a conceptual complexity that would require de-coding by the viewer, much like what’s required of current forensic approaches. Why else place that forearm and watch as a central pictorial element? I read the photo as Koudelka’s rejoinder to the ethical problems inherent in conflict photography. It’s conflict photography as meta-narrative, a conflict photo that comments on the practice of conflict photography itself.

 Superficially, the photo is a factual description – ‘this is what Wenceslas Square looks like at this time’. No coherent story is denoted, no Romantic trope of sacrifice or heroism. No encouragement of broader connotative issues. No good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. It leaves the didactic message, if any, embedded in the broader context within which the photo exists.

The photo itself is sui generis, there’s no falling back on previous tropes or personal signatures. It is screaming for context, a context that the photograph, standing on its own, can’t provide. Koudelka seems to be playing on this issue of context, his photo, standing by itself, a black box, indecipherable as to motive or allegiances, a screen onto which the viewer must project their passions, beliefs, and biases if they’re to make any sense of it.

The indecipherability is accentuated by the absence of action. It makes the viewer think, question. Whatever the photograph’s attraction, it isn’t dependent on titillation nor is it exploitative in any way. The photo suggests dynamic forces operating underneath the surface calm. What those forces are, and what message they reveal, waits for the context in which they operate. In this respect, it’s honest, deferring to the inherent limitations of conflict photography and, in effect, utilizing them to comment on the practice itself. It’s almost as if Koudelka is posing himself – and his viewers – a question.

Through all of this there’s a person behind the camera, the person with the arm and the watch, presumably the person of Koudelka who ‘takes’ the photo. Koudelka is reminding us that photos aren’t disembodied statements of fact; they are subjective views, the result of infinite choices made by the photographer – where to be, when to be there, what to include, what not to include. ‘Oh, and by the way, don’t forget I’m back here, staging all of this for you’, he seems to be saying.

Holy Week, Part 2

Consider this the second part of my previous Holy Week post [I’d link to it but the “new, improved” WordPress software doesn’t allow me to do even basic things without incredible hassles. Suffice it to say that it totally sucks, and explains, why, among other things, I’ve been unable to give many of my posts ‘Catagory’ tags]. Go back a few posts and you’ll find it. There, I had posted a series of photos taken with a medium format film camera, a Fuji GS690. The photos had subsequently been tweaked to get them to look like I wanted them to look.

The bulk of the photos I’d taken that week were taken with a Leica M4 loaded with HP5 and pushed to 1600 ISO. I subsequently found a number of scans I’d done from those 35mm negatives – straight scans without much manipulation. Of course, the scanned files of the best 3 or 4 of the entire series were corrupted, so I’m unable to post them. I do, however, have the negatives, So I can go back and re-scan them, which is something I couldn’t do if I was dealing with native digital files.

The point of posting these photos is to note the difference one’s choice of format can make for a given subject. The 6×9 negatives are huge and produce beautifully detailed prints with subtle tones and gradations. The 35mm negatives obviously produce a much rawer look, grainy and indistinct. My intent was to use those specific characteristics to my benefit. I chose to shoot night scenes in available light with the M4, all handheld at very low shutter speeds. That’s how I envisioned the subject, sort of mysterious and furtive. At the risk of showing you my failures, this is what I came up with.

While I love the photo that leads off the piece, the rest is, at best, hit and miss, or, to put it bluntly, they don’t work. In retrospect, the day-time medium format photos are far superior insofar as they allowed me to document what I saw in the manner I saw it, albeit with the posthumous aide of digital software manipulation. Same subject, same photographer, different film format and camera, remarkably different output. The camera sometimes does matter.

Send Her Back

I live in North Carolina. It’s a Southern state that’s traditionally been considered “progressive” as far as Southern states go. It has an admirable history of having established and funded the United State’s first public university, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which, to this day, is considered one the America’s premier research universities. It’s what brought me to North Carolina 37 years ago as a graduate student in the humanities, which was one of the best things I ever did. The state proudly refers to Chapel Hill as “The University of the People” and until recently purposefully kept tuition low so that bright kids from modest families had access to a world-class education, every bit the equal of the education plutocrat’s kids received 8 miles away at Duke University, an uber-expensive elite university in Durham. Chapel Hill (read: the State of North Carolina) educated me as both a historian and an attorney, allowing me entrance to their flagship University and essentially paying my way. I’ve since attended both Duke and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but my emotional loyalties will always remain in North Carolina with the good people whose generosity enabled this working-class boy to receive a world-class education.

When I first arrived in North Carolina, it was a solidly Democratic state, both urban and rural. That started to change in the 90’s as the divide between city and country intensified. Within the last 15 years, state government has become solidly Republican, the rural areas gaining power through gerrymandering at the expense of the urban majority. North Carolina voted for Obama twice, but in 2016 voted for Trump. There’s a reason for that. While urban areas like Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte prosper, rural North Carolina is in a death spiral – no jobs, failing education, willful ignorance and reactionary evangelical religion mutually reinforcing each other. It’s sad to see, but it’s the reality.

I mention all this because American politics is currently being roiled by a new nativism, the kind that used to tell people they could love America…or leave it. Our latest jingoism is of the “Send Her Back” variety, an unfortunate chant taken up by folks at a recent Donald Trump rally, addressed to a Somali-born American congresswoman from Minnesota at odds with Trumpism. The whole thing has, rightfully so, gotten a lot of media attention, not all of it good for North Carolina, given it occurred at a Trump rally in …. Greenville, North Carolina, a medium-sized town in rural eastern North Carolina. I cringed when I heard it had happened there, for two reasons: first, I love North Carolina and am grateful to it for all it’s done for me. My North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham) is diverse, inclusive, forward-thinking…and affluent and so unlike what most folks might think of the state based on this; and second, I’m familiar with eastern North Carolina and Greenville in particular…and I like the people there. It’s beautiful country, and the folks who live there are nice people, friendly, pleasant courteous and always ready to help when I’m stranded on the side of the road with a flat bicycle tire.

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I’ve spent the last few years taking photos throughout eastern North Carolina while biking its country roads. No need for a Leica or dedicated camera. The iPhone is the perfect documentarian’s tool – always with you when you need it, the images more than acceptable for journalistic applications. This weekend I finally figured how to download them from iCloud (why does everything digital have to be so fucking complicated?) and I worked a few up in Lightroom. My intent is to put together a series of photographs that somehow tell a truth about the people who live in eastern North Carolina and felt it OK to chant “Send Her Back” at a political rally. That’s what good photojournalism does, and I’m convinced there’s still room for it. Pictures sometimes tell truths that can’t be conveyed with words. Compelling issues like what’s happening politically in America are not simple to explain or understand. Sometimes seeing can inform us in ways words can’t. I hope the photos I’ve chosen do that.

Sometimes….

….I just don’t feel it.

I am currently completely and utterly bereft of ideas. I’m experiencing the flipside of creative inspiration. I literally have nothing to say. I’m assuming it’s something that every creative person experiences – creative stagnation. I’ve currently got it bad. So, what more appropriate thing to do than write about it.

I’ve been sitting on the following thought for some time now, having had written it out and, like how I usually write, expected the rest to then write itself:


“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” Rene Magritte

19th Century French Poet Stéphane Mallarmé (aka Étienne Mallarmé), said there were two kinds of languages: parol brute, which named things, and parole essentielle, which was language in the abstract, language that distanced us from things. Brute language aided in representing things; essential language created the fictive, self-referential realities of consciousness. For Mallarmé, parole essentielle was the language of all Art, for all Art was ultimately self-recognition, self-recovery, self-remembering, processes which were as mysterious as Being itself. It’s a distinction we as photographers intuitively understand, the distinction in photography between reportage and Art.


Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything to add to flesh out what I consider to be an essential point about creativity made by Mallarmé. Ironically, maybe the fact that I have nothing to say proves his point – creativity is ultimately self-referential i.e. it’s about what’s going on in your consciousness, not what’s going on around you. Thus, I agree with the poet Charles Simic: when the world or the people in it make no sense, the best you can do is keep quiet and listen to the silence of the night. Or, as Paul Ricoeur said, “Something must be for something to be said.”

But Art is also about experiences language can’t get at. Martin Heidegger would say that the truth of Being cannot be uttered – language can only hint at it. Writing is, at best, a rough translation of the wordless truth into words. Can visual representations like photography better get at the essential nature of things? Heidegger would say no, visual art can’t translate Being either, but it can get us closer than the written or spoken word. The gap between Seeing and Being is less than that of Saying and Being. In this, Heidegger is a Wittgensteinian….to a point. The labor of the visual artist – you, the photographer – is to point to what can’t be put into words. Notice, however, the act of pointing isn’t the truth itself.

With that in mind, below (and the one above) are a few photos I took while out on a bike ride the other day. They are images made during a fleeting moment when something I saw sparked a self-recognition, a self-remembering. Articulating it further wouldn’t be of much use even if I could, which I can’t without sliding into untruth. Truth matters. That’s the cool thing about photography: you get to point to truths you can’t put into words. But, as Mallarmé understands, there’s the truth with eyes open and then there’s the truth with eyes closed, and they’re often two distinct things.

 

The Myth of the Superfast Lens

Sigma sd Quattro, ISO 100, f 2.8 Handheld

I’ve been engaged in an ongoing documentary project, photographing the grounds and buildings of the Dorothea Dix State Mental Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. (The photos that illustrate this piece are of the hospital director’s residence, now abandoned). The Dix campus is a stunningly beautiful piece of property that sits on the edge of downtown Raleigh. The city has been eyeing it for years, hoping to raze the hospital and buildings and convert the grounds to a public park. With the push to de-institutionalize mental health sufferers, the hospital and its numerous support buildings currently sit empty, falling into disrepair while waiting to be bulldozed and replaced with luxury hotels and manicured lawns.

I often walk my dog on the property, and when I do, I’ll usually make a point of taking a camera along with me, if for no other reason than it makes me look – really look – at what’s around me, and it affords the opportunity of recording it for posterity. One thing I’ve learned in 50 years of photographing things is that the things you most take for granted – the things you expect to always be there – are the things that ultimately aren’t. Time has a peculiar way of transforming the most ‘permanent’ of things.

I think, for example, of the year I spent in lower Manhattan in 1978, walking almost daily through the World Trade Center Plaza on my way to school on Broadway just north of the Twin Towers. I usually carried a camera – I was on my way to and from Art School studying photography – and yet I never bothered to photograph what was right in front of me because it all seemed so obvious, so blindingly ‘there’. In all my negatives from that time I find one photo – one – of the WTC towers, a basic tourist snap of the buildings themselves. In hindsight, I’d been given an incredible gift – and I’d squandered it. This, of course, is how we learn, if we learn at all. Often the most effective pedagogy is regret at missed opportunities.

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Sigma sd Quattro, ISO 100, f 2.8 Handheld 1/30th Second

As I’d expected to remain outside in the late-afternoon sun, I’d taken my Sigma sd Quattro with 17-50 2.8. Not exactly the camera I’d have taken were I expecting to be photographing inside, given the Sigma’s reputation for lack of usability at higher ISOs ( I most profitably use it at 100 ISO), but I’d tried a back door to the residence, found it open, and knew I’d probably not have  the opportunity again, so in I went (missed opportunities and all that). All of the photos used to illustrate this piece were shot handheld at 100 ISO…with an f 1:2.8 lens. Indoors obviously. The point being, it can be done. Those of us raised shooting film became quite adept at it. We had to. Either that or we lugged a tripod around with us, which wasn’t always an option.

Which is all preface to a larger issue – the digital age’s fetish for large aperture lenses. Like most fetishes, it can’t be justified rationally. It makes no sense. In the digital age, when hyper ISO is a reality (10,000 ISO being common), there simply is no need for them. None, other than to pimp the one-trick pony that is ‘bokeh,’ which, to my eyes, is the single worst visual affectation brought about by digital capture. Suffice it to say that, as a general rule, the more you rely on bokeh to make your photographs interesting, the shittier the photographer you are. Full stop.

Back in the film era, high-speed lenses served a purpose. Most usable film stocks maxed out at 400 ASA. Tri-X and HP-5 – 400 ASA box speed films – were considered ‘fast’ films preferable for low-light handheld work. 10,000 ISO was a thing of science fiction, akin to flying cars. We learned to work within the parameters of the limitations of the technology. We became ‘photographers.’

The Noctilux: A $12000 Photographic Affectation.  If You’re Rockin One of These in the Digital Age, Freud Would Say You’re Probably Insecure About the Size of Your Penis

It was these constraints that led to the production of high-speed lenses. It wasn’t for the bokeh. They were made and used for a reason – to maximize one’s ability to shoot in low light. Doing so was usually a two-fold strategy. Push your Tri-X or HP5 to 1600 ASA, and use the fastest lens – usually an f 1:1.4. If you had unlimited funds, you’d take advantage of the speed gain of the Noctilux or the Nikkor 50 1:1.2, but you usually did so only as a last measure, given the optical compromises inherent in large aperture lenses. Best bet was to learn to shoot handheld, which, with some practice, was easily doable down to 1/15th/sec with a 50mm lens and even lower with a 28mm.

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Given the above, I find it a delicious irony that high-speed optics are now all the rage. Were you to believe what you read on the enthusiast websites, any optic f2 or above is inferior. Serious photographers rock big aperture lenses. The irony, of course, is that we no longer need them. Lower light? Just jack up the ISO. Understanding this, and fighting the ‘common knowledge’ that says you need a Noctilux allows you the use of generally better optics, optics that just happen to be much less expensive because they’re so much cheaper to produce. You can buy the VC 35mm 1:2.5, a super sharp, contrasty modern lens if there ever was one, for $300; or you can buy the optically inferior VC 35mm 1:1.2 for 4 times the price. Your choice. Using an M10, it won’t make any difference in terms of low light ability. None. What the 2.5 will give you is sharper photos, all at 1/4th the price. Hell, it even has decent bokeh.