“Have a point of departure” – Dorothea Lange (and Ralph Gibson)
Above is a photo of a portion of a statute that sits in the Jardins du Trocadero directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. I’ve long been intrigued by Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris from the turn of the century, so once there I went around trying to do the same thing. Atget, a commercial photographer, spent his career in anonymity documenting Paris and environs with an 8×10 view camera. In addition to photographing streets, courtyards, cafes and city denizens, he photographed a lot of architectural details…and statuary. Lot’s of statuary. Like Vivian Maier, his work was “discovered” by someone who made it know to the wider world after his death.
John Szarkowski, photography writer and curator of photography at the Met in New York, published a book about Atget wherein he claims Atget not merely a great 20th century photographer but “one of the great artists of the 20th Century.” The book Atget, published by the Museum of Modern Art, contains 100 duotone and tritone photos, most of people-less fixed scenes, statuary included. Below is the jacket’s cover photo:
What’s interesting, given the acclamation of Atget as a “great artist,” is that Atget didn’t consider himself an ‘Artist,’ He never tried to manipulate his photographs to reflect a specific artistic sensibility or any defined artistic principle. He was a working photographer trying to document things as accurately as possible. Yet it’s hard to argue with those who claim him to be an ‘Artist.’ His best work has an immense formal beauty somehow apart, or more precisely added onto, the formal beauty of his subjects.
Jardin des Tuileries, Paris
Above is a picture of a statute in the Tuileries. You could argue that it’s not the same as Atget’s; the photographer (me) attempted to impose some sort of individual sensibility onto the subject. Its a pretty straight shot…shot with a Nikon D100 modified for IR use. The only “sensibility” I brought to the photo was the composition and the choice of IR. It isn’t a straight document. Could I call it ‘Art?’ The reason I ask is because a lot of otherwise sophisticated viewers might chafe at calling Atget’s photos Art. I assume they’d say that any aesthetic value found in the photos inheres in the subject itself and not the photograph of it.
Jardin des Tuileries, Paris
Above is another photo of the same statute in the Tuileries, this time with other formal and documentary elements the photographer has chosen to include. It’s easier to claim this for ‘Art,’ because I’ve presented the pictorial elements so that their relation to each other suggests a meaning, might hint at something more than what simply appears in the picture.
What about the Trocadero photo that opens the piece? Same thing, or different? I’ve got a 16×20 platinum print of it hanging in my office. I love it. Is it a photo f a thing – a documentary record – or is it itself it’s own creation when considered apart from the content? It speaks to me both formally and emotionally. I’m sure other people, visitors to my home, have looked at it and thought of it only as a snapshot of a Parisian statute I’m inordinately fond of, when in fact what I see is a photograph with its own aesthetic worth apart from the specific subject.
In my last post I’d referenced a few photos I’d taken on a recent walk. The premise of the piece is that everyday things can possess a formal beauty. What’s important is that you be open to it. I used a couple of photos I’d taken while walking dog to illustrate. What I hadn’t mentioned was that one of the photos, the one I’d used to open the piece, had been germinating in my mind for some time. I’d walked past the subject daily; I’d eyed it a thousand times, each time thinking “I need to photograph that.” I finally got around to doing it. I love what I got. A 16×20 is going on a wall somewhere, for no other reason than it speaks to me. Maybe it’s my eye as a painter that’s allowed me to abstract from the objective, public nature of things ‘out there’ and consider them in their formal natures. Maybe it’s my formative years having been fascinated by Walker Evan’s photography, Evans being much like Atget in his sensibilities and aims. Maybe I’m just a photographic hack massively overthinking all of this, or worse yet palming off my cliched photos as ‘Art.’ Damned if I know.
I love this. It’s Gonna Hang on my Wall Somewhere
“The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious.” Lester Bangs
I love that quote. Let’s assume, for sake of argument, that photography can be ‘Art’ and that those who do it can be “artists.”
Photography should be fun. It should come from a place of ease and spontaneity. If it comes from your head instead of your heart, it’ll likely be forced. If it’s forced, it won’t be very good. This doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work. That’s the paradox of it. Good work is hard…but it usually comes easily. When I’m “seeing” it seems everywhere. When I’m not, it’s nowhere to be found. At the risk of sounding metaphysical, I’m a firm believer in one’s muse, an animating creative force that comes and goes on its own volition. The trick is to take advantage of it when it’s present. It’s a free gift you can’t expect on schedule.
It being a lazy Sunday morning, I intended to stay in bed, enjoy a cup of coffee (maybe a demitasse of calvados on the side) and read. I’ve recently commenced reading back issues of Aperture Magazine, which I’ve subscribed to for at least 25 years, although I hadn’t really read an issue in the proper sense since Fall, 1999, instead filing them for later perusal on the bookshelves dedicated to photography. Now suddenly inspired, I’ve committed to catching up on 20 years (that’s 80 issues). Sunday morning in bed, sipping calvados, seemed as good a time as any. Buddy the dog had other ideas. Traditionally, Sunday is his day for the extra-special, extra-long walk off-leash on the Dorothea Dix Campus grounds. I know it. He knows it. And he knows that I know. To let me know he knew that I knew, he picked up one of my walking shoes, jumped on the bed and dropped it in front of me. Then he stared. This went on until I complied by asking him the totally rhetorical question – “Do you want to go for a walk?” – that sent him prancing to the door while I threw on my pants and tied my shoes.
As we left I dropped my Sigma SD Quattro in a shoulder bag and took it with. I’ve been feeling inspired all of the sudden – blog posts coming a mile a minute; thinking of, and seeing, pictures everywhere. Visual inspiration usually comes to me in one of two forms, either the urge to document everything around me, usually wife, kids, friends, animals, or a heightened sensitivity to shapes and form I see in the things around me. I’m presently being visited by the second muse, and when I am I’ll typically buy a canvas and paint, but I’ll occasionally gratify the urge with a camera, photographing form I see latent in everyday things.
So, Me and Buddy went for our walk. We were gone about an hour, In that time I took maybe 20 pictures with my Sigma. Here’s four that caught my eye. What’s remarkable to me is that the entire process, from conception/initiation to execution and presentation, took 2 hours total, maybe. In the spirit of my last post, I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad. Shouldn’t it be hard? Can it be easy? If “easy,” isn’t it that the “hard” part has been done over many years of reading, looking, thinking and seeing?
Intersection, Hwy 49 and Hwy 61, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 4×5 “Wet Plate”
Above is a picture of the Mississippi crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for the ability to play guitar. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out well for Mr. Johnson; while he created some great blues, he died young and broke and unrecognized, his grave somewhere unknown in the Delta. It’s been sung and talked about enough in popular American culture to have become a recognizable thing globally. The Crossroads. Located at the corner of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I took the photo on Highway 61 just north of the Highway 49 intersection so I could get the dead dog in the picture. Seemed appropriate. If you look to the right side of the photo you’ll see the traffic lights that sit at the intersection.
The bargain Johnson supposedly struck at this intersection is what we call “Faustian,” not really a ‘bargain’ at all, where someone trades something essential for personal gain, the gain being to receive what they think will make them happy but doesn’t. It makes things worse when all is said and done. If you’re familiar with classical European literature you’ve read about Dr. Faustus, the famous scientist who trades his spiritual and moral integrity for knowledge and power and then comes to a ruinous end. Writing a gloss on the legend in his play Faust, Goethe took some liberties with the story, now a wager between Dr Faust, who can find no meaning in his life, and Mephisto, the Devil, who promises to give his life meaning if Faust agrees to serve him forever after.
The the story is this: a man strikes a deal, depriving himself of a freely-willed human future in return for the quick and easy, a quicksilver shortcut to the goal, and in the process loses the good of what he possessed without gaining anything better when it’s all done, in fact, what’s been gained is a much impoverished version of what he started with. It’s called “a deal with the Devil.”
Somewhere in the Mississippi Delta (Can’t Remember), 4×5 “Wet Plate”
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d recently read Sally Mann’s Hold Still, a great read if you’re interested in the interior lives and thought processes of artists. There’s few photographers I’d class as ‘artists,’ but Sally Mann would be one of them, so I was interested to read what she had to say. In the process, I got to thinking about her use of a view camera and the slow, deliberate nature of her craft. It’s so unlike what digital, or even 35mm film, allows. I also like the results. There’s nothing more beautiful than an 8×10 b&w contact print. She’s also a Southerner, as am I, with an eye for the Gothic details of life in Deep South America. Her recent work involved a trip from Memphis to New Orleans via the Mississippi Delta taking pictures of things that caught her eye along the way. She did it with her view camera and with wet plates, liquid emulsions she brushed onto 8×10 glass plates and used as the negatives for her 8×10. In addition to involving a lot of prep work, she’d also have to immediately develop the plates in the back of her pickup under a black cloth. What she gets when she gets a good shot is something really interesting, imprecise, sometimes blurry and diffuse, often with serendipitous features that give a powerful character to the final prints. It’s obviously a difficult process to master, which gives heft to the work because they’re the result of skill and hard mastery. They say “this is something that took skill and hard work and incredible perseverance, and in the end produced something beautiful.”
Which got me thinking: I’ve been through the Delta a number of times with my camera, so I know it well, and I’ve also spent some time with alternative processes, and – you know – the idea of shooting the Delta with a view camera and some funky emulsions sounded like a great trip, so I started thinking of what I’d need to do the work. I’ve got a view camera and tripod, I’ve got the time; all I’d really need to do is figure out how to do the emulsions. Or even simpler, I could do set pieces on regular 8×10 negative film – they still make it – and then contact print it. That would be a fun project, and certainly one I could exhibit if the work was decent.
But then I had a further thought: I wonder, in all of the post-processing software I’ve got loaded onto my computer but never much use, do I have a “wet plate emulation?” I searched around and, yes, I did. So…I pulled up my Mississippi Delta photos and after cropping them to 4×5 for authenticity, started running a few of them through the wet plate emulation and damn!, a lot of them looked really good. Exhibition quality if printed on good pigment paper at 8×10. It really is powerful work if I might say so myself.
But…there’s something wrong with this. I’m not sure I can articulate it, except to say that my ‘wet plates’ and Sally Mann’s wet plates occupy two different poles of artistic merit. Assuming you think my wet plates are as evocative as Ms. Mann’s from a visual standpoint, you could say they have equal creative merit, but is that really the criterion for assessing the relative worth of our Delta work, or is there something more, something more evanescent but crucial, that’s present in her work and absent in mine?
I would argue there is. Her’s possess an authenticity that mine mimics, even though they might look similar technically. She dragged an 8×10 view camera around for 1000 miles, jugs of dangerous chemicals in tow, which relegated her going places that would accommodate her. I drove around, pointed my Leica M8 at everything and shot. At each location, she’d spend an hour or two developing her plates, drying them, inspecting them, repeating the process until she got what she wanted. I pushed a shutter and chimped the results, brought thousands back on an SD card and ran the keepers thru emulation software on my Mac. Once home she fastidiously contact printed her best plates, producing 20 or so exquisite silver prints. I tee’d up my Epson R3000, loaded in the Moab Lasal Exhibition Luster Paper, and effortlessly printed off 40 8×10 prints that could pass in a pinch for contact prints.
So…am I going to exhibit my Delta “wet prints?” No. Because to do so would be deceptive, although many photographers born in the digital age might disagree. It’s the result that matters, right? Tell that to Sally Mann. That’s the Devil’s Bargain we’ve made with digital. What used to be the product of craft and deep skill is now just a mouse click away. We still get the same results, but the honest pride of work well done has been taken from the process. We’ve wished for one thing and received another in the guise of the quick and easy, the thing that we thought would liberate us. Same thing Robert Johnson did at those crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississsippi, the story old as civilization.
“Where is my home? It is indistinct as an old cellar hole, now a faint indentation, merely, in a farmer’s field. And I sit by the old site by the stump of an old oak that once grew there. Such is the nature of where we have lived.” Henry David Thoreau
Above is a picture of what remains of 9 Grand St, Wayne, New Jersey. It’s now just a muddy patch of bog in a run-down working class neighborhood, mostly abandoned, prone to flooding by the Passaic River, which it backs up against. Back in the 70’s, when I lived there, it used to flood occasionally, but nothing like it does now, and most of the houses on the street, where people I knew lived, have either been torn down or are unoccupied, surrendered by owners who cashed out insurance claims, gave up and moved elsewhere.
I’d been in the area visiting my mother, age 80, who lives nearby, and decided to ride by and see the old neighborhood. The house is gone, though I recognize a few trees in the yard and can, with a bit of imagination, remember how it sat on the land. What’s interesting to me is how vivid my memories are of this place, in part because I lived here during a time in my life when I was young and healthy and had my whole adult life ahead of me. Having a number of amorous young women living within a stone’s throw of my bedroom window didn’t hurt either. I also had a camera, something I carried everywhere with me, so I documented much of the life I then lived.
Fun Times at 9 Grand St circa 1977
I’ve been thinking a lot about photography and memory since I read Sally Mann’s Hold Still. Sally Mann is a favorite of mine. She’s made her name documenting life and family growing up in the Shenandoah Valley. Her photography is beautiful and moving and anyone with an interest in documentary or fine art photography should be familiar with it. She’s also a brilliant writer and a strikingly beautiful woman even now. I won’t lie – I’ve got a serious crush on her. Unlike most books written by photographers or about photography, Hold Still is a great read, both as an auto-biographical narrative and as a means to understand Ms. Mann’s photography. It’s the product of a lifetime spent documenting her life in an intentional way, a lesson of the payoff for photographers with the foresight to habitually record the quotidian details of everyday life.
Hold Still got me thinking about the emotional aspect of memory, how memories change over the years, some taking on broader emotional meaning and some fading to irrelevancy. It’s inevitable to an extent, new experiences encoding over old memories and changing those older memory’s salience, this being the normal process of how humans form a narrative of their lives. In particular, what I’ve been thinking about is how my interest in photography affected that process, warping it in a way that tracks the intensity of my photographic interest over the years.
In 1977 I was 18, a complete and total fuck-up, having had decided a year before to boycott my senior year of high school at an evangelical church school to set out on my own, which brought me to 9 Grand St, where I – typical dropout – did drugs, drank beer, chased women ( girls actually), avoided work, and documented much of it with my beat up Nikon F and later my new Leica M5. Nobody I knew had a Leica or even knew what they were. Leica’s were those odd cameras you saw in the back of Modern Photography, completely unlike the SLR’s everyone was buying, rare and expensive and mysterious. I remember being fascinated that, unlike other rangefinder cameras, whose market by the 70’s had been reduced to inexpensive fixed-lens consumer grade snapshot shooters, you could change lenses on a Leica. Wow. For some reason, a rangefinder with a 21mm wide angle or 90mm tele with auxiliary finder intrigued me, being the sort of thing that would signal to happy-snappers that what I was doing photographically was serious. I eventually bought one, a story I won’t bore you with as I’ve mentioned it often elsewhere.
Above are two sequential frames taken in that house, as best I can tell from the first roll of film I ran through my new Leica, a 20 exposure roll of Ilford FP4. That’s me to the left, and on the right, my girlfriend at the time. I have a clear recollection of it: the shiny new M5 passed between us while I shot a test roll and tried to figure out my new camera. If I look smug and self-satisfied, it’s because I was. Young and handsome, a new Leica, attractive and willing girlfriend – perfect. Or, at least, that’s what I think when I look at those pictures. The reality at the time, meanwhile, less idyllic, just another confused kid trying to figure out where his life might take him.
That I even have these memories is because I memorialized them with a camera. Had I not, the specifics would be long forgotten, the young woman a blurred memory. She was a summer fling, nothing special, but it’s amazing to me the clarity of my memory of her, all of which comes back when I see the photograph – the way she talked, the way she moved, the small particulars that made her her. A few years later I got serious about my life – college, then graduate school, then law school, in the process developing my first real adult relationships with women – but those subsequent memories, the one’s I should remember with particularity, are often less precise, blurry to the point of irretrievability, because I had put my camera away to get on with life and hadn’t documented any of it.
I recently read a study that claims photographing our experiences impairs our ability to remember them. That isn’t the case for me. What I’ve photographed over the years comes back viscerally to me when I review old negatives in a way those not photographed can’t. Looking through contact sheets from my Grand St years, I’d spy a person I hadn’t thought of in 40 years, and instantly their name and some buried memory involving them would come back to me.
The difference may be this: today, iPhone photography is so quick and easy, so constantly available, that it’s become a rote, unthinking activity. I watched 17 y/o’s at a birthday party last night, hundreds of photos snapped with iPhones – along with the required gathering around the screen to look at the results, most destined for the digital trash can. Watching these kids – the same age as I was when I took those Grand St photos, I couldn’t help think that they were missing much of the experience itself, staring at their screens, texting instead of chatting, obsessively photographing the particulars – the food, the drink, the conviviality forced for the camera – instead of experiencing it.
Either that, or it’s become a means of distancing oneself from an activity, a way of keeping reality at arm’s length. You see this in art museums or tourist destinations, people with phone out, staring at screens, not experiencing what’s around them.
Film photography has, for me, always been about being in the experience, both the experience of the photographic act and the experience of what’s in front of me. It brings with it a level of mindfulness, an intentionality that comes from a certain focus required of a manual camera and film. It’s the sort of mindfulness that creates enduring memories – and tangible negatives to refer to years later. I can still remember passing that Leica between us, 40 years ago, sitting in my living room on 9 Grand Street with that girl. I remember her name, the contours of her body, the things we did. Had I grown up in the digital age, I’m not sure I’d have either those photos or those memories. Something to think about.
I rarely receive critical or hostile comments about my posts, which is surprising, as I’m excessively, sometimes rudely, opinionated about certain photographic issues. Given past experience trying to debate meaningful topics on internet forums – typically I was thrown off any given forum within a week or two, usually the personal target of a moderator who thought proper forum etiquette required unquestioning allegiance to whatever accepted opinion currently ruled – that opinion usually the desired result of crafty advertising by camera companies constantly pushing the “new and improved” as a means of insuring financial viability – I assumed these same types with the same blinkered views would find their way over here, certainly given the Leica name associated with the blog. It’s why I went the first few years without a comments feature because, frankly, I wasn’t interested in what other people had to say. The whole purpose of the blog was to free myself from the constrictions imposed on a critically thinking person elsewhere. Hence Leicaphilia. It was my extended love letter to the wayward lover that is Leica and a middle finger to those who claimed the right to “mentor” me with facile answers to serious questions, questions they seemed unwilling or incapable of understanding let alone answering.
God knows bourgeois opinion is alive and well in Leica land. It’s inevitable that people who currently find Leica interesting would be bourgeois. It takes money to buy a Leica, and usually a certain mindset to put large amounts of money toward a photographic trinket so as to partake of a certain status. If it were simply a matter of using a camera that fulfilled basic photographic requirements with a minimum of fuss – which is what a lot of us who use Leicas claim to be the draw – then most Leica shooters should be running around with an old manual Pentax and a few lenses, given they remain wonderful cameras that you can buy cheap as dirt, or digital partisans would be content with their well-used Nikon D200, cameras whose evidence of use was legitimately earned and not baked in from the factory.
But, of course, we’re not. We’re standing in line to buy the newest Leica M or Q or T or whatever it is at that moment that Leica and their enablers tell us we must have, the latest and most up to date, because only then, we are told, will we finally possess a photographic instrument sufficient for our Promethean creativity. Of course, the logic of consumerism requires the process of technological “progress” never end. The very nature of capitalism admits of no endpoint, no time when we should be able to say “enough, I’ve got enough to do what I need to do. Everything from here on out is superfluous to requirements.” Were we to get to that point, Nikon, Canon and Leica would all go out of business.
Surprisingly, what I’ve found is that there are a lot of really thoughtful, intelligent, experienced people who read the blog and agree with me about most things. I assume it’s because it’s not the same old thing that one finds in most camera/photography blogs, where the emphasis is usually all about gear and the gear discussion is typically weighted towards the next new thing without anyone stopping to think about where the whole thing is heading and why we need it to head that way. It does make sense: internet forums tend to attract the most neurotic and rabid partisans of any given subject; normal people, enthusiasts with a sense of perspective, typically aren’t found on internet forums debating the bokeh of the Aspherical Summicron. They’re more interested in meaningful photographs and the means to create them, which involves discussion and understanding of photographic history and various aesthetic choices. This isn’t to say that a certain level of gear talk isn’t interesting or normal. It is. Appreciation and discussion of the tools we use should be part of that discussion, but it needs to be seen in context.
It seems to me that modern photographers too often confuse means with ends. By this I mean that we’ve become fixated on the tools we use and not on the purposes we’re using the tools for. Of course, this neurotic focus on photographic tools didn’t start with the digital age; film users were, and are, just as fixated on the technical aspects of the craft as today’s digiphiles. What’s changed is the pace of technological change, now so fast it’s almost impossible to keep apace. No sooner has some technological advance been introduced then it’s been made obsolete by the next advance. This hyper-accelerated pace of technological advance, unique to the digital age, seems great in theory, but in practice its only benefit is that camera makers can continue to claim a reason to sell us a new camera every 18 months. Baked into this process is a cynical duplicity on the part of camera manufacturers and their Madison Avenue agents- claim your latest offering to be a necessary advance, something that makes the previous iteration -the one you told us 18 months ago to be the greatest thing ever- obsolete, worthless, of no value. Rinse and repeat every 18 months or so, ad infinitum, then let the dupes and fellow travelers, the “reviewers”, drive the process forward. No one seems to ask “to what end?” As such, there’s no equilibrium to be reached, no point at which we’re allowed to say yes, that’s it, this is all good enough, I don’t need anything else to effectuate my photographic intent, thank you.
*************A couple of years ago I bought a box of glass negatives in an antique store in Orleans. This is one of them, scanned. Tell me that’s not cool.
At least there’s no equilibrium reached without a conscious decision to get off the ever revolving hamster wheel of “technological improvement.” It’s my opinion that you need to get off the technological hamster wheel if you are to develop creatively. Fixation at this superficial level of your photography is a dead end, deflecting you from real creative issues. This is where Leica and Canon and Nikon want you – perpetually dissatisfied, yet holding out hope that the next incremental technological “advance” will finally get you there. At base, if I look back on all I’ve written the last few years, the one consistent theme of the blog is that it’s possible to be happy and creatively fulfilled working within the parameters of basic photographic needs – aperture, shutter and film or equivalent spec-ed sensor. The rest is all optional. It may be fun to collect cameras or own the latest technology or simply find a pleasant diversion in identifying with a particular brand or type of camera, but those things aren’t necessary to be a serious photographer. What’s necessary is a mindfulness of the craft and its history, an understanding of your agency within the process and a consideration of the means by which you can realize your intent.
If I look back on almost a half century of dedicated photography, I’m struck by the obviousness of the fact that the meaningful photos I’ve made during that time have nothing to do with types of cameras or with technological prowess. Relying on technical virtues for visual interest is a cheap parlour trick. One of my favorite photos ever, a print of which hangs in a good friend’s house – which I admire every time I’m there – was taken with a wooden pinhole camera, handheld for a few seconds. Just a wooden box and some light sensitive film – and a user with an aesthetic sense built up over years by reading and looking and studying and thinking. Or they’re products of an individual sensitivity to the ephemeral nature of time and the miraculous nature of photography. You don’t get there by obsessing about cameras; you get there with a broad, liberal understanding of the world and your temporary and precarious place in it.
The most interesting posts I’ve published – interesting for me, at least – are those that involve specific photographs and the photographer’s understanding of the photograph. The history of the photograph. The reason that photograph means something to someone, the role that photograph plays in that person’s consciousness, its emotional and psychological payoff. I’d like to do more of that going forward, in addition to the usual silliness that helps me keep the gearhead impulses in perspective. I’d like to hear more from others, see the things that a love of photography has helped them articulate and how they’ve thought about it and done it. That, for me, get’s to the heart of the miracle of photography and why its remained a central interest in my life and why I keep at this modest attempt to articulate it.
I’m currently housebound in Raleigh, North Carolina- 4:00 PM, raining like hell outside, iTunes blasting Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl through headphones while working through my third snifter of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a bottle of which a friend was foolish enough to leave here the other night with the promise that it’d be here the next time he visits (the bottle most certainly will be). I’m printing work prints on an Epson R3000 for an exhibition I’ve entitled Car Window. There’s a couple of things presently on my mind other than the fact that I’m glad my friend was dumb enough to leave his bottle of bourbon in my possession: first, how is it possible that the music I’m currently blasting from my iTunes account sounds so god-awful compared to what I used listen to with my Marantz amp and KLH speakers, way back in the ice-age of the 70’s?
I thought technological innovation i.e. digitization was going to revolutionize my hi-fidelity listening experience? Didn’t happen, not even close; go listen to the album I’m currently listening to – Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere – on vinyl on any half-decent turntable, amp and speakers, and then listen to it run thru iTunes as an mp3 and you’ll be shocked at the diminunition in audio quality we now accept as a given in the interests of quick and easy. It pisses me off when I think of the vinyl collection I once had – the usual 60’s and 70’s era Rock and Roll, but also an impressive collection of 50’s and 60’s era jazz: Coltrane, Rollins, Shorter, Monk, Gordon, Adderley, Webster, Coleman, Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans – all now mp3 files on my computer and phone, pushed out through earbud headphones or streamed through my Apple TV to the attached Bose sound system, where they sound like shit – thin, tinny, screechy, hollow – whenever you try to play them at a decent volume (if ever there was a song that deserved to played loud, it’s Cinnamon Girl).
Of course, ruminating about hi-fidelity leads me logically to the next subject, the fact that the prints I’m producing, while nice enough by current digital standards, just don’t have the depth and fullness of a comparable silver print printed in a darkroom, the tonal transitions just a little too abrupt, the obvious sharpness somehow slightly unpleasant to a discerning eye. In their defense, they certainly are easier to produce. No nasty chemicals, endless repeatability as opposed to the laborious reproducibility of a fine silver print. And those born into the digital era probably won’t even understand the differences.
A few years ago, while in Los Angeles, I saw a Walker Evans exhibition of his 1930’s Cuba photos at the Getty. Gorgeous 8×10 silver contact prints, one in particular, a frontal portrait of a Cuban stevedore that just blew me away with its simple beauty. That’s it, to the left, where, reproduced digitally and viewed on a computer monitor, it’s just another picture of some guy, nothing special. Were I to post it to some forum for critique I’m sure critics would take issue with any number of things – the framing, the lighting, the sharpness, the lack of acceptable bokeh etc etc, the usual herd animal opinions. Luckily, I saw that same print again in Paris this past Summer at the Evans exhibition at the Pompidou Center. So simple, yet profoundly arresting, impossible to look at and appreciate through the facile categories of sharpness, resolution, ease of capture, repeatabilty. It was a singular work that someone had laboriously produced in a darkroom. Art of the highest order, the exquisite confluence of singular critical decisions by Walker as to both construction and production, things that took time and thought and energy, all things the digital age promised us we could do without in our mad rush for the quick and easy.
I’ve been to my share of art exhibits and museums in my 59 years, and I can think of a number of times when I was profoundly moved by a work of art – Walker’s Cuban Stevedore, the van Gogh self-portrait at the Fogg Museum At Harvard, a huge Jackson Pollack I saw in Paris, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi in Florence, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican – all of them the product of a slow, discriminating process of creation, the very processes that the digital era promises to liberate us from. Of course, I look at myself in the mirror and see, surprisingly, just another old man, my opinions considered by the current digital generation the sad ravings of a man who’s era has come and gone. Fair enough. But remember, there’s no ‘free lunch;’ everything you gain is purchased at the cost of something else. Consider that when you’re upgrading your Nikon D whatever every two years, or you’re listening to your music with those shitty earbuds or you’re running your plastic-looking digital photos through Silver Efex. Everything has its price.
What I fear is happening today is, there is such an overwhelming volume of meaningless, throw-away images shot millions of times a day that the notion of a photograph being “special” is as incomprehensible as someone pondering the bigger ideas behind why the sky is blue or the earth is round. It’s simply taken for granted. But photographs are special. They do warrant attention, study, examination and excellence in technique and approach. – John B. Crane, Nikon F6 Project
I did some travelling this last summer, and, while doing so, wrote a number of posts about using my iPhone 6 as my camera for the trip. The gist of those posts was that I’d discovered the benefits, photographically, of travelling light. I’d been away for almost a month, a couple of weeks travelling through Italy by train and bus from friends’ residence in Mantua and then to Paris for a further week with friends there. I’d packed the usual gear – a couple of camera bodies, both film and digital, a bag of film, the usual compliment of lenses, intending as I usually do when travelling to document the experience. Early on, I’d started using my iPhone to photograph and, as I went along I realized how easy it made things, no longer requiring a bag full of cameras, lenses, film and ancillary junk toted around everywhere I went. So I made the decision to keep my M4 and Bessa at home while I used my iPhone exclusively.
I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the photos I’d taken while away, not without first having to surmount a number of problems created by a combination of my ignorance and the potential pitfalls that always lurk on the margins of digital capture. After getting home, I tried to download the photos from my phone to my computer for permanent storage and further editing, only to discover that the photos weren’t on my phone but in the Cloud, which is fine, except I have no idea how to access said cloud, which necessitated a trip to my local Apple Store where some pleasant young woman, speaking to me deliberately as if I were some addled senior with incipient dementia, helped me jailbreak my Cloud account. Having done so, secure in the knowledge that my photos existed somewhere, I then proceeded to erase them from my iPhone, whereupon I learned that I’d also just deleted them from my Cloud. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
A push of the button and a majority of what I had shot on my trip vanished without recovery. Luckily, at some point, while the photos still resided “on my phone” I had somehow managed to save a number of them to Lightroom, how I’m not sure. There seems no explanation as to why I was able to save some and not others. Suffice it to say my photos of Italian manhole covers survived intact, which is some consolation for the deletion of the majority of others.
Which leads to the larger question: So what? So, I’ve lost a bunch of tourist snaps. I’ve still got the experience, and the memories; having lost the photos doesn’t erase that. But it’s incredibly frustrating none the less, even though I’ve no one but myself to blame. Had I been more sophisticated about how this all works, I’d have taken the appropriate steps to secure my digital files before deleting them. But I didn’t, and most of them are now gone. Forever.
I still do have about 500 of what had been over 3000 photos I’d taken. Back in the 80’s and 90’s when I travelled with a film camera I could be gone for 6 weeks and come home with 20 rolls (700 negatives) and feel as if I’d sufficiently photographed what I’d wanted to, so the idea that I’d returned home from Italy and France with 500 photos shouldn’t necessarily be evidence of missed opportunities. Unfortunately, its different. When film was the norm, I gave thought to what I’d photograph, knowing my means to do so were limited by how much film I had. As a film photographer, I was discerning in what photographed. I gave thought to each shot I took. Ostansibly, there was a reason for any given exposure on a roll of film.
The ease of digital capture has changed that. We’re now able, without increased cost and with minimal added work, to photograph everything. And we do, as the files that I serendipitously salvaged from from my trip evidence – manhole covers and Pizza School handbills.Powerful, arresting, non-cliched photography seems rarer than ever, as if the ease and ubiquity of digital capture has overrun our critical faculties. The iPhone seems to have turned the craft of photography for an entire generation into something radically banal, a means to document make-up strategies and dinner choices. We’re drowning in “meaningless, throwaway imagery shot millions of times a day,” having lost any critical discernment about the miracle of photography and its awesome power to arrest and transform discrete moments of life.
Throw into this the sad fact that digitization is compromising photography as a means of historical documentation, something I’ve written about at length, most recently here. Just this morning, a reader left a comment to that piece that speaks eloquently to the issue:
When my grandmother passed away recently, we found boxes and boxes of her old handwritten letters to/from her sister who was living overseas. But years from now, there will be no shoebox of love letters from todays’ grandma or grandpa. There will only be the cloud, made impenetrable by a lack of password. Long forgotten Facebook accounts will stand like a vast field of tombstones, many hidden from view or minimized in presence. The millions of photos taken by the average person will disappear with the loss of phones, the demise of harddrives, the replacement of computers.
I have much of my old schoolwork from decades ago, as well as school notices about upcoming excursions and music recitals. Today’s students now receive emails and automated attendance forms via the school system, which will disappear with the years, too.
Like the proverbial cockroach, good paper and negatives will survive. I’ve re-begun the practice of shooting a few well chosen film images each time I go out somewhere interesting. This gives me a permanent record of the highlights of my life, which is really how it was done in the old days. Negs are saved and scans and prints are made, and my photo albums grow one roll at a time. [Emphasis added]
1976. Someone important to me, now lost to time. The negative tucked away in a binder. Photos like this have enriched my life. I’m lucky to have them
His solution has become mine as well. I’ve spent 15 years now dabbling in digital photography, finally coming to the conclusion that it’s a Faustian Bargain. What it gives in ease of use and technical perfection it takes away in its lack of moderation, which, as the Ancients knew already, is the key to all things. So, I’m now recommitted to film photography, to the ideal of a few well chosen images that will construct a permanent record of the highlights of my life. A modest project, no doubt, in an era, in theory, of almost unlimited photographic possibilities, but good enough for me as it reminds of the simple yet profound miracle of photography.
I love the photo above. It’s one of a small number of photos I come back to when I review what I’ve done (…and yes, I took it with a Leica, an M8). Which is interesting, because most viewers will scan it visually and move on without much further thought. Aesthetically it’s properly done; were I to submit it to an art school critique, viewers would probably say it’s competently framed, formally interesting, if i’m lucky might use rhetorical cliches like “original,” “strong”, authentic.” Some with a picturesque bent might quibble about the decisions I’ve made, noting the pole that divides up the horizontal plane in a way upsetting to the rule bound. I can see someone saying it’s interesting… but what’s it supposed to be about? I can hear the critique moderator now talking of the mirroring of the pole by the crosses…or maybe the crosses by the pole, a commentary on man’s need to be heard etc (if you’ve ever endured an art critique you know how pretentious they can be; my standard response when I’m asked what a photo or painting “means” is to say I don’t know. That’s for the viewer to decide).
Art School Cool, circa 1977. I’m pretty sure my standing there with those crescent moons over my head was meant to mean something – what I no longer remember. I probably went to CBGB’s that night to see the Talking Heads.
As I’ve presented the photo here, without context, the “subject ” is what you will make of it. You have only the photo and whatever interpretive scheme might be floating around in your head to make sense of what you see. That’s the interesting thing about the supposedly “objective ” craft of photography. There’s an undeniable subjective element to what we do as viewers of ostensibly “objective” photographs. Your interpretation will vary depending on the formal arrangement, the context in which it’s presented to you, the knowledge and biases you bring to the viewing. While I find most post-modernist theory turgid and incomprehensible, it’s gotten one thing right – the meaning of things, whether it be a writing (a “text” in PM parlance) or a visual representation, whether a photo, drawing or painting, resides with the reader/viewer. The meaning of the photo you view depends on you. And that’s why, presented as it is to you – little context, no explanation- you might struggle to make sense of it or appreciate it in the manner I might. You might like it, hate it, be indifferent to it, depending on what criteria you bring to your viewing and how unmoored its presentation.
Which leads to the following reality: the means I use to present my picture is crucial to how you will understand the photo. Effective presentation is the responsibility of the photographer, and it’s what separates the successful from the frustrated. I can publish it in a newspaper or hang it on a gallery wall, or glue it into a scrapbook, whatever choice I make signaling to the viewer what I’d like you to think about the picture. I can write a caption that identifies the objective facts of the photo [Route 61, Mississippi Delta, Leica M8]; I can go further and write a caption that puts the photo in context for you [...in Money, Mississippi, about 50 yards from where 14 y/o Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman and set in motion a murder that would change American history]; I might simply place it within a sequence of other photos inviting you, by process of induction, to surmise a common thread that links those sequenced into a larger whole which both helps you interpret the individual photo while imparting a larger meaning on the collection itself. The important thing is that in each individual case, the meaning is extrinsically imposed on the photo. The single photo without context means nothing. The good photographer understands that a large part of his obligation to the viewer is to put his photos in a context that assists the viewer in making sense of the photo.
Mississippi Delta. Same day, same camera as the first photo. Ultimately chosen for the same photo series. Does this help you make sense of the initial photo?
I suppose this explains why we might differ so radically in what we consider good photography, and it points to the difference between a naive and a sophisticated understanding of photographic quality. Naive photo critiques judge a photo on its technical and formal arrangements [Is it sharp? In focus? Good tonal values? Composition pleasing? Rule of thirds applied etc]. This is the world of gearhead forums and Flickr, the reason we chase after the newest Fuji X body with the new super-duper sensor, thinking something a little better will make the difference. Stay at this level and you’ll become a proficient photographic artisan. A more educated approach looks only to whether the photo communicates a compelling meaning. It’s also why naive photo artisans tend to be confused by and dismissive of the best things being done in the field at any given time – not only are they passing judgment with inappropriate criteria, they usually don’t possess the knowledge, experience and discernment borne of broad thinking to conjure a sufficient meaning from a work, a meaning that turns the picture into something more.
I’m currently reading a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci written by Walter Isaacson, who also wrote a biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Da Vinci was an amazing man (I’m certain he’d be a street photographer were he alive today, but that’s a discussion for another day).
We know so much about Da Vinci because of the voluminous note and sketchbooks he kept, many of which have survived since his death. According to Isaacson, more than a quarter of his notebooks, more than 7000 pages, remain available to us some 500 years after Da Vinci’s death. Meanwhile, in researching his biography of Steve Jobs, with Job’s assistance, almost all of Job’s emails from the 1990’s were found to be unrecoverable.
Think about that for a bit.