Friday, March 23, 2018

Coleman on White

The reliably sycophantic Colberg tweeted a link to this review A.D. Coleman wrote in the early 1970s of Minor White's project "Octave of Prayer". You can admire the three parts here, here, and here.

Minor White curated an exhibition, and did a book based on it. The summary is that Coleman doesn't like it. Boy does he not like it.

On the one hand, I will always love Coleman for using the phrase "a fucking seagull" in this piece. Serious writing needs more cursing in it.

On the other hand, there are... problems.

First of all we have Coleman's fairy tale about quitting because some substitute editor got shirty with him. Having quit a few jobs in my time, I can assure you, there's more to this story. Coleman is simply painting himself as a hero utterly devoted to his criticism, willing to literally die on that hill over one piece that a temp editor asked for some revisions on.

But this isn't the really tasty part.

Hop on an internet forum and propose the idea that anyone can shoot a meaningful picture, and insist on talking about what a meaningful picture might be. Odds are, you'll get panicked angry pushback. The various nerds will go on about the importance of "craft" and insist that meaning is all subjective and and and they'll crack jokes and generally do a vigorous dance to make the bad man with ideas go away. I dare say that in the 1970s you could have extracted precisely the same performance from most Camera Clubs.

Coleman cannot be accused of rejecting the idea of meaningful pictures, but on the idea that anyone can shoot, that a good dose of mysticism and raw emotion might be a good idea, he is quite clear: angry, panicked, rejection.

In his review of the pictures, he says that all the pictures are subsumed to White's vision, no artist retains a voice. Well, except for the ones that do. Only one, Coleman says, really stands out. But that artist he cleverly eliminates from his thesis by claiming that White clearly just didn't understand the pictures. Let that soak in for a bit. Does that make any kind of sense?

While I get his point, his argument comes down to "there's only one kind of cheese in the world, cheddar, I looked around and all the cheese is cheddar except the ones that aren't, Q.E.D."

Coleman thrashes around some more, angered that White merely curated this thing, didn't shoot anything in it, and even works in what appears to be a swipe at White's homosexuality.

But what really gets him going is the writing, that mystical, "inane", writing. Well, ok, it looks a little out there to me too (although I am sure A.D. is picking out the best bits) but mysticism is kind of like that, bro. It's gonna get lyrical, it's not going to hold together logically, rationally. It seems clear to me that A.D.'s beef here is with the mysticism itself, not the writing per se.

In the end, what we have is the cerebral guy deeply upset that a major player is proposing the idea that maybe cerebration isn't the answer. Maybe raw feelings and a little magic are a good idea.

As someone who fancies himself a bit cerebral on good days, I gotta go with White here, at least in broad strokes. The book and the show might have been utter crap, but I agree that a little emotion, a little magic, would do photography a lot of good. Today as much as any other day, the technicians, the Masters Of Craft, are dominant and could use taking down a peg or two.

In fact, I will put this statement out there: a photograph that doesn't have a bit of the mystical in it is probably shit.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Singles and Groups

Dan Milnor's webinar was excellent, and I will likely have more to say about it in the next week. One of the things that popped out, though, was what Dan calls Singles which are what I call (sometimes ironically) "the single iconic image." These are, as Dan notes, what most "serious" photographers spend most of their time trying to make. Pictures that stand alone, that you can stick on your wall with some degree of satisfaction.

As regular readers know, I waffle between declaring these things Too Hard and declaring them Dead. I am a fanatic devotee of Groups of pictures.

So what about these Singles, anyways? We can certainly integrate them into Groups, but then we've got a Group of pictures, about which more in a moment. Consider the thing in isolation.

We used to be able to get some insights by looking at internet forums on photography, which usually have a critique forum. I used to peruse LuLa's fairly regularly since it was, in ways I will examine in a moment, relatively sharp. Looking in now I see that some time in the last year or two even it has devolved into "nice shot!" which often looks suspiciously like "I like you, and you have made some pictures I liked, I will assume this one is also likable!" which I guess is sort of how they all land.

Setting aside the social aspects of Critique which tend to dominate in almost all cases, there are things people can say. They can apply various standards of composition, talk about diagonals, foregrounds, breadth, modeling, and so on. They can talk about, basically, how closely the picture hews to local norms ("you fucked up the loop lighting, this portrait sucks" and "that is a sharp picture of a tree, and since we like trees, I declare your picture good").

The standard fare critique of singles boils down, usually, to applying some sort of external standards to the picture. Everything from warm (or cold) feelings toward the photographer to "rules" of composition.

All of these ignore the reality that externalities are largely irrelevant.

To me, the difference between a Single and, well, anything else, is that the Single contains its own criteria for success. You can look at one of these things and, for various reasons, determine immediately what the picture is trying to do. A portrait is supposed to give the illusion of insight (or perhaps, give real insight) into personality and character. A landscape, often, is clearly intended to evoke a sense of the sublime. And so on. If you can hazard a reasonable guess, just by looking at the picture, what its purpose in life is, then you can next ask whether it succeeds.

A Single can, therefore, fail in at least two ways: It can fail to explain itself (in which case it's arguably not a Single at all), and it can fail to live up to the work it claims to be attempting.

This is, really, what User Critique is supposed to do. It is all too often boiled down to rules and criteria that have nothing to do with the picture. For example, a strong diagonal is a good idea, often. Many photographs could use a good dash of dynamism and drama. And so, the diagonal gets enshrined. Photos like Sugimoto's seascapes might be judged by the usual denizens as lacking, they fail to follow almost any rule or criterion you might care to name.

Still, these same pictures are very readable, it does not take a genius or a degree in Art History to "get" these things in some useful way. Then we can ask "do they succeed in their self-appointed mission" and the answer, for many people, most of us even, is "yes they do." Sugimoto's seascapes not only explain themselves pretty well, but also live up to their self-declared standard. They "succeed" as Singles.

Onwards to Groups.

I have long maintained that a group of photos is easier to grasp, easier to get your arms around. Considering it in the light I am shining around on things right now, it seems at least rasonable that a group of pictures is likely to do a better job of explaining itself.

Dan made a casual remark to the effect that if you just make a book of Singles, you don't have a "book" as such, what you have is a "portfolio". In my terms, each picture in the portfolio carries its own explanation, it's own criteria.

A book, a proper non-portfolio book, is made up with at least some pictures that do not explain themselves. These pictures rely on other pictures, on the entire gestalt for explanation.

Naturally, a Group of pictures in this sense can also fail to explain itself, and also (if it succeeds at least in that) can fail to live up to the goals it sets itself. Again, externalities are largely irrelevant or at least a step removed.

The power of the Group format is that you, as the artist, have a lot more room to work. You can sequence things, you can arrange the pictures physically, you can add text. And, of course, you still have all the tools available to the maker of the Single: You can edit individual pictures in exactly the same ways.

You can throw pictures out, you can insert pictures. You can shoot new pictures. It's not painting, but it has much of the same malleable, formable, character. You can mold the work to fit the message, and you can mold the work to clarify what it is you're trying to do in the first place.

What interests me here, at this moment, is that we can divide the job up. First, we can try to make our book, our Group, clear in its intention. Second, we can try to make our Group perform well, fulfilling the expectation set by that clear statement of intent.

Is it easier? Well, I sure think so.

But then, I have come around to mostly disliking Singles. Anything I offer that smells like critique tends to take the form "ok, now, if this picture was in a Group..." which is pretty unfair. I am, apparently, just not much interested in Single as such. They can be fine decor, they can document things. My kids are very cute. But I'm not going to try to say anything with a single picture any more. Haven't for years.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

PSA: Blurb Newsletter

I actually voluntarily signed up for blurb's newsletter a year or two ago, perhaps the only eNewsletter I have voluntarily and with forethought subscribed to.

I get ALL the coupon codez. Blurb ain't particularly shy about tha codez, but still.

I also get invites to webinars. Initially I was writing this post as a "hey, Daniel Milnor is doing a free webinar this morning" thing, but I cannot find a signup link anywhere outside my newsletter, and my newsletter's link appears to be Personalized in some fashion, so I am loathe to share. Sorry.

ANYWAYS. If you have used blurb, or if you think you might you blurb, or if you think an hour every now and then watching some jamoke(s) talk books in your web browser might be well spent, you otter subscribe too.

Monday, March 19, 2018

I mean, my god, LOOK at these

I am reading a history of women in photography, and portraits turn up from time to time in reproduction. These are literally just snaps from the pages of a book. Just grabbed at random. Flipping back through the book to snag the captions I found handfuls of pictures of people I liked even better.

Trude Fleischmann portrait of Alban Berg

Florence Henri, Woman with Three Bracelets

Madame Yevonde, self-portrait

Lucia Moholy (Moholy-Nagy's decidedly better half), portrait of Florence Henri

Gertrude Käsebier portrait of Robert Henri

Julia Margaret Cameron (duh) portrait of George Frederick Watts

Now compare there with, for instance, anything whatever you find on Frank Frost's web site. Frank is mostly famous because his wife (or, possibly, Frank himself) writes "satire" under the pseudonym Missy MWAC, in which she promotes trained professionals with years of experience (i.e. Frank) over lame-o amateur craigslist photographers. Now, the latter may be terrible, but if you gave me a portrait by Frank I would slide it quietly into the trash.

While I don't know for sure, I suspect that Frank and Cheri would be literally unable to see what it is about the attached portraits that makes them so much better than anything Frank has ever dreamed of shooting. Frank knows how to place lights and sharpen eyes until they pop. He doesn't know anything about engagement, and I suspect that he can't even see it.

Even if Frank can, there are 1000s of very similar practitioners that cannot. All they'd see in the photos above are blocked up blacks, exposure issues, focus issues, and lighting problems. And that is why they're stuck. That's why Frank is reduced to having his wife write angry rants about what losers his competition is. It's because Frank is constrained by his lack of vision to a narrow market in which literally anyone can credibly compete.

Visiting DC

I'll be flying out to Washington DC at the beginning of April with my kids to see the Sally Mann at the National Gallery, and to visit with family and friends.

My dance card is pretty full, but I intend to be at the gallery for a few hours on each of April 4 and April 5, and would not object to some company. I might even stand you a cup of coffee on the mall. I might or might not bring a camera.

Drop me a line if you want to go look at pictures with me. The contact page should hook you up with an email address that works.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Drew Harty: The Retail Landscape

In 2016 I wrote about this project, after it had received a Luminous Endowment grant:

"The Retail Landscape" from Drew Harty seems to be "Twentysix Gas Stations" all over again. This artist is right - the project needs more depth. Also, I think the assertion that in 1964 the USA had only 7600 retail spaces is absurd. This might be a typo, the correct number might have been 76,000, but that renders the cited current number of 107,773 less shocking. Not sure what's going on here. The work itself is perfectly serviceable, the project's agenda is more or less worthwhile, but I don't see anything new or interesting here, ultimately.

I am pleased to report that Drew's plan to get more depth has succeeded, in spades. At the moment, and one hopes forever, the Luminous Landscape article is public access.

In it you see a project that, while it continues to have strong echos of "Twentysix Gas Stations", has its own voice, its own ideas. This is a pretty robust commentary on an aspect of America which I recognize. These scenes are an America I Recognize, as it were. The obsession with clouds feels a little forced, but he has a strong general idea of presenting something which we all recognize and know in a way that emphasizes both the inherent problems with them but also in a way that reveals them as beautiful.

The aim, I think, of the clouds, it to juxtapose some element of natural beauty against the man made landscape, to emphasize the essentially destructive nature of these artifacts. Well, I get it. I'm not sure, honestly, that it's necessary. The fact that he's using tonal ideas lifted pretty much lock stock and barrel from Ansel Adams, Mr. Natural Beauty, probably helps to get the point across.

Anyways. These objects in the frame have a certain beauty, but ultimately they are a blight on the world in their car-centric vastness, in their mind-numbing retail-ness.

Contrast this stuff with this one, recently reviewed by Jörg Colberg: Chikara Umihara's Whispering Hope which I recall mentioning in the past, but damned if I can find my remarks.

Visually, these seem to have some relationship. There's the same desolate commercial landscape, and in a way I recognize these pictures, this America, as well.

Perhaps it's the sheer mass of artifice, the Greyhound Bus Trip, the use of Film, the washed out bullshit, the use of teeny little square pictures lost on white pages with double-trucks of the landscape zipping by through the window. If there was a gimmick to throw at it, Chikara threw it, and that's not a good foot to start out on.

Still, there are two basic problems with Whispering Hope, to my eye.

The first is that while I recognize these things, after a fashion, this in no way matches my memory of Greyhound Bus Trips taken as a whole. My experiences are a couple decades old, and I am a moderately gregarious white guy as opposed to a Japanese guy. Still, I missed a lot of stuff. I've almost certainly ridden a lot more Greyhound Buses that Chikara. Where's the young couple having sex in the back seat? Where's the talkative guy who won't shut up about his life? Where's the sad girl staring out the window for 800 miles? Where's the overhot bar-and-grill where the bus stopped for lunch? Where are the crowds and long lines at the busy stops?

Chikara has taken an experience that has a lot of people in it, and removed all the people in order to show us a really pretty gloomy picture of America.

I recognize Chikara's America just as much as I recognize Drew's, but Chikara's view is so narrow, so edited down, as to be untrue.

The second problem is that the photographer pretty obviously set out to replicate the popular coastal fantasies about how shitty the middle of the country is, and by carefully choosing his subjects, brought back that fantasy. While it's possible that there are essential differences between Chikara's trip and my trips, there's no way that it's gotten as uniformly deserted, ugly, and washed out.

What's the difference?

Drew Harty's photographs are also largely unpopulated. This, however, is because he's showing is a world populated not by people but by automobiles. Parking lots and gas stations and roads. Harty is also giving us the ambiguity of the scene. There is still natural beauty, although you may have to look at the sky to find it. There is beauty in these structures and artifacts, although it is a beauty of glib, unnatural, human design. And, also, there is the destruction and, in a sense, ruin brought by these things. Drew's pictures speak a certain truth. Drew's vision is of a slice of America, but within that slice it speaks of a certain truth, with a certain depth.

Chikara's work strikes me as having none of that depth. It's a simply "holy shit, look at this horrorshow, I can't wait to get back to Connecticut and civilization."

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Makin' Memories III

So what's the point of all this noodling and rambling on about the philosophy of photography and its fascinating relationship with <yawn> contemporary social conceptions of <yawn> portraiture?

Well first of all, welcome to my blog, you should be used to it by now. But also there might even be a useful nugget in here.

Business people, the good ones, know that you need to know exactly what the hell it is you do as a business. It's not delivering shareholder value, it's not building the finest automobiles. What is is that you actually do? What problem are you solving, how are you doing it, and for whom do you do it? This informs almost every aspect of how you should run your business.

You can also retask this sort of exercise to a hobby, or a passion. What, exactly, are you trying to do here?

Let us suppose that you are a product photographer, or would like to be one. What do you do?

I take pictures of products.

Well, sure, but drill down. Anyone can take a photograph of a widget or a candy bar. I can do it with my phone.

I take pictures of products that make the product look good?

Better. Look good to whom, and how? What does "look good" mean?

I take pictures of products that reflect the client's brand identity, and which make the product look appealing to the client's potential customers.

Now we're gettin' someplace. This is a statement that not only reflects what problems you're solving for your customers, but also suggests some things you might do to up your game, to do a better job at what you do. For instance, you could go study up on corporate branding and identity. If you read a book or two on Branding, suddenly you're talking the same language as your clients in a new, important, dimension. You can make suggestions that are aligned with what you actually do.

Let's get back to these businesses that take photographs of people performing. Engagement sessions, wedding photographers, Senior Sessions, that kind of thing. Once you've identified your job as:

I take pictures of people performing improvised scenes based on their real lives.

again, you're in a position to up your game. Sure, you could spend a couple grand on a Sigma Art lens for even more creamy bokeh. But let's say you've only got $180 this quarter. Let me make a suggestion: Hop on MasterClass and buy yourself a 1 year subscription. Then take the online course from Ron Howard on Directing. Yeah, Ron Howard, the guy that made basically every movie. One hundred and eighty bucks.

I have no affiliation with Master Class, they've never heard of me, and, god-willing, never will.

But unless that course consists of Ron Howard silently staring at the camera while picking his nose, there is basically no way you won't get $180 worth of value out of the class. Or, if you don't have $180, see if your local library has a couple books on film-making or directing.

If you're basically a photographic taxidermist, like so very very many of these store-front portraiture operations from the 1980s (or run by people who learned at the feet of a 1980s era taxidermist), there might be no hope for you. But then again, Ron Howard's a damned engaging dude. Worst case, it's probably $180 worth of sheer entertainment.