Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Getting to Know You

I have long held the belief, and blathered about it, that one can't really shoot a thing without having some relatively long exposure to the thing. You can't really shoot a credible portrait without getting to know the subject, you can't really shoot landscapes or urban studies without having been on site for a while, and so on.

It stands to reason, I think. If you have not managed to put together your own personal idea of the subject, your own fairly clear set of ideas and opinions, then what can you shoot? You can shoot Standard Portraits of a person you have no idea of, but the pictures will look like Sears Portrait Studio pictures. You can shoot landscapes anywhere, and they will look pretty much like landscapes anywhere else. You can make the cliched shots of The Place (the Eiffel tower, a gondola passing under a bridge, the fair copy of Ansel Adams). Or you can shoot your own thing. If you do semi-abstract urban things, you can probably shoot them almost anywhere urban, and they'll look pretty much the same (and you might just as well have stayed home).

It's only when you've formed an idea of the subject that you have anything in particular to express that involves both you and the subject.

Now, with people, you can formulate an idea in a few moments, sometimes. Or a few hours. We're wildly social animals, and most of our brain appears to be devoted to the process of forming opinions about other people.

Places aren't as easy. Places are big, and have many facets. The exist throughout the day, through the seasons. There's a lot to, say, Chicago. Getting hold of Chicago in any meaningful way is likely to take years.

In between, there are things. This flower, that car, the other shed. These too exist at night as well as the day, in winter as well as summer, but they are less far flung at least.

I've recently been experimenting with this Buddhist idea of presence, of being present, and of some sort of thing related to suchness which for our purposes we might as well read as the essence of the thing. These are ideas that loads of photographers have written about in one way or another, usually not using these Buddhist terms. Meisel's gesture is much related to suchness, just as a single example. Other photographers speak of the essence of a thing, and so on. The Buddhists, at least some of them, have actually written down methods for getting at these things, which makes them interesting to me.

Breathe. Be aware of your breath. Be still, be calm, clear your mind. Now look, and see. Keep breathing.

I was in a new place recently, and gave it a whirl. I spent 10 minutes or so breathing, and looking, trying to find some little slice of the suchness of the place. I didn't really succeed in making any pictures that work for me, but I certainly saw much more deeply than I normally would. I almost felt like this could be possible. It was really just this experiment, done over again, in a place.

And so, I back off slightly from my militant Adventure Photography Sucks position.

You're not going to grasp Ethopia in one 10 day whirlwind tour of 6 different areas. No way, no how. But you might, you just might, grasp a little bit of the essence of this thing, this building, this person, this alley, and shoot a couple pictures that are worthwhile. Pictures that include you, and the subject, that express some sort of personal idea and opinion.

I do think you might need to be silent and breathe for half an hour, though. Being hustled back into the Land Rover is probably not optimal. Maybe I will revisit my workshop and draft a new schedule.

Maybe if you get really good at it, it takes even less time?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Photography IS SO Art!!!!

I cannot enumerate the number of contexts in which I have seen, or the crazy statements rationalized by, the statement that photography was struggling to be recognized as a True Art. It is used to justify things people do and say today as if the question were still open. It is used, quite a lot, to justify why the speaker is having trouble getting in to Art Galleries.

It's why Adams has to rage against Mortenson, it's why Pictorialism had to arise, it why Pictorialism had to be destroyed. It's used to justify and explain anything and everything. It's also completely wrong.

To be sure, there have always been and always will be voices that claim photography is not Art, whatever that statement might even mean. But the battle was over and won before the year 1900. Robinson and his crew put the spear into it in Europe, and Stieglitz did the same in the Americas not much later. Nobody thought Photography was Painting, any more than they thought it was Sculpture, but it was certainly an Art.

There were certainly questions about how one ought to go about it. Which processes were better than others? Should one hand work or not? These questions roiled from the very beginning. Well, at least starting from the moment there was more than one process to chose from. The acceptance as An Art was gradual, but essentially complete by 1891. PH Emerson (having been on the opposing side for decades) suddenly switched sides and declared photography to be Not An Art at all, just in time to be once again in disagreement with the establishment.

Across the water, in the twenty years following, Stieglitz did "Camera Work" and the 291 gallery, the MOMA started showing photography by its 16th exhibition, in 1932, and never much altered the pace at which it shows photographic Art thereafter.

The anti-pictorialism displayed by f/64 wasn't about Art at all, it was about trying to get Stieglitz' attention, partly by pissing in his breakfast cereal and partly by loudly being a Western avant garde.

Photography is an Art. It's been an Art for more than 100 years. Anyone who claims otherwise is trying to sell something.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

An Exercise

This is just an idea I had, so I tried it out. The results were interesting. It takes five minutes.

Get a subject, something small, convenient, and easy to love. A flower. This is a little broccoli flower in a tiny glass. We have a lot of these, our garden is going to seed now. Start by taking a picture of it:

Now breathe, 10 times, slowly. Be aware of your breath. Be aware of the flower. Turn it slowly, examine it as you breathe. Be present, here and now. Let other thoughts go. What do you see? At the end of 10 breaths, take another picture:

The unopened buds at the tip of the stem form a starburst, almost like a little face, peering back at me. This might do better in black and white, to separate the starburst better from the background.

Do it again. What else do you notice? Breathe, be present here and now let the past and future be. It's here, it's now, you and your flower. Take another picture:

The droop of these stems feels a little dolorous to me, a little sad.

And again. This is my last picture, but you could go on forever, I dare say:

My gaze drops and I see the glass, the water. The flower sips the water. Also, I am reminded of Fox Talbot, for some reason, because of a photograph he did not take. The picture I am actually thinking of is Baron Adolf de Meyer's "Still Life" from 1907, which appeared in Camera Work #24.

Sorting that memory mess was a hassle, not very Buddhist, but worth it.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Photokina Announcements!

HOLY SHIT! New cameras! From Fuji and Olympus and stuff, I think! They're bigger, better, more powerful than before. World peace is nigh. Some of them are great, but I hate others. This product will save that company, the other product will surely sink the other one. They are mainly black and digital. There are also new lenses, I think. That's basically the hole on the front where light comes in.

The long standing rumors that someone will announce a product that lets you feel more deeply, to see more intensely, and to more easily translate those into actual pictures seem, alas, not to have come true.

The consensus is that there were some engineering problems along the way, and it may be 1 to 2 more quarters before these products are ready. We may see something for Christmas, but more likely nothing will be officially announced until 1Q17.

Buddhism and Photography

I am reading a little of Thich Nhat Hanh on someone's advice, by way of learning better to deal with some stress I am having in my life, which is neither here nor there. This fellow is a Vietnamese monk known, apparently, for writing masses of books which render some facets and ideas in Buddhism accessible to westerners. I'm not going to become a Buddhist, but I do need to learn better how to relax.


The constant theme in this little volume Peace is Every Step is mindfulness, being aware of the present moment, and of being at peace with it, being connected to whatever is here. Being, if you will, a little in love with whatever is present in this moment.

Wow, I said to myself, that's photography.

If photography is anything, it is about now and here this very moment, this very place. That's kind of the point. No other medium is like this (well, video, something something, let's move on)

The connection between photography and Buddhism seems to me two-fold. First, to take a picture that's much of anything, you do need to be present in that mindful way. You can't be dwelling on the past, thinking about the future, lost in the far-away. You have to be here, right now. You have to be fully aware. Nhat Hanh's idea of presence is a little different, in that it's in all directions and all senses all at once. It's a full-body experience. The photographer typically refines it down to a little rectangle, and mostly sight alone. We might, though, do well to open up and consider the other senses, and other directions even as we shoot in this one.

The second point of connection is the notion that you are part of the world, that you are one with what surrounds you, that you naturally love it, if only you open yourself.

I had an interesting experience recently on this front. I am working on a thing for another venue, about inspiration and eureka moments. I decided to do a "worked example" and write about it. My subject was an empty beer bottle, and I wrestled my way through a concept and some photographs and came up with a perfectly reasonably, if somewhat Artsy, series of photographs.

But I didn't much like the pictures, after a while. Couldn't put my finger on it.

Finally I realized that I had no particular love for the empty (fill it, now, and we have a different story!) and so the pictures were kind of dead, to me at any rate.

I went and found an equally mundane object in the house, one that I do have an emotional connection to, one that I love, and re-did the exercise. Lo, the pictures were much better.

Now, I am not convinced by Nhat Hanh entirely. I'm not sure that it's actually a worthwhile goal to be at all times filled with peace (although we could all surely use a bit more of it), and I am likewise not convinced that love is the only emotion that will make your pictures good.

What is true is that love is the easiest one to use. If you love something, or someone, it's easy to look at them, you want to be near them, the whole process of taking the pictures is eased and pleasant. If you hate something, you don't even want to be there, you don't want to forge the necessary connection -- and the connection must be forged.

This is something to ponder, I think. Perhaps even experiment with. To shoot something I hate, must I find something in it to love? Or can I find a way to the picture by some other path?

The one thing I know is that if you don't care much either way, the pictures aren't going to be worth anything.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"going pro"

I had this peculiar epiphany the other day, or maybe I'm all wrong, who knows?

Photographers do tend to start out just shooting everything. Much as I detest the "stages of the photographer" style pieces, they generally get this one right. I vaguely remember it, shooting anything that caught my eye. These days we see it even more, because digital makes it free to shoot just anything, there is no pressure to be even slightly mindful.

At some point, not too infrequently, a budding photographer looks at his or her work and finds dissatisfaction with it. I believe that, often, the dissatisfaction stems from a vague realization that these pictures have been made without mindfulness. They're all over the place. Flowers, cats, landscapes, cars, everything and anything. The budding photographer often can't figure out what's wrong, though, because they have learned about photography from the usual sources. Checking their work, they see that:
  • Focus is good
  • Exposure is good
  • Strong use of leading lines
  • Ditto rule of thirds
  • etc

What am I doing wrong? asks the befuddled photographer. The answer is you're not shooting mindfully, to any sort of purpose but nobody tells them this. Asking around will produce a collection of terrible advice from dunderheads.

At some point, not infrequently, the solution is to "go pro" which, weirdly, works. Now you're not just shooting any damn thing, you're shooting Senior Sessions. You're shooting mindfully, you're shooting one thing, you're focused on a goal. The results are still entirely gruesome, and you're almost certainly losing money hand over fist because your "accounting" is a mess and you don't actually know what it costs, but at least you get a new lease on your passion.

Which, I guess, is actually kind of a good thing, right?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Wheat and Chaff

Ming Thein has another think piece up, and as happens from time to time I have a response.

Mr. Thein's problem here is that he's unable to separate wheat from chaff. He asks if the Great Photographers of yore would be well known today, and he asks if this generation will even have any great photographers. He recognizes, as do we all, that there are a lot of pictures being made and that most of them are weightless fluff. Chaff. His concern, which is not completely unfounded, is that with this quantity of chaff, perhaps the wheat will be lost forever.

In fact it's not clear that he fully realizes that there is wheat in there. Obviously he thinks his work is special and deserves recognition, don't we all? But it is not clear to me that he recognizes the more general truth that there still is wheat among the chaff, and what, exactly, would distinguish that wheat from the chaff.

There is wheat.

And to some extent, it will be surfaced, criticized, pushed out there, and remembered. Not all of it, maybe not even most of it. It's probably unknowable how much will be "lost" in this sense, but rest assured that we'll be granted more excellent work than we can consume. The critics and curators are always at work, digging and remarking, and pushing. I try to do my bit down here in the lower sub-levels of the mine, pushing the slightly richer ore upwards a few feet, and the poor ore down.

Most of the chaff is easy to identify, and vanishes without any help at all. Only a very small percentage of total photographic output is shown to us with some hope of longevity. We have people like Lewis Bush and Ming Thein who really haven't much of anything to say, but who are working hard and are hopeful. With respect, my judgement is that this is poor ore, to be buried slightly deeper. My judgement is not final, I am but one very minor voice.

Others who do have things to say, who can pull together truly meaningful bodies of work (e.g. Mssrs. Carnet and Kravik) I push upwards. I have by no means guaranteed anyone's success, I am but one very minor voice. Still, the process cannot help but work. While I do not scour the net for hours each day, I do try to take a serious look at some random body of work every few days or so. Other people like me do as well.

People who speak coherently, with earnest intent and some notion of what they are about, will read one another (even if only to disagree). Names and portfolios get passed around, consensus gels, names are repeated. Where do you think I get these names and portfolios to look at, after all?

I can't tell you what form the final result will take, we're in a time of flux. But surely the inevitable loose consensus around this name or that will produce some lasting result. The Vivian Maier story gives us, perhaps, a hint. While she was working long ago, her fame is largely a product of the digital age, and that consensus building.

Certainly we'll wind up with lots and lots of disposable kickstarted blurb books of naked girls as well, but they will be disposed of. The consensus will gel around some duds, many duds, as well, surely. So it has always been, But at the end of the pipeline, a manageable train of names and bodies of work appear, a manageable train that history can then usefully judge. Many of them will, in 50 years, be consigned to the dustbin.

Perhaps, I can hope, Mssrs. Carnet and Kravik will make it through the gauntlet. Perhaps, I can hope, someone with a larger voice than mine will slum it on my blog for an afternoon, loudly mocking me from her chair, and will stumble across some of the artists I happened to like and think to herself that putz is actually right about this one and the name and portfolio get passed on.

The point is, though, that serious people (you may include me in that list or not, as you see fit) are actively looking. They will find. They will do what is needful to surface what they find, and we, all of society, will enjoy the fruits of their labor.

It's all gonna work out OK.