Thursday, September 19, 2019

Alfred Stieglitz

I am reading up on Clarence H. White, a photographer and teacher of some note from 100 years ago or so. White was rattling around New York City about the same time Stieglitz was holding court there, and they overlapped and interacted a fair bit. They ran with the same gangs.

The attentive reader of history will, eventually, notice that the main thing Stieglitz seems to have done was fall out with people. He also ran a couple iterations of a small but evidently influential gallery, and he published an influential magazine.

Now, I get that if people say a fellow is influential, well, then he is, because influence is entirely about perception. Still, Stieglitz doesn't seem to have done much except sit around writing and judging (the irony does not escape me, here).

White ran a school which churned out a number of truly stellar photographers, and a few handfuls of B-listers (known, but not, you know, well known) and White's influence is felt literally to this day in advertising photography. But White practically does not exist in our historical understanding. Beaumont Newhall, shamefully, almost entirely omits him from what is the standard American history.

Edward Steichen was a curator of real note, held the post of Director of Photography at the MOMA for about 15 years, curated The Family of Man, and a bunch of other stuff. Newhall, at least, and I think our collective grasp of history, consigns him to the role of a kind of Stieglitz protege.

Stieglitz, on the other hand, seems to have been born a grumpy old man with too much money. His usual reason for falling out with someone was that the someone was too mercenary, not committed enough to photography as a pure art, but rather decided to make something commercial of it. The effect of this is that he had no patience for photographers without money.

It is long past time to correct the record, I think. Not by minimizing Stieglitz' role. His role was real, photographers did go to him to pay court, and his imprimatur was valuable. Rather by enlarging our understanding of other roles. To whom, for instance, would you go with your Letters of Marque from Stieglitz (who had, himself, nothing by those Letters to give)?

White, Steichen, and (ugh) even Newhall, among surely many others, were the people who could actually redeem Stieglitz' grudging approval with concrete gifts. Exhibitions or, gasp, jobs.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The New Yorker

Have you ever noticed that if you open a copy of The New Yorker to pretty much anywhere, allow your eye to land at random on the page, and start reading... it's OK?

You might wonder who is this Samuelson person? You might care enough to scan backwards and find out where Samuelson appears, and learn that he's a grad student in the lab researching the link between whatever and the other thing.

But mostly, you can just start reading anywhere. The content of The New Yorker is a sort of woozy flow of words, little stitched together anecdotes and dropped quotations that speak mainly to the writer's erudition and command of the language. There is no slowly built up argument, there is no narrative, there is no forward thrust. It's just a kind of quilt that, ideally I guess, builds up into a sort of composite picture of whatever the piece is about.

I find this to be the second most most irritating thing about The New Yorker. The most irritating thing is that every article has am unwritten subtitle which is "I am very smart and read a lot." See also that monument to stupidity masquerading as erudition, Brain Pickings.

Anyways, the thing which occurred to me in a moment of wakefulness in the night is that a photo book often has this same property.

Because we have no special training to start at the beginning, and indeed a 100 years of coffee table books have taught us the opposite, we open visual books at random and flip pages.

If it's not hook-y, we put the book down and walk away.

Actually, let us back up. Milnor points out that the cover is the first do-or-die moment. The cover has to grab the attention. Next, the randomly opened page has to keep that attention enough to induce a page-flip, and then maybe another. The grip on the viewer is extremely tenuous here, and you've got to have enough interest at any point to hold them.

This argues for a fairly high density of punchy, interesting pictures. A typical MFA-driven product of MACK books or any of their compatriots fails this completely. Nobody is ever, ever, going to pick up i walk toward the sun which is always going down, flip a few pages, and be drawn in. The cover has the "curb appeal" of a turd, and the contents are, as far as the MACK web site reveals, no better.

The only way you read this book is if a friend urges you to, probably repeatedly. This doesn't mean it's terrible, at all. It might be excellent. But it is not accessible. It requires commitment to even get started. It might even require a certain suspension of disbelief, as it were.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I dislike The New Yorker's "start anywhere" feature, and yet appear to be advocating for it, for visual books. You are correct, attentive reader. This is, I think, a feature that the visual book kind of needs, but it is also one that makes me unhappy.

A really really good visual book operates like this, I think:

The cover grabs your attention, you pick it up. You open at random and flip a few pages, and your interest spikes upward. The pictures are arresting, the words seem to be both accessible and interesting. Something compels you to flip to the beginning, and you start reading from there.

The last bit is where the book stops being The New Yorker, which generally evokes no such compulsion.

Now, this is not to say that the randomly accessible pastiche is not OK, it is. I don't like it in The New Yorker in part because words are not supposed to work this way, in my mind. If you're going to give me 5000 words on something, I'd like to see some structure, not just a random selection of stuff. Pictures, on the other hand, I am socialized to accept in a more random scattershot fashion.

At the end it is the composite picture, the totality of the gestalt, that matters anyways.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Robert Frank, RIP, and So On

Let me start in by saying that I think The Americans is pretty great. I've seen a lot of weird commentary about it over the last few days, "now everyone shoots like that, but then, wow it was something" being among the weirder statements. I have also seen a little of "Ah, but I like The Lines of my Hand better" which strikes me as pure insider doofus chatter, the cry of someone who wants to be seen as having more refined taste than YOU.

There is also the inevitable discussion of his films, which everyone seems to agree are iconoclastic and fascinating and so on, but nobody seems willing to step up and say that they're good. Reading commentary on them, it becomes quickly clear that they are in fact pretty weird and inaccessible.

Frank suffers from the same problem Harper Lee does. He was an artist who had one thing in him. One very very good thing. That's it. He did a lot of things before and after, kept busy, presumably kept food on the table and whatnot. I'm certainly not saying that I am a better filmmaker. But these things Frank made are more or less the ordinary product of an ordinary worker.

Harper Lee stands as a giant of American literature, and there are those who would argue that she is indeed the giant. Her almost posthumous second book dims that bright light some, but cannot really obliterate it.

In the same way, this somewhat mad desire to make out Frank as not merely a genius, but a prolific genius, likewise ends up dimming his light.

The Americans is a monumental achievement. An artist needs no more to be mighty. Let it stand.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Something to Look At

Here's a picture.

As always, take your time.

There is a cheap, half-funny, read. Don't fall for it. Take a moment. Do you find it in any way oddly compelling?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Shoot RAW!

A photograph, arguable, has about three jobs to do all at once.

The first thing is does, which it does all by itself pretty well if you just leave it alone, is to witness. It testifies that something was.

The second thing it does I am somewhat sloppily calling representation. It expresses an opinion about that which was. This is a little harder to do, you, the photographer, probably need to take an active and thoughtful role here. If nothing else, you should have pretty clear what your opinion of the subject is.

The third thing is does is to be aesthetic. Usually pleasing but not necessarily. Again, the photographer is probably involved here.

All of these things interact. If the photograph is aesthetically pleasing (or not) that is going to influence the opinion the photograph appears to express. If you tinker with a photograph to excess in order to improve the aesthetics, you lose the power and right to witness. By choosing what to witness, you influence the opinion your picture expresses, if nothing else about what it worth witnessing.

These things need to be in balance, whatever the right balance is for the job at hand.

It is probably fair to say that any photograph is going to do all three of these things no matter what. The question, as Humpty Dumpty observed, is who is to be master? Are you, the photographer, going to be in charge, or is luck, happenstance, and perhaps your unconscious mind going to be in charge?

Fine Art photographs invariably chuck everything except aesthetic appeal out the window. They appear to care about literally nothing else. This is not surprising, since modern photographer culture is 90% monkeying around with gadgets and 10% trying to figure out how to "make a good photograph" in an aesthetic sense. Note that witnessing and representation appear, um let me see, nowhere.

The Art photographers, especially those in the Documentary area, tend to worry exclusively about representation. They want desperately to convey their opinion, which is that fascism is bad, and that's about it. There's a little dash of witnessing (but most of the time they can't be buggered to find anything worthwhile to witness, so they photograph microfilm readers instead) and they certainly don't care about aesthetics.

Representation is important because, good god, if you don't care to communicate what on earth are you doing? Just format your cards at the end of every day.

Aesthetics matter because they influence the mood and receptiveness of the viewer. A graphically strong picture attracts attention (not, I note, "the eye" like some rule of thirds bullshit). A beautiful picture might well warm the viewer up, an ugly picture rile them up. I don't know, there is no formula. You just lay them out and see what it looks like. But aesthetics matter.

Witnessing, last of all, is what photographs do, as long as you let them. It is the well from which the power of the photograph is drawn. Without it, you have a badly made drawing. With it, you have the power of truth in your hand, to support your meaning.

Representation, Aesthetics, and Witnessing.

RAW. Shoot RAW, everyone. It's just better.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Landslop Followup

I made a thing. It's rough. I shot it, edited it, wrote it, and laid it out, today.

It's over on my Rogue Photo blog because I might make it into a magazine.

Landslop Photography <strangled noise>

So I accidentally fell into a conversation on twitter with this guy Philip Leyland Hyde, which turned out to be an error. Nice enough fellow, won't stop banging on about how important and influential his father Philip Hyde (who studied with Ansel Adams, dontcha know) was in photography and photo books. You can look Philip Hyde up, he's just barely important enough. I had never heard of him, and in a year, I will be back to blessedly not having ever heard of him. You can see some of his photographs here, for instance. It may occur to you that they look contemporary.

From there, for reasons I cannot fathom except apparently I need to suffer, I stumbled across Photo Cascadia, a collective of mainly Oregon photographers who produce interchangeable eye-searing landscapes in, actually, pretty much the same style as Philip Hyde. They identify with group f.64, though, and have probably never heard of Philip Hyde either.

Of course there's endless hordes of these people, some doing pretty well, some just banging out photos and prints on their own dime and trying to persuade their shrinking circle of increasingly haunted friends and relatives to take them and hang them up.

I stamped around my house ranting incoherently like schizophrenic for a while until the dog, out of concern for the children, called the police.

Having calmed down, something occurred to me.

What all these people are doing is driving off into the wilderness with a bunch of camera gear, going to particularly fortuitous vantage points at particularly fortuitous times of day, and waiting patiently for a particularly fortuitous combination of light, cloud, and fog to appear. They pride themselves on the difficulty of hobby, and the rareness of their photographs.

Now, the hobby is not difficult, merely expensive and labor-intensive, and the photographs are not rare. Witness, um, the internet. Or any small town in the Pacific Northwest, which will contain at least one "art gallery" infested with candy-colored pictures of mountains and trees "in the great tradition of Ansel Adams."

Still, these photos do take a bit of work. You don't just step into the woods and see these sights. Go out camping for a week in a good area, and there will be one or two mornings when, for 20 minutes, the fog and the light will drift through the trees just so. There will be an evening when the clouds over the mountains will look very nice, and also be pinklit by the setting sun for half an hour. You'll see this stuff, and you could certainly photograph it. Most days, these sights won't be quite perfect examples. It takes several days, some planning, and some hiking to grind out even one or two things of the sort Photo Cascadia prides itself on.

My realization is that if you spend 24 hours in a particularly good place, you're gonna get maybe 30 minutes of these sorts of thing. More with luck and planning, less without. Maybe it just rains all day.

It turns out that the wilderness, in the other 23 and one half hours, does not turn in to a mall parking lot. It's still pretty sublime. It is still filled with wonders. It is still painfully beautiful.

Even taking away the absurd distortions of wide lenses, candy colors, long exposure flowing water (ugh), and all the other ugly tropes of the genre, the wilderness simply does not look that way most of the time.

It is certainly true that the pinklit clouds and drifting fog through the awe inspiring vista do indeed take the breath away. On that one morning, wow, that was something. But these photographers are trading away every other moment for that one.

Sure, the wow moments sell prints. Well, some prints. Not as many as the photographers pretend, naturally, but enough to keep an apparently endless string of small town gallery shops open, at least as a part of the business.

They are not photographing the forests and valleys that I know. They are not re-creating my experience of these things, in any meaningful way.

My experience, to be honest, is more wondrous by far.