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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

LensWork #129

Correction: There is at least one additional portfolio in this issue, and at this point I am unwilling to commit to an actual number having previously counted four. My larger point, though, still stands.

I had occasion to buy this, the current issue Brooks Jensen's magazine. I've never actually owned one before, though of course I've flipped through a few issues at the newsstand, and I am naturally aware of the publication. It's put together just a few miles down the road from me. The reason for my purchase was to read the editorial, which is some sort of discussion/rant about technical excellence comma a plague of. I have yet to actually read it, because I started looking at the pictures, and here we are.

My intention is not to review this as such, since I cannot easily point you to a place where you can look at the pictures.

My intention is to talk, briefly I hope, about the limitations of the editors of this work.

In brief, of the five portfolios presented, exactly one has is conceptually anything other than trivial to the point of inanity. It's painfully clear that Jensen still leans heavily on the idea of the Single Iconic Photo and that therefore a portfolio is a sort of Greatest Hits album. Make no mistake, every single picture is superb, a technical tour-de-force, and often very beautiful besides.

One is a collection of black and white aerial photographs. Technically superb, but I get it. When you get up high the land and all man's works become abstracted. So what?

One is a collection of pretty stones on some sort of streambed, with water rippling over them. Again, technically superb. Beautiful. But there's no idea here at all. Any single one of the pictures could stand in for the others, the only question is how big is the print, and does it go with the furniture. This isn't conceptually inane, it's conceptually non-existent.

There's a couple portfolios of composited stuff which do, in fact, a nice job of carrying an idea, a sensation. In one, children play in a spookily dark and foggy playground, in the other we convey some sense of the desert fog. In both cases, any single photo would have done. They're all the same idea, repeated in different ways. One photo is literally a different crop of another one, with a different paint job lashed onto it. The ideas here, while present, seem to be essentially visual, kind of thin. I liked the desert ones anyway, but we really just needed to see one picture.

And finally we come to the one that Jensen wisely leads with, which is about a railroad bridge and environs. There are some visual ideas, some ideas of solitude, decay, and so on. At any rate that's what I see. It feels like there's enough depth here that you might see something different. The main point, though, is that the pictures are not all the same. One picture picks up a visual idea from the previous one, echoing the flock of crows as footprints in the snow, and then the next repeats the path of footprints in the curled path of flowing water.

Beyond the flow of purely visual ideas, the sense of place is built up, bit by bit. Each picture actually has a reason for being there, and adds a little bit. I do not think the portfolio is excellent but it's pretty good. And, of course, the pictures and reproductions have a technical excellence to them.

And so we come to the point of my remarks here.

If you're going to show more than one picture, the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts. In this issue of LensWork, the whole is in general something less than even the sum of the parts. It's a high-culture, beautifully made, carefully managed instagram account.

And that is a terrible waste.


  1. "It's painfully clear that Jensen still leans heavily on the idea of the Single Iconic Photo and that therefore a portfolio is a sort of Greatest Hits album."

    I've been reading Mr. Jensen's blog (daily.lenswork.com) for quite some time now, and also read some of his books, and my impression is quite the opposite. He works in terms of self-published mini-portfolios around a given theme for quite some time (20 years?) now. Currently, he publishes most if not all of his own work as downloadable PDF files. As an example see http://www.brooksjensenarts.com/kokoro/kokoro.html.

    I also recommend his books. They are organized as collections of self-contained essays, which e.g. deal with:
    * Working in projects
    * Collaboration with artists of other art forms
    * Ways of publishing
    * Getting out of one's comfort zone
    * ...

    Best, Thomas

    1. Thank you! I *hope* it was clear that I was passing judgement based strictly on reading one copy of one magazine, and that therefore there's more room than usual for me to be wrong. Still, I see I didn't explicitly state that.

      Let this comment stand for that, then, and thank you for the link and other remarks!

  2. I just downloaded issue 129 (I also receive the hard copy) to see what your complaint was about. I don't find your critique to be particularly on point. Unsurprisingly, not all parts of every issue leave me breathless. Yet, the editor's comments are thoughtful, well written and address an issue that you might feel is so obvious as to not warrant a mention but is presented in a well thought manner that urges reflection and surely helps organize ones thoughts. Long before Brooks Jensen was publishing pictures he was publishing words on photography. He was publishing on paper to paying subscribers, not on Wordpress or some digital media.

    My quick critique of issue 129 is that some of the portfolios might have some repetitive images. Personally, I only need to see a few pictures of pebbles before they start just blending together. But, that's just me. Some people are bored by Ansel Adams or Robert Adams or Diane Arbus, and I'm just on the A's...

    As for your main critique that the portfolios contained within are simply "greatest hit's" collections, I disagree. Or maybe you have a very different understanding of what that might mean. I have good reason to believe that Brooks Jensen is very much attuned to the notion of a cohesive theme and not likely to publish a greatest hit series. I once presented some work for critique to Mr. Jensen and a significant point of his was that I had simply presented a collection of "greatest hits". And he was right. Also important was that his critique was constructive beyond that.

    You do share something in common with Brooks Jensen in that you both write about photography. He is one of the better writers on photography and while I would never urge you to mimic him, there is certainly a lot to be learned from him.

    Your posting would have been vastly improved if only you had highlighted the last 2 sentences and hit DELETE.

    1. In case it was not completely clear, I had not even read the editorial when I wrote the above, which was purely directed at the pictures.

      I have now read it, stay tuned!