Category Archives: Blog

Maybe we should call it Art

This article, The Rules of Photojournalism Are Keeping Us From the Truth, by Donald Weber of VII Photo Agency, really hit a nerve with me. My first training in photography was as a photojournalist. Then I began seeking jobs as a freelance newspaper photographer. One AP editor told me after a portfolio viewing, “Your pictures are good, but they are too complex to read well in a newspaper.” I thought about this for a long time, and realized that he was correct. And so was I. Shortly after that conversation, I stopped seeking to publish my images in newspapers, or calling myself a photojournalist.

Reality is too complex to read well in a newspaper- at least the kind of newspapers that we have today.

At the time of that fateful interview, in the late 80’s, the news was still primarily delivered printed on paper, or through three main TV news networks, but USA Today and the Gannett Corporation was in the process of buying out local news outlets, driving them out of business, and flooding the mediascape with a new brand of newspaper journalism- short, colorful, easy to digest, and entirely shallow in its look at current events. Newspapers had always used advertising to finance their product, but it was clear that this new kind of journalism was nothing more than a vehicle to carry advertising. It was also clear to me that this trend would soon change the world of print journalism into something that barely resembled it’s title- something that I wanted nothing to do with. Now I could extend this outmoded word “newspaper” to mean any kind of media outlet that reports on current events, whether it exists in physical form, or online.

I still photograph in a photojournalistic “style,” but feel it much more honest to avoid calling what I do journalism. Calling it “Art” may seem pretentious, but it admits to the idea that what one individual sees and records through a lens is a purely subjective vision, and can only tell the story of that person’s encounter with events from his own point of view. Images taken from a different angle, a different person’s perspective, or at a slightly different moment might yield a totally different accounting of the events. I don’t mean to imply that there is no place for photography of news, but just that it’s storytelling, not journalism.

What ends up getting published as news serves the publications’ editorial interest, is easy to consume, and is often calculated to tell a story in a way that will offend the fewest number of people, most especially the advertisers and their potential customers. Messy reality is simplified into easily digested morsels so that we can quickly move onto the celebrity gossip without losing our appetites for consuming the products advertised. The messy truth of what the photographer witnessed might later come out in a book, or art exhibition, if we are lucky, and if a real photographer was hired at all. This truth might not even be visible in literal photograph, but better expressed in visual metaphor that hints at the causes of the effect that it witnessed in the moment, or in an extended photo essay that takes the time to investigate the story in greater depth. Unfortunately, nobody in the news business has the bandwidth for the whole story.

That said, I believe that even though the profession of what we call “photojournalism” barely exists these days, what “photojournalists” do is crucial. They are bearing witness to history, and leaving behind a legacy that will carry our stories to the next generations. Too bad that what gets published in the moment rarely reflects the complexity of that history. Now that publications have all but abandoned sponsoring long form photo stories that can build a more complex understanding of events, we risk losing that perspective for the future.

The Archive (a Birthday Present to Myself)

I’ve often presented my photographic work in discrete projects that fit a category such as portraiture, digital photomontage, social documentary, etc that deal with specific themes, times, places, and concepts, as expected by a photographic art world in which I’ve been professionally immersed these last couple of decades. This strategy has earned me at least a little success in this world, allowing my photographs to be featured in a variety of exhibitions in established galleries, art centers, and educational institutions. Seeing my work displayed as art in this elevated context has been gratifying, but something about this fragmented approach has never felt honest to me, as it doesn’t really reflect the true nature of my practice in the medium of photography. These seemingly discrete projects have actually been drawn from a much broader archive of photographs that I’ve quietly been assembling for years, a body of work that has of yet evaded my attempts to categorize or theorize.

My working method is to always have a camera on hand, and to photograph the scenes that I encounter while going about my daily life. Sometimes I venture out specifically to make images, but rarely do I preconceptualize the kinds of pictures I will make. The practice is purely photographic, preceding the intervention of conscious thought or theory, relying instead on instinct and reaction, and embracing the gifts of chance and serendipity as I navigate the world around me. I established this practice in my early days as a photographer, even before high school, although the logistic and financial limitations of shooting film limited its comprehensiveness. Once digital cameras became available, this method has become more of a constant practice and obsession. For the last several years I have rarely ventured from my home without a camera, loaded, charged, and ready to shoot. Mindful of the tolerance and privacy of my companions on this journey through life, I don’t necessarily attempt to capture images of everything that happens to me, or even the most significant moments with friends and acquaintances, although this sometimes happens too, but rather tend to make pictures of the random moments in transit, taken on walks, drives, bicycle outings, and now even from my skateboard, as I assimilate yet another mode of transport into my daily routines. I often have no specific connection to the scenes thus depicted, other than they reflect my view from where my temporal journey meets the plane of the visual matrix of the world at the time and place I am able to make an exposure with my camera, creating a document of my unique intersection with the flow of life, that uncritically records whatever and whomever happens to be in view of the lens. As I build this web of imagery, and stay in a location for longer periods of time, these images sometimes gain significance as the random scenes and locations become familiar as my home.

I know that this habit arises from my life’s frequent geographic and cultural relocations, as I have both voluntarily and involuntarily led a somewhat rootless and nomadic existence in this journey on the Earth from my very infancy. My father emigrated from India to England at the age of 17, where he met my mother. Shortly after my birth, they immigrated to Canada, in search of a society that might better accept them as a mixed race couple, and me as a mixed race child than the segregated Great Britain of the 1960’s. Only a few months later, opportunity for a better job for my father drew our young family to the United States, right around the time when this country’s archaic laws banning the practice of “miscegenation” were finally relaxed, making my very existence no longer illegal on American soil. This moment was commemorated with a blurry picture of my drooling infant face on a plastic laminated Green Card. From that point, my father’s restless search for career and a home to raise the family took us to a new house and new town at least every two years all throughout my childhood and youth. As a result of this unsettled upbringing, I was constantly the new kid in town, born of two different, and often opposing cultures, races, and countries, while attempting to make a life in a third. My parents were supportive, nurturing, and as involved in my life as they possibly could have been, as overwhelmed as they also were in finding their own ways in this foreign land, but ultimately, their expectations of me often conflicted, and created confusion in my mind as I tried to negotiate their foreigners’ customs with the cultural norms of various suburban America schools of the 70’s and 80’s, where I was often the only minority or mixed race student. Finding my own way in the world of yet another new place with the various regional cultures I encountered outside our home in a succession of schools, regions, towns and states, I developed the habit of observing the world around me in an attempt to make sense of my constantly shifting social and physical environment through the evidence of my eyes, since the usual clues of social integration and engagement were often hidden from me as a raw outsider to so many different settings and situations. Somewhere along the way I picked up a camera to assist me in this task. The use of photography to document this odyssey through time and space grew into an artistic practice as I engaged with the medium in the course of studying the fine arts in college.

This visual exploration of my surroundings always seems to accelerate as I venture into a new place to live. Moving to Fresno, California has been no different. It’s been enormously exciting to explore this new region, even as I go about mundane errands to and from work, collecting groceries, or simply going out to exercise and getting to know my way around this new environment. I don’t know if these images are good, bad, boring, or interesting, nor have I been able to theorize a rationale, aesthetic standard, or categorization that would enable me to define a coherent photographic practice that could incorporate the scope of this body of work as a whole. Clearly this work lives partially in the tradition of what’s been labeled “Street Photography”, but the images are not exclusively that, as they include many pictures that break the generally accepted parameters of the genre.

The sum of this photographic archive has long ago grown so massive that it would be impossible to publish in its entirety by means of any conventional mode of presentation, even if edited by whatever criteria down to only the “good” pictures. Consequently, other than recently in the random decontextualized virtual space of image sharing services such as Instagram or Flickr, I’ve not presented this work as a sort of exhibition, portfolio, book, or any other formal creative body of work, preferring to extract from it discrete elements that better fit into established modes of the medium. I’m beginning to feel however, that I should simply embrace this practice as the way I process my encounter with the world, and leave it for others to categorize, if they see fit.

The images shown here are some of those that I made on my birthday this year, a small collection of random, discrete moments plucked from a particular day in the steam of my visual consciousness as I commence another lap surfing on the surface of the Earth in its journey around the sun, a birthday present to myself and whoever else cares to share the particular view out of the windows of my eyes and lens as we spin together through the cosmos. Make of them what you will, and if our paths ever cross, I hope you won’t mind if I take your picture.

Face your fears

Face your worst fears:

I am deadly afraid of the DMV office.

This is a place where whole afternoons go to die. A place where slow, surly, indifferent service, frustration, boredom, and public wearing of crocs and sweatpants eats at the soul and causes irreparable psychological and physical harm. But today I had no choice but to return the plates for my recently and miraculously sold 200,000 mile plus Subaru or risk liability for the misfortunes and/or misdeeds of the poor sucker who bought my car.

Upon entering the dreaded office, a vivid vision of my worst nightmares presented itself to me in gory detail. The entire waiting room was filled with an army of characters who would have failed a casting call for The People of Wallmart, all displaying a range of facial expressions and postures that indicated states of minds ranging from severe annoyance to on the verge of perpetrating a mass shooting. My palms went clammy and my mouth went dry. I felt a little lightheaded and suddenly wished that I had visited the bathroom once more before leaving the house. Too late now. Screwing up every subatomic particle of my courage, I took a ticket from the LED adorned dispenser and scanned the nearly full rows of seats, searching for a spot next to someone who appeared least capable or likely of perpetrating a random act of violence against a fellow sufferer, but not yet requiring adult diapers. Just then The Voice of What passes for God at that address boomed over the loudspeaker.

“Ticket number 2257, window Two.”

I looked at my ticket for the first time and saw the magical digits 2257 printed in bold black thermal ink. Not trusting the evidence offered by my eyes, still adjusting to the indoor lighting, I checked the ticket again and then the LED board overhead, which both corroborated my suspicion that a miracle had indeed taken place. Mine was the first number called! Ignoring the lethal stares that no doubt every one of them was drilling into my vital organs in hopes of willing me to drop dead, I attempted to casually saunter past the assembled ranks of disgruntled would be New York State motorists to window number two, where I was pleasantly greeted by a smiling young man who promptly received my plates and issued a receipt with a courteous nod. I wished him eternal happiness and a long life, and quickly exited the building past the rows of the unfortunate, my mission executed in less time than it took me to type this report.

a hard earned lesson

A few years ago I was going to do a “mixed blood” portrait project in collaboration with a good friend. We even built a website and bought the domain name “Mixedblood.org.” Our idea was to focus on images and narratives about mixed blood individuals. Then I traveled to Mexico for a couple of weeks and the experience of being immersed in a society where everyone had mixed blood was exhilarating — but also made me question the logic of the whole enterprise. I also felt that something else was missing from our idea, & just couldn’t make it work conceptually in my head. Then Life happened and we never did get that project off the ground. So seeing this article about the work of CYJO is a bit bittersweet. Now I realize in a big “Aha!” moment that it was the uniqueness of mixed “race”(whatever that means) FAMILIES such as the one from which I came, that allow and require the children to forge their own sense of identity from diverse cultural influences. Being of mixed race is a phenomenon that transcends the individual and can only be shown in the context of a family. Cyjo figures that out and made the project work. I can draw two lessons from this realization: 1. If you have a project idea, GET IT DONE before someone else beats you to it. (Not the first time I’ve “learned” this lesson the hard way!) and 2. Don’t get too stuck on an initial idea of how to execute a concept- think all the way around it to to see if there’s a better way to approach the problem. Both my partner and I were pretty alienated from our own families at the time and no doubt we wore blinders to the importance of family in the story we were trying to tell. A little less focus on our own situations and more openness to that of others would have let us see what now seems an obvious solution to the problem.

The Weight of the Past

One of the joys and perils of a life in photography is that you are never free of the weight of the past. Saving images of What Has Happened is what we do. Attempting to foil the Plan of the Universe for Humans to experience time as a one way street does not come without its dangers. These perils are only compounded by the unparalleled access to an entire photographic personal history & archive via digital cataloging, search, and database technology such as Adobe Lightroom.

This morning, while tending to my archive in the Sisyphean task of holding it to a manageable size, I stumbled upon a quartet of images: My lame attempts at a selfie upon meeting Martin Parr, one of my longtime photographic idols, at the Chicago National SPE Conference in Chicago, at 7:39 PM, March 7, 2013. I am able to recall these facts with such precision not because I have an impressively specific and accurate memory, nor because I was so gobsmacked with this brief and random meeting with a hero that the event was forever emblazoned on my consciousness. Far from it, in fact. It’s just that Adobe Lightroom makes it impossible to let go of memories that in some cases would be better off buried under the layers of grocery lists, appointments, deadlines, and pastrami and swiss on rye that will inevitably intervene over the merciful days and months and years that will hopefully follow.

In this particular moment, I had arrived early for Parr’s lecture to assure a good seat in the audience, and was surprised to find him sitting for a moment alone in the dim conference lobby, looking a bit bored. I screwed up my courage to approach him, and somehow managed to mumble a more or less coherent introduction, which thankfully I do not recall. What can an acolyte and an idol, who have no actual personal connection, and nothing but obvious strained shop talk with which to fill the awkwardness of such an encounter do next, but take a selfie, and move on. Embarrassingly, my first two attempts at this, the most brainless of all photographic genres, proved total failures, and the third barely passible. The famously comedic Martin quipped, as he consented to a fourth, final, and possibly even more dismal photograph, “I hope you aren’t a photographic educator yourself.” Of course he had no way of knowing that I’d recently been delivered a letter informing me of some very grave news regarding my future employment as a photographic educator.

In any event, my punctuality earned me the right to enjoy Parr’s effortlessly brilliant and hilarious lecture from the front row, a perspective that allowed me to make some more than passable images of Martin in his glory. And from my current perspective more than a year later, maybe the recollection of this moment is not so painful after all.

Requiem for Hungarian Street Photography

I visited Hungary in the winter of 2009-10 on a two-week artist residency in the capital city of Budapest. My objective in this visit was to absorb some of the culture, history and feel of the city by walking its streets practicing what is know as “street photography.” The dead of winter with its short hours of daylight, and an introverted, brisk attitude pervading the city, wasn’t the best time to capture candid moments in the life of a people, as they scurried about on their errands, bundled against the bitter cold, heads down, and on their way. I therefore concentrated my photographic efforts more on formal exercises in composition using the urban landscape as inspiration, making images of architectural details juxtaposed with contemporary advertising graphics and graffiti. I did, however, mange to capture a good number of pictures of people along the way as well. One notable break in the bleak atmosphere was a raucous New Year’s celebration in the square near the soviet era hotel where our residency was located.

It would have been much more difficult to make similar pictures today. According this article, and others, Hungary has passed a law requiring that photographers obtain the permission of every person who is identifiable in a photograph taken in a public place. Obtaining the consent of everyone in a candid picture would be impossible in most cases, as well as impossible to enforce, but it renders street photography as I practiced it on my 2009-10 visit, effectively illegal.

I find this ruling incredibly ironic, given Hungary’s status as the birthplace of André Kertez, Robert Capa, and Brassaï, all of whom had a formative hand in the genre of street photography now outlawed in their country. The memories of these great Hungarian imagemakers, who’s work celebrated the freedom of expression, beautiful and poetic spontaneous moments of people captured on film, and in Capa’s case, documented the 20th century’s great battles against fascism, would be better served if this misguided law is quickly scrapped.

There seems to be a disturbing trend of tightening regulations against photography by private citizens in several countries, with the common justifications of preserving people’s privacy, and to prevent reconnaissance by terrorist organizations. These arguments ring false in consideration of the ubiquitous presence of police and private corporate controlled security cameras in public and quasi public spaces everywhere, especially given recent revelations of blanket US government surveillance even of people’s online activities and phone records. Real privacy no longer exists in people’s most intimate communications, and certainly not in urban public spaces, where anyone reasonably aware of their surroundings knows that their actions are constantly recorded by multiple security cameras and monitored by a wide variety of security agencies, public and private. Fear of the use of photography by terrorists is also illogical and overblown. Blanket high resolution photography of every conceivable location, angle, time, and season of pretty much every place on the planet are already available online to anyone who cares to look. Today’s would be terrorists simply need to search Flickr, Google Earth, Google Street View, or any number of other encyclopedic databases of online imagery to case potential target sites, on the off chance that they had anything to gain by the use of photography in some hypothetical attack.

The more realistic and common ethical dilemmas of street photography are complex, balancing people’s desire for dignity and a reasonable expectation of privacy with rights of free expression. Much of this negotiation takes place in the moment a photograph is taken, as a dance of social, optical, physical interaction that considers opportunity, consent, fear, communication, empathy, respect, personal psychology, attraction, confidence, intention, and an infinite variety of other factors in the decision of when it’s ok or not ok to make a photograph. This interaction is not substantively different than what happens any time one person encounters another in any public space, other than in the case of making a picture, the interaction is concentrated through a lens and rendered (hopefully) into a coherent two-dimensional visual record of that moment. From the point of view of a photographer, as well as a private citizen, who like anyone else, sometimes finds himself at the other end of a lens, it strikes me that this interaction is far too personal, ephemeral, and ubiquitous to ever successfully legislate, beyond the already existing framework of laws prohibiting harassment, assault, etc. In many years practicing the art of street photography in many different countries and contexts, I’ve found that confrontation between potential subject and photographer on the streets is very rare, and almost always solvable by negotiation between civilized, well meaning people. In the very unusual instance that conversation is not effective in diffusing a negative situation, no amount of legislation would improve the outcome.

While I am no legal expert, it would seem that laws prohibiting or regulating photography in public spaces may ease the discomfort of a few cameraphobic members of the public, giving them a legal weapon to wield against a perceived invasion of privacy by overly aggressive shutterbugs, but they they do nothing to curb the more pernicious and increasingly invasive level of surveillance that all of us have to endure in the contemporary world. What these regulations actually accomplish in practice is to remove the opportunity for artists to create a potentially historic visual record of contemporary urban life, prevent journalists from doing their job, and shift the balance of power from ordinary citizens over to police and government authorities, who’s reach into people’s private affairs seems to be constantly expanding on a global level. One obvious consequence of the new Hungarian law is to make it more difficult for citizens to record the actions of the police, and thereby hold them accountable to the rule of law. This is a serous erosion of people’s civil liberties, the implications of which far exceed the unnecessary suppression of a beloved and socially relevant art form.

Although I hear that Budapest in the summer is a wonderfully open & festive place that celebrates the season with a bacchanalian splendor reserved for those who have endured a long dreary winter, I won’t be returning there while any laws are in effect to restrict creative photography in public spaces. I can, however, offer this portfolio of images made during my one and only visit to the beautiful city of Budapest. It’s too bad that for now, such an exploration of its many charms is no longer possible.

The Great Thaw of 2014

Deep drifts of snow, deeper financial deficits, and exigent circumstances undeserving of further explication have conspired to keep me indoors far too much for my health this winter, so when the Great February Thaw of 2014 announced its arrival with the sound of crashing icicles and a dark, all enveloping rain, I almost felt reason for hope yesterday. The clouds finally broke this afternoon, leaving no deadline emergency powerful enough to prevent me from venturing out of my cave to experience the miracle of sunlight for the first time in a near eternity. The torrents of melting snow running down the road, the strange and fearsome things emerging from the sagging snow banks, every visible patch of yellow waterlogged grass, the slightest glimmer of reflected sunlight from the side of a modest bungalow, even the joe college wannabe hipsters on a beer run, all came as revelations of beauty to my sensorily deprived snowbound vitamin D starved retinae. The sight of a dead rat thawed out of its winter grave reminded me that not all of us have survived the winter, but the birds still sang joyously, and the sounds of running water, even if briny snowmelt in gutter, after weeks of icy stillness, was the best music I could have wished for. Even better, I found that I could operate my camera without gloves or fear of frostbite forfeited fingers, even as the day’s final rays carved their ephemeral imprint on the electrons of my silicone full frame sensor. The images I recorded today may appear utterly mundane to one accustomed to regular access to sunlight and above freezing air, but they represent to me, if a fatal head injury or hip dislocation from falling icicles or slip on melting ice can be avoided, the possibility of surviving the longest deep freeze since my childhood in the ice age. Fast fading light and saturated shoes truncated my perambulations, sending me home to savor the scent of roasting chicken and spaghetti squash upon my return. I hope you’ll indulge for a moment my reawakened sense of wonder at the the suggestion of sunlight I witnessed this glorious late winter afternoon.

Gerry Badger on The Great Leap Sideways

Time, unlike love and sometimes money, from the human perspective is, sadly, a zero sum game. The more of it you spend reading garbage on the internet, the less of it you have left for things that will really enrich your life. For that reason, I’d like to share a blog I just discovered that delivers substantive criticism on serious photography: The Great Leap Sideways, edited by one Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. Here he shares a brilliant essay by Gerry Badger that invites us to reconsider a trend that has long irritated me: the denigration of “straight photography” in the academic and curatorial sphere, in favor of work that clumsily attempts to “reinvent” the medium. http://greatleapsideways.tumblr.com/. If it’s not too late to make a new year’s resolution, mine is to head to this neighborhood if I find my mind wandering. This is a treasure trove of inspiration for serious students and practitioners of the art of photography. Here is the link to the original text from Gerry Badger’s site: http://www.gerrybadger.com/another-brick-in-the-wall-michael-schmidts-waffenruhe/

A Strange Night Out in Detroit, ca. 1997

Every fall, it’s reassuring to see the articles posted online about how the meaning of photography changes when images are decontextualized, leading to the tension between what seems to be going on, and what the image actually depicts. This tension has been blamed for photography’s failure as an objective historical record, and credited for the medium’s potential to rise to visual poetry, allowing the viewer space to construct a narrative that takes on a life of its own, independent of the events that were actually recorded on film. This morning I saw an article featuring Joel Sternfeld’s masterpiece with the pumpkins and firefighters used as an example to support this point. The timing was odd, because late last night while looking for something deep in the recesses of that one storage bin that serves as a receptacle for random uncategorizable objects, I discovered an old book of matches emblazoned with the Zoot’s logo. Zoot’s was a much loved coffee house that served as the unofficial home of a fascinating cast of Detroit’s Cass Corridor (now mysteriously renamed “Midtown”) characters, both old school denizens and new school hipsters through much of the 1990’s.

What does this have to do with Joel Sternfeld? Firefighters were on the scene for the production of both Joel’s and the photographs I am presenting here. And Maybe if I use his name in connection with my own humble images, I too, will one day have articles written about the philosophical mysteries embodied within their regard, but probably not. Anyhow, It’s a tenuous connection to be sure, but that’s just the way my mind works. I won’t go into a treatise on the ways in which long forgotten photographs trigger or fail to trigger certain memories, but in this case what happened is that the match book reminded me of any number of wasted evenings that either began or ended at Zoots, and then I recalled one particularly strange evening involving firefighters (again the matches). This story plays out at Zoots, but it seems to begin at another venue, The Gold Dollar Saloon, a notorious dive bar that was mainly frequented by transvestites and hookers back in the day, but by my time had been mostly taken over by White Urban Pioneers (Hipsters), who would never have dared venture into the venue’s previous incarnation. Even back then I was annoyed by that scene, but I must have been trying to impress someone with my local knowledge, so somehow ended up at the place in question. Judging by the rough location of the negative sleeve in my “files” it was probably shot around 1997, although it could have been as early as 1993. Hazy supporting “evidence” existing only in my memory would corroborate the latter date. The chalk calendar in Zoots indicates that the time of year was early September, most likely a weekend night, judging by the nature of events, so very likely this happened exactly 16 years ago to last night, when on impulse, inspired by these vague recollections, I went to an overstuffed bookcase filled mostly unindexed negative binders. The first one I grabbed opened to the very roll of film I was remembering. While I will admit to having shot these images, most likely on a Nikon FM2, I’m not sure if the statute of limitations for some of the events that transpired have yet expired, so I will not tag or divulge the identities of anyone depicted in this series of images, even if I could remember who they were, or who I was with, which I can’t. At this point, even though I may have actually witnessed the events depicted, your guess is as good as mine what really happened that night.

A Portrait of the Artist

Here are some images that I’ve been collecting for a number of years; portraits of artists, mainly in their studios or work spaces, although I managed to capture a few of these amazing creatures in the Wild as well. By “Artist” I mean anyone that primarily lives by their creative work, or feels this their reason for being. I even included a couple of portraits of an athlete, middle distance Olympian Lopez Lomong, who lives his life with creative flair, largely in service of others. Obviously I’m not hewing to any sort of strict definition of the word. Many of these pictures are not in their final state of polish, but I wanted to get these online as examples of the sort of thing I’ll be trying to do in the upcoming week, when I’ll be in New York City with my 8×10 view camera in hopes of adding a few more creative faces to the series. If you would like to be immortalized in this sure to be iconic series of images, Please contact me ASAP. I’ll be available to shoot between Friday August 9 and Thursday August 15.

Estrela Brilhante

Yesterday I ventured out to photograph the Syracuse Peace Council’s march commemorating the US bombing of Hiroshima. This was a spectacular and moving piece of street theater, well executed by the veteran organizers. Unfortunately, as a photographer I felt a bit off my game, and didn’t feel as if I’d made many good pictures. That’s not what this story is about, however.

Just as this sombre event was wrapping up, we were surprised to hear a rising flood of raucous music with drums, whstles and a tropical Samba flavor. I followed the sound to catch the last moments of a few of the members of Brazillian Carnival band Estrela Brilhante blowing off some steam in an impromtu street performance before their scheduled recording session at Sub Cat Studios down the street. I tagged along with their surprise procession, to be rewarded with a fascinating view of the dancers and musicians shedding their elaborate costumes and relaxing a bit before they started recording. I tried unsuccessfully not to be too obtrusive with my camera & chatted with their very tolerant American tour manager, Anne Kogan, who told me that the whole group has more than 350 members, only a few of whom are traveling in the US. They are visiting from the town of Recise, where they practice a unique carnival tradition derived from ancient African roots. The group is actually known as a “Nation”, which is a sort of community, music and performance group all in one, led by the beautiful Queen and President Morizalda Dos Santos, shown in the photos wearing her spectacular red and white regalia. In addition to her role as the Nation’s leader, she is also in charge of hand sewing and decorating the entire troupe’s elaborate costumes. Their next stop is to play a free music festival this Saturday at the Silver Mine Art Center in New Cannaan, CT. at 3 PM. Their tour is a collaboration organized with Scott Kettner of the Brooklyn based band Nation Beat. More information about them and later tour dates are here: https://taleoftwonations.wordpress.com/. I’m not going to be able to make any of the performances, but at least I feel somewhat blessed by Saint Veronica for Tuesday’s encounter.

Sometimes the best project idea is the one right under your nose.

This picture from the spring came up in last night’s film developing frenzy. I was on my way to school with my “new” 8×10 Burke & James in the car when I ran into former student Olivia Bosies, fresh off the boat from a morning training session with the crew team she coaches. I hadn’t had much chance to test out the camera, so she was nice enough to stand still long enough for me to expose a few sheets of film. If you know Olivia, you will know what a favor standing still for anyone is for her!

Making Olivia’s portrait got me thinking about all the interesting things that recent BFA grads end up doing once they leave school. I know that my own journey has been full of surprises, as the world I was trained for in college pretty much imploded as I was walking off the graduation platform. My 20’s were marked by struggle and turmoil. In those pre digital days, I rarely had the extra cash to buy film, so a lot of those adventures went unrecorded in photographs. Now I’m watching my students go through similar adventures.

After 10 years of teaching photography full time, I feel that the time is right for me to take a serious look at the lives I’ve been trusted to influence as a teacher, and to reflect upon the efficacy and outcomes of that effort. As an educator I think it’s pretty tough not to teach to the world we knew growing up, even as it’s changing all around us. Should I get the chance to continue this vocation in the years ahead, I want to know what needs to change, and what still works. As an artist, I can’t help but want to make pictures about it.

So If you’ve ever been a student in one of my classes, I want to hear from you. Don’t be surprised if I ask in the weeks ahead to stop by for a visit, make some pictures and record your thoughts on video…. and feel free to offer your thoughts even if I don’t ask!

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An evening Bicycle Ride

More 8X10 Geekery: A post about Gears

SO I bought another camera. Go ahead, say it. This guy has a problem. Nobody needs three 8×10″ view cameras at this time in history. Sacha and I had a rare chance to take a day to go someplace recently. I took her to the George Eastman House. (Never date a photographer.) She loved it. We saw a terrific exhibition pulled from their permanent collection, The Gender Show, a charming, eclectic and mostly SFW look at gender from as many perspectives as possible, featuring beautiful prints by just about everybody you’d expect to see, and some fresh faces too. The thing that struck me most about our visit, however, was the docent that greeted us in the lobby, who without the slightest preamble or introduction, walked directly up to us and proceeded to gleefully predict the total end of film availability within the next 5-10 years. Fair warning. I’m stocking up, but between me and you, it won’t be on Kodak film. That place has always given me the creeps. I can’t help but wonder every time I go in there, in which room did George put a gun to his own chest, who found him, and who had to clean up the mess. Our new docent friend reflected that the company he created also sealed its own fate by inventing digital photography. He was probably just trying a little hard because there were onsite some higher ups observing the staff’s interaction with visitors, but I digress.

Let me begin again. I got a new camera. It’s a really beautiful, lovingly worn 1930’s Century Universal, made right in Rochester New York by the former Century Company that had been absorbed previously by the Kodak photographic empire. Everything works, and it even has the original burgundy colored bellows, in near perfect condition. Take a look at the beautiful schematic drawings filed with the US Patent Office in 1931 by the designer Charles H Roth. Go ahead, get jealous. This camera is not all that easy to find in good condition these days. It was used by both Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, so I guess it will be good enough for me. Of course I’ve been using it as much as possible, leaving my ca. 1900 Century View Camera and 50’s Burke and James 8×10 Commercial View Cameras sulking unused in a corner. The Century is a remarkable camera in its own right, but realistically I’m going to reach for the Universal every time, so if anyone’s looking for a nice Century View, made before Kodak got it’s grubby paws on the company, hit me up. It’s got the extra extension rail, the original restored by me bellows, and except for the screws that attach the ground glass, all of the original hardware & lacquer finish. The wood is intact but for a couple of small & well repaired splits, er, well, except for the part where some sort of animal chewed part if it away, but don’t worry, it’s in a discrete spot & the missing wood just makes it a little lighter to carry, without compromising its structural integrity. This is actually one of the lightest 8×10 cameras you could get and it has huge bellows extension. I have other plans for the Burke and James, so don’t ask. But I digress.

My “new” camera has a bit of a problem too. The rise sometimes falls. The gear that raises and lowers the front standard was a bit “funky” according to the guy who sold it to me, and probably needed some lubrication. As soon as I got the thing in the mail, in a huge box full of a random assortment of packing material, including a bonus t shirt in my size with a logo bragging about the way that Panasonic is revolutionizing photography, I folded the camera open and ran it through all it’s movements. It took about two seconds for me to determine that the front gear was obviously in need of much more than lubrication. I took apart the front standard to find that most of the gear teeth had been almost completely torn off from the shaft. I took some pictures for reference so I could get the thing back together in the right order and sent them to a guy who makes gears along with an elaborate email explaining what I wanted him to make, and painstaking measurements I cleverly assumed he’d be able to use to recreate the 80 year old machined brass part. His return email in full, read, “Just send me the gear..” I’m pretty sure he was laughing at me. The sad thing is that I haven’t been able to part with it. I just keep using the camera with the broken gear and sort of wedging it in place so the front more or less stays where I put it. I really should send him that gear. What’s my point in all this? I don’t know, I just sort of liked the reference photos I shot, so I’m posting them here. I’m confident that I’ll be able to resolve my camera’s little problem, and restore it to its original smooth functioning glory. I’m not so sure my problem is as easily resolved. But I digress…

Picture Not Taken:

Speeding down US 20 at 70 MPH someplace between Pompei Hill and Fayetteville on my way to get a hopeful filling in my wisdom tooth, I see out my peripheral vision a yellow dog rolling in the gravel driveway of a farmhouse. He has his paws in the air, the midday summer sun on his belly, and a huge grin on his face as he gives that impossible itch exactly the scratch it needs. I pulled over into a shady turnoff a mile later so I could share this moment with you.

The sound of a printer.

The slow deep rhythm of a well tuned wide format printer calming my evening reminds me that what I’m doing is not so very different from the job I started right after I graduated from high school, working the second shift deep in the cold ceramic tile bowels of the Ford World Headquarters. I was a skinny kid in glasses, finding my mastery conducting a mechanical symphony of roll head contact printers, burning miles and miles of Kodak RC into glossy 8×10’s of gas guzzling monsters gleaming in the fossilized glow of a plastic desert sun.

Those years under the red light must have also burned something into me, because I’ve only been good for working second shift ever since. The last thing my grumpy old boss said to me when I quit to move out west and get an art degree was, “You think you are leaving, but you’ll always come back here.”

At the time I thought he was referring specifically to work at the lab in Ford, and he was half right, because it was hard to swap the relatively easy money to be made cranking out a seemingly infinite reel of soulless industrial imagery to feed the corporate machine’s narcisisstic reflection for the scary, uncertain life of an artist that might end like some Grimm fairy tale of depravity and starvation “out there” that the horrified parents of would be art students have been telling their progeny for untold generations.

After living that very nightmare long enough, I did return years later to work as a photographer, and was astounded to find the same crew still around, and the same petrified cans of miniature wieners in the same gray vending machine. Their company was comforting in its familiar stagnant frustration, yet I was still more gleeful to escape again after another six years for a graduate degree, my soul relatively intact and nothing before me but a million and one shot at landing that mythical job as a professor of photography, which I did, moments before someone fixed the ventilation system and a slight pixelated whiff of impending obsolescence logarithmically escalated into a biblical flood that wiped away the whole analog world, my old job, and the photo department with it.

Ten years later it seems that apocalypses come in cycles, and I’m back to working second shift again, listening to the sound of a different kind of printer.

The old crew at Ford is retired, and I don’t expect that leaky old Hope machine is still alive in the basement either. I wouldn’t go back there even if I could, but maybe that old lab boss was talking about something bigger.

I’d never have suspected him of the imagination.

Double Rainbow!!

Lately I”ve been feeling a little down. My skies have been gloomy, and my parade has been canceled due to rain. Every single day. The job hunt, in other words, just hasn’t been going my way. Who the Hell sends out rejection letters on the Fourth of July? I know who, but I suppose it would be some sort of breach of professional courtesy to name names. I Just hope I never get that bitter.

Then I saw it.
A rainbow.

I even managed to get a few pictures out the car window with my iPhone as we sped home from our Day after Independence day cookout at Sacha’s mom’s house, during which I won a one dollar bet that her mother would indeed serve Hoffman’s Hot Dogs. I also managed to make a single 8×10 exposure of our little gathering, minus myself, with my newly acquired Fujinon 300mm 5.6 lens.

In spite of my winning wager, a potentially iconic photograph, some truly delicious grilled meat, and even a rainbow, I still wasn’t satisfied.

I wanted a Double Rainbow. through the hot dog grease glazed glass of my previous gen iPhone, all I could make out was a run-of- the-mill-end-of-the-storm partial arc. We all instinctively know that the quotidian single rainbow has lost its potency to inspire Hope due to the tragic Instagram Aural Vacuum effect, compounded by the instant availability of a Global HDR Rainbow Imagery Database that raises rainbow saturation expectation quotients far beyond what the natural Rainbow Occurrence Rate could possibly Hope to accommodate, that is if a natural phenomenon can have Hope of its own.

But tonight, or this morning, rather, I decided to upload the images I took with my Sony Nex-7 over the weekend. I just recalled that the battery had failed in my smartphone right at the Instant of the Rainbow Encounter, and I had grabbed the Sony to make a few more Hopeful exposures, not in any Hopes of capturing an image of the Metaphor of Hope itself, but more as a technical exercise in producing a watered down double ironicized meta cliche of the dregs of inauthenticity that have been left to us latter day digital pilgrims.

You could hardly imagine my surprise then, as I discovered on reexamining a number of these images on upload, a REAL DOUBLE RAINBOW! OMG! Maybe there is Hope after all! I’ll apply for a job at the Crowne Plaza immediately!

I’m truly sorry if you were expecting a Triple Rainbow. Nobody promised you a Triple Rainbow. Have you become so desensitized that a Double Rainbow isn’t enough?

Dropped my thermometer

into my 3 1/2 gallon tank of D-76. Damn. That’s too deep for me to fish out with my silly disposable latex gloves. Maybe if I take a picture with my phone I can read the temp……

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Nope it’s too far down!
What If I apply a “s” curve and some sharpening ?

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Crop it And sharpen some more

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I see that the developer is still at 76.5 degrees. Too warm for X ray film shot in full sun to get a developing time of more than 5 minutes, which is the minimum I’m comfortable with to avoid uneven development on this film. Maybe if I run the AC for a couple more hours…

Gonstermacher’s Last Show at Shifty’s, June 29, 2013

Last night I had a blast with Sacha at Shifty’s. It was fun to see so many friends out, like David Prince, Pam McGlaughlin, Paul Pearce, Anita Welych, and Leo Crandall, the G’s lead man. It was a bittersweet evening with Shag on Roof’s CD release, but also Gonstermacher’s last show (for now, hopefully!) Their amazing drummer, Hymie Witthoft is moving to Central Asia soon, so it might be a little hard for them to get together. It occurs to me that I’ve photographed quite a few of their shows the last few years. I have way too many pictures of their performances to share as a slide show, but here are a few from last night. Maybe it’s time to make a video!


To shop or not? A rhetorical question in response to another.

I often struggle with the same dilemma that Randall Amore expresses in his blog post:http://petapixel.com/2013/05/10/to-shop-or-not-the-hard-part-of-being-a-good-photographer/, but sometimes come to a slightly different conclusion.

Photographers, I think, in general, agree that to digitally composite two or more street photos to achieve a better image is “cheating”. This is clear in the realm of photojournalism, where we need to believe that a photograph represents a moment that actually happened. Many prominent photojournalists have discovered a shortcut to the unemployment line for attempting just such a deception. And the genre of “street photography” has also developed a strong ethos around the authenticity of the original capture. Most hardcore street shooters won’t even crop a picture, and take great pride in capturing the image entirely “in camera”. Digital compositing would surely get an aspiring latter day Winnograndite excommunicated from the cult. Once consigned to the cutout bin of the art world, this style of photography is now (re)emerging into the mainstream of photographic fine art. But the author of this blog piece does not mention another common argument that used to be advanced AGAINST the recognition of photography as a fine art– that because the photographic image is a mechanical process that forms at the moment of exposure without further control of its compositional elements once the time, place, angle of view, lens, and camera have been selected, it lacks the element of human control that would make it a legitimate work of art. Of course that argument has been debunked at least as many times as there are street photographs in the world over the last 180 years or so, but now we do have the ability to control every element of the “photographic” image down to the microscopic level- arguably far more control than the painter has ever enjoyed, according to the terms of that now ancient and perhaps irrelevant argument of photography’s Art vs non-art status, shouldn’t it be the manipulated version of the photograph that we accept as art, rather than mere document? Like those of most street photographers, I am quite sure, my digital “contact sheets” are chock full of sequential images just screaming to be composited. The equation of an overwhelming number of images in my archives and the very finite amount of time available to edit and publish or print them had had as much to do with my restraint in terms of NOT doing so as any traditional purism I may feel about the sanctity of the original moment of capture. After all, no matter the documentary nature of most of my imagery, I function as a fine art photographer, not a photojournalist. My goal is to show the viewer how I perceive things rather to claim an objective view of the world.

Of course I also make digital photomontages, but I don’t call them photographs, and I don’t think anyone but the most visually unsophisticated would ever mistake them for actual photography, despite their photographic origins. A more subtle use of digital composite technique, however, when applied to similar sequential photographs, as described in Amore’s post would easily fool most viewers into believing that they were seeing a true photographic rendering of an actual moment. Isn’t such sleight of eye common currency in the art world? Painters are never accused of “faking it” when employing techniques of photo realism or trompe L’eoil to render a convincing fictitious scene in paint, but rather celebrated for their skill. Of course I have experimented a bit with this idea- even going as far as showing a few of the resulting images to a well known photo editor and photographic fine art gallery owner at a portfolio review a few years ago. Rather than seeing the images as an interesting conceptual experiment in the limits of what can be considered a photograph, and given assurances that i never would have passed these images off as unmanipulated documentary photographs, he was obviously displeased at my violation of the medium’s accepted traditions. He argued that despite my disclaimer, the images in question would be so easily mistaken for straight photography (whatever that means) that their publication could destroy my credibility as a photographer. Although I disagreed with this point of view, his strong negative reaction certainly had a profound chilling effect on further exploration of this avenue.

With several years to mull this vexing quesrion over, however, I find it more than a little ironic that photography, once considered the most transgressive of mediums, seems to have so quickly lapsed into such unquestioned adherence to tradition and conventionality. It took us a hundred years to earn the keys to the exclusive Art World Country Club, but once we gained admittance, we are the first to bar the doors to prevent the riff raff from getting in and drinking all the champaign. We cling to tradition harder than rednecks to their guns and religion. You can pry that Leica out of my cold, dead hands. If cameras were outlawed, only outlaws would have cameras! But I digress. And just because I hate being told I can’t, or shouldn’t — I’m gonna.

8×10 geekery

Freight Train to Anywhere

Freight Train Passing, Denver CO, March 2012

This March I spent a few days in Denver to give an artist talk, along with Sama AlShaibi, and see my work at the CVA as part of the Semblance show, curated by Tomiko Jones and Cecily Cullen. I brought along my old speed graphic and some new 4×5 film that I hadn’t had a chance to try out, Arista EDU 200. This was to do a workshop on large format portrait photography for one of Tomiko’s classes. The demo was a bit of a fiasco with some untested technology, but it was a lot of fun trying out some new techniques and learning along with the students. The next day we had a bit of free time, so Tomiko took me cruising randomly around Denver looking for pictures to capture with our view cameras. What fun! I’ve not done that in ages. We found this desolate spot by the train tracks and set up our cameras on opposite sides of the snow pile to the right of this shot. As it happened, it seems that at least with my lens, a rare 165mm f/2.5 Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar ca. 1920, made for a half plate “tropical camera” that doesn’t quite cover 4×5, I should have rated the film more like ISO 100, but who knows, as I really didn’t meter the scene & this was the first time I”ve used this particular film. The light was fading fast and the train was going faster, so I just guessed the exposure, and managed to fire off 6 shots as it rolled by. They all turned out pretty thin, so I tried an experiment by rephotographing the negatives on a light table with the macro lens on my NEX-7, then stacking the exposures as layers and merging the digital images in Photoshop. In spite of, or maybe because of its convoluted workflow, lack of critical sharpness, vignetted corners, and gloomy tonality I quite like the resulting image. The multiple layers of the passing train speaks to me of time’s relentless erosion, while the location, the gritty Denver train yard, brings me back to youthful readings of Jack Kerouac’s Denver adventures. The pile of melting snow signals the demise of winter, and the ensuing rush of restlessness and wanderlust that always arrives with the season. All of that makes me want to hit the road. This year the feeling is even more acute, as for the first time in more than a decade, I don’t have the slightest clue what I am going to do a month from now. Once my grades are turned in, student work documented, and my office cleaned out, I’m going to be officially unemployed. Trying to make plans amidst this uncertainty seems almost comedic, as I cope with a Molotov cocktail recipe of feelings including anger, loss, fear, anticipation, and excitement.

Right after I made this image, in my rush to make one more composition in the fading light, I unscrewed the wrong knob on my tripod head, sending the camera crashing onto the concrete. The good news is that my precious lens survived the fall undamaged, and I’ve taken the undamaged body & shutter box of the wrecked camera and converted it into a behind the lens shutter so I can do fast exposures on my 8×10 camera with old shutterless lenses. Maybe I can find an old Petzval to put on there. This little project has distracted me a bit from the stress of not knowing what I’m going to do next. Meanwhile, I will take that comfort in knowing that the train was going somewhere, even if I don’t know its final destination.

Radio interview with Nerhu Fulbright Scholar & Curator Neeta Omprakash Naique and ECSU Visual Arts and Art History Department Chair and Professor Dr. Gail Gelburd

Dr. Gail Gelburd Chair of the Visual Arts Department and Art Historian of Asian and Contemporary Art at Eastern Connecticut State University and Neeta Omprakash, a Nehru-Fullbright Scholar engage in a wide ranging discussion about the “Mother Goddess” exhibit at Eastern’s Akus Gallery, aired on March 19th on Wayne Norman’s radio show on WILI AM 1400 here: http://www.wili-am.com/wp_bows.htm or you can download the file and listen to the interview directly here! ecsu_akus_mother_goddess_march_19_2013-1. Learn a bit about the Fulbright Fellowship, Neeta and Gail, Indian art history, the Mother Goddess exhibition, stories of Indian Goddess, the art in the exhibition, and some ideas about mothers as well.

Motherhood to Mother Goddess Opens Tonight at the Akus Gallery

I’ve not exactly cultivated a reputation as a particularly motherly type, but I’m proud to have my work included along with that of Amina Begum Ahmed, Siona Benjamin, Anjali Deshmukh, Peggy Blood, and Suzanne Jackson in the exhibition opening tonight at the Akus Gallery, Eastern Connecticut State University, Motherhood to Mother-Goddess: Transcendence from Self to Absolute, curated by visiting Fulbright Scholar Neeta Naique.

 

 

http://www.easternct.edu/akusgallery/index.html

 

Is Photography only for the young?

Mrs. Deane’s recent post on agism in photography contests and exhibition opportunities  is something that I think about more often as time passes. Maybe it has something to do with society’s obsession with youth and beauty,and photography’s undeniable role in creating/propagating that phenomenon at the cost of under appreciating the value of wisdom & experience. This goes double for faculty hiring! Mrs Deane. field notes : ageism