Archive for June, 2009

Mommy? Where do bagels come from?

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Okay, let’s a take a break from that street photography kick for a minute, and have a look at these delicious bagels that my sister made from scratch:

Home-Made Bagels

Home-Made Bagels

Home-Made Bagels

Home-Made Bagels

Home-Made Bagels

No earthshattering photographic insights to go along with this — just the insight that these things were tasty as hell.

Also, while I don’t consider these to be unusually exquisite examples of food photography — just snapshots really — I would much rather see images like these than the aggressively styled and lit “food as product” shots that populate the vast majority of cookbooks. Food is made in a kitchen, by human hands. Not in a light tent.

And if you want to see some photographs that are unusually exquisite examples of food photography, go read this book with photographs by this guy.

The subject of street photography

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

000 MAIN

I had a minor epiphany about street photography today:

In street photography, the subject is not a person; it is a situation.

I don’t mean by this that people aren’t essential to a photograph in this genre; of course they are. But such a photograph does not become a portrait, not even an environmental portrait which works by placing the subject in a context which allows us to refine our understanding of the subject. There is an essential difference, which becomes apparent in how such are composed, what sort of moment is captured, and — perhaps essentially — the way the photographer’s gaze functions and appears.

Street photography is in this respect more like landscape photography than like portraiture. In landscape photography, every element of the composition can, potentially, have equal weight, and the subject of the landscape photograph is the sum of the parts, or the synthesis of them.

I think that effect is very much at work in Cartier-Bresson. Bresson’s photographs often display a surprising lack of interest in the particulars of the people who populate his images. Often the person appears at a great distance, or as a blur, or with their features obscured or out of focus. But Bresson has captured the shape or the motion of the person at a particular point in space or time which fits with the city or countryside around them in a why that is sublime — in much the same way as a windblown tree or a stray cloud may unite and transform a landscape.

Telegraph Avenue

This notion has been very helpful for me in understanding the task of composition in street photography. Composition is critical, and it takes place in four dimensions. Each conjunction of human and inhuman elements in space and time is unique and cannot be recovered after it is lost; thus, the “decisive moment” really is.

Ferry Building Farmer's Market

Of course, I don’t intend to present these comments as the sage remarks of a street photography wizard. (Especially not given some of the harsher things I had to say about Frank’s The Americans recently.

Hell, I’m not even past the struggle with my social reticence and ethical qualms about whipping out my camera and photographing people in their sight. I’m just thinking things out in this context because trying to explain things to someone other than oneself is often the best way to actually start getting a grip on them…

Telegraph Avenue

SFMOMA, Take 2

Monday, June 15th, 2009

So, I went back to see the Frank and Adams-O’keefe exhibitions again. By which I mean, I went back to see Pepper No. 30 again. (I took my sister, and we also went to the farmer’s market and were otherwise productive.) Obviously these were the same exhibitions, so I don’t have any fundamentally new material…although I’m feeling more definite about my sense that there’s something off about Frank’s photographs of black people.

For example, compare the photographs he made of a Spanish funeral to those he made of a black funeral in the American south, and think about his position in those situations. In the Spanish photographs, he’s at a distance that seems appropriate; at the black funeral, he appears to have no qualms about invading personal space, as my sister put it. Which says a lot about how he felt about those people. Reminds me somewhat of a recent thread on flickr which touched on how a lot of photographers seem to have no problem photographing homeless people when they would think twice about photographing others. It seems to have something to do with different perceptions of people’s reality as human beings.

The captions, as usual, don’t help at all. There’s a photograph (google it) of a black nurse holding a white baby, and the baby is described in the caption as looking determined, which is accurate, but the nurse is described as appearing stoic, when in fact, her main expression is actually a small smile. I don’t know whether this suggests that the captioner has a problem “reading” black faces, or whether the difficulty is that he or she presumed the nurse must be a stoic person, (and in all likelihood she was a stoic person), and stopped there, before looking to see if the actual woman as photographed matched this expectation? Whatever the case, there was a distinct failure to see.

Which is pretty significant when you consider that the person who captioned that photograph is responsible for helping thousands or hundreds of thousands of people in at least three cities understand what that photograph means.

Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O’Keefe at SFMOMA

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

So, today I went to SF to go see the Robert Frank and Adams/O’Keefe exhibitions at SFMOMA. I had a blast. Here’s the shorthand:

  • I didn’t take pictures of the exhibitions. I didn’t feel like getting into a Thomas Hawk situation. I considered not going because of their history of stupidity regarding cameras, but I decided the opportunity to see these prints overrode my qualms about that.
  • This is more or less the first time I’ve seen real photographic prints outside of a classroom setting. I feel sort of bad about admitting that.
  • I was not as blown away by most of the Adams prints as I thought I might be. Turns out that the reproductions I’ve seen in books have been pretty damn good. The real prints were certainly better, and in a few cases substantially better, but my mind was not blown.
  • However, under the heading of other influences and related artists, they had Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30. OMFG. That was mind blowing. I went back a couple of times to look at it some more. The temptation to snatch it off the wall, tuck it under my arm, and run was high, but, thankfully, resistable.
  • They also had some stuff by Paul Strand, which was excellent.
  • I was not impressed with the curating of this exhibit, or any of the exhibits, really. In this case, the lighting was not great, and some of the frames cast significant shadows across important areas of the O’Keefe paintings in particular. Some of the matting was off, too. I was surprised; I’m assuming several highly paid professionals were involved in this process; they couldn’t catch this stuff?
  • Also, their premise — that there are connections between how Adams and O’Keefe depict the human and natural worlds — was, while not at all implausible, not really borne out by most of the images presented. A much smaller exhibition focusing on a few really good, and really congruent, images, would have been a great deal stronger.
  • The Frank exhibition was better lit, or at least the lighting was not as noticeably bad. There were also a ton of great supporting materials, like work prints with crop lines on them, correspondence, the first draft of Kerouac’s introduction, etc.
  • I still don’t entirely like Frank’s work. In describing it before I’ve said it reminds me something Fanon wrote about a European sociologist’s approach to race. Fanon said that he did not believe it was impossible for a white person to understand things from a black perspective, but that this particular white person did not seem to have made the necessary effort. I feel very much that way about Frank’s depictions of America, particularly where race or class are involved. And generally, it seems to me that Frank’s perspective is basically that of a tourist — and I mean that in the most pejorative way possible. It’s not that he’s not a gifted photographer; he clearly was, and some of his photographs are absolutely stunning. But his method and the way he chose to see seem to me to keep him from getting below the surface. Yes, he attacks these American myths, but does he actually what’s underneath those myths? I don’t think so. Compare his work with that of someone like Roy DeCarava, and you’ll see what I mean. With DeCarava’s body of work available — which gets at not just the surface but at the depths, and which is both heartbreaking and uplifting to view — why are we still talking about this Swiss douchebag’s road trip?
  • More interesting in many ways was the small room with photographs from other related/influencing photographers. The stuff from Walker Evans, Bill Brandt, and Gary Winogrand was all very striking. I was particularly impressed with the Winogrand image, which I had previously seen online in a low-quality scan. The print was extraordinary.
  • Amusingly, there were very large reproductions of the Frank images — much larger than almost all of the prints by Adams and the others in that exhibition, despite the fact that Frank’s images were shot on 35mm, while the others were shot on 4×5 or larger view cameras. Of course the Frank enlargements show the limitations of 35mm film — plenty of grain, etc. But of course the subject matter does not demand grainless, Group f/64 style prints; quite the contrary.
  • From what I could see, not that many people who went to the Adams/O’Keefe exhibition went to the Frank exhibition and vice versa. I could be wrong — maybe everybody had already been to the other one, or went after, or whatever. But I don’t so; the people at the Frank exhibition were also about twenty years younger average.
  • The Frank folks also seemed for the most part to have absolutely no idea what they were looking at. I think there were a lot of folks who were dragged there by their boyfriends/girlfriends/husbands/wives, and a lot of folks who were there because someone else told them they ought to be there.
  • Regarding the painters and sculptors and whatnot in the rest of the museum, some extremely compelling (a couple of gorgeous Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings, for example), some not even remotely compelling. Not surprising. The captions and supporting text for these items varied from the banal and uninformative to the laugh-inducingly pretentious and uninformative.
  • Blue Bottle coffee is really good. And I don’t even like coffee.
  • Had my Koni-Omega and Olympus XA out while drinking said coffee, and as a result I met a nice couple who were shooting with a Mamiya 645 (which is lovely and very light and compact) and a Rolleicord. The Koni-Omega makes a great conversation piece; I get asked/complimented about it almost every time I take it out. It’s also a great camera to use, of course, and I did that, too. : )

Photos to follow after I get them developed/scanned.

Another non-Sofobomo post

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Because yes, I suck. But, on the bright side, I just uploaded some Reala that I shot a week or two ago when I was taking a sofobomo break.


I never much liked the Fuji color negative stuff I had tried before. The medium and fast Superia variants never worked for me, and Pro 400H was a disappointment as well. But I have to say, this Reala stuff is absolutely fantastic.


It’s pretty slow (ISO 100), which is too bad. Not that I have a problem with slow film, per se, but ISO 100 is slow enough that I’m probably only going to use it for particular situations that call for it, rather than using it as one of my go-to films, like Portra 800 has been and Portra 400VC is probably going to be. Which is too bad, because Reala is affordable and very nice.

Sofobomo Silence and Koni-Omega Back in Action

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

So, I’ve been pretty silent on sofobomo. Unless you follow me on twitter, in which case you may have seen my intermittent bitching.

This isn’t due to lack of work — I’ve been shooting, scanning, and processing this whole time. In fact, I’m almost done. But I haven’t shared any of that, for a few different reasons — I’ve had some color balance problems with my calibration solution (don’t ask), which accounts for a lot of it, and more generally, I’ve sort of felt like this is something I don’t want to spam all over the internet until it’s one.

Of course, for the same reason, I’m probably just going to drop the sofobomo PDF in a hole when I’m done and do something completely different as the real output for the project. The issue is the 35-image limit — not because I don’t have enough images, and even (quite) because I don’t have enough good images — but because this project, and really most projects, I think, are not really well-served by a glut of images, which is what this amounts to.

Of course, this is probably just a failure of imagination on my part…I think next time I do sofobomo, if I do, I need to plan out several more or less discrete sub-topics…

Anyway, so as not to leave you dry, image-wise, let me drop a couple of shots from the 60mm f/5.6 that brought my Koni-Omega back into action after two, count ‘em, two 90mm lenses failed me. Unfortunately, it’s missing the finder, but I should be able to snag one on ebay if I’m patient.

Do click through and look at the larger sizes.

Test Roll w/60mm f/5.6

Test Roll w/60mm f/5.6


Needless to say, I am extremely pleased to have the K-O functioning again. Leica, shmeica. This is a rangefinder.