Archive for July, 2009

SFMOMA’s Rooftop Garden

Friday, July 17th, 2009

I’m working on an actual post with, you know, words and stuff. But in the mean time, let me throw some photographs at your from last week, when I went to see the Avedon exhibit.

Camera Position (View Large)


I find it hard not to photograph photographers. I don’t know whether it’s some stupid “meta” thing or whether people just tend to look hilarious and endearing when they’re looking at the back of a camera and trying to figure out why their pictures are backlit.

I don’t mean to dismiss snapshots or point and shoots, mind you. The photographer here, for example, at the SFMOMA rooftop garden, was assiduous about exploring changes in camera position and angle, and had no qualms about kneeling on the ground to get a shot. Better a P&S and a sense of perspective than a pricey camera and no notion of composition…

By the way, do click through and look at the large images. In fact, that applies to all of these — I’ve been finding, as I shoot more street photography, that I’m using broader compositions, including more context, and as a result I’m getting photographs which don’t really lend themselves to being viewed as flickr medium images the way my close-up work and bird photography usually do. : )

The rooftop garden is a nice place to photograph, although quite small. A lot of people take pictures there, I think perhaps because they’re getting it out of their system, after spending time in the exhibits were photography is often forbidden. It’s interesting to see the range of reactions people have to art generally, and to the art that’s currently in the rooftop garden in particular — it’s sculpture there, and modern sculpture tends to be more inscrutable than other art forms, I think.

Some folks seem to have a genuine aesthetic appreciation for the stuff, either naive (simple joy in the thing itself) or informed (intellectual pleasure based on an understanding of the work’s place in the history of art). For the record, I have neither for most of them…

Woman behind glass

There are other folks who are manifestly trying to pretend that they understand or care about what they’re seeing, and others still who are perfectly up front about not caring, having been dragged there by their parents or their kids or their significant others. I sympathize with them. There are folks — more admirable, I admit — who greet art with a mixture of curiosity and indignation, and who very much want an explanation for what they are being asked to look at.

Explain this to me

I can’t say for certainty into which category this gentleman falls, but I suspect it is the last, and probably the best, category. Me, I fall into the category who is more likely to dismiss the art and scrutinize the viewers, which makes me the douchebag in this tableau.

Avedon at SFMOMA

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Went to see the Avedon exhibition last week. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since then, and I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on the work I saw there.

Technically, he succeeds perfectly within the narrow range of techniques he employs — a bit like Atget, in that respect, a sort of single-minded thoroughness in taking those few techniques to their very limit. And I can’t really fault him as an artist, either — he obviously succeeds perfectly well in achieving his vision.

I just, well, don’t fucking like it. (Note: I’m not saying it’s bad.) I find it disturbing and off-putting. And also beautiful and sometimes very moving. And I haven’t really pinned down the source of that disturbance for me, but here’s my best guess at the moment:

Avedon is basically taking people and turning them into gods, or monsters, or monstrous gods. (Part of what I feel when I look at them is almost Lovecraftian, a mingled awe-disgust-fear.)

Why should this disturb me so? The deification of celebrities is nothing new, and should at worst be a matter of banality. The deification of ordinary people (which Avedon executes with the exact same techniques) should be a reversal of the hierarchy, and as such should appeal to the kind of simplistic leftism that is bred in my bones. But it does not.

I think it is something about the deification itself, regardless of subject, which is the source of the wrongness.

Avedon’s process is not like that of, say, Minor White, who can see in the flesh of a person an equivalent, a symbolic link to the numinous. There is nothing spiritual about what Avedon is doing. Avedon is crafting a totem or fetish out of the person. He is converting them into an idol.

This is a rather intense form of objectification — and when I say objectification, I am thinking of what Simone Weil said in her essay on The Iliad, about objectification as a form of violence or force. (Of which the most literal and extreme sort is death — that which transforms a human being completely and finally into a mere thing, that is, a corpse.)

In writing this, something suddenly clicked for me about Avedon’s photography. (God help me, I actually said, “Aha!”)

What clicked had to do with what I was supposed to be seeing in this exhibition. The curators and the reviewer in the Chronicle both placed great stress on the role of motion in Avedon’s photography, and both when I was looking at them in person, and as I mulled them over after the fact, this admonition (to see motion, to see these photographs as being about motion) persistently rang false to me. Or, rather, it rang half-true, and now I see why.

It is not motion which is present in these photographs, but…the false, the unfulfillable promise of motion, as if the subject were threatening (impotently, of course) at any moment to come to life.

This false promise is normally denoted by the term “lifelike,” and it is properly the province not of the photographer, but of the taxidermist…

Two of Four Books

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Four Books

On a recent trip to Moe’s, I picked up three books:

  • Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye, ed. Gilles Mora and John T. Hill
  • Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition, ed. Nancy Newhall
  • Andre Kertesz: His Life and Work, Pierre Borhan

I’ve started working on these, and also been finishing my first pass through John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs.

I haven’t gotten to the Weston yet, and I’ve just scratched the surface of the weighty (and so far as I can tell well-executed) Kertesz volume. However, I did wrap up the Szarkowski, and I’m far enough along in Mora’s and Hill’s text to offer some initial judgments about that.


I bought Looking at Photographs after reading this post in The Online Photographer, and after listening to Jeff Curto’s excellent class session on Szarkwoski. If you don’t already know who Szarkowski is and what Looking at Photographs is, by all means, follow those links; I won’t pretend to try to do a better job at explaining it.

The reproductions are fantastic. There is one per photographer, each accompanied by a facing page of text providing a fragment of Szarkowski’s perspective on and understanding of the photograph and its creator. The result is not, of course, an all-encompassing tour of the history of photography — although I think it pairs of nicely with Beaumont Newhall’s general history. Instead, Szarowski gives the reader just enough information to prevent a casual viewing, to force the reader to really look at and into the photographs, and enough of a context to appreciate that each photograph has a place in history, even if that place isn’t laid out completely.

For the most part, it works fantastically well. Szarkowski’s style is a bit pedantic, and in those few cases where I have anything approaching a basis for judging the accuracy of his statements, I actually have some disagreements. However, to say because I think he’s wrong about this or that aspect, the book is less valuable, would be to miss the point; Szarkowski isn’t arguing positions, but sharing his vision of these photographs and photographers. The reader is obliged to form his or her own vision.

The only case where I feel Szarkowski fails outright is in his passage on Roy DeCarava. Szarkowski presents him as a chess player or theater director, an ingenious manipulator of archetypes. This is not just an inadequate characterization but an almost totally irrelevant one. Talking about Roy DeCarava — even in the few paragraphs dictated by the structure of Looking at Photographs — without mentioning race, anguish, or jazz begs the question: Why include DeCarava at all?

If you doubt me on this point, get your hands on a copy of any book of DeCarava’s work (The Sound I Saw is one I see on a lot of remainder tables) and then read what Szarkowski put on page 178 of Looking at Photographs. If you can figure out what the one has to do with the other, please let me know.

However, that is the exception. A few of the passages which are more the rule:

Most photographers of the past generation have demonstrated unlimited sympathy for the victims of villainous or imperfect societies, but very little sympathy for, or even interest in, those who are afflicted by their own human frailty. Robert Doisneau is one of the few whose work has demonstrated that even in a time of large terrors, the ancient weaknesses and sweet venial sins of ordinary individuals have survived. On the basis of his pictures one would guess that Doisneau actually likes people, even as they really are. (p. 172)

What it is that makes a photograph truly work is in the end a mystery, as success doubtless is in any art. Finely hewn critical standards may help us explain the admirable, but between the admirable and the wonderful is a gulf that we can see across, but not chart. (p. 192, re: Paul Caponigro)

The popular formulation of this convention was expressed int he claim that the camera does not lie. The question of mendacity was of course not to the point; the relevant question would have been, Why were the camera’s innumerable truths so fragmentary and so apparently contradictory. (p. 196, re: Ken Josephson)

Photography is full of time-honored problems that have, like rocks in a stream, been worn smooth by the endless fumblings of countless photographers and writers. Szarkowski has a knack (not always reliable, but reliable enough) for breaking then apart and finding astonishing new problems inside…

This cannot be said of the authors of the Walker Evans book, however.

Mora and Hill on Walker Evans

Books of or about photography can be divided more or less into three types:

  1. Books created and edited by photographers
  2. Books — like Looking at Photographs — which contain photographs by one or more photographers but which as books are the original work of a talented editor.
  3. Books which collect the work of a photographer, assembled in an academic manner (typically chronological), and accompanied by a text, such that the text is an original work but the book is not an original work.

Books of the third type are, in my admittedly very limited experience of books of and about photography, by far the most likely to suck. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it is a function of the sort of personality which is drawn to create them, or perhaps it is the lowered expectation applied to the readability and literary excellence (or, rather, the lack thereof) of academic writing.

Of course, some books of this kind are excellent and invaluable. Peter Bunnell’s Minor White: The Eye That Shapes features extremely fine scholarship which I think is essential to understanding Minor White and his work.

Sadly, this does not seem to be the case with Gilles Mora and John T. Hill’s Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye.

I should admit before going farther that I have only just started this book, and it’s entirely possible that at some point before its end, it transforms into something worthwhile. But if the writing thus far is any indication, that outcome is highly unlikely.

I feel a little uncomfortable dismissing what the writers argue about Evans’s work out of hand, not so much because I think they may really have something to say, as because they seem to say very little. What tiny nuggets off actual content they provide are so deeply and inextricably embedded in the most execrable prose that I have difficulty evaluating it. Of course, I have no background in art history, so it is entirely possible that I am substantially missing the point in regards to the scholarship here, but even if we assume that — there’s no excuse for this writing. My notes in italics.

Walker Evans was a man with an innate sense of wit, which is not to be confused with comedy or humor. (God forbid we should think wit meant humor.) A keen understanding of irony and satire (Which presumably have nothing to do with humor or comedy.) was a constant in his life and in his work….

Wit could be a grossly scaled sign spelling “Damaged” being hoisted onto a truck. Wit could be attempting to capture and fix an evocative moment with a 35mm camera held out the window of a moving car. Wit was the nonchalance of denouncing the impossible vulgarity of color photography while making color photographs. Wit was the irony of taking up the Polaroid SX-70 camera as a tool for serious work. (p. 7)

Yeah, nothing says “wit” so much as holding a 35mm camera out a window. I don’t know what Evans was really like, or how he would have defined wit, but Hill appears to define it as condescension.

The first things that interest us about photographers are the photographic problems that their work presents, resolves, and reformulates, and by which the photographers are sometimes defeated. Other questions belong to biography. (p. 9)

In addition to being eye-rollingly pretentious and crappy prose, this would be a profoundly inane observation even if it wasn’t the beginning of what is fundamentally a work of biography.

Walker Evans fascinates. (p. 10)

My margin note reads: “Thanks for letting me know, dipshit. I thought I’d just bought a book about someone boring.”

Of a comment by Szarkowski on Evans, they write:

And while it may be true, the statement does not go far enough, since it ignores the direction in which Walker Evans opened up photography, taking it to the far side of modernity.

The appropriate response to Szarkowski is not to try to be more arch, pretentious, and arbitrarily declarative.

The Hungry Eye intends to contribute to this broader understanding of his work by showing another Evans, a man who was one of the most intellectually stimulating practitioners of modern photography. (Good thing they keep reminding me that he’s interesting. I keep forgetting. I wonder why that is.) In order to give some account of the richness of this work we have tried to make it visible by giving it a structure, using the same method Evans had in mind when he spoke of “the photographic editing of society.”

Pause and read that again.

This passage is immediately followed by the revelation that they have presented the images in chronological order.

Now, I don’t know what Evans actually had in mind when he spoke of “the photographic editing of society,” but I’m guessing it wasn’t just putting it in fucking chronological order.

Not that there’s anything wrong with chronological order — it’s often the best, even the only, way, to present content. But there’s nothing marvelous and innovative about it, nor does using it magically link them to Evans’s method.

They also constantly feel the need to drop names of other photographers, both before and after Evans, in the history of photography. These name-droppings (my margin note is “these guys drop names like a pigeon shits on statues”) are almost always followed by an explanation of how Evans is fundamentally more awesome than virtually every other photographer in history.

They demand we acknowledge that his early work is better than the early work of Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz, that even a fraction of his oeuvre “would assure his place among the great photographers,” and proudly point out how he casually “killed off Edward Steichen in passing” in an essay.

Now, I believe that Evans is a very important, and very great, photographer. But the volume with which they make these comparisons has me doubting that belief a bit. It’s as though these writers have taken up Walker Evans as their penis, and they must reassure themselves continuously that he is a very fine penis, and much longer than all the others.

I won’t provide quotations for this point, because it would take forever.

And, in fact, I’m getting pretty tired of this whole exercise. Just a couple more quotes, though:

A photographer, he referred constantly to literature.

Good, because I had totally forgotten Evans was a photographer. For a minute there I was sure he was famous as a writer of short stories. Or an insurance executive. Also, remind me — was Evans fascinating? I forget.

In what way would “He referred constantly to literature” be less informative without identifying him as a photographer?

Also, just how constantly was he referring to literature? Pretty often, as they proceed to emphasize. And re-emphasize. “Evans Repeated, time and again, ‘I am a man of literature.'”

You know, maybe Evans really was a dick…

If so, that would go a long way toward explaining this otherwise inane and meaningless line:

He took a frontal approach to reality. (p. 15)

Obviously they mean a “full-frontal approach to reality.”

I think I may have to skip the rest of the damn text and just peruse the reproductions, which are of acceptable quality. I should also see about having a cock-punch-o-gram delivered to these writers, care of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., the publisher.

All right, I need to go do something that doesn’t make me feel so indignant for a while. I’ll put up a later post if anything else interesting comes up in the Evans book, and also as I get into the Weston and Kertesz ones….

Bessa R

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

After the recent, sharp increase in my interest in street photography, and after the interesting posts about the Leica for a year proposition on The Online Photographer, I started thinking more and more about getting an interchangeable lens rangefinder.

Of course it couldn’t be a Leica, despite the tantalizing logic of the Leica for a year idea, because (1) I don’t think I need to a Leica for its educational value; what will it really teach me that I can’t learn from my Koni-Omega? and (2) there’s no way I would be able to sell it at the end of the year, which undermines a key point of that tantalizing logic. I know me; I don’t like to part with gear.

But the idea of a system rangefinder remained compelling, because while I love my Koni-Omega and my Olympus XA, neither is very good for low-light work. The Koni-Omega lacks fast lenses, and the XA’s fulltime aperture priority and maximum 800 ISO metering make it great for moderate low light conditions but terrible for really dark situations.

There are some good fixed-lens rangefinders with faster lenses and manual control, but I wanted the ability to swap lenses and add in a second body later if it really clicked for me. I also didn’t want a FSU rangefinder, because I wanted something reliable and with straightforward operation. With those criteria and my persistent cheap-skatiness, the best option was a used early Bessa. What I settled on was a Bessa R which came with a 35mm f/1.7 Ultron.


I haven’t used the camera much yet, but I’m quite happy with it so far.

It definitely has some odd quirks, some of which I feel comfortable identifying as design flaws — the shutter speed selector is a pain to access, because it’s obscured by the advance lever. Not impossible to get to, of course, and with the lever extended a bit, it’s not even an issue, but it’s not a very elegant design. The film rewind lever is sort of cleverly designed, but doesn’t feel very sturdy — although it’s the only aspect of the camera that strikes me that way; I was surprised by how solid most of it seems.

Also, the black rubbery plastic (or whatever) around the middle of the body has a slightly odd smell, which I got to know pretty well for a while, because I’m left-eyed. (I.e., my nose gets pressed up against the body, as with most of my cameras.) However, this seems to have largely dissipated now that the camera has been aired out.

Bessa-R v. Nikkormat

There are also some things that I really miss from my Nikkormat FT-2. When shooting 35mm film, I’m used to being able to look at the top of the camera to check my exposure without bringing the camera up to my eye — this is really convenient when I’m moving in and out of sun and shadow and I need to continually adjust the exposure. I miss that when working with the Bessa, and I also miss the positioning of the shutter speed selector on a ring around the lens, instead of on a dial at the top of the camera.

But despite the lack of those little flourishes, I was surprised at how solid and usable the camera feels. A lot of reviews point to its cheap plastic build quality — and yes, it’s inexpensive, and yes, there’s plastic in it, but it doesn’t feel shoddily made, by any means. Of course, most of those reviews were written by people who had used Leicas, and I never have, so I don’t have to worry about that particular comparison. : )

However, this is all basically tangential to what i really care about in this camera — which is fast focusing in low light conditions. In that regard, it’s fantastic. The viewfinder is bright, the rangefinder is easy to see in dim light, and it seems to focus quite positively.

I haven’t had a chance to use it all that much, yet. I’ve only put a roll and a half through it, and none of it’s exactly photographic genius, but it certainly works….

Bessa-R - First Roll