Archive for October, 2009

Provoke Era

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I just got back from SFMOMA’s Provoke Era exhibition. It’s my second trip, and I feel like I ought to make some note of my thoughts on it, although my total lack of background when it comes to Japanese photography has made me somewhat reluctant to do so. I don’t even know enough to clearly identify what the scope of my ignorance is, in this area, or how it (and/or prejudice) might be leading me astray in terms of how and what I see…

So, what I’m going to do is simply post a few thoughts that crossed my mind while I was looking at these photographs. Obviously you should be slow to draw conclusions about Japanese photography, or even the work of the specific photographers in question, even if I appear to be doing so.

Hopefully at some point I’ll be less ignorant. I did recently buy a copy of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s, so that might help a bit, if and when I ever get a chance to open the thing.

Please forgive any misspellings and my total disregard of any diacritic marks — my notes are, as usual, illegible.

While viewing Hosoe

I can’t help wondering if some of the characteristic techniques of this period of Japanese photography are influenced (or at least enabled) by the rise of the small-format SLR camera. Previously, man-portable cameras tended to be press cameras, rangefinders, etc., which are generally not optimal to use from strange angles or for close-focus work. The sort of (apparently) extemporaneous, awkward camera positions, and the very particular deformations of the perspective, focus, etc. are all things that would be substantially more difficult to control with non-SLR cameras.

Contrast perspective here with the (mostly earlier) Western photographers I’ve been looking at a lot lately — Bresson, Atget, Weston, Frank, even Winogrand — in those cases, the perspective is that of a person standing in the space. A pedestrian perspective — not in any derogatory sense, as such, but in the sense that it is the perspective of a person who might happen to be walking by. They seem natural. Here, the play with unnatural perspective is used to dislocate the viewer, and to create a studiously unnatural viewpoint. It is practically a vice, although an excessively “natural” perspective can be a vice as well, I suppose.

While viewing Tomatsu

The are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out of focus) aesthetic implies a willingness to discard information. Huge areas of a given print may contain no information whatsoever, or very limited information — a rough tonal gradient, say — these images come close to being purely graphic.

This is also in stark contrast to what I’ve been mostly looking at lately, where compositions and (with some exceptions) film, paper, and chemistry are being used with great care and skill to capture the most detail possible, and as much in the way of relationships (“relatedness”?) between elements in the frame as possible.
This discarding of information displaces us…

While viewing Tomatsu and Kawada

There seems to be a pull toward iconography when it comes to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the war.

If it were me trying to represent these things, I would probably go the same way, simply because icons and symbols are more…manageable. Less frightening. Of course, I have no idea whether that has any bearing on what these folks were doing.

While viewing Moriyama

It seems like the areas of the photograph (dominated by large, irregular patches of pure white or black containing no detail, amid which a person or object may be sandwiched), come together with an almost-audible report, a clap or a clack. Noise. I’m not normally prone to synesthesia, even the merely metaphorical kind…

While viewing Nakahira

Lost detail — defocus, blocked shadows, muddy contrasts, motion blur — these things frustrate the eye, but do they maybe also trick us to project imagined detail (or meaning) where there is none?

Is this why the Moriyama photograph made me see (to borrow from DeCarava) a sound? Or is it merely the vaguely cinematic quality of these choices that makes me think I should be hearing something as I watch?

While viewing Watanabe and Tsuchida

These guys seem to want to be perceived as snapshooters. I find this annoying. Is it also a kind of discarding of information? Not that detail is not faithfully recorded across the frame, but the utterly banal composition or lack of composition deprives the detail of significance.

These do not make a sound. I am probably missing something…

Other thoughts

I don’t know what to say about Fukase’s Ravens,, except that it’s totally heartbreaking.

Also, while I’m not sure this was part of the “Provoke” exhibition, they’ve got an absolutely stunning photograph by Toshio Shibata. You can see a crappy scan here. A really, really fantastic print…

Of course, I would have enjoyed it and the entire museum-going experience a lot more if one of the staff hadn’t forced me to stop making notes with my pen and instead use an f-stopping golf pencil…of all the cockamamy policies…it’s not like I’m pressing my notebook against the photographs to write; I’m several feet away. And on the off-chance that I got it into my mind to go crazy and attack one of these prints, it’s not like issuing me a golf pencil is going to prevent me from doing harm. Honestly, is this what my membership dollars are going to pay for? Because if so, I’d rather they put them toward something else, like the mildewy smell in the vicinity of the staircase on the second floor.

Also, trivial quibble: Why is it that the nomenclature is “silver gelatin print” vs. “platinum print,” vs. “albumen print,” vs. “chromogenic print,” vs. “dye transfer print”? Why not “silver albumen print,” for example. Also, would it kill them to call a polaroid a polaroid? Perhaps there’s a legal issue…


Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

The Med (IR) (Fr. 07)

So, I finally got around to shooting, developing, and scanning some infrared film. Yay!

For my first try, I used Efke IR820 Aura. This is the version without anti-halation layer, intended to mimic Kodak HIE. Of course, I’ve never shot HIE, so I have no idea whether it succeeds or fails in this regard.

Berkeley City Club (Fr. 32)

I went with this to start off rather than straight IR820 in 120 (which I also have) because I wanted to be able to both shoot several subjects and bracket my shots, so 36 exposures made more sense than 10.

I used my Nikkormat and, for the most part, my 28mm f/3.5 H — a lens which I know from experience and Rorslett’s reviews to work well with IR.

I’m using D-76 1:1, which doesn’t have a listed time on the data sheet, so I guesstimated the increase over the time for stock. (I used 9min. at 70.5 degrees). I metered for ISO 3, which is what’s specified by the data sheet for use with my filter (Hoya R72). I bracketed my shots, and in a couple of cases, I preferred an exposure two stops over that, but for the most part, ISO 3 gave the best results. (That translated to about 1/4 of a second at f/8 for the conditions I was shooting in, mostly.)

Very slow, but not too slow to include seated people, such as in the scene at The Med. And faster shutter speeds could be obtained by the use of larger apertures, at the cost of depth of field. Pushing is also a possibility, but it’s not like it isn’t grainy and contrasty enough to begin with…

Ghost Ring (Fr. 35)

Slow film

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

From the time I started developing black and white a year or a year and a half ago up until very recently, I only shot two black and white films (excluding C-41 B&W films) — Kodak Plus-X and Tri-X. Those were the first I used, they seemed to be good for pretty much everything (with the inclusion of push-processing Tri-X), and I liked the way they looked. (Well, I’m not as passionate about box-speed Tri-X as I am about Plus-X.)

But between the odd purchase here or there, some film that came with a camera I bought, and I recent gift of some film, I’ve developed quite the sampler of other films — generally just one or two rolls or so of each, but I decided it was time I started shooting some of them to see if I liked them.

For no special reason — other than good, old-fashioned curiosity — I decided to go slow. By which I don’t mean taking my time getting around to it (well, I had already done that). I mean experimenting with ISO 50 and 25 film. Ilford Pan F Plus and Efke 25, to be specific.

The Pan F I had in 35mm, so I ran it through my Olympus XA — always a good choice when I don’t really know what I want to do with a film. The results were illuminating.


The slow film encourages you to shoot wide open, which really encourages the XA to vignette, and the slow speed of the film makes the vignette quite unmistakable. The result is rather lomo, somewhat to my surprise, and is very at odds to the results I’m accustomed to getting from the XA — probably because I usually feed 160 or 400 speed film through it.

And, indeed, when there’s enough light to stop well down, the results are quite sharp and clear, with only a tasteful degree of vignetting.

A | Laundromat

It seems to be well at home for city scenes. Hard lines and sharp shadows seem to really click. (I’m starting to sound like those film mystics who read psychology and aesthetics into chemistry, aren’t I? Oh well, it was bound to happen…)

Next up, I tried Efke 25. I had this in 120, so I used my RB67. The results are really, really old school.


It reminds me of nothing so much as what I’ve seen of Atget — not in terms of the photographer’s skill, obviously, but the tonality of the film. (Of course, Atget was shooting on glass plate, not film, but you get the idea.)

I stupidly forgot to look up the times before going to develop this film, and I wound up accidentally pushing about a stop. Fortunately the highlights held up rather well, for the most part. However, the film is an incredibly curly bastard — the strips would literally snap into tubes and leap about the room, much to my frustration. Thank god for the betterscanning holder for my 4490, or I might have just given up on scanning it…

And just as well I didn’t, because I like some of the results…


I carried the trend forward today with a roll of IR820 Aura. I haven’t developed it yet, so I have no idea whether it’ll prove to be at all successful. It was certainly entertaining to shoot at ISO 3, though…slow exposures in broad daylight definitely seem a little bit perverse.

I’m normally very much used to thinking in terms of speed — fast films for low-light shooting, fast shutter speeds to stop motion, etc. Because I’m accustomed to thinking in terms of human and animal subjects — things that move at a certain pace.

Slower films — especially when they’re used with slow lenses, or require filters that force even slower exposures — make this sort of thinking/shooting difficult or impossible. Time becomes a resource you dole out in quarters of a second or even several seconds at a time, instead of in hundredths or thousandths of a second, and situation, form, and texture come to outweigh the pursuit of the decisive moment.

It’s quite instructive. Of course, not all live subjects are inconsistent with slow films…I even managed some wildlife photography with the Efke 25. Of course, it helps to have a certain sort of subject…

Turtletacular (View Large)

Photographing white people

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

000 MAIN (Re-Scan)

I wonder sometimes about the extent to which my street photography skews toward white subjects…there is a trend there, I’m fairly sure. In part this is because some of the bustling areas I like to photograph in are comparatively gentrified, and also I think partly because of a sort of habitual racism or reverse racism (or maybe a little of each) which registers caucasians as fair targets, as opposed to people of other ethnicities. (And yes, I do sometimes think of street photography subjects in that way, as targets.)

I think also, though, it touches on the problem of reality in photography. One of the things that I think draws me to some of my street photography subjects is the illusions they carry with them, and in general white people are a much richer source of illusions than people of color. (If you don’t know what I mean, try googling “double consciousness.”)

Not sure why that leapt to mind just now. Something to do with Robert Frank, I imagine, since I’m reading the expanded edition of Looking In right now, and since I have a lot of qualms about how Frank deals with race. Also possibly because of this post on Colin Pantall’s blog, which was in my google reader earlier today.

In case anyone is curious and didn’t already know, I’m of mixed race.

Colin Pantall’s blog: Endless wittering about photography

Monday, October 19th, 2009

In the same way, I wonder if photography and art isn’t degraded by the internet, if looking at pictures on the internet isn’t remarkably similar to watching 2 minutes of All About Eveon youtube and checking out the number of stars on IMDB and imagining it’s the same as watching the movie.

Colin Pantall’s blog: Endless wittering about photography

I would accept this as a valid concern, were it not for the fact that this is almost exactly how the vast majority of museum-goers look at photographs, too. They glance at them briefly, they read the little placard next to them, they may or may not make some brief technical or aesthetic observation to the person they dragged along with them, and then they move on tot he next one, and dispatch with equal speed and dispassion.

The only difference between this experience and the experience one gets on flickr is that (a) the image is often larger, (b) you don’t usually drag your spouse or friend with you to the internet, and (c) the offhand remarks on the internet are often persistent and can be perused by all who come after.

Of course, you don’t have to behave this way when you go to a museum or gallery, and some people do not. However, those people are the exception.

Company releases self-serving study results. OMG!

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009


“The last three years of data have shown a steady decline in people who report owning a traditional film camera, decreasing from 67% in 2007, to 61% in 2008, and dropping all the way to 48% in 2009.”

How does that show the “imminent death” of film cameras? Casual snapshooters who were going to switch to digital already have, and that part of the film market is already dead. In fact, I’m surprised there are that many in 2009 who acknowledge owning film cameras…

The people who are still shooting a lot of film (excluding disposable cameras) are not lay people, they’re pros and earnest amateurs. They make up a small fraction of the population, but they shoot a lot of film. And anyone who knows anything about photography already knows all these facts.

But thanks, “provider of award-winning imaging services for wireless carriers” for this press release which is doubtless going to be creating hideously annoying threads in flickr groups for weeks to come.