Archive for November, 2009

It’s not travel photography

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Or, maybe it is. But don’t tell anyone, since I’m on record as saying that (a) travel is the most shallow form of human experience, and (b) travel photography is lame. (It’s possible I said it more eloquently than that. It’s also possible I said it much less eloquently than that.)

In any case, I had a great time visiting Andrew in Santa Cruz, and I made a few photographs while I was there. This included a bit of birding and a bit of casual astrophotography. The latter was pretty funny, since I don’t know anything about stargazing and have pretty lousy night vision, and Andrew, who does know about stars and whatnot, and who can see after dark, doesn’t have any experience with my camera gear, and is also currently operating without full thumb opposability, etc. As Andrew put it, between the two of us we made one semi-competent astrophotographer…

I was strongly tempted to bring some medium format gear, but it didn’t seem reasonable to try to take both my 400mm f/5.6 and my RB67. Too bad, because there were some scenes that would have been extremely well-suited to medium format, including some fantastic night scenes. I made do with what I had, though, which was my Bessa R and some of that sweet free Portra 160NC, and I came away with a few photographs I’m quite fond of.

Student Haircuts



Santa Cruz, November 2009

I won’t pretend to have acquired any magical insight into the nature of Santa Cruz. I mean, yes it’s dripping with hippies and white guilt, but we all knew that already, right? Besides, the order of the day was not drive-by sociology; it was bad movies and in-jokes.

Materials against language

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

At the laundromat today, I was reading _Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s_, and I came across this delightful passage from the manifesto of _Provoke_, an influential publication of the time.

>The image by itself is not a thought. It cannot possess a wholeness like that of a concept. Neither is it an interchangeable code like a language. Yet its irreversible materiality—the reality that is cut out by the camera—constitutes the opposite side of language, and for this reason at times it stimulates the world of language and concepts. When this happens, language transcends its fixed and conceptualized self, transforming into a new language, and therefore a new thought.

>At this singular moment—now—**language loses its material basis**—in short its reality—and drifts in space, we photographers must go on grasping with our own eyes those fragments of reality that cannot possibly be captured with existing language, actively putting forth **materials against language and against thought**. Despite some reservations, this is why we have given Provoke the subtitle “provocative materials for thought.”

I found this notion quite striking. I’m sure it appeals to me in no small part because I find it so hard to combine photography and written language. Writing about photography is incredibly difficult for me. Writing around photography is easy. We do this all the time by taking up peripheral topics like equipment, technique, biography, and social commentary. All of which is very useful if your interest is in being able to make small talk while looking at a photograph, but not necessarily so useful if you want to actually say something about the photograph.

Another popular approach is, of course, to fall back on artspeak, which I don’t do a lot of mainly because I don’t really know artspeak. I’m sure if I was fluent in artspeak, I would make regular recourse to it. Of course, it’s really mostly still talking around photography, but on the plane of abstract concepts rather than the plane of physical facts and realities. These concepts give us handles by which to manipulate the photograph and make it give up its secrets. Or, rather, they appear to do so.

Often, the manipulation of those concepts doesn’t really take us any farther than the recording and recitation of the technical data related to the photograph’s creation. One is fooled in very much the same way as one is fooled when one thinks, “If I use the same camera as he did, and the same settings, and stand in the same place, I will make the same photograph.”

Of course, there are also photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere ideas, just as there are photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere technical details. But both types are essentially worthless, except insofar as they can be sold for money.

All of which is just to say, I am used to thinking of language as inadequate for describing and understanding photography. But that _Provoke_ manifesto–I’m not sure that I had ever thought of the photographic image as being or becoming the _enemy_ of language. It is immensely appealing in the way that anything which explains away an incapacity is appealing. And it is, in a peculiar way, rather optimistic, presuming the authors were serious about the prospect of a new language and a new thought emerging.

However, I think I rather approach which I had relied upon previously, and that is Simone Weil’s way of interpreting our speechlessness in the face of art:

> Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.

But I have always been susceptible to mysticism…

Eyes, balls, and a camera

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

I got a little shout out today over at The Online Photographer for, “Eyes, balls, and a camera,” which was my semi-humorous response to the question, What three things do you most need to enjoy or participate in photography the way you practice it?.

Sorry for the implicit chauvinism; obviously balls here is a shorthand for the mixture of courage, audacity, and shamelessness that is sometimes essential if one is to make an excellent photograph. Obviously not something that’s gender-limited. : )

Of course, my own photography is only occasionally ballsy, but I do know that I owe some of my best photographs to a moment of uncharacteristic ballsiness, and I certainly know that some of my greatest photographic regrets have come from moments when I didn’t have the balls required by the situation.

Also, while balls are obviously more mandatory in street photography or wildlife type situations than in, say, tabletop photography, courage can take many forms. Sometimes it’s more about about a willingness to make a photograph that will challenge or provoke the viewer, sometimes it manifests in areas as prosaic as how you spend your money or to whom you show a photograph…

A new venture

Friday, November 20th, 2009

I’ve joined the always-delightful Karl Gunnarsson for a joint blog about photography. It’s a tumblr, so expect frequent, short posts calling attention to interesting photographs we find and relevant happenings in the interblogonetamasphere. Plus the occasional rant or two.


SFMOMA | OPEN SPACE » Blog Archive » Visitor Flickr Photo of the Week

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

I haven’t been posting much lately, but I’ll have something soon — I shot a bit in Santa Cruz while I was there visiting a friend. I have a few bird shots up on flickr and some messing around with astrophotography, but I’m holding off on the post until I get back the roll of Portra 160NC I shot with the Bessa.

In the meantime, one of my photographs from SFMOMA has been featured in the visitor photo section of their blog:

SFMOMA | OPEN SPACE » Blog Archive » Visitor Flickr Photo of the Week