Archive for January, 2010

Photography at the Crossroads

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

_Note: This started as a post for 1/125, but it got rather rambly and personal, so I’m going to post it here, instead._

James Pomerantz, in his excellent blog, _A Photo Student_, recently posted the text of Berenice Abbott’s “Photography at the Crossroads.”

On the surface, “Photography at the Crossroads” is just another highly subjective declaration of what is and is not real photography, and as such, it would be entirely at home as a grumpy post on the “I Shoot Film” flickr group haranguing those who “spend too much time in the darkroom, with the result that creative camera work is seriously interfered with,” and bemoaning “the widespread publication of articles and books on How-To-Do-It” when “what is more important now is What-To-Do-With-It.”

Of course, anyone who is interested in photography and has spent more than five minutes on the internet has probably seen a half dozen semi-coherent declarations regarding what real photography is and how kids these days are doing it all wrong. Certainly I have, and it has made me very skeptical of anyone who claims to be able to know what “real photography” is all about.

However, while I would indeed by loathe to apply Abbott’s essay as the general rule in photography, there are some excellent insights there, and I heartily encourage everyone to read it — particularly in conjunction with some reading or listening on the historical photographers and movements she references, if folks aren’t already familiar. (I for one am kicking myself for not already being more familiar with Abbott, whom I really only know as one of the folks responsible for bringing Atget to a wider audience.)

I won’t try to summarize the essay (seriously: read it), but there are a couple of things I’d like to touch upon here:

I am surprised that Abbott repeatedly emphasizes the “creative” in photography, while simultaneously upholding realism as the standard of virtue. I have grown very weary of the term “creative,” both because it is so often used to refer to the exact opposite of creativity (e.g., new camera users asking how to achieve “creative colors,” etc.) and also because even when it is used correctly, it is necessarily congruent with what I (and I think Abbott as well) would consider the best use of photography.

What I mean is that the photographs in which one most strongly perceives the photographer as creator are not necessarily the best photographs; often, the best photographs are those in which the photographer produces a strong record of a particular moment, without trying to become the author of the scene.

I think — although perhaps I am mistaken — that Abbott would agree with this. Certainly she seems to say as much, and more eloquently:

> What we need is a return, on a mounting spiral of historic understanding, to the great tradition of realism. Since ultimately the photograph is a statement, a document of the now, a greater responsibility is put on us. Today, we are confronted with reality on the vastest scale mankind has known. Some people are still unaware that reality contains unparalleled beauties. The fantastic and unexpected, the ever-changing and renewing is nowhere so exemplified as in real life itself. Once we understand this, it exercises a dynamic compulsion on us, and a photo-document is born.

While obviously one creates a photograph, is the creation of such a “photo-document” really an act of creativity? it seems to me that a good photographer in this style has far, far more in common with a good editor than with a good creative artist. But perhaps I am missing something.

But what struck me most about Abbott’s essay is the following passage, and particularly the sentence to which I have added emphasis:

> To chart a course, one must have a direction. **In reality, the eye is no better than the philosophy behind it**. The photographer creates, evolves a better, more selective, more acute seeing eye by looking ever more sharply at what is going on in the world. Like every other means of expression, photography, if it is to be utterly honest and direct, should be related to the life of the times – the pulse of today. The photograph may be presented as finely and artistically as you will; but to merit serious consideration, must be directly connected with the world we live in.

This appeals greatly to me, because it gets at something that has been more or less on my mind since I first started using a camera for something other than taking pictures of my knitting. The use of the camera is, for me, intimately related to questions of phenomenology, and of course the photograph as document (and what it documents, what kind of information it contains and transmits) presents tremendous opportunities for epistemological questioning as well.

Of course, to say that the eye must be backed by a philosophy, and to say that a photograph must be connected to reality, is not really all that specific. “Reality” itself as an idea is rather uncertain and open to contestation, and all photography, at some level, is about reality or about the sense of reality — because the apparent or actual realism of almost any photograph is one of the defining traits of the medium, whether the photographer chooses to embrace that realism, or chooses to subvert it.

It is tempting to say that this is the state of photography now (blah blah postmodernism blah) as opposed to some other state of photography which pertained when Abbott wrote “Photography at the Crossroads,” but that’s not really true. Abbott first became involved with photography through Man Ray, after all(!), and in the world of philosophy, reality had become rather tenuous ground well before this.

Here’s another take on the question of photography’s relationship to reality, from around the same time as Abbott’s essay:

> ABSTRACTION in photography is to reach towards the non-objective without ever breaking the camera’s strongest point—the magic of its tether to visual reality.

That is from Minor White’s journals, written in 1950, and published in Peter Bunnell’s _Minor White: The Eye That Shapes_ (p. 27). I find this an interesting statement in part because White’s sequences seem to delight in flowing seamlessly between apparently straightforward realism and total abstractions which are difficult or impossible to identify as relating to some real subject.

I think White’s point is well taken, and I think it provides an excellent third position, as distinct either from realism per se or from pictorialism considered as a flight of fancy, or, as Abbott puts it, “imitating the unreal.” (Which, if you really think about it, is something of a brain-teaser.) I think in the case of the best uses of abstraction in photography, that _tension_ that arises with the stretching of that “tether” is a significant part of the power of the photograph.

As for myself, the notion of reality which I have always found most compelling is that put forward by Simone Weil in her _Lectures on Philosophy_. (Which are just the transcribed and published notes of one of her high school students.)

> There is nothing real whenever there is nothing unforeseen. In science, in reasoning, one sees in the problems one is dealing with only what one has put there oneself (hypotheses). If in actions there was nothing except what we ourselves suppose them to contain, nothing would ever get done, since there would be no snags. All sorts of accidents can occur between the time when I have seen what the problem is and the time when I have acted. Reality is defined by that. It is what is not contained in the problem as such; _reality is what method does not allow us to foresee_.

> Why is it that reality can only appear like this, in a negative sort of way? What marks off the “self” is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.

Which, of course, is one of the reasons why I am so disenchanted with studio photography. But that is neither here nor there…

SFMOMA — 75th Anniversary

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Silhouette (Tri-X 120 003-05)

SFMOMA has put together some fantastic photography for the exhibitions celebrating its 75th birthday. I wrote a short piece on one of works by Henry Wessel over at 1/125, but really, there are too many fantastic photographs to list.

Best of all, a lot of the photographers I was most impressed by are folks I had never heard of before. The one that struck me most was a street photograph by John Harding which is the most compelling photographic depiction of race I’ve ever seen. (That wasn’t made by De Carava, anyway.) But there are also fantastic images by Max Yavno, Leon Borensztein, Nata Piaskowski, and John Gutmann. (Apologies if I misspelled any of those.)

I also got to check some things off the big list of stuff I felt dumb for not having seen before. First time seeing Minor White’s photographs in print form. (Not as blown away as I thought I would be — the reproductions in Bunnell’s book are very good) First time seeing Atget’s photoraphs in print form — including a portrait of a prostitute which rather disrupted my notion of what Atget is all about. (Also: have I mentioned how much I love albumen prints? I really love albumen prints.) First time seeing daguerreotypes and tintypes.

I had the Koni-Omega with me (see above). I was shooting with Tri-X at 1600 — a good combination of camera and film, with the strengths of each covering the weaknesses of the other. (The weaknesses being Tri-X’s outrageous grain when pushed and the shallow DOF of 6×7, respectively.) And, of course — as usual — the Koni-O drew interested glances and outright interrogations from the other patrons.

Print giveaway

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Lightning (View Large/Original)

In case you hadn’t noticed, I do a collaborative blogamathing with Karl called _1/125._ We post excellent photographs that we find online, we talk about photobooks we’re reading and are generally insightful, perceptive, and dashingly handsome. Or something.

We’ve got a new domain, ( and we’re celebrating that — and the fact that we’ve made it two months (that’s a decade in internet years) by giving away some of prints of our photographs. There’s some really good stuff there, and you don’t have to do anything onerous for a chance at it. For more info, see [the announcement post](

So, if you like the photographs I’ve posted here on this blog — particularly the street stuff — please do take a look at the post, and consider following us on Tumblr or signing up as a commenter with Disqus, the comments service we use. You can also fan us on Facebook, but I feel slightly hypocritical recommending that since I haven’t opened Facebook in months…


You should also take a look at what Karl’s posted there. He’s got a couple of fantastic street scenes — the kind that present the utterly mundane in a way that is not at all mundane, but serene and mysterious. He’s also got a wonderful up-close-and-personal soccer (or football for you heathens outside the US) action shot, if that’s more your line.

My contributions are street photography, and include “Lightning,” at top, “Pull,” above, and “Limits,” below.


(Note: We might make some substitutions in the lineup, but we certainly won’t offer replacements that aren’t a step up.)

exquisite incomprehension

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010


One advantage photography has over some other media — in particular writing — is that with photography, one does not necessarily have to convey the sense that one understands what one is sharing with the viewer. A photographer (excluding those who are photographing scenes they have manufactured) is not an _author_, and is not assuming the kind of privileged position of understanding over the subject which the author is forced to carry — sometimes as a burden, sometimes as a badge of honor, sometimes as mating plumage.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that an understanding of the subject has no value in photography, but I do think good photography can be done which is founded not on an understanding of what is being photographed, but on an exquisite incomprehension of it. One can behold a thing with great intensity and convey some part of that intensity to the viewer without necessarily having to get a grip on the subject, or even to really decide for sure what it is.

The challenge is to do this without giving the sense of hiding behind obscurity or engaging in puzzle games with the viewer. This is difficult, particularly if one is interested in reaching a wide range of viewers…

On Creativity

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

This is a cut and paste from something I just posted in a flickr thread in which some people talk about what software will give “creative” colors, and other folks talk about how creativity is something that has to happen in the camera, before post-processing.

>Creativity isn’t something that happens in the camera anymore than it’s something that happens in a computer or in a darkroom. If someone uses textbook “good” composition, textbook “good” lighting, the “correct” depth of field, accurate exposure, and a standard subject, the result is not creative, any more than if they swap some colors in photoshop.

>Creativity is something that happens in the photographer, and it can make use of any tool to hand — whether that tool is the camera or a computer, or whether it means manufacturing a scene to shoot.

>However I would also caution that creativity is not necessarily a virtue, especially in a photographer. There are many fantastic photographs which are not “creative,” but are strictly documentary. They are a record of something which happened in the world. The photographer made the exposure, but they didn’t “create” the scene.

I really do think that much of what is good in photography has absolutely nothing to do with creativity. I would even perhaps go so far as to say that creativity is more likely to be a vice than a virtue when working in the photographic medium.

Photography Against Solipsism

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Late Afternoon

I am by nature, or at least lifelong habit, always apart from the world around me. Solipsism comes easily for me; connections comes hard. In the middle of a crowd, I am perhaps at my most alone, set off as I am by what I think of as my veil of indifference. Behind that barrier, I am free to live in my head and build pocket universes of private images, ideas, and judgments.

But cameras do not operate in pocket universes. The lens is necessarily a window outward. It is not quite an antidote for solipsism, but photography creates an opportunity to perceive other people with…not necessarily clarity, but with intensity.

_Note: strictly speaking, it is not true to say “cameras do not operate in pocket universes–a lot of studio photography is done inside pocket universes. But a camera in the street and a camera in the studio are practically unrelated tools._

Know your gear, and stay in practice

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Lake Merritt Channel, Double Exposure

Here are some of the fantastically stupid things I’ve done or allowed to happen lately while shooting

* Double exposures
* Lost exposures from forgetting to insert darkslide before changing backs
* Lost exposures from forgetting to remove darkslide before exposing
* Watching ill-attached lens hood roll hundreds of feet down an extremely steep hill, to the bafflement of passers-by
* Jammed shutter due to premature winding
* Complete and utter bafflement upon realizing I have forgotten, yet again, which way to turn the crank to rewind my XA

Why have all these things happened to me? Is it because I’m an irredeemable moron? Yes, of course it is. But it’s not just that. It’s also to do with the fact that I’ve been shooting with all my cameras lately. Instead of doing what I usually do, which is shoot with one almost exclusively for several weeks at a time, I’ve been switching between my Koni-Omega, my RB67, my Bessa, my XA, and, to a lesser extent, my Nikkormat and D40. This makes it easier to lose track of the working rhythms that make operating each camera a smooth process. That means it takes me longer to do things, and it also means I’m much more likely to make mistakes.

Perhaps it’s a case of me owning too many cameras. I don’t think I’m quite ready to concede that, however, since none of my cameras are really redundant — unless I someday stop shooting birds, at which point I could perhaps sell off my Nikon gear. And certainly none of them is an exorbitant expense — all were the cheapest representative of their class, and almost all used. : )

In fact, what is probably called for is not avoiding camera changes, but getting more accustomed to swapping between cameras, and making _that_ working rhythm something which is habitual, and something which I can count on myself to bring off efficiently.