Archive for May, 2010

New Scientist: How the camera has made us all voyeurs | Street Reverb Magazine

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

There was a short but provactive post recently on Street Reverb:

“Candid street photography and military aerial reconnaissance may seem to have little in common, but they’re both examples of how the camera has made us more distant from each other and from the world around us, according to Sandra Phillips of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who is the exhibition’s curator.”

If you’re in London between now and October 3rd be sure to check out Tate Modern’s Exposed – Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. I’m not sure many street photographers would agree with the quote above. I know many people that would maintain that working on the street brings them closer to the world around them.

via New Scientist: How the camera has made us all voyeurs | Street Reverb Magazine.

I think it would be equally incorrect to say either that photographing on the street brings one closer to the world or distances one from the world.

What the introduction of a camera into any situation does do is to place something between the photographer and the subject. The question is, what is the nature of that something. Is it a wall or a window or a door, or something else entirely?

In some of my work, I have made reference to a line from Simone Weil — “every separation is a connection.” That part of Weil’s theology is to do with how she reconciles her spirituality with the manifest absence of god from the realm of human affairs, and more personally, it is to do with how she understands the physical and psychological suffering she experienced in life. Absence or distance is not simply a negation of presence or immediacy; it establishes a relationship between the separated parties, and that relationship must be considered as such.

While I don’t share Weil’s religious outlook, I think this particular observation is richly applicable to many other contexts, and particularly to relationships between human beings. If we sit down at a table, does the table separate us or bring us together? It has the power to do either, or both simultaneously. A camera has the same power.

Unless the subject flees, the camera does not introduce distance between myself and the subject. What it does is to record the distance that already existed and to infuse that distance with meaning. That meaning is not predefined merely by the fact that it comes by way of the camera; its content depends on the intent with which I wield the camera and also on the way in which the subject and, later, viewers perceive that intent. It may make friends and allies, or it may make enemies and victims, and in many cases it may be a non-trivial task to ascertain which is the case.

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

> I was stunned to read in a comment to my last column that, “…photographers who hand their images to someone else for printing are abdicating part of their artistic responsibility.” Oh man, I can’t let something that wrong pass*….

> Failing the absolutism test is sufficient reason to damn it, as I’ve already argued in 2.5 columns. But worse, I think it’s specifically bad advice. Printing takes a lot of time, money, and energy. No photographer is given an unlimited supply of any of those. Resources you devote to printing are ones you cannot devote to making more photographs, making more timely photographs (which may matter), learning and practicing how to make better photographs (which definitely matters), even traveling to more interesting locales to make photographs (travel being another one of those things that consumes time, money, and energy).

The Online Photographer: Do ‘Real’ Photographers Print?

Ctein makes a really good point here. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot more as I’ve spent more and more time in the darkroom printing. (Note: I’m not doing anything unusual or interesting in that department — just standard black and white.)

Printing is a lot of fun, and I greatly enjoy doing it. And it’s also, at times, been a source of incredible frustration for me when I hit a technical wall with a particular negative or a particular technique…and in both cases, I need to occasionally remind myself that I don’t want to be a great printer who occasionally makes photographs; I want to be a photographer who sometimes prints his work.

This is also why I have avoided — like the plague — getting into doing my own prints from digital sources. The cost in time and money is simply not worth it to me. That may change at some point, of course, but for now, I think it’s a wise decision.

A Conversation about Flags

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion about some of my work with a professional photographer and very experienced and knowledgeable printer whom I’ll refer to as “V.” The discussion was regarding a series I’ve been working on of infrared photographs of US and California flags.

V wasn’t very impressed with the work, which is not in itself necessarily interesting. After all, not all work will be to everyone’s taste, and of course not everything I produce is solid gold — far from it. But I found some of the particulars interesting:

He ranked the photographs in order from best or most interesting to worst or least interesting; this ranking was _exactly_ opposite the ranking I would apply to the same photographs. This is a pretty awesome response, because it shows that what interests me in the photographs, the direction I want to take them, corresponds to something that isn’t just in my head — even if it isn’t necessarily something that’s crowd-pleasing.

Another interesting divergence is this photograph, which V referred to as a “snapshot”:

I say this is interesting because, out of the entire series, this is the one photograph which I would say is least like a snapshot. All the others actually do have snapshot qualities — some are snapped on the fly, many are made with little to no active attempts at “good” composition, etc. I think in this case, and in many cases, “snapshot” really just means, “photograph I don’t like but I’m not sure why.” (Alternate usage: “photograph I like but don’t want to acknowledge as a good photograph.”)

V gravitated toward photographs which had what he referred to as “human interest” — the photographs I included which are more street-oriented or psuedo-documentary. His specific advice as regards the prints themselves tended to go towards making the flags more visible and identifiable as flags, and to recovering lost detail in the flag markings.

I explained that this was basically directly contrary to my intentions. What drew me to this subject is the way infrared photography effaces the markings of flags and frees them (albeit temporarily, partially) from their habitual symbolic uses. So, the tendency of the flags’ markings to wash out is essential, whereas the “human interest” content is secondary — used to give a context for the portrayal of the flags themselves.

I don’t think this clicked solidly for V, because he tended to keep hitting these points as the discussion went on, regardless. He also characterized my explanation of the project as “symbolic,” which is sort of, but not really, in the right neighborhood. What I’m interested in is the way photography can, without physically changing an object, remove or suspend its symbolic value. I tried to convey that, with mixed success; after that he started calling it “non-symbolic symbolism.” Not really an improvement.

The funny thing is, I found this whole conversation to be not only entertaining and engaging, but also strangely comforting. I’ve never felt so good about being poorly or incompletely understood.

Of course, this is not to say that we should always celebrate when people don’t like our work, or when people don’t “get” our work. I’m not interested in producing work for an elite audience, however defined. But I am pleased to have elicited a strong response which is more than casually related to what I intend for this project, and I am pleased at having been able to articulate most of those intentions in discussion to my own satisfaction.

As to the project itself, I need to continue to produce work for it and to work on refining the sequencing. The balance and relationship between the more “documentary” photographs and the more (for want of a better word) “abstract ones needs to be improved; in its current form, the ambiguity regarding that relationship weakens the sequence, because it seems like two sequences that have merely been interleaved. If I can fix that, it will hopefully provide a better stepping-off point for viewers and make it easier for them to see along with me…

Monday, May 10th, 2010

One of the perennial questions in photography is how to explain the relationship between a photograph and the world — or between the photograph and some specific part of the world (the subject). It is understood that the photograph is in some respect like a copy but is not actually a copy as such; no photograph is either as pure or as boring as a perfect copy would be.

Here’s my suggestion, for today anyway, for how to explain the difference:

To make a photograph is not to copy the world, but to abridge it, or to edit it. We read the world, and when we achieve a moment of recognition in response to some part of the world, we use the camera to excerpt it, to underline it — or to angrily strike it through.

Unfortunately, these marks are relatively unlikely to be incorporated into a new draft of the manuscript, so the photographer is much more like a critic marking up a review copy — or a reader making private notes for himself — than like an editor working in collaboration with the author to refine the work itself.

Of course, that proposed metaphor only covers certain kinds of photography — straight photography, more or less, as opposed to constructed photographs and photographs which are intended to be statements about photography…

Site update

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

I’ve made some slight updates to the web site. Mostly just de-crapifying stuff. I did add a new section, for my ongoing series of infrared flag photographs. I’ve mentioned these photographs here on the blog before, but if you’re interested in them, please do take a look at the tentative sequence here.

Sometime in the semi-near future I will also probably post up a short sequence of my infrared street photography as well.

For those who do not enjoy infrared, well, you’ve probably already stomped off in disgust. If not, don’t worry; I’ll likely be shooting more color this summer.