Archive for April, 2013

Catherine Opie at SFMOMA

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Went to see Catherine Opie last night at SFMOMA. It was delightful — she’s funny and her work is both daunting in quality and diversity.

Here are my rough notes. Opie talks pretty fast, and some of these quotes may be imprecise. I also may not have always put the breaks between which work she was talking about in the correct spot. So, reader beware.

  • Talking about 1999 on, not earlier stuff


  • “The quaint fear of Y2K” – (so, rural America is a proxy apocalypse?)
  • Bought an RV
  • In conversation with Tina Barney and Peter Galassi
  • “The American road trip” — pretty much every photographer has experienced that
  • Sequenced in relation to how Opie feels about the images, not geography
  • Rebecca Solnit on wandering
  • “What is iconic” tends to collapse into cliche
  • Backs of sunflowers is dystopic, fronts is utopic
  • “Poorly attended civil war reenactment”
  • Backs of billboards as disinformation — re: Y2K and feared loss of information
  • Switched from 4×5 to Mamiya 7 for this project
  • Referring to Winogrand and street photogrpahy, came out of “that school”
  • “I don’t live with my photographs in our house.”
  • “I’m interested in photographs that work a little harder than just being pretty.”

In and Around Home, ’04-’05 (Post 9-11, c. George Bush re-election)

  • Opie’s home and neighborhood
  • “This is a blonde news reporter. This is a brunette news reporter.”
  • Re: polaroids in the time of digital photoraphy: “The materiality of a certain type of truth” that isn’t manipulated — Opie pairs that with TV is a form of artificiality
  • Iraqi national appears in the frame relative to the “white hand of democracy.”

American Cities 1996 ->

  • Focused in grad school on master plan communities, New Topographics type stuff, etc.
  • Canham 7×17
  • Done early on Sunday mornings when it’s empty, just the architecture
  • “New York is always photographed in this idea of its verticality.” — So horizontal panorama is a departure
  • Opie talks about photographing places that are later marked by death or disaster (9/11, earthquake, Elizabeth Taylor’s death)

Estate project for AIDS/Ron Athey

  • Moby polaroid camera (giant)
  • Opie often includes a “pause” betwween figures in an installation for those we’ve lost
  • “Art history is never far away from me in terms of grabbing for it.”

Ice Houses

  • Day after a blizzard, “white on white; I couldn’t have blue skies after that.”
  • “You need a blizzard for this level of abstraction.”
  • Ice houses bring together rich people with lakefront property and satellite dishes on their ice houses and the guys who drive in to actually fish. A kind of mixed temporary/nomad community
  • 8×10 camera working on the ice. (That’s crazy.)

Surfers ’03

  • “75% of surfing is waiting.”
  • Only foggy days / matches the white on white ice houses
  • “Got very interested in the idea of waiting” — which connects to the darkroom for Opie
  • Previously had done all her own printing and was a proud printer, but stopped while trying to get pregnant — the waiting aspect of the surfer photos replaced the meditate aspect of the darkroom experience
  • Guggenheim did “dream exhibition” of ice houses and surfers (in a long, narrow space with the horizons matched and facing each other from the two walls)
  • Portraits of surfers were made right as they came out of the water

Children portraits

  • Opie bummed out by unnatural contemporary portraits of children
  • Considered being a kindergarten teacher, but “I couldn’t do the little chairs for the rest of my life.”
  • Didn’t want to impose a sexuality on children, as Opie feels is often done
  • Wanted natural photos that capture the awkwardness of being in the studio

High School Football

  • (?) titled an exhibition “American Photographer” — “American photographer? I’ll be American for you.” So, football photos.
  • Sports photography is normally zoom lens and action; she wanted the moments in between
  • Opie talks about the realization of bearing witness to something, as opposed to identifying previously as a documentary photographer
  • Football as a precursor to military service in many areas
  • First time she’d done model releases — there were some photos she loved but could not use because she didn’t receive a release from the parents
  • In two years she received two letters from parents of boys in the series who had tied in Afghanistan — that was when she realized she was bearing witness
  • “These were the kids in high school who scared the heebie-jeebies out of me.”
  • “One of the hardest things was the incredible homophobia”
  • Used a Hasselblad digital handheld

Alaska, 2007

  • These were going to be theatrical backdrops
  • “I’m really interested in displacement” of people in relation to nature


  • Play on Richard Prince’s Girlfriends — but her ideal is butch dykes
  • “Some of them are girlfriends I actually had, some aren’t, but all are about desire for me.”
  • When she’s preparing an exhibition, she’s very aware of how she wants to place it relative to the history of either photography or painting
  • (She was really cute when geeking out about k.d. lang in the middle of presenting this series)

Hanjin shipping – commissioned – Sunrises and Sunsets

  • Restraint of time; conceptually how do you deal with the cliche of a sunrise or sunset”

Empty and Full

  • Marches, protests, rallies, etc.
  • “How do we gather? Why do we gather?”
  • Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival juxtaposed w/ national Boy Scout Jamboree

Somewhere in the Middle

  • Seasons of Lake Erie — Opie grew up on the lake
  • Displayed in a hospital, past the chapel / a place to gather oneself

New work – Regen Projects

  • “Wanted to talk about a more internal place”
  • The idea of the sublime, 17th c painting, portraits emerging out of black
  • Everybody’s doing abstract photography; what does it mean?
  • Opie describes seeing people drive to an attraction, getting out, snapping a photo with their phone, and getting back in the cars and driving away.
  • So, re: her OOF landscapes “By racking the focus, by abstracting it, I’m hoping to get people to spend more time with it.”
  • The only color here is red — b/c of blood and b/c Opie is menopausal
  • Portraits as oversized cameos
  • Always uses models when preparing exhibitions


  • Q re lack of snark/aggression/sarcasm/mockery of conservative, homophobic, etc. subjects
  • Opie implies that there’s some sarcasm that can be read in a lot of the photos, but “I never approach anything w/malice”

  • Reference to prior observation by (?) of a connection between Opie’s interest in horizons and the idea of equality

  • Q re: upcoming work

  • Elizabeth Taylor — Opie photographed in Taylor’s house for around six months, in the middle of which Taylor died
  • Trying to make a portrait through still life of Taylor’s home/belongings
  • She and Taylor share an accountant
  • Eggleston’s Graceland
  • “The book will not be the experience that I had,” it will be trying to make a portrait of Elizabeth, but also the history of tha tmoment
  • 5,000 images
  • Opie’s partner would say, “You were in the vortex again today” when Opie got back from working on this
  • Q re: diff. btw. students today and in Opie’s time
  • A: Yes. Hards to be an image-maker now. Hard to get students to think about the formal aspect. Trying to educate them about the history of image making and their place in it
  • Built her own dark room when she was 14
  • Curator Corey Keller: “At this point in time, to identify as a photographer is so unfashionable”
  • Right, they’re artists…
  • Q re: other media
  • I have a very secret sculpture practice of making ceramic stumps.”

Tumblr Post Roundup

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

I’ve recently posted a bunch of stuff on Tumblr that I would normally have posted here, because I’ve found myself enamored of Tumblr’s newly un-crappified photo post UI. But, because Tumblr has not un-crappified its search, here’s a list:

  • Measure DD and Flood Control Station tours, organized by Wild Oakland. I was super excited by both of these.
  • I’ve been shooting a ton of flags. Feels great to have forward momentum on a project. See here, here, here, here, here, here.
  • Unusually, I put together a couple of diptychs I kind of like. Here and here.
  • I’ve some photos of recent local events, incl. the opening of a sculpture park, a CA historical society whatsit on “Curating the Bay,” and a videogame thing at SFMOMA. Here, here, here.

Infrared Rays of Faith

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

WERE one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order…

– William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Since we’re on the subject of infrared photography, two posts touching on IR crossed in my RSS reader recently:

Faith | n j w v-1

Kohei Yoshiyuki, ThePark

The first post references a sermon given by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household, in which Cantalamessa compares faith to infrared photography and particularly infrared satellite imaging:

Today, from artificial satellites infrared photographs of whole regions of the Earth and of the whole planet are taken. How different the landscape looks when seen from up there, in the light of those rays, compared to what we see in natural light and from down here! I remember one of the first satellite pictures published in the world; it reproduced the entire Sinai Peninsula. The colors were different, the reliefs and depressions were more noticeable. It is a symbol. Even human life, seen in the infrared rays of faith, from atop Calvary, looks different from what you see “with the naked eye.”

It’s interesting that Cantalamessa chooses for a symbol of faith a kind of image that is so totally artificial and dependent on technology, not only in terms of imaging equipment, but also in terms of actual rocket science. I suppose it speaks to the persuasive quality inherent to the photographic medium: even something as arbitrary as false color infrared not only retains the persuasive quality of documentary evidence but even acquires an aura of higher reality by virtue of its very disagreement with the evidence of our own eyes.

The other post is at Slate’s Behold blog, discussing Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park, in which Yoshiyuki used infrared flashbulbs to photograph perverts who gathered in the park to watch (and sometimes grope) amorous couples.

After he worked to become a familiar fixture to the spectators, he began to capture the scenes with Kodak infrared flashbulbs. Reflecting on the project, Yoshiyuki wrote via email:

“As I was so amazed at these scenes, I was dying to record what was happening in the darkness and I was strongly hoping to capture them with my camera. The couples had been entirely unaware of their surroundings and the presence of voyeurs. They were young couples with a lust for love and probably had nowhere else to go. If they had noticed that the voyeurs were next to them, I’m sure the couple would not continue their lovemaking actions … they would come to the park just to take a walk and have a good talk….

“The voyeurs always approached the couples from behind because they had to be out of the man’s line of vision. … there was a kind of community in which the voyeurs lived. ‘To touch up a woman’s body’ was a kind of a competitive game for them in the society. It was risky, but it was something very thrilling for them to do, just like an exciting game to play. So when a voyeur was able to touch the woman’s body, it was a success story among them and the guy could be a hero of the night as a voyeur.”

In Yoshiyuki’s photographs, it is the invisibility of the infrared light cast by his flashbulbs that is essential. By using it, he is able to operate unnoticed by his voyeur subjects and entirely unseen by their oblivious victims. The infrared spectrum does not provide specialized new information here in the way that it does for aerial/satellite surveys, but it nonetheless — by virtue of stealth — shows us a whole community of otherwise invisible people.

I find it interesting that infrared photography lends itself so easily both to the transcendent and to the transgressive. One way or another, it is showing us things we shouldn’t be able to see. And this is on top of the longstanding contradiction that IR photography enables both the ethereal, dreamy visions of, say, Minor White’s infrared landscapes, and the harder but no less surreal views of infrared military documents.

I suppose it isn’t surprising that a technology for seeing the invisible should have this paradoxical appeal to science, war, reverie, and religion. It expands our ability to collect and represent information about the the world we see, and it also disrupts our habitual assumptions about the primacy of our unaugmented sight. I think there is always something phenomenological about it, because it always poses questions to the viewer about the nature of their experience.

This is equally true of UV photography (for example, the UV portraits of Cara Phillips), but I think it is not true of X-Ray imaging, FLIR, and many other methods of scanning, because they are alien enough in appearance that they seem wholly different from vision. They sit comfortably apart from our default view, while infrared and UV photos often seem to hip-check it.

Infrared Strikes Back

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

As you doubtless know if you follow me on twitter, tumblr, or flickr, I have returned to infrared with a vengeance. For many months, my IR usage has diminished, for a variety of reasons — the main one being that I don’t have darkroom access presently and have not yet set up for film development at home or made other arrangements for black and white.

Given this, and given that even the lesser tier of IR film stocks is thinning, it made sense to finally go back to digital infrared in a more thorough way. (I’ve shot a lot of digital IR using unconverted cameras, with often acceptable results, but it’s a somewhat frustrating way to work when you don’t want to use a tripod — and my progress with IR is tending strongly toward the handheld and to IR flash street shooting.)

Complicating the matter slightly is my love for the 2.8cm f/3.5 H — a lens that is around half century old, cost me about $30, and has become totally definitive for me as the way to see the world in infrared. And using it with the Nikkormat and no ability to see through the viewfinder, I’ve pretty well trained myself to a certain angle of view…which I was reluctant to give up by going to a DX format converted camera.

So, after much poking around online and no shortage of hand-wringing, I bought a used Canon 5D and shipped it off to Lifepixel for conversion. (Using the “standard” option, which is the closest to the 72R/89B filtration I’m accustomed to.) I went with the 5D because it’s cheap (relatively), and because there are issues with the D700 for IR under some circumstances, thanks to some sort of shutter monitoring gizmo Nikon introduced.

New IR Kit

For most IR users, a 5D MkII would have been a better choice, because Live View will offer much improved flexibility and precision for IR focusing. In my case, that was irrelevant, since I’m interested almost exclusively in one lens and I only ever intend to scale focus it.

Lifepixel was fast and did a great job with the conversion, but I ran into two slight speed bumps:


Using an F-mount lens with an adapter on the 5D means that focus sales are off. This isn’t that big a deal — I just had to do some testing to figure out what the shift was. In the case of my lens/adapter/camera combination, it moves the IR index to a spot just to the left of the left-hand f/8 index on the DOF scale. For now, I’ve got this marked out with a bit of gaffer tape, because gaffer tape makes everything better.

2.8 cm f/3.5 H

More problematic: on some Nikon lenses, and the 2.8cm f/3.5 H is one of them, there are back-protruding bits that prevent the lens from mounting properly on the 5D. This is unrelated to the AI/Non-AI/AIS standards, and seems to be specific to certain lenses. I did not know this at the time I bought the 5D, or it would have given me serious pause.

In the end, I girded my loins, taped up the lens, and used a metal file to remove a couple of MM from that protruding part. This was very, very stupid on my part, and the correct procedure would have been to remove the back portion of the lens before modifying it, to prevent any filings from migrating to the interior of the lens. It seems to have worked out okay for me, but I certainly do not advise anyone else to do it this way.

The result: an IR kit that is a fairly close digital approximation of my old IR kit. Same (wonderful) lens, same flash (with same options of using hotshoe or side PC connection), with vastly higher working ISO options available — which means more flexibility and greater working range with the flash — and the ability to look through the viewfinder when I feel like doing so.

I haven’t gotten fully accustomed to it yet, and I don’t know it as well as I knew Rollei IR400. But it seems to be more or less a Sunny 11 situation, exposure wise, and the auto mode on the SB-24 seems to work well enough without much (if any) compensation for most situations.

I’ve already shot quite a bit with it, and been pleased with the results. It will take a while for me to know quite how to process the files, though — while the filtration is similar to what I’m accustomed to, 5D’s sensor is not going to behave in quite the same way as film.

Lake Merritt

Lake Meritt Channel

Betsy Ross Flag

Flood Control Station Tour

Unfortunately, in the time between when I more or less topped shooting with the Nikkormat and when I got the 5D kit set up, I seem to have lost much of my 28mm no-viewfinder composition mojo. Hopefully that’s reversible. In the mean time, well, we’ll just have to I’m canting photos for aesthetic reasons.

Stars Headband