Archive for the ‘Nick’ Category

Yearly: 2010

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

I recently finished editing my [“Yearly” set for 2010]( My [yearlies]( are sets of twelve photographs per year (not one from each month, necessarily). When I started doing this in 2007, I would have said that these were my twelve best or most interesting photographs of the year. Now, though, I’m not sure that I have a fixed standard for selecting these photographs (and consequently a ready way of explaining just what they are sets _of_), except that they are twelve photographs I choose to _stand for_ the year as a whole.

It’s a very rough set, and it contains some very rough work. For almost every image in this set, there is a “better” image which I passed over, and I think most viewers would say that it does not compare favorably to my [previous yearly set]( All the same, I cannot help feeling satisfied and invigorated as I look at it — although I must admit that I also feel a not-inconsiderable degree of anxiety.

I think the best way to explain these images is by reference to two geometric color metaphors, both of which I’ve mentioned before: [black triangles](, and Minor White’s “thin red line of uniqueness to the man.”

In case you don’t want to read the original post, “black triangles” refers to achievements which mark meaningful, important technical progress but are not in themselves apparently impressive:

> Afterwards, we came to refer to certain types of accomplishments as “black triangles.” These are important accomplishments that take a lot of effort to achieve, but upon completion you don’t have much to show for it – only that more work can now proceed. It takes someone who really knows the guts of what you are doing to appreciate a black triangle

Photography in general is full of black triangles, but more at certain times than others. In my experience, at least, photography tends to go in cycles by which one moves from work in which one is technically fluent to work in which one is not fluent. (I know this is not true for everyone; many photographers have only one way of working, perfect it early on, and spend the remainder of their career putting it to use; that is not me, at least not so far.)

2010 was a year in which I spent most of my photographic time working on black triangles in one sense or another. Much of my output for the year and certainly the vast majority of my _work_ was done with new or difficult techniques, or with new categories of equipment, or both. My 2010 was a year of infrared (about which I have written several times before), of the view camera, and of the Ricoh GRD II.

The last two make for an interesting pair — my two camera purchases of the year, obviously from opposite ends of the camera spectrum, and both requiring major adjustments to my working style.

With the view camera, I had to learn a disconcerting amount of both theoretical and practical stuff from which my rigid cameras have been insulating me all these years. Hell, I had to buy a measuring tape and a wristwatch, and I had to learn _math_. Math! And I made an enormous array of expensive mistakes just to get to the level of basic familiarity. It still takes me twenty or thirty minutes at best to set up the camera and make an exposure, even of a simple scene.

I still do not know whether, in the long run, view camera photography will prove to be _for me_. I love it and I hate it, and I do not yet know whether the enhanced powers a view camera offers are powers that are actually vital to the kinds of photography that matter to me. But if I had to make a prediction, it would be that for some kinds of photography, I will find it difficult in the future to take other tools seriously. I mean, why do people wank so hard over 85mm portrait lenses for their SLRs when they could be making portraits with a 4×5 or 8×10 camera?

With the GRD, I was hoping to find a “point and shoot” camera in the older sense of the phrase (pre-set focus, no need to fuss constantly with exposure settings, framing doesn’t matter, camera doesn’t try to do stuff for you that you need to be careful of). In that, [I was frustrated]( While the GRDII is an excellent street photographer’s camera, it is not a camera which lends itself to the kind of shooting I am used to with, say, my Olympus XA — nor the kind of use to which I would put something like a Rollei 35mm camera, which is really want I wanted a digital equivalent of.

That does not mean that I have been disappointed in the purchase; it is just that I have been surprised at my reasons for being satisfied with it. I have found the sort of photographs I make with the GRD are, often as not, very similar to the sort of photographs I might make, or want to make, with a view camera.

The reason for this is surprisingly straightforward: perspective. My other small-format cameras (Nikkormat, XA, Bessa) are all rigid, eye-level cameras. As such, they (mostly) lock me into the range of perspectives which are available to my eye, typically those I can access while standing or kneeling. The view camera, because it is not rigid, and the Bessa, because it can be held at many heights and angles while still allowing composition via the live view display, allow for vastly more freedom in perspective. A scene that I would photograph with the view camera using rise can also be photographed — at greatly less resolution, admittedly — by simply holding the GRD above my head. The quality of the resulting images is not nearly so good as the quality of a 4×5 negative, but the possibilities for approaching many scenes are not so dissimilar. This has proven surprisingly rewarding for me, at least as a way of training my eye, and it has produced a handful of photographs I am cautiously pleased with.

So, those are my black triangles, or at least the larger ones. The “thin red line” is harder to explain without sounding like a complete douchebag, so I think I’ll just have to embrace the inherent pretentiousness and beg your forgiveness.

The “thin red line” refers to the following Minor White quotation:

> People often get tangled in the categories, whether the photo looks like abstractions, Picasso, Rubens, documentary, etc. This is hardly surprising, I have done it a million times. But as a photographer I pass up no image because it happens to resemble another man’s work. I am slowly learning to recognize those images that are in the thin red line of uniqueness to the man. (In Bunnell, _The Eye That Shapes_, p. 34)

I take this line to refer to that which is the photographer’s characteristic interest or concern or obsession; that which enables them to say, “_this_ is something _I_ need to do.” White said that for him, the thin red line was concerned with metamorphosis.

I am not sure I have a handle on what mine is…in the past, I have said it is to do with phenomenology, which is not untrue, but I think is also not the best way to phrase it. It might be better to say it is to do with _attention_[1]. “Phenomenology” tends (rightly or wrongly) to connote an inward gaze and perhaps solipsism, and certainly a kind of specialization. But attention is what we all owe and (sometimes) _pay_ to the person-scale events unfolding around day by day. And while I am an inveterate solipsist, my photography — I should say, my _successful_ photography — does not follow that track very closely.

The twelve photos in my yearly set can hardly be said to define a line of any kind, let alone one unique to me. I would be shocked if someone looked at them and saw in them a thin red line related to attention, or to anything else. But in comparison to the year before, I think they come closer, and certainly there are fewer photographs in the 2010 set which feel to me like work striving for some other line than my own. The 2010 set also reflects a higher proportion of photographs I felt I had to make, and a lower proportion of photographs I felt I ought to be able to show.

So, if that is what 2010 looks like that to me, what does 2011 look like? Fucked if I know. But I’ll be interested to see.

Yearly: 2010

US and California Flags

Peralta District Office (IR400-135-009-16)

Three Trees (FP100C45-005)

Awning Erection



Lake Merritt Channel

Man with Seven Ukeleles

Willard Park

10 Minutes at 3:00 PM


Fogbound Construction Site

[1] cf. Simone Weil: “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.” Gravity and Grace, p. 116

It’s Time For…

Monday, April 21st, 2008

You should get a pair of these every time you buy a fedora.


Nope, not Jewish. Although it’s the most popular guess in recent years. (Much as Eskimo was the most popular guess when I was a kid.)