Some passages from Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

December 29th, 2012

From Twitter/Pinboard:

“If guilty pleasures are out of date, perhaps the time has come to conceive of a guilty displeasure.” (Journey to the End of Taste)

“Schmaltz is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived…” (Journey to the End of Taste) ..which social change can pitilessly revise. And then it becomes shameful…” (Journey to the End of Taste)

“Being uncool has material consequences.” (Journey to the End of Taste)

“Distinctions in a culture that valorizes omnivorism are simply…” (Journey to the End of Taste) …that much more fine-grained, fast-changing, and invidious.” (Journey to the end of Taste)

“Our expertise is usually more self-taught than PhD-certified, a pattern Bourdieu believed would produce…” (Journey to the End of Taste) “…an anxious, fact-hoarding intellectual style in contrast with the relaxed mastery…” (Journey to the end of Taste) “…of a fully legitimated cultural elite.” (Journey to the End of Taste)

“[Celine Dion] aspires to the highbrow culture of a half-century ago.” (Journey to the End of Taste)

“[Dion] stinks of democracy, mingled with the odors of designer perfumes and of dollars, Euros, and yen.” (Journey to the End of Taste)

Longer passages:

As Simon Frith wrote in his book Performing Rites, difficult listening bears in it the traces of a “utopian impulse, the negation of everyday life” — an opening toward “another world in which [the difficult] would be easy.” (p. 20)

Through most of [the 19th century] opera was popular music too, sung on the same programs as parlor songs and beloved among both high and low economic classes in English translation…Operatic songs, full of melodrama and romance, were sung alongside parlor songs at home and parlor songs would be dropped into productions of operas (often when rowdily participatory nineteenth-century audiences yelled out for them). Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s first mid-century American tour, sponsored by P. T. Barnum, was perhaps the first “blockbuster” event in American pop culture, and Lind would sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” between Mozart and hymns…The same held true for passages of Shakespeare, another popular nineteenth-century commodity. It was only in the later 1800s that a consolidating upper class became wealthy and populous enough to shut out popular treatments of classics in the name of “culture” and “standards,” by building ritzy exclusive opera houses, condemning English translations, and turning against “light” Italian opera in favor of “high” German opera. This brought to an end the mixed programs of Shakespeare, opera, melodrama, parlor song, comedy, freak shows and acrobats typical of the earlier nineteenth-century stage. As Walt Whitman, an enormous Italian-opera fan, put it in 1871’s Democratic Vistas, with “this word Culture, or what it has come to represent, we find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy,” meaning the snobs and aristocrats of old Europe. (p. 56)

I think this is because schmaltz, as Hamm insinuates in his discussion of parlor songs, is never purely escapist: it is not just cathartic but socially reinforcing, a vicarious exposure to both the grandest rewards of adhering to norms and their necessary price. This makes it especially vulnerable to becoming dated: the outer boundaries of extreme conformity, of uncontroversial public ecstasy and despair, are ever-mobile. Schmaltz is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived, which social change can pitilessly revise. And then it becomes shameful, the way elites of the late nineteenth century felt when they wondered what their poor ignorant forebears ever heard in light Italian opera. Likewise, as a specialization of liminal immigrants in America, it can become a holdover from a time “before we were white,” perhaps dotingly memorialized, but embarrassing head-on. (p. 61)

Certainly, celebrities like Celine can help advertise an American Dream cover story for a destructive hegemony by appealing to widely held desires and aspirations. But the transgressive individualism of modernism’s heirs verges on directly emulating that destructive drive, while jeering at its victims’ aspirations and desires. (p. 128)

…songwriter Stephin Merritt argued that “catharsis in art is always embarrassing.” It’s a common belief, though seldom so drolly expressed. He was partly drawing on Bertolt Brecht, who held that the purgative release of catharsis can defuse social criticism. But like many of us, Merritt transposed that political caveat to a personal one, a matter of style. His enjoyment, he claimed only half-joshingly, depends on having the embarrassment built into the art, as irony, which allows him to register emotion without the shameful loss of self-control involved in feelin it. (p. 130)

The trouble with people | B

December 24th, 2012

Lewis Baltz: I think this is one thing we have in common: that the subject of the work is the person looking at it. If you want to get a little more Zen about it, the subject is necessary for the completion of the work.

via The trouble with people | B.


December 20th, 2012

Back in October, I had an interesting conversation with @vossbrink about obviousness. (He has a post branching off the same discussion here.)

Here’s an excerpt:

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca I’m beginning to think you need a photography blog were you just write about popular things you don’t like.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink But really, do I dislike popular things at an unusually high rate?

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Not unusual for someone who’s become an expert — and once people become experts, there’s a tendency to dislike the obvious stuff.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Are you sure you don’t mean “hipster”?

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca So in photography. Popular: Ansel, Frank, HCB, Avedon, &c. All fantastic. But all are too obvious to truly say you like them.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink So, how to evaluate my immense photo-boner for the tremendously obvious Pepper No. 30, then? : )

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Weston doesn’t seem to be big name outside of photography. Which I think is the distinction of what’s popular vs too popular.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Mm, fair. There’s also the question of good vs. important vs. popular. They can vary entirely independently…

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Absolutely. Anne Geddes is popular but not good or important. Ansel is all three. Weston isn’t popular. Muybridge is important.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink And then there’s also “remembered.” Minor White is good and important, but (somehow) semi-forgotten.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Which was a lot of tweets getting to the point where I can say that I think you’re drawn to the good, important, & not popular.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Ha! But that makes sense. And more to important-but-forgotten than important-and-remembered.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Exactly. People like Minor White, Roy DeCarava, and Robert Adams.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink God, now I’m angry-sad just thinking about those three photographers under that heading. But yeah, to one degree or another.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca “The Good. The Important. The Unpopular.” #YourNewPhotoBlog

I have to admit, @vossbrink’s observation re: “expert” resistance to the obvious does pretty well sum me up, and not just as regards photography. For example, it pretty much nails my objections to the prominence of American Gods, which is one of those topics that tends to crop up every year or so. (E.g., here.)

I’m a little uncomfortable with the “expert” label, though. Not that it’s necessarily wrong — as with anything, it all depends on how you define “expert.” My hangup is that I’m keenly aware that, while there are lots of things about which I know much more than most people, there are virtually no topics about which I have an authoritative knowledge.

This is especially true in an area like history of photography — I have no academic background in it, and I’m not especially well-read about it. I’m basically couple of notches ahead of “guy who saw a documentary about something and won’t shut up about it now.” Of course, everything’s relative — but the reason I’m talking about this is that a huge aggravating factor in my nerdrage on certain topics is my awareness that the fluency I’ve built up in most areas is not remarkable and should not be uncommon. I would be happy to be the guy who cultivates eldritch, obscure knowledge. I am less happy to be the guy who knows really basic stuff that seems to have somehow evaporated out of the collective awareness of enthusiasts.

Of course, it may just be that I have wildly unrealistic expectations regarding what’s basic. It is true that we live in post-canonical times, and my belief that any stuff is actually “basic” is poorly founded. (Although don’t count on me giving it up.) But I think there’s a bit more to it, and I think it has to do with the internet. (Get ready for me to sound like a fucking luddite.)

The trouble is that the internet gives the illusion of an instantly accessible depth of obscure knowledge. Years of habituation to tools like Google and Wikipedia have fostered the illusion that all knowledge is out there, and the only barriers to obtaining it are the cost in time, the cost in enthusiasm (nerdiness), and the challenge of sifting fact from pseudo-fact. And that illusion is almost the truth. Very, very nearly. It’s (relatively) easy to find the most astonishingly nerdy shit. But, and here’s the problem, not all equally nerdy shit is equally findable.

The trouble is that the internet’s version of knowledge is mediated by technology, and by communities of users who are in part defined by their access to technology, and by pools of content which are in part limited by their availability in digital form. And in fields where the canon has broken down, or even more so in fields where it was never really codified to begin with, that means that knowledge which does not happen to have tach-savvy champions is much harder to find, and if it happens to be tied into material stuff that simply cannot be found in digital form, or can only be found in shitty digital form, then the internet’s collective consciousness is very likely to start forgetting it. And as more and more people use the internet as their initial means of getting familiar with a certain topic, the gap between what is remembered about that topic and what is forgotten becomes harder to bridge.

Well, no, that’s not true. It’s not that it becomes harder to bridge — it’s that users become less and less likely to bridge it. And bridging it is a relatively simple act — it’s just a matter of seeing a reference, noticing that it’s not something you can find out a lot about online, and then taking some additional step to learn about it. For example, buying a book. But those steps always take time and often take money. In the short term, the net result is that some stuff is a little more obscure than other stuff — not because it’s less important, or less interesting, or more challenging, but simply because it’s less discoverable. In the not-so-short term, the net result is that what we know, as a culture, is going to skew. And in the meantime, people like me — who know just enough to be notice — are going to be pissed off on a regular basis.

PS: That will be offset to some degree in areas where there is a formal academic interest — where people will be forced to acquire broader and deeper knowledge. But academic disciplines and individual departments are often surprisingly cliquish or ghettoized and are unsurprisingly disconnected from popular culture — so their effect in offsetting the loss of information, especially by popular enthusiasts, is somewhat limited.

PPS: Of course, this isn’t really a new problem, is it? The oral tradition->manusript and manuscript->printing boundaries doubtless exhibited the same kind of loss.

February 27th, 2011

As I mentioned, recently, I’m gearing up to work on a 4×5 project that’s going to involve some moderate close-up work. The project in question starts with a subject I’ve worked with before — on digital, on film, on multiple occasions, never to my real satisfaction.

Here’s the latest version — still not providing that aforementioned satisfaction, but hopefully a step in the right direction:


The subject is a tree that is growing around a metal sign pole. It fascinates me greatly, and I’m collecting similar subjects — trees growing over or around pieces of human infrastructure, and other such things — for a project that I refer to as “engulf.”

By the way, an anecdote from the “things people ask me while I’m using a view camera” file: While I was working on this photograph, a guy passed by with his wife or girlfriend and their kid in a stroller. The guy was perplexed — to the point of offense — by my activity. He asked what I was doing, and I explained that I was photographing the tree.

He demanded to know _why_ I would want to photograph a tree, using all the gear and effort I was using. I was debating between trying to explain the whole project or telling the guy to fuck off, when he noticed the pole for the first time. It was awesome to see, because a cartoon light bulb practically went off over his head — and then he went on to tell me a story about how, at his job, they’d had to cut down a tree, and found one an old support line for a telephone pole that the tree had grown around and which had been left inside it.

I took this, overall, as a pretty positive sign regarding the project. While I do not underestimate the importance of being able to explain, in words, what one is trying to do with a photograph, it is good when a subject is also able to speak for itself, and elicit intense visual memories from a viewer. (Of course, the fact that the real subject is able to do so does not necessarily mean that my photographs of it will necessarily succeed so well.)

The reason I’m using 4×5 for this is that it allows me to work with perspective. This subject (like many others in the series of which this is the representative) is near ground level and fairly small in scope; as a result, working on them with any of my medium or small-format cameras creates problems in terms of perspective. In fact, this series was the primary reason I bought a 4×5 in the first place — although that is not to say that it will necessarily turn out to be the reason I choose to continue working in 4×5, if I in fact do so.

In this round of attempts, I will (at least some of the time) be bringing artificial lighting to the task. This is contrary to my basic instinct and orientation as a photographer, which is to always keep the manipulations behind the camera, not in front of it. However, I think it is a necessity, here; many of the subjects are persistently in extremely flat light, and the flatness of that light obscures significant aspects of the subjects.

To that end, I’ve somewhat beefed up my “strobist” kit, and am currently trying to find a way to integrate it all with my 4×5 kit while maintaining the level of portability I generally insist on — what I refer to as “commutable,” meaning I can take it with me to work on a daily basis if need be, so that I can use it during my lunch break or on my way home.

I did a quick check yesterday to see how things work; the polaroid above is one of the results — although not necessarily representative of the results I’ll get with the HP5 I shot at the same time, since both depth of field and contrast should less dramatic/gloomy on the film.

Still, I expect I will have to return to this scene I try different approaches. (Cross lighting and working closer in with a shorter focal length being next on the checklist.)

If setup photos are something you care to say, I did snap a few with the GRD:




The test run took quite a long time — maybe a couple of hours in total. (Of course, once the kinks are worked out, I should be able to cut that down substantially.) Most of that time I was kneeling, squatting, or sitting on the ground, as a result of which today the muscles on the front of my thighs are exceedingly unhappy.

In terms of functionality, the gear worked well enough. I’ll need to figure out something in lieu of sandbags for the stands, if I’m going to be using umbrellas in the breeze. Or I could just carry sandbags, but that sounds too masochistic.

My main concern is about power. Even working fairly close, using these umbrellas, I was limited to f/16-f/22 when shooting at ISO 400-800. That may turn out to be enough (we’ll see when I’ve got the HP5 developed), or it may not.

If I need to work at f/32 or f/45, I’m going to need to make a change — maybe opaque umbrellas would be sufficient, but I may need to either use the flashes without them (in which case the light may be problematically hard) or I may need to replace my flash units with something more powerful, which would be a huge PITA, not so much because of the cost and having to go shopping again, as because of size constraints. Going more powerful is likely to mean a physically larger unit, like my big Sunpak, or more units — either of which will seriously compromise my efforts at maintaining a portable kit. If I wind up having to put all this crap in a rolling case, I’m going to be pissed at myself, since a big part of going with a field camera in the first place instead of a more economical, functional monorail camera, was to permit me to carry a full kit on my back.

Still, despite the hiccups and caveats, my thigh muscles, and the slightly emo polaroid that I came away with, I’m still pretty happy with the result. I’m happy with the perspective, and happy with the improved texture and three-dimensionality provided by the lighting. It’s certainly a start.

Format and Magnification

February 27th, 2011

_Cross-posted from Tumblr_.

I’m gearing up to work on a large format project that will require some close-up work. I’ve been out of practice for a while on the Shen Hao, and I’ve never used it all that intensively for close work, so I did a quick test run in the kitchen with a couple sheets of Fuji instant film.

Here’s the scene at normal magnification:


Here’s the scene at 1:1 magnification:


Here’s the same 1:1 photo next to the subject (yay instant):

Onions and Onions

For those who are used to working with 35mm cameras or crop sensor digital bodies, these results will not _feel_ like 1:1 photographs. They would be looking for something more like this 1:1 photograph of tea leaves made on 35mm film:

Upton Ti Quan Yin

In reality, both examples are at 1:1 magnification; the difference is in the format size. The 4×5 positive is the same size as the negative area (of course), but people do not generally view a 35mm or crop sensor 1:1 image at the size of the negative/sensor area, unless they work with contact sheets or slide film.

Doing close-up work on 4×5 is something of a PITA. As you can see, even working at life size, the results don’t “feel” all that close, and to get to life size, you have to have lens extension that is twice the focal length of your lens. My camera is a field camera with 300mm or so of maximum extension, so I can’t achieve 1:1 with my 210mm Schneider, and doing so with my 150mm Nikkor presents problems if I need to apply any movements. My 135mm Nikkor is fine, but I still have to extend the bed almost all the way out, which makes the whole setup less rigid.

Luckily, the project I’m actually gearing up for is unlikely to actually require 1:1 work, or else I’d probably have to start shopping for either extension boards or a new (monorail) camera. : )

Deep Assignments

February 21st, 2011

> Spielberg returned to Shanghai for _Empire of the Sun_, an eerie sensation for me — even more so were the scenes shot near Shepperton, using extras recruited from among my neighbors, many of whom have part-time jobs at the studios. I can almost believe that I came to Shepperton 30 years ago knowing unconsciously that one day I would write a novel about my wartime experiences in Shanghai, and that it might well be filmed in these studios. Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences. (_The Atrocity Exhibition_, p. 11)

The mind is in large part bibliographic. (Biography recapitulates bibliography?)

It is not precisely that we are what we read, but there is a nontrivial relationship between what we read (or, more specifically, what we will subsequently be ready to admit having read) and our basic interests, dispositions, methodologies, etc. So, there is a certain correspondence between the sources of our personal bibliographies and the sources of ourselves. Assigned reading is part of one’s intellectual origin story.

I am sometimes surprised or disconcerted when I am recalled to the earlier parts of my own bibliography — not because I read horrible trash (although of course I did) but because sometimes the foreshadowing seems obnoxiously heavy-handed.

One of the more extreme examples is Nancy Frankenberry’s _Religion and Radical Empiricism_, a book which brings together James and Nagarjuna, among others, not to mention Quine’s “Two Dogmas.” I read it in high school after buying it on a whim because I happened to see it on a local bookstore’s shelf at a time when I was thinking a lot about the word, “empiricism.” (The reason I was thinking about “empiricism” is that I had been embarrassed not long before because I had not known the word’s definition.)

I flipped through it, was briefly turned onto William James as a result, and then subsequently forgot all about it. In subsequent years, I became deeply interested in pragmatism — as an extension of problems in philosophy of education — and in some of the more skeptical variants of Buddhism — as an extension of internal consistency problems in my new-age upbringing. Later, when I once again flipped through a copy of Frankenberry’s book, I felt…horribly presaged, I suppose.

It is impossible, of course, to say what precisely the chain of causality here is. Some of the underlying concerns and approaches are fairly fundamental; it may have been inevitable, given interests and concerns that go back far deeper than my high school years, that I should be drawn later to thinkers like James and Nagarjuna, or the glee with which I took to, especially, Nagarjuna and Quine, may have been a direct result of the subconscious memory of some of those connections I’d seen in Frankenberry’s book.

More likely the truth is somewhere in between, but in any case, I find it acutely unnerving to feel that such interests–which are closely tied to very fundamental aspects of my intellectual process and disposition are in some way fated.

I’m having a similar feeling now as I read through Ballard’s _The Atrocity Exhibition_. This is another book that I read when I was of high school age. In this case, it was loaned to me by the only person I had met (up to that point) who was not only better-informed than me about the things I was interested in, but manifestly (and significantly) smarter than me in ways I valued. I read it and enjoyed it, up to a point, but I was (and largely am) too literal-minded to fully appreciate that kind of work. Certainly I did not anticipate that, after setting it largely aside, I would later find it directly useful in approaching an intellectual problem (ruin porn, to be specific) in photography.

In fact, there’s quite a lot of juicy photographic thinking in The Atrocity Exhibition. I just never made the connection before, because when I first read it, I had zero interest whatsoever in photography. This is worrisome, because my _photographic_ origin story is so absurd (it involves my previous hobby of knitting, and my long-undiagnosed poor eyesight, among other factors), that I had pretty much taken for granted that it was entirely discontinuous with my previous intellectual history.

That being said, Ballard’s photographic interests are largely confined to areas of photography that — well, it’s not that I don’t approve of them, or don’t like them, so much that I think of them as someone else’s problem or task. I think no causative element can be found here, just a reminder that…while the world appears to become a more complicated and information-rich place as we mature, it is actually just that we (all too slowly) acquire the ability to perceive and appreciate the complexity that was always there, even in our own experiences, even in those experiences to which we may have given our full attention.

Yearly: 2010

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

Group Shoot

November 28th, 2010

Group Shoot

Last week, I took part in a group studio shoot. You may have noticed me bitching about it on twitter, if you follow me there.

It’s an interesting experience. As you may know, I am not fond of studio photography. Not that it’s not a legitimate way to do photography, of course — but it breaks a lot of what makes photography important to me, particularly the stuff having to do with the unexpected. The basic ethos of studio photography is _control_ — controlling the light, controlling the appearance of the subject, controlling the photographic outcome.

Because of this, I generally don’t enjoy doing studio work — and while I’m not _always_ incompetent at it, it would be fair to say that the results are generally uninspired.

None of that pertained last Saturday, because the lighting and backdrop were all pre-set by the instructor. And while I could (and occasionally did) give suggestions to the model, I didn’t try to compete with the 15-20 other photographers for her attention. So, I was able to approach the situation more or less as I would street photography — street photography happening in a very confined space with a whole lot of competition, that is.

Kelsey (Delta 3200 120 003 01)

And it was competition. Not that the photos we produce are going to be compared, and not that anyone is getting paid — just competition for _space_ on which to stand. Even with a substantial backdrop to work with, a cluster of lights, all with modifiers, does not provide a wide range of angles from which it is practical to work — in our case, it was perhaps a 10′ x 4′ area, into which most of the time ten or twelve photographers at least would try to cram themselves.

I worked with an RB67 loaded with TX and Delta 3200 with a 180mm f/4.5 and a D40 with a 105mm f/2.5. I spent a certain amount of time elbowing for space (sometimes with and sometimes without a tripod) and verbally abusing my fellow photographers when they inevitably wandered into my field of view. However, I generally had the best results when I abandoned the carefully lit backdrop and instead framed the subject against the black or gray gobos, or curtains on the other side of the room, or whatever else offered.


I’m not sure whether those compositions were more to my liking because they gave me more breathing room, or because they put me outside the corridor of attention between the subject and the other photographers, or simply because I like blank, untextured backgrounds. For whatever reason, they seemed to work.

(I also found that I almost always preferred the compositions which chopped off hands, arms, elbows, legs, etc. to those which included them. Something about surrounding the model’s body with empty space (whether blank gobo or lit backdrop) simply seemed paradoxically to kill a part of the vitality of the image, in almost every case.)

As for the subject, Kelsey, she was great — as a dancer, she had both excellent physical control and excellent performance instincts. Plus, she was extremely patient with the gaggle of photographers, although whether this is just her personality or something she picked up working extensively with reptiles, I’ve no idea.

Between the forty frames of 6×7 and the perhaps 60 NEFs, I came away with a few photographs that are presentable, and a couple that I genuinely like.

Kelsey (Delta 3200 120 003 09)

That being said, I still don’t feel a very strong connection to any of them. When I look at them, I am reminded of Minor White’s “thin red line of uniqueness to the man” — mine, if it is anything, must be phenomenological, the photograph as a reflection on experience. And the experience behind these photographs is a sort of microwave dinner version of studio photography — not unenjoyable, and I certainly cannot say that I would rather have done it from scratch, but ultimately not fully satisfying.

I wish in retrospect that I had photographed the other photographers more — they made a rather disconcerting visual, all huddled together, blazing away with DSLRs and 35mm cameras, and most making what I can only describe as “photographer face” — an unflattering, squinting, slack-jawed grimace which, if it occurs in the field as well as in the studio, goes a long way toward explaining why people react with such revulsion to street photographers.

Seriously, that facial expression is perhaps the single greatest argument for working with waist-level finders or the groundglass, as opposed to rangefinders or prism SLRs.

On the technical side, it was interesting to work with D40 NEFs again. They’re certainly much more pleasant than GRDII DNGs, and I have a very good feel for them from quite a lot of past experience. However, there is something deeply frustrating about working with RAW files when I know I have film to develop and scan, so I pretty much rushed through the D40’s output so I could get to the Delta and Tri-X.

I shot the Delta at 3200, because the lights were arranged around the assumption that everyone would be shooting 35mm with ISO 400. I guessed (correctly) Delta 3200 in 6×7 would provide a good tradeoff between grain and DOF, at the expensive of some shadow detail that I probably wouldn’t miss anyway. The Delta results are excellent (or, rather, any errors are mine), and those negatives are surprisingly easy to print.

I also — just for fun — shot a couple rolls of TX at box speed, meaning I was working wide open on the 180mm f/4.5. I made quite a lot of focusing errors on those rolls, and I had a few motion blur problems as well, either from my handholding technique or subject motion or both. The film held up reasonably well, despite the characteristic lack of contrast, and it wasn’t hard to get good scans of those frames where I had everything straight in-camera. I haven’t tried printing them yet; if I’m lucky, I’ll just need to go up a contrast grade or so, and won’t have to fiddle too much.

I also shot a few images with the GRD, primarily reference shots for the lighting, or photos of the room, like the one at the top of this post. Those photos show something I already knew, which is that the GRD is quite lame at high ISOs. (“High” in the old-school sense, i.e., 400 and up.)


November 9th, 2010

A few weeks ago I read _Mirrors and Windows_, by John Szarkowski. (About whom we’ve [posted]( once or twice before at _1/125_.) It’s pretty fantastic.

I’ve tried quite a few times since then to write a useful post about the subject, with little success; each draft tends to spiral out of control, until I feel like I’ve written myself into the middle of a book-length disquisition on the nature of photography. That’s an easy trap to fall into with Szarkowski, because he’s such a moving target; his writing is so rich with information, allusion, interpretation, and provocation that it is hard to keep attention focused on any one argument or claim.

So, I’m going to give up on trying to write one coherent post on the book tackling everything that really interests me (which would still have only touched on a fraction of everything contained in the brief essay in _Mirrors and Windows_) and write two or three shorter posts, instead.

Let’s start with this passage:

> During the first century of his existence, the professional photographer performed a role similar to that of the ancient scribe, who put in writing such messages and documents as the illiterate commoner and his often semiliterate ruler required. Where literacy became the rule, the scribe disappeared. By 1936, when Moholy-Nagy delcared that photography was the lingua franca of our time, and that the illiterate of the future would be he who could not use a camera, the role of the professional photographer was already greatly diminished from the days in which his craft was considered a skill close to magic. Today it is only in a few esoteric branches of scientific or technical work that a photographer can still claim mysterious secrets. (pp. 14-15)

This interests me because I think it helps me understand a confusion many photographers have regarding the nature of what they do.

Following the metaphor, let us assume that we are living in a time after that in which the scribe had a useful role — a time in which (in developed nations) everyone has the ability to read or write for themselves.

In that context, what do we make of someone apparently performing the functions of a scribe? Examples might include:

* Translators
* Editors, designers, etc.
* Paralegals
* Medical transcriptionists
* Notaries Public
* Calligraphers

These are people who have technical skills which are not required for the normal, everyday reading and writing functions routinely performed by people in both their business and personal lives.

There are photographic equivalents to many of these functions — or, rather, there are photographic professions which have a similar relationship to the photo-literate as these professions do to the word-literate. For example, I doubt one hears the complaint that, “with digital, everyone is a crime scene photographer.” (Note: If there are any forensics people reading and I’m getting that wrong, please let me know.)

However, most types of professional photography currently being done today are not so well sequestered from the realm of everyday, non-professional photography, which is usually (although not quite accurately) classified as “amateur.” But there may still be parallels.

Of these post-scribe forms of technical literacy, the last — calligraphy — is the one that I find to be the most interesting in relation to photography. For our purposes, let calligraphy be defined as the practice of making series of written letters appear aesthetically pleasing; it is (or at least, can be) totally agnostic with regard to the meaning of words represented by those letters. It is about making things pretty, on demand.

I think calligraphy is interesting in relation to what people want from photography. Specifically, to what they want _when they first become excited_ about photography — when they stop regarding it as a routine task requiring no special knowledge or insight and begin to regard it as something they can and should do well. Perhaps even as something which they are _called_ to do well.

When people today feel that way about the written word, virtually none of them say, “_I want to be a calligrapher_.” They want to be novelists, or poets, or journalists, or what have you. They want to write something in which other people can find meaning, amusement, excitement, solace, escapism, or insight.

But when people feel that way about photography, huge droves of them turn to the photographic equivalents of calligraphy — like wedding photography, commercial portraiture, stock photography, and advertising — disciplines which are, at heart, dedicated to producing prettiness on demand.

Budding photographers are often obsessed with becoming skilled in technical areas related to these disciplines, so that they can be more “pro” — which, amusingly, means that these industries are generally less and less sustainable for those who actually do set up shop in them. (And, as with calligraphy, hand knitting, and similar crafts, this tends to shift the area of commercial viability away from doing the work in question and towards books, supplies, workshops, instructional videos, etc.)

Of course, that does not sum up every budding photographer. There are plenty of photographers who are deeply embedded in the art world (which has largely swallowed up serious photography), and photojournalism is not dead. And I would not suggest that art photography and photojournalism are not worthwhile pursuits.

But is there a photographic equivalent of a novel, at this point, or of a short story? (Equivalent in _use_ I mean, not in structure, like the “literary” photographs of Frank Gohlke.) Is there photography which is produced for and consumed by the general public, for the joy of it?

That is more questionable.

Certainly there are people who are making photography that I would consider to be suitable for this role; there is good photography that exists outside the art niche and apart from the perversely utilitarian industries of prettiness on demand, and also apart from the civic-minded function of photojournalism and documentary photography.

But what is happening to that photography after it is made? Some percentage of it is published in various forms, and some percentage of what is published is bought (if applicable) and viewed, but the extent to which that happens outside the art community or the community of people who identify as photographers is more questionable.

And that — well, that worries me a great deal.

Frank Gohlke at the SF Art Institute

October 16th, 2010

Last night, Frank Gohlke gave a lecture in San Francisco, and I quite nearly missed it, since it wasn’t mentioned in any of the local events lists I (barely) follow — fortunately, I saw it in a post on Mary Virginia Swanson’s blog the day before. I would have been seriously annoyed at myself if I’d missed it.

Most of the lecture actually consisted of readings from Thoughts On Landscape, so I won’t attempt to reproduce any of it here. (Especially since I’ve quoted it extensively here, on my tumblr, and on 1/125.) I’ll just say that if you are even slightly interested in photography, and you have read _Thoughts On Landscape_, you need to get on that, prompt-like.

Afterward, there was a question and answer period, and I did take some notes for that. I tried to be as accurate as possible, but I’m not much of a stenographer, so please forgive me if some of this is imperfectly recorded. I’m also not going to elaborate or provide much in the way of interpretation or response, since I just want to get this posted, for the moment:

On choosing where to go when making a trip, Gohlke said that he always avoids going to places that qualify as “destinations,” saying, “Too much is decided for you in destinations; what can you do but affirm it?”

Describing his feelings about photography after he first turned to it as an alternative to his graduate studies in English, Gohlke said, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I never want to do anything else. Why didn’t anyone tell me.”

Gohlke also talked about how one can explain what it is to photograph, especially with regard to relating the photographer’s work to the painter’s work, and whether or not one “just takes takes pictures”:

> You don’t just take photographs. You live, and you photograph. And the closer those things come to being the same, the better, and the better you’ll work.

He expanded on this by pointing out that much of the work of photography is done without a camera — that it is about everything else the photographer experiences, and digests, and can then bring to the practice of photography.

Maybe my favorite part of the evening was an exchange in which Gohlke said that he makes “literary photographs,” and someone in the audience asked, “Why literary,” to which Gohlke replied, “Because they require reading.”

Gohlke also talked about the importance — both in writing and in photography — of not caring about how people will perceive your work, and how this is something that tends to get easier with age. (Which is heartening.)