Posts Tagged ‘Minor White’

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

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…

With apologies to Mr. White.

Friday, January 9th, 2009

On my way home from work yesterday, my attention was caught by a fallen branch. The branch sat at the top of a gentle slope up from the Channel park to the East 8th sidewalk. I would not have noticed it — in fact, I probably walked past it for days or weeks without doing so — except that I happened to be off the path.

As a result, there was a brief moment in which the branch was silhouetted against the late afternoon sky, revealing a strange and compelling shape. And also a familiar one — the branch twisted in on itself is a common element in Minor White’s photography, and some of his most striking and enigmatic images feature them. That brief glimpse stayed with me through my commute, and I resolved to see whether I could make something photographic of it.

Branch, Three Views (C)

I knew there was no way I could convey anything interesting about the branch if I photographed it in situ. There was quite a lot of clutter in the area and in the skyline beyond; even if I got down on the ground, there was no way I could get the thing silhouetted against the sky — my initial view of it depended on the eye’s ability to immediately discard visual clutter.

So, during my lunch break today, I did something which I do not normally do — I moved the damn thing. (I usually prefer to document things where and as I find them.) I dragged the thing down next to the channel, leaned it against a bench, and propped it up (to prevent it from rolling) using the card wallet I use to hold my business cards, bard tickets, and bus pass. (I managed not to forget it when I left, although it was close.)

I made many different exposures with three lenses (35mm, 105mm, 400mm), varying my camera position extensively. My two main considerations were the relationship between the shapes within the branch, and the relationship between the branch and the rest of the scene. The primary factor in determining these relationships is camera position; the secondary is the choice of focal length and aperture.

The image at the beginning of this post is the last one shot, using my 400mm f/5.6 to fully isolate the branch from its context. In this shot, I chose a camera position such that the rear fork of the branch crosses behind the forward main segment. This preserves the three-dimensionality of the object despite the flattening effect of the long-range perspective and shallow depth of field.

Branch, Three Views (B)

Proceeding in reverse chronological order, the middle image to survive the culling process was made with my 105mm f/2.5, with my tripod legs fully extended and the center column somewhat extended, so that the camera is looking down past the branch. This permits the shapes of the background to come through, but no detail. In this vantage, I was able to capture birds moving in the air or water in several shots. (These are my normal lunchtime subjects.) In this one, two egrets perch on the far bank of the channel, just above forked end of the branch, while two others fly, one with cupped wing mirroring the penultimate curve of the branch.

Branch, Three Views (A)

The first surviving image (there were a few other test shots before it) was made with a normal lens (35mm on crop sensor), stopped down to f/11 or f/16 for depth of field. The result does not render the background sharply, but does allow a degree of detail to come through. This, together with the flattened background and foreground created by the square-on camera angle, allows for useful juxtapositions in the composition, with the branch bracketed between the four bare trees, the two lower works cupping the boundary between the far bank and the channel, and the top of the tallest tree becoming another fork of the branch, extending from the vertical segment.

For each image, I adjusted the saturation and color cast of various segments, warming the branch and cooling the background, or the opposite, and then applying a blue- or yellow-filtered black and white conversion in Capture NX.

These images are, as suggested earlier, derivative to a greater or lesser extent (or, put more favorably, they are a reference or — for the ultra-mega-douches in the audience — “an homage”); I consider them basically an exercise in composition. And while I wouldn’t blame anyone for being unimpressed by them, I consider them a success, and a well-spent forty-five minutes…