We Are All Dust... Some More Than Others

Six rolls TMax 100, 9.5 mins Xtol 1+1 @ 20C.

I've decided to start filtering all the water, not just for chemicals but for final washing as well. Today I replaced the whole lot of chemistry, and drip-dripped multiple gallons of water through coffee filters held in my fingers. Hopefully this high-tech approach will help eliminate some of the last, nagging dust problems.

Spent the past four days on vacation in a group of nine, in L.A., usually too busy to take wandering photos. Still, I came back with eleven rolls and a few dozen digital shots (sad to say, the digitals were as ever a disappointment... even though I was quite enthused as I was making them). Just a couple of those rolls in today's batches, but after a quick viewing I'm feeling positive about the negatives, still drying in the shower.

Disneyland and Universal Studios... if the TV has taken the place of the family shrine, then these sites are the religious pilgrimages of our day, the lands of the gods where we can pose with Mickey and SpiderMan, the untouchable and fictional made (at least momentarily) flesh.

Of course, when the real gods appeared at Disneyland for the premiere party of Pirates of the Caribbean, the faithful were shuttled to one side, allowed to cheer the gods' entrances at a distance, then expelled quickly from the park. It is not for mortals to see Darryl Hannah riding Indiana Jones, save through the channelling mediator of a TV camera.

Posted June 30, 2003 | Comments (2)

People, Places, Things

In reading Bill Jay's and David Hurn's On Being a Photographer, I was struck by Hurn's comments about shooting many photos of a static subject, but fewer of a moving one, which was much harder to get balanced and well-formed for the camera.

Static subjects with lots of subtle variation — perfect for consumer digicams with their low cost-per-frame and inability to react quickly.

For moving, living subjects, regardless of the camera type, very often you get one shot and after that forget it. Frustratingly, consumer digicams are crappy at exactly this situation. In stead of one shot, you get zero shots. The solution? Pretend the problem doesn't exist.

There's even a tacit admission of this notion in a recent Olympus digicam advert, showing a shot from A Day in the Life of Africa and the photgrapher being quoted "please just stay right were you are for another second...."

The shot is completely empty, of motion, just a single figure standing at the corner. What was he waiting for? There can only be one possible answer: he was waiting for the camera to turn on.

Consumer digicams are perfectly capable of taking terrific pictures. Here are many, taken by Bee (mostly digicam shots, anyway). Heck, I've even made a few okay ones here and there myself. But it's surprising to me how the photos that are difficult to make with such cameras, nearly impossible sometimes, are passing out of vogue with nary a whisper.

As a small example, let's look at RussCam, one of my favorite photoblog sites. Dig around on RussCam — there's lots to like.

Compare older images like this one, shot on 35mm, with series like these. The later photos have quietly adopted the conventions of the consumer digicam — not just the 4::3 aspect ratio, but the longer lenses, static subjects, electronically-balanced color, and lots of macro.

What the new photos lose a grip on is spontaneity, the sort of you-can't-make-this-stuff-up chaos found in much of the best film-and-mechanics photography. I don't mean to be picking on Russ alone here, because it's a pattern I've been seeing propogated across the web.

Photographers are being incresingly disconnected from the unpredictable nature of people, & shooting more and more Things. A photo culture based on Things is crucially advantageous to the Photo Marketing Industry, of course — more megapixels, longer zoom lenses, closer macros, these are quantifiable attributes that have come to define "quality" for many photographers of Things, and these are qualities that you can buy. Qualities that can't be handily quantified, that can't be made into a feature for the general consumer — are ignored. Thus we still haven't seen a consumer digicam that is instant-on, or one with a genuine wide-angle lens, or one that can be set manually for quick, close-in shooting where the interaction betyween the photographer and the choatic unpredictable world of unposed and unprepped People is in full force.

Things are the easiest kind of photo, and Places — likewise static, likewise amenable to the quantitative attributes of camera manufacturing — are not far behind (though usually the genre mannerisms are stricter). Is it any surprise that in the past decade most stock photo houses have simply stopped accepting new landscape photos? Or that royalty-free catalogs are stuffed with generic colorful hills of Provence and Tuscany, black-contrasty graphic outlines of the Eiffel Tower and proud green night shots of Lady Liberty, with or without fireworks?

So many photoblogs and other photo sites have "About" pages, which begin with some variation of "I'm no professional photographer, but..."

...which I so often feel compelled to complete: "...but my thoughts have been completely pre-coded and locked-up by advertising and mass media, just like a pro."

"Professional" photography has its own suite of concerns. The needs and desires of the purchasers of "professional" photography — the clients, the happy wedded couples, the aspiring models and actors — have over-riding concerns that inherently co-opt the purposes of the photograher. The photographer is paid — is made "professional," according to the standard definitions — because she is renting-out her eye, her expertise, and her ability to make pictures that whose purposes and subjects are defined by someone else. Pros do it for money, and maybe squeak-through some art and entertainment value for themselves on the side (one recalls Leo Burnett's famous dictum at his advertising agency: "Anyone wins a Clio, they're fired!" because Burnett knew his business was not the creation of art awards, but the selling of soap and cigarettes).

If you are not a professional, and don't harbor fantasies of using your web site to become a professional, I challenge you: don't shoot like one. Chances are, it will only make you look impoverished or foolish.

Why is far more important than How in photography, despite the admonitions of journals like Popular Photography (which is in the business of selling magazine advertising space to Sigma and Nikon, not in the business of developing photographers or portfolios).

If it's your website, take a chance and make it yours. Let the question of why be one that you can answer from the heart, not from emulation of something you saw in a magazine or at a camera club.

If you can honestly answer why to yourself, your photography will have improved tenfold over what it was before, because suddenly you will be free to make pictures for your own satisfaction. Even if, once you have a grasp on your own desires, they lead you directly to the purest sort of chocolate-box photography. At least it's your box. Bon appetit!

Posted June 25, 2003 | Comments (7)

Lay of the Land

Photoblogs are all the rage and while journos are busy smugly comparing them to "Walker Evans and Nan Goldin rolled together on your computer screen," the articles seem little more than catalogs, lists of someone's favorites from an afternoon sweeping of the blogroll links on photojunkie or maybe a swipe through the top tops on photoblogs.org.

In the websphere outside the blogiverse (extending our methaphors as broadly as possible), the last few years have seen the blossoming of the PAW meme, or Picture A Week, started by Kyle Cassidy and spread outwards from the LUG to all corners of online photography.

Finally there's no shortage of other personal photo collections and galleries that are neither plogs or PAWs but simply photos collected and shown on their makers' various sites — some for commercial purposes, some simply to share snaps of Whiskers and Mittens with the granchildren. And most to inhabit the spaces between. You know the ones: "I'm not a professional photographer, but here are my shots of the Taj Mahal and a sunset over the Willamette Bridge..."

While a few attempts have been made to catalog all of these sites, let's face it — it's a fool's errand, especially when there are so many, and so little information to go on about them. And the notion of any critical voice is entirely absent — thousands of sites, each going their own merry ways and so many of them aspiring to the most banal sorts of chocolate-box imagery.

For all these reasons and more, I've decided to start PhotoRant. PhotoRant will take names and taunt the guilty, with a liberal dose of praise for those who rise to deserve it. You have been warned.

Posted June 23, 2003 | Comments (1)


Before PhotoRant.

That would be ProtoRant!

Posted June 22, 2003

Paper Trade

See the many nice things I do for you. I have given you many hours of wonder, and a reason to visit your library many times over. Here's a list compiled by folks on the StreetPhoto mailing list:

Robert Adams The New West
Eugene Atget Pioneer
Harvey Benge A Guide to Modern Living
Henri Cartier-Bresson HCB and the Artless Art
Larry Clark Teenage Lust
Bruce Davidson Central Park
East 100th Street
Roy De Carava A Retrospective
William Eggleston Los Alamos
Elliot Erwitt Personal Exposures
Walker Evans Cuba
Huger Foote My Friend from Memphis
Robert Frank The Americans
Lee Friedlander Letters from the People
David Hurn &
Bill Jay
On Being A Photographer
William Klein William Klein, photographs, etc...
Josef Koudelka Exiles
Danny Lyon Pictures from the New World
Mary Ellen Mark Passport
Jeff Mermelstein Sidewalk
Ray Metzker City Stills
Joel Meyerowitz &
Colin Westerbeck
Bystander: A History of Street Photography
Boris Mikhailov Salt Lake
Hasselblad Award
Gilles Peress Farewell to Bosnia
Telex Iran
Sylvia Plachy Signs and Relics
Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour
Marc Riboud Photographs at Home and Abroad
Eugene Richards Below the Line
Dorchester Days
Stephen Shore American Surfaces
Alex Webb Hot Light Half made Worlds
Under a Grudging Sun
Garry Winogrand 1964
Figments from the Real World
Man in the Crowd
Tom Wood Bus Odyssey

Suggestions welcome....

Posted June 18, 2003 | Comments (1)

Almost Made It, Part II

Spending this morning putting the last touches on my taxes, almost filed months ago. Had to wait until now to get a response back. Oops. Forgot my W-2's and discovered to my dismay that I'm subject to AMT as well. So adios, big fat refund (leaving behind a rather more-svelte refund).

Also waiting by the mailbox for the latest Contax-G print exchange, even as I've signed-up for the next print exchange. Only this time, I actually know what I'm sending, well-before the September (!) deadline.

If there's any time left after that stuff and getting into the office (long day today, stretching into the evening and up to San Francisco), I hope to fix some of the whacked formatting I left behind on the site while enabling a links and journal archive page yesterday. My apologies if everything looks whacked today... totally screwing-up your site is a great way to learn CSS, I hear.

Posted June 17, 2003 | Comments (0)


I should have seen it coming. Come to think of it, I did.

Differences between camera brands are usually trivial. Differences between camera types can be more-profound. The jobs done by Leicas are generally different from those performed by 8x10 view cameras. No doubt 8x10 shooters often long for the fluid easy handling of Leica, while some Leica shooters wish they could dependably make 12-foot prints. A tool for the task.

So too digicams, and when I got my G1 its character immediately became plain. It lends itself to shooting static, oversaturated and motionless scenes, framed in the LCD. The twisting screen lets you shoot overhead and underfoot, providing some interesting angles without ladders or back strain. It's cheap to operate. The autofocus is dominant, hard to control save to let it do its standard thing. The lens is a zoom and the bias is toward telephoto, not wide angle. The wide end is distorted and not very useful. The camera is light, easy to carry. It's also slow between shots and before shots. G1 or G5, the character is much the same. Looking right or left to cameras like the Nikon or Olympus doesn't vary the path much.

So immediately it was obvious what sorts of photos such a digicam would excel at: still lifes, posed family snaps, anything that didn't move a lot and that worked best in color. I figured an aesthetic would grow around those characteristics, as it would about the different sorts of shots one might make holding the camera at arm's length staring at a 2" rectangle versus the sort one might make holding it to your eye.

As I spent time with it I cam to realize just how many picture I could not make with it, and started migrating back to 35mm. The digicam still lingers on, but it didn't replace the 35's.

What's happened across the net, however, is that the shots that are easiest on a digicam — the most pastcardish and predictable — are exactly the shots that get lauded the most. I would expect this from the camera club crowd, but I've been surprised to see it increasingly from people whose works were the antithesis of this.

The internet, I've come to realize, fuels ignorance through its very success.

Posted June 16, 2003 | Comments (0)

Crazy Eights

Spent two days in San Francisco but did little shooting, other than of the distracted-tourist variety. I've got five rolls in the "pending" box, so I guess I shot something.... but really it's next to impossible to go out for shooting and something else. Shooting and shopping, shooting and chasing kids or going to restaurants, they're basically not going to work. It's basically a lone-hunter sort of activity, and hard to coördinate with other people in a group, except to say "I'll meet you at the corner in a bit" before wandering off across the street. But this weekend, that was okay, there were other fish to fry, people to see, curry to eat.

I'm sure Courtney will recap the highlights of the friends we visited, the foods consumed, the shows seen. She probably won't mention the copy of William Mortenson's 1934 Projection Control that I found on Irving Street, or the Huizinga 1938 Homo Ludens, or that I finally re-finished Barthes's Camera Lucida, which I'd slept through at CalArts. All good stuff — even brilliant, but in the end, the image I'll carry inside me from the weekend will just be playing cards with Courtney & the kids while we awaited our plate of pad thai for dinner. A little slice of happy connectedness, ephemeral and yet the most lasting father's day gift I could hope for.

Posted June 15, 2003 | Comments (1)


"Don't you already have enough pictures of me?"

Of course the answer is no. Or is it yes?

I have pictures of you. But none of them contain the true subject shared by all photographs. The true subject of all photographs is today. And because this photograph, the one I've yet to make, has today in it, those other photographs can't possibly be of you — only of skins you have already shed.

Posted June 14, 2003 | Comments (0)

Xor Gates

If I handle a couple dozen strobe voltage test reports a day for the next week or so, I should eventually be caught up.

I've switched the digicam stuff to my XP-based machine, and then mount the directories from Mac OSX for Photoshop work. It's a much faster way to work than I had initially anticipated! I should move the scanner over there too. Then I can scan and do other useful work simultaneously. Best of both worlds?

Posted June 13, 2003 | Comments (0)

Back to Japan

For a few days anyway.

I'll be speaking at CEDEC 2003 - the CESA Developers Conference — in September.

CE?EC2003/講演者決s? Gives the details (don't you just love how American browsers mangle Japanese text?).

Posted June 12, 2003 | Comments (0)

Link Rust

I've been scrubbing. Not my home (though maybe I should), but my home page. Touchups, tuning, correcting crosslinks from finchnest.com, re-filtering the old guestbooks, splitting-off old entries, and trying to catch-up on un-replied correspondence.

"Link rot" is the term for old links to pages that no longer exist — maybe "link rust" should be for pages that are used every day but are overdue for polishing, even as new content is waiting? I've got over 150 updates pending in my inbox just for the strobe voltage page. Agggnhh.

Posted June 10, 2003 | Comments (0)

Cut & Paste

Why this is major news is beyond me, but CNN is reporting via Reuters that the old TV series V is in for a remake. Ungh. One supposes they will say that Osama is a lizard now, or some similarly-pandering "deep" metaphor. Big deal?

What's annoying to me is that a search of the web still doesn't show just how much of the original pilot mini was straight-lifted from Bertolt Brecht's little-seen play The Private Life of the Master Race (aka Fear and Misery of the Third Reich)

A few years back I was rabidly attacked by a certain Warner Bros' producer for saying this in an online forum, an ongoing barrage of threatening emails until I finally had to contact Brecht's estate. How dare I impugn the literary majesty of the author of V, who had already said that he was inspired by Sinclair Lewis, not some foreign-refugee upstart?

Still today, one is hard-pressed to find the names "Kenneth Johnson" and "Brecht" on the same web search, save on Amazon.com's German site (where the audience is far more likely to have ever heard of Furcht und Elend im Dritten Reich). But not here in the good ol' US of A, no sir. We only credit lifts from Amurrican writers 'round here.

Posted June 09, 2003 | Comments (0)


Almost Monday and time for another Streetphoto Salon. This week I actually had a photo at the ready, shot just a day or two before the announced theme: Reflection.

I must admit to feeling a bit awkward, having approached the theme in what looks like a straightforward, literal manner. Still this one does contain a bit of the layering of images and images of images that I seem to like these days, not far from the "palindrome of indirectness" I made for John B's Shell Game.

Honestly, the photo isn't entirely made of reflections. It's a multiple exposure of different reflections. No intrusive Photoshopping — it's all there on the negative — but not as it appears at first glance.

And no, it's not the photo on the right. Surprising myself, it's yet another color shot. You'd think this ambiguity schtick would always lends itself to black and white....

Tip of the week: Yevgeny Mokhorev

Posted June 08, 2003 | Comments (0)

Money or Goodwill? Choose Money

So FOXNews.com is deflating another Big Story, namely the Keanu Reeves "big giveaway," which they claim was simply an invention of the British tabloid press.

Guess we can all go back thinking Keanu's an overpaid block of wood masquerading as an actor, rather than a misguided but bighearted benevolent force.

Posted June 07, 2003 | Comments (0)

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Criminal

As long as we're on the subject of Merton, how about Strain Theory?

Sociologically, Strain Theory divvies-up the population along two primary axes. Merton theorized that most everyone has the same goals and desires, but unequal means to achieve them — and that these disparities lead to different strategies in lifestyle. The two axes are both related to individuality. One axis is the individual's acceptance of society's general suite of goals, the other axis is that person's access to the standard socially-prescribed means to achieve those goals. Division by these axes leads to five possible groupings:


By far the largest group are the conformists, those who accept the general goals of the society and also the prescribed means to achieve them (get a job, solid "B+" average). At the opposite quadrant are those who lack the means and do not share the goals — the retreatists (think Amish, hippie commune-dwellers, or loners of various sorts) and the rebels (who instead of giving up, are busy attacking both the goals and means with replacements of their own devising). Ritualists give up on goals but just carry on, while innovators go after the generally-shared goals through non-standard means.

Criminologists have latched-onto Merton's little graph not because they care about Rebels, but because they worry about innovators as a threat to the general well-being. In the criminologist world, innovators include those who are willing to follow "non-standard" means to the accepted goals — robbing, killing, extorting, etc. are all non-standard "innovative" approaches.

So in this sort of view, innovation is the very wellspring of social deviance. Bad, bad, innovation.

Deuce of it is, innovation is also where the best art comes from. To retreat is to give up, to rebel is to make art that has no audience and is incomprehensible; to ritualize is to reduce art to mechanism, to craft bent to serve the goals of someone else, say a studio or newspaper; and to conform is of course the Lingering Death — the cliché kittens, fluffy clouds, mountains, macro flowers and butterflies, naked chicks stretched across driftwood, starkly-graphic details of the industrial world, sand dunes against a crystal-blue sky, leaping dolphins, etc etc ad nauseum. All art that was once innovative (say, in 1924) and is now safely within the school of "I know this is good art because it looks like other art I've seen that was good."

According to my deviant reading of Artistic Strain Theory, then, only in innovation can one hope to truly acheive the general goal (at the risk of getting skewered by the decon crew, we'll call it "beauty") without being lost in the conformist swamp. Yet to do so is to create an affornt to the conformists, to be, in their words, deviant even as you use your deviance to beat them at their own game.

At least, that's the theory.

Posted June 03, 2003 | Comments (1)

Mr Merton is the Subject of My Sentence

Social scientists, take note:

King Lear had three daughters. Nothing but trouble.

Now Keanu Reeves has reportedly Lear'd the special effects business: Hello magazine reports that he's giving away £50 million of his reported £70million take on the two Matrix sequels, by redistributing the 50,000 large to "29 whiz-kids" in the effects and costume departments.

The recently-deceased Robert K. Merton wrote a great deal about unintended consequences and their causes. I'd put Keanu as a mix of causes #1 and #3 — mostly #3, the "imperious immediacy of interest."

Reeves intends to make life more fair by spontaneous redistribution, but there were literally hundreds of people who worked on those films. If Keanu divides equally, an outcry will come from those who feel that they were not counted. If he divides unequally, there will be an outcry from those who feel that the animators were slighted, or the stuntmen, or the makeup people — even if the recipients merely turn the cash around to distribute (potentially equally... how to measure?) among their own staffs.

Such gestures, while "cool" at a superficial level, often collapse into a morass of conflicted values and contrary notions of entitlement. The people who worked on the Matrix films did so voluntarily, and with a known set of goals (including their paychecks). By dropping £1,750,000 checques onto the heads of a few, a cycle of finger-pointing and resentment over "undeserved" gains and/or slights is the likely result. A few will escape happily, I hope.

Posted June 03, 2003 | Comments (0)

Gated Community

Three rolls Delta 400, 11.5 mins @ 20C Xtol 1::1. Mixed at 24C, brought the temperature down by tossing some ice cubes in a baggie and floating it in the already-diluted Xtol.

Yesterday afternoon I spooled about 20 rolls of Delta from a 100' bulkroll — as I was cranking along, I read the Ilford label for the box, which recommended Xtol 1::1 for Delta 400 at no speed slower than ISO 500... 13 mins @ 20C. Hmmm, wonder why they don't like Xtol?

When I was living in Marin, I started work on a collection of photos of the Golden Gate bridge. Shot quite a few. My thought was to do something faintly echoing Hiroshige's 36 Views of Fuji. One or two "straight" shots of the bridge itself, and all the rest photos of the city and countryside surrounding it, with the bridge merely a constant presence. The I moved to Hawaii and had to set this project aside.

In the meantime, what appears in the bookstores but Golden Gate by Richard Misrach. For a while, I feared that his book (and show) were exactly what I had planned — I've since discovered differently, even as I've returned to Northern California.

It's natural to want to complete this project, though my photography is now in a very different ideological place. The greatest change w.r.t. my initial charter has been the growth of a deeper understanding (or belief that I have one, anyway) in the way Hiroshige was able to use Fuji-yama as a universal symbol of Japanese-ness. I began to see, in a less-than-superficial way, that Hiroshige's illustrations were not of Fuji, but under the eye of Fuji.

I also came to question the role the Gate has. While physically imposing, a common iconographic symbol for the bay, what does the Gate represent? A tourist attraction, a real estate boon to Southern Marin, a tax harbor and absurd privilege to members of the bridge commission, tempting terrorist target? Is that what I want to accomplish, to celebrate, to reveal?

I'm still interested in the idea of this project, but even as the questions become sharper the answers recede.

Posted June 01, 2003 | Comments (0)


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