Thunder Mountain

Before this past trip I hadn't been to Disney World since... well, I'm guessing 1975 or so. When I was a kid we went as a family at New Year's, with K.C. and the Sunshine Band playing a show in Tomorrowland. The Magic Kingdom, as recall, was still unfinished, and the Big Feature of the place was Space Mountain — a ride you couldn't get at Disneyland (even then, the traffic was backed up for over a mile before 9AM at the gate!).

The place has grown... a bit. Over 24,000 hotels rooms, and it's not uncommon to have close to 120,000 visitors in a day — most of them travelling by foot. Even the cruise ship Disney Wonder carried over 2700 people, plus over 900 crew (the guests cleverly scheduled in groups so that you never get the impression that the ship is crowded, with almost no congestion save when boarding or debarking, or when a Disney character is in the atrium).

Rather than carry the Contax and the Canon, I alternated days. Magic Kindom Contax, MGM Studios Canon, etc. Still haven't decided if one or the other was better overall, though the Contax was far lighter than the Canon plus batteries. I also felt more compelled to be sure I got the shot, rather than just blasting and chimping.

Posted April 29, 2004 | Comments (0)

The Picture

Six rolls Tri-X, Rodinal 1+50 13 minutes.

A pair of children run headlong across my view, and their keeper shouts after them: "kids, you stop that! Can't you see the man is taking The Picture?"

I glance at him and gently shake my head with a smile: no problem. Another tip of the head to let him know the rest of the family can proceed, they've done no harm, even as the klaxons are sounding furiously in my head: Kevin you idiot, you've been sucked into taking The Picture again. I look at the shot I was setting up: late cerulean sky, distant shops, their lights reflected on the lake, a row of matching beach chairs. Balanced, placid. In a few seconds a canopied ferry will appear below the bridge. A speaker hidden in a rock nearby plays an instrumental medley of songs from The Lion King. It's all been laid out carefully for me, which is just the point. It's ready-made. The lake itself was sculpted by a design team. It's beautiful, but it's not really my picture. It's The(ir) Picture.

That's the nature of Disneyworld — it's all The Picture, the pre-planned, the obvious, the expected. This isn't to say it might not be beautiful, entertaining, or enjoyable. It's what you pay for when you get your Ultimate Park Hopper pass, when you register at the Disney resorts. It is everywhere colorful, clean, fresh-faced, friendly, and yes, very fun. There are no phone booths on Main Street USA, much less newspapers. Like nowhere else on the planet, in Disneyworld the random, unpredictable and sometimes unpleasant nature of the outside public world is banished. Even the long, sweaty queue snaking out of The Haunted Mansion is politely obscured by a shrub-covered berm.

Wherever you travel in the Realworld, there is also likely to be The Picture — that is, the photo that 95% of the visitors will return carrying, albeit with the addition of their relatives standing in from of it: Pier 39, la Tour Eiffel, The Gates of Graceland, Mardi Gras dancers in drag. If you haven't time or a camera, you can always find The Picture quickly in the local postcard vendors' racks — and beautifully realized it will be, often with a tinge of golden twilight or a bikini-clad woman who is likely to look a lot nicer dressed that way than your Aunt Audrey would have.

My usual policy, when travelling or otherwise, used to be to studiously avoid The Picture. Later, I decided that this was a poor choice — The Picture is always there while I'm trying to shoot, its siren song of temptation just out of frame. Now, when I see The Picture I'm usually quick to take it, to rob it of its allure, to psychologically kill it so that I can (hopefully) move on to something else, more subtle and closer to my personal perceptions.

Disneyworld overwhelms such a strategy. The Picture is everywhere. Before we left, I was counselled by Conrad to return with photos of "All the dusty crummy corners that Mickey doesn't want you to see." Guess what? There are none. Along the International Walk at Epcot alone, there are perhaps dozens of Kodak "Picture Spot" markers (Courtney has been collecting them). Sorry Rad, but it's all surface, all visible, all predictably un-crummy.

The changeable part is what's not owned by Disney: the park guests. The mix is different from "real" streets or malls, but the crush of it is surprising. So many people, and yet so little time to shoot the throngs of happily tired parents and exhilarated, tugging kids — even as two of mine are yanking at my shirttails, urging me in the direction of the nearest collectables shop.

Posted April 27, 2004 | Comments (1)

Simple Tools

Three rolls Tri-X, Rodinal 1+50, 13 minutes.

So after much anxiety in the end it'll be the DSLR with a minimal complement of lenses and a film rangefinder loaded with Tri-X for this trip — enough is enough (besides, Courtney will bring her camera, and we have the DVcam). Using the Contax over the weekend reminded me just how much more fluid and easy it is to handle than the digital. It also hammered home to me just how crudely abstract Tri-X and Rodinal can feel after many weeks of smooth, digital color. Which is a good thing.

Off to Florida and the Caribbean for a week, then — we leave the house and web in the able hands of the fantastic Elke.

Posted April 14, 2004 | Comments (3)

Winner Take All

Three rolls Tri-X, Rodinal 1+50, 12:45.

Mason Resnick, who put together the now-fairly-dormant website Black and White World, is today busy as managing editor over at Popular Photography & Imaging Magazine. This month the magazine contains a feature on Street Photography. As a web-only extra feature, Mason sent out a short questionaire to the featured photographers — the answers amount to a set of short interviews with nine street snappers (Mason included himself in their number). Among the nine were two from the StreetPhoto mailing list — its founder John Brownlow (who also included a pitch for Bee in his answers) and John Beeching. All of the rest, save Resnick himself, were photographers whose work can be found on

One question in the interviews concerned sales. To no great surprise, there's not much of a market for street and urban photography, even as the prices of prints by shooters like Diane Arbus and (not really a street shooter, but how would you describe him?) Andreas Gursky go through the ceiling. Everyone in Pop Photo's list was subsidizing their "real" photography through other jobs, ranging from photojournalist to courier to screenwriter. The few people who were actually selling (a few) street photos seemed to be doing so entirely through's visibility.

The art market, in economic terms, is almost always, as economist Robert Solow pointed out in 1993, a winner-takes-all tournament. In a winner takes all market, a slight relative edge at the top can make a huge difference in final compensation. The Olympics do not reward fourth place with a medal.

Last year the EP and APA held a seminar called The War Against Photographers. One of the panelists, photographer Jeff Sedlik (a past APA president) reminded the attendees that only the profession of "artist" is typically prefaced with the adjective "starving."

The reward (and incentive) of being tournament champion, if you can live that long, may be great — the rewards for the vast number of also-rans is miniscule to non-existent. Artists end up subsidizing their own work through "real" jobs, inheritance, a tolerant spouse, etc. They may even subsidize the art they admire this way — as I recall Joel Meyerowitz, when he appeared on NPR's Fresh Air radio program, stated that most of his print sales were in fact to other photographers.

In contrast, there are few starving lawyers, few starving systems analysts or truck drivers or cardiologists. Some say it's just a matter of artists being unable to market their work. But the tournament for attention has a more profound limiting factor — attention itself. The public doesn't really want a suite of Tom Cruise-like actors, they just want Tom Cruise, for good or ill. No understudies.

The web, with its search engine driven economy, also has its tournament — a top Google rating. Poke "Street Photography" into Google and pops up right at #2 — #1 for "'street photography' sales" — combined with its high standards, it's no surprise that it's been a source of print sales for the artists there. John Brownlow rates further down the search page (and Botzilla has to dawdle on page two).

Many of these issues have been speculated upon by economists, but there is at least one economist who is also an artist: painter and photographer Hans Abbing is also a professor of economics in the Netherlands. His book Why Are Artists Poor? should be required reading in art schools.

Google postscript: Botzilla hits #1 for "'street photography' salon" — woohoo! You know where to send the checques.

Posted April 11, 2004 | Comments (1)

One Thing After Another

In yesterday's entry, about (among other things) the documentary Good Morning Afghanistan, I didn't mention a minor character who appears on the scene a couple of times: Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has split the country in two yet again with his recently-declared "North Zone of Afghanistan." Dostum is as deserving of contempt as any of the various parties in a state of continuing war in Afghanistan, right alongside charmers like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the warlord most-responsible for the current state of Kabul (most of the city reduced to piles of tan brick).

I noticed Dostum, but didn't mention him yesterday because it wasn't significant to my point. But today he's at it again, as this Reuters story, dated today tells — he's sent his personal army into the city of Maimana, to take authority of the provincial captal away from the federal authorities. So the Karzai government, US-installed and US-backed, is facing a more open form of regional, tribal rebellion than ever before — it's just like old times, with many of the same characters (as Hekmatyar taunts from the Pakistani frontier sidelines, perhaps in the company of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden).

Oh, did I say... "US-backed"? What was I thinking? Where the heck is this story on CNN, or Fox, or MSNBC? There are no sports stars of celebrity couples to be found in a backwater like Maimana. LA Times? Nope. NYT? Fuggedaboutit. AP has the story too, but no one in the US seems ready to run a story about yet another failure to "bring democracy to the region." Nothing to see here, move on.

I'm starting to worry about looking at tomorrow's media, if this pattern keeps up.

Posted April 08, 2004 | Comments (0)

Wake Up Call

Yesterday I intended to write about some vague notion connecting suburban anthropology and focal lengths. It'll have to wait — a day of illness knocked me down and I barely left the house.

I did have the computer around though, and between working on some 3D models I got a chance to look at the April issue of The Digital Journalist, which contains a few items about the new New York Times contract for freelancers. As recounted in the American Socitety of Media Photographers analysis and the letter to NYT from freelancers who say they cannot sign the new contract, the basic consensus for most shooters is clear: the contract simply appropriates all value for NYT and leaves the photographers with all the expenses and legal liabilities. Great. Editorial Photographers, mentioned here only one entry ago, has also entered the fray, urging its members not to sign.

And staffers at companies like NYT, who make more than freelancers, have got to be watching their backs now too. The future for them looks grim. Read Greg Smith's core article to work-out the numbers for yourself.

Smith asks: "Will visual news reporting become the province of hobbyists, thrill seekers, status hounds and people who don't know how to watch out for their own interests — let alone those of their readers and viewers?" This question immediately reminded me of an hour-long French documentary I'd seen just a few days ago on Link TV, titled Good Morning Afghanistan.

Good Morning Afghanistan, as the LinkTV blurb states, recounts the story of "a journalist thrown into extraordinary circumstances" — basically, he and his companions were riding in a taxi that made an unscheduled stop. They heard some gunfire and stumbled into the first hours of the Mazar-i-Sharif uprising. At the time they were virtually the only ones there to cover what eventually became a major story — including the public appearance the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.

The french journalist is Damien Degueldre, who was lucky enough to be accompanied by a veteran American freelancer, Dodge Billingsley, and Alex Perry, working for Time (Perry later became a public figure in India after publishing an unflattering assessment of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Perry's subsequent harrassment by Indian authorities). Damien met them in Uzbekistan. He had never used a video camera before. Before the war he worked for L'Oreal cosmetics. He wanted "to see real war." He and Dodge not only caught some amazing footage at Mazar, but they went on to win a Rory Peck Award and the Royal Television Society's Camera Operator of the Year with the Channel 4 doc incorporating this footage: House of War, later picked up by CNN.

The footage from the Quala-e-Jangi prison is rivetting, sometimes unbelieveable. Northern Alliance infantry blazing off RPGs for the sake of posing heroically in front of the camera (under fire, no less) — and at no target in particular. Dusty body parts strewn across the field, a hidden hand popping from a tree stump to spray machineghun fire all around. An airstrike — what do you mean we hit our own guys? And the Afghan fighters who survived laughing at each other's dirty faces and being quick to loot the fallen Taliban bodies. Brutish, chaotic, senseless, stupid — you can pick your adjectives, they all fall short. It's also tempting (and surely wrong) to look at the footage as a characterization of the entire war, depending less on what you see than on your political views already formed before watching it. It seems pointless to try and identify "good guys" from "bad guys."

The battle over, Degueldre et al cover a little bit more, including (unknowingly at first) the re-capture and interviewing of Lindh.

So at this point in the documentary, Degueldre has been out with his new camera for a whole week, has captured amazing stuff, and the next thing you know he's on the freelance payroll of "real" news organizations like the BBC. At which point, the crazy in-your-face footage promptly ends, replaced by what real news organization do: standups of staff journalists like the BBC's designated celebrity blogger, Angus Roxburgh, talking into the camera about events that happened in the past from some nearby safe location. Yup, he's there all right.

Degueldre certainly fits Smith's characterization of a "thrill seeker" and I don't know that he's done much news work after his stint at Mazar. He got lucky repeatedly — first by meeting-up with people who would guide him and keep him from getting killed; second by having their car stop accidentally at exactly the right (or wrong) place at the right time; third by not actually getting killed in some of those situations; finally by having people on hand who would buy his material and get him, eventually, out.

When given a "real" job, he photographs expected, unchallenging talking heads ("won't my mom be thrilled, I'm working for AP!"). Apparently talking heads are what real new organizations want — news driven by predefined media celebrities (I want Ollie North in Karballah, pronto!). Is it any surprise that they'd rather go for the cheap adventure seeker, rather than the six-figure staffer who's going to be raking-in overtime and danger pay for being where no fully-sane corporate employee ought to go?

There's little room for danger (or idealism) in a corporate media that's primarily concerned with making their product as simple as possible for the sake of providing lots of high-viewership, receptive advertising eyeballs.

A couple of years ago, we were hearing a lot about how 9-11 had inadvertantly breathed new life into photojournalism. Did it really? In retrospect, perhaps the lesson has been just the opposite. Though PJ-created, the amateur show Here is New York covered the attack as thoroughly as most any of the hundreds of professional PJs who were dispatched to Manhattan. Amateurs like Mike Schade were sending out in-depth coverage from their digicams that very day. From my distant home in Hawaii that morning, it was hard to get news — but I got shots in email, made by friends from their rooftops in Brooklyn.

Is it any surprise that orgs like NYT can see that they can harvest information from independants like Mike, or even Christopher Allbritton, far more easily than by sending a squadron of expensive staffers or even contract freelancers? And while they're at it, why not make the collected information their exclusive property, so that the corporation can leech value out of it for years to come?

I'm not even going near most of the question of "is photojournalism art?" except to say that to the corporate purchasers and licensing organizations, it is. It's "content," used to fill pages. Photojournalists, like artists, may be driven by a desire to make a living or by some arbitrary idealism, but in either case the chances are strong that their interests are not really coincident with the interests of the people who are distributing and selling their work, whether in a gallery or on page one.

Posted April 06, 2004 | Comments (1)

The Devil You Know

I'm hardly the only one struggling with the hidden expenses and travails of digital. Read this recent Digital Manifesto from Editorial Photographers. The very group whom camera companies love to promote as users of their top digital equipment are, in fact, getting powerfully squeezed as a result of that equipment. Or at least by people's attitudes about it.

There are a number of factors in play here, regarding the relationship of fee structures and technology. There's plenty of polarization in camps, plenty of confusion, and (as EP members have discovered) plenty of opportunity for abuse. Perhaps not surprisingly, these occurences are not new to other fields that have been diffused with digital technology.

As Paul Strassman has become famous in Information Technology circles for pointing out, digital technology alone does not make anyone more profitable or more productive. On balance, it may even be hard to economically justify the existence of the entire computer industry, in broad terms of enhancing the overall economy. His 1997 book, The Squandered Computer, brought many of these issues into sharp focus, though its message was (at the time) drowned-out by the dot-com boom (even as his message presaged the later dot-com crash).

Strassman (and other economists) asked: what's the Return On Investment (ROI)? Where's the beef? As Nobel winner Robert Solow observed: "We see computers everywhere but not in the productivity statistics."

Sure, individuals can make money from computers. Individual companies certainly can too, e.g. Microsoft or NVIDIA. Electronic media have let more money move faster (and sometimes all in one direction) than ever before. But has the economy really grown, or has the money merely shifted from one part of the economy to another?

In some cases, computers drive New Things, and from those New Things, real economic growth can occur — wealth can genuinely be created in a way that seems to defy thermodynamics. I think computer graphics is an example, especially real-time graphics. We did not have an art form like video games before. They produce money through a new desire from consumers, not just a shift of their time from watching TV to wiring-up the PC for a round of Unreal (though there's an element of that as well).

In photography, Photoshop created a new bubble of growth, with unprecedented flexibility in imaging. It's become a household verb.

But the rest of the photo industry — cameras and film, photographers and editors — have merely swapped one set of tools for another without fundamentally changing what they do. Magazines are still on a monthly schedule, printed to the same sizes. Ad rates are still based on readership and column size, not the machines used to deliver those ads. $14 a roll for Portra is a bit steep for casual pictures of your cousin and your cat, but for a shoot with a rented studio stage, a small squad of food stylists and makeup artists along with a model who's pulling in a five-figure fee for the gig, it's nothing.

Yet somehow digital has become required because it lets the deadlines be one day tighter, time that's likely taken up not by more precise work on the images (even with live preview), but simply to allow the sales people another day for expensed lunches with their clients. The days rates don't change, the talent fees don't change, the ad rates don't change, but the patterns of flow among those dollars are shuffled and diverted. Money that once went to film manufacturers and the local pro lab now go directly to the camera makers. The cumulative costs, once incremental from job to job, are now paid up front by photographers when they purchase a new camera body. So shooters have paid for their "film," for all possible jobs ever to be shot with a given digital camera, in advance.

At the same time, publishers see that photographers are no longer sending invoices from Ektachromes-R-Us, so they cut their payments. The guys at the magazine are all loyal consumers, and they know that thanks to digital, they've replaced their $200 SureShots with $300 PowerShots and stopped buying film. Digital photography is free, right?

At a certain level, you can't blame them. It's a time of rapid change and no one spends a lot of time thinking about what's the "right" way to do things. They use their own experience as a guide, though it's experience from a different set of circumstances. Further, the photographers are all freelancers and subcontractors anyway. The publishing house was bought-out in the late 90's by a dot-com that's now strapped for cash and dag-nab-it, somebody's got to tighten a belt around here. So the publishers don't see (or care) what the photographers' real internal costs are. So everyone charges blindly forward, hoping that the next generation of hardware won't leave them all out of fashion and penniless.

A few folks have big enough names to bypass this — they know that what sells is their imagery and (if they're lucky) their byline attached to it. While some of the Digital Converted might think this is all an unfair bias by editors, I think more likely it's just common sense on the part of the people involved. They are established, they know what they do. Turning their process upside down, when it's already successful, is unlikely to magically improve it and may well kill the goose for the sake of someone else's golden egg. Film doesn't really cost much, especially if you know those photos don't need to be on the New York editor's disk server by 7PM tonight. You can concentrate on the real expenses, and the real issues of making the pictures. For what it costs for Sabastaio Salgado to fly to Indonesia and Brazil from Paris just once, how many rolls of Tri-X can he consume?

Posted April 04, 2004 | Comments (4)

Mass Storage

So in a few days we're off for a family trip and the storage issues have become something of a headache. Shooting RAW mode, I can easily burn through a CD's worth of storage every day — on a busy day, I can shoot a lot more than that (or a CD+ of JPEGs). Add two more cameras for Rebecca and Courtney, and it looks more and more like I'll end up spending an hour every day of the trip burning CDs (to say nothing of charging batteries), which means carrying a laptop in addition to my kit bag, and all of it hand-carried through multiple airports. Normal enough for a commercial trip, but for a vacation? I thought there was supposed to be some "fun" involved (wonder if there's electrical power on the flights...).

The alternative, ironically, is to progress backwards and shoot film, which is easier to stock-up in bulk, doesn't need a laptop, but will require time later for processing, scanning, and potentially printing and spotting. It's tempting to bring both Contaxes as backups/overflow for the digitals (which was absolutely necessary on my last trip to London — the CF cards filled fast) — even if I were willing to drop a few hundred $ on extra CF cards. So much for the cheaper digital Promised Land.

Posted April 03, 2004 | Comments (5)

Optimistic Requiem

Some time ago I'd mentioned David Pye's The Nature and Art of Workmanship, a book recommended to me w.r.t. photography but which I felt has far-reaching consequences throughout all creative, information-intensive endeavors. It's actually a follow-on to a 1964 book titled The Nature of Design (in fact in it he hints at the later book to come, writing in the final pages: "there is no space here to write what needs writing about workmanship...").

Today we've been discussing upgrades and rewrites and redesigns, the advent of the next generation of graphics hardware, algortihms, and paradigms. Great, amazing stuff, to follow (and eventually bury) the great, amazing stuff that's already been accomplished. We collect our facts, our task plans, our AI's and PORs; scratch our heads wondering "how will we ever get this finished?" But really, is it ever finished? Has software ever been finished?

Pye writes, in the days before lasers, desktop computers, or anyone had bothered coining terms like "software engineering," "use cases," or "design patterns":

Nothing we design or make ever really works. We can always say what it ought to do, but that it never does. The aircraft falls out of the sky or rams the earth full tilt and kills the people. It has to be tended like a newborn babe. It drinks like a fish. Its life is measured in hours. Our dinner table ought to be variable in size and height, removeable altogether, impervious to scratches, self-cleaning, and having no legs. The motor car ought to stop dead, and no one in it thrown forward, in the same instant that you press a button. We cannot console ourselves with the belief that such things are impossible. Who would have ever believed that a child could light a whole room by moving its finger?

Never do we achieve a satisfactory performance. Things simply are not 'fit for their purpose.' At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery, and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose yet. Every thing we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But even at that we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance we will have it in appearance.

Posted April 01, 2004 | Comments (0)


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