A Kind of Blindness

Current listening: "Nightingale" by Yoshikazu Mera, whose voice anime fans would recognize from his melancholic rendition of the title theme from Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime. The album is subtitled "Japanese Art Songs," and is something of a rarity here: just voice and piano accompaniment in a Swedish recording of contemporary Japanese kunstlieder. It is at once close to the heart of conservative music and yet bold and expressive in its realization. For all the admiration I have for brilliant arrangements on a large and complex scale, whether it be a Kid Koala scratch track or Beethoven's magnificent Ninth, there's still nothing more expressive than the direct voice. Simple clarity. Eminem exagerrates (duh): "nobody listens to techno" but we know what he means.

I've been shuffling lots of digital pictures around lately, moving them from my space-strapped laptop to CDs as backups and also to one of the desktop machines. As long as I was rebuilding picture folders, last night I had Photoshop bulk-duplicate several of them in monochrome and ran the results as a slideshow for a while. The result surprised me.

Almost without fail, the b&w versions were as good as , and in most cases better than, the color originals. This surprised me? Yes, because I've grown increasingly used to shooting in color. Those photos had been intended as color photos. But genuinely, what I was shooting were images that gained more from their shape than their color — more from a face's expression than its complexion. I hate to make sweeping generalizations, but here goes anyway: In its simplicity, b&w expresses more directly than color.

The elements seen at the moment of shooting, I'm becoming convinced, are better-represented in the b&w. Snapping at faces, at people in motion, really does seem better suited to rods rather than cones, at least for my eye. To give in to that quick, impulsive response is to ignore the color — to blind myself so that I can see.

The photos where color is significant are always slower, even to the speed of landscape. In a few cases they add form where the grayscales have blurred, but it's only adding to an image that's first and foremost driven by its monochrome reading. As often as not the color seems to distract, unless color itself is a primary subject.


BTW, I recommend a visit to Ben Lifson's latest project.

Posted May 31, 2004 | Comments (6)

It's Good to be Anti-Social

I'm hardly the first person to observe the irony that novellists, whose stock in trade are observations of human behavior and character, work almost always alone (not counting corporate potboiler writers and their assistants, whom I'm reluctant to label "novelists"). So too street photographers of the portraiture variety.

A couple of nights ago I watched (again) Bruce Gilden on Egg. When Gilden talks it's all about people — yet he moves through the street alone, violates people's spaces, then carries on with a smile and a complement. Is it anti-social? Is it deeply social? Is it pretended intimacy, siezed before the subject can grasp what's going on, and pinned to the wall by Gilden's flash unit?

Gilden is comfortable with what he's doing ("if I'm not comfortable, I can't shoot," he says). He follows his instincts rapidly, and to do that he is free from distractions, very present in that 1/60th second moment shared by a passerby and his Leica. He is not open to conversation, he doesn't have an assistant or a companion who need to keep up or have things explained. He does not go on vacation, he goes to various places to make photographs. They are his experience of the world.

Other photographers who've described their encounters with him in Manhattan inevitably end their story of conversation abruptly, something like: "and then he saw something and ran off across the middle of the block." Anti-social? Hell yeah. And that's a good thing.

Of course, impulsive shooting can mean plenty of trouble, too. You're walking down the street in a group (co-workers, family, the police...), you see a shot, and off you go without informing or waiting for your companions. Now they are ticked off at you. Or you suppress yourself, don't get the shot for the sake of staying with them, and now you are annoyed, feeling constrained and claustrophobic, vidi interuptus. Or you start off and they call after you and now your subject is altered or destroyed and everyone is awry. Twitchy shutter fingers strain your relationships.

Walking around with other photographers is a useful alternative, if you have any handy — they understand the need to photograph based on what you see now. They can buy into the idea of "I'll meet you at the corner over there in five minutes." One is reminded of the many parallel walks taken in the 60's by Winogrand and Meyerowitz, happy to be anti-social together.

These thoughts come just after receiving a comment from James Luckett on the recent entry The 3 C's, particularly this passage:

photography is an immensely difficult thing to talk about, requiring time, patience and understanding. i've been working in this field for 18 years, 14 of those in school as a student and a teacher, and can mark on one hand the personally meaningful discussions i've had.

I don't know just how man non-meaningful discussions that means James has had, but let's say two per week for 14 of those years, that's only 1400 non-meaningful ones for, say, four really good ones. S/N of 1:350. That sounds pretty good to me!

I read a fair number of forums and discussion groups every day, and there are certainly plenty with a much, much lower signal-to-noise that 1:350, or even 1:1000. In other words, they are mostly crap.

When panning for gold, a lot of the process can be automated. Posts about equipment I don't have? In the trash. So long HP, sayonara Pentax, Tokina, and Sanyo... hey, that's 85% of most photo posts. Arguments about digital and film, "rules of composition," B&W or color... that's another 10% and now with 95% of the traffic gone that 1:1000 ratio's down to 1:50. Worth the trouble? It keeps me busy.

One idea, and I've tried working it into my own forum posts when possible, is trying to emphasize pictures over words. Every post has a photo, or a link to a photo. The goal is to keep your ideas visual. I've yet to see a forum successfully require pictures, though a low-traffic private list run by Sean Reid and Ben Lifson has come the closest, and despite difficulties it's been one of my favorites.

A good litmus of worthlessness in a forum, imo, is a focus on easy friendliness. It's a sure sign that they tolerate mediocrity easily and will be quick to praise the lamest of bird, flower, and adorable grandchildren sunsets. And the obverse can be the best indicator for a group where people are likely to actually get some value from inclusion: the group's anti-social nature.

Posted May 27, 2004 | Comments (16)

Stand-ups

A few weeks back I alluded in passing to my general contempt for the "stand-up" — a modern practice of TV "news reporting" where instead of actually showing you something revealing about a news story, the camera instead simply rests on the "on-air talent" while they stand in front of someplace where actual news and possibly reporting once took place (or maybe just nearby). This month's digitaljournalist has a story about one news shooter's experience doing stand-ups here in San Francisco. One local channel (probably others), our NBC affiliate, prides itself on LIVE stand-ups — each evening's 11 PM newscast is overloaded with reporters standing around in the cold night air, usually in front of a court building or other news-intensive locale that's been closed for five or six hours already.

It's hard to imagine the stand-up in any media other than television. Even the old movie newsreels didn't have it. The appearance and nightly re-appearance of the reporter-as-demi-celebrity is purely a television invention and it doesn't work anywhere else. No one writes a newspaper headline in first person. We don't open and close magazine stories with photos of the reporters and photographers. We don't care what they wear.

We don't see stand-ups much on non-western broadcasts, either — watching the edited daily feed from Arabic news TV, for example, we see coverage thankfully devoid of on-air "personality" and "talent." The camera does not linger on the correspondent's compassionate face as the actual subjects of news are speaking.

Only here, in the land where coverage of "Friends" is acceptable to the FCC as "news." The nightly presence of the good-looking non-participant celebrity is, in many ways, more important than the stories they cover. After all, the newscasts are almost identical from station to station — program managers know that on-air personality is the distinguishing feature that will give them differentiated market share. News Content is secondary.

In the earliest days of American movies, the producers tried to suppress the advent of recognizeable stars — they'd already seen the effects stardom had brought to live theatre, where shows could be labelled "BARRYMORE" across the top of the bill and you really didn't even know if old Maurice was doing Hamlet or some current melodrama. It didn't last, and before long we had the theatre folks moving in with America's Sweetheart and no looking back.

Today, when movie actors can be replaced with digital doubles with impressive fluidity, it's still the stars whose agents are pulling in a percentage of those eight-figure contracts plus points on gross. The artists and programmers who actually created every pixel? Salaried.

It's astounding to me how quick we are to attribute creativity to the face on the screen, even if that face's "owner" is actually absent. Years ago I tech-directed an animated music video for Mick Jagger. Within a day or two a review appeared in the supposedly media-savvy L.A. Times, praising Jagger for his skill as an animator. Urggg.

Games have seemed like a redoubt for animators — one really doesn't care that much about who supplies the voices for Unreal Tournament — Lara Croft and Gordon Freeman are "stars" whose incomes go back to the folks making the games, not toward building a grand house atop Mulholland for someone who only shows up for three weeks during a two-year production.

*BRRRZT!* Wrong answer. Thank you for playing. While franchises like DOOM and Half-Life keep moving, the gradual infestation of celebrity culture has been progressing steadily. At first it was sports figures, whose input might actually made some sense in evaluating game play, like Tony Hawk or Tiger Woods. When we play games like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter we expect to see the characters looking reasonably like the actors from those films. But now we have Vin Diesel telling the Wall Street Journal that he enjoys designing game levels, while The Olsen Twins are busy suing Acclaim for paying more attention to "boys' games" than to fine entertainments like Mary Kate and Ashley's Mystery Mall or Marty Kate and Ashley's Crush Course, where the goal of the game is to find out just who is admiring the adorably interchangeable celebrities.

Posted May 25, 2004 | Comments (0)

Problems Remain

This does seem to be the week for coincidences. Today the coincidences involve a collision between the recent entry Family, Immediate, and Lenswork magazine's site.

I was browsing Lenswork's forums and came across this post and its responses — obviously made at the same time (and by the same person) as this post on streetphoto. In both, Jason/Manic worries that if he buys a copy of Sally Mann's book Immediate Family, the police may show up at his door, sent by some conservative Bible-Belt neighbor, to arrest him for possesion of child pornography.

This was posted a month ago, and my answer seemed close to that of the rest of the list members:

"Bad enough if you shoot photographs while worrying about what other people might think.

"Far worse if you will only LOOK at photographs while worrying what other people might think."

When I read the Lenswork post, I was surprised to see the readers there seemed to have mostly very different reactions, such as: "goes too close to the line of being pornographic" (and quickly tossing Jock Sturges into the stew while they're at it). For a forum whose function is to hash-out issues of art photography, I felt I had had to respond: "it is absurd to be afraid to look at beautiful things."

What happened next was something of a surprise: a rather volatile response from editor Brooks Jensen against Mann's portraits of her children. Not for the typical conservative reasons of affront to public decency: "It's not about pornography or bigotry. It's not about politics. It's about trust and parenting and her crossing the line"..."her concerns about her career are more important to her than the concerns/welfare of her children." And that gave me a fair bit of crashing and colliding coincidental personal pause, because of an incident from just this morning.

Just before school, my son saw himself in the Family, Immediate photo and was upset — that I had made the photo while he was furious at his sister. It was not a photograph he wanted to see. And worse yet, I had put the photo on the web.

Now a photo of a scowl is quite a ways from a bookful of nude children, but it was defused in an instant: "look, it's a photo of you, but also your sister, your cousins, your auntie... see how the different expressions combine, how the spirits are high with different kinds of feeling? How your expression gives strength to the others by contrast?" and he walked away perfectly happy with that. I asked him again this evening, and he had been happy with the idea that his experience had found meaning (if not exactly in those words from him). Do Mann's children discuss these photos with her, with each other? Of course they do.

I was unaware of Sally Mann's work until it was pointed out to me about a decade ago, in comparison to shots I was making (like the one on the front page of Botzilla) of my own children. I was instantly in awe of her photos and could only feel that Mann had a great love for her children. I felt that she, like I, felt a large measure of awe herself — awe at the world that children inhabit, the freshness and tactility of it, the processes of discovery and fantasy and growth. These are themes that I find it hard to believe she would be connected to at the expense of her children — rather, they are shared.

Aperture in fact interviewed Mann's daughter Jessie, now grown, on this topic.

I was also surprised at Brooks's question: "What else do Sally Mann and Jock Sturges photograph other than naked children?" When in fact neither of them are very active in that direction at this point. Sally Mann, as documented here and here and here on PBS, has moved on to other, though similarly lyrical, subjects — most recently in her book and show, What Remains.

"I want people to have to accept the existence of beauty where they would never expect to find it," even "in death."

Jock Sturges, meanwhile, has been likewise busy with less-contentious photographs — the April 2001 B&W featured clothed, close 8×10 portraits of Irish children that in their immediacy are among the most beautiful photos I've ever seen. I have come back to them over and again.

Brooks opines (and this is troublesome): "there is an entire world out there just waiting to be photographed. Why choose an area that is so likely to be controversial?" Yet the subjects of life, change, beauty, harshness, physicality, mortality, and love — these are core elements to our existence, far more important than picturesque rocks and trees. They are awesome and terrible and beautiful. How could one possibly turn away from such things?

Is there shock value here? (Ref to Lenswork Quarterly #11, BTW)? Compared to the sort of shock value we see in advertising and news media, or deliberate attention-grabbers like Jeff Koons, well, no. Yet the shock is there, a shock at the realization of the raw immediacy of existence. In my mind, this is photography at its finiest — clutching at the ephemeral and momentary, writing it on the page to hold fast time.

Somewhere a decade ago, I read Sally Mann describing a few of the things she felt she had learned as an artist, and one was that "the rose is the most beautiful past the peak of its bloom, just touched by decay." The truth of this notion has stuck with me ever since.

Brooks asks: "If the children in all their photographs were fully clothed, would we still think they were interesting photographs?" I think the answer should be self-evident.

Posted May 20, 2004 | Comments (1)

A

Coupla days ago I was pointed at this old link on B&W World, in which Mason Resnick writes his recollections of a 1970's class with Garry Winogrand. A key lesson: "He told us that the most successful art is almost on the verge of failure." Not that anyone was asking me, but I couldn't agree more.

Winogrand also told his class that "without technique you won't get anything good," but it's sad when that fear of technical failure takes over — when people become obsessed with ensuring that every print have at least one point of full white and one of full black, or fretting over blocked-up highlights or maximum sharpness. Everyone obsessed with getting an A for craftsmanship, for managing-away all the elements of risk.

As camera companies are so happy to point out, technology is a powerful leveller when it comes to this sort of craftsmanship (though of course they want you to believe that that particular brand of automation is different from the others). To the dismay of many pro correspondants (and certain members of the Bush administration), well-exposed in-focus digitally-transmittable photos are the modern norm.

Setting-aside the issues of correct exposure and correct focus, however, we come to another barrier of correctness: good taste. The camera club aesthetic, where Ruskin's mythical Fesolé reigns supreme, where every element in every photo has its pre-ordained place, is one aspect. Over-emphasis on genre can become another — adherence to the definiton of the genre becomes a wedge of correctness between the artist and their response to subject (the most pernicious of these genre interferences, I suspect, are photomemes, a "creative" exercise that, like advertising, begins with a definition of the correct result).

In keeping with the graduation theme of the previous post, I take this passage (thanks Robert) from Sean Kernan's graduation address to the photo students of Rockport College:

"And, with luck, you'll have that wonderful experience that mixes epiphany with the moment in a roadrunner cartoon when the coyote runs off the edge of the cliff and out across the air and doesn't fall. The trick, if you're a coyote, is to deliberately not take it in that you're running on air...

"...When things really begin to happen, it can feel just like something is going badly wrong."

It's frustrating that schools (even art schools) can often suppress that search for the Terribly Wrong. In schools we are taught to be problem solvers, and as we advance we become both problem solvers and problem finders. Never problem makers. Yet it's just that skill which most needs an A grade.

Posted May 17, 2004 | Comments (1)

Family, Immediate

Many, many snaps. Many CDs + duplicates.

I've been logging my film processing here in the blog for months, but none of the digital shooting, despite the increasingly-large bulk of the latter. This has been a family weekend, with relatives visiting for the graduation of my sister from Law School. 357 frames yesterday, 238 frames today. Of course most of them are simple family shots, but here and there I got a chance to make a few "for me" — that is, shots that had no specific family interest, just events and strangers that struck me as photo-worthy. And many photos of the family.

The bright sunlight compelled me to use strobe for fill quite a bit — Canon's 550EX is really quite amazingly good at this, adding just a kiss of fill to bring the faces to the fore. We are so used to seeing photos like this in the media (especially in journalism), we rarely think twice about their lack of "naturalness" — perhaps because photos with bright, visible faces are graphically similar to how we perceive things psychologically — the faces are more luminous in our minds than in mundane reality.

Robert Adams, paraphrasing D.H. Lawrence, said that there is no sensual experience stronger than one in which we feel we are experiencing the truth. I often suspect the opposite is really the case — that our personal sensual experiences are satisfying because they are as True as we can possibly perceive them. Editing can destroy as well as enhance. In these hundreds of photos, cycling as a slideshow on my laptop, it seems so clear to me that the strongest ones are those where I just charged in and made the shot, without concern for formalities like graphic impact or interesting composition, nor worries about making sure everyone was looking forward or smiling. They are direct and impulsive, an impulse fueled by love of subject.

This morning before we went out for the day I found my dad at my desk, watching the cycling random slideshow of photos made just a handful of hours before. I saw him smile gently when a photo of my mom appeared. I'll take that as one of my favorite reviews, ever.

Posted May 16, 2004 | Comments (0)

The 3 C's, or: O.P.P.

On the BotzBlog link page, in the blog roll, you'll find the Three C's: Conscientious, Consumptive, and Coincidences; run by Joerg Colberg, James Luckett, and the slightly reclusive Robert Mirani respectively. They are the leaders in a form (also followed by some sites like Luis Forrolas's flux+mutability) that presents an alternative to sites about photo equipment — they are sites about Other People's Pictures. All of these sites have great photos — I mean great — every single day. Because they're OPP.

Here on Botzilla, I only run photos that I've made myself, with the single exception of a small copy of this photo by John Brownlow for the entry The Old Shell Game. I included it because it was part of the source material for this, one of my own photos.

"Aha," you are telling yourself, "now Bjorke's going to heavily dis these guys because they don't run their own photos." Not quite — in fact of of them occasionally run their own photos, or in the case of Luis, he maintains a parallel site of his own shots. Botzilla's method isn't the only valid one. I come not to bury (C)easar, but to praise him.

The 3C's are, in old-style blog tradition, filters — a way for you to find things of interest without having to, well, find them. And what's more, the C's are actually photography filters, a powerful corrective to sites like Mark Goldstein's so-called "Photographyblog.com" which earns it's ".com" tag by being a listing of other people's reviews of photo-equipment-marketing announcements. Photos of... cameras! Ungh.

I remember reading my photo history books, and lamenting with jealousy over my absence in the NY photo café' scene of the 1950's and 1960's — one can imagine the amazing converstaions when you read that Robert Frank used to show up at the same cafés as, say, W. Eugene Smith and Diane (and Allan) Arbus, when Elliot Erwitt would not think it unusual to run across William Klein at martini time. Lucky, lucky, lucky, couldn't they know how lucky they were to see Richard Avedon and Garry Winogrand working a few blocks apart and everyone (except Avedon) hoping Walker Evans could steer a little work their way?

Yet today we have the internet, and by comparison the 50's seem provincially isolated. Today I can get my photos seen and dismissed by some really world-class people whose opinions I respect, and in turn I can see a lot of work — far more than I could possibly consume merely through subscriptions to photo mags or visits to museums. The three C's play a prominent role in this Brave New World, though not without peril — like most such sites, they concentrate more on one-way information flow: they tell you what to look at, and there's little if any discussion of the merits or lack thereof, nor of how seeing such work might reflect on the creation of their (or your) own new photos.

Still, in a po-mo-decon world, sites about pictures are as valid as sites of pictures. Heck, these days we have prominent photographers who claim they don't even have a camera.

Posted May 09, 2004 | Comments (5)

RTFM

That's "Read the Flash Manual."

...that is, unless what you want to know is nowhere in the flash manual. Or any of the otherwise-good web references.

The question is: How do you use flash with the EOS when using manual, stopped-down lenses?

No simple E-TTL for Cantax, alas. Trying E-TTL with the Zeiss instantly resulted in a pile of underexposed shots. Hmm.

Well no problem -- just dig out the little Metz 28C-2 that I've used with my film Contax for years. It's a great strobe. Just set to "A" and set the lens to f/8 and.... hey! Nada. For reasons I can't yet fathom the 300D body simply refuses to fire the Metz. How am I going to use those Zeiss lenses with flash? Am I stuck with using manual flash exposure on the 550EX?

Fortunately, I noticed that the exposure at ƒ/8 was wrong but looked a lot like another wrong exposure at ƒ/1.4. A pattern emerged: On 550EX, E-TTL is off by three stops using manual lens adapters. The exposure will be approximately right if F.E.C. is set to +3 stops.

Of course +3 stops is the upper limit for the 550EX — so if you want brighter flash than that, you'll have to go manual. But it's a start.

The built-in flash has no F.E.C. or manual mode, so am I stuck using the great-but-heavy 550EX? Nah. There's no F.E.C., but you can fake it — aim at something three stops darker than "normal" exposure (that's Zone II for you old-school B&W types), hit the * button to lock the flash exposure, recompose during the next 15 seconds or so and shoot.

Or for manual exposure, use a variation on the same technique. The built-in flash for the 300D has, by my estimation, a metric Guide Number of 13 (39 in feet). To get the flash to deliver the full charge, put your hand over the lamp and hit * — the flash will lock on full-power. Now focus, set your f/stop appropriately to the GN (distance 2 meters, 13÷2 at ISO 100 is ~ƒ/5.6 or so — or ƒ/11 at ISO 400), and shoot.

BTW, the actual "normal" GN of the 550EX is not 55, as would be implied by the name. It's only 55 in telephoto mode. For normal-lens usage, the GN is really 42.

And while we're on the subject of the 550EX zoom head, why did Canon get the auto-zoom wrong on cameras with smaller sensors, like the 300D and 10D? When I put the 50mm Canon lens on the camera, the 550EX should really zoom to a format-appropriate 85mm, not 50mm. Even with the EF-S lens, the strobe gets a 35mm-appropriate dispersion. Whoops, guess I'll have to set it manually (or burn through some extra batteries).

Posted May 07, 2004 | Comments (0)

Content

The spring 2004 issue of Modern Painters is out, containing an interview with John Szarkowski, the man who was appointed by Steichen to run the photo program at MOMA and brought us the first large shows by Winogrand, Arbus, and Eggleston:

Q: Do you think photographs become more interesting with time?

A: Most become more interesting with time. Naïve photographs always become more interesting with time. By naïve I mean photographs that were not made with high artistic ambition. On the other hand, if you take the photographs that Steiglitz exhibited at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo in 1910, those pictures have become much less interesting — and they weren't very interesting to begin with because all they had was artistic ambition. Whereas naïve photographs almost always have something of the world in them. Misdirected artistic ambition can turn into an effort to squeeze the world out so that there is nothing left but aesthetics, because everybody can then plainly see that it is art. It has to be art, because there is nothing else there! [My emphasis]

Szarkowski's sentiment seems very close to the advice given in this now-old protorant entry, in response to what I see far too often on photo websites: "this work elicits nothing in us but a dreary impression of quality."

Posted May 04, 2004 | Comments (1)

Worm Food

It's easy to blame the Sasser worm. In fact to a degree, I can. The worm knocked down my old Toshiba laptop around 11AM, on the heels of bad behavior from one of my desktop machines (thanks to the AGOBOT.GEN worm, just hours before). Was the Dell next? It not only had a lot of pictures on it, but my crucial core art applications: Maya, Photoshop, After Effects, SoftImage, 3ds Max... models and textures were safely archived in Perforce, but not the apps. No time to lose in protecting that data.

So I updated my virus screener, and then hit the XP updates. Hmmm... disk space looked bad. So I glanced at my backup disks, saw that they already covered from mid-March through the end of April, grabbed the picture directory and just deleted a couple of GB's worth from March through April 15. I had it all on doubly-redundant CDs.

Except I didn't. For some idiotic reason I'd archived up through April 1 (April Fool me!) and then picked up again on the 11th. I'd made proof sheets (the source of the small pix in the title image above), but no backups of over a week's worth of material. Gaaaaa!

Worms suck. But it was my own stupid fault.

Posted May 03, 2004 | Comments (0)

 

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