Frustrating Choices


One of the consequences of using the mixed B&W/color workflow that I described a few posts ago is that when browsing through Adobe Bridge, you end up seeing both B&W and color versions of every picture. Viewing everything doubled, side by side, is oddly informative.

Both forms have a flatness, but also a sort of dimensionality that's unique to each. Both are flat, yet both are different. I've not made my mind up about the real dynamics of one or the other of the effects but they're... interesting.

Sadly my interest in these choices has been stomped on a bit, with the unfortunate theft of my 5D (and a 28mm ƒ/1.8) a couple of days ago. I still have my LX1 to continue as my RAW-making digi of choice, and I've been running the new Kodak Portras through the Bronica while I fume and decide what to do now that I'm dSLR-less. There are some projects that I needed that camera to continue on, that would have to mutate or die with out it.

On the plus side, it is giving me a wee boost to remember some lingering film-based projects-in-progress.

Posted March 23, 2007 | Comments (2)

Separated @ Birth?


Posted March 20, 2007 | Comments (0)

The Nature of Colored Rectangles

Shannon Ebner's forum comments on Charlotte Cotton's recent "Tip of the Tongue" article sent me to revisit Stephen Shore's The Nature of Photographs. This is a slim — no, lean — book that should be available to anyone who wants to approach their picture-making and picture-appreciation in a thoughtful way. It is a remarkable book not only in its direct economy but also in that it so deliberately and successfully provokes you towards moments of personal insight and reflection as you are reading it.

If you've never seen it, set aside the rest of this post, go to the bookstore or the nearest library.

Shore's formal description of photography contains three basic layers: physical, depictive, and mental — with the depictive layer further described along axes of flatness, frame, time, and focus. For my own sensibility, I gently adjust Shore's heirarchy by adding a fifth dimension to that depictive level: tone.

A shared attribute of all four of Shore's depictive characteristics is that they present the photographer with boundaries, edges which the photographer can exploit (or push against) as depictive tools. A photograph's flatness is a limitation and a fundamental part of its nature. So to are the frame edges, the contained aspect of photographic time, and the specificity of mechanical monocular focus. All describe restrictive attributes of the photographic window.

So too tone. Whether black and white, full color, false color — the tonal range is never truly natural, nor merely a physical attribute (as Shore has cast it). It is a tool of photographic depiction. We can push against it by altering exposure, rendering full blacks or whites (as do many of the sample photos in Shore's book) — essentially framing the unbounded color range of the real world within the space of what a photograph can represent. Both in shooting and printing, we can choose the tones of objects realtive to one another to direct attention. Enhance contrast and saturation or suppress it (but never fully escape it, save by reducing the photo to a blank sheet).

Posted March 17, 2007 | Comments (1)

C C C du J Pt 3

Enough of Santa Clara Shantytown for now.

Posted March 16, 2007

C C C du J Pt 2

Posted March 15, 2007

Consumer Culture Cliché du Jour

It's annual trash week. The neighborhood is transformed for a few days, the streets lined with everything people are happy to forget. The look of it: Bombed? Razed? Flooded? Condemned? Bosnia? Katrina? Beirut? Guangdong? And then it's all gone and the next neighborhood a few blocks over gets its turn.

As long as the piles are present, the parade of poachers: one rusty pickup truck after another cruising slowly through the streets, on the watchout for anything worth scavenging.

And me.

Posted March 14, 2007 | Comments (0)

The Paradox of Western Landscape


Lenswork #69 arrived today, and as is so often the case, the cover was a photo of rocks — contrasty, windswept, Western rocks. Vasquez, Indian Head, Merrick Butte. The locations we've all had burned into our psyches as standard backdrops for John Ford and Tom Mix.

While these locations are dramatic in and of themselves, it's hard not to compare each new photo of them with the work of Carleton Watkins et al -- people who photographed these places (& on a grand scale) because the western landscape was unknown.

Today's shooters photograph with the opposite intent: the same locations precisely because they're well-known. When did this shift occur? The Kodak Brownie? Timothy O'Sullivan?

Posted March 11, 2007 | Comments (8)

Future Nostalgias

Right on the heels of the Conscientiously Gray list, both Jörg and Tim Atherton have cited this Charlotte Cotton essay on contemporary B&W photography, which in turn contains a fair number of interesting B&W links — and some great comments in the short but dense forum discussion on the right side of the page.

I'm struck by Cotton's (qualified) emphasis on B&W as being inevitably nostalgic. I continue to disagree, given that B&W is a portion of human vision and evolution always wins. She is right, though, in recognizing that B&W photo isn't going away, but will remain as part of the visual spectrum.

Cotton is also right, I think, in mentioning that given the world-full of color images in which we now live, B&W has a new inherent message: intent, "as a bid for us to remember that photography is an act of making choices."

She mentions in her essay the Japanese Provoke group. When I was last in Tokyo I stopped at PlaceM, a photo-hub (clubhouse/bookstore/gallery) in Shinjuku owned by a collective including Daido Moriyama. Stepping into it it was clear that, at least in tech-fetishizing Shinjuku/Tokyo, there was still plenty of activity in B&W. I could have spent a fortune there on books. Come to think of it, I did — though some remain un-read. Perhaps this will give me a little extra incentive.

Recently in a StreetPhoto list thread the assertion was made that it's impossible, or nearly so, to make an image envisioning the future without it being in color. My own take is that it's simply difficult to make any assertion about the future, photographic or otherwise, if you limit yourself to the language in vogue today. In the 1980's it was difficult to imagine a future of popular music that didn't involve electric guitars and synthpop. But the fundamental expressive power of acoustic music and voice was not erased by the growth of technology or the fashion of the time. Sure, today we have bands playing heavier metal than ever, and producers and engineers making more polished and lushly-crafted electronic pop than ever. The branches of their steady growth have not withered. But we've also got Sufjan Stevens, Kings of Convenience, no shortage of acoustic and blended acts whose works can't be expressed in the language of 1983 (on a recent VH-1 documentary of hair metal, one of the stars of that era classified newer acoustic music as "Tracy Chapman sh*t" — as if his ability to even conceive of music outside his standard range is limited to 1980's references). When the status quo disregards any part of human nature, new forms will always rush in to fill the empty ecological niche.

Posted March 10, 2007 | Comments (3)

Conscientiously Grey




Posted March 04, 2007 | Comments (0)

POSSIBLY the Best of 2006

Yesterday I received a Fedex envelope from Mexico, and within it was a bright yellow giftwrap containing a shrinkwrap containing Mark Alor Powell's book V.I.P. (Mark is also known as "locaburg" on flickr). It's only March but I'm considering it a Best of 2007 already.

At least I managed to pull-open the shrinkwrap! Far too often in 2006, I compulsively purchased books that never had much of a life past the point of purchase. This is especially true of art books that I purchased while traveling. I like the idea of buying local-artist books, but when it comes to taking the time to dig into them.... they often get the short shrift.

Part of this may be that when I'm heading home they get buried in my luggage, then once home they go straight to the bookshelves where they're forgotten. But I'm making excuses. A lot of them sit out in plain sight for a long while.

Here are some of the books that I bought in 2006 that I was sure I wanted to read but still haven't done so. Most I probably paged through for two minutes... some, sadly, are still in the bag.

  • Absolut Viking - Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty (okay, it's in Norwegian)
  • Swedish NationalMuseum Catalog
  • Small Wars - An-My Lê
  • Excuse Me - Keisuke Nagoshi (text in Japanese)
  • Capturing Light - Drew Heath Johnson (okay, a gift)
  • Saga - Arno Rafael Minkkinen
  • Pop Surrealism , The Rise of Underground Art - Kirsten Anderson
  • Daido Moriyama's Fondation Cartier monograph (found, of all places, in the remainder bin at the Norwegian Nasjonalmuseet for about $8!)
  • Using History - Grett Pratt (still in the shrinkwrap)
  • The Photobook: A History Pt II - Martin Parr & Gerry Badger
  • Working - Stephen M Dahl
  • Lake Street USA - Wing Young Huie
  • Photo Brava 06 catalog
  • Marketing Guidebook for Photographers Fall '06 - Mary Virginia Swanson (just skimmed, keep getting interupted every time I sit down with it)
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon
  • The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals - Charles Darwin
  • Making Comics - Scott McCloud
  • Happy End of the World - Una Hunderi
  • After the Water - Sam Portrera
  • Collapse - Jared Diamond
  • Holiday - Michio Yamauchi (Japanese, still shrinkwrapped)
  • Riot - 01 (various, Japanese)
  • Mole Unit No 5 (Japanese mag) and many other magazines including stacks of unopened subscriptions to PDN, Camera Arts, Modern Painters, BJP, Cinefex, Adbusters, New Yorker, Alert Diver, B&W, and a bunch of others
  • Innovation Happens Elsewhere - Goldman/Gabriel
  • Camp - Shomei Tomatsu
  • Window-Pain - Wataru Hayakawa (Japanese, still shrinkwrapped)
  • Chigo to Daibutsu - Masahiko Taniguchi (Japanese, still shrinkwrapped)
  • Tone Deaf & All Thumbs - Frank Wilson
  • The 33 Strategies of War - Robert Greene
  • Ready for Anything - David Allen

I won't even start on the stack of unplayed video games....

Maybe someone can tell me what I've missed.

Posted March 03, 2007 | Comments (0)

Slighting the Hand

Iz has been recently reading parts of Seth Godin's Purple Cow, which reminded me of another later Godin book, All Marketers Are Liars. Godin includes along the way a chart kind of like the one below, which he asserts represents the "traditional" value curve associated with industrial products:


That is, get an idea, make lots of it, and marketing, as long as it manages its basic functions, will have a secondary effect compared to good manufacturing and distribution skills.

He follows it with this chart, to represent the modern condition:


If production is computerized, or transplanted to a remote factory in Vietnam (Nike) or perhaps to the lowest external bidder (most fabless electronics companies, like NVIDIA), then — while production isn't entirely unimportant* — the real big ways to get value from industry are via two mechanisms:

  1. Invent stuff worth talking about.
  2. Tell compelling stories about what you've invented.

In this respect, business seems to be following the Duchamp model, where art production is truly secondary to Big Ideas and Big Hype. What's interesting to me to consider about this is the notion that this has become so fundamentally a part of the entire culture, applying not just to the gallery but to everything: cars, glassware, TV shows, games, celphones, camping gear.

If this is so, what are the ramifications for image-makers, or any other sort of art-maker, living in such a society? In this era where photographers might not even have a camera (e.g., Nikki Lee), where Jeff Koons can hire-up a staff to make his ballooon critters, where singers perform in sync to quantized playbacks of hired session players, and even Garfield get drawn by assistants — is there still a role for virtuoso execution in the arts, save in the service of someone else's ideas? When and how might skillful hands make a comeback?

Our hands have had just as long and illustrious evolutionary history as our brains. As someone said: "without the eye, there are no good pictures. But without the hand, there are no pictures at all." Is the hand on a final decline, or just a momentary setback as it finds some new and ever-human outlet?

Update 4 March 2007: Michael Wolf (previously mentioend here) has gone on one of my personal dream vacations and come back with the pictures to prove it.

* This is the kind of assertion that drives the Peter Drucker crowd crazy. They claim that manufacturing is as important as ever, just that the form it takes changes due to changes in technology, transport, and communications. Drucker loves lambasting anyone who thinks that they've managed to rewrite the rules of business. I'm generally in agreement with him on this, in that there's a sort of "conservation of energy" in markets — money still has to come from some sort of economic activity at its roots — Godin's abstraction is still a worthwhile story if only because he (and many others) seem to believe it.

Posted March 02, 2007 | Comments (0)


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