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....

Paper Trade: posted June 18, 2003 | 1 Comments


"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.

Reflection: posted June 14, 2003 | 0 Comments

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.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Criminal: posted June 03, 2003 | 1 Comments

Seven Days in Romania

Not by me, sadly.

Cosmin Bumbut and six photographer friends of the 7 days photoclub have been spending just such a week annually for almost five years, in the more-traditional and remote parts of their country. The 2003 version, set in the village of Harnicesti, is due soon. The variation in styles is particularly interesting — each photographer has a different take.

(Followup Entry....)

Seven Days in Romania: posted May 09, 2003 | 0 Comments


A young photographer shows his work: pictures of gratings, crosswalks, curbs, textures, grids, faultless exercises in graphics that seem to repeat all of recent American photography. What can we say about it? Mention the quality of the prints? The precision of the framing? What can we do to not appear inattentive? Looking at the photographs twice, go through them again slowly while we feel the other's presence near us, tense, pretending to be looking somewhere else? And then, why can't we say that we have nothing to say, that this work elicits nothing in us but a dreary impression of quality? "You should photograph the people you love with the same precision as you photograph your gratings." That's what we should say.

-- Hervé Guibert,
        Ghost Image, 1982

Advice: posted May 07, 2003 | 1 Comments

A Matter of Proportion

How has Kodak managed to sell 8x10" paper, 5x7" paper, and 11x14" paper, for year upon year upon year, and none of them have the same aspect ratio? 8x10 at least matches the aspect ratio of a 4x5 camera, but none of them match the aspect ratio of 35mm, 6x7, 6x6, 6x9.... then digicams come along and almost all of them are the aspect ratio of a video camera, 4::3, and digital printers come along and expect everyone to switch from 8x10" to 8.5x11", or 13x17", with each printer having a slightly-different printable area within those fields. Only the humble 4x6" quickie print actually gets the aspect-ratio game under control.

It ticks me off.

Pretty much, you're guaranteed not to be able to use some significant portion of the expensive paper you've purchased, or some significant portion of your (probably more-important) photograph is going to get cropped. Paper waste: borders to adjust, or chunks trimmed-off, or both.

Yeah, you can always add borders to the image, but that's really just a way of shuffling the waste around to make things seem better. In fact it's more wasteful, given that you end up having to print smaller. A 4x6" print with a half-inch border all 'round is 5x7" but it's silly to call it a 5x7 at that point, no? Almost a third of the paper is just tossed-away as white.

Which leads me to the actual reason that I have time tonight to rant about aspect ratios. I was going to process three rolls of Delta 400 tonight, but I ran out of PrintFile pages. My film scanner takes six-neg strips of film. A 36-exposure roll therefore can fit onto six strips — maybe seven if you get an extra frame or two, and neg sleeves that are seven strips by six negatives are next to impossible to find — so I've run out, and have to wait until I get the next batch from B&H, which seems to be the closest supplier who normally has the right kind in stock.

Why are these sheets so hard to find? My guess is because they're not wasteful enough, which is simply UnAmerican. With 6x5 or 7x5 sheets, you need at least two sheets to handle a single roll of film — and two sheets of paper to contact-proof it, to boot. Smaller sizes are everywhere, but 7x6 is rare — a specialty item among specialty items (oh, and here's a little endorsement: VueAll bad, PrintFile good).

A 7x6 neg sheet, proofed on 8.5x11" photo paper (which was already hard to get before, but now seems to have completely dried-up) let you proof a whole roll in one page, on one sheet. Having 8.5x11" photo paper that matches the print size used in business and photo printers, that matches the size used by binders and file cabinets everywhere, makes perfect sense. Who is benefiting from all this waste and confusion?

And how come frame shops only have a tiny selection of "document" sized frames? Or if you want to matte your document-sized photo to 11x14, forget about finding a precut matte.

I blame globalization. It's gotta be.

A Matter of Proportion: posted May 05, 2003 | 0 Comments


...and a little white.

I've read it a couple of times in the past, but today I re-read this interview with Ralph Gibson.

"But anyway, the big emphasis in digital photography is how many more million pixels this new model has than the competitorís model. Itís about resolution, resolution, resolution, as though that were going to provide us with a picture that harbored more content, more emotional power. Well in fact. Itís very good for a certain kind of graphic thing in color but I donít necessarily do that kind of photograph."

Sounds much like what I wrote about computers a couple of days ago — and Gibson is a big fan of digital, at least on the printing end of preduction. Surely his comments were a subconscious influence on my thinking.

At one time, I used a Canon 85mm lens for nearly everything. Now it (and my Zeiss 90mm) sit at the bottom of the bag, largely unused. Tried forcing myself to use the 90 today — if only, as Duchamp said, "to avoid conforming to my own taste."

Black: posted May 04, 2003 | 2 Comments


Old saw: When critics gather, they discuss art. When painters gather, they discuss turpentine.

Technical discussions are the inevitable evil of photography. Partly because they function easily as words — one can talk at length about pixels, Permawash, bromoil, MTFs, market share. Simple, quantifiable, explicit. It's very difficult to talk about the balance of a photo, or why you prefer the print that's a half-stop brighter, or the slight variation in poignance that differentiates two portraits in an otherwise largely-identical series. These are attributes of what Nabokov defined as "sensual thinking" — art.

That disclaimer made, here are some thoughts about exposure.

It's so doggoned easy to just use the AutoExposure, but the results are... bland. I've been using the lock more and more, and the little test of the past week has convinced me to use manual exposure exclusively for a while. It's just better to think about the exposure, even if all you do is realize that it's all in a narrow range and you can let the AE have its way. At least you made that choice, and photography is all about choices.

"Correct" metering is not really about 18% gray — the graycard is just a standin for the idea of "getting detail from the maximum slice of the image." In other words, having the minimum number of pixels that are overexposed or underexposed. This isn't always perfect, but it's an excellent approach for designing a camera that can be pointed at a lot of random things and which will return reasonable straight representations of those things.

You can't get away from representation. You can have a pear, and a picture of a pear. The picture can try to reproduce the appearance of the pear, or the photographer's impression of the pear, but it's still a representation of that impression. If the frame was a black rectangle it would still represent some chain of events that led to the creation of that black rectangle, and (if presented) would represent that artist's notion of art.

But "straight" naïve representation, what the AE aims for, is not just representation, it's an attempt at replacement of the subject — instead of the original, we can have this handy rectangular proxy object. Time, space, scale, can be collapsed. I know the face of my great-grandfather, as a young man. I know what a cheetah looks like when it's running at full stride. The surface of Phobos, Bradley fighting vehicles in Najaf, a faraway cousin's new baby. Increasingly, our experiences are not really our experiences; they're instead our experiences of seeing photos of experiences.

This is just like the spoken, and written, technologies of language. Long ago, language let early humans achieve what no animal had really done before — transfer experience, wisdom, and even emotions from one member of the group to many. One human could eat peyote, and tell the others of his experiences without requiring them to invest days in a dangerous activity. One hunter could bag a lion, and on the next hunt the rest of the hunters could use his same methods. Stories from grandparents could be passed down to unseen descendants, and as writing became commonplace they could be passed-down permanently and even anonymously.

So too photography; in its physically-descriptive power it excels like nothing before or since (if I include motion pictures as photography, which I do). But like the written word, it often records the banal as readily as the interesting. There are cuneiform texts that do nothing but handle the accounting for grain warehouses that have been dust for millenia. Like a snapshot, they are exact in their description, but utterly pointless. How much better if, these many centuries afterward, we could have gotten even an inkling of how the scribe felt about this grain!

A little subjectivity can go a long way. It might not be much, but it's what humanizes what we do, makes it distinct from the mechanical, and accessible to one another in a resonant way. In photography, exposure is a part of that subjectivity. To my mind, everything in a photograph should be part of the greater whole, including the exposure. It would be wasteful to leave it to a machine without good reason.

Exposed: posted April 30, 2003 | 1 Comments

Signs of the Times

John Bolgiano, aka "coldmarble," runs ColdMarble Musings,the only alternative-process (Cyanotype, Van Dyke process, etc) blog I've seen — so far. Looks like Courtney might give him some competition soon.

She checked-out Reed & Webb's Alternative Photographic Processes from the library yesterday, prepping for an alt-process class, and noticed that it was completely untouched — never checked-out before, the book's binding crackling as she turned each page.

We've noticed similar behavior on some other library photo books recently — she acquired a stack of beautiful Martin Parr books via loan from a library in San Diego, and their stamps showed they'd not been checked out for years. Tsk!

Signs of the Times: posted April 23, 2003 | 2 Comments

Linkfest... not

I spent a good chunk of today letting search engines search. I was looking for blog sites that seemed interesting to me, and sad to say there was a lot more searching than finding.

Lots of typical sites — meg upon meg of toycam and pencam and pincam photos, lots of grinning heads, brightly-colored market stalls, pigeons and rainy windowsills. But little — very little — of work and thought that seemed as if someone had worked or thought very hard.

Nature of the beast, I guess. When everyone got desktop publishing, we were buried in paper. Video cameras, buried in home movies. And there are some regions of light in the swampy fog. But also a lot of swamp.

One problem seems to be the technology — people are so caught-up in the latest tool, and their blogs are largely expressions of fashionability (which thrives on conformity). There is a broad, deep culture of "me too!" that is at once central to the nature of blogging and at the same time inhospitable to independant, demanding, work. The blogiverse seems to be more about quantity that quality. Why have three amazing photos when we can have 780 mediocre variations on the same obvious idea by 600 people?

If it floats your boat, great. But among those 780 photos are the three amazing ones. I, for one, will tire after the first dozen, which puts my chances of seeing even one of the amazing shots at something like ((777!*772!)/(780!*769!)) which is only about 4%

That's a lot of googling.

Remember The Treasure of Sierra Madre, the explanation that gold's value lies not in its inherent qualities but in the thousands of wasted hours spent looking for each tiny nugget?

There are some glimmers of hope — I found a few sites worth blogrolling, a few veins that might be worth tapping. I'm not entirely discouraged yet.

If anyone knows of any 3D computer animation sites, let me know.

Linkfest... not: posted April 22, 2003 | 1 Comments

Link Chain

Thought I'd paste-together a list of URLs that have had important influences on my thinking over the past few months. YMMV.

Current backlog: one roll of TMax. Very little shooting this weekend, except for the garden shots that followed after the story below.

Link Chain: posted April 20, 2003 | 0 Comments

Family Values (Part 1, probably)

The ... industrialization of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.
- Susan Sontag, On Photography

Such democratization's most-obvious expression, its adherents might say, is the photoblog. There's no obvious shortage of them —a href="" target="linkframe"> currently lists over 1100, with new ones being added four or five each day.

The aforementioned site bills itself as a guide to "high-quality photoblogs." Their definition of "high quality" leaves me skeptical. They cite four criteria in their FAQ:

  1. Photo Quality
  2. Interface
  3. Photo Freshness
  4. Photo Quantity

The sub-criterion for "quality" is simply stated "are the photos well done?" For the sake of democratic breadth (or was it really to patronize demographics?), they seem to be aiming awfully low.

The last two are more troublesome, because they imply that volume equates to quality. Personally, I'd rather find a website with two amazing photos than a website that floods the webspace with hundreds of repetetive and uninspired ones. Yet it's precisesly the latter type that seems to dominate, with "new photos every day" being held-aloft as the zenith of photographic excellence.

It's a disease that seems to have infected even sites like where there are genuinely good photos amid a mass of banal ones. Are the photobloggers simply unable to distinguish?

One might argue that this torrent of "unaffected" imagery is needed in order to create some as-yet-unnamed New Aesthetic — I find it more fashion statement than artistic movement. The photos I find in the top100 sites all seem to cave-into the pattern of "conform and confirm," either pounding on familiar safe notions (flowers and vividly-colored fruits, one-light nudes on black, raggedly texture-filled homeless people), or worse getting caught-up in the factory-manufactured signifiers of "quirky" and "independant" photography (toy cameras & lomos, cross-processing, rock bands).

I wonder if anyone has yet undertaken any kind of sustained, rigourous attempt to deconstruct the photoblogiverse.


Link for thought: an old SP post by Rob Appleby.

Family Values (Part 1, probably): posted March 30, 2003 | 1 Comments


Another SP blogger: Neil Ford's Weblog blasting out of London. I'll list him even if he doesn't use MT :)

SmallBlogiverse2: posted March 29, 2003 | 0 Comments

Small Blogiverse

Ha, on the heels of starting this journal I find John Brownlow has started one too.

Small Blogiverse: posted March 28, 2003 | 0 Comments


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