Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Drummer supported by mosh pit

Here's a photo of Monotonix drummer Ran Shimoni from their show last night with Silver Jews at Eugene's WOW Hall.
I would've taken more photos but 1) it was hard to get close, and 2) I was scared of having my camera jarred out of my hand, and 3) recording Monotonix seemed to conflict with experiencing them. Anyway, Monotonix is friggin nuts! If they were a photographer they'd be Lucas Samaras on speed, cranked up to 11.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Keith Johnson

I like Keith Johnson's photos quite a bit.

What I like about these is that they don't seem to be created with any preconceptions or grand calculations in mind. I think he was just out looking for interesting visual stimulation and these are a few of the scenes he found. That is photography reduced to its most essential element: Looking. Look here and here to see more of Johnson's photos.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Delightful experience

A few nights ago I left my headlights on while downtown and killed my car battery. It was about 8 pm and the quickest way home was to walk to a bus stop, take the #25 up Amazon Rd., then walk about a mile up a trail (shown below) through a forest that connects from Eugene to our road just outside of the city.

I've been on this trail countless times and I know it pretty well. It's my normal bike path between my home and town. But I had rarely done the trail in reverse, and never in the dark. And boy was it dark! The trail travels through dense woods which blocked the stars, there was no moon, no streetlights, I had no light of any kind. I know it's a cliche but I literally could not see my hands in front of me. I was totally blind.

Luckily the trail was very well worn. By slowly feeling with my feet I could find the level dirt area that told me I was on the path. Once in a while I'd step off into brush or into the hillside, and when this happened I'd correct myself. All in all it took about 40 minutes to travel the mile, and it was quite an interesting experience.

In the past few years, I think this is the longest I have been without light. When it's dark and I am at home or at a public place or in my car, there is always at least some small amount of light visible somewhere. When asleep we leave a nightlight on downstairs for the kids to find the bathroom. If I am sleeping outside there is often a natural ambient light of nighttime which permeates any open area, even in the darkest part of night. In virtually every public setting in America, streetlights or houselights are visible. In fact you really have to go to some effort to make your environment lightless, either tuck yourself in a closet or put on a blindfold, or stumble down a wooded path at night.

As someone whose daily photographic practice relies on the existence of light I found the lack of it enlightening and delightful. It some ways it was the opposite of photography.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Why 40 mm?

Mike Johnston has just republished on article of his from a few years back called "Why 40 mm?" Since I've been using a 40 almost exclusively for the past year, this was of particular interest to me. I wish I could say there was a grand plan behind my use of the 40, but honestly the main reason I bought one is that it was cheap. I found an f/2 40 mm Summicron-C online for about $400. The f/2 35 mm Summicron with virtually identical optics sells for about $1500 used. Given those options I bought the 40 and I've been quite happy with it.

What I like about the 40 is that it feels malleable. In some cases it can feel long, like a 50:

In other situations it feels wider angle, like a 35:

The flexibility is almost like using a zoom, but with one lens.

Years ago I did in fact use a zoom. I imagined I was giving myself the ability to react to everything. If something was close I could zoom wide angle. If something was far away I could telephoto in to crop close. The end result was that my photos had no consistency. They had the look of being taken by a variety of people. This is why Philip Perkis calls zooms "the work of the devil."

The first time I went to a fixed lens was quite a leap. What if there's a far away scene and I can't zoom in? What then? It took a little while but I got used to just one lens. Less is more in this case, i.e. less variables to mediate my worldview. After all, my eyes don't zoom in and out. Why should any other part of me do it?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Crass thoughts on hippies

In a frame of mind recently to revisit the classics, I picked up Irving Penn's Worlds in a Small Room at the U of O library. Although the book contains several very nice portraits, I found myself flipping through it rather quickly. The photographs have the dated feel of work which hasn't aged very well. Penn photographed cultures from every corner of the world, but instead of showing their peculiarities the effect of the book for me was to homogenize them as collectively exotic.

A hippie? No...This is a tribesman from Lalibu photographed by Irving Penn

Right between the book's chapters on Cameroon and Nepal is a photo essay on San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene circa 1967. I don't think Penn knew quite what to make of hippies. He turned his camera on them as if they were a strange tribe just emerged from the forest, even though at the time of his photographs they were living all around him. Strangely, Penn's feeling of complete removal from hippies probably made his photos stronger than had he been part of that culture. Some photographers photograph best what they know. Penn seems to have been turned on instead by the exotic.

I've found that I'm like Penn in this way. Generally I have an easier time photographing strangers than close friends. For me this means that hippies are very difficult to photograph. Although I don't really call myself a hippie, I was raised in a hippie-based community and a certain amount of that culture seeped into my essence as a child. I spent more than my share of time swimming naked in ponds or holding hands in an Ohm-circle.

Hippie Family, San Francisco, 1967 by Irving Penn

Now I live in Eugene. On Summer Saturdays Eugene's downtown becomes hippie central. The sidewalks are littered with young folks laying around with a guitar or devil's sticks or maybe a few puppies on a rope. Protest signs bloom like flowers. Shoes are scarce, as is any sign of grooming. At the center of it all, in Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza is a huge drum circle which lasts most of the day. All in all, the scene is to a hippie as slop is to a pig. They could wallow in it all day, all life.

These Makehuku men photographed in 1970 by Irving Penn would probably pass unnoticed at Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza

Visually it's a pretty vibrant environment and it should provide good photos. The thing is, I've never gotten anything good there. Last Saturday I wandered downtown but once again struck out, and I realized that I cannot take good photographs of hippies in general, not just downtown but anywhere. It's just too close to home.

I have a much easier time shooting people in suits, tourists, and rich shoppers because —at least in my imagination— they seem to have no inner life. There is no there there, nothing to care about, so I can treat them as pure visual building blocks without worrying what they think.

My alltime favorite hippie image: David Warrington's photograph of Oregon Country Fair, August 28, 1982. For some reason that I've never been able to determine, a poster of this image hangs in the upstairs bathroom at the home of my inlaws who're definitely NOT hippies. Shot on my youngest son's birthday.

But a hippie thinks, and shooting one feels invasive. It's as if the hippies have made an unwritten bargain with society, to drop out, relax, do their own thing, and in return they expect society —me— to leave them alone. When I point a camera at them, I can feel the vibe, "Come on, man, cool it with the spy thing, why are you trying to quantify us, quit being goal oriented, relaaaaaax..." What makes it hard is that part of me thinks they might be onto something. Maybe the thing to do is hang out and drum all day. Maybe all this photo business is just societal crap. Turning people into images, how left-brained, how crass, how unspiritual.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Still going strong at 95

New York, 1980 by Helen Levitt

Photo-eye has just put online a a brief but interesting interview of Helen Levitt by Sybil Miller. This passage caught my eye:

Helen Levitt: When I started I was interested in the social aspect of it, and after seeing Cartier- Bresson's pictures I realized I was on the wrong track. I gave up that idea of socially important pictures and decided to do more personal things. It was his pictures that influenced me.

Sybil Miller: What was it in his pictures that you saw?

Helen Levitt: If I could say that, I wouldn't have to take pictures.


Friday, September 19, 2008

White People Scare Me

I lost my censorship virginity today when I received a phone call asking me to remove this piece from the current photography show at Portland International Airport:

If you can't make out the graffiti, it says "White People Scare Me!" Just underneath is a phonebook called The White Pages. I thought the juxtaposition made for a good photo which, as a bonus, spoke honestly about the city's racial tension. Someone out there thought differently.

There was some vetting of photos beforehand. We were told to include no images of naked kids, obscene gestures, or politically controversial images. In addition to this I went the extra step and discarded all of my images of nuclear warhead plans, mass public orgies, and terrorist cell portraits. After all that, the only image I had left to show was "White People Scare Me!" And now, alas, that too is history.

I can't be sure but I think the phone call today was from a white person who scared me.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Book lover's lament

As most photobook lovers are aware, Blurb recently announced the winners of its Photography Book Now contest. The People's Choice award is to be announced tomorrow. I've had fun browsing previews online but I have yet to take the plunge on actually buying a book. Why? Because just about every one of the winning entries costs $80-$100 per book. I don't know about anyone else but that's more than I would typically spend on any photo book. Add to that the fact that these are digitally printed under conditions of varying quality control, and the question becomes why would anyone buy a Blurb book when hundreds of other professionally printed titles can be found at your local bookstore for under $40?
Blurb's Grand Prize winner: Beth Dow's In The Garden

One reason is that the Blurb book is often the only publication available on a particular artist. If you're really into someone's work the Blurb book may be the easiest way to get it in front of you.

Still, the marketing equation for these Blurb books is an uphill fight. One strategy around it, taken by my friend Chris, is to offer a print with each sale. $100 may be a lot to spend on a book but it's pretty cheap when you include an exhibition quality print.

Speaking of books, Jeff Ladd has just announced a new venture which promises to increase the accessibility of out-of-print photo books. One of my great pet peeves is that so much of photographic history is buried beyond reach in out-of-print books. Photographers are left wandering in the dark. Can you imagine if, for example, scientists operated under the same model? What if scientific papers were published and then left to go out of print? Some lucky or rich scientists would have the benefit of studying prior research, while the great mass would be left to start at square one. Totally ridiculous, of course. Well that's the current state of things in the photo world. Hopefully Errata Editions can make inroads. Go Mr. Whiskets!

from Errata Editions' release of W. Evans' American Photographs

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Accounting for taste

I can't decide which I like more, Malick Sidibé's beautiful portraits

Kante Sira, 1965 by Malick Sidibé

La Gazelle, 1974 by Malick Sidibé

The Newly Circumcised, 1983 by Malick Sidibé

or his metaphorical description:

"Do good work and people love you. It's true, people love you. Because the customers don't really see the camera, they see you, the artist — you become the product they're buying. It's like sugar cubes in coffee: you stir the sugar into the coffee and it dissolves and enhances the taste."

— Malick Sidibe, interviewed by Michelle Lamunière in You Look Beautiful Like That, Harvard University Press, 2001

Monday, September 15, 2008

State of the art? (or Psssst: Christ, the emperor has no clothes!)

Andres Serrano currently has a show in NY featuring large scale photographs of various animal turds. As Serrano knows better than anyone, it's really incredible the variety of shit that one finds out there.

The current Serrano show at Yvon Lambert

Of course if I was going to buy a piece of excrement, I'd prefer to invest in the original idea by Piero Manzoni. Almost half a century ago, Manzoni crapped in a can and people bought it.

Merda d'Artiste, 1961, by Piero Manzoni

At least that piece is small enough to be hidden on a shelf or in a safe deposit box. The Serrano piece begs to be displayed, perhaps in the den? So what happens when the collector visits that room a few years from now and has the sudden flash of insight that the spectacular and expensive photograph on the wall is actually a giant load of crap?

Sunday, September 14, 2008


As is our nightly custom, our family was watching an old episode of The Simpsons tonight when for just a split second the plot arrived at this scene

That's Homer sitting in Moe's car at a drive-in realizing that he's blown it again and won't be able to use the train as a tool in an insurance fraud scheme, all of which is just a slice of a long story which isn't that important.

What's interesting about this scene for photographers is that it's a reference to this

Hotshot Eastbound, 1956, O. Winston Link

It's good to find photography seeping its way into mass culture.

Friday, September 12, 2008

An Interview with Dan Price

Dan Price is the author of Moonlight Chronicles, a journal of his life which he has been hand drawing and distributing since the early 90s. Before that he worked as a photojournalist for numerous newspapers and was perhaps the only staff photographer in the country to regularly use Diana cameras on assignment. In 1986 he founded SHOTS magazine. More of his Diana work can be found here, and current pages from Moonlight Chronicles can be found here.

Blake Andrews: There is a passage in your book (The Photographs of D. Price) which says, "The intense grip that photography had on me retreated in 1990 and I sold most of my cameras. Finally my mind was free to wander in realms other than through a lens and inside a rectangle." You tie this moment to a photograph of a Kentucky farmer. I'm wondering if you could describe that retreat from photography in more detail. What was it that changed, that made you feel as if you'd finished photography? Were you involved in drawing at that point?

Dan Price: For me all artistic pursuits are done in an overly passionate way. Making photos was the way i dealt with all the moments coming at me. After ten years of new photography, which is very stressful, running a photo magazine, trying to become a Magnum photographer, organizing photo shows AND raising 2 new babies, AND having a difficult marriage, you might say i was a tad stressed. i had been drawing since high school but took it up in earnest in 1990, the year i left news work and moved back home to Oregon. i also hated all the chemicals that we had to use to develop and print with.

Most photographers steal images of such wagon riding people with long lenses! i chose to greet them and ask permission and spend months photographing their quiet ways. This was a lunch i got invited to. The Diana makes a loud click after each shot. They were cool with that!

BA: I love your description of your "search for the lazy off-beat moments of magic that seemed to show up on my film as mistakes or accidental shutter trips." Those tend to be the types of photos I enjoy as well, but they are hard to find. I think that the harder you look for them, the less they reveal themselves. I'm curious if there's an equivalent in drawing. Can you find accidental moments or is that something particular to photography?

DP: Because i had actual assignments to complete and needed to return with readable images for the paper, i had to just shoot from the hip without looking through the camera to get loosened up when doing more artistic work. Many times these ended up being the most interesting shots to me because my mind had not played a part in their making. Drawing only shares this same sensibility in the sense that i try to catch images on the fly to draw unexpected views or moments. That style is something that you will see emerging now with the on-line blog. After 18 years of creating the Moonlight Chronicles the true style which melds photo moments with drawing is coming out. Stay tuned!

i was hanging out with Sylvia Plachy, who's work i really liked and found this kid just spinning around and around behind this fence. NYC is an amazing place to do street photography. A BIG surprise on every corner!

BA: Shooting from the hip reminds me of the drawing exercise in which you draw without looking at your paper. In both cases you don't allow your brain the chance to "correct" the image. Do you integrate that technique into your drawing now?

DP: Yes i sometimes draw the entire outline without looking then go in and finish the sketch.

A very early shot. i used to find the damnedest places back in the Kentucky hollows. This pup was running up to me and i stuck the camera on the ground and shot. Instantly i knew it would be a great shot.

BA: Comparing your drawings with your Diana photographs, they seem to be more concerned with inanimate objects whereas the Diana work generally focused on people. Is this a reflection of a change in you, or is there something about drawing that lends itself more to still objects?

DP: i was very, very into photographing people, as it seems the most challenging. Try it some time. Go up to complete strangers and tell them you'd like to take pictures of what they are doing, and you will see, very difficult and challenging. Especially in situations like church or hidden communities like Mennonites. a very stress filled thing to accomplish. i had to learn how to talk with people, make them comfortable with my presence, and at the same time be thinking what a good picture would be. So now i like to draw quiet objects that don't talk back! however, i am just embarking on a trip to do some work at Simple Shoes in Santa Barbara and have decided to draw PEOPLE on the way down!

This is from my series Old Time Religion which i spent years shooting in tiny Kentucky churches, some in back rooms of people's country homes. Always an intense spiritual experience. This time it was hot, in a small house in the knoblands of Barren county. My wife and new baby were along and this preacher, a holy roller from West Virginia picked Shilo up and took her to the front of the room in all the commotion. i will never forget Shilo's expression. She thought it was cool as hell!!

BA: It seems that photography ultimately became a stress for you. Shooting people and venturing into strange situations under pressure to fulfill an assignment turned photography into a downer. So perhaps studying people in a different context, as low stress drawing on a looser assignment, will be more pleasant.

DP: Mostly i wanted to get away from the everyday deadline and having to rush around gathering images. With drawing you can take your time. Sit anywhere and make a sketch. There really are no rules. Even though we stretched the photojournalistic rules greatly, i still felt hemmed in by newspaper work. Art photography was freeing but not nearly as much as drawing. Anything is game in a sketch. And it only takes a pen and paper. Definitely my life these days is way less stressful. It's hard to confront people with a camera in your hand day after day.

Part of that same series, at the Sunday service they said they were going to the river so along i went. Shortly after this shot was made the preacher got a secret message from one of his people and he gathered everyone together on the shore to inform one of the ladies there that her husband had just been found drowned on their farm. It was probably the most intense set of moments i have ever witnessed and i was unable in all the surrounding grief to raise my camera for a shot. So goes the experiences of a news photographer.

BA: You talk about the feel of an old Leica, and from your drawings of them it's clear you've studied these cameras closely. The Diana also has its own feel. I think this is something very important in photography that isn't often noted. Each camera has a certain wavelength to it which you need to tune in closely to get good photos. Personally I cannot connect in that way with any of the newer digital cameras, which is partly why I still shoot film. Do you feel that way too? I notice you shoot digitally now, but the look and feel of your photos is much different than your early work. Is some of this due to the camera, do you think, or is it mostly you who've changed? Do you have a hard time connecting to digital tools, or is it totally irrelevant?

DP: Seeing H.C. Bresson with that little camera really made the hair go up on my back in the early days. i studied the brand and coveted one for years. Then i went through a period where i was buying the expensive buggers so much we hardly had money for food. Like Danny Lyon once said, a Leica feels like a pistol in your pocket, always ready to go, to capture those moments no one else seems to be noticing. The Diana was always too light for my taste but i loved the pictures it made. T new digital cameras are a dream come true. Are you kidding?! The entire darkroom lies in a memory card and a simple program on my computer. Totally amazing. i dreamed for years about finding the perfect tiny camera. Now it is a reality. About the images they make....the whole idea is to learn the tool so well that it becomes a part of your body. You never think about it. You just raise it and pop!, get those moments inside the box. The Leica was lusted after for many years when i was still in the grips of the mistress. Nowadays life is very different. i feel pulls to art and creating, but not nearly as strong as the beginning times.

BA: Related to this is the feeling of drawings and photographs themselves. To me, seeing them in person, or even as a reproduction in a book, is a different experience than on a computer screen. I'm wondering if you have any feelings on this considering Moonlight-Chronicles recent shift to being an online entity. I know some things are gained with this shift (wider audience) but is something lost as well? Do you ever exhibit your original notebooks?

DP: Having the Moonlight Chronicles go online is good for me in that i can color the work. And it comes up most days so many more people will be able to enjoy it. i still offer the old hard copies for people who like that. Personally i am enjoying the instantaneousness of the pages going up so fast after having done them.

This is a great example of how close i had to get to create the kind of pictures i was looking for. After shooting so many pictures i sort of knew where to position the camera so that all the elements would fit the composition well. A note to young shooters: i never was just wandering around clicking away. Rather i would be in conversation with these people, intuit an upcoming shot, get it, then continue on in conversation with them. i think this is how i was able to get these shots and not make them feel put upon or taken advantage of. i liked them. They like me and once in awhile i would raise the camera up and snap a shot!

BA: You played a role in a few of photography's institutions, first with Archive Pictures, Inc., and later as the founder of SHOTS Magazine. Can you describe those experiences in a little more detail? What was your motivation? What did you learn? Did you imagine a future for yourself fitting into the canon of established art photographers, alongside Frank, Cartier-Bresson, etc?

DP: It is very fulfilling to see shots magazine still up and running and i am proud to have gotten that off the ground way back in 1986. My main utmost goal all along was to become a Magnum photographer. i worked really hard to make that happen, but in the end SHOTS kind of took over my life and led me back home and into the Moonlight Chronicles. i have always said that the photography and shots were simply vehicles i rode to my destiny as the creator of the m.c. By the time i was done with SHOTS in about 1994, i was really burnt out on photography, something that does not seem to be happening with drawing.

BA: You mentioned hanging out with Sylvia Plachy, one of my favorite photographers. How did you meet her? Did she influence your images? What did you learn from her?

DP: Sylvia has been a friend since the early 80's when i first saw her work in the Village Voice. I used to send her a photo postcard a week! So she pretty much had to respond to that crazy nut in Kentucky! That's how i met Eugene Richards and Robert Frank as well. Just kill 'em with kindness was my motto. Frank became a subscriber to SHOTS and Eugene my friend at Magnum Photos after he came for a visit and i put a series of his pix in SHOTS.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

1000 words worth?

As a follow up to the gasoline picture post, Ben Levine sent me this one by Walker Evans which I was unable to find online

and one by himself, which makes a nice comparison to Elaine Mayes' photo.

Thanks, Ben. (Pitchertaker also linked to an image but the link appears broken)

In response to my recent Mona Lisa Smile post, Nick said, "I don't see what your point is," a valid statement since I didn't include any supporting text. I wanted the photos to just tell their own story at first before I gave them any interpretation. But since you asked...

The Mona Lisa series follows on the heels of Gasoline Pictures which was spurred by a Winogrand quote. Winogrand got me thinking about Frank pioneering the gas station image and I started wondering, well just how many people have explored that idea? I began searching for gas station images and found that I couldn't stop. I think it's quite fascinating to compare how different photographers have approached similar material, some on their own, some with the knowledge in their head of what others have done. And the look of gas stations is very closely connected to specific historical time, so this subject seemed a natural topic.

Putting together the Gasoline Pictures was so fun I decided to repeat it with some other subject. I bumped around a few topics but nothing seemed quite right. It was around then that I saw the current Mark Stienmetz show in Portland, which included the image I posted. I was really taken with the photo. Her pose, her hand, the metal spirals, everything about it was very classical. But it was her face which really sank into my brain. It seemed both expressive and unreadable. What's more it seemed an obvious reference to the Mona Lisa. What was Steinmetz tapping into here which was universal, which perhaps also explained some of the Mona Lisa's power? I started poking around for similar images and that became the next subject.

Looking for Mona Lisa images was like a treasure hunt. Of all the portrait work done over the centuries by photographers, it's amazing how little of it shows anyone smiling. It's as if the smile has been banned from art, relegated to the birthday snapshot, dismissed as unserious out of hand. Finding this particular smile was even more difficult. Pursed lips, the slightest curl at one side, knowing eyes. I looked at a ton of photos and it was always a nice flash of recognition to see these things, to know I'd found one.

Nick's criticism is in some ways accurate. "So far as I can see," he says, "the only Mona Lisa smile here is on the face of the Mona Lisa. The rest may or may not (in some cases) be vague echoes, but all have their own individuality, thank goodness. There are no copies here!" Of course with such a wide range of subjects and photographers this is true. No one is the same and no moment is the same.

But I think the smile does tie together these images. Perhaps it's similar to the Bechers' industrial studies. The fact that every refinery has its own unique character doesn't negate their commonality. In the case of Mona Lisa it's even more interesting because that image is so ubiquitous. There are very few photographers living or dead who don't know that face, and so it must've been there as a reference on some level, either before the act of creation or afterward. Given the history of that smile, I'm really interested in how photographers have reacted to and interpreted similar ones.

Sooo...long story short I plan for this to become a regular series and I'm open to suggestions for future collections. The web has opened up an entire new frontier of personal curation. It would've been impossible to collect or present these images outside of the internet. Acquiring publication rights alone would've killed any such project. Now we are floating in a sea of photographs and one task is to edit them into something coherent and new.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mona Lisa Smile

Leonardo da Vinci

Southworth and Hawes

Alexander Gardner

August Sander

Mike Disfarmer

Diane Arbus

Peter Hujar

Mary Ellen Mark

Tom Sandberg

Shelby Lee Adams

David Armstrong

Nicolas Nixon

Annie Leibovitz

Richard Avedon

Joel Sternfeld

Martin Schoeller

Tina Barney

Rineke Dijkstra

Mark Steinmetz