Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Driving while phoned

For as long as I can remember I've had a camera beside me while driving. Any time I'm behind the wheel it sits nearby on the center console. My camera is always a temptation, but since Oregon made cell phones illegal for drivers on October 1st, the attraction has grown stronger. Suddenly the outlaw life I've always fantasized is right there at my fingertips, ready to be plucked like a ripe peach. And the appeal of the illicit is well coordinated with life events. I've recently upgraded from a flip-phone to a smartphone. For the first time in my life I can actually make decent phone pictures.

Wheeee! Down the rabbit hole I've plunged. Since the beginning of October, just about every time out I've made photos of the world passing my car. Not only is it great road entertainment, but every push of the button is a minor taboo, a small act of defiance. Take that, system! Best of all the photos are easily deletable. This is a very handy trait because, let's face it, most of these photos don't turn out. Sperm cells might have a higher hit rate.

This time of year the drive-by shooting is great. There is often dew or rain or frost on the windshield before I get in the car. We haven't had snow yet in Eugene, but that'll come soon enough. Whatever the water form, it serves as a built in visual effects filter between me and the world. I think my favorite is frost. The ice crystals are intricate and incredible, and bring the very planet into question. Long flowing drips are nice too. They can lend an impressionist feeling to whatever's behind. Monet's windshield lilies, anyone? Straight rain is kinda meh, often too busy and chaotic for artistic use, although the pitter-patter soundtrack can be relaxing. No matter the weather conditions, my third visor frit is a constant, a good general purpose filter for skies and other upper frame material.

Of course to take full advantage of conditions requires some sacrifice. Using wipers or defrost kills filters quickly, so I try to avoid them while driving. Moving through the world in my unwiped murky icebox it's easy to let my imagination free. I crank up the radio and forget I'm driving at all. Destination be damned, traffic signals be damned! I'm on a photo hunt! If it's just mist or light rain outside I can usually make out the rough features of the roadscape through the sheet of water running down my windshield. The same can happen with dew or interior condensation. Both can be seen through with practice. With ice it's tougher, especially when there's more than a quarter inch or so. It's drivable, but iffy. I've found that if I scrape a small clearing in the side window I can usually see enough of the road and mirror to get by. If I use a fingernail the thin scrape marks can create an interesting frame. I know what you're thinking, and I agree. It's a huge bummer to have that small section missing its filter. But as I said, some sacrifice is required. 

One of the hazards of getting a new phone later in life is that I'm too dumb to figure all of it out. My phone has a "Driving Mode" feature which I can't seem to turn off. Before I can shoot any photos in my car I need to unlock the "Driving mode will turn on automatically while driving" tab on my screen. The swipe button is small and hard to see, so it's sometimes a hassle to do this in heavy traffic or while driving at high speeds. But I manage. Then I bring my phone up above the wheel where I can see the outside world clearly on its screen. The intoxicating call of the pixelated road beckons.

I can use my smartphone camera with one hand but honestly it's easier with two. As I mentioned earlier I don't use defrost or wipers, so my hands are freed up from those chores. With wrists at 10 and 2 o'clock and applied to the steering wheel with pressure, I've gotten pretty good at general locomotion. In fact wrist steering is surprisingly effective. The only exceptions are when I hit a very sharp turn, parallel park, or tow a trailer. Those are tough. That's why I don't have many photos of those situations. But for normal driving wrists are fine. My fingers dangle above the wheel, both hands free to manipulate the phone screen. 

Disclaimer: this style of driving requires sharp focus. If you're not paying close attention you can easily miss photo ops. Sometimes sharp braking or quick acceleration is required to get just the right angle, especially at night or in heavy traffic. Fortunately I've found that most other drivers are pretty good about avoiding me if they see I'm using a phone or driving erratically. After all it's in their interest not to hit me, just as it's in mine. Car photography is win-win, a breeze. I can't help thinking that if everyone shot photos while driving, there'd be no accidents at all. 

When you consider how safe and effortless it is to shoot a phone camera while driving, Oregon's cell phone restriction seems silly. Compared to my Leica, for example, shooting a cell phone is a snap. Oh sure, a Leica's viewfinder plastered to your forehead may allow you to keep one eye behind the camera and one on the road, but that's not an ideal way to drive. You'll miss a lot of photos that way. Worse, a Leica has manual exposure settings and manual focus. That means it requires two hands to operate, plus a good chunk of attention to your immediate proximity. I can't tell you how many shots I've missed while fiddling with my camera settings. And believe me, changing out a roll of film while driving is no picnic. The bottom plate and sprocket with it's tiny film slot —what a bitch. Over time I've gotten pretty good at it (Pro tip: always wait for the straightaway to load film), but only after a few narrow scrapes. Then there's the silly shoulder strap which always seems to get caught in the seatbelt. My cell phone is strapless. Yup, there are a lot of arguments to be made that film cameras should be illegal while driving, not cell phones. 

By that same logic, if the law is going to restrict film cameras, I think it should apply evenly to all the arts. Why is photography always the bad sheep? Restrict painting while driving too. And don't stop there. Sculpting while driving, blogging while driving, ceramics while driving, and group sex while driving all seem pretty dangerous to me. There oughtta be a law. Just sayin'. 

The legal restriction may be a moot point, because unless you're using a very bright flash unit inside your car or swerving more than a normal amount, or driving a convertible, it's very hard to be caught by authorities photographing while driving. They've got other stuff to worry about. High speed sculptors and drunken painters and such. That's probably how Friedlander has escaped the cops all these years. 

Friday, December 1, 2017


Musicians have it easier than photographers because a song doesn't have to be about anything in particular. 

Don't get me wrong. A songs can have a strong message. Nina Simone and Public Enemy were put on earth for a reason, after all: Wake the fuck up, you! But a song can be nice too just because it's beautiful. Or mysterious, or simple, or hummable. A Bach cantata? What the hell is that about beyond pure pleasure? Such songs can get stuck like tar in your ears even if they're not about anything in particular. Everyone reading this knows and enjoys such songs, and maybe also inuits that tar eventually hardens into the canon.

So why do most photographers fall into the trap of making their photos about something? Just this morning online I browsed a photo essay about gay performers, and another about kids with genetic conditions, another about an airport carpet, and one about body image. And so on. The web is crawling with them. It seems to me such photographs serve as mere functionaries. They hold roughly the same strategic position as advertising illustrations or roadsigns, sacrificing all their energy toward a larger purpose.

And indeed, without pitching in toward a larger purpose, a photo will have a hard time making its way in the world. Good luck making a book, or attending a portfolio review, or inciting social media coverage, or earning a degree with photographs about nothing in particular. Even a photographic Bach would have trouble. Every pressure in the world pushes photographers toward artistic bureaucracy. And they happily oblige!

But I like to think some photos are still made just for the sheer joy of seeing. They aren't really about anything bigger, and that's ok. You see things, you put them in a 2D frame. It works or it doesn't. The end. As Lee Friedlander once put it, "The pleasures of good photographs are the pleasures of good photographs." I guess he would know.

Musicians have known this for a while too, and have embraced it, and it has not held them back. A song doesn't have to be about anything in particular. 

If you are out there making type of photo, don't be discouraged. You have value.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

1 pinch of puffy cloud

The backroad Journal - Number 3 has just been published. The topic is EatingHere's my contribution:

You can order a physical copy here.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Q & A with Janet Delaney

 Janet Delaney, 2012, Photo by Johanna Jetton
Janet Delaney is a photographer and educator based in Berkeley.

BA: What was your path into photography? Did you know other photographers or artists in Compton?

JD: My parents and older siblings moved from Chicago to Compton in 1948, a few years before I was born. As a child I poured over our family albums to figure out who my family had been before I joined them. In this way I began to treasure photographs from an early age. In Compton I knew no one who called themselves an artist. But I knew a number of people who made things by hand.

My senior year in high school I took a photo class and from then I organized my life around having a camera and a darkroom.

Your career seems have had a second wind with Mack's publication of South of Market and subsequent show at the de Young. What was the chain of events which led to that? How did Mack find you, and how did the work resurface so many years after the project was finished?

Chuck Mobley, the director of San Francisco Camerawork at the time, was putting together a retrospective for the 35th anniversary of the gallery. The South of Market project had shown there in 1981 so he included 6 pieces in the show. Erin O’Toole of the SFMOMA saw the work at the exhibition and offered to write an essay when I got it published. I made a book dummy and she showed it to Michael Mack when she met him at Paris Photo. He liked the work and we arranged to publish it. I owe a great deal to SF Camerawork as do we all.

Boy lifting weights, 122 Langton Street, from South of Market, Janet Delaney

It's hard for me to look through your South of Market photos without assigning them a nostalgic quality. How do you view the relationship between nostalgia and photography? Are they always intertwined? Or is it possible to make photos of historic record with no trace of nostalgia?

I remember when I was photographing in the 1980s I was very clear about not wanting these photographs to be “pretty pictures of the past”. I had specific intentions with the photographs; they were to be a document of what had been here and what was lost in the process of transforming the neighborhood from a working class neighborhood to a newly gentrified urban center. 

I can’t control how people experience the work completely but whenever I exhibit or publish the work I always include the narrative about the impact of gentrification. The stories of the neighbors are included in the text of the book and excerpts were on the wall at the de Young. We had a number of events around art and urban politics during the exhibition. But frankly, even without all of this everyone seems to sense that these images document something beyond a simple form of nostalgia.   
Nostalgia is defined as “a feeling of pleasure and sometimes slight sadness at the same time as you think about things that happened in the past”  —Cambridge English Dictionary
Why is nostalgia seen as a negative emotion? Is it because it is considered sentimental as in related to feelings rather than reason? And for some reason emphasizing feelings has negative conations. I think the critique would fall on the idea that the past was somehow better. That is a naïve assumption.

There's a shot in South of Market of you in a darkroom. I presume that was a color darkroom (can't find any b/w work by you). Did you make C-prints of your work at the time you shot it? What is your aesthetic impression of C-prints compared to more modern methods?

Janet Delaney in her darkroom at 62 Langton Street, 1981 (self portrait)
I started printing chromogenic prints (C-prints) in 1975. I worked as a color lab technician for a number of years before and during grad school. I set up my own lab with a 16” processor. I drilled holes right into the floor of my apartment to hook up the plumbing. C-prints are lovely but they fade. I now have my own digital studio. There is so much more control over the look of the image with digital. I prefer it, but I still mostly shoot film because I like the experience. I have an Imacon scanner so I can manage the whole process myself. 

I would add that there is a lovely quality to C-prints and a romantic notion to a process once it becomes a bit obsolete. I had to make a decision about the ultimate goal of my work. I determined that it was more important to make work that had a long life than to make work that was valued for its scarcity.

What music was the most productive for you in the darkroom?

Honestly I rarely listened to music in the darkroom. I find total silence works best for me. Unless I am doing something super tedious and then I listen to NPR, Ted Talks, This American Life, New Yorker Radio, Terry Gross, 99% Invisible. You can see by this list that I do a lot of tedious work!

When I am out in the world I head for Motown and Bob Marley. We all have our roots! I am working my way through Hamilton Soundtrack now.

Paris, 2003, Janet Delaney

You say you like the experience of shooting film. Can you please elaborate on that? 

There is an element of concentration that that film requires. I also like the anticipation of waiting for it to be developed. I know the medium really well so I can usually get what I want. But digital is sometimes exactly what is needed and I do use it for certain situations. I just find that I am not as careful when I know I can take a lot of images and fix things after the fact. This is not a good strategy!

As you state, contemporary digital production offers photographers a great deal of control over their images. The advantages of this are self evident. Do you see any creative disadvantages? Are control and perfection always a good thing?

There are many stylistic choices in photography. There always have been. My sensibility is to try to be as concise as possible; the materials (camera lens and paper and ink) function to communicate content, they are not the message itself. I want to tell stories about the external world so clear representation works for me. But I do enjoy work by photographers who are much looser with the medium. It may be more challenging to be “out of control” or less perfect, than it is to follow specific guidelines of color, form and focus.

You recently spoke at the 2017 SF Streetfoto Festival. Do you consider yourself a street photographer? How do you define street photography?

First the definition: 
Street photography... is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places.
Warner Marien, Mary (2012). 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 169. ISBN 978-1-85669-793-4.
I have spent hundreds of hours photographing on the street. I am compelled to do it. I feel a heightened awareness; all my senses are on alert. I am enamored with unexpected encounters with strangers. I have a particular passion for recording how we live in cities. I am not looking for the “gotcha” moment, but rather I want to record that fluid movement between people and place. 

When I put my “ street” photographs out into the public they are usually seen in the context of a larger project rather than as iconic moments of visual gymnastics. The one exception would be an ongoing project I have been shooting since about 2004 in big cities around the world using my twin lens Rollieflex. It is time to gather these up and take a look at them. I usually just file them away for later when I will magically have more time to think about them. The talk at the Streetphoto Festival was a good time to do it. But my street work is quiet, so it may read better in a book or on the wall than flying by online or in a slide talk.

Event at City Hall, 1985, Janet Delaney

Your description of street photography as "iconic moments of visual gymnastics" seems roughly accurate to me. Do you enjoy looking at that sort of photography? 

There is great excitement in getting just the right moment when everything comes together in perfect synergy. And I know from experience that some photographers are really good at capturing these moments. I am always thinking about the exact moment I click the shutter, but I am not only motivated by this. I am also interested in the quiet, long view that gains meaning in context with other images. What larger purpose do these well seen photographs serve?

Is this the style of the 2004- Rolleiflex series you mentioned? 

The work I have been doing when I travel with my Rollie is the closest to the idea of pure street shooting. By carrying my camera with me I am on visual alert. I feel more present. And when I revisit the photographs afterward I am happy to have brought a piece of time and space home with me.

My assumption looking at your current Soma Now project is that they are not shot with a view camera. Is that correct? If so, what do you think has been lost or gained in transition to the digital process?

With the SoMa Now project I am using a variety of cameras, each camera is suited for a certain kind of photograph. I use a Toya view camera, a Mamiya 7 for 120 film and a Canon 5Dr. This is a complex project so I use the camera that works best for the situation. 

Planting Bougainvilla, Yerba Buena Gardens, 2013, Janet Delaney

Since your style of photography involves exploration and reacting to the world, I'm curious what visual triggers cause you to stop and make a photograph. Why do you walk by some scenes and stop at others? Are you looking for specific things, or is it an emotional response, or how would you explain it?

I am always drawn to the light. Then I need to consider if I am being seduced or if there is actually something I want to photograph in terms of content beyond light. I like to pull together opposing forces in one image, contradictions, anomalies, or make images that respond to previous ones I’ve made. Before I travel or as I work on a project I spend a good amount of time considering the social economic situation of the place so that can inform the photographs. For instance in Athens I was interested in the condition of the older people who have lost so much as their economy cratered around them just when they thought they would retire. And with the SoMa Now project I’ve been doing extensive research on homelessness, and the tech industry.

What's your favorite place in San Francisco now?

My favorite place in San Francisco is wherever I happen to be. I find interest in absolutely all parts of this city. Even the dreaded Mission Bay can be fascinating in its blandness. 

Another answer would be Bernal Heights. This would be my ideal place to live if I could afford to live in San Francisco.  It is like a village within the city. At least that is my memory of it from when I lived there in there 1980s.

What is your favorite place that's gone?

I have to say that it is not a place that is gone but a way of being that is gone. Was it better? No, just different. It was possible to live in San Francisco without making a huge amount of money. In many ways things are better now with one major exception: Housing availability. If a city cannot house people from all income levels it gets bifurcated into being a place for the very rich and the very poor.  

Mercantile Building, Mission and 3rd Streets, 1980, Janet Delaney

Which contemporary photographers excite you most? 

I am thinking here just of photographers who are around my age or younger. In no particular order: Andres Gonzalez, Carolyn Drake, Mimi Plumb, Leon Borensztien, Cory Arnold, Lucas Foglia, Jennifer O’Keeffe, Robert Adam’s early work, J Carrier’s Elementary Calculus, Paul Graham, Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home, Mark Stienmetz. Why stop there? I am amazed at the work that is being done by so many really dedicated photographers. 

I think we share similar taste. Although yours is a diverse list they all employ a method of direct straight photography that seems to be falling more out of style with each passing year, at least on photography's leading edge as its viewed in an art context. I'm curious how you respond to or appreciate the more conceptual side of photography which seems increasingly dominant. Take the last MOMA New Photography Biennial, for example. What's your reaction to work like this?

I saw that show in New York City. Today artists are addressing the issue of abundance, indiscriminate image making, surveillance and the ability to manipulate and distribute the photograph through digital means so the language and concerns are all together different from the issues of the 1970s when I first began to work with a camera. As the tools and the society change so does the content and the form of the art.  

It may also be that when artists come of age in a moment in time that becomes their touchstone for what works for them or resonates for them. The work I saw in this exhibition was not the sort of work that I first fell in love with so I don’t have that same degree of connection to it that I might have for Eugene Atget or Robert Adams. Conversely, Robert Adams can seem remote and dry and altogether oblique. But when I first saw his book Denver, the world shifted beneath my feet. And the classical form of Atget still rings true.

I hope that the photographers working in the genres of the New Photography Biennial, 2015 have that same degree of both intellectual and emotional connection. 

Who do you think is the primary viewing audience for your work? 

That is a difficult question. I often think my viewing audience has not yet been born. I like to work slowly and think long range.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Baker's Dozen On Don't Blink

1. Hooray for a celebrity who doesn't give a shit about personal appearance. Frank's slovenly exterior positively radiates with hair ajar, shirt untucked, and last week's pants. In short, he dresses like my dad. If you passed him on the street you'd never guess he's one of the world's foremost photographers. He's long past caring and thank god it shows.

2. As frumpy as Frank appears, he's a regular Hollywood fashion icon next to Harry Smith, who makes a brief appearance in Don't Blink looking like he just woke up from a cross-country catnap. In coke bottle glasses and hirsute bramble he's the absent-minded professor gone haywire. It's long past time for a documentary film on Smith's life. I think it should be named "The Most Interesting Man In The World" a satirical take on the Dos Equis commercials. The film should debut in Portland, as he did, and feature plenty of paper airplanes. 

3. Frank outlived both of his children and must bear terrible psychic scars. Yet throughout the film he is downright charming. He falls easily into laughter and seems at peace with himself. Whatever it took for him to become emotionally centered is unimaginable to me, and 100% worth it.

4. Frank's happiness may be due in part to the fact there are no screens in his daily world. No iPhone, TV, computer, or digital viewfinder. If those things are part of his life, which I doubt, they're not shown in the film. 

5. You could hardly pick two places in North America more different in character than Mabou and New York City. Yet Frank blends seamlessly into each setting, and his presence highlights their few shared qualities: grit, grandeur, presence. Perhaps he is the only living person who could harmonize the two sites?

6. Frank's primary camera in recent years seems to be an Instax 200, a first generation plastic toy usually associated with chintzy snapshots or birthday parties. I'm guessing he no longer has the time or energy to process film and prints, or maybe he just appreciates the spontaneity and can't-undo candor of instant film. Dianas, SX-70s, 35 mm rangefinders, Brownies, and Instagram were also viewed as amateur toys initially before being adopted by fine art photographers. As a longtime Instax user, I'm hoping Frank's endorsement leads to a few converts.

7. Frank's assistant A-Chan makes a brief appearance in the film. I picked up her recent book Salt'n Vinegar several weeks back. It kicks ass.

8. The film doesn't dwell much on The Americans, which is fine because that book's already been analyzed to death. Instead Don't Blink spends more time with Frank's second monograph, The Lines Of My HandI've looked through a library copy of this book but I don't own it. It's out of print and hard to find cheap. But after seeing the film I may have to search out a used copy. The shift in style from The Americans to The Lines Of My Hand is extraordinary. Granted, the two books were separated by 14 very active years, so Frank had plenty of time to change in between. Still, I can't think of two back-to-back books by another photographer which strike such radically different visual tones. 

9. Although The Americans reveals Frank's personal view of post-war America, it's essentially a book of reportage by an outsider. The locations and subjects are unknown to Frank, and his methodology is the same as any anonymous street shooter or journalist. After beginning this way The Lines Of My Hand shifts to a nearly opposite approach. The subjects are friends, family, and familiar locations, captured by Frank using large and medium format cameras (plus film reel footage?). The images are openly manipulated for artistic effect, ceding any previous claim to documentary which The Americans may have clung to. It strikes me that in moving toward a personal style Frank has put the typical photographer's career path in reverse. Most photographers cut their teeth on friends and family before feeding later on exotic subjects, and abstraction tends to be a stronger magnet than intimacy.

10. For photographers of a certain stature, a book with Steidl is a rite of passage. You fly to Göttingen where Gerhard grants you fifteen nervewracking minutes out of his busy schedule to discuss the book. For Robert Frank, who has now done several books with Steidl, the process is slightly different. Gerhard Steidl flies to your home, then waits patiently nearby while you thumb through the book dummy. Your wife also gives feedback while lounging on the couch in her pajamas.

11. I tried slogging through Pull My Daisy once long ago. Even though I personified the film's natural fanbase —young, stoned, and passing through my Ginsberg phase — I hated it. If you ask me today what it's about I couldn't tell you. I'm not sure I'm ready to try rewatching that one but I may give some of Frank's other films a shot. Until seeing Don't Blink I hadn't realized what a prolific filmmaker he was. The latter half of his life is consumed by cinematography and it seems he's made more films than photo books. Perhaps some —Home Improvements?— are worthwhile. Of course the lens is filtered. Don't Blink is made by a moviemaker (Frank's longtime film editor Laura Israel) and those folks are naturally drawn to moviemaking as a subject. The world grows more self referential by the minute, including this sentence. 

12. One film critic praised Don't Blink with the promise to potential viewers, "those uninitiated into the cult of Robert Frank should be prepared for a wild and wonderful ride." Leaving aside the question whether Robert Frank is a cult leader, I'm not sure that many people unfamiliar with Frank will become "initiated" by the film.  The main target audience is probably folks like you and me, hard core photographers and photo junkies curious about a photographic legend. Is Robert Frank highly regarded among cinephiles, painters, hipsters? I have no idea how wide his fanbase extends, but if you don't yet know who he is this film probably won't convert you. He behaves, dresses, and speaks just like the guy next door. Would a film about your neighbor be interesting?

13. Don't Blink's musical soundtrack chosen by Hal Willner is solid throughout. Does Robert Frank listen to classic New York underground while relaxing at home? Who knows, but it helps the film along. Not only is Hal Willner a walking, talking music encyclopedia, he kinda looks like Harry Smith.