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 na├»ve 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 G├Âttingen 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.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Ain't but a good nothing man bad photography feeling

"If I knew how to take a good photograph, I'd do it every time." said Robert Doisneau long ago. True dat. But isn't dat part of photography's charm? Some photos work and some don't, and at the point of exposure it's hard to know which will be which. Make a photo too "good" and you might kill your darling. Spice it up with imperfection and you could do the same. Even if you stage the thing like Doisneau there's generally no telling until later how it turned out. Sometimes it's years later. Evaluation gets downright murky when you consider variables like context, reproduction quality, sequencing, intention, appropriation, or whether the viewer just went through a bad breakup, or forgot to feed the cat earlier, or is just plain sick of the color blue, or whatever. Yes, "good" is a goddamn mystery and that's how it should be hallelujah. 

But don't tell that to the computer programmers and stock photo companies. Both worlds operate under clearly delineated rules regarding "good". Pair them up and you might get something like the EveryPixel Aesthetics Test, a plug-in evaluative tool which measures a stock photo's "awesome" rating on a scale of 1 to 100. Just drag and drop any photo into the site and its algorithm returns a number. Then you toss the photos with low numbers and Presto —only the nuggets remain! Suddenly, winnowing out the "good" photos is as easy as reading a kitchen thermometer. Doisneau, you missed out. 

I know, I know, the test is silly. But still incredibly tantalizing for someone like me who doesn't know how to take a good photo every time. No sooner had Karl sent me a link to the beta version, along with a DP Review blurb, than I was feeding cows into the machine, images into the machine.

What would the algorithm think of, say, Daisuke Yokota?



According to Everypixel this image has a 12.1% chance of being "awesome". 



Eggleston?



Odds of awesome: 79.8%. Hmm. Not bad. 

Cathie Opie with a mustache, on the other hand? 



The computer's not feeling it. Just 0.7% awesome. 

How about Todd Hido?



Worst so far, 0.2% chance of being awesome. 

Darnit if this thing ain't harder to pin down than a harpooned hippo on a banana tree. How about Kendall Jenner holding a Pepsi? By my own reckoning, and judging by the recent backlash against this scene, the odds of this image being awesome should be quite low. Can we get computer confirmation?



Everydaypixel disagrees. 97.4% chance of being awesome! 

But hold on. Change the scene just slightly...



...and the photo returns a near opposite result, 0.0% chance of awesome. 

Wha? Does not compute. Then again I'm not a computer. But from where this human sits, the algorithm appears to judge arbitrarily. A dartboard, coin flip, or international panel of judges might return similar verdicts. Perhaps the program follows some digital Potter Stewart litmus, "I can't define awesome but I know it when I see it." I honestly doisneau. Nor do I know how to make a good photo any better than before, and I don't think Everypixel's creators know either. 

In situations like this there's only one thing to do. Feed some porn into the machine.



Is this a great photo? Even without a computer I'd say nope. The composition is terrible. Why are all the faces cut off, and what's with the big vacant space to the right? And the whole thing suffers from overexposure. 

Everypixel agrees: big fat 0.0% chance of awesome. 



I should note that this shot isn't a total loss. It generates some positive keywords: Togetherness, Relaxation, and Group of People, for example. I'd think that when considered as an online jpg, the tag Alone And Naked might also apply. But for some reason it's not included in the list. It doesn't matter. Despite all the great keywords —Lifestyles?— they're not enough to return an "awesome" verdict. And I agree with the computer on this one. Looking at this photo now it seems hard to remember what made it so thrilling just a few short minutes ago. It was 100% awesome then! But now it's just kinda, meh, whatever. 

Any porn image easily belies the myth that a computer can evaluate aesthetics. Because a photograph is more than a list of keywords. Its power depends sometimes on emotion, mood, libido, and a thousand other human variables — things no algorithm can measure. With porn, duh. But the same is true about any photo. 

As suggested earlier, context plays a role too. A photo from an old science experiment might be 0.0% awesome if it's archived in a drawer in an institutional setting. Put that same photo in a book by Sultan and Mandel, and it turns out it was 100% awesome all along. But beware. If you forget your copy of Evidence in the YMCA shower stall, the photo slinks back again to 40% awesome, if you can unstick the pages. 

I'm not the first to gripe about the Everypixel ratings. Many readers of the DP Review article had the same initial impulse as me: toss photos into it and see what happens. And like me, many commenters questioned the results. This one sums it up: "tl;dr: If your goal is art, this is not your rating site. If your goal is to sell stock images, it might be." At this point it's probably good to take a step back and remember the Everypixel algorithm was designed only to judge stock photos. Fine art and porn are different animals entirely, requiring different levels of bestiality, discourse, and intercourse.


U.S.A.'s Most Wanted Painting

Still, the question remains, what exactly is "awesome"? Is there any way to measure it? Several years back Vitaly Komar and Alexy Melamid applied the question to paintings. Their Most Wanted Paintings project used professional market research to determine which paintings were "good" and "bad" according to general aesthetic preference. As with the Everypixel algorithm, quality was broken down into a list "good" metrics —for example preferred size of painting, sharp angles vs. curves, and preferred season. The compiled results, organized by country, are perhaps unsurprising. People in America like medium-sized pastoral scenes, and dislike small abstractions. Fair enough. Whether or not that's a scientific measurement of "good" is another question. 

Komar and Melamid also studied songs using the same research methods. They polled musical taste, then created songs to match general preferences. Surprise, surprise, turns out people really don't like to hear bagpipes, kids singing, accordion, wildly fluctuating tempos, or songs that last forever. Komar and Melamid's Most Unwanted Song incorporates all of these elements and more. By all accounts it should be terrible, and a computer algorithm might rate it poorly. 


Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, 1984

But the thing is, The Most Unwanted Song is actually pretty interesting. Some (like myself) might even call it "good". It's got a bit of everything, bouncing through all sorts of motifs, rhythms, and styles over 21+ minutes. Perhaps that's why the The Most Unwanted Song has become a staple of underground radio over the past twenty years. I've played it on my own show, and just last week I heard it on KWVA while driving. The song gets around, at least on the left side of the dial. In almost every way it's more enjoyable than its terrible partner generated by the same methods, The Most Wanted Song. I dare anyone out there to like it. So we're back to square one. What is good music? Who knows?

Of course, polling human taste is slightly different than using a computer algorithm. A musical version of Everypixel which attempted to identify "good" music based on digital sound tests would likely return ridiculous results. It might claim, for example, that Grammy winning songs are 100% awesome, or that all Auto-Tuned songs are awesome, or that John Cage or Harry Partch are 0% awesome. As with photos, the aesthetic variables surpass the capability of computers, at least for now.

One key aspect of The Most Unwanted Song's "goodness" is its originality. The song marches to the beat of its own competing drummers. I know of no other song which sounds remotely similar. Originality and authenticity are highly valued in all the arts, photography included. But they might be hard for a computer program to measure. An algorithm which blindly assigns "awesome" to original works without taking into account other factors might value just about anything different. Strawberries on bubblewrap? Old album covers turned into poetry? Cutout photos of a giant spider and termite mounds? 


Pattern of Activation (jumping spider, termite cathedral mounds, growth potential), 2015, Katja Novitskova


Judging music as an art form may be more problematic than photography, because "bad" music is so easy to enjoy. Anyone can be entertained by Mrs. Miller or Sam Sacks. By any objective standard these outsider songs are awful, but that's exactly what makes them "good". I regularly improve songs by running them through an MP3 reverser. They're better almost every time. Everyone loves to sing along to bad songs on the radio alone in the car when no one's listening. It feels "good". And don't get me started on Blues music, which ain't nothing but a good man feelin' bad, even when the MP3 is reversed.

The thing about music is that most people have an inner barometer. Play someone a song and they'll tell you within a few seconds if it's "good" or not. Show those same people a photo —any photo, but especially a fine art photo— and they'll have no idea. So if music has issues, photography's are even worse, on the human front as well as the digital realm.

But that hasn't kept folks from trying to formulate "good" photos. Ken Rockwell has given it a shot. So have various others. Just last week, Mike Johnston weighed in. By his reasoning "Cool with a warm accent" is one avenue to photo goodness. Could be. Depends. I've seen this book kicking around bookstores recently. The title cuts right to the chase: Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs. I haven't read this so I can't comment in depth, but I suspect a book called Use This Title If You Want To Sell Books would be more likely to fulfill its promise. Or maybe a title like TogethernessRelaxation, And Group of People, the cover helped along with a naked couch scene?
le Flamant rose, Camargue, 1947, Robert Doisneau

Thinking about what a "good" photo is or isn't, I'm reminded of the first and only photo class I took about twenty-five years ago. One of the last assignments was to take a "bad" photo on purpose. A bad photo? Why, that's easy. You shake the camera during exposure, or set the meter wrong, or crop out the subject, or mis-develop the film. There are all sorts of ways to screw up. 

I think you can guess what happened. That assignment produced the most interesting photographs of the entire class, the photographic equivalent of outsider music. Were they "good"? Hard to say, but they were 100% awesome to us in that moment.

The good/bad equation hasn't changed much since the advent of computers. Making a good photo now is just as hard as it was during Doisneau's lifetime. It's as futile as trying to winnow out good people from bad ones. How do you draw a line in the sand through a person? Such a clean dichotomy is ridiculous, the province of racists, xenophobes, or the poor lonely simpleton in the White House. As elections sometimes show, good things happen to bad men and woman regularly, which they may indeed feel good about. Religions have never successfully explained that one, nor why bad things happen to good people. As for good photos which fare worse over time, it's best not to judge unless you're a machine, which was Doisneau's point all along.

Would a "good" person inject porn filth into blog post, knowing that post was likely to be shared with young children during family prayer that evening? Would he release the drivel early Saturday morning during the news cycle's cellar, then tweet and hype it like crazy on social media? Would a "good" person do that? Isn't that something a bad hombre would do? And if that person knew how to write a good post, wouldn't he do it every time? Goodness knows.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Photolucida

Andy Mattern
Photolucida hit Portland this past weekend, just as it does every other April. It's always fun to pop in on the evening Portfolio walk to get a sampling of what's happening out there in photo land, or at least in its more ambitious nether regions. The conference tagline promises "you'll see more photography in one evening than most people see in a lifetime," which sounds like hyperbole until you realize it's kinda true. The event lasts a full three hours, which is just barely enough time to see everything, but only if you drink a big cup of coffee before, pace yourself, and don't dawdle. Last Thursday I indulged... As with prior Photolucidas typology projects were out in force, including efforts from Stephen Seidenberg, Kevin Schick, Max Kellenberger, Katie Harwood, Jane Szabo among others. My favorite was Andy Mattern's collection of strangely taped darkroom paper boxes, one of those WTF ideas that shouldn't work on paper, not to mention paper boxes, but won me over. I recognized the graphic design of my personal favorite, Ilford Glossy Fiber Multigrade, its box masked and scraped up into a Rothko-style abstraction. That image set the hook, and the full set was duly rewarding... Mattern may have been the only one focused on box covers, but bygone tools of the trade were a common theme as subject matter. I suppose now that the era of film has officially passed, it can be examined at arm's length as an historic or ironic or nostalgic process, or maybe all three. In any case photos of film are usually made now digitally. The
Kent Krugh
war is over, and history is written by the victors... 
Kent Krugh was one such author. His X-ray photos of old film cameras were just odd enough to be intriguing. I felt I'd seen something similar before, but where?..Oh yes, the airport security line! OK, maybe the idea is a one-trick pony but Krugh's clean presentation and soft printing —I could've sworn they were watercolors before examining closely— gave these prints a warm charm. Somehow X-rays seem both topical and foreboding, considering the surveillance state currently surrounding us, the increasing prevalence of security scans required for entrance to all sorts of places, and my broken femur.... Alan Ostreicher continued the tools-of-the-trade motif, treating celluloid itself as the subject. His photogram-style montages of film strips and film sheets hung on the verge of complete abstraction. .. Ostreicher was just the tip of the silhouette iceberg, as several other Photolucidans explored Plato's cave, theorizing various forms and outlines. I guess folks miss making photograms in the darkroom. Or else missed out on darkrooms entirely. For whatever reason, two dimensional shapes seem to be having a moment. Kerry Mansfield, Diane Pierce, Hilary AtiyehBill Westheimer, Randi Ganulin, and Rachel Wolf each explored the territory... Of course the so-called "real" world of three dimensions was represented too, albeit in limited quantities, unless you consider a
JK Lavin
studio the real world. JK Lavi
n's gorgeous nightscapes were so entrancing I had to sift through the whole box. She makes these images with a handheld camera in near pitch black conditions, with exposures ranging from 15 seconds on up. The resulting images blur suburban scenery, trees, and Hidoesque light sources into bewitching frames bridging the gap between photogram and visual krautrock... Before seeing Peter Andrew Lusztyk's aeriel shots of highway interchanges I'd never laughed out loud at suburban wastelands. But Lusztyk's godlike perspective and clean framing allowed their all too real absurdity to ding my funny bone, and made me wonder if civic planners might possess an untapped inner artist.... Luc Busquin also used a plane to capture the social landscape from above, with mixed results. His photos were perfectly composed, and a few were absolute gems. But maybe that was the problem. They were too perfect. When you see 30 such photos in a group you begin to doubt if reality is an unplanned mess after all. And when you see 100 such perfect portfolios in a room...well, you begin to wonder what's real and what isn't. If the plain worldly presentation of, say, Walker Evans or Eugene Atget was nowhere to be found on Thursday, that's just the nature of the beast. Photolucida has always been less about photographs than photographers. So it stands to reason that most Photolucidans can't help injecting a big dose of themselves into their work. Although straight photos with a twist of the absurd are my photo drink of choice, I realize a place like Photolucida isn't the best hunting ground for such material... Street photographs can hit a nerve of reality sometimes, and every biennial iteration seems to include at least one old school street bro hanging around the scene like a round lens on a square hole. This year it was Jim Lustenader. His monochrome silver prints fit the "street" brief perfectly, but with only moderately interesting results... Thomas Alleman isn't exactly a street photographer but he has that snooping, voyueristic instinct and a nose for serendipitous composition. He basically hunts with his eye, then sorts
Thomas Alleman
later. In 
other words, a photographic dinosaur. But I'm happy to report his eye ain't bad. Alleman has moved on from his earlier vein of monochrome Holga into straight up color fill-flash. His recent photographs of Los Angeles flowers in spring showed a deft touch for position and framing. But the biggest lesson of Alleman wasn't his photos. It was watching him network expertly with the passing crowd. He has an outgoing, don't-I-know-you? personality custom tailored for portfolio reviews... The evening's prize for most disturbing photographs went to Rebecca Martinez. Her portraits of Nazi re-enactors somehow normalized and creepified her subjects at once. Stacy Kranitz had shot the same crazy freaks but in a more immersive, less clinical way. By contrast Martinez was an objective sharpshooter. Her lighting was vaguely romantic, the German army uniforms spotless, the faces smug. "Do these people enjoy dressing up like this?" I asked her. She replied that it was just about their favorite thing in the world, but she needn't have said anything. Her photos absolutely stung.... They were almost as disconcerting as the nearby celebrity portraits composited from online porn jpgs. Finally, the huuuge dick in the White House had been atomized to essential components! Mel Gibson and George Bush too. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of this photographer. I grabbed cards as I went and by the end of the evening my pockets were stuffed, but somehow the Trump-Porn creator escaped me. Does anyone know?... After three hours my photo receptors were fried, so I decamped with friends to a nearby film strip club for debriefing. I can only imagine how the Photolucidans felt. They'd been through not only the evening's festivities but an
Photolucida
entire day of reviews earlier that day. And that was day one of four to come. Whew! To participate in such a grueling ritual requires a level of preparation, polish, and chutzpah that I can't really imagine. These folks have their two minute elevator pitch down, their portfolios edited and re-edited, their takeaways ready, hair combed and palms dry. I get exhausted just thinking about it. I mean holy shit, at this point
the gig is basically a business convention with demographics to match. The general age, social class, and professionalism of participants has matured steadily since I attended the very first Photolucida (then called PhotoAmericas) in 2000. Is it my imagination or did they allow in more of the sandals-and-shorts crowd back then? Maybe it was before the security scanners? Not that I'm a good judge. I'm out of the photo loop, and have never been in the business loop. But I still have great fun peeking in on the scene every two years, and seeing all the local associated exhibitions... Anyhoo, it's now monday and the storm has passed. I imagine that in Portland this morning a lot of belts were being loosened, alarm clock snooze buttons hit, and breathes exhaled. Maybe a few participants achieved complete satisfaction, and a larger pool connected with a dealer or learned something about themselves or somehow got their money's ($1200?) worth. I appreciate all the Photolucidans for making the event what it is. I certainly can't complain when a big chunk of photoland parks itself nearby for a weekend. Hey reviewees, good luck in the future. Break a leg. Get it X-rayed. Just wish you'd stop moving here