Monthly Archives: January 2009

From the Daguereotype to Photoshop?

I came across this article in the Harvard Magazine. It seems like a lot to cover in one article but it does do a good job in a fairly short space. I only had one problem with the article and it was this section

“In Brady’s placid father-son portrait, the younger James wears a military-looking jacket, its nine buttons fastened right up to the collar, and holds a wide-brimmed straw hat with a ribbon encircling the crown. The most telling detail, however, is the way the boy, who stood on a box for the picture, casually rests a forearm on his father’s shoulder. “It illustrates how people posing for portraits in the nineteenth century tried to convey their status, character, and modernity in pictures,” says Robin Kelsey, Loeb associate professor of the humanities. “The pose conveys the extent to which the elder James was a progressive and permissive parent—he grants his son an autonomy and authority that was quite unusual at the time. Most portraits of that era establish the father as the patriarch in no uncertain terms.””

That is just one read on the photo. Maybe the photographer set it up that way to have the son look as though he rests on his father because he needs his father to be the stronger man, etc. There could be a million reads on that photo and we will never no the whole story. Anyway read the article and decide for yourself.

More on Keokuk

In an earlier post I talked about two images of Chief Keokuk. One was a portrait and the other was a painting. Obviously different from each other, I did some research and found out more about them.

In March of 1847, Keokuk and his associates were in St. Louis on some sort of business from their newly established reservation in Kansas. Keokuk and his crew stopped into the studio of Thomas Easterly for a Daguerreotype portrait session. Thus they became the first Native Americans to have their portraits made inside of a American studio. Keokuk carefully prepared his dress for his portrait as one can see in the photo, but left no clues as to his intentions for his portrait. He also has a portrait of his wife and child made at the same visit. Paintings had already been made of him, and some he had even posed for. Did he understand the power of the image? Didi he only want a keepsake for himself? He had to have known how badly the paintings misrepresented his own image. Maybe he thought the photograph was a better reproduction of image.
Another interesting aside to this image is there was more than one made. The one above has the Smithsonian as a credit while the one I came across researching the image has his hand still and on the side of the cane instead of the ball of the cane. It is listed as being in the property of the Missouri Historical Society.
I will post more about this image if I come across it.

The business of photography

More often than not I get bombarded with shit about the business of photography. What about portfolio reviews? What about contests? Blah, blah, blah.
My best advice to anyone out there is to start by finding a local group of photographers and spending some time talking about your work. Share your time helping them and along the way you will end up helping each other. Go out once a week or once every two weeks and meet somewhere and spend your time talking about each other’s work. Not about who knows who or what so and so said on their blog. This way you actually get better at what you do and the work gets better over time. When you really have something good, then work on getting it out there. Bombard everyone you know and can find of importance with the work. If it truly is good someone will recognize it.
I have a certain group of people I have formed relationships with over the years, most of whom are local and I often show my work to them to get some feedback. A lot of times things make sense in my head but when I talk about them to others I often realize that the thoughts were not clear at all. So I ask questions, take some notes, take a big dose of humility, and go home and get back to work. The best part about all of this is it is free. Not 700 dollars to put your work in front of a group of people who are quite often there for their own greedy intentions and not yours.
I know some people say to network with everyone you can and develop these relationships. While I know that can be beneficial, in the end if your work ain’t good, it ain’t good and everyone else will see it. Make the work first and then start kissing ass. If it really is good, most people will kiss your ass.
Now don’t get me wrong. Portfolio reviews can be helpful, if you are finished with the work and it truly is bad ass. There is a chance you might get somewhere following that avenue. There are many other avenues as well and usually the most creative ideas for promotion come from the most creative people and end up getting them the farthest.
A while back I worked for an artist who was a genius when it came to self promotion. He could spend a couple of hundred dollars or less and get his work in front of way more than five reviewers. Be creative and keep at it.
Now go out and find some local artists like yourself and start critiquing.

I promise that after this I will never again talk about the business of photography. From now on only images, ideas, and books.

Photography and the Native American

I came across this in the Martha Sandweiss book Print The Legend.

In the mid 1980′s, Texas photographer Skeet McAuley traveled throughout the Southwest making color photographs that documented the ways in which contemporary Indian peoples, particularly Navajo and White Mountain Apache, lived within a modern landscape shaped by mining, tourism, and tract housing, as well as by long standing ceremonial practices. Explicit about making his project one of exchange, he collaborated with Mike Mitchell, a medicine man at the Navajo Community College (now Dine College), showing him copies of his work, taping his responses, and translating and transcribing these comments for publication in a book with the photographs themselves. Mitchell’s readings of the pictures make starkly clear the culture-bound nature of photographic understanding and the capacity of photographs to convey different information to different readers. Indeed, he suggests, knowledge lies at least as much within the mind of the viewer as within the photograph itself. Where a non-native viewer might see the photograph of a concrete irrigation ditch and contemplate the impact of expanding populations on a fragile desert environment, Mitchell sees the photograph as a meditation on the holiness of water and its sacred place in the Navajo life. The picture of a tourist standing in a Monument Valley hogan bedecked with trinkets might trigger thoughts about the commodification of culture and the impact of tourism on Indian life. Mitchell seems not to even notice the young white tourist, seeing instead the spirituality of the hogan; “life lies inside, hope is inside, love lies inside.” Photographs are not necessarily a universal form of communication, conveying the same thing to all viewers; what is clearly present and visible to him remains unseeable and unknowable to others. Photographs may reveal, but they can also conceal. Visual evidence is not the same as knowledge; indeed, knowledge comes first, a prerequisite to the interpretation and understanding of visual evidence. The historical photographs stored away in museums and libraries may reveal less about their subjects than some observers fear; they whisper their secrets most loudly to those who already know what they are.

Ansel vs. Robert in the Adams showdown

What can these two images tell us about the West? One will tell you the west is an ugly place and the other will tell you it is beautiful. Were the intentions of the photographers any different? And by different I mean were there final intentions, aka the viewers lingering thoughts on the image any different?

Ansel and Robert both wanted to save the West. They went about it in very different ways. Ansel made pictures that tugged at your heart strings and made you want to sign a petition to rope off some area from development. Robert made photos that made what we are doing seem so silly, ugly, and lonely. I often think of the photo of the silhouette in the window of the home and it makes me feel a million miles from everyone else on the planet.

A good friend of mine once said that every landscape photograph ever taken was about one of two things. Either paradise or paradise lost. In a way I could not agree with him more but part of me wants to know that there is another way of looking at things without having them boiled down to one or the other.

Can the landscape be something else? Can a landscape be beautiful if it doesn’t inspire breathtaking emotion? Or is it just our view of the landscape and our constant guilt of destroying Eden? Before we fenced it all off and divided it up, it belonged to someone else. Although they had no concept of ownership, they did have a concept of boundaries and often squabbled over them.

Both Robert and Ansel used photography as a way of getting their point across. Ansel made technically complicated images that pushed the very limits of photography and created images that existed only in his imagination. Robert made images that pushed the envelope of what we refer to as landscape photography and at the same time questioned our path into the future. Both were successful in generating sympathy for their cause. Both were successful in generating beautiful images. Where does the future of landscape imagery lie when the environment of thinking has changed very little in the years since Robert or even Ansel?

Making everything worth nothing

Following the events of yesterday’s plane crash in the Hudson, it got me thinking about civilian photo-journalism. With all of the newspapers going down the proverbial toilet, they are desperate to save a buck here and there. All of us are. But then we have everyone on the planet carrying around a camera and desperate for their 15 seconds of fame. So up go the Twitter and Flickr posts, newspapers use them for free and here we are. Photos that have no monetary value. In the end this is going to screw us all, I promise you. When we give away everything for free, we completely devalue everything.
What I am driving at here is this. The blog. Here it is. Free and easily consumed by all. I am giving away these words but at the same time I am setting their value at 0. So now everyone can see what I have to say and for free. At the same time however I am guaranteeing that others will not ever want to pay for this sort of thing ever again. Hence the reasons newspapers and the press are hurting so bad. Why pay fifty cents for a newspaper to read the news when you can go online and read it all for free as well as fifty umpteen million different takes on the event ala the blogging world.
So why you may ask would I blog while complaining about the very same thing? That is a question that I have no real answer for.

Michael Eastman’s Vanishing America

A few months ago I came across the work of Michael Eastman in a gallery in Santa Fe. The prints were enormous and beautiful, yet so large that I could never imagine owning one. So goes the trend in modern photography I suppose, but there were a few photos from that show that really stuck in my mind. When Rizzoli contacted me about reviewing the book I really wanted to see how the work translated from prints to book form.

I grew up in a town that could have easily been the central focus for this book. The stores are all closing down and everyone drives an hour or more away to shop now. The only thriving businesses are bars and the only places to fill the seats are churches. The mid-west is full of towns exactly the same, boarded up and closed for business.

When the book arrived I was a little surprised by the size. At 192 pages it seemed a little hefty. Not that I mind getting more bang for the buck, but quantity and quality do not always go hand in hand. Eastman has been photographing for the past thirty years on this project allowing for much fodder to choose from. Upon opening the book I found not only an enormous amount of pages, but even more photos.

The book’s layout is one of my greatest complaints. Quite often in the book there are two or three photos on one page with no border in between and butted right up against one another. While this does allow for multitudes of photos in the book it does not allow for many of the photos to be looked at without others distracting from it.

Eastman’s list of influences has to include many of the 20th century masters. He has an amazing eye and a superb talent for making great photos. His talent works especially well on the signage of yesteryear and the patterns created by them. These dilapidated words on the wall write our past and at the same time tell of where our future is headed.

The book is loaded down with nostalgia for times and places that have been forgotten. We all have a certain pang of remembrance for the America that has been lost and often romanticize it even though it is our own choices that have left it behind. The world of Interstates has bypassed Main Street and there is little we can do about it on our current cultural and social path. Eastman seems to be able to find wonder and beauty in this decay. The work is devoid of people, yet at the same time cannot live without them. The human presence is everywhere in the work. The booths in the diners, the chairs along the wall, and the writing on the blinds all have a museum-like quality about them.

In the end this book has less of an effect on me than seeing the work in person. It has nothing to do with the size of the images, in fact the large prints do less for me than the images in the book do, but the show contained a tightly knit group of images edited down from the book. The gallery group did a better job of creating emotion and informing the viewer than did the multitude of images within the book.

If your penchant is for a time gone by and a love for Main Street America then this may well be the book for you. Eastman has an amazing ability for seeing the architecture and covered framework of what once was America, a country of small towns all building and dreaming towards something greater.