THE PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIVERSE: A CONFERENCE MARCH 2-3, 2011

For those of you who are as into more than just the latest digital gear, this will be something worth attending.

The Photography Program in the School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsonsthe New School for Design, The Aperture Foundation,Vera List Center for Art and Politics, and The Shpilman Institute for Photography have joined forces to organize The Photographic Universe: A Conference, a unique two-day symposium that will bring together a range of leading practitioners, scientists, theo reticians, historians, and philosophers, drawing from the faculty at Parsons, professionals in the science and technology fields, as well as prominent experts from external institutions, to consider and reflect on current discussions in photog raphy at a pivotal moment in its history. This unprecedented conference will take place at Theresa Lang Center, New School located at 55 West 13th Street, 2nd Floor in New York.

The field of photography is constantly changing. Technologies, theories, and what consti tutes a ‘photographer’ or a ‘photograph’ are prone to unending developments. In the last decade, this rapid transformation has only accelerated due to pervasive digitization. Paradoxically, one might say that photography is now in a simi lar place to where it was during the first few decades of its invention––a time when its emerging cultural significance quickly expanded due to innovative technological developments. Similarly, in the last two decades, we have seen an expanding definition of photography through the digital revolution, the Internet, and the accelerated stream of interest in new photographic processes and applications. Thus, it is impor tant to reflect on this current moment – with the rapidly increasing permeation of photography throughout contemporary life – on what is the importance of photography as a specific medium or discipline from the perspective of a practitioner, user, pedagogue, technologist, historian, among others. Furthermore, how can we evaluate contemporary culture within the expanding photographic field while speculating the future of images? The Photographic Universe: A Conference will attempt to answer these questions through broad artistic, scientific, cultural, sociopolitical arcs to examine the implications of images in contemporary life.

The unique format of the conference will consist of one-on-one conversations between two individuals from disparate professional and research backgrounds. Each speaker will present a ten-minute presentation on the subject of photography, followed by twenty-minute dialogue responding to each other’s presentation.

Guest speakers include: Richard Benson, Walter Benn Michaels, Charlotte Cotton, Andrea Geyer, David Reinfurt, Trevor Paglen, Penelope Umbrico, James Welling, representatives from Adobe Systems and Google, among others.

Additional conference details are available at photographicuniverse.parsons.edu.

Back to school

I once wrote about the idea of teaching art as a profession. It is something that has been in my sights for the last 6 or 7 years while I messed around with countless other professions and artistic endeavors. I originally thought I might like to teach at the college level but after much thought, a good look at the job market, and a desire not end up teaching somewhere like Oklahoma Panhandle State University, I decided I would enjoy teaching at the High School level much more. I recently began the Master’s in Art Education program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia which will (hopefully) lead to gainful employment as a teacher. I am already knee deep in books, taking three classes and teaching a class on Art Education and Technology to undergrads so my proverbial plate is full at this moment.

Now I could have gone the MFA route and I actually considered it quite thoroughly, but in the end I wanted to learn more about teaching and work on my own art on the side. While an MFA might push my work to a new and different level, the opportunities to study teaching are very limited. I know quite a few programs where you get little to no teaching experience and little to any teaching instruction. I won’t go into that too deeply because it is not the topic of this particular entry.

Now when I was younger I could have never imagined myself teaching. I had very little respect for school and while I was off the charts on every test they gave me, I was lucky to achieve a C in most classes. I didn’t want to do the work involved and I was not really interested in learning at the pace that was set before me by the institution, at least not during High School. During my early educational years I was part of a Gifted and Talented program and it was the only time in school I can truly remember being challenged, at least until I finally decided to go to college where I met such great ass kickers like James Friedman, Patrick Manning, Andre Ruesch, Patrick Nangatani, and the person who probably motivated me the most ever, Adrienne Salinger.

These kinds of teachers inspired me, pushed me, and nearly drove me over the edge a few times but they forced me to ask harder and harder questions of myself, my art, and of the world around me. Having been a part of these classes made me to think about what it was I wanted to do after I graduated and went into some sphere of the art world. I can think of no greater job than bringing that out of someone else. I will always make and create art and give away as much time as possible doing things to help within the larger community of art, but like everyone who wasn’t born with a trust fund, I need a job and a career that I can feel good about.

So over the next couple of years my photography ramblings will be interspersed with teaching anecdotes and loads of other fun stuff. Pay no mind if they start to sound incomprehensible at some points, I do have to read about 30 or so books a semester so my mind may be a little fried. In the meantime I will continue to make as much art as I can possibly crank out and will share with you all as much as I can.

Damn you Adobe!

I had the unthinkable happen today. My entire Adobe Creative Suite quit working. Two hours on the phone with Umesh at Adobe customer support got things up and running and a reinstall of everything seem to do the trick. Thanks for fixing that problem Adobe. I do appreciate it. The only problem was that Umesh, via remote desktop, cleared my entire Adobe product catalog, which also included a copy of InDesign CS4 which I no longer have the install CD for. Emails and phone calls back to Adobe yielded no results and to be quite honest I was tired of being on the phone.

Fortunately, if you own a legit copy of Adobe products they keep records of your serial numbers on products you have purchased from them and registered. A simple login at Adobe will get you to this info. Next I went to download another copy of InDesign CS4 from Adobe to punch in my serial number on. No such luck. Adobe removes all links to old versions. We are now on to CS5.

Another stroke of luck brought me to someone’s site who did some serious digging and came up with a link to tons of old versions of Adobe products which they still have on their site available for download. Why Adobe doesn’t have this list is beyond me. Here is the link http://technolux.blogspot.com/ Whoever this is saved my ass. An hour of downloading InDesign CS4 and punch in my old serial number and voila.

I hope this helps someone else in the future and saves some time and heartache.

Serendipity

I took a long trip with my wife recently around the Northeast and had the chance to look at quite a bit of work while we were out. One thing that constantly kept nagging at me was serendipity and photography.

My first encounter with serendipity on the trip was driving through the New York countryside and coming across the Aperture warehouse and bookstore. Both my wife and I were slightly confused seeing the sign as we zipped through town so we turned around and headed back. I finally bought a copy of Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places and my wife bought an August Sander portrait book. We brought the dog into the bookstore and spent an hour or two just looking at books.

Later in the trip I picked up a copy of Helen Levitt’s Slideshow and really got to thinking about how serendipity plays such a huge part in the photos in that book that are successful to me. Personally I could edit that book down to about ten photographs that I think are excellent and the rest are only so-so to me. The photos that are by far the best in my mind are the photos that contain, and I really hate to use this word but I have no other word for it, punctum. There I said it. The elements of the photos that could have only happened by being in the exact right place at the exact right moment and having one if not more magical things happening bring it home for me. Don’t get me wrong here, there are many other photos that are successful on a level of visual elements and geometric elements and even wonderful use of color but most of them just don’t make the grade in my book. I need something more.

That’s where good old serendipity comes into play.

I picked up another book of street photography by a photographer whose name I can’t even recall now. It was a Blurb book, self published, and contained black and white street photography from the last decade. Using the same editing measures I had just used I edited this book down to one photo. One out of about 75. Again there was lots of well taken photos in here but only one hit me on a level that I would consider worthy of memory.

Part of this has to do with the sheer amount of photos I have seen in the last 15 years. I have graduated to a different level of looking at photography and enjoy photography on my own terms now and not just the ideas handed to me by my teachers and peers over the years. I don’t think by any means that this is the way that everyone should look at photography. I think everyone needs to develop there own ideas about what they enjoy and find successful in photography. This is also not the only thing I look for when looking at photographs, it is just something I have recently become conscious of in my own likes and dis-likes when it comes to looking at photos.

I look at a lot of contemporary work and I feel that a lot of it is missing this element of serendipity. For the record here, I don’t believe this is the only thing that can or does make work successful, but is just one added element among many. It is however one of those elements that can push a photo over the edge for me into a photo that I just can’t forget. It is something I often look for in my own work and when I am out photographing. Sometimes the serendipity is simply discovering a place to photograph, sometimes it is one element juxtaposed against another, and sometimes it is just magic.

I was reminded of this once again when I went to see the Richard Avedon fashion show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was once again admiring the photograph of Dovima with the elephants. Story has it that Avedon was walking by, saw the elephants, saw the lighting and had to make the photo. Avedon had a flair for waiting for the exact right moment to click the shutter. Considering he was using an 8×10 most of the time this makes it all the more amazing.

Vision vs. equipment

How much effect does your equipment have on your photography? Someone once told me that vision dictates photography, but I would be one to argue that equipment dictates a sizable chunk of the way one photographs. Take for instance 8×10 versus 35mm. Two completely different cameras and two completely different ways of thinking. Granted, you could possibly make the exact same photographs in many circumstances, unless we are talking about action/ sports photography or the likes. Not only does it change the way you shoot your images but the cameras have two very different effects on the people you are photographing (if you are a portrait kind of person).

I know I treat my digital SLR very differently from my 4×5 and I treat the images I make very differently as well. 4×5′s get scanned and stored in a laborious process so I don’t make very many images with the 4×5. I have to have the presence of mind and some foresight to even bring it along on a trip with me. My SLR I throw around like like a yo-yo often not even looking through the viewfinder. It often becomes an extension of my body and I experiment constantly with it. In some ways it is my sketch book for projects I intend to work on in a serious manner. It is also often a light meter, yes I said a light meter, for my 4×5 work. You would be surprised at how close the digital capture is at matching 4×5 slide film.

I also know of people who often go out looking for things to shoot relative to the equipment they are using. Take the Lens Baby phenomenon for instance. While I find it mind blowing that people spend thousands of dollars on a digital SLR and then slap a $2 plastic lens on it, many people enjoy the nostalgia and organic feel it brings to the photographs. It is a mere reaction to the perfection of the digital world and will undoubtedly continue. Although I would hope with less expensive cameras. Seriously, a Holga is only like twenty bucks.

So how much of your photography is determined by vision and how much by equipment? Does the equipment take over at some point?

Adam Clark Vroman

I have spent the last week looking at the work of Adam Clark Vroman. I have long been interested in how the work of late nineteenth and early twenty century landscape photographers have dictated my own, if not others views of the West. Vroman is a kind of link between the early western expansion and survey photographers of Jackson, O’Sullivan, and Hillers and the later more sentimental landscape works of Weston, and Ansel. Take a good look at the landscape work of Vroman and you will see what I mean.


image from the Andrew Smith Gallery

Vroman was not a professional photographer, at least not by today’s silly standard of making more than half your money from photography. Vroman instead owned a bookstore in Pasadena California (which is still open by the way) and he often made trips to the Southwest over a period of ten years photographing landscapes and portraits. His photos he mainly gave away to friends, subjects, writers, and other intellectuals with an interest in the Southwest. Most of his prints were platinum and he never exhibited them.

Now a hundred years later he has become quite a historical figure in photography. HIs prints are bought and collected on a regular basis.

Vroman spent years photographing the Hopi and the Navajo at a time when Western tourism was rearing its ugly head for the first time. The hand held camera had recently democratized photography to the general masses and tourists were likely to pay Natives for a chance to photograph them. By 1902 Hopi Indians had actually restricted photographers to a small area during their their Snake dance. Whether or not Vroman was considered part of the problem still remains a mystery to me. The way he describes photographing a Native portrait seems to be more of an exchange of conversation, description, patience, and eventually prints from the session, seems to me to remove him from that category of camera toting tourist and put him into a documentary / ethnographic category.

The Vroman collection consists of 2400 negatives, mostly glass plate, and a selection of original prints. The collection was purchased by the Los Angeles County schools audio visual division and promptly forgotten about until 1957.

I find the work of Vroman quite beautiful, much as I find the work of Adams, Weston, and Strand beautiful. But my mind stops there on this kind of work. I find it meditative and I marvel at the technical prowess of the photographers, especially during a time of limited technology. I have spent more than my fair share of time working in large format out in the field and even today wit the advances in film and darkroom, it is still a laborious process, but that is part of the reason I do it. It slows me down.

I see this type of work still being made. Take a look at Flickr or even the APUG group and you will see it by the thousands. I even make work that echoes the sentiments of this type of work but I have a much greater task in mind. I want people to question this type of work and the effect that it has upon our sentiments. I want people to understand the power this type of photography has over us and its virtues as well as its downfalls. I need the viewer to think, not just meditate.

in name only

Has anyone else noticed the disturbing trend in the fiction book world lately? You know, the one where the author’s name is now huge and the title of the book is small. I realize the book industry is in a bit of flux here but this is very strange indeed. Imagine if artists started marketing their work this way. Wouldn’t it be strange to see a large panel with a small painting or photograph and a huge name?

OK I get it. Books are different. The goodness is on the inside and the outside is just a package to sell it, but I am talking about a more disturbing trend that has been with art for quite some time. The trend of artists selling work and viewers buying work on name only.

Name recognition, while being a powerful marketing tool, is by no means a judge of quality. For instance, I had a friend once who in the midst of a conversation about photography said the following blanket statement: “I love (insert artist name here). I just love everything he does.” The rest of the conversation went a little something like this.

Me: You love (artist’s name)?
friend: Absolutley.
me: You know him?
friend: Well, no not personally, but I love his work.
me: Of course but you SAID, you love him.
friend: so what is the difference?
me: It is a huge difference. He is a person and his work is an object or objects created by him. He could be a complete asshole for all you know.
friend: I doubt it. His work is amazing.

You see where this is going right. Such and such artist can do no wrong and all his work is great because HE made it. While I agree, I really liked one of his books, I thought the rest were mediocre and never bought any of them. But I also never confused the work with the person either. I always try and judge art on the merit of the object, or more often, the effect the object has upon me. If the work moves me in some way or changes the way I think about the world around me, or hell even if I just like the color scheme, then I am a fan. Sure in the past, I have picked up books because I recognized the name, but I have never ordered a book site unseen. (Thank you Photo Eye book tease) So I guess in the end of this ramble, my point is this: Buy work because you love IT.

just a thought

I make some art that has to do with our conceived view of nature or wilderness and quite often I come across some ironic things out there. I am not sure if others see the same irony as I do but I’ll keep pointing it out just the same.

This is just a thought for the outdoor industry.

When choosing a name for a product that is intended to be used in nature or the wilderness, please stray from naming it things like, “Probe”, “Intruder”, or “Destroyer”. It kind of defeats the purpose.


PS this is not my photo, just one I borrowed from the candy store known as the internet.

digital democracy

A mentor of mine told me a few years back that the digital revolution had made photography more democratic. It put cameras into the hands of the masses and gave them easy access to the photos and the publication or “self publication” of the resulting photos. I agree with him on his theory as the digital revolution has accomplished this in many different realms.

Journalism has seen this same change as well. Blogs and online magazines run for little or no money at all have popped up all over the map. Even Twitter and Facebook have become sources of news for all of us.

Yet at the same time it has watered down much of the content. On a semi weekly basis I look at Facebook and have to wade through pages and pages of Farmville status updates, shameless self promotion, and meaningless crap to get a few worthwhile pieces of information. Same goes for blogs and online magazines. I see the same work over and over again. The sheer amount of work has increased twenty fold, yet the quality has gone down in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong here, when I do find something I really like, I am ecstatic because I had to work so hard to find it. Good photography for me has become like a meal made over an open fire after a 15 mile hike in the mountains. It tastes so much better.

I have no answer to this issue. It just nags at me on a daily basis. Some of you out there probably don’t even see it as an issue. Many of you are probably very excited that you now have these new found capabilities to produce and self publish your work. Me, well, I am a big fan of quality over quantity.

Daylight Magazine Issue 8 and the world of online publishing

I am a fan of Daylight Magazine and the job those guys do. They keep trying to fill all the voids at once in both a print and online format and for that I respect their effort. They put out a great magazine and do a lot of work with worthy causes on the side.

Here is the official blurb on Issue 8…
“Issue #8, on newsstands February 1st, will focus on Afghanistan from the perspective of photographers from all over the world including: America, Canada, England, Ireland, France, Greece, Turkey, Peru and Afghanistan itself. The portfolios included each highlight a different element of Afghan life and society, from mountain tribes to the
Taliban, from poppy farmers to school teachers, from foreign military personnel to local photographers in Kabul. Together, these photographers show life within Afghanistan with an intimacy and quiet intensity that serves as a necessary complement to mainstream media coverage of the region. While the United States (and the Coalition) have waged an eight year war on the Taliban, rarely do we see the infinite complexities of daily life or the individuals struggling to survive in this beautiful, but fraught, landscape.”

Online publishing is a tough business. I waded in that pond for almost two years on a very serious basis working with Fraction Magazine. In the end I left because of time issues but also for money issues. In the year and half of publishing Fraction I made all of $35 dollars and I received a couple of free books. Mind you, this is for working twenty hours a week or more on top of two other jobs I had at the time. In the end it just didn’t make that much sense to me. I still produce this blog, but very rarely do I put much time into it for this very reason.

While money shouldn’t be the end all factor, it is pretty damn important when it comes down to working your ass off and eating bean burritos. I see that other people in the online publishing and “blogosphere” are starting to get to the same point as well. I imagine that originally all bloggers and online ‘zines started out the same way. They had something to say and self publishing is an easy way to get your name and ideas out there. After a while though and if you do a good job at it, people start to read it and you carry forward ever more and more serious. It begins to take up more and more time. If you are worth your salt at all you keep working harder to make it better but in the back of your mind somewhere you start thinking about money and where it is going to come from.

Your money choices are slim. Google ads? Joke. Google had screwed over the value of advertising so much I can’t even fathom it anymore. You would be better off collecting your check in pesos because at least it would sound like it was worth more.

What about donations? I am a big fan of this. Trust in humanity. Well…. that doesn’t really work out either. People in general, especially on the internet where they are not face to face with anyone don’t always come through on the donations. As a matter of fact you may be lucky if anyone EVER donates.

How about selling your own art as a way to generate revenue? Sounds good in theory until you remember that you already worked hard to make the art and now you have to write daily articles or publish a monthly magazine just to sell it every once in awhile? That doesn’t really make much sense either.

So what are you left with? Selling private ads? This should be a good way to generate some income but the aforementioned Google has pretty much ruined this. The only way this idea works is if you are very popular regionally then you can sell regional advertising but it is still a tough sell.

I hate to sound like a bitter pill over all of this but something will have to change or else the quality things that we all love on the internet will disappear to continually be replaced by new and less quality items. This is where I could put out a call for people to band together and make sure quality blogs and ‘zines somehow get compensated. But in the end I know that will probably come up short. Instead I see a new future on the horizon for things like this. In fact there are already other blogs and ‘zines following this model.

Subscriber rates. That’s right. Pay to read.

I know what your thinking. What the f*!$ !! The internet is supposed to be free. Well… for most of these people who put out good blogs and ‘zines, it is a job for them and they should be compensated. It’s just the way the world works. No one like to work for free and I don’t see why so many people out there complain about having to pay for something. The internet has spoiled most of the world. So maybe we should have to pay. I most certainly agree. The product will only get better as the writers and creators have more free time to produce quality material. We all like quality right?

AND in a perfect world we could do away with all of the advertising we all see everyday. I don’t care what Nikon lens is on sale.

I don’t know how well this model will hold up for singular bloggers and creators but I think if people begin to band together to create something larger it may hold water. I personally would hate to see a few of the things I read and look at on a regular basis disappear. I bet you would too.