A Disturbing Trend

I'm old. Believe me, I know it. I'll be 70 in a few months. That fact may make it hard for you to take me seriously but bear with me for just this post. With age comes wisdom, right? What I want to write here is that I think the field of photography by those making art is changing in a disturbing way. Read on.

Photographic series or bodies of work are being explicated, explained, contextualized, rationalized and elevated with text or verbal rationals. You're thinking: so what? That's no big deal. Let me start with a short history and then let's take a look at current practice.  20 or 30 years ago, going to a photo show at MOMA or the Met, SF Modern, ID in Chicago or even the Whitney often meant you were confronted with a row of framed and matted photographs along with perhaps a brief statement from the show's curator that gave some biographical data on the photographer or maybe explained in what context the works were being shown. The titles of the work were usually the place and the year the images were made.That was it. The expectation was that the photographs stood on their own, were to be viewed and understood on their own terms, usually as single images sitting next to other single images.Think Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer, Lew Baltz, even Ansel Adams and Cartier Bresson. Few words were necessary.There were exceptions, of course. For instance, Robert Adams, who had whole reams of text used to flush out his work and build a rational.

Now, go to a show by a recent MFA grad or sit across the table from someone showing you their work at a portfolio review and things are very different. For most work there is absolutely no understanding possible without a written or verbal account of what the photographer is up to. I always have the sense that I am joining the telling of a story in the middle, trying to play catchup. Again, for most works, separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on.This isn't always awful, as perhaps it is part of the evolution of the medium into a specialized category that leads to increased specificity and a clearer intent. But, and this is my main point, the photographs often aren't very good. It's as though photography has been sublimated to a necessary part of the total, that the words are the priority and the photographs somehow are ancillary or secondary and therefore not needing much attention. This resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely.

What is this? My theory: most new art photography these days come from MFA grads who have studied the medium, not only its practice (although often not enough) but its theory, its criticism, its analysis. As the medium's craft has become easier, more fluid and automatic, mastery of the technical and visual has become less important. Students flowing out of MFA programs now that were started in the 60's and 70's are graduating with degrees and thesis works that are equivalent to PHD dissertations (there is no PHD in applied photography) as the MFA is the terminal degree in the discipline.These grads and recent grads are learned, academic, studied, vocal, theoretical and informed in the medium's history. They are also "conceptual" in that the thought is formed, the work is made to fit the thesis and then executed as a package with the written text to go along with it. This can resolve itself in performative works, video and/or photographs with a primary written component and a secondary tier of importance to the photography. As photography at this level has grown, the treatment of it as an academic pursuit has as well. Very often the craft of the medium is subsumed, indicating the artist has little interest in the inherent qualities of the discipline itself,  using it simply as a vehicle for visual communication. In fact he or she may have graduated from just that: a department of visual communication.This constitutes a "literalization" of the medium or in effect a deconstruction of its inherently visual qualities resulting in an analytical and intellectual final result.

Go to a graduate thesis show and take a look. The students are concerned with issues of identity, gender, developmental and emotional positioning, posturing, physical and emotional abuse, cultural and societal pressure and assumption, human rights, sexual identity, and on and on. Each of these ideas and many others takes on a personal relevance and importance square in the photographer's aim, as though there is a catharsis that when shared it is assumed to have relevance to others who are there looking at the work. Of course, much of this is narcissism, self absorption, even making work with blinders on.

Before you label me an old guy with a lack of sympathy for the young and an inability to see the value in younger's peoples ideas read on. Joni Mitchell once sung that "the old hate the young" but I have always really liked the young, forty years of teaching at the university level that I really enjoyed as a case in point. Youth is vibrancy, endless energy, huge flexibly and sense of discovery that is wonderful to be around. But making the assumption that I or any viewer wants to hear the personal story as a prominent component of the art just really gets me going. I do not. I want to be able to look at the art and judge it on its own merits. Presently, I find a good deal of it lacking.

Look, the practice of making pictures used to be hugely craft based. You needed to study photography and the making of pictures hard to be good at it. It used to be difficult to do well. As a professor I seldom saw any student any good at it until they were a couple of years in. Now, the level is higher and proficiency comes without much work. I doubt most students two years into their degree can accurately tell you what ISO is, aperture and shutter speed settings, 18%  gray, reciprocity failure, D-Max and so on. You can build the case, of course, that they don't need to know those things. Put the camera on "P" and fire away.

My point? As photography becomes ubiquitous, as we are all photographers and even the most simple of cameras made today provides stunning results compared to a few years ago, photography is free to explore areas never approached before. That's all good. But please give me less words and better pictures! I find the story, the text mostly boring and condescending, telling me how to look at the photographs rather then letting the photographs do the talking.

It's ironic that as photographs have become easier to make and there are more photographers than ever before making more photographs the pictures are worse. 

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse Five when referring to the allies massive bombing campaign of the city of Dresden towards the end of WW II that killed people in the hundreds of thousands: 

So it goes.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted May 21, 2016

Success

What is that in art? Fame? Fortune? Praise? A museum show? A NYT or New Yorker review? Inner fulfillment for a project well done? Achieving peace within yourself? A big sale? Admiration from a loved one? The ability to tell yourself you are finished with a project and the freedom to move on to the next one?

Different definitions for different people and different projects, I am sure.

As a young man, once I figured out that I was going to make art for the rest of my life, the job seemed relatively clear: make art. That's exactly what I did. Of course, I learned there were issues in there and things for me to figure out, like: what art?  Who was I artistically? What were my priorities? Would I be single minded? Would my approach be diverse? Early on, you don't know if you are prolific or not, a natural spring of ideas flowing forth or working much slower with ideas and execution less frequent. Would I work hard? I had no idea. I didn't know what my work ethic was. This was the fist time I was passionate about what I was doing at the young age of 22 or so.

At any rate, I know my goals were different then, perhaps based more on the idea that I'd be discovered, achieve some kind of fame that involved fast cars, my own high-end modern house with a view to die for, first class travel to exotic locations, surrounded by adoring and beautiful women; and that I would make art that was always amazing.

Well, my friends, success looks a lot different to me now. Maybe to you too. Hopefully, it is a vision with a little more substance. I believe, in many ways, I've been successful beyond my wildest dreams. I took the idea of making art seriously throughout my career. At my age I care a great deal about peace of mind, satisfaction in living a life of honorable intent and result, giving back and not always taking, having a reputation for honesty and integrity and so on. My family. And yes, even leaving behind a body of work that has significance and relevance.

What would be your definition of success? If we confine this to making photographs it would naturally fit into categories like: exhibition, publishing, critical acclaim from reviewers, your work being purchased by collectors, a following of people that admire what you've done and so on. If you've read the preceding post called Calculation you know that there can be false signals in there, traps and pitfalls to fall into.

I would like to suggest a different lens for "success". One in which the work you make is a way to share your innate quality, your unique perception with a world that gets it, that understands the contribution you make,  your ability to see it and to comment on it in ways that deepen our common human experience. 

Success is certainly tied to respect. It isn't that usual that artists get great respect or are revered for the contribution they make, especially here in America in the middle of the current decade. I've only felt this a few times and one was while I was a resident at the Baer Art Center in New Zealand in 2013. We were chosen by the quality of our art and then, when there, given the freedom to create while mundane things like having to eat, see different things and exercise were provided for us, with quality and sincere friendship. This was remarkable as we felt hugely supported in our efforts. It was, to put it briefly, a sublime and most wonderful experience. I would call that a success. Plus, I made good work.

To close this out I would like to propose that success might nestle up to fulfillment, a feeling of peace and pride in who you are, what you represent and whether you can hold your head high, proud of achievements but humbled by your smallness in a very big world. And let's face it, we don't feel good if we're only about ourselves, thinking just of what we can get, buy or consume. The road to happiness? Give back somehow, give stuff away and work to make others' lives a little better.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted May 12, 2016

Lesson: Go Back

I don't know about you but I always am most passionate about what I am working on right now. Call it an obsession. It's what I think about, what I dream about, what I am driven to shoot more, edit more and print. Projects for me can take months or years of work, reshoots, trying out different presentations, different size prints and  different paper choices and so on. 

On the other hand, some projects come from only an hour or two of shooting, an afternoon of walking around photographing and then working for weeks later to coalesce the work into a whole; editing, sequencing and so on.

Because I am usually very into what I'm working on  right now I find it hard to go back through earlier material, to search for things I shot last month or even years ago that have never seen the light of day. 

As it turns out this isn't so unusual. Many photographers are more into the new and believe what's hot off the press is the best work ever. Typical for me is when I've been off somewhere on a trip to photograph. On coming back I start work on one or two bodies of photographs I know I have to see, to edit, and to print. The winter I lived in Santa Rosa, CA, it was two: the Salt Point Park 

series and the Skate Park series. 

Those two remain as the two primary bodies of work I made while there and hold a place in my heart as well as I learned new ways of seeing through those projects.  But as I shoot every day on a trip like that there is other work that deserves attention too. I did that with two series: Central Valley Aerials, a bizarre landscape of fields of lilacs and crops in a sort of stasis in February during a state wide drought and

Before and After Aerials, photographs I made early the day we went up and in the afternoon after we landed, also in the Central Valley.

I am glad I did as the work has stood up well over time. Of course, doing this can get complicated as, by the time I was working on those two series back at home, I was into something new and consumed by it. This can be a juggling game of balancing the present work with work being brought to the front done from the past. On the other hand, one of the benefits of letting things sit for a while is that often we have a far better perspective on work that's shot but not looked at yet or edited. When I was teaching full time I had a colleague who always was three years behind the work he'd shot, intentionally. 

One final point, and it is a big one but more germane to those that shoot digitally rather than with film. In earlier digital days the past work could be inferior in  technical quality. I was replacing cameras more frequently then as every year or so there were large steps forward. Small chip to full size chip, higher ISO's with less noise, better color engines, faster file handling, and yes, better lenses too. This meant that often I would go back into past things shot only to find they weren't up to my current standards of file quality or size, meaning there were big limitations on how big I could make a print or the quality of an image. Sharpening in particular was problematic when trying to make bigger images. Now, not so much. I would say that particularly things in terms of file size have stabilized enough that I can go back into 2012 or so and assume the files are practically as good as the files I am making now. This is a very good thing.

So, go back. Take the time to plunge into an earlier library or catalogue to see what you passed over then but should pay attention to now. I don't buy the rational that says older work isn't as good, or that the newest work is always the best. Your work is your work. You should think about giving it it's due. We often feel we aren't respected as artists that use photography. But this is about giving yourself the level of legitimacy you deserve for your work and  committing to it. You made the pictures and presumably put some effort and thought into them. Follow through. Make the edits, process the files, make the prints. Simple enough.

Over twenty-five years of shooting 8 x 10 I couldn't help but think of the warmer months as times for photographing and the winter as a time to process film and make prints. How many times have you been free to photograph when the weather is really bad and you can't go out? Or you'd like to be back on the Isle of Man or in South America again but you can't? Winter when stuck at home is a good time to go back to the pictures you made earlier and comb through them to see if there's anything else in there you missed. I bet there is.

As always I am reachable can reach me via email: here.

Topics: Commentary,Digital,Color,West

Permalink | Posted May 2, 2016

Vineyards

In November 2014 I flew to Paris, picked up a rental car and drove south to Alba, Italy to visit with my friends John and Donna, who lived there then. Donna was working during the days so John and I went off so he could show me around. We stopped a few times to photograph. One morning we stopped at some wine vineyards, as there was a break in the rain. This is the famous Barbaresco area of vineyards, maintained now for generations and known to produce some of the best wines of Italy.

Over a couple of hours, with my camera on a tripod and with a long lens, I pointed at the rows of vines. The lens compresses space, bringing the farther away in closer and putting the closer subjects on a similar plane. It was gray and flat, with occasional breaks in the clouds letting sunlight in. It was dead calm and looked like it could start to rain again any moment.

I have just finished a very urban set of pictures of a new apartment building in Cambridge called Zinc. In deciding to go through back files I think I was looking for a counter to the dystopian view of a contemporary world gone askew that was Zinc. The vineyard pictures I had made in 2014 in Italy proved to be just the thing: beauty and this ancient landscape of manicured vineyards in these rolling hills.

The head versus the heart. Pictures made with much thought, thinking through the angles, framing, photographing for impact and to drive the point home versus letting the process of photographing unfold, variety within a common theme, and letting the sheer beauty wash over me. No schedule, no time limits. Just working, looking and feeling the place, the smells, the air and being at someplace simply sublime. About as good as it gets.

Almost two years between these two sets of pictures. Without one would there be the other? Probably not.The Zinc pictures just shot and printed this spring (2016) are all about the work made in this crystalline clarity, jarring and cutting like a knife. In comparison there is a flow here, a pattern, one affecting the other that is important to see, to react to. Just as we need to be at our creative best when in front of something we are photographing, just as we need to be tuned and in top form when we are making the prints, we also need to be 100% aware of one body of work affecting another.

Can I say that I was thinking about the Vineyard pictures from Italy while I was making Zinc? No. Can I say that after finishing the work on Zinc, feeling depleted and a little low, I was searching for something uplifting, far away and imbued with color? Yes, I can.

This is probably a first for me. One body of work just finished precipitating the printing of an earlier body of work. Maybe I should pair them. Will think about that.

The full series is now on the gallery page of the site here.

Topics: Foreign,Color,Digital,New Work

Permalink | Posted April 26, 2016

Zinc Apartments

Just finished in a still somewhat raw space is a high rise apartment building on Water Street in Cambridge. Billed as luxury living, the apartments look out on a wasteland, presumably cleared for future construction, then on to the huge blue MBTA Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility (its former name was Boston Engine Terminal) just north of North Station and Boston Sand and Gravel in Charlestown, a business made famous as scenes from the The Departed and others were filmed there.

I didn't spend much time trying to photograph the building itself but was fascinated by a fence put up to separate the new from the old, to establish the perimeter of the property and to restrict the view out to what was a sort of desert.

I have no idea what the logic of calling these apartments Zinc (Zn) is but at any rate the powers that be decided that the vinyl covering  for the fence would be a great place to have some graphics too.

What was behind the "curtain"?

This MBTA facility, which I was able to photograph by sticking my camera through a gap in a gate.

This new series goes on to look at the fence itself, what's obscured behind it and the printed graphics which depict something quite bizarre.


Boston is in the midst of a building boom, much of it centered on housing. Zinc is typical with a media room, work out facilities, expensive apartments, underground parking and a close-by T station.

The full series is now on the site here.

Technical footnote: many of you know I purchased the Sony A7R Mk II last fall and have been using it along with my Nikon for several months now. This project is the first I've made with some of the photographs coming from the Sony. Although the shooting experience is very different I found the final TIFF files to be practically interchangeable. 

Topics: Color,Digital,New Work,Northeast

Permalink | Posted April 21, 2016