Friday, February 20, 2009

Admin note/comments and the evolution of photographers

(Photo: Hiroshi Sugimoto)

Due to an increase in spam posts, I've had to reinstate the requirement to log on in order for readers to make Comments.
Although, as one (genuine) commenter pointed out, some of the spam comments in the previous post is actually rather surreal in relation to the subject of the post.... especially:
"Millionaire Maker said...

make money which ever way you can and today with the falling economies there is no room for failure and success is a must. Go get it tiger."

BTW, Anonymous/Luis' post isn't spam - and is well worth a read:

"There was little light for 5-10 years, and it rained sulfuric acid as far as Iceland. At the end of that, came an Ice Age, perhaps triggered by this. Our forebears walked out of the devastation of the African plains out to the west coast of Africa and became beach bums. They learned to make canoes, hooks, etc that enabled them to fish in deep waters (miles offshore) and that is how they survived. They became nomads in search of a better place. Those who did not adapt/evolve, died. It is called, informally, the Great Narrowing.

This is analogous to the way the economic crisis is affecting the arts in the US. The days of galleries competing by "raiding" Yale MFA student studios are over....

...The art machine of the past decade or three is breaking down. Scores of empty storefronts lie fallow and vacant in once chi-chi enclaves from galleries that have folded. There's a narrowing going on here. The old order is going to be shaken to its roots, and while many survivors will be the same old faces, they'll have evolved, and plenty of new people and ideas will arise from the ashes. Art will be re-evaluated. It's going to be painful, but a turnover has been long overdue. The mainstay of the market, the outsiders that bought works as signifiers of their acculturation and wealth are jettisoning their investments. Auction houses will soon be clogged with lesser works by great artists and great works by lesser ones...

...Artists should take a page from our ancestors: Adapt and Evolve. Do what you have to to survive, but don't fold up or succumb to the Flood of Pessimism now filling our aquarium. This is an endtime event. Things are getting plowed under, and while it's hard to see, fertile soil is being exposed.

It will redefine art, and ground it in a way that hasn't been seen in decades. We will also see the resurrection of the real critics, those that know and love art as art.

Grim as things look, keep in mind that down the road, this is also a cleansing, purifying crucible, and a new beginning.

--- Luis"

Read the whole comment here

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Photographers - time to get a real job?

(all photographs Simon Norfolk)

Two interesting articles recently in light of the current economic climate: one specifically about photography and photographers; and the other about the art market and artists in general.

One, from the World Press Photo online magazine "Enter", is on Marketing is by renowned and successful photographer Simon Norfolk.

He starts off:

"In the few weeks between being asked to write this piece and me actually sitting down to do it, the international financial system has dissolved and the key banks nationalized.

All the money I had squirrelled away to pay my future taxes and something for Mr and Mrs Norfolk’s old age has disappeared in a bizarre Icelandic banking collapse. So my prognosis about the economy over the next 5-10 years is not very optimistic, I’m afraid.

I gave up trying to make a living from editorial a few years ago, instead selling my work as limited edition fine art prints through galleries in London, New York and Los Angeles.

I still work for magazines - most of what goes on the gallery wall starts out as a magazine commission - but I see magazine fees as start-up capital..."

But then continues:

"...So my predictions for the future? More "name" photographers will be cashing in their reputations to teach "masterclasses" to wealthy orthodontists.

So-called "principled" photographers will be cozying up to Russian oligarchs and third-world billionaires. None of us will be saying "no" to wedding photography or lucrative teaching posts which sell to young students the rarely-realized dream that they’ll one day have jobs as photographers.

My advice? Get re-skilled. Keep your photographic aspirations but try to get a trade like film editing, web-design or accounting.

Soon we’ll all be amateur photographers with real money-making jobs on the side that we don’t tell our colleagues about. We need to get over the snobbery attached to that..."

The second article is from the NY Times: "The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!". Holland Cotter writes:

"Last year Artforum magazine, one of the country’s leading contemporary art monthlies, felt as fat as a phone book, with issues running to 500 pages, most of them gallery advertisements. The current issue has just over 200 pages. Many ads have disappeared.

The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more...

...The diminishment has not, God knows, been quantitative. Never has there been so much product. Never has the American art world functioned so efficiently as a full-service marketing industry on the corporate model.

Every year art schools across the country spit out thousands of groomed-for-success graduates, whose job it is to supply galleries and auction houses with desirable retail. They are backed up by cadres of public relations specialists — otherwise known as critics, curators, editors, publishers and career theorists — who provide timely updates on what desirable means...

...And where is art in all of this? Proliferating but languishing. “Quality,” primarily defined as formal skill, is back in vogue, part and parcel of a conservative, some would say retrogressive, painting and drawing revival. And it has given us a flood of well-schooled pictures, ingenious sculptures, fastidious photographs and carefully staged spectacles, each based on the same basic elements: a single idea, embedded in the work and expounded in an artist’s statement, and a look or style geared to be as catchy as the hook in a rock song.

...It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again...

...But there will be many, many changes for art and artists in the years ahead. Trying to predict them is like trying to forecast the economy. You can only ask questions. The 21st century will almost certainly see consciousness-altering changes in digital access to knowledge and in the shaping of visual culture. What will artists do with this?

Will the art industry continue to cling to art’s traditional analog status, to insist that the material, buyable object is the only truly legitimate form of art, which is what the painting revival of the last few years has really been about? Will contemporary art continue to be, as it is now, a fancyish Fortunoff’s, a party supply shop for the Love Boat crew? Or will artists — and teachers, and critics — jumpship, swim for land that is still hard to locate on existing maps and make it their home and workplace?

I’m not talking about creating ’60s-style utopias; all those notions are dead and gone and weren’t so great to begin with. I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable — impossible to buy or sell — is the primary enterprise. Crazy! says anyone with an ounce of business sense.

Right. Exactly. Crazy"

What has surprised me is how negatively these and a few other similar articles seem to have been received in certain quarters. There have been many - "oh well - take them for what they are worth" sort of responses - mainly from those who probably have most to lose in these scenarios. Not the photographers and artists, but those who cling tight fistedly to their coat tails - the over hyped galleries and gallerists, the critics and commentators whose job it is to feed the hype (and for which they and their egos are disproportionately well compensated - the NY Times article delves further into this, which I didn't quote). And of course the art school profs who have been happily churning out Struth/Gursky/Wall/Crewdson etc. clones. As Cotter points out, this is the ideal opportunity for the art schools to become more creative and open minded in how they educate their students, though whether they are willing to grasp the opportunity is another matter.

The recession could effect photographers and artists positively in at least two of these ways (and probably more).

First it will no doubt weed out the dilettantes and uncommitted - not too much ego stroking going on when there's a living to be earned - as well as break the grip of the current narrow modes of distribution - something that's long overdue. It will also, hopefully, remove the myopic vision which decides what the current "subject" is and where exactly the centre of all this creativity is (goodbye Chelsea) - there is no centre any more.

Secondly, it will free up photographers from having to try and work "to order", trying to ensure their vision and concepts fit with what the gurus of the portfolio reviews and competition juries and micro gallerists mandate. Instead of worrying if their work is buyable, photographers will be freed up to make more work that's more exploratory and experimental. New avenues for exploration, creativity and discovery can open up. New, yet long extant, artists and practices may well be noticed now. Whole new ways of operating will be freed to be developed and explored. Many more constraints will be removed than will cosy benefits be lost. Photographers will actually be far more free to explore unknown and unimagined paths then they have for a long time. The inmates will be able to take over the asylum.

I've also noticed that some are optimistically - though cautiously - whispering of the possibility of a new WPA programme. I have no idea if it could ever actually happen - even under Mr. Obama - but done in the right way, what a great opportunity it could be. Imagine a modern day Rivera let loose in our corridors of power and influence... And then there's the Farm Security Administration - some of the very best American photography of the 20th Century came out of the FSA. What imaginative ways of creating the environment for producing similarly visionary work might come out of the next few years? The time and the circumstance are right - let's hope there's the will to find a way.

Monday, February 16, 2009

discovering things hitherto unseen

(Paul Graham)

"Writing is about discovering things

hitherto unseen. Otherwise there’s no

point to the process.".
W.G. 'Max' Sebald

Regular reader will know I'm a big fan and avid reader of W. G. Sebald's books - especially for their relation to both photography and memory.

I found out the other day that the publisher Hamish Hamilton (John Updike, Zadie Smith, Simone de Beauvoir etc and of course W.G. Sebald ) has a very nice monthly - and free - literary journal, FiveDials, in pdf format. Almost half the latest issue is given over to articles about Sebald's work.

(Stephen Gill)

There's an especially interesting essay called The Collected "Maxims" (an intentional pun, as Sebald was not known by his first name, but as Max). This is a collection of Sebald's comments and sayings from the final fiction workshop he taught at the University of East Anglia (where he was a professor), only days before his unfortunate and untimely death in 2001.

"...In the literary world he was rapidly gaining renown: there had been the succès d’estime of his first three books, and then the publication of Austerlitz earlier that year. In the classroom – where David Lambert and I were two of sixteen students – Sebald was unassuming, almost shy, and asked that we call him Max. When discussing students’ work he was anecdotal and associative, more storyteller than technician. He had weary eyes that made it tempting to identify him with the melancholy narrators of his books, but he also had a gentle amiability and wry sense of humour. We were in his thrall. He died three days after the final class.".

What I find so interesting about the words that his students took away from the workshop is that a surprising amount of what he says could easily apply to photography - or at least the best and most interesting kind of photography. Something I also find in reading his books.

(Broomberg & Chanrin)

Here are a few selections. Just substitute photography/photographer/viewer for writing/writer/reader in most of them:

  • By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.
  • Physicists now say there is no such thing as time: everything co-exists. Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or co-existing.
  • 'Significant detail’ enlivens otherwise mundane situations. You need acute, merciless observation.
  • Oddities are interesting.
  • Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.
  • I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
  • If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.
  • Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.
  • Writing should not create the impression that the writer is trying to be ‘poetic’.
  • Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer a while.
  • Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.

(Alec Soth)

And finally the one I started off with:
  • Writing is about discovering things hitherto unseen. Otherwise there’s no point to the process.
...otherwise there's no point to the process. Exactly. This is where so much supposedly good work seems to fall down. It's why Ryan McGinley is really a rather successful advertising photographer - but not much else. After all, who hasn't seen nubile young men or women frolicking about in slanted warm sunlight with sparkling dust motes? At least in their dreams and imagination. There's nothing "hitherto unseen" about it at all.

(John Gossage)

It's the same with a lot of contemporary "portrait" (for want of a better word) photography - deadpan young women; time wearied old couples sat at their kitchen tables; mentally challenged women on beaches. Most of it is pure style. There's no chance or opportunity for discovery at all. The same can be said of so much urban and suburban cityscape work. How many generic suburban photographs, with neat lawns, clipped hedges and vinyl siding are we going to see? There are some who have shown us things unseen or unnoticed in the modern suburbs and the city - and there are sure to be others who will go on to do the same. But again, it's become just style - with perhaps a cute added little hook (trees wrapped in sacking for winter or whatever it is). But it's not about the photographer or the viewer discovering something unseen. It's about following a formula - deadpan straight on, largish format, muted colours and a little hook or quirk. I could go on, but I'm sure it would just bore you and I know you can come up with plenty of examples yourself. Work that on first glance seem promising but then shows itself to be hollow and empty - despite complying with all the rules that means it will be picked up by those who matter (and unfortunately, it probably will be).

(Masao Yamamoto)

The photos here are just a small few from some of the photographers who do indeed seem to have discovered - or who allow us to discover - things hitherto unseen.

(Thomas Struth)

Friday, February 13, 2009

A warning for Valentine's Day - Never mess with young English Ladies...

Nothing to do with photography, but I came across these to videos a couple of days ago which I think are just great..

At first I thought they were modern comedic remakes in the manner of Harry Enfield's Mr. Cholmondley-Warner. Then I checked the British Pathe News archive catalogue and found out they really were made in 1933 and 1937 respectively

I love the image and style they present. And despite all the acrobatics you barely even see a knee. Miss May Whitley also uses her purse to good purpose.

I wouldn't be surprised if these to young ladies weren't parachuting into France with the SOE a few years later....

Ladies, now you know what to do when, "Please go away, I don't want to speak to you" doesn't work

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Expiration Notice No. 1

The first edition of Expiration Notice is up and running - this is the online gallery for emerging photographers who aren't still wet behind the ears. And there's some good stuff:

Alan George -
Immediate Vicinity:

John Darwell -
Not Starting From Here:

David Wolf -
Left Behind:

and George Georgiou - Hidden: Psychiatric Institutions in Kosovo and Serbia:

And as far as I know none of them save money by still getting their mums to do their laundry?

Saturday, February 07, 2009


(Doug Rickard)

After a stint browsing the internet today I was starting to despair that as far as good photography is concerned, there is little to be found other than pictures of well dressed urban young women sat in office chairs/perched on the edge of an unmade bed/leaning against a window with a blurred green tree visible beyond it and all looking suitably bored (well, wouldn't you?). Or surveys of well lit and mildly colourful office corridors and their detritus - coffee cups, paper clips, fire buckets, fake potted plants. Or else "A Further Two Hundred Gas Stations of the Mid-West" (soon to be followed by "101 Disused Gas Station of Idaho") - gas stations are to art photography as lone disused barns are to readers of Popular Photography. Or softly lit, gently hued large format deadpan photographs of dwellers of the German suburbs. And as for finding intelligent writing or incisive focused thinking about photography I'd better get back to the library stacks.

And then I came across AMERICANSUBURB X by Doug Rickard - what a great site. Certainly it focuses in the broadest of ways on photography that is in some way to do with the suburban (and urban) condition - although considering that that's over 50% of the population (and over 80% if you add the urban population) of N. America I think there's plenty of room to manoeuvre.

AMERICANSUBURBX essentially seems to be a compendium of some of the best writing about (along with a lot of the best photography about) our suburban world here. Which in effect means that's some of the best writing and photogrpahy of the last 20+ years or so (in fact it delves much further into the past than 20 years, drawing on some of the roots that have fed so much of the good photography today). There are magazine and newspaper articles, essays - some independent, some drawn from particular books and monographs. There are also some very current articles and interviews. There are videos and goodness knows what else tucked away in it. If you wanted to get a feel for and understanding of this central aspect of contemporary photography you could do worse than ready through everything on this site.

Just a few examples and extracts (there are long lists if you go to the drop-down menus):

There's an interview with Walker Evans:

PAUL CUMMINGS: Let’s see, you started becoming interested in photography again after about 1928?


PAUL CUMMINGS: What kind of things did you photograph? What were you interested in doing with the camera at that point?

WALKER EVANS: I think I was photographing against the style of the time, against salon photography, against beauty photography, against art

PAUL CUMMINGS: The whole elaborate business –

WALKER EVANS: Yes. Even including Stieglitz. I was doing non-artistic and non- commercial work. I felt – and it’s true – I was on the right track. I sensed that I was turning new ground. At least I though I was mining a new vein, sort of instinctively knowing it but not in any other way aware of it....

(Walker Evans)

There's John Szarkowski's introduction to William Eggleston's Guide

"...One can say, to repeat, that in Eggleston's pictures form and content are indistinguishable, which seems to me true but also unsatisfactory because too permissive. The same thing can be said of any picture. The ambitious photographer, not satisfied by so tautological a success, seeks those pictures that have a visceral relation to his own self and his own privileged knowledge, those that belong to him by genetic right, in which form matches not only content but intent.

This suggests that the pictures reproduced here are no more interesting than the person who made them, and that their intelligence, wit, knowledge, and style reach no farther than that person's - which leads us away from the measurable relationships of art-historical science toward intuition, superstition, blood-knowledge, terror, and delight.

These pictures are fascinating partly because they contradict our expectations. We have been told so often of the bland, synthetic smoothness of exemplary American life, of its comfortable, vacant insentience, its extruded, stamped, and molded sameness, in a word its irredeemable dullness, that we have come half to believe it, and thus are startled and perhaps exhilarated to see these pictures of prototypically normal types on their familiar ground, grandchildren of Penrod, who seem to live surrounded by spirits, not all of them benign. The suggestible viewer might sense that these are subjects capable not only of the familiar modern vices (self-loathing, adaptability, dissembling, sanctimony, and license), but of the ancient ones (pride, parochial stubbornness, irrationality, selfishness, and lust). This could not be called progress, but it is interesting. Such speculations, however, even if not simple nonsense, presumably relate only toEggleston's pictures - patterns of random facts in the service of one imagination - not to the real world. A picture is after all only a picture, a concrete kind of fiction, not to be admitted as hard evidence or as the quantifiable data of social scientists.

As pictures, however, these seem to me perfect: irreducible surrogates for the experience they pretend to record, visual analogues for the quality of one life, collectively a paradigm of a private view, a view one would have thought ineffable, described here with clarity, fullness, and elegance.".

(William Eggleston)

There's an interview; "Lewis Baltz, Subjects and Objects of the New Technological Culture"

But in some ways digital technologies change the relationship between the real and the virtual, because we have a real virtual world now. We have virtual reality in which we can have another world different from the real one...

I think the balance is tipping in favour of the virtual and away from the real. But as I said before, I think that that balance had already started to tip before digital technologies. Their presence now accelerates that. Not only the presence of the technologies but the availability of the technologies. Everyone now can work with some sort of digital procedure. People are on the Internet, people work with digital cameras. Almost everything now has that possibility, maybe even the necessity, of some kind of digital interface or intervention. So in that sense, the sense that it proliferates, that it's everywhere in society, I think that will yet further detach people from whatever 19th century idea they had about reality, the phenomenal world and their relation to it and in it. Whether that change is an improvement or we are entering a dangerous brave new world, it's really impossible to say. In any case, it is the reality, it's the world we are entering, it's the world we're already half into.

(Lewis Baltz)

There's an interview with Gary Winogrand

D: What do you look for?

W: I look at a photograph. What's going on? What's happening, photographically? If it's interesting, I try to understand why.

D: And how do you expect the viewer to respond to your photographs?

W: I have no expectations. None at all.

D: Well, what do you want to evoke?

W: I have no ideas on that subject. Two people could look at the same flowers and feel differently about them. Why not? I'm not making ads. I couldn't care less. Everybody's entitled to their own experience...

(Gary Winogrand)

There's Todd Hido's upcoming "Two Way Street"

"...In the context of this horribly mundane world of current contemporary photography, Todd's work stands apart from the pack by a wide gap. This gap is made up by the sledgehammer authenticity of Todd's vision, by a violent undercurrent of emotion that hits the viewer like a baseball bat clearing a drunken human path. I don't care about the reality, only the photographs matter and what they exist as - what they say - what they are - not what Todd is.

This is photography... as it should be. Giving a middle finger to genre, telling concept or categorization to kindly f-off, Todd has upped his ante with the new work and continues to be left to stand in his own space, defying classification... carving out his own path.

As it should be.

(Todd Hido)

There's Taryn Simon's An American Index of the Hidden and the Unfamiliar (3 Steps to the Taryn Simon Experience)
"Step 1.

First look at Taryn Simon's photographs without any context, without any frame of reference and certainly without any text. To do this is to enter a fantastically bizarre world, a circus like freak show of sites, human things, animals and locations... a whizzing siren of color. Empty-yet-clear, distorted-yet-shaped scenes abound, alien-American-laboratory textures, sounds and surfaces. Without context the photographs are joyfully disturbing and fascinatingly covert... almost like entering secretly into a spy story as an invisible spectator only the spies are spying on you and the story is taking place with you at the center. Pardoxically, the images are disparate and unconnected but also connected and to a certain extent, cohesive. Like the work of Michele Abeles assorted puzzle pieces are there on the table, the fabric patchwork of "the quilt" seems to be stitched together. A story is asking you if it can be "told"... but the secret story is encrypted... the "code" is planted under the surface... everything is connected but somewhere down at the root..."

(Taryn Simon - CIA Headquaters from
Taryn Simon's An American Index of the Hidden and the Unfamiliar )

And there is The Twighlight of Color Photography by By Dushko Petrovich from the Boston Globe

"...But as with each of our advances, something else is being lost. It is easy to think of the print and the digital image as the same thing, but they're actually very different. Even as cameras tout their ever-increasing megapixels, nearly everything we view is projected out at 72 dots per inch, the standard resolution of a monitor. The resulting pictures are back-lit, vivid, and very easy to scan, so we hardly notice how hard it is to look into them. Your eyes move side to side, and you can easily gather all the information, but if you linger for a minute - an actual minute - you'll notice that the screen doesn't quite accept your gaze. A printed photograph, however - even when small, or blurry - has a way of letting you in. The paper surface is less aggressive than the liquid crystal one, so your eyes can roam around. The brightness of the pixel has a price: The illusory space of the photo is subtly reduced, along with its invitation to wander - or simply rest - inside it.

Of course, the real space photographs take up is also reduced. Like most technology, the color print seemed ever so sleek . . . until we saw the upgrade. A laptop effortlessly holds what hundreds of shoe boxes could not; we now send 50 pictures with a click. Still, the actual third dimension is an important aspect of the supposedly 2D print; the physical contact establishes a certain intimacy. Who has not held a photograph and wept? Who hasn't felt their nostalgia settle for an instant on the thinness of a print? To hold a photo is to hold a person, or even a place, in your hand - a momentary illusion that has no parallel on a monitor...

...But just as the paperless format erases one kind of closeness, it can open entirely new realms of intimacy - the minute you hit "upload." While our stored photos are shy (you have to search for them) and a little vulnerable (they can all disappear with a hard drive), the ones we put on the Web are gregarious and immortal. Never before has the photo been so emphatically public, announcing our achievements and pleasures with a swiftness we never dreamed of. So even when these disseminated images come to haunt us, it's not in the manner of the print - which conjured private sentiments, like longing or regret - but with rather more civic feelings, like shame and embarrassment. Usually these unnerving photos are the ones other people have posted (and "tagged"), but what's really irksome is that other people are seeing them, and that these other people can even copy them and distribute them, if they so choose. The old idea of "destroy the negatives" sounds pretty quaint in a world of endlessly reproducible jpegs, as does the notion of asking to take someone's picture. We're all celebrities now! But it is the photographs, not their subjects, that are godlike in their movements...."

(A train upended by Westward-fleeing Greeks in 1923 in Turkey. Musee Albert Kahn)

and much much more...