Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"The measuring and folding of the cloth of time itself" - Paul Graham

- when you form the meaningless world into photographs, then form those photographs into a meaningful world -
Paul Graham -
The Unreasonable Apple

(Paul Graham from "Troubled Land")

Last month photographer Paul Graham gave a presentation at the first MOMA Photography Forum that deserves to be widely read by creative photographers as well as those who promote and curate photography.

It's certainly one of the most succinct and clear arguments I've come across in recent years about the place and value of creative (or "art") photography.

In particular Graham makes an unapologetic case for the importance of " that is taken from the world as it is" (my emphasis), as opposed to photography that is constructed from an artist's vision.

The text of the presentation can be found on Graham's website and deserves to be read in full, but here are a few extracts.

"...there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. They get artists who use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts, who deploy the medium as one of a range of artistic strategies to complete their work. But photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is– are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’tag".

What I find so refreshing about the whole presentation is that Graham essentially says is that its not an argument about the photography world versus the photography world. This form of photography is as creatively important as painting or sculpture or whatever and it's simply time for the curators and the critics to unblinker themselves and wake up to the fact. And it's also time for the best of them to bring their skills and intelligence to bear on conveying to the wider art world and the public at large what it is that such photography is about:

"I have to say that the position of ‘straight’ photography in the art world reminds me of the parable of an isolated community who grew up eating potatoes all their life, and when presented with an apple, though it unreasonable and useless, because it didn’t taste like a potato...

...The point is that we need the smart, erudite and eloquent people in the art world, the clever curators and writers, those who do get it, to take the time to speak seriously about the nature of such photography, and articulate something of its dazzlingly unique qualities, to help the greater art world, and the public itself understand the nature of the creative act when you dance with life itself - when you form the meaningless world into photographs, then form those photographs into a meaningful world."

Graham concludes with a final statement which he correctly (in my view) describes as an astonishing description at the heart of creative photography:

"So, what is it we are discussing here - how do we describe the nature of this photographic creativity? My modest skills are insufficient for such things. However let me make an opening offer: perhaps we can agree that through force of vision these artists strive to pierce the opaque threshold of the now, to express something of the thus and so of life at the point they recognised it. They struggle through photography to define these moments and bring them forward in time to us, to the here and now, so that with the clarity of hindsight, we may glimpse something of what it was they perceived. Perhaps here we have stumbled upon a partial, but nonetheless astonishing description of the creative act at the heart of serious photography: nothing less than the measuring and folding of the cloth of time itself."
So go read it, email it around and print it off and stick it on the wall by your computer.

(and thanks to Terri Weifenbach for pointing me to this)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Unhappy Hipsters and the deadpan aesthic

"Drink in hand, he settled into the numb nothingness of his self-imposed

(Photo: Daniel Hennessy; Dwell, November 2006)

On a mildly serious note, over the last few years it's been interesting to note how the "deadpan" aesthetic in photography - applied to both people and places - has eventually made its way from the edges through to illustration and advertising. From the New Topographics by way of New Colour and the "Dusseldorf School" etc. it has been showing up more and more often in ads and magazine articles. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of architecture, design and "lifestyle" magazines.

At first seen mainly in the more hipster magazines such as Azure or Dwell or ID or Wallpaper this style is now found in even the most staunchly traditional architectural magazines. Check the architecture and design magazine section at Chapters, Borders or Barnes & Noble and you will find no end of articles apparently illustrated by the combined team of
Thomas Struth (huh - I can't believe I've never done a full post on Struth), Rineke Dijkstra, Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shoren Ltd.

We are presented with models or owners - not a smile among them whether adult or child - with their deadpan gaze lit by diffuse and slightly unsaturated colour, as is the rest of their dwelling - usually on an overcast day - seen fair and square by the camera. Rarely pretty or beautiful or stunning but always understated. Somber and mildly sublime but never harsh or bold or brash.

Now this happens to be a look and a type of photography that I actually quite like. At first I was excited as I started to see it effecting main stream commercial photography and especially as it started to fracture the dominance of a style of architectural photography that had been in place since sometime in the 1970's. But now I'm coming to realise that it can become rather tiring in such quantity (if not downright depressing) after flicking through the third or fifth or tenth magazine with article after article illustrated in a similar deadpan style - even if meticulously executed, as they usually are.

And while I know that many of the photographers also pursue their own personal projects alongside their commercial work (wherein the latter has become a happy subsidising side-effect; making hay while the sunshine lasts) I find that once this approach moves too far into the commercial realm it also seems to take on a deadening effect. Whereas the personal work, the art projects, may appear deadpan and impassive they are often in fact suffused with a sense of real irony or genuine affection or fascination or criticism or even subtle humour. Yet with most of the commercial work this more often seems lacking and all we are left with is the austere, sober deadpan.

Which is why I was happy to run across the site "
Unhappy Hipsters" - subtitle: "It's lonely in the modern world" (thanks for the link Shafraz). The (anonymous??) author takes a sample of these pictures and adds his own humorous (though often highly believable) take on them by adding his own captions. Some are gut-achingly funny. Most are wry. Some beautifully satirical. Many are tellingly accurate - at least as far as the current urban middle class condition goes.

"The emotional distance was immeasurable.

(Photo: Noah Webb; Dwell, February 2007)"

Really, I enjoyed the site as just being very funny but it did prompt me to do a bit of musing on photographic style as well as (a mildly humorous take) on meaning in photographs - how images contain a multiplicity of meanings independent of the original creator (I know adding captions to change meaning - intentionally or unintentionally - is nothing new, but this seemed a particularly well done example). So just enjoy Unhappy Hipsters

"He deeply resented her insistence that their wardrobes coordinate.

(Photo: Stephen Oxenbury; Dwell, March 2009)"

BTW the competition posts (they start about halfway down the page), where readers were invited to send in their own captions had me creased up in part because of the wonderful brilliance of the subject photograph by Gregg Segal (who must have a beautifully humorous sense of irony):

(Photo: Gregg Segal; Dwell,
October 2009

And a couple of sample captions:

Zen had come easily to him—sparse interior, shaved head, “rug-garden.”
It was motorcycle maintenance he was having problems with.

-Sebastian Biot

He knew she would be happy that he had adhered to the “NO SHOES ON
THE CARPET” policy. Finally, he was getting their relationship right.

-Brilliant Anonymous

He had no intention of ever riding it, or even fixing it. But he decided
from this moment forward, all visitors would enter to find him in
exactly this position.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Binder Clip cable catcher

Off-topic (well, sort of), but this is so blindingly (bindingly?) simple I had to post it.

How many times have you crawled around in the dust bunnies under you desk trying to find the business end of a scanner or printer USB cable, external hard-drive cable, camera download cable, ipod cable, charger cable etc etc.

Well, here's the solution - using cheap and ubiquitous binder clips (or foldback clips as I think we called them in the UK?)

Now, why didn't I think of that - doh

(via Lifehacker - where I also learned how to make fantastically tasty but very quick - 5 minutes a day - and easy to make artisan bread...)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Terry Richardson accused of being cowardly, pervy. Who'd of thunk it..?

(Photo via Huffington Post)

A big DUH! moment this last week or so in the fashion and "art" photography world

In the last week various models have accused fashion/"art" photographer Terry Richardson of being a pervy old man. Model Jamie Peck is quoted as saying:
"Before I could say "whoa, whoa, whoa!" dude was wearing only his tattoos and waggling the biggest dick I'd ever seen dangerously close to my unclothed person (granted, I hadn't seen very many yet). "Why don't you take some pictures of me?" he asked. Um, sure."...
(Check out a bit of this issue of Foil Magazine - NSFW though)

Supermodel Rie Rasmussen started it all off by confronting Richardson about his creepy approach, and his use of photographs of her, at a recent Paris fashion event; adding the "cowardly" label after Richardson "...ran out of the bar and called her modeling agency the next day to complain. She called his actions "the most cowardly thing I have ever seen."".

Since then more models and "subjects" have chimed in with their own tales and confirmations adding that the "establishment" - the art directors, editors and agencies (and gallerists?) are all well aware of "know full well Richardson's predatory behavior," but that he "is tolerated because the industry folk are just sheep."

Huh - Well who'd of thunk it? It's always the ones you'd never suspect - like creepy old tattooed uncle Joe out on probation after being inside since 1978, wearing the same clothes he went away to the Big House in 30 years ago, polaroid in hand offering to baby-sit his nieces...

Or "Uncle Roy" from SNL:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gabriele Basilico redux


I'm glad that there have been a few posts in the photo-blogoshpere in the last week or so about Italian photographer Gabrielle Basilico. It's also a reminder of how parochial the North American photo-scene can be. I'm frequently surprised at the number of important photographers whose work is often not at all well known across here because they aren't based in N. America

As far as I'm concerned Basilico is one of the more important photographers of the last 25+ years, especially in the whole area of city and urban photography. Not only does he make great photographs, he also brings to his work an extremely sophisticated understanding of, and vision of, "the city". He is acutely aware of the changes that have taken place in what a city is - especially over the last 50 or so years - and of what the city now means. Changes in the centre, the edge, the suburbs, the terrain vague - the space that holds it all together.

Gabriele Basilico, Milano 03, 1995

While much of his work can stand strongly on its own as single images it is his ordering of images - often in dense sequence - that can often be most effective. Still one of the best examples of this is his book Interrupted City; Italy - Cross-Sections of a Country. Through his work Basilico has been an important influence on many of the current crop of cityscape/urbanscape photographers as well as architects, planners and urban theorist.

Gabriele Basilico, Valencia 04, 1998

(Other books by Basilico which I particularly like are Cityscapes and Beirut (both the original and the "revisited"). The Phaidon 55 book is also fairly good. My two favourites though are L'esperienza dei luoghi and Porti di Mare.)

If you want a bit more info about Basilico, I've written about him several times before - here are a few posts, which include plenty of other links:

Gabriele Basilico

Gabriele Basilico - Workbook 1969-2006

Gabriele Basilico - Silicone Valley - 07

From the recent postings this last week, I was pleased to finally find a link to some of his more recent colour work - which is quite stunning (for the longest time - with the possible exception of the Beirut work - he was very much a master of black and white pictures. He is now showing the same with colour).

(All photographs - Gabrielle Basilico)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

On Plagiarism Pt. II

(Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds)

(NOTE: Some very good responses since this was posted - below as well as on the related posts, especially the very first one. Check E.E. Nixon's and Struan's in particular.)

After my
post yesterday there was a comment on both that and the earlier post which I wanted to respond to (note that it is listed under the first post).

"REB" writes:

In the first instance, Burdeny's work is not plagerism, by definition and as others have stated.

If Leong would have his way no one could produce an image in the same style as his. In photography, with digital camera and photoshopping, that will be an impossible conclusion.

The copying of an idea and execution of an idea, if limited to the originator and if applied across the spectrum of mankind and the evolution of ideas would lead to one of each idea and nothing else. The use of an idea and/or execution of an idea is neither copy written or trademarked.

Ideas that can demonstrate technical specifications mat be patented, however, I am sure that an image of some element of the World is not in that category.

The other element of this blog, is the individuals who are so quick to be critical, but even here they are plagerizing Leong and his idea that Burdeny did him wrong. His idea by those standards are his alone and should be expressed by others.

God forbid, in our society, if ideas become the sole property of the first who expresses the idea.

Tim's comment of Burdeny's lazy approach shows that he doesn't know Burdeny's work ethic.

Tom G. says “The images are photographed with an 8”x10” view camera and printed as chromogenic color prints, Each image offers a finely grained density of visual information, rendered in the broad range of tonality only made possible by the 8”x10” inch transparency..."

This description has always been evident in ALL of Burdeny's work.

By Tom G. standard, the use of any format would be owned by the initial user. Bluntly stated... Get a Life.

I'm not going to respond to every point, but I wanted to highlight a few:

In the first instance, Burdeny's work is not plagerism, by definition and as others have stated.

I've left it up to people to decide whether or not Burdeny's work is plagiarism. The Oxford English Dictionary's ("The definitive record of the English language"...) definition in yesterday's post is as clear and straightforward as any other I have come across. A work, portion of a work, idea or concept can be plagiarized.

The copying of an idea and execution of an idea, if limited to the originator and if applied across the spectrum of mankind and the evolution of ideas would lead to one of each idea and nothing else. The use of an idea and/or execution of an idea is neither copy written or trademarked.

This seems to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of plagiarism. I don't believe the first point to be true at all. And as for copyright and trademark - plagiarism is essentially a moral and ethical issue not a legal issue. As a concept, plagiarism has been around for a long time - since at least the 17th Century and probably longer. It hasn't yet seemed to have had the sort of stifling effect on creativity that REB fears.

Tim's comment of Burdeny's lazy approach shows that he doesn't know Burdeny's work ethic.

I'm not concerned with anybody's work ethic - rather that plagiarism displays a certain intellectual and creative laziness. Many plagiarists seem to work extremely hard. Imagine the amount of work - the time and effort - that goes into writing a full length book. Several years of writing and editing, finding a publisher and so on only to have the whole thing shredded at the end of the day because it was found they plagiarized someone else's words or novel. What an expensive risk to take (see final OED quote).

Tom G. says “The images are photographed with an 8”x10” view camera and printed as chromogenic color prints, Each image offers a finely grained density of visual information, rendered in the broad range of tonality only made possible by the 8”x10” inch transparency..."

I don't believe Tom.G was commenting on the use of camera format as a form of plagiarism (interesting concept...), but rather on the extremely close correlation between the wording of the two artists statements.

As most readers probably know, since it's inception the OED has sought out and included examples of historical and contemporary usage of the words it defines. I'll leave you with two from it's entry for plagiarism:

1753 (Dr.) JOHNSON Adventurer No. 95.
{page}9 "Nothing..can be more unjust than to charge an author with plagiarism merely because he..makes his personages act as others in like circumstances have done".

1820 W. HAZLITT Lect. Dramatic Lit. 257 "If an author is once detected in borrowing, he will be suspected of plagiarism ever after".

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

On Plagiarism

(Eugene Atget)

From the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary:

, n. The action or practice of taking someone else's work, idea, etc., and passing it off
as one's own; literary theft.

plagiarize, v. Originally of writers, later also of composers, artists, etc.: to take and use as one's own (the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another person); to copy (literary work or ideas) improperly or without acknowledgement; (occas.) to pass off as one's own the thoughts or work of (another)

[<plagiarius person who abducts the child or slave of another, kidnapper, seducer, also a literary thief (Martial 1. 53. 9), in post-classical Latin also (adjective) concerning plagiarism (15th cent.) < plagium kidnapping...]

There were some interesting responses to the recent post on David Burdeny and Sze Tsung Leong. PDN's story, as well as being discussed across the photo blogs, was also picked up outside our narrow little world by the LA Times among others.

The two bookend quotes here from the OED and Emerson sum up my take on plagiarism quite clearly. What follows is a slight diversion.

If newspaper and internet reports are anything to go by, plagiarized work might seem to be increasingly in vogue, especially in the world of writing as well as in the Universities. But I doubt there has been a sudden huge increase in the number of plagiarists out there. Rather in this day and age it is simply just so much easier to spot plagiarized work. As more and more books, theses and papers are digitized Google oh so easily lets you quickly search for similar or exact phrases rather precisely. Software lets professors quickly and easily find which students cut and pasted their essays.

Much of the focus seems to be on the dishonesty of the practice. And while it is quite obviously dishonest (and at the college level quite simply cheating), when it gets to the level of published or exhibited work, what seems more important to me is that it is about two things. It isn't the stealing or appropriation of words or ideas that strikes me, but rather the lack of creativity or imagination and laziness. (Of course the perspective of the original creator of the work is different and I'm sure the theft aspect looms larger).

Very early in his career in 1929 and 1930 Walker Evans got to spend time with the hoard of Eugene Atget prints and negatives Berenice Abbott had just brought back with her from Paris after Atget's death (Evans shared Abbott's darkroom while she was working on them.). He was both stunned and terrified. Stunned for the obvious reasons - he was seeing for the first time Atget's incredible work long before almost anyone had heard of or seen it. Stunned that it fully confirmed the direction his own work had begun )and in good part defined where has was to go as an artist). But also terrified by the clear and unique vision he saw and how close - to him - it seemed to his own. I recall reading that he was afraid that once Atget's work became well known (which didn't really happen for perhaps another twenty or thirty years) that people would simply accuse him of copying, plagiarizing Atget's work and ideas. And so for a good many years Evans often denied ever having seen Atget's work until quite late on in his career.

Of course Evans was wrong. Certainly we can see the influences Atget's work most probably had on Evans after that. And Evan's later acknowledged his own debt to Atget. But this is really the opposite of plagiarism. The subtle influences one unique vision informing another - which is the way art essentially works.

Which is also just the opposite of laziness and a lack of creative vision or imagination.

Walker Evans Saratoga Springs 1931

"Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present
every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation;
but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous
half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can
teach him."

Ralph Waldo Emerson "Self Reliance" (via Little Brown Mushroom)


1. imo plagiarism of expressed ideas or concepts can also quite obviously take place as well as the more obvious copy-catting of a particular single image or scene or sentence.

3. There are also many grey areas - homage, satire, artistic "play", conceptual projects (successful or not...). But in almost all such cases there is usually a certain obviousness to things or some explicit form reference.

2. In the area of commercial work in photography with studio or staged work, quite obvious plagaristic theft of images or concepts does take place - e.g. an almost identical photoshoot. In those cases copyright and legal remedies usually come into play and the courts decide what's what.