THE PHOTOGRAPH AS FETISH

fetish: 1.1 An excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Big article in The Guardian about how photography has become the “hottest new investment choice”. Duckrabbit responds with a review of Jim Motram‘s book Small Town Inertia, a blog post much more measured than the one you are reading now. (In fact, you should probably just spend your precious time reading that, rather than this.)

But I will continue whether there are readers here or not, which is kind of the crux of what I’m about to talk about . . .

I realized a long time ago that no one buys my photos. Well, that’s not entirely true. I occasionally sell one or two to some individual and, more often, to institutions. But I’ve known for a long time that there’s no real future for me (fiscally speaking) in the good-old sell-prints-as-art scheme. And I’m fine with that, it leaves me free to pursue other ways of thinking about why I take photos, what they need to look like, how they are assembled and distributed, and their use and usefulness.

Now you might be a photographer who’s sensibility, interests, aesthetic and skill set makes your work desirable to folks who need a photo or two to flesh out their walls. Maybe gallery representation and selling prints is part of your income flow. And maybe your photos are more than mere decorations. Great. I’ve got no problem with that. But please, if your photographs really are mostly decorative don’t attach some after-the-fact rationale that attributes a socially conscious subtext to them. Have the balls or the ovaries to own what you do.

But, me, I’ve never wanted my photographs to be precious, never thought of a photograph I’ve made (or, as I prefer, taken) as “a piece”, unless you consider piece to mean one small thing that goes with other things to make a more complex whole. I’ve never tried to be an artist, I just want to experience, learn and communicate.

Yes, yes, I know I’m speaking totally categorically here. I know that there are nuances and complications to everything. I know that not everyone wants what I want. I know that what I see as some decorative bobble might move someone else to tears. I know that, as Simon Norfolk says, “beauty can be a tactic”. But I hope you get my point: that markets drive, in subtle and often unconscious ways, content.
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NAOMI HARRIS

Naomi is energetic, to say the least. A gallivanting Canadian, she travels all over, lives in her car a lot of the time and is constantly accompanied by her sidekick, Maggie the dog. She seeks out and photographs, for lack of a better word, characters.

With her latest project, EUSA, you could see the people she photographs as eccentrics, or as folks creating some kind of dream. But the photos also show how caricature can (and does) become an idealized version of a reality that doesn’t really exist. Or does it? Aren’t all our realities manufactured?

Read on as Naomi talks about how she finds projects and subjects, what she does once she’s got them in her sights and what she does for fun . . .

How do you choose your projects? What makes you decide to spend your time and capital on this, rather than that?

To date I typically find one project while working on another. Like when I was shooting my first project Haddon Hall, I used to go to a nude beach and would hear everyone around me talking about these parties that I was never invited to. I discovered that they were talking about swingers parties and when I was invited to go as a “key” so a single, male friend of mine could go I said sure, why not, because I’ll do anything once (the invitation was to come with no strings attached as I am a photographer and he figured I’d be into seeing it). So that led to my project America Swings. Then when shooting the last swingers project for the book I was in the mountains of Georgia and had time to kill so went to a little tourist town called Helen that was all done up in Bavarian. I did some research to see what other places in the US looked European, then looked into American themed places in Europe and voila, EUSA was born.

Tulip Festival, Orange City, Iowa, U.S., from: EUSA 

How do I decide what to spend my time and money on though? I guess I need to feel like I’m gaining something out of the experience, learning something about other people and myself. I usually shoot things that are far far away which is silly as I accrue all sorts of travel expenses when I should shoot something in my own backyard. But guess that’s the wanderlust in me. 

The next few projects I’m working on are a huge departure from my current work habit. I’m leaving the documentary style behind and attempting a more performance art approach. I find it more and more difficult to make interesting photos these days as more and more people are glued to their phones 24/7.

Tell me a little more about EUSA.

It’s a series of photographs, mostly portraiture, that I took over the course of 8 years, but not consistently. Most of these events happened during the summer months and usually many things happened over the same weekend so had to pick which side of the pond to be on when. And after I shot a bunch of places in 2010 I put all the shot film in my freezer until 2013 when a friend who worked in a lab was quitting their job and told me to give them the film so they could process it for free for me! That was a tremendous boost. And when I finally saw the images 3 years later I was like, “Whoa, I like what I’ve got, damn I better finish this project finally!” and got cracking again. 

PonyparkCity, Collendoorn, Netherlands, from: EUSA

But what is EUSA? In a nutshell it’s American themed places in Europe and European themed places in America. It’s my take on how globalization has ruined cultures creating a homogenized universal culture. Did I intend this when I first started shooting the project, no. But the more “the same” I’ve seen us become the more I realize that this is the true underlying current to the work. We are all becoming drones shlocking the wares of global companies like Apple, Adidas, Levis, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, the list goes on and on. That our cultures have become “Disneyfied” if you will…the to be German is to stuff yourself with brats while wearing a lederhosen T-shirt or if you’re American you are either a cowboy, Confederate soldier or Native American…and don’t get me started on Europeans dressing up as Indians.

How do you approach your subjects, how long do you spend with them and how much do they contribute (in the sense of collaborating) to the process? 

Each project is different for me. For example when I photographed Haddon Hall I moved into the hotel itself living there for 2 months and then relocating to Miami and lived there while working on the project. It was very important for me to be ever present and really gain the trust of my subjects. I wouldn’t even necessarily take my camera out, just hang out on the veranda and shoot the breeze as we watched the world go by. Or taking them to doctors appointments or helping with grocery shopping. All this is part of the process. Gaining people’s trust helps grant you permission to photograph in those off moments. But these people also became my surrogate grandparents as I grew up not having any other than my paternal grandmother who died a few years earlier, and for many of them I was like a grandchild. This was a time in my life when I had the luxury of time and had saved up some money to be able to work on this project but that’s not always the case.

Wurst Fest, New Braunfels, Texas, U.S., from: EUSA

When I photographed for EUSA or even the America Swings work I didn’t really get to spend much time with people in the sense that these were events. With the swingers there was the added pressure of needing to connect quickly since everyone there is there with an end goal in mind, and that’s not to get their photo taken if you catch my drift.

Typically I work slow. I always drum up a conversation, try to connect on a certain level and create an interaction with my subject. I want them to be a participant in their portrait, to not only be directed but to be present which I hope comes through at the end. During Trump’s first 100 days I drove around the country meeting people and photographing them in order to get a sense of how Trump was elected president. I talked to many people, not always photographing them. I think that’s important to say, that this photography thing is a process and a tool to connect with people that doesn’t always need to culminate in a photograph. Photography is experiential, the fact that there is a photograph at the end which you can share with others is just a byproduct. 

What do you do for fun?

I go to bed most nights at 9 so that eliminates most social activities. I get up early, hike the dogs, make a smoothie (got to get in those greens!) and then get to work. I don’t remember the last time I’ve taken an actual holiday. But I guess I’m having the most fun and feeling the most “at home” when I’m in my car on a road trip. Sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, figuring out where to go next while Maggie is asleep next to me, this is the greatest source of joy for me.

Here’s a link to Naomi’s Kickstarter where you can buy her book. Here’s a link to Naomi’s website.

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Thank you for your time
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A CONVERSATION WITH COLIN PANTALL

As usual, I had written three items for this week’s drool. You know, trying to keep the blog magazine-y. Problem was it all got kind of long and involved.

So in the spirit of adapting to circumstances, and being fluid and giving certain posts the space they need, the following episode of drool. contains exactly one item (plus a bunch of links).

What follows is a conversation with Colin Pantall, in which he talks about blogging, photobook making and Kickstarter. He’s measured, mostly sane, curious, smart. Read on . . .

From: All Quiet on the Home Front, by Colin Pantall

Colin is a writer, photographer, curator and lecturer based in Bath, England. I’ve never met Colin but our paths have crossed many a time. One time, back in 2010, we were both included in a thing WIRED did on their favorite photobloggers. But like so much public social media intercourse that didn’t mean very much.

What really meant something was, when I was in the depths of USER, Colin and I had some truck in, I think, the comment section of his blog. There was a certain amount of back-and-forth and I recognized his smarts right away and figured I could use them (his smarts).

Over the years, from time to time, when I have needed help and a sympathetic brain to lean on, he’s been one of the people I go to. His input is always well-considered and his effect on more than one of my projects has been subtle yet profound.

One of those weird social media anomalies . . . a stranger who is actually a friend.

Page spread: All Quiet on the Home Front, by Colin Pantall

TF/ First thing I want to ask you, Colin (because I’m still wondering why I resurrected my blog) is, in this day and age, why do you blog?

CP/ I still blog because I can use the blog for whatever I like and the blog can evolve into whatever I want it to be, most times by accident. 

Sometimes it’s hard work when it gets bogged down in something. That’s why I’ve relented on the book reviews. I simply had too big a pile of them and it got to be a labour rather than something enjoyable. 

It’s fun when you start writing and you get into a flow. It doesn’t happen often but it happens and that’s what really keeps me going. That’s when the writing has an energy that people respond to. 

I’m promoting a book at the moment so it’s useful for that. I talked about All Quiet on the Home Front for the first time at the weekend – on quite a simplistic level. I think that’s necessary at times, but it’s frustrating because there are complexities in All Quiet that I’d like to go into; about the history of landscape, dress, body, the history of family. The blog gives me a chance to go into that and explore my ideas in this weird semi-formal way that doesn’t have to make too much sense. 

I like that it doesn’t have to make too much sense. You can be emotional or abusive or contradictory on a blog. You can have a personality. And maybe that’s why I like having a blog, because in places at least it does have a personality and an opinion, and personality and opinion are good things to have as you know from drool., Tony.

Page spread: All Quiet on the Home Front, by Colin Pantall

TF/ Seems to me you use your blog like some people use photography . . . as a way to work things out, to discover what they might be thinking, to address complexities.

You mention your book, All Quiet on the Home Front. I want to know how (or if) your title relates to the war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque (though most people would probably be more familiar with the movie based upon the book).

CP/ The title is a flip. The wider edit of All Quiet on the Home Front was a vision of domesticity in the UK and Canada in particular – my wife is Canadian so we visit a lot. Not a lot happens in this domesticity on the surface but actually quite a lot happens. 

I had all these fantastic images and a title but it didn’t fit. Then while I was going through the images, Katherine said, “can’t you see. This is the story of how you developed your relationship with Isabel through the landscape.” And it was. And the landscapes would change as Isabel grew up and she could see how much I identified with those landscapes. Brown’s Folly was my favourite and I felt a certain pain and loss when we stopped going there. So the idea of the landscapes being me came about because I did have that identification with the landscape in a very strong way. And there was a loss as Isabel grew up, a loss that is typical of the changes in relationship that happen as a child grows up and beyond their parents. And then she began identifying with the landscapes herself. That was quite beautiful, a sign that she had become herself. 

It’s these small dramas that make up domestic life. Hence All Quiet on the Home Front – not a lot happens on the surface, but just beneath the surface there’s a lot going on. There’s a latent energy there all the time, just as there was on the Western Front. 

Page spread: All Quiet on the Home Front, by Colin Pantall

TF/ When did you know this work would be a book? Was it planned all along, or did you one day wake up and think, “this is a book”?

It wasn’t planned all along but I always have books in the back of mind. As part of my MA in Documentary Photography I made the Sofa Portraits which showed Isabel watching TV. They are a thing in themselves, the prints are amazing.

I carried on photographing in and around our home in Bath, and at some point as she got older, I photographed more of the surrounding family. I have this really rich body of work showing Isabel, family, friends, our allotment. It’s very local and pitted with multiple meanings. 

But it never quite crystallized as a book until I saw what Alejandro Acin of ICVL did with Amak Mahmoodian‘s book, Shenasnameh. I have worked with Alex on other ICVL events and we co-curated the last Photobook Bristol so I know him well. But Shenasnameh was really special. I worked on the text of the book and saw it evolve from a powerful but simple set of images into something that went above and beyond the page. 

The process of making the book was also beautiful and really collaborative. Alex and Amak are wonderful people and the way they worked together towards this common end was a delight, a true collaborative experience. So I suggested making a book and Alex said I thought you were doing that with so-and-so and I said no why don’t you do it and we started working on it about a year ago. 

And it has been a truly collaborative experience which is a joy to behold. And now it’s nearing the end and I’m a train-wreck of nervous energy.

TF/ I know that feeling. The thing about doing a book is that it brings everything into sharper focus, forces you to make very difficult decisions vis-a-vis your commitment to whatever it is you want to say. And it’s permanent. These are all things that are in short supply in the social media world.

You didn’t do crowdfunding for your book, you just did it and made it available for pre-sale and, in November, for actual sale. Tell me a little about your thinking on that.

CP/  Why not Kickstarter? I don’t know. Making a book is nerve-racking enough, but doing a Kickstarter even more so. It becomes too much of a race and even more of a promotional nightmare because you have to sell, sell, sell. 

I’m selling enough as it is with pre-orders and it’s going well enough, but if it was a 30 day Kickstarter with 20 days to go I’d be absolutely wetting my pants. I look with some envy at people who fund their Kickstarters within a few days (yes I mean you! And you! And you!).

Sometimes it’s because they have a brilliant book. Their popularity and well-connectedness kicks in as well. And of course if you’re good at selling, that really helps. But the worst thing is sometimes it’s simply because they are extremely wealthy and have enough extremely wealthy friends to fund it. This makes me angry because I’m wondering why they don’t just use their trust funds to fund it themselves. 

Then you get people who should get funded, who do everything fantastically and get promotion, but somehow it doesn’t just happen and they’re stuck without the extra cash to pay for the book. They’re not rich and they don’t have the wealthy friends. And it’s so sad and dispiriting, because ultimately people are mistaking wealth for talent. It fucks me off big time. 

Page spread: All Quiet on the Home Front, by Colin Pantall

I’m also not that confident I’d hit my target. I’m well-connected, and I’ve used that in various ways with people who I know like the work, but I’m not good at selling. I don’t like selling even though every blog, instagram and facebook post at the moment is about All Quiet now. And Alex is not good at selling. We’re better at selling than Amak Mahmoodian who made Shenasnameh. She ended up giving away half the books to people because they were “so lovely” – that’s how I got my copy. I think in the end Alex had to put a sign round her neck saying ‘Don’t take any books from this woman, they’re not hers to give away’ so he could claw back some of the huge amounts of money they’d spent on printing the book. 

I do have confidence the book will sell though, because it touches on so many aspects of people’s lives. People respond to it and they personalise what they see and talk about it all the time, but it’s odd because they talk about it outside the context of the photobook. That is both a curse and a blessing. It’s really fascinating how the photobook world works in that sense, in particular the more esoteric corner of the photobook world I’m perched in.

So we need £4,500 to get the books to the printer, which will be fine. And then we need another £4,500 to  get it back from the printers. I’m just finishing Magnum China and they should pay me in time to cover that if we don’t have enough. Fuck, I wish I was rich! Then I could just get my rich buddies to pay for it on Kickstarter and wouldn’t have to even think about it!

TF/ Thank you very much Colin. Why don’t I post some images from All Quiet on the Home Front . . .

(Buy the book here. Colin’s website. Colin’s blog.)

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Thank you for your time

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OVERWHELMED. UNDERWHELMED.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the senselessness and meaninglessness of it all. But then I wonder, how can I be overwhelmed if there is no sense and no meaning? If that’s the case shouldn’t I really just feel nothing, not care?

But the way it seems to work if you’re Human, especially a Human with an existentialist bent, is you have to make your own meaning. And that’s hard work. Much easier to go along to get along, to accept whatever you’re handed.

I see this dichotomy, too, in photography. Some photographers work and struggle to create and shift meaning, others just seem to accept the world at face value.

And that, accepting this nuanced and multifaceted world at face value, leaves me underwhelmed.

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BLAZEJ MARCZAK

Born and raised in Poland, Blazej moved to Scotland where he lived for 11 years (2005-16). There he studied photography at Stevenson College in Edinburgh. After graduation he moved to Aberdeen, and, over 4 years, shot (amongst other work) The Grey City. Last year he moved to Ottawa and sent me an email after he found my website. Now Blazej and I get together from time to time and compare notes. I asked him why he takes photographs . . .

One day I just decided that I would become a photographer, without having a clue what that really means or what kind of photographer I wanted to be.  At the beginning I used family’s old soviet Kiev and Zenith cameras without even knowing that I can change the lens on the cameras. That was in 1999.

I love all aspects of making photographs so saying that I am doing this for fun wouldn’t be far from true however there were and are many other reasons for photographing. The urge to discover, understand and document is the most important drive to me right now.

I love to be out there at weirdest times at night, to contemplate, unwind, dream, respond to the place. I want to feel local anywhere I live and photography enormously helps with that.

I am making images for myself, the choice and the way I am approaching my subjects reflect who I am,  but I also hope that other people now and in the future would relate to my work in one way or another. I am finding photography to be an important medium which helps us to look at ourselves from a variety of different perspectives and it is healthy to not be limited to one perspective.

Our multi layered world is constantly changing and I see photography as a valuable tool which could be used to grasp this “liquid modernity” we live in.

Images from The Grey City (click on images to enlarge).

Then I asked him to compare Aberdeen and Ottawa . . .

When I first arrived in Ottawa I was struck by the abundance of colours, which was notable after living in the rather monochromatic Aberdeen. However I remember that when we met you told me that I “moved from one grey city to another” which I found surprising at that time. When walking around some areas of Ottawa during bleak autumn and winter days I understood what you meant. I love the mighty winter here though. I think it’s fantastic!

I  like how nature blends into the urban environment of both cities which benefit from having two rivers flowing through them and which were extensively used by local industries.

Ottawa has a fine green belt and scenery and in Aberdeen a few minutes walk would take me to the North Sea seaside and dunes. I am missing the Grampian Mountains surrounding Aberdeen but the scale of the snow heaps during the winter makes up for that.

You can see how modernism shaped and unfortunately also scarred Ottawa and Aberdeen, there are good and not so good examples of modernist thinking in these two cities.

The level of homelessness, drug addiction and mental health problems in Ottawa is scary. Aberdeen wasn’t an idyll neither but the level of human misery I observed around some areas of Rideau Street is striking.

I can hear bagpipes in both cities and I can drink amazing local IPA’s in both but I definitely prefer the prices of single malts in Scotland.

Images from Ottawa . . .

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ONLINE PHOTO CONTESTS?

If you’re a photographer you’ve seen ’em. Online photo contests that offer exposure and, sometimes, actual rewards. Often they feature some “name” jurist or panel of industry movers-and-shakers. It’s easy to enter. Just fill out the form, send ’em the money and some jpegs and you’re in the running. It’s kinda like buying a lottery ticket, for the price of admission you get to hope and dream.

The claim is that your work will be exposed to someone or some group of people who might do your career a big favour by looking at and/or selecting your photos. Those images will then get thrown up on their website or, maybe, if you are the grand prize winner!, in an actual gallery or print publication. And you get to jump for joy and add the words “Award Winning Photographer” to your bio.

I’m sure some of these contests are legit. And I know it costs money to run these things. I’m also sure that many of them are organized and arranged for the purveyor’s enrichment. After all no one ever went broke preying on the hopes and dreams of desperate people.

And then there are a handful that seem to put industry support over profit-motive. Here are three that I know about and think are pretty damn legit: The New York Times LENS Portfolio RevueConscientious Portfolio Review and PhotoLucida Critical Mass. The first two are free, Critical Mass is quite expensive but has a strong history, deep roster and broad reach. I’m sure there are others that are equally well run and worthwhile but, like I said, these are the ones I’m familiar with.


For me, the best bet for career enhancement is not broadcasting, but narrowcasting. Spend time doing good, authentic, organized work, find 5 or 6 or 7 people/institutions/publications that might support that work and spend your time and money actively pursuing them. Make it personal.

Of course, in the end its your money and your time, you can spend it however you want.

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I welcome your comments. No vitriol please, but contrary opinions and insights are welcome.

Thank you for your time.
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