A CERTAIN RECOGNIZABLE LOOK

Cities sometimes spawn, support and become known for a specific approach to, and aesthetic of, photography. Something about that city (an influential teacher, a certain demographic makeup, right time/right place, etc.) causes photographers there to produce work that has a certain recognizable look, feel and politics. That approach goes on to influence other photographers, in other places, and, thus, affects the history of photography. Think of Dusseldorf, think of Vancouver, think of Tokyo.

In  Kapital City a certain look, feel and (lack of) politics seems to have emerged. It’s not significant (or modern) enough, in terms of the ongoing history of photography, to become internationally influential, but nonetheless . . .

In a nutshell, and speaking generally, narrative (of almost any kind) is eschewed in Kapital City, the photographers here preferring instead to aim for beautiful aesthetics and a swell surface . . . a slick one dimensionality seems to be enough. And not that many photographers here go out into the world. Instead some aspect of the world is dragged into a studio and shoehorned, risk-free, “into an inert mannered emptiness, where objects and portrait sitters are painstakingly selected and framed, but still fail to elicit any meaningful reaction”, as Loring Knoblauch writes about a certain strain of contemporary photography. Along with (or because of) that, there seems to be a general lack of interest in current affairs and the histories, big and small, that are made day to day. That is: politics in almost all its forms is pretty much ignored (barring the highfalutin politics some attach, through specious reasoning in their artist statements, to their anodyne images).

I can sometimes be sort of seduced by the surface of some of these photographs but beyond that . . . well, there’s not much beyond that. (And, yes, of course there are photographers here who are doing complex, smart, nervy work; work where something seems to actually be at stake.)

So what do you do if you live in a city where the prevailing taste in photography makes you want to clear your throat?

First of all, I recognize that there are many grey areas within anything one would like to categorize. And it must be said that work I find facile, cliché, sentimental, simplistic, fetishized, might move someone else to tears (and win awards). So be it. I’ll give you that. I also admit that I have limited insights (some would argue: very limited) and I have bias (some would argue: a lot of bias). But I’m just not into blind acceptance.

Anyway, if you’re like me, the stupid me, you’ll try to change things. You’ll tell people that if they don’t just settle for what comes easily and for the obvious, photography can be about more than what’s readily available on the surface. You’ll tell them that if they embrace challenge and discomfort their work will have more complexity and nuance. But it’s a hard-sell because most people are very comfortable with their comfort.

(It must be noted that just about any discomfort experienced by photographers is usually quite temporary; they can almost always drive their car back to their house, have dinner, watch television and climb into their own bed.)

If you’re like the less stupid me you’ll try to find fellow travellers in your town, get together with them and compare notes. But mostly you’ll  find photographers around the world who are doing work you respect, you’ll reach out (most, if properly approached, are quite sympathetic) and compare notes, ask for (and maybe even take) advice. You’ll embrace the power of your convictions, and let the chips fall where they may. Thus you find community, thus you advance.

I’m not promoting the idea of living in an echo chamber. I think you’ll find that the photographers who are interested in the challenge of creating complex work through a process that embraces failure, discovery, politics and confusion, photographers who want something to be at stake in the creation, meaning and distribution of their work . . . those photographers, when you get together to discuss, will not pat you on the back and say, good work, let’s order another drink. They’ll challenge you because they challenge themselves. It’s in their makeup.

If that’s not your cup of tea, by all means go along with the status quo. People will love your pictures.

QUARTER-FINAL DUMMY

It feels like I’m getting close to a final, or, realistically, a quarter-final dummy. Five thousand images have been whittled down to forty-six in a specific order. And, after a surprising amount of finagling, the text has been sorted, too.

I’m happy with the general look and feel, the flow of images and, for lack of a better word, the content. Now it seems that what’s left is a whole bunch of detail work (final design, fonts, format, image size, etc.).

The first dummy was made of 3×4 inch work prints slotted into the sleeves of a 5×7 album.

That served its purpose for about a week, a week of moving images from here to there in the sequence and some preliminary fine-tuning.  The images were too small, though, to show to anyone else, so I did it all again, this time using a standard print size of 5×7 inches in an 8.5×11 album. I also took this opportunity to fine-tune the prints a bit. Still not the final versions, but closer.

This is the dummy I showed to all sorts of people. Their feedback, and further thinking on my part, resulted in moving some images around, removing some  entirely and adding others. A general tightening up.

Then . . .

I had initially thought that each image should carry an equal weight, so all the prints in the dummy were the same size. But what would happen, I wondered, if I varied the size of the prints . . . what would that look like, how would it work?  And, what sizes should I use?

So I had another look at the dummy and figured out a strategy. I’d use the same sequence, but 3 different print sizes. Once that was decided it was sort of obvious which prints should be standard size, which should be bigger and which should be biggest.

So, as of today, this is where it stands. There will be more changes, but it’s beginning to feel quite tight, real right.


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RIPPED ME A NEW ONE

Way back when (2001) I took my portfolio down to Toronto to show it to some of the folks there who have their thumb on the pulse of photography.

Last meeting of the trip was with Clare Vander Meersch. She looked through my portfolio and more or less ripped me a new one.

What Clare told me was (and my memory might not be totally accurate here), the photos were swell but were missing something. They seemed old-fashioned (or, maybe, already dated) and formulaic. Of course she said more, fleshed out the reasons for her reactions. It was a well-measured, though quite critical, response.

As I departed the meeting I mumbled to myself that she didn’t know shit. After all, I was having some success, right? And what the fuck does she know, anyway? Stuff like that.

(I should mention that I was having some success as an editorial and commercial photographer at that point. I was known for shooting classic-type B&W portraits. Lots of people dug them.)

Got in my car and began the 5 hour trip home, turning her comments over in my head the whole time.

Halfway home I wondered to myself, I wondered, what if she’s right? Could that be possible?

As I drove into my driveway in Kapital City I knew she was. Right.

That set off two years of struggle, soul-searching and exploration. I wanted to change my approach, change how my photos looked and felt and, mostly, change what they meant to me.

I won’t bore you with the rest of this story except to say that I finally, in a desert outside Los Angeles, figured out a new approach, a new (for me) way of working. It felt more modern and, somehow, true to me.

(I should mention that the changes in my work, from pre-2001 to now, are not radical. More, they are subtle shifts. Evolution, not revolution. This, in part it seems to me, is why the changes seem right.)

You see, I’m not the kind of guy who can think to himself, hmmm, my work needs to look more modern, and then just mimic someone else’s work I’d seen that struck me as modern (or trendy). Yes, there are certainly other photographers whose images have a similar look and feel to those I make (tell me a photographer’s name who has come up with something completely new in the last 30 or 40 years). But I had put in the work and the self-reflection, the trial and the error (so many errors), to arrive at this new point of departure and it just felt right. I was now at a location (in my brain) where I could set off down a new, different, path and look for new meanings.

I have always held that fateful meeting with Clare close to my heart. I thank her for her honesty and I thank myself for getting past my (bruised) ego. It changed my life.

WORKSHOPS

Speaking of critique, opinion, change and progress . . .  I want to mention that I’ll be teaching two Master Classes this summer.

One is about portraiture. It’s not a technical class (though there will be bits of that). It’s more about teaching an approach to portraiture that explores the space between you and the person you are photographing. The aim being to not just end up with a likeness of your “subject”, but rather to show you a way to work that allows for a fuller experience.

Click this link for more details.


The other deals with sequencing, or, rather, it will introduce you to a philosophy, strategies and approaches to photography that will add nuance, depth and complexity to the work you produce.

Click this link for more details.


The time and location of each Master Class is yet to be determined, but they will each probably happen one morning or afternoon a week, for four weeks. The location will be The National Gallery of Canada or SPAO.