This week we begin with a short thing, and a link, to a discussion about photographing power. There’s also an update on my new project, plus a couple of Ottawa Notes. And be sure to tune in next week when drool. will have a special BREXIT! edition.
Let’s begin . . .
A little while ago I participated in a Skype-type round table discussion, the subject: Photographing Power. The discussion was moderated and edited by Laurence Butet-Roch, for The Magenta Foundation’s newsletter.
In on the discussion were Glenna Gordon, Janet Jarman, Yvonne Venegas, Paolo Woods and Luca Zanier. Some seriously smart photographers.
It’s a long(ish) read but if you are interested in, well, in how and why to photograph power you’ll find some interesting thoughts, ideas and links in there.
INDUSTRY, HAPPENSTANCE AND PONDERING
When I began this project the plan was to allow my new camera, plus a certain amount of industry, happenstance and pondering, to provide direction. What the project might be about, what it would look and feel like, was totally undefined.
But now something, some possibility, is emerging out of the semi-randomness of my shooting.
For instance, I see these four as being connected. But the connection, whatever it is, is very crude and probably mostly in my head. And even then it’s foggy. But it does feel like I’ve caught a glimpse of something in that fog, some possibility, something to pursue.
Of course I’ve just begun, and the act of discovery (as opposed to executing a plan to arrive at a foregone conclusion) takes a lot of time. I have to keep reminding myself. Yes.
Plus, as I work away I’m sure there will be rethinks, maybe even wholesale revisions of what I think I’m trying to do.
And that’s the beauty of it.
This workshop, at SPAO, will enlighten you about all kinds of practical photobook-making tips, tricks, strategies, resources, promotion and more. Stuff I learned the hard way, through trial and error, when I was running Straylight Press and produced 18 titles by 12 photographers.
After Angus Wright lost 300 pounds Ruth Steinberg photographed his body. The resulting images, large B&W prints from 4×5 negs, are on display at the Enriched Bread Artists gallery.
This is a hard yet elegant look at a male body. The photographs contain no gauzy symbolism, they are not overwrought, nor do they cater to romance. What they do do is, they tread the fine line between forensics and art history. They are difficult to ignore.
The viewing sched is a bit finicky, but this exhibition is definitely worth the effort. Go have a look and a think. Details here.
I first met Émilie 4 or 5 years ago at the Boreal Bash in Toronto, where she showed her Passport West Africa work. I was immediately taken. Shot with a Polaroid passport camera, four identical images on a small piece of positive film. Mostly women, a few men and children. Headshots.
Since then I’ve been looking at her subsequent work with wonder. Created mostly in Africa, almost always based on fashion. But it’s not really of fashion, also in the mix is portraiture, culture, exoticism (to Western eyes), sociology, anthropology, art, and the document.
Her most recent work, La Bella de Luanda, photographed in Angola, stopped me in my tracks. There’s something about these images that seem (at least for me) to provoke interesting questions about representation, questions that photographers people these days might want to think about. And they do it in a fresh, modern way that invites wonder.
Top to Bottom Miss Allina Maria and Hortancia Madame Mendes
I asked Emilie a few questions. Her answers are as fresh and honest as her photographs . . .
Tell me a little about how you came to photography and why you choose to work with cameras that seem to embrace, for lack of a better word, the analog qualities of the medium.
I came to photography at a very young age. My grandfather bought me my first Polaroid camera when I was about 6 years old. I was then living in Gabon, and I remember shooting whatever I could, my friends, landscapes etc… They were terrible images, but I was already infatuated with the magic of photography.
When I was 16, I start working, and I used my first paycheck ever to buy myself a semi-professional Pentax camera. I was then taking photos of my friends and parties until graduation, most photos were taken slightly drunk or high and I would paste them on the wall of my room. And from then, I tried hard to not embrace photography as a professional career, but at 20 after dropping out of college on a winter day because they were no more parking spots available… I decided that maybe it was time to stop running away from what I really wanted and I went to study photography at College Marsan in Montreal. I instinctively disliked digital at the beginning. It doesn’t have the same sensuality, the depth of field bothered me, it had with time became too sharp and mainly it doesn’t exist in the material world, plus the beauty of mistakes with film camera is hard to beat. But I guess I am just like a nostalgic DJ swearing vinyls are so much better than MP3….
Miss Oliveira Miss Maria Miss Fatima Miss Esperança
What draws you to Africa?
I spent my childhood in Gabon, and we got back to Canada when I was about 8. I for a long time said and thought that I went to live and work on the African continent to be an actor of change and witness inequalities.
Today, if I am honest, I think I was drawn back to this continent because a part of me belongs here. I am mixed race, and I was raised in a suburb of Montreal where I always stood out. Despite the love and affection of my family and friends, there was not a day I didn’t remember that I was different. It could maybe have been another experience if my father would have been around and I would have a positive reference of what it is to be a person of color, but he didn’t, and I grew up around white peoples.
At that time, for me being black was either synonym of a gang, crimes, hip hop, absent father or Africa and starvations. When you are mixed, you embodied both, the oppressed and the oppressor. There’s a natural tendency to embrace the part of you that has been oppressed, as it is your weakest link. I used to hate being mixed from a Black father, so I guess I had to learn about that side of me, to learn about what it means to be Black.
When I first came to Dakar more than 10 years ago, I felt that there were other realities than the one I had been living in. That the narratives about peoples of color I have been exposed through Western media as a child and a teenager were lies and stereotypes, that this continent was something other than conflict and malnutrition, that this is a place of creativity where the world is being reinvented. And I felt I wanted to be part of these narratives, not the one I was seeking at first, but the one that is still taking shape in front of my eyes.
Miss Lebia Blue Madalena and Luzia Miss Americo
To my eyes the work you are doing there moves well beyond what these days is commonly called “othering”, your photographs ask a lot of questions. Can you talk a bit about your approach, both on the ground with the people you choose to photograph, and how and why you came to this way of working?
The goal I am pursuing with my work is to build bridges, to create other narratives and other ways to look at peoples. Our brains are over lazy and Western ideas of success, beauty, wealth are widely spread through Western Media and are often held by the elite around the world. This has created conditioning on how we see ourselves and how we see others. I want to challenge those ideas. I have been exposed to them growing up, and every day I am working hard to rewire my brain and to believe other truths. I want my work to make others question their absolute beliefs. I don’t have answers, but I am continually seeking new questions. I believe Fashion and Art are powerful tools to lead to new ways of thinking and to expand our consciousness.
SPAO hosted their annual grad show this past Friday. As usual a swell crowd filled the premises. Merriment, chat, discussion, catching up, looking, et cetera, ensued.
But what about the work?
Well, as usual, each graduating student has brought their own voice, concerns, perspective and approach to the show. What struck me, though, is I can’t remember a graduating cohort who seem more outward-looking and politically engaged than this one (generally) is.
Some of the politics is overt.:
Katherine Fulwider’s prints on cardboard of homeless youth, these accompanied by cardboard signs those youth use to tell you what they want you to know.
Christine Potvin’s portraits with interviews of Canadian Forces veterans, if that’s the correct word, who were drummed out of service because they were gay.
BPG’s reimagining of supermarket tabloids as hard political propaganda.
Some is elliptical:
Vivian Törs’ reaction to letters, written from 1937 to 1944, by a Hungarian-Jewish wife and mother.
Lauren Boucher’s ode to home and surviving cancer.
Destroyed money by Nicolai Papove Gregory.
Through her grown children, Patricia LaPrairie looks at life in her home.
Lindsay Irene’s portraits of sex workers.
Of course there’s more. And who knows, you may see politics there where I don’t. After all, couldn’t all self expression be classified as somehow political?
And, as usual, some of the bodies of work here are more accomplished, fully realized, sophisticated, multi-dimensional, (fill in your own word here), than others.
Go have a look and decide for yourself. It continues until May 5th.
Let’s start with the continuing saga of me and my camera. If that bores you, well, there’s also a thing about the Dave Heath show at the Nat’l Gallery of Canada and an excerpt from the Jonathan Blaustein review of After the Fact.
So . . .
The X100F is a perfect tool for snap-shooting, carrying everywhere, making random notes. And that’s how I thought I might use it.
But after a few weeks of doing that I’ve come to a preliminary conclusion. And that’s that I’m not a random kind of guy.
Hold on, maybe I am a random kind of guy, but only in life. When it comes to photo projects I need some kind of hook to hang on.
Of course we all need some kind of hook, even if it’s just I’m-going-to-photograph-random-street-scenes. Or I-shoot-birds. Or yes-portraits-that’s-what-I’m-interested-in.
At the outset of this new project I set out just to see and react, and to bring the results of that seeing and reacting home so I could look at it, think about what I’d done. Then, as often happens, I saw one image and something in my brain went ping!An association was made, some synaptic path opened up and I saw a way forward. Focus was found, or at least intimated.
This is the photo that set it off. I don’t really like this image, will probably never use it.
It did, however, serve a purpose . . . it fixed a word in my brain, one word. And that word, which I am not yet ready to say out loud, has given me direction. Like a sign.
When all this was going through my head I bumped into this description of the process behind Brian David Stevens book: Doggerland. It was timely for me and seems to hit the nail on the head, about how I will pursue this thing I’m doing now . . .
“. . . found images, but images all looked-for : sought, perceived even a little in advance . . .”
The beauty of the camera I’m using is that it facilitates that mode of working. I’ve been enjoying carrying the thing around, and now I have a better idea of what I’m looking for.
The Dave Heath exhibition, Multitude, Solitude, at the National Gallery of Canada is a must-see. A slightly overlarge view of much of the work he did in Korea and, famously, New York City in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Plus recent colour work, book maquettes and a bit of miscellanea.
Perhaps a little too sentimental in places for my tastes, but there is no denying the power and (specific) universality of these renderings. And, having known the man, it must be said . . . the work is true to his sensibilities, vision and outlook. These photographs are impossible not to look at closely, and that looking will affect you. What more can you ask for?
The NGC link here will take you to a place where you can read all about it.
I have to say, he really got it, not only what it was about, but also the cyclical form of the sequence. Here’s the main bit of his review.
And, by the way, there are still 20 copies left. Go here to see the sequence, and here to buy a copy. Support independent publishing.
The cover is a dream-scape in silhouette of black on blue, with ravens and a tree and the sky.
This will be a repeating motif within, birds, and while I was OK with it, maybe it did seem a bit obvious.
Open it up, and there’s a globe. The North Atlantic Sea is prominent, and I think it’s a pretty damn smart way to ground the story.
Then, a disaffected portrait of a tall guy crammed under a short ceiling.
Then bleak, cold, yet undeniably beautiful landscapes of what I take to be Canada in Winter.
We start with a smart quote by Bertolt Brecht about singing in the face of darkness, which I took to mean that we need to make our art, to speak our peace, to sing our songs, in particular when we think things are going to shit.
(And of course many people regard our current situation as a particularly dangerous one, relative to the Post World War II era.)
Then, some redacted text, and then a slew of excellent images.
Like I said, the bird theme is a bit on-the-nose for me, and I normally don’t use that expression. But I’d also like to ask that people stop including pictures of trash on the street or sidewalk. (We had them in last week’s book too.)
What do you say, folks? A moratorium on garbage in the street pictures?
But other than that, the photography is spot on.
The portrait of the dog in the muzzle? Amazing.
The yellow brick road, the policeman’s gun, the bloody bed, the sad portraits, the public places, it all adds up to a feeling of dread and impending doom.
Impending doom is the same as maybe-not-yet arrived doom. You can feel it coming, but is there still time to affect the outcome? To hope?
There’s a guy in camouflage unfurling a wire of some sort. Mennonite women, a power-company worker at night, more sad portraits, dead-people feet, power washing a building, and then that little girl looking right at you, from the side, like a young-21st-century-Mona-Lisa.
Towards the end, the book’s title page, “After the Fact.”
Then, another quote, this time from Martin Heidegger, “The possible ranks higher than the actual.”
Idealism before realism, I suppose?
Next, another portrait of a guy looking away, (behind the hoodie,) the birds, and a cold Canadian landscape.
A last credits page, which quotes Joe Strummer, “The future is unwritten,” and states, unequivocally, “This book is a work of fiction. The real people, places and incidents portrayed are used fictitiously.”
Is it, though?
If you open it in the back, and start here, doesn’t the book make just as much sense?
You get opening quotes for context, and you’re explicitly told to see this as a work of visual fiction.
It opens similarly, motif wise, (birds/landscape/dude portrait,) and this way, it includes the title page in the beginning, where it would normally be.
Plus, it’s just so easy to flip-it back to front, given its design.
There are narrative waves and repeating motifs that work just as well this way, and even better, you can reverse direction whenever you want.
It’s a good reminder, perhaps, that we not get too rigid in our thinking. That books should be made this way. Or that.
Yes, some further ruminations on just what the heck I’m trying to do with my new camera. Plus: some installation pix of the show I’m in in NYC, more Ottawa Notes, and, finally, a commercial. Anyway . . .
NOT STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
One of the things I want to do with this new tool of mine is, I want to take photos that are unlike my previous ones. I see, though, in these early days of trying, that that’s going to be a tall order.
After all, one does have ones aesthetic and political predilections, doesn’t one?
On the other hand, I’m quite sure what I don’t want to do (though to rule out any avenue at this point is a chump’s game, I know), but what I don’t want to do is your classic “street” photography. The structures of, and expectations attached to, that genre strike me as pretty strict and old-fashioned.
The camera I’m using, though, is pretty much designed (or, at least, perfect) for street snapshooting. Time for a rethink.
Further to this (and because I believe in embracing my contradictions) . . . I just bumped into this article by Jon Feinstein: “Seven Photographers Who Are Rewriting Street Photography’s Rigid Rules”. Some of the approaches and possibilities outlined there seem right to me.
SPAO hosted a one-night show by Ottawa photographer Gwyneth Orr, who won the Ottawa Arts Council Young Artist award last year.
The show, called AVIS, a series of images in which teenagers are compared to, and dressed up as, birds. The idea being to allude to the similarities between a baby bird leaving the nest and a child entering young adulthood.
You can tell this is early work . . . not completely realized and the influences are there on the surface to see. But that’s the way you begin, isn’t it. Then, if you persevere, you grow.
Gwyneth, a graduating highschool student, has been accepted into the photography program at NSCAD. I’m sure that escaping the Kapital City nest and spreading her wings there will be just the thing she needs. I look forward to seeing where she goes from here.
A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO PUBLISHING A PHOTOBOOK
Photobooks are where it’s at these days. A great way to organize and add worth to your photographs. Not to mention they also help get your work in front of folks who may care, be they friends, family or curators.
I’ll be holding a one day workshop at SPAO: A Practical Guide to Publishing a Photobook.
As the person behind Straylight Press I published 18 photobooks, by 12 different photographers. Let me tell you, I learned a lot.
This workshop is about, as its title implies, the practical stuff you need to know. Lots of resources, secrets, links and suppliers. As well, it will cover ways to edit and sequence your book, discuss various layout options, and a few, for lack of a better word, philosophical aspects of photobook making.
drool. After a three month layoff I found the motivation (and need) to get back in the saddle. (If the first bit here bores you, scroll on down, there are four items in this week’s post . . .)
The main impetus for reviving this thing is, I bought a new camera with the intention of shooting a project with it. My first new camera in 10 years.
Often photogs think to themselves, “If only I had that lens (or that camera) I could really shoot what and how I want”. Of course, after they buy the object of their desire they usually discover that their new tool toy doesn’t actually help them do anything at all.
With me, it’s the opposite. I bought the camera precisely because I had no idea what I would use it for. My plan was to have no plan, to see what this thing could show me.
The camera, a FujiFilm X100F, is kind of a take-it-anywhere, one-handed-snap-shooter. Haven’t used a camera like this for, probably, twenty five years.
And this is the first time in, like, 20 years I’ve started a project with no real thesis, no “look-at-the-suburbs“, no “shoot-the-dystopian-present“. My plan (so-called) is to just shoot pictures and see what turns up and out, to see where that leads me.
I have to admit I’m a bit apprehensive about setting off on such an undefined trip. It feels like stepping into a void. But I have faith that something will come of it. I just have to keep reminding myself to take it easy, not to rush, to let Nature take its course, to see what happens.
Writing about my confusion and struggle helps me know my mind, so I’ll be making notes here, thinking out loud, as the project moves forward. Tune in and read along as I bark up the right and wrong trees, as I follow paths that lead somewhere and nowhere, even though there’s no such thing as the “wrong” tree, or “nowhere”.
BRETT GUNDLOCK: STORIES FROM THE MIGRANT TRAIL
Sure, you’ve all heard about the caravans of migrants coming up from Central America, through Mexico, trying to get to the the USA. The media shows them as a pack, as a phenomena. There is never (hardly ever) any insight into just who these people are, why they, specifically, are on the move. Typical lazy, formulaic, media coverage.
Brett Gundlock had had enough of that so he set off to talk to them, to show individual people and to listen to their personal stories. His work was published this past December in Mother Jones. I suggest you click on over, read and look.
He also, in association with Homie House Press, published a newsprint of this work, There might be a few copies left. Consider ordering one to have and to hold, to support this kind of necessary independent journalism.
BEYOND ADDICTION/REFRAMING RECOVERY
I’m excited to be included in a group show that considers aspects of the opioid crisis with the idea that recovery is possible. Curated by Graham MacIndoe and Susan Stellin, it’s on view at the Arnold and Sheila Arnoson Gallery, Parsons School of Design, N.Y.C. Opening April 6th.
Check it out if you’re in NYC. Or go to this dedicated website where you can look at some of the photographs and read about the show.
Lorraine Gilbert hosted a one-night-only studio show this past Tuesday. A swell turnout got to see modern, well thought out images from British Columbia. Photos of often derelict Vancouver, and of the big-tree forests that exist on the West coast and are, too, derelict in their own way. It was great to see these images in such a casual, friendly setting. (I’m definitely a fan of alternate means of display and distribution.)
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a large enough space to hang such works, but I have to tell ya I really like the idea of artists sticking stuff on a non-gallery wall and inviting folks to come, look, discuss and, it must be said, chow down on a very sumptuous spread. It’s a pity the event didn’t run longer, though there is something to be said for a one-night-stand. More of this in Kapital City, please and thank you.