COPIED AND CO-OPTED

The current evolution (and devolution) of our culture and thus, politics, as it relates to photography is a (figurative) wormhole down which any thinking person might disappear and lose their mind. I’m going to leave it to smarter, more rounded people than me to bring you well thought out treatises on various aspects of that.

All’s I really want to do here is, I want to bring up, and leave dangling, just one thing . . . How quickly new, innovative photography is copied and co-opted.

Used to be finding new photography that informed and inspired was a long slow process. And for me “long” and “slow” and “process” are things that give worth. I’ve never been a fan of easy. It’s too easy.

But now the knockoff artists are running rampant. Within weeks of some new vision creating a sensation, being noticed, adding something to the canon, it is being copied.

A couple of cases in point . . .

Take the work of Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang. He shook things up a few years ago with the new, weird way he was working with youth and the body. Think Ryan McGinley with a (formal) edge.

© Ren Hang

And Zanele Muholi, from South Africa, who’s way of rendering black skin and showing costume was a revelation.

Skim through the mainstream photo/fashion publications and lots of “fine art” photographers’ websites, and so on, and you’ll see many pale imitations of these (above) approaches. And it seemed to happen overnight.

Spending real time searching for inspiration, for process, for personal meaning seems, in many cases to have gone the way of the dodo bird, i.e. extinct.

Too often in PhotoWorld™ the job gets done by biting someone else’s style.

Of course, nothing is really new. The real innovation (and truth and discovery) comes with (and by) the combining of many and various elements into a whole. When you take (yes, take) bits and pieces of what already exists, tumble them around in your brain, and spend the time and emotional capital to develop tactics and strategies to render that mashup you will (if you care and have talent) end up with something authentic.

OTTAWA NOTES

First of all . . . drool. will not be appearing next Sunday. I’ll be at the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival, The Netherlands.

Not taking my laptop, just a phone. And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna write, and format a blog on that thing.

I will, though, be posting copious images and bits of writing on Twitter, Insta, and the Facebook. Follow me there if you need to see that stuff.

DO IT FOR THE GRAIN

There’s a new(ish), free photo zine available in Kapital City. DO IT FOR THE GRAIN, brought to you by Kenneth Yams, is billed as “a semi-regular publication of analog black and white photography by local artists”.

(As an aside, I’m not sure about separating and fetishizing film photography. In should be about the image, right? Why should anyone care what camera was used to create it? But, hey, you start a publication, blog, whatever, you get to do what you want.)

Anyway, in the issue I managed to find (vol 1/ issue 4. 16 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 inches) you will see a mix of, well, analog B&W photography.

Some of the page spreads are quite poetic, others too obvious, but you can tell attention has been paid to sequence, pairings and flow.

Of course, with the ease and relative low cost of printing stuff like this there is always the danger that one will just throw up, onto the printed page, the low-end vacuity often seen on social media. But I must say I was pleasantly surprised by DO IT FOR THE GRAIN. It will be interesting to see how this project evolves.

DO IT FOR THE GRAIN has a kind of bare-bones social media presence, but you can find further info, and where to pick up a copy, on their Facebook and Insta feeds.

A GRANDER SCHEME

In which I begin to stick prints to a board, looking for some pattern, some something.

And if process doesn’t interest you just scroll to the bottom for a review of Leslie Hossack’s show Freud Through the Looking-Glass.

Let’s go . . .

TRIAL AND ERROR AND ERROR AND ERROR

I’ve never enjoyed aimless photography . . . you know, walking around grabbing, like a crow, any shiny thing that attracts my attention.

Neither have I liked photography that is ultra-focused . . . you know, those bodies of work where every damn photo is just about the same.

A grander scheme is what I’m after, something with deeper complexity and dimension than either of the above-mentioned approaches engender.

Now, I prefer to let the subject matter, as much as my biases and proclivities, inform how I photograph each of my projects. The problem here, or, rather, one of the problems, is that I have no idea what the subject matter actually is. This project doesn’t even have a name or any coordinates.

And I must stress here that the subject matter does not necessarily have to be that which I’m photographing. No, the stuff I’m photographing might just be a stand-in for some other thing. You know . . . metaphorical, metaphysical, something.

So the other day I chose 48 images from my select folder and made some small prints.

And so it begins, this (other) initial phase of a project that is unlike any project I have done before.

I’m gonna stick ’em up on my bulletin boards, move ’em around and look for some sense, a pattern, some way forward. At this point I’m just trying to find out what the aim of this project might actually be.

And part of this phase is (maybe) figuring out how I want the images to relate to one another, bearing in mind that the final form of this thing will (might be) be some kind of printed publication.

I kind of like the idea of 2-shot columns. And of course there’s always the good-old standard side-by-side thing. Or what about simply one photo by itself, and then another?

The only thing I know at this point is that I don’t know. That, and that there’s a whole lot more image-gathering, pondering and trial and error and error and error ahead of me.

Something to look forward to.

OTTAWA NOTES

LESLIE HOSSACK at STUDIO SIXTY SIX

After more than a decade spent studying (with brilliant icy precision and a lack of sentimentality) the architectural infrastructure (and thus the politics) of the era surrounding World War II, Leslie Hossack has shifted focus.

Her new work, Freud Through the Looking-Glass (on view at Studio Sixty Six), is framed as a study of the pre-war Vienna of Freud and Hitler, but the photos belie that strict interpretation. This work shows us Hossack’s reactions to encountering the, for lack of a better word, infrastructure surrounding Sigmund Freud.

That is . . . rather than showing us, as she has done in the past, her arrival at some destination (the East Gate of the 1936 Olympic Stadium in Berlin, for instance) here Hossack shows us her journey to the destination.

Not to give you the idea that these photographs are a travelog of her trip to Berggasse 19, in Vienna, where Freud lived and practiced for almost 50 years. On the contrary, the images here are all situated either directly outside Freud’s old office, or in its inside. The (subtle but present) difference from her previous work lies in the type of images Hossack has brought back from that encounter, as well as in their sequencing.

We are brought from the outside to the inside through a chronological sequence. We enter and move through a hall to the couch where the psychoanalysis took place. It’s a trip.

Further, on the facing wall is a series of images where we see, mapped on as a ghostly smear, Hossack’s face reflected in the glass that covers some of the art and other artifacts that inhabited Freud’s office.

By inserting herself, and by adding narrative elements to the whole, Freud Through the Looking-Glass shows us Hossack’s reaction to what’s in front of her in a way deeper than just registering awe. The work begins to become psychological.

Recommended.

Leslie Hossack
Studio Sixty Six

HERE I AM. WHERE THE HELL AM I?

RECENT HISTORY

drool. petered out early January this year. Then, because I bought a new camera and wanted to figure out what to do with it, I retooled and restarted it in early April. You see, I use this space to figure photo-stuff out.

Camera porn

But now summer is upon us and I’m going to take a break from blogging. Probably be back the first Sunday after Labour Day.

In the meantime . . . have a swell summer, take ‘er easy, and, conversely, keep your bullshit detectors up and running. There can never be enough critical questioning.

Anyway . . .

HERE I AM. WHERE THE HELL AM I?

Here I am, 11 weeks after I got my FujiFilm X100F and began some completely undefined photo-project. So where the hell am I, anyway?

Camera porn: selfie

Let’s get the real geek stuff out of the way first. I quite like this camera. it’s fun and easy to use once you turn all the doodads, auto functions and options off. (The only one I use is aperture-priority auto exposure.) And I love the optical viewfinder (having a real hate on for the way electronic viewfinders separate you from what’s in front of the lens).

The problem, though, is figuring out what I want to actually do with the thing. What do I have to say and how can it help me say it?

Camera porn: close up

Let me tell you a little about my process. (And the X100F certainly makes the first point here darn easy.) . . . .

  • Go out and take some photos.
  • Download ’em. (Lightroom)
  • Root through and, with an open mind, choose the frames that seem like they might be useful.
  • Turn those ones into TIFFs.
  • Do a bit of post production on those. (Photoshop)
  • Slap ’em into a folder called SELECTS.
  • Every time I add new images I open the folder and choose 6 or 8 or 11 or something images, open them and move ’em around my desktop.
  • Look for pairs or groups that seem to work together. Or maybe show me relationships, however tenuous, that, for lack of a better word, speak to me.
  • If I’m lucky I think I maybe see something there. A word pops into my head that, in an abstract way, seems like a key or a clue, or something.
  • Think I might be getting somewhere.
  • Change my mind about that whole “maybe I’m getting somewhere” thing.
  • Repeat.

But there has been progress over the 11 weeks I’ve been working on this. Some of the words that pop into my head, well . . . they stick, they show me possibilities and a way forward. Some of the image combinations make a certain kind of sense to me.

Right now I’m sort of pretty sure I want there to be a dreamlike discord to the work, more open-ended than anything I’ve done for a long time. A series of disparate images that are stuck tentatively together by their own gravity while simultaneously being pulled apart by dark energy. The whole sequence rotating around its own internal logic.

And the word I keep thinking of is desire.

Finally, in closing (and because I am reading it now) I leave you with the first sentence from Samuel Beckett’s novel, Murphy (pub. 1938) .

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Okay then. Back in September . . . . . . . . .

DIGNITY: Chris Arnade

I met Chris online, back in 2011. He’s an ex-astrophysicist, ex-Wall Street trader and, when I got in touch with him (or did he get in touch with me?), a photographer.

I’d been photographing drug addicts, so had he. I’d been criticized for photographing drug addicts, so had he. We compared notes, commiserated and pretty much saw eye-to-eye.

Then, in 2013, business took me to NYC, where Chris lived. I contacted him, asked if he wanted to hang out. Sure, he said, wanna go to a crack house in The Bronx?

Let’s go, I replied.

Chris, Hunts Point, The Bronx, 2013

We kept in touch over the years, he visited me in Kapital City a few times. It felt like we were fellow travellers.

Then Chris, as is inevitable, got worn down, broken down by all the time, energy and emotion he had spent with addicts. (Oh, I know that feeling.)

But his curiosity remained intact. So he set off across America to further the education Hunts Point had provided him. He went to the edges (which are, ironically, in the centre), those places given lip service (and knee jerks) from the media and by just plain comfortable folks.

Three years and 150,000 miles later his head was full. He dropped out to make some sense of what he’d seen, what he’d felt, and what he’d learned. The result is his book, DIGNITY, which hit the shelves this week. It’s a book of words and pictures. Lots to sink your teeth into. Food for thought.

drool. calls it required reading if you want to understand a bit more (different) about what’s happening now in the USA. Or, really in any place or society that is in the grips of, is suffering from, late-capitalism (aka neo-liberalism).

But don’t take my word for it. The Economist, in a review, compares it to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Walker Evans and James Agee). High praise indeed.

Chris doesn’t think of himself as a photographer, although photography is definitely part of his working method. We had a conversation about that, and then got sidetracked. And the sidetrack, as is often the case, led us to the crux, or, more accurately, a crux . . .

Chris Arnade: For me the photography comes second to the story and learning. I think that shows in my images. I do care about taking good pictures but they are secondary, and became more so as this project evolved. 

If I have a framework it is to take portraits that the subject wants. Or trying to at least. Or giving dignity to the subject. Meaning I almost always let them choose how they are photographed, and allow them, should they want, to clean up before the shot. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some action pictures. But more often it is intentionally posed. 

It also means I do relatively simple stuff. I try not to make it too arty, because I think that just feels artificial. 

To the larger point. I care more about learning than getting the right shot.

T. F.: We’ve talked before about how poverty is mostly comprised of stasis and crushing boredom. Yet many photographers who render poverty seem to look for, or at least inject, all kinds of drama into their photos of that poverty. Tell me a little about your thinking on this.

C.A.: Thank you for asking this. One of the most difficult things to do as a photographer is to not “artify” or add too much drama to your pictures. To take simple photos that respect, not transform, what you find. For a long time I fought the realization that much of poverty takes place amidst the banal. Partly because of what I had seen before, via the more traditional and famous photos of poverty, which rendered it dramatic and the subjects broken. Sharply contrasting black & white, wooden homes, weathered faces, clichéd poses, whatever, you know what I mean. I thought maybe that was how it was supposed to be photographed.

But the reality I found was more like the interior of McDonald’s, or the decidedly bland architecture of low-income housing projects. It was cheap corporate – an attempt through bright colors to hide the shoddy or uncomfortable environment, or through countless grey tones, to not offend anyone. 

This is the world of so much of low income America. Bland & banal strip malls, repetitive architecture, loud & jarring advertising. The attempt to make that pretty, or dramatic, or whatever just isn’t right . . .

I’m curious if you disagree with this. Or . . . curious to hear your thoughts since you are so much more familiar with Photography and its history than I am.

T.F.: I think your take on this is mostly right but a bit too categorical. 

It is possible to manipulate, artify, images of, well, anything, poverty included, in a way that is true (whatever that means) to the subject. Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.

In the end it comes down to the intent and talent of the person making the images. I believe intent and talent can actually be seen in the results . . . if one cares to look.

And therein lies the problem . . . most people (as you know) don’t care to look, they just want their biases confirmed and, thus, to be entertained.

Take, for instance, Sebastiao Salgado, I really dislike his Wagnerian, melodramatic, biblical really, photographs, and Bruce Gilden, who I kind of like for the brutality of his approach. For me Salgado is just lies filtered through Romanticism, while Gilden’s work seems to be more reality-based.

So it’s complicated. I try to judge each body of work on its own merits.

C.A.:I agree there is no set rule. I also fully agree on Salgado, who I was partly thinking of when I wrote what I wrote. I am not sure about Gilden. I really dislike his work because I think he is mocking his subjects, and I hate how he surprises them at times — I think with bad intent.

I fully agree with this “Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.”  

I guess my approach is more literal than most — which is why I am not really a photographer in my heart — I come into a place, look around, think about it, hang, and then try to figure out what is the essence of that place. What did I learn from this. What do I want others to learn? And how can I communicate that essence, or what I learn, the best via words & photos. 

Perhaps that would mean arsty-ing it up. Perhaps not. I don’t think Salgado or Gilden communicate the essence of a place or their subjects. Although by that measure, Gilden does indeed do a ‘Better” job.

T.F.: There’s more than one way, though, to show the essence of a place. For me Salgado’s images are way too melodramatic and idealized to be a “true” reflection of the recognizable world

And I don’t want to be an apologist for Gilden, because lord knows it’s so easy to see his images as just plain nasty. But for me there can be more to them than that.

But folks look for confirmation of their biases. You can easily find that in both those photographers’ work. Whereas with more neutral work (yours, for instance) that built-in bias is moved way to the back.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s there on the surface and not hidden behind trickery.

C.A.: I agree with all that, and fully agree that communicating that essence can come in many different ways. 

With regards to confirming ones bias, or having a bias. One thing you become very very aware of as a Wall Street trader is dangers of having a bias. Perhaps that is why I approach it why I do! 20 years of Wall Street made me determined to be aware of my bias!

T.F.: Okay, we sort of agree. I hope I haven’t bullied you into agreeing.

C.A.: I don’t think you bullied me. I asked your opinion because you know the photo world like a million times better than me. I intentionally operate without building that knowledge so I don’t end up copying a style.

T.F.: Fair enough. I’ve gotta go do the dishes, make dinner. And I’ll let you get back to your life.

C.A.: Cheers.

IDEA

So I’ve got an idea, or maybe a rough idea, about some of the imagery I want to accumulate, throw into the stew that is my new project.

One of the things (if “things” is the correct word) I’m after is male and female flesh, bodies.

To this end I asked my friend Hannah if I might photograph her, her body. Sure, she said. Thank you very much, I replied.

Day of the shoot I went over to her place, we sat on the couch, talked a while. I tried to explain what I thought my idea was, why I wanted some flesh and bodies in the mix. The situation, then and there, seemed relaxed and interesting so I shot a frame.

But I was nervous to begin . . . what with having some pretty firm ideas about how and why photos of naked people should be used. In fact it feels a little weird posting these here. But there is a reason (I tell myself) for showing them, the duds and the ones that might, in the end, be useful. Just as there is (or might be) a reason why I need images like this at all.

Anyway, finally I gathered up my gumption and we moved to the bedroom and began.

To say the photos were bad would be an understatement, they seemed forced and stupid. My fault completely. (I’ve always maintained that when photographing people in a controlled situation the photographer is the only person who can make a mistake.)

Then I remembered how comfortable we had been sitting on the couch, talking. How that very first snap was so fresh and seemed real, and how I liked the way her eyes were cut off because I hadn’t been really looking or even trying.

So we moved back there . . .

And it felt closer to what I thought I had in mind.

But seen here, decontextualized from how it might be used in the project, it seems too blatant. I mean, I like the relaxed feeling and the fact the eyes were cut off (and that extra eye on her arm). The look on Hannah’s face works for me too. Maybe in the end I’ll be needing images like this. For now, for me, that’s reason enough to try.

And finally we did this . . .

And I thought, yes, that’s what I meant. It strikes me as maybe a viable piece of my project, which is a puzzle that, at this point, is undefined. But I think that this image provides, somehow, a piece of some definition.

I had set out to photograph flesh but it’s this photograph that embodies, for me, the feeling (and maybe even the meaning) of what I think I’m after.

Goes to show that what you think you want, what you think might be important, might not be what you want or what’s important.

Of course, these are early days and I’m not ruling anything out at this point. My job now is to make sure I’ve turned over as many stones as necessary to ensure I have enough “right” images to make the project work. And by work I mean to create a sequence that points in the direction of, and somehow defines, my idea. An idea which I’m still not going to say out loud.

OTTAWA NOTES

Not much to note in the KapitalCityPhotoScene this week. Next week, though, there’ll be some good stuff to report. And so it goes . . .

In the meantime, what about your project? Does it want to become a book? If it does then this workshop is for you.

A Practical Guide to Publishing a Photobook. It takes place at SPAO, July 20th. That’s a Saturday.

You’ll learn:

  • Why you should make a photobook and how to organize your images in a way that makes sense.
  • The various tools, both online and physical, you can use to work on your book.
  • How to make dummies (working prototypes) of your book as it evolves.
  • The steps you should take to refine the look and feel of the book.
  • The various means available to have your book printed.
  • And a lot of other stuff you’ve probably never considered, like how the weight of the book affects shipping charges, how to source packaging materials to make the delivery/distribution of your book more professional, and ways and means to publicize your book.

Go here to sign up.

Cover and page spreads of Official Ottawa
Printed on newsprint
2000 free copies distributed across Canada