A TRIP TO THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ART, DEN HAAG

Okay, my time in Groningen was over. The Noorderlicht International Fotofestival will carry on until December 1st without me. I was booked and bound to go, so I trained to Amsterdam and holed up there for the night.

Next morning made my way to Den Haag to give a Lunch Lecture to the photography students at The Royal Academy of Art, now known as KABK.

Donald Weber took me to the auditorium and kindly set me up. Then explained that they never know how many students will attend. Could be 10, could be 150. By the time I started the place was full.

I began talking about my approach, about how I do it for the experience, and that learning and discovery are very important to me. As is allowing the subject (whatever it may be) to dictate (up to a point) how it might be photographed.

When I was showing some images from USER an audience member raised his hand and made a statement. As far as I could make out he told me that addicts have no agency, are in a constant state of delirium so can’t make proper decisions about anything, and that I had no business photographing them. He seemed to be implying they shouldn’t be photographed at all.

Okay, I responded, although that’s not my experience, I understand why you might think that way. Photographing “the other” is a tricky thing. There’s a lot to be lost and little to be gained treading down that treacherous path. But, properly approached, I continued, there can be worth in working with subjects that are currently considered politically incorrect. (Especially, I thought to myself, in these extraordinarily reactionary times, the reactions coming, of course, from both the right and the left.) And in my opinion, I concluded, the risk is not only worth taking, but also necessary, otherwise our culture will just stagnate.

But this back and forth didn’t really go anywhere. He was certain I was wrong, maybe even a bad man (and is, of course, partially correct, because nothing in this world is pure). I was certain that there are, in fact, ethical ways to broach tough subjects (ditto).

With that dealt with in, really, a less than satisfactory way, I continued to the end of my talk. Don and I then made our way to his 4th year class where we were going to look at and talk about student portfolios.

After a bit of a continuation of the Lunch Lecture kerfuffle, Don began showing (referring to, really) a couple of the student portfolios. These portfolios were actually book-like compendiums of bits of 3 or 4 of their recent projects. The ones he handed to me were both quite esoteric, and I don’t really get esoteric.

Now don’t get me wrong, I recognized worth in both those book-things. Problem was the work just wasn’t speaking to me. I was not their audience.
So I got this sinking feeling that I would have nothing to contribute if all the student’s work was aimed in the general direction of academia.

But when I began to look through the portfolios and talk with the students individually I was pleasantly surprised. Most of them were going out into the world and engaging with what they chose to look at and wonder about. They were bringing back their perspectives in a way that strove to accentuate the storytelling qualities of photography in a personal, authentic and non-elitist way.

I wish I had images of the students’ work to show you. But things were moving too fast for me to even begin to think about taking the time out to photograph the portfolios. Instead I’ll break up all these words with a few random pix I shot in Holland . . .

. . . Anyway, here’s a quote from Dawould Bey that expresses what I think in a very succinct way: “. . . the best work tends to result not from the imposition of an idea on a situation, but from being responsive to what is going on once you get there. Otherwise, what results is merely the illustration of an idea.”

And that seemed to be how most of the KABK photography students were endeavouring to use photography . . . in a responsive way. As a result I saw a lot of smart, curious work in their portfolios.

All this made good sense to me, especially after immersing myself in the work on display at the Noorderlicht Fotofestival.

Much of the photography I saw in The Netherlands (at Noorderlicht and KABK) was the product of going out into the world and reacting to it in a personal, rounded and politically informed way. Those reactions (photographs) were then organized so that they communicated complicated thoughts in a non-precious manner.

And that brings me to the other thing I wanted to write about this week: The differences (generally speaking) between the photography I saw in Europe and what I’m seeing in Canada.

But this is already too long, so that’ll have to wait until next week.

Right now I’ll just get myself back home to Ottawa, via a one day stopover in Amsterdam . . .

OTTAWA NOTES

SOME SCENES FROM THE SPAO OPEN HOUSE

UPCOMING THIS WEEK. OF INTEREST.
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Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch: Eternal Representations

Photographer Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch, artist and religious studies scholar, will have a conversation about Olivia’s exhibition, Saints and Madonnas. Carleton University Art Gallery, St. Patrick’s Building (no pun intended) Wednesday, November 6th, seven to eight-thirty.

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Kat Fulwider: Voices of the Streets

Voices of the Streets will showcasKat Fulwider‘s portraits and stories of homeless and at-risk youth. The exhibition happens at Thursday, November 8th, Point Of View Gallery, 55 Byward Market Square, 2nd floor, five to eight.

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Fran Ages: The Parkland Portraits

Fran Ages will be showing her suite of images showing survivors of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School shooting. Saturday, November 9, Cinqhole, 5b Fairmont Ave., two to five.

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.