UNPACKING THE BLACK BOX

Next week drool. will bring you a full report from the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival . . .

This week, though, it’s all about the anatomy of the exhibition at De Zwarte Doos. This was one of eight locations scattered throughout Groningen that mounted exhibitions for this iteration of the festival.

Invitation, front and back

The folks who run the festival, I’m pleased to report, are a smart, caring, together, totally professional bunch. A joy to work with.

As well, the fact that they traditionally pick political themes draws me to them. I’m so tired of the decorative, lyrical approach to photography that just caters to the bread and circuses aspect of this modern life, in these unsettled times.

Anyway . . .

De Zwarte Doos

As I was saying . . . Noorderlicht (translation: Northern Lights) happens in various venues throughout Groningen. De Zwarte Doos (translation: The Black Box, which is what the locals call this building) is where my work is being shown, along with photographs by (in alphabetical order) Michele Borzoni (Italy), Alan Gignoux (UK), Sergey Novikov & Max Sher (Russia), and Martin Toft (Denmark)

Martin Toft taking the photo below . . .

De Zwarte Doos is a recently vacated government Social Services building, and most of the photographs hung here are enhanced by that association. (Not to mention the fact that the theme at Noorderlicht this year is Late Capitalism and the effects of neoliberalism.)


Michele Borzoni‘s photographs are shown to great effect in the tiny rooms that had been used to conduct one-on-one interviews with social assistance seekers when the building was being used for that. This placement of these images is just so fitting.

Open Competitive Examinations portrays the bureaucratic procedure aspiring police officers, nurses and teachers must undergo to have a chance at a job. Workers Buyouts shows group portraits of employees who had taken over their companies when the original owners of those companies were threatening to shut them down.


My work, on the main wall, is from After the Fact, which imagines some possible future. Here’s an excerpt from the statement I sent to Noorderlicht:

The Earth is changing, our societies are too. These changes are causing upheavals planet-wide. The rich don’t need to worry though, the constant crisis provides opportunity for them. They have the resources to construct their own realities and safe havens. The rest of the world is becoming, for them, redundant.

After the Fact imagines what life in the First World might look and feel like for those who have been deemed, in these changing times, surplus to requirements. 


From the UK, Alan Gignoux traveled to the oil sands in Northern Alberta. There, mostly from a helicopter, he photographed that blight on the landscape.

Attached to many of these aerial photos are smaller images that show aspects of life on the ground . . . farmers, monster houses, churches and the like.


Sergey Novikov & Max Sher are exhibiting large panels of photographs with text. This work visualizes the ideas, techniques, tactics and narratives the ruling powers in Russia use to exercise their power.


Finally, Martin Toft, originally from Denmark but now living in the Channel Island of Jersey, uses that proximity to probe aspects of that island’s transformation into one of the world’s leading offshore International Finance Centres (read: tax haven).

The images shown here are but one aspect of a long, deep investigation Martin has been conducting that tells the story of Jersey’s contemporary prosperity.

The five projects in The Black Box consider various aspects of the times in which we live, and the show is stronger because of that. It’s so great to be involved in an endeavour that features and contextualizes photography that’s about more, really, than just what’s in front of the lens.

The festival runs until December 1st. If you find yourself within striking distance of Groningen you should go have a look.

The Noorderlicht venues in Groningen

NOT A RANDOM KIND OF GUY

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 . . .

PRELIMINARY CONCLUSION

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.

OTTAWA NOTES

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.

Anyone who wants to take a deep dive into Dave Heath should check out this video made by Michael Schreier: Dave Heath, In Concert With The Silent Witness.

A REVIEW OF AFTER THE FACT

A while ago Jonathan Blaustein, over at aPhotoEditor, reviewed my book: After the Fact.

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.”

The end.

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.

NOVEMBER (SNOW)

Yesterday it snowed.

Overnight the dismal, forlorn fields and forests I was using as the landscape that would represent November have turned into picturesque, crystal fairytales.

During this project I’ve been wondering what kind of weather to use. I wanted it to be, well . . . atmospheric, but not melodramatic. I love how the dreariness of the brown land on a grey day seems like a harbinger of tough times.

(Of course, there’s nothing you can do about the weather. In my day-to-day life I rarely complain about it. What’s the point?)

As a photographer I get to choose what light and what weather will best suit my purposes. Typically I’m not a golden-hour photographer, I mostly prefer high-noon. I usually like everything lit and the content of my photos to be mediated by the thing in front of my camera rather than by some atypical, melodramatic atmospheric condition.

So I guess I’m more of a New Topographics guy than a proponent of the Todd Hido school (which, for me, seems like photographic hyperbole and melodrama enabled by too much Photoshop . . . akin to a velvet painting. Mind you, he is pretty darn famous and successful. And you can make of that what you will).

Anyway . . . I’m not completely wedded to shooting at high-noon and having everything I shoot look, well, clinical(ish). Parts of USER were shot at twilight and my most recent project, After the Fact, was shot in low light.

With my new project, November, I’m pretty much splitting the difference between clearly showing the thing I’m photographing and using typical November weather (grey, sleety, miserable) to facilitate some feeling.

But for this project the snow changed everything, it knocked me for a loop. Out today, looking, walking, thinking, framing, I was overwhelmed by the pristine prettiness of it all. But pristine, pretty and picturesque are not what I want.

We all take this World and mold it into some thing that represents our outlook. And photographers use a camera to manifest their viewpoint. So I’ll take what I’ve been given and warp it to my sensibilities. Snow or no snow.


AFTER THE FACT:: ANOTHER REVIEW

A very interesting review by Delaney Turner, where in he draws parallels between Official Ottawa and After the Fact.

While Official Ottawa specifically presented Canada’s capital city as the seat of federal power, After the Fact widens its viewpoint to powers we can neither see nor elect.”

You can read the review here. And buy the book here.

Makes a swell Xmas gift. Get one for someone you love (or just like).

NOVEMBER (STUCK)

I believe that early success is not a good thing. Too often it gives a false sense of superiority and ease. It  can also lock you in and rob you of the perspective and growth that come through struggle.

Turns out that my first foray into looking for November yielded two images that I thought were quite successful. They seemed like signs pointing the way forward. Not bad considering I shot 4 frames.

The other two frames, which were quite unsuccessful, did, however, show me what I didn’t want to do. For instance this photo, taken in a moment of insanity (or, rather: inanity). When I saw these pumpkins all I could think of was: “After Joel Sternfeld”. The “after” here having, in my mind, two meanings. Other than that, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.

So, with that in mind . . . some successes and some stupid images that I’m not interested in in the least, I set out late Monday afternoon to follow through, to do some more shooting, to add to my successes.

I’m happy to report that the trip was a dismal failure. I drove out to the country (did I mention this project is going to be landscape photos?) and got bogged down.

Those first two successful photos were boxing me in. Sure, they were signs showing me ways to proceed. But they were also photos I’d already shot so there’s no real need to shoot them again, right?

So I spent a very frustrating afternoon stuck. Stuck on roads, stuck by the weather and the light, stuck with trying to figure out what to do and what not to do. It felt worse than the first day of shooting I’d done for this project. At least then I had a blank canvas.

Paradoxically, now that I have some idea of what I’m doing this is getting more difficult.

Addendum:
I went out again later in the week. Things seemed to go somewhat more smoothly, and I got to meet some horses. Slowly I’m gathering more images, more moving parts to November. Feels good. We’ll see.


ZEITGIEST AT SPAO

There, in the studio behind the SPAO gallery, is a strip of 16 images. Shot by the 2nd year students of the school specifically for the SPAO Open House. The subject: Zeitgiest.

The images are best served if read as a mash-up . . . the disparate nature of the group adding to the  complexity and nuance of the whole.

Often in art schools (and, indeed, after art school graduation) the default position, the perceived path to success, is to rely on formality and formula. Here that impulse has been subverted by the combining of these images. What results is a fractured whole that turns this cooperative body of work into a thing that is modern, vital, complex and engaging in more than a superficial way.

This work will be on display in the studio at SPAO until December 20th. It’s worth a visit.

The students who have work in this show are: Amanda Belanger, Lauren Boucher, Louise Crosby, Paris Escandon,  Kat Fulwider, Nicolai Gregory,
Benjamin Gregory, Katherine Kyriazopoulos, Pat La Prairie, Irene Lindsay, Daniel Lopez, Lauren Mcglynn, Diana McKinnon, Christine Potvin, Vivian Tors and Ian Warren.

GOOD GODDAMN

 

People sometimes ask me why my projects don’t all look the same.

I take it they mean they are a bit perplexed when my projects go from (for example) drug addicts to federal infrastructure to the suburbs.

Well, I only photograph what I’m interested in learning about and I believe that you don’t learn that much by just plugging some preordained approach or style into what you’re photographing. That’d be called consistency. And while certain consistencies are important in photography, other consistencies are just a way of going through the motions without really thinking (too much). The world is so complex, so multifaceted, that looking at it from just one angle really doesn’t do it justice.

Of course it goes without saying that the stress of our years since birth boxes us in, creates our biases and informs how we see and understand the world. But within that box (which is always reinforced by the powers that be) there is a lot (or, maybe, some) wiggle room.

I bring this up because I’ve been looking at Bryan Schutmaat’s new book, Good Goddamn.

GOOD GODDAMN

Bryan’s first book, Grays the Mountain Sends, is a classic. One of those rare beasts that is easy to like, popular and worthwhile. A beautiful collection of Western landscapes, interiors and portraits of men (except for the very last image, a photograph of a woman), all shot in atmospheric light. It’s impossible not to sense the feelings accrued in this book: lonesome, desolate, lovelorn, melancholy.

His subsequent book, Good Goddamn, is different in a few ways:
• The images here were shot “in Leon County, Texas, over the course of a few unseasonably warm days in February, 2017”.
• Those images show us one thing: a slowly (but not too slowly) unrolling event (or what many, especially those not connected to it, might consider to be a non-event).
• The photos are black and white and not always entirely sharp.

But Good Goddamn only looks different from Grays the Mountain Sends. The underlying feelings remain the same: mystery and melancholy, lonesomeness and desolation. They (those feelings) are just rendered in a different way, using a different approach. And in Good Goddamn the approach feels right and honest.

It’s great to come across photographers who don’t always fall back on the tried and true. Because so often what is tried and true for one thing, for one subject, for one time of your life, will not be true for another. It’s only by trying (present tense, as opposed to “tried”, past tense) that you have a chance of approaching some truth.  When you try instead of settling, that’s when honesty has a chance.

Bryan Schutmaat
A couple of actual reviews of Good Goddamn:
1000 Words
PhotoBook Store

“‘Comparisons are odious . . . . It don’t make a damn frigging difference whether you’re in The Place or hiking up the Matterhorn, it’s all the same old void, boy.'” ~Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums