Thursday, June 14, 2007

Rubbernecking: On Portraiture

One of my favorite photographers Josef Koudelka once remarked in an interview with Frank Horvat that for him "there are few portraits that I admire." I was struck by this comment because my own view is so different -- there are quite a few portraits that I admire, and they dont appear to be of any one type so it is difficult for me to know just what it is that I like about portraiture, whether it be of the posed variety, something along the lines of Rogovin or Sanders, or the more impromptu spontaneous type, of which HCB's superb snaps of Matisse or of Faulkner are such outstanding examples.

It was portraiture that got me into the business of taking pictures, and yet when I am assigned to bring back a portrait of a subject, I cannot help but sweat it, and I cannot quite think why. Perhaps it is the discrepancy between the illustration that the editor is really after and the genuine portrait that I myself hope to capture. For me portraiture is the most difficult of arts and yet there are so many superb practitioners to be found.

In the same interview, Koudelka mentions that he has a habit of photographing his feet. Conventionally speaking such imagery is not portraiture, though it occurs to me to ask why a head shot should merit such distinction while a foot shot should be dismissed as a photographer's mere eccentricity (and Koudelka himself appears to agree, "When I am tired I lie down, and if I feel like photographing and there is nobody around me, I photograph my own feet. They are not great photos, some people dislike them"). Why are they not great? Why are they not worthy of greater attention? Is it because we have uncritically swallowed the notion that the eyes are windows unto the soul? (Havent we heeded Avedon's warning that such imagery is nothing more than a very convincing lie?) Are feet really any less distinctive or informative -- certainly the image of Koudelka's feet here tells us a lot about this famously peripatetic and homeless photographer. Bear in mind too that the one thing that unquestionably identifies each and every one of us is the humble fingerprint. In that case, the police archives constitute a perverse museum that rivals London's National Portrait Gallery.

Even hands are given priority over feet, as in this Yousuf Karsh "portrait" of Thomas Mann:

And here is his better known portrait of Thomas Mann:

More of his remarkable work can be seen at the George Eastman House collection. Again the hands are given some prominence, and I suspect this stems from cultural ideas about the Hand of the Artist (regardless of whether he or she be a writer, musician or painter). The synecdoche is an important indicator not so much of the character of the individual depicted in the portrait but of contemporary ideologies regarding art and creation. (But I am compelled to ask again, should we require a portrait, say, of a long distance runner, would it not be advisable to focus on the feet? What is more telling, Florence Griffiths Joyner's excessive fingernails or her toes?)

Clearly the force of this portraiture lies in the sharp physical detail afforded by the lighting and the fact that these are all shot in large format. Such technique requires a laborious setup and thus the results are very much posed but nonetheless striking in the impression they give of the utterly convincing presence of the subject. Overall the range of emotion is not great: a Karsh portrait is invariably iconic, monumental. Yet Karsh himself clearly believed he was capturing the essence of his subjects' character: "If it's a likeness, alone, it's not a success. If, through my portraits, you can come to know the subjects more meaningfully, if it synthesizes your feelings toward someone whose work has imprinted itself on your mind--if you see a photograph and say, 'Yes, this is the person,' with a little new insight--that is a beautiful experience." In his view the purpose of portraiture is not to capture a likeness but to communicate the subject's character; you are supposed to get to know him or her better. More often what he really captured was their social role or occupation: Miro with a paint brush, Martha Graham the dancer, Churchill the bully-bully leader, and in this he is not really so very different from August Sanders who sought to depict social types through his portraits. But Karsh was no sociologist; he was perhaps something of a transitional figure, a portraitist who focused on the individual's social role but eschewed the environmental detail that otherwise would define that role, preferring to focus on a putative human essence. His theme was The Great Man in History. On the other hand, an "environmental portraitist" like Arnold Newman at times almost buries his subject in the environment, as in his famous portrait of Igor Stravinsky, who appears at the extreme left edge in a frame dominated by the triangular shape of his grand piano, or as in this portrait of Jacob Lawrence framed by his own paintings:

And here is my favorite, the consummate portrait of the Power Broker, Robert Moses:

This could very well be the quintessential environmental portrait, the city builder framed against a panoply of the city whose form he stamped with a will as rigid and unyielding as the girder on which he stands. The symbolic elements of the picture couldnt be more apt, and yet the photo is as unspontaneous as they come, purely factitious, a set-up. Entirely opposed to my own aesthetic, it remains one of my favorite photographs and an outstanding example of portraiture. But do we really get to know Robert Moses any better through it? Could it be that Newman's shift of emphasis onto the environment signals an unconscious fear that portraiture is somehow empty, inherently incapable of telling us anything at all about the subject, except confirm that which we already know?

Sometimes I think that the role of portraiture is nothing other than to comfort us, to confirm us in our thinking about a particular individual and the role he or she plays in the larger social and historical processes that shape us. In Karsh's work Churchill is just as we would have him be, the bulldog leader, and Newman's portrait of Moses has him looking every bit the Power Broker. In a sense, such portraits are not about the individual at all, but about affirming an underlying ideology about individualism and potent subjectivity. In a sense, then, Luc de la Haye's subway portraits are the ultimate anti-portrait, since the relentless repetition of vacant staring faces, set out in a checkerboard pattern so as to absorb each face in an abstract design, virtually guarantees their nullity. And yet, there is still this need to look into faces and espy something unexpected, a fugitive spirit, a quirk.

So what is the purpose of portraiture? Why this lust for faces, why this need to look one in the eye? I suspect that in part portraiture serves a need to do just that -- look another in the eye without risking a confrontation. We confront the other without incurring their displeasure; we study them at our leisure and our pleasure. We customarily think of photographers as voyeurs, with the implication that their viewing involves some guilty pleasure -- but we are all guilty of a deep-seated scopophilia that obliges us to look with an unacknowledged need for some kind of forbidden knowledge. In a sense portraits are like the fruit of that very tree that cost us our freedom and our innocence. Perhaps it is precisely because we violate an unspoken social taboo; the looking is transgressive. We all crane our necks when we pass the scene of an accident. But what do we learn, once we see?

Crossing the line, confronting and passing beyond normal limits, may be something subtler and more significant than we assume. It could well be that our need to look fixedly at the world involves a drive that is nobler than mere pleasure, though we ought not to discount the value of that pleasure. Rather than primitive sex or aggression, perhaps there are unsuspected metaphysical or ontological motives at work here. Again, Koudelka implies this when he states his own purpose behind the incessant photographic activity that appears to characterize his daily existence: "The philosophic aspects of photography don't interest me. What interests me are its limits. I always photograph the same people, the same situations, because I want to know the limits of those people, of those situations, and also my own limits." This certainly characterizes his Gypsies book, a book whose narrative, interestingly, is punctuated periodically with conventional frontal, look-you-in-the-eye portraits that never fail to draw you in.

It might be that the limits of what we know are what we really hanker for; when we rubberneck we are hoping for a glimpse of that bone and blood that normally hides below the surface and cheats us of our false views of identity and immortality, which is probably why Renaissance intellectuals kept memento mori on their desks. The scene of the crash offers us a moment of honest appraisal, but only if we take our eyes off the road. Modern institutions work so hard to hide all that from us that we are left with a craving for reality which ironically we satisfy by looking at pictures.

Which brings me back to HCB's snaps: their seemingly casual and effortless approach to capturing individuals who were among the greatest figures of the twentieth century would seem to fly in the face of professional photography and its painstaking attempts through lighting and arrangement to render a Portrait of the Great Man. But what could be more unexpected than to see Matisse the great painter as a somewhat comic figure surrounded by his pet doves? Or this snap of Faulkner, the Great Brooding Southern Writer, out strolling with his pet dogs? Is this the man who wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep?

Though I never thought so before, I would argue now that HCB may well have been the greatest portraitist of his generation. Without any of the paraphernalia of professional photography -- all the pomp and circumstance heralded by the bags of lights and big cameras, the import of which is to justify one's day rate -- HCB simply snapped his subjects in the stream of life, "a la sauvette," and like any such moments seized from the flux, they surprise us with their lived reality, their unquestionable affirmation not of the individual but of the imperious reality of that particle of space and time. They are genuine, human and humane, but they are not conventionally humanist.

I would elect one other photographer to my pantheon of great portraitists a la sauvette: Eugene Smith. True he has been criticized by purists for his manipulation of some of his portraits -- he superimposed symbolic imagery in his famous portrait of Schweitzer and he essentially posed the famous portrait of the spinner in his essay, A Spanish Village. But his work is populated throughout by portraits snapped on the run which convincingly capture individuals in the coils of life. While I suspect that Smith probably clung to ideas of individuality and essence, his fundamental practice as a photojournalist more often than not won out. Here is his superb portrait of Charlie Chaplin from Limelight, and I offer it up fully conscious of the many ironies posed by a portrait of an actor in costume and on stage -- where do the representations end?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Web and the Future of Journalism

I just came across a blog, Invisible Inkling, written by a very fiesty and perceptive grad student in Mass Communications at San Jose State University. Ryan Sholin's site is full of thought provoking commentary on the current state of journalism and its need to come to terms with new communication technology. For a quick and concise look at some of the basic tenets, read through this thread on "10 obvious things about the future of the newspapers"; not only the original list but the copious responses too contain lots of good ideas that all of us must seriously consider. There are huge opportunities here in terms of distributing our work, reaching more people in new ways using new narrative tools -- if we pay attention to what is happening on the web in a comprehensive manner. But I have to agree with Ryan that newspapers and the media as a whole have been very slow to adopt and adapt -- and have done so in a very desultory piecemeal fashion. For example, they all have "multimedia" pages, but they dont bother to exploit the technology to the fullest in order to give us a deeper "reading" experience. You want people to enter the tent, you had better provide an experience that lives up to the hype you're barking.

Just look at points five and eight for starters:

5. You don’t get to charge people for archives and you certainly don’t want to charge people for daily news content. Pulling your copy behind walls where it can’t be seen by readers on the wider Web. Search rules. Don’t hide from it.

8. You ignore new delivery systems at your own peril. RSS, SMS, iPhone, e-paper, Blackberry, widgets, podcasts, vlogs, Facebook, Twitter — these aren’t the competition, these are your new carriers. Learn how to deliver your content across every new technology that comes into view on the horizon, and be there when new devices go into mass production.

Quite so. We are all looking for ways to make money from the net so that our work does not go uncompensated and we can continue to do it: but charging readers in this manner is probably a retrograde procedure. For an analysis of the problem, read Vin Crosbie's article on "Rebuilding Media." Above all, and this is something I have been working on steadily ever since I got my first grant, we must look into all the "new delivery systems" so as to extend our presence in every direction. Really, the web presence of most media outlets is rather disappointing in comparison with other websites -- even the so called "multimedia" productions are rather conservative in approach and offer little more than slideshows. MediaStorm is a notable exception, but when you visit, say, Time Magazine's site do you ever see anything approaching that level of innovation? No. Why not?

I will be writing more about this important theme, but meanwhile you couldnt do better than to have a look through this stimulating site, as you will be well rewarded. And kudos to Ryan for taking on the industry head on.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Upcoming articles and the nature of blogging

Just an announcement about upcoming articles so y' all dont lose interest. Next up will probably be a longish piece on portraiture, sparked by a comment made by Koudelka, as well as an essay on the nature of memory, photos, amnesia and the past. Also, on my other site, More a Question than a Reply, there will shortly appear a very long essay about sex tourism in St Domingo.

When I read other people's blogs it always strikes me how prolific they are, while I am here posting maybe two or three times a month. I suppose I will never acquire the rhythm of posting regularly, but then for me the weblog interests me primarily as a new means of distribution, a means of connecting with an audience and breaking out of the Ivory Tower of academic criticism, which was the dream of 50s critics like Clement Greenberg. The question is whether web readers will tolerate longer articles instead of what amounts to blurbs, as we generally find on blogs. There is no doubt in my mind that the new medium, just as with the advent of the printing press, is conditioning the nature of reading in new ways -- so can sustained thought and reflection survive the web? I think so. I recently listened to a report on NPR about a project that is putting all books online - a kind of internet Alexandria -- and apparently people are logging on and reading novels and treatises and all the rest. I personally dont like to read long things like books online -- I like books with covers, but I do find that i read more and more online, so eventually my prejudice may disappear.

Anyway, stay tuned for more essays -- or should I say, check your feeds? I am of the TV generation so such phrases stick with me still.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Almost Home: The Collective Oculi

A girl runs through a cemetery. A photographer is standing nearby, looking at picnickers and families, pondering the use to which so many people are putting this space, this necropolis, which they have converted into a park for their weekend amusements. They clear a space for themselves in the house of death, and in the midst of their mortality they enshrine the ghosting pleasures of the flesh. A bit of warm sun on one’s skin, banished quickly by the cold snap of the breeze coming from the sea. The girl intones as she passes, “almost home, almost home.”

©Nick Cubbin/Oculi

What is life but a suspended transit between two points, distant and yet curiously familiar, that we neither know nor remember, but anticipate with dread and curiosity. Two moments that withhold the meaning of our journey from us until we stop running and submit to the inevitable, disappear from the trail, leaving perhaps a few crumbs behind to point the way. That unresolved tension between interrogation and revelation, between setting out and arriving is the very thing that informs our most heartfelt and meritorious attitude in life and gives us the motive for our aesthetic. It provides for grace. The willingness to pitch oneself along the trajectory of this unknowingness is what lies behind the best documentary photographs. As Salgado once observed, a photograph is “more a question than a reply.”

©James Brickwood/Oculi

That photographer standing there was Nick Cubbin, a member of a group of remarkable shooters from down under who have provided us with a salient example of photographic values that from time to time are in danger of disappearing beneath the fog of market-driven notions about the purpose of reportage and the agency’s role in selling it. In the wake of the digital revolution and the restructuring (or disappearance) of many agencies, the rise of “collectives” as an alternative model of association has become a phenomenon of note, and it is well worth reviewing the accomplishments of Oculi in order to gauge the consequences of this recent development.

©Donna Bailey/Oculi

Resolutely fixed in the pursuit of a vision of transience, tentative connection, and interrogation, their power derives from a delicate equilibrium of fleeting presence, of things captured but not quite there, of suggestion and undertone. It is not surprising that many of their photographs, in fact many of their photographic projects, are situated on the flimsy line that divides mundane reality from the fantastic, which, juxtaposed, might convert that moment into a revelation. The imagination and sheer gusto with which they seize upon this enterprise has virtually guaranteed that the world should take note of their adventurousness, and instead of indulging an effete aestheticism, they have robustly gone about redefining the terms whereby meaningful work can engage an otherwise image-addled audience. By creating Oculi, they have carved out a space in which personal work is meant not just to thrive but to bust out the walls and annul the false distinction that would define such work as interesting but irrelevant, as least to the market. This is the same distinction that generally divides the collective from the agency: a collective forms to promote a certain esthetic vision, while an agency forms to sell imagery to the media. Oculi manages to straddle that divide.

©Jeremy Piper/Oculi

In their work they have promoted, in Roland Barthes’ words, a photography that eschews a “civilized code of perfect illusions” and opts instead for the “awakening of intractable reality.” Oculi is no hothouse, ArtWorld warren; it is a group of marvelously intrepid realists, dancing like butterflies but stinging like bees.

This is not to say that Oculi is all of a piece. The range of ideas and styles is impressive, though they tend to revolve around the themes I am adumbrating. One can recognize Oculi’s signature in the work of Trent Parke, one of the founding members who is now with Magnum. His Dream/Life is practically synonymous with the collective. The slash in the title says it all: this is not dreamlife, but something located on the porous line between the two. Many of the Oculi photographers are to be found travelling along this line, searching its crevices for the image that manages to hold contradictory realities in a momentary relation. This habit of walking fine lines extends to their reportage: Oculi sits between two major trends in reportage, if we may generalize a bit about what comes out of Europe and the US. While the latter tends to promulgate a straightforward newsy kind of storytelling, focusing on individual’s lives, trying to get inside their skin, giving us a closeup of what it is like to be a drug user or a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s, the former is more lyrical or poetic in its search for innovative form. While the American trend is to identify a type and then try to humanize that type by exploring it in its specific context and allowing the immediacy of the camera to lard the story with detail, the European tendency is to try and capture the feeling of the story in a form adequate to its emotional register. On the one hand, social realism a la Zola; on the other, something that is still in touch with the surrealist roots of modern photography.

One is never quite at home in an Oculi photograph: the landscape may be familiar, the people solid middle class citizens of a developed nation, but there is always something strange in the midst of the familiar, that touch of the uncanny which for Freud was the mark of modern art. Indeed the term he used was “unheimlich”-- that which is unhomely. Viktor Shklovsky, who originated the idea of ostrananie or “estrangement,” would have loved these photographs for their power to dislocate the viewer and unhinge one’s expectations. But this expression of homelessness, of eternal restive searching, does not derive from an aesthetic principle or movement, and the meaning of these works is not to be found in mere tricks of style. No chemical, digital or mechanical tic could produce these riveting portraits of horses in their multifarious identities:

©Glenn Hunt/Oculi

Or these of pigeons:

©Steven Siewert/Oculi

©Nick Moir/Oculi
They derive instead from a deep connection not just to one’s theme, but to history and nature --- after all one is not a disconnected, free floating agent. One is implicated in the whole process of living and being, and the photograph that results is a miraculous product of a simultaneously tenuous and trenchant bond between subject and object – or perhaps it be between two subjects.

©Tamara Voninski/Oculi

This is not to say that the collective is all of a piece or that its members slavishly follow a formula of sorts. Each member is utterly an individual and each project featured on the site is original, distinct and visionary – this is what distinguishes the group above all, its members each have a vision, and here we find not only the clue to its success, but the grail of all our seeking: resolute adherence to one’s vision and some measure of market viability --- both of which are supremely important to us, for we are ultimately communicators and must submit our ideas, our glimpses of truth and meaning, to the marketplace wherein our utterances are inevitably constrained. In these days of megalithic photo agencies and the numbness produced by media saturation, we could learn a lot by looking through Oculi’s collective lens.

Oculi, "you got eyes."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Peace to Jim Johnston and Family

The indefatigable Jim Johnston, whose blog, Politics, Theory and Photography is a model of openminded and wide ranging intellectual exploration, has suffered the loss of a son -- my heart goes out to him and his family.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

La Jeunesse Dorée: PDN's 30

The list of winners is finally viewable here.

There is a preponderance of fashion and other types of photography which does not interest me much, though it is all very accomplished work. However, there is indeed some stand out documentary and travel imagery that I find notable.

First off there is Kathryn Cook's excellent coverage of the Bolivian elections. These elections are part of a putative shift to the Left in Latin American politics which includes Lulo in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and Ortega in Nicaragua. Course whether this is in fact a genuine shift to the Left is highly questionable, as each of these candidates are very different pols with very different constituencies determined by very different circumstances. Ortega is a pragmatist who has ably managed to keep his "revolution" alive by working within the prevailing power structure; Chavez is a demagogue, a little in the Peronist line, who spouts alot of Bolivarian rhetorical tripe in order to contain and coopt troublesome elements in Venezuelan society that might otherwise prove unmanageable; -- of all the candidates Evo Morales could prove to be the most interesting because he appears to be genuinely motivated by the planks of his political platform.

Secondly, there is Aaron Huey, whose marvelous image of a ruined mosque in Uch Sharif, Pakistan was featured on Tewfic El-Sawy's blog.

Rena Effendi's black and white work in Baku, Azerbaijan. Here is a candlelight procession:

And Alvaro Yballa Zavala, who strives to capture a different perspective on the war in Iraq; rather than combatants, he depicts mundane moments of life under seige, so that "viewers can imagine themselves in these situations."

Well done everybody.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Travelling with Tewfic

"le film, c'est le traveling." Jean-luc Godard.

Being that it is Saturday, but I have been somewhat remiss in posting on this log over the past weeks, I feel that I ought to post something, but will let up on the heavy duty commentary! Saturdays have special significance for me, because those were days when my father would pack us up in the car and explore New York, travelling into its numerous subcultures guided by my his inconsumable interest in its many eccentric characters. That love of exploration deeply impressed me and pretty much accounts for why I find myself doing what it is I do.

So I thought it would be nice to commemorate the day with a nod toward the concept of travel, in its best sense, and bring to your attention one of the most enjoyable web logs that I have come across recently and which I regularly consult.

Tewfic El-Sawy's The Travel Photographer is a great example not only of a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable blog, but also of the very concept of travel -- not so much as a genre of photography, which in a sense provides merely the context for Tewfic's musings, but more as a general approach to writing, thinking, and living. Because through the medium of Tewfic's wideranging interest, his generous appreciation of his fellow travelers, his love of the endless variety of human life and culture, as well as his indefatigable energy, we are treated to a spectacle of global cultural expression that I find as nourishing as my daily breakfast and a lot tastier than Special K.

Travel photography is sometimes criticized for its being an adjunct of consumer culture, and I must admit that to the extent that it serves the tourist industry, it is an egregious and problematic genre; I live in a place that simultaneously benefits from and is inevitably damaged by tourism, so I am naturally ambivalent about its virtues. But Tewfic's take on travel is of a different nature altogether: he is not after cinematic adventure; exoticism is irrelevant, and the merely picturesque, the mainstay of many a travel rag, has no hold on his imagination. He is after something more modest and more profound -- human communication, pure and simple. Connecting with others and exploring their world views.

In the past week I have travelled with Tewfic to Turkey through the lens of the great Nuri Bilge Ceylan; to Afghanistan with Veronique de Viguerie; to Kashmir wth John Isaac; to India with Steve McCurry; to Havana with David Alan Harvey; as well as to the Kumbh Mela through Tewfic's own steady lens -- all without leaving the sheltering sky above me. It has been an exhilirating ride -- not for the distances covered but for the distances closed, the connections made, the communication effected. In the end, travel is a deeply personal and intellectual process whereby the enlightened reader -- and after all, seeing the world is a kind of reading, a perpetual search for signs and a puzzling over their meaning -- is compelled to test the limits of one's understanding, and the extent to which one manages to push away the comfortable envelope of our assumptions that cocoon our perceptions may well be the governing criterion separating the traveler from the mere tourist. Tewfic is decidedly working on behalf of the former.

I could go on, but let Tewfic be your guide from here on, as few people have ever been issued their credentials to better purpose.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Milton Rogovin




©Milton Rogovin, from Triptychs, 1972-1994

One of the best portraitists of our times, Milton Rogovin, has received the Cornell Capa Award and I thought I would just make mention of it here, though both Jim Johnson and Alec Soth have commented on this remarkable photographer whose simple, direct gaze has furnished some of the most powerful portraits of our time. His simplicity is the key to his vision and the enduring interest of his work. While I agree that his focus on "the forgotten ones" is something that distinguishes his imagery and certainly has served as an important guiding theme, I do not believe that we can define the value of this remarkable body of work solely in terms of his abiding interest in the common man.

One of my favorite books of his is in fact Triptych, a marvelous journey through time and space. It is a very strictly defined time and space, too, perfectly in keeping with the highly detailed and specific nature of the gaze he turns on people. This is Buffalo's Lower West Side, over a period of three consecutive decades. Photography by its very nature is a meditation on evanescence, on passing -- we photograph what is there for a split second and gone. The trace that remains on our negatives or our sensors forms a curious record of reality, since it testifies unequivocally to the momentary presence of that particular set of objects in time and space, and yet is itself a chimerical imposture conjured up out of a multitude of compositional elements that ultimately form the photographer's perspective. A portraitist like Rogovin keeps his intervention to a minimum, and there is no doubt that he must think of himself as one who hews to an objective viewpoint--no postmodern irony here regarding the nature of representation. The concept underlying Rogovin's relation to his subjects is more naive but no less profound, because it yields perhaps one of the most intimate and human portrayals of the passing of time that I know of. A terser, more poetic look at The Ages of Man would be hard to find.

It is interesting to compare Rogovin with his predecessors, particularly someone like August Sander. While Sander was interested in a kind of typology of his society (and it is important to note in passing that his photographic genius saved his work from being a mere catalogue of social types), Rogovin is clearly interested in the individuality of his subjects, their inexorable quiddity, and this little trip through three decades of Buffalo time provides ample evidence of the inexhaustible curiosity and sympathy Rogovin bears for each of his subjects. Each triptych, in its way, is unique. One would think that such a rigid formula would vitiate the effect of the portraits and create a monotonous rhythm, but I can find no lapse of interest or energy in the series.

One of Rogovin's virtues is that he brings us back to a very simple truth, that the simple act of looking squarely at something can yield profound pleasure and understanding, that taking the time to actually look instead of peruse or scan as we are wont to do is in the end the essence of photographic revelation. Our Kodak moments are lacking not so much because they are artless but because they are thoughtless, the product of a reflex snap of the shutter. Instantaneity is not necessarily an advantage: thought comes dripping slow, and the photographer is caught between two very different rhythms whenever he or she lifts the camera to the eye. The accumulated weight of culture and history and temperament presses against the flimsy shutter with inexorable desire, while the lure of quick gratification -- the lynchpin of our consumer culture -- has induced in us dismayingly itchy trigger fingers. Snapping is at once so facile and so fraught with conflict and possibility. Salman Rushdie once observed that a snap was a moral decision taken in an eighth of a second. The decision only appears split-second; but it, like the moral it captures, is, or ought to be, the fruit of history, of reflection, of deliberate cultivation, perennial and persistent like the olives of centuries old trees. Rogovin's patient and painstaking collection of humanity in the coils of circumstance is a testament to the power of dwelling in this contemplative attitude, wherein the blink of the shutter is an almost unconscious or natural consequence of a profound intuitive grasp of the momentousness of the mundane.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Unblooded

"One thing that Wall knew for certain when he took up the profession in the late 1970s is that he would not become a photojournalistic hunter." Arthur Lubow

The NY Times Sunday Magazine has published a piece about Jeff Wall’s work on the occasion of his new show at MOMA, and the article provoked some commentary on Lightstalkers which I found intriguing. In yet another variant on the by now rather tiresome Postmodern obsession with the tenets of Representation, Wall adopts the vocabulary of street photography to render semblances of American life in elaborately constructed tableaux. Although diametrically opposed to the kind of photography that I myself practice and write about here, Wall’s thinking, cogently set out in the article, not only intrigued me enough to study the photographs, but after such study obliged me to reflect on the curious and almost complete disappearance of genuine street photography from the canons of the Art World. Mainstream critics routinely write about Wall and other stars, but rarely if ever deign to consider the incredibly rich traditions of documentary and photojournalism where the street photography esthetic still reigns. I find this a singular failure of imagination on the part of our critics, but one that doesn’t surprise me given the tenacious hold that Poststructuralist theory has on American Academe and the Art world.

Though it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, I think I can clarify my beef with the currently entrenched thinking about meaningful photography by providing a simple comparison of certain images that share specific figural motifs. With all due respect to Wall and his meticulous work, the comparisons are not meant to critique his specfic thematic concerns, so I admit that he and his admirers may well find the point I wish to make rather specious, but I ask for a little forebearance as I attempt to introduce a caveat. Here are the images:

Jeff Wall/Museum of ModernArt

Eugene Richards/VII

Jeff Wall/Museum of Modern Art

Larry Towell/Magnum

Jeff Wall/Museum of Modern Art

Jon Anderson/Dark Horse Images

In each case it seems to me that the hunted image as opposed to the contrived image presents the more complex narrative and is richer in meaning, more open and more mysterious. The elaboration that is a hallmark of Wall's work, which you can plainly see in the third image, "After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue," is often singled out for praise, as Arthur Lubow observes: "Like a commercial light box, a Wall photograph grabbed you with its glowing presence, but then, unlike an advertisement, it held your gaze with the richness of its detail and the harmony of its arrangement. You could study it with the attention you devoted to a Flemish altarpiece in a church, and you could surrender yourself to its spell as if you were in a movie theater." The mix of metaphor is revealing: on the one hand, Old World harmony and detail signifying high seriousness; on the other, modern packaging of a spellbinding "experience" in a form commensurate with mass media. It would seem almost too calculated but for the fact that Wall undoubtedly is aware of the ironies and seeks to explore them. However, the ironies stem from the method and thus are as hidebound as the rest of this ultimately claustrophobic exercise in self-referentiality. One can get lost in the magnitude and detail of a Wall, but the experience seems something of a ruse in the end.

At one point in the article Wall is quoted as saying, "I couldn’t get into ’60s art photography — Friedlander, Arbus and Winogrand and Stephen Shore,” Wall says. “These guys were in a photo ghetto. They were into their own world, with photo galleries and their own photo books." What is one to make of such a statement? These shooters, whose fanatical engagement with the world around them managed to cement life and art perhaps as no other American artists ever had and eventually create a mass audience for their work, can hardly be said to have ghettoized themselves in any form prejudicial to the import of their work. One is left to wonder whether the pomp and circumstance of a Wall installation is in any way a guarantee that Art has escaped the ghetto or merely tricked out the pad with a bit of day glow and UV.

In any case, I am left wondering when the critics will rediscover the tradition that Szarkowski championed, a tradition whose reliance on the flux of life virtually guarantees its unending interest. Lubow writes, "what appeal was there in a genre whose practitioners seemed to have already taken their best shots?" Yet each so very different and consistently full of surprise, I can hardly believe that one could conclude the genre was tapped out. The issue, in my view, is ultimately one of control: does one allow the object world a hand in matters and thus allow for surprises, for discovery; or does one retreat to the chamber of one's solipsism and fashion homunculi after one's own image?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Back from Vac

well not exactly. My blogging has been unceremoniously interrupted by the advent of a particularly nasty tropical bug, so I have been taking a break from my usual endeavors. That will change shortly with the publication here of more musings. Hold tight folks and thanks for checking in.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

El sentido de la vida es cruzar las fronteras

This is not about a photographer or photography, exactly. The renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has crossed the last frontier and I felt compelled to take note of his passing here. For a great interview about the significance of his work, and in particular the meaning of crossing frontiers, one ought to read this piece from El País. It is for Spanish speakers, but maybe you can babelfish it.

In some ways Kapuscinski is an apt companion for those of us who travel with lenses instead of pens. His essayistic portrayal of the world is very much in tune with our own methods of capturing life on the run: like Montaigne he was an essayist through and through, a man who tested, probed, explored contradictions and was happiest when he hit upon the trenchant ironies that after all are the only satisfactory truths that life offers us. He had a novelist's eye for character and detail, a flair for storytelling, and a healthy love of humanity despite a clear-eyed view of its foibles.

When I look back on what has led me to this particular point in life, I find that essayists have had a huge influence on me. First there was Joseph Mitchell, whose portraits of New York -- a New York that still existed in tattered form when i was a child -- compelled my father to collect us kids together and go on Mitchellesque explorations around town. The love of exploration, of meeting different people and learning about their lives was instilled in me by those magical outings. I am not the only photographer influenced by this writer: Diane Arbus's early forays into the eccentric followed directly in his path. Then came Montaigne in my college years, who introduced me to the pleasures of traveling conceptually through ideas in a similarly picaresque mode.

For Kapuscinski this idea of crossing borders is the essence of his endeavor. As El País points out, "Hay otras barreras que también es necesario saltar: la de la cultura, la de la familia, la del idioma, la del amor... "Mi vida ha sido un cruzar constante de fronteras, tanto físicas como metafísicas. Ése es para mí el verdadero sentido de la vida." One must constantly cross all types of barriers -- cultural barriers, linguistic barriers, and family barriers as well as national borders, class lines, and so on. Perhaps it is the inevitable effect of our being outsiders to the places we visit that we should find our most fruitful interrogations undertaken from this vantage point of transit rather than rootedness, but the perspective that derives from being in between and on the edge is somehow the most sane we can adopt. However that may be, it requires a nimble wit, and Kapuscinski had it in spades.

"Caminante, son tus huellas el camino."

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Beach, a Book and Modern Photography

Two shows have opened at the International Center of Photography that, were I presently in New York, I would jump at the chance to see. The two poles defining modernist thinking about photography can now be seen side by side: First off, Martin Munckasi, whose remarkable image of boys playing in the surf apparently inspired Henri Cartier Bresson to take up the camera because it showed him in a flash its potential for capturing stolen moments on the run, is being given an entire show of his kinetic and sometimes oddly framed compositions (odd for their time perhaps).

According to Michael Kimmelman who did the write up in the Times, Munckasi "favored scenes of daily life, absorbing avant-garde ideas about odd angles and abstract compositions. His sports photographs epitomized his special gift for action and movement: capturing a soccer ball just as it neared a goalie’s outstretched hands or a motorcyclist at the instant he splashed through a pool of water.” It would appear that this impulse in Munckasi's work led Henri Cartier Bresson to recognize that "the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving." Sadly this celebrant of women and joie de vivre, of speed and energy, ended up destitute, immobilized by circumstance, and died in his apartment while eating out of a cold can of spaghetti. I cannot think of a more ironic or cruel end for a man who, like other Europeans flooding into Hollywood and bringing us the archetypal modern art form, the cinema, represents the modernist fascination with motion -- in essence they made it possible for us to see two dimensional reality in new ways, because the motion inevitably leads to skewed perspectives if you follow where it leads. Academic notions of spatial propriety were trounced by a bunch of scruffy immigrants off the boat.

The other pole is represented by HCB, whose own esthetic becomes much clearer to me now in light of the comparison between these two photographers. The beach shot ignited him: “I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks,” he recalled years later. “I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said, ‘Damn it,’ took my camera and went out into the street.” What in fact happened was that HCB took off on a photographic journey that would eventually lead to great things, Magnum among them. But the means of his journey is what particularly interests me because it is so typically reserved: he travelled and created a scrapbook of his imagery spanning the years 1932 to 1946. It is this scrapbook that the show at ICP concentrates on. How like HCB to work in this manner. While Munckasi set out to conquer the fashion world and magazines in the land of opportunity, HCB quietly travelled and surreptitiously lifted oddly complex images out of the streets at home and abroad -- but his was an entirely private endeavor the results of which he pasted secretly into his scrapbook. The kodak family album was transformed into a documentary format that managed to define the modern world not only through its broad ranging content but also through its powerful organization of form which tied esthetic ideas from the world of painting to a livelier sense of the flux of life. In a sense, too, and I say this without facetiousness, HCB was a blogger, patiently recording and logging the serendipitous moments that caught his eye -- private moments of no particular import, certainly not newsworthy. (Even when, subsequently, HCB would turn up at an event to document it, he seemed almost perversely determined not to record it as such, but instead always chose to focus on the peripheral, the inconsequential. He would never have survived at a paper.)

I can see much more clearly now the significance of this famous photograph of the bicycle whizzing past a complex arrangement of perspective and form: it is about trapping that fleet moment, that evanescent event, within a rigorous formal structure whose effect is multiplied with every added line and shape. That tension is present in many of HCB's photographs, and ultimately it is what makes him the more interesting of the two photographers. Alongside the love of materiality's inevitable ghosting, there is a contrary impulse, a need to fix things in place, to render an supremely convincing illusion of their solidity.

"Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing."

Saturday, January 13, 2007


First off, a quick announcement about another weblog, "More a Question than a Reply," which I am in the process of setting up. I am collecting there all my journalistic essays on various cultural and social matters I encounter on my travels. As I find the time and energy I will use it to explore the combination of imagery and text in order to play with different narrative structures. A little bit of Joseph Mitchell, a dash of Ryscard Kapuscinski, and a healthy dose of documentary photography. At present there are a few essays in Spanish as well which discuss the history of the colonial city of Santo Domingo, the sugar plantations, and a bawdy tale of bestiality. One of my favorite pieces, "Death of a Patriarch," about burying our great grandfather, has been dusted up and posted anew. One or two of the Spanish language essays have yet to be translated. I will eventually be posting essays on the public transport system in St. Domingo (sounds dull, but it is one of my best), the sex trade, some recent assignment work, and pieces about India, Brazil and other countries.

Second thing to note, John Loomis's Blueeyes Magazine has just published its newest issue, number 14, featuring Matt Black's poetic documentation of life in Mixteca.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Click and Flick: Storytelling on the Web

The recent discussion of Robt Hood and Ed Kashi’s Flipbook film on Lightstalkers provoked some of us to question the technique, along with the marketing and, on a higher level, the overall nature of multimedia storytelling -- or any kind of storytelling -- on the web.

I got curious and decided to dig out the original experiment that one of the members alluded to, some of you may remember it: Gilles Peress and Fred Ritchin collaborated on an unusual narrative process facilitated by the web whereby the reader can plot a variety of paths through the “essay,” thus ceding some authorial control to the viewer, opening up possibilities for more complex connections, and compelling the viewer to take an active part in the consumption of news—which may well be the most important aspect of the experiment. As Matthias Bruggman pointed out, the current spate of multimedia potentially induces the usual passive participation that we get from watching TV. We want to engage our audience, not turn them into couch potatoes.

Fred Ritchin’s argument, printed in 1996, can be seen HERE. But I wanted to reproduce a selection from his concluding statement in order to spark some thought among you all and perhaps a willingness to take up the experiment where it left off. That is what I intend to do, along with further experimentation with multimedia. Ten years after this interesting project, it seems that little has been done to explore the possibilities of communication over the net, other than what can be seen on the Pixel Press site. The new craze for multimedia is turning us all into sound recorders, but really I dont see much real innovation in most of them: they are slideshows with a song, or maybe some oral history (as if that were somehow a superior means of providing authentic content, a notion I just dont buy and I find, to my dismay, is almost universally assumed to be true by the current Left in the debate about the politics of representation). Their brevity ensures that the oral history or ambient sound be too clipped to allow for indepth commentary.

Here are Ritchin’s comments:

” Certainly ‘Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace’ is a flawed and fairly primitive attempt to build a new model of photojournalism. But at least one commentator feels that it succeeded in important ways. In Print magazine, the only publication to cover in depth what we had tried to do, Darcy DiNucci wrote: ‘Clumsy as today’s low-bandwidth presentations must be in some particulars, the site indeed pioneers a new form of journalism. Visitors cannot simply sit and let the news wash over them; instead, they are challenged to find the path that engages them, look deeper into its context, and formulate and articulate a response. The real story becomes a conversation, in which the author/photographer is simply the most prominent participant.’

Can such a project happen again with better results? Certainly it should be possible. In the masses of new Web publications coming out there is hope that some will recognize the need to tell stories differently about issues of serious interest, . . . many photographers and their collaborators already know that conventional photojournalism needs new ideas.

Undoubtedly these new attempts to tell stories on the Web, some accomplished with very meager financial resources, will also affect previous media so that partially non-linear, layered photo essays will appear in magazines and newspapers. Ironically it may not be the linear photo essay that is eventually revived after its long decline, but a new essay form that makes the collage of television seem rather predictable.

The new medium of the Web brings with it many valuable legacies – one is the possibility of exploring the world differently, with greater complexity and from many points of view, in order to help photographers, reporters, editors, readers and even subjects understand what is going on in deeper and more meaningful ways. Whether these new models come from personal homepages, students frustrated by conventional journalism, relief agencies, new media companies or more conventional ones, we can only benefit. They are sober alternatives to forthcoming virtual reality systems. They may also be productive extensions of deconstructionist critiques that encourage new and timely strategies of knowing. Once implemented, their impact on the ways in which we think and act should be considerable.”

Reflecting on these words ten years later, I have to say that I agree with Matthias, the current experimentation with multimedia is somehow flawed, if the ideals expressed by Ritchin here are taken to be the goal for which we strive. And I am dismayed by what seems to be a failure to followup on the promise of this endeavor and the fact that mainstream narrative venues appear not to have been induced to experiment, despite the hope expressed by Ritchin in the penultimate paragraph. Unlike Matthias, I dont believe that multimedia is necessarily reactionary just because it doesnt allow for an active participation on the part of the viewer -- I happen to think that, like reading, it does in fact allow for a kind of active participation and we cannot really discount the power of the reader to make his or her connections in an autonomous manner (anyone who has read Proust probably will remember that author's famous ruminations on boredom and the nature of reading -- I rest my case). I know that I certainly dont sleep through a good multimedia—I was glued to all 15 minutes of Chris Anderson’s report on Lebanon. And I am aggressively pursuing a multimedia agenda of my own, which depends on the argument that multimedia should make greater use of film technique. But be that all as it may, I am not surprised that multimedia in its current form is so successful given that such form is really a recapitulation of the narrative status quo favored by the institutions that govern the media, and we are still left with this unanswered challenge from Ritchin and Peress.

And Multimedia puts special strains on all of us: we have to capture sound and image almost simultaneously; we have to learn new softwares, learn new behaviors or skills, buy new equipment, spend more time at the screen instead of shooting, etc; we work harder, longer, for basically the same amount of money (or proportionately less). I like a challenge, so I dont mind learning these new things (in fact I am enjoying it all) but I like a fair paycheck too, and I am a bit worried by two aspects of the current situation: (1) that marketing these things is not an open and transparent process in which we all share equally and with full knowledge (the current players have not been open about their practices and thus no one is helping to establish fair protocols whereby we can all formulate some notions of fees etc;—we are already screwed by the fact that fees for digital processing were never adequately threshed out by everyone, so practices vary, with the result that many clients simply do not compensate us for all the extra time we spend editing); and (2) control of the market is largely concentrated in the hands of a few players intimately connected to the mainstream media, and this leaves the individual players in a very weak position. One thing about Ritchin’s project was that it was intended to open things up for people outside the mainstream, and thus exploit the web’s nature as an open communication medium. I would hate to see that openness be thwarted.

Since "Bosnia," new softwares and greater bandwidth delivery have facilitated the creation of narratives built round Flash as well as html -- you can see some interesting experiments in the work of Alfredo Jaar and Kim Köster's 99rooms site. But the essential modus operandi remains the same: the viewer clicks through scenarios, thereby following links. Narrative threads are composed of linkages, so the question becomes how to make the linking stimulate the linker and amplify the meaning of the imagery.

This led me to speculate whether gaming held a clue to the future of narrative. Friedrich Schiller established the fact that the “spieltrieb” (play-instinct, or drive) is at the back of all learning processes, and it manages to consolidate our divided nature (form vs content, sense vs intellect). Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here after all: that we need to reintroduce a bit of playfulness into narratives, a bit of indeterminacy and hazard or chance. Let people wander at will and learn formatively. In the case of the 99 rooms, I was disappointed by the fact that ultimately it came down to a simple mechanism: mouse around until you find a switch to click on (event/action structuring); click it and watch something happen; find the exit and move to the next tableau. The scenarios initially are intriguing, but the repetitive clicking and content become tiresome.

HERE is the link to the narrative experiment that Peress and Ritchin created. Enjoy it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The POYi and its Respect for Web Publishing

In the midst of my feverish attempts to post my imagery via the new World Press online interface, the agony over which was shared by other Lightstalker members, I was pleased (once I had managed to submit and then had a few rums) to see that POYi has been fairly creative this year in its recognition of web publishing as a legitimate outlet for our work. Not only do they include a category for Multimedia (as they did last year) but they also have created a new category for "Best Photo Column." They define the category thus:

"A regularly reoccurring, self-generated enterprise that uses a narrative style to blend words and images and reflects aspects of a community or lifestyle. The forum may be defined as either a photo column, photo journal, or photo blog. This should be an individual’s entry, not a team entry. The “entry” will consist of three (3) individual photo columns. This will allow the judges to examine the theme and consistency of the reoccurring column. The photojournalists must provide a brief “statement of purpose” for the column, appearing in the caption field of the first image. Judges also will weigh the quality of the text that accompanies the images. The column must be “published” in some form — either in print and online, or combined. Entries should be submitted in their original published form as either a .jpg or .pdf page from the print edition, or a URL link to the online edition. Independent and personal web sites will be considered as “published.” "

I had some questions about just what sort of column they might be looking for, since most photo blogs either run a photo a day, or talk about the industry, or comment on the art of photography, and none of those quite seem adequate. It appears that what they are looking for is something like Ryscard Kapuscinski meets photojournalism, and I am for one am pleased to see it. Throughout 2006 I was posting travel essays to my website (before I had bothered to look into blogging) and then started up Trozos de un Viralata to harbor Spanish language commentary on the culture and society of this little island I inhabit. Well, this little event has proved the catalyst for me to create a third blog and collate all my travel essays on that forum instead. More a Question than a Reply is going to harbor essays in Spanish and English on various journalistic themes, mostly related to my travels, and I hope to experiment more with the mixing of imagery and text.

What does this all mean? Well I view it as a development every bit as bracing as the appearance of fourth screen devices. It means that my attempt to take control of the means of production and distribution of my own material is now a reality and has been recognized as such by a leading industry organ. Essentially, POYi has given its imprimatur and these self-generated intiatives can now compete legitimately with content produced through traditional print media. But I am free of big media's priorities and protocols, free of desk jockeys, and free of interminable delays while an underpaid and overworked team strains to meet its deadlines. I am also free, as yet, of any remuneration for my labors, and that is something that has yet to be tackled.

When the Gutenberg bible was published (1455), the forms of mass communication were altered forever and the ecclessiastical establishment was initially quite worried about it, because it put the Word in the hands of the people. One could read and decipher it on one's own without sacerdotal mediation. This was one of the motive forces behind the Protestant Reformation (normally dated to coincide with the posting of Luther's 95 Theses in 1517). Now we are entering on yet another paradigmatic shift in communication that further consolidates the power we have over the word, and I am presently fairly excited about the opportunities and the challenges it presents us. ¡Venceremos!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Fourth Screen, The Seventh Mass Media: the Newest Wonder of the World

No it is not a photograph or directly related to photography, but this phenomenon and the thinking behind it are clearly going to have tremendous consequences for the future of mass communication and the distribution of photography and photojournalistic stories. The appearance of Apple's iPhone, the device that handily combines a phone, computer, and ipod, and whose salient virtue is its mobility, has already created a buzz on Lightstalkers, which you can check here and here. That last link leads to a thread that deals with this blog, but it ends up, in typical LS fashion, dealing with an entirely different theme. As it bears some important comments by Sion Touhig, it is worth consulting, as are his recent comments on his blog.

As we all know, we are witnessing the beginning of a seismic shift in the alignment of the mass media plates that make up our informational globe. I think it is safe enough to predict that, while print journalism isnt going to disappear any time soon, it will certainly morph into something that is far more focused on communication via the web. I dont know about you, and it may be because I live in a country where the selection is somewhat limited, but I rarely look at and never buy magazines anymore. I can get most of the content via their web pages, and while my internet connection is rather expensive, it is the only reliable means I have of connecting to the world outside these borders, so I make sure to pay that bill before all others. My point: globally speaking, and in spite of the so-called Information Gap, the audience for such devices is huge, and content providers are going to have to realize that their material is best served by other than traditional distribution networks. We are a poor country, and many of us do not own personal computers, but it is less costly to pay for an hour of internet connection at the local café than to buy a magazine. Moreover, while many of us wont have PCs anytime soon in all our homes, you can bet we will be buying iPhones. We already buy Razr phones and all the rest. There are practically no landline phones in our homes, but everyone has at least one cell phone. If content is adequately priced for mass distribution, the incentive to buy will be huge; and while photojournalism is not going to be one of the biggest "channels" offering streaming video, it will surely outdo its current distribution rates. And dont forget that while not everyone will want to download the Times or El Mundo onto their iPhone screen, documentary work that appeals thematically to a particular audience would have a greater chance of reaching that audience. I can foresee Dominicans downloading my multimedia piece on cockfighting, for example, simply because that is a theme that is dear to their hearts, though they might not otherwise be interested in documentaries per se. And I could see such presentations achieving a cult status, the way that videos do currently on YouTube.

But it is incumbent upon us photographers and above all the agencies we work with to start considering our options. We need to ride the wave on this one, and not play catch-up as we did when digital hit us. While Magnum in Motion is out in front, and busily consolidating their lead, the other agencies are limping along, and that is going to have severe consequences for the photographers they represent. According to industry pundits these devices and the exigent evolution of mass communication into what is now being called the Fourth Screen and the Seventh Mass Media are going to revolutionize the way we distribute information henceforth. It is only a matter of time before such devices are universal. I believe that this is mainly a matter of change in distribution rather than production, but it will probably have some effect on the narrative forms we choose as well (it has been noted that multimedia better serves the storytelling purpose of photojournalism than does the isolated jpg). Regardless of the esthetic consequences, the financial stakes are high and the time has come to act. Instead of herding like sheep at the Apple stores to buy this thing, we should be pick up the crook and do some herding ourselves -- line up the people for our market and define our market strategies while we have time to speculate. Let those who have ears, hear.

Your Best Shot and The Detail that Makes It Work

Leo Benedictus of the Guardian is running a series of articles grouped around the idea that a photographer should select his or her "best shot" and discuss it a bit for the benefit of the readers. So far he has interviewed Alec Soth, Bruce Davidson, Loretta Lux, Martine Franck, and a few others. It is frustrating trying to locate these on the Guardian Unlimited's website, as there is no specific category or slot for them. You just have to keyword it in their search field (use quote marks around "best shot" for best results). But the search is well worth the effort.

I was apprized of these articles when I read Jim Johnson's blog today, and I was intrigued by the idea. First of all the photographers do not pick their best shot, they pick their personal favorites, and for quirky reasons. This is particularly useful as our quirks are often more revelatory than our conventional thoughts and choices. Their discussions of the pix are not particularly profound, they are not particularly analytical, but they manage to communicate two important things: first of all, the very personal relationship they have with their imagery, and second the fact that the capture of their imagery and its meaning depend on processes that are intuitional and somewhat beyond their control, which of course is the underlying tenet of this very blog.

Here is Martine Franck on her shot: "I was there for an hour, just sitting quietly in a corner, observing. I never imagined for a second that the bird would perch on the monk's head. That's the wonder of photography - you try and capture the surprises."

She adds, "The picture is somehow a symbol of peace, and of young people getting on with old people. Although I certainly didn't think that at the time -- in the moment, it's just instinctive. Afterwards, maybe, you realise what the photograph means." The meaning of what we shoot is grasped intuitively in the moment of its capture, but it is understood rationally or intellectually only after the event, sometimes long afterwards, which is why I like to pin up pix of mine in my office and ponder them. I often live with pictures for years before I discover their meaning and make a final approval. Something is there beckoning, but I cant always quite wrap my mind around it, so I let it whisper to me until my intellect matures.

Alec Soth's personal choice was interesting to me because he too pointed out an important feature of the meaning of photography. We often prize photos because of the odd associations they elicit, the "spark of accident" that connects us in unexpected ways to the photo. After discussing the qualities he prizes in the picture, and the process whereby he set it up, he makes the following observation:

"There's always one little detail that makes an image work, and for me it's that water in the lower left. It was raining out, and it feels like the Falls are creeping in, tugging at her dress. There's also that thing about rain on your wedding day, which is supposed to be good luck. It rained on my wedding day, and Melissa sort of reminds me of my wife, so I have this funny relationship to the image that way - one that doesn't matter to anyone else."

There is that spark again. Does this association with the water outside hold for the different viewers as well? Do they even notice it? (The image appears in cropped form with the article, and in fact until I clicked and enlarged it, I couldnt see what Alec was talking about.) Does that mean that photos consistently work on two semiotic levels, a personal and a public register? Clearly, the meaning of the photo is largely contained by the bride in her dress -- she dominates the scene, our eyes naturally peg themselves to her. But what causes the eye to wander round the frame to discover the greater meaning? (And let us not forget more transgressive wandering, outside the frame, if extraneous elements intrude and should lead us away -- a technique that I myself favor and which has a long esthetic tradition: witness the structure of an Oriental rug.) This meaning is not extrinsic, nor is it negligible. Alec insists, it is the "detail that makes an image work." I cannot help but think that herein lies the secret of photography and its special contribution to the Arts. I dont think there is a form of esthetic representation more ironic, more paradoxical, more elusive than the photograph. One hundred and sixty-odd years of mechanical reproduction and we have yet to plumb its mystery.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dos Épocas -- de Nuevo

Well, I have only been at it for a week and I already have the pleasure of watching one of my posts give birth to another blog, so I can write a little plug for it. Gabriel has taken wing and created a blog entirely devoted to publishing elements of his interesting story about the riven Quintanal family. Check it out here. Three posts already and full of good stuff.

Ten Photographic Things I Liked about 2006

What the hell. For fun I thought I’d join the legion of listmakers in this hackneyed New Year’s ritual, even though I have never been able to divide up time in this manner. My experience of time never seems to run according to these neat segments and I have never felt compelled to mark the beginning of the new year. For me it always seems to come around Spring anyway. These are not the best moments, the most important moments, and they probably have no significance for anyone other than myself.

However, I need a break from the cerebral effort I have expended so far on this blog, so here goes, in no particular order:

1. Lightstalkers was singled out by PDN as one of the top ten blogs. I am not sure I would call it a blog exactly, but it is certainly an important feature of web communications whose potential is not yet fully realized. Why has Lightstalkers been so important to me this year? Is it the original vision held by the Kuwayama brothers, its nature as an advanced communications tool for journalists? Is it the chance to connect with people outside the borders of this little island? The chance to learn technical digital stuff about which I am hopelessly ignorant? The opportunities for self-promotion? The work that came to me through it? The chance to use one’s profile page as a virtual agency and portfolio? The chance to show one’s work? To broadcast or test one’s ideas in a fairly sympathetic but critical space? The camaraderie? The ability to connect with people on the other side of the globe about whom you would otherwise be entirely ignorant? The support? All these things apply, and none suffices to explain the virtue of LS. A Mexican student recently interviewed me about all this for her thesis on the information age, and I was forced to think about it more soberly; having done so I concluded that two things make LS special: its freewheeling, slightly anarchic MO, which is very different from other cyber forums; and its experimental nature. As Teru so eloquently put it in the Manifesto: “We live and work in uncharted, unstable territory, navigating the grey areas of geography and technology. We travel in countries that are still in development or recently destroyed, using gear just barely out of R&D. For better or worse, we are the beta testing generation of the post-industrial era. This is our homemade “do-it-yourself/don’t try this at home” field guide and users manual to the 21st century.” Why these two? Because they form the crucible of creative effort.

2. Blogging. Well, this is not entirely photographic, but I became aware of it through the photographic community, so it will do. I started thinking about blogs as a result of the unfortunate and rather shrill dispute over the Lebanese fauxtography scandal, and then I became aware of its positive potential after being persuaded by LS member Luis Andrade to start one of my own in Spanish, thereby helping me to master that language. Subsequently I turned my thoughts to using the blog format to write about photography (OK, so I am a little slow on the uptake). I was pleased to discover that blogging can release one’s creativity because it removes the usual obstacles to publishing one’s thoughts publicly, and I also found that it gave me a platform for discovery. My curiosity about things now has free reign.

3. Magnum in Motion. Along with MediaStorm, the recent expansion of Magnum’s multimedia production has got us all talking about multimedia, its nature, its potential, how to make it, how to sell it, and how it might rejuvenate photojournalism. While the pieces that Magnum has lined up tend to focus on the photographers’ thoughts, rather than provide oral history from the subjects’ point of view, the virtue of this work overall is that it is constantly evolving and exploring new ideas. Magnum is channeling some of that old cutting edge spirit in a new enterprise that could be of tremendous importance to the development of photojournalism in this century.

4. The Attribution and Reassessment of a Remarkable Photo. Well, just the reappearance of this remarkable photo, really. Someone on a blog compared it with two famous paintings of assassination scenes by Goya and Degas. (I apologize here for not properly citing the blogger and for borrowing his idea.)

The comparison made me appreciate the photo more. Jahangir Razmi’s photo has the same iconic quality that distinguishes Goya’s remarkable canvas, and this is unusual for what is essentially a spot news photo. As one would expect from a photo, there are formal inconsistencies or “flaws” (though it should be clear that such “accidents” are precisely what makes photos so interesting, in my view); but the photo succeeds in capturing this event with the same sweep and range of feeling that Goya depicts. You may think me insensitive for commenting on the formal qualities of an image that is really quite frightening, as though it were mere "art" and not a record of a real event -- but I do so precisely because I want to remind people that photography is not alone in recording real events and some painters are journalists too; meanwhile, it is well to remember that our formal armament is what helps us bring meaning to these raw images. I myself wouldn’t mind accomplishing something that approaches the condition of a Goya painting, but I doubt I ever will.

5. Jill Freedman, who made The Online Photographer's "Ten Best Living Photographers" list. Hey, I like her work and was glad to see her appear on the list. One picture will suffice. “Like those who collect stories from the shannachies, or storytellers, I am collecting moments. For who will remember the old ways?” Nuff said.

6. I discovered Oculi (I said I was slow) and Glenn Hunt’s marvelous work Equus, about horse culture round the world, a selection of which has just appeared on Foto8's site. I will save my comments for a later essay, but what can one not like about an innovative collective that manages to defy easy description and be so consistently surprising?

7. James Whitlow Delano’s Death Throes of a Great Rainforest at Noorderlicht’s 2006 survey of Asia. In James’ words, “The rainforest of Borneo is one of the oldest in the world. Previously it covered the whole of Borneo and parts of western Indonesia, reaching as far as The Philippines. Today large parts have disappeared due to commercial logging. The very existence of many impoverished native tribes is threatened by this. Some have begun armed resistance, others turn against the migrants who, likewise in search of a better life, have arrived to work the land as it is cleared.”

Magisterial, original, ambitious – these are just some of the terms that occur to me as I review the incredible catalogue of visual poems that James has captured. And I especially like the fact that it marks a return of serious investigation into environmental issues. In this drama there are many players, but the protagonist is sublime, an enormous primeval forest, and there is no doubt that it is a living breathing thing.

8. Patrick Yen’s zeal for Web 2.0 thinking. Ok, the guy is a pain in the neck sometimes with his programmatic statements, but that is the role of a gadfly, and the truth is, we need to listen to what he says. He is pointing the way to the future. Have a look at his Gonzo Global Photojournalism site.

9. Cristina Rodero Garcia went to the Burning Man Festival. Gotta see the show on Magnum's site folks.

10. VII Photo Agency. For innovation, for resuscitating a bit of that old Magnum magic, and for taking that older formula (a cooperative composed of “photographes engagés”) and updating it for the web. They have been showing the way – how to adapt to the present market and make use of digital technology for a leaner, meaner operation – and provide a meaningful alternative to the monopolies like Getty and Corbis. An interesting interview with John Stanmeyer about it all appeared in Take Great Pictures.