Tuesday, January 09, 2007

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.