Two photobooks: ‘The Present’ and ‘She dances on Jackson’

Of those photobooks I acquired in 2013, Paul Graham’s The Present and Vanessa Winship’s She Dances on Jackson captured my attention the most. The former presents images in colour and the latter in black and white. Both books share exceptional print and design quality and the images themselves have enormous appeal. Both photographers are mature artists, having exhibited and published for some time.

As I have stated in earlier posts, I share a belief with them that everything I need to make an image can be found ‘out there’. Graham himself has stated on occasion that the art world has ignored to an important degree this kind of photography in favour of the conceptual and staged; that is, motifs derived from within the artist as opposed to finding motifs from the world itself. I speak now of questions of degree after all since the inspiration for art inevitably is a mix of the two, and style is a question perhaps of which of the two an artist tends to use more often. What is interesting is when one approach is applied to the other. And for this Graham’s work, in my view, through the formal means of diptychs and triptychs as an expression of time, I think combines the conceptual with the discovered. I have returned to Graham’s book frequently and my pleasure in doing so has only deepened.

Graham uses the diptych to explore an action or gesture that a camera in the hands of a Winogrand or Cartier-Bresson would capture in one image only. In Graham’s world, small differences yield significant changes in meaning. By playing with a motif he uses a diptych to show changes in a scene: the left panel where the primary motif is on one event that changes (sometimes altogether as a result of a happy accident – a tribute to the photographer’s mantra ‘f/8 and be there’) in the second panel. Through selective focus, a scene where a motif was dominant recedes and is replaced by another. Barthes in La Chambre Claire has explored the idea of photographs as memory and death in that what is photographed has already disappeared the moment the shutter closes. There is an extraordinary wistfulness about the images in The Present and while they are rich with colour and sharpness, one has the sense that we leave no trace behind, but for the recording of an instant by a photographer with his camera. So the conceptual foreground I feel is that of the temporary and accidental, much like most of life itself. This is a theme that is of great interest to me in my own work.

When I first was exposed to the work of Eadweard Muybridge and David Hockney, both of whom considered time as the primary element in their photography, one from the point of view of documenting sequences of motion and the other through collage as a viewer spends time traversing an image, I came to appreciate the diptych (and its logical descendant, the collage) as the kind of photography that spoke most to me. Artists of course have explored the story-telling potential of multiple images going back to wall paintings, 30,000 years ago. Diptychs and polyptychs were the mainstay of religious and Northern European art in the early Renaissance, the study of which merely re-affirmed for me the beauty of this art form.

Unlike Graham’s work which uses the abundant street life of New York City sidewalks, Winship’s world is solitary and contemplative, even if it too is of the street. Her photographs of people are direct and in which the subject is quite aware of the photographer and her camera. (In my view, there is a sameness to a kind of street portraiture that arises from the natural inhibition of one stranger to be photographed by another. I would argue that there is a whole sub-genre of street photography that consists of the same look you get when someone with a camera asks a stranger to pose. This look was formalized initially by Thomas Ruff in the 1980s as one of the students of Bernd and Hilla Becher in what is now known as the Dusseldorf School.)

In Winship’s hands however, I get the feeling of an important psychological distance expressed in the eyes and face in spite of the physically short distance between subject and camera. Winship’s portraits deal explicitly with the obviousness of the exchange between strangers. I find these portraits disquieting. Juxtaposed with land- and cityscapes, the book gives off airiness and claustrophobia, the same feeling I get from the novels of Thomas Hardy.
The beautifully crafted black and white images speak of freedom circumscribed. The foreground then is of isolation and solitariness and as a whole the book is poetic in its impact. Aided by exquisite reproductions, high quality paper, sewn binding and linen covers one is left with the impression of stateliness and quiet, colour would simply not have worked here.

Photobooks acquired in 2013, Part 1

I thought it would be interesting to list the photobooks I acquired in 2013 and comment on those that I gravitate to more frequently than others. Each one is interesting and I find that as my understanding of my photography and contemporary photography changes so too for those photobooks that at first I found less appealing. I think that being able to describe why certain books hold more appeal than others or for which my understanding changed is part of the process of deepening one’s visual literacy and hence one’s image-making as a practicing artist. So this post is Part 1 of 2 where I explore these ideas.

Here then is the list of books, most of which are now, not surprisingly, out of print. Photobook press runs are quite small in general. (I have marked my favourites with an ‘*’, even if I hold each one in very high regard.)

Author Title
Adams, R. The Place We Live
Brodie, M. A Period of Juvenile Prosperity
Callahan, H. Harry Callahan
Carrier, J. Elementary Calculus *
Ferrato, D. Love and Lust
Ghirri, L. Kodachrome
Gill, S. B-Sides
Coming up for air
Gossage, J. The 32nd Ruler
The Pond *
Gowin, E. Photographs
Emmett Gowin *
Graham, P. American Night
A Shimmer of Possibility
The Present *
Hasselblad Award 2009 Graciela Iturbide
Israel, Y. The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey
Kawauchi, R. Ametsuchi
Leiter, S. Saul Leiter
Lutz, J. Hesitating Beauty
Maier, V. Street Photographer
Moore, D. Pictures from the real world
Moriyama, D. Reflection and Refraction
Parr, M., and Badger, G. The Photobook: A History Vol. 1 *
The Photobook: A History Vol. 2 *
Sammallahti, P. Here Far Away
Sugimoto, H. Hiroshi Sugimoto
Winship, V. She Dances on Jackson *
Yukichi, W. A Criminal Investigation

Website tweaked

I’ve tweaked the ‘popcorn’ section of the site by re-arranging the image sequence ( [Update: now deleted and in process of revision]. The images found there address really the art of seeing and pointing: amusing juxtapositions, ironies, moments that but for my presence would never have been recorded and that disappear just as quickly.

The issues I raised before about photo books and sequencing remain a concern and, I suspect, will be on-going. As this sequence is a work in progress, and thus subject to on-going revision. All of which led me to re-read the amazing series of books, long out of print, on The Work of Atget published by MOMA in the early ’80s, sparked in part by the essays that I started to read by Tod Papageorge in Core Curriculum. For now though the struggle of getting my work ‘out there’ has been interesting to say the least – at least I have a website now that is coherent from the points of view of content and graphic design.

The debate over the sheer quantity of bits and bytes found on the Internet (and before that billions of prints spewed out by photo labs all over the world) is for me uninteresting and irrelevant. What is interesting I believe is that the urge to create and share is at the core of human nature. Machines/devices/sites that help us do that are more than welcome and in fact are making some people very rich (sadly, not me).  I think it’s important to know the medium in which one works and its history. The more one knows his/her medium, the more it is possible to determine the extent to which the art on display in museums and galleries has currency. And the more one can decide where his or her art fits into the medium’s history. There is a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat.

Making a photobook, Pt 5: Understanding one’s images (part 2)

The table below summarizes the notes I took from both the workshop on sequencing and courses in art history.

Subject Matter Primary Concern Comments
Pictograph Early form of mimetic device Helped you remember something; relationship between memory and object
Ideograph Idea, concept picture Sequential formulation: how one image can extend another and enhance the meaning of both
Symbol Something that stands in for something else Use of rhetorical devices such as synecdoche, metonymy
Emblematic image Symbol with a referent Not unlike metaphor; adding a referent to a symbol to change its meaning

Making a photobook, Pt. 4: Understanding one’s images (part 1)

In essence,the question I face is: How do I organize my images in a coherent manner? Is there a theoretical model that I can use to guide my decision-making? What is the art of sequencing images?

The Contact Sheet
I think there are two levels here: what to photograph and understanding and thus presenting the images taken. Either way, the answer to these questions lies within the photographer / image-maker. To understand the meaning of a single image by an artist, one should look at his or hers other images. Too often, we select our ‘best’ pictures (and thereby potentially reference images we’ve seen or think will be thought of as ‘good’) rather than focus on the contact sheet (and its equivalent in Lightroom).

Placing one’s images in context becomes a critical issue in the discourse about a work. A contact sheet is useful because it shows your responses to the world in time. An idea evolves while you are out photographing. You make choices about what to frame and freeze and these choices form the content of the contact sheet. The subsequent contact sheet can then be reviewed and assumptions about what you are photographing revisited. Merely accepting the obvious and not paying attention to the underlying messages the contact sheet is saying could deny an opportunity to set challenges for one’s work. What is/are the idea(s) the images are showing? What is the cumulative effect of the images? Is there a visual language emerging or being reinforced? When you go out to photograph, you take a lot in during that time but not all of it can be digested at once. You are however, making subliminal notes and these notes are what emerges in looking at one’s contact sheets.

Examining a series of contact sheets then (easy to do in Lightroom where images can be organized by date taken) will tell the story or, more likely, tell many stories. Each story or rather, idea, represents the issues that matter for you. All the while, one must fight the temptation to judge the work against what you think others may think of it. One must be true to oneself and in so doing, discover what is important. More importantly, this kind of honest examination – which will take time to reveal itself and understand – sets the stage for image-making that matters and ultimately can act as a guide in the sequencing of images for a photobook.

I am currently up to my knees in the muck and struggling. Images that I thought were of little interest have become important. They may or may not remain that way but for now I am discovering what my image-making is all about. I don’t think this is a process that can be rushed. Just when I think I’ve got it, I get a new insight. Arranging and re-arranging potential sequences yields new ideas. At some point, the ideas emerging from this iterative process should begin to gel and then my work is what it is. At the end, it is my work and no one else’s (not forgetting of course that the ideas of others are part of your way of looking at the world too).

The master theoretician of the photographic sequence is Nathan Lyons. His books have had enormous influence on the photobook as well as on how galleries organize their exhibitions. I had the good fortune to attend one of his workshops a few years ago. Some of the ideas presented here come from the notes I made to myself and paraphrases of what I heard at that time. What struck a cord for me was to stop worrying about making photographs and focus more on what kind of image I want to make. The key is to understand where the elements in an image are juxtaposed that afford meaning. Consequently, the contact sheet is the ideal tool to discover these meanings. In the end, it’s about being sensitive to why you stop to photograph; not the what, but the why.

Making a photobook Pt. 3: Finding a way through

In my view, a cinematic film is a structured series of images in time. Music is a structured series of sounds in time. My photographic method is about a stream-of-consciousness in time. The result is that often, I do not remember taking many of the images I value. Memory has to do with the spaces we occupy and less the calendar moment it marked. Thus, these images most closely represent what is truly me. The poetic of the moment in a space involves a series of emotional and / or mental associations to it. I photograph something because it evokes a reference to an existing association in my mind (e.g., a tattered national flag fluttering in the wind) or I wish to create an association with something else (e.g., red paint splatter on a wall). This is the domain of a single image.

Levels of meaning
I think it is hard to escape rhetorical elements of image-making drawn from the world, one not directly created by the photographer. Abutting one image with another to form a diptych creates a whole other level of associations within and between the images. Even if two images touch one another physically so that no space appears between them, in our mind a space still exists by virtue of the knowledge of the existence of two separate images, even if they are identical in every way. Thus a diptych really consists of three images: two representational and one apprehended intellectually. Scott McLeod clarified this idea (called closure) very elegantly in his amazing book Understanding Comics. Many gallery exhibitions seem to make use of this property to create new or reveal further understandings of an artist’s work in a solo show or that of a group in the case of a group show. My sense is that good makers of photo-books use not only the space between images (blank pages, page turning) but also spaces on a page when arranging more than one image on it.

And unlike film, a book can be read from left to right or right to left (some film-makers intend the film to be viewed backwards however). Unless the book designer specifically says the images are intended to be read from one direction only, the reader can do what s/he wishes. Consequently, a photo-book then has at minimum two levels of associations: one constructed by the author in specifically arranging images on one page after another (in either direction, including top to bottom, depending on the author’s language) and the other by the reader who can choose to read the book at any point (again depending on the reader’s language). There is a premium therefore on the quality of individual images taken singly (the within-image associations) and collectively (the between-image associations). The latter can be divided further into near/far associations: images relatively adjacent to one another in the book and those further away, much like a wave traversing the sea. Thus, an author must be concerned not only with juxtapositions but also with the overall affect sought. Juxtapositions both immediate and further away join those in the viewer’s memory both from those already seen in the book with those seen and experienced elsewhere in the viewer’s life. The accumulation of individual affects through the course of the book, as they wax and wane, yields an overall impression or feeling at the book’s conclusion. It is this feeling at the end that it seems to me one must strive for in choosing photographs for inclusion.

Finding inspiration in one’s own photographs
Although I have enjoyed photo-books over the years, my orientation as a photographer was to make prints destined for display on walls. And while I thought in terms of diptychs and sequences, again it was for placement on a wall. For a variety of reasons, I’ve downsized my possessions and thus carting heavy framed objects from place to place was/is a less than welcome prospect. As such, I have returned to the book format as a matter of necessity initially. Initially because I have discovered two things: first, that my style of photography over the recent past has changed and lends itself well to the book format and second, we are in the midst of a worldwide interest in photo-books. This interest is fueled in part by digital cameras, the decreased costs to self-publish and, I hazard to guess, an overall increase in interest in photography and the means to pursue it. Photography has never been cheap, even in the digital age. (In the analogue era, if you had first-class lenses, upgrading essentially meant acquiring the latest film technology, if you wished. Today, you must change your entire camera and attempt to sell it on eBay for a pittance compared to its original cost. Still, I would never return to the film days, even if some of my fondest memories relate to the many happy hours I spent in the darkroom acquiring technique and watching an image appear in the developer – pure magic.)

But here’s the thing: everything you need to know about the direction(s) one should take in his or her photography is found in one’s own images. This conclusion, while seemingly obvious at first glance, startled me when it popped into my mind. I recognized its truth immediately. As a young photographer I was deeply influenced by the Ansel Adam’s school: landscapes, sharply taken, containing a full range of greys that I had tried to pre-visualize. While I do not want to do a disservice to Adams’ remarkable work, I was caught up more in making technically good images than their inherent meaning. Indeed, I’m not sure that I could speak to them coherently beyond what was on the surface.

Over time though, my own instincts as to choice of subject-matter could not help but begin to displace those that I carried consciously in mind from the Adams world and pretty much for everywhere else too. We are filled with received images, published and those we see in our daily world. Whether we like it or not, we can’t help but by influenced by those we see in media of all kinds as essentially ‘curated’; that is, they have passed muster at some level and consequently bear the implicit stamp of approval and thus ‘worthy’. This mark of worthiness is especially pronounced in the gallery world, public and private. To find one’s own way then, especially in the image-besotted world we live in, is not trivial. The answer then must lie elsewhere. And indeed, it can be found directly in one’s own work. The trick is knowing what to look for. And looking is a struggle because, like it or not, one must fight the tendency to choose images that look like they are ‘worthy’ in the sense I just mentioned. One must be true to him or herself, both behind the camera and in front of the images thereby produced. I think that living with this struggle honestly will give you your truth and thus images that are uniquely yours. One must look at other work and one’s own critically and rigorously, informed by the insights thereby obtained.

Making a photobook Pt. 2: What are my images about?

Someone once said that in general, and I paraphrase, we as photographers are bound to the thing in front of us. We depend on light for our camera machines to make a record of what we choose to frame of the world. In reading an essay by Robert Adams on Eugene Atget, I was motivated to re-visit after many years the wonderful four volume series in my collection that the MOMA published in the 1990s. Although I know I owe a huge debt to Atget’s vision in my own photography I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t set the stage for much of photography for the rest of the 20th and now well into the 21st century.

The joy of juxtapositions
As I have been struggling with making sense of my own work, to establish its iconography, I am reminded that the principal themes I learned from Atget, reinforced by Friedlander, the world of ordinary things is merely the shadow on the wall. The world I put before my camera is layered, filled with collages, and contains sometimes humorous juxtapositions. In the Atget series, the curator John Szarkowski makes the point that Atget’s work takes the subject on its own terms.

In our image-intoxicated world, where the boundary between public and private has all but disappeared, the perfection of his point of view belies the sophisticated directness of his regard. It is easy to imagine what a difference a few centimeters either to the right or left would have made. And so in a very direct way, it is possible to see Atget’s photographs as portraits of the every day. Ones that invite repeated viewing and, when placed along side one another, suggest that while on one hand, there is a joy in discovering uncanny juxtapositions, on the other, the world is far less random than we think. At the same time, I find it difficult to ignore the overall affect (sic) of his images.

We are now aware of the implications of the documentary style (and of photography itself for that matter), one of which acknowledges the well-known idea that a photograph of something essentially freezes its current state for all time and thus a photograph also acts as an archive of the thing itself. One may argue therefore, and this is a point made by others, that Atget’s work taken retroactively acquires a rhetoric that is highly metaphorical. Why would we want to keep these images in our galleries and museums? They are a record of an earlier time and place and as humans we have a nostalgia for things of the past; a desire to belie the temporal nature of our own existence. At the same time, we take pleasure in objects well-made, something well-seen. And so while Atget’s images embody both the archival and the aesthetic, they are also educational tools for subsequent image-makers. Our visual language expands as these lessons become incorporated in our vocabulary (e.g. display windows). Finally, collecting and contemplating these images also become part of the building blocks of a culture.

The modern fascination with the self which, in Atget’s time was still in its relative infancy with the discoveries of Freud and his colleagues, remains outside the scope of Atget’s eye. The stillness of his vision allows the object of his gaze to take its rightful place in our minds and our hearts so that we feel a quiet joy in rediscovering the ordinary. The development of a visual language depends on the work of those artists who see the world in new ways, even if those ways appear to be free of any obvious rhetorical language. Does not photography then reflect whatever ideology is currently prevalent? In our post-modernist world, the dominant way of thinking it seems to me focuses on self-identity and whatever self-image we wish to project.

It is well known that there is no such thing as an objective record. Even the all-seeing Google camera depends on the driver to choose which way s/he will arrive at a particular destination. In spite of looking at photographs I have taken over the last twenty-five years, the process of choosing images that work together has given me pause. And filling this space has meant looking at these images now with a different eye, one less satisfied with the thing itself and far more interested in what it is all about. While it is still paramount the images I do select be technically as good as they can be, the image itself must speak to me. To paraphrase slightly Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: it is in the accumulation of life’s contradictions that life is most keenly felt.

Making a photo book, Pt. 1

I’ve decided to chronicle the creation of a photo book from now until one actually gets published. My purpose is to engage others with similar interests. Although I have photographed more or less continuously since 1984, first with film (in all formats) and with digital (since the Nikon D100 in 2002), I have only now begun the process of arranging my work in meaningful ways. As some of you know, editing one’s images is non-trivial. I have taken workshops with the Visual Studies Workshops in Rochester, New York with the venerable Nathan Lyons. At the university level, I studied art history. It was through the latter that I became aware of the origins of diptychs. The result is that while certainly I want an individual photo to tell a story, I believe it is through sequencing images that not only does another story emerge but it also gives insight into the kinds of photographs one takes. I will explore this idea much further in forthcoming postings. From the many thousands of images, analog and digital, where does one begin?

1. Getting organized
I have at my disposal two technologies: the first from my darkroom days consists of contact sheets of my film negatives, many of which I have already scanned using a Nikon Coolscan 8000. The second is Lightroom 4.3, an extraordinarily powerful photo software that enables very comprehensive cataloging, manipulation and output (as prints, photo books or slide shows) of one’s images. Learning the software has a curve; however, I quickly realized that developing a comprehensive set of keywords was essential to the effective use of the program. I also realized that it was absolutely essential to have a second external drive for backup. For this purpose I have a LaCie 3TB drive as my main hard drive and a Western Digital 3TB backup drive, both of course connected to my MacBook Pro. The monitor is the wonderful 27″ Apple Thunderbolt display that I calibrate with the X-rite ColorMunki.The result is that my prints (on the remarkable Epson R3000) and monitor match perfectly.

2. Assigning keywords to images
After fumbling around a bit with the software, I quickly realized that the first learning hurdle was to understand how the Lightroom catalog works and how to use searchable keywords and metadata to catalog and search for image files (scanned and in-camera digital). Now, I do not pretend to be a Lightroom guru but I learned enough to make use of these very powerful technologies to render the construction of themes across folders relatively straightforward. I purchased Adobe’s Classroom in a Book for Lightroom 4 and essentially worked my way through it. At the same time, I studied how to structure keywords using what is called controlled vocabulary. Essentially, a controlled vocabulary consists of keyword hierarchies and nesting to minimize data entry and maximize search flexibility. For example, you could have a LOCATION keyword parent with Canada, United States and Europe children. In each, you could have the names of cities or other geographic entity. By entering the nested location, all higher level keywords get entered automatically. Thus, if you wanted to search for all photos taken in Canada, regardless of location, Lightroom will pop those out for you. I find it easier to enter keywords by clicking beside the appropriate item. Doing so ensures that keyword spelling and terminology remain constant. It does take some upfront work initially and thereafter each time you bring in new images; in the long run however, it is time very well spent. The process of assigning keywords is ongoing as I have currently almost 30K images in the Lightroom catalog. You can purchase these vocabularies but I find it cheaper to do it myself and to modify the list as I see fit. I edited mine in Excel, first by exporting the list from Lightroom and then importing the edited list into Lightroom as a text file.

At the same time, I created a series of smart folders that are populated automatically with images corresponding to the keywords I defined for the folders. Thus, when I bring in new images from my SD card into the Lightroom database catalog, depending on the keyword, a ‘pointer’ to the image gets placed within the appropriate smart folder. For example, I have a folder entitled Three Stars. The moment I tag an image with 3 stars, existing or coming in from an SD card, Lightroom assigns a ‘pointer’ to it from the Three Star folder to the physical location stored in the Lightroom catalog. Altogether, this is a very nice and powerful feature.

My process is now streamlined enough that when I insert an SD card from the camera into my MacBook Pro, Lightroom automatically opens up a dialogue window that displays all the images contained on the card. At the same time, I set up a preset in the metadata panel that inserts my name and copyright information directly onto each new image coming into the Lightroom catalog database. Further I have Lightroom create new date folders according to the date an image was taken. Finally, I apply the appropriate keywords to images as required. This front end process can take a few minutes for sure, but the benefits are many: searchable images and greater understanding of one’s image content.

My next post, I will start to chronicle my attempts at the photo book process itself.