I have a class coming up from March 4 to April 29, Understanding Your Practice – The Photo Project, at Glen Echo Photoworks. This course is about thinking about how we approach and execute photographic projects. The foundational text for the class is Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice., edited by Sasha Wolf. The book consists of interviews with forty different photographers who work in long-term projects, asking each of them the same twelve questions.
We will use the text as a guide to introspection into our own process of working on projects – how we come up with projects, how we shoot those projects, how we decide when they’re done, how we edit those projects, and how we think of them as a body of work – will they be prints on a wall, a book, a website, or some combination thereof.
We will execute our own mini-project over the duration of the class, using the ideas we discuss to help us guide our project and get a better understanding of our own working methods. There are no “right” answers here – this is just an exercise to help bring clarity to your own working techniques, to refine them and hopefully bring success to your ongoing long-term projects (or help you get started on them!).
The images following here are illustrations from my ongoing project about The Day of the Dead in Mexico City. Day of the Dead is a far-reaching cultural institution across not just Mexico but much of Latin America. It has regional and even local variations – Mexico City was, until very recently, somewhat blasé about the event, with celebrations being held more on the personal level. Thanks to the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, Mexico City decided that they needed to have the big public parade (desfile in Spanish) depicted in the film.
The event has its roots in traditions predating the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, which were co-opted by the Catholic church. Today, the tradition adapts with the times and competes with Halloween (and its Hollywood inspirations), but also serves as a mirror of contemporary cultural and political events.
To sign up for the course, click on the link below. Tuition is $350 for 8 sessions. No class will be held on April 1.
(I’m calling this Part 1 because I’m sure I will want to revisit and/or expand upon this at a later date, perhaps multiple times)
Perhaps surprisingly, there are still debates to this day as to what exactly photography IS – is it art, is it a mechanical reproduction tool, is it truth, is it false? And this debate continues to roil without conclusion one hundred eighty-one years after its public debut.
Today I would like to tackle the question of photography and its relationship with truth. I would lay claim to the statement that photography now, and historically, has never really been about truth. It is barely about facts.
To define some terms before we go farther – there is a great deal of confusion about the difference between truth and facts. The use of the Boolean binary of True or False (positive or negative) leads many people to believe that Truth is equally binary – something is True, or it is not. Quite the opposite – Truth is very closely tied to faith. Truth is an absolute belief in the correctness of something, either without proof or even in the face of proof to the contrary. An example of this is that many contemporary practitioners of religion will argue that even if the historical facts surrounding the founding of their religion fall somewhere between muddy and non-existent, there is a greater Truth to the writings of their religious texts that extends beyond any need for factual accuracy. Facts are things that are provable – there is a rock on my desk. I own one hundred daguerreotypes. I live in Washington DC.
So what does this have to do with photography? I read many discussions among people with passionate feelings regarding the nature of photography. Many will assert that there is such a thing as “pure”, “true” photography, and that the specialness of photography as a medium is its fundamental relationship with truth. They make statements such as photographs are accurate, true representations of the things photographed, they cannot lie because the objects photographed had to be in the same place at the same time in the same light in order to appear in the frame together. They make this argument especially when arguing for an analog, chemical-based photography and against digitally generated photographs. They claim a superiority of the analog, chemical photograph because it is un-manipulated and therefore demonstrably “true”, whereas digitally generated photographs are untrustworthy because they can be easily manipulated into appearing to be true but in fact the things depicted never appeared in the same place at the same time in the same light when the exposure was made.
The Great White, the T-Rex, and the man at the edge of the cliff certainly never existed in the same space at the same time. It’s a ridiculous example, to make an exaggerated point. It is a photograph, but a heavily manipulated one that bears only the most tangential relationship to reality.
But what about this image? “Fading Away” by Henry Peach Robinson, is far more emotionally “true” than the shark and the T-Rex, but as a photograph, it is no more true- this 1858 image is every bit as manipulated as the photoshop fantasy. None of the people in the photograph were in the same room at the same time. It is a hand-assembled collage of at least six different images (each of the people, the room, and the view out the window were all distinct exposures on different plates). It is every bit as factually false, yet the scene, a young woman being comforted by her family as she dies of tuberculosis, is so emotionally resonant that we WANT to believe in the truth of it.
What about this image? While everything in this photograph was in the same location at the same time in the same light when the single exposure was taken, the entire scene is manipulated. Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan were walking the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 6, 1863. They saw the body of a Rebel sharpshooter, and photographed it where they found it. As they continued walking, they came across this spot and felt it was where the sharpshooter must have been positioned earlier, so they picked up his gun and his body and moved it 40 yards to this location, in the name of making a more emotionally resonant photograph. They certainly succeeded, as this is one of the most recognizable photographs of the entire Civil War. But there is not an ounce of factual accuracy in the scene. As journalism or documentary photography, it is a fraud and would have no value as evidence in a court of law.
Yes, photographs can be taken for the purposes of showing evidence, be it to an engineer troubleshooting a part failure, a court determining guilt or innocence in a trial, or even more prosaically, that I in fact did visit Niagara Falls on June 17, 2013. But the fact that a photograph CAN have evidentiary value does not mean that all photographs MUST have evidentiary value, and that in order to make a photograph, one is required to have a one-to-one correspondence between representations of objects within the frame of the image at the time of making a single exposure. Just as a tea kettle can also be an object of art, and it can also be functional. Neither art nor functional object have exclusive domain over a tea kettle.
And even within the confines of “straight” photography, there is not a literal absolute truth to a photograph. The tea kettle above, as photographed, is absolutely unmanipulated via software. But I doubt anyone looking at the image would say that that kettle looks just like that – with a basic understanding of the mechanics of photography, a viewer knows that the lens used to make the recording was operated at a large aperture that created a shallow depth of field, rendering only the spigot sharp. While this looks LIKE the tea kettle, nobody would argue that it is a 1:1 representation of the actual kettle, or that they could be deceived into thinking there was a kettle before them that they could pick up.
It is an illusion of an illusion – we know it is a distorted representation, but it bears minimally sufficient verisimilitude that we imagine that we can interpret the actual object from the photograph.
I happened to look down, and then saw this admonition to “Look Right ->”. I found it mildly amusing that traffic flow was considered so confusing that it was necessary to tell people which direction to look before crossing the street. And I love the crunchy texture of the pavement and sidewalk. This is at the corner of Finsbury Square where it abuts City Road in central London.
This is another image from the Lomo LC-A 120. The only real reason I ever mention the cameras I use nowadays is to prove a point about there being little to no correlation between the “quality” of camera you use and the quality of the images you make. I have very little control over the LC-A beyond what I point it at, when I choose to trip the shutter, the film I load in it, and the rough guesstimate of the distance between me and the subject. Everything else is really out of my control. But the decisions that are most important are the ones I do have control over – what to point it at and when to trip the shutter.
Knowing my camera and how it records images is also helpful to getting what I want out of the image, of course. But this image above would have not been any more successful if I shot it with a Hasselblad Superwide, a Rolleiflex TLR, or my Fuji XT-1, each of which offer far more control and precision than the LC-A.
Today was my session of the “Meet & Shoot” class I co-teach with several other instructors at Photoworks. The class is a five or six session workshop on street photography where each instructor takes a group of students out for a guided photography excursion to a location of their choosing. Students can sign up for all sessions, or pick and choose which ones they want as their schedule and/or instructor preference dictates.
This time, I had three new students and three repeat students from the last time I taught this class. Due to some last-minute scheduling snafus, three of the students were unable to make it, so it was a very intimate walkabout, and I was able to teach as much as I was playing shepherd.
We met at the Columbia Heights Metro station, and once the crew was collected, we took a walk up to the little plaza in front of the Tivoli Theater where a saturday farmers market was in full swing. My three students, seen below (L to R: Matthew, Suzan and Bobbi) wandered around and took full advantage of my guidance for the session to use color as a foundational theme. The farmers market was a perfect opportunity, with all the fruit and vegetables on display.
Columbia Heights is an ethnically diverse neighborhood, with a strong Latin-American presence. This is very obvious in the colors and styles of signage on shops and restaurants, and makes for a great subject for a color-based exercise.
Here Bobbi, Suzan and Matthew are examining some signage on a Dominican restaurant on Park Road.
We continued along Park Road over to Mount Pleasant, another neighborhood in Washington DC that also has a significant Latino presence. I took the opportunity to discuss including graffiti and public sculpture in your work as a “street” photographer. If you’re going to include other peoples’ art in your photography, make sure that you have a solid reason for doing so- it’s fair game as documentary, or if your capture and interpretation is transformative (abstract/close-up, for example), but if you’re planning to exhibit and market photos of other peoples’ art, even if it is displayed in public, you’re at best in an ethical gray area, and potentially in a copyright violation scenario.
Street photography is very much about found images – you’re not setting out to intentionally create compositions, but rather responding and reacting to things you encounter, like this poster that fell into the street and got run over until the rough pavement surface pierced through turning the whole thing into an abstract composition.
We had a great morning of shooting, and wrapped up for a chat at a cafe on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan (another neighborhood bordering on Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights). I’m very pleased with my students, and I’m looking forward to seeing their images from today at our recap class in three weeks.
Kier, the editor of the site, also included a few remarks by me about my photography and why I appreciate and enjoy alternative/lensless image-making tools.
Scott Davis is an experienced photographer in historic printing processes, and has recently started to work in pinhole for additional inspiration. He’s developed an appreciation for the simplicity of pinhole and how it lets him focus on the image, not the equipment. As he states: “Working with cameras that don’t have lenses or shutters per se, or at least that have primitive ones, means that serendipity becomes important in my work…What interests me is the capture of whole seconds, minutes and even hours of time in a frame, contrasting the things that move in the scene with things that remain static.”
For anyone interested, he’s also running a call for entries for pinhole work – http://fslashd.com/call-for-entry/. This is your chance to get published not just on a webpage but in an actual physical book.
Over the weekend I went to see the Pier 24 exhibit space in San Francisco. It has only been open for a year or so (the current exhibit is their third ever, I believe). It represents a novel approach to the museum experience in general and photography exhibits in particular. The facility itself is located in one of the old waterfront warehouses along the Embarcadero (thus the name), directly beneath the Oakland Bay Bridge. The interior is divided up into roughly 20 rooms. Admission is FREE, but by appointment only. They allow twenty people at a time for a two hour block, so your distractions during your visit are minimized. Another way they minimize distractions is by having NO wall text – the floor plan flyer you get upon entering has the only labels for the exhibits, consisting of the photographers names who are hung in a given room. Absolutely maddening if you’re not familiar with everyone in a given room, but at the same time, quite liberating because it frees you from having to accept the curator’s “authoritative” context. The current exhibition, up through December 16, is entitled simply “HERE”. The theme is work that in some way connects to San Francisco – either taken in or near the Bay area or by photographers who called it home. Work exhibited spans the range from 19th century mammoth plate collodion images printed on albumen paper by Eadward Muybridge and Carleton Watkins to 20th century Modernist masters like Edward Weston and Ruth Bernhard to color mural prints by Richard Misrach and Larry Sultan, and even a five-minute video clip of the car chase scene in Bullitt with Steve McQueen.
Much of the work on display was not to my taste – I don’t like what has been derisively labeled “hedge fund wallpaper” by some New York gallerists referring to recent deadpan posed-snapshot color mural prints. However, there was enough early imagery to satisfy my inner antiquarian, and now that I’ve seen enough of that kind of work, I’m starting to appreciate it for what it is. I still wouldn’t accept money to hang in my house, but one example finally struck home as to what was going on in the photograph. There was a room with a series of VERY large color prints by Anthony Hernandez of vacant interiors. On the literal surface, they’re incredibly ugly, showing abandoned and/or ruined interior spaces with industrial carpets, missing drop ceilings, and junky furniture. One thing that did catch my eye though was the use of color itself. If you stepped back and looked through a defocused eye, the images became all about abstract color fields, geometric forms, and intersecting planes. The graphic abstract geometry creates a contrast with and tension against the literal detail of the photographic image, making your brain switch back and forth between the two characteristics of the image – the texture of the purple carpet, the gray popcorn ceiling and the white-washed faux-wood paneling in the hallway against the receding, intersecting planes of colors converging on a vanishing point in the far rear of the image. I think it’s this kind of tension in a photograph that has too often repelled me from post-modernist photography – it’s too easy to be fixated on and distracted by the details and not see the whole picture. I still don’t like the “posed deadpan snapshot”, whether it’s printed 4″x6″ or 40″ x 60″. But at least I can start to “get” another genre.