Street Photography 2016

Reading Time: 1 minute

I have a new photo book. It’s a record of the street photography portfolio I assembled for review by LensCulture, the online photography magazine. It does not include all photos submitted, but includes photos in black & white considered for submission. The submissions were selected from 20 years of shooting in this genre.

I invite you to preview it. It’s available for sale. I purposely set the price to an even dollar amount—the profit to me is less than 25 cents.

Enjoy.

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I’m Not Walter Benjamin, but Neither is He.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

still looking for permission to write after all these years

Walter Benjamin passport photo

Passport photo [courtesy Walter Benjamin Archiv, Berlin.]

I’m too long in the tooth, which ones I have left, to be coming to these realizations, but I do have to keep reminding myself of certain things. Whenever I feel doubts and uncertainty, which is not a fugitive condition, but a constant presence it seems, it’s always in comparison to the known existence, that is, known to me, of any number of figures in history and the present time—figures I have no particular reason to which to compare myself, suffering as they do so much greater familiarity, if not fame, among a so much greater number of people.

However, what I have always *not* borne in mind, and more recently, having realized for the first time previously and not that long ago, but long enough, that it was so, I remember that in most instances (Mozart is a standout, except possibly in those difficult years when he labored in utter obscurity before he turned six) neither were any of them, I hope, at least not to themselves. When Walter Benjamin wrote or spoke I have no doubt he did so because of the particular ferment of his feelings about having something to say. It’s a condition, variously and infinitely variably experienced no doubt, that any creator, whether thinker, writer, artist, composer, to name just a few, has to be referring to in answering the question, “Why do you create?” The answer virtually invariably is, “because I have to.”

Nothing else has to be said by the likes of me to validate the common wisdom that there’s plenty of stuff that gets done “because it has to” that will never see much of the light of day. A glimpse here and there kindly given by dear ones and friends. The accidental glance by roving interested parties. The demi-perusal by the flaneurs of our culture, always looking for what’s new and engaging—not to mention the hordes who are looking, always looking, merely for something to stave off the lurking beasts of boredom and ennui.

Let’s say Walter Benjamin sat down to write, well, name your pick of what he wrote, and I’ll pick, almost arbitrarily (I just spent a whole four minutes looking it up) an essay, considered one of his more seminal, entitled, tellingly, “The Author as Producer.” However, let me say, I am more interested in his mere writing of it, not, at this time, precisely in what he wrote. It was originally a lecture to a body in Paris, typical of the 30s, called The Institute for the Study of Fascism. He gave it in 1934 when, admittedly, he had already gained some notice and attention for his efforts at assiduous and repeated and frequent publication. That he was interested in gaining a permanent position on the faculty of any institution in Europe, but none was to be given for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the unhappy coincidence in time of his roots producing him when the tide of European anti-Semitism was at increasing flow. However, his prolific outpouring and industrious inquiries were into all manner of what we now call cultural studies, when it was not merely pure philosophy dressed in some vernacular raiment. Neither here nor there in the end. He had to look, to inquire, to think, and finally to write and to speak.

He may have had intimations of the greatness of mind with which he was blessed, and then, as far as I know, he may not. Only Benjamin scholars and biographers would know, or maybe someday will know if they don’t. But if I had to guess, I would guess he suffered in his own way the same doubts and suspicions of self that many of us—I’ll speak, however, only for myself. What I’m driving at, to arrive, finally, at what I’m talking about here, is the matter of allowing himself the permission to continue, to plug, to, in that expression with great currency that to me has grown from being mildly humorous to being loathesome, “power through.”

He never stopped. That is, he didn’t, until he famously did stop, literally, killing himself at the frontier with Spain, in 1940, mid-route on what would likely have been a successful escape from Nazi Europe to the United States. We don’t know why, as far as I know. He had somehow bridged that murky body of water between the living if unconscious need to go forward and the dark shores of hopeless despair. However, I prefer to concentrate on his legacy, and take account of what he wrote in the simple facet of not having stopped himself from writing it because of any other sort of misgivings—if anything they validate the idea there is value in life, and repudiate, or at least turn away from the notion of existential futility and lack of meaning. What we will almost certainly never know if he had in mind specifically the prospect of not being allowed to do what he so clearly was compelled to do.

So, I try to inspire myself by bearing in mind, more and more consciously (until, I hope, it become an unconscious part of me, some species of belief), that I am as free to say what I think and to imagine it has worth of some kind, for me for a start, or why bother, and for others, because there is no sense in imagining that there is no value in anything unshared.

Whatever is done with, and finally thought of, whatever I create, especially whatever I write, is not for me to say, even with the vagaries of testamentary dictates on my part. It’s not within my power, even with the collective acceptance of the constraints of the law and the wishes of the departed, to control whether anything that I assume regularly, day to day, if not minute to minute, to be mine and to be disposed of or preserved as I see fit, will continue in a similar or better state of preservation after I’m gone. Writers have dictated that their work summarily be destroyed on their death (in many instances, already knowing in their lives they have gone unsung and unpublished) and have had these last wishes defied—to our benefit and pleasure. And writers have struggled for recognition, or let recognition and the necessary effort to attain it (as a general rule) go unattended in their lives, only to have their deaths herald an era of widespread if not universal exposure of their work, accompanied with great acclaim and even broader dissemination.

My thoughts are not about longevity or perpetuation, but about the legitimacy of my efforts now, today, and tomorrow, especially if I am inclined to make invidious comparisons—accurate or not is immaterial—with the work of others I admire who I know quite well did, at the time, expect or foresee exposure to a wider audience and studied appreciation. They may have wished for it, hoped for it, despaired over the lack of it, but it never kept them from carrying on, writing and continuing to write.

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Teju Cole and the Burri Photo

Reading Time: 6 minutes

the following is an exchange that originally took place on Facebook on my “timeline” purely as the result of my posting a link (which appears first) to an opinion piece by teju cole, nytimes photography critic, novelist, new yorker magazine writer and columnist, and self-styled photographer. this ended up as a dialog, the latest of many that have occurred over the years, with me and my very good friend paul naecker, an architect and consultant currently based in los angeles. i thought it, the dialog, spontaneous and admittedly off-the-cuff ended up with a kind of validity and some might even find it of value. in all events, as it turned out, paul and i independently concluded it deserved better than facebook.

The shot by René Burri [in this New York Times piece] is the inevitable iconic image. I’ve long since admired it (even used it in a seminar I taught on architectural photography five years ago). It is, indeed, a memorable and evocative, if not a haunting, image. But I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be motivated to replicate in any way a photo taken by another photographer. I never have. I never will.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/magazine/shadows-in-sao-paulo.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0


[Paul Naecker]: H thanks for sharing this. Tejo [sic] Cole’s past work strikes one as fairly rigorous (but not w/o controversy.) This seems more a journey of discovery than imitation.


Seems more a journey of ginning up something to write about for pay. I can’t argue with that.

Clearly he wasn’t pretending to replicate Burri’s vision. Nevertheless, I wish he hadn’t even printed the one lousy shot he got (with color film, the wrong lens, on an overcast day…).

What would be even more interesting is what is evinced when comparing this with another iconic shot, speaking to the ethos of the modernist sensibility and the impact on the urban milieu in the 20th century. Shot almost exactly 50 years earlier in New York, the precursor to the international city São Paolo became:

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914

 


[Paul Naecker]: The shoulders of giants eh? I prefer to follow Cole’s limited but still intriguing premise. Don’t know much about him as a photographer. But since he self-identifies as one I guess your critique is fair game.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


I still believe that Barthes was closer to it, as you would no doubt suppose I would, than this premise of the “oneiric possibilities” of street photography, which is validated by that most inarticulate of men, Garry Winogrand, with his pseudo mystical claptrap about “transformation.” Garry should mainly have kept his mouth shut.

Barthes said the photograph is “a message without a code.” Not the same thing. And what Cole wants to take for dream imagery—the context for which exists, as it does for all of us, only in his own consciousness—really has more to do I suppose with contemplating the notion of the substance of a shadow. Stand still long enough and your image is recorded. Keep moving and you disappear. But this is explained by science, not metaphysics. Barthes said what a photograph tells us about its subject, no more no less, is that it existed. Period.


[Paul Naecker] : Period?
I think Cole’s position is less epistemological and more polemical. His insights aren’t really about the capacity of photography to record but rather
much more about some inference or field of memory. More writer than photographer kind of stuff. I like his lied now that I read some of his stuff. Surprised you are so negative about his world view. Apparently the guy is a Times photography critic?Interesting given his anti-colonialist writings. Most of these ‘street’ photographers don’t have much of a political space in their work right?


I was sure you (or someone, but then, who? I really kid myself sometimes…) would take me to task for seeking a differentiation in Cole’s characterization and Barthes’s famous definition. I mean, what is a dream, after all, but “a message without a code?” But then a photograph is not a dream, it merely seems at times to work the same way.

Cole is, in fact, I think, at least in his critical inquiries and analyses in The New Yorker, largely on an epistemological hunt. There are times, however, when I think that not all such inquiries, especially if they are declarations in and of themselves of a particular position against received wisdom, are polemical. I found myself agreeing with his words after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. They were, if anything, anti-polemic.

As for his being a photographer, I haven’t seen much of his work. I thought in this day and age it’s safe for everyone to say he or she is a photographer. It’s inescapable. However, as more than one person (usually it’s a photographer who does it for a living, however meagerly; or possibly for the mere love of finding expression in the medium) has pointed out, because someone can honestly be called a photographer doesn’t necessarily grant that their work is any good. It’s a safe bet they’re not, but in this country at least, it’s almost as easy to get a gun, whose ownership should be licensed, as it is to get a camera. Plato didn’t want to exclude poets from his utopia because they were lousy poets, but because they lie. Merit has its rewards, but it shouldn’t be the foundation of a license. So, Cole is a photographer. Good on him.

But I wasn’t, in the original instance, responding to his picture taking capabilities, but to the impulse, however constrained, to track down the provenance (quite literally) of a famous photograph. We both responded to it, the photo, in what I am sure is an ultimately indistinguishable way. I called it an icon. Doubtless that’s how he views it. Yet (and not to make my favored bugaboo, invidious comparisons)I would never go on the search he did—maybe I’m just envious of his world-beating travel opportunities, which he seems to take mainly for the chance to write contextually about the venue for other purposes.

Cole, as a critic of photography, was particularly good about Saul Leiter, another unsung genius. I love Saul Leiter. And I think so does Cole. I suspect you, Paul, would also. So no argument there either.

No, yet again, I think you are reading heat in my words where, at best, there is merely an attempt at cold fusion—a safe sustainable source of critical energy, harming no one, and maybe providing some light. Of course it could be said that’s all Cole was trying to do. But I still think I’m free to question, that is, to be dubious, of his exertions, at least in their manifestation in this NYTimes article. Now, all I have to do is wait for Steve [Lipsey], the champion of all things Winogrand, to chime in about how he (the Wino-man) and Barthes also agree, for what, indeed, is a photograph that is successfully transformational—I think he meant transformative, but then I’m never quiet about how inarticulate the big lug couldn’t help but be; also, of course, I’m talking about the viewer fo the photo, and I’m simply not sure, though I can guess, that Garry meant the subject—he always speaks of taking photos for the mere purpose of seeing how something looks having been photographed, until in fact he had transformed himself into a picture taking machine—is a photograph that contains a message without a code. To that I can only say, and then I have to shut up, because this could be a book, that I can only speak for myself and my relationship to my own photographic process. And this will have to be taken on faith, because no one can dispute it, and that is, before even putting a camera to my eye, in most instances (and all photos are instances, in at least two senses), I do put it to my eye because I have “seen” a photograph and I want to attempt to capture it. If I were a painter, I am sure it wouldn’t be any different. Cole talks about his pleasure at discovering that Leiter was also a painter, and quite familiar with his contemporaries who were painters (of the same generation: Rothko, etc.). Cartier-Bresson famously started out as a man who simply made drawings (and returned to doing so, when he “retired” from picture-taking) who said that a camera was simply a much more efficient way of doing the same thing.

Perhaps it’s like capturing magic in a bottle, many many times. But once caught, it’s done (that’s all I meant by “period,” not that that’s the end to what can be said—obviously). And in Cole’s case, if he wanted to beat down São Paolo finding the vantage Burri had when capturing his bit of magic, more power to him. I’m not interested.

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The Dangers of Exposing Yourself

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I’m not speaking of the current trending topic on everything from Huffington Post to Ars Technica—which is the hack that resulted in the release of hundreds of photos of celebrities, mainly movie stars, who made the dubious decision of taking nude selfies with their mobile devices.

I doubt anyone, but an incredibly tiny number of select individuals, would care to see me in a similar state, were I stupid enough to deploy my iPhone so stupidly, and I am not worried about that kind of exposure in all events.

I am talking far more prosaically and, yes, boringly about presenting one’s self, or at least a reasonable persona here on the Internet in the form of blog posts, Facebook news items, email blasts, etc.

Over the years—I’ve been on networked computer-based media since 1982, long before the Internet—I’ve had my share of ways to communicate with the great faceless multitude populating the ether. I’ve had a blog (a still relatively new Web-based phenomenon; it is, after all, a neologism/contraction of Web-log, though it’s always been more in the way of a personal journal than a log, per se) for over ten years in one form or another. Sometimes, as is still true, it’s in several forms.

There are two things that are the hardest to deal with for me personally in terms of my Web presence in this form.

First, there’s the problem of getting readers, that is, regular readers who frequent the pages of the blog, and might even look forward to a new post. What I have to say, I am long since aware, if not always from the get-go, is an acquired taste. And in one of those catch-22 contexts that we seem to create for ourselves, I am of the Groucho school that would just as soon not belong to a club that would have me as a member. The corollary to this famous conundrum is that I am ill-disposed to impose myself on others, even if I know them, and yet, seemingly contradictorily, all right, in direct contradiction, I truly do crave an audience… but a self-selecting one. That is, I only want to be present in the lives of people who actually are interested, in this case, in what I have to say and the way I say it. And, I should add, who go out of their way to seek it out.

Every writer confronts the problem of answering the question of for whom they are writing. As for me, not a problem (so it’s not one of the two problems I mentioned). I write for myself, just as I learned long since not to try to satisfy anyone but myself with my cooking (about which I am equally serious; I love to write, and I love to eat). Whoever comes along for the ride because they think the quality is there, so much the better for me. However, cooking is easier. I can invite two to four friends over for a dinner party with me and my spouse, and I don’t worry about imposing. I know I’m a good cook, and no one will be judging me. I have known people to be eager at the prospect of an invitation (or at least to feign excitement).

Writing somehow is different. For one thing, the context is not that intimate or personal, unless you are the sole recipient of a letter or email. As soon as you “publish” whatever it is, that “it” is viewed differently than a nice plate of braised halibut with vegetables on a mound of farro, with some savory pan juices.

With regard to writing, part of it is, as in that old joke, everyone’s a critic. One way or another almost every single one of us was schooled at some point in how to use the language. Somehow this renders almost every single one of us an expert on the most effective ways to manipulate the parts of speech; regardless of how poorly in fact we learned to do so ourselves. And it’s not so much that we can’t help ourselves from judging—that’s ok, we’re all entitled to the feelings the world evokes—what it is, is that we can’t help but voice our opinion. I’m not shy. If I wanted it, I’d ask. So, the civilized thing is wait for me to ask.

Otherwise, I’ve always tried to offer my writing with a simple proviso. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

Having gotten all that out of the way, yet again—one of my faults is repeating myself, well short of perseveration—I will simply say, please help me solve that first problem. If you are a subscriber to Per Diem and you haven’t already signed up for the feed here at 1 Standard Deviation, please do so. Scroll back up to the top of the page (though there should also be a nifty little arrow icon pointing up in the lower right of the screen; if you click on that, it will zoom you to to the top). And on the left-hand side, at the top of the sidebar, you should see a small blank window to enter your preferred email for receiving notification of a new post here. Type it in, and wait for the verification email, which should appear in less than a minute, and click on the link and you’re done.

Now, the second problem is of a different sort altogether. Perusing the blog posts here on 1 Standard Deviation, you will see that even the small number of new posts since the inauguration of this site have elicited some comments. I love comments… feedback of a constructive sort of any kind, but comments are easy. If you liked it, please tell me. If you have a cavil or a counterpoint observation, I’d love to hear it, and so would the other readers.

The problem, though, is not getting comments, they come in due course. The problem is that any new blog is like freshly killed game on the savanna. It attracts all sorts of predatory beasts that roam the jungle, in this case, the jungle known as the Internet.

In slightly more than a month, this new blog, with all of five or six posts, has already attracted a special kind of spam. These are comments sent to any one of these random posts (and as I have now migrated another 130 posts from Per Diem to this site, there’s that much more to target) that really are not from people with a genuine, substantive thing to say because they actually read the post. Their posts are thinly disguised mechanisms to get the unsuspecting to click through to their websites. Most of these sites offer merchandise or services that really no one wants… or at least would not seek them out as a resource. Some are worse than that, being hacks that lure the unsuspecting to sites that will surreptitiously install malware on an unprotected computer or mobile device (though I think few people read my verbose posts on a smart phone; at least I hope not).

In a little more than 40 days, this little site has attracted 500 spurious comments, all of which have been virtually automatically purged and destroyed. I have software installed to capture this crap, and furthermore every comment is moderated, so it must pass not only through an automatic filter, but a human filter as well. More often than not, I respond to real comments and remarks from real people. As for the rest, it’s trashed. But it eats up precious time to manage this part of the endeavor, time I could be spending writing even lengthier posts for you to enjoy, especially if you’ve subscribed.

Thank you for your attention, and thank you in advance for subscribing to the feed. Bon appétit.

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Belief and its willing suspension

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[Somewhat freely adapted from a contribution of mine of February 24, 2001 on a listserv that was called the PhotoArt forum. Among the illustrious participants was my friend, Jack Fulton, whom I was introduced to on this forum, and who, purely irrelevantly and coincidentally, had the unknowing ignominious distinction of informing me of the dire events the following late summer. On a trip to San Francisco, in part to meet Jack in the flesh, he called our hotel room at the Sir Francis Drake in Union Square, at about 8am PST, to ask if I had the television on. The precise date was September 11. I refer to previous comments of Jack’s on the listserv below. He was not the only illustrious participant, as you shall see.]

The talk was of the preparedness of the participant, the observer, or viewer of an act, or its product, of art—it was specifically photographic art and cinematic art about which the matter arose, but the comments could apply more universally I think.

The original conception of such preparedness, “suspension of disbelief,” is from S.T. Coleridge of course, and importantly, is qualified by the term “willing.” Which is to say, the easiest interpretation one may put on this is that Samuel Taylor meant that the suspension of disbelief, occasioned by viewing an image clearly not reality as ordinary humans and philosophers—those who have not shed their skin as ordinary humans, as they are wont to do when they are being Philosophers—understand reality to be, is a voluntary act, passively so, if not one of active engagement of the state and disposition of one’s mind. In the simplest sense, perhaps the one most charitably applied to that laughable euphemism of the Bush Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan: “the coalition of the willing,” is that at least the suspender of disbelief is not doing so grudgingly.

This, of course, presents a problem, whether speaking of belief or its absence. In that having belief is hardly an act of will, even the will to be passively and perhaps generously submissive to any such act, and as Coleridge was speaking of drama (and hence, pace the prevailing sentiments of our colleague Damian Peter Sutton1, closer perhaps to the apprehension of cinema than of photography per se), the problem is manifold.

Drama is of course not reality, as cinema and photographs are not. (We all do know that, don’t we? Photographs—or to use Damian’s careful gloss, images—are not reality. Not, at least, Berkeley’s booming buzzing reality). What are we then suspending when trying to grapple with the “facts” of images captured in plastic form as the artifacts of some technological process and presumably intended (even if by indirection, not to mention the possibility of unconscious intent) to elicit the need on the part of the viewer to grapple in the first place?

To cope with the quidditas, the “whatness,” of an image—whether in its content (whatever the hell that is) or in its taxonomical elements which might be categorized as aesthetic (composition, palette, tonalities, textures, etc. ad nauseam)—we must perforce use some other piece of the human cerebral function than belief, though problematically (as I said) emotional engagement would somehow require some condition of mind/spirit, that is, if not belief itself, closely akin to it.

This is all heavily philosophical, if not religious, and thereby a little scary. This latter quality may explain in part, once we filter out the blue-nosed reactions of the self-righteous and sanctimonious when confronted with art that is, on the face of it, sacrilegious, why art is so problematic when it pretends to be more than merely decorative or picturesque (in which case of course it is not art at all, but merely dressing).

I suppose if one follows this thought far enough, it leads to the inevitable and ominously self-satisfying conclusion that art had better be disturbing (disturbing to the human spirit–in the sense of rousing one from complacency–at the very least) if it wants to have any claim to being art. This leads to the incomprehension of practitioners who believe that merely to be disturbing (through provocation or interruption) is to produce art. Hence a lot of disturbing, if grotesquely picturesque decorative, work that is condemned as [fill in your favorite sanctimonious adjective] art, when it hardly deserves the unqualified designation at all.

I would suggest to Jack Fulton2, that the movie “Reindeer Games,” from an inattentive viewing by me of the trailer and from your capsule review, in fact better serves one’s understanding of the Coleridgean premise than the other film, “The Bear,” which merely sounds silly, and hence an easy challenge to the task of willfully engaging the imagination. Nothing is harder than an act of the imagination forcing an equally arduous (if not a greater) act of imagination on the part of the viewer in order to give the act (the work of “art”) any credence whatsoever. This, by the way, for me eliminates the question of triviality or any measure of unimportance, as a criterion for determining the significance of a work of art as art. Art doesn’t admit of highness or lowness in terms of subject (whatever the hell that is) or treatment.

1. Dr. Damian Sutton, who presently is Reader in Photography at Middlesex University in the UK.

2. Jack is, and was, at the time, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography at San Francisco Art Institute. He had written, back in 2001:

I rented two films last night to view over the weekend in
our rainy weekend. One is ‘The Bear’ and the other is “Reindeer Games’. The
latter was so dumbly constructed and acted one needed to suspend one’s mind
to sit through it and we didn’t. The Bear, on the other hand, was hard to
believe because the primary actors were real bears.
So, reality, schmeality, no matter what, photography from the still, movie
and digital cameras are all appearances such as a reflection in a pond or
mirror. It/they is/are faithful to what we perceive w/our visual sense as to
be “real” and I don’t think there are ifs ands or buts about it.
The ‘manipulation’ comes in from how the ‘taker’ interpreted this spectacle.

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