…And More Photographic Randomness

It’s time* for your monthly installment of good reads from around the web; links go to the original posters’ websites.

For starters, there’s a thought-provoking (and certainly debate-provoking; read the comments) post on Jim Harmer’s Improve Photography, titled In DEFENSE of Momtographers Everywhere. Read, and join in the debate.

Point-Counterpoint, both courtesy of PetaPixel: A bride complaining about “wack” wedding photography prices (be sure not to miss Nikki Wagner’s thoughtful response**), and a photographer suggesting that people who want his work for free come and work for him at no cost.

A sure way to gin up controversy? Make a top 10/20/50/100 list of anything. You want proof? Complex’s The 50 Greatest Street Photographers Right Now is it.

Popular Photography has announced their 2012 Readers Photography Contest. Details are at this link. One caveat: I haven’t yet read the terms and conditions to see if they’re reasonable, so I’d suggest you have a look before entering.

A great little post is up on Inspiration Feed, titled “8 Digital Photography Tips to Tell Your Children.” It’s good reading if you’d like to encourage your little one to get behind the camera.

A very short film called “School Portrait” is making the rounds lately. It’s a collaboration among Greg Ward, Agnieszka Mruk and Liang Peiyu, who are grad students at London College of Communication. Ward’s website notes:

Many years have passed since the photos were taken; physically they have all changed, but to what extent are they still the same people? In general, most people have had school photographs taken of themselves when they were younger. The photos are fantastic visual records of how people once were, however how often do we look back and reflect upon what we were like as kids? Sometimes in order to know where we are going in life, it helps to remember where we have been. (h/t laughingsquid.com)

One time years ago, I saw photos from Japan of construction machinery that was painted in pastels and festooned with stenciled butterflies. More recently, I came across this gem from Visual News: a series of decorated manhole covers from various Japanese cities.

And finally, if you need a shot of inspiration:

*Porque I said so
**Which, incidentally, should be required reading not only for brides but anyone who’s thinking of hanging up their shingle as a wedding photographer

Review: Fading Ads of New York City, by Frank Jump

Fading Ads of New York City, by Frank Jump
“Tching prayed on the mountain and
on his bath tub
Day by day make it new”
— Ezra Pound, Canto LIII, 1940

You could blame Robert Moses, which seems to be the fashion, or you could say it’s just the American way, that unique form of active amnesia we seem to have that means forgetting vast swaths of our history, and either painting over or demolishing the rest; either way, huge amounts of our urban landscape have been “made new” and made over, with much history — architectural and cultural — being lost along the way. We can see those faded fingerprints around us still, sometimes in lingering architectural details on the buildings that have survived one renewal or gentrification too many, and other times in the faded, hand-painted signs that cling stubbornly to those same buildings.

That brings us to Fading Ads of New York City, written by Frank Jump, the curator of the long-running Fading Ad website. I’ve lost track of how many websites have spawned books in the last few years, and how many of those books I’ve passed up because I couldn’t see myself reading them more than once, regardless of how many times the website in question made me laugh, made me think, or gave me goosebumps. With that said, I was very happy to come across this book, which takes some of Jump’s best shots and writing, and puts the lot of it between covers.

So what moves this book into the “buy” column? For starters, there are the photos. Yes, you’ll be able to see them on the website, but you won’t see them like this, in all their warm Kodachrome glory.* The signs, 70-odd of them, are captured in just the right light, and at just the right angles. These are not, in other words, half-assed snapshots from street level.

For another thing, there’s the writing, and lots of it, tying Jump’s own life story — including his struggle, and an uneasy truce of sorts, with HIV — to the project that’s become his life’s work. When he was diagnosed in 1986, he was told that he had perhaps four years left to live, but then he lived and kept right on living. That life, in all its ups and downs, informs not only the writing, but also the structure of the book, the sections of which are thematically grouped by parts of the body. There are also essays and reminiscences scattered throughout, some taking up bits of urban archaeology, some the long plague years of the AIDS crisis, and many of them exploring the intersection and similarities of the two, ’til the whole reads a bit like a cross between Luc Sante and Randy Shilts.

Fading Ads operates on several levels at once: personal history, urban exploration, archaeology, and reportage. And yet, it’s also much more than that, at once a witness to times and people long gone (some much too soon), as well as a testament to the longevity of a tenacious documentarian and his surprisingly tenacious subjects.

*I’ll spare you the whys and wherefores of this (for now). Suffice to say that photos reproduced on the printed page are of higher quality than those in your average e-book or on a website.

Frank Jump on the Web:
Website: http://www.frankjump.com/
The Fading Ad Blog: http://www.fadingad.com/fadingadblog/
Jump interviews by George Bodarky, and by Leonard Lopate

Michael Wilson Interview (Or: A Few Words About Photography, By Way of Lyle Lovett)

Lyle Lovett, "Release Me" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

One night a couple of months back, I was at a total loss about what to write in this space. I’d been shooting, and had even been doing a bit of writing, but it seemed like nothing was clicking. I actually came within a hair’s breadth of reviewing the new-ish Lyle Lovett CD, Release Me. Even by my standards, and even with my habit of tying things that, to the untrained (or perhaps more sane) observer, have very little to do with photography back to photography, this was a bit of a stretch. So I was thinking, This being a photo blog and all, I’ll have to bring it back it back to photog– oh, wait, got it.

Generally speaking, you don’t judge something by its cover. Well, you’re not supposed to, anyway. But I always thought that  Lyle’s covers, shot by photographer Michael Wilson starting with The Road to Ensenada, were a bit like the singer himself; there’s a touch of melancholy suffused with just the right amount of wry humor (as with Release Me‘s shot of the singer entangled in a lariat). In other words, Wilson’s photos fit the albums (including shots for The Bears, Emmylou Harris, David Byrne, the Bodeans and others) in a way that album covers don’t always. After a series of emails, I finally managed to catch up with the aforementioned Mr. Wilson. For someone who worried aloud that he might not have much to say, he proved to be… well, as affable and perceptive about photography as I’d hoped. I’m happy — heck, make that honored — that he was kind enough to sit through an interview with me.

The Bears, "Car Caught Fire" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

It’s no mistake that Wilson’s best known for his portraits of musicians. His first ambition in life was to play the French horn. There was only one small problem; as he admits, with a laugh, “I was one of those people who was blissed out by it but I really couldn’t play it. I had no talent but a lot of enthusiasm.” The money that would’ve gone into a French horn went instead toward a Pentax Spotmatic, which Wilson calls “the first piece of the puzzle.”

The second piece of the puzzle, as Wilson tells it, was a scholarship to Northern Kentucky University. “I got a camera because I couldn’t play the French horn, I got a scholarship because nobody else wanted it. I go to sign up for classes, and the advisor asks me what I’m interested in studying. I told him I didn’t really have any plans, but that I was interested in photography. Lo and behold, he said, “Oh, we have photography next year in the Fine Art program. Would you like to be an art major?” So I said, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” That was the third piece of the puzzle.”

At NKU, he credits Barry Andersen for helping him to realize that photography wasn’t, as he’d originally thought, something people did for newspapers. “I got there and it was like being in a darkened theater as the lights go down… the curtain goes back and you see this wonderful thing you never would’ve expected. That’s what the history of photography was to me. I had no clue that for 150 years people had spent their lives taking pictures. That did it for me. Watching a filmstrip of Bruce Davidson talking about his photography, that’s the moment I realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Upon graduation, he found he had no interest in graduate school, or in teaching photography. However, even as he wandered from one odd job to the next, he found himself working his way closer to a profession in photography. Here, I’ll let the man himself take over:

Nick Hornby (Photo: Michael Wilson)

Michael Wilson: I took a job as a photographer’s assistant at a textbook publisher. They had an in-house studio and I did the darkroom work and assisted on shoots. It was very controlled photography, everything lit to the nth degree. By this time, I was three years out of college, out of my honeymoon with photography, and I felt a sort of dread of photography coming over me, especially on days we’d be in the studio doing these controlled pictures. I remember thinking, “If this is what a photographer is, I don’t want to be a photographer.”

All the while, music has always been my main inspiration. I couldn’t help but notice that when I’d spend a couple of hours at a record store, you’d occasionally run across a really beautiful photograph, like a Stephen Shore photograph, or a Robert Frank photograph, and I’d be reminded of the pictures that made me love photography when I first discovered it, the pictures that made me want to be a photographer. The work of the usual suspects… August Sander, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt… all those people and that work was so unlike the sterile, institutional work I was doing for my 9 to 5 job. So when I’d go to the record store after work and I’d see a photo on a record that really came from the heart, I’d say, “Man, how did that happen?” So there was all this frustration building up, but it didn’t take too long for it to come to a head.

Paul: That dread, was it the work itself being so regimented starting to grind you down?

MW: It was that. Think of it like money sitting in a bank account somewhere. It was like that money was being spent on something I really didn’t care about and I felt like I was going broke. I’d get envious, because I’d see these photos and say, “Well, somebody’s doing beautiful work.” I think after a while the chip on my shoulder got big enough that they just asked me to stay in the darkroom.

The Bodeans (Photo: Michael Wilson)

I had a friend who was an illustrator, and he knew what was going on. He said, “Well, show somebody your pictures you care about.” I put together a handmade book of portraits, work I’d done for myself, and I sent it to a name – she really was just a name that I’d seen on a bunch of record covers that I liked. She was the creative director for Warner Brothers. I didn’t even know what a creative director was at the time, but I knew that if I looked over five records that I thought were really beautiful, three of them would involve this person. And I thought, “This person responds to the same things in the world that I am.” So I made a handmade book of about ten to twelve photos that my wife bound together, and I sent it over. A few weeks later, I got a call from the manager of the Bodeans. They’d been given my name by Jeri Heiden at Warner Brothers and she suggested I get together with them and make some photos. That was my first break.

PB: So you sort of drifted into this.

MW: I drifted, but what was deliberate – and I tell this to photographers now – is instead of following the money, I’d say to look at the pictures you wish you would’ve made. Go back and follow that picture back to a photographer, back to a photo editor. I just followed pictures I loved back to a name, and back to a person. It’s a long shot, but that’s probably the best advice I can give to anybody, especially if you’ve got a strong photographer who has an idea of the kind of pictures they want to make. I meet a lot of young photographers who are trained to do specific things – tabletop, headshots – and that sort of shotgun approach is a different approach that I don’t really know as well. If you know what kind of pictures you want to make, and you know what kind of pictures make your heart beat faster, see what names are attached to those pictures.

PB: Speaking of pictures that make your heart beat faster, who are some of the photographers who’ve done that for you over the years?

MW: I’ll name an unfair and very partial list. August Sander is one of my favorites. Bill Brandt, Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, Bruce DavidsonEmmet Gowin, Robert Adams (also for his writing). I could go on and on. I’m not as aware of the current “edge” of photography, but there’s a portrait photographer in South Africa I really love named Pieter Hugo. And Andrea Modica is also wonderful… But once you start talking about photographers, it’s like talking about music, the records you really love. You start, but you can’t really stop. I’ll leave it at that.

[After a pause, he continues] The woods behind our house are filled with grapevines. I love how those grapevines grow. There’s something in you, there’s work that exists out in the world, and it has the role that light does on a plant from the inside out. Without thinking about it, we grow toward things that move us. And those are people who’ve been light to me.

PB: Continuing on music and some of the photographers you’ve mentioned previously, how did you arrive at your style? Was it something learned, or…?

The Replacements, "All Shook Down" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah. Now I’m getting nervous, like I’m about to teach a workshop. [laughs] I don’t perceive myself as having a style. I have a way of working, but that’s just the tools in my toolbox. I just throw a bunch of pictures on the table, and… okay, this works, this doesn’t. They tend to be pretty simple. There’s a photograph I did for the Replacements for All Shook Down, it’s just two dogs standing in the middle of the street. I hesitate to call it a style. It’s not a deliberate choice. What I have done is I’ve chosen to work in a very reductionist, simple way. I think I benefited a great deal from those four years at that book publisher, where everything was lit and gelled and we would tweak shadows a half an inch one way or another. For me, that was painful. I felt like, “Life is way more interesting than what we’re doing here.”  I realize now that I was shortchanging it, ‘cause there are people who make great pictures by exerting a lot of control over a photograph, orchestrating every element. I think I came to find that that’s not going to suit me well in the long run. I just didn’t have the patience for it.

The other thing was, early on when I went freelance, I’d take along a strobe and a softbox, and I’d try to be professional and get the lighting just right, but those pictures were never as good as the pictures I made when I was just walking around and I just had to find the lighting. So that was more of a subtractive decision. I got to the point where I just told artistic directors, “I don’t use lights.” The truth is, there are occasions I carry a light with me. I recently did a shoot for a record company I work with, they told me I’d be shooting in a club basement with no lights and no windows, but 99% of the time, I don’t augment the light. If it’s fluorescent, or bare bulbs, or whatever, I just use it. I’m better off that way.

PB: It’s funny, ‘cause I look at somebody like David LaChapelle, and I say, “You know, I wouldn’t have the patience to do this.” But I wonder, am I copping out doing that?

MW: If you look at LaChapelle’s work and it resonates with you in a way that you want to do that… in his case, there’s a lot at work in his pictures. The lights, the styling. Anyway, I’d say that you know when your pictures complete the thought that’s in your head. If you’re making pictures that feel like a finished thought, it’s not a cop out. The pictures I made with the strobes and all that stuff, I didn’t want to show those to anybody because it didn’t feel like me. I wouldn’t feel guilty about it unless the nagging persists. And then you need to call a doctor. [laughs] Certain people are almost like directors. It’s a different mindset. They know what they want before they go in. I’m a total reactionary. I need something to respond to. They imagine things, and create them… “Wouldn’t it be great if so-and-so was covered in a suit of leaves?” And then they go to the lengths it takes to execute that vision. If you’re the kind of person that has that kind of vision but won’t do the work, then yeah, you’re copping out, but otherwise it’s not.

PB: Speaking of reacting to what you see, what strikes me in your work is how the album covers especially just seem to go with the music.

Emmylou Harris, "Red Dirt Girl" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah, that’s more serendipity than anything else. In the case of Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller’s a friend, and he’d played guitar for her. He suggested me, and that worked out well. Sometimes, like with Lyle Lovett, the art director knew me and knew him, and because he knew both of us as people, knew that we would “get” each other. I’ve also worked on projects that haven’t turned out well. There was a time when I was getting offered work because of Lyle Lovett’s popularity, people would say, “We should get the guy who did Lyle’s picture,” but they had no knowledge of me. They saw it as a “look,” and almost without fail, those didn’t turn out well.

I can give you an exception, though.  The most recent Lyle Lovett record… Release Me was his last album on Curb. It was just me and him. We were sort of joking around, then we saw this lasso and it just came together. It was a silly joke on the title. But I wasn’t allowed to get his suit dirty. [laughs]

PB: Walk me through the process of getting from that first contact from an art director to me holding the disc in my hands.

Shawn Colvin, "All Fall Down" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: I’ll give you a specific example, a best-case scenario. I do a lot of work with Nonesuch Records. They’re really good, a great record label that respects photographers. There’s a new record by Shawn Colvin that I shot. I knew the title of the record, I’d heard the music, and that’s good, but it doesn’t change how I make the pictures. It helps me to know them a little bit, but I don’t pick different cameras or change the shots.

Nonesuch isn’t committed to your photo being the cover. They’ll say, “Go make pictures, and we’ll see what happens.” So what I’ll do is just go and make the strongest pictures I can. Some will be color pictures for publicity, but then I’ll also just take pictures I like to make. This shoot, I did some shots with a pinhole camera, and just played around a lot. The cover picture was taken at the end of the day in her back yard. I knew the music, I knew the title, but you’ve still got to make an interesting picture. I just spend a day, however long the artist has, usually about four to six hours, and make a bunch of pictures. They’re really simple pictures if you look at them. If you saw me taking them, you’d say, “He’s really not doing anything.” The Shawn Colvin picture is a woman smoking a cigarette by her garage. There’s no high drama. But it’s a lovely thing as a photographer to have a designer who gets it and can put it in a setting where it resonates. I feel really lucky when that happens. Those are pictures that are really simple, but I’m happy that they’re out in the world.

PB: So the photos are more a reaction to the people than the music.

Jeremy Denk, "Ligeti/Beethoven" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Exactly. It’s funny, the Jeremy Denk record… he’s a classical pianist. The music is inspired by fractals, but the pictures that ended up working were the simplest ones. It’s just a guy sitting on the floor. Sometimes the ideas behind a record are so huge – a broken heart, being really happy – they’re usually big things that are hard to photograph. What’s cool about doing portraits is if you make a really honest picture of somebody, there’s a kind of power in that that leaves room for lots of complicated ideas that you’re not talking about in the portrait, but they’re there.

PB: A lot of the photographers that I’m drawn to, it’s like… whatever life puts in your lap, that’s what you’re photographing that day. It seems like you leave your subjects room to speak for themselves.

MW: When I’m looking at a portrait, I kinda want to feel like I trust that picture of that person. I know that’s a slippery slope, but I think you can tell. You see someone trying to look coy, or look some kind of way, and you say, “That’s not real,” you know? But when you see a strong human connection, those are the pictures that hold up over time, even when it’s a family snapshot in an album. It’s like trying to cross a stream and you’ve got your choice of rocks to put your foot on to get across. You look at a rock sometimes, and even though something’s sticking out over the surface, you know it’s not steady. You find somewhere else to put your foot because you know it’s solid. That’s the kind of portraits I want to make. I don’t want someone to feel duped. Like the Lyle Lovett pictures. They’re often exaggerations, but hopefully there’s something honest about them.

PB: Whether someone’s just starting out, or if they’re rethinking how and why they shoot, how would you advise someone to get to that kind of honesty, if that makes sense?

Hugh Laurie (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah, it makes sense. I guess I’d say there’s a few things that go into that. It’s gotten to a point now where you can push a button on your camera, and the picture looks pretty good. But the biggest dose of reality or inspiration I can give someone is to just go to the library, pull the photo books off the shelf, and look at them. There’s a really powerful energy when you’re learning something new and you’re excited. That’s a really important energy, and we need to keep that enthusiasm. Robert Adams talks about how artists live by curiosity and enthusiasm, and you need that. But you also need to look at pictures that are beyond you. Look at the history of photography. Yes, take pleasure in the pictures you’re making and stay enthused, but spend deliberate time looking at people who’ve made pictures for their whole lives. That, to me, feels like something really important to do. To know what the scope and power of the medium is. That’s bound to be frustrating, but none of us are original. We’re all mining veins that exist in the soul or in the world. We see someone who’s mining from a particular vein that’s also where we want to be digging. That’s different from the early pleasure you get when you pick up a camera and start playing. The curiosity is good, but you need to add to it some deliberate looking.

PB: The understanding versus a scattershot approach…

MW: Not even an understanding of how they did it. Just to know that there is somebody named Robert Frank who took a little camera and surreptitiously photographed what it felt like to be the outsider. To know Karl Blossfeldt, who in the 20’s and 30’s made these incredible photographs of plant forms. Emmet Gowin and these incredible family photos that read like stage plays… that stretching that comes from being exposed to something. Not the settings. Just having your eye and your head stretched.

PB: Any particular piece of advice you wish you’d had starting out, or some piece of advice you wish someone would’ve given you early on?

David Byrne (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: The first thing that pops into my head is, “Beware of jealousy.” Learn to be grateful for what you’ve got. Whether you’re trying to get attention to try to make a living, or get attention to get shows, it’s hard to just be satisfied with the smaller stuff, like making pictures and doing it as well as you can. It seems to me that most of the energy and desire to enjoy looking and be out with your camera gets sapped. You suffer from the desire to get noticed. If you’re a freelance, you need to let people know what you do, but it’s that part of it that I wish someone would’ve said, “There’s no reason to be jealous.” If photography doesn’t exist in some truthful, joyful place in your life, if you don’t get unforced joy or don’t see something beautiful and want to say a prayer of thanks – that sort of prayerful part of the process needs to stay intact by whatever means you can do it. A lot of damage happens when you’re just trying to get attention.

PB: When you get to that point, whether it’s jealousy or frustration, or just a rut, how do you get out of it?

MW: The physicality of the process. The actual walking outside and realizing, “this is what I love to do.” Lately in my life that’s happened a couple of times. A younger photographer’s asked me a few times to walk with them and take pictures. That’s been a godsend to me. Doing something physical, doing the duty part of it – the actual discipline of shooting. Maybe nobody needs or wants you to make a picture, or is going to pay for it. In my case, I’ll just find a neighborhood and start walking. Just do the work of a photographer.

PB: Any thoughts in closing?

MW: There’s a quote I love by John Berger: “What makes photography a strange invention with unforeseeable consequences is that its primary raw materials are light and time.” And this one’s by August Sander, who’s one of my heroes. It plays off the same idea. He said, “If I have attempted to pursue and represent the revelation of the spirit through nature with only the photographer’s usual means, both the stimulus and contemplation necessary for this has come to me through my experience that miracles do happen.”

Afterword: All photographs reproduced in this post appear by kind permission of Michael Wilson. There’s plenty more where they came from; his website is http://www.michaelwilsonphotographer.com/ and I’d suggest not missing his series The Pipe Coverer’s Ball for all the album covers and famous people.

Beating the Block: Taming the Muse

As I alluded to in yesterday’s post, muses are fickle creatures, coming and going more or less on their own schedule. If you wait around for inspiration to strike, you could end up waiting a very long time, which is bad enough. What can be just as difficult is when your muse just won’t shut up. I know that for a creative type, that sounds like a good problem to have, but it’s not always. So how do we deal with these cycles of feast and famine?

As I’d also mentioned yesterday, one way of getting around the famine that is a creative block is by simply, stubbornly, plowing through it. That works surprisingly well some of the time. At other times, however, you’ll need or want a bit more structure than you’d get by just “winging it.” When that happens, it helps to have a little something saved up, as it were.

I say this because in my own experience (your mileage may vary), ideas don’t often come one at a time. They come in clusters, or clumps, and sometimes they take on a life of their own, with some ideas spawning other ideas that lead to still more ideas… Before you know it, there are actually too many ideas, too much stuff for one person to do in a day, or week, or even year. Even when we’re working at full capacity, other things (work, food, water, sleep, social activity) have to be taken into account sooner or later.

And if you have a good idea, or even just one that’s got potential, why let it go to waste? If you can’t get to it now, save it for later:

  • Write it all down. If you do nothing else on this list, at least do this. If you’ve got just the bare bones of something — a title, an overarching concept — get that on paper, but if your mind takes you farther than that, follow it, and jot those thoughts down as well. You may not need these ideas now, but if you hit a dry spell later, this can be one of the things that gets you out of it.
  • Prioritize the list. Your ideas, mine, or anyone else’s, aren’t all good, and even the good ones aren’t equally good. It will be easy to picture some things as completed projects or fully realized ideas, while others may be only half-baked or might only be the vaguest starting point. Depending on what you need, or what you’ve got the time for, go to that part of the list.
  • Revisit your list from time to time. Some things that seem blindingly obvious to you when you first think of them may not hold up quite as well given a month on the shelf. Others may have barely made sense when you wrote them down (you did write them down, didn’t you?) but might make more sense now that your subconscious has had the chance to mull them over for a bit.

And by the way, if you have ideas that have nothing to do with what you’re doing now, write them down anyway. The reason I bring this up (and actually, the genesis of this post) is that over a period of about a week some time ago, I got ideas by the dozen for several different visual projects. This was before I’d ever picked up a camera, but I wrote every last one of them down. Hey, you never know when you might change directions or want to try something new; you also never know when you might come across a collaborator (or a friend who’s blocked), and you might find that you’ve already got the seeds of something, just waiting to be planted.

Do you have any proven “cures” for the dreaded block? Let’s hear ’em!

Rule 39: Beat the Block

Lend me your -- Wait a Minute, Get Back Here!

As a writer and as a photographer, I’ve experienced dry spells (the dreaded writer’s/artist’s block). I don’t mean a few minutes spent staring at a blank (or sometimes even partially-filled) page or into a viewfinder waiting for the right subject. In fact, maybe “block” is a bit too coy. That makes it sound like a speed bump or a DUI checkpoint, instead of a friggin’ wall in your path, something that seems too high to go over, too low to get under, and too big to get around. I’m talking anywhere from a couple of weeks to even a couple of years at a time of having any and all creative sense feel like it’s left you. And that, let’s be blunt, is one shitty feeling when who you are is tied up in or even just informed by what you create. It’s like a part of you has gone missing and left no forwarding address. Your Muse, that fickle and capricious being, has headed for parts unknown and didn’t even invite you along for the ride. How insulting!

At that point, you’ve got two choices; wait it out, or attack it head-on.  Every so often someone, usually trying their level best to be helpful, will tell you that it will “pass.” Well, yes, it does, and will. But if you’re of a certain frame of mind — impatient, wanting to create but finding yourself frozen in place — waiting may not seem like (or, if you’re on a deadline, may well not be) an option.

What to do, then? Whatever it is that you’d normally do (writing, photography, pottery, balloon animals), keep on doing it. But we’re going to add a little twist: before you begin, you have to do one very important thing. You have to give yourself permission to be mediocre, or even terrible. Switch off your usual critical voice. Forget your technique, screw the rules, say to hell with even your craft. Your only mission, for one day or one hundred or however long it takes, is to “fake it ’til you make it.”

And when I say to ditch all your usual methods of working, I mean it. Put it — all of it — aside. Change up the times at which you work, your usual subject matter, your usual judgments and preferences and gear.* You only shoot landscapes in medium format at sunset? Not now you don’t. Remember, doing your “usual” was what got you into this rut in the first place. Shoot cars at high noon with your camera phone. Shoot cat pictures on your lunch hour with disposable cameras from the drugstore down the street. Take snapshots — yes, snapshots — of clouds or hot dog vendors or that lady at the greeting card store who looks like maybe she does whippets on the store’s helium tank. Take anything you want except landscapes with your medium format at your appointed time, until you have a very clear idea in your head of what you want — maybe even need — to shoot.

So. Wait it out, or attack it head-on? I’ve tried it both ways, and I can tell you from experience, I will not wait again, nor do I suggest that you wait. The facepalm-inducing feeling you get when the block finally lifts (or when you finally figure out how to lift it yourself) and you realize all that you could’ve been doing, could have been creating, in that lost time just ain’t worth it.

From time to time, I’ll be sharing some tips and strategies that have worked for me in getting past my own blocks (in fact, I’ll be sharing a personal favorite tomorrow), and I’d appreciate if you’d share yours too.

*This also applies to any non-photographers/writers who might’ve wandered here accidentally, by the way.

Follow Friday: Ubuweb

The UbuWeb Homepage

The last few times I’ve done the Follow Friday thing, I’ve typically included a few people whose work is compelling and from whom you can learn something, a bit about them, and where to find them. This time out, I’m trying something a little different, and only suggesting a single “follow” or destination, a website called UbuWeb.

Thinking of it as just a website is a bit deceiving, and is a bit like calling the MoMA “a building.” This isn’t your ordinary website. What started out in 1996 primarily as a repository for concrete and visual poetry has become a veritable museum of unique, often-forgotten, art by often-forgotten individuals. While there’s not a ton on here that’s related to photography, there’s enough on the history and theory of nearly everything else to make this a vital stop if you’re trying, on one hand, to expand your cultural literacy (which, remember, should not be limited to any one art form), while on the other, trying to venture a bit off the beaten path.

And that, to me, is one of the best things about Ubuweb. It takes people who are kinda-sorta household names, or at least known by name to people who know a little bit about art, or film, or music, and fleshes them out. You’ve probably heard of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Buckminster Fuller or Kenneth Anger, but in a lot of cases some of these names are only that. We have a vague awareness, but there’s not much to go with that name, nothing to anchor it or suggest a life (or life’s work) behind it. This provides content, and context, also making connections between collaborators, schools of thought, and historical periods, all outside of the obvious and better-known names we were given in some cursory introduction to something or other.

It’s too easy, perhaps, to be scared off by the sheer volume of culture, between what’s available online, in libraries, in museums and elsewhere. There, I said it. There’s tons of “output.” Films, music, books, photos, paintings, not to mention all the things that are hybrid forms of different media. Don’t let that frighten you off or keep you from learning more. If you wait for the right starting point or the right invitation, it’s like deciding you’ll learn to swim once you’ve seen the right water molecule; it’ll never happen, and you’ll end up paralyzed by indecision.

Instead, welcome this ocean (or, if it helps, think of it as a swimming pool) into which you can dive at any point (trust me when I tell you, it’s deep enough even in the shallows that you can dive safely) and immerse yourself. Spend a few minutes, an afternoon, or a lifetime, but by all means, find the time and make the best use of it you can.


Okay, you still want a starting point? Kenneth Goldsmith sums UbuWeb up rather messily (appropriately enough) here. If you’re looking for something more concrete by way of suggestions on a place to start your exploration, here are a few personal favorites:

A collection of Alfred Stieglitz’s proto-Dadaist 291 magazine

An overview of Germany’s Bauhaus

Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New (BBC TV series, 1982)

Leslie Thornton’s Photography is Easy (Short Film, 2010)

Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic which also contains the original version of the haunting, strangely moving Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet)

And if, after all that seriousness, you need to descend temporarily into silliness, check out the Ubuweb 365 Days Project, which curates all sorts of strange, wonderful (and wonderfully strange) music from all over.

Review: Photomontage (Thames and Hudson World of Art series), by Dawn Ades

Photomontage, by Dawn Ades

Photomontage, as Dawn Ades notes in her introduction to the book of the same title, is as old as photography itself. It’s evolved alongside the medium, sometimes engaging it in dialogue (as with William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1830’s work, which presaged Man Ray and others), sometimes confronting it (as with John Heartfield and Hanna Hoch’s cutting, politically charged work), and sometimes raising a funhouse mirror to the culture at large, as in Paul Citroen’s Metropolis.

Photomontage, simply stated, is the combination of two or more photographs to produce a third work. The composite that results can be something that’s very obviously cobbled together, or something that’s so seamlessly done that it looks like a single image that came straight off of a single frame of film, or a single image from your camera’s memory card. While that kind of compositing can be done with (relative) ease now in Photoshop, it was once an operation that was quite labor-intensive, involving literal cutting, pasting, and airbrushing… which makes some of these works that much more interesting and impressive (no clone stamps or healing tools here; try scissors, and rubber cement).

Ades’ work is heavily weighted to the first half of the Twentieth Century. This makes sense since this was the golden age of photomontage. It was also the first great boom both in affordable, easily portable cameras, which itself ushered in a golden age for photojournalism. Each of these things informed, and sometimes cannibalized, the others. However, Ades does not neglect the more recent history of the form, including its influence on Pop art and in such non-artistic forms as advertising. As if to reinforce this web of influences, the text occasionally circles back on itself, placing later works in the context of their earlier predecessors.

One reason this book makes for compelling reading is that it’s hard to imagine whole swaths of both high and low popular culture without photomontage as an influence or antecedent. There are plenty of obvious examples, from so much of advertising art and propaganda, to say nothing of Andy Warhol’s silk screens, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” or Terry Gilliam’s whimsical animation work with Monty Python. But there are less obvious examples, as well. Whole swaths of literature owe a huge debt to montage, including Barthelme, Pynchon, and Rushdie, while music — from the hallucinatory mashups of Ferdinand Kriwet or Byrne and Eno to the cut-and-paste esthetics of hip hop and techno  — are practically unimaginable without it.

The great thing about this book, I think, is that unlike work that concerns itself primarily with “straight” photography, it encourages the reader to think of photography as something larger than itself. It becomes less a finished product than a jumping-off point, the initiation of something larger that treats the photograph as raw material to be manipulated, teased, or made to submit to some other artistic end. There’s something healthy in that, a reality check (or even, perhaps, a gut check) of sorts for photographers. Rather than viewing the print as an end in and of itself,an almost ritualistically charged object, we’re freed to view it from another angle. It becomes another piece of raw material, cut down to size (sometimes quite literally), but that also means it’s free to be something more than what it was originally. Even if you don’t practice montage, that’s a useful thought to keep in mind, because it can change and expand your sense of what your photography is capable of.


Learn more on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photomontage

This book is out of print, but you can still help support The First 10,000 by purchasing Photomontage (or anything else you’d like) through Amazon (affiliate link).

The Photographer’s Ten Commandments

I: Thou Shalt Know Thine Equipment: Thou shalt pore over the works of the Masters, and also of the Technical Writers, yea even of humble Bloggers, in order that thou may know thine Gear. Thou shalt understand that other Trinity, consisting of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and also ISO. Nor shalt thou neglect exposure compensation, or blaspheme thy Photos through the overzealous application of Photoshop. Lest it be forgotten, read thou also the manual.

II: Be Thou Considerate: Thou ought not to go to such lengths to get thine shot that thou elbowest olde ladies, or doth speak rudely to passersby. The Spirit has laid it upon my heart to tell you, “Do not be an Ass for the sake of a Photograph.”

III: Thou Shalt Learn New Things Always: Let thine curiosity be limitless, that your joy may also be, and may thou also not let a day pass without having learned some new thing.

IV: Covet Not Thy Neighbor’s Gear: Woe unto him who speaks evil of his gear, for which he paid many talents. Neither shall he lust after his neighbor’s Leica, nor his Canon, nor even his Sigma, though it be worth a mint and look so very shiny. Nor shall he confuse the talents lavished upon said gear for the talent he’s got.

V: Thou Shalt Not Look Down Thy Nose at Thy Fellow Photographer’s Efforts: You whose work is heralded by the trumpets of angels, who now shoot with charms to soothe the savage beast, whose photographs even now move men to weep and women to rend their garments, were not always thus. Act therefore with kindness toward those whose experience is not as great as yours, that you may help them to learn.

VI: Thou Shalt Experiment: While thou shalt keep these commandments reasonably sacred, thou shalt break the Rules (with discernment) if it will make a better Photo.

VII: Thou Shalt Strive For Simplicity: Whether thou makest photos of the fowles of the air, fishes in the sea, beasts of the ground, or yon Dairy Queen whose dilapidated neon Sign is so pleasing in God’s sight, thou really ought not to cram the frame with that which is not needful.

VIII: Thou Shalt Approach Thy Craft With Sincerity, Curiosity and Gratitude: This great and oft myfteriouf Gift we have been given ought not to be taken for granted. See and Appreciate the beauty of the random, ineffable, and sometimes incomprehensible World, the better to photograph it, and also to be glad for it.

IX: Thou Shalt Remember Thy Roots: Honor those who have gone before you, your great Teachers, as well as the Saints Henri and Ansel and Dorothea, and all others of blessed memory, that your work may honor and be worthy of them.

X: Thou Shalt Shoot Often: I mean, verily, how dost thou expect to be any good otherwise?

He who has ears, let him hear.

Postscript: Maybe these commandments aren’t to your liking (and maybe, for that matter, I should’ve done them in the NSV versus the King James; too late for that now). If so, share thine — sorry, yours — in the comments below. You can also peruse other photographers’ versions at the links below:

Brian Auer/Epic Edits
 Tewfic El-Sawy/The Travel Photographer
Enticing the Light
Photojojo’s Ten Legal Commandments of Photography
A list from RandomKaos

OEM Versus Aftermarket Gear: A Buyer’s Guide (Sorta)

You’ve got your new camera, and darnit, you’re fired up. You’re going to buy one of everything to go with it (two, if you can find enough change in your couch cushions). Well, hold on a second. Read this first.

Here’s the thing: regardless of which camera you’ve purchased, you have options as to what you buy. More specifically, will you buy OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), or aftermarket (someone made it who’s got no connection to the manufacturer)? There are advantages and drawbacks to both; below, I’ve listed some instances in which aftermarket gear and accessories are a good idea; others in which your results may vary; and finally, times when you’re best off going with the original manufacturer.

Buy Aftermarket:

1. The Strap: The strap that comes with your camera, provided it has one, is probably scratchy and uncomfortable. The straps that ship with Canon and Nikon cameras (the ones with which I have direct experience), while they’re strong enough, have two big drawbacks. One, they’re emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name, which doesn’t lend itself to subtlety, much less stealth. Much more importantly, they feel as though they could cut through your neck if you attach anything heavier than a loaf of Wonder bread to them (and your average setup, even with an entry-level SLR and 18-55 kit lens, ain’t exactly lightweight). There are literally dozens of other options, some much more stylish (MOD and Capturing Couture have some funky options), comfortable (I particularly like my Crumpler) or functional (a number of pros probably wouldn’t give up their Black Rapid straps except at gunpoint, and maybe not even then).

2. The Bag: Many manufacturers sell bags with their name on them. They’re competent enough; they’ll hold and protect your gear just fine. The problem is, in both their design and their very conspicuous branding, they practically scream “Camera bag!” There are other options that don’t draw as much attention to themselves, like Domke’s expensive but refined-looking bags, messenger bags from Crumpler and Tenba (not my personal cup of tea; they’re a little too exposed), and more specialized bags from the likes of LowePro, Pelican and Think Tank.

3. The Accessories: Here, I’m talking primarily about hoods, and lens and body caps. For something that’s basically a little plastic widget, some of these have no business carrying the price tags they do. There are scads of aftermarket options available here, many of them every bit as good as what ships from your camera maker of choice.

Now, a caveat: I strongly suggest against buying any of these things online. When it comes to straps and bags, you want to check build quality and comfort (not to mention, when it comes to a bag, how well it organizes and holds your stuff). No matter how good the description or product photos, they won’t tell you how the product feels, which makes a big difference when it’s hanging around your neck, or on your shoulders, for hours at a time. Also, you’ll want to try caps and hoods with your lens. If you’re not happy with the fit (some caps fit better than others, some hoods may fit your lens but vignette badly), find something that works better.

Toss Up:

1. Lenses: This one’s a subject of some debate. Every manufacturer makes some lenses that are very, very good, and a handful that are either mediocre or that flat-out suck. OEM lenses are generally better (even if sometimes only by a hair), but can go for twice as much or more than their aftermarket counterparts. Tokina, Tamron and Sigma each have some lenses that are very close in optical quality to their Nikon/Sony/Canon/Pentax counterparts, while some manufacturers (Zeiss, for instance) routinely make lenses that shame anything made by anyone else, though they have a price tag to match. Research carefully, paying attention to the good and bad that’s said about any lens, and be sure to try them for yourself, since even lenses with decent reviews may not be up to your standards. I found this to be the case with a Tamron 18-270 that I tried a while back; it was, to my eyes, unacceptably soft, and the autofocus was so slow that I could probably have left the shop for coffee only to find the lens still hunting for a focus point when I came back.

2. Gadgets and Peripherals: Even Amazon has now gotten into the game of selling remotes and such for different cameras. In some cases, the price point is low enough that you’d might as well go with the “real” brand (especially cable releases and wireless remotes). An off-brand battery grip might be much less expensive than, say, one by Nikon, but you may also find that there are issues that make the price difference seem much less attractive (build quality, etc.). This can also be true of GPS and WiFi peripherals. Again, shop around and do your homework.

3. Speedlights: Here, I’m going to speak mostly for the brand I know (Nikon): There are a few companies that make less expensive speedlights, but Nikon’s stuff is engineered to work with the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System), which is a big reason that some people choose Nikon over other brands. I suspect (though I’m admittedly going out on a limb here) that other manufacturers’ flashes are probably better built to work with their cameras than a number of the alternatives. With that said, if you’re not picky about how your speedlight works (heck, somebody’s got to be buying this stuff), the savings on an aftermarket product can be significant. One word of warning: DO NOT purchase an older speedlight (or use one you happen to have laying around) for use with a newer camera. Older speedlights can fry the electronics in many newer cameras. Check with the manufacturer, and/or with your local camera shop.

Buy OEM:

1. BATTERIES: If you buy an aftermarket battery, you may save a few (or several) bucks over one with a big  brand name on it. You may also find that it drains faster, overheats or catches fire, or does something else you’d generally rather a battery didn’t do to your camera. Your warranty generally won’t protect you if you’re not using an OEM battery, so be careful here. The same also applies to camera and battery chargers for the same reason.

2. Memory Cards: Check your owner’s manual, since some manufacturers only approve certain cards for use with their cameras. While camera manufacturers generally don’t make their own cards, there are a couple of big brands with a lot of market share (and mind share), like SanDisk and Lexar, and quite a few that make less expensive stuff (PNY, ProMaster, Kingston, Transcend, et. al.). The problem here is that some of them don’t “make” them so much as re-badge other manufacturers’ substandard stuff (if that Class 10 only clocked as a Class 6, it might end up with someone else’s name on it). In short, stick with reputable brands, and spend the extra cash. I’m not going to name names here (I’d rather not put up with a lawsuit), but that’s why you’ve got Google.

3. Filters: Some camera and lens companies, like Nikon and Hoya (which owns Tokina), make filters. Some companies (like Polaroid) license their name to other manufacturers, and other companies aren’t affiliated with anyone in particular. The bigger names are generally your better bets here, since they use better glass and coatings, and manufacture to higher tolerances. Some of the aftermarket options, on the other hand, use inferior or uncoated glass, or inferior manufacturing processes (and the Polaroid filters, in most cases, aren’t even glass; they’re plastic). Since you’ve presumably spent good money on your gear (especially your glass), don’t let your filter be the weak link.

Did I miss something? Have your results varied from what I’ve listed? Let me know in the comments!

Rule 38: Shoot With What You’ve Got

Little Torches

As much as I like having an all-in-one zoom in my kit, I’ve been making a point lately of keeping it home. At first blush, that might seem like a downside or an inconvenience. While it’s not as though I worry about the other lenses feeling neglected, I do worry about my skills going soft if I’ve always got that much range at my fingertips. So the last couple of weekends have seen me shooting with my compact, and with an 18-105.

Of course, as soon as you step out of the house with one camera, or one lens, you will almost certainly come across a shot that requires precisely the piece of equipment you haven’t got. I’m surprised that a flock of pigs didn’t go flying past just out of spite. But I digress.

The first “missed” shot or two was frustrating, to be honest, and I started to second-guess my choice of lenses. But then that little voice in my head reminded me of a few things:

1. You don’t want to settle into a rut. All-in-ones can be great at those times when you have no idea where you’re going, or what you’ll find when you get there. On the flip side, however, they’re like a bulky, heavy glass crutch. If you keep that same lens on your camera all the time — and this applies equally to anything else in your kit, whether it’s a fast prime with which you’re particularly enamored, or a speedlight — pretty soon you might find yourself settling into a certain type of shooting without realizing it. Changing one variable has an interesting way of creating a cascade of other little changes, sometimes in composition (especially when you find you have more wiggle room at one end of the spectrum and less at the other), and sometimes in something as simple as shooting with your feet versus your zoom.

2. You took this thing — this camera, this lens — on purpose, whether for the optics, the pocketability, or to challenge yourself. Stick to your guns. Again, this is your habits trying to reassert themselves. We can be the nicest, most accomodating people, but when it comes to our own bad habits, we can be positively intractable (just ask my wife). That applies double, I think, to how we shoot, because all of us at one point or another have mistaken technique for vision. So, just like giving up chocolate for Lent, it’s going to take some discipline in the beginning to redirect that habit energy.

3. You have a camera, don’t you? Quit complaining! At some point, I reminded myself that my first camera when I really started to “do” photography (my beloved, and now-deceased, Kodak) couldn’t do a lot of what either of my current cameras can do. I had some of the same complaints then as now from time to time, but I learned that complaining about it wasn’t helping things any; time spent complaining, essentially, is time not spent making photos. So at some point early on, I familiarized myself as best I could with all those limitations. Sometimes it was so I could work around them; sometimes I got creative enough to use the limitations themselves. The funny thing about doing this long enough is that it becomes a perverse point of pride when you’ve found some new thing your camera can’t do. I figured that I must’ve been getting better on some level, or I wouldn’t have known I couldn’t do that!

And when it’s all said and done, that’s probably one of the healthiest things you can do. Don’t curse the limitations. Embrace them if you can, work around them if you must, and if you’re really lucky, you may find yourself hitting some other quirk or limit. Let it send you off in some new and unpredictable direction like you’re in some kind of giant pinball machine, and have some fun with it.