My first essay as a regular columnist for Petapixel is sort of a downer, a repost of something that I wrote years ago about the challenges of being a photographer in the age of paranoia.
Stirring the pot with analog thoughts about digital photography since way back.
My first essay as a regular columnist for Petapixel is sort of a downer, a repost of something that I wrote years ago about the challenges of being a photographer in the age of paranoia.
Last week I had the pleasure of presenting my work to a group of photographers at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University’s Urban Landscape Night. These occasional events at the PRC serve as informal opportunities for photographers to share and discuss work produced around a theme. Hosted by PRC Executive Director Glenn Ruga (introducing me, above), each photographer is allotted 20 minutes to present 20 images to the audience. Last week’s event was moderated by architectural photographer Philip Jones, who wrote the following recap of the evening’s presentation (also published on the PRC’s blog).
It’s Impossible to live in a large city and not, at least to some degree, to fall under its spell. For some of us this fascination goes further and we find ourselves tramping down uncharted avenues searching for the city’s hidden secrets.
Photographers, in particular, feel this tug. Urban landscapes become the prime subject of their visual explorations. In fact, the way we’ve come to perceive certain cities has been shaped by the artistic vision of the photographers that document them. Paris has its Atget’s, New York its Abbott’s, Tokyo its Moriyama’s and so on.
The cities keep growing and evolving, however, and each new generation of photographers naturally observe their surroundings with fresh eyes that replenish our understanding of the here and now.
Last night the Photographic Resource Center held its “Urban Landscape” event here in the photogenic city of Boston. We looked at the portfolios of five urban photographers whose experience ranged from recent graduate to seasoned professional, but all of whom were dedicated and competent artists.
Glenn Ruga, The PRC’s executive director and I kicked off the evening with introductions, some observations about the urban landscape in general and then dove right into the presentations. Each photographer had 20 minutes to present 20 images. Three chose to lay their prints out on tables and two projected their work digitally. I was asked to give the “official” feedback although the audience wasn’t shy about contributing input of their own.
Our first presenter was Randall Armor <www.armorfoto.com> who is a successful professional photographer, having shot commercial and editorial assignments for Lotus, Fidelity, Boston Magazine and many others. He is currently the director of the photography program for Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts. This level of technical achievement and sophistication was evident in his many-faceted presentation. His work had several subcategories including black-and-white street photography, nocturnal time-lapse photographs of moving trains and complex incidental compositions utilizing signage, windows and reflections. It was as if he’d curated a group show of urban photography but just happened to have taken all of the shots himself. The work featured some real gems and it’s a pleasure to see this skilled pro take a break from commercial assignments in order to follow his own paths of artistic inquiry, each of which seems rich with potential.
The audience next shifted over to the table of Yorgos Efthymiadis <www.YorgosPhoto.com>. He came from his home in Greece solely to study at the New England School of Photography and has just graduated. His concepts about the United States were shaped by watching countless American television shows while growing up and when he actually got here it was as if he’d landed in an unknown and exotic land. His photographs, taken within walking distance from his house in Somerville, portray this sense of wonder. His approach epitomizes the idea of the lone witness out combing the streets for evidence of some sort of truth about where they live. Over his two years as a student he developed favorite haunts that he’d frequent to record the changes. The work has a mysterious quality because it feels as though someone has beamed down from outer space to collect data before establishing a priority list. Common objects acquire a logic-defying gravity and the familiar seems new. Although the work is fresh and unlikely it’s anything but naïve and I’m guessing that his time at NESOP has provided tools to analyze visual themes as they emerge. It will be interesting to see how Yorgos re-examines his home in Greece after he returns.
As an occasional juror more accustomed intermediate photography classes, I was impressed by the consistently advanced work displayed at Urban Landscape Night. Much of the credit must go to Glenn, Francine, Erin, Julie, and Laura at the PRC for providing this exceptional forum for photographers to meet and setting a standard that attracts real talent.
John Bunzick <www.JohnBunzick.com> also presented his photographs in printed form. John lives in Somerville as well but searches for photographic content in cities around the world. He is a formalist by inclination. Formal in the sense that he looks for specific structures and underlying forms when composing his images. Interestingly, the photographs he’s gleaned from everywhere are so thematically coherent that they might have come from a single stroll on one inspired afternoon. He’s distilled his criteria for this series to sites and details that he literally stumbles upon while glancing down as he walks. The camera tilts below the horizon line at oncoming crosswalks, sidewalks, parked cars, traffic cylinders and street debris scanning for a fragile order and balance within a somewhat shabby urban fabric. He’s finding grandeur that, by all rights, shouldn’t be in the corners and edges of our built environment. He has a keen eye for colorful high notes and a sense of humor that rewards the viewer for joining in his on his quest.
Although humans aren’t exactly forbidden from appearing in an urban landscape motif, their presence is more implicit than actual and you begin to wonder if someone’s just stepped off the edge of each photo’s frame. We’re not looking at architecture per se but at a crowded stage setting during an intermission. It’s a backstage glimpse at the timeless rhythm of a metropolis.
Our first photographer to project digital images was Andrew L Schirmer <http://andrewlschirmerphotography.zenfolio.com>, who seems to often have a camera on hand at just the right moment. His work demonstrates a strong intuitive approach that can be applied to whatever subject he tackles although his affection for the urban and architectural is clear. He selects a different post-production processing technique depending on what the image’s content seems to demand. Some photos will be rendered in grainy black-and-white while others have slightly desaturated color with HDR filtering and still others have a colorful pop to them. This nudges the viewer to consider each photograph on its own terms as a stand-alone object and seems to add uniqueness to the individual shots.
There’s a different dynamic to watching a sequential slideshow lighting up the wall after seeing a mosaic of images spread out on a table. The slideshow seems to tell a story, albeit a short one. The paper prints, while not as luminous, benefit from their sense of solidity and permanence.
Our fifth presenter, Jeremy Ackman <jeremyackmanstudio.com> helped expand the evening’s definition of the urban landscape. The series he brought has a playful yet slightly disarming quality. Somewhere within each of his images of what one might call “the outskirts of town”, there lurks a forgotten and forlorn shopping cart pretending it’s not there. Jeremy is a bit of a trickster and after he’s gotten our attention and we’re all looking for shopping carts he makes them harder to find so we’ll look harder at the photograph. One can imagine him as a nineteenth-century bird-egg collector, always with a sharp eye out for his quarry and delighted to find a new scenario where the shopping cart’s tucked into an concealed and fascinating nest. Fortunately, his photographic instincts have elevated this “where’s Waldo” challenge to a higher artistic level. By promising a surprise in each photo he engages the viewer more intensely. He also makes sure that each photograph is a compelling image in its own right and that the cart is an integral part of the shot. He took some good-natured flack from the group for changing the framelines from horizontal to vertical to square depending on the image’s internal composition but this seemed more like a power-point issue that wouldn’t be as pronounced in a mounted exhibition.
Basically, I was blown away by the overall competence and passion that the photographers brought to these projects. From the turnout of the crowd and waiting list of presenters it seems that the movement of urban landscape photography is alive and well here in Boston. And, again, I must express deep thanks to the Photographic Resource Center for mounting an event so well suited to the photographers and viewers who share a love for the city.
Check out my latest essay for Petapixel
Having made it through over 30 years as a commercial photographer and photography teacher, I find it daunting, at this stage in my life and my career, to feel the need to seek advice and assurance from professional peers. But participating in the New England Portfolio Reviews this past weekend turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done for my creative self in a very long time.
Jointly hosted each year by the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University and the Griffin Museum in Winchester, MA, the event drew scores of New England photographers to the ninth floor of BU’s Photonics Center to see if they had what it takes to be the next big thing. I was there in the hopes of discovering a clue as to what the next thing (big or otherwise) might be for me, whether as a photographer, a writer, an educator, or even eventually as a reviewer.
While I have become so much more confident in my abilities as a photographer and an artist in recent years (mostly as a result of teaching), I’m also keenly aware that the more I learn, the less I know. Even though I act as critic and coach for my students‘ work on a daily basis, it took a significant effort on my part to get ready for this weekend. And as excited as I was, even when I was sure that I was ready, I was also afraid that I wasn’t.
So many of the reviewers I met asked me (nicely) why I was there and what I wanted them to tell me, the implication being that they knew that I knew that I had an interesting and relatively strong set of pictures to show them. Implicit in that question also was the fact that they assumed that I knew that whatever they would tell me would only be their subjective opinion of my work, and that in all likelihood they could offer no magic advice or career-changing connection. They knew I knew that nobody was going to offer me a show, gallery representation or a book deal simply on the basis of a 25 minute consultation at a cattle call. But I hoped they knew that what they each said to me, taken in its totality, was greatly appreciated, and has helped give me the confidence to take the more difficult next steps.
So what did they say?
Universally, everyone seemed to think I was a pretty good photographer, and that both the concept and content of my work is strong. They all remarked on the quality and of my prints, all of which I had chosen and printed specifically for the review.
I seemed to split folks into 2 camps when it came to the color work, some loved it and some thought, as I do, that the black and white stuff is more important. In fact, the response to what I suppose you would call my editorial street photography was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone mentioned its consistent narrative quality, the sense that I am trying to create iconic imagery that actually says something as opposed to just showing something.
However, documentary photographer Michael Hintlian warned me against trying to say too much through the use of signs and other literal prompts that often appear in my pictures. He urged me to keep trying to find the balance between hitting my viewers over the head with what I want them to think and showing them just enough to let them come to that conclusion on their own.
Hintlian, whose work I have admired for many years, gave me perhaps the strongest specific critique of all the reviewers. At one point, he reacted noticeably to an image I had cropped into a more panoramic shape than all of the others I’d kept in their native 2:3 aspect ratio. “What happened to your beautiful rectangle here?”, he asked, and after a few minutes trying to justify the crop, I promised him that I’d go home later and try it his way. I did, and he was right.
Neal Rantoul, Professor Emeritus at Northeastern University, asked me maybe the question of the weekend. We were talking about our respective approaches to our work– he’s a landscape shooter using traditional large format film cameras as well as high resolution DSLRs, and I have great affection for the process I like to call “walking around taking pictures”. Perhaps thinking out loud, he asked me “do you ever feel like contemporary photography has left you behind?”
Boy, do I. It troubles me greatly that the rapid democratization of media and the ease of access to its tools and tricks seems to have rendered the simple recording of an intriguing moment without manipulation or unnecessary surface effect somewhat quaint.
We talked a lot about printing. Neal chose to qualify the format for the portfolios he would review as print presentations only, not iPads. I’m certainly not a Luddite– I love my iPad, my FolioBook portfolio app and my liveBooks website, but I find it sad that anyone would even have to make that distinction at such an event. “So few photographers know how to print well any more, or think that it’s even important”, I said. “At what point did we decide that it was no longer necessary to commit fully to an image by printing it?” Apparently, I was preaching to the choir on that one.
Neal and I also found ourselves inadvertently continuing the discussion the next morning when we bumped into each other at a nearby coffee shop. While we were there, his close friend and fellow reviewer Jane Tuckerman pressed her face up against the window and stuck her tongue out at him. Before I knew it, the former chair of Harvard’s photography department and current professor at the Art Institute of Boston perked things up by recounting her hilarious adventures teaching in Italy and bicycling through Croatia. I only wish that she had been one of my reviewers!
As he flipped from print to print, Clark University professor Frank Armstrong kept telling me how much he was enjoying looking at my images. “I really don’t know what I can say to you- maybe this one here is a bit too saturated?” It was a very colorful night scene on the Santa Monica Pier, a personal favorite, but I decided to take his suggestion to heart. Once again, the new print with a little of the edge taken off the color is better. Much better.
Listening to Akemi Hiatt, an independent curator from New York, brought to mind something that Helmut Newton once said- “Look, I’m not an intellectual, I just take pictures!” She saw deeper meaning and messages in some of the images that, frankly, had never even occurred to me, and she made me wonder whether I’m actually smart enough to be as good at what I do as I think I am. Her unexpected but welcomed insights proved the point that we make with students all the time: it takes two people to complete a photograph: the photographer and the viewer.
And Barbara Hitchcock, the former curator of the Polaroid Collection, even said to me "If I was still collecting, I would buy some of these.” Had she really suggested that, had she seen my work during her tenure as the keeper of Edwin Land’s photographic treasure trove and other important archives, she might have added a print or two of mine to one of those stellar stacks? You bet she did.
I could keep going, but you get the idea.
Since I started teaching in 2005, I have worked with many hundreds of photography students, first at New England School of Photography, and now at Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts. I’ve critiqued thousands of their photographs. This weekend was the first time I had ever submitted myself formerly to the same process. The multi-faceted goals I had hoped to achieve were more than met. I wanted to make the connections that might strengthen and advance my teaching career, to build confidence about the value and relevance of what I do as an artist, and to learn more about how portfolio reviewers look at and talk about photography.
Most importantly, I wanted to find renewed inspiration to practice what was best described by Jack Kerouac writing in The Americans; how Robert Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film”. Those words still give me chills when I repeat them, and they define why I continue to be a photographer in an age when everybody is a photographer.
Adventures at New England Portfolio Reviews, Part 2
"If I was still collecting, I would buy some of these"
Did Barbara Hitchcock actually just say that to me? Did the former curator of the Polaroid Collection really just suggest that had she seen my work during her tenure as the keeper of Edwin Land’s photographic treasure trove and other important archives, she might have added a print or two of mine to one of those stellar stacks?
You bet she did. But let’s back up a bit first.
I’ve been at the New England Portfolio Reviews for the past couple of days showing a box of new prints to museum and gallery curators, photographers and educators. It’s sort of like speed-dating for photographers- we’re given 25 minutes to show our work and to make our pitch to some of the most influential people in the business. And it has been a real blast. I don’t know why it’s taken me so many years to do this!
Jointly hosted each year by Boston University’s Photographic Resource Center and the Griffin Museum in Winchester, MA, the event draws scores of New England photographers to the ninth floor of BU’s Photonics Center to see if they have what it takes to be the next big thing. I was there in the hopes of discovering a clue as to what the next thing (big or otherwise) might be for me, whether it be as a photographer, a writer, an educator, or even eventually as a reviewer.
I had already met with a number of amazingly astute and supportive reviewers since Friday morning. I then spent Friday night re-editing and reprinting some of my stuff based on their feedback, but now it was Saturday at 11:35 and it was Barbara Hitchcock’s turn to take a swing at me.
Before I opened my portfolio box, I wanted to share with her one of my favorite old stories about when I believed we had last crossed paths. I was hoping she might remember me.
It was early on a Saturday or Sunday morning in 1988, and I had set up my 4x5 mahogany field camera in front of what I didn’t realize at the time was the Rowland Institute’s main entrance just off Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Rowland is the research and development center Land set up after his retirement from Polaroid in 1982 and I was there on a location scout looking for the perfect angle on the Boston skyline for Charrette’s 25th anniversary catalog cover. I was standing there with a freshly exposed sheet of Polaroid Type 59 color film in my hand, waving it back and forth and counting down the 60 second development time on my watch, when I heard the door behind me open.
She smiled a little more, balancing her chin on her hands and searching her memory trying to figure out who this goofball sitting in front of her was. I continued my totally off-topic tale.
Standing in the doorway I saw a professionally dressed woman who promptly asked me what I was doing. Assuming I was trespassing, I apologized and mentioned my assignment. She said that it was not a problem at all that I was there, she was just curious about what I was shooting. Then she pointed up and said “do you know whose office balcony you’re standing under?” I didn’t, but when she told me it was Dr. Land’s and that I was shooting his favorite view of Boston with a sheet of the film he invented, I at once peeled my jaw off the sidewalk and the Polaroid print from its goopy negative packet and considered the irony.
Barbara was smiling at me broadly from the other side of the table now.
She invited me inside and led me down a long hallway into what appeared to be a library. Hanging on the wall at regular intervals between the bookcases were a number of exquisite and very large Ansel Adams prints, all presented by the great landscape photographer to his friend Dr. Land over the many years that Adams was a field tester for Polaroid products. “Holy shit!” I remember thinking to myself– I couldn’t believe what I had stumbled into. It had been less than a decade since I had made my first solo cross-country pilgrimage to California and Yosemite with my little Yashicamat 124G to try to find Ansel’s tripod holes, and less than half that time since fate and bad timing conspired to allow me to enroll in his Yosemite workshop the same year he inconveniently croaked. Now I was looking at THIS!
I looked at her hopefully- did she remember me?
“Sorry”, she said. “It wasn’t me. I didn’t go to Rowland with Land when he left Polaroid. But that’s a great story!”
Feeling a little foolish, I figured I’d better open my box and try to redeem myself. I placed a neat stack of black and white prints on the table in front of her. She looked carefully and enthusiastically at it all, and then at some color work I brought along as well, and assured me that I was indeed on to something. “Keep shooting”, she said, and while she couldn’t promise anything, with genuine sincerity she said she would keep me in mind for whatever exhibition opportunities she may be involved with in the future. Somewhere a little bell tinkled, so I thanked her, we shook hands and I went off to my next 25 minute photo date.
I’ll share some of the specific feedback I received from some of my reviewers in my next post- stay tuned.
I recently sat down for a chat with Aimee Baldridge, editor for MAC-On-Campus, the educational support program for MAC Group. The interview is now featured on the MAC-On-Campus homepage. In addition to substantial student discounts on equipment, M-O-C provides educational training materials to help the photographers and filmmakers of tomorrow face the challenges of these very competitive, rewarding fields. Be sure to check out the links to some of our graduates’ websites and the gallery of photographs attached to the article (and don’t tell Daniel Blue that he now has a national audience).
Fine art photographer Karin Rosenthal will once again be leading her popular nude in nature Summer workshop - An Introduction To The Human Landscape, from August 11 thru August 16 in Landgrove, Vermont. Karin’s exquisite work appears in major museum and gallery collections worldwide, and her workshops sell out quickly. Karin is a truly unique talent and a generous instructor– I can’t recommend her workshops highly enough to serious photographers looking to raise their level of quality and creativity. For more information, contact Karin directly at email@example.com
(Howard Phillips is!) CDIA’s 2013 Summer Graduate Gallery exhibit is in production and looking great. The opening reception on Friday night coincides with our Marathon fundraising exhibit. Congratulations to our graduating students- looking forward to seeing you all there!
I feel like a 14 year old girl who just bumped into Justin Bieber at the Gap! Abelardo Morell, whose unforgettable camera obscura photographs of hotel rooms around the world should be very familiar to every one of my Camera and Workflow and Photographic Seeing students past and present, was here in Studio D today recording an interview with a National Geographic film crew led by noted documentary producer and Nat Geo photo editor Pamela Chen.
I was able to spend a few minutes with Abe to talk about what we do here. He was quite impressed with our school, and shares our attitude about teaching digital photography to career minded students while reminding them of the rich artistic and technological history of our medium.