Friday, October 17, 2014

Monday, September 29, 2014

Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Touching a nerve.

When James Franco showed at Pace several months ago, a great many precious people in the "fine art" photo world were highly agitated. In certain quarters Franco's work met with anger, derision, and mockery. That reaction, however, pales in comparison with the criticism that is being leveled at Sandro Miller's collaboration with John Malkovich.  Words like "stunt," "pointless," "total rubbish," "trash," and "barfworthy" are being bandied about.
(c) Sandro Miller

A great many aesthetes minimize the images by pointing out that Miller is a commercial photographer. That criticism is nasty, ignorant, class-based stupidity, implying as it does that a commercial photographer is necessarily incapable of fine art. Here's one word for you who think that this is a reasonable criticism: Avedon. He worked for a living, using his camera, to sell expensive things to and for rich people.

The criticism that Miller's work is "self-promotion" is facile and disingenuous. Any artist who puts work out there is engaged in self-promotion. Every artist wants her images seen by as many people as possible. Here's one word for you who think that self-promotion is a fair basis to criticize a work: Warhol.

I know of no photographer who would not want the kind of exposure Miller has had. All the people sitting in the stands, bitching about how this project would have gone nowhere without Malkovich, don't bitch about a movie "succeeding only" because it has a great actor in it. That would be stupid, no?

[Another argument that is raised against Miller's work is that it violates copyright.  Though I am a recovering lawyer (12 years "sober"), I'm not going to hold forth on whether this constitutes "fair use." Suffice it to say that one could raise a myriad of strong arguments that this work does not violate the copyright of the original artists.]

Miller has clearly touched a nerve. That nerve ought to be examined, rather than used as a justification for heaping epithets. But self-reflection isn't popular in the "art" or any other kind of world.  Heaping derision is so much more pleasurable than reflecting on why one is bothered by the work in the first place.

So what is the problem?

Here begins my speculation: The success of the Miller work threatens both the gatekeepers of and aspirants to the world of "fine art photography." They resent that it is has briefly captured the popular imagination. They resent that they had no hand in deeming this work worthy of praise. They resent that it conflicts with their sense of what kinds of images -- and artists -- ought to be celebrated. How dare Miller, in emulating or paying homage to the greats, get more traction than the "greats" he purports to celebrate?

They are annoyed that the Miller piece is getting some of the most fundamental images of the 20th Century canon in front of the world, when for years they have strained mightily to get anyone to pay attention to art photography. If any denizen of the fine art world were to gather up all 35 source images for the Miller project and put them out into the world as a blog post, no one, and I mean no one, would give a shit.

Miller's "silly stunt" has far potential to induce people to look at the original photos than 10,000 lonely MFAs waxing poetic about Arbus.  
Miller's images have now been seen by more people than will ever look at Arbus. Outside of the the insular and rarefied world of fine art photography, who could even name the all 35 source photographers?

All of those source photographers are giants, true geniuses who strode the earth. Now here comes Miller to demonstrate that, in this day of Instagram and social media, he can capture the public imagination, using just a faint shadow of the original source material. That, my friends, is a raw nerve.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

First Friday Foul: How not to treat an artist.

First Friday is the monthly Art Walk on Bainbridge Island. Normally a time to celebrate new art installations with openings at the nearly dozen venues downtown, it was anything but a celebration for Peter Kirk, despite the fact that he was on the verge of his first art show. 

Thirty minutes before his opening, he was informed that the venue, Eleven Winery, had taken down his work. Peter had hung it only the day before.  

Peter was at a complete loss for words. His show had been arranged by Jen Till, Peter's mentor, a painter who has shown previously at Eleven. In January of this year, Jen sent several photographs of Peter's work, along with a description of his aesthetic, to Eleven. The Tasting Room Manager responded "I loved his work. We would be happy to have him showcased here at the winery."

In the weeks leading up to the show, Peter and the Tasting Room Manager exchanged emails about logistics, scheduling, when to hang the show, and providing an artist's biography. As recently as 3 weeks ago, there was nothing from Eleven but enthusiasm: "I am really excited to have your works featured here at Eleven!"

Instead of hosting a reception to be attended by friends and family, Peter found himself in the parking lot, with his artwork in boxes. 

This is not how an artist should be treated. 

Jen sent an email to Eleven's owner, who replied that the problem was that Eleven needed a "better system in place for making sure that all art pieces provided for display in our tasting room locations are pre-approved, so that there are no surprises for either the artist or the tasting room manager at the time of the show." Apparently he forgot that the Manager had emailed Jen back in January that she "loved his work" and that "[w]e would be happy to have him showcased here at the winery."

In closing his email, the owner added this little bit: "My artist friends have told me that rejection is part of the deal with a career in art, and that ultimately this experience will make you stronger, blah blah blah.  I'm sure you don't want to hear any of that now."

No. He didn't want to hear that.

Peter Kirk's website:

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Get Real About Getty

What would you do if you were Getty Images? If you're a big player in the banana market, you get to call the shots on the price of bananas.

The decision by Getty Images to make 35,000,000 images available for free makes sense for Getty. Getty is responsible to Getty.

Over the last 36 hours, my social media stream supplied a reaction ranging from "photographers hate Getty's plan" to "a second nail in the coffin of stock photography" to "welcome to the new world order of stock photography." "Surprise" was not among any of the headlines.

There seems to be a great need to re-mourn the death the stock photo world and re-indict Getty for its murder.

If you are going to criticize Getty, what is your beef? Is it that they try to pay as little as possible for content? (Who doesn't?) Is it that they destroyed the stock industry? (Someone was going to figure out how to take advantage of the emerging digital market.) Is it how they have driven down the value of what we do? (Who hasn't?) Do you expect them to be looking out for our best interests or their own?

So, the smart professional photographer doesn't operate solely within the Getty universe. The smart professional photographer knew this five years ago. Slinging rocks at Getty at this point doesn't make sense for the profession.

Our time would be better spent advocating for professional photography to the people who need to hear it, instead of complaining about the price of bananas to all the other monkeys. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Shoot my truck"

Last summer, my friend Jason (above) towed a 1968 Chevy truck from a field in Montana, where it had been sitting for 12 years, through blizzards and drought.  He was bringing the truck back to Bainbridge Island, where we both live.

The truck is from the island as well.

Jason, an architect, bought the truck from his friend Bob, a builder, who bought the truck in 1970 (Jason was born in 1982). It was Bob's work truck from 1970 until 2000, when it retired into the Montana field.

A new battery and a little starting fluid had the truck once again at work on Bainbridge. There were more than a few local tradesmen surprised to see "Bob's Truck" rolling around the island again. Now, when Jason drives the truck onto a work site, odds are close to 50/50 that some guy is going to say something about knowing "Bob's truck"

The truck is legend.

"I know it's not a Land Rover," he said, smiling, "but I want you to shoot my truck." He wanted me to take photos for two reasons. First, he plans to restore the truck next year and wants good "before" pictures. Second, Bob's birthday was coming up and he wanted to give him some nice photographs of his old truck.

I started asking Jason lots of questions about Bob and the truck. The moment I learned that Bob likes redheads, it hit me: this should be a pin-up.

It took approximately 7 seconds for Jason to agree with the concept.

Bob's birthday was last week.

He likes the present Jason got him the best.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reflecting on how I shot Helen (the 2012 Range Rover Sport).

Before I ever actually sat behind the wheel, I had story-boarded multi-shot sequences, unfolding beautiful image after beautiful image. There were going to be interlocking story arcs. I involved friends in casting and props and lighting. I introduced myself to random Land Rover owners on the island, seeing if they'd be interested in participating as extras and interviewed them about their own vehicles.

I had my afterburners on for serious in the two weeks before I got the vehicle. 

I wasted a lot of time doing these things. 

Fortunately, I realized this the day before I met Helen. (Helen is the name I gave the 2012 Indus Silver Range Rover Sport.)

What I realized is that I was constructing images of Helen with no actual knowledge of her.  As someone who shoots a lot of portraits, I should have realized much earlier that I needed a level of understanding of the subject if it was going to succeed.

So, I decided to let it roll.  I tossed the "script" and drove the car. Within 3 days (I won't say how many miles or at what speed), I'd spent enough time with Helen to create some great images.  The only way I could transmit any feelings about the vehicle were to have some feelings in the first place.

In the end, most of the shots would not surprise people who are familiar with my work.  There are trees.  There is water.  There are dogs.  Some are at night.  All are in available light.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Top 10 Rejected Concepts for My Land Rover USA Shoot

At the end of September, Land Rover USA invited me to photograph one of their vehicles for a week. I finished shooting a 2012 Range Rover Sport a little more than a week ago.

My assignment: No restriction or guidance. "We don't want to see anything we've seen before."

Here is what did not make the cut.

Top 10 REJECTED Concepts for My Land Rover Shoot.

10. PROVOQUE - an homage to Helmut Newton, featuring the 2013 Evoque

9. "CURRY" - a straight rip-off of the 80s Grey Poupon from the 80s, except with hipsters and curry.

8. How bullet-proof is my Rover?

7. The magic of side-impact airbags.

6. "PETA" - photos of PETA executives enjoying the intoxicating smell of fine leather and the pleasure provided by seat warmers, "executives" can include super models.

5. 101 English Bulldogs 

4. Pimp-My-Rover

3. 1994 Toyota Camry vs. 2012 Range Rover Sport

2.The Discerning Rover Guide to the Best Truck Stops in the Northwest.

1. "What happens in a Rover, stays in a Rover."  Two women dancing in the headlights of a Range Rover that happens to be sporting diplomatic flags of a certain former colonial power and the personalized plate "HARRY."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Recipe for Mother of All Cheese Sandwiches

Tonight's dinner.

Before I became a photographer, I was, among many things, a line cook.  I picked up this "recipe" while on a "follow shift" at Lark, a great restaurant in Seattle run by Johnathan Sundstrom (yes, it is spelled like that).  This was prepared for "family meal," as the staff meal is otherwise known.  This is a great recipe if you've ever found yourself with a bunch of small pieces of good cheese.

Preheat the oven to 400.

Ingredients: A good french baguette and a bunch of different good cheeses.  If it's a hard cheese, grate it.  If it's a soft cheese, spread it.  Mix goat and cow.  Put in some blue.  Provolone is tasty.  Some grated low-moisture mozzarella (only a little).  

Split the baguette half, but don't cut all the way through.  Pry the bread open so it lays fairly flat.  Load cheese.  

Bake until GBD*.  Enjoy with a nice slice of apple and a glass red wine.

*Golden Brown and Delicious

Monday, October 1, 2012

A brief word about creepy photographs.

I have, until very recently, taken the world as I found it in front of my lens. My work remains predominantly documentary style.

I'm now engaged in several new creative projects that depart from this otherwise straightforward approach. The above photograph is the first of a new series, Constructed American Dreams.

When I am confronted by an image that I find creepy, my first impulse, for the vast majority of my life, was to blame the creator of the image. The "creepy" photograph operates like a searchlight uncovering things that we would rather not have to reconcile or recognize within ourselves. Why? Because photographs are silent as to their meaning. If you find an image "creepy" that is as much about you as it is about the photographer.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday Dog of the Day

Cats seem to rule the Internet.

Every Friday, for the better part of the last two years, I have been posting my dog photos to my Facebook album, under the title "Friday Dog of the Day."

The time has come to ramp up my efforts against the predominance of cats on Facebook. Friday Dog of the Day will be launching its own Facebook page this Monday. Does the world need it? Frankly, yes. They are quite charming portraits, often with witty titles. I consider it a good kind of photographic graffiti.

Be a good boy/girl and repost/email this announcement, using one of the icons below this post. I'll give you a cookie. 

Ruby loves the beach, Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Friday, September 14, 2012

It was his grandmother's car.

She gave it to him when he turned 18.  The only body work it has ever had was the driver's side doors were pounded out.  Of course, it has been repainted. 

The owner smiled when I asked him about braking distance.  "I'll tell you this much, this baby can burn some rubber."  When asked the size of the engine, he said 420.  I looked suitably impressed.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Consequences for shooting people.

I received some nice news yesterday: my work has been accepted into the final round of judging for the 2012 International Fine Art Photography Competition and Grand Prix de la Découverte.  

I appreciate all the support and encouragement.  Here are 9 of the 10 images I submitted.  The 10th image appears earlier in this blog: here.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

On the Road

There are lots of photographs out on the road.

Over the next couple posts, I'm going to share some of the photographs that I shot during a recent road trip with my brother, from Seattle to Bloomington, Indiana. On the trip, we drove through Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, ending in Indiana.

Invariably on road trips, I find myself wondering about the content, character, and destiny of this country.  I will rely on the observations of better writers than I to articulate the complexity of America.

"As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?" Alexis de Tocqueville(1805-1859), French Historian, author of Democracy in America.

Cashino, Rapid City, South Dakota

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Rethinking Time (or Susan Sontag was wrong.)

In On Photography, Susan Sontag observed that "All photographs are memento mori.  To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability." 

My own experience of photography is different from that described by Sontag. That is not to say, however, that I don't recognize those "momento mori" aspects of what I do.  I would, however, say that it is more true that all photographs are a celebration of being alive.  To take a photograph is to see (or an attempt to see) something immortal, invulnerable, and immutable.  

I take photographs because something inside of me says "There it is."  [What it is I am never always clear.]  It is about the moment.  It is not about the moment after that or before that.  All photographs are affirmations, from this perspective, of the particular moment of being alive.  Each photograph from every photographer says "This is what it is to be alive for me."

Before they remind us of death, they first affirm life.  

Sontag would have known this if she were a photographer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Engstrom Men

The youngest

have the fewest photographs.

He was awkward.

Not like the eldest,

who understood his role in life.

For he had an example

The father

that had lived a life his progeny had not

stands as an example

or cautionary tale

depending on

how you feel.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Mall versus the Salon

I am part of an online Facebook-based photography group, called Flak Photo Network (FPN).  Discussion recently turned to questions about the future of delivering art through means other than the established gallery route. Gallery representation is seen by many as the prime legitimating gatekeeper to this world that describes itself as "fine art."

During the discussion, someone pointed to 20 x 200, a project by Jen Bekman, the goal of which is to provide great art at affordable prices.  At that point, some person (who is on the staff of a museum on the east coast) chimed in with "20 x 200 brought the mall experience to collecting." I invited this individual to elaborate what he meant, but he declined.

This kind of statement is emblematic of the world view that real art is somehow reserved for people of a certain educational/professional/financial accomplishment, whose tastes have been rarified to the point to where they know what is good and bad with regard to art. This world view scoffs at attempts to bring art to those who are not part of this true art elite.  To these people, art is something that can be discussed, dissected, commodified, and evaluated on something other than completely subjective basis.  This myopia leaves them both blind and self-congratulatory.

Why does this attitude bother me?  Art is for everyone.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Poetry and the Unprofessional

A friend of mine, photographer Jaime Permuth, recently attended one of the sessions of FotoFest and relates this story:

Rainer-Maria Rilke
'I heard from a reviewer at FotoFest that there is an artist who answered each of his questions by opening a well-worn copy of Rilke and reciting a line of poetry. When the 20 minutes were almost over, the reviewer asked one final question and the artist handed over the book and said to him: "here, read for yourself."

Jaime shared this story on Facebook and reactions to the post included the suggestion that the artist was being "unprofessional," and a "pompous, pretentious fool."  

In the ordinary course of our lives, we speak and think in prose.  The visual artist does not.  

Words, by their very nature, reduce and limit.   Also, words, despite their apparent objectivity, are subjective.  In that, they are like photographs.

I do not know what other artists are trying to do. But for me, when I create a piece of work that is successful, whether it is a photograph, a painting, or a sculpture, it must have a certain quality about it: it must be referent to something that transcends language.  

This particular photographer decided not to play by the rules.  No doubt that more than a few reviewers were put off by his recitation of poetry.  If so, they missed listening to some beautiful poetry and probably missed looking at some beautiful images.

There are no rules in art.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Baggage Room

[I have drafted this essay as an introduction to the photographs I am showing this week in Houston, Texas at FotoFest 2012, a meeting place for gallery owners, museum curators, art collectors, and critics.]

Before you look at my work, I ask that you read this essay.

The thing that unites you and me is that we are both searching for images that matter. This task is made difficult, but not impossible, by the fact that photographs are everywhere, every place, and being created all the time by a growing number of people.

Are the images that matter the ones whose content was conceptualized, planned, constructed, executed, and synthesized?  To quote Paul Graham, the art world is eager to showcase artists who “use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts.”  These artists operate by a creative process that art dealers can explain to their clients.  Curators of museums can explain these works to general public in a straightforward manner.  How these photographers work is readily understood.

But what about those photographers who engage the world as it is, whose works are not devised, arranged, or fabricated for special situations to imitate or replace usual realities.  One would think that, after the likes of Atget, Frank, Eggleston, Winogrand, and Graham, that the art world could appreciate a photographer whose work does not fit into a nice, neat, linear, coherent series.

If you could ask any of the artists above why they took a particular photograph, what they were trying to say, odds are that they would look at you as if your head were not screwed on straight. The answer to those questions is the image you behold.

The art world usually rejects work that it does not readily understand.  By readily, I mean within minutes.

For the most part, I am not interested in creating work that is easily understood.

I am presenting a work in progress, called Baggage Room. Since all the reviewers are not native English speakers, I will further explain the title. “Baggage” is American slang for a situation/condition/person/thing that gets in the way; a burden one is stuck with.  My photographs are designed to explore this concept, as well as the release or escape from “baggage.”  

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Last week, I attended the annual dinner and slide show held by the Seattle chapter of the ASMP (Amer. Society of Media Photographers).  As I mingled, I noticed nicely printed cards with photography related quotes on them, scattered among the tables.

I wandered, picking up cards here and there, looking for one that I liked. I'm a sucker for a good quote.

I stopped looking after finding this quote:

If your pictures aren't good enough,
you're not close enough.
- Robert Capa

Capa, one of the founders of Magnum, died after stepping on a landmine.  The mine blew his left leg off and he suffered shrapnel wounds to the chest.  He was covering the First Indochina War/Anti-French Resistance War.  The year was 1954.

Hockney & Atget

Avenue des Gobelins, Bainbridge Island, Washington (2009)
I don't remember when I first saw David Hockney's giant photo collages that he constructed by standing still and moving the frame of the camera around and building a scene, visual block by visual block.  It was in the early to mid 1980s, when I was a teenager.  For some reason I think it was at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The work struck me on a couple of levels.  First, Hockney proved to me that there were pictures within pictures within pictures.  Second, it transgressed "the rules" and yet was successful.  Third, it was playful.  While it was breaking the rules, it smiled in the process.  Lastly, there is a strong intellectual underpinning to the work.

Having only recently resumed looking at photography, I neglected it for the better part of the last two decades as I figured out what I am supposed to be doing on this planet, I was struck by how the relative absence of images that could be described as both playful and intelligent out there in Photoland.

Photographers in the fine arts today seem to be predominantly conjuring up images and projects to create a works that evoke pathos. Sure, the ability to transform someone's emotions through images are what artist's strive to accomplish. There are things that photographs do inherently well. With no effort, they create nostalgia, which is a close cousin to pathos.

Atget, Avenue de l'Observatoire (1926)
At some point, I want something more than pathos. That's where Eugene Atget (pronounced Ah-Chay) comes in. One of the foundational figures in photography, he died in 1927, he took pictures of what he liked to look at. He wasn't working on some grand commentary on why modernism is stripping the individual of his identity. He photographed what interested him. [I suspect that he would not fare well in today's art world, but that is an essay for another time.]  What interested him was the spectacle of life around him.  Sure, there is pathos, but the unmanufactured pathos of life.  But there is also humor, irony, sarcasm, and a whole host of other subjects that fell under his lens.  Here is a wonderful article written by Minor White, published in 1956, about Atget, made available through the George Eastman House. (Be patient.  It is a big PDF and takes a minute to download and is travelling all the way from 1956.)