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.)