Author Archives: oook

why?

I’ve been reading Robert Adams’ Why People Photograph (Aperture 2005) and so been challenged to try to articulate my own reasons for the focus of attention and energies in this nexus of technology and aesthetics. Here are some of the current realizations:

  • The lure of fame and fortune has nothing to do with it.
  • I have a lifetime of ongoing mental projects, many of which have visual components. I enjoy both the pleasures of exploration and the assembly of findings into complex narrative structures, as tokens to pass to like-minded others.
  • I’m forever on the hunt for the magical frisson of “that’s it!” as my gaze shifts. False positives abound, and opportunities are missed. Catch-and-release is a better strategy than regret for lost opportunities.
  • My photography is mostly concerned with things and their stories, and not with states of mind, consciousness, or abstraction. I see that as a limitation of perception and vision that I’d like to address via the Ilachinski workshop.
  • The images I do capture trace my twisting and branching pathways in time and space, and are like breadcrumbs dropped to mark my path on the way to the Minotaur’s Lair. (addendum: see Andy Ilachinski’s take on this, below)

Robert Adams puts some things stunningly well in Why People Photograph:

Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too—photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community…

If I like many photographers, and I do, I account for this by noting a quality they share—animation. They may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it…

When photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does. Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator. (pp 14-15)

I recognize that you can’t really escape the derivative, especially if you’ve studied others’ work extensively, and so absorbed elements of their modalities of perception. It seems appropriate to settle for an acceptance of acts of homage when you recognize someone else’s vision in your own work. To become aware of and to acknowledge your sources, inspirations, debts is an exercise in intellectual honesty. We do, after all, learn to see by having things pointed out to us; gratitude is always appropriate. And our understandings are augmented by explanation and backstory.

Edward Weston’s Pepper #30 is a potent example: learning that Weston achieved the necessary depth of field by making an f240 diaphragm and then exposing the film for 4-6 hours greatly broadens our realization of Weston’s mastery in this single image of an everyday object. One never sees peppers with the same eyes after seeing Pepper #30, but there’s no need to repeat Weston’s procedures, nothing added to the epiphany by retracing his steps. But absorbing HOW he achieved the luminosity of Pepper #30 into one’s understanding of the glorious history of image-making is likely (however subliminally) to contribute to one’s own perceptual palette, and pretty sure to enlarge one’s future comprehension of others’ work.

Addendum: from Andy Ilachinski’s blog, 31 Aug 2014:

Our store of photographs – and/or, just as validly, any other impermanent artifacts that our essential being has “created” along its journey (including, in my case, equations, computer code, technical reports and papers, and even books) – accrued over a lifetime of “seeing,” are intertwined, nonlinearly nested visual palimpsests of an ever-evolving / never-complete document of our being; of who we really are. As such, they serve as potent probes, in hindsight – and only after careful reflection – of who we were, at some past time; and offer valuable clues and insights into how (sometimes even why) our essential being has evolved into its current state. More rarely, and with deeper contemplation, these emergent palimpsests can help us better understand and appreciate the forms and rhythms of the journey itself.

the succinct

One take on ‘simplicity’ is the quality of being succinct: getting a [sometimes complex] message across briefly, clearly, with a minimum of havering and expatiation, in a tidy package of nicely chosen words, or in an image that the viewer may grok without the need for exegesis. Sometimes there’s a way to express a complex story, with details and interconnections with other stories, in a spare or even gnomic gesture: one can know the story at a glance. Here are three examples taken today that seem to meet this criterion of the succinct:


Ann, Wife of

font6

tragedy2


and some from earlier captures:

Boothbay2

screech

awaken


My usual mode of photographic operation seems to favor the whimsical, which tends toward unconventional readings of images and require explanation, or the narrative, which attempts to engage the viewer in digressive backstories that revel in complexities and outward-bound links. Too many years in classrooms, not enough time in quiet contemplation of what I see. One can see a lot by looking.

simplicity

I’m thinking more and more about an online photography workshop with Andy Ilachinski (see his blog) that begins in a month or so. The subject, or title anyhow, is “Cultivating the Art of Simplicity in Photography” and so I’m grappling with what simplicity connotes. Seems like a good idea to keep a running tally of thinkage and experiments in this medium.

This foggy morning it occurred to me that we continually process the images—the video—of our lives. The focus of our attention, the frame, keeps moving, and we extract moments that please us, then (if we’re photographers) capture as still images to REMEMBER (and perhaps further explore) the moments of pleasedness.

Those thoughts in mind, I chanced to look out the window and saw this:


out the window

Since one of the issues I’m exploring at the moment is the personal importance of monochromatic [“black & white”] images, I tried out several filters (red, orange, yellow, green, blue) and chose the green as best exemplifying the overall feel of the moment of capture:

out the window

Now, it’s not that the image is really marvelous, but it does capture something of where my attention went at the moment: to the fog-shrouded treeline in the distance, to the imperfections in the nearest leaves, to the mid-August moment of Queen Anne’s Lace in the lower left. The image is a satisfactory rendering of a moment, something not-just-quotidian to contemplate.

There is a sort of simplicity here, an encoding of a still and quiet moment. Needs more thought, in a reflective mode.

compositae

I have in the past harbored reservations about composite photographs, thinking them somehow impure. That stance began to weaken when I really looked at Jerry Uelsmann’s work, and in recent years has fallen away almost completely. A visit (last weekend) to John Paul Caponigro’s annual Open Studio was especially heartening (see his Revelation series), though John Paul’s mastery of technique is daunting.

My own composite images have mostly been symmetrical mirrorings, which I’m pleased to think of as tessellations, though most of them are 2x and 4x and don’t really amount to multi-unit tiling, though some of the work with Betsy’s images realizes that potential:


First banner

My own process is sketched in the series of images below. Here’s the original photograph:


wavybits

The wavy bits in the water (lower left center) seemed especially interesting, so I cropped and mirrored them:

wavybit

…and then mirrored again:

wavybitsx4

…then cropped that image

wavybitsx4cro

and mirrored again:

wavybitsx4crop2

The result seemed a bit heavy, so I started again with a mirroring that moved the darker parts to the outside:

wavybitsx4crop3

…and then cropped that to reveal a mustachio’d djinn:

wavybitsx2crop3

or anyhow that’s one of the things I see.

when in Barre VT

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A visit to Hope Cemetery in Barre VT is pretty much a necessity for anybody interested in the artistic side of gravestones. All of the stones come from the various granite sheds in town, and showcase about 130 years of the carvers’ evolving styles and techniques. Quite a few are memorials to carvers (mostly of Italian origin) who died at young ages, of the silicosis that was epidemic in the trade until ventilation was greatly improved in the sheds in the 1930s.

Hope Cemetery has been thoroughly documented (there’s a list of more than 6,000 interments at findagrave.com, a nice introduction via Vermonter.com, another feature story from The Boston Globe, and many excellent photographs by Christine Anne Piesyk). Several of the memorials are regularly cited in articles on the cemetery, particularly Louis Brusa’s own:


HopeCemeteryBarreVT01a

The Bored Angel and the Tribute to a Stone Carver

I was especially impressed by examples of portraiture in granite:


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(the lattermost is Elia Corti, an especially gifted sculptor who was gunned down in 1904 in a struggle between socialist and anarchist workers).

Also of great interest is the remarkable design and the refined calligraphy and decoration:


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There are some especially opulent excesses:

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and my favorite, for the appropriateness of the surname Vanetti:

HopeCemeteryBarreVT09

All Done Farming

Pretty much throughout the 5 weeks of driving to California and back I noticed decaying barns and extinguished farms, but it wasn’t until we crossed from Ontario into upper New York state today that I finally stopped to photograph some examples. This was the one that begged me to turn around and go back to capture its tragedy:

all done farming

The process of decay begins when the barn is no longer actually used for livestock, and in a few years it’s fraying around the edges, vegetation is overtaking the silo, and the roof starts to go:


all done farming

In about 10 miles on state route 37 there was a succession of examples of dashed hopes and blighted dreams, in a farming region that was probably pretty viable a generation [or maybe two] ago:

all done farming

all done farming

all done farming

alldonefarming6


And so begins another bottomless project, tentatively titled “All Done Farming” and already nudging thoughts in the direction of another transcontinental road trip next summer. More than 45 years ago I was hip-deep in research on agricultural transformation in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. I was glad to abandon the subject once the dissertation was done—far too much heartbreak in the lives of farm families. Infrared seems to capture the desperation best.

Limitations

A few days ago I was standing at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers, in Plattsmouth NE, trying to figure a way to photograph the place. Here’s where a drone would come in handy, to gain Perspective on a very significant event (the joining of streams) that is happening in 2D, in the same plane I was standing on. The best I could do, and it was none too good, was to capture the sign that labels the place where Lewis and Clark’s expedition camped 213 years ago, surrounded by wolves:

confluence

The nearby field of sunflowers was more eloquent:

sunflower2a

sunflower1

The subsequent trip across Iowa produced no photos, though I started to think about a collection of abandoned barns, and another of grain-handling machinery, in the style of Bernd and Hilla Becher. That would be another trip.

bricolage in Austin NV

My fascination with cemeteries continues, each locale presenting novel styles and unprecedented content, enlarging my sense of cultural and temporal variety.

Each image fits somewhere in an emerging construction, the outlines of which are pretty clear (having to do with the Memorial and the Marmorial: with both the impulse to Remember and the [seeming] compulsion to make the Remembering as permanent as materials permit), but the details of linkage and explanation unfold bit by bit, as more images join the corpus. I’m not sure what the ultimate destination will turn out to be for this project, and it’s possible that it is in fact bottomless, but it proceeds site by site, and insight by insight.

As with so many others in my stable of enthusiasms, this project asks the question: How shall we account for what we see, what we encounter? Each bit [image, text fragment, etc.] is a holographic fragment of a grand edifice, and each fragment is productively considered as fundamentally linked to every other. We may explore the bonds, the implications, the entanglements, but grasping the whole seems to be beyond our meagre and measly powers.

The cemetery (actually cemeteries: the Catholic Calvary cemetery and the Shoshone graveyard are adjacent but separate) at Austin NV (a 19th century mining boom town) includes these elements [click on an image to embiggen]:

Basque surnames:

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AustinNV6


Native American surnames:
AustinNV34 AustinNV33

AustinNV47

AustinNV45


people who came from far away (Cornwall, Scotland, named counties in Ireland):

AustinNV11 AustinNV14

AustinNV18 AustinNV48

the ever-present deaths of children:

AustinNV16a AustinNV10

AustinNV12 AustinNV3

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evidence of active grave tending, next to the forgotten:

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opulent displays imported from afar side-by-side with the most basic and temporary of materials:


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AustinNV40 AustinNV41

novel iconography:
AustinNV44 AustinNV46

and sometimes bits of stories of the decedents’ lives. Google tells me that one young man died in a SCUBA accident in Monterey Bay, but was brought to Austin for burial:

AustinNV1
that another man survived a gunshot wound to his throat when his cousin’s husband tried to shoot her:
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borders:

AustinNV49

AustinNV50

AustinNV21

AustinNV9

And of course there’s lots more that I may eventually distill from the photographs I took during the visit to Austin cemeteries.