Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Remembering Helen Levitt

James Agee, author of the seminal documentary work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families had this to say about Helen Levitt's work.

“At least a dozen of Helen Levitt’s photographs seem to me as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying, and enduring as any lyrical work that I know. In their general quality and coherence, moreover, the photographs as a whole body, as a book, seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gently and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.”

NYT article from March 30, 2009, Art and Design.
NPR's All Things Considered story from 2002.
James Agee's forward to A Way of Seeing from Masters of Photography (Thanks Paul S.)

Helen Levitt - New York, 1974 from the book,
Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt - NYC, 1940

More Helen Levitt Books

Monday, March 30, 2009

This is Not a Pipe

Photography is the great democratic medium. Anyone can do it. You don't need artistic talent or training, you just need to know how to trip the shutter on your camera. Everyone seems to be taking pictures and these pictures show up in print and on local blogs, Facebook and Flickr. But all photographs are not created equal. Some photographs are more equal than others. What is it that makes a photograph compelling? In the book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes, talks in depth about what makes a good photograph.

..all we can say is that the object [the photograph] speaks, it induces us, vaguely, to think. And further: even this risks being perceived as dangerous. At the limit, no meaning at all is safer: the editors of Life rejected Kertesz’s photographs when he arrived in the United States in 1937 because, they said, his images “spoke too much”; they made us reflect, suggested a meaning – a different meaning from the literal one. Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels or stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.

Photographs have both a denotation and a connotation. The denotation is the obvious, literal meaning. The connotation is the symbolic or metaphoric meaning. Below are images from
Andre Kertesz. Do these images "speak too much"?

Andre Kertesz, Martinique

Andre Kertesz - Satiric Dancer, 1926.

Rene Magritte, 1928-29, The Treachery of Images

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Let's Be Frank

Robert Frank is in DC today for a lecture/conversation with with Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs, National Gallery of Art. A Conversation with Robert Frank at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, March 26, 2009 @ 3:30p.m.

In an interview with Art in America in 1996, Robert Frank talked about the photo below from The Americans.

I am still affected by that one photograph of the man on the hill in San Francisco, the way he looked back at me. I think that's why that's my favorite picture in the book. But it was, you know, forty years ago, a long time ago, a different time.

Robert Frank - from The Americans, San Francisco, 1956

The Americans first published in 1958 and 1959, changed the course of 20th-century photography. John Szarkowski, critic, author and curator at MOMA said that Robert Frank established a new iconography for contemporary America. Other books by Robert Frank include, Peru: Photographs and Paris.

The photograph below was one of the last still photographs Frank made before he devoted his creative energy to filmmaking in the early 1960s.

Fourth of July, Coney Island, 1958
Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

No Accounting for Taste

About 60% of english words derive from Latin. The Latin proverb De gustibus non est disputandum loosely translated means "There is no accounting for taste" or "personal preferences are not debatable". A person's taste and their perceptions are distinctive. Everyone sees the world differently depending on their age, gender and culture. Any number of photographers can photograph the same thing and the photographs will be surprisingly dissimilar.

According to a recent study in published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, beauty affects men and women's brains differently, even though both men and women describe beauty as being "original, interesting and pleasant."

Alec Soth talks about gender differences in his artistic statement for Portraiture Now: Feature Photography at the National Portrait Gallery.

A critic once pointed out to me the different ways in which I photograph men and women. With men I seem to be poking fun, he said, whereas my depiction of women is more reverent. He makes a good point. Many of my best pictures of men are playful (a man in a flight suit holding model airplanes, a shirtless man with carrots in his ears). But the women I photograph look more like saints than clowns. As a man, I suppose, I identify more with my male subjects. In them, I see my own awkwardness and frailty. Women are always “the other.” In assembling this group of portraits of women, I’m aware that I’m treading on dangerous ground. When I was in college, I learned to be distrustful of men’s depictions of women. I remember seeing Garry Winogrand’s book Women are beautiful in the school library and being shocked that it hadn’t been defaced for its blatant objectification of women. But looking back, maybe I was too harsh. Whether one photographs men or women, it is always a form of objectification. Whatever you say about Winogrand, his depiction was honest. In putting together a collection of my best portraits of women, I’m trying to come to terms with how I honestly see and depict women. Are my pictures romanticized? Sexualized? Why do I see women in this way? For me, photography is as much about the way I respond to the subject as it is about the subject itself.

© Alec Soth, Ron from Fashion Magazine by Alec Soth (v. 3)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Kid Can Take That Picture

My friends Amy O and Brad stopped by this weekend to have a chat and catch up. At some point, while Amy O was obsessively playing a game on her phone, she was thumbing through the March/April issue of American Photo. She asked what was so great about the Leibovitz photo of Susan Sontag at Petra. Amy maintained that everyone takes that same photograph at Petra. I think that to fully understand a photograph, you have to consider the original context and the external context. Knowledge of the photographer, the subject and the circumstances enhance a viewer's understanding of the photograph. The external context is also important. How was the photograph presented? How and where a photo is seen affects it's meaning. In this case, the photo, published in an issue of American Photo about the work of Leibovitz, was one of many photographs in the issue from Leibovitz's long career. It is helpful to know the work of Leibovitz and Susan Sontag to establish the context. Sontag has written extensively on photography in her book, On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others and was Leibovitz' partner. On the surface, the photograph is a nice black and white image of a tourist at Petra, but underneath the surface, it's much more.

Annie Leibovitz - Susan Sontag at Petra, 1994

The Thing Itself

In the book The Photographer's Eye, first published in 1966, John Szarkowski describes the photograph as "The Thing Itself".

The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it; unless he did, photography would defeat him.
"But he learned also that the factuality of his pictures, no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself. Much of the reality was filtered out in the static little black and white image, and some of it was exhibited with an unnatural clarity, an exaggerated importance. The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so. It was the photographer's problem to see not simply the reality before him but the still invisible picture, and to make his choices in terms of the latter.
This was an artistic problem, not a scientific one..."

Photographs can distort reality. Sometimes we remember the photograph rather than the actual event. Memories are prone to distortion. Last week 60 Minutes reported on the flaws in eyewitness testimony. A woman was shown six photos, and told to pick the perpetrator. After studying the photos for five minutes, she picked an innocent man who was later falsely convicted and jailed. A person's schemas can distort memory. A schema is a mental model of an object or event that includes knowledge as well as beliefs and expectations. Memory is also distored by source amnesia, hindsight bias, the overconfidence effect, confabulation...the list goes on. Photographs can then distort memory.

Lee Friedlander, Untitled, 1962

From the Photographer's Eye

Monday, March 23, 2009

Photographing People

Eugene Richards will be conducting the Photographing People workshop at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, VA, June 6-11, 2009.

Richards famously quit Magnum twice and left the agency VII Photo Agency in February 2008.
Also appearing at this year's festival are Sylvia Plachy, Martin Parr and Gilles Peress. There are more workshops from Larry Fink, Nina Berman and James Nachtwey and David Alan Harvey.

Eugene Richards

Fred—just returned from prison—cries as he greets former girlfriend Rose. Eugene Richards included this photo in his 1987 book, Below the Line: Living Poor in America, which is out of print.

10,000 Hours

You might have heard about Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers: The Story of Success. In the book Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule. Basically, if you want to master something, you have to work at it, a lot. In the book, Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin.

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.“

So, if you want to improve your photography, you have to shoot more. The more you shoot, the more ideas you will come up with and the better chance you'll have at creating a successful image. The image below was taken by photographer Brooke Williams and posted on Gladwell's web site.

Photo Editing 101

Robert Frank shot 767 rolls of film for the 83 images in the book The Americans. That's 83 divided by 27612 or .003 percent. He spent one year editing his work. A good photographer learns to become a good editor. The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule or law of the vital few means that in any set of things (like a set of photos), a few (20 percent) are vital and many (80 percent) are considered trivial. The shorthand for the 80/20 rule is vital few / trivial many. Think of it as quality control for photographers. If you are looking for a good read, the classic book by Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values talks about the metaphysics of quality.

The Robert Frank exhibit is still at the National Gallery of Art until April 26, 2009. This is what the NGA says about The Americans.

First published in France in 1958 and in the United States in 1959, Robert Frank's The Americans is widely celebrated as the most important photography book since World War II. Including 83 photographs made largely in 1955 and 1956 while Frank (b. 1924) traveled around the United States, the book looked beneath the surface of American life to reveal a profound sense of alienation, angst, and loneliness. With these prophetic photographs, Frank redefined the icons of America, noting that cars, jukeboxes, gas stations, diners, and even the road itself were telling symbols of contemporary life. Frank's style—seemingly loose, casual compositions, with often rough, blurred, out-of-focus foregrounds and tilted horizons—was just as controversial and influential as his subject matter. The exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of the book's publication by presenting all 83 photographs from The Americans in the order established by the book, and by providing a detailed examination of the book's roots in Frank's earlier work, its construction, and its impact on his later art.

From Robert Frank's The Americans

Dedicated to all concerned photographers

I first read about the conceptual photographer Les Krims in the book
Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. The author, OSU professor Terry Barrett writes about Les Krims's book, published in 1972 called Making chicken soup;: A book by Les Krims which pokes fun at concerned photographers. Barrett calls Krims's book elaborate sarcasm directed at concerned photographers, who, in Krims's view, do no more than serve up placebos to make us feel better about social issues, rather than changing them, much as moms serve chicken soup to cure colds. Krims is quite the provocateur. Lewis Hyde's book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art talks about the mythical trickster. Below is a Les Krims photo from 1975. Brilliant mischief.

Les Krims,
Nude in Blackface Modeling for a Photography Workshop in a Motel Near the University of Missouri, 1975

If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough

Welcome to Not Close Enough, a blog about photography. It was Capa who said "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough". Capa was a founder of Magnum. The NYT has an article and slideshow about recovering the lost negatives of Robert Capa. The photo below caused quite a stir when someone said it was faked. Here's a PBS story about the allegation.

Robert Capa, The Falling Soldier