Friday 18 January 2002

Talented practioners of a new discipline

Walt Whitman wasn’t part of the curriculum at the parochial high school I attended in Sydney a long time ago. Our attention was directed instead towards the English poets and a token Australian or two. So it was a surprise and a delight to be introduced to Whitman through the poem that closed Doc’s entry on Wednesday. What a gift, I thought, to be pointed in Whitman’s direction; I immediately recalled an essay written by John Szarkowski twenty years ago on the work of the French photographer, Eugène Atget.

Eugene Atget, Parc de Sceaux, 1925Atget died in Paris in 1927, having spent the previous thirty years assembling a comprehensive catalog of French architecture, landscape, and everyday life. In that time, he exposed perhaps ten thousand glass negatives—as Szarkowski writes in another essay, Atget “was not progressive, but worked patiently with techniques that were obsolescent when he adopted them, and very nearly anachronistic by the time of his death.” Nor was his work appreciated by his fellow countrymen. The American photographer Berenice Abbott rescued an enormous cache of his negatives from neglect and possible destruction. Through her efforts and Szarkowski’s, Atget’s reputation was secured.

Doc’s essay is titled, It’s the Writing, Geniuses. Doc’s genius lies in the way he builds his argument carefully and concludes it gracefully by pointing to Whitman’s poem. “Look!” he seems to be saying. “This will reward your attention.” I suggest that accomplished bloggers, Doc included, are practising a discipline that Szarkowski defines here:

As a way of beginning, one might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing. All of us, even the best-mannered of us, occasionally point, and it must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others. It is not difficult to imagine a person—a mute Virgil of the corporeal world—who might elevate the act of pointing to a creative plane, a person who would lead us through the fields and streets and indicate a sequence of phenomena and aspects that would be beautiful, humorous, morally instructive, cleverly ordered, mysterious, or astonishing, once brought to our attention, but that had been unseen before, or seen dumbly, without comprehension. This talented practitioner of the new discipline (the discipline a cross, perhaps, between theater and criticism) would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much of our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from a pattern created by the pointer.

I’m convinced the best blogs owe much of their power to such an art of graceful pointing. And, that though they may not look like journalism, they sure as hell feel like art.

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Saturday 02 February 2002

En-route to Nagasaki

En route to Nagasaki

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Sunday 03 March 2002

Bakersfield and Sprott

Jeff Ward at Visible Darkness was surprised to learn that in 1990 Bakersfield, where he grew up, was the 97th largest city in the US and Little Rock, where he currently resides, was 96th.

Shock number three. The 2000 figures show Bakersfield at 396,000. However, Little Rock must be growing faster. The 2000 figure is 548,000. I’m sure this includes North Little Rock, just across the river, which is a fairly substantial place. But damn, I never thought this place was that big either. So much for my small town feeling. I don’t suppose a half a million people qualify as a small town. But Little Rock still has something close to a small town mentality, though I confess that it’s actually less “hickish” than Bakersfield…

Just for giggles, I had to look up the figures for Canberra—313,000 according to the tourist web site. So, the capitol of that continent is smaller than Bakersfield? Now that does make for an interesting picture. Okay, so Sydney is twice the size of LA… that wasn’t the point. It’s just strange trying to picture places you haven’t been. I’m sure Canberra has nothing in common with Bakersfield, it just seemed like a funny thing to compare. Or, at least it would be funny if you’d ever been to Bakersfield.

I’ve been to both: Canberra many times and Bakersfield just once, in the late eighties, during my mid-life crisis, driving from San Francisco to Las Vegas via Death Valley with a girlfriend little more than half my age. It’s probably true that Canberra has nothing in common with Bakersfield. Certainly, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards never wrote a song that mentioned Australia’s capital city:

I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, “You know you always have the
Lord by your side”

And I was so pleased to be informed of this that I ran
Twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord.

Far Away Eyes (from Some Girls) Library of Congress: Walker Evans, Sprott, AL

I always loved that song, though not because of the reference to Bakersfield. One of my happiest memories of being married is driving with my wife through Alabama on a Sunday afternoon in the early eighties, listening to gospel music on the colored radio station. We were looking for the crossroads store at Sprott. We turned a corner and there it was, still recognizable from the photographs Walker Evans made there in the summer of 1936. Many of the photographs he took in Alabama for the Farm Security Administration were reproduced at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book that he and James Agee produced when Fortune declined to publish their collaboration as a magazine article.

All over Alabama, the lamps are out. Every leaf drenches the touch; the spider’s net is heavy. The roads lie there, with nothing to use them. The fields lie there, with nothing at work in them, neither man nor beast. The plow handles are wet, and the rails and the frogplates and the weeds between the ties: and not even the hurryings and hoarse sorrows of a distant train, on other roads, is heard. The little towns, the county seats, house by house white-painted and elaborately sawn among their heavy and dark-lighted leaves, in the spaced protections of their mineral light they stand so prim, so voided, so undefended upon starlight, that it is inconceivable to despise or to scorn a white man, an owner of land; even in Birmingham, mile on mile, save for the sudden frightful streaming, almost instantly diminished and silent, of a closed black car, and save stone lonesome sinister heelbeats, that show never a face and enter, soon, a frame door flush with the pavement, and ascend the immediate lightless staircase, mile on mile, stone, stone, smooth charted streams of stone, the streets under their lifted lamps lie void before eternity.

We traveled through the South, visiting most of the places Walker Evans photographed as well as many of the towns where Robert Frank had taken pictures for The Americans. I just found our itinerary folded in the back of the copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that I carried with me. I realize it’s time to read this extraordinary book again. In his preface to the Aperture monograph on Walker Evans, Lloyd Fonvielle wrote:

The text is an extended meditation on morality, perception, the limits of language, and the deceptions of art, all unified by elaborate descriptions of rural poverty executed with surgical precision and lyric genius. It contains the best of Agee’s magnificent prose, as well as jarring passages of adolescent self-indulgence, self-pity, and pretension. The result is a work of maddening, frightful inspiration, a masterpiece by any standards but a masterpiece that parades its flaws with poignant, nearly tragic recklessness.

“adolescent self-indulgence, self-pity, and pretension”—sounds just like a weblog. For all of its supposed faults, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men remains one of my favorite books. I’m glad to have been reminded of it.

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Monday 22 April 2002

I always wanted to be a writer

Looking at Jeff Ward’s photographs at Visible Darkness over the past few months, I often used to wonder why he stopped making those beautiful, mysterious, intelligent pictures. Today Jeff’s reminiscence of transforming himself from a photographer to a writer unleashed a torrent of memories. Jeff gets the sounds of camera shutters just right: “the near-silent fftt of a Leica or Rollei to the loud WHAP of a Mamiya RB-67” and the CLUNK of the Nikon F series. For a long time, I used Nikon F models for exactly the same reason as Jeff: the viewfinder showed 100% of the frame. Then I settled on the Hasselblad. The viewfinder showed a fraction less but I loved the square frame, the 2¼ negative, the solid THWUMP of the shutter and mirror, and—above all—the sense of control. Again Jeff nails it:

The real stuff happens at the edges, and I wanted control. Control, control, control … the world must be ordered, there must be some sense behind it all. Standing in the empty concrete and brown spaces of Southern California, I tried to make it work. To find in those rectilinear spaces something that I felt was inside myself. What I found out was— the harder you look, the less likely you are to find it. I suppose what I wanted most of all was mystery, and mystery just won’t come when called. Year after year of trying to make sense, when really all I needed to do was let go and let sense and mystery find me.

“Year after year of trying to make sense…” For the nearly twenty years that I was a photographer, I was never bored for an instant. Photography was endlessly fascinating: the perfect amalgam of art and science. I enjoyed sloshing around with chemicals, the solitude of the darkroom, the beauty and precision of expensive cameras, the physicality of taking pictures (requiring a kind of athletic grace more akin to sports than making art). Like Jeff, I was captivated by the intellectual challenge of transforming chaotic three-dimensional space into a cohesive flat plane.

I loved the fact that it was difficult and I could do it. Most of all I loved the idea that pictures could touch people’s hearts and change their lives.

Neo-Natal Intensive Care, Childrens Hospital, Sydney

In 1987 I bought a Macintosh. I had commenced photographing in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the Children’s Hospital in Sydney and thought a computer might bring some order to my unwieldy project. Which it did. I showed the pictures—the best work I had ever done—at Watters Gallery in August 1987 to general, though not universal, acclaim. Some viewers thought my photographs were intrusive, that I had exploited vulnerable people at a desperately unhappy time in their lives.

This was not true. I never photographed without permission and was acutely sensitive to every agonizing nuance. The only couple to ask that their baby not be included later changed their minds as their child hovered on the brink of death. For many parents, I had created a record of their child’s struggle towards recovery and their responses to that struggle; for a lonely few, my photographs are the only tangible evidence of their baby’s brief existence.

Then I stopped photographing.

It was not a sudden decision but rather a feeling that built up over the course of a year. Perhaps I had come up hard against the midlife crisis and this activity that had absorbed most of my waking attention gradually became meaningless to me. I certainly did other midlife crisis kinds of things: quitting my teaching job at the university art school, drinking too much, going out with girls half my age.

Maybe my disaffection sprang from a conviction that television had rendered photography almost irrelevant, a process only hastened by its elevation to the status of an Art. Or I was appalled by the corrosive influence that “theory” had begun to exert on practice, as an opportunistic postmodernism analyzed pictures to within an inch of their lives before abandoning them in the cul-de-sac of political correctness.

I know I yearned for those photographic values which started with Walker Evans and finished with Robert Frank and had fallen into disrepute. Possibly I accepted the fact that I’d done the best I was capable of and it was better to walk away and begin anew.

Most probably I had exhausted my reserves of love and compassion.

Desperately needing a new obsession, I attended an Apple conference in early 1989 where I saw the beginnings of what would become “multimedia.” I realized that this new medium combined three of my passions: images, writing, and movies. Multimedia metamorphosed into CD-ROM and then the Web. I learned to write and kept practising.

Peace Statue (Ayako), Nagasaki, 1997

At the same time I discovered multimedia I fell ardently in love with a Japanese woman, a love affair that—although it lasted less than a year—rekindled a fascination for Japanese language and culture that had waxed and waned through all my time as a photographer. A few years ago I visited Nagasaki. Walking through the Peace Park, which contains an astonishing array of kitsch sculpture, I saw a gigantic statue of a Japanese woman looking lovingly at a dove perched near her shoulder. When I looked more closely, I realized she bore an uncanny resemblance to Ayako.

Jeff Ward learned to write because he wanted to talk online about the pictures he was making. I learned to write in order to fill the void that opened up when I stopped making pictures. Jeff never wanted to be a writer. I realized recently that I always did. Now we’re a couple of ex-photographers who spend most of our time writing (though we both include photographs in our weblogs). Jeff thinks “words are easier!” I’m not so sure.

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Tuesday 07 May 2002

The unbearable sweetness of friendship

Tonight at the video store, where I’d gone to pick up Philip Kaufman’s movie of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the rental clerk asked me if I had a reward card (Rent Five, Get One Free). I found it, along with two photo booth pictures that I’d put there for safe keeping, then promptly forgotten.

Photo booth pictures of two young women

The photographs had been sandwiched between pages 200 and 201 of the copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I bought from Gould’s bookstore six weeks ago. In Chapter 9 of Part Five (which ends on page 200) and Chapter 10 (which begins on page 201), Kundera attempts to explain the reasons for Tomas’s compulsive womanizing. Chapter 10 opens:

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.

The obsession of the former is lyrical: what they seek in women is themselves, their ideal, and since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again. The disappointment that propels them from woman to woman gives their inconstancy a kind of romantic excuse, so that many sentimental women are touched by their unbridled philandering.

The obsession of the latter is epic, and women see nothing the least bit touching in it: the man projects no subjective ideal on women, and since everything interests him, nothing can disappoint him. This inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it. The obsession of the epic womanizer strikes people as lacking in redemption (redemption by disappointment).

It’s reasonable to assume that my copy of Kundera’s novel originally belonged to one or other of the young women. In the book, Sabina (Tomas’s mistress) encourages Tereza (his wife) to become a photographer, lending her “three or four monographs of famous photographers” and explaining “what made each of the photographs interesting.”

[Tereza] felt a rush of admiration for Sabina, and because Sabina treated her as a friend it was an admiration free of fear and suspicion and quickly turned into friendship.

What makes the photo booth pictures (formally) interesting is that they are framed as mirror images, except that the women have changed places so that each appears in the foreground of one photo and the background of another. The real interest is, however, in the pair rather than the single images; in the juxtaposition of two portraits of two women, happily mugging for a camera without an operator, as it records a tiny sliver of “the endless variety of the objective female world.”

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Saturday 13 July 2002

Better than a show

It’s been a photographic trip down memory lane at Visible Darkness. Jeff Ward’s own gallery series—Social Studies in Southern California Bars 1989-93—is simply remarkable. Forget the thumbnail sketches, choose either the 800x600 or 1024x768 show, sit back, and let the images wash over you. So much hope, longing, sadness, optimism, and desperation packed into every frame. And pay attention to the edges of the frame, there’s so much going on.

Jeff’s scattered other pictures though his blog over the past week: his own (Brak’n’Tune, Bakersfield, California 1990ish and California City, California, 1989) plus images by Lee Friedlander (Boston 1985), Bill Owens ( “We’d rather play games than watch TV”—Suburbia 1973), and Lewis Baltz (from New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California). The Baltz photograph brought back the fondest memories. He was the first to teach me how, by carefully balancing interior and exterior illumination, you could totally flatten three-dimensional space.

I know just what Jeff means when he writes about how, even though he stopped photographing some years ago, photography “never really lets you go.”

I’ve been composing all manner of texts, excepting fiction. I approached photography much the same way, experimenting with everything except fabricated tableaus. Eventually, I’d like to be bimedial. That’s part of what this website has been about. Experimenting with combinations of words and images, just trying to see what I can make work. It think there is a synergy between text and image that is rarely explored, let alone exploited to full advantage.

Being bimedial. What a marvellous ambition. Sign me up, Mr Ward.

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Dobutsu (animals)

Eel, Beppu, 1997
Eel, Beppu, 1997

Alligator, Beppu, 1997
Alligator, Beppu, 1997

Cow, Nagasaki, 1997
Cow, Nagasaki, 1997

Dog, Minamata, 1997
Dog, Minamata, 1997

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Monday 12 August 2002

Margaret Bourke-White & online books

Jeff Ward wrote:

I’ve been radically unsuccessful at anything resembling normal sleep for a couple of days now. I was supposed to be on the road to visit my parents, but I’ve ended up researching an idea. You see, in a few weeks I have to start writing a a book. I hadn’t figured out exactly what I was going to do. The course is “extended topics in nonfiction” and the quantity of writing involved will be massive. I feel much better dealing with something I’m comfortable with. Photography was my first choice, but specifically, what?

I’ll use the blog to string it together first. I like the idea of doing it in public; it will be like having advance reviewers. The working title thus far is Imaginary Heroes: The Rhetoric of Representation in 1930s America. Rolls right off the tongue, eh? I began to think of this while reviewing significant documentary photography books published between 1937-1941. The list was small at first, but it’s been expanded a bit with a few books that I wasn’t aware of until now.

Jeff’s list includes Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee (of course), You Have Seen Their Faces by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, and An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor.

This is a marvellous idea for a book and, given how much I’ve learned from Jeff’s ideas about Walker Evans, I can’t wait to read the book as it takes shape since Jeff is ideally qualified to write about the documentary photography of that (or any other) era.

For me though, no-one holds a candle to Walker Evans. I’ve always thought that Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange are monumentally overrated—the former melodramatic, the latter sentimental, both their reputations inflated by virtue of their sex. It’s as though curators, desperate to include some women from that period in the documentary pantheon, had to settle for work which, had it been done by a man, would have been regarded as competent but undistinguished. (I have no doubt that Jeff will demonstrate conclusively why I’m wrong and that’s one reason I look forward to reading his book.)

Perhaps this is simply a matter of taste, or ignorance. Although I hold Bourke-White and Lange in low regard, I adore the work of their near contemporaries Lisette Model and Helen Levitt. When I taught the history of 20th century photography, the classes devoted to Model and Levitt were invariably well-received—particularly by students who’d assumed that Diane Arbus was the only important woman photographer.

I used to devote a class to the work of either one or a pair of photographers: Bourke-White and Lange shared a double bill (as did Ansel Adams and Henri-Cartier Bresson). Model, Levitt, and Arbus rated a class each. Over the sixteen week semester, I’d show 21 photographers (11 whose work I loved, and 10 whose work I thought was important but didn’t much like at all). I realize now how I imposed my prejudices on the students but at least they were clearly stated.

No matter how much I dislike Margaret Bourke-White, she took one photograph that influenced my own picture-making enormously:

Margaret Bourke-White: Henlein's Parents, Reichenau, Sudeten Section of Czechoslovakia, 1938
Margaret Bourke-White: Henlein’s Parents, Reichenau,
Sudeten Section of Czechoslovakia, 1938

When I first saw this picture, in John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs, I nearly fell over, captivated by the way that Bourke-White had (perhaps accidentally) achieved a perfect balance between the interior flash and the external daylight, pulling everything into a single plane. It’s an absolutely remarkable photograph: about picture-making (look at all the pictures within the picture, including the windows, as Szarkowski points out below); about generations (the portrait of—probably—Henlein’s grandfather on the wall behind his father and that of his grandmother on the wall behind his mother, reflected in the mirror); and about history (what will become of them when the Nazis arrive? Or have they already taken over?).

Szarkowski writes in the accompanying text:

Bourke-While had an excellent sense of simple, poster-like design, and a sophisticated photographic technique, both perhaps the legacy of her apprenticeship in the demanding field of industrial reportage. She was excited by the new opportunities presented by photoflash bulbs, which made possible clear and highly detailed pictures under circumstances that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible for photography. The use of two or three bulbs, synchronized to flash together as the shutter was released, could produce a reasonable simulation of normal interior light. Bourke-While became very skillful at this technique, which required especially delicate calculation when the level of the interior flash had to be balanced against the level of natural light visible through a room’s windows. According to the accepted formula the outside landscape should be about twice as bright as the interior: otherwise the images seen through the windows would look like pictures on the wall.

In the case of the picture opposite, the photographer evidently miscalculated a little, but the picture is surely more interesting as it is than it would be if naturalistically correct. The two kindly old people sit in a room that is hermetically sealed with illusions.

I was so taken by this photograph that I think I may have said to my friend Gerrit Fokkema: “I will never, ever take a picture without flash again.” And for many years all my pictures, whether taken indoors or outside, used flash to balance the illumination and flatten the picture plane, just as Margaret Bourke-White taught me.

<aside>I’m selfishly waiting for Jeff Ward to start writing his book online. Ever since Steve Himmer and Joseph Duemer discussed writing a novel online, I’ve been seriously considering writing my own book about post-war Japan publicly. I think I’ll hold back to see how Jeff approaches the activity but ever since he broached the subject my sleeping patterns have been shot to pieces too.</aside>

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Monday 19 August 2002

The James Bond spy camera

Frustrated with my current digital camera (a Sony DSC-S70), I followed a link from Scripting News to Ray Ozzie’s weblog, where he sings the praises of the Casio Exilim EX-S1, “the best camera [Ray] ever owned.” As Ray puts it:

Casio EX-S1 digital cameraThe resolution is perfectly fine for on-screen viewing, it has a great flash, it has ample capacity when used with a 128mb memory card, it beats out even the Blackberry in terms of its battery life (weeks), and best of all, it boots and is ready to snap a picture in sub-one-second. Just works, just right. Strongly recommended.

The EX-S1 is a 1-megapixel camera in a stainless steel body that’s about the same dimensions as a credit card and only half an inch thick. It has a fixed focus 5.6mm/F2.5 lens (equivalent to 37mm on 35mm camera).

The size impressed me immediately—one disadvantage of the Sony is that it’s just too big to take with me everywhere. A greater negative, however, is the Sony’s shutter lag, an unfortunate “feature” of most digital cameras. It’s impossible to shoot fluidly with anything but a digital SLR (where the image is deflected by the mirror through the reflex prism to the viewfinder). With a digital camera, the image coming through the lens appears on the LCD screen. When you press the shutter release, the camera finds focus and the shutter closes (the image then freezes on the LCD screen), then the shutter is released. This can take up to a second and a half (less if you prefocus, but if the subject then moves you can’t be sure that you’ve focused accurately).

The fixed focus design of the EX-S1 virtually eliminates shutter lag since there’s no focusing to be done: everything is always in focus from 1 meter to infinity.

I had my doubts about 1-megapixel (the DSC-S70 is a 3-megapixel camera with a tack-sharp Zeiss lens) but I was interested enough to track down some detailed appraisals of the Casio camera—Ray’s weblog post is merely a recommendation from a satisfied owner, not a review that balances the camera’s strong points with its shortcomings.

There are two comprehensive reviews, at Steve’s Digicams and the Digital Camera Resource Page. Both are generally enthusiastic: about the camera’s tiny size, its acceptable (not great) image quality, and range of manual functions. But, taken together, they reveal a number of problems:

  • there is no easy way to turn the LCD screen on and off
  • the 4-way selector switch on the back is too small to be operated easily with a finger tip
  • the power button and the shutter release are so close together that it’s easy to turn the camera off when you try to take a picture.

This could be a perfect example of the old adage: Don’t buy the first model of anything, wait until they get it right the second time around.

Nevertheless, I remain interested: the tiny size and no shutter lag make it an ideal point-and-shoot camera while the 1-megapixel (960x1280) image is more than sufficient for web display, as Jeff’s image gallery proves (Steve, inexplicably, took most of his gallery pictures at the interpolated 1200x1600 resolution, so that most of them look soft). I’ll check one out the next time I’m near a camera store. Despite my misgivings, I may succumb to its obvious appeal.

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Tuesday 20 August 2002

Horace Bristol’s vision

Horace Bristol: from Honeymoon, Japan, 1948Thanks to Jeff Ward for alerting me to Horace Bristol’s Japan (a “folio of 14-16 page pamphlets bound together in a wrap-around case with bone closures”). I always considered myself well-informed about documentary photography in 30s America but I hadn’t heard of Bristol and certainly didn’t know that he had collaborated with John Steinbeck; nor was I aware of his Japan and Korea photographs. I was so taken by the “honeymoon” photograph (at left) that I tracked down a copy of the Japan book via abebooks.com and just received an email from the merchant to say that they’ll ship it to me today. The picture that Jeff reproduced from Bristol’s Korea book is terrific too—though I prefer the unashamedly “staged” quality of the Japanese photograph. Given that documentary photographs are never transparently truthful, but invariably constructed, I admire pictures that acknowledge the fundamental dishonesty that lies at their core, even as they pretend to depict “reality.”

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Saturday 24 August 2002

My kingdom for a 2-megapixel miniature camera

My search for a small, fast (i.e. minimal shutter lag) digital camera continues. I went to the city to buy Mocha Coffee Tim Tams and check out the Casio EX-S1 which, contrary to my expectations, was very comfortable to use (given that it’s hardly bigger than a credit card).

Minolta Dimage X digital cameraAs soon as the salesman realized I was a serious buyer, he switched into upsell mode and showed me Minolta Dimage X, a 2-megapixel model with a 3x optical zoom (the 1-megapixel Casio has a fixed focus 5.6mm wide angle lens).

About 50% more expensive than the Casio, the Dimage X makes a great first impression. The shutter lag isn’t appreciable, I can imagine taking it with me everywhere, and the 2-megapixel resolution is a lot more appealing. But the reviews all had a consistent theme: innovative design, marvellously compact for its feature set, disappointing image quality. Worse still, the camera doesn’t the memorize flash mode after power off, a major disadvantage for someone who never, ever takes pictures with flash.

Sony DSC-U10 digital cameraIt’s clear that the demand for itty-bitty digital cameras is strong. Sony has just announced their DSC-U10, another 1-megapixel camera about the size of a tiny mobile phone. Although there’s no optical viewfinder, it uses AAA batteries and memory sticks (of which I already have three). It might be worth a look when it ships.

If the Casio had a resolution of two megapixels instead of one, I’d buy it immediately. I guess I’ll have to keep looking—though the features I’m after may just be too idiosyncratic.

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Thursday 29 August 2002

Silkworms

Horace Bristol: mature silkworms being placed on trays
Horace Bristol, Japan, 1949: Mature silkworms being placed on trays

I collected Horace Bristol’s Japan (recommended by Jeff Ward) from the Post Office this morning. Just as Jeff suggested, it’s a real find: beautifully constructed photographs of everyday life in postwar Japan in fourteen individual portfolios.

I picked a photograph from the Silk porfolio, to honor Burningbird’s insightful review of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

Once I had the first key I could then see the second key, the second thread that binds the stories — a thread of silk. Sebald liberally sprinkles references to silk throughout the book, as an adult would sprinkle clues for a child at an Easter Egg hunt.

References to Thomas Browne’s father being a silk merchant; the purple piece of silk in the urn of Patroculus; the silken ropes given to Hsien-feng’s viceroys so that they may hang themselves, an act of benevolence as their sentence decreed that they …be dismembered and sliced into slices.

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Saturday 31 August 2002

Dreams can come true

Casio Exilim EX-S2 lens and viewfinderWanting a small digital camera I could take with me everywhere, I seriously considered the Casio Exilim EX-S1, before finally concluding:

“If the [EX-S1] had a resolution of two megapixels instead of one, I’d buy it immediately.”

Now via DPReview comes news that Casio “has announced a new two megapixel version of its ultra small, ultra thin ‘Exilim’ digital camera.” The EX-S2 is due to ship in the US on September 17. I hope I don’t have to wait too long for it to arrive in Australia.

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Friday 06 September 2002

Sony does it (yet) again

Sony DSC-F77 digital cameraAin’t capitalism wonderful? It looks like my search for a fast, carry-everywhere digital camera is over. Today DPReview published Sony’s announcement of the four megapixel ultra-compact fixed lens DSC-F77 and DSC-FX77 (Bluetooth) models.

Measuring 92.6 x 71.0 x 27.0 mm (3.65 x 2.8 x 1 in), the DSC-F77 has about the same dimensions as the credit card sized Casio Exilim EX-S2 that was previously at the top of my list (admittedly the Sony camera is significantly thicker but it’s still a light, pocketable camera).

More importantly, the combination of four megapixels and a Carl Zeiss lens ensures that the Sony’s image quality will eat that of the Casio, or the Minolta Dimage X.

Trust Sony. This news comes a couple of days after their announcement of the DSC-F717, an update of their DSC-F707 which is generally regarded as the best five megapixel prosumer digital camera. And they’ve promised a raft of new models between now and Christmas. Sometimes I wonder why the other manufacturers bother. (Though, if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be capitalism.)

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Sunday 22 September 2002

In the realm of no senses

Loren Webster and Jeff Ward continue the discussion on sentimentality, as Joe Duemer points to the superb analysis of the sentimentalist warblogger narrative at Liberal Arts Mafia.

Since I hardly disagree with either Loren’s or Jeff’s positions, perhaps this argument is taking place along two parallel paths. Whereas Joe pointed out—and I picked up on—the connection between sentimentality and brutality in warblogging posts, Loren and Jeff argued for sentimentality as a valid human response to lived experience (Jeff would use sentiment as a synonym for feeling). But Joe and I are criticizing (as Jeff acknowledged) an excess of unreflective feeling, not feeling per se.

And if Loren found himself “a little surprised by [his] own actions in defending the word” and by being labeled a “sentimentalist,” I can only wonder at the irony of my newfound guise as the Scrooge of Blogaria, denigrator of human feeling and thoroughly unsentimental modernist.

Fifteen years ago I quit a well-paid, tenured, enjoyable position as a lecturer in photography in a university art school because I no longer had the energy or inclination to argue with the ideologues who had taken control. Nowadays I rarely think about that unhappy period of my life but Mark Krupnick’s essay Why Are English Departments Still Fighting the Culture Wars? brought it back in a rush:

The usual explanation for the divisiveness in English is twofold. First, starting with the invasion of French poststructuralism in the 1960s, advanced literary interpretation changed from being formalist in method and traditionalist in ideology to a brand of French theory whose major distinguishing characteristic seemed to be that it required you to spend more time reading the theorists than reading the canonical texts of Western literature. The second major explanation for the culture wars is that they basically have been about politics, set off when ’60s radicals took their battles from the streets into university departments.

But the culture wars have petered out in many departments. Why so much less so in English? I suggest that the bitterness of the canon wars, and so much else in academic literary studies, has had a great deal to do with the kind of people who become English professors.

“Formalist in method and traditionalist in ideology” perfectly describes the way I chose to teach photography. In first year it’s common for photo students to try all kinds of wacky “techniques” as they regurgitate every hackneyed picture they’ve ever seen. But, at the beginning of second year, they frequently ask a crucial question: what should I photograph?

My reply was always the same: “Photograph what you love or what you hate, what inspires or terrifies you, what you yearn for or seek to understand.” And I would quote Lisette Model’s famous dictum:

The camera is an instrument of detection.. we photograph what we know and what we don’t know… when I point my camera at something I am asking a question and the photograph is sometimes an answer… In other words, I am not trying to prove anything. I am the one who is getting the lesson.

Not surprisingly this was anathema to the theorists and I was frequently attacked for holding an idealist or transcendentalist position. Yet my only concern was that photography students use their cameras to engage their world with passion and commitment—for me, photography was a primarily a method for exploring ideas and emotions.

Krupnick argues that “the role of moral tutor in the United States has fallen to professors of English nearly as much as to the clergy” and I may well have (unconsciously) taken on that role, a photographic variant of Krupnick’s “archetypal English-department academic,” who,

in contrast to academics in other fields, is involved in a quest to know himself or herself and arrive at a more intimate relationship with the good, the true, and the real. So English professors tend to experience alternative approaches to the truth as they see it as a personal affront, and cause for counterattack. The personal truly is political.

Rather, I saw the postmodernist position not as a personal affront but as rigid, unimaginative, and inappropriate for young students with a relatively constrained view of what could be possible in life and in art. Even had I wanted to, there was no point in staging a counterattack. I knew I was outnumbered when one of my brightest students recounted how Dr So-and-So from the Art Theory Department had told her that feelings were a bourgeois illusion, that she should work to embed in her photographs references to key theorists. I resigned and started working in multimedia and then Web development, not unlike Mark Krupnick, who jumped ship to teach religious studies. Again he could be writing about what happened in the art school:

The baby boomers have prevailed. Now there are fewer clashes within cutting-edge English departments, because nearly everyone is a theorist or cultural-studies specialist. The victors don’t always present a pretty picture. Baby-boom and younger academics in English often project a sanctimony about their secular political-cultural convictions that I never see when my Divinity School colleagues touch on their religious beliefs. Their moralism strikes me as being at odds with their obsession with intradepartmental power plays and their rapt attention to new fashions in criticism and whatever will advance their careers.

It’s a story in which there are no winners, only losers. The students lost most of all.

Later.

Though I started out with Jeff’s and Loren’s sentimentality posts in the back of my mind, the teaching experience pushed to the foreground. Not necessarily a bad thing, given their backgrounds and interest in literature. I’m intensely curious to see what Loren, Jeff, and Joe think of Mark Krupnick’s essay.

But I still want to address Jeff Ward’s two long posts about sentiment, feeling, and sentimentality. I’m aware of how deeply my own attitudes have been formed by my fascination with Japanese culture and aesthetics, most specifically Motoori Norinaga’s conception of mono no aware, which roughly corresponds to lacrimae rerum, the pathos of things (or in Nancy S. Dye’s phrase: “the fragility and suffering that define being human”).

I’ve been wanting to write about mono no aware for a while. Now I have a good reason to make a start.

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Thursday 26 September 2002

Deflecting reality

Joseph Duemer asks:

how come most of the personification I see in student poems—which I think are a fairly good representation of the culture at large—strike me as sentimental, which is to say, untrue? Is it only because the personifications—of wind, sun, moon—are so often cliches, or is there some further deflection of reality taking place?

Steve Himmer suggests a reason:

I wonder if it’s an issue of students having the poetic tools they’ve absorbed from the canon—the nature imagery, weather, etc.—but not cutting close enough with them to the experiences they’re trying to represent. So those standard devices are rendered unable to stand in for anything except what they actually are.

When I taught photography, the photographs taken by first year students were—with very few exceptions—sentimental clichés. Finally, at the beginning of a new school year, I suggested to the other instructors a strategy for addressing the problem. We drafted a flyer and posted it on all the notice boards in the department. It read:

For this semester, the following subjects are declared off-limits to first-year photography students:

  • Closeups of bark on tree trunks
  • Shadows cast by sunlight streaming though a blind
  • Grizzled old men with silvery whiskers
  • Coils of wet rope on sand
  • Toddlers with ice cream smeared on their faces
  • Nudes
  • Grainy pictures printed on high contrast paper
  • Portraits in which the subject stares at the camera
  • Slow exposures of water running over rocks
  • Unmade beds

These subjects have been photographed so much over the past few years that they are exhausted and in need of a holiday. We expect to see them back, refreshed and enthusiastic, in six months time.

For a few weeks, the students were bereft. They’d imagined that photography consisted of re-photographing the photographs they’d seen in books and magazines. But many of them rose to the challenge, freed themselves from their habitual seeing, and started to observe the world afresh. The photographs they made were marvellous.

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Sunday 02 March 2003

My brush with academia

I imagine my “overdetermined revulsion” (as AKMA might put it) for architects results from never having met one I liked. What is it about architecture school, I often ask myself, that turns decent people into insufferable know-it-alls?

Here’s the kicker, though: I’d only have to meet one architect I liked for my revulsion to evaporate.

I used also to loathe post-modernists and post-structuralists, for the way they ripped the heart out of art practice, taking something I loved almost as much as life itself, and trampling it into a noxious slurry concocted from fear, ambition, hatred, French theory, and PC claptrap mixed with generous portions of their own shit, piss, and vomit.

Whenever Dorothea Salo writes about graduate school, I’m reminded of the university where I taught photography and managed to complete an MA in visual arts. I don’t know whether the system was particularly slack in those days but when I commenced the MA the emphasis was firmly on art practice: my obligations were to make photographs, write regular progress reports, meet occasionally with a supervisor, and present the finished work in a gallery where it would be judged by independent assessors.

After a few false starts, I settled on a project—documenting everyday life in a neonatal intensive care ward. Although this bore little resemblance to my original proposal, I wasn’t troubled, since I’d always believed that art can’t be made to a formula but invariably takes on a life of its own, that it is possible to exert a fine degree of control over a project without necessarily knowing where one is headed. “You never know where you are with production,” said Brecht, “production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”

But by the time I was photographing in the hospital, the pomo clique was firmly in control and I’d grown used to having my values dismissed as “idealist,” “transcendentalist,” or “essentialist.” (I felt a kind of perverse desire to be castigated as a “bourgeois individualist” but Maoist invective had fallen out of fashion by the mid-eighties.) In what must have been an accidental irony, a malicious joke, or a deliberate attempt to bring me under control, I was assigned the “supervisor from hell”: an up-and-coming young Marxist-feminist with a PhD in post-structuralist art theory.

I knew instinctively that my project would be anathema, that her enervated theorizing applied to the raw emotion of my pictures could only harm me and the work. And I was already fragile, since I’d placed myself in the most extreme situation I could imagine, other than war—the point at which life begins and is immediately under threat.

Every day in the hospital I experienced moments of unimaginable happiness as well as periods of the deepest distress. Every day I saw ordinary people, faced with appalling misfortune, behave with the most extraordinary courage and dignity. I learned more than I can adequately describe. And I became close to people. There was no way I could expose their experience or mine to any “theoretical analysis.”

So I invented a dummy project.

Out of the hundreds of finished 11 x 14 color prints from my various false starts and the thousands of unprinted negatives, I picked one failed project: pictures of suburban gardens, artfully lit with a mix of ambient daylight and fill-in flash, which I knew she would like—precisely because their emptiness and sterility had been the catalyst for my venturing into the intensive care ward.

I took a half-dozen garden prints to our first meeting and encouraged her to tell me how they could be improved. A month later, I showed her another five or six photographs, sprinkling a fine dust of theory over the prints as I explained how I’d put her advice into practice.

What some might characterize as a performance of breathtaking dishonesty and cynicism was to me a strategy for survival—for which, as it happened, I was more than adequately equipped.

Since I’d always been prolific, exposing thousands of negatives, year after year, my three months worth of garden photographs looked like at least two years work. And because I was relentlessly self-critical, these rejected images would easily have gained me the MA. More importantly, after three years as a member of the Visual Arts Board (the Australian equivalent of the NEA), I was neither shocked nor surprised by the duplicity of art politics.

So the charade proceeded. Every month I’d bring a batch of “new pictures” for her to critique whilst I poured all my time, energy, and passion into photographing at the hospital. An hour of lies a month was inconsequential compared with the truth I encountered every day in the ward.

I’d booked an exhibition at the Sydney gallery where I normally showed my work. Eventually, once I’d chosen the prints with the help of some photographer friends and written the captions with the assistance of one of the nurses in the ward, I piled all the framed prints into my van one Sunday morning and headed off to the gallery.

We held two openings: one for the parents of the babies I’d photographed and the hospital staff, another for the usual art crowd. The photographs were well-received, the reviews were enthusiastic, the show would tour to other galleries, the assessors were impressed. To the delight of my parents, I got my MA.

My supervisor never commented on the “real work” though I heard from reliable sources that she hated it. As I’ve written in another post:

Some viewers thought my photographs were intrusive, that I had exploited vulnerable people at a desperately unhappy time in their lives.

This was not true. I never photographed without permission and was acutely sensitive to every agonizing nuance. The only couple to ask that their baby not be included later changed their minds as their child hovered on the brink of death. For many parents, I had created a record of their child’s struggle towards recovery and their responses to that struggle; for a lonely few, my photographs are the only tangible evidence of their baby’s brief existence.

Looking back, I’m astonished that I got away with the subterfuge. Dorothea might point out that circumstances conspired to ensure my success, that someone else—lacking my cunning and audacity—might well have been crucified. That’s true. But, once fate or destiny put me under the invidious control of someone who lacked sympathy for the work I needed to make, I had no alternative but to marshall the resources necessary to outmaneuver her. In doing so, I learned that my only loyalty was to the individuals I’d photographed and the images that resulted from our collaboration. I didn’t give a rat’s arse about my supervisor’s opinion, pomo theory, or my academic career.

It’s hardly surprising that I’ve constructed myself as the (flawed) hero of this narrative. My former supervisor would tell the story differently—and, for some readers (or many), her version might be equally persuasive. If I’d listened to her unbiased advice, if I’d been able to put aside my pathological distaste for art theory, if I’d been really open to experience… I could have created a work of far greater depth and complexity. Better still, I might have continued to teach happily at the university instead of resigning my tenured position, splitting up with the lovely woman I’d been seeing for a couple of years, and abandoning photography, thus diving headlong into a midlife crisis.

All I know is this: at that time, she was absolutely the wrong supervisor. For me.

It’s only recently I’ve realized that she could well have been precisely the right supervisor for someone else, an insight that depended on both the passing of time and my “meeting” a couple of post-modernists and/or post-structuralists I like and respect. Enter stage left: AKMA and Jeff Ward.

Whereas once I regarded pomo theory (and theorists) with revulsion, as a consequence of reading AKMA’s and Jeff’s weblogs over the past year, I’m more open to viewing the world through theoretical (rather than purely experiential) eyes. I’m also willing to admit—having encountered a variety of smart, engaging academics amongst the faculty of U Blog—that not everyone who works in a university is either a cynical opportunist, a ruthless careerist, or a time-serving hack.

So, when Dorothea attacks academia and Jeff defends it, it seems to me that they are each describing different aspects of the same institution, since universities are just as subject to Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crud”) as every other area of human endeavor.

The Theodore Sturgeon FAQ explains how the Law originated:

In his 1972 interview with David G Hartwell (published in The New York Review of Science Fiction #7 and #8, March and April 1989) Sturgeon says:

Sturgeon’s Law originally was “Nothing is always absolutely so.” The other thing was known as “Sturgeon’s Revelation.”

The first reference I can find in his oeuve appears in the March 1958 issue of Venture Science Fiction, where he wrote:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of sf is crud.

The Revelation: Ninety percent of everything is crud.

Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.

Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field.”

It is this Revelation that has now become known as Sturgeon’s Law.

As a codicil, the author of a Spanish web site refers to an old Arab fable I’d not encountered before:

A young Caliph asked the Great Vizier how he could tell if a poem was good or bad. “Always assume it is bad”, he was told. “You’ll only be wrong one time in a hundred”.

Whether one focuses on reducing the bad or adding to the good is probably determined by experience and temperament. Either way, if you’re successful, the end result is the same: slightly less crud, though I doubt—given our moral and intellectual frailty—that we’ll ever radically alter Sturgeon’s ratio of 90:10.

All I can say about my experience of academia is that I taught until my passion and commitment were exhausted and that in the time I was there I made a set of photographs that combined the best parts of me, the parents, children, doctors, and nurses I’d photographed, and the dozen or so photographers whose work I’d loved and studied for nearly twenty years. As Jeff Ward explained:

Some people would rather sing. In order to be heard, they rearrange the language they inherit into something that is unique to them. It is composed of the song of others; there is no choice in this. It is novel in its arrangement, but not in its themes. It is an engine that creates difference from uniformity.

Because nothing is always absolutely so.

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Wednesday 14 May 2003

Remembering Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn handbag in store window

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour