Cultural Placeholder

Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago when this concept was front and center on my mind. It is not so much there now, after several texts with a close friend where we effectively put it to bed. Read on.)

Going out on a limb here as this is new for me.  

The concept of “Cultural Marker” or “Cultural Placeholder”, the idea is that the work will have its place in our culture in the future. Can our work be used down the line as a way to place it in the time in which it was made? Can future historians turn to it and peg it as being made in a certain time frame? This might entail some tech, looking at photography in this stage of its development, but also aesthetics. I know, pretty abstract. Is there something inherently in the work that speaks to the time in which it was made? For instance, I know that pictures I made in the 70’s look dated and different than pictures I make today. And last, if the work is preserved, why would anyone choose to highlight mine for cultural place holding over someone else’s?

Presumably, there would be a perspective on one's work that pegs it as being from a certain era. For instance, early photography could be a cultural marker by all of it being in black and white before the discovery of color. Of course, there would be many subcategories such as Asian or European origination, technological ones like progressing from glass plate negatives to polyester plastic negatives, or later, to digital capture. But, if your work became used as a cultural marker in the future what was it that made yours unique and stand out as an embodiment of the time, place and culture in which it was made?

Eugene Atget, Paris. Atget, obviously a hugely important cultural placeholder.

Taking this one step further, could work be made for the purpose of it becoming a cultural placeholder? Photographing content that sits squarely in the crosshairs of "now", such as new buildings, or new cars, or new fashion styles? Presumably, a picture of Donald Trump would place us firmly in our particularly twisted and perverse present.

But, where's the art in that, I wonder? As I think this through as I write the piece, there is a "time capsule" character at play. Put present-day content in a sealed box, bury it and direct it to be opened in 100 years. This gets us into the realm of conceptual art, where the idea is as important as or more important than the final result. 

What fun to go down this path. Are your pictures made with the significance of a cultural marker in mind? What are your thoughts about your work's relevance and importance in the overall scheme of things? Safe to say many of us just don't care. We'll be dead and gone so what's it matter? Fine. But who's to say whether it should be preserved or not? 

In the end, I arrived here: I cannot predict or say whether or not my work will have any significance after I am gone, as a cultural marker or anything else. All I can do is the best that I can, never letting shoddy work or sloppy thinking prevail. Keep the work at its highest level, do not compromise standards, and push on with new ideas and new forms of execution. 

You? Comment below.


Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 2, 2022

A Little Crazy

Well, things got a little crazy the past two weeks or so. First Skye (my granddaughter) came back from camp in NH early due to getting Covid and then Maru (my daughter) got it at the end of Skye's quarantine. We live close enough to one another that I have either been at the studio or off on a road trip.

Last week I took 48 hours and drove to Burlington, VT to shoot. The weather was wonderful and I shot enough to feel like I was successfully renewing earlier days when I was very prolific. I've been printing the past 2 days and there are good pictures, thank God.

Driving northern Vermont's back roads behind the wheel of this

was just plain fun. Do you know that going through Smuggler's Notch the road goes down to one lane but is still two-way? That had its moments. 

Smuggler's Notch, NH

At this point, I ask not so much: well framed, well exposed, cleanly seen and above all enough perception to make pictures that are smart.

I make no excuses but it has been a long time dry. Hard to not be cynical, to not regard photography as something largely in the rearview mirror. Much time in the studio since moving in February; editing, filing, labeling, including contextual information with bodies of work, updating the archives' database, etc. Probably too much, as looking back makes it hard to look forward. With friend Gail here from Toronto a few weeks ago giving me a needed kick in the butt I am looking forward again. 

Put your eye up to the finder, look, compose, wonder, set focus, hold the camera steady, trip the shutter, think: different angle, different focus, lower, higher, needs different time of day or different time of year? After all, what are the chances that as you stand in front of whatever, you are there at the best of possible times? Remote at best. Or, are you in front of it with a camera because you've spotted it at the best of possible times? Who's to say?

Ah, perfection is elusive. And can be dull too. Let a little humanity in there, a little   roughness around the edges, a little something wry, twisted, organic, intuitive and felt. Try not to make past pictures over and over, but be adventurous and provocative.

Wake up! Approach your subject like a hunter, after your prey. Analyze it, think it over, and look critically. You are making photographs, a medium where being done well is exceptionally difficult. Look at the genius of the masters that preceded you. Do you aspire to that? Bring your A game.

The blog now has a comments section. Feel free to respond. Confirms my efforts.

Topics: Northeast,Color,Digital,New Work

Permalink | Posted August 23, 2022


(Note: This is a post that's been sitting in the archive of posts written but not published. You can tell it is a little out of date, but I believe it is still relevant.)

Sometimes you know when you make some new work you are going to lose some fans. Either the new work is so different you've crushed their expectations or you just have to make it and the hell with what others think. 

Case in point: San Jose Squares, 02.2018

Downtown San Jose, CA, shot square, hence "Squares", mid-February. Black and white. Of stupefying quality, really first-rate, in a flat tonality reminiscent of my 80's and 90's square work in black and white (Oakesdale, Portland, Hershey, Yountville, Nantucket, etc). The new Nikon, feeling familiar but foreign too. A subtle but perceptual shift in rendition,  so natural and neutral as to be transparent.

I am writing this soon after seeing the Sally Mann show at PEM and clearly, it had a powerful effect on me. How anyone can cut through the surface like that is beyond me. She's like a hot knife through butter, or a cut from a razor; fast but no pain til later.

But today at the studio I went through the San Jose prints and this is hard work to get behind. Flat and quiet, you've got to work at these before they become available. Fred Sommer's "short attention span" comes into play here and they are easy to ignore. But slow down and look in there and they are relentlessly rewarding.

Hm. I seem to be making work that no one gets or no one cares about. San Jose,  Shrink Wrapped, winter 2017, the Spruce Pine work (2012, 2013,2014, 2018) on the Road to Pinnacles,  2018. Maybe I'm just making bad work, but I don't think so.

At the Sally Mann, Sara Kennel, the curator, spun the work so well, confirming its substance and genius with every breath. No dispute, this is hugely important work. What an opposite, though. I know, who am I to compare myself to Sally Mann? Well, someone who's been doing this longer than she has, so perhaps I qualify. But if I do go there, I look at her ability to cut through, to essentialize a photograph compared to mine, which are sharp and clean and precise and cold(?). Beautiful seems to reign supreme in mine but she will kill conventional renderings and use the materials to get what she wants, rough and edgy and visceral. Jesus, go through that show and you leave needing a bandage. Know of the work she did of the decaying bodies? Look at her pictures of her husband and they seem to forecast his end.

So San Jose Squares? Deserves another look, some serious perusal perhaps. Maybe you're moving too fast, doing too much and it's affecting the quality of your life. Slow down, take a longer look at some work that contains... a lot. You'll walk away richer, I  guarantee it.

See the full series here.

Topics: Black and White,Digital

Permalink | Posted August 4, 2022

How About This

How about this: a group of photographs connected by geography, day, time and year, proximity, mindset, intellect, experience, ambition, a sense of irony, and perhaps humor.

Hm.Too much? Incomprehensible?

Let me see if I  can unpack this a little. (Note: this won't work very well if you are casually passing through this post. To get where I am going you'll have to open the links to look at the referenced series. Apologies, for I am a career teacher. Perhaps you'd allow me to place you in my classroom for a short time.)

I was visiting friends who are down a peninsula aways in rural Maine in mid-summer. Off I go with my friend and we come across Small Point, Maine about 7 a.m. on a late July morning. Walk and photograph. Just as in countless times over a now-long career. Look, point the camera, acquire frames like stacking cards, one influencing the next, the previous conditioning what next to look for over 30 minutes or so. 

The pictures are about where I am but also what I think and what I am selecting and making. Sequencing and juxtaposition playing a key role at the same time as light, color, texture and form. 

In my work, I have always been interested in sharing why I make a decision to make a photograph and also in what I do to it to own it. My pictures have seldom been just about the thing itself, even though I am as reliant as we all are for great content.

The morning had great content.

Back to these new pictures, with a disclaimer or acknowledgment that my sense of what a series is and what it takes to make a series has changed definition throughout my career with now being no different. In early days, pretty rigid, as in Nantucket and Yountville: flat light, wide lens, close in with dense content that is urban. Later, as in Grain Silo or Salton Sea: unfolding interest in color, spacial depth, making internal statements while working with a far more open landscape. Embracing digital tools and inherent quality and flexibility. On to late mature works like Field in 2016, very pure black and white and all the traditions that embraces, but with some very contemporary concepts contained within. Or San Jose Squares in 2018, with consummate photographic quality aligned with truly unusual ways of seeing an ordinary city landscape.

To now, the concept of series work having percolated and morphed through a physical move to a new home, a family in crisis, some deaths, a pandemic, and a country in real disarray over three years or so. How could the pictures I make not change? Well, they have. If our art is not a reflection of who we are and what we think and feel I would question the honesty of the art.

Yes, I am getting to the pictures.

First up, an arbitrary and manufactured interest in doubling up, to form a structure or containment, for we can't aimlessly photograph everything. Later this all fading out, going to triples and then that fading away too. Again: early days rules and rigidity. Today? In mid-2022? Not so much.

So, where does that leave us? Some new pictures and some sense that things are different, at least in intent. I believe there is less baggage in my photographing now. Freer from past positions and responsibilities, released from the effort to make "significant work" and free now to just photograph. 

I would very much appreciate your thoughts. Is this a post that is clear and concise or garbled and meaningless? 

The effort to imbue our pictures with meaning beyond just an impression of what is in front of the camera is one of photography's great challenges. We know people have done it and their genius is commendable. But one method that has traction is in sequencing, juxtaposing, contrasting, and framing. I learned a lot from Nathan Lyon's Notations in Passing and I suggest you would too.

Have I struck a chord in your efforts to be better or to make work that has staying power?

Let me know at: Or comment below.

Topics: Color,Digital,Northeast

Permalink | Posted August 2, 2022

Almost Not Photo

Summer and 18 years old. On the Vineyard. My soon-to-be girlfriend Cindy left the party one night in July to get more beer. Off she went in the used 1957 BMW Isetta she had bought that afternoon. 

Not exactly a photo post but a good story.

This was an unusual mode of transportation

with two wheels in the rear that were closer together.  It was something of a cross between a motor scooter and a car. They were not known for their ability to take corners at speed. I had spent a few moments with her earlier explaining that corners were not her friend. She didn't pay much attention.

At any rate, off she went in a hurry to get down island ( 20 minutes away) before the liquor store closed. I couldn't go with her as the party was at my parent's house (who were away, of course) and I was worried people would trash the place.

The Isetta was a little different in terms of getting in and out of it. The front was a door that opened

with a steering wheel that moved out of the way so you could get in.

I didn't see Cindy for a bit but then she arrived back at the party with no beer and a bloody forehead. Turns out she was going a little fast at the big corner at the bottom of the hill on Middle Road about a mile from the house. A tree stopped her foreword movement and her head hit the steering wheel. She was shaken up and not pleased that her new car was toast. We went down to look at it the next morning and the whole front was pushed in by the tree. It was towed away later that day. I figure she owned that car for about 10 hours.

What got me into this line of thinking and remembering? I was at the Newport (RI) Car Museum yesterday photographing the cars and they had an Isetta. Photography played a part here as I wouldn't have much to share with you without an Isetta being there and getting me thinking about that night in the summer of 1965.

I hope you're having a good summer. Stay cool.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted July 19, 2022