Topic: Commentary (160 posts) Page 1 of 32

New Normal


Egg Rock, Concord, MA


Got gloves? Check

Got Masks? Check

Got Purell? Check

Heading out to photograph, definitely some new things to bring along in the world of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

As I wrote last week, I have been going to the confluence of the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord Rivers in Concord, MA to photograph.

This feels like going to a retreat of some kind. Outdoors right now is very good; to be outside, to breath fresh air, to feel the sun on your face. With no people nearby. We can escape the dreadful reality for a little while, get a break. Are the photographs I make going to shake the world with their quality? No. Are they getting repetitive as I go back and back? Yes. Does it matter? No.

Seeking peace, stillness, tranquility, serenity? Find your Concord River. Could be your backyard as the season changes, the trail along the shore, the hike up the hills outside of town. It doesn't matter. Do it for your mental health.

BTW: Concord is loaded with historical importance. Think Paul Revere and this country's Revolutionary War, his famous ride, the assembly of the troops at Concord and Lexington, "the British are Coming, the British are coming".

I am writing this on April 3  in Massachusetts, a state that has not peaked yet and that has not enacted a stay-at-home order. Considering how very dire the forecasts are, I expect one any day, if not in the state then in the whole country.

Stay safe, please.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 3, 2020

Our New World

Welcome to a very different world than just a week or two ago. The coronavirus is dictating serious changes to our daily lives. It is also making us very stressed out. I offer as evidence aisles at the grocery store with carts that are full of toilet paper being pushed by customers that look a little out of sorts, maybe a few wires in there shorting out due to too much watching the virus coverage adding into the mix a totally bizarro Trump news conference or two just to craze things up a little more.

At any rate, as most of us can photograph alone, this is an excellent time to be out with a camera. We, after all, are in the business of commenting on our world in some form and it would seem to be important to display it in its current condition. I know I am feeling this way and am trying to get out every day to look at my surroundings through this new and quite odd perspective. 

It is ironic that just when we need each other for moral support we must "social distance".

(images  of NYC courtesy of Google Images)

I have told my private students that I will not be meeting them face to face for what I hope is a short period. While a few were working towards presentations at upcoming portfolio reviews, those are now canceled as well, so the pressure is off for a bit. 

I will, however, be continuing to work with students 1:1 via emails, Skype and online. I will do this on an hourly basis at a reduced rate due to the lack of actually meeting. Contact me here if you are interested in working with me.  

Stay healthy, strong and active (if you can). I for one am not taking a break from my life. But I am trying to live my life amongst fewer people right now. I do this for myself but also for the larger issue of helping to protect others should I be a carrier. I will take precautions, heed the CDC guidelines as much as I can and keep photographing. I wish you all the best.

Down the Street from Liz's, Concord River, Concord MA 3/2020

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted March 16, 2020

Looking at Photographs

There is an art and a discipline to looking at a portfolio of someone's photographs.

Coming to my studio to look at my work:

Sitting across the table or side by side with a portfolio in front of us, the box is opened and the first print exposed. The light is the right color temperature and there is no glare. It is quiet and peaceful, unlike a large scale portfolio review which is chaotic.

A one-paragraph description of coming to my studio to look at prints:

You arrive, access is easy and parking no problem. I greet you. We exchange pleasantries. I take your coat. I offer you a water or an espresso. We settle in. I ask you what you'd like to see. You tell me. I go and find it, the portfolio sitting on a shelf behind us or in a flat file case. I place it on the viewing table, with good balanced light on above us and open the portfolio. There may be a cover statement, a title page, or there may not be. We begin to look at the prints, arranged sequentially and sitting in a short stack, sliding one print to the side, looking, then sliding another one and so on. Time tends to fold in on itself, the world compressing down into this other world contained in the prints we are looking at. Clearly, the  pictures are taking us on some sort of journey, there is a progression. We are taken in by these pictures where the white border around each print constitutes a frame into this place in the prints before us, containing depth and clarity and revealing details you might not notice were you there in front of the real thing, in the actual place. As we finish you may become aware of sounds or distractions you had not noticed when you arrived as your attention comes back to where we are and what we were doing is now a recent memory. You may choose to look at other works and this means the process will repeat, or you may not. Let's be clear, this takes effort, attention to many aspects of the experience.  I advise not looking at too much. We talk a little. We can range off topic or relate an anecdote about the place or circumstance we've just looked at, the art we've just seen. Or we can discuss characteristics about photography itself as it relates to these photographs we've just seen. We finish and I thank you for coming. You leave.

If I am showing my work to someone else I find such a clear benefit.  I learn so much for I see my work through the viewers' eyes. My photographs are often looked at by people I do not know or have just met and can be portfolios I haven't seen for years. So looking at the prints can become a rediscovery for me. Of course, I see flaws through their eyes too, now that I see the work with this perspective. This can cause me to re-edit works occasionally or, rarely, to reprint.

But the discipline of looking at an artist's work like this carries with it various protocols, precedents and traditions. This is true when someone looks at your work and also if you show your work to someone else.

First is, to be involved, to be tuned in, to look. Being distracted, inattentive and lacking in concentration diminishes the work and disrespects the person that made it. This is a trust: "I am showing you work I am invested in and have worked very hard to make. I am counting on you to be respectful, appreciative and attentive."

Try not to talk about things that don't relate to the work before you. Telling stories, making jokes and carrying on as the prints slide by your eyes is distracting. Presumably, your phone is turned off.

It is helpful when about to view someone's work that you do your homework. This means that if it is possible, research the person. Look over their website. Is it current and active or lurking in mothballs, never updated and archaic? Are there other sites that speak to the person you are going to see? Books, perhaps or show reviews? 

Is it okay to be critical here? Of course, particularly if you are showing to someone experienced, you should expect a reviewer to offer suggestions for improvement. If you are reviewing someone's portfolio tread lightly, some positive reinforcement is good along with constructive criticism. It is also appropriate to place someone within their level of experience, meaning that we wouldn't talk the same way to someone 22 with 6 months into it and someone 63 with their whole career behind them.

Seeing someone's photography one-on-one is an honor, whatever their level and experience. They are sharing with you part of their lives and experience, their aesthetic, their craft and creative motivation. It is best to be observant, attentive and respectful. 

Want to show me your work for a review? Contact me here. Please note: I only review work face to face.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 28, 2020

CRIT 2

In Crit 1 we dug into a photograph a little and looked at its structure as well as asked questions about intention versus outcome.

In Crit 2 we're going to contextualize an image, referencing other works as precedent as well as see if we can make sense of an image beyond its surface.

But first, let's use a new image:

This is one of mine from 2018 from San Jose, CA from the series called San Jose Squares, and written about here. While critiquing your own image may be a little risky, it is, after all, something we should be doing all the time anyway. Let's see how it goes.

Again, as a start, stating the obvious means we have covered it, announces that we are paying attention and perhaps points out some things we may have missed.

The photograph is in black and white and relatively flat with no distinct shadows or highlights. It looks as though it has rained recently, as parts of the pavement and sidewalk are wet The image is a study in grays. The depiction on first look is relatively normal. It is slightly deceiving, however,  in that it is shot close up and yet spreads across a wide area. Look how the building in front of us tilts left.  Is that right? That tells you that we are looking at this scene through a very wide-angle lens that distorts. This is a "face" picture in that the two "eyes" on the left combined with the brick "mouth" below form a caricature of a face, with the pole to their right splitting the frame and establishing that this is one of those photographs where there are other photographs contained within it. 

This style of things touching the edge of the frame, the stop sign on the right (forming another eye shape to counter the two on the left) and even the light pole slipping out of the frame on the top is an irritant. It makes me question if the photographer is doing this deliberately (he is). We are on a side street in the city of San Jose at a time where there are no people. You can't help but notice the frontal and two-dimensional rendering of the side of the building facing us contrasted with the incredible speed and dynamic of the right office building facade, all glass and high tech looking.

Last, and importantly, is the car midway down the street. This is a known object for we are familiar with its heft and size and can say that it is about so many feet long and high and yet here, in this frame, it's been reduced to some sort of model car as it seems all wrong, placed there out of context and foreign to our eyes. Again, the acute wide-angle lens is messing with our sense of what is right and wrong, where things reside spatially.

This photograph sits firmly in a long-standing tradition of photography that began most likely in the 1950s with a few notable exceptions. Eugene Atget comes to mind, photographing in Paris on the streets in the early 1900s. One of my teachers, Harry Callahan, could have made this picture and indeed, if it weren't for Harry I probably would not have been aware that there was a photograph to make here.  Lewis Baltz (New Industrial Parks Near Irvine California) rocked my world when I was younger and is clearly a precedent here. As I think about it, some of the wonderful images Walker Evans made in the early 1900s from places like Pennsylvania and Virginia are made a little like this one. Presumptuous company to keep? Just saying. 

The approach in this photograph, the overriding aesthetic, is to present this subject in seemingly relative neutrality, for it to appear conventional or normal and yet in going a little deeper the photographer imposed a good deal of structure and control over his subject, as well as alteration of what was in front of his camera.

Finally, look at the number of pairs of things in the frame. Is that what caught the photographer? Is it the two eyes with two windows above them, the two white windows, the two covers in the sidewalk concrete and even the two headlights in our diminutive car back there, is that the framework for this picture? Maybe.

In a print critique, the teacher might, in concluding, seek to provide a takeaway to a particular photograph or body of work. Some teachers might try to provide an "answer" but I think that makes all this too rigid. And, after all, this isn't like there is a lesson plan or a finite answer to a specific question for this is art here, creativity expressed through the medium of photography of a place in California. Were I critiquing this photograph in a class I would remind the students that photography is its own special thing. That it renders our world through its own filter, that, while it may look like those objects described above, in this rendering it is in no way factual and certainly not accurate. Is this the artist using the tools as his disposal to comment on the medium of photography? You tell me.

In conclusion, while a good print crit will help you become more aware of what goes on in a picture, it can also lend perspective too.  One that is very important is this: photography is its own language and has its own way of showing us our world.  It isn't particularly truthful but it has a way of looking like it is. This photograph is that kind of deception, looking normal but not being normal at all. One of this photograph's basic tenets is that if you can find how things are skewed in it, perhaps you'll look at other photographs with the same critical eye. I hope so. Too many take photography for granted, assuming that it actually looks in realty just like the photographic rendering of it. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 24, 2020

Crit 1

Critiquea detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.

In art school, students will prepare to have their work critiqued. In the photo lab at school you'll hear, "how'd the crit go?"

Put your work up on the wall in class and the teacher will critique it.

While many know this system and the way it works, many do not so I thought that I would critique a photograph in the blog. I spent my teaching career critiquing photographs so feel qualified to write how it works.

This is an image I found online by Johnny Crawford, with thanks. (source Google Images)

Many teachers will state the obvious first. The two paragraphs below are mostly statements of fact, establishing indisputably the foundation for the teacher's interpretation, which comes next.

Since we know nothing about this photograph, where it was made, what the photographer would say about it or who it is, we start from a place that is highly democratic. That can be a good thing as it levels the playing field. Of course, being critiqued one-on-one or in a class can be harder. Also, these days, making a black and white photograph is an artistic statement, removing the subject from reality and counter to the historical precedent of photojournalism in an earlier era before color prevailed.

The photograph is dark, backlit, with deep shadows. It is in black and white and the main subject, the person in the middle ground in the lower center is silhouetted. By pushing the tonalities dark and printing the image high contrast, the photographer has made it more dramatic.

Here comes the evaluation part. It is not unusual for a teacher to appear or to actually be bored with all this. Good ones will remember that the student is in effect putting it all out there, exposed and vulnerable. On the other hand, being able to absorb criticism and become a better photographer is the goal. Finally, what does it say about your work if the person critiquing it is bored by it?

For me, part of the problem lies with where our subject is placed. I find myself thinking, "what if the photographer had moved a little to the right, to isolate the figure differently?"There is something about his head blending into the shadowed background of the beach back there in the dark that bothers me. Tall buildings right on the beach: Miami or perhaps Rio in Brazil? Not sure. It makes me think that climate change will alter that, the relationship of the ocean to the buildings.

Often we present an image, hoping that it will go over well, be liked, that perhaps someone will really love it, even if we don't. That's tentative and can't be a good sign or way to present your work. That's what strikes me about this photograph, that it doesn't present to me as being emphatic or visceral. That it is ambivalent. It is a little passive and then drama's been added by using strong blacks and adding contrast. Inexperienced photographers usually take the picture as they see it, not taking the time to move low, to move left or right, to move in or out. Photography is not a direct translation of something as we see it. It is a tool for us to use to interpret that. Therefore we have to work with it to convey our intent. That takes training, experience and, most often, physical movement. Henri Cartier-Bresson used to talk about how he felt he was a dancer when he made his pictures. You can see that in his work. (Note: good teachers will always reference others' work. Good students will always go and look up the work the teacher mentioned).

Perhaps if the figure was larger in the frame? I am not sure. 

I think the printing is okay, although that is a whole lot of black. I seldom think total black is good, especially in large amounts in a photograph.

Last, I am not clear what the take away for this photograph is. Do I have a clear idea of the photographer's intention? Presumably, it is summer or taken in a warm climate, the boy in a bathing suit, people in the background in the water. This may seem trivial but does the thin white line around the photo help or hurt? And what was the logic behind the black board? Was that a good idea or not? Just a question.

Obviously, there is much more this crit could deal with and this one was pretty short but you get the idea. Crits get more complicated of course, as student's ideas and presentations get more involved. Thesis work, where a student presents a whole body of work, can take hours to get through. 

The student should get a sense that alternative approaches should be tried, that photographs most often fail when the photographer is hunting for meaning. Trying is good but succeeding is far better. If you know what you want going in the outcome will be better. Often crits pose questions and ask the student to work out their own answers. It is seldom as simple as a teacher providing an answer for, after all, life doesn't work that way, why should art?

And last, key to a good crit is others' response to the work. What do your classmates think? This can be applied to the idea of showing your work to others to judge their opinion: family, friends, other photographers, other kinds of artists, the powerful and eminent, neighbors, your dog (hah!): anyone and everyone.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you'd like me to keep going with this as there is much more. Neal's Email

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 7, 2020