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[ VOL 001, ISS 008 ] Google Street View – The Democratic Photographic Process

There is little intentionality on the part of Google to be transformative or metaphorical through the means of its Street View. A photographic process is not (at least for now) the intended purpose of the images. According to Google, “Google Maps with Street View lets you explore places around the world through 360-degree street-level imagery.” Although there is a slightly subjective voice at work, Google does after all choose if only for practical consideration from what perspective (street-level, i.e. where their car can go), the product’s intent is simply to allow one to explore an approximate representation of a particular place. Perhaps another decision by Google to consider in qualifying Street View as a unbiased process is their recent effort to upgrade to HD imagery starting in places such as New York City and not Macon, Georgia. That too however might be a purely economic or practical decision and given time might be a mute point. Although there have been projects such as Street With A View by Robin Hewlett & Ben Kinsley who directly employed the use of Google Street View and the Street View Team or the more intriguing and transformative A New American Picture by Doug Rickard, Google’s Street View is perhaps as close a democratic photographic process to be produced. Although Rickard and the others have done some interesting and insightful work using Street View as their medium, they have transformed it into something else. The images from Street View, once observed, becomes something new. They are the tree falling in the woods and what we hear is our interpretation. But it is the opportunity to interpret which makes Street View work so well as a photographic medium. The images captured by Street View are that: images captured, yet they are captured without the subjectivity of the artist and thus one more layer removed between sight and observation. Or to continue the analogy, the tree in the woods was not cut down, it simply fell and we were there to hear the thud.

All of this is perhaps why I have been enamored recently by my discovery of someone I know captured on Google Street View. Seeing someone I know (refer to top image) when trolling Street View was an unexpected discovery. Given the opportunity to connect to a photograph without having to sift through someone else’s intentionality I have thrown all sorts of thought towards what these photographs mean. This led me to the Street View of my childhood home (directly above) and for whatever reason that dull pixelated image has the weight of some of the best photography I have recently seen. The irony perhaps, is that now that I have seen, I have observed and thus making what is so unbiased and great about the image skewed by my own perspective.

[ VOL 001, ISS 005 ] Process and Intent over Results

I recently built a bed in which it is my intent that my dogs relieve themselves while we are away at work.  The bed is not at all a work of pristine craftsmanship.  It is however of sound craftsmanship and it does serve a purpose.  I purchased two 8 foot 2×4’s, had the clerk at Home Depot cut them down to 6 foot, brought them home and drilled them together in a rectangle with the remaining 2 foot pieces left over from the cut.  I then filled it with wood mulch.  Immediately upon pouring the bag of mulch into the newly manufactured bed one of my dogs hopped in the bed.  Her intent however, was not what I anticipated.  She made a few circles, sniffed, clawed at, and then settled down into the warm mulch to nap.  My dog toilet had become a dog bed.  Within a few minutes the purpose of my craft had been put into question.

I have also recently submitted a body of photographic work to a contest.  It is a body of work that I have exhibited and has been published in a couple of small publications.  It has been rejected for other contests and publications multiple times.  It has also gone through multiple incarnations in which images have been edited out and put back in.  My intent however, with this body of work has remained the same.  As I gave consideration to submitting or not submitting to this particular contest the question that I considered the most, was what will the judges think of my work.  I read the judges list and researched their backgrounds.  In the end I came to the conclusion that I should submit and that perhaps my perspective on photography and the judges perspective on photography were similar.

The progress with my dog bed has been a bit slow.  I expected it to be but the process has been a bit of a frustrating one.  Convincing a dog takes time.  Sometimes they have gotten it right and I feel the process of building the bed is justified.  Other times they are seemingly indifferent and pay no regard to my intent.  This is the frustrating part of the process.  This is the part of the process that gives me anxiety.  Not because my dogs need to be taught and that takes time, but because something I created  might fail.  The progress seems promising, but in the end the dog bed might not serve it’s intended purpose.  The dogs might never take to relieving themselves in a box as opposed to relieving themselves on the concrete patio.  If this happens, it will be difficult to not consider my craft a failure.

I will hear the results of the photo contest in the coming weeks.  My thoughts thus far have been will the judges think my work is good?  What I am trying to tell myself, what I am trying to believe, is that it doesn’t matter.  Thoughts inform our actions.  I do believe that the way we think about something informs our actions and thus our behavior and thus our overall outlook.  This is why the glass half full people always seem to have things go their way while the glass half empty people always seems to be unsettled and full of anxiety.  Once I hear the results of the contest I can hopefully tell myself it does not matter.  What matters is that I created a body of work with intent and purpose.

I should give more consideration to process than results.  This is difficult as we live in a scientific age of which purpose and order is assigned to everything and consilience is the goal.  We attempt to understand things based upon their end purpose.  If they serve a purpose well and complete the intended task then that thing is of worth.  This gives no space then for things to exist and have beauty in their existing state.  I am not suggesting that whatever I touch turns to gold and whatever I create or whatever anyone creates is of beauty.  The creative process requires refining and discipline.  It requires failure as much as success.  Things must not work in order that the next thing does work.  But I am trying to train my thoughts and I want to believe that process is of value and simply being is of beauty.

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[ VOL 001, ISS 004 ] Doug Rickard’s New American Picture and Our Notion of Progressive America

I had a Southern Baptist upbringing. Although I no longer subscribe to that particular sort of religion, I in some ways admire the conviction with which some of those Southern Baptist preachers spoke despite the arrogance with which many of them spoke. It does take confidence to stand in front of a congregation and speak with regards to life and death, where we spend eternity, and how one gets to spend eternity with God.  The line between arrogance and confidence can be a thin one.  And so, when anyone speaks with great confidence or authority on a particular subject it can certainly rub some of us the wrong way.

A few weekends ago I heard Doug Rickard speak at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.  Recently the museum has had a very worthwhile lineup of photographers either being exhibited and/or lecturing including Martin Parr, Enrico Natali, and most recently Rickard.  Rickard’s A New American Picture is currently being exhibited alongside Enrico Natali’s Subway, New York City 1960 in Publicly Private: Enrico Natali and Doug Rickard.  The exhibit is up until April 22, 2012.

Doug Rickard, as he shared at his lecture also had an evangelical upbringing. His was even closer to the pulpit than mine though. His father was a preacher as was his grandfather. A long line of assumably confident men. Rickard, in his confidence, is no different.  And just like those Southern Baptist preachers I grew up listening to every Sunday, Rickard spoke with that same confidence regarding race in America as addressed in his body of work A New American Picture.  In case you haven’t noticed, Rickard’s work concerns race.  As he shared, he grew up in an environment where no one donned a white hooded robe but certainly regarded black Americans a people lesser than the white American.  Growing up in Mississippi I can certainly relate.  My grandmother often made jokes at the expense of the black community.  There seemed to be this justification in doing so because as the community I grew up a part of understood it, there were good black people and bad black people just like there were good white people and bad white people.  The problem is that the idea of a good black person simply meant a black person that acted like a white person.  This understanding ultimately still set the black community as sub-human to the white community.

Pride and confidence is an odd commodity in American culture.  It permeates our religious and racial understanding of the world.  Rickard’s evangelical upbringing has informed A New American Picture and I wonder if an evangelical upbringing fosters the confidence that allows white, American Christians to claim authority regarding life, death, and eternity allows for the confidence it takes an artist such as Doug Rickard to claim that A New American picture is so acutely aware of the shortcomings of our so called progressive racial relationships in America.

Interestingly enough however, the audience response to Rickard’s lecture had little to do with race and religion and more to do with fear and paranoia.  Rickard has utilized Google Street View to capture these images, a technology that has had much criticism for it’s invasive ability to capture unassuming citizens to be later published on the web.  The idea that we have a semblance of privacy is laughable.  Our privacy was forfeited long before Google Street View ever existed.  Such technology has just made  our publicly private lives more transparent.

Nonetheless our fear and paranoia has been apparently fueled by the likes of Rickard and his use of this technology which in essence is not a new technology at all but rather a modification of a long standing technology… photography.  And photography, especially street photography, has long been an invasive medium.  If one does not agree then simply study the history which Rickard seems to have now made himself a part.  For proof, simply google Robert Frank’s favorite photograph from The Americans or read the backstory regarding Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  Photography is invasive and has long been a part of it’s history.  Along with that invasive quality is the confidence exuded by many of the medium’s most notable figures.  Read almost anything written by Walker Evans.

Some of the people listening to Rickard’s lecture that day were rubbed the wrong way.  For what reason I cannot say.  Perhaps it was because Rickard was addressing issues that we pretend we have progressively moved past.  Perhaps it was because of our fear that our private lives might be more exposed given the progress of technology, thus bringing to light those same inherit faults that we think we have overcome.  Or perhaps it was simply because of his confidence that might have been misunderstood to be arrogance.  Whenever Rickard was asked for ethical justification for this body of work and was asked does he think his pursuits were justified he boldly turned the question back on the audience, stating that he is not the one to answer that question and only society can answer those hard to answer questions as if to say, I didn’t write this stuff… it’s all right here in the Good Book.

Doug Rickard is doing nothing new.  What he is doing is called photography.  And like Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and many others before him he is doing it well because he is not answering questions, he is asking them. Tough questions are hard to answer.

[ VOL 001, ISS 001 ] The Responsibility of the Photographer – Photography, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner and The Great Community

“Port William had little written history. Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a moving beam of light. It had a beginning that it had forgotten, and would have an end that it did not yet know. It seemed to have been there forever.”

from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

 

While reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “Wallace Stegner and The Great Community” I found the following quote by a Stegner from his essay, “The Book and the Great Community” worth further contemplation.

“Thought is neither instant nor noisy…It thrives best in solitude, in quite, and in the company of the past, the great community of recorded human experience. That recorded experience is essential whether one hopes to re-assert some aspect of it, or attack it.”

The first half of the quote, “thought is neither instant or noisy,” I consider an expectation. Those words ask that I wake up earlier than absolutely necessary in the mornings and dedicate time to contemplation, to reading and writing, and to working on my photography. It asks that I put that first, before I punch the clock at my job because like the majority of us I assume, my job is not my first passion and so why not in a very practical fashion put my job second. This is not to suggest that those jobs are bad or a necessary evil. They are simply necessary and provide us income by which we can sustain ourselves.

Although the context of Stegner’s quote is perhaps more about writer and the written word it is applicable to other disciplines that rely upon history. The camera is a recording device just as is pen and paper or keyboard and word processor and so “the great community of recorded human experience” should resonate with the photographer and the poet because there is not just an expectation, but an obligation. The obligation is that we respond to that which we are a part of, the greater community. It ask that we respond to the history set before us and in doing so, create a future history. Our future is relational to the past and hence the recording of that history becomes communal, and hopefully a somewhat responsible, thoughtful and considerate exchange of beliefs, values, and ideas.

A portion of this recording is a very large stack of photographs, each depicting a particular place and time not just of historical significance but also of the mundane. Assassinated politicians, warfare, meetings of diplomatic dignitaries, signings of peace treaties, birthday parties, grandmothers and their grandchildren, men arm in arm beer in hand, and sons key in hand to their first car. This is how we’ve recorded that human experience or as Berry puts it, “The community here is that of ’recorded human experience’ not the Pantheon of Great Writers. It is immense and diverse, more like the Library of Congress than the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. But it does include the great writers. It is bewildering both in its amplitude and in the eminence of some of its members.” Both Garry Winogrand photographs and grandmother’s iPhone photographs are there. (One day iPhone photographs will be the tool of grandparents and it will be to some just as archaic a means of photography as drugstore film processing is today. All the same though, there will be photographs made, regardless of the medium through which they were produced.)

As members of this community we are asked to respond. Either to attack, not with the taking up arms, but with contemplation or we respond in celebration that our efforts are worthwhile and that there is good within us. And when we have given thought to our place within this history, knowing that our past is in communion with our future we are asked to write that future, contributing to who we will become or in the case of the photographer, we are to photograph and record who we are and who we are to become.

(Photo titled, Grandma Winnie by James Dewhirst)

Recognition Not Necessary

Notoriety does not equate success. In fact, it might even hinder successful, meaningful work. Even though I say it, I have a hard time believing this because it is admittedly difficult to seek out inspiration from those photographers I admire who have achieved notoriety AND success and not divorce their success from their notoriety. To attempt to mimic how they have had a successful career and not concern myself with how they have gained recognition for doing so.

photograph by Robert Adams

I do not know if I believe photography can make someone a better person. But I do know good photographers are observant, conscientious, and mindful people. And I know being observant, conscientious, and mindful can lead to being a better person.

Society, the art world, and too many other constructs tell us that the individual is important to meaningful work, that to understand the art, we must understand the artist.  After 90’s grunge band Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s death and the subsequent biographies, published personal diaries, and the dissection of his life, we then thought we understood what Nirvana meant.  As though the words he had written and the music he had composed meant nothing.  Granted, context helps us to understand from where the expression comes but still, we are obsessed with the individual.  I am sure in the coming months Amy Winehouse will receive the same treatment.

I am not sharing anything that hasn’t already been said or written: Roland Barthe’s The Death of the Author, Robert Adam’s essay on Edward Weston in Why People Photograph, or even this episode of Radiolab in which they discuss alcohol addiction treatments in Russia and how the problem is not within the individual, but within the substance.

I would like to reaffirm what I think to be a common sentiment throughout all these pieces… that meaning is not always derivative of the individual.  And to take that further to say, that meaning comes from creating work that allows the audience to better understand themselves instead of better understanding the artist.  For that, it takes a proletariate medium of sorts.  And in my biased opinion, there is perhaps no better suited for this than photography.

Photography Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

“The world is a more interesting place than our ideas about it.”

-Richard Benson

(Photograph by Thomas Demand)

As of late, I have been attempting to better understand the history of photography and the place it holds in the art world.  (I recommend the photography primer at the blog, aphotostudent.com and if you are up for some wordy ontological debates, the book Words Without Pictures.) Within some of what I have read, there is a pervasive argument that the more intentional the photographer, the more artistic the photograph and thusly, the better the work.  While this can be true, and this sort of photography beautiful and worthwhile [see work by Thomas Demand for example] I do not believe it should be a standard or at least, not THE standard for judging photography.  Nicholas Grider said photography is, “simultaneously being both art and non-art-both ‘the thing itself’ and a record of the thing itself.”  How refreshing an idea that photography doesn’t have to be high brow pursuits full of complicated concepts that leave the viewer feeling threatened by not understanding the frame at which s/he is looking, but at the same time be very complex.  Actually, how beautiful a conflict. Personally I’d much rather the response to any of my work be the very familiar sentiment, “I could have done that.”  Because at least the viewer has recognized something familiar in the frame, perhaps even recognizing themselves.  At the same time, I hope there is a level of accomplishment with my camera that in fact not just anyone could pull off, lending the photograph to a new and creative perspective.

By nature, photography is creative and has a voice.  Without much effort it can translate our perceived world into a more ideological one.  In the film, The Royal Tenenbaums Gene Hackman’s character, aptly named Royal Tenenbaum and the patriarch of the family has died, leaving behind a not so royal legacy.  (To be fair Royal Tenenbaum, despite all his flaws was an admirable man but was a man who for the most part was completely self absorbed with little regard for his children or wife.)  At his funeral his tombstone reads, “Died Tragically Rescuing His Family From The Remains Of A Destroyed Sinking Battleship” thus being remembered as the ideological Royal, the reality of who he was (or at least a partial reality) was forgotten and a new reality etched in stone, a photographic memorial of Royal Tenenbaum.

(photograph by Lee Friedlander)

And so, how refreshing that we should not feel obligated to dismiss ambiguity and luck as a part of the creative process.  That at times, we can allow photography to simply be photography.  I am not arguing for happenstance photography, to shoot and occasionally get lucky photography.  A photographer should still be thoughtful, intent and observant. But the photographs are out there waiting to be made, new relationships waiting to be formed:  something new and newly observed.  Lee Friedlander said, “You don’t have to go looking for pictures.  The material is generous.  You go out and the pictures are staring at you.”  Perhaps we should champion more that what is beautiful about photography is not what the artist brings to it but rather what the photographer is given: The opportunity to respond to the world.  Or to respond to one’s own self,  to one’s own thoughts.  A response sometimes intentional and sometimes serendipitous, or even accidental.

Photography is communal.  It happens between the photographer and the subject matter, between subject matter and the audience, and between the audience and the photographer.  Because photography is so tied to reality, because it even becomes reality [see this essay by Andre Bazin] one can do nothing more than either ignore how it speaks to us or engage, to be observant and responsive, both the photographer and the viewer together acting as a community.