Going deeper may require more abstract excursions


Monitor — by Joe Reifer

Outside the morass of online photography talk there must somewhere lie something more pure and true. Beyond the tiresome “look at this” or “I did this” or “I shoot with this.” That’s all filler, man. Entertainment. And I’m as guilty as the next guy. I’ve hinted before with some abstraction at my dissatisfaction with the state of photography on the internet. I’ve found that an extremely useful psychological tool to use when something is bothering me is the turnaround — taking external finger pointing and examining whether the root cause is really internal. Perhaps my lack of inspiration with photography blogs also applies to my own little soapbox. And not to go all new age on you, but thanks to Craig Tanner for hipping me to the book Loving What Is at a workshop a few years back. Get by the “honey” language, and The Work is some powerful stuff.

So how do we go deeper than normal? Delve into the depths of what inspires so many of us to carry around these little boxes that leave an imprint on film or sensors or glass plates or whatever? I mean, there’s a lot of great photo books to ponder, but not a lot of words on photography that are truly astute. Throw out all of the academic bullshit. I don’t want to hear a stupid podcast. Who is the half-drunk, Jack Kerouac of photo blogging? I don’t think there is one.

I’m tired of reading about the photography business. Those two words hardly go together for most of us. I’m taking out the word business. Where’s my liquid paper. Get rid of the business part. I want to focus on pure photography.

And all of this technique stuff. Wow there sure are a lot of techniques you can learn to make your photos look like everyone else’s photos. Use your flash to do this, use Photoshop to do that. God that bores me to tears sometimes.

I want to see the verbal equivalent of Meatyard and Disfarmer and Norling. Give me the pure stuff without any marketing trumpets playing out of your ass. Who is the Daniel Johnston of photo blogging — an idiot savant channeling the Beatles in the most heartfelt unrestrained pure way. Give me The Shaggs of photography literature. Invent something new. Put all of the great stuff into the blender, add a twist of something weird, and make something that’s never been seen before.

The last time I can remember seeing any current photography that blew my mind was Roger Ballen. What a badass. Like T.A. I’m still waiting for the bootleg to see just what the heck Ballen said in New York last week. We need more boogymen in photography. There’s too much pop. Where is the free jazz? Who is the Albert Ayler of photo blogging?

I started participating in this modern new fangled photography blogging thing because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Somehow I’m still rolling with it. The very existence of all this verbal photography food has created a strange sort of dependence on the Words Words Words. Maybe we don’t need all of this jabber. Maybe we need something to make our jaws hang on the ground and leave us speechless. Where is the photograph that will make my jaw hit the ground. Who is the Matthew Barney of modern day photography?

I have way more questions than answers. I’m not supposing that any of you are going to help me. If I wrote another lens review most of you would probably be happier. But I’m willing to take the risk that there are one or two or even three of you out there who are thinking deeply about pushing the boundaries with pictures, and maybe even with words. Cut through all of the bullshit and dig down into the muck and come up with something surprising. That makes you really think.

Your normal sources are not going to cut it. The internet is not going to cut it. This may take wandering around the middle of the desert for a few days to figure out. Maybe a few weeks. Probably longer. I’m not quite touching it, but I’m working my way towards it. Charles Bowden may be the only writer that gets close. I’m running headlong into the eye and hoping to come out on the next plateau. Or bardo. Or somewhere.

Update: Mark Hobson’s thoughts on this rant over on the Landscapist.

Jay Watson’s response (with some hilarious YouTube links) on his blog.

Update 2: Andreas Manessinger has a really great follow up post on his blog.

Craig Tanner of The Radiant Vista is planning a podcast on the topic of this rant. Craig is an amazing teacher and photographic dynamo, and I’m looking forward to hearing his take.

24 thoughts on “Going deeper may require more abstract excursions”

  1. Hear hear.

    Incidentally, have you checked out Paraíso en Obras? It’s a little fuzzy for my tastes, but their approach to writing about photography is beginning to do a little of the ‘wandering around in the desert’that you’re talking about.

  2. Seconded.

    I will confess that I don’t really recognize many of the names / artists that you mention, but I believe that I’ve a similar feeling about the current state of photography on the net.

    Maybe it’s just the folks I’ve found as opposed to some mythical “state of photography.” Very possible. But, it seems that the blogs are stuck in their sophomore year.

    Being relatively new to photography and photoshop, I am interested in learning different techniques. I am interested in seeing how to . I’m also very slightly interested in the business of photography. But, man cannot live on bread alone. I’ve few that make me really think about what was shot and how I relate / feel / think / want to emulate / etc.

    As I said, all of this could be a failing on my part, but so be it.

    Even in the midst of all this negativity, I’m hopeful that we’ll hit graduation soon.

  3. Nicholas – Thanks for the tip on Paraíso en Obras. And keep up the stimulating work on On Shadow. I appreciate it.

    Nick – the best way to learn Photoshop is either hands on with a good instructor, and by toiling away on your own projects. Most online Photoshop info is cookbook stuff. The best way to learn about the photo business is by assisting and talking to successful photographers. For reading I highly recommend John Harrington’s book Best Business Practices for Photographers.

    Wandering in the desert isn’t necessarily negative. Struggling to find the next plateau is just part of being an artist.

  4. Joe, you already know how I feel about blogs. It’s all so much pontificating and ego blather. This one, which I know you read: http://aphotoeditor.com/ is about as obnoxious as it gets. No one should be giving this clown the time of day.

    While it’s not about photography, the old Zappa quote (or is it Elvis Costello?) “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” certainly applies here as well.

    “A picture is worth a thousand words” comes to mind as well.

    Writing about photography is meaningless. Let the people that can’t make photographs write about it in their self-important way. But they can’t touch you, the artist who creates what they write about. They wouldn’t exist without your art first.

    The written over-analyzation of visual art is a dead end. Writing about visual art defeats the whole purpose of why visual art exists, which is to inspire the viewer on a personal level, specifically without words.

    Just shut up and create.

  5. Troy – I agree with your sentiments here. The critique of blogs also goes for various online communities. It’s entertainment. Self-promotion. Me me me. There’s no difference. I’m not saying that blogs and Flickr are a bad thing. They’re just not very satisfying. Taking pictures is the fun part. Talking about it on your online platform of choice is extra.

    Writing or talking about visual art is a necessary evil if you’re going to do anything with your photos. Marketing. A book. A gallery show. They all require words. So here’s a question. If you could pick any living writer to write an intro to a book of your photography, who would it be?

  6. I’ve never been able to get excited about blogs or websites or books that talk about the analysis of photography. The only exception being Robert Adams’ “Beauty in Photography”.

    I’ve found that the most interesting aspect of the photography blogosphere is that it’s a channel for finding new photographers. Some of which, I find very interesting. This week I came across Sanders McNews portraits, which I think are amazing. Two months ago I came across Aaron Hobson’s cinemascapes, which I also think are amazing. If I can find one really inspiring photographer every one or two months, I figure it’s worth the time mining all of these blogs and websites.

    I agree that too much writing and analysis of photography becomes tedious, and somewhat meaningless. As Brooks Jensen said, usually this process simply reflects the authors own self-analysis and is of little interest to anyone else.

    Andy Frazer

  7. Andy – Yes! It’s all about the photos.

    Mark – We’re now meta. In 2004 I did a workshop with Joe McNally that pushed me to the next plateau. In 2006 I did some night photo road trips with my friend Troy Paiva that pushed me to the next plateau. Here we are 2 years later and I’m pushing again.

    The funny thing is, I’m pretty happy with the images I’m making. Talking about the images is the conundrum.

  8. Joe Reifer just punched me in the face! Gee thanks. I think. Was this our (all photographers) wake up call, or is it just me who feels personally challenged to be a super duper witch doctor with good photographic intentions.

    Nick, don’t bother boxing with JR when it comes to names. Dude is a file cabinet of info and has more retentive value than Wikipedia. He has more lives than Felix the Cat and is more productive than Martha Stewart on speed while listening to The Exploited. He already forced me into doing 3 searches from his post.

    Since I feel completely steamrolled after reading this post, I need time to respond properly and I also need to find the right medium, forum, words, content, and imagery to do so. However, the reaction I will give first is this…..

    1) Blogs. Nothing wrong with a blog about photography. It is like having another website and you can’t beat the ability of search engines to find the details inside your posts. The more you blog, the more you’ll be found. Why is this important to a photographer? If no one ever saw your work, EVER… would you still be a photographer? If so, I dare you to prove it. Not many could answer yes, and throughout history only a handful did. Therefore much blogging is about marketing. As A Tribe Called Quest once rhymed, “If I don’t say I am the best then tell me who the hell will?” Wait. That does not rhyme.

    2) The last time I checked, photography has always been over indulgent in writing on the technical, theoretical, and artistic departments. It has always had to defend itself as an art. Even after being accepted as art, it still has to keep up the same played out banter. When will the medium learn to shut up. Is there as much discussion about this from painters? Or is that instead referred to as discussions about art? Are painters writing DIYs and HOW TOs on brush stroke techniques and marketing? I doubt it.

    I feel as thin as a pan cake, and now have to try to rise to the occasion and the challenge that JR has just thrown out there. Hopefully others will read his post and take off their gloves as well.

    More later.
    Watson

  9. “A super duper witch doctor with good intentions? I can’t remember his name. Neal knows his name.” I once heard someone call the internet “a drunk librarian who won’t shut up.” Sounds like my bookclub.

    Jay’s hit the nail on the head here. Blogs are good for marketing. Painters are too busy painting to talk about brands of gesso in an online forum.

    Maybe we can all rise to the occasion by trying to make one truly outstanding image over the holiday weekend. A photo that makes you laugh, smile, cry, shout, yell, or feel something. I’m glad some of you are getting fired up. I’m fired up to make images. That’s the most important thing.

  10. Agree with Joe – many photography blogs I stumble into are way pretentious…

    I’m futzing with putting a blog together and haven’t found a writing style I’m comfortable with yet – just can’t see myself writing to the ether in 1st person; and 3rd person seems detached and forced. And I suk on going deep on the analysis of photos. They either work or don’t – for me anyway. So it will probably be just some current pix and maybe some words about interesting people I’ve met on the street.

  11. Blogs are marketing:
    Yes, I think we all know this already. And because we all know this already, the transparency is too obvious. Why should I waste my time reading someone’s blog if I know it’s just a thinly disguised ruse to get me to look at their photographs? I hate being advertised at constantly. It’s inescapable these days, so why would I want to seek it out, too?

    “If you could pick any living writer to write an intro to a book of your photography, who would it be?”

    That’s easy. Stephen King. Because people would read it. Put his name on the cover of a book and it’s a guaranteed multi-million seller. Plus, his work’s pop, my work’s pop. It’s actually a good fit.

    Nothing would make me happier than to see some kid who’s the next Lester Bangs / Hunter Thompson / Jack Kerouac do for the mythology of urbex similar to what those guys did for their respective subjects. I’d love to be involved at a base level breaking of a cultural wave like that. I’d gladly be someone’s Ralph Steadman.

    But notice that I said urbex and not photography. Writing about pictures is boring. Yes, you have to do it for books and shows, but to gas on and on about it every day? Uh uh, no way. Write about your subjects, but not the actual art itself.

    People tell me that I am blogging because I post new work to flickr every day, and I guess they’re right in a sense. But what I’m really doing is just posting images. There are no opinions (or very superficial ones about how much I like AMC Matadors etc.) or explanations of my motivation or my choice of equipment. It’s just pure images, and that’s a huge difference from blogs.

  12. Joe, you really hit a point here. On the other hand, I am not convinced that work like Roger Ballen’s is the antidote. As much as it has impressed me (thanks for the reference, I didn’t know him), it is largely all the same. Go to his website ( http://www.rogerballen.com/ ), see sample images from his recent works, and in all their striking quality, in all their diversity, they have much more in common than what sets them apart. It’s the typical phenomenon of art getting strangled by a style.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Ballen’s work, it is fresh, disturbing, raw, exciting, but all of that quickly wanes when you have seen thirty of those images. Looking at them, book after book, seeing the time span in which they were produced, can we really expect to see anything fresh from that direction? Has this art not become a mere pose?

    Well, I should probably get even more specific: Work like Ballen’s may well be the answer to the bored art consumer, at least as it is mixed with something else, but how would it be to be Ballen?

    What is Art anyway? there are two aspects to it. Art is surely what the market decides to call so, but it is also what the artist produces. What I believe that you are looking for in the desert is passion. The passion and joy to produce art, to be productive, not only for a market but also for oneself. That’s an aspect that I can’t see in Ballen’s work. I could if there were one book in this way, but not when I look at this endless structural repetition.

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  15. The thought of another Matthew Barney of anything- now there’s something I find truly frightening! Photoblogs are a mixed bag, and we’re all free (at least somewhat, so far) to take (and contribute) whatever we want, whenever we want, from whomever we want. The last thing we need is another “leader.” I still remember how everyone would oooh and ahhhh at every word uttered by Alec Soth on his blog. Nevertheless, thanks for the call to arms!

  16. I guess the only way to really appreciate photography, after seeing all the visual drivel that’s plastered all over the Web, is to shoot for yourself. And yourself only.

    Who gives a hoot if someone critiques it on exposure, cropping, megapixels and occasionally artistic merit? It’s about your memories, your own interpretation of the world, and anyone who disagrees can go post on Flickr.

  17. You have hit a major plateau and you have no known (to you) peers. It will be a MAJOR hill-climb to get to the next level. You are like a high-school grad going back to the 10th and 11th grade classrooms – hence nothing new. Maybe YOU have to write the new stuff.

    Take a look at Annie Dillard’s Living Like Weasels.
    Her “Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek” may be timely reading too.

    Last thought: Let’s say you reach that next plateau, and Find the Light and begin taking/making the images you feel are Righteous. So – what will you DO with these images? You can’t sell them as you’ve discredited the “business” of photography. Will you make prints for free – hand them out on street corners? Maybe not print at all – just post them somewhere… maybe you’ve gone =beyond= the limitations of simple images and need a whole new form of expression.

    Gotta go now – still looking for that cool Photoshop tip on better black and white stuff.

  18. Hi Alan -

    Perhaps you didn’t read closely. I have no problem with the righteousness of my images. And no, I don’t plan to give away work for free. And no, I haven’t gone beyond photography. And no, it’s not that I don’t appreciate sarcasm. And no, writing blog posts is not the answer, and neither is iStockPhoto. I’m not sure what weasels have to do with it either. But I’ve relaxed a bit since I wrote this post about 4 months ago and I’m finding my way with photography both inside and especially outside the blogosphere. Glad you found the post stimulating.

    – JR

  19. Hmm – too bad you missed it in Annie’s “Weasels”. It knocked me out of my chair the first time I read it many years ago and still takes some readings to get into it. Most people I show it to do “WTF?” So it goes.

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