Cultural signifiers are analyzed to determine if photographs still have meaning in the age of the image as social currency


A blog post in which abstract snapshot poetics encourage the rejection of nihilism in art and embrace a no jive philosophy


Future of the Mojave: High Desert Corridor Project

High Desert Corridor
High Desert Corridor

A good friend recently let me know about the High Desert Corridor Project. The California Department of Transportation is proposing to build a new 63 mile freeway across the southern end of the Mojave Desert from Palmdale to Apple Valley. Since 2005, I've photographed in the Mojave Desert during the full moon between 3-7 times per year. From Paul's Junkyard near Lancaster, to the Llano ruins of Pearblossom. From the movie sets near Lake Los Angeles, to the airplane graveyard in El Mirage. I've seen the half empty housing developments in Adelanto, and photographed ruins old and new across the desert.

I'm certainly not an expert in long range urban planning or any of these large transportation infrastructure issues, but I do know the desert pretty well. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole concept. From what I've read, the idea is to spur residential, commercial, and industrial growth in Palmdale, Lancaster, Adelanto, Victorville, and Apple Valley. Proponents of the plan are predicting 2030 population numbers in Antelope Valley (AV) of 900K, and 650K in Victor Valley. The other idea is to more easily move goods on trucks between the 710, the 60, Interstate 10 and Interstate 15. Both of the current East-West routes across the desert, Palmdale Blvd. and the Pearblossom Highway, can be slow going.

From prospectors looking for that hidden vein, to spiritual seekers looking for truth, the desert is a place to go when you want to do your thing without anyone bothering you. Unfortunately, a rather disturbing human interest story has developed around the High Desert Corridor Project. The County has been dispatching armed Nuisance Abatement Teams (NATs) to threaten and harass local residents, presumably to clear the way for this new expressway. Don't miss the video below from ReasonTV. Forget it Jake, it's Mojave?

Update: Below is the location of the Kill Bill Church in Hi Vista on a satellite map. Hi Vista is surrounded by State Parks and Wildlife Reserves/Sanctuaries, and of course Edward Air Force Base to the north. East Avenue G through Hi Vista is pretty wide open, but this area is north of the proposed northern route for the High Desert Corridor, which makes the harassment of the residents of this area even more puzzling.

Hi Vista, State Parks, and Wildlife Reserves
Hi Vista, State Parks, and Wildlife Reserves

Stretching It Wider

Stretching It Wider -- by John Giorno

Some things that work in one decade don't work in the next, so mark it down as a noble idea that failed.

And I did what everybody dreams of doing, I walked away from it I walked away from it I walked away from it I walked away from it I walked away from it, and I never went back, without reconcile.

And since I can't leave, I love getting drunk with you I love getting drunk with you I love getting drunk with you, and give me some more blow.

Caution, Wet Floor -- by Joe Reifer
Caution, Wet Floor -- by Joe Reifer

Nobody ever gives you what you want except by mistake, and the only things you ever got is what you did for yourself, and you hate them and you're only doing it everyday for the money and you hate them and you're only doing it everyday for the money.

I know guys who work all their life and have got a lot, and something happens to him, and he loses everything just like that, and I even haven't got that and I even haven't got that.

Hard work, low pay, and embarrassing conditions, you are worse than I remember, and you're home and you're home and you're home and you're home and you're home.

MacGyver Cycle -- by Joe Reifer
MacGyver Cycle -- by Joe Reifer

What is a rat doing when it isn't eating garbage or scaring you on the steps, they're laying around like a pussy cat, you and I sleeping in the bedsheets, warm and cozy, sliding your legs under the covers and staying there.

You got to keep down cause they're shooting low, press your body against the ground, it's gravity, the telephone hasn't rung once today.

If there is one thing you can not and will not do is make this world a better place, if there's one thing you can't do is make the world a better place if there's one thing you're not going to do is make the world a better place.

Cause you are only successful when you rip somebody off, and everybody I ever known who wants to help somebody, wants to help themself, and I'm firm believer in giving somebody enough rope to hang themself.

Honda -- by Joe Reifer
Honda -- by Joe Reifer

You're standing here watching all these people, and everything seems a little confused and everything seems a little confused and everything seems a little confused, I haven't got anything to say.

The noose is tightening the noose is tightening the noose is tightening, and let me make one more further observation, when you die you're going to die with a hard-on.

If I didn't have an accident I wouldn't be here, if I didn't have an accident I wouldn't be here if I didn't have an accident I wouldn't be here.

Home -- by Joe Reifer
Home -- by Joe Reifer

Then there is the reality of the family, your mother and father, them and my mistakes is why I'm sitting at a table with a bunch of stupid jerks on Thanksgiving eating a turkey stuffed with lasagna.

I'm spending my whole life being with people I don't want to be with I'm spending my whole life being with people I don't want to be with I'm spending my whole life with people I don't want to be with, and there ain't no such thing as family, just people you work with.

I love completely perverted people, you are my best sexual fantasy, I never got that far with scat before, and I want to remember it tireless, and I want to remember it tireless, and I want to remember it tireless, and I want to remember it, tireless.

Cougar I -- by Joe Reifer
Cougar I -- by Joe Reifer

We make money the old-fashioned way we earn it, the anchor man never leaves the building, and the only difference between me and a preacher is he's telling you he has a way out, and I'm telling you don't bother, for you there is no way out for you there is no way out for you there is no way out for you there is no way out for you there is no way out, and it isn't as though you got anything to lose.

Besides they blocked permanently all the exits they blocked permanently all the exits, you and I get to stay here forever and it gets worse beyond your imagination.

I would like to give my best to all sentient beings, and before I die I would like to de-tox my mind and tame delusion, but we are not in a time appropriate to do this.

Cougar II -- by Joe Reifer
Cougar II -- by Joe Reifer

Tonight, I want you to give me some drugs and a little alcohol, if something is good people like it if something is good people like it if something is good people like it.

It looks the way it should and you make me feel good, so let's open it up, stretching it wider stretching it wider stretching it wider stretching it wider stretching it wider, and it shouldn't be any trouble.


Cola Seat Time-lapse

I walked 11 miles today.

I've been reading this Ed Ruscha book. I think it influenced the video.

Last week I made a to-do list with 45 items with due dates. 9 are done already.

This year I'm doing.

Is there something on your list that you've been meaning to do for months or years?

I have one. It'll be done before the end of the week.

I'm thinking about getting a rowing machine, but I'm not sure if I like rowing.


Turn Off, Get Out: Cultivating Disparate Artistic Input Beyond the Internet

Managing daily input & output is important to continuing to grow as an artist. Many of our daily rituals are centered around the Internet and cell phones. I've been ruminating lately on how the online world is extremely useful for displaying artistic output, but the input that really inspires me often comes from somewhere else, outside of these little boxes. Please embrace the irony of a guy writing a mildly abstract manifesto on a computer, telling you to turn off your computer and go experience the world. Are you sitting in your cubicle reading this? Go outside on your lunch break. Take a camera. You have a camera with you, right? Your assignment is to go walk around the block. No talking. Only listening. Watching. This adventure recap is a manifesto to myself to stay motivated to get out and directly experience the amazing place that I live.

Deeper Listening

Last week I went to the Sutro Baths to shoot at night. What a beautiful place to photograph -- especially on a clear night under a big bright moon. Find places that inspire you. Turn off your machines and go there. Sit and listen to the waves. Your breathing. When the stimuli inside the electronic boxes goes away for awhile, something more interesting may happen.

Sutro Baths (#30) -- by Joe Reifer
Sutro Baths (#30) -- by Joe Reifer

Not Knowing

During the last full moon I also photographed an abandoned rural farming area. I didn't know exactly where I was going. Friends led me to the place. Surprise. What fun! Pressing buttons on Google Maps isn't nearly as good as a brisk hike in the middle of the night. You need to know enough to get there and be safe, but sometimes you don't need to know everything.

Untitled (farm) -- by Joe Reifer
Untitled (farm) -- by Joe Reifer

Open to Disparate Input

Saturday I attended the Berkeley Peace Lantern Ceremony to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Seeing children and families gather together to create and launch colorful hand made lanterns for this beautiful memorial was an intense experience. What events are happening in your community that might inspire you?

Peace Lanterns (2009 #02) -- by Joe Reifer
Peace Lanterns (2009 #02) -- by Joe Reifer

On Sunday I went to a pancake breakfast on the SS Red Oak Victory, a Liberty Ship that saw service in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The juxtaposition of touring a military vessel after the previous night's vigil was thought provoking. The dedicated volunteers of the Red Oak Victory have done an amazing amount of restoration work since I last visited 2 years ago. The Red Oak Victory is hosting movie nights, tours, and another pancake breakfast on September 13th. A recommended outing.

Red Oak Victory (diptych) -- by Joe Reifer
Red Oak Victory (diptych) -- by Joe Reifer

Close Your Eyes

I picked up a few back issues of Artforum at the library, one of which happend to be on Pop Art (October 2004 issue). Thinking about Warhol is strange -- we just take him for granted. When I got home from work today I listened to Lou Reed and John Cale's Songs for Drella. When was the last time you sat down, closed your eyes, and listened to a great album all the way through? Perhaps more listening would be easier on the eyes and the brain than firing up the computer after work.

Double Dog Dare: A Day Without Your Phone and Computer

So what are you doing this Summer? Sending people lollipops on Facebook? On Friday I'm going to see the Richard Avedon and Robert Frank exhibits at SF MOMA (Note: The Robert Frank exhibit closes on August 23rd). I'm leaving the iPhone at home. Friday will be completely Internet and cell phone free. Consider this a challenge -- go one day this week without looking at a computer or cell phone (except for an emergency, of course). Do you think you can stand it? I'll admit that I don't think it's going to be easy. But I'm double dog daring you. Let me know how it goes -- but don't call me on Friday, my phone will be at home, and I'll be out.


Night Photography Lexicon IV: Excursion On A Wobbly Rail

Recently a night photographer friend emailed me a draft of his new artist statement for feedback. Unlike most run-of-the-mill artist statements, this fellow cut deeply and directly into some delicate issues about night photography. He mentioned the 2007 Night Photography Lexicon series as being helpful in his writing. The crux of our conversation about his statement was how many night photographers share certain traits. I hope we can pull the curtain back just a little bit, and start to explore some discussion topics. My goal here isn't to make this excursion into Night Photography with the DSM IV, but I have noticed a few interesting patterns in the world of abandoned places night photography.

Danger, Risk, and Location Access Methodologies

How much danger do you face in your daily life? Crossing the street? Eating FD&C Yellow #5? Gaining access to abandoned places can sometimes require an above average tolerance for danger. Why do people climb Mt. Everest? Why do we sneak into abandoned buildings in the middle of the night to take pictures? This is the "why" question of an artist statement. The hard part.

But let's ask some different, related questions right now -- do you get off on danger, and what is your risk tolerance? Are danger and risk major elements of how you tell the story of your photography? I've certainly indulged in my share of storytelling with other photographers over a few pints, but I've grown more careful about mixing personal stories when showing prints. A small amount of information about the location is enough, let the work do the rest.

While not directly related to night work or abandonments, Taryn Simon's An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar is a stunning example of photographs made even more powerful through well balanced information in the captions. From a location access standpoint alone, this book is an amazing achievement. While some of the locations certainly involved a degree of danger (e.g., nuclear waste, hibernating bears), her approach to access has given me ample food for thought. If you're pondering the "why" of your photography, seek this book out. Taryn Simon gained access to unique locations, and brought back images that speak on many different levels.

A General Outline of Risk Tolerance Variations by Decade

Let's talk a bit more about risk [insert Parker Brothers joke here]. Risk tolerance when you're in your teens and 20's can be extreme. When I was in my late teens, a friend had an encouraging one-liner for dangerous situations -- he'd say: "Dude....we CAN'T die!" Sometimes I believed him. This type of youthful confidence can certainly cross the line into arrogance that leads to trouble. And adventure. Your 20's can be a time when boundaries are pushed and defined.

By the time you're into your 30's, there's work. And more work. Depending on the path you've chosen, work may still leave you energy for occasional adventures. Or you may have that glimmer in your eye that craves more frequent adventure. What may be seen as youthful bravado in some explorers, does not dissipate for others in their 30's and 40's. What kills this fire? What fans the flames?

As I approach 40, I'm trying to be healthier. Eat right, drink less, exercise more -- those older and wiser than I have told me these are normal considerations. But perhaps curbing any traces of the self-destructive behavior of youth is bad for my night photography? As I've gained more experience negotiating legitimate access to interesting locations, the thrill of trespass has started to fade just a bit. But the thrill of photographing has not. Pass the tofu.

Misanthropic Threads

Many night photographers I know have a rather dark sense of humor and world view. Goes with the territory. If Brazil or Children of Men are on your list of favorite films, you know what I mean. Let's go to Wikipedia now for an illuminating quote:

Misanthropy can often be characterized as disillusionment with what is perceived to be man or human nature. The misanthrope, having grown to expect man to assume a romantic and simplistic ideal, is consistently confronted with conflicting evidence. On the other hand, the object of a misanthrope's dislike may be a pervasive culture which is perceived as denying human nature. In both cases, the misanthrope may view himself as somehow distinct from a majority of the human species.

Are we getting at the difference between a beautiful sunset over a golden meadow, and a crusty decaying building in the middle of the desert in the dead of night? Happy people take happy pictures. Night photography of abandoned places is for the mad ones.

Sad and Beautiful

So let's run down the list so far -- love of ruins, a healthy appetite for adventure, above average risk tolerance, smooth negotiation skills, and a misanthropic world view. This whole night photography thing sounds like quite a party! Did I leave anything off the list? I went back to Camilo Jose Vergara's essential book American Ruins for some answers -- the mystery seems to boil down to how a photograph can be so sad and beautiful at the same time. Cue up the Karen Dalton video at the top of the post. When was the last time an experience made you feel the feeling of being alive so strongly that you didn't know whether to laugh or cry or both? The Thunder Moon is waxing. Be safe, and have fun out there singin' the blues.

Update: It finally struck me that the "sad and beautiful" phrase had been bouncing around in my head from somewhere. Roberto Benigni's character says "It's a sad and beautiful world" in Jim Jarmusch's classic film, Down By Law, and then Tom Waits starts singing the phrase:


What is the purpose of the drive?

"Anyway I wrote the book because we're all going to die."-- Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody on the Steve Allen Show.

I listened to Craig Tanner's podcast on Finding the Heart of Your Work. I'm impressed that Craig saw the original article as a challenge, and was able to see this dark time of questioning as a smaller phase in a larger creative process. I've had a lot of teachers in many different disciplines throughout my life, but nobody has been able to succinctly communicate the idea that we can acknowledge the darkness, find some learning there, and proceed with a plan to move on. I'm working on it.

I like Craig's idea of a "purpose statement" rather than an artist statement for photography. The world doesn't need any more "I've always loved to photograph. My father gave me an Instamatic when I was 5 years old...." clichés. But a purpose statement -- that sounds useful.

Craig talks about acknowledging our frustration with the gap between how our pictures look now and how we'd like them to be, and using a purpose statement to stay on track. I want to clarify that I'm not worried about making better photographs. That's not the gap for me right now.

Craig's discussion of pushing your limits, shooting beyond comprehension, kicking the fear of failure to the curb -- this is what I was talking about in my original post. Ninety miles an hour in the dark with no hands on the wheel until you catch the glimmer of the next stop out of the corner of your eye, grab the wheel, push it up to a hundred and head towards the light.

Tuning in to these glimmers, writing them down, and creating the time and space to explore them is what will keep fueling the engine. I'm doing that with gusto. I'm also pouring a lot of stimulating music, film, and art into the tank. The car is running great. The gap is existential. The question is "what is the purpose of the drive?"

And yes, sometimes we need to spit shine the car and take it to the show and hope that people think it's pretty. There is certainly some learning we can do at the show, but that's really just a pit stop on a much bigger trip.

So back to the idea of a purpose statement. How many of you can clearly and concisely explain the purpose of your photographs? Two sentences maximum. No biographical information. This is not an artist statement. What do you want to communicate with your photographs and to whom? It's a tough question. I'd love to hear your answers.


Stimulate the Arts, Reduce It Down, Happiness, To All My Friends!

Stimulus Check to Stimulate the Arts
Stimulus Check to Stimulate the Arts

Stimulate the Arts

Yeah, there are a million different things you'd like to buy with your economic stimulus payment. I'm going to throw an idea out there. An idealistic behavior for you to consider modeling. If you like the idea, I encourage you to spread it. Use a portion of your stimulus check to Stimulate the Arts in your community.

Pick one or two local places that have inspired you and contribute to their cause. You can keep some money for other important stuff. I'm giving some money to Gamelan Sekar Jaya, whose spine tinglingly intense Balinese gamelan music has been a real source of inspiration to me. Recently I attended a performance where they played the big bamboo gamelan called jegog, and I was almost in tears it was so beautiful. I was also at the performance in the video below. I am so fortunate to live in the same town as these folks, who happen to have the only complete jegog in North America. And their performances are often free or very inexpensive. They are building a new center for concerts and classes, and I want to help.

How can you stimulate the arts in your community?

Gamelan Sekar Jaya performing gamelan jegog at the Oakland Museum in June 2007

A youtube video of jegog doesn't do it justice. If you really want to rock, fire up the subwoofer and check out the CMP disc of Balinese jegog, or the different but equally wonderful Banyumas bamboo gamelan disc from in Java.

Reduce It Down

A chef I used to know had a catch phrase: "Reduce it down!" A zen cooking joke that I find highly applicable to many of life's tasks. Let's start cooking by hiking up a mountain in the middle of the night to an abandoned cold war radar station and making a 20 minute photograph of a collapsed tower. Or rolling 6 hours down to the Mojave and tromping through the creosote into an abandoned junkyard and watching the clouds race by under the moonlight. Or wandering around in an eerie cold war Air Force Base command center that looks like something out of Dr. Strangelove. Everything else is extra. Websites, blogging, gallery shows, artist statements, printing, framing, pontificating -- all extra. The experience is the reward. Let's reduce it down to the core essence, and build things back up again as necessary.

Irony Pinot Noir

So all of this recent questioning has lead to an ironic result. Are you open to irony? I'm throwing in the towel for awhile. Maybe a week or two. Maybe through June, or longer. I'm not sure. My motto for 2008 is "No Rules." Maybe I'll post a few photos along the way, but I'm not sure it really matters. I'm just like you -- I want to be happy. The Internet isn't making me happy.


A martial arts teacher I studied with had a brilliant verbal technique for helping people through difficult movements. He could always find the place where you were blocking up. "Your elbow is too high," he would say. Or "your stance is too wide." When you queried him on how to remedy the blockage, he would say "just don't do that anymore." Deceivingly simple. Whatever you're doing wrong -- whatever is not working -- try not doing that, and then see what happens. He wouldn't tell you what to do -- that is the mystery of pushing to the next plateau. But by the process of eliminating the things that aren't working, perhaps the right way will be revealed.

Composition Book

I'm not going to stop writing. I'm just going to stop writing in public for awhile. Yesterday I hung out in person with a photographer friend of mine, and the conversation was much more stimulating than life online. This pattern seems to repeat itself. I'm extremely fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have a great network of photographers whose work and opinions I respect. I want to cultivate community. I want to interact. But online is second best. So if you live in the Bay Area, let's go take some pictures sometime. Jaw about photography for awhile in person. It's stimulating. Drop me a line.

To All My Friends

I'm not sure what's going to happen. And that's kind of exciting. I'm reading a few really great books. I carry a camera wherever I go. I'm excited to see and hear art in my community. I want to keep that firey gleam in my eye as I explore this crazy mixed up sacred place we have the pleasure of experiencing for a short amount of time. I'm reducing it down and smiling the whole time. I hope you make some great images, but even more, I hope you have fun making them. Out there in the world. In a meditative state of self discovery, or with friends, or a mix if you're lucky like me. Here's To All My Friends!