Friday, December 31, 2010

On Time

Above: A row of fossilized skulls at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Friday, December 31, 2010.


Above: a snapshot from earlier today at the California Academy of Sciences.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Is it a story if there's no ending? No visual change? Most news picture stories are essentially that: a story without change. Here is someone ... who does something.

Clearly, any story where we can follow along while something happens is a step above that, but for me, it's one of the distinctions between general news and documentary: a documentary approach is one where follow until something actually can be seen to change. That's not an easy thing to do.

It's the direction I think news shooting needs to move now, though.

When photo scarcity existed, it made sense: the Mayor announces a new policy on water conservation, so get a snap of the Mayor (at least) or the Mayor in some relationship to water (better) or the Mayor with someone the policy will impact (even better). But the model was that "we'll followup later" rather than looking at this as the beginning of the story.

In our current condition of photo surplus, these photos may very well be emailed out by a public relations officer or might be snapped easily by a reporter. A photographer's role can now shift to the more serious, longitudinal approach: go deeper, look at the ways photography can do more than illustrate the story, find where the visual possibilities go further than the written word.

That said: what does it mean for the "feature"? Often, the "feature" photo comes out of waiting for something visually interesting to happen. Often, this type of standalone photo doesn't really need to rise to the level of news. So ... how can that go further?

An example: while waiting at a museum, I saw two characters dressed in period dress and reacted with a few snaps. Later, I ran into them again and took more shots. Fine: an arrival shot for context, the "event" that happened, a detail.

Where could one go from there?

Hold that thought, as there will be a followup....

Above: A historical costume designer and her friend (dressed as Martha Washington) visit the "Fashioning Fashion" exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 27, 2010.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Color

In the last few years, I've taught color theory a number of times.

I think it's important to note that our ideas on color change all the time. I don't just mean as a culture, over decades, but that even as individuals we react differently to color from day to day.

If you're approaching the concept of color in just one way, you're making a mistake.

Is a black and white photo perceived as a more significant document than a color snapshot? Is a hyperstylized color motion picture perceived as more "real" by some audiences than a documentary shot on 16mm black and white film? Is the reverse true for other audiences? Will our current mode of hypersaturated color look silly when an appreciation for "natural" color cycles back into fashion? Will it once again look right, ten years after that? Is a monochromatic palette for sophisticates, a bright green house a place for the poor in postcolonial countries?

The answer to these type of questions is ... whatever. All theories on color are true for a little while, then something else is true.

The important thing -- and this is really only my opinion, not something I can prove -- is that color and our perception of it and how it functions in any kind of serious visual work is a very, very fluid thing.

You're ideas on composition will probably still hold up in ten years, but I guarantee that in the future, you'll look at the color work you do today with very different eyes.

Above: I saw the Eggleston show in Manhattan a while back, but I went to the version installed at LACMA on Monday -- and enjoyed it more.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Actually, I don't know why she's carrying something on her head. I also am not sure why everything worked out in a red, white and blue palette. It was just a snap.

On Borders

Ever file out a negative carrier?

Here's the thing: at one time, film negatives were placed in a metal holder and then the holder was placed in an enlarger. The image was projected down onto photo paper, held in place by straight-edged blades that could be moved to crop the image. (In other words, the blades covered the paper and could therefore stop part of the projected image from reaching the paper. You could slide these blades to decide where to crop.)

Many documentary photographers, however, felt cropping went against their approach, and so they would slide these blades outward to let the "full frame" of the negative's image hit the paper. No cropping. They often went one step further, filing out the negative holder to be a little larger, thus avoiding accidental cropping caused by the holder.

The rough black line this produced as a border to the image became a bit ... fetishized. It was code for a certain type of "true" or "raw" photography.

Of course, looks get stolen and in the 1980s you saw many fashion photographers adopt the filed-out carrier -- so an incredibly planned, stylized, controlled image used the language of documentary in ads for perfume. It looked good.

Today, many people adopt the edge look a filed out carrier produces even in digital photos, and even in cropped photos. It means little now.

But consider the image above. I've presented it full frame -- my camera was set on 16:9 aspect ratio. I was riding on the Metrolink into Los Angeles when I saw the scene outside the window, and I quickly snapped a few shots with a 20mm lens on a Panasonic GH1. (The 35mm equivalent would be a 40mm lens.)

It includes a reflection on the window, and I feel it's important to explain it was taken from the train. But crop in a bit -- just inside the reflection, making a nearly-square image -- and do a bit of adjustment to the look of the image and one could easily believe it was taken standing near the action.

But then ... is it still a "document"? Does it change what it serves as "evidence" for? Is it a news photo at that point (keep in mind I don't know the situation at all, or anyone's names or the final outcome of the situation) or an art photo?

And what if, just off to the left, it turned out there was a movie camera recording everything, and that this was really a scene for a TV show?

Monday, December 27, 2010


Went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art today. Another snap is here on my other blog.

The thing about the endless "decisive moment" talk is that we really should be asking "why not a different walker? That's a fine moment for that one, but ... does it matter? Would it be any different with someone else?"

Actual Size Never Is

I think it's important to remember that photographic meaning relies on context. There's no "large" in actuality, only a relationship of one depicted object to another.

Above: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 27, 2010.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Pretty, Pretty Princess

Returned to the Los Angeles-ish area for some holiday festivities. I'm the one without a tiara.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Ornament, Though We Don't Have A Tree

Oh, don't get me wrong. I've been working all day. The day before, as well. And there's a lot of change ahead.

Still, this feels the closest to a vacation as any time ... in a long time.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Spot News versus Documentary

Above: A man unexpectedly evacuated from a high-rise apartment building by a fire alarm awaits an all-clear notice from the San Francisco Fire Department, San Francisco, December 10, 2010.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Definition of "Documentary" (Preliminary Questions)

Is "Documentary" work defined by an interest in the specifics of the real world, combined with the conviction that real documents can be interrogated?

While we think of documents as evidence, is it not more sophisticated and pragmatic to understand "documents" as playing the role of companion to an artist?

Is the practice of "Documentary" simply art practice informed by real material?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

On California Street

Apparently, the stockings are hung. At least on one floor.


I went to SFMoMa to see a curator's talk on Henri Cartier-Bresson today. I was particularly interested in HCB's transition from artist to magazine photographer, as I think that gets to the heart of our discussion of documentary photography. I'll have more on this soon.

Above: A person on a catwalk at SFMoMa, December 7, 2010.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Various Futures

I recently attended a panel on The Future of Investigative Reporting.

Held at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in connection to the exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, the panel strayed from photojournalism into a discussion of new models for journalism, and, as I blogged here didn't address the question I thought was implied in the context of the Cartier-Bresson show.

Don't get me wrong -- it was a very good panel, with:
David Cohn (
Robert Rosenthal (
A.C. Thompson (
Lola Vollen (

and documentary photographer

Susan Meiselas (
But I wanted to know: what would Cartier-Bresson do today?

It's easy to forget, as we celebrate individual works from HCB and discuss "the decisive moment," that he was a magazine photographer, and that his approach was generally that of a documentary photographer.

Today, the long trips (with an investment of time and money), the multi-page spreads, the public interest in world events beyond live coverage -- well, some would say that's all gone. Others might say it still exists, but for very, very few photographers.

So, would HCB be blogging? Posting clips on YouTube? Working toward a book, a documentary film, a museum exhibition?

More importantly: where would he take things next?

Meet the New Blog, Same as the Old Blog

Well, not really the same. The new blog I've started is focused on documentary photography -- but is really meant to cover the merging of the tradition with new approaches to documentary filmmaking and new media. The first two posts:

What Would Walker Evans Do?

Statement of Purpose

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

After a Long Day at the Heya

Sometimes you just want to get home, sit down, and stare at your sumo wrestler statue.

Statement of Purpose

I have other blogs. You can see them in the right column. The reason I'm starting a new blog is to open a discussion on the emergence of a new, hybrid form of documentary photography that merges traditional approaches with techniques from documentary filmmaking, strategies from new media and concepts from fine art practice.

I still love traditional documentary photography, but that's not where we are anymore. New technologies like hybrid DSLRs (technically, DSLs, I suppose, since the best of these are now mirrorless), tiny audio recorders, inexpensive large-capacity memory cards, laptop-based video editing, and high-speed Internet access now make the old model only a jumping-off point.

These new capabilities -- arising at a time when traditional publishing is in crisis and a billion amateurs with cell phone cameras have spot news covered -- force us to ask: where should we take the idea of documentary photography? There's no moving backward. So where are we going?

New Documentary Photography Blog

I've started a new blog on Documentary Photography, and the first post asks the inevitable question:
What Would Walker Evans Do?

What Would Walker Evans Do?

"When you say 'documentary,' you have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. It should be documentary style, because documentary is police photography of a scene and a murder ... that’s a real document. You see, art is really useless, and a document has use. And therefore, art is never a document, but it can adopt that style. I do it. I’m called a documentary photographer. But that presupposes a quite subtle knowledge of this distinction."

-- Walker Evans