Random Sights and Diversions

Photography Media Reviews Commentary


What I’m Reading … Landmark: The Fields of Landscape Photography

If you like landscape photography as I do, this new book by William Ewing, Landmark: The Fields of Landscape Photography, should be a very rewarding and stimulating read. Ewing surveys the current state of landscape photography. More than 230 images are included by 100 photographers. Most of the images have been produced since 2000.

Ewing positions current landscape photography in ten theme areas: Sublime; Pastoral; Artefacts; Rupture; Playground; Scar; Control; Enigma; Hallucination; and Reverie. By and large, the photographers whose work Ewing presents are most interested in the lived-in landscape, the landscape as altered and inhabited by humans, and the images brilliantly portray the landscape as a subject for human reflection, imagination, play, recreation, inspiration, or – sadly – exploitation.

It is impossible to read this book and not see landscape photography as a vital and fertile area for many of the best contemporary photographers.




Guy Tal: “More Than a Rock”

Castle Gates. Guy Tal. Copyright Guy Tal.

Castle Gates. Guy Tal. Copyright Guy Tal.

Guy Tal (website here) is a wonderful landscape photographer with a thoughtful and deeply felt sense of his philosophy and mission as a maker of landscape images. In the current issue of Lens Work (online here, subscription required), I came across an article by Guy Tal with images from his latest book, “More Than a Rock.” Inspired by Edward Weston’s comment about the photographer’s aim “to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but have it be more than a rock” (a sentiment I agree wholeheartedly with), Tal’s book features a great collection of essays about the land and photographing landscapes. The book also includes many excellent images. “More Than a Rock can be obtained from Guy Tal’s website (books page, here), available in both iBook and more general PDF formats. The price is remarkably low for such a quality work.  I think I had come across Mr. Tal’s work earlier, but only now had the More Than a Rockoccasion to delve into his website and to download his new book. In addition to large portfolios of images, very well reproduced online, Tal’s website includes a blog with regular commentary and reflections on photography, nature, the land, and life. Website and book are strongly recommended.


Is the Camera Obsolete?

Matthew Brandt, Grays Lake, ID 7, 2013. © Matthew Brandt, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Matthew Brandt, Grays Lake, ID 7, 2013. © Matthew Brandt, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Of course, the camera is not obsolete. But the role of the camera in photography, along with the nature of photography itself, is changing. I missed this article in the Times last January, The Next Big Picture: With Cameras Optional, New Directions in Photography (New York Times, January 23, 2014. Registration may be required.)

The Times article reviewed a new show (unfortunately, now closed) at the International Center of Photography in New York City, What is a Photograph?

Organized by ICP Curator Carol Squiers, What Is a Photograph? explores the intense creative experimentation in photography that has occurred since the 1970s. Conceptual art introduced photography into contemporary art making, using the medium in ways that challenged it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broadened the notion of what a photograph could be in art.

Mariah Robertson, 154 [detail], 2010. © Mariah Robertson, courtesy American Contemporary, New York.

Mariah Robertson, 154 [detail], 2010. © Mariah Robertson, courtesy American Contemporary, New York.

I missed the show, as well, but having just come across the Times review, I think it addresses a fundamental question in art photography today. It is a question that has been on my mind. To quote from the Times:

The shift of focus from fact to fiction, and all the gradations in between, is perhaps the largest issue in the current soul-searching underway in photography circles. Questions swirl: Can the “captured” image (taken on the street — think of the documentary work of Henri Cartier-Bresson) maintain equal footing with the “constructed” image (made in the studio or on the computer, often with ideological intention)? (*)

The line between traditional photography and digital image-making is becoming blurred (or, if you accept the premise of the images in the ICP show, more or less demolished.)

Travess Smalley, Capture Physical Presence #15, 2011. © Travess Smalley, courtesy Higher Pictures, New York.

Travess Smalley, Capture Physical Presence #15, 2011. © Travess Smalley, courtesy Higher Pictures, New York.(* There is an excellent essay about Travess Smalley’s work, Capture Physical Presence, here.)

(These images from the ICP show.)

My work, at least recently, is much closer to the traditional end of the spectrum than most of the constructed digital images in the ICP show. But I still wonder about the role of digital manipulation and what it says about the aims of photography. My images are extensively manipulated post-capture more and more.  I don’t hesitate to go well beyond raw conversion, tweaking exposure, or correcting color.  I am interested in bringing out textures, shadows, relationships between light and dark and color, that lead the viewer to see the scene in a new way, often seeing what is unseen with the naked eye. At present, I still feel bound to the original scene as a foundation, still approaching post-capture manipulation essentially as a matter of enhancement, even if extreme at times. But I wonder if it has to stay that way in order to be called “photography.”

The dichotomy between the captured image and the constructed image, mentioned above, is actually a very wide continuum with a lot of overlap. One way to look at this is to reason that if an image starts with capture by a camera, then it’s a photograph, and the end result of the creative process is still a photograph, no matter what or how much post-capture processing or engineering is carried out.  That’s my view. Not all photographers agree. But if the end result is not still a photograph, what is it? That is, a work of photographic art can be both captured and constructed. Again, that’s my view.

But how do we classify works such as those illustrated here and at the ICP show site? These are, in fact, more than mere digital constructions. For example, Travess Smalley’s works are assembled as collages, scanned, converted to jpegs, printed. There is a physical presence just as with a traditional photographic print. I have always believed that what the camera produces is just one of the raw ingredients of creating a photographic image. If the elements are produced by means other than with a camera, can it still be photography?

I think it is good for photography, for art, and for photographers that contemporary photography is an art form using “the medium in ways that challenge[d] it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broaden[ed] the notion of what a photograph could be in art.”

Red Dahlia II.  Copyright Joanne Mason 2012.

Red Dahlia II. Copyright Joanne Mason 2012.

Red Dahlia II. Shot in 2012. Extensively manipulated in Photoshop, along with Lightroom and Nik Viveza, involving a lot of color manipulation. This isn’t exactly as the eye would see a dahlia, and we can’t exactly say it’s just enhancement either. But the created image – which is designed to explore the sense of wild abandon of the flower – nevertheless embraces elements that may register on the viewer unconsciously and that contribute to the whole image.


Ralph Nelson, Botanica [Update]

Ralph Nelson BotanicaI recently posted a review of the work of Ralph Nelson, who does fantastic work photographing with iPhones. Nelson published a terrific book, Botanica, featuring botanical iPhone images. I was very impressed. The review contained a few errors which I hope I’ve corrected. Botanica and Ralph Nelson’s work is still highly recommended! Click here for the updated post. 


What I’m Reading … Sebastião Salgado, Genesis

Sebastião Salgado, Genesis

Genesis, Sebastiao Salgado Sebastião Salgado’s photography is stunning and spellbinding, and his latest book, Genesis, is a masterpiece: A large-format collection of over 500 pages of spectacular black-and-white images shot by Salgado over a period of 8 years on 32 expeditions into some of the world’s most primitive and beautiful places. Sebastião Salgado is to be admired for his work as a humanitarian photographer of great sensitivity as well as for his mastery of the photographic medium. Salgado has described this evocative book as his “love letter to the planet.” I believe that is a very apt description. Looking at these amazing images certainly creates a great sense of pleasure and deep respect for our planet.

Sebastiao Salgado, Genesis, 520 pages. Published by Taschen, 2013.  Designed and edited by Lélia Wanick Salgado.

Genesis, Sebastiao Salgado

Salgado, born in Brazil and now living in Paris, ranks as one of the most significant living photographers today. Genesis, which I discovered recently at the Library, is his latest project to be published. The book is huge, a fantastic volume published by Taschen. In addition to the 500 pages of images, an insert includes extensive commentary on the subject and place of each photography.

Genesis, Sebastiao Salgado

(At Taschen here. At Amazon here.)

This is from Salgado’s website:

Genesis is a long-term photographic project, in line with the main bodies of work carried out previously by Sebastião Salgado; for example, the series of reportages presented in Workers or the series on the theme of the population movements around the world, that appeared in Migrations. This new project is about our planet earth, nature and its beauty, and what remains of it today despite the manifold destruction caused by human activity. Genesis is an attempt to portray the beauty and the majesty of regions that are still in a pristine condition, areas where landscapes and wildlife are still unspoiled, places where human communities continue to live according to their ancient culture and traditions.

And this from Taschen, the publisher of Genesis:

What does one discover in Genesis? The animal Genesis, Sebastiao Salgadospecies and volcanoes of the Galápagos; penguins, sea lions, cormorants, and whales of the Antarctic and South Atlantic; Brazilian alligators and jaguars; African lions, leopards, and elephants; the isolated Zo’é tribe deep in the Amazon jungle; the Stone Age Korowai people of West Papua; nomadic Dinka cattle farmers in Sudan; Nenet nomads and their reindeer herds in the Arctic Circle; Mentawai jungle communities on islands west of Sumatra; the icebergs of the Antarctic; the volcanoes of Central Africa and the Kamchatka Peninsula; Saharan deserts; the Negro and Juruá rivers in the Amazon; the ravines of the Grand Canyon; the glaciers of Alaska… and beyond. Having dedicated so much time, energy, and passion to the making of this work, Salgado likens Genesis to “my love letter to the planet.”

Genesis, Sebastiao Salgado

Recommended: New York Times, April 20, 2013, Interview by Dominique Browning.  And Slide show.  (Login may be required.)  And a fascinating TED Talk by Salgado.

Genesis, Sebastiao Salgado

Salgado’s photography represents styles very consistent with what I have been interested in: Deep and richly textured black-and-white, with sharp contrasts and powerful details, and deep focus (depth-of-field). (Salgado was still shooting with film when he began the expeditions depicted in Genesis; he changed to digital for the later images.) I’ve read reviews of Genesis that take issue with a few points about layout, specifically: (1) the fact that there are many full double-page images that span the binding; and (2) the inclusion of many spreads with a large number of single images on the page. But I think these are quibbles; it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the work at all. One can spend, literally, days studying these images, both the powerfully moving content and Salgado’s exquisite photographic technique. A wealth of information about the images and Salgado’s expeditions is included in an insert booklet.


Update: Vivian Maier, Street Photographer

That is a trailer for the new documentary film, “Finding Vivian Maier.” A couple of years ago, I was visiting Santa Fe when I walked into a gallery off the square and discovered an exhibition of prints by Vivian Maier. I wrote a blog post about it here. At the time, Vivian Maier was only just beginning to be a phenomenon in the photography world; the exhibit I saw in Santa Fe was one of the earliest presentations of her work. In the two years since, interest in Vivian Maier has grown exponentially. More shows are being devoted to showing prints of her work, and her work is getting the critical attention it deserves.

From the Vivian Maier website:

An American of French and Austro-Hungarian extraction, Vivian bounced between Europe and the United States before coming back to New York City in 1951. Having picked up photography just two years earlier, she would comb the streets of the Big Apple refining her artistic craft. By 1956 Vivian left the East Coast for Chicago, where she’d spend most of the rest of her life working as a caregiver. In her leisure Vivian would shoot photos that she zealously hid from the eyes of others. Taking snapshots into the late 1990′s, Maier would leave behind a body of work comprising over 100,000 negatives. Additionally Vivian’s passion for documenting extended to a series of homemade documentary films and audio recordings.

Produced and directed by John Maloof, who has been responsible for getting Maier’s work to the attention of the photo world, the new film, “Finding Vivian Maier”,  is now making the rounds of art house cinemas around the country, distributed by IFC Films. Here is the film website.

There are so many fascinating questions about Vivian Maier’s life and photography. Can work like Maier’s be appreciated or enjoyed apart from the story of her life? Well, yes, but I think so much is lost if we try and do that. Maier’s life and photography are of a whole, and her art encompasses both.

What I find most interesting – even more than the astounding quality and perceptiveness in Maier’s work – is that most of the over 100,000 images she made were never printed during her life. Did she intend for her photography to be seen? Did she expect that it would be? Was she only shooting images for herself? Her street photography developed her art and skill to such a high degree, almost redefining the nature of street photography. Is it art? Can a photographic image be art if it is not exhibited? For what purpose did Maier capture so many incredible scenes of urban life?

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