Friday, August 28, 2015

Photo Constraints: My "New" Modernism

I have a set of constraints I use for my photography; not everything I shoot meets all of these rules, but I judge myself not only by how I feel about the photos but how well I do on hitting all of these (for instance, some pictures just have to be in color… and others need a little cropping… but I consider those “misses” and work to avoid). For the most part, I think of myself as an artful documentary photographer, sort of in the school of Cartier-Bresson, but with minimalist and more formal structure, sort of in the school of Harry Callahan. I think anyone can make up their own rules, like a game. Now that photography is so easy and so ubiquitous, I set it up so I have to work a little harder to make a picture worth looking at. Here are my rules:
1.    No interacting with the subject or scene. All shooting is spontaneous, without preparation or posing. No “Smile.”
2.    Shooting on location. No props. (Unless, obviously, are naturally occurring in the moment.)
3.    Hand-held camera.  No tripods or mounts.
4.    No bag of gear or, particularly, lenses. I travel as light as possible, with as little equipment and gear as possible. An iPhone camera is just as good as a DSLR, and at times, even better.
5.    Only natural lighting. No flashes. If there are artificial lights, then they need to be part of the unaffected scene.
6.    The final image must be in black and white. The removal of chroma information in the post production is an essential part of the process. This forces attention to composition, and calls out the image as unlike most snapshots.
7.    The aspect ratio of final image must be the same as the original image as shot (so, either no cropping or crop to maintain aspect ratio). I aim for no cropping, that’s ideal; all composition is done at the time of shooting.
8.    The only post production modifications allowed are those which are typical in a classical darkroom – exposures, contrast filters, burning and dodging. No retouching or modifying the image. No adding of grain or blur. It is what it is. Think: documentary journalism rules.
9.    No “special effects” either in camera or in post.

10. The physical print matters, not the computer image. So the final image can always be displayed and showed, but there must be a real print to show for the image.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Future of Photography

After reading Stephen Mayes’ essay on the end of photography (8/25/15) I couldn’t help but respond.  To begin with, his main proposition is that “in the future there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’” to which I’d add that I’m not sure there ever really has been much of a ‘straight photograph’ although in recent decades the public has become increasingly aware of this. Ed Weston, photographic pioneer of American Modernism referred to the photograph (in 1932) as a “willful distortion of fact,” and this was long before Photoshop…  and the debate as to whether photography was a mechanical reproduction of the real world or whether it was a medium for artists is as old as the technology itself.

Photography has always been enmeshed with technology, but it has never been about it. The changes that Mayes is noticing are nothing new, even if they are dramatic and represent some amazing shifts in what photography can be and who can use it. Photography has also always been a very democratic medium, particularly after 1900. It’s one of the beautiful things about it.

True, however, is that the number of people armed with cameras today has never been greater – in the past 10 years the act has become utterly ubiquitous. But it isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. It’s the second. For the first 50 years of photography (from around the 1850s to 1900s) photographs were reasonably rare and difficult to create. There were photographers, of course, and they were both technical and artistic. But at the turn of the century rolls of film were invented, Kodak arrived, and much to the dismay of photographers everywhere, suddenly EVERYONE could have a camera and take a picture. The term “snapshooter” came into existence, a word borrowed from hunting, meaning shooting without aiming; and the pictures “snap shots”.

Photography has always had many uses, even back then: to document things; to remember something you had seen. It had applications in architecture, in politics, in science and sociology. But as film got faster, and small cameras proliferated, it began to capture things you hadn’t seen—you could freeze time, you could see closely. So as the 19th century wound down, the photographer-artists were interested in proving that photographs could still be art. “Pictorialism” was their response, to make photos very “painterly” and not look like snapshots. (Not entirely unlike digital photo manipulations today, nostalgically creating weathered photos with chemical-like hues.)

But soon there was another response – as Pictorialism combined with a generation of photographers raised on new technologies and a modern post-war mentality: small cameras, fast film, kids raised looking at images. This became “Modernism” – to see things as they really were, but often in unusual ways.  They used terms like “pure seeing”. They wanted pictures to look like what they were. The argument of the Modernists was that even a straight photo, something they embraced, was no mechanical reproduction, but rather the conscious construction of the photographer. A photo, by definition, isn’t objective reality. Even an unretouched image. Even if it could often be treated as such.
Photography has always had many practical uses—none of this changes with shift from silver to silicon, or the addition of depth information, LIDAR, biometrics, geotags, and so forth, even as our tools for manipulation of images intensify. If anything it’s just another less gentle reminder that photography has always had the potential for utility, always been malleable in the hands of the photographer. Photography, in addition to all its pragmatic uses, has always been an artform of manipulating and painting with light, where artists show us something true, even if its isn’t always real.
Mayes describes the sanctity of the silver-based photo being corrupted by various forms of digital formats, in particular the lossy compression formats (like JPEG) as being “reality, but not as we know it,” but it’s worth noting that the human visual system itself is lossy, taking incomplete data and filling in holes. Less than half of what we think of as “seeing” is from light hitting our retinas and the balance is constructed by our brains applying knowledge models to the visual information. We’re on a slippery slope when we denigrate analog media (pictures or sound) as more real than digital ones.
Photographs are poetry; not just in the nature of idiosyncratic creation, but also in the sense that there are different rules, some tacit and some explicit, whereby a photo is created and consumed. The rules of journalism, for instance, include that pixel colors can change a little, to improve visibility, but objects cannot be moved or removed without discrediting the integrity. You can fix the contrast, but you can’t add a tank or move a pyramid, without voiding the warranty so to speak. Advertisement photography, at least historically, could modify images with impunity in the effort to sell the product for which it was designed. Scientists will continue to use imaging for documenting and for exploration: wide spectrum bandwidths provide all sorts of actionable data; hyperfast shutters capture the utterly unseeable. That this is becoming more democratized is wonderful, but is no more a deathblow (or even a shift “from adolescence to adulthood”) for photography than the Leica with a fast shutter was a century ago. Photography is in a perpetual state of shift, now as before.
And artists? They have rules too. I consider myself a Modernist of sorts: I like to create images that are black-and-white, uncropped, unposed, and unlit. My little “Dogme95.” It’s like the 5-7-5 of a haiku—artificial constraints that I enjoy seeing what I can do within. But different poetic constraints, like haiku and limericks and free verse, don’t kill other poetic forms but rather make it more accessible, more fun, more expressive. All the remarkable technology now brought to bear on photography—both to make it more malleable and to put it in more people’s hands, will no doubt have a creative response from the artistic community; and true that more and more people will have the opportunity to explore this medium. “Modernism” was the art community’s response to the new democracy of photography, and even with all the cameras, we got Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind ...
The ability to modify images may be easier today (and I work every day to make better photos easier to capture using every bit of data at our disposal), but this has always been a component of photography; I suggest these aren’t new big problems so much as the old small issue has necessarily come to light as more people have access to these tools (both in cameras and the software). The author says that the response from the world is less like Modernism and more like Cubism, but I disagree: I think Modernism is precisely what is occurring—a response to the proliferation of photographic tools to do whatever it is photography can do. Photography will still be a voice of truth, even as it is easier to manipulate.
He says we owe it to photography to support it even as it might seem unrecognizable. I don’t disagree, but I’d be less dramatic about it—there’s no need to put away the 2D framed image any more than we put away the long-form movie in a world of Vines—all of these forms will politely co-exist, even as the family grows. We need to welcome in a new community of creators, and enjoy a new set of uses for imaging. Artist and consumer alike. I, for one, can’t wait to see what will happen.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

First Impressions.

Sure, I’ve been right about a few things in my life, but my first impression is often wrong. Embarrassingly so. For instance, I remember when my neighbor, Reed Hastings, first told me about his new company, Netflix. “I’m not so sure about that,” I said. I didn’t know if I’d be willing to wait three days to get a movie. “People are impulsive, and won’t tolerate the wait.” I wasn’t convinced this DVD-by-mail thing would work out, and I told him so. 

When my enormously talented brother sent me the first draft of his movie, Groundhog Day, I liked it immediately. I got it in an instant and it cemented, for me, the genius of my big brother. But the title? I was pretty certain that was a terrible title. No one would ever go see a movie called “Groundhog Day.”  

Years after college and while living in LA, my buddy Scott Johnston sat me down to show me something cool, a “browser” called NCSA Mosaic. I poked around on his computer. “I dunno,” I said, the internet has been clogged with bandwidth-hogging content for years. The idea of belaboring the pipes with graphics and frames... It would slow to a crawl! And we had been on the internet for a decade—we didn’t need a “human interface” to go over the internet just to make it “user friendly…
head slap.
(A few years later, Scott showed me another new device: a Tivo. Okay, I knew that was great. I get some right.)

I allow myself the opportunity to be wrong and change my mind. I remind myself to stay flexible, and to speak up. Oh, and i recognize that most of my friends are smarter than me.
Good thing. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Adobe Labs, and our (Lean) Release of PaintCan

So Holger Winnemoeller, a scientist who (among other things) invents features and filters in Photoshop, came up with this remarkable technology that was more interactive than a filter, he worked on it on his own, invented to suit his personal passions, and created "PaintCan." My project at Adobe (among other things) is to create a pathway by which we could rapidly get experimental products directly from Adobe scientists, and into the hands of real people to learn more about them. It's always a classic "lean" trade-off--the more features you add, the longer it takes to create. The wider the release, the more users, and the more Adobe needs to be part of the process, which is antithetical to rapid iteration of an experiment.

Over the past couple days since PaintCan was made available (on iPads only, in the US only) we've been deluged with requests for access—not only on iPhone and Android, but in nations globally.

It is what we in the business casually refer to as "a good problem to have." We released a different cool app late last year, "Twixt" and voices were not raised that we needed to be international; no one sent us hate mail that we "just had to be on an Android". I'm sorta glad we didn't spend six more months of work on it. And here we are: this time with a "good problem," but that belittles the sincere pains it creates. 

Holger, and the rest of us, are excited to continue working, to get our app in everyone's hands, on every device. Market enthusiasm fuels our efforts, not a corporate agenda. But i need to be honest: none of these things will happen in the short term. Holger was able to conceive, build and release PaintCan in a few months. Our work is not only to make cool new products, but to explore the ways a large, successful company like Adobe can make new products. You'll notice we have no budget for marketing. PaintCan gets virtually no promotion, other than what Holger and I do. It's word of mouth. That's the way we wanted it. In fact, we insisted.

I'm sorry people can't use PaintCan in Toronto and the Netherlands… but we're thinking of you, and with luck, you'll have it in your hands soon enough.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New Book on Group f.64!

Alinder, Mary Street (Author)
Nov 2014. 400 p. Bloomsbury, hardcover, $35. (9781620405550). 770.92.

The zealot California photographers who fought the good fight in the depths of the Great Depression, no less, to establish photography as an art form—including such masters as Ansel Adams, Imogen
Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, and Edward Weston, cleverly called themselves Group f.64. Because f.64, an extremely small lens aperture, or f-stop, produces a “sharply focused, finely detailed” image, the group’s name boldly proclaimed their avid opposition to the then prevailing style of “pictorialism,” in which soft focus was used to imitate the allegedly finer art of painting. These brash Westerners were also challenging the reign of New Yorker Alfred Stieglitz over the nascent art of photography.Alinder pulls together a treasury of assiduously assembled facts and her own personal memories, especially of Adams, for whom she worked as chief assistant, later becoming his biographer. Alinder is particularly revelatory in her coverage of tough and wily Cunningham, the lesser-known but no less intriguing trailblazers Willard Van Dyke, Sonya Noskowiak, and Consuelo Kanaga, and the bold museum directors and collectors who supported the group. As she chronicles the photographers’ friendships, tempestuous love lives, epic parties, scrambles to survive, passionate manifestos, heated public debates, social and environmental concerns, and hard-won exhibitions, Alinder achieves an f.64 degree of crisp and commanding detail in this landmark group portrait of the visionary photographers who succeeded in “forever changing our way of seeing.”

— Donna Seaman

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Defining Modernism: Group f.64

On a pivotal evening at the 683 Brockhurst Gallery in Oakland, California, in 1932, seven West coast photographers –Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston—declared themselves Group f.64. Consciously celebrating the camera itself, these artists derived their name from the smallest aperture available on a large format camera lens. A lens setting at f.64 provided a precise image with the greatest range of sharp focus from foreground to background. Through its name and a landmark exhibition that same year, Group f.64 proclaimed the independent ambitions and aesthetics that helped define modernist photography.

Self-Portrait, Alma Lavenson, 1932
By embracing the unique properties of their medium, Group f.64 broke from the sentimental ideals and painterly techniques of the prevailing Pictorialist tradition. Instead, they advocated the potential of photography to render an objective realism that illuminated the essence of pure form. Members of Group f.64 concentrated on the ordinary object seen in extraordinary ways. They isolated objects from context and directed their attention to details and design, employing close-ups, cropping, flattening, and ambiguities of size and scale. Their work frequently embodied a passionate and spiritual search for what Edward Weston called “the life force within the form” (Rosenblum, p.36).

Group f.64 photographers—nearly one-half of whom were women—shared utopian aspirations and radical methods, but their work also encompassed contradictory incentives and conflicting goals. Largly self-taught, they produced portraits, landscapes, and nudes in geometric and organic forms. Their work was employed in art photography, news reportage, advertising, and for documentary purposes. Some defined themselves as artists; others did not. They called attention to the photographer’s subjective vision while asserting the impersonal detachment of the camera apparatus. Many were passionately committed to social reform; others saw social relevance in the aesthetic image itself. Though they insisted on “pure vision” their notion of pure photography allowed for a wide range of technical approaches, including both manipulated and non-manipulated images.

The work of Group f.64 emerged from avant-garde currents that had existed for at least two decades in the United States and longer in Europe. The modernist movement on both sides o the Atlantic drew much of its vigor from the industrial transformation of the urban environment. The machine became central to a faith in a new age where technology promised a better life for the average citizen. Its geometric forms became a favored subject of Precisionist painters and photographers alike. Industrial subjects, shapes, and surfaces are prominent in the work of Edward Weston, Edwards, Lavenson, and Noskowiak, while Adams and many of these same artists were drawn to the geometric and cubist shapes of New Mexican pueblo architecture.

Group f.64 was built upon a loose and already established association of friends that included professional, romantic and filial relationships. Several artists benefited from exhibitions at the photography gallery run by Williard Van Dyke and Mary Jeanette Edwards at 683 Brockhurst Street in Oakland. Especially important, too, was the patronage of Lloyd Rollins, director of the M. H. de Young Memorial Musueum in San Francisco, where the group’s inaugural exhibition opened on November 15, 1932. This seminal exhibition also included invited associates Preson Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, and Alma Lavenson.

--Kerry Oliver-Smith
Curator of Contemporary Art, Harn Museum of Art

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Next 20 Years

I'm a little depressed. It’s hard for me not to be emotionally swayed by two disparate visions about the future. The first describes a time in, say, 20 years, where computers have become so complex they are effectively conscious. 
The growth of tech power is logarithmic and we are profoundly under prepared for what log changes feel like. When I put on this hat I think: Schools are not preparing our kids for the future. This is a future of electric vehicles, of quantum computing, personalized medicine, surveillance and drones…
Then there is this other conversation. The dystopic one. The planet is changing quickly. Global warming. Water and food scarcity. Impending droughts. Civil breakdown. 
In the next 20 years it’s posited that civilization as we know it will collapse. Or perhaps just western civilization. (Whew.) When I put on this hat I also think: schools are not preparing our kids for the future. This is a future of survivalism and minimalism, distributed power and control, and other depressing shit.

So what is proper preparation? Do we make our kids learn to program computers and macroeconomics? or do we teach them guns, farming and how to build mechanical engines?

Are the issues of the day things like income disparity, grade school bullying, human enslavement, non-GMO organic foods? Or is it tool late to worry about such trivialities of civilization and instead we should we cash out of our 401Ks and buy gold bullion and water and underground facilities in Montana?

Twenty years isn’t very long. My kids will be pretty grown – it will be largely their problem to address, but I’ll still have my home loan to pay off and retirement to negotiate. And whatever will happen it’s going to happen during the next twenty years, not all of a sudden in 20 years. 

So here's what i've come to: the two futures aren’t mutually exclusive. The first “future” is about tools; the second “future” is about what we need to apply these tools to. People have been predicting the end of the world for quite some time. They’re usually wrong (but occasionally right). Perhaps the only really wrong attitude is one that says “it can’t happen here. It won’t happen to me. Everything is status quo.” I’ve also found that any time I stress about some future outcome, it’s usually neither as good nor as bad as I can imagine. The reality is always more in the middle.

Even though this is the most peaceful and safe time in human history, yes, things are also bad. The environment is changing quickly. And luckily technology is changing just as quickly – maybe moreso. What i want for my kids:  to have the wisdom to remain calm with an uncertain future, the nimbleness and persistence to try and fail and try again, and the creativity to think of things we cannot even imagine as they address these gargantuan global and societal issues. The tech will be there to support them.

Kids: go do your homework.