EARTH NOW: American Photographers and the Environment

EARTH NOW: American Photographers and the Environment
EARTH NOW: American Photographers and the Environment

nsel Adams’s and Eliot Porter’s landscape photography fueled a growing concern for the environment in this country. Earth Now begins with the work of these two artists and moves on to a group of landscape photographers who came of age in the 1970s.

Adams and Porter worked independently as artists but also actively participated in placing their photographs in the context of environmental activism. Their idealized, unpopulated landscapes set the standard for twentieth-century nature photography, and each of their followers had to contend with the precedents they set. A gallery of images by Robert Adams, Robert Glenn Ketchum, Mark Klett, Terry Evans, Patrick Nagatani, Richard Misrach, David Maisel, and Bill Owens give a sense of the changing voice of landscape photography through the end of the twentieth century.

The exhibition’s primary concentration is on work made after the millennium, in response not only to artistic commentary in the preceding century but also in reaction to a critical shift in the human relationship to the landscape. The pictures stimulate visitors to think about their personal relationship to the environment and to consider the impact of the choices we make as a society and as individuals.

The artists represented in the second section of the show are Subhankar Banerjee, Bremner Benedict, Michael P. Berman, Joann Brennan, Suzette Bross, Christine Chin, Dornith Doherty, Chris Enos, Daniel Handal, Beth Lilly, Brad Moore, Matthew Moore, Brook Reynolds, Laurel Schultz, Christina Seely, Sharon Stewart, Carlan Tapp, Brad Temkin, Sonja Thomsen, Robert Toedter, Phil Underdown, Greg MacGregor and Victor Masayesva, Jr. Many are emerging artists whose work has not been shown in the Southwest, while others are more established artists doing new bodies of work, some of which have never been exhibited.
– Katherine Ware, Curator of Photography, New Mexico Museum of Art

Free public reception Friday, April 8, 2011 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. hosted by the Women’s Board of the Museum of New Mexico.

Film and Digital : The Dead Horse Whinnies

Film and Digital : The Dead Horse Whinnies
Film and Digital : The Dead Horse Whinnies

Coming of age as a photographer during the 1970’s and ‘80’s, I shot 35mm film — like most enthusiasts of limited means — and developed it in my makeshift bathroom darkroom. But when I resumed “serious” photography around 2004, after a several-year hiatus, I first did so with a family hand-me-down Kowa Super 66. As stolid and no-frills as that camera was, one look at those medium-format negatives told me I’d found my format. Medium format seemed to best fit the way I see, think, and shoot. And a gorgeous, sharp, tone-rich negative shot on 120 color film became my archetype of a beautiful image.

Several years, and tens of thousands of photographs later, I find that I’ve produced probably two thirds of my archive with medium-format cameras of several different brands and formats. The remainder I’ve shot mostly with the handful of digital cameras I’ve also owned — all of which I’ve since sold or put aside. In fact, until last fall, I had all but stopped shooting digital. I found a more welcoming home for a D300 that had languished in its bag untouched for a year, during which I shot some 150-plus rolls of 120 film.

There was nothing at all wrong with the Nikon’s images — other than the 1:1.5 image ratio that I always seemed to want to crop at least to 4:3. In retrospect, I think my dissatisfaction with digital photography simply boiled down to a few non-rational objections that logical argument couldn’t overcome.

First, the pictures, while good-looking in their own right, didn’t match my film-centric mental template of a “good” photograph — my jaw didn’t drop, Mamiya-7-on-Portra style, on viewing the output of my DSLR. I’m not talking about “native” vs. “scanned” pixels, linear resolution, or any other pocket-protector stuff. I’m simply talking “wow” factor. Digital, it seemed, promised “new” and “better”, but delivered only “good” and “different”. It felt like opening a damaged toy on Christmas morning.

Second, after almost four decades of shooting film, some part of my reptilian lower brain felt that “real” photographers use only manual cameras, and set apertures and shutter speeds on rings and dials which click satisfyingly into place. We do not whirl girly wheels with our thumbs; we disdain the siren song of matrix metering as fit only for Digi-Chimping Shutter Monkeys. Our exposure numbers are obtained from handheld meters, wielded by a Skilled Craftsman who must interpret the meter’s advice against lighting conditions at the scene. Compared to this intricate mechanical kabuki, shooting with a DSLR felt at times like operating a microwave oven or TV remote control.

And, finally, there is the matter of the cameras themselves. Compared to the unapologetically-utilitarian squareness of a Mamiya 7, the haughty chrome elegance of a Hasselblad, or the ergonomic flair of a Contax 645, modern DSLR’s can seem downright homely. As I touched on in last month’s column (here or here), one must give due deference to his inner Collector, and modern DSLR’s move him not at all.

All that said, I started shooting digital again last fall. The event that precipitated this reconsideration was returning from a family vacation with 20 rolls of 120 color neg film to deal with. Doesn’t sound like such a big deal, right? Processing it in my Jobo took only a few hours, but getting it scanned, corrected, and spotted took me several weeks, working in small chunks of time here and there around my other obligations. It breaks my heart to say it, but that’s increasingly time I find I can’t spare from the other stuff, and tedium I don’t wish to endure.

Furthermore, despite the fact that color films are better today than they’ve ever been, the only sure prediction one can make about them is that they are history — in 3-5 years if you’re pessimistic, 10 if not. Besides, I have no idea how much longer I’ll be able to affordably source the C-41 chemistry required to feed the Jobo. I can make my own B&W developer from cheap, plentiful chemicals, but C-41 is another story. When that goes, or the Jobo dies, and I have to start sending 120 color-neg off to the west coast at $8 a roll and two weeks’ turnaround, I’m probably done. The wait alone would kill me!

The other thing that’s changed is that I have cleaned out my gear closet, consolidated things a bit, and settled on a workable digital solution whose images, so far, I have found as satisfying in their way as my beloved MF film pictures. They are not the same, of course, but they are beautiful. I may have more to say about this in some future slow-news month when I feel like a gear review. I really don’t want this column to be about gear — except as it relates to the overall culture of image-making. So stay tuned.

I plan to keep on shooting film until something breaks irretrievably. I’m addicted, and just because I’ve added another drug to the pharmacopoeia doesn’t mean that I can’t stay high on the old standbys. Some days, you just gotta have a mechanical shutter ca-chunk to get through the day.

Collector vs Photographer

Collector vs Photographer
Collector vs Photographer

I am a camera collector. I’ve always been a camera collector. But sometimes I’m also a photographer, and it’s so confusing….the B&H, KEH, and Adorama boxes just keep coming, but the pictures still suck….

If there were a 12-step program for camera addicts, thus would I introduce myself to the group. Imagine the scene: a tremulous circle of clammy camera-tweakers in a dingy VFW hall; screw-mount Leicas, Rolleiflexes, and 500-series Hasselblads draped around our necks like oversize St. Ansel medallions; film-advance levers worn as smooth as rosaries as we bare our souls to anonymous, similarly-afflicted strangers.

Each of us in his turn—women are not excepted—would tell woeful tales of bank accounts emptied, and dreams of artistic renown waylaid, by the all-powerful Camera Jones. Commiserating all around, we’d end with cookies and punch, giving thanks to our Higher Power (AKA Spouse With Checkbook.) We’d part company, momentarily unburdened, rejuvenated with fresh artistic resolve—until the next new camera came along to distract us with opiate vapors from the real work of Doing Something Worthwhile with the things. Binge, Regret, Binge again.

Probably no other form of artistic expression is as bound up as photography in the technology used to produce it. The Photographer sees the image, and the Technician masters the device that produces it. This mastery is frequently mated to a keen love of finely-wrought machines, so the Technician abides with his cousin, the camera Collector. All these personae exist to some extent in each of us. The problem, though, is that, while the Technician lives only to serve, the objectives of Collector and Photographer are seriously at odds.

Collector exalts the camera as a functional bit of industrial sculpture. Photographer, on the other hand, regards the camera as but a means of art-making. For her, a certain disdain for one’s tools, but a steadfast monogamous fidelity to the chosen few, is essential if she is to make serious art. The Collector makes an occasional dainty exposure, then tucks the object of his love gently back into the Billingham or display case, lest dust or smudge sully its pristine leatherette. The Photographer, by contrast, sees her D3 smashed by a third-world riot cop, files the insurance claim, and replaces the camera with all the emotional investment of a plumber deploying a broken drain auger. This utilitarian mindset gives the Collector hives.

I have been aware of this Collector / Photographer duality almost since the day I picked up my first camera, a family hand-me-down Bakelite Brownie, four decades ago. I’m quite sure that, in my eight-year-old mind, the camera—with its smooth Art-Deco-ish lines and beguiling clicks and buzzes— was initially more fascinating as a device than as an image-making tool. Soon, though, Photographer appeared, and he and Collector learned to get along about as well as siblings confined on a long car trip. Lately, though, this coexistence has been downright turbulent, as I strive to make work at a higher level, and to find the tools best suited to that undertaking, while throwing the occasional shiny chrome bone to the Collector.

This week I received a ship notice for a long-backordered, scarce camera I’d ordered months ago, while Collector was momentarily in the driver’s seat. Luckily, between the ordering and the shipping, reason had schooled Photographer that I neither needed, nor could afford, this camera. Too bad; the shiny new toy shipped before I could cancel it. Heartened, Collector sensed another default victory, but Photographer thwarted him yet again, through the agency of my saintly-patient wife. She refused delivery on Photographer’s behalf, and the package returned whence it came, unopened, temptation forestalled. Score one for Photographer, who lately could really use the leg up.

Since the Brownie I have owned cameras TNTC—Too Numerous To Count, as we describe our microscopic censuses of deranged blood cells and urinary bacteria—and I’ve loved something about each one. In the actual use of them, I’ve discovered their limitations and best uses. Some of Collector’s favorite cameras have been Photographer’s least favorite tools; conversely, some of the better tools were the cameras that least excited Collector’s passion. I’m so sorry, RZ67. The Hasselblad was just so…slim…so…shiny and angular. I respect your work, but the heart wants what it wants…. Er, you wouldn’t maybe consider taking me back, would you?

This is a different issue than the thoroughly discredited notion, “if only I had a Canikosonytaxblad zillion-megapixel digital back I’d be the next William Eggleston.” We’ve all internalized the shibboleth that it’s the vision, not the camera, etc, etc, and we all profess to believe it. I’m well past the point of investing my next camera with super-powers. More problematical is that studying, acquiring, and becoming acquainted with a series of beautiful cameras, however fulfilling in its own right, takes mind-space and energy that could be devoted instead to furthering one’s actual image-making skills and visual sensibility.

Camera collecting, per se harmless, is the ultimate expression of genteel photographic procrastination. Swiping the MasterCard is far easier than the slow and sometimes tedious job of making better photographs.

An Introduction

An Introduction
An Introduction

a monthly column for Fraction, I naturally asked—after verifying his sanity—about his mandate for the work. It seems my brief is promiscuously broad: to write about photography as the muse impels me, from an outsider’s perspective—as someone whose primary residence is not in the Fine Art Photography neighborhood, but who drives, agog, the mean, beautiful streets of that gated community every chance he gets. I’m grateful for this opportunity to inflict my meanderings upon a wider audience under the Fraction masthead.

You’re surely wondering, “just how far “outside” is this guy?” (or more likely, “how do I unsubscribe?”) I’ve been making pictures since grade school—that’s a long time. But in my youth, a career in art didn’t seem feasible; it was just not done. Instead, my path went through med school, two residencies, and private anesthesiology practice. I’ve been doing that for about sixteen years, the latter half in a small community hospital in central Kentucky, my wife’s home state.

The nature of my specialty is that we don’t have practices full of permanently-attached patients. We do our thing, the patient does well and goes home, and I move on to the next operation. As a result, my work schedule can be made amenable to the pursuit of happiness outside of medicine. It took me a while to figure this out, though. So, not quite eight years ago, I downshifted to create just such a family- and photography-friendly situation for myself. As a result, I’ve been able to earn a living and still try to be a husband, father, and photographer.

I had assumed in my ignorance that part-timers like myself were the exception in the fine-art photography ecosystem. But when I began putting my work out into the world in online venues, in contests, and at portfolio reviews, I realized that many—if not most—fine-art photographers make their living around the genre’s edges, or even entirely outside photography. I shouldn’t have been surprised—this reality is certainly in keeping with art photography’s spartan economic traditions. But evidently there are quite a few of us dilettantes out here photographing assiduously, even as we work at some other job. Hopelessly infected, we simply can’t not make pictures. All of us carve out time for photographic work around the stuff that keeps the lights on.

Meeting others of similar situation has made me ponder what might lead a person both to photography and to a certain, seemingly unrelated, vocational field. Among my medical colleagues there seem to be two kinds of doctor-artists: those whose art is inspired by medical practice, and those whose art coexists with it. I’m among the latter; in my experience, neither type is plentiful. How, then, does one find his way both to medicine and to the arts?

Medical practice, like other highly-technical fields, requires a sturdy ego, independence of thought and action, perseverance, discipline, and the ability to quickly organize masses of information into coherent mental wholes. Sound familiar? Photography calls upon those same traits; both a photographic series, and a complex medical history, are stories that must be condensed painstakingly from background noise.

But while photography may make use of procedure, consistency, and rote, medicine is understandably dominated by them, but without the creative payoff photography provides. I like the comforting rituals of doing, the mechanical tasks that comprise the operation of a camera or the administration of an anesthetic. But I especially crave the sublime sense of discovery that accompanies fixing an image in my head in tangible form, or seeing this done by the many others more gifted than myself.

I think about photography and photographs constantly; in my field of dreams I’m a full-timer, and I’ve often bridled at the frustration of this fantasy. But I have also gazed upon the lurid neon greenness of the grass Over There; on this side of the paddock, I’ve learned to appreciate the freedom accorded me by the day job to photograph on my own terms. In my own modest artistic life, I take nothing for granted, and acknowledge my good fortune.

Pardon this long introduction. And fear not, for such tedious me-centricity will not be a fixture in future columns. In those, I hope to provoke thought, and to stimulate discussion, across a wide range of topics relating to contemporary photography. To that end, these columns will appear here on the Fraction blog, but will also be archived with each month’s edition of Fraction itself. David and I both feel the blog is better suited than the magazine itself to accommodating the reader to-and-fro we hope ensues. So let fly here—we want to hear from you. (You can also email me at mike at michaelsebastian dot com.)

My thanks to David for publishing this column—I only hope it goes live before his ether wears off—and to all of you for your continued support of Fraction.