Friday, February 28, 2014

What is a Portrait?

Portrait of boy and his dog
This isn’t something that I would have thought to be particularly controversial. You take a picture of somebody and bam you have a portrait, right? I mean, clearly there is going to be variation in the quality, Richard Avedon’s Dovima with the Elephants is a little better than the selfie I took of my new hairdo looking down into the partly thumb- obscured lens of my disposable camera. 

It wasn’t until I was looking at Flickr groups with titles such as ‘portraiture’ or ‘people’s portraits’ or ‘artistic portraiture’ that I realized there did actually seem to be a wide variety of interpretations of what constituted a portrait. Yes, this question began not by wrestling with the idea of the Greek blank eyed marble discus throwers as portraits or types, but from the everyday world of Flickr. 

Portrait of my son
Clearly, some of this confusion stems from people simply not caring that their picture out of the window of the airplane capturing parts of the wing and a bit of cloud didn’t constitute a portrait. I have to say I can also firmly state that poorly drawn pictures of oral sex also don’t make the cut, I’m not sure when that became unclear. 
Portrait of a Monkey

Then there are some gray areas. Can pictures of animals be portraits? What about of a building or a plant? Is it possible to paint a portrait of an inanimate object? What is it about a picture of an individual monarch butterfly that makes it less of a portrait than a picture of an individual person? Sure, to me all of the monarchs look the same, but I bet they would say the same of people. 

So, whenever I run out of knowledge, I turn to the gods of google. I started my quest with the usual evocative form of address, designed to flatter such deities: 

“Oh gods of google, what is a...”
I was immediately interrupted by the eager demons of autofill: 
Angel Santos, World Famous Ceramacist
“what is a thot?”
“what is a good sat score?” “what is a bitcoin?”

“what is a good credit score?” 
 No, wait, that’s not what I need. Hold on...what is a thot? Okay, I’ve looked that up and I’m not going to share it here. Nevermind. It’s enough to know that the plural form is thotties. I’m glad that’s been thought through. 

I pushed boldly forward with my query: 
“What is a portrait?” 
As always, the first gods to respond were Wikepedia, god of common knowledge and esoteric information, and Youtube, god of whatever people thought of last now that everybody has a video camera all of the time and apparently very little common sense or understanding of what other people might find interesting. I pushed past them to a source that seemed more respectable, The National Galleries of Scotland

Portrait of Armando Arriega
The answer comes in a charming short video with responses from the curators to that very question. What is immediately clear is that, like all things that we are accustomed to, any thoughtful answer is much less definite than we would think. In fact, it seems to me that the very familiarity with the word prevents us from every actually understanding what it means. One of the first responses is that it is an evocation of a person. Another curator states that in a portrait, there is an emphasis on the uniqueness of an individual (possibly why a picture of a monarch butterfly, no matter how beautiful, is not a portrait because we just don’t know how to evaluate monarchian uniqueness). 
Portrait of the Churro-maker's daughter

Then, the waters get muddy again with Keith Hartley’s disclosure that a portrait doesn’t always have to be of a person, but that it can be of a thing as well. In fact, by the end the curators really seem to be falling apart...and remember the are world class experts at the National Portrait Gallery. What is so wonderfully charming about this video though is the very frank confusion and recognition of the humor of that state by the curators. 

Portrait of a Dancer
Nicola Kalinsky begins to address the question of who makes the portrait as an element of determining what a portrait is. Also, she invokes the existence of a memory in connection with the image as an essential characteristic. 

If a portrait is individuality, connection, and memory in a visual form. Where does that leave our photograph of a monarch? Probably without portrait status after all, no matter how beautiful the butterfly, any memory held by a butterfly would not be recognizable as such by a person and vice versa. When thinking of a family dog, or any of the higher order of mammals (do not distract me by asking me what that means...I can’t answer everything...) there is clearly a connection and a memory and individuality on a different level. 

Of course, the best definition is saved for last and comes from Gerd Sander, photographer and grandson of the photographer August Sander
Portrait of Don Jose Lopez
“It’s like being in love you know, it’s the same never know how it happens but if it happens right a good outcome will be there.”
Maybe a good portrait is one that makes me fall in love with the sitter, whether with their eyes, their smile, their power, or their dream. Rather than dispute with anyone over their personal experience of that love, let the definition be expansive rather than exclusive. After all, we’re always better off with more love than less.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Being In and Documentation Of...Viva La RevoluciĆ³n!

One section of those involved in the rally
A student organizer
This week, I learned that it is very difficult to both be in the revolution and to photograph it. Have you ever noticed how few selfies there are from Che Gueverra, Castro, or Subcomandante Marcos? I'm not comparing myself to those people, I'm just suggesting that it is difficult to be in charge of imagery while caught up in the moment.

A student and faculty member lead the chants

Building on several years worth of criticism and thwarted attempts at dialog, this week, students, faculty, and community members gathered to protest budget cuts and the abandonment of UNCG's educational mission by the leadership of the university and to say Enough is Engough. Four years ago, I read a book about the decline of liberal arts education in which the author discussed a meeting where he was asked to teach extra classes so that the positions of adjuncts could be eliminated as a money-saving measure. As I read that, I thought, that is where I will draw the line when this happens. Then, last week, I sat in a faculty meeting where it became clear that we had reached my projected line.

I participated in this rally and it was the only spark of hope I have seen for higher education in North Carolina in the last year (combined with the courageous act of civil disobedience undertaken by the Guilford County Schoolboard I almost began to feel that change was possible!) . Over 500 people came out to share their anger, despair, pain, and hope. The students too have a line and the administration of UNCG has clearly crossed it. I hope the students can keep up the momentum, keep hammering until this corporate administration is shattered because the faculty have lost their way. They have become timid and obedient, two qualities that do not bode well for a profession that exists to challenge existing knowledge and expand the boundaries of understanding. 

I was able to concentrate on photography for the first 20 minutes and then it was my turn to speak. We were not allowed to use bullhorns; I am one though. I told the crowd:
We are not under attack; we are up for sale. There is no budget crisis; there is a moral crisis; we do not lack funds, our leaders lack vision.
It was hard for me to stop shaking and pick up the camera again. I did take a couple more shots. This was important because in one of the panoramas I was able to count the number of people present in a section of the crowd thereby giving a good idea of the numbers of the crowd as a whole. Luckily, there were many other photographers and videographers there, some from news stations such as WXII, YES! Weekly, The Greensboro News & Record and the Triad City Beat. Laath Martin came to document the event as well and I look forward to seeing his work. He has created a fantastic photographic record of the Moral Monday marches in North Carolina.

Students were there to support the ASL program, to express their continued anger about rising fees, to show their love for their faculty, and to demonstrate commitment to their education.

So,  I don't think it is so much the importance of remaining unbiased (an illusory possibility anyway) that makes it difficult to photograph events in which you are involved; it is the attention that is required for photography. Eventually, too much of your brain is occupied by your involvement in the event and you can't both look through the lens and be creating the subject at the same time.
Supporters for UNCG's ASL program

I hope there are more protests, though, so that I can test this theory to the fullest.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Philosophating on Wealthification

There are a million things to subscribe to and watch and learn as I try to wade through all of the information available about photography. A lot of it, I have to admit, I come upon by pure chance. Right now, I am in the voracious mode – I subscribe to everything, follow everybody; look at everyone’s images. Maybe I will become more discerning later, but right now I don’t know enough. I get a regular newsletter from PhotoShelter and this week’s message included a free guide to selling fine art photography. Heck, I’d like to sell my photography…perfect.

Unfortunately, as with all things important, it isn’t as easy as signing up for a particular website or dropping a portfolio off with whoever it is that is in charge of making people’s photos desirable. It sounds like a lot of work, a lot of poverty, a lot of rejection. I think before I start down that path, I really need to determine whether this is a hobby for me or if I should even try to compete on that level. I know that I really enjoy creating images, but I have no idea whether the spark of talent necessary to make that journey worthwhile is there. So, most likely that means, I’m not quite ready. On the other hand, I'm terribly impatient…so here I go.

20 x 200

This guide introduced me to an online gallery called 20x200 that seems to be undergoing some sort of renovation. I don’t find this problematic at all since I have no idea what they were like before. The 20x200 is a Jen Bekman project and her motto is ‘It’s Art for Everyone.’ She is the CEO of this business venture that works to find the highest quality art and make it available for sale. I’m not entirely sure how they find people and the rest of the ins and outs, but I plan on keeping up with their blog and following them on Twitter. It seems like a great way to know about artists who aren’t yet in the history books (although they do have prints by Edweard Muybridge…so some of them are the greats as well.)


Another site to explore is Artsy which showcases an amazing variety of work in all kinds of media from a series of partner galleries and museums. I signed up for a free account (very easy) and…okay, I'm back, just spent an hour and a half wandering through the artists on Artsy! I could have spent longer but my children needed me to sign in on our Netflix account again so that they can watch the Power Puff Girls. I think this makes me a good parent…

Where was I?

Oh, yes. So, Artsy does not work directly with artists but rather with the galleries and museums and they have over 10,000 photos for sale as just one medium in which they deal. It looks sort of like a one way Flickr / visual blog because I can favorite works and artists, investigate their partners, set my preferences to show me work that is in line with my interests and contribute to posts about the works on their site. Very cool way to look around, albeit a bit overwhelming.

Fine Art America

The site for Fine Art America bills itself as the premier online marketplace for buying and selling art. I think that I should add the word premier into all descriptions I make of myself from here on out, it just seems to add a bit of cachet to the whole affair. This site is going to take me a bit to get through. Not only does it have over 6 million pieces of art for sale, it seems to offer some really interesting options for selling my work directly. There is a free membership and a paid one the main difference being the limit on the number of pieces that can be offered for sale through the free membership. Hmmmmm…I will investigate more and report back. Unless I'm too busy shrink-wrapping my art for shipping…okay, back to reality.


Artnet comes on pretty strong, promising to send me a newsletter that will tell me everything I need to know about the current art market. Will they give me the addresses of the people most likely to buy my work? I don't know - I'll have to wait for the first newsletter to arrive…This is another site that has a lot of layers and that is going to take me some time to work through. As both of my children are currently using the entirety of the internet to watch the Power Puff Girls, the pages are loading about as quickly as they would have if I had subscribed to the weekly installments a la Dickens' era newspapers. This seems like it could really have a lot of good business side insights and the site is offered in French and German as well as English, so you know it's sophisticated.

Stay tuned. I mean, do stop and eat and things of that nature, but check back in - I'm working on a  whole bunch of photos I took out at a farm last weekend and will have all of the latest and greatest tips and tricks on llama photography. In fact, this might become the premier sight for llama photography information, you never know!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Landscape Porn

On the Road in Oaxaca
There is a call for an exhibit entitled Landscape at the Edge at the Hera Gallery. I just found out about this today and the work is due…today. I did start to wonder what I have taken that might be considered landscape which in turn caused me to feel wildly uncertain about what landscape is, something which I thought would have been fairly easy to identify.

I think when most people think of landscape photography, they think of Ansel Adams. In fact, I think when most people think of professional photography, they think of Ansel Adams. In a sense, he is to photography what Frank Lloyd Wright is to architecture, the default in the search for famous names. The similarity ends there though because Adams' work is expansive and elegant while Wright's work is exclusive and condescending… I think Adams' images were 
Laguna La Maria in Colima at Sunset
meant to show the beauty that is while Wright's was meant to enforce his idea of beauty on others. Don't get me started (oh wait, I guess I already did).

In any case, I'm no Ansel Adams and I haven't spent much time traveling to or capturing images of the type of natural landscape that is featured in many of his images. I must not have any landscape photographs then; no panoramas of the American West = no landscapes. I started looking more closely at Adams' work though and I realized that he doesn't always photograph expansive spaces, rather he creates the nobility and grandeur of the big vista within even his images of a small stand of birch trees. So, is that a landscape? How little of the world do you have to see before it stops being a landscape photo and starts being a…well, whatever that would be photo?

Talking to myself about this appeared to have come to a grinding halt and lest I be tempted to drop the subject and go back to looking for funny sloth jokes on Buzzfeed, I went to Google. 
A stark version of Monte Alban that has proven to be
one of my most popular photographs

"O, Almighty Google…" I began (note the use of the evocative form to give the power to my question that would be needed to summon the Google Gods), "what is…" but before I could finish, Google interrupted:

"what is my ip?"
"what is bitcoin?"
"what is thot?"
"what is obamacare?"

I struggled to maintain my focus and completed my initial question: "What is a landscape photograph?" This gave me nearly 28 million results the first of which was, of course, Wikipedia. I narrowly avoided the pits of Wikipedia (which are somewhat like the opium fields into which Dorothy was lured in the Wizard of Oz, if I try to cross any given Wikipedia page, I get slower and slower and slower and find myself wandering aimlessly until I fall into a peaceful sleep). 

A storm gathers on the road to the border
Instead, I visited the page of an Australian landscape photographer Andrew Carter who has apparently been asked this question a great number of times. It reminded me of the Infinite Monkey Theorem. Would one billion people with one billion cameras eventually produce landscape photography? The answer, happily, seems to be no. Just because someone has a camera and they take a picture of some place that is outside, it does not mean that that image is a landscape photograph. Instead, Carter argues, a landscape photograph is about more than the possibility of categorizing the subject as being outside. It must have a purpose, convey more than the viewer sees, and capture a feeling. It's not enough to reproduce the relative light reflections off of a set of proximate external objects, they must come together to be a whole. Finally, and this is my addition but is based on what I learned from Carter, the image is not just in the medium it created with the medium…it isn't just a picture, it is an experience. 
Sunset at the archeological site of Yagul

Then, it comes back to Potter Stewart's famous declaration about hard-core pornography: I know it when I see it. If, instead of hard-core pornography, we were talking about landscape photography. I'm not really sure that helps clarify my position, but I bet it will get me a lot of accidental traffic from a group of very disappointed, but more landscape photography savvy, fans of porn.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Obscure Wildlife

Exciting announcement: Two of my photos were accepted into the juried exhibit "Obscure" at the Center for Visual Artists! The opening is Friday from 6:00 - 9:00 which means that in a single week I will have had to come up with two fabulous outfits. I may need a vacation after all of this. Also, my talk at the Multicultural Resource Center went really well (no stones thrown…) - about 40 people were there, including my parents, so that was a great feeling. I really want to turn the photos and stories from Mexico into a book, so I will be doing some more investigating regarding how the heck things like that happen.

Egret grooming in Catemaco, Veracruz
In the meantime, I read an interesting blog posting from photographer Moose Peterson regarding the declining number of nature photographers. I was surprised by this because I always assumed that was what everybody was doing and so I shouldn't do it, but rather look for something else. After reading his post, my interest is piqued and so I will also be doing some sniffing about for info in that arena as well. I did spend an hour crouched down outside today waiting for the birds to forget I was there so that I could take some pictures. We had bluejays and juncos in the yard, but they apparently have a longer memory than I have strength in my hands and since I didn't have a tripod and, in my excitement, had forgotten to put on shoes before I went out, I gave in before they did. I'm going to regroup and try again tomorrow with less impetuousness and more long underwear.

I really did enjoy stalking wildlife in Mexico and would have spent a lot more time doing it if I hadn't been around children who broke the silence every 2 1/2 seconds. I don't blame them, it's hard to remember to be quiet when you have so much going on in your imagination. My fantasy is to get a 300mm lens for the next trip and a babysitter. I love traveling with the kids because I think it is so good for their brains, but it would be good to focus some time on being able to be in the quiet watching and waiting because that keeps me sane (well, that's always relative of course…)
Heron giving chase in San Blas, Nayarit

Sunday, February 2, 2014

On the Next One

While I do love the Jay-Z + Swiss Beatz song of this title (and am not in love with their spelling…) this is actually me wondering about what is the next step for me in photography. I generally become obsessively interested in things, so that is not so unusual. What is unusual is the sustained interest and the drive I feel to externalize this interest (i.e. not just make things for myself). Given that, and my lack of interest in so many things that used to sustain me, I'm trying to figure out two things:

1. What is the next step for me and my images?

2. How do I keep the cat from standing on the 'f' key on my keyboard and then being secretly concerned that she's trying to communicate something to me as she stares at me and fills the screen with 'fffffffffffffff'?

The first question is probably more inherently addressable since I'm not sure my cat has any hope for reformation.

One thing I have noticed on Flickr is that some people are putting their photos in more than 1,000 groups and they are ending up with high number of favorites. So, I thought maybe I should do that, but then the question arose in my head: so what? What does it mean if you have 132 favorites on Flickr? This isn't exactly the 400 million views that What Does the Fox Say got on Youtube, there is no record contract that is going to be offered. Is it just a way of stroking my own ego? I can handle that. I think after a fair amount of rejection, seeing an image I created pass 50 favorites is good for me. I'm just not sure if there is some larger goal because if there is, I want to know what it is so that I am working towards it in an intelligent way. Maybe it's just continuous networking? 

Which brings me to this blog. I think of it more as a diary for myself in photography than anything else…and that is backed up by the fact that about 16 people click through to the posts (almost as many as used to read my diary…). That's fine because I think record keeping is important and writing is a way that I think, so it helps me process. However, I would like to be communicating with more people. I think I need to come up with a plan for why anyone would want to read this blog. After all, my struggles to understand social media are not exactly the stuff of movies. One blog that I really enjoy is CrochetConcupescience and it seems to have a fair amount of traffic despite being about something that so many people would never even think about. So, it hits a niche and it does it extremely well. Photography has a lot more competition in terms of people who are writing about it, so do I have a niche I would like to fill? Writing is one of my strong suits (the other one is kvetching…oh, and spades). 

Road to Medusa
In general, it sounds like I need to sit down and do some planning for a more focussed effort with goals and guidelines for decision making. This is when it would be great if I could just switch to a montage where I would develop all of the skills that I need (and lose weight and get in shape too, after all, if it's a montage, I might as well do it up.)

Yesterday I went to the Center for Visual Arts and dropped off two pieces for entry into their show Obscure. The juror is going to review everything on Monday and we will probably get notified on Tuesday and Wednesday. If they are accepted, the opening is Friday. Pepe built the frame for Road to Medusa, so I'm picturing them writing me asking me if I wouldn't mind removing the picture so they could hang the frame…

My moment in the limelight this week is Wednesday when I have my artist's talk at the Multicultural Resource Center about the photo exhibit I hung "This Is Not Wasteland." Barring snow, I at least know that my parents will be there (and Pepe). My fear is there will be 4 other people there. That kind of crowd makes a talk really awkward. It either needs to be more than that or nobody. It will be interesting to see if anyone from my department come to see it. I'll have to start doing some reminding/stalking among potential attendees.