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Thursday, 08 March 2018


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People who like double truck spread have their minds in the gutter.


I may be long retired, but not yet gone.

Hello Mike, both wonderful books. Might I also suggest a third that is maybe not yet as well appreciated and is a great work? Martine Franck: One Day to the Next.

Do you think we are nostalgic for the America that they portray? Or are we nostalgic for the manner of the portrayal (that is, images in camera before the Age of Ubiquity)? Or is nostalgia missing the mark entirely for what Levitt and Erwitt make us feel?

I remember my grandmother in one of those house-dresses. It was decades later than the dates these images were captured, but she was a creature of that earlier time.

One more open question: Do you think that the expense and technical knowledge necessary to produce a silver print in 1950 weeded out some of the "casual lookers" from that time? I ask because although I am not convinced that we don't currently have an Erwitt or a Levitt out there snapping, I do think that separating the wheat from the chaff will take a generation or more, just given the sheer volume of images being taken today. Maybe this makes a current anonymous savant more like a Vivian Maier and less like Levitt or Erwitt, who were working pros. This is a pity really, because Levitt and Erwitt were better than Maier (if one is forced to rank such things), and I think they were better because their status as pros pushed them to constantly be better than their last shot. . .

Just my mild ramblings, of course.

In regard to undiscovered work by the 20th century greats, I often think there must still be gems to be found in the archives of the prolific photographers. For example, has anyone with a good eye been through all the negs and proof sheets of W. Eugene Smith in Arizona? I suspect that what we know of his work is from selections made by Smith or various photo editors during his lifetime, and often under time pressure of print deadlines. I'm convinced there must be dozens of great images to still be found there if a sensitive photo researcher had the time and budget to go through everything.

What has happened is that we have gone from photography as observation and discovery of what is 'out there' to photography to photography as creations to convey what is in the photographer's head. The subject is no longer the 'subject'. It is a component of a visual construction that the photographer dreams up to communicate a concept. There is a book about the shift "Disappearing Witness: Change in Twentieth-Century American Photography" by Gretchen Garner.

"while we’re unarguably living in the golden age for photographic technology, we’re also in the late twilight of the golden age of great photography." Absolutely!! Despite the millions of technically almost-perfect digital pictures that inundate us continually, most look an awful lot alike. And landscapes and travel pics - sigh, here is another guy who went to Thailand and took a thousand pictures of the limestone islands. I think the fact that digital is "cheap" means most photographers now spray and pray and cull later, hoping to find a good one. However, at least some old time film photographers who now use digital still have the practice of framing and composing carefully and then taking one exposure. Good for them.

Ken says "The people who propelled the medium to great heights during the last century are either gone or long retired and there is no true wave of replacements."
Perhaps because of my age, just turned 72, I have heard many versions of laments for "the good old days" from many different points of view. The vintage car people are among the worst, BTW.
But all those complaints are subjective, IMHO (in my humble opinion, an acronym from the early days of the Internet before politeness was driven out by trolls...).
In the last few days, I have visited the Getty here in LA to see "Paper Promises: Early American Photography" http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/paper_promises/ and poked arounf the photo pages for the NY Times and the Atlantic.
The early stuff at the Getty is interesting for how technically good the old photos are - not unexpected since lenses were already a technology 3 centuries old by the invention of photography, but most of the subject matter is mundane at best. Reminds me of the boxes of snapshots from my grandparents going back to the 19th century. Many if not most of the photos made this Getty exhibition because they simply survived.
The Atlantic and NYT photos are technical wonders. Some even quite artistic. But the problem today is we're a jaded audience. We have seen so many photos that impressing us is well-nigh impossible.
Are the Internet and opportunistic publishers (please spare me any mention of Vivian Mayer-yecch!) killing photography as an art?

The people who propelled the medium to great heights during the last century are either gone or long retired and there is no true wave of replacements.

Sorry, but I do not believe that. From todays Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/mar/07/photography-legend-joel-meyerowitz-phones-killed-sexiness-street-most-stunning-shots For the past four years, Meyerowitz has retreated from the world into his studio, where he has been photographing humble objects he’s picked up from Provençal brocantes and Tuscan junk shops. His work, he thinks, riffs on Cézanne and Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes. And Any plans to retire, I ask, as he shows me out? “Artists don’t retire. We just move on to new creative obsessions. Well, that’s what I do.”

The new book Joel Meyerowitz: Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective https://www.amazon.com/Joel-Meyerowitz-Lifetime-Retrospective-Elephant/dp/1786271869/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1520559253&sr=8-1&keywords=meyerowitz+joelhttps://www.amazon.com/Joel-Meyerowitz-Lifetime-Retrospective-Elephant/dp/1786271869/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1520559253&sr=8-1&keywords=meyerowitz+joel">https://www.amazon.com/Joel-Meyerowitz-Lifetime-Retrospective-Elephant/dp/1786271869/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1520559253&sr=8-1&keywords=meyerowitz+joel">https://www.amazon.com/Joel-Meyerowitz-Lifetime-Retrospective-Elephant/dp/1786271869/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1520559253&sr=8-1&keywords=meyerowitz+joelhttps://www.amazon.com/Joel-Meyerowitz-Lifetime-Retrospective-Elephant/dp/1786271869/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1520559253&sr=8-1&keywords=meyerowitz+joel

Dear Ken, thanks for this masterful and fascinating commentary. As someone is said to have remarked, if Einstein hadn't been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, he would surely have won it for Literature. And if Ken Tanaka wasn't a photographer, he would surely have been a writer. Obviously, he is both.
-- FROM A FAN from Day One (apropos TOP),
Subroto Mukerji. Delhi, India.

P.S. I admit to a sense of relief at finding myself reading a post on Photography, and not about, storms, fallen trees, brilliant offspring, pool, red chairs, Mazda cars and a host of non-photography topics including photo gear neither available in India nor of interest to me AS AN AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER ! Sorry, Mike, but we have 'Freedom of Speech' in India, too.

Ken, among the many greats you didn't mention was Edward Weston, whose negatives (last I heard)were being printed by his son Brett long after the senior Weston's passing. Could you, in a future post, please shed some light on this (for me) an area of darkness. I turned seventy on 28 February 2018, three days after Mike hit sixty-one, and I am terribly out of touch. Thanks again.
-- Subroto Mukerji. Delhi, INDIA

Ken, I have to admit that you have introduced me to Levitt. Sincere thanks for that. I have admired Erwitt for many years but although I knew of Levitt I had not really looked at her work. That's what I love about this site. It's a photographic education.

The Helen Levitt book looks good Ken, But I am not sure about your contention that we are experiencing some kind of twilight period.

I reckon that we have been going through a period where digital imagery has led many good photographers to become clichéd, which might mean that these old folk are past it (though I doubt it).

However, some of the younger peeps that have been brought up on digital are discovering film, getting hold of all sorts of old camera and experimenting, trying to use techniques learned from using digital cameras, exploring the old machines, discovering the darkroom and the strengths and weaknesses of film.

There are people that are building their own cameras and playing with different emulsions too, and this might be due to the digital process removing so much of the responsibility for making pictures from the artist.

And some of this is leading to truly great work.

When I saw the cover at the top of the post, it really rang a bell for me.
Here's one of mine from a holiday in Venice if I may.

Unlike the work of these two artists, contemporary photography seems to be obsessed with either abstraction, or the insistent, often repetitive expression of a political or sociological theme, or both, as well as an implied requirement that the viewer react to the artist’s “message”.

It’s increasingly rare to see a photograph that straightforwardly presents an image of life or place as it is, without stagey manipulation, and leaves it to viewers to respond however they might.

Interestingly, the MOMA is currently exhibiting both a Stephen Shore retrospective, and “Being: New Photography 2018”.

Turning the page at twilight...a wonderful awareness and some great finds

Long time reader but never a commentor until now. This article hit a chord with me and I felt compelled to comment that there are more greats of photography coming up we just need to discover them. It is like the people who say there is no more great music. Well it evolves and changes and we need to evolve and discover it as being the new great. There are great photographers out there doing amazing things and we need to be open minded to discover them. Are they doing black and white prints in the style of the great photographers of earlier eras. No, of course not, that would be ridiculous but that doesn't mean they are any less great. The photographic old guard needs to get over themselves and move on. Damn those kids of today and their classical music. I am going to stick with the great baroque music.

I think there is another issue which is disturbing at least to me. The master photographers of old and their works are increasingly dismissed as "over rated". I've seen this phrase so many times when these legends are reviewed on sites that it is 100% predictable that a)someone will say it and b)others will chime in agreeing.

I remember reading an early biography of Ansel Adams where the head of the Art Department at Yale refused to believe one of his images was a photograph. What he was doing was that revolutionary. Today because every cell phone can capture a "perfect" image, and we've seen a million (billion?) of them, the pioneering nature of these legends has been lost.

"Are the Internet and opportunistic publishers.... killing photography as an art?'

I don't think so. It's just that there is so much to weed through. It may be, instead, that the old self-selecting process of scarcity, wealth and technical capacity that fills our galleries has been exceeded and, talent being talent no matter what era, become more democratized.

I have heard it suggested that what is wanted is a way to cull though all of this consequent contemporary imaging. In many ways, throughout history, the occasions of talent was also a matter of opportunity and incidents of discovery by agents, buyers, markets and such. That is long gone.

Remember, George Eastman created roll film as a reaction to what he saw as an insane amount of work to make an image. Sure, everyone and their brother could now take pictures and the volume of images that resulted functioned very differently than the images that survive into galleries today. Most of what was produced then is in landfill now. In a like manner, much of the current volume of images will disappear in a keystroke or through programs that wipe memories clean or when cell phones end up in the washing machine.

Good will always be good. Communication with images is increasing and with it a lexicon that borrows from the old and evolves anew. Remember we borrowed a lexicon from painting when we got started in the early 19th century.

The value of images, some of which are based in simple scarcity, has now become conflated with cost and ambient numbers. That is different than some definition of art or its possibilities today.

Th internet and opportunistic publishers are not killing art, just the marketplace.

Some things of which I'm certain:
There is always room at the top.
A lot of good work is being made.
The fact that we are inundated with generica does not mean that that's all there is.
Those who proclaim that 'it's all been done' need to look farther and deeper.
Digging into the back catalogs of 20th-century masters will, indeed, produce some gems along with greater insights into those masters' work.

I’m sorry, but I feel that “the late twilight of the golden age of great photography” is completely untrue. I don’t even think there’s an “age of ubiquity”. Even before the digital age there were billions of photographs existing in the world. I’d bet the proportion of “great” photographs is exactly the same as it’s always been. They’re not any easier or harder to find, but by analogy, if your definition of a “great” car is a three-seater two-speed steam-powered Bulgarian sedan produced between 1923 and 1935 then yes, those are getting relatively scarcer and your golden age is drawing to a close.

Thank you Ken for revitalising my hope for meat n the bones of internet discussion. Your reviews here are precisely the sort of content I bother with the internet at all.

In the (very unlikely) event that anyone does a posthumous book of my work can someone please remind them, “No double truck”. Sure, looks great on the book designers screen, not so great on the actual book.

Their work may have been picked to pieces, but unless and until someone can figure out the heart, eye, brain, finger combination, the work of the masters will and should always be a delightful enigma.

Good discussion here! Some replies to your comments.

@ subroto mukerji : Thanks so much for your generous remarks. Re; Ed Weston, I don’t know of any current revival or discovery projects of his work. Yes, I do think Brett printed his dad’s negatives but he most wanted to stake his own claims to fame. Sadly he never really got out of his father’s shadows before he died in the 1990’s

@ Michael: “...I often think there must still be gems to be found in the archives of the prolific photographers. For example, has anyone with a good eye been through all the negs and proof sheets of W. Eugene Smith in Arizona?” I hear ya. But I believe most of the big archives of images from the 20th century’s big names are very well picked-through. (That’s particularly true for Eugene Smith.) Still, more collections are being handed over to museums who are trying to make every frame, good and bad, available to the public. One of the advantages of film was that it was hard to separate the keepers from the stinkers. So we’re starting to see contact sheets of Vivian Maier, Robert Frank, and others, with more to come. It’s become a major push to fund such efforts at many museums.

There are also a few (and only a few) truly substantial collections of photography that will be making their way from private ownership into public institutions. In recent years the Art Institute of Chicago has been very fortunate to have acquired a few (ex: The Robert A. Taub Collection), as have several other museums. That work is beginning to percolate up into public showings and catalogs, sometimes (although not usually) bearing new discoveries.

@Benjamin Marks: "Do you think we are nostalgic for the America that they portray?” All photography is intrinsically retrospective so nostalgia and sentimentality often come along for the ride. But fewer of us ever experienced the world presented by Erwitt's or Levitt’s images. Yes as a little boy in early 1960’s Chicago I played carelessly in the city streets until all hours with my friends. But that’s not really the chord that these works strike for me. The best of these works capture timeless moments of humor, ambiguity, or sentiments. They're really all about photographic talent and skill. Give Helen a Fuji X100F, plop her in nearly any residential neighborhood today, give the energy and stamina of a 30 year-old and I guarantee she’ll come home with a card full of goodies. Talent is timeless.

There is, however, one frontier that still offers wonderful discoveries: work done in developing countries. I am very proud to be involved (in a very small way) with just such a project that will be coming to show at the Art Institute of Chicago in April 2018. If you're willing to dig in tough places you can sometimes find gems.

@ jh, cdembrey, Stephen J, Julian Behrisch Elce, et.al.: Re: My “twilight” of photography statement, of course I expected this to be somewhat provocative. Of course there are many talented photographers today. Of course there are probably some wonderful unseen bodies of works molding away in some basement or storage locker. Of course there will be wonderful bodies of photographic works produced throughout the foreseeable future. Will the hobby be fun to future generations? Yes. But I do stand by my opinion that photography’s brightest ages - as both a reportage and and expressive art medium - are largely past. To fully explore this is beyond the scope of comments, or even a blog. But let me just say that from a vantage outside the “shutterbug” solar system you can see that the basic medium of the photograph no longer has anything really new to offer. The recording technology has gestated from quirky chemical craft into ultra-precise digital instrumentation. Communications technologies enable nearly anything to be photographed and transmitted worldwide within seconds. New photographic art is now merged nearly fully with the contemporary art world, where it’s usually more of a performing art. In short, photography’s landmarks have long been discovered, collected, framed, admired, and stored.

Back inside the “shutterbug" solar system, those working with chemical media and antique cameras may be thoroughly enjoying themselves and may be occasionally producing lovely work. More power to them! But they’re miming dances created a century or more ago. Nobody’s expanding photography or discovering new horizons with a full-plate camera or tintypes.

That first paragraph strikes me as exclusionary and very euro-centric. There's great photography to be had these days outside the cultural hegemony referenced here, South Africa and China/Japan come to mind, among others. Photographers and visual artists there would most certainly not regard their work as being part of any sort of twilight realm.

Living long enough, one realises criticising younger generations is a dubious business. Judgements and criticism, be they your own or others, is an activity skewed towards error. In Renaissance Italy there was probably someone and his circle complaining about

‘That Michelangelo Buonarroti, ingratiating himself with the Pope and claiming he’s an artist.’

However, a few months back in bookshop, looking idly at compilation of street photography from around the world, I was taken aback by a comment at the start of the editor’s introduction. A statement along the lines of:

Though looking hard, we could find hardly any photographs where the camera had been turned on its side.

Yep, around the world, it seems the ability to be both outside in the street and able to frame a picture with the camera turned ninety degrees seems to have largely died out.

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