Here are the ten photographs I took this year that I like best. We’ll start there.
The Ruminations of 2022
This year, I’ve come to realize that I’m not quite sure what kind of photographer that I want to be. In the past I’d thought of myself as a ‘street photographer.” But I can see now that that’s something that’s held me back over the past 20 years. I just don’t live in a place that’s conducive for it. The small, midwestern city I live in doesn’t routinely provide the kind of raw material or the anonymity the practice requires. (There’s a reason why most of the ‘street’ photos that I’ve taken have been while on vacation to places where there’s no chance of running into people that I know.) Leaving the house to shoot Street Photography just isn’t possible here. So I’m done with that and glad. I think taking candid photographs of people in public will always be part of what I do, but the genre is too limiting. Honestly, my feeling is that Street Photography doesn’t work as a genre any more. Consider this:
“Ranch Market, Hollywood” by Robert Frank, 1956. Published in The Americans.
Robert Frank is a photographer that I revere and his book The Americans is truly seminal. I clearly remember picking it up for the first time at a large bookstore near Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (Borders? Barne’s & Noble?) and INGESTING it. This book became the model and the blueprint for everything that I want to do with photography. At the time, photo books were a luxury I couldn’t afford so I’d go to bookstores to visit with them. I quickly absorbed the canon: Arbus, Friedlander, the Chicago School, etc. But I liked Frank best. He blew up photography the way the Beats had blown up literature. Nearly 70 years ago—or even 20, when I first saw it—this photo was something else. Compared to the nice pictures its first audience would have been trained to expect by Life magazine, it was formally jarring. It was taken at an odd angle, the server’s body is cropped severely, her co-worker muddles up the background… it feels arbitrary and unconsidered at first glance. But then you relate to the woman—you’ve felt that way too—there’s the commodification and false cheer of Christmas, and other layers. Over the three years that Frank spent working on this book, he took 28,000 photos. This is one of the 83 that he selected to publish. Just by appearing in the book, there’s an implicit challenge to look more deeply. But I don’t think we can experience it the way a viewer would have seen it in 1959. From the perspective of 2022, it no longer feels surprising in any way except as a historical document. Why? We’ve collectively become much more sophisticated in how we ‘read’ images. We’ve become experts without realizing it. And it’s become impossible to take a street photo without stepping into some deep tracks. For example, you can’t take a colorful picture of tourists like the one above without invoking the specter of Martin Parr.
I’ve been a ‘member’ of the Hardcore Street Photography Group on Flickr.com for at least 15 years. This has been one of the more important street photography fora on the internet. Aside from counting many well-regarded photographers among its membership, it’s best known for being the group where John Maloof first surfaced the work of Vivian Maier. Part of what makes the group ‘Hardcore’ is that it’s one of the most heavily curated Flickr photo pools. In 17 years, they’ve only admitted 3,583 photos—by contrast, the RAW Street Photography group has 1.7 million—demonstrating that it’s almost impossible to make a street photo that feels exceptional to a group of people who have already seen it all. “Ranch Market, Hollywood” almost certainly would not make the cut if it were submitted today. Similar photos are routinely dismissed in the critique thread. And the very small amount of work that is admitted? Increasingly, it’s the kind of stuff whose exceptionality takes away from its resonance. It’s like twelve tone serialism and the other -isms that killed classical music for popular audiences. When the only way to say something new in an artistic genre alienates people from that artistic genre, then it’s become moribund. (Did that make sense? I’ve been struggling to articulate that and I have a headache). I think Robert Frank figured this out by the 1960s. He walked away from street photography and traded his Leica for an Arriflex. And when he returned to still images, his work grew much more personal.
When formal innovation is exhausted, you’re left with content, which on its own can be enough. Street Photography has long since become as formalized as most macro photos of flowers or pictures of vintage cars. I like those things, but they’re no longer capable of surprise.
Incidentally, I did get one photo past the HCSP gatekeepers and I’m inordinately proud.
This will sound pretentious, but I’m a photographer looking for a genre. The one I’m trying on right now is Abnature Photography. This has to do with photographing the tension between nature and human activity. While there’s nothing new about that, traditional genres like nature and landscape photography have their own established concerns and standards that are limiting. So I’m starting my own. The three best examples from above of what I mean are these:
In the case of the first, what appears to be a natural image isn’t. There is nothing natural about how the plants and trees are defined by parkland in the foreground and rip rap (not visible) behind and along the riverbank. Nor is there anything natural about the combination of plant species. This photo is actually about the complete disruption of nature. The second image is more self-evident, nature is being forced to accommodate the built environment and the needs of the people who live along the street. It’s drenched in shadow because of the large school building you can barely discern to the left of the image. (Both of these were taken with a nodal point tripod head that allows you to construct a large image from smaller images stitched together.) The third image is natural, but I’m hoping that it appears unnatural—which is a different form of tension. I’m making this up as I go along.
Film vs. Digital
I started shooting, processing, and “scanning” film more seriously in 2021-2. I had to more or less start over from scratch. I got my first serious digital camera in 2006 and by 2009 I’d winnowed down my film camera arsenal to the one film camera I’ll never part with, my dad’s Rolleiflex 3.5e2. I’d pull it out and shoot a roll once every year or three. I’ve long had a sense that it’s important to document your family’s life on film… you know, just in case (in case of what?) But I’ve always enjoyed the optical quality and tactile experience of using old, manual lenses—particularly the lenses that Nikon made in the 60s and early 70s. Last year it occurred to me that I could pick up a Nikkormat for about the price of a meal (it’s crazy how much camera prices have shot up since) and have a decent film SLR kit, so I did. And then I spotted a mint Nikon FE with Nikkor 50mm f1.4 and Nikkor 200mm f4 for $50. That wasn’t something I could pass on. By then I could feel the well worn grooves of film camera desire being exposed for the first in a very long time with all of their nagging questions. What if I had a more compact medium format camera? That led to the Agfa Isolette. What if this thing had a rangefinder? Facebook marketplace yielded a nice, German Telex rangefinder that happened to come attached to a Kodak Retina 1b. For now the gear lust is satiated. I do this for fun, you know.
Being an analog photographer in 2022 is different. How? Let’s make this a list:
- Film. Some of my favorites don’t exist anymore. Fuji Reala? Plus-X? Some of my other favorites are too expensive. Tri-X for $13 a roll? So I’m looking for bargains and mostly shooting black and white, which is both cheaper and something I feel comfortable processing at home. Digital for color, film for black and white. It makes sense.
- Processing. $10+ a go plus shipping for color C-41? Together with the cost of the film, it’s roughly $25-30 per roll for color film photography. I feel priced out. I have a few more rolls of color film in the fridge that I’ll save for something special.
- The act of shooting film is a choice. You kind of need to find a reason to do it. That you enjoy it is enough.
- Film photography is now an “alternative process.” Entire personality types have left analog behind and no longer occupy the discourse. I’m finding that the film community is a kind and helpful place. I like taking part in the #BelieveInFilm community on Mastodon.
Giving myself permission to be an ‘artist’
One thing that I did for the very first time in my life was to offer prints for sale at a community sidewalk art event. I’ve never given myself permission to do that before, I’m not sure why not.
Achieving some good
Among the photographs above, you’ll notice the portrait of Larry. He’s the proprietor of a long time Green Bay institution, the String Instrument Workshop, but he’s currently transitioning the business to new owners. I felt that the shop needed a portrait of Larry, so I stopped in one afternoon with my Rolleiflex and made one. A month or three later, when I presented the print to Larry and the new owners I was struck by how powerful of a moment it was. A solid print of a decent photo has a force that I don’t think it had twenty years ago. I’m wondering how that power can be used…
Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking about at the end of 2022. You?