photography in reverse: day three

who we were then

Today we were outside of time, I suppose, since it was our first Critique Day. We will do these every Wednesday for the rest of the session, not only to see what everyone has made, but to look at contemporary and historical theory, and to talk about how these techniques and ideas are useful to their own practice back in the future. With a small class like this, we can talk about each student’s work in depth. We have the luxury of time.

For just six students, we have a remarkable range of artists. One student, though young, has been painting consistently since she was 13; another has had a much later start to her career, and so seems younger to the rest of us; one has had a deep and varied career of study, and is eager and hungry; another grew up in the arts, in New York, but had to escape by hopping the rails for a while; one has traveled the world and has almost too many ideas; one has found herself in North Carolina, deep in transition from who she was to who she will be. I suppose I, too, am in some transition, as I’ve found to be the case for every student in these Concentration classes. You go to the mountain to seek something, always.

This first Crit is always planned as a sort of extended introduction, and I will use the things they have done to anchor our understanding of what they will do here. Even if it’s just experiment and play, it’s useful to have their other work as a marker and a guide. I was amazed at all the varied work the students have done, as well as their willingness to take on the small challenges and big ideas of the first two days here, moving back from 2015 to the early days of Digital.

Without a doubt the Mavica cameras were a great hit, and the romance of the small pixellated image really was the wonderful lead-in to the course that I hoped it would be. What amazes me the most, however, is how instantly the class bonded together: they have been making a low-res collaborative horror film with these cameras, running around with costumes and fake blood, their pockets stuffed with floppy disks. Honestly, to see this sort of excitement, brilliance, and play right away, is about the greatest joy any teacher could get. All I did was give a bunch of smart people some new toys…

photography in reverse: day two

from today film is dead

I distinctly remember the very real panic of the early ’90s (um, 1990’s, that is) when I was in Grad School and all anyone could talk about was the clearly imminent Death of Film. I was learning Photoshop 2.0 at the time, Postmodernism had led to Identity Politics, the “Y2K” was coming, and we were all doomed. I’m not saying that all that isn’t true, exactly, just not with the same clangor and wailing that seemed to come from all directions back then. We still have film, for now at least.

So here we are, today, back at the turn of the century. The time-traveling has begun, and this is my gift to the students, ca. 2002:


It was pretty exciting, actually, getting these beasts to work – 1.2 Megapixels! – scrolling through the sad built-in image effects, listening to the sounds of writing to a floppy disk. (It’s so satisfying a noise; why hasn’t that been co-opted for something, skeumorphically, as it were?) I had even brought an unopened box of floppies to use – and a USB floppy reader! I always say, Limits are good for Art. Let’s see what they can do with these.

The weather looks rainy all week, but just like yesterday, the morning gloom wore off (for the most part) after lunch, and everyone could go shoot. A few of the students got really excited about the cheap video included with the Mavicas, and spent some of the afternoon planning a quick horror-film shoot for tonight. (I overhead one say, “I want a bloody death.”) I may have been worried about the heady slowness of our beginning yesterday, but already the pace is picking up. Of course there are printer glitches, and Dropbox hangups, and small technological incompatibilities with these old cameras, but that’s digital technology for you – it just slows your whole life down.

Tomorrow we have our first Critique Day. We’ll look at the work from these first two days and each student’s previous work as a sort of introduction to what they want from these eight weeks. Let me end with a quote I gave them today, one I only recently saw online, and which may serve as our guiding principle for this whole class:

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

photography in reverse: day one

the digital multitudes

First proper night, first proper insomnia, whether from excitement or anxiety I don’t know… What I do know is that there’s a lot to get into today – photography in the present – and I’m up early to organize my thoughts. I’d like to get them just thinking and shooting this week, before we start getting overly technical. It’s a digital and point-and-shoot kind of week (at least until Friday), thinking about memory, color, digital vs. chemical, and the screen image vs. the print. I have stats and terms and timelines and ideas. I have slides…

We set ourselves up by the new iMacs and Epsons next door to the darkroom and I made sure everyone had their phones, with the exception of my one awesome  semi-Luddite student (hooray!) who has no cell phone (really!) but does shoot a lot of digital photographs for her mixed-media work (oh, okay.) Also, she confessed to having an iPad, as did another student who rocks a DumbPhone™. I tried to get that student to shoot with her little phone, but the iPad would have to do for now. This is Photography Today: everyone with a camera. It’s the rare exception who doesn’t.

I asked everyone about the most recent photographs they took; many had tried to capture the beauty of Penland, of course, as have I. One student had just shot a picture of her grandson to send to her husband. One had taken a picture of her license plate for the number to go on the school’s official info forms. I had to hit them with some of the usual frightening statistics about the sheer amount of photographs we take today, even though many of the numbers I found were from a couple of years ago, and the reported source has now vaporized into the blogosphere. One of my favorites:

“Every two minutes today we snap as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800s.”, as quoted by Gizmodo

How does this unimaginable quantity of photographs taken change how we experience the world? It has been said that the camera is not so much a tool to extend the eye as one that extends the memory, but since memory is a creative act, constantly re-made upon each remembering, the photographs we take in order to spark our memories may end up replacing them entirely. For proof, look at Linda A. Henkel’s studies on photography and memory (recently discussed on NPR), which show how taking pictures of everything actually impairs memory (but photographing with close focus and intent may increase it):

“Two studies examined whether photographing objects impacts what is remembered about them. Participants were led on a guided tour of an art museum and were directed to observe some objects and to photograph others. Results showed a photo-taking-impairment effect: If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them. However, when participants zoomed in to photograph a specific part of the object, their subsequent recognition and detail memory was not impaired, and, in fact, memory for features that were not zoomed in on was just as strong as memory for features that were zoomed in on. This finding highlights key differences between people’s memory and the camera’s “memory” and suggests that the additional attentional and cognitive processes engaged by this focused activity can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect.”
– Linda A. Henkel, Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour, Fairfield University

This just seems to confirm what we experience every day: you forget the name of that guy from that thing, and suddenly you’re deep in an RGS (Recreational Google Search) right in the middle of your dinner conversation… We are forgetting faster and faster.

Of course, this too is not new. Our Culture seems always to have been in the business of forgetting our Nature. Via the blog I discovered a perfectly related story as an ancient precursor to Henkel, wherein Socrates tells of two gods, Thamus, the king of all Egypt, and Theuth. Theuth was the inventor of things like arithmetic and geometry and astronomy (and also, oddly, dice.) But his best invention was writing, and he proudly showed off his work to Thamus:

Socrates: “…Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
– Plato, from Phaedrus, 360 BCE

Anyway, this is a lot to think about, here on our first day on the mountain. And there was more, too, from memory to artifice and other differences between digital photography and real photography. As photos become more and more pixellated, reblogged, unattributed, shopped, and chopped, will there be a time soon when they no longer carry even the smallest spurious scrap of truth? My youngest student, at 19, may still believe in photos, but will her children? We’re on our way already… This last bit is from The New Aesthetic blog, a favorite of mine: it’s #HYPERREALCG, which collects amateur CG and 3D-rendered images of mundane subjects, done so well as to be virtually indistinguishable from reality.


Of course you realize, as you scroll through image after image of the most absurdly boring yet incredibly real-looking images – I can’t believe they made that! – that these are not CG-created at all. It’s just a bunch of lame, lost snapshots stolen from the web. We’re now more likely to belive in fake images online than we are in “real ones” (whatever that means…)

Time to search elsewhere for meaning. I’m bringing them back about 15-20 years tomorrow, and then beginning to look further. If today was Today, then tomorrow is our first Yesterday…

photography in reverse: day zero

big mind


I’m reviving my old blog-muscles in order to keep some record of another intensive session at the Penland School of Crafts – the eight-week Spring Concentration in Photography. For this class, I’m attempting to do what I’ve always wanted to do: everything. See, I have always been equally obsessed with the purely physical joys of the handmade object and all the cerebral pleasures of theory and a Big Think, determined as I am to show that there is no decent making without thinking, and there should be less thinking without making… or something like that.

Penland is the perfect place to do it, not only because they encourage me to do what I like here (now that I’ve been coming here for half of my life) but also because the school puts a premium on creative work and the handmade object. It is fundamentally a crafts school, although that opens up an argument of a different flavor, for a different time. Nevertheless, no matter where I go these days, I find myself pushing an agenda that calls for a headier but handier way to work – Big Thoughts in Plain English. It’s pro-art, anti-artspeak, and it calls for the interrelatedness of all aspects of the creative life: History, Theory, Daily Life, and Hard Work, among others. “Everything’s related,” I say. “There are no accidents.”

The plan is to cover the whole history of photography at most of its key points, backwards.* We will start with today, with iPhones and “social media”, then work through the advent of digital photography, the everyday of color prints, slide-carousel memories, the 35mm black-and-white document, the medium-format point-of-view, large-format artistry. We will talk about the heyday of the Gelatin Silver Print, the retro romance of Pictorialism and non-silver processes, the technical brilliance of wet-plate and albumen prints, the struggles of the paper negative, the dead perfection of the daguerreotype. We will look at the Pre-Photographers, their origins, and their early attempts to “fix a shadow”. On the last day, we might just have to draw… At each of these moments, the very physical syntax of how a photograph was made affected the way we thought (and do think) about pictures. Yes, everything is related, and our plan is to get in there, push it all around, and make our own unique work from those ideas.

I’ve stacked the deck by inviting along an old friend as my assistant, one who, like me, was a favored student of Christopher James (although a good twenty years later.) She’s kind, capable, and able to kick ass, and could probably use a couple of months on the mountain to get back into her own work, too. Bringing someone to Penland might be the best gift I could give anyone, especially a good friend.

As for me, I never actually get much work of my own finished here, but I always allow myself to experiment, and I open myself up to new ideas, new media, and new methods. I leave here somehow both exhausted and refreshed, disconnected a bit from the rest of my life, but more connected to my creative self than seems possible from where I’m sitting now. It’s daunting, and I’m in a little over my head, but that’s where I like to be. I am trusting from experience that something wonderful will happen. Let’s begin, shall we?

*My idea to cover everything in this way was exciting, but credit for the genius of doing it backwards goes to Wes Stitt, a former Penland Core Student, current graduate student, and all-around excellent dude.

ink & silver, part one

One of the few true pleasures in life is the lift that comes with inspiration – that palpable leap of the insides that occurs at the very moment when an idea bubbles and pops within. It’s probably impossible to plan or to count on, but you sure can court the opportunity. Last month, I grabbed a fat book and took the long train ride from Brooklyn up to the Columbia Medical Library at 168th street, in search of just such a thing. The occasion was a lecture entitled Ink and Silver: Medicine, Photography, and the Printed Book, 1845-1880 by Dr. Stephen J. Greenberg of the National Library of Medicine. The lecture itself was small and rather dry, as it happens, covering the parallel and interlinked technological histories of photography and printing for books, much of which I already knew. I was glad to have come anyway. There were a lot of snacks, and plenty of wine, plus the unsurprising appearance of Dr. Stanley Burns of the Burns Archive (from whom I had borrowed some medical photographs for my show last year.) I think the basic idea of the evening was to show how photography changed the way medicine was depicted and sold in the 19th Century, and not just to the professionals of the time. However, there were a couple of little things mentioned that eventually clicked into place for me, and gave me new insight into my own work.

My photographs have often mimicked the look of these sorts of images – bodies shown as if on display for the camera, many bearing the signs and symptoms of (fake) diseases. I believe I just assimilated without criticism this blank and centered look, along with a range of other stylistic tics, from the artists that first inspired me: you can see it in Francis Bacon, in Joel-Peter Witkin, even a little in Meatyard and Arbus. I see it still in Saul Fletcher and Michael Borremaans, whom I follow today. These are images that pretend to be objective documents of a sort, however constructed, while containing the blunt acknowledgment of being seen and photographed. One is tempted to call this type of photograph a tableau, a term that became almost synonymous with the rise of the large constructed photographs of the 80’s, 90’s and beyond (Crewdson, Wall, et. al.)1 However, there is a distinction to be made between the images that seem to live in their own fabricated world without knowledge of the viewer (what Michael Fried calls “absorption”2) and those that demand the viewer’s participation, often as acknowledged voyeur. What to call this, exactly? “Display Aesthetics”? “Theatrical Objectivity”? And why does this tiny change in position – the inclusion versus the exclusion of the viewer – mean so much to me?

Here’s Adam Gopnik on Francis Bacon in the New Yorker (from February 26, 1990):

“A didactic white arrow is superimposed on the left-and right-hand panels, pointing almost sardonically at the dying man. (These arrows, Francis Bacon’s favorite distancing device, are sometimes explained as merely formal ways of preventing the viewer from reading the image too literally. In reality, they do just the opposite and insist that one treat the image as hyper-exemplary, as though it came from a medical textbook.) The grief in the painting is intensified by the coolness of its layout and the detachment of its gaze. It was Bacon’s insight that it is precisely such seeming detachment–the rhetoric of the documentary, the film strip, and the medical textbook–that has provided the elegiac language of the last forty years.” (emphasis mine)

What I realized from Dr. Greenberg’s lecture was that this language of presentation increases the strength of the photograph’s true power – what I like to call “Belief” (although I guess I mean “Verisimilitude”.) It is the Belief in the truth of a photograph – even when we know it is a lie or a fake – that makes it different from a drawing or painting. (Think of the difference in feeling from a photograph of a dead body versus a drawing of one.) By its assumed stance of objectivity, medical and scientific photography hews to the lie of Truth even more, thereby increasing our innate attachment to the image. In addition, our empathy with the person depicted is not erased by this stance; it is, as Gopnik points out, “intensified”. These fragile and broken bodies only increase our visceral response, allowing us, even daring us to stare.

As for me, I steal this, all of it. I want my photographs to catch you in the gut before your brain catches up. Even as I alter my images by hand and push them gently backwards in time (another trick to give them the weight of Evidence), I am grabbing every bit of Belief that I can, if only to say: Go ahead, Look.

Harlequin, 2013. Gum Bichromate with watercolor and gouache. 14" x 11"

Harlequin, 2013. Gum Bichromate with watercolor and gouache. 14″ x 11″

1See Jean Francois-Chevrier, “The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography (1989),” trans. Michael Gilson, in The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960–82, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003), 116.
2Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.)


A Head of Venus, 2012. Gum Bichromate with watercolor and gouache. 15" x 12"

A Head of Venus, 2012. Gum Bichromate with watercolor and gouache. 15″ x 12″

There’s still space left in my Gum Bichromate workshop at this year’s f295 Symposium. From the class description:

Invented in the late-nineteenth century and renowned for its use by the 20th-Century Pictorialists, the Gum Bichromate process is capable of a wide range of effects, from subtle tonalities to broad painterly colors. Despite its simplicity, the blunt physicality of the process has known to cause quite a few frustrations, too. Through careful consideration of all the possibilities and pitfalls, this workshop is designed to show the full potential of the process while ensuring that the difficulties are kept to a minimum. In addition, we will be discussing ways to further enhance the Gum print through painting and drawing on the finished print. Students should come prepared with at least one negative for contact printing (8″x10″ or so is preferred), and any favorite art materials, such as paints, pencils, brushes, etc.

f295 is always a blast. See you in Pittsburgh…

melencolia I-XI

Most images seen on

s l o w

“I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up, or someone tries to schedule me for a project or a drink, is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.

Furthermore, Google glasses probably aren’t going to spring pastel-coloured bubbles on you that say ‘It’s May Day! Overthrow tyranny,’ let alone ‘Don’t let corporations dictate your thoughts,’ or ‘It would be really meaningful to review the personal events of August 1997 in the light of what you know now.’ That between you and me stands a corporation every time we make contact – not just the post office or the phone company, but a titan that shares information with the National Security Administration – is dismaying. But that’s another subject: mine today is time.”

– Rebecca Solnit, in the London Review of Books, August 2013. Read the rest here.