A post from mid-summer that goes well with my recent sunday "end of the world" post.....

Search back to july 2 if you want the original comments...

FRIDAY, JULY 2, 2010

Is technology destroying art? Does anyone care?

This is the naked die of a micro something or other.  We shot it last month for the semiconductor company that makes it. Its brethren will go into some sort of consumer product that will make some person's life more efficient.  And the promise of that increased efficiency should have meant more free time for that person to do things for themselves.  Play with their kids,  wash the car, see a movie,  or do art.

But it isn't working out that way.  Society is using the increased efficiency to get more out of the next person.  More lines of type per hour.  More lines of code per day.  More products more quickly to the marketplace.  Cameras that autofocus faster and have aquarium modes. More profits to the shareholders. More stuff.

Cellphones seemed like such a good idea.  They would free us from the umbilical cord that tethered us to the desk or to the house.  But it didn't really work out that way.  Faceless corporations found that they could get more "free" work out of their workers by using a virtual umbilical cord that keeps workers connected to their offices nearly continuously.  And injects a sensibility that there's duty to make the job one's life.

And please, make no mistake, when I say workers I don't mean it in the old communist way:  as a description of the uniformed factory people who made things with their hands or dug for coal.  When I say workers now I also mean the lawyers and executives and nearly anyone who has a job working for anyone other than themselves.

I've watched the progressive strangling of people's time by new technology.  Executive dads sitting in the bleachers frantically jabbing at Blackberries with their thumbs trying to get in front of a new "issue" while little Johnny makes a soccer goal that dad doesn't catch.  I watched three investors glued to their iPhone screens in the middle of a play and wondered why they'd taken the time to come to the theater.  You could quiz them and they wouldn't know whether they sat thru "Oklahoma" or "Romeo and Juliet".

Everyday I watch couples at restaurants staring into their screens instead of each other's eyes.  They seem afraid that they'll miss something.  That the world will introduce the next miracle and they want to be in on the genesis and get the announcement.  So much so that they miss all the important stuff.

So, efficiency was supposed to give us time to exercise and relax and invent and enjoy and do our own art.  But what it's really done is increase the work week of the fully employed, robbed them of their own un-contracted leisure time, convinced people that a salaried position means 24/7 contact (and mindshare) and left them ragged and unable to concentrate on the present and the  here and now.  It robs them of living life as it's happening.

And the ability to process great volumes of information hasn't done much for us either, as far as I can tell.   May be it's good for predicting sales or elections.  Data mining can't stop hurricanes or earthquakes but endless data availability progressively robs us of our privacy and financial security.

But none of that really bothers me.  I understand better than you might think that the nature of western man is constant innovation---for good or bad.  No, what bothers me is that we've used all these tools to turn our lives into something that's measured based on productivity.   Volume.  Throughput.

I heard a great actor speak two days ago.  He defined art.  It's not about which lens renders hairs on the kitty photo the sharpest or who's got the best toys.  And it's certainly not measurable.  He defined art in this way:  Art teaches us what it  is to be human.

But this is a problem because art is notorious for being unmeasurable.  And in a society that values ranking and measuring above all else it gives one the feeling that art, which teaches us what it is to be human, is being replaced more and more by craft just for the sake of craft.  And the craft is powered more and more by precision, performance and production and less and less by ideas and translations of human experience.

It starts in school.  We, as a society, need to give as much weight to the study of art and art history, music and drama as we do the math and science courses.  We need to make sure our kids are as content literate as they are process literate.  I can assure you that, as technology becomes more and more pervasive the real value; the "gold",  will be content.

Multitasking?  I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.....

My photo session with a very famous attorney.

Charles Alan Wright.  Here's his profile on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Alan_Wright

The short version.  One of the foremost authorities on constitutional law, ever.  Attorney for president Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate hearings.  And so much more.  An amazing figure in an amazingly profession.

I was hired by Private Clubs Magazine ( an American Express publication for Platinum Card Members) to photograph Mr. Wright.  This was back in the days (mid-1990's) when you could actually get a legend on the phone and set up the logistics directly.  Because of his very busy schedule he requested that we shoot at his office in the University of Texas Law School.  Fine with me.  I liked working on location.

I've always been a contrarian and this day was no different.  While I contemplated packing for the short trip from my studio in downtown Austin to the UT campus I looked over a drawer full of Hasselblad cameras and half a dozen Zeiss lenses.  I also contemplated taking my Profoto power packs or a set of monolights.  In the end I gave in to my "on again/off again" infatuation with my old, twin lens Rolleiflex cameras.  One to use and one to sit in the case as backup.  Not the most intuitive choice for a premium assignment with a premium magazine.  Just to do some "reverse" gilding of the lillies I passed on the studio lighting and grabbed an old Metz "potato masher" flash, a Vivitar 285 flash, a shoot thru umbrella and a couple of small light stands.  Reminder:  This was a decade before the word "Strobist" showed up in our collective vocabulary.....

Everything fit in two bags.

I showed up and we chatted for a few minutes.  We decided to use his office as our studio.  He walked down the hall for a few minutes to make a few phone calls and when he came back I had my lights set up, the optical slave tested and everything carefully metered.  No polaroid and no instant preview.

The first thing he remarked about when he returned was the Rollei cameras.  He knew all about em.  Had friends who'd shot with the for decades.  Then he asked me where to sit and what to do.  I had just done a job for another magazine about a friend of Mr. Wright and we talked about the famous banker for a few minutes.  When I saw expressions I liked I asked him to "hold" and I clicked the shutter.

I loaded a new roll after every 12 frames and, in the intervening time, we talked about law and presidential power.  He was a republican and I a democrat but that was a time when people could hold different opinions and still have the benefit of mutual respect.  I shot three rolls of twelve exposure film and then our time was up.  The magazine picked and ran the close up.  I like the medium distance shot.

At the time it was just another assignment but over time I've come to understand the stature of Charles Alan Wright and I marvel that he was so patient and accessible.

Why did I choose to use "lesser" gear to do the shot?  I knew I wouldn't have time to spend on fancy lighting set-ups and I knew that in the small law offices I wouldn't have the option to go long and compress and still get a feel for the office.  I'd just read a book by Fritz Henle, published in the 1960's and marveled that he was able to do an incredibly wide range of images, all with the Rollei twin lens cameras.

Back in the pre-paradigm days we did things a bit differently than what gets done now.  I shot with ISO 100 transparency film which was pretty unforgiving where exposure was concerned.  We always metered carefully.  We didn't have RAW to save our butts.  Going "sans" Polaroid was a bit of hubris but I was on a roll.  Now we'd cover it with 200 frames in raw.  Back then we had more confidence.

One person asked me why I had him sit for the photos.  I remembered that he was about six foot three inches tall and, with the waist level finder on the Rollei I would have had to be on a ladder to pull off the right camera/subject elevation.  At five feet eight inches tall I've stood on enough boxes, thank you.

Sometimes we take a photograph because we just love the subject so much.

Ben was so young when I took this.  It was so long ago.  We'd moved into the house the year before and I'd just bought the white chair and the ottoman Ben was sitting on.  To Ben's left is a set of French doors and soft, late afternoon open shade flowed through the big windows.  Ben was sitting and listening to his mother read something like "Winnie the Pooh" or something by Dr. Seuss.  I walked in and saw the light floating across Ben.  I had a Contax G2 with the 45mm lens over my shoulder.  I'm pretty sure I had a roll of Tri-X inside (what else could it have been?)

I smiled and slowed down as I came thru the door.  I got down on my knees to get to Ben's level and pulled the camera up to my face.  I know the meter would read "hot" because the back wall was out of the light stream.  The wall was a gold color.  I instinctively dialed in a minus 1.3 stops but that sounds a bit disingenuous as I write it.  The reality is that the "dialing in" was in my brain.  The camera was set in manual so the "dialing" was more an increase in shutter speed over the meter indication.  I shot three or four frames and, at first, Ben was intrigued by the whole process.  Then he started moving and, with the light levels being what they were, I could no longer freeze action.

The orignal frame has more on each side.  There's an unmade bed to the left of the frame but the white of the sheets was too much of a lure for my eyes so I chopped it off.  That left the right side unbalanced and showed too much of the white chair so I chopped that off too.  Sadly,  this print was made long after I gave up my black and white darkroom so I scanned it with a Nikon LS 4000 scanner and had it output on a Fujix printer.  Had I still had ready access to a darkroom I would have printed it on a multigrade paper and tweaked the contrast in little areas while softening the edges.  The grain would also have been more demure.

I can't really articulate why I think this is a wonderful photograph beyond the biographical reality that it is my own kid.  Since he keeps getting better and better the old print somehow gets better and better to me as well.  I should have the print mounted and framed and hanging somewhere nice.  In reality it is tacked up just over the top of my monitor.....right next to my favorite photograph of his mother, my wife.

The prints are a reality check.  What's important in life?  Has technology made a difference in the quality of my work? (no.)  Do I now understand a bit better why people want family portraits and photographs of THEIR kids? (absolutely.)  Can I do as well with current cameras? (not to date.)  The prints sit where they sit so I can compare current work against known quantities.  While I might have honed my technical chops over time I understand that emotional chops are not time-linear.  Everything gets created in context.

It's important to surround yourself with a work you've done that you really like.  It inspires you to try and try again.

Predicting the past is easy. The future, less so.

I had an interesting lunch with a friend today at Maudie's Mexican Food Restaurant on Lake Shore Blvd. today.  It was an interesting lunch because my  friend, whom I'll call Bob, works at a mid sized public relations agency.  He actually owns his own creative company providing art direction, creative direction and ad design to the surrounding firm.  I love having lunch with Bob because he works with top clients from as far away as Japan and, while he's closer to my age, he is surrounded by 20, 30 and 40 year olds every single day.  We talked about family and hobbies and funny stuff that happens and then we got down to the meat of the meeting:  What's going to happen next year?  Where is the ad business going?  What will the trends be?

Here's something interesting.  Bob was a very early iPad adapter.  His justification for purchasing it was as a presentation device.  Now he admits that the screen is too small and, given a choice, all (regardless of age) of his clients prefer to see presentations and portfolios as PRINTS.  So last century.....but that's the way things go.  Big prints.  It's the wave of the future.   Also, little prints.

We've both been watching magazines come back strong.  We agreed that perhaps all the marketers overshot the whole "everything will end up on the web" pitch.  Seems that clients really do want audited results, tangible proof of circulation,  direct feedback and so much more.  While magazines folding up their tents make the most splash in the gossip forums the reality is that there are more titles than ever before and the ad revenues to the standing players are recovering quickly.  Amazing.  Two years ago we were ready to leave them for dead.  Prediction?  A lot more paid placement in print and direct mail, supported by the web.  That means designers need to dust off their "print chops" and remember how to manage color for paper and all that other stuff.  But now clients want to measure all this stuff.  And remember, you'll need better technique for print.  The file are much bigger and the details and faults are ten times as obvious.

And, who ever guessed that this would happen? Holiday parties are back with a vengence.  Wheeeeeeeee.  And they're actually buying nice wine and good food.

So, what the heck does that have to do with the photo above?  And why is all out of focus?  And why is everything blurry?

I was walking around the train station in Rome with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I'd been taking photos all over the place all day long and I was getting ready to meander back to my hotel.  I noticed how Italian business guys fell into two strata when crossing the station.  If they were in groups of two or more they'd walk slowly and chat and gesture.  When they were alone they would do this brisk walk.  I like the brisk walk so I waited around until a likely candidate emerged from the crowds and headed by me.  I wasn't paying attention to exposure like I usually do.  I'd set the camera to auto exposure.  I lifted it up to my eye and waited for the right moment and then shot.  I could tell as I heard the slightly extended action of the shutter that I was down in the 1/8th to 1/15th second exposure zone.  Yep.  I screwed up.  I think.

But much later I printed this negative and I started to like the feeling of motion.  I started to like the way all of the background mushed together.  I liked the way Tri-X handled the grey tones and the highlights. But I like most of all the energy of the man heading home.  It's okay to do things wrong.  It's okay if you're the only one who likes them.  But it all goes into the learning mix.

Getting back to basics.

Our fragmented culture has inculcated us with the fallacious idea that we should all be Renaissance Men and Renaissance Women.  We should be, all at once, a writer, engineer, artist, photographer, triathlete, movie critic, economist, political expert and social critic.  Burrowing down, the faux Renaissance culture makes photographers feel like they should be masters of taking any kind of photograph, experts in all facets and styles of postproduction and retouching, they should be masters of sales and they should cast their brand far and wide thru dominance in "social networks".

So now we have lots and lots and lots of people tossing around lots of half baked ideas and meaningless, endlessly repeated prattle while snapping mostly vacuous and banal photographs and posting a huge melange of crap in every conceivable media.  As long as it's free.

But far from being a distant and dispassionate observers I have to readily agree that I'm as culpable as the next guy.  I've gone from being a regional corporate photographer who was generally thought to be a good portrait photographer to being quoted as an expert about lenses on DPreview.  I've pontificated so often about lighting on Flickr that I'm considered by some to be an expert there.  But it's all a big joke.  And I'm bursting my own balloon before someone else does it for me.

Mea Culpa.  I got swept up the in the supposed paradigm shift.  But in the end the web and all this noise is just the "pet rock" on the TV of a new generation. Bell bottom trousers.  Social networking is a desperate attempt at personal marketing in a time when jobs are shifting from employee to contractor and people are scared to death they'll be left behind.

I started posting on Facebook because one of my clients acted shocked that I wasn't on Facebook.  What if I miss an invitation to an event?  Fat chance.  I'm sure the invitation will be in the massive amounts of e-mail we look thru every day.  And if I did miss an invitation would the world end?  I'm hosting a party for my swimmer buddies on December the 11th.  To date I've gotten 32 invitations to other events being held on the same evening.  The problem isn't missing an invitation but weighing which ones to accept.

I started this blog to help sell my four books (please buy all four for everyone on your list) but no one really likes talking about books so I started writing about other stuff.   And now I write about other stuff all the time.

I started posting to Twitter to bring more readers to my blog.  But Twitter is so weird and disjointed that in the months and months I've tried to decipher it I still can't see how anyone gets any value from it.

I know how to do two things well.  I can take portraits.  I can write words that flow (most times) and make sense.  That's it.  I don't know more than the rest of us about philosophy.  I don't know much more about lenses than anyone else and what little I know either comes from actually shooting them or from taking the time to read more anecdotal stuff on the web and re-interpret (regurgitate) it.  What I know about camera sensors is meaningless and irrelevant.  If I had more understanding about economics than the rest of you out there I sure wouldn't be trying to make a living as a writer and photographer.

I taught workshops last year.  But it's hard to take workshops seriously when I think that everyone should just take their money and go someplace exciting and shoot on their own.    If you've got a couple weeks and $6000 burning a hole in your pocket just get on a damn plane and go to Istanbul or St. Petersburg and shoot from sun up till your last daily minutes of consciousness.  Then you'll have something to show off.  Something you might actually want to print.  All you need to know about handling your camera is in the owner's manual.  The rest, to reiterated my own tired quote, is just "time in the water."

So, what do I do now with the realization that I'm not smarter than most other people.  Not a wildly stellar, superstar photographer, not a brilliant philosopher or  economist.  What do I do with the realization that blogs don't sell books.  That Twitter doesn't sell blogs.  That I don't want to spend precious hours every day doing "rah!-rah!"  for myself about myself?

How about I turn off Flickr and Twitter and Facebook and do what's always worked well for me?  That would be taking photographs of people in my own style.  Writing stuff I know about.  And swimming enough laps everyday so that I can eat pizza once a week and a glass of wine or two and not gain weight.  That sounds pretty good to me.  And marketing?  Two postcards and $500 in postage brought in more money for me in a handful of jobs this year than all the web marketing I've done in five years.

Will I keep blogging?  Yeah, but I'm only interested in talking about street photography and portraits.  I'll leave it to someone else to sell cameras and books and lights and stuff.  I just want to know how to use them to make art.  And then I'll be happy to talk about art.

Two things I do well:  Portraits.  Words.  One thing I'm okay at and enjoy: Swimming.

I'd love to be a real Renaissance Man but it makes me tired just thinking of all the stuff I would need to be able to do.  No one has that kind of time.  Might as well be doing what you really love.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions: