The arts under attack in Texas. Again and again.

Artist/actor: Martin Burke

I am duplicitous to my own intellect.  I want to believe that art inspires,  that arts shows us what it is to be human, and that art is a critical function of a civilized society.  I want to think that we (the masses) should support the artists (the chosen few) in their ongoing endeavor to bring catharsis to culture.  That tax investments in the arts return enormous but not always obvious rewards to us in general.....but I falter.

Our governor, Rick Perry is pushing to gut all funding to artists and arts organizations across Texas.  And I have no doubt that, if we're collectively insane enough to elect him president, he'll get out his budgetary Bowie knife and try to rip the tax guts out of every arts organization across the U.S.  Goodbye museums.  Goodbye orchestras.  Goodbye art class in school.  Goodbye any art that survives or is nourished by taxes.  And my knee jerk liberal self wants to rise up and protest because I've been well trained to accept that any and all funding for the arts is good.  But is it?

And will America revert to the Dark Ages if we sever the financial ties that bind art to taxpayers like an unwanted backpack on a long journey through the desert?  The mantra on the right is to cut everything and the arts seem like a target rich environment for cutting.  It's target rich because the average American has no idea whether or not art really does affect his own life.  Art seems to be the province of the wealthy and the elite.  It's very inscrutability is it's barrier to the unwashed.  Just try explaining abstract expressionism to a room full of business students.  The blank stares are intimidating.....

So here's my conundrum.  I would never have had the opportunity to see Martin Burke perform in The Santaland Diaries if the city of Austin didn't provide some financial assistance to Zachary Scott Theater.  Martin has talent, not just training.  And it's the talent that makes me laugh and cry each time I see him perform.  In a sense, some projects, like big theater pieces and symphonies and large scale installations are like NASA.  They can't be cobbled together in home laboratories and they can't be funded with a bake sale.  And they do provide real economic value......down the road.  I submit that clubs with live music and theaters like Zach Scott and the Long Center and the Doughtery Cultural arts center are what led to the development of a rich and growing downtown which in turn aids developers of soaring residence towers, the owners of giant buildings for business in the downtown corridor and the creation of wealth largely due to the proximity and continued promise of art.  All within a mile of the state capitol.  All within a mile of the man who would cut and slice away crayons from school children along with funding for the opera (which I will gladly give up).  But not funding for businesses which fail with alarming regularity and often reneg on tax abatement agreements....

What floats the wealth of Sante Fe?  Could it be about 17,000 galleries that create the entire business  magnet for the town?  What's our one image of Sydney Australia if it's not the opera house?  Can you imagine people wanting to deposit tourist dollars in New York City without the Met and the Moma and the Guggenheim and countless galleries and shows?  Believe me, no one comes to NYC for the quaint and affordable hotel stays.....

Paris without the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and all the breathtaking (and tax paid) public architecture?  So I do understand the role of government funding of the arts as a boost to local economies here and around the world (Believe me, no one would ever go to St. Petersburg Russia in the dead of winter without the Hermitage.....) but is it fair to have tax payers foot the bill?  That's where my brain bogs down....

Then I read about the four billion dollar per year oil and gas subsidy for Exxon-Mobile and the countless hundreds of millions that municipalities throw at building stadiums so private businesses can have gladitorial shows for profit.  The idea in the first case that the world's second largest business would stop doing it's business if we didn't pay them to do it is ludicrous while the second example is just plain pitiful.

To some extent it is selecting who will get money and who won't that brings up the controversy.  Exxon can reward favors from Congress while artists generally cannot.  People in general are motivated to think that rewarding Exxon might buy them cheaper gas (fat chance....) but people don't have a selfish motivator in regards to the arts.  They don't see, tangibly, what art will do for them.  So doling out the taxpayer's largely unwilling largess becomes a popularity contest with the group promising the most understandable or doctrine rewards reaping the lion's share of the money.

They had an answer for this in Sweden.  I don't know if they still do it like this but in the 1970's I read that they would have a lottery for arts funding.  You applied, just as you would for a grant here but all were welcome to apply, there was no litmus test for the funding.  If you had an idea and a way to complete your idea you were in the game.  In the lottery, when and if you're name came up you were given living expenses, gallery space and  the opportunity to show your work at a gallery.  Didn't matter if it was liked or disliked, controversial or plain.  You got your shot.  Everyone had a chance at getting their shot.  No one arts organization was able to burrow in and suck at the teat long after their relevance fled to another school of thought.  I'd like to see something like that here.

But back to my bifurcated nature.  I pay taxes.  I have my own sense of priorities and ethics.  I think we should shut down every inch of corporate tax welfare in the entire system.  Tomorrow.  And we should put term limits on any arts funding.  Everyone goes free market.  Everyone.  Business, art, music, thought, food, experience.  It all goes free market. 

Can you make the case that opera is great for your town?  Bravo, put together a business plan, sell the seats and gather unto you your own donors.  People won't pay for it out of their own pockets?  Tough.  Rosetti and Verdi and Mozart had private sponsors for their art.  Get your own.  Want an oil and gas subsidy? Tough.  Find some private investors.  Sell your plan to a church group.  Market.

Look at it this way.  If we get a hold of the gutting knife and apply it equally,  eviscerating both the arts and ALL agricultural, oil and gas, construction, home interest credit, defense spending, government grants to pharmacy and all the rest we'll put so much money back into the pockets of Americans that.....they'll sandbag the windows of their MacMansions, buy more and bigger flat screen TV's and burrow in for the dark ages.  But at least they'll have their "own" money in their pockets.

Hmm.  This train of thought is too hard.  How did we get here in the first place?  When did art and business begin to need the taxpayers cash to survive?  What was all that talk about free enterprise?

Bottom line:  There may or may not be money available in the arts.  Artists will pursue their art no matter what.  And if they are starving they will, like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, get real jobs and do their art because it's straining to come out.  Because we use art as our own catharsis.
I've been doing photography now for thirty years.  I've had many shows.  Paid for all of them.  Paid for the frames and the wine and the cheese and the invitations, and the months and years of looking for the images and the time in the dark room slamming all the stuff out.  No grants.  No stipends.  No public money.  If people like the work they like the  work.  Sometimes we sell one.  Usually not.  But I do it because I like it and I do it to show my friends and family and interested strangers what I do.

And I support my art by selling my craft and technical skills, won from art, to companies that understand that their marketing efforts can be translated into a single, gestalt visual that adds value to their communication with their customers.  And I sell books that find their value on an open market.  And, as liberal in the bluest of Texas towns, I am still conflicted about footing the bill for the art of others when so many times the end users, for whom we've subsidized engagement, are the wealthiest in our communities.   But we don't know how much value art brings to the table down the road.  How much trickles down.  And I'm not willing to cut there unless we're equally willing to wean the businesses.  At least there we know where the profit goes.  And it's no better dispersed.  All or nothing.  That's a good motto for any artist.

"Art show us what it is to be Human."


Portraits are what photography is all about.....for me.

Lou and the Hasselblad.  The studio on San Marcos St.

I don't know why they do it but they do it all the time.  People talk to me about photography and they are so desperate to show me what they've recently shot that they whip out their iPhones and start flicking through images.  And sadly, many times the images are not portraits.  They show me tiny landscapes which makes my internal critic yawn and wince.  They show me "abstracts" which means they liked the color or shape of something and snapped a photo.  They show me architecture which I sometimes like, sometimes tolerate but mostly ignore.  And they show me pictures of cats to prove how sharp their new lens/camera/flash is.

I have a new dodge to get out of looking at the images as they are flicked past on the screen.  I apologize and point out that I didn't bring my reading glasses and so am incapable of truly appreciating the "art."  At this point they start using two fingers to enlarge the photographs.  Perhaps they mean to scroll across and depend on my "persistence of vision" to tile together their masterpieces in my mind.  At that point I generally just tell people to stop.

The one exception is when someone shows me a really nice portrait.  Then, mystically, my vision improves and I can share in the sharing.  Now I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with pursuing landscape photographs.  Ansel Adams had a good run with the genre and I suppose some other people have too.  And Lee Freidlander certainly made some hay with his abstracts, as did Gordon Parks.  It's just that people are so much more interesting to photograph and look at.  In a way it's because portraits can be virtually interactive......at least they will look back at you.

(Above shot on medium format black and white film, Hasselblad Camera.  180mm Zeiss lens.)

Studio Coffee Break, circa 1993.

Lou and the little black dress.

It was a more civilized time.  We'd shoot for while and then stop for coffee while the assistants reloaded the film backs.  None of the jittery madness of tight scheduling and fast turnaround we "enjoy" today.  And, after a shoot, the film would be sent to the lab for processing and contact sheets.  That bought us two days of relaxation and respite.

The coffee was always hot and good.  The film always seemed to turn out fine.  And no one was in a rush.  What a delicious way to work.

Another Day Another Medium Format Portrait. From The Early 2000's...

   Amy in the studio.

I can't imagine how we did it just a few short years ago.  I was looking through boxes with thousands and thousands of black and white, medium format images and wondering, "how did we pay for all that medium format film?  All the developing and contact sheets?"  And it wasn't all for jobs.  That would make sense.  No, at least half the stuff in the boxes was personal work.  People I couldn't bear not to photograph because I liked the way they looked so much.  Looking back at a typical bill from my lab from 2002 (we were still shooting a mix of film and digital....) I note that I shot 160 rolls of MF tri-X in the month of June.  In that same month I shot 300 rolls of color transparency film.  While that's only 5,500 exposures it's critical to remember that every click of the shutter cost real money.  I'd estimate the out of pocket expenses for the 460 rolls of film, with develop and contact at a modest $10 per roll (I used to get volume discounts...) and that means we spent $4,600 that month.  Close to a dollar a frame.  And that's before scanning or printing.

Now, for all intents and purposes, when we shoot with digital cameras it seems like photography is free.  But I think we've made some compromises that I wish we didn't have to make.  I like shooting in medium format but who can afford to buy and use $28,000 cameras and $4,000 lenses for clients whose budgets are falling faster than the Dow Jones average?  But the things I miss most people will dismiss as intangibles:  The brilliant finders.  The way the image goes out of focus because of the longer focal lengths on bigger formats.  The way black and white and color negative films could hold on to highlight detail and make it amazingly nuanced.  Being able to put your hands on a piece of film and seeing it.  Knowing that negatives might dissolve but knowing that they will do it gracefully instead of catastrophically.  The incredible tonal range of well shot and processed film.  The unmatched pleasure of the square frame...

The wonderful thing about life is that not everything has to be binary.  I change my mind a lot but it doesn't mean I have to burn all the other options and walk a narrow path for the rest of my days.  I've been seduced by the promiscuous nature of digital's ample largess and I've been swayed by film's Calvinistic rigor and I like both feelings.  The hot tub and the stern, early morning run up the long hills.

So I think I'll spend a while going back and forth, like a man with two lovers.  I'll shoot portraits for myself on silvery slivers of film and I'll shoot work for my clients on the visual accordions of digital.  And I'll hunger for the day when a wonderful client, with Warren Buffett-sized budgets, stumbles across some of the work I'm doing with film and exclaims,  with a breathy excitement: "Oh dear God!!! These are wonderful!!!!  Please.  Can you shoot our next project with real film???"

And I'll tilt my little black beret to one side of my head, toss aside my hand rolled cigarette,  empty my martini glass and, grudgingly say,  "Well...if that's what you want..."  And we'll be back into a new game of mixing old and new.

Note:  atmtx visited my studio on Sunday and captured me with the new camera.  His photo is here


Continuing with the medium format nostalgia....beauty.

I've always had a love affair with.......the 150mm Lens on a Square Medium Format camera.  This was shot on the stairs that connect my living room with my dining room.   The model's name is Kara and we originally shot this as an alternative choice for the cover of my first book.  The image was taken with a Carl Zeiss lens but it wasn't on the front of a Hasselblad, it was on the other European MF system I used, the Rollei SLR system.  While there was much to love about the Rolleis, and with the same lens maker and choice of films the ultimate quality was absolutely equal to the Hasselblad, but I always preferred the battery-less operation of the Swedish version and the relative quiet of the shutter.  The Hblad is also a bit lighter.

When we create book covers it's routine to try a number of variations and then judge the winner at the end.  I had worked with Kara on several advertising campaigns before this but they all cast her as the quintessential "soccer mom" while I wanted something a bit sexier.  I don't care what you're marketing, beautiful faces work for me...

Hope everyone is staying cool and having a fun Monday.

(quick note:  shot on Fuji Asti E-6 film and then scanned on an Epson V500 Photo flatbed scanner.)

A self serving book review that I hope will inspire even non-commercial photographers to rush to Amazon or Precision Camera to secure a copy.

I am in the middle of writing my sixth book. This one is about the convergence of digital photography and video.  I think I'll call it Minimalist Video for Photographers.    All of the books I've written are about photography.  Two are about lighting technique (Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography and 
Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography) and they have been very popular books when it comes to sales.  Another book I wrote is all about lighting equipment.  It's mostly about what's available out there and why you might want to use it.  It's entitled, aptly enough:  Photographic Lighting Equipment.   And sales of that book are also good.  In fact, anything I write that relates to equipment either sells well or, in the case of this blog, is a big reader magnet.  I guess that says something about the interests of my audience.  The fifth book is a comprehensive look at LED lighting and it should come out this Winter, from Amherst Media.

But the best book I've written to date is the one that seems to always be languishing on the shelves and getting chummy with the remnants on the Amazon shelves.  And it's sad for me because I think that in addition to being well crafted it is by far the most important book I've written for the greatest number of photographers.  It's called:  Commercial Photography Handbook.  Let me explain.


Going backwards. Or, the epiphany I had while out for a walk in the blazing heat. Or, how to rationalize buying a new Hasselblad...

This is one of the very first medium format images I ever shot.  

It was shot with a Yashica Mat 124G which was the desirable cheapy MF camera of the 1970's.  I shot this in late 1979 at my place on Longview, near the UT campus.  It was done on Kodak Panatomic X film (ISO 32) using a Novatron 150 watt second pack with one head aimed thru a shoot thru umbrella.  I only owned one head at the time so that's how I shot it.  (Was Zack Arias even born back then???).

I hand developed the film at the Ark Cooperative darkroom and eventually printed it on Ilford Ilfobrom double weight paper.  This was before the Bass brothers tried to corner the silver market so a box of 8x10 double weight fiber paper, 100 sheets was about $6.95.  I scrimped and saved to buy it.  Texas was a poor state back then and my finances were precarious.  I was so in love with Belinda that any photograph I took seemed incredible to me then.  We dated for five years, spent lots of time enjoying Austin and places like the Armadillo World Headquarters  (saw the Talking Heads open their for Devo one night.....) and eventually decided to get married. But that's a whole other story.  This photo represents our first year together.  She abandoned teaching for studio arts and I abandoned electrical engineering to be a writer.....