Alfred StieglitzGeorgia O’Keefe (1919)

I don’t especially care for Stieglitz.

I mean I recognize his contribution to the advancement of photography as an art form both within the US as well as around the world; yet his work–although frequently very beautiful–feels not flat, but affectless in a way that comes across as contrived. (It’s like he spent way too long reading Thoreau in his teens and latched on to the pretentious naturalism more than the admonishment to ‘live purposefully’.

His work with O’Keefe is a little different. Or, the better way to say it might be: what I don’t like about his work actually serves the work instead of undercutting it.

Take the image above: there are similarities in her pose to depictions of Eve in oil paintings throughout the western canon; a ruse meant to preemptively short circuit Puritanical objections to the more sensual facets of the composition. (Eve for example is unlikely to be depicted hold her breast in such an ambiguous fashion, but even that can be traced back to something in-line with the asp biting Cleopatra’s breast.)

I don’t think there’s any way you can wrap your head fully around the Steiglitz and O’Keefe collaborations without acknowledging that they were ravenous with carnal desire for one another.

I know the prevailing wisdom is that an artist should remain aloof and not become entangled with their subjects. But I don’t think you can deny that when a photographer is consensually involved with their subject, it absolutely complicates the work–usually in interesting and unpredictable ways. (Thinking here of Corwin Prescott and Nicole Vaunt as another sterling example.)

Nicholas NixonY.A., J.S., Vevey, Switzerland (2000)

Viewing Nixon’s work I am reminded of Emmet Gowin. Both share an interest in portraiture and more-or-less abstracted landscapes.

I prefer Nixon’s trajectory more–as he’s pursued both tracks over the course of his career; whereas Gowin has all but stopped making portraits.

However, even though Nixon has made more consistently engaging work–it’s never quite managed to invoke the same intense and simple clarity as Gowin’s pre-aerial photography work.

The above frame is actually emblematic of what frustrates me about Nixon. He’s using a large format camera. Awesome. I totally support that and if I could afford to, I’d only shoot large format (although I prefer 4×5 over 8×10 because beyond a point, dragging large, heavy equipment around is a turn off). And I really like the way it toes the line with regard to a degree of gender ambiguity. (It took me almost 30 seconds to note the protruding scrotum of the little spoon.)

I just don’t think that ambiguity actually balances out against the lack of broader contextual clues as far as the setting. Nixon uses standardized naming conventions when titling his work. A brief description of what is pictures, where the photo was taken and the year it was produced. With much of the rest of his work it doesn’t bother me. (The tact is–after all–endemic in fine art photography.)

Here though, it reads like an effort to activate the work in a way that the purely visual does not.

Yet, then there’s the broader context of the work within which this photograph coexists–a project documenting amorous couples. This resonates strongly with the ambiguity of gender in the presentation. And while I don’t think it has the immediacy or empathy of other images in the same series it is nice to see effort made to represent the act of love as non-hetero exclusive.

Anastasiya Shevela. (2015)

According to the tags in the original post, this image was made with a sheet of 4×5 Kodak Ektachrome.

Long story short: Ektachrome ‘replaced’ Kodachrome. (The scare quotes are to respect the opinion that Kodachrome was without equal and irreplaceable.)

It’s a fine grain color positive (or slide) film. It was discontinued in 2013.

There’s no way of knowing when the sheet resulting in this photograph was exposed. It could’ve been in 2013, while the film was still ‘fresh’. If it was exposed this year–which would be my guess–it’s held up reasonably well. (There’s a blue shift due to the boat and a yellow shift in the skintone but both facets only contribute to a stronger image.)

I used a few rolls of Ektachrome before it was scrapped. I’ve never really cared for Kodak film stock–the T-Max grain structure irritates me and Tri-X has never been as smooth as the high end Ilford stocks to my eye. And I’ve had several interactions with Kodak as a company that have left a very bad taste in my mouth. But Ektachrome was solid. It never had the dazzling skin tone of Fuji’s Astia. (Now sadly also discontinued–but I do still have a small stockpile in my freezer.)

If you’ve never shot slide film you aren’t going to appreciate the nuance in this photograph. Unlike negative film–which has a sometimes a nearly five stop exposure range wherein you’ll get a ‘usable’ photo–slide film is unforgiving in the extreme.  Without perfectly even lighting, Fuji’s Provia 100 in medium format gives about ¾ of stop range; 35mm is ¼ a stop if you’re super lucky.

So, if it’s that much fussier to shoot slides as opposed to negs, why bother? Well, on the one hand, I’m a photographer who strongly dislikes the lemming-like obsession so many fashion/editorial/’fine art’ folks have with Kodak Portra. If you’re using a flash and/or have controlled lighting, you can do some interesting stuff with it. But it’s texture tends to be plastic-like and the colors skew a little too pastel for my taste. (I suspect so many people use it because it tends to provide a ‘flattering’ skin tone by default.)

The truth is: I only ever shot one negative stock which rendered what I would refer to as acceptable color fidelity–Afga’s Optima II. (I’m convinced it was better able to render grey scale in the shadow areas.) Alas, it was discontinued soon after I stumbled onto it.

The first time I shot slide film was the first time I was really even halfway on board with regard to color fidelity. So I continue to shoot it.

And I think what I’ve come to realize is slide film just renders color in a fashion closer to the way my eye sees color. For example, in the above image, it’s difficult to tell if the blue is bleeding out from the boat into the pebbles or if the pebbles were just close enough in color as to provide that illusion. A well exposed slide leaves that ambiguity. Just pop in down on a light table and you’ll see it one way or the other depending upon how you look at it.

With a negative, that distinction would be something that one would develop in printing. (And it would take a long time of futzing back and forth and printing a bunch of images that didn’t work.)

That’s why slide film appeals to me: if you shoot it and it looks like crap, there’s no fixing it. It’s not strictly WYSIWYG but it’s so close it may as well be. I appreciate it’s unforgiving nature. It forces me to think and then think again before I click the shutter.

Allison BarnesBlooming Sofa from Neither For Me Honey Nor The Honey Bee (2014)

While I was traveling in Europe several months back, a gallerist inquired as to who I held to be the single contemporary American photographer making the most important work.

Without so much as a pause, I suggested Allison Barnes.

That probably surprises a few of you with how much I am perpetually singing @ericashires praises…

But while Shires’ polyglotism w/r/t various, disparate image making processes along with the way the tone of her work seems to invoke a similar force as when a dream unexpected develops a malevolent undertone and you wonder if you should pinch yourself, appeal to me on an almost preternatural level, there’s a still small voice that questions whether an image maker can be a viable consideration for the gate keepers of culture without at least some degree of academnification.

With the possible exception of digital collage and the definite exception of cinema, photography is an adolescent art–what with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s first image being 1826ish, photography hasn’t even reached it’s bicentennial.

Further there’s a lag between the introduction of the work and it’s adoption by the academie. How long had color photography been around before it was considered a viable fine art medium? How long after Robert Frank’s release of The Americans, the subsequent backlash and the eventual promotion of it to the yard stick by which the art-worthiness of American photography is measured? Who’s the most recent photographer to achieve fine art canonization–Alec Soth?

During the two years I studied photography in an academic setting, I ran into–again and again–this antipathy to work not accepted as ensuing from the framework of fine art photography.

As someone who does a lot of work with nudes in ruins and landscapes, I was concerned about potential overlap with someone like Miru Kim (whom I fucking detest). However, she wasn’t considered to be making work under the fine art umbrella.

I object to this rigid demarcation for at least a hundred different reasons but mostly I hold that without an aggressive cross-pollination of practices, perspectives and methodologies, that which is good becomes less good. In other words, shit stagnates.

No, you shouldn’t include Miru Kim just because she gave an awkward TED talk. But if you step back and look at things with a wider lens, you can see how Miru Kim’s relationship to fine art photography vs. pop photography is the exact inverse of what Noah Kalina’s relationship to those respective categories.

So why Allison Barnes?

Well, to grossly over generalize, it has to do with that adage about a picture being worth 1,000 words. And they question–whether conscious or not–is what do we do with those words? We can explore, document, tell a story, seek out the foreign in the familiar, etc.

I don’t believe it’s an accident that the series from which the above image emerges is taken from one of Sappho’s most famous poem fragments.

There’s that great line by one of the greatest poets–whom I consider an honorary photographer–William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day


for lack

of what is found there.

By using her 1,000 words toward the end of poetry, Barnes does more to unify the rigid parameters of fine art photography with the impetus driving the creation of so much self-confessional pop photography than anyone else with whom I am familiar.

Agnieszka Sosnowska – Nowell, Massachusetts (1991)

If you follow this blog for the artier stuff, then you are probably already familiar with Lens Culture.

They do some rad stuff: serving as the impetus for posts featuring the work of Anna Grzelewska and Kumi Oguro.

Honestly, I was thoroughly underwhelmed by their presentation of Sosnowska. By focusing solely on her work’s ‘coming to terms’ with her families immigration to Iceland, there’s this sort of O Pioneers! vibe to it that registers as coy, sentimental and over-precious.

While I was in Iceland, the boastfully named Ljósmyndasafn Reykjavíkur, or Reykjavík Museum of Photography, had a show up called Traces of Life featuring a smattering of Sosnowska’s work.

I can’t speak to the quality of curation of the show–it seemed to lack an overarching cohesion and although explicitly preoccupied with self-portraiture, a great deal of the work was abstract in a way that beggars the question: how is this self-portraiture? (Not that most of the work on display offered much guidance on how to address such questions.)

Still, I have to qualify it as a success because I walked away with a respect for Sosnowska, I would have otherwise missed. Part of it was realizing that her work is fundamentally rooted in self-portraiture. Second, nothing available online does her images justice. She makes rich, contrasty, 3D baryta prints that are small, make stubborn demands for intimate observation and seethe with the ambiguous intention of a stumbled upon coiled serpent.

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Sans attribution, there are two directions guesses at credit for any photograph featuring young nudist women can go: David Hamilton or Jock Sturges.

And despite being in color this bears none of Hamilton’s idyllic, dreamy soft focus.

The large-format aspect ratio points to Sturges despite the fact that he works almost exclusively in B&W.

Also, I am pretty familiar with his work and I cannot recall an instance where the subject whose eyes were wide open was this close to the camera without staring directly into the lens.

Further, although Sturges favors vertical compositions to echo the people standing within his frames, this vertical orientation is skillfully contrapuntal, delicately diminishing the horizontal force of the pose by balancing the negative space in the doorway against the blue wooden slats.

All in all, this contains altogether more calculation than I expect from Sturges’ knee-jerk fine art-photographer-as-gilded-voyeur routine.

But it’s the un-self-conscious mien of the model—who, although nude, appears not as a sexualized object so much as a spectrum of being that includes the possibility of sexuality. Such presence in both one’s own skin and a moment has a definite parallel with Sally Mann’s wonderful Immediate Family.