One and a-two

Today I was giving my photo classes their new assignment, “Two-fer” - basically instead of looking for *a* subject, look for two subjects and try to create relationships, contrast, or juxtaposition between them. I pulled some of my own pictures to give them ideas, turns out I do the two-fer thing myself more than I realized. Some are more obvious than others, and we talked about playing with the two components either roughly in the same visual plane (side by side), or using them more as layers (front to back).

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One (non-)example was a picture from my book The Waiting Room - Photographs from Belarus. I had gotten on a trolleybus in Minsk with a friend and quickly made this shot of a girl standing at the rear:

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I felt at the time like I got the shot, and she didn’t seem to mind or maybe didn’t know I took it. But my inner photo nag wanted more, as it tends to. I remember how I thought - like I’m asking my students to think - ok, good, that’s one nice element, but how do I add another, relate her to something else, some kind of contrast… maybe to an older person on the bus for example. So I quickly moved back a bit, trying for that two-fer. Found the older guy like I wanted in the seats but, alas, my friend happened to be standing there in the middle (to my friend AK, it’s ok :))), you couldn’t have known!). It’s not a bad picture, but not the simple duality that I wanted.

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The scene changed a moment later anyway. So the two-fer didn’t quite work out, but the first one made my book in the end.

I hope this is helpful to anyone looking for ways to mix up their compositions. One subject is ok, but think about going for two!

Apocalypse. Now, Please.

I have a hunch. (“Yeah, yeah” you’re thinking. But, if I may say so, my hunches are often pretty reliable.) Just because there was no great cataclysm on 12/21/12, the Mayans may not have been wrong.

We tend to think of the dreaded word ‘apocalypse’ as an ending (end of the world, i.e. asteroid hitting earth) but it is also a beginning. Condensed from good old Wikipedia:

An apocalypse, translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, hidden from humanity in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. In religious contexts it is the ultimate victory of good over evil and the end of the present age, and that is the primary meaning of the term, one that dates to 1175.

I tend to be an optimist, but I was thinking recently that we certainly seem to be facing quite a number of existential threats (I don’t really need to list them). It’s easy to be discouraged by how - especially in America, the exceptional country indeed - every serious challenge is multiplied exponentially by needing to spend so much energy and time combating what can only be called irrational arguments. See birthers, creationists, climate change deniers, the NRA, House Republicans, et al.

At the same time, despite our historic level of wealth, so much of our pursuit of happiness seems not to lead to, well, happiness. If you doubt that we’re striving for the wrong things, see the film The Queen of Versailles. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, the crash-and-burn of the husband’s extreme wealth and influence or his once-beautiful wife’s compulsive shopping binges and overinflated fake boobs. They had more money than most of us can imagine. If they couldn’t buy happiness, sense, or good taste, then apparently those are not buyable things.

Take a look around the the sprawling strip-mall suburbs of America - or, for that matter, the prefab housing blocks on the outskirts of cities from Paris to Vladivostok, the violent favelas of Rio, the urban hubris of Dubai, etc - and ask yourself if we have the lost the touch for building proper human habitats. Yes, I could list plenty of positive examples as well, but the difference is that so many good cities and towns were designed in earlier generations, compared to the soul-crushing environments we seem to be churning out since roughly the mid-20th century.

Climate change is something we probably won’t get our heads around fully until it’s too late. Well, many of us do have our heads around it just fine, but effective collective action springing from unified consciousness is a long way off. For those looking to get involved, 350.org is doing great work. Climate change is like that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: the inert castle guards watch Sir Lancelot charging from the horizon, running at full speed but, strangely, never seeming to actually come any closer… until suddenly he’s right on top of them. Well, it’s like that scene except not funny.

Why mention all of this? To circle back to my hunch and the Mayans’ calendar-making, is the apocalypse here after all? Maybe, and maybe it’s about time. My (limited) understanding is that the Mayans were a pretty tuned-in lot, and thought of the future as having patterns, cycles. And that right around now we’d be at the end of a cycle. That doesn’t have to mean sudden cataclysm from above and/or below.

Put it this way: doesn’t it FEEL like we’re at the end of a cycle (see all of the above, add your own horseman)? Like what we’re doing isn’t working, the way we’re living isn’t sane and humane enough, what we actually want and need is not the same as what we’re dispiritedly but mightily striving for?

Again, I come back to the definition of 'apocalypse’, condensed further:

A disclosure of knowledge, hidden from humanity in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. The ultimate victory of good over evil.

That actually sounds alright, just what we need to reignite our imaginations and our hearts. If we can achieve the twin goals of being semantically correct AND having a future worth having, I say bring on the apocalypse, now.

While we’re waiting for that, here’s another classic Monty Python scene to keep up your faith in humanity:

Happy New Year everyone!

Go Live

‘go live’ preview from Jónsi on Vimeo.

Just got finished re-watching the Go Live concert dvd by Jonsi in its entirety. What a tonic for recent events and the endless TV regurgitation. Go Live is immersive, exquisite in music, visuals, production, and spirit. So innovative and original, profound even. Kolniður in particular is astonishing, not just the song but the onstage animation that projects with it.

http://jonsi.com/releases/go-live

Suck on that, Evil. We’ve got Beauty.

Local-graphy

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(photo by Koci Hernandez)

Local-graphy? Loca-graphy?

Maybe it’s too little, too soon, to be called a trend. But we are slowly starting to see at least a few established well-traveled photographers focusing, in various ways and for various reasons, on their home turf. It could be the changing market vaporizing certain footholds photographers once relied on. Or a natural progression for world-weary shooters putting their trained observations on the familiar instead of the far-flung.

The young, very talented Jonas Bendiksen of Magnum took a job shooting for a small newspaper in the north of his native Norway. I think of Chris Anderson’s book Son (great NYT Lens blog post here, on his getting away from conflict photography).

Instagram is clearly a big factor, with its way of getting even pro shooters artfully documenting their day-to-day (hopefully not their lunch). David Alan Harvey’s domestic goings-on are included on his Instagram. Gueorgui Pinkhassov seems to be using it as a kind of luminous sketchbook wherever he happens to be. Ben Lowy has been on a tear on the homefront, most recently in some really nice BW work on his IG feed.

[Update - In a nice moment of serendipity, just as I was posting this I got an email from my Dutch friend and colleague Robert Knoth, whose new, massive, acclaimed book Poppy tracks heroin’s effects from Afghan poppy fields to European streets. He just happened to mention how lately he’s been photographing a story near where he grew up in the Netherlands.]

Of course this is not to imply that they and others aren’t doing plenty of normal assignments etc as well. Just that things sure are shifting around out there. I find it interesting and cool to see photographers trying their hand at shooting where they live, which historically has been a tough task.

I’ve been friendly with Marc Riboud over some years, who once admitted to me that he has trouble photographing in France. As Cartier-Bresson himself put it in a 1973 short film that I showed my students today:

To interest people in far away places, to shock them, to delight them is not too difficult. The most difficult thing is in your own country. When its on your own block, it’s such a routine, its quite difficult to get out. When I’m going to a butcher, well… places where I am all the time… I know too much and not enough and to be lucid about it is the most difficult.

Yet this is precisely what Koci Hernandez - an Instagram photo star if there ever was one - is doing in Oakland CA. He says he gets some of his material on the way to doing other things, running errands etc.

I’m on the bandwagon (no, not the Redskins’ one anymore). Since I started teaching photography, with less chance to travel, I’ve been developing a Washington DC series (@billcrandall on IG) in the nooks and crannies between work and family life. This will likely be my next book, so stay tuned.

The Spring Tune

Brushing off some music I’ve had in my pocket for some time, hopefully I’ll be doing some recording over the winter. This came to mind, poetic words for creativity in general from a children’s book by Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. If you don’t know The Moomins (which means most Americans), you’re missing out:

It’s the right evening for a tune, Snufkin thought. A new tune, one part expectation, two parts sadness, and for the rest, just the great delight of walking alone and liking it.

He had kept this tune under his hat for several days but hadn’t quite dared to take it out yet. It had to grow into a kind of happy conviction. Then, he would simply have to put his lips to the mouth organ, and all the notes would jump instantly into their places.

If he released them too soon they might get stuck crossways and make only a half-good tune, or he might lose them altogether and never be in the right mood to get hold of them again. Tunes are serious things, especially if they have to be jolly and sad at the same time.

But this evening Snufkin felt rather sure of his tune. It was there, waiting, nearly full-grown – and it was going to be the best he ever made.

Then, when he arrived in Moominvalley, he’d sit on the bridge rail and play it, and Moomintroll would say at once: That’s a good one. Really a good one.

- from “The Spring Tune”, Tales From Moominvalley

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Nice review of The Waiting Room over on the phot(o)lia blog.

http://photolia.tumblr.com/post/20511639880/the-waiting-room-bill-crandall

Belarus, a post-Soviet country “squeezed between Europe and Russia”. The most common association is probably Chernobyl and current political regime referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe”. No surprise that those few photographers who get to that part of Europe focus on one of those issues. Bill Crandall did something very different. He came to Belarus to document everyday life and he spent one decade visiting the country: observing, learning, reflecting. [S]ome images are just surreal, others are very intimate, many are captivating but all of them create beautiful and intriguing narratives […].

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Excited that my book The Waiting Room - Photographs from Belarus is now available in Prague, at Knihkupectvi Ostrov (Ostrov Bookstore). It’s in Nové Město, near Národní Třída metro. So if you’re in the neighborhood…

Great place I’m told, formerly run by Victor Stoilov who publishes the Fototorst series of Czech photo books. Thanks to Karel Cudlin for hooking me up.

The price is 499 Czech Kč, about 25 dollars (same as the US price).


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VOA interview

The Voice of America (Russian Service) put together a few nice bits about my Belarus work and upcoming Waiting Room photo book. The reporter came to my FotoweekDC talk a few weeks ago, the video segment is from that. The interview was by email, it’s published in Russian only, so see below for the English version I gave them. They also ran a set of select pics on their photo blog. I have no idea what the blog text says, if any Russian-speaking friends want to enlighten me I’d appreciate it.

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How did you decide to start doing photography? What was the starting point?

My father was an artist and photographer. We had a small darkroom in our home, he taught me not just about developing film and how to make a good print, but also how to really see. So this was the very beginning. Until my early 20s I was more into music, I played guitar in various bands and studied music in college. But gradually photography sort of took over my creative interest. I did both for a while but eventually chose photography as my main focus. Though I think a feeling for music still informs my visual side as well. It all goes together.

What kind of camera did you use when you start doing photography?

I started with film cameras, this was before digital existed. My first camera was a Canon AE-1. Later I did much of my personal work with the Leica M6. Now I am doing mostly digital. I made a decision that I needed to find a way to do ‘my thing’ with digital cameras, instead of stubbornly holding onto film. I don’t need a $5000 camera though, I sort of go the other way - working with more modest tools like smaller cameras and phone cameras and trying to maximize them. I very much like some small Ricoh digital cameras that give me the quality I need but allow me to take a nimble, discreet approach. Instead of being the guy with the huge camera doing something serious.  More and more in this world, that’s the way to get negative attention. Sometimes I prefer not to be taken seriously by people when I am working.

The work of what famous photographers impresses you the most? Why?

When I started I was very excited by Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Marc Riboud… especially Koudelka. He is so uncompromising in his vision. I met him a couple times recently and it was very special for me. His work has a sense of mystery, ambiguity, and suggestiveness that really appealed to me and still does. In fact, I quite like many lesser known Czech photographers, like Viktor Kolar, Vojta Dukat, Bohdan Holomicek, and my good friend Karel Cudlin. Something in the Czech photo DNA I guess. The photographers who impress me are not necessarily virtuosos, but they can make magic out of ordinary subject matter.

Sometimes people say that it’s necessary to go somewhere in order to take pictures. How did you decide to go to Belarus?

I think it’s not so important to go somewhere, although of course the exotic and unfamiliar are more arousing to our senses. Photographing the familiar is harder for sure. Though I’m trying to find fresh ways of seeing what is around me close to home. Either way, it’s more important what is in your mind, what is your sensibility, your point of view. This is influenced by everything, by who you are, by art, film, literature, music…

With all that said, I am very interested in places, and I am driven by the desire to capture the essence of a place. Not literally, but impressionistically, with a point of view. I first went to Belarus as part of my broader project shooting in various parts of Eastern Europe over some years. I’m interested in how different countries have evolved - and are evolving - since the end of communism. There are quite different case studies if you consider places like Prague, Kosovo, Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus… But any broader context is only a kind of backdrop, when I go somewhere I am not trying to work as a news reporter. I’m simply looking for what interests me, what feels true on a universal and enduring level, what is ambiguous instead of literal. I want to understand correctly but not be confined by the need to describe or explain. I guess I am offering impressions not facts, but impressions informed by facts.

How is it possible to capture a moment in order to make a special picture?

Well, it’s necessary to be able to anticipate, to be sensitive, to be in command of your equipment and technique, and to have a kind of inner intensity so that when you respond it’s like a coiled spring being released. It helps to study human nature, and develop your ideas so that when a moment comes along you can even recognize it as 'your’ moment. If you don’t have some idea what you are trying to do, at least some set of ideas you are drawing from, how will you know that a particular moment crystallizes your thoughts in some way?

Why are most of your pictures in black and white?

I’ve always preferred black and white. It distills the scene to the essentials of mood, emotion, composition, etc. It’s more mysterious and I like mystery. Color can be like visual noise if it’s not well-handled, and I don’t think I handle it that well. Though for the past year or so I’ve been doing a color series that I quite like, so maybe I’m getting better. 

Do you think there are some special details in the photojournalist’s work, for example in Belarus? Did you get into some extreme situation there and in the USA?

I haven’t really had any special problems in Belarus, no one really bothers me when I’m working. Well, there was one crazy guy who got in my face the first time I was there, but I think he just had anger management issues. But I’m not usually shooting things that are politically sensitive so there shouldn’t really be any issues. The second time I had an exhibition in Minsk showing some of this work, I actually got some positive coverage in the state media. I suppose it’s ironic that I’ve been detained shooting in Washington DC, but not in Belarus. I had gone to take pictures of the Pentagon after September 11. At that time there was surveillance of everyone who came and went there. I spent a long time sitting, waiting, at the site for the right light before I started shooting. Then the next day I came back with my wife, who is a radio and TV reporter. Some soldiers thought we were suspicious and questioned us for a little while. Made me miss my good light!

There are so many incredible and interesting and funny experiences and people you meet when you do this kind of independent work. It might be boring to talk about them. It’s like older people who tell war stories, the memories are powerful for them but not necessarily for others. On the other hand, photographing in another place can often be quite lonely, even depressing, to wake up each morning, maybe not feeling well or whatever, trying to figure out what you will do that day to move your project toward success.

Do you think that the world has changed? And working in the style of Cartier-Bresson is very difficult since there are a lot of privacy concerns?

Yes, in many places it has become harder to work as a street photographer, though snap-and-run is a relatively small part of what I do. Often it’s more about being able to work my way into situations or scenarios that allow for some degree of at least unspoken permission or tolerance from the people around me. It’s never been easy, plus now there are so many real or imagined security concerns. It’s a complicated subject, this whole new landscape of privacy, security, the internet, etc. But often people are flattered to have their picture taken, as long as they feel you don’t have some kind of negative agenda. You have to be transparent, open in your intentions, this can be felt despite language barriers.

There is an opinion that photography is the art of one thousand details, for example, the organization of the trip. How do you get ready for the trip? Is it possible to compensate all spending?

Well, first of all, I am rarely compensated for any spending! At least not right away, and not always in the form of direct payment. Grants can help, I’ve had a couple that made a big difference. But karma has a way of working, efforts are often re-paid in unexpected ways.

It’s true that maybe 80 percent of the effort is putting yourself in the position to even have a chance to make a good photo. Then you try not to screw it up. I personally don’t plan every detail of a trip, a lot is left to fate. Of course the basics are in place, but sometimes even where I will sleep, where I will go, can be subject to change. On another level, getting ready for a trip involves a certain mental preparation, including a certain amount of preconceiving what I’m looking for. But once I’m working, I try not to think too much, I try to respond intuitively.

With what famous magazines or publishers did you work?

I worked a lot for many years for the Washington Post, New York Times, and many other newspapers. I’ve been published in many magazines in the US and Europe, though usually from assignments they give me, not my own projects. I consider myself a reformed/former photojournalist, now pursuing my own projects is all that’s really important to me. It’s fine and nice when a publication presents your work, and that used to drive me. But I think you can only take your photography to the next level when you stop worrying about whether it will fill an editor’s need. 

What is the range of payment for photographers who work for famous magazines or publishers?

In general the rates for newspapers are quite low, and the contract terms are not to the photographer’s advantage. Magazines pay more, but the whole industry is of course declining. It’s a very difficult time for those who are used to relying on income from magazine assignments. I have a teaching job now, so that gives me less time to shoot, but less financial pressure. I’m working on a few projects but for the short term future, I’m more concerned with shaping the work I’ve already done and getting it out there. In addition to The Waiting Room, I’ve got a couple other books I’m planning to self-publish. Self-publishing is a whole separate conversation.

What kind of camera do you use now?

The last time I used the Leica with film was in spring of 2009, in Belarus. I’m not saying I’ll never shoot film again because I like film. But I’m pretty comfortable now using my little Ricohs when I go off to work on a project (or even for most local assignment work from clients). Specifically, I have two Ricoh GXR cameras, one with a wide angle, one with a normal lens. I never use zooms. I have used the Ricoh GRD series point and shoot cameras quite a lot. I can hang the results next to my Leica shots with no problems. But I’m not really into equipment. You need the right tool that you enjoy using, but it’s just a tool.

What is the recipe for success?

You can’t really worry about success. Don’t worry about 'being a photographer’. Worry about your craft and your vision, and realizing that you are up against the best in the world. We are saturated in pictures, many are wonderful, yet so many are mediocre or worse. Mediocrity won’t cut it. So be relentless and self-critical. You have to be great. If you are not, don’t kid yourself because of ego or whatever. Either figure out how to get better or go do something else. We have enough images in the world, in fact many more than we need. We don’t need the technically perfect, the banal, the superficial, the outlandish.

I don’t know the definition of success, let alone the recipe. But I would say develop your own vision, think of yourself as a visual author. Develop your ideas and your sensibility. I tell my students the only reason we need more photos in the world is if they are YOUR photos. So, you have to figure out what that means and how to achieve it. Then do it, and keep doing it.

Also, I personally think we have too much, not too little, photography that shows what is wrong with the world, under the idea that you are creating awareness. I’m not telling people NOT to do this, because of course awareness is important. But I saw the last World Press exhibit and very little of it was interesting to me. So much of it was very hard to look at on a human level, and just made me tired. We already know the world is fucked up, in countless ways. We cannot sugar-coat reality; as a great photographer friend of mine said, sentimentality won’t save us. But photography, for me, is about so much more than just showing the problems of the world. Ok, maybe I tend to have melancholic atmospheres and textures in my work. But I am neither a nihilist nor a romantic. I’m not setting out to show the negative or the positive. We need to be critical but not cynical. We have to avoid kitsch at all costs, but I am not embarrassed about the word humanism. Photography should have humor, hope, beauty, wonder, poignancy, and of course mystery. Because life is above all mysterious, right?

Thanksgiving

Let’s be thankful for hopes and dreams, and the chance to wake up each day and act on them.

“… above all what you bring in your mind to the scene is what makes your picture. If you don’t read, if you don’t have discussions with enlightened friends, you do not get there. There is a saying about seeing: Only a few people can see but most people don’t even look. And that says a lot to me. You can only see if you have something in your mind to bring to the picture. The camera is just the least important adjunct to your ideas. Your observations are important because they’re you. The camera is just a gadget you can carry on in your hand or around your neck or on a tripod.”  - Fred Herzog