"Photo Ops"

A sunset is a photo op. it's a beautiful thing, how can you NOT take a picture when this happens. But photos can feel a little thin when it doesn't feel personal.

The hairs stand up on my neck when i hear the expression "photo op" as in "you should go to Burning Man; good photo ops there." The term isn't meant to be pejorative: there are always legitimately cool environments and events that are hard not to point a camera at—full of interesting things to look at. I certainly love any foggy day in San Francisco, where light is diffuse and sexy, and objects fade off magically into distances... i guess, for me any overcast day is a photo op.  

Of course, those obvious photo ops—whether sunsets or Burning Man—are going to have lots of cameras trained on them, which means it's that much harder to find your unique view of this thing. There is thinking that the best photos couldn't have been taken by another person even a moment before or after: they're unique combinations of time and place. So personally i try to avoid taking my camera out when everyone is taking pictures. 

But there's this other negative side. As if photography is about the subject matter and not the photographer. There's a line in Susan Sontag's classic "On Photography" where she points out the distinction between a beautiful photograph and a photograph of a beautiful thing. Artist after artist repeat this notion in their own words. Bernice Abbott described it as "learning to see" and Elliott Erwitt said "...i've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them."

What could be more mundane than the discarded shell from breakfast eggs...  it's not a pretty scene in the sense that it's not colorful, but the combination of the light and cracks is sweet, (maybe even nicer than the scene "looked").

You don't need any particular subject to explore how to see it, how it looks around the prevailing light, how it moves in a visual space. You can do this in your bedroom. You can do this in your town. While it's fun to go to Burning Man, you don't need wedding or spectacle to take some photos. The idea of a "photo op" puts the ownership in the wrong place, and i guess that's why it irks me.

When people ask themselves the question: what makes a great photo," i'd suggest it's only partly about the the external thing, it's BETTER when it's has something of you in it, your relationship with this thing you're looking at, and not just seeing. The best photos have both: you and the subject. So don't blame (or rely) on beautiful subjects to make your best images—any odd thing might be the subject of your best work.

Photographic "Synecdoche"

The term synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-da-key) is a literary construct introduced in ancient Greece where a word describing part of something is used to represent all of something. People say "a part for the whole"; it's a kind of shorthand.*  Common examples include:

  • "Hired hands" to mean "workers" or "Lend me a hand" when you want more than a hand;
  • "Wheels" to mean "a car"
  • "The Pentagon", a building, used to represent the institution of the military;
  • "Capital Hill" generally being used to represent houses of government;
  • "Kleenex" used generically for all facial tissues.**

Synecdoche is a marginally interesting literary form, but i'd suggest it's the very essence of photography. When we take a photograph we are selecting a very small piece of visual space and cutting it out of our 360 view of the world, and saving it. It's not a comprehensive surveillance of some moment or scene, it's just a tiny slice; we're not (usually) journalists documenting every angle of a news story, we're just selecting a small moment that will represent a larger event.

We also might not show a subject in its entirety: every portrait isn't a head-to-toe, front lit, face shot. We might just show someone in silhouette, or just their eye or legs. This is another kind of synecdoche: a part of a body to represent the entire person. A part of a building to represent the entire building (or city, or vacation...)

In time as well: video (or 360 VR) might be considered a fuller representation of something, and yet we take a surreal slice in time, a fraction of a second, and we expect it to capture something much longer. 

Everything about photography is about synecdoche. I'd suggest that the art of photography is in the creative application of this process—how to chose what slice in space and time is going to well-represent this other thing we want to show. Can one image capture a person's spirit? an entire vacation? The wedding? And when you're really good, the question might be: can a single image represent your childhood? Your hometown? Freedom? The better the photographer's ability to produce synecdoche could be the very core of "great" photography—it's more than a documentary recording; it's more nuanced, it's more poetic, it's generalized such that the photo is iconic.

That word "iconic" speaks to synecdoche. In some ways this is also the effort that brand creators and graphic designers do when making a logo—a small visual element they hope will represent an idea for consumers. Great photographs are often described as iconic: they get pulled into popular culture and become something maybe the photographer hadn't intended, representative of a larger zeitgeist.

Joe Rosenthal, 1945 "Raising the flag on Iwo Jima" = patriotism.

Robert Doisneau, 1950 "Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville"  = romantic love (and currently on display at Neomodern)

Jan Saudek, 1966 "Image 35" = fatherhood

Your iconic photograph doesn't have to capture the national mood, but it could still represent your love for your children or your sense of adventure. Icons come in all sizes.

This is precisely why editing is so important to the definition of photography: it's not enough to take a bunch of pictures, and as photographers we abdicate our responsibility by simply producing hundreds of images of events or people and say "here, pour through my feed..." The process of printing is so challenging in part because our pictures don't stand alone very often, and selecting "the one" is either painful or impossible. But it's also essential. When i say "it isn't photography if you don't print it" i'm not only saying that photography is about the creation of a photographic object, but that the selection process itself (since it takes effort and some money to print just one or a few) is part of the creative work.

Next time you take a whole bunch of pictures of something, see if you can boil it down--first to just 5 images, and then from five to ONE IMAGE that represents all those shots: both content and composition would come together, beautiful and meaningful. And if you do that work then you can truly call yourself a photographer.

*It also works in reverse, where the general larger thing is used to represent the smaller.

**It's what happens when a branded product name gets appropriated as the generic name for a class of products ("Band Aid" "Zipper" or "Google")—something legal-business people refer to as "genericide" because that sort of use can kill a trademark.

The Weight of Photographs: More Than Just an Image

A photograph is an object, a piece of paper you can hold in your hand. It has weight. It has an image on it.  It lasts. It’s a little like parchment. It’s kind of magical. A photograph is not just the image. The image is important, but the object is special.

Happy (romantic) couple yesterday in the salon, savoring the creation of their photograph.

Happy (romantic) couple yesterday in the salon, savoring the creation of their photograph.

While photographs can be pumped out by machine, its good to remember they can also be hand crafted, more like other handmade art projects than technology and apps. The mat and frame are not only vehicles for display, but maybe more importantly, methods to protect. And while photographs are great ways to remember important moments and people, it’s good to be reminded that they can also be beautiful. And when an image is both—beautiful and meaningful—a hand-crafted photograph becomes a true heirloom, something that will last through time, beyond shifts in media and technology.

Not every picture deserves to be turned into this kind of photograph—most of our pictures are fun but disposable. But some, our best, our most important, demand this treatment. These are the images we are excited to help you with.

Color at Neomodern

Yes, we print color photographs at Neomodern.

Boardwalk, 2011

Boardwalk, 2011

But clearly, I have a strong bias toward black-and-white images. Why? Is it simply nostalgia? Because they look like classic photos? Is it to make them seem more like "art"—since so many masterpieces of photography have that look? Nawww... there are lots of reasons:

First, a color print almost always is post produced to make it look like the original scene, and make it a realistic reproduction of the reality shot. This is great in a documentary sense, but it is very limiting and frequently frustrating. There's no way to make a digital image (let alone a physical print) have the richness of light and color we see with our eyes. So every effort will be somewhat disappointing, no matter how beautiful the result.

Second, philosophically, it's a reminder that this image isn't mistaken for 'reality'. Whether color or b&w, a photo is a fiction created by an artist—it's cropped from time and space, it forces a point of view. So the monochromatic nature is a signifier that the entire process is surreal, a creation. The color seems to deny this sort of abstraction.

Third, emphasis. The post production of an image is furthering the work of the shooting, to highlight subject matter, to convey a feeling. When you optimize a color image you're generally trying to make it "more real." There's no such possibility once you remove the chroma. In a b&w image, you have remarkable latitude to adjust light, shade, contrast in order to better emphasize elements in the image. A red shirt on a person is strong and attracts attention, perhaps away from a face or gesture; in b&w that shirt is dark and attracts no special focus. Moreover, the printmaster can make a purposeful decision about how certain colors will look in b&w—a blue sky or green leaf become controllable shades of  grey: the artist can decide if blue or green should be almost-white or almost-black—this adds a separate layer to the creation of a photograph and is an important part of the process.

Fourth, poetic forms. For me, color tends to trump other elements in an image. It's used to make drab images 'better' (or at least 'pretty.') Take the color away and you can see just how dull the original photograph was. Harder is making the monochromatic image beautiful—the photographer is forced to create beauty through composition and content. Unless the photo is specifically 'about' the colors (a golden sunset, a warm cast from a streetlight...) it is often instructive to explore the monochromatic image. The story says Ansel Adams once criticized color by saying "Anyone can take a color photo, but it's harder to take a black-and-white..." I have yet to find this quote, but i like the sentiment: i simply enjoy the photographic constraint: it's harder to take a black and white photo that's beautiful, so it makes the taking of photos more of a game for me. Like haiku, it's a poetic form, not better or worse than others, but an enjoyable medium on its own. 

Eggs, Palm Springs, 2015

Eggs, Palm Springs, 2015

So while i aspire to taking great black and white images, and suggest it's both fun as a hobby and instructive in making all your photos better, yes... neomodern will print whatever images customers bring to us. We might show you how your image might look in greyscale, but in the end its up to you to decide what kind of prints to make.

One Print Only (#opo)

The thing that makes photography fundamentally so different from most other artforms is that identical duplicates can be created of the product such that photo one is pretty much just as real as photo five thousand. The audience doesn’t really know how many “original” artworks were created, and this dynamic runs counter to the need for unique, laboriously executed creations that seem to be fundamental in the selling of art. I’m not suggesting we want to make photography more commercial, but i am suggesting that it would only take one move to make it more like painting and sculpture and other more classical forms: there has to only be a single object created.

“Editioning” was a new concept in photography and maybe it’s an archaic notion; the masters just printed a print when they wanted one… (Kertesz’ “Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses”). In the digital age, perhaps one original is enough.

Generally I espouse the importance of the physical print in photography. It is the thing created by the photographer, the object that people experience. As a photographer you never know what image you have taken will be super popular — and traditionally you’d really want to be able to make a quantity of prints to sell. “Editioning” was invented at some point in the modern photographic art era, to limit quantities of originals, to let buyers assess supply and demand, and ultimately make it a better product for galleries to sell. But historically the masters generally didn’t make an edition, they would print some when they happened to be printing or when someone wanted one. New order? New print. Editioning was an attempt to rein this in.

Originally, i decided that i’d never print more than three prints of any given image. Sort of “radical editioning” — it would leave one for me, one to sell, and one more “just in case.” But I was informed: if you’d ever want a gallery to represent you, this is pretty much death. For awhile I settled on editions of nine. But depending on the day I found that was both way too much and far too few.

However, with the proliferation of digital photography, and the ease with which images can be shared, perhaps more than any time in history, i think the need to mass produce prints, so that anyone who wants one can have one, is archaic; i think the natural corresponding balance to the rise of digital imaging is simply this: only make one (signed) print. An element to neomodernism then is nudging photography back out of the art sphere, before the galleries changed photography, and the artists were just artists. This addresses that issue, by making the artist’s photograph a singular object, like a painting. Simultaneously the image might circulate widely: be popular on Instagram or in online media, but the photograph, the original, there is but one. And when you see a signed print from a photographer of an image, you simply know, that ‘that’s the one’.

I have to say, this new idea doesn’t sit well. I want to print more and make them available. But this discomfort is precisely why it appeals to me. Painters deal with this every day. I see no reason photographers cannot as well. It’s so easy for people to copy or print their own photos, and some form of mechanical reproduction is still part of photography, but not for the original. We simply have to agree that in this new era, even for pictures, there is only one, and done. The great photographer then isn’t the individual with the single fantastic image that everyone wants — the great photographer is prolific and consistent.

Let’s see how this goes.

I can’t wait to introduce you to the photography of Elliott Erwitt ...

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see, and everything to do with the way you see them.”

—Elliott Erwitt

I’m sorta deciding this as I sit here, but there is a certain slice of photography and photographers that i particularly love. Some are more well-known than others, but their images are inspiring to me and my personal photography. I believe that by looking at, enjoying, and ultimately emulating aspects of the way they looked at the world, you will enjoy your world that much more. And frankly, your photographs will fucking rock. We all walk around with great cameras, but our images are often bland, unmemorable, visual Wonderbread. We think this might be solved by more pixels and more sharing, but it is actually solved through stopping our constant motion, looking, and playing with different ways to save what you see. Taking pictures used to be a hobby, a fun activity… it was sorta like hunting and gathering. I think of it like Trick-or-Treating: you go out into the neighborhood and collect little bits of candy from all over, filling up your bag, and then you get home and dump it all out on the table and pick through it for the good stuff. That’s photography.

Elliott Erwitt, New York City, 1977

Neomodern is going to exhibit all sorts of inspiring modernist works, but right now, and beginning at our grand opening, I want to introduce you to a handful of magnificent, funny, and artful masters of the craft: Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and Elliott Erwitt.

These will be the first bunch of works I’ll put up in the gallery. If they don’t get you into photography, maybe nothing will.

Image © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos.

The Future of Photography

After reading Stephen Mayes’ TIME essay on the end of photography I couldn’t help but respond. To begin with, his main proposition is that “in the future there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’” to which I’d add that I’m not sure there ever really has been much of a ‘straight photograph’ although in recent decades the public has become increasingly aware of this.

Ed Weston, photographic pioneer of American Modernism, referred to the photograph (in 1932) as a “willful distortion of fact,” and this was long before Photoshop… and the debate as to whether photography was a mechanical reproduction of the real world or whether it was a medium for artists is as old as the technology itself.

Photography has always been enmeshed with technology, but it has never been about it. The changes that Mayes is noticing are nothing new, even if they are dramatic and represent some amazing shifts in what photography can be and who can use it. Photography has also always been a very democratic medium, particularly after 1900. It’s one of the beautiful things about it.

True, however, is that the number of people armed with cameras today has never been greater — in the past 10 years the act has become utterly ubiquitous. But it isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. It’s the second. For the first 50 years of photography (from around the 1850s to 1900s) photographs were reasonably rare and difficult to create. There were photographers, of course, and they were both technical and artistic. But at the turn of the century rolls of film were invented, Kodak arrived, and much to the dismay of photographers everywhere, suddenly EVERYONE could have a camera and take a picture. The term “snapshooter” came into existence, a word borrowed from hunting, meaning shooting without aiming; and the pictures “snap shots”.

Golden Gate Bridge, by MH Rubin

Golden Gate Bridge, by MH Rubin

Photography has always had many uses, even back then: to document things; to remember something you had seen. It had applications in architecture, in politics, in science and sociology. But as film got faster, and small cameras proliferated, it began to capture things you hadn’t seen — you could freeze time, you could see closely. So as the 19th century wound down, the photographer-artists were interested in proving that photographs could still be art. “Pictorialism” was their response, to make photos very “painterly” and not look like snapshots. (Not entirely unlike digital photo manipulations today, nostalgically creating weathered photos with chemical-like hues.)

But soon there was another response — as Pictorialism combined with a generation of photographers raised on new technologies and a modern post-war mentality: small cameras, fast film, kids raised looking at images. This became “Modernism” — to see things as they really were, but often in unusual ways. They used terms like “pure seeing.” They wanted pictures to look like what they were. The argument of the Modernists was that even a straight photo, something they embraced, was no mechanical reproduction, but rather the conscious construction of the photographer. A photo, by definition, isn’t objective reality. Even an unretouched image. Even if it could often be treated as such.

Photography has always had many practical uses — none of this changes with shift from silver to silicon, or the addition of depth information, LIDAR, biometrics, geotags, and so forth, even as our tools for manipulation of images intensify. If anything it’s just another less gentle reminder that photography has always had the potential for utility, always been malleable in the hands of the photographer. Photography, in addition to all its pragmatic uses, has always been an artform of manipulating and painting with light, where artists show us something true, even if it isn’t always real.

Mayes describes the sanctity of the silver-based photo being corrupted by various forms of digital formats, in particular, the lossy compression formats (like JPEG) as being “reality, but not as we know it,” but it’s worth noting that the human visual system itself is lossy, taking incomplete data and filling in holes. Less than half of what we think of as “seeing” is from light hitting our retinas and the balance is constructed by our brains applying knowledge models to the visual information. We’re on a slippery slope when we designate analog media (pictures or sound) as more real than digital ones.

Farm, Outside Modesto, 2015, by MH Rubin

Farm, Outside Modesto, 2015, by MH Rubin

Photographs are poetry; not just in the nature of idiosyncratic creation, but also in the sense that there are different rules, some tacit and some explicit, whereby a photo is created and consumed. The rules of journalism, for instance, include that pixel colors can change a little, to improve visibility, but objects cannot be moved or removed without discrediting the integrity. You can fix the contrast, but you can’t add a tank or move a pyramid, without voiding the warranty so to speak.

Advertisement photography, at least historically, could modify images with impunity in the effort to sell the product for which it was designed. Scientists will continue to use imaging for documenting and for exploration: wide spectrum bandwidths provide all sorts of actionable data; hyperfast shutters capture the utterly unseeable. That this is becoming more democratized is wonderful, but is no more a deathblow (or even a shift “from adolescence to adulthood”) for photography than the Leica with a fast shutter was a century ago. Photography is in a perpetual state of shift, now as before.

And artists? They have rules too. I consider myself a Modernist of sorts: I like to create images that are black-and-white, uncropped, unposed, and unlit. My little “Dogme 95.” It’s like the 5–7–5 of a haiku — artificial constraints that I enjoy seeing what I can do within. But different poetic constraints, like haiku and limericks and free verse, don’t kill other poetic forms but rather make it more accessible, more fun, more expressive. All the remarkable technology now brought to bear on photography — both to make it more malleable and to put it in more people’s hands, will no doubt have a creative response from the artistic community; and true that more and more people will have the opportunity to explore this medium. “Modernism” was the art community’s response to the new democracy of photography, and even with all the cameras, we got Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind …

The ability to modify images may be easier today (and I work every day to make better photos easier to capture using every bit of data at our disposal), but this has always been a component of photography; I suggest these aren’t new big problems so much as the old small issue has necessarily come to light as more people have access to these tools (both in cameras and the software). The author says that the response from the world is less like Modernism and more like Cubism, but I disagree: I think Modernism is precisely what is occurring — a response to the proliferation of photographic tools to do whatever it is photography can do. Photography will still be a voice of truth, even as it is easier to manipulate.

He says we owe it to photography to support it even as it might seem unrecognizable. I don’t disagree, but I’d be less dramatic about it — there’s no need to put away the 2D framed image any more than we put away the long-form movie in a world of Vines — all of these forms will politely co-exist, even as the family grows. We need to welcome in a new community of creators, and enjoy a new set of uses for imaging. Artist and consumer alike. I, for one, can’t wait to see what will happen.

*This article by Michael Rubin originally appeared in Petapixel 8/27/15