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.

Month One

Web businesses are fun, but there's nothing like having a physical space to meet every one of your customers (and to connect with hundreds of interested bystanders). It's the best kind of focus group. We've learned things all month and continue to test, observe, and evolve. A few examples:

98% of every person who walks in the front door, regardless of whether they notice the information wall or not, takes a hard right and moves around the nest counterclockwise. I had seen this was true in retail--that people enter and instinctively move right--but honestly believed having something clearly in front of them to read would indicate that was the beginning. Apparently not. So we're moving the information display.

Color: We put a sign in the window to try to neutralize some of the initial concern.

Color: We put a sign in the window to try to neutralize some of the initial concern.

Almost everyone who spoke to us felt a need to check that we, in fact, would print color. Clearly my personal bias toward black and white can be a little intimidating. So we're adjusting the mix, and showing more color, and more works by our clients. I get it.

A stunning proportion of our early clients share one trait: they were leaving on a plane in the subsequent 24 hours. At least 2 clients literally walked out our door and into a Lyft to SFO. The ability to produce a personalized framed fine art photograph in 30 minutes would be a special order anywhere else, if it could be done at all. But we've learned that Neomodern has a unique offering for creatives needing a last-minute-gift.

We're getting better at packing projects for different customer needs.

We're getting better at packing projects for different customer needs.

There was some expected tuning of our systems. Turns out that the device we use to put the frames together will jam easily, and we needed to get a manual version of the same device "just in case." Similarly, the computerized mat cutter can be very tempermental. Learning how to coax all the devices into high performance is something we're learning, and getting increasingly efficient at the entire process has been fun.

By the end of the month we had retired our proto-website, shed like a chrysalis, and emerged with a newer website; a far more cohesive and clear representation of who we are and what we're like... but most importantly it introduced our reservation system: we realized that in this town, everything is scheduled. Walk ins can be welcomed, but people needed to be able to pick a time and lock it in. It's been a day and we're started to see it get used. So happy.

So that's our first month: a slowly growing customer set, a few evening events, and everything on track for seems like an increasing intensity toward the holidays. Let's hope.

"Why the red sofa?"

I'm surprised how often this comes up. So here goes:

The red sofa is designed to re-imagine the neomodern logo—a graphic of black & white – with a splash of red. I hoped that when you looked around the salon, there'd be scenes that might remind you of our logo, without needing to plaster the logo everywhere.  So there are little shocking moments of red. The sofa. The lamp.

However, the real question you're possibly asking is why the red square in the logo? Originally, the square represented the red darkroom light. I spent my formative years bathed in that kind of light; it always balanced a kind of sexy-magic with a warmth of home. It was my tip o' the hat to photographers.

But now that i'm in the gallery, i find these flashes of red act as a reminder: color is great! I love black and white photography for many personal reasons, but even an old school photographer like me can step back and marvel at color. Neomodern embraces both greyscale and color photographs.

On Being in San Francisco...

In 1932 San Francisco gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz assembled Group f/64, a collection of like-minded regional photographers who revolutionized American photography. The group included Ed Weston and Ansel Adams and was featured at a landmark showing at the newly opened deYoung museum that November.

That was the same year my dad was born, right here, on Oak Street.

In fact Dad and Mom (Cal alums both) met at Berkeley, and later my sister and brother were born at UCSF Hospital where Dad worked. This city is in my roots.

My folks left the bay area in the late ’50s, and I was born a few years later, about the same time that my dad started collecting photographs. While I grew up in Florida, I was surrounded by images of San Francisco, and the works of Weston, Adams, Cunningham and others from that original Group f/64. There was also work from later photographers like Max Yavno, William Heick, and Peter Stackpole. My dad seemed to be drawn to the photos taken of “his city” during his youth here. We have so much social media today it’s hard to imagine a time when images of places and experiences were less common. He was nostalgic.

I always assumed I would live here.

Army Street, Max Yavno, 1947 — what the area looked like when my father was 15, but also an beautiful photograph from his collection.

I “returned” to California after college (I tend to think of this like salmon instinctually “returning” to a place they’ve never been themselves, to spawn). I first moved to Marin. I spawned in Santa Cruz, but I landed in North Beach in 2011.

Neomodern is a new business, and the idea is pretty novel, but it actually feels like work I’ve been doing my entire life. Once it was clear I was going to build this new kind of service and gallery, there really was no doubt it needed to be in San Francisco. It is both a tribute to my father and an externalization of my feelings about photography and there’s really no place better suited for what it represents.

November 2017 will be the 85th Anniversary of the opening of the deYoung’s original show. I’ll try to display some more Group f/64 items at Neomodern in November; ironically It will be the first time some of those prints will be back in San Francisco since they were first presented. Maybe they’re returning to spawn as well…

My father, 2012

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.