Photography

"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.

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