Wednesday, July 30, 2008

100,000 is a lot, right?

Last night this blog passed 100,000 page views. I've been trying to figure out what that means exactly.

To me it seems like a lot of people. Maybe I'm not convinced because, ironically, creating the blog has turned out to be a surprisingly lonely experience. Or perhaps not so surprising -- it's writing after all -- but still, I started out wanting to spark passionate, witty exchanges, to be a voice among voices. It didn't happen.

I saw pretty quickly some of the things I wasn't doing to make it happen -- I wasn't writing shorter, lighter, more newsy, issuing challenges, asking questions, playing games, inventing contests, making "best of" lists -- oh, & did I mention, I wasn't interacting much myself (as in, for instance, regularly looking at or posting in the blogs of my peers)? Frankly, I wasn't really hustling the thing. I decided it took too much time to gather the photos & write the posts to do all the other stuff. I finally just accepted the blog for what it is -- my voice talking to anyone who wants to listen (& missing the voices that don't talk back).

Early on, I did figure out how to install Sitemeter, a free web counter. Here's a few stats from there about my blog:

  • Readers by country -- U.S., 50%; U.K., 17%; Germany,4%; Canada, 4%. The other 25% is divided among 16 countries (5% are unknown).
  • Language in which blog is read -- English, 68%; German, 9%; Italian, 5%; Spanish. 4%; Portuguese, 3%. There are 12 other languages listed , including Chinese, Korean, Turkish, Hebrew & Latvian.
  • Average number of page views per day -- 251
  • Average number of page views per visitor -- 1.5
  • Average amount of time spent on blog: 44 seconds

For me perhaps the most amazing stat is that the overwhelming majority of recorded visitors apparently spend no time on the blog. That's right, 0.0 seconds. How is this possible? How can they decide they don't have any interest in a page in less than a second? Perhaps they're flipping quickly looking for porn.

I'm intrigued by the people who stay 10, 15, 25 minutes, an hour, reading & clicking around through numerous pages. Who are they? Well, for one thing they're mostly from outside the U.S. Why? I don't know. Good question though.


Speaking of porn (softcore artsy), the favotite destination on my site for everybody by a wide margin is my post titled Ryan McGinley: Building a youthsex brand (it's astonishing BTW how many people type "youthsex" or "youth sex" into google). Most people get to this post via the picture above, which I assume they find in google image searches.

I wonder. Will Sitemeter spike tomorrow as the boys (& maybe even the girls) come cruising from Florida & the Ukraine, Vancouver & Dubai, Seoul & Argentina to see this bathtub full of naked kids?

God, we're a horny species.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Eugene Richards talks about his work

"Paralyzed veteran, Tomas Young," Eugene Richards, All rights reserved

Eugene Richards is the best there is at close-in painful stuff we'd rather not see but are glad afterwards we did.

P.S. His ads are pretty great too -- very funny -- maybe that goes along with the painful stuff somehow.

In this video Richards talks about how & why he shoots the way he does. (Sorry, YouTube will not let me embed this one for some reason).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Friday, July 25, 2008

Bill Owens & the suburban dream

"We're really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food, and we have a really nice home."
From Suburbia by Bill Owens, All rights reserved

In the early 70s Bill Owen's book Suburbia blasted to smithereens all my ideas about satire. What I learned from it was you could make fun of your own world. Before that I thought the targets of skepticism & ridicule had to be very different from the satirist. In Europe between the wars, artists had mercilessly ridiculed the bourgeosie. Drinking hard in the Cedar Tavern, American abstract expressionists in NYC had done the same. In the 60s an entire self-appointed generation had identified with Dylan's sneering putdown: "Something's happenin' but you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones..." Now in the 1970s, with the Vietnam War still raging, I thought it was a given that an artist of what I judged to be Owen's status would take the same hostile approach to the tickytacky houses & uptight materialists of the suburbs as his predecessors had.

So I opened Suburbia & here was this guy Owens out in California making pictures of shag rugs, fake leather, hideous art, mantelpieces stuffed with knick knacks, swimming pools, shiny new cars, speedboats, TV sets, gleaming appliances -- & somehow he'd managed to get the suburban people in the shots too -- smiling, laughing, striking poses. He was telling it like it is. Wow!

It took me a few times through the book to realize that the pictures were more complicated than that. They showed suburban life in all its weird glory, but not necessarily to mock it. The photos lacked a killer instinct. They were straightforward, didn't use camera angles or tricks to make points & were, I was pretty sure, careful not to document events in a way that someone who was there wouldn't recognize. Though I might find it easy to critique the lifestyle, the people in the pictures were proud of it. It was an accurate record.

"Boy with toy gun," Bill Owens, All rights reserved

It turns out Owens worked for the local paper of Livermore, CA, the town he documented. He's a suburban guy himself. Far from being a graduate of a fancy art school, he got his only degree, a B.A. in industrial arts, from Cal State at Chico. In 1972 he made up a script of things he wanted to cover in Livermore -- e.g. a tupperware party, a 4th of July barbecue -- & shot pictures every Saturday for a year. His chosen point of view was neutral, photojournalistic. His attitude is summed up in an interview he gave to Art a GoGo in 2000: "I’m not interested in the city, I’m interested in the middle class…I was interested in making the suburbs a better place to live. It’s like Pogo says, 'I have met the enemy and he is us!'"

"Monument Valley, UT," Bill Owens, All rights reserved

All of which, I should quickly add, doesn't invalidate my initial reponse to the book. Among many other things, Suburbia IS a devastating satire. Owens is no innocent & his documentation is not naive. But the irony & absurdist humor are in the nature of the photographer, not the subject. Owens would have (& subsequently has) brought the same sensibility to every subject that interests him.

"I have met the enemy & he is us!"

Suburbia became a classic, but, after its publication, Owens found he couldn't make a living as a photographer. He parlayed his hobby as a brewer into one of California’s first brew pubs, and later launched “American Brewer Magazine” which he runs today. Happily, he also continued to make photographs.

A selection of his later black & white & recent digital work is at James Cohan Gallery till August 1st. It's a fascinating show, but, unfortunately, the sloppiness of the digital color prints don't do justice to Owen's latest efforts.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Photo truthiness II

"Iranian missile launch, July 2008" (altered)

"Iranian missile launch, July 2008" (original)

These photos of Iran's test launch of missiles caused quite an international stir a few weeks ago. It was discovered that the original photo -- showing three missiles -- had been photoshopped to show four. This gave everyone an added incentive to shoot their mouths off (Condoleeza Rice concluded, "The Iranians are just trying to show they're tough" ).

Filmmaker Errol Morris also weighed in at the NY Times with an op-ed called "Believing is Seeing." Proving the principle that every conspiracy theory needs at least one doctored photograph, his take is on the excitable side. "...what is the purpose of these Iranian missile photographs?" Morris asks. "They are clearly altered. Why, and to what end?" [italics his].

"The photographs tell us little about the real threat of Iran, " he concludes. "Is it a threat? A warning? Or a bluff? All we really know about the photograph is that the government of Iran wanted to get the attention of the world, and it succeeded."

I almost wish it were so. Who among us, after all, doesn't secretly adore the sudden skin-crawling realization -- with photos to prove it -- that we are up against an evil mastermind???!!! Irresistible. Of course, there might be other possible explanations. For instance:

A lickspittle Iranian apparatchik with great hopes of promotion has been placed in charge of the missile launch. After months & months of preparations, he is confident that everything is finally in place. His hand-picked photographer is ready. At his nod, a technician pushes a button & three missiles roar majestically skyward...but the fourth...misfires. No, it can't be, the apparatchik stares in disbelief at the single missile resting stupidly in its launcher & thinks: My career is in ruins!! No matter what I say, the photograph is there, & it will not lie. The apparatchik considers his options. By chance, he overhears one of the technicians in the control tower say to his friend, "Dude, no problem, we could just fix it in photoshop..." [translated from the Persian]

Next day the blatant Iranian fakery of its missile launch photos is on the front page in newspapers everywhere & the apparatchik & the technician are shish kebab at the mullah's prayer lunch.

One possible moral: If explaining an action means choosing between evil genius & ordinary human stupidity, always go with the latter.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Photo truthiness

Need to expunge an inconvenient lover? Want to remove ugly branches intruding into your picture? Today's amateur, using photoshop, can usually do it quicker & better than even the best retouchers of the past. But the impulse to manipulate hasn't changed a bit.

Altering photos is as old as the medium. An excellent online survey, Photo tampering throughout history, compiled by Hany Farid, a professor at Dartmouth, shows the highlights of this duplicitous art -- from Abe Lincoln's head composited onto John Calhoun's body to a cover of Star magazine that shows Brad & Angelina together on separate beaches in the Caribbean & Virginia.

Nowhere is manipulation more prevalent than in the routine "slimming" of female celebrities & models for newspapers, magazines & fashion catalogs.

"Kate Winslet, cover of GQ Magazine"

As a man who frankly loves to look at women's grown-up bodies, I find this freakish fashion of squeezing & elongating models completely mystifying. It makes them look sick, brittle, machinelike -- surely the opposite of sexy. To her credit, Kate Winslett was not amused by the (relatively mild) treatment shown above. ""I don't look like that and more importantly I don't desire to look like that," she said. "I can tell you that they've reduced the size of my legs by about a third".

Anyone who has witnessed the mental & physical tortures of anorexia wants to murder the people who create such images. But the general public -- especially the males -- tends to look at such alterations with bemusement -- sort of "Hey, it's crazy, but, after all, it's not supposed to be true."

In fact, most of the shocked outrage & swift justice seems reserved for those who dare to modify the sacred truth of news photographs. Newspaper & magazine pictures, routinely color-corrected, cropped, brightened, darkened & sharpened for years, are now suddenly seen as threatened by digital alteration. It has been the custom for the past few years to fire & shun as pariahs news shooters who alter pixels in any way . To get into this kind of trouble, young, ambitious photographers usually add, remove or rearrange elements to improve a picture's composition. They learned this in school as a way to increase graphic impact, & they want their work noticed.

Photo by Allan Dietrich, cited as a breach of photojournalistic ethics (the ball was added).

Instead of inspiring empathy, this ambition seems to bring out the high school vice principal in news managers and executives. To explain the 2007 firing of staff photographer Allan Dietrich, for instance, Toledo Blade editor Ron Roybach said "... the changes Mr. Detrich made included erasing people, tree limbs, utility poles, electrical wires, electrical outlets, and other background elements from photographs. In other cases, he added elements such as tree branches and shrubbery ... "Readers have asked us why this was such a big deal. What's wrong with changing the content of a photograph that is published in a newspaper? The answer is simple: It is dishonest. Journalism, whether by using words or pictures, must be an accurate representation of the truth."

Putting aside my sympathy for the photographer, I don't disagree with this. Not at all, though I might substitute the word "aspire to" for "be" in the last sentence. But I'm interested in the self-righteous tone of the denunciation. I've noticed the same tone in other journalistic ethics scandals we've had in recent years. Absolutist declarations that, without much conviction, seek to return -- at least rhetorically -- to values that never really held sway. I think perhaps it's the presto-chango ease of photoshop alteration that makes these warnings so dire, even a bit hysterical.

Rally round the Truth, the techno-witches are here!

What is everybody so afraid of? Re Dietrich, OK, fire the guy -- there's an important principle here & he broke the rules. -- but erasing electrical outlets in pictures doesn't actually mean the barbarians are at the gates, does it? Maybe Dietrich just needs to work in a different part of the photo business, one where fictional creativity is encouraged.

It turns out that photo editors for news outlets weren't always so fussy.

"Kent State," John Filo (published photo)

This 1970 photo by John Filo won a Pulitzer Prize. It shows Mary Ann Vecchio screaming as she kneels over the body of student Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University, where National Guardsmen had fired into a crowd of demonstrators against the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine. It's an iconic picture, unforgettable to a whole generation.

"Kent State," John Filo (unretouched photo, 1st published 1995)

Who knew that the photo we looked at in Time Magazine in 1970 had been retouched to remove a fence post that appears to be sticking out of Vecchio's head? And crudely retouched too (airbrushed; no photoshop then, remember). This wasn't discovered until 1995.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Joe Wigfall named 'NYC Street Challenge' winner

" 'I'm out! I'm out!' ", Joe Wigfall, All rights reserved

I'm something like 2 weeks late on this, so forgive the newsy headline. Hopefully better late than never, I want to record my admiration of Challenge winner Joe Wigfall's work. I made Wigfall a contact some time ago on Flickr, but never followed him closely (one of the things that characterizes this moment in photo history is how many extraordinary photographers one doesn't follow) . Check out this video, in which Wigfall talks about why he does what he does & explains his no-look style.

It's great to see honors go to a shooter who swims in the human ocean, relying more on physical movement & visual instinct than preconception -- let alone post-processing -- for the vitality of his shots. The only thing I want to carp about is the nearly all-B & W selection of Wigfall's work (the Flickr set of his official Challenge entry has just 2 color shots out of 20). Wigfall shoots excellent street color too & I wish more had been included.

B & W is certainly the heart of the street tradition, the medium in which the street style was forged. It's cooler, more abstract, more "art" (artificial), as Wigfall remarks in the video. But arguably the great Leica street tradition of the past relied on B & W mostly because it could be more easily controlled than the quirky color films of the day.

Walker Evans called color "vulgar." Take away the snooty associations & it's true. Color is in your face, sometimes overwhelming. Because it's so specific, it's harder to universalize than B & W. This makes it very different, at least as hard to shoot . Not better, not more "accurate" -- this is not a judgment. But I'd argue that shooting color perhaps offers more of a "challenge" to today's street shooter who is trying to create a body of work that's fundamentally different, as well as the same, as the past. I say this as a photographer who, like Wigfall, started a long time ago -- in fact when B&W was still dominant among street shooters (here's some of my early B & W, called Snapshots Deluxe).

The only other thing that bothered me is that I couldn't find the Challenge runners up (reputedly 20 of them) at WYNC's website or at the Camera Club of NY, who sponsored the Street Challenge show. I assume the photographers were contacted directly but wonder why they didn't get more media exposure, since they weren't being paid. Maybe I missed something.

Full disclosure: I was a contestant in this contest. My entry set is here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


"Chinese warrior, Song dynasty" (replica of clay soldier excavated at Xian), Tim Connor, All rights reserved

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

More garden godlings

"Little lamb lost," Tim Connor, All rights reserved

"Lady in the garden," Tim Connor, All rights reserved