Photographer Spotlight

Photographer Spotlight: Roger Ballen

OK, prepare to be shocked–and very, very impressed.

Ballen’s work is definitely cutting edge and will stretch your idea about what can be done in photography to–perhaps–your breaking point. At a minimum, maybe it will make you stop and think about how many of us so-called artistic photographers (read: “me”) tend to work within self-imposed limits of what is really possible.

We do this…why?

Maybe because we are worried about what others might think…or we worry about ruffling the stiff and furry feathers of societal norms…or maybe we worry about truly facing off with what might be dwelling deep inside us.

At any rate, I chose Roger Ballen for today’s Photographer Spotlight to get us all to think of where we might possibly go with our own personal photography if we eliminated what are largely arbitrary and self-imposed limits.

To start off, here is a short video (2:45) that sheds some light on his world and artistic view, and it also serves as a brief philosophy lesson in that it might also make you think about how you personally make “art”…

You May Be A Photographer, But Are You An Artist?

 

So, who is this Roger Ballen?

He was born in New York City in 1950 and now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

From the previous video, you can see why his work has often been labeled very psychological, very dark…although he himself would say he is just bringing out the “shadow side” of humanity. Although, he started as sort of a documentary photographer, his work has morphed into composed, collaborative images that force the viewer to wonder where reality ends and fantasy begins…where the documentary ends and the staged performance begins…

To illustrate further, check out this next video directed by Ballen and featuring the rap group Die Antwoord–a 2011 music video with currently at over 86 million hits on YouTube (and you can read the lyrics HERE):

“I Fink You Freeky” – Die Antwoord

 

Here is a list of Ballen’s major works–in case you have actually gotten this far and are interested in seeing the breadth of his talent:

1986 – Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa

1994 – Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa

2000, revised in 2015 – Outland

2004 – Shadow Chamber

2008 – Boarding House

2013 – Asylum of the Birds

2013 – I Fink U Freeky 

2015 – The House Project

Photographer Spotlight: Kate Zari Roberts

Kate at Work. Sawhill Ponds, Boulder, Colorado, 2016
Kate at Work. Sawhill Ponds, Boulder, Colorado, 2016

 

There is no need to weigh yourself down with equipment to make photographic art. Indeed, most modern human beans already have the two tools you need:

  1. Your creative brain, and…
  2. A mobile phone.

If you have not seen Kate’s wonderful iPhone work, take the time to peruse her website HERE.  Seeing what is possible with a small, relatively basic, tool is certainly motivating me to whip out the cell phone for pictures way more often than I used to–maybe it will inspire you as well!

The above image is an iPhone portrait I made of Kate at work out at Sawhill Ponds last week.

A missed sunrise and a chance meeting

Cumulo-Granticus. From Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2015 (A type of cloud to be avoided if flying an aerospace vehicle of any kind.)
Cumulo-Granticus. From Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2015 (A type of cloud to be avoided if flying an aerospace vehicle of any kind.)

 

I was up well before sunrise, checked the weather and peered up at the dark sky–but I convinced myself the conditions sucked for a sunrise photo sojourn what with the constant stormy weather and all…yadda, yadda, yadda… So, I was not anywhere but inside our small apartment when the sun’s rays started groping through the writhing clouds along the foothills. The high peaks on the Divide were poking through like beacons of divine white light.

Dang, I was missing it!

Once it was apparent that the sky and light was “happening”, I hurried up to one of my favorite perches, Sugarloaf Mountain, and made the summit by 7:30a.m. or so. And I did manage to capture a few nice scenes (as in the above), but likely nothing like what I would have found had I showed up at the start line at sunrise. Still I was somewhat lucky–just twenty minutes after hitting the summit, I was enveloped in grey mist (again, as in the above image). Whiteout!

After hiking back down the semi-bald Sugarloaf Mound, I did my usual patrol along Lost Angel Road, looking for light, form, and texture. I stopped at one point and photographed a nicely cloud-draped Bear Peak. It was then that I met a man of about my age or so walking a tiny, but elegantly-dressed and very friendly, curious canine.

It turned out he was a long-time (30+ years) Sugarloaf resident and a photographer himself–Willy Sutton, as he introduced himself. We had a pleasant chat about sunrise pictures from the Sugarloaf Mountain summit, rainfall, and photography projects, and then we were each on our way.

At home, after looking through the images on his websites (and his impressive CV), I discovered just how accomplished William S. Sutton actually is…and those Sugarloaf Mountain images I love to make suddenly seemed just a bit…well…small. (Sampling the CV: MoMA, Guggenheim Fellowship, exhibits dating all the way back to 1979, and so on.)

It never ceases to amaze me the talent of folks who live around here–Olympic athletes, Nobel Prize winners…and nationally recognized artists of which Mr. Sutton is one.

So, here are your links to explore:

William Sutton Photography

William S. Sutton and Michael P. Berman’s Wyoming Grasslands Project

Tips from William Klein

The. Denver, Colorado, 2015
The. Denver, Colorado, 2015

 

Today, THE word on street photography…

If you haven’t heard of William Klein, the noted French-American street photographer, you surely have at least seen this, one of his most famous images:

Click to read more

Yep, thought so.

Eric Kim (yet another noted street photographer and blogger) has posted a great essay entitled, “Ten Lessons William Klein Has Taught Me About Street Photography“. I recommend you go there and read through Kim’s post in its entirety. Do this even if street photography isn’t your thing, as most of the lessons learned are applicable to photographic art in general.

At the end, there are three videos of William Klein (now in his late 80s and living in Paris), that are also worth your time. I would especially recommend the “Contact Sheets” video in which Klein himself narrates and talks about what makes “a  photograph” (meaning, a GOOD photograph). He walks you through the process of his many misses and the occasional hits that pop out of the contact sheet. It’s all about the fleeting nature of his kind of photography and how the eye must me active, tuned-in, and prepared.

The highlights of Klein’s philosophy? Get up close and personal, have an opinion, be purposeful about your work, don’t worry about the equipment or the technical aspects, don’t be afraid to be a nonconformist, and have fun…among other things.

Check Kim’s blog for the complete scoop, Buckwheat!

As to the back story of Klein’s famous image, “Boy with Gun”…If you look at his contact sheet of images taken just before and after this one, you’ll see that the gun is a toy and the kids are playing around with it, laughing and smiling. Klein said something like, “Look tough!” and that is what the kid came up with. The result is a very striking, very menacing, and scary image that reveals a lot more than we might like about us as humans and also us as Americans with our penchant for violence. “A photograph”, as Klein would say. (It would be interesting to hang this image right next to Diane Arbus’s image of “Child With Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park“!)

Photographer Spotlight: Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), 1931-2015

Last week saw the passing of a wonderful and much loved actor: Leonard Nimoy.

I, like many millions of others, grew up on a steady adolescent diet of marshmallow creme sandwiches and Star Trek (the original series, of course). The TV special effects, by today’s standards were certainly adolescent as well, but the positive, progressive, optimistic plot lines were noble and uplifting. In the world of Star Trek, there was hope for humanity! Good always triumphed over evil!  Science and technology would carry us as far as we could dream! “To boldly go where no man [or woman!] has gone before…”

I remember, in junior high and high school, passing around a dog-eared copy of some sort of Star Trek handbook, which explained, in minute detail, everything you wanted to know about the U.S.S. Enterprise, what was on each deck, warp drive details, impulse power explanations, history and politics of the Klingons and the Romulans, the personal histories of Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Scott, “Bones” McCoy, Spock, and Kirk, and even some language phrases you could learn in Vulcan. Oh, it was all so very, very real. Just beam me up!

“Cap’n, Ahm doin’ all ah ken!” –Scotty

“Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a bricklayer!” –Dr. McCoy

I never did the Star Trek convention thing, nor did I ever dress up as an Enterprise crew member…I guess you could call me a low-grade “underground Trekkie”, a faithful viewer, who bought into the whole “hope for humanity and the universe” idea.

So, what’s the photography connection here with the death of Mr. Spock? Well, it turns out, Leonard Nimoy was a passionate and talented photographer.

Probably one of his most publicized portfolios is a series on full-figured women. You can see some exceptional examples of his 2007 Full Body Project HERE. Shades of Diane Arbus? Maybe.

That wasn’t all he did, though. You can see more of his work in this Buzzfeed article: 35 Beautiful Art Photographs Made by Leonard Nimoy. This shows more of the breadth and nature of his work. He definitely put at least as much of himself into his photography as he did his acting.

Yes, Mr. Spock–Leonard Nimoy–you will be missed. Thank you for what you brought to all of us through your life as an actor, photographer, and human being (well…, half human, half Vulcan).

A postscript: For an excellent discussion of the controversy generated by some of Nimoy’s images, see the article, Leonard Nimoy’s Other Legacy: His Photography and the Controversy It Caused. Also, for a really nice personal tribute to Nimoy and his art, written by someone who knew Leonard as a photographer, see Some Reflections on Photographer Leonard Nimoy, by Scott Bourne of the photofocus website fame.

Peter Lik…Artist? Or, slick businessman? Or both? Or…something else?

Maybe you haven’t heard of Peter Lik, but you have surely heard of the sale of one of his photographs, “Phantom”, for $6.5 million. That makes it the most expensive photograph ever sold to date.

To jog your memory, here is what a Google search came up with, although the colors seems to be a bit weird…or maybe not:

And, another version of the image in question (in monochrome), as ridiculed anonymously on the internet:

Very nice that the dust someone threw in the air for the shot managed to form the shape of a “phantom”–or was there some Photoshop help there? No matter…

Peter Lik’s work is typically of that very saturated, landscape school I discussed in my February 5, 2015 blog post, On Super-Saturated Landscape Images. The difference is his marketing genius. He has managed to parlay his work, and his system of progressive pricing of limited editions, into a multi-million dollar business centered in Las Vegas. Imagine selling well over a million dollars worth of your prints each week!

Holy Suffering Sotheby’s, Batman!

There seems to be some question, though, if there might not be sort of a subtle psychological manipulation of client expectations in the Lik Gallery business model. Hmmm…the plot thickens…

To read a bit more about Peter Lik, his ingenious business model, and the famous “Phantom” photograph, check out this February 21, 2015, New York Times article, Peter Lik’s Recipe for Success: Sell Prints. Print Money. This is definitely a must read for a little insight into how the sale of art works in this modern world of massive PR and marketing strategies, instant gratification, and buyer v. buyer bragging rights.

More links in case you want to delve a bit more into Peter Lik and the “Phantom”…well…uh…the “Phantom” controversy, I guess might be the word…

Try these forums (links to various news articles can be found within these discussions): Peter Lik Photo Sells for 6.5Million. How? and New York Times Exposes Peter Lik Photography Scheme

And yet another article with a fount of links to related articles at the end: Peter Lik–Like Him or Not

Photographer Spotlight: Joan Fontcuberta

The Kiss #1. Barcelona, 2014 (A work by Joan Fontcuberta)
The Kiss #1. Barcelona, 2014 (A work by Joan Fontcuberta)

This public art installation by Fontcuberta was put up just this month in a small plaza in Barcelona. The full name of the work is “The world begins with every kiss.”

The mosaic is made up of 4,000 individuals images from newspaper readers who were asked to participate in the project. You can view a short (2 1/2 minute) YouTube video about it HERE, and Joan’s Wikipedia page can be found HERE.

To go straight to the source, try Joan Fontcuberta’s website.

A quote to whet your appetite about his philosophy:

“The good photographer is one who lies well about the truth.”

For the good stuff: I have just posted this particular work on one of the Photo.net forums as part of the “Weekly Discussion” program. These discussions usually are quite educational and can introduce you to some deeper thinking about art, photography, seeing, the creative process, and so on–there are some pretty bright and perceptive photographers who chime in with their comments.

So, rather than me blathering on with my inane comments about Fontcuberta’s work on this post, go to THIS LINK at Photo.net and check out a [potentially!] much more sophisticated discussion.

The Kiss, Detail. Barcelona, 2014
The Kiss, Detail. Barcelona, 2014

Photographer Spotlight: Mathew B. Brady

Sunrise. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2014
Sunrise. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2014

I just finished going through Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man (1947, with later reprints) by Roy Meredith about the incredible Mr. Brady (1823-1896), which included some 350 images from the period. I had known something of Brady’s contributions before, but not the details.

Impressive.

This is a definite must read for the photographer interested in either Civil War history or the history of photography.

Here are some of the more interesting highlights:

–Brady is considered to be the Civil War photographer and was the first to attempt war photojournalism on a planned, systematic scale.

–He didn’t take all of the Civil War pictures–he hired some 20 photographers to work for him. They worked in teams and covered the various theaters of war. Brady, however, was the undisputed director of it all–and he funded the whole thing, too–so he generally gets the credit for the whole collection of images.

–The soldiers called his photographic wagons, “Whatsit” or Whatizzit” wagons as they were such a novelty.

–He was arguably the undisputed top photographer of the1840s through the 1870s, having won first place honors at the 1851 London World’s Fair for the quality of his daguerreotypes.

–His Civil War and later images were primarily done using the wet plate process, which required the photographer to develop the glass plate within about ten minutes of the exposure (depending on temperature–warmer temps = less time, colder temps = more time).

–On several occasions he came under direct fire from the Confederate side and, once, very nearly was killed. (The other side may have thought his big Anthony camera on the tripod with its big, brass lens was a new, bizarre weapon.)

–His New York and Washington, D.C. photo galleries were tremendous successes during the late 1840s through the end of the Civil War and anybody who was anybody in high society went to him for a sitting. Especially coveted were his large (and expensive) “Imperial” prints (14×17 to 17×20).

–Also very popular, especially as the nation ramped up to war, were his cartes des visites, sort of an early photographic calling card. They were “massed produced” with a camera with six lenses and the soldiers going off to war piled in by the thousands to have them made for their loved ones.

–Brady married the daughter of a Washington, D.C. lawyer (and sort of an adopted daughter of Andrew Jackson), Julia Handy, who was extremely supportive of his career and helped maintain their contacts in the nations highest social circles. It was a blow to Brady when she died in 1887.

–The “B” as Brady’s middle initial doesn’t stand for anything–it was there for appearances only.

–He practiced a bit of 19th century “photobombing“–you can see Brady in a number of his images of troops in the field.

–You’ll often see the “Brady chair” in many of Brady’s photographs. This was actually Lincoln’s chair when the latter was a representative from Illinois and was a gift to Brady. It was used for many famous sittings over the years.

–If you have ever cracked open a high school or university history textbook you have likely seen his photographs–especially those of Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, some of the gruesome post-battle Civil War scenes, and the hanging of the John Wilkes Booth co-conspirators (which included a woman, by the way).

–His biggest “missed” shot: The surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox Court House. He did, however, make images of the McLean House and the empty rooms after the fact. He just didn’t get word with enough notice to get to the site on time.

–One of his images of Lincoln was used on the five dollar bill.

–In later years, his eyesight began to fail him (along with his finances). The vision loss had to be maddening for a man who devoted his life to the visual arts.

–Brady, a man who always walked quickly about town, was hit by a runaway horse cart, suffered some severe injuries from which he never really recovered, and he died penniless in 1896 (when my own grandfather was five years old!). A sad fate for a man who contributed so much to the recording of the great persons and great events of his time. Continue reading

Boulder International Film Festival: “Finding Vivian Maier”

BIFF at Boulder Theater #2. Boulder, Colorado, 2014
BIFF at Boulder Theater #2. Boulder, Colorado, 2014

If you get a chance, hoist your little fanny perpendicular and march yourself out the door to see this film. Or buy it through Amazon when it comes out. It is an extremely well-done documentary that is not just for photographers–so take your significant other along. I’d give it 4.9 shutter clicks out of five.

Who was Vivian Maier? That’s what the documentary asks and tries to discover. One possible answer: take a young woman with a possibly fake French accent and a Rolleiflex, then add one part Cartier-Bresson, one part Robert Frank, one part Diane Arbus, one part Mary Poppins, then throw in some dark seasoning a la Nurse Ratchet. She was a genius, a loner, and a mystery even to those who knew her (a list of folks which includes Phil Donahue).

What motivated her to accumulate tens of thousands of prints and negatives, along with a case full of undeveloped film rolls, without any apparent attempt to show them to anyone? Why did she hoard huge piles of newspapers (among many other trinkets)? Did she suffer some trauma or abuse when she was young? Did she eventually go a bit crazy in the end? Was she a good nanny? All of these questions are dealt with in the film, if not completely answered to your satisfaction.

Sadly, Vivian Maier died in obscurity in 2009 and it was her online obituary which eventually led John Maloof to find her. John had originally found her negatives two years earlier in an auction of unclaimed storage locker lots, but until the e-obit showed up, he had had no luck in solving the mystery.

To you Vivian, a belated congratulations and thank you for your wonderful work.

Postscript: As an hors d’oeuvre, here is a short (10-minute) YouTube video about Vivian taken from a 2010 episode of the Chicago Tonight Show: