A brief sojourn into Arizona last weekend offered a nice warm respite from the winter bleaks that are settling in here in New Mexico. I am endlessly fascinated by saguaro cactii. They appear almost human to me. As one traverses through the desert landscape near Tucson and Phoenix, the saguaro are ubiquitous. Each one looks unique. Each one seems to have it's own personality. The surrounding landscape offers other visual stimuli as well. The thick desert brush is both inviting and intimidating. At certain times of the year it can be deadly as well. Still, a quick jaunt with a new lens on my camera (an 85mm f/1.8 for you techie dorks) provided the seeds of desire for a future exploration and possible new project. Here are some results of my first tentative steps into the unknown.
Time to jump back into my series of blog posts that take a closer look at some iconic photographs. Today, I'm looking at and discussing the work of Bruce Davidson. Specifically, an image that graced the cover of his landmark book of color photographs titled "Subway."
To begin, let's take a trip back in time to the 1970s in New York City. The city was a dangerous place. Crime was rampant, blight was everywhere, and when to city declared it was nearing bankruptcy, the message received from then President Gerald Ford was "Drop Dead."
As the Rolling Stones sang "bite the Big Apple, don't mind the maggots," the denizens of the city went about their daily lives, which for many included a daily descent into the graffiti covered subway system. If there was one thing that best represented the sad state of urban life in 1970s NYC, it was the filthy, crime ridden train system. It was into this world that acclaimed Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson descended as he embarked on a project that would become a landmark book of color photographs.
Davidson was no stranger to the streets of New York City. He had been shooting street gangs and poor neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs for some time. In the preface for the "Subway" book, he discusses how dangerous it was to be working alone in this subterranean environment. He had equipment stolen and had been harassed when he got too close to certain subjects or situations. Yet, he was driven to explore the world that existed below street level, and persisted to create a truly stunning body of work.
Up to this point, most of Davidson's previous work had been shot in black and white. The decision to shoot color for the Subway project was a wise choice. The different sources of light, both natural and artificial, the variety of skin tones and clothing color palettes, the smattering of spray painted graffiti... these needed to be seen in full color.
The image that I'd like to spend time discussing in further detail happens to be the cover image from the book. So, what do we see? A color image, shot inside a subway car. The composition is solid, with the main subject, a shirtless man, slightly off center, and rows of florescent lights angling down on either side of him, pulling the viewer's attention right to the middle of the frame. We then can focus our gaze on the gold necklaces hanging around the man's neck, with a cross sitting squarely in the middle of his muscular chest. The man's face is obscured in shadow, but we can clearly make out a mustache above his upper lip. Judging by his skin tone, and the religious jewelry, I am making the assumption that he is a Hispanic male, most likely in his late teens or early 20s.
Firstly, what I find striking about this image is how close to his subject Davidson got to take this photo. It was surely shot with a wide-angle lens, so I would guess that he was standing within a foot or so of his subject. This is no "on the sly" hipshot. The subject certainly knew he was being photographed. What makes this image so intriguing to me is when I start to consider who this shirtless man may be, what kind of personality might he possess? He has the machismo to be riding the subway shirtless, which is a bold statement of non-conformity and a disregard of the likely rules against doing so. He is also showing off jewelry that I'm sure has some monetary value. One would think a quick grab from a thief would garner items that could be sold on the street for a decent amount of cash. However, who would dare make this kind of move? Is the shirtless man challenging those around him with this kind of flaunting? Is he daring other to try to make a move on him? Is there any irony in the fact that he is showing symbols of his religious faith in an environment that many would argue is devoid of God's presence?
I would guess that many riders in that particular subway car were averting their eyes from this man, as most New Yorkers will tell you is one way to survive in the city... never make eye contact with anyone. Davidson is doing almost the same thing here. We don't actually see the man's eyes. They are mostly hidden. Yet, the photographer does not shy away from a different kind of confrontation in this picture. He did not turn away, but instead took the photo. This is creative bravery on display.
Again, I must revisit the fact that this image was shot on color film. As much as I prefer to shoot in black and white for most of my own work, I do recognize that there is a time and a place for color photographs. I doubt that this Bruce Davidson photo would have the same impact if it were shot in black and white. The beautiful skin tones that inform so much, the pop of the gold chains, the sickly bluish green of the rows of florescent lights, the cool chrome of the straps; all gain so much by being seem in glorious color.
I highly recommend Bruce Davidson's book "Subway" to any lover of street photography. It is work that utilizes the documentary style that earned him a place along the other masters of Magnum, but merges it will a more artistic exploration of light and color. And it harkens back to the pre-Giuliani days when New York City was a seedy, dangerous, yet still exciting place to venture. The days when a quasi-vigilante group like the Guardian Angels were seen as a sensible reaction to the crime filling the streets and the subways. Maybe the good old days were a bit closer to bad old days, but something was definitely lost as the city cleaned itself up.
As I focus my efforts in the early days of 2018, I would like to share this body of work I created last year. All imagery was shot on film, and appeared in printed form as a zine. I am currently working on my next issue of the FLAUNT zine, so now is as good a time as any to take a look back at the original launch of the series. Copies of the zine are still available for purchase here.
As we all do around this time of year, I'm taking a few moments to reflect on the year that is wrapping up, as well as looking toward the year ahead. Personally, 2017 was a rewarding year. My creativity seemed to be in an elevated state of flow, and I was fortunate enough have some health stability back in my life, after a challenging time in the previous year.
I dove deep into self-publishing, and I discovered the book (or zine) format was a platform for my photos that I really enjoy working with. My book collaboration with Fabio Miguel Roque, tilted "Beyond / Além" was released in the spring, and we were honored to also be able to exhibit the work in September in Évora, Portugal.
I was happy to launch a new series of zines called "Flaunt the Imperfections" that will act as an outlet for my own film photography, as well as an opportunity to collaborate with other film-based photographers. A special thank you goes out to Daniel Milnor and Justin Thor Simenson for being my compatriots in ink, dots, paper and pixels.
I'm continually thrilled to be part of the Latent Image Collective. The international circle of photographers are a source of inspiration and support for my work, and the feeling of connection with these wonderful artists is something I deeply value. Our group exhibit "Ongoing Conversation," as part of PhotoSummer, was a highlight of the year. Many thanks to my photo-sister Karen Mazur for being there in the trenches with me as we mounted to show.
A huge amount of gratitude goes out to Rocky Norton, who generously opened his studio space to me in October to show my "Covered Cars" series and release my limited edition zine.
Rounding out the year, I was proud to release my book of color photographs from New York City. I am so thankful for everyone who purchased the book. Your support keeps me motivated to create.
2017 has been a year of challenges for most of the world. There are so many social / economic / political issues that are creating divisions, pain and hatred... it is impossible not to be affected by it all. I have felt it as well, and have noticed this pessimism has crept into my work. I am by nature an optimist, but have struggled this year to see the light. This struggle has affected my photography, and the new work I've been focussing on definitely shows it.
I've also been reassessing my relationship with social media. I cannot deny that it has been helpful in my promotion of my photography, especially Facebook. I am so deeply entwined in that platform, that I can't honestly imagine deleting my account. I use it to communicate with my fellow Collective members, I keep up with creatives around the world; the self-publishers, artists, photographers, musicians... not to mention friends near and far. It is double edged sword, but still, the good outweighs the bad...if ever so slightly.
Instagram, on the other hand, is something I need to step away from. I find it too detrimental to my creativity and my self-worth to stay engaged with it. Instagram is like a night at a dance club, hoping you meet someone, but no one even buys you a drink, and all you get are catcalls on the way to your car. It's like going for a quick cheap laugh with a pun, as opposed to writing a 5-minute monologue. It's like eating a handful of Pop Rocks. The pursuit of "likes" is futile and unfulfilling and does nothing but fuck with my ego. I don't need it. So I'm saying goodbye to that. I will most likely leave my page up so folks can stumble upon it, but I just can't add to the endless stream of easily scrollable, easily swiped, easily dismissed images any longer.
I have many ideas to pursue in 2018, but I am too realistic to make any resolutions. Instead, I wrote a list and pinned it to the wall in my office. Things I hope to accomplish. Goals I believe I can achieve. With good health, financial stability, the love and support of my amazing wife, as well as the support of all of you who are reading this, I will take a stab at it. May your new year be one of health and satisfaction and peace.
You can travel the world, wander unknown streets, searching for the exotic, or, you can stay in your own home and let the light guide you to something just as intriguing.
2017 has been a very productive year for me, creatively speaking. One of the areas I've been focussing has been self-publishing. With the availability and affordability of print-on-demand services like Magcloud and Blurb, anyone (yes...even you!) can easily publish their own book or magazine. The project I'm discussing here is a series of photos I created in 2015, while on a residency in Portugal. The town of Fatima is a well-known Catholic pilgrimage site. It is also a location rife with photo opportunities. I was happy to have spent a few days shooting there, and the series of images have finally ended up in printed form. I worked on the images and sequencing much longer than on any other recent project, and I am very satisfied with the final result. As I have been very fortunate with the support I've already received for my self-publications, I have been marketing the Fatima 'zines in a much more subdued manner. However, if you would like to order one, I do have a handful of copies available in my online shop. And since I realize many folks would like to see some samples of the zine before considering a purchase, I'm sharing some spreads below. As 2017 draws to a close, I am glad to be able to put this project out into the world, since I have several new projects already brewing for 2018.
I am excited to share a new body of work on my website today. The series is a bit of a departure for me, in that it is all color photography. The pairing of the images are the result of a kind of visual improvisation, both in my approach to how I shot, as well as how I created the resulting diptychs. Everything was shot with one camera and one lens, during an extended stay in New York during the Spring of 2017. The shift of political and social winds could be felt as I roamed the streets, though I tried (but failed) to not make any overt political statements with the images. I guess the personal is political, as they say. This series will be the subject of a new book I will be releasing in the very near future. I hope you enjoy.
Those of us who live in New Mexico know the importance of the Rio Grande. One of its values is the wonderful, (mostly) undeveloped nature of the bosque that adorns its banks. The bosque offers a respite from the urban life of Albuquerque, and yet exists within minutes of the city itself. It's a thicket of salt cedar, fallen branches, various flowers and grasses, jetty jacks and the abundant cottonwood trees, which at this time of year, explode into yellow and gold. Today was a perfect, overcast day, so the wife and I headed out for a quick wander. Except for temporarily straying into an extremely muddy patch (as is evident in the photo of my destroyed Chuck Taylors) the day rewarded us with many sights and sounds. Of course, I decided to capture the glorious colors of autumn in black and white.
I had the pleasure of taking a day-long road trip with my good friend Bob Ayre this past weekend. Bob knows New Mexico like the back of his hand, so it was a treat to let him guide me into uncharted territory in the northwest part of the state. My Fiat would never have survived some of the unpaved back roads we traversed, and I probably would have chickened out heading down some of the routes by myself. With Bob at the helm, I saw some difficult to reach locations for the first time. Here's a sample of our journey. Thank you, Bob.