Going to the bosque of the Rio Grande here in Albuquerque never fails to inspire me. It also slows me down, allows me to decompress, and get out of my own head for a while. A recent jaunt with my new half-frame camera ignited thoughts of a new project… ideas are percolating. One day, 72 exposures, a lot less thinking, a lot more shooting. More to come.
Shooting film is always a roll of the dice. You don’t know what you’ve captured on film until days (or weeks) later, after you’ve gotten your film processed. During my recent trip to Japan, I bought an old Olympus Pen EE-S, a half-frame film camera, on the first day of the trip. To those of you who are unfamiliar, a half-frame camera exposes only half of the usual 35mm film frame. Instead of 36 frames, the camera yields a whopping 72 photos per roll. An added bonus (or challenge) to using this camera is that the images are formatted vertically (as you can see on the contact sheet above.) So when I bought the camera, I had to trust that it was functioning properly. I knew I wasn’t going to see the results of this experience until I returned back home… so if the camera wasn’t working properly, I’d be shit out of luck, and there would be no opportunity to re-shoot the photos.
Here’s another curveball I needed to deal with. I wanted the film not only developed, but printed as contact sheets. Not a digitally layout of all the frame scans, but an actual, darkroom printed, contact sheet. I’m betting most of you reading this have never gotten a real contact sheet made. It’s the way we old farts used to see our images back in the olden days. You lay the strips of film on a sheet of photo paper, expose it under the light of an enlarger, and then run that paper through photo chemistry. The result is what you see above. A nice way to judge all he photos from one roll of film. I actually had to ship my film to a lab in New York City to get this done (full disclosure, I also had them scan the film so I could have digital version for social media, etc.)
When the package finally arrived this week, I was relieved and excited to see the results. First off, the camera worked like a charm. Sure there were a couple of dud frames, mostly due to my bad skills at framing a moving subject, or not paying attention to the zone focus adjuster on the front of the lens. Otherwise though, the exposures look pretty much spot on. The exposure is controlled by a selenium meter on the front of the lens (see image below) which then adjusts the shutter speed to give a properly exposed image. The camera was made in the 1960s, so I was dubious whether it would function properly. If it didn’t work, I paid for an expensive, albeit very attractive, paperweight. Thankfully, my fears were not realized, and I have two rolls of memories from my trip.
This little gem of a camera… small, lightweight, and easy to use will most likely be in my pocket no matter what or where I decide to shoot next. It will be a unique addition to any other digital or film camera I might decide to use.
Self-publishing can mean many different things, especially as it pertains to photography. And if you ask five different people what the difference is between a zine and a book, you’ll likely get five different answers. Digging even deeper, I’ve been wondering lately why I do what I do with my photos… why do I share them on Instagram, why do I show my work on the walls of a gallery, why do I design and print my own photo books and zines? And by extension, why do any of us do this?
This may seem as it’s an existential crisis, and in some ways perhaps it is. It started earlier in the week as I took down the photo exhibit that I recently participated in at the Open Space Gallery. The exhibit was the result of a book project that was a couple of years in the making. The show actually dovetailed nicely with the book project, and was seen as an opportunity to sell some copies of the book (as any hopes of selling the actual photos from the show was a much further possibility… who buys photos anyway?) Long story short, over the five-week run of the show, the gallery sold exactly five copies of the book. Not that I don’t appreciate those five customers… but one would have expected more than five copies being sold. Or at least that’s what I personally expected.
Which leads me to my first issue, admitting that it’s rooted in the disappointment of the number of books sold. The real question is: who is buying photo books these days? It seems there are more and more people self-publishing their own books, which is easy thanks to affordable, on-demand printing. It has opened a door of creativity for me personally, and has brought me some attention and some sales, both of which I am grateful for. But the other side of that coin keeps gnawing at me. So many of us are printing books and zines, and I really wonder who the audience is, and how big this audience is. This is a logistical question as much as it is an existential one. How many copies of a book or zine should I plan on printing? The demand fluctuates, making it hard to rely on past experience. I had one book that sold fifty copies. I had a zine that I struggled to move ten copies of. And ultimately, WHY am I designing and producing actual hard copies of my work? The answer is: I love the process of laying out a book, I love to edit and sequence my work, and I genuinely love holding the finished product in my hands.
But I must admit, I also want other people to like my work enough to actually buy a copy of my book or zine, too. And that’s where things get complicated. Because the reality is… most people don’t care about you or your work, and certainly feel no need or desire to make a purchase. Which again makes me super appreciative of the people who’ve actually dropped their hard earned money into my pocket to support my art by making a purchase. But at the end of the day, I’m talking about maybe 10, maybe 15, maybe 20 people at most. Why should this matter? Why shouldn’t this matter? I can’t imagine giving up on this outlet for my work. I am not at the point of ending my self-publishing efforts. But why print more than one, personal copy of my next zine? It certainly isn’t a money making pursuit; in most cases, it ends up being the opposite.
This was all swimming in my brain as I attended the ABQ Zinefest today. Perhaps not the best frame of mind to go into the event with, but I’m a dark motherf*cker sometimes, so I just go with what’s in my head…otherwise I’d probably not leave the house. The Zinefest was much bigger this year than the last time I attended, two years ago. It felt inclusive, and the DIY sprit was in full effect. I am 100% supportive of this kind of event, and the platform it provides for a wide range of voices and perspectives. I did feel somewhat of an outsider as I strolled the aisles, but that’s all my own hang up, not from anyone at the fest. I saw some mediocre work, but I also saw truly beautiful work, and made a few purchases of a couple of things I was really impressed by. The techniques on display ran the gamut: from simple folded pieces, to uniquely printed and bound zines, with a variety of binding methods utilized. It made me think more about how I print and bind my own work, and gave me ideas for trying something different next time I decide to print my work.
Because I have to think about every single fucking thing from multiple sides, I had some critical thoughts about the things I saw at the show. For example, I realize that zine making is a mode of self-expression that has a very low barrier for entry. You could literally fold a single sheet of paper a few times and make a zine out of it. Or you could run off a bunch of sheets at Kinko’s and staple them together. or bid with a rubber band. Or you could silkscreen pages, trim and hand bind them. or you could output your swanky, self-designed book to an online printer and in a couple of weeks, have a 50 page, perfect bound photo book in your hands. In any of these scenarios, you have expressed yourself. You have brought something personal into the world. You may have even shared it with someone.. a friend…or a stranger… or maybe even a paying customer. But then again, I ask WHY are any of us doing this? Are we our own audience? Do we need to sell something in order to validate our work? Why sell at all? Why not trade with people doing what we are doing? Why does this matter? Isn’t it great that people struggling to find their own voice and perspective have an outlet with their reach? Am I just a jaded, old fart?
The other thing I thought about was whether or not the Zinefest would have been an appropriate place for me to show my self-published books. I think I saw two booths that had any photo specific publications at them. One was a slick series that I had already heard of, and these most resembled my own books. To be honest, these two examples stuck out (to my eyes) like sore thumbs. Most of the things on display and for sale had a very low tech, rough hewn look and feel. And considering the DIY roots of zine making, this makes sense. But it also made me realize that that’s not the kind of work I want to be making. It is no disrespect to those creators who take that approach, but I have higher expectations for my books and zines. In fact, I am less inclined to even apply the term “zine” to my publications from now on.
I’ll certainly be pondering all of this as I decide what my next project will be. Who knows, maybe it will be one copy for my own bookshelf this time around. If you have thoughts to share with me on any of this, I’d love to hear from you.
Every autumn I get the urge to purge. I usually spend an afternoon going through bins out in the shed, throwing out ephemera that I’ve dragged from place to place. This year, my ritual has expanded into reassessing my photo related items. I have more cameras than I know what to do with, and film in my fridge and freezer that has been unused long enough. This week I parted with 15 boxes of Fuji peel apart film, committing to “moving on” from a camera and format that has been a thorn in my side long enough. This has me reassessing other cameras sitting idle in my office, and I’m taking steps to part with them as well. As much as I claim to love shooting film, the reality is I have film cameras I haven’t touched in years, and most likely will not be using any time soon. My Ebay account will be getting regular usage for the next few weeks. Nostalgia be damned, it’s time to move on.
While I was away traveling through Japan, I received news of two deaths that hit my deeper than most. Of course, the photo world was abuzz upon hearing of the death of the great master, Robert Frank. Though he lived to a ripe old age of 94, the news was still sad to hear. Countless statements have already been made regarding Frank’s influence on the medium. My personal feelings are but an addition to the chorus. Frank’s work, particularly The Americans, fundamentally changed the way I viewed photography, and shaped the artist I would become. Raised on an early diet of Ansel Adams, upon seeing Robert Frank’s photos for the first time in college, my mind was completely blown away; he made me reconsider everything a photograph could be. Throughout my life since then, he has been a silent companion anytime I raise a camera to my eyes. Salut, Robert.
The second death hit way closer to home. A dear photographer friend of mine, Bob Ayre, died a few weeks after he was involved in a terrible car crash on a highway in northern New Mexico. I met Bob through the Fresh Eyes Photo Project. We worked together in a local youth correctional facility, teaching photography to incarcerate youths. Bob was such a sweet man, as was apparent when he was around the so called “dangerous” kids. His passion and open heart shone through in every session we taught together. Over the past several years, Bob and I grew closer, and we would occasionally meet up for lunch. We would talk travel and photography. Bob was a knowledgeable photo tour guide in New Mexico, and he honored me by taking me out on the backroads one Saturday a few years back, letting me in on his “secret” locations. He was always telling stories, and he was (not so) quick with a joke. He was a huge supporter of my photography, too, even inviting me to discuss my Portugal project with his local camera club. Bob was leading a photo tour the day he crashed his car… thankfully his guest walked away from the crash with superficial wounds. Unfortunately, Bob’s injuries were too severe for him to overcome. I am glad I was able to see him in the hospital the week after the crash. I could tell he was in pretty rough shape, but he managed to eek out a smile when I talked to hime that last time. Rest in peace old man… I’ll miss you.
Celebrated my birthday yesterday. Very grateful to be alive, to be an artist, to be a husband, to be a friend, to have love come my way, and to be able to send it back out into the world. Thank you for sharing my journey.
I have a term for my somewhat manic desire to keep working. I call it “sharking out.” Just like a shark needs to constantly be moving forward through the water, always swimming, always devouring things in its path, I often feel that I have to be working on something. Though I may be in denial, I don’t consider myself a workaholic. This urgency somehow goes deeper into my soul, my existential core. I feel that life is short, and I need to be justifying my existence on a daily basis, through my art. Through creating something.
Case in point, I just recently completed a project that was two years in the making; the exhibition is still hanging on gallery walls here in Albuquerque. A perfect time to pause and reflect. But I am restless already, and I’m looking at what the “next” thing will be. I will be traveling overseas in the coming weeks, and I have ideas for a new project to shoot while I’m away. I also started a layout of my next zine, which will be a collaboration with a fellow photographer from Italy. The zine will focus on instant film photographs (Polaroid, Instax and Fuji peel apart.)
There are unique qualities to shooting instant film. In some ways it is liberating, knowing that there is only one copy of the photo I made. A unique artifact from a unique moment. In that regard, it is the quintessence of photography itself. At the same time, I struggle somewhat when I shoot instant film. There is additional weight, additional expectation I place on each photograph. The film is not inexpensive, and in the case of the Fuji peel apart film, it isn’t even being made anymore. When I expose the last sheet I own, that’s it. I’ll retire my Polaroid 360 for good. How’s that for putting extra weight on each photograph?
Regardless, I will continue my sharking way, no matter how deep the ocean waters may be, or how dark the depths become. And my quandary will no doubt continue. Perhaps I am incapable of taking my foot of the gas, or perhaps the constant engagement with my creativity is what makes my life worth living.
This year I have been making a concerted effort to expand my photo book library by purchasing at least one publication per month. Thanks to a great sale at Aperture, I recently received “Wall” by Josef Koudelka. This mammoth book is a powerful commentary on human intolerance, lack of compassion and our misguided need to separate ourselves from others.
What first struck me about the book is its physical size, and the huge typographical “WALL” on the front cover. Upon opening the book, it is easy to see why it was printed in such a manner. Koudelka’s photographs are all panoramic, and the book format is an appropriate size to let the images come to life as full double page spreads. This choice of format matches the subject matter spot on. Koudelka’s images were created in the Holy Land, and all focus on the barrier between Israeli and Palestinian territories. Most of the barrier is an impenetrable cement wall, but there are also scenes of barbed wire, observation towers and security checkpoints. And although there are images of physical barriers, we also see scenes that depict a vast psychological barrier between two lands, two peoples. This is all complicated, and any discussion is sure to take an emotionally charged turn, but as an artist, Koudelka brings us to a place that we can ponder and explore our own feelings of this place, and perhaps draw our own conclusions.
One thing that struck me quite quickly when I was flipping through the book was that lack of actual people in the photographs. With so many manmade structures… the walls, the wire, the barriers, roadblocks, the graffiti, the fencing, the abandoned dwellings… there is a huge void of actual humanity in these images. And it is that statement right there that finally sunk in. These are stark images of human division; of course we see very few actual humans in the pictures.
Another powerful component to the photographs is the depiction of nature. In many images, we see olive trees that have been destroyed, or moved, replanted… or simply abandoned in the no man’s land surrounding the walls. The abuse of the olive tree, so critical to the subsistence of human life (and commerce) in this region, is emblematic of the abuse and inhumanity we can inflict on each other. There are also numerous images that peer beyond the wall, or to the edges of human settlements, where the hills and the desert reinforce their presence, showing perhaps that even as we construct out barriers, nature will have the final say.
While spending time with “Wall” I could not ignore the obvious connections with a wall so much closer to home. I live in New Mexico, and along our southern border there is the much discussed, much debated, highly polarizing border wall between the US and Mexico. I will set aside any overtly political discussion (i have my opinions, you have yours) but I must acknowledge the sobering thoughts this connection provokes in me. While the images in Koudelka’s book may be depressing to view, I have the luxury of distance from this reality. These photos were taken half a world way from me, in a place I have never been, and my opinion has been shaped by years of news accounts that can feed misperception or bias. Yet, a few hours south of where I sit right now, a similar barrier exists. A wall that separates human beings both physically and metaphorically. Why are we so good at building things that keep us apart, yet so poor at building understanding and empathy?