Anyone who knows me has heard these stories, so I beg your forgiveness…
APE (can we get a better acronym?) has a story up today about the language of photography and dealing with word editors in magazines to communicate why a certain picture should run. It made me think of when I first got serious about photography, it was because of a workshop I took in Toronto in 1991 with a great photographer and teacher, Henry Gordillo. Apropos of nothing I bumped into him here on the street about a month ago, and it brought back the class we did together, “Shooting and Talking Photography.” It was a basic portfolio review type class where we were required to put work up we had made in the intervening week and talk about it. Yes kiddies we had to process and print, none of this digital stuff existed. It was enough to pass around contact sheets, or if you wanted, cut out the contacts and stick individual frames to filecards so you could play with the edit. One of the students was working on a longterm project and we spread out what seemed like 500 to 1000 frames once, and all of us pitched in to boil that sucker down to 50 or so, it was an amazing process to see a consensus emerge, and also you had to defend your choices. Well that was what the class was about too. It was not enough to “flickr” it and say “cool” or “I like it.” You had to talk about how and why the image worked, how it supported the essay or extended the meaning. We also had guest speakers who came in and “spoke about” certain work. And this is how I learned the language of speaking about pictures.
The next definitive experience I had in talking about photography was at another workshop in 1994 in Maine. That summer we had the singular experience of hearing Richard Avedon speak extemporaneously for what seemed like three continuous hours about his life’s work while about ten slide trays were projected one after another brought in by his staff. We had hijacked a school auditorium in a nearby town, packed it, and were mesmerized by this performance. And if that was not enough, Sabastio Salgado got up and spoke some more! But Avedon was definitely on his game, what he talked about was what emerged in those publications made for the retrospective the next year, Evidence, 1944-1994 where he said portraiture to him was a performance that existed between the sitter and the photographer, and that what the photographer was dealing with was primarily surface.
Last experience I want to relate is with a great book. Near that time or later I picked up “Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity” by Ted Orland, and also the Daybooks by Edward Weston. Two very different collections of writing. The first is a series of letters written by Ted to Sally Mann over the course of many years, the years when they were both developing into the mature artists they did not know they would become. It provided a sense of what it was like to slog it out in photography’s trenches, albeit some pretty good trenches, the darkroom of Ansel Adams. Eventually Orland left that apprenticeship and the book ends in his accepting a teaching position, but the wonder of it has to do with how we all get to where we want to be when we cannot see the path we are on. If you read it it is going to feel old-timey, but that is really it’s charm.
So you really want old-timey, read the Daybooks of Edward Weston! He bitterly complains about the retouching he has to do to make the old rich hags happy with their portrait commissions, and gleefully talks about the drunken debauchery he gets into with Tina Modotti and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. You get the feeling he is a bit of louche and prig at the same time, he doesn’t seem too too concerned he left his wife and four children back in Glendale. And I almost forgot another great book, California and the West by Charis Wilson and Edward Weston, detailing their travels in the deserts of California and Death Valley making photographs on his Guggenheim fellowship. Charis writes so well, she was but 22 at the time. The shopping lists are priceless because of the prices listed, 8gals gas-$1.56 for example.
Do yourself a favour, push back the computer, shoot a roll of film and cut out the contacts to sort. You will find it so slow, which might be the point.