Monday, May 18, 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Switching... and a morsel from NYPH

Switching the DNS now. At some stage, the new blog will be live. Once it's all set up I'll have to fix some URLs (long story, a technical detail). After that, I'll add the posts from this blog while writing new ones at the old, regular address. I'll announce everything here. So we'll be back with the regular blog shortly. Sorry this has been such an unsatisfactory "Conscientious" experience lately, but I tried my best to keep things going while solving technical problems in the background.

Update: It's live, and it seems to be working for the most part. I'll try to fix issues as they pop up.

Oh, just in case you're wondering - the new URL will be the same as the old one. Simple, eh?

In the meantime, watch the blogging panel at the NY Photo Festival (provided you're interested; part of the intro is missing).

Update: Still propagating, still fixing some mistakes introduced by the DNS change. It'll all be well soon enough. What a kerfuffle...

Update: Looking good at my end. Might take more time for other users, at other locations...

Friday, May 15, 2009


Talking about the New York Photo Festival will require some thinking. So I'm afraid, there'll be nothing spontaneous - instead a review (or maybe a series of four reviews) next week.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I might attempt the switcheroo to the blog on new hosting this coming weekend. I'll announce things here, but I already want to caution everybody that a) some things might be broken for a day (hopefully not too many) and b) the blog will look a bit different. I'll start of the blog with one of the default templates, which looks a bit different from my old (default) template. There will be, however, a change later, as I'm already talking with a designer to get a custom-made template...

Coming up...

Sorry for an upcoming dearth of posts here. I will be in New York tomorrow and on Friday for the Photo Festival. If you happen to run into me say hi. I will try to blog (or Twitter) a little about the Festival, but that depends on how busy I will be and on whether I'll find wireless. I'll also try to make it to Chelsea to see some shows there (so I can write new exhibition reviews).

In other news, my blog is getting set up at the new hosting now. The latest version of "Movable Type" was installed, which looks quite different (at least superficially) than the slightly older version I used before. The new version managed to import all the old entries in one go (unlike the older version, which caused me a lot of grief when I tried that a couple years ago), now I only need to move the images and the (old) templates. It's all there, apart from my own website stuff. We're really getting there! I'll stick with my original time frame, though, because I won't be able to fix any problems while being busy in NYC.

If I wasn't going to NY, I'd be able to finish everything this week; I still might be able to do that, but to be conservative, now I'm looking into the switch early next week. As before, in the meantime, this blog is where updates will happen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jan Stradtmann

Jan Stradtmann's Gardon of Eden might be the first financial-crisis photography I've seen that's a bit more than just cliche photos of desperate brokers at the stock exchange.

Monday, May 11, 2009

More on statements

I was going to edit my previous posts on statements and writing of/about one's own photography into something longer once my actual blog site is moved and up and running; but there clearly is yet another aspect that needs to be mentioned: The way statements are used when the art work is to be sold.

Here is a serious collector talking about how he views statements: "In some ways, an artist’s career can be thought of as the ultimate exercise in word of mouth. Galleries are constantly trying to place important works with well known museums to validate their quality. Positive remarks by an influential critic are circulated to the mailing list. [...] When you’re early in your career, there is no word of mouth yet, and very few opinions have been formed. This is the exact moment that the statement was designed for; it is the one opportunity to frame the discussion before it goes its own way. If you decide not to take it and leave the work open for interpretation, fair enough, but you missed the chance to anchor us somewhere." (my emphasis)

'Banned by Blurb'

"I have been a Webby Honoree, had images in Communication Arts, American Photography, Graphis, featured in PDN and was a Best of Barnstorm award winner at The Eddie Adams Workshop… But I have a new award I wish to share and it’s almost my proudest moment – I have had my account at Blurb terminated against my wishes for pointing out the inaccuracies and faults in the services they claim to provide. Yes, I have been banned from Blurb for simply requesting Blurb print me a book and follow up on services I paid for." - Jonathan Saunders

New York Photo Festival

This year's New York Photo Festival is almost upon us. Its setup follows last year's very closely, so there will be a lot of stuff to look at and go to - and for those who really can't get enough (and who need to see online photo or video proof of what happened), Andrew Hetherington is already firing up his inexhaustible engine (does the man ever sleep?).

For those interested in blogging and what it can do or maybe should do or should not do or cannot do or whatever else there might, there's a panel discussion on Friday, May 15th, at 11:00am, at the St. Ann's Warehouse location, featuring Cara Phillips (also Women in Photography), Laurel Ptak, Andrew Hetherington, Brian Ulrich, and myself. Part of the idea is to have some audience participation in the form of questions or suggestions.

I can't and won't pretend I have looked at the full event schedule, but one other panel I noted already: "Artist-Publisher: Mass Produced for Mass Dissemination", on Thursday, 5:00pm, at the same location - all about making books etc. Find the full schedule of panels here.

See you there.

Jörg's moment of unexpected camera porn

I usually avoid recommendations of digital cameras like the pest, because typically, they don't offer me anything I could possibly use with their focus on technical details that might or might not be totally irrelevant. That said, what I do like is when someone I know - say a photographer - talks about a camera, because most photographers know what to look for. A few months ago, my friend Richard Renaldi showed me his (then) new point-and-shoot digital camera, and I was about as impressed with it as he was. So when I was looking to buy a new point-and-shoot camera, my first choice was to look for that camera - for which there now is a new model (of course!): The Canon Powershot G10.

The one thing to realize about buying a camera is that there is some sort of tipping point. When you do your research you will get to the point where if you continue looking and comparing features you will end up doing just that for months and months. I didn't want to go there. The G10 looked attractive enough, given what you can expect from a camera of that prize range. It has all the controls (well, most anyway) of an SLR, with a small point-and-shoot sensor. Given the small sensor's size the number of Megapixels is totally ludicrous, but for small prints it's great.

In any case, I couldn't be happier with this camera. I actually performs quite a bit better than expected; and because you have full manual control, you can even take pretty nice photos at fashion shows with their tricky light situation etc. So if you're looking for a new point-and-shoot camera, I'd recommend the Canon Powershot G10.

Massimo Siragusa

Massimo Siragusa's work about shelters of illegal immigrants in Italy won third prize ("stories" category) at this year's World Press Photo awards.

So what is a statement good for?

"An artist statement has two functions:
"Providing a written context of the photographer’s intentions, thoughts and working process for a portfolio of photographs which is particularly insightful when the photographer is not there physically to speak about the work.
"And, allowing the photographer to organize and structure their thoughts so he or she can be in command when presenting themselves and their work to others that allows for the work to be experienced in an engaging and meaningful manner, particularly in determining what to say and what not to say."
(Paul Turounet, found here)

I'd personally expand/modify this a little, but it's a very good way to look at what a "statement" is about.

The status

I managed to get all posts and images from Conscientious backed up. This means I don't have to worry about re-creating and/or fixing anything while moving the blog. While the blog is being moved, regular posting is still happening here. Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Overdefining one's work

My previous post should really have been titled "Not defining one's work", and it occupies one extreme position that I have run into at various times.

Of course, I have also run into what Bradley Peters in an email to me called "the polar opposite": A photographer overdefining her or his work. In his email, Bradley notes that this doesn't get talked about as much; but it certainly seems to be very common, too.

To quote Bradley: "Instead of not being able to define what one's work is about, the [photographer] ends up having a very well defined idea, but the work just ends up being an illustration of that idea and leaves very little room for anything else." Just yesterday, I did some portfolio reviews, and I ran into this more than once.

There are many different aspects here, too, and I'll probably miss many of them in the following; but it might be worthwhile to talk about some.

First of all, as an artist you will never be able to perfectly define (or predict or predetermine) how people will react to what you produce. Somebody will always find something that you have never thought about, and that's basically what makes art art. Art is about freedom, and as an artist you want to give your audience that freedom, that possibility to explore and to experience. The more you take that freedom away, the more your art suffers, the worse it gets (btw, this is why so many public art projects are so unbelievably bad).

If someone sees something in your art that you have not seen that's a good sign - and no artist should aim at restricting this, no artist should refute anything here.

In an art school context, what I have run into is young artists having an idea and then fleshing it out in unbelievably elaborate detail - adding new details when photography is coming in that doesn't quite "fit" what they have. It's like putting yourself into a straightjacket, and when you notice you still got some wiggle space you ask someone to pull it even tighter. This is how you then (at best) end at the "illustration of that idea" Bradley talked about.

Somewhere else in his email he writes: "I don't think there's a problem with talking about one's deep urges or a personal idea [...] but I have also seen where this information sometimes becomes a crutch. It's a way for people to talk 'around' the work rather than 'about' it." (my emphasis)

Ultimately, there might often be the same fear that makes some people refuse to talk about their work: You're so worried to actually discuss your work (and to discover flaws or ways to improve it) that you build a big, solid shell around it, which nobody is supposed to pierce. You're hoping to prevent a debate.

Defining one's work (cont'ed)

My post about statements and about talking about one's work generated some online feedback. Here is a post that neatly and very smartly summarizes what I called the refusenik approach: "I think a lot of people don’t believe in the idea of 'misunderstanding' work. Can work be misunderstood if one believes part of the art process is the myriad of interpretations a viewer brings to the work? What if someone believes that art is not about some sort of succinct communication (a view blasted into mainstream society by the graphic and commercial arts) and is instead about something more organic, more mysterious?"

Here's the thing, though. First of all, writing about your own work does not take away from the mysterious - provided it's well done (both actually, the art work and the writing). And in the context of an art school, that's just not a way to work: If you refuse to talk about your work, how can you expect to learn something if you don't give your teachers, your fellow students, and yourself a chance to understand the work and your own process a little more?

If your work consists of two very obviously different parts, and everybody sees that, but you don't see it, and you can't even talk about what your work is, then, all mystery and all things organic aside, you're in deep trouble as an artist. You really are.

I do understand people's desires to experience art without being told what it is - but hey, if seeing an artist describe her or his work disables your ability to experience it... that's a position I find hard to understand. I don't think it does actually. I know very well what many pieces of art are about and I know the various interpretations of them, but my most favourite pieces of art I can still enjoy immensely. Why go to an Eggleston retrospective if you know the work already and if you've seen so many things written about it?

But here's another way to look at this: If some art only worked if nobody wrote about it, how then can writers like Berger or Danto produce such beautiful writing about art without diminishing the very art they are writing about? Of course, people might now say "But that's different from artists writing about their work", and I think they're making a fundamental mistake (but that's another can of worms).

I will write at least one other post about this complex (one needed to write a book really), looking at the complete opposite approach to art (which I ran into twice during my portfolio reviews yesterday): Having an incredibly fleshed out theoretical skeleton of thinking - and no or too little art to fill it. Stay tuned...

PS: My intent here is not to try to convince those who don't "believe" in statements that you have to write about your own work. By all means don't! But it needs to be very clear that if you don't write about your own work, you will have to be prepared for the situation where someone else will come and define it for you.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Defining one's work

A few weeks ago, I went to Berlin, and I had the chance to look at some students' work and give some feedback (a "crit" in art-school lingo). I always enjoy doing that because it not only exposes me to new, very fresh work, it also allows me to directly interact with the photographers, and it forces me to react to work in an honest and ideally smart way.

The one thing I have learned from crits is that often, there are photographers who have no statement and who might even refuse to tell me what the work is about. My usual approach is to ask the photographers to tell me a little bit about their work while I'm looking it. In the context of a crit, this helps me approaching the work and the photographer, and it gives me an idea of the way she or he works.

Of course, with no information whatsoever given, part of the purpose of doing a crit at a photo school falls apart: How can I react to the way the photographer approaches her or his work if she or he refuses to tell me? What is then left is for me to take in the work and based on what I know about photography, on my own personal preferences, and on whatever else it is that has to do with processing photography in my brain react to it.

Needless to say, in many cases what I see in the images is not what the photographer intended to be there. And it might be different from what someone else might see in the images.

In Berlin, there were more students than usual who claimed that the photography had to speak for itself, and anyway, if they had wanted to talk about photography they would have become writers and not photographers (which, of course, is a quintessential German attitude, but lest you non-Germans snicker, I've seen it elsewhere, too).

I think this kind of attitude is fundamentally flawed. What seems to be behind this is the idea that once you start talking about your work you're taking away all its meaning, or you're turning it into some kind of conceptual work. These are two of the options. Another option, of course, is that the photographer simply doesn't know what her or his work is all about, or that she or he is afraid to talk about, being worried about saying something that might sound wrong or not mature enough or whatever.

You can also run into this kind of thinking when you hear people complain about having to write a statement. According to some people, a statement is the biggest fraud you can imagine, an imposition of an art world that doesn't really have anything to do with art, and if those people weren't so busy making pictures, they'd erect barricades in front of Yale's photo school to protest the art world treating photography this badly. How dare professors and art critics demand a statement?

In that photo class in Berlin, there was one particular case, a photographer who shoots extremely beautiful photographs, very accomplished, a very unique style; and there were two bodies of work up - presented as one. Apart from me, two other people had joined the crit: one of the directors of the school and a b/w street photographer (whose idea of photography couldn't have been any more different from mine), and the teacher of the class, a Yale educated photographer who mostly takes colour 8x10s. The three of us had had quite a few arguments about what a good photo was (there was a minor altercation about street photography). But without any kind of effort, without talking about it or coordinating it we agreed that the photographer who couldn't say anything about her work had in fact two bodies of work up - which we then separated easily (all the other students in the class agreed with our selection); and then it was us three, trying to find out what this work was really about.

We never managed to. And then came the zinger: I forgot who it was, but one of the other two critics said: "Listen, if you can't tell what your work is all about, someone else will define it for you."

That's really it. If you refuse to tell people, some critic (or whoever else) will define the meaning, and there's nothing you can do about it. If that's what you want, remain silent, refuse to write a statement (which, btw, doesn't have be full of art speak - that's just a convenient red herring).

I doubt this will convince the statement refuseniks to re-consider their position, but it's an extremely important thing to realize: I have yet to meet a dedicated photographer who is not driven by some deep urge and by a very personal idea of something she or he wants to show. Why keep that a secret? What's wrong with sharing that? If it's not about some very specific concept, it might be about a feeling, or about a general idea - but even that can be talked about or indicated, without ruining anything. And would you feel happy about other people saying what it was, probably inevitably missing the real reasons?

Oh, I know, the refuseniks will now say "But if the work is good, it cannot be misunderstood." Except that unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The state of things

For those who haven't noticed the re-emergence of my website: My (current) hosting provider managed to get my site back up. The blog seems to be working; even though I wouldn't place any bets on whether it'll remain stable (given the incredible amount of ineptitude the provider just had on full display). Right now, all posts are up again; however, all images in posts after March 19th (or so) are missing. Presumably, the images will also come back; I'm not really counting on it, but we'll see.

Regardless, I'm in the process of moving the blog to new hosting. So I will keep this temporary blog as the place where I will post about photography; and once the blog is set up and running on the new server I will announce it here. Most of the posts that appeared here will be moved to the actual Conscientious so don't worry, there'll be nothing lost.

I know this is all a major kerfuffle, but it's really the best I could/can do, given the circumstances. Thanks for the patience!

- Jörg

Review: Sommerherz by Thekla Ehling

Just like Doug Dubois' All the Days and Nights, Thekla Ehling's Sommerherz is a portrait of family life. Unlike Doug, Thekla focused on her own children and on friends.

Children, of course, add another dimension to all the pitfalls of family photography: Most children are so adorable, aren't they? Especially your own ones, who just have to be the most adorable creatures, even surpassing kittens and all other (furry) baby animals! And childhood is the very best time of one's life, isn't it?

Except, of course, that all that is not true, because while children can be very adorable, often they are not; and childhood is also a time of immense disappointments ("No, you can't eat all that ice cream, you'll be sick"), of pain (remember all those unpleasant illnesses? the teeth? remember falling and breaking the skin on your knees?), of having to do things in unpleasant ways... We tend to forget this, because in retrospect childhood always seems like the time when life was just great. When there was nothing to worry about.

So there us always that danger for a photographer to take photos of his or her own children from his or her own mindset: Aiming to present childhood as that care-free, happy time in life - which is, of course, just short of how childhood is presented in commercials or in those magazines that cater to affluent suburbanites.

Here's a theory. I think there is a reason why many photographers who very successfully portrayed childhood - Sally Mann or Tierney Gearon come to mind - ran into trouble at various stages. I've always thought that the complaint about the children's nudity in Sally Mann's or Tierney Gearon's photography was more than that: I've always thought that it was a veiled complaint about the photographers not using rose-tinted glasses to portray childhood. The nudity is then just a convenient hook, a convenient way to express a grievance. Of course, I could be wrong; but I've heard many muffled complaints about some of the imagery Tierney Gearon produced, always to the effect of "Children don't do that" or "Children don't like that". Guess what, children are also afraid of clowns - which doesn't prevent us adults from giving them clowns and expecting them to have fun.

So here's Thekla's Sommerherz, and given the nudity in some of the images, we can expect to hear some of the old complaints. To which we should respond by all turning into teenagers for just a second: Whatever!

Sommerherz is a wonderful book, that is very different from many other depictions of childhood and family life; it's very lyrical, and there's a sense of melancholy maybe: After all, if you take photos of your children how can you not compare this all with your own childhood?

With its bilingual text and exquisite printing, Sommerherz clearly appeals to an international market (it's a German publisher who deserves much wider recognition - and credit for not publishing Karl Lagerfeld books every year!); and the imagery will maybe surprise many people whose idea of German photography is that it's all very sterile and cold. It isn't.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A portrait of the artist as a family man (Review: All the Days and Nights by Doug Dubois)

Just a little while ago, Doug Dubois was maybe the archetypical photographers' photographer: An artist well known and deeply admired by other practitioners, but without the wider recognition that so many of his colleagues felt he deserved. Thankfully, there now is All the Days and Nights, which comprises Doug's photography from 1994 onwards. Fifteen years of photography of his own family.

In a sense, almost all of us are family photographers. We all own cameras with which we capture family life to some extent, be it gatherings at holidays, outing or sports events, vacations, or whatever else there might be. The main characteristic of family photography is that it really only is interesting for those who belong to the family (and even then looking through a sibling's holiday snaps, say, can be quite a drag): While for someone from within the family circle there seems to be an almost an infinite number of meanings (most of them encoded in the tiniest of gestures or poses), for someone from the outside most - if not all - of that knowledge is hidden, and the photographs are just photographs of strangers who often behave in somewhat strange ways.

This is what makes photography of one's family as an art project so hard: For it to succeed the photographer has to convey what is happening in a group of people most of whose life is hidden from everybody else and she or he has to convey it in such a way that it seems natural, without ending up with cliches of sentimentality. What a challenge!

With this in mind it is easy to see why (or rather how) the most successful photography in this genre succeeds: It knows about the viewers lacking knowledge of what is going on inside the small circle of people portrayed, and it invites the viewer to have a look at the human condition, taking the family as an example.

Doug's work is centered on many wonderful portraits of his various family members - or maybe I should write that for me the portraits are the center pieces of All the Days and Nights. The sheer number of truly outstanding portraits in this book is amazing (and I will confess that I haven't even looked all that much at the occasional photo of an unfinished puzzle or some toy dinosaurs on the floor). All the Days and Nights clearly works through its portraits, and it is the portraits of his mother that has Doug at his best.

Hopefully, All the Days and Nights will give Doug Dubois's work the wider exposure it clearly deserves. As a book about family life, this clearly is how one would want to do it.

We are the weird

Sometimes, it takes so little to amuse me.