The Good Lies Club

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As artists, as fine-art photographers, we are bold-faced liars. We twist the truth and distort reality and, if done well, we get rewarded for our deceptions. We burn and we dodge and we manipulate. We’re sorta like the mob, only instead of bullets we shoot frames, and instead of shakedowns and extortion, we have galleries. Okay, maybe that comparison is a bit of a stretch, but the lying part is true. The fact is that we, as creative individuals, as people with something of value to share, have to “lie” to be effective.

It is a concept that I have thought about, on the periphery, but could not concisely define until I saw the move V for Vendetta (a movie I highly recommend, btw), in which the protagonist states that “Artists lie to tell the truth.” It’s not often in today’s culture of flash-bang, action-packed movies to hear something so profound. (sure, The Simpsons and NCIS are profound almost every week, but they are the notable exception). Anyway, I was totally struck by that statement and have spent the past few weeks considering it. The more I do, the more true is becomes.

You see, as artists it is our mission, our passion, to reveal to others what we consider to be truths, our personal version of the truths. We are, in a nutshell, in the communications business and as such we have to choose the best way to be effective. Often that best way is to be somewhat loose with reality, allowing it to conform to our personal set of truths, our vision. Only then can we have a dynamic and important dialog with the viewer.

Take for example two of the most influential photographers of the past 100 years, Ansel Adams and Minor White. Both spent the bulk of their careers documenting the world around them, but did so in a way which expanded “reality” to fit the vision they had for their respective subjects.

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Arguably, Ansel’s most popular and important image was Moonrise over Hernandez which, over the years, saw numerous interpretations as he printed it stronger and darker with each iteration, deviating further from reality, but nearer to his personal truth and how the scene felt to him.

Minor White started his process for person truth more towards the front end of the process, the shoot, in which he often composed his subjects in such an abstract fashion as to make traditional reality all but  impossible to decipher.moonimageinrockminor.white.moonwall

With the advent of digital photography and the to-be-expected push back by some traditionalists, it’s all too common to hear or read phrases such as “I don’t do anything to my photos” or “I only set black and white and color balance before I print.” In their zeal for tradition they mistakenly think that “untouched” images are somehow more revealing or more true. In reality, however, they are neither. The images are sanitary and bland, lacking in any personal expression, replacing it instead with ineffectual mechanical and electronic sterility. It’s like a reading a poem in a flat, monotone, unemotional voice. No matter how powerful the words may be, the message will be lost.

I’ve talked to some of these people, and they do mean well, but their intentions simple don’t achieve the results that they hope for. I mean, how can we expect to evoke a response from a viewer, any response, if we don’t invest a bit of ourselves and our personal truths in the presentation of the images. And that means lying.

Partial Success

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I have been incredibly fortunate this past year with the attention my work has received in national and international magazines.. I have had multi-page in Outdoor Photography (UK), Black and White Photography (UK), Popular Photography, Lenswork, Black and White, f/11, and Neutral Density Magazine. A feature for Outdoor Photographer is in the works. It’s been one helluva ride and I am sincerely grateful for the editors and writers of these fine publications. Things have gone so well, I should be giddy, yet I am not entirely so.

You see, for all the accolades and attention, for all of the kind words and pats on the back, the only commercial gallery willing to carry my work is in Moscow, Russia (a hearty shout out to the Lumiere Brother’s Gallery…thank you). I’ve had inquiries, talked to some owners, yet nothing has ever materialized. A couple weeks ago I was contacted, out of the blue, by a nationally-known photographer to discuss being included in his gallery. I responded, twice, and have heard nothing back <sigh>. The entire process is quite frustrating and, if I am not careful, has the potential to be soul crushing.

I’ve thought about this a great deal over the past few months and have come to the conclusion that it’s my fault. I don’t make photos to hang on someone’s wall. I don’t photograph to make sales (although it’s always nice, of course). I photograph to make me happy, to fulfill some subconscious need to say something visually, even if the results are not pretty (sellable). That pretty much excludes my work from most local galleries. Sure, there are nationally recognized commercial galleries that sell work that is gritty and artsy, but as a landscape photographer I really don’t fit their mold.

That leaves the magazines. Why are those editors then interested in my work if the commercial venues are not? I guess it’s because the readers of photo magazines respond very well to landscapes and my work, much of it from the plains, is different enough in subject and vision to stand out. I think it gives the readers a different perspective on what they, themselves, could be doing. So, while my work is not accepted for gallery representation with its limited customer base, it is accepted in general circulation photo magazines were tens of thousands of people can see it.

To be honest, I would much rather have it this way than the other way around. A no brainer.

In reading this post, I guess it’s possible that you may think I am doing a lot of boasting (well, maybe just a teeny bit). It’s really not my intent. I am well aware that the attention I have received lately is fleeting and that, in short time, I will re-enter the world of the obscure. I am also aware of my lowly place in the overall scheme of photography and photographers. Am I going to enjoy it while it lasts? Umm….yeah. I ain’t stupid. But it is only a partial success, thus I can’t take myself all that seriously.

When I start selling enough work to pay all the bills, I’ll forget my friends, start wearing an ascot, and start going by a one-word name….Chuque. Until then, I will try to be happy with what I have, not disappointed about what I do not.

Home of the Free

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A young photographer friend contacted me the other day after being offered and assistants position during a multi-day photo workshop being taught by a husband-wife duo who both shoot for Magnum Photos. Their criteria for an assistant was intimate knowledge of both Photoshop and Lightroom and to be able to answer any digital questions asked by students. Easy enough. As this couple is well known and one them is quite talented, this sounded like a good opportunity…

…except there was no pay. That is right, they expected their skilled and knowledgeable assistant to work for free. Of course, they offered to waive the registration fee, which was very kind of them, as they were confident their wonderful workshop would be remuneration enough. How very generous of them (he said with a roll of the eyes).

If you’ve been a photographer for any length of time, you have gotten such offers. A regional magazine once offered me $50 to shoot a portrait….in a town 90 miles away. No expenses. So, I would have to drive for 3-4 hours, round trip, shoot for an hour, another hour or two for processing and sending, plus pay for gas, all for $50. If I could limit the time to six hours I would make, minus seven gallons of gas at $3.25 a gallon ($22.75), I would make only $27.25, which is less than $4.50 cents an hour. Far less than minimum wage. When I tried to explain all this, the woman who called was furious. I was angry enough that I passed her on to a coworker who I assured her would take the job. It was mean but made me feel a bit better 🙂

Back to the original story…..it’s ludicrous that well-respected and well-paid professional photographers would actually consider not paying an assistant, no matter what their financial agreement with the hosting entity. Even if the costs came out of their own pockets, they should have paid their assistant. They should be ashamed of themselves, but I doubt that is the case. If I were a lesser man, a petty man, I would tell you their names are Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb…….oops. My bad.

My friend, Lance, did not take the offer. Their loss.

Renting A Dobe

Many bloggers and pundits are weighing in on Adobe’s announcement that they are making their software subscription based by charging mandatory monthly fees. I am sure that the impetus of this decision is that many people are not regularly updating their Adobe software, which is understandable as they don’t always provide a solid reason to do so. Their incremental and often gimmicky new features often aren’t worth the money. I guess they are a victim of their own success as they’ve already provided 99% of what we need. They ARE in the business to make a profit, though, and this new business model may be a necessity for them.

That said, I think Adobe is abusing their position in the marketplace and essentially holding our images hostage. While CS5 or CS6 are fine for now, consider what will happen when a new camera is announced. Will those versions of ACR be updated to include those new RAW files, or will we be forced to rent Adobe software (or purchase a third-party raw converter)? Seems a bit unfair, to me, especially considering we will be at their mercy for future, potential price increases, no matter how drastic

That all said, Adobe backed off an earlier attempt to limit upgrades, thus I doubt they’ll back down now. The path looks to be set.

What Adobe can do, and should do, is to revise their pricing structure. $50/month for the entire Adobe suite is a pretty good deal, IF you use it all. Most of us don’t even come close. They said they’ll be a $20/month option for just Photoshop, but that price seems a bit high considering it’s only one piece of software. Adobe needs to seriously consider offering multiple pricing/feature options, not just two, and price them fairly. Say….$10/month for Photoshop, with additional software for either $5 or $10, depending on the title. As everything is computerized, it would be easy to implement and maintain.

Adobe has a faithful following, and they need to acknowledge us.

The Melting Pot Syndrome

gym2010 Chuck Kimmerle

“The current status of photographic art is finally becoming a melting pot of photography, scripture, drawing, painting, other medias and crafts and makes it very enjoyable and varied to look at it!”

The above statement was made by gallery owner Regina Maria Anzenberger, a recent juror for the Center for Fine Art Photography, and is a prime example of the hipster arrogance which has befallen contemporary photography. Painting? Drawing? Scripture? Is that what photography has now become, a watered-down, nebulous art form without its own distinct identity? How very sad for us all.

She isn’t alone. Her attitude is shared by other uber-hip (not a compliment, btw)  gallery owners and curators who are less interested in promoting photography as an art than they are in promoting themselves as trend setters. But they are not solely to blame. Photographers, too, share some of the blame as this easy-to-master medium has brought forth a horrendous amount of mundane and meaningless product (mountain panoramas at sunset…really?) under the umbrella of “art.” With so much triviality in photography, I guess it is only natural for some gallery owners, museum directors and curators, in an effort to be unique, to seek work that is…different (though not necessarily better). The trouble is that they have gone too far and have bastardized this unique and authentic art form and relegated it to part and parcel of the other major arts. Photography is in danger, at least in the art world, of losing its identity.

As an example of this new attitude……in a podcast a couple of years ago, Brooks Jensen relayed a story in which, while at a photo conference in China, he was introduced to a group of east coast gallery owners. One of them gave him a cursory glance and said, rather snarky, something to the effect of “Aren’t you the one who publishes landscapes?”, then turned away and ignored him as if he were a lesser being. Brooks said he was taken aback, at first, then realized he was in fact proud of the photographs he publishes in Lenswork. Proud because that work IS photography. It is not painting, it is not drawing, and it damned sure ain’t scripture.

Look, I know there are gallery owners and curators who are interested in photography’s unique and powerful attributes, eschewing gimmicks for gimmicks sake, and I heartily applaud them. But the overall trend in photography as art is accelerating towards the aforementioned, generifying “melting pot”, and for that I am truly sorry.