Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Mar 21 2019

The nature of the conversation

I recently had the chance to pick up Alec Soth’s I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating at the Moom Bookshop off Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei. They were having a small show based on color photographers such as Shore, Gruyaert and Eggleston, so naturally I had to go. I spent hours just looking through the books on display there, especially my favorite from Shore, Uncommon Places. This time around I particularly noticed the apparent care shown in the editing and sequencing of the book. Shore’s later works haven’t resonated with me as much, a phenomenon I’ve observed with many well-known photographers.

As for Soth’s latest book, whose title comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem Gray Room, the work conveys connection and empathy in a way I haven’t felt since his first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which I’ve always loved. There is one portrait in his new book that doesn’t have the same power as the rest. It is of a woman seen in the gap between bookshelves. All of the other photos in the book resonate and inspire a wealth of stories, but this one feels…out of place. After I’d finished looking at the photographs, I read the text, and this turned out to include a fascinating interview with Soth on how the book came to be. The interview was conducted by Hanya Yanagihara, whom I recognized as being the woman in the incongruous photo.

Interested, I asked Alec about it on IG, trying to be as diplomatic as possible: “The photo of Hanya didn’t seem to belong, and then I realized she was the one you talked with.” I wondered if  there was connection between the two. “Am I imagining things?”

“Not at all,” he wrote back. We then went on to discuss the content of the book, specifically the part about connection. Soth, who is about my age, approaching 50, had a moment of clarity a few years ago in Finland, a sudden realization that “everything is connected” and subsequently reevaluated his approach not just to photography, but to dealing with people. He has said that one of the main challenges he faced as he began to engage in photography was his innate shyness, effectively equalizing or even giving more power to those he was photographing than he felt he had in the exchange. Over the years, as his fame grew, the nature of the relationship with his subjects changed; he was an internationally renowned artist, successful author and exhibitionist, a member of Magnum, the world’s most prestigious photography agency. But as his status was changing, so did the work he was doing. His “Ah-ha!” moment redefined his connection with people, his respect for his subjects, and it has seemingly made a real difference.

I’ve long wondered how so many famous photographers start out strong, with real, emotive work, and then lose that in the latter stages of their careers. The prevailing wisdom has simply been that people lose the creative spark as they get older, but reading about Soth’s experience and seeing the resulting work following his revelation makes me think something else is at play, mainly, the nature of the connection between the photographer and the subject. Soth compares it to that of two people on a seesaw.

In some circles, such as street photography, many -too many- photographers seem to assume a posture of domination and even objectification of their subjects, eagerly grabbing as much power in the relationship as they can. The reason for this might lie in the toxic mixture of social media and gadget worship that has infected the genre, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and might go a long way to explaining the spiritual paucity of much of this kind of photography. Ego, it seems, is the enemy of sensitivity, of pathos, of connection. It places blinkers on us, blinding us to all of the potential of being open to the world on an equal basis, substituting our vanity instead.

The photographers I most admire, however, tend to take a more respectful and curious approach to the subjects of their work, at least in making the work that brought them to my attention. Respect for the subjects of one’s work is also something I try to instill in my own students.

These changes in the nature of the connection with the subject might be why some photographers’ work changes as they gain fame and influence. The very nature of the relationship with subjects changes, the balance shifts, and the connection is fundamentally altered. Take an open-minded, curious photographer and stick them in a famous agency, give them interviews and assignments and minders and entourages and fans dogging their every step, looking to see what wondrous magical composition they’re going to create next, and that connection become all the more tenuous. Be they a failed art student wandering the streets of Paris, or shy man in his 30’s following the path of the river that flows through his country, the lifeblood of their work is intense observation free of the pollution of ego that so often comes to obscures our vision. Judgement threatens observation, and the whole thing can break down. For some, the only way to deal with such developments may be to abandon photography in favor of another art form. Others may move to more abstract work. And some may be hit, perhaps while on a flight to Helsinki, by the realization that they cannot relinquish the very essence of their work…the knowledge that everyone is connected.

“Your thoughts have made me see things in a different light, thank you,” I wrote Soth following our exchange.

He responded: “You’ve also given me something to reflect on. Thank you.”

posted by Poagao at 11:51 am  
Feb 13 2019

A new camera

The first-generation Sony A7r I’d been using for the past five years was showing its age as 2018 drew to a close. More and more error messages, more instances of failing to wake up after sleeping, more having to shut it off, remove and replace the battery and turn it on again before it would continue working. It was maddening.

It was also no great surprise. A couple of years before it had stopped working altogether, and, after Sony demanded a good portion of the camera’s cost to repair it, I left it with a small repair store while the repairman searched for the components he needed in other, discarded cameras. It took a month or so, but he managed to fix it for a fraction of the price Sony had wanted. “Just don’t expect too much,” he cautioned me afterward.

With this in mind, I’d been considering what camera would eventually replace it, as more companies entered the mirrorless fray. Sony’s own full-frame mirrorless offerings had grown appreciably bulkier, without any ergonomic or color science improvements that I could see, in the years since the original A7 debuted. Though they had improved the awful shutter sound/feel and introduced a larger battery, the startup time of the third generation of cameras seemed to not be appreciably better than the first, though the admins of review sites like DPReview claim that this parameter is no longer applicable to the practice of photography*.

As for the other brands, who were seemingly lining up to present new mirrorless options: Canon’s EOS R was even larger than the Sonys, nearly as large as a 6D DSLR, and the controls were a no-go from the time I picked it up, discovered I needed two hands to turn it on, kept accidentally brushing the control bar, and fiddled with the selfie screen. Nikon’s Z series was promising; it felt good in the hand, if a little large, with a fast startup time and good EVF; it would have been promising if they’d had any nice small lenses, but alas, there were none, nor did any appear on the roadmap. I’ve also never been much of a fan of digital Nikon colors.

I could have simply scrounged for another used A7r, but though the files were nice, the hesitant, indecisive shutter that sounded and felt like a large coin dropping through an old payphone, the slow startup time, and the wonky yellows and blues made me itch for something else. The Fuji XT/X-pro series beckoned with its superior ergonomics and color science, but as nice as it is (the X-pro2 shutter in particular is one of the best sounding/feeling shutters I’ve used, up there with the Leica M3), I didn’t want to go back to APSC with no reduction in size; the Ricoh GRII I was also using for wider shots was certainly better than the phone I’d been using before to get wider shots, but I’d become accustomed to full frame.

I’ve also been using a silver Leica M6 classic to shoot film for many years now, as film is how I learned photography back in the day, and I haven’t abandoned it (yet). But a digital M10 would have been prohibitively expensive, as well as quite heavy. As lovely as I’m sure it must be, I just couldn’t justify it, and even though I already have two lenses I could use for it, they are older 35mm and 50mm summicrons, and I seldom shoot 50mm these days.

But then there is the Leica Q, that strange fixed-lens full-frame digital Leica whose f1.7 summilux lens likely costs more than the camera, which itself costs a fraction of a digital M. Not one of the small Panasonic knock-offs with the red dot and huge mark-up, but an actual Leica. I’d gotten a chance to handle my friend Aik Beng Chia’s Q last year when I met up with him during a BME workshop in Bangkok, and I was surprised at how well it handled. A three-year-old model with a fixed focal length? But I used the 35mm on the Sony for pretty much five years, and only when I wanted to go wider, as I’ve been doing more and more these days, did I get the Ricoh. But here was a camera that felt like a camera, much more so than either the Sony or the Ricoh.

So I got a Leica Q of my own, my first digital Leica. Now, I have always been wary of the effusive praise many photographers show for Leica, especially the abstract, oddly indescribable “something” they claim it provides, particularly at the prices these cameras go for. The “You plebeians would never understand” attitude of some people who ooh and aah over Leicas has always irked me, as it seemed like a cover for their lack of ability to say exactly what about these cameras helps them get the photographs they desire.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to spell out in practical terms how this camera has changed the way I photograph, and why I like where it’s taking me.

First off, using exclusively a 28mm frame took a while to get used to; it pushes me into the action. I find myself taking fewer shots, but liking the shots that I do take more. Shots I could have gotten from further away with the 35mm require that I either move towards the scene or forget them. So I notice things closer to me more now than things that are further away; I suspect it might bring a greater sense of intimacy to my photos.

Of course I’d tried the Sony 28mm f2 on the A7r, but it never appealed to me, perhaps because of that lens’s distortion, or perhaps because, while 28mm will bring you into a situation, the rest of the camera, especially the shutter, does not encourage staying there long; you’re left in the middle of a situation with a loud, obnoxious shutter and an awkwardly laggy camera. It’s doable, but not ideal.

The Q, however, rewards you for getting closer; it starts up and wakes up much quicker than the Sony ever did, and the leaf shutter is virtually silent; you’re in the midst of things, but not a bull in a China shop. The wider angle means most people don’t suspect that they’re in my frame, and I often find myself inches from someone who is oblivious to my presence. With the Sony, after waiting awkwardly a few seconds for the thing to finally come to life while the people around me pick up on my anticipation, I’d often get one shot in before everyone in the vicinity was looking around, wondering where all that clacking noise was coming from, as if a slot machine from another realm was calling to them. I’d become used to it, but I think that it translated somewhat into my body language, a sort of telegraphed cringe.

With the Q, since I know that nobody will hear the shutter, when I raise the camera, I do so with a nonchalance that slips under people’s radar. The relative lack of shutter lag meant that at first I was taking shots too quickly, getting the moment before the one I wanted for a while before getting used to the Q’s responsiveness. The lack of the Sony’s long blackout, replaced in the Q by a barely perceptible stutter as the EVF holds on the moment of capture for a split second before resuming, also works much better for me. The viewfinder on the Q is also larger than that of the A7r, brighter (you can’t change it) and more detailed. The diopter ring turns too easily, however, so I had to tape it up.

The Q controls are simple and effective, i.e. standard Leica. Like the Fujis, the aperture, shutter speed and shooting mode are right there at a glance, regardless of whether the camera is on or not. The Sony does show exposure compensation on the camera body, while the Q requires that to be something you do in the viewfinder, which works for me as I tend to use it once or twice and then go back to normal. I’d gradually come to know how the Sony metered in its priority modes over the years, how it stuck to f4 and 1/60 in shutter and aperture priority modes, respectively, right up until it no longer could. But to know exactly what the major settings were exactly meant that the camera had to be on and that I’d have to read them in the viewfinder (as I kept the backscreen off most of the time). I originally took issue with the mode placement of the off/on-single/on-continuous button, but when I think about it, it makes sense. Turning it to single shot is just matter of getting used to it. Should Jimi Hendrix suddenly descend from his UFO for a split second and I need to shoot more than one frame, I will be mashing the lever as far as it will go, right to continuous.

With the Sony I would occasionally take high and low shots with the tilting screen; I do that far less with the Q because it lacks such a screen, and I’m still on the fence as to whether that’s a good or bad thing. I suspect shooting what I see with my own eyes may be better in the long run, rather than guessing what I would see if I were taller or shorter and spending time approximating those perspectives. But there are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of doing it.

The Q is in crazy mad love with f1.7, I found while shooting it as I had the Sony using priority modes. It’s better, I soon realized, to shoot it like a manual M camera. The body already feels like an M; even the lens feels like an M lens, buttery smooth focus ring and all, so it’s not a huge difference. The AF is fine, snappy and accurate, but if you enjoy hyper focal and zone focusing with no lag, the Q is just as ready and willing to play, with the distances marked clearly on the lens barrel.

As for the resulting files, I’ve been happy so far, though the Q’s DR isn’t as malleable as that of the Sony, and the resolution less (though sufficient). But the colors…oh, the colors are far nicer. It tends to underexpose in auto modes, which suggests Leica knows how ugly the blown-out bits can get. The preview files, be they viewed in the EVF or on the backscreen, are quite ugly, full of blotchy greens and purples instead of greys. This, I’ve been assured by Leica, is a known issue and possibly one to be addressed in future firmware updates, but it’s obvious from my inquiries on Leica forums that most Q owners don’t really mind, or at least go to great lengths not to think too much about such things. Fair enough, I suppose; the files do really need to be viewed on a large computer screen in any case.

The battery life is slightly better than that of the A7r, which admittedly isn’t saying much. As the wakeup/startup times are much quicker, it’s easier to let it go to sleep or even turn it off, instead of continually prodding the shutter to keep it awake as I had to do with the Sony (occasionally taking unintentional shots in the process). The camera is also not designated as “weatherproof”, although to date there don’t seem to be any actual standards other cameras are held to with such claims, and the Sony’s claims in this regard are rather suspect. For such an expensive camera that also begs to be used in all kinds of conditions, I would think that would be desirable.

I never use the macro mode, and personally would have preferred a smaller lens without that option. The Q also features optical image stabilization and an electronic shutter, neither of which I’m entirely sure I’ve utilized. I’m sure they might come in handy at some point, but they’re not musts for me. In fact, while trying out other systems with IBIS, I’ve been annoyed at the frame not shifting with my aim due to the IBIS, but I haven’t observed this phenomenon in the Q.

A new version of the Q will most likely arrive in the near future, possibly updated with an M10 sensor, but I am quite happy with this camera as it is. Should Leica wish to attract current Q owners to add the new version to their collections, they could implement a different focal length, e.g. 40mm, in the next model. But the Q still sells so well that I imagine they could do very little and still maintain robust sales.

On paper, moving to the Q may seem more like a step sideways from the Sony, for appreciably more money. Who in these fast-paced times would spend so much on a digital camera that came out that long ago? But cameras can’t be rated so broadly on fixed parameters; as I tell my students about “good” and “bad” light, there aren’t so much “good” and “bad” cameras as much as there are suitable and unsuitable cameras, based on what the individual photographer needs to achieve their vision. For my purposes, the Q is more suitable than the Sony; even if it is lower resolution and more expensive, it’s better where it counts.

Some have observed that Sony makes computers that take photos, whereas other manufacturers such as Fuji and Leica, make cameras. Such absolutism feels rather extreme to me, as any box with a hole in it will do the job, but after using the Q for a few months, I can understand why people say this; the companies approach the task of building a camera coming from different places.

And that’s fine; if a Sony, Fuji, Hasselblad or a goddamn Transforming Barbie-cam does the job for you, brilliant! I’m truly happy that you can get past this stupid gear-centric phase and get on with the vastly more important business of developing your photographic vision. This is simply my experience based on my personal style of photography, as well as an effort to delineate why I like this particular camera rather than issue some half-assed “It’s just that Leica look/feel/glow/aesthetic/whatever” we’re always seeing. In short, it works for me.

 

*I was told by an admin that they dropped it when “start up times ceased to be an issue with most cameras.”

posted by Poagao at 3:10 pm  
Nov 17 2018

The unkept promise of mirrorless

I’ve had some time in the afternoons this last week due to having to be in the city for other engagements, so I’ve been taking advantage of the fine weather (of course it’s raining today, Saturday, resulting in me here at home, writing this) to wander around, which is generally my favorite thing to do.

After finishing a radio interview on our latest album, after David Chen caught a Youbike to another part of town, I walked up to the Syntrend Center to see what was up. The VR arcade has been redesigned; it’s now just a big empty pen that can be used for any type of game rather than the rather specific WWII setting they had. This might herald the new generation of wireless headsets that are coming out. The camera stores on the third floor had some of the new mirrorless models I’ve been hearing so much about, so I took a look. The Nikon store had the Z7, which felt nice enough. Startup time was quick, probably quick enough but I couldn’t be sure without really trying it out in real-world shooting. The shutter felt ok, with a definite half-press and a decent sound/feel. Too bad Nikon didn’t see fit to release any smaller lenses for it. But a nice enough camera, it seemed…there’s potential there, even if I’m not as big a fan of Nikon colors.

Then went over to the Canon store, and while they did have the new EOS R, I didn’t realize it at first; it was sitting in between the 5DIV and the 6DII, and didn’t stand out. It’s a big camera, and doesn’t really trade on the promise of size reduction mirrorless can offer as much as it might have. I realize that all the posters on DPreview are over all that “small camera nonsense” and just want the highest specs possible, but this was the main reason I went to mirrorless in the first place. The R’s startup time was ok; it didn’t feel as fast as the Nikon, and the shutter didn’t feel as nice, though of course better than that of my A7r (it would be hard to be worse than that). The R had the 24-105 lens on it, of course; I’ve never seen anyone in the reviews actually show the small 35 f1.8 IS, which would be the lens I would choose to use with it. Suddenly everyone’s into big cameras again for some reason; perhaps the chiropractor lobby is behind it. I joke, but it just proves the point I’ve made elsewhere, that most camera consumers are only interested in photographing predetermined subjects at certain places and times, so size and weight and battery life aren’t their main concerns. They have phones for everything else. But as for the R, the on/off switch is located so that I would need to reach over with my other hand to turn it on instead of just turning it on with my holding hand in one motion. The R’s rear screen is another problem; in order to tilt it up or down, you have to first pull it out and away from the body, so forget using that with any degree of alacrity. It’s a shame, because I do miss Canon colors; the Sony has never quite done it for me.

Next, of course, was the Sony store, but they only had a few ratty first- and second- generation cameras there, the guys at the counter too busy chatting to realize that marketing old cameras is probably not their best strategy. Of course Sony has also made their mirrorless cameras bigger and heavier with each iteration. I don’t need IBIS much; in fact, that little bit of resistance the frame gives when I’m trying to get a precise composition is rather irritating. Just an original A7r, even with the same sensor and viewfinder, but a nicely damped shutter and new firmware to make it more snappy would be just the ticket.

In short, the digital camera world has not seen anything like the original Sony A7r, before or since. I would have been happy if they had simply updated the sensor, viewfinder, shutter and battery, keeping something like the original size and shape. But they didn’t, and the other manufacturers saw this and decided they could now get in on the game. It’s all moot as my five-year-old model still works (for now, knock on wood), but I can’t help but think what might have been, and be happy that I never sold my M6.

posted by Poagao at 1:49 pm  
Oct 22 2018

The real source of good photography

“Going out to take photos?”

“Get any good shots?”

Even though I’m often asked one of these two admittedly innocuous questions, my first reaction is usually puzzlement: Do they know something I don’t? Then I realize that the questioner is looking at the ever-present camera on my shoulder and thinking that today is special, that I’m going out today to specifically capture certain images that I already have in mind. Or that have just returned from doing so, mission accomplished.

“Not really,” I say. Usually I leave it at that, and watch as the puzzlement volleys back into their court.

“But you’re carrying a camera-”

“This is true.”

“Are you not going out to take pictures?”

There’s not much I can honestly say at this point without causing them to look around for escape routes: “Maybe!” or “We’ll see!” or “Ya never know!”

Mostly I just lie, because I realize most people are just making small talk, and talking to a person who is obviously going out shooting but steadfastly refuses to say so can’t be a pleasant experience.

And I can’t blame them. Photography has in recent years become so wrapped up in itself at the expense of its very purpose that such conversations usually end up going nowhere fast. I also suspect it might be much worse if I were a Real Photographer.

So many people are looking through the wrong end of the telephoto lens, so to speak. These conversations might continue on to things like “So what camera/lens do you use?” followed by endless listing of specs and the kind of loyalty statements usually reserved for sports teams, then moving eventually, perhaps, to “Where/when/what do you shoot?” and almost never to “Why do you shoot,” much less “Who are you?” Ironically, mall security and cops tend to be the ones asking this last question, though I’m not sure if they’re really interested in the answer unless it involves letting them arrest me.

Whether it’s out of politeness, caution, social mores, or simply an unspoken fear that one hasn’t even bothered ask oneself these questions, the result is that we rarely actually communicate on this subject. Photographers are often so ill at ease with social navigation that we resort to photography as a primary means of communication. That, of course, doesn’t excuse resorting to a similar amount of shallowness when working in one’s chosen medium.

In a nutshell, who you are determines what you notice, the questions you ask, your doubts and inspirations. All this is constantly changing, and simply saying “I’m going to shoot different photos now” is an oversimplification of that process. The photography is incidental, more of a result than a cause.

People often express a desire to improve their photography, their desire to take “better” photos; that means taking different photos than the ones they’re taking now. Changing the location or equipment involved will most likely not result in fundamentally different photos; you can’t take different photos until you see different things. And that, in turn, won’t happen until you are different than you are now in some fundamental way. You see the things you see because of the person you happen to be at this moment.

And you are always changing. Some say travel changes a person, some say switching jobs, some say switching partners, some say limitations engender creativity…when it comes down to it, life changes you constantly, by definition. At some point, some that youness might intersect with photographic expression for an undetermined length of time. Or it might not.

So try not to distract yourself with the superficialities of gear and travel. Photography, as Jay Maisel once wrote, is about everything else. The most vital variable in the mix is you. You are the genesis of your photography; start with that, and everything else will follow.

posted by Poagao at 11:45 am  
Sep 18 2018

Photography and Personing

Are you into photography? Do you like to person? Do you like to do both at the same time?

When I say “into” photography, I don’t mean someone who has/desires a great deal of gear, or someone who knows all the best places to find the best birds/orangutans/fire escapes, nor am I talking about dudes who take thousands of photos of women models in studios and random parks. I’m talking about people who are afflicted with the condition where they can’t not see photographs everywhere they go, even if they don’t have a camera at hand.

Another group I’m not talking about: Those who “got into” photography when it became the hot thing with the popular kids a few years ago (featuring skateboarders, that oft-used demographic every large corporation knows is perfect for bringing “the youth” into the fold for effective consumerism). I won’t waste my time because soon enough you’ll be saying things like “I just haven’t had time to go out shooting” and “There’s just nothing going on here” when something else comes along. Whenever I hear those phrases, I recall my ophthalmologist’s advice that I really need to stop rolling my eyes. Just admit it: You are not really into photography. But hold up: That’s great! It’s not an insult; it’s a compliment. Congratulations, because, as it turns out, being really into photography (as opposed to being a professional photographer, which is often a different thing), can be rough.

What could I possibly mean by this? Isn’t “everyone a photographer” these days? Don’t most people have a capable camera in their phone or around their neck? How do these people people, as it were?

Let’s say you are with other people. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking, eating, in a car, on a bus, in a meeting, having sex, or paragliding, or all of those at the same time (which admittedly sounds like one hell of a party). Do you remain committed to maintaining your interaction with them, or do you remain open to all of the potential photos happening around you?

Most normal people opt for the former. Obviously. Even in the unlikely event that you can engage with your companions as well as paying sufficient attention to your surroundings, what happens when a photograph become apparent to you? Do you maintain eye contact? Try and keep the conversation going? Think up an excuse to leave suddenly?

Again, for most people, the conversation is their literal focus. Most non-photographers, regardless of the photographic machinery they may have on hand, aren’t even looking. Of those who are looking, most ignore it. Of those who can’t ignore it, most watch helplessly as the photograph disappears while they try to keep their attention on the other people. Of those who make an attempt to socially disengage in order to make the photograph, most will be too late as well as flustered from resisting the ancient DNA-level code of Not Being an Asshole to one’s tribe. And those who just go take the damn picture are of course rude, self-centered malcontents who think their so-called “art” is more important than the actually important matters their companions are earnestly discussing with them at the time of the aforementioned abscondment.

“But TC,” you say, “I’ve found the Perfect Friends/Significant Other who is perfectly fine with me shooting anything I want at any time!”

That’s great! I’m sure they’re very nice, lovely, accommodating people who are really into you, and willing to put up with this behavior in order to be around you. I’m jealous, truly I am. Perhaps they even point out little scenes they think you’d be interested in, even though you aren’t because they can’t actually know what you see, and by the time you’ve followed their pointing finger and excited, slightly patronizing tone that of course has alerted the denizens of said scene to your attention, it has vanished. But I’ll bet a reasonable amount of money that they in fact hide their dismay when you display in a most abrupt fashion how much more devoted you are to some imagined, phantom scene than you are to really being truly “with” them.

That they’re willing to go through that for you is admirable. But perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll eventually get to wondering exactly why you can’t deny yourself this stupid photography shit in order to be with them. It’s not like you’re exactly famous or really any good at it. Which is most likely true, because in their eyes you can’t be good until you’re famous, and becoming a Famous Photographer is not only nearly impossible, it almost by definition disallows continuing to be into photography, because you need to person. If they don’t want you to give up photography for them, they will almost certainly try to steer you into a more lucrative, “useful” form of it. Again with the personing, extreme personing in this context, because lucrative photography is generally more about the lucrative part than the photography part. Can you schmooze? I mean, are you really good at it? Here, I’ll just take that camera; you won’t be needing it. Your attention is elsewhere. Go person.

This condition, of being disconnected enough from the tangled skeins of social obligation in which most people are ensconced that you are able to readily observe the things around you, can wear you down if you let it. Someone is always in the way, if not physically then mentally, assuming that you are engaged in the conversation or whatever else that may going on. People see you as off in the clouds somewhere when you are actually as present in the world as they are, just in a different way. They don’t notice the man quietly sobbing in the corner, the cat perched precariously on the railing, the estranged couple maintaining an awkward distance in the park, or the factory lazily polluting the river. And you don’t notice the latest gossip, that thing we have next week, or that horrible insult someone said that might mean something else. You’re there, but not in the “right” way. Not for personing.

Some extremely talented photographers in the past have obviously been the kind of “difficult” individuals I’m talking about, but by definition and due to survivor bias, the ones we know of are the ones who had special ways to deal with it. Many, such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, were independently wealthy when they started out, and just DNGAF. Others like Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand failed spectacularly at maintaining the relationships in their lives.

Of course there are many successful photographers who are friendly, engaging, well-adjusted individuals with happy friends and families. That’s great. I’m happy for them…mystified, but happy. The rest of us are left with a sense of not quite belonging to the world we are so intent on observing because, were we capable of belonging, we would no longer see it. Some of the photos resulting from this state might happen to be interesting, but nobody will know or care because we cannot person*.

So what can we do? Don’t worry; all is not lost. While we may not be able to ignore the draw of photography, we might be able to control how much we care about superficialities, things that are on the surface at least tangentially related to this Thing We Can’t Not Do, but in reality just drag us down…things like social media addiction to likes and faves, trying to be noticed and published, things like gear obsession and one-upsmanship. Take that time and use it better; instead of clinging to the impossibility of being universally adored, try to make friends with a few like-minded souls instead of just anyone you think will advance your social status. Recognize, explore and embrace your own instincts and inclinations. Be there for yourself. Person for yourself.

If we simply value being as open and genuine as possible, we might stand a chance of getting through all this with some semblance of sanity. And maybe, just maybe, collect a few good shots along the way.

 

 

*Of course, if you’re “lucky”, after you’ve died someone might buy your photos at an auction and “discover” you, now that your difficult ass is safely beyond having to deal with.
posted by Poagao at 10:46 am  
Jul 05 2018

Not really back, but off again soon

Things never really got back to normal around here since I got back from San Francisco. They just kept being strange. Oh, I kept going to work and teaching classes and returning to the Water Curtain Cave at night, but the surreal feeling I’ve had ever since I got back never lost its edge. I’ve been delving into Wiki articles about Erik Satie and how he and Debussy used to hang out in Montmarte and at Le Chat Noir and what that world must have been like. Wiki articles tend to leave out moments and details like smells and feelings while walking down a street or crossing a bridge.

So when I found myself at Jiantan Station with nothing to do for two hours before a gig at the American Club last weekend, I figured I’d just wander in the general direction, hauling my instruments behind me. I walked along the former riverside before they changed the waterway’s course, wondering exactly where the exit to Chiang Kai-shek’s Emergency Fun Slide was. I really, really, didn’t want to enter the American Club earlier than I needed to, so I sat down in the armory park next door, the one dedicated to a couple of large guns that helped defend our outer islands against Chinese attacks in the late 50’s, and sat and thought and listened to the cicadas. But mostly I enjoyed not doing anything in particular, apart from scratching the occasional mosquito bite. Eventually I was joined by Slim, and then it was time to go do the deed.

The local staff inside the complex walls was being wrangled by a heavy blonde man with a German accent. There were lots of stands with the names of various foods and states and football teams or something. One stand, staffed by two people, emphasized the fact that Americans Can Vote Anywhere. It was very hot, and we shuttled between the very hot stage and the very cold ready room upstairs for most of the afternoon and into the evening for the Independence Day event. Every so often aircraft would pass over after taking off from Songshan Airport next door, and a vision flashed unbidden into my mind, of the local staff looking up at the military planes carrying the last of the U.S. staff off the island as the club lay abandoned due to a Chinese invasion and Politics As Usual. These thoughts thrust me into an even stranger state of mind. Unlike previous incantations, we were allowed access to all the stalls and people at the event, though it was sparsely attended. We played three long, lumpy sets, and everyone was hot and exhausted afterwards. I scored a couple of cupcakes as they were too sweet for the local staff and nobody else seemed to want cupcakes. Packing up amid the emptying complex, hauling our stuff down darkened halls and through empty gates, we took some cabs to Yuanshan Station, where some of the band was hanging out, but I was spooked and had to leave.

More surreality awaited me as I attended an event at Taipei Main Station, in the atrium no less, held by the publication for which I work, on tourism in Taiwan. Several bigwigs talked on the subject, including Premiere Lai, who was sitting once again a couple rows away. I talked with writer friend Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman, who were also there. Joshua mentioned something that had escaped my notice: The invitations had been sent out in English, many to foreign nationals, yet there were no English translations; the entire event took place in Chinese. It was a jarring disconnect from the messages being given lip service to at the event itself. Why, again, are we doing this? The location was selected “because everyone sets out from the train station” yet I wondered if these people knew that this exact spot was usually inhabited by Southeast Asian laborers on their day off.

My photography class’s last class was on Tuesday, and Chenbl and I worked hard to finish the accompanying photobook. These books have gotten better and thicker each semester, and this one is no exception. Some, if not most of my students have improved beyond recognition, and it’s a wonder to see them finding their individual styles and reveling in the practice of photography, a world they didn’t know existed before. We’ve become quite the big family over the years, and about a dozen of them are actually coming to Bangkok with us.

Bangkok? Oh yes, didn’t I say? Even though I’m still recovering from my trip to San Francisco, Chenbl and I are flying to Bangkok on Saturday to spend a week or so there. The reason for this is that, in addition to being a judge for the Bangkok Street Photography competition, I’m going to be teaching a workshop there with Rammy Narula and Barry Talis from Israel. Oddly enough, I’ve never been to Thailand before, only catching glimpses of it from across the river in Vientiane years ago when I visited Prince Roy there. People always exclaim in disbelief when I say I’ve never been to Thailand, which puzzles me, and, to be honest, is probably one of the reasons I’ve never gone, just because it was somehow expected of me, and things being expected of me nearly always pisses me off because it’s often because of the stupidest of reasons. But I’m happy to be proven wrong, and hopefully this will be one of those times.

So I’ve spent the last few days since the end of our class trying to rest up and recover and get my mind right. This has involved afternoon naps, copious amounts of tea, and watching every single A Tribe Called Quest video  – Rest in Power, Phife –  intermixed with early seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. Also Little Debbie Snack Cakes (“Zebra Cakes” for you Philistine kids who know not from whence you came). Am I showing my age yet? Today I had to go to the local government office to pay my housing tax, get my household registration for a gig we’re playing in Hong Kong this fall, as well as have some passport-sized photos made for said gig. Late-40’s passport photos usually tell a sobering tale, but I’m ok just being along for the ride so far.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 5:38 pm  
Jun 06 2018

San Francisco, Part 5

After the bus I thought was taking me to the ferry building unexpectedly veered off onto a side street, I got off and hurried over to meet Andy before we walked over to where our students were waiting. We discussed a few things before sending them off to shoot. Then Andy, Harvey and I took a circuitous route through downtown in the general direction of Glass Key, where we were meeting everyone for afternoon discussions and final reviews. I was gratified to see that most everyone seemed to show significant improvement, and were happy with their progress. My friend Ben Molina arrived as we were finishing up; I introduced him to Andy, and we walked back down towards Andy’s hotel, stopping along the way to shoot some nicely lit corners. After hamburgers for dinner, we went over to Cameraworks to meet up with some old friends, including Tyler and Skyid, and new ones such as Fadi. I wish I had more time to meet the other guys, but alas, I’m coming down with a cold, and my flight back to Taipei is tomorrow.

It’s been interesting, and kind of bizarre. San Francisco always seems a little bizarre to me, and that seems magnified in the photography scene, and more so in the local street photography scene, which is full of drama and intrigue and passion that seems incommensurate with what actually gets produced. Perhaps it’s simply the character of the city, but I’m not entirely sure I could ever be comfortable in such a place, physically or mentally.

posted by Poagao at 1:25 pm  
Jun 05 2018

San Francisco, Episode IV

The second day of the workshop was quite fruitful. Some of the students were already showing quite a difference as they tried new things and new approaches. We met at the Hyatt lobby and talked about the previous day’s work and set challenges for each student based on what they needed to work on, and they went off on their various missions while Andy, Harvey and I walked around Union Square amid the tourists, touts and of course the ubiquitous mentally ill homeless people that are such a prominent feature of this burg.

Later we all walked over to Glass Key photo, where I gave a small presentation on some thoughts I’ve had on the subject of motives in street photography, and we went over some of the students’ work. There was a little pushback, but that’s to be expected. There were also surprises. All in all it was a promising session.

Andy was giving a talk that night at the Harvey Milk Center, so we Ubered over there in a Dodge Challenger whose driver was playing an oldies rap station we were all digging. After Andy’s talk we listened to another by Michelle Groskopf presenting her wonderfully intimate flash work.

Tired and hungry after the long day, Andy, Harvey, and I were joined by Andy’s old college roommate, who is now a world-class yo-yo practitioner, and an aspiring community college photography teacher who had many questions for me, for pizza nearby.

posted by Poagao at 9:47 pm  
Jun 04 2018

San Francisco, Part 3

Ken and I went over to one of the photo spaces on Market on Saturday to attend the “Ethics of Street Photography” talk they were giving. There was very little of either in the talk, but I did meet Pei Ketron again, as she was one of the organizers of the thing, as well as a photowalk afterward. Pei came to one of my solo exhibitions in Taipei years ago. After the photowalkers had left, Ken, Joe, Jake and I put up some photos, soon joined by Andy, who had just gotten in the night before. Then we went out to shoot and chat as the light was nice downtown with lots of reflections from all the glass buildings. We had some good ramen at a place where they actually give you a whole egg instead of half of one as they do in Japan and Taiwan…American portion growth over the past twenty years continues to baffle me. After the others left, Andy and I had some drinks at the jazz bar on the second floor of his hotel, the Mystic, which seems like a great name for a hotel.

The first day of the workshop (Sunday) went well. I walked over to the Harvey Milk Center in the morning, dodging skateboarders and scooters, admiring the open windows and detailed architecture of the houses here. At the Center, which is located close to the Castro up the street, I met our assistant, who is conveniently if uncannily named Harvey Castro. It’s as if he was named just for this workshop, but he insisted that this is in fact his real name.

Some of the students were sitting on a bench outside, and we chatted a bit while I ate the bagged breakfast I’d bought at a corner store on the way. Andy had arrived but was out shooting, but we all congregated in the classroom at 11. One of the students who had had an email mixup decided he wasn’t interested at the last minute. Something about not really being into having his photos reviewed. Ok.

Andy and I introduced the workshop and ourselves, and we proceeded to review the works the students had brought; there was some very nice stuff, and we were able to figure out more or less what areas they needed to work on. Later, we boarded a train downtown and took the students shooting, meeting up at intervals and doing some individual guidance as we went. As evening approached and the students departed, Andy, Harvey and I climbed the stops above the tunnel and had some drinks at the Tunnel Top bar before catching an uber out to a Korean barbecue restaurant to meet up with Joe, Rob and Rob’s wife. The food was excellent, and I ate way too much as I hadn’t had any lunch.

I am now staying at Ken’s place as the basement I was previously staying at is otherwise occupied, but it’s all good. I’m sitting in his dining room right now typing this early on Monday morning before anyone else is up. Today we’re meeting the students in the lobby of the Hyatt downtown, and Andy says if they try to throw us out he’ll whip out his Hyatt Member Card, but hopefully it won’t come to such drastic measures.

posted by Poagao at 9:59 pm  
May 16 2018

Books, photography, albums, etc.

While it’s nice and all that my book Barbarian at the Gate: From the American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army has been listed on Taiwaneseamerican.org’s 50 Books for Your Taiwanese American Library, their description of the book’s content is not quite accurate. But I suppose I’ll let any potential readers out there find that out for themselves. Coincidentally, also listed as well as shown in the lead image of the page is Francie Lin’s The Foreigner, which features one of my photographs as the cover art.

It’s hot and muggy out; everyone is waiting for the plum rains, but the weather just doesn’t seem interested this year. As the water flowing under the Bitan bridge assumes more of a coffee hue from the lack of rain, no doubt drought will be announced soon. I’ve been scanning old negatives at home while listening to podcasts, and am constantly amazed at how poorly the original photo labs printed these shots, cropping out significant portions of the photos and seemingly making exposure decisions at random. I’ve also been busy with my photography course, leading students around various part of northern Taiwan and covering material in the classroom, as well as planning for the upcoming BME street photography workshop in San Francisco that I’m teaching along with Andy Kochanowski. I’m looking forward to seeing the SF crowd again…if I make it into the country that is; I’ve successfully applied for the visa waiver program, but I’ve still got my fingers crossed that I’ll get a decent immigration officer. The Muddy Basin Ramblers’ third album is slowly coming to fruition; the two riverside listening tests we’ve held so far have been promising. Other members of the band have predicted that this one’s going to be big…we’ll see. I’m just enjoying the ride, and regardless of how well it’s received, I’m happy to have been part of it.

Riverside testing our new album.

The catchword for 2018 so far has been “surreal”…everything feels like a loaded plate balanced at the very edge of a table, and half of us just want to see it fall. The transition from winter to summer is usually the most volatile, atmospherically speaking. China has increased its efforts to erase Taiwan from everyone’s awareness, and for all of their crowing about democracy and freedom, businesses, governments and media all around the world seem perfectly happy to go along with the charade. For our part, our precious leadership here in Taiwan, which has become infamous for the many things it hasn’t done since it came to power, has decided that screwing up our air quality is no big deal as long as they don’t have to face any criticism from raising our laughably low utility prices. And the U.S. is…well, you know. Plate. Table. Shrug.

But hey, happy thoughts! I should remember that I have a great deal to be grateful for, many opportunities in the four+ decades I’ve been on this particular rock. I’m lucky enough to have a great place to live, a good employment situation, health and friends. So, as the great Joe Walsh once said, “I can’t complain (but sometimes I still do).”

posted by Poagao at 11:34 am  
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