When I first saw the Fuji X-Pro1 I was excited. At last a digital version of the Contax G2, my favorite 35mm camera. A small, high quality camera, meant to be used handheld, with manual controls–physical manual controls. How I tire of thumbwheels and tiny buttons and menus. The reviews were positive, the lens selection adequate.
I didn’t buy one. I already had the excellent Fuji x100, sort of a fixed lens version of the XPro in many ways. I already had a largerNikon D800E–small, fast and handheld for the x100, larger, maximum quality, and high flexibility for the D800. There wasn’t really a need.
At the end of June that changed. B&H had a sale–and what a sale! While the body was full price lenses were heavily discounted–so much so that the price of a lens new was lower than the same lens sold for on the used market. Buy an XPro body and buy as many lenses as you liked, each discounted. Heavily discounted. A third to a half off. It occurred to me that I could buy into the system, try it out, and sell it if I had to and break even. Indeed, I might even make a few hundred bucks on the deal.
So I bought it. I bought everything. I bought the body, I bought the 18mm, I bought the 35 and the 60 and the 14. I even bought the 18-55 zoom which is odd since I don’t usually buy zooms. I bought a nice little blue soft case to carry it around. Oh so cool.
Sharp lenses. Quick and easy to use. Controls where they should be, no need to fiddle. It really is the Contax G2, born again. A modern Leica, what Leica should have evolved toward had it not so badly lost its way.
Yet the XPro sits in its bag. I made a few images, tested out the lenses and accustomed myself to the camera and its controls. Yet it sits, I think, because I can’t yet answer the question, the question at the heart of every tool–what is it for?
For spontanoes photography–that is to say when I need to make a photo and I have no camera with me–I usually have my iPhone. For quick record shots it is awfully useful. For travel and for family photographs I have the Fuji x100. I’ve haven’t made a “serious” photography with it yet but it has been an agreeable companion on trips long and short. And for serious work, when I need a camera, I seem ever to reach for the D800.
A small, convient-to-carry camera paired with a heavy, full featured camera, augmented by snapshots from the everpresent phone. Those three cover a lot of ground and cover it well. And then we have oddball cameras for specialized uses The film-based Hasselblad system. The large format instant film camera. The video-optimized digital camera.The video-only cameras.
Can the perfect camera be neither here nor there?
Is it still possible to see art at museums? I don’t mean can you find art at museums–of course you can. I mean, quite literally, can you still see art at museums.
Case in point: The Cantor Art Museum at Stanford University. The Cantor is a wonderful small museum, always with something interesting to see. Last week I was there and they had a small selection of “beach photos” (my term), showing works from Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, Richard Misrach and Max Yavno, among others.
A few interesting things, a few usual suspects.
But the lighting! It was so dark. Dark to the point where you had to struggle to see the image.
No doubt this is done to help preserve the prints. Light equals energy equals photo deterioration. I understand. But does it really need to be so dim?
Photographers know that their images, when printed, look very different when seen in different types of light. When I print an image I take a test print and walk around the house. In my kitchen, under fluorescent light, inkjet images look dull and flat. In direct sunlight, from my living room skylight, shadow detail is amazing, but transparent and without depth. Under dining room tungstens the print can glow, if printed just so.
But the Cantor show, like many other museums, was too dark. Shadow detail blends together into sludge. Sparkling highlights, dead.
This is big stuff to photographers. In the darkroom days we worried about it to the point where we agonized over the dry-down effect, the slight darkening of the highlights of wet paper (when you are making your judgements about print density) when the wet print dried (when it would be too late). Tiny adjustments were required and administered.
In the digital age we agonize over printer profiles and monitor calibration.
The real question, though, isn’t a technical one. It’s an aesthetic one. What does an image lose when it is illuminated too dimly? Here’s a cellphone pict from the Cantor (with the cellphone picture fairly capturing the brightness of the room):
I pity the curators and the staff charged with preserving these works. The answer, to preserve or to illuminate, is a difficult one. I’m complaining about the dim light yet the small show had two Richard Misrach images from the 1970s, already woefully yellowed and fading.
The answer is clear however, if you ask the right question. If you want to communicate with the artist, if you want to experience whatever experience the artist intended you to have, then you are much better served by a quality reproduction.
The prints displayed here, in this basement-like dinginess, may be of historical significance as artistic artifacts, but they carry nothing of the weight the artist surely intended them to carry.
As I loitered in the small alcove where these images were displayed (waiting in vain for my eyes to adjust) a class of teenagers entered the area, teacher in tow. The students were well-behaved and the teacher spoke to them about the images, explaining that
“…in black and white photography it is all about the tones. Photographers go to great lengths to get the tones just right so that there are shadows with detail still in them and whites that aren’t just pure white. It’s difficult to do.”
The real battle only lasted a day.
Who knew that Dick Blick carried photo paper? Same price as B&H, Shadesofpaper, Atlex, and all the rest but cheaper and faster shipping. They must–gasp–have a warehouse near California! Three boxes should be here Tuesday, maybe Monday. It will be just in time–I’m down to two and a half boxes.
…bio-art isn’t simply about creating metaphorical representations of scientific concepts, it’s about using actual scientific techniques…
Curator Jens Hauser as quoted in ArtNews*
If you are in the mood to read something thought-provoking, well-researched, and…well…simply interesting, one of the last places you might think to look is an art magazine. Every gallery and many artists subscribe to them but no one seems to read them–they serve as ornaments for the public table. If you want to read about art buy a New York Times. If you want to look at ads, buy an art magazine.
Recently a friend’s kid was selling magazine subscriptions for a school fund raiser–they had bought magazines from my kids so I reciprocated. I’m now a subscriber to art news, one of the least fetid of the genre.
The current issue is headlined “Where Art and Science Collide,” which I thought unusual. My hopes were raised. It’s no secret that art and science used to be best friends–they went together everywhere. Any person who wished to be considered educated cultivated a knowledge of art, even undertook the practice on an amateur basis. Science has since entered a period of hyper-development and art has sort of wandered around aimlessly, growing more fragmented and pointless. With science we get a transformation of people’s lives and entire societies. With art we get a few giggles from the gossip pages and disdainful shakes of the head at auction prices. It’s a little game that is played, with nothing really at stake. The money flows in from one of two directions, the gallery system or academia–neither of which is terribly interested in art itself.
There are efforts to “reunify” art and science. This month’s ArtNews touches on a niche within that effort where things are grown laboratories and sometimes even eaten. Fun stuff for the undergrads, judging by the photos. And it was the quote (above) by Hauser that caught my eye, that captured the difficulty in any such reunification effort. Most of what I see in contemporary art, in terms of the meeting of art and science, is simply illustrations of science, albeit occasionally beautifully done. That’s the “metaphorical representation of scientific concepts” that Hauser uses as his baseline. But it doesn’t seem that using “scientific techniques” is the right way to go, either. Growing stuff in a lab is, no doubt, an exciting change of pace for art students, but the heart of science isn’t about the techniques as the questions the techniques allow one to explore. Without those questions are you really doing anything interesting? With them are you just doing science itself? I don’t know, but my doubts are strong.
*March 2013 issue, page 66
I bought six boxes of special paper for this project–one hundred and fifty sheets to print about fifty images. I don’t know what I was thinking–it’s nowhere near enough. I need to order more in the morning and get out here ASAP. Eighty bucks for a 25-sheet box, ugh.
But if you want to think about a real problem think about the Burnside Bridge. From the vantage of the photograph you are on the Confederate side. That dip in the ground right in front of you is most probably the remains of a shelter dug by Confederate sharpshooters. The Union forces are on the far side, across the bridge. The bridge, the Union general feels, is the only way across Antietam Creek.
So you have a few hundred Confederates on one side and lots of Union troops on the other. But the Union troops have to run down an open road, parallel to the creek, then cross the bridge, all while under fire. And charge they did, again and again. The Union forces eventually took the bridge–it is named after General Ambrose Burnside, the commanding general. You can only imagine the slaughter.
Speaking of General Burnside, he gave something else to posterity. He wore his facial hair in an odd style, down his cheeks and over his nose with his chin bare. It was so distinctive and unusual that the troops nicknamed the style “side burns.” Burn-side, side-burns. Get it?
Here is General Ambrose Burnside in all his glory:
He was relieved of command after the disaster at The Crater–a battle viewers of the film Cold Mountain will remember, with Union troops trapped cheek to jowl in a crater caused by an explosion intended to breech Confederate fortifications. Poorly trained troops went into the crater rather than around it and became trapped, a shooting gallery for the Confederates.
Just before I moved to California I completed shooting a project of landscapes of Antietam, the Civil War battlefield. I planned to print it after the move but so much intervened. I never built a darkroom, a publisher toyed with putting it out in book form, I scanned it and then a few years later decided those scans weren’t good enough and scanned them all again. It’s been a long eight years but, at last, I’m printing. I’ve been testing various papers and ink combinations, various approaches, these past few weeks but yesterday and today I’m really printing. There are roughly fifty-five images in the project–seven are finished so far.
The printing phase of any project tends–to borrow a phrase from Kubrick referring to the filming of his movies–a bit of a slog. But it feels great to finally fix these images in time and space, to finally make them real and get them out of my head.
I picked up three boxes of the Costco house brand of photo paper over the weekend–it goes under the brand name of”Kirkland.” I use it for calibrating the printer and for printing stuff the kids need for school.
I thought packaging interesting, and also the color change of the base paper, from a sort of light cream to brilliant white.
Oh, the Cloud!
We should live in a film watcher’s paradise. All those streaming services, all those films at your fingertips. I’ve even been tempted to stop buying films on disc. Who needs the hassle and the expense when they are all right there for the downloading at minimal cost?
In my case I have easy access to Amazon Instant, Netflix, and Apple TV. And yet, again and again it seems the film I want to see isn’t there. Am I imagining things? Is there really a need to keep a hard copy collection of DVDs on the shelf?
On a whim I grabbed a handful off of my own shelf. I picked films to test the services. I didn’t want films that were obscure and that only a hard core film buff would care about. That didn’t seem fair given the early stage of the technology. But what about the next tier up? Films that you might see at a college cinema, perhaps?
For each of my films I checked Amazon, Netflix and Apple to see if they had it for download (to rent or buy). (All are currently available on disc–about half on Blu-Ray and about half still on DVD).
In no certain order, here is what I found:
For All Mankind. Spliced footage of actual Apollo missions giving the sense of a single trip to the Moon, set to music by Brian Eno. Apple TV only.
Tommy. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, illustrated. Ken Russell and The Who produce something magical. No rentals. Buy from Amazon or Apple.
Painters Painting. O.K., a little obscure, but a must see for any artist. Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, the eminently quotable Barnet Newman, and much more, all filmed way back then. Rent at Amazon, rent or buy at Apple. I’m surprised to see this available at all–it was out of print for a while and I treasured my VHS copy.
The Duellists. A childhood favorite of mine. Two guys have a question of honor, or at least a grudge, that doesn’t go away. You can buy it at Amazon and Apple. There’s a pattern developing here for Netflix.
All That Jazz. Why is this film fading from memory? A choreographer is passionately dedicated to his work and little else. People I mention it to have only a vague recollection. Not available to download at all. What?
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. O.K. probably the best known silent film. If Netflix fails this then I’ll weep. Luckily they have it, as does Amazon and Apple.
Three Colors Trilogy. No luck here. No one carries them to stream. Then I thought maybe I should have chosen Decalogue instead. No luck there, either. Sorry, Kieslowski, it’s the remainder bin for you.
French Lieutenant’s Woman. Not a huge hit but it’s got Meryl Streep in it, and Jeremy Irons. Real stars. And Apple has it as does Amazon. Netflix fails again.
Koyaanisqatsi. If you haven’t seen it you’ve seen it copied. The first of three films challenging our society without words. Amazing photography. Amazon has this one but not the next two installments. Apple has all three. Netflix, strangely, has only the third installment.
La Ronde. The director Max Ophuls was one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite directors–the camera is always moving. This is my favorite Ophuls film but not so popular it seems as no one carries it. I’ll cling to my disc with both hands.
Local Hero. Quirky film, odd film, lovely film. Guy sent to buy a town finds an elusive taste of belonging and fulfillment. Again, everyone carries it but Netflix.
Tampopo. A film about food and dedication, about caring about your craft. Out of print for a while due to a messy legal situation (the director was murdered, hints of Japanese underworld involvement, ownership rights a mess). The online services never heard of it. But back in print it seems on DVD so maybe the legal problems are over?
Throne of Blood. O.K., Tampopo wasn’t exactly obscure but not a household title, I get that. But Kurosawa? Akira Kurosawa? Surely he must rank among the world’s top directors, cited again and again by the big directors of our own day. Quentin Tarantino, Steven Speilburg, George Lucas? Without Kurosawa we’d have no Clint Eastwood. But no, no Throne of Blood. Not even Rashamon, one of Kurosawa’s most celebrated (and most copied) films. Surely the folks in the IT world would remember Hidden Fortress, the source for the Star Wars characters C3PO and R2D2? Sigh.
My conclusion. Obviously, hold on to the disks. Netflix is worthless as far as serious film watching goes. And even when the film is offered elsewhere you can’t rest easy. I’ve had films in my “to watch” list on both Netflix and Apple mysteriously vanish.
Our cultural history seems to be a fragile, even ephemeral, thing.
This is a fantasy of mine. Somehow I come into money. Millions. And I’m tasked with reinventing art, reinventing photography, but this time without the dead hand of Marx, Freud, and French Philosophy gripping it by the neck.
My fantasy is playing out in the world of theoretical physics and in medicine and biology. Yuri Milner started it last year, giving away millions in prizes with his Fundamental Physics Prize and then giving those winners the power to select the next year’s prize winners. We’re talking real money here, $3 million a person and nine awards.
Tomorrow that same model is used for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, with Yuri, again, but also Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, and Mark Zuckerberg helping to kick in the cash.
(Sidenote: I used to work for the government at an agency that funded early stage technology research and I suggested then–twelve years ago–that we do something similar, although on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, by then all the good people had left by then and the idea was DOA.)
What if I had a pile of money and could use that money (and the resulting publicity) to fund art in a way to reinvigorate it, to make it something that people took seriously again? Who would I choose for my first nine awards? Who would you choose?
Update: I just discovered that Yuri Milner’s wife is Julia Milner, a photographer. Hmmm.