commentary

Lens Culture Submission Review: Blood Unquiet (Edit 2)

In the wake of previous post about contests which also mentioned Lens Culture submission reviews (that one gets when entering to their contests in Series category) I thought why not publish the reviews I've gotten so far. This is a review of my work after all and there seem to be no rules prohibiting me from publishing it. So, here's the second one. As an introduction, they are about my series Blood Unquiet, but slightly different edit compared to what's shown here on my website (and another edit was exhibited at Photoville). Please be aware that this is not a review of their service, it's here for the sake of photographic discussion. To be honest, one thing that bothers me is that they don't put a name below the review.

Hello Karel, thanks for sharing your work. Your project is unique and powerful. I love the idea of creating new images of your childhood.
I resequenced the images to create a storyline and to connect one image to the next. Image #1 and 2 establishes the main subject in their environment. The hands and arms in #1 are effective in showing that the protagonist is young.
All of the images are powerful but a few have technical challenges. The perspective in #4 is dynamic but the focus is off, the boy’s face is unsharp. I suggest to re-shoot this and perhaps employ panning the camera to freeze the main subject but also to show blur on the ground. Image #5 is amazing but would be even more incredible if the mirror edges were more prominent. You could play around with switching the focal point from the jeans to the shoes. Image #6 is odd which is its strength but the space is awkward. The foreground is empty, perhaps a horizontal orientation would have been more beneficial. If you do choose to re-shoot this scene, include the label on the bottle. I am curious to know what the young boy is drinking. If you prefer to keep it a mystery, then take the label completely off the bottle and make it a non issue.
The next step in your project is to explore a presentation form that will further push your ideas. You could create a print portfolio. In doing this, type of paper, surface and size will play a big role. Creating a book is another idea. The series gathers strength when the images are viewed sequentially. I can imagine a small artist book working very well. Which ever way you go, I encourage you to consider the presentation form as an important vehicle for your vision to be realized.

Lens Culture Submission Review: Blood Unquiet (Edit 1)

In the wake of previous post about contests which also mentioned Lens Culture submission reviews (that one gets when entering to their contests in Series category) I thought why not publish the reviews I've gotten so far. This is a review of my work after all and there seem to be no rules prohibiting me from publishing it. So, here's the first one. As an introduction, this are about my series Blood Unquiet, but slightly different edit compared to what's shown here on my website (and another edit was exhibited at Photoville). Please be aware that this is not a review of their service, it's here for the sake of photographic discussion.

Karel, this is an interesting submission with some really special images. Your photographs show the innocence and freedom of childhood, while also touching upon the tenuousness of memory. The black and white format works well to impart a feeling of nostalgia and the vignettes that you have recreated definitely succeed in capturing the fragmented, almost dreamlike quality of a particular instant that for some reason lingers in your mind's eye.
I am most captivated by the images that are enigmatic because they spark my imagination and are the most universal and relatable. I have rearranged the order of the submission so that the first seven images are the ones that seem the most compelling and which I can imagine in a sequence that would suggest an unfixed narrative, the details of which could be filled in by the viewer. After sorting the images In this way I noticed that the images that were the most referential with a specific location or a recognizable face that wasn't obscured somewhat by the blur of movement, the darkness of night or splashing water were the least engaging to me. I recommend editing out the last three images because I think it will make the submission more intriguing and cohesive. A tightly edited submission will be more impressive to a juror in a competition and sometimes less is more.
I hope that you continue with this project because I like what you have done so far! Images 1 and 4 in the new sequence I am suggesting are real standouts to me. Image 1 suggests the fear and freedom of falling and therefore speaks to the precariousness of childhood, since it is so fleeting and a child is always heading toward the unknown. Image 4 speaks to a child's acquisition of knowledge by presenting an allegorical narrative that really pulls me in. For further inspiration, check out other photographers who have reflected on the mysteries of childhood including Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Emmet Gowan, Keith Carter and Sally Mann.

Book Review: Sally Mann "Immediate Family"

I heard that Sally Mann just recently published a book that is more of a memoir than a photo book - "Hold Still". I'm not going to buy or read it. Oh well, I ordered it already.

My issue with Sally Mann is that I wish I knew less of her and her life and how she puts her work into context. Or what the critics think. Or what the public thinks.

I wish I had just seen "Immediate Family", the photos. No essays, articles, interviews. It's counterintuitive, right, because usually if you like somebody's work, you want to learn more about it. I did the same with Sally Mann and I'm thorough. I'm afraid this was a mistake.

I wish I never knew that somebody actually stalked her because of her work (I wanted to reference the interview where she talked about it, but can't find it right now). It adds a dimension to her work I don't want to associate it with. I totally understand why she came out with those issues, it's not an accusation nor do I wish she presented her work differently. It's a massive 'fuck you!' to the narrow-minded people who can think of art as art and need to mix it with their own prejudices and take extreme positions based on that.

I never wanted to know that all the pictures in "Immediate Family" are staged. I'm not against staging photos, I do it all the time, but here work doesn't seem to be staged at the first glance. I never thought about it when looking at the pictures. Learning the pictures were staged didn't make me appreciate them less, but it made me think about it whether or not my position changes. I'm afraid that thought itself changed my position. I never wanted to know, I would've never asked about that.

In case of movie reviews, the writers put SPOILER ALERTS into their text when they start to describe the plot. For me the context - articles, reviews, etc - around Mann's work is all spoilers and not because it describes the pictures (it usually doesn't), but because it desperately wants make me choose sides. Pornography, says one side, greatest artist of our time, says the other. Whatever you choose (I'm certainly more in the latter camp), the fact that you even think about choosing (see, I had to position myself even earlier in this sentence) spoils the experience of looking at the pictures.

It's been said that there're no less than eight pictures in the book that could have yielded Mann arrested (probably due to nudity). I'm pretty sure this kind of publicity will make many people buy the book, which, in turn, makes me hope this wasn't a publicity stunt. But then, with all that powerful knowledge, can I look at the book again and not wonder which were these eight pictures?

Sometimes context is good and more information is good and multitude of opinions is good. And, it now seems to me, there're cases where reviews and articles don't do any good. At least for the people who appreciate the pictures; although controversy has certainly been good for Mann's career. But maybe there're works you just need to figure out on your own - take a quiet and lonely moment in the evening, leaf through the book and go somewhere deep. Dig into your childhood memories or just appreciate art, but don't tell anyone what you think. Pretty please. Because anything you say out publicly will bear the burden of social norms and moral values, it'll position you and set an example for others.

Of course I realize how naive this statement is, that Sally Mann would never had such a career and I likely would never heard about her work and all. But Sally's been naive too, publishing this book in "a world where ***philia exists" (see, in my endless naivety, I'm now censoring that word cause I don't want my writing to show up on google if someone enters that search term).

I'm really glad I first saw "Immediate Family" from a blank position, without knowing much of her work. And when looking back, it's even better. Had I read all what I have now, I'm afraid I would've looked at it differently. Not necessarily differently in a bad way, but with expectations too see everything that has been described - from pornography to innocence - there.

When I see a good movie or read a good book, it should make me see things in some new angle, in some different light, open some new perspective. It is the very definition of good for me. And although it's much much harder for photography to accomplish the same, some of it does. "Immediate Family" certainly did.

Hateful Eight and Panavision Ultra 70

Quentin Tarantino and his crew are obviously making big fuss about resurrecting Panavision Ultra 70mm format (2.76:1) for his new film Hateful Eight (or H8ful Eight or Hateful 8 or however they prefer to write it). This is claimed to be the widest and biggest (by frame size) film format ever used. (From the useless facts department: one of the widest commonly used photographic cameras Fuji G617 uses 6x17 format which is 2.83:1 - very slightly wider than the Panavision Ultra).

On one hand - it's definitely nice to pay some respect to what has been done before, shoot film proudly, tinker with exotic lenses that sat on the shelf for nearly fifty years, do the all-analog screenings in roadshow format, etc.

On the other hand - I find it strange when a piece of creative work, which a movie no doubt is, is promoted using the medium on which it's shot. To me it somehow devalues the film itself, like the content or the great work of actors is not worth mentioning - but the film stock and lenses and projectors are. Of course some breakthrough technologies surface from time to time which add something to our experience - think of 3D for example or the hyperrealistic 48 frames per second (which was actually deemed not-so-cinematic). Probably the very first 3D films were loudly advertised to be 3D and offer new experience, I don't even remember it any more.

For me it has always been content over form. Lately I've been shooting regularly with lens made in the fifties - should I start advertising my photography based on that? I feel the opposite - I very very rarely discuss anything related to photographic gear, let alone making posts like "what's in my camera bag".

I've been discussing Polaroid and New55, but I find it to be a bit different - rather than promoting my work based on the material I shoot on, it adds something to the photographic process that's not achievable otherwise (to be exact, Polaroid/peel apart film introduces a lot of serious restrictions which lead you to work in a specific way - which is worth learning in my opinion).

There's another reason for photographers to work using some exotic process - it adds to the uniqueness. Not many photographers are using wet plate collodion process for example, if you do it and throw in a huge camera, you can be famous just based on that. Another aspect is that exotic processes make your outcome rare, rare in a sense that it's not easy to make huge number of uneditioned prints of it. All else being equal, I, too, would prefer silver gelatin print over inkjet. Signing and editioning is just another way to add rarity to the work.

I've written myself to a point where it's hard to wrap up. What exactly did I say? That I disapprove promoting your work based on camera/material, but adding rarity/uniqueness by using exotic process is OK? Possibly. Your thoughts are welcome, dear (rare) reader.

Thoughts On My New York Trip

Saying that New York is busy and noisy and hectic in every way (at least for people coming from not-so-big towns as me) wouldn't probably surprise anybody.  It's interesting experience though. New York is like no other big city where I've been and I've been to some. I walked around a lot in Manhattan and enjoyed the vibe. I'm not much into major tourist attractions, although, of course, I couldn't resist the view from Empire State Building.

Here are my photography related thoughts and impressions in random order (I'm not yet talking about Photoville - that'll be a separate post):

I was really sad to learn the International Center of Photography was closed. As per the reviews they have very interesting collection and exhibitions.

Same goes for Aperture Gallery and several other I planned to visit - this time of the year seems to be the vacation period for galleries. I spent some time at Aperture bookshop though, a lot off interesting stuff there. I was about to buy Stephen Shore book (I like his street work), but decided it's too big and heavy to fly it over the Atlantic in my suitcase.

The first gallery that was actually open was Howard Greenberg Gallery which hosted Dave Heath and Brassai exhibitions. Black and white pictures, top of the line framing, museum glass etc. Having had several exhibitions myself I can now see details I couldn't before - anything from the width of the matte to the color of the walls to the even lightning. Valuable experience. And I liked the pictures too, although having looked at 60+ exhibitions during the couple of days it's very hard to say much about the photos. Classics.
(I remembered this later) Brassai's pictures were his drafts, showing the original photo with his crop marks - on one hand it was interesting to look at the original framing and how he cropped them later, yet on the other hand - would he be happy to present the drafts? I wouldn't, this is some kind of collector's wet dream, making the pictures unique, but not adding to aesthetics.

The next one was Lee Friedlander and Pierre Bonnard at Pace/MacGill Gallery. Perfected installation again, but when it comes to pictures, I remember Lee Friedlander by very different work. So the pictures of trees and bushes were not something I could easily connect to, sorry about that. Maybe we have too much of that in Estonia.

Sidenote: What was a little bit unexpected is how hard it is to find the galleries. If you're expecting beautiful street-level display, you're wrong. You have to know where you're going, have the addresses and maps ready and even then you probably have to ask from the reception on the ground floor where exactly is the gallery you're looking for. There were some street-level galleries with banners outside at Chelsea, too, but many were still hidden somewhere on the upper floors. So come prepared. I could've visited more, if I had done better homework.

The exhibition that touched me the most was Cig Harvey's "Gardening at Night" at Robert Mann Gallery. Beautiful pictures forming a stunning installation. There were around ten big pictures with high-gloss finishing (that resembled Diasec but probably weren't), another ten or so matted and framed, a few cinemagraphs (moving photos - google it if you're not familiar with the term) plus neon texts. Still, the pictures were the ones that struck me the most. They almost made me want to try color seriously again. Same goes for cinemagraphs - they screens were cleverly framed almost identical to the matted pictures, so when you step closer and find out it's moving - it does surprise. 

If I had to choose one word to describe the pictures, it would be poetic (as I've probably acquired my definition of poetic from the video about Lynne Ramsay films). It's all about small details and beautiful tones, there's no pretentious grand narrative (that's probably the weak link in my work - I need a reason, my pictures are my idèes fixes, but this is my way, no can do :)).

After seeing the exhibition, I bought Harvey's book under the same name, yes, Gardening at Night, without thinking twice (the only thing I regret is not buying a signed copy). Too bad the book format doesn't allow cinemagraphs, these were the cherries on the top, when looking at exhibition. And some of the reproductions are not as good as the exhibition pictures, but they probably never are.

I'm sure I visited some more exhibitions but seems like they didn't stick, I'm still navigating through the chaos of impressions, so if anything comes up, I'll add it to the post.

After digging through Aperture and Barnes&Noble photography books, I found that there was a small, dedicated photo book shop just a few blocks from where I lived - Dashwood Books. Small shop, but what a choice of photo books. Highly recommended, but I hope you don't happen to be there with the some girls gossiping their gay friend who got AIDS (seriously, it wasn't possible not to hear their conversation as they were loud).

Commentary to Tears/No Tears

Before you read my commentary, you need to check out these two links:

14 Powerful Portraits Of Men Reacting To New Mandatory Army Draft In Lithuania by Neringa Rekasiute

and

No Tears: Estonians Respond To Lithuanians Who Weep For Mandatory Military Service by Kaupo Kikkas.

It's easy to quickly position yourself and say "I like this one" and "I don't like the other" and it's kinda hard not to gravitate towards either series - depending on your view of the world. The photographs are very polarizing, taken together. But once you look deeper, things get more complicated (and I might even not be able to reach all the layers).

I'm starting from Neringa's work as this is what obviously appeared first. It's fashionable for men to look good, it's fashionable to show men's emotions (after all, satire about men not showing emotions was a huge hit on the net lately), it's fashionable to be against war, free will is one of western society's backbones, etc. I can relate to these statements in some context, but Neringa puts it all together and takes it well over the top, photographing crying hipsters in military uniforms Crying because Lithuanian government introduced mandatory military service.

I'm seriously wondering what is the reaction to her work in Lithuania - it may well be that it's actually so much over the top it even drives more men to sign up voluntarily to the army, more men wanting not to be unmanly, cowardly, disgraceful. That is, could it be that her work has the opposite effect to what we think she wanted to accomplish. I don't even want to get into the fake-looking tears, it seems to make the work ridiculous. I'm somehow  pretty sure crying men times fourteen is not the best way to portray pacifism. But lets honor the photographers decisions and try to focus on the message, not the messengers and not the style of writing.

Kaupo's work is a reaction to Neringa's. Once again it's easy to dismiss the photographic qualities and take a stand as heroic, patriotic and proud person. Again, values one can easily relate to, given the context (war in Ukraine, Russia modernizing it's army and taking aggressive positions). Kaupo's portraits are strong, of strong persons showing high self-esteem, smiling in military uniforms. I like to think they're smiling because they like their country and they're proud of it, not because of disrespect to Neringa's models. I do wonder if and to what extent were they aware of the purpose of their portraits taken, what made them smile? To me at least Paap seems to have the expression of person looking at a shameful moment in bad comedy :) "Hey, think of a crying hipster going to army" - these are some low, but honest associations. Kaupo is balancing on people's level of emotional intelligence here, there will be part of audience who thinks they're laughing at Neringa's guys and there'll be part who sees it as love of freedom and self-respect.

Both works are simplistic, in a sense that I'm quite sure both groups could have been assembled from either Lithuania or Estonia, both sentiments exist in both countries, it's just that Lithuanian anti-military thinking skyrocketed in the wake of government passing the mandatory service bill. Neringa sets the tone here, Kaupo follows, but to his favor, doesn't do it in a completely black and white manner - imagine if he chose some hard-line tattooed combat veterans as his models, instead of these nice proud citizens. The important difference between the two series, however (and I'm pretty sure that this is something only Estonians could notice), is that Neringa's models cry because they're deprived of their free will due to mandatory military service, while Estonian Defense League to where Kaupo's models belong is completely voluntary organization. So we might be comparing two very different situations here, one that very much favors Kaupo's models (although yes, they have most probably been to military service and maybe even the Russian one - before Estonia regained independence that is).

Neringa's work stands on it's own, while Kaupo's point seems to be stronger in relation to hers (something like an argument and counterargument). I think Neringa's photos certainly succeed in being provocative, which, as some argue, is the whole point of art. But at least for me, she would be more persuasive if she had shown different angles of the same topic, just like you expect from good journalism. Kaupo reacts to the provocation and takes his stand, but in all honesty, I wish I could have had a look at his photos without any context and see it more as proud individuals loving their freedom than poking fun at Lithuanians.