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Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Roger Fenton, “The Queen’s Target,” 1860, albumen silver print


Thank you to everybody who came to “Before there was Ballen” yesterday at Quality Pictures. I was thrilled to have such a great turnout and a provocative discussion about Roger’s work at the end of the presentation. Extra thanks to Erik Schneider at Quality Pictures for hosting the event and supporting challenging photography, as well as the ideas that surround it.

You can read two very kind writeups of the talk here and here. And to answer the question put forth in Carlisle’s summary: Yes, there are plans to publish BtwB, and that’ll be announced here when the time comes. (Thank you for asking!) In the meantime, I think That’s a Negative will take a well-deserved Ballen Break™ in order to focus on some of the other amazing photography out there that’s calling my name. Regularly scheduled blogging will resume momentarily.

Please join me this Saturday for “Before there was Ballen” and a light brunch at Quality Pictures Contemporary Art. In conjunction with the closing of Roger Ballen: Photographs, I will talk about the artist’s work and show that, although Ballen’s photographs look like nothing else being exhibited today, they spring from a myriad of traditions that can be traced back to the dawn of photography.
Quality Pictures Contemporary Art, 916 NW Hoyt, Sat June 28, 10 am, free



Anon, c. 1850


August Sander, Dwarfs, 1912


Diane Arbus, “Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ,” 1967


Shelby Lee Adams, “The Rambo Boys,” 1987


Roger Ballen, “Twins, Western Transvaal,” 1993

Joni Sternbach, “08.04.13 #7 Pilot Peak,” 2008, unique tintype. Critical Mass Book Award Winner, 2007

It was no surprise that when the emails and phone calls started coming in from the Photolucida folks following my last post about their organization, they weren’t looking to name me Guest of Honor at this year’s black tie gala. Although it was conceded here and there by various players within the nonproft that I had raised some good points, the key message was delivered succinctly by the board member who called my piece “naive.”

Last Friday I met with Photolucida Director Laura Moya to talk about what I had written. She pointed out a few factual errors I made, listened to me further articulate my grievances, filled me in on some of Photolucida’s challenges, expounded on their strengths, and ultimately proposed a “common ground” arrangement that will hopefully please us all (not just she and I, but photography enthusiasts at large). At no point, however, did I see where my naivety came into play: A understaffed, underfunded nonprofit, fueled by well-intentioned volunteers and board members who have varying degrees of involvement and experience, is what I presumed to be true of Photolucida, and that organizational profile is the very line of defense that everyone wished to impress on me.

In other areas I wasn’t so smart, though. My original post contained two sizable blunders: At one point I mentioned not having received press releases from Photolucida in years, which I thought absurd, since I’m the most photo-centric art writer in town. Moya said that she absolutely sent me one, and later provided me with a copy of the press release she mailed to the three local papers. I am more than willing to blame the grouchy mail sorter at my old workplace for this, but I’ll take a polygraph stating I never received that press release. But then it gets worse: You might remember that I wrote Photolucida provided zilch in the way of public programming, aside from their portfolio walk night. Evidently, in addition to the p-walk, the last event featured lectures by Louie Palu and the two artists exhibiting at Blue Sky, the Portland Grid Project exhibition at the now-defunct Portland Art Center, and workshops at Newspace by Mary Virginia Swanson and Darius Himes. I greatly regret my errors on this point (just as I regret not knowing about these events last year).

So was my mind completely reversed about Photolucida, and did I realize that my passive aggressive blog posts are but pathetic cries for attention? Take a guess, and then see if you’re correct after the break.

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Weegee on his fire escape (detail), c. 1939, photographer unknown.


It took me a few false starts before I was able to dive into the writings of historian/theoritician Geoffrey Batchen, who remains most well-known for his remarkable book, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. For those who haven’t yet made the Batchen plunge, this brief interview covers a number of his overarching concerns, which are nothing if not ambitious. (Bonus: Read the New York Times‘ original review of Burning with Desire here.)

Holly Andres‘ photographs received some insightful analysis and praise last week from friend and colleague John Motley at the Portland Mercury. Also on the local front: small A projects is closing at the end of the month and heading to NYC. I’m in the middle of reviewing their current photography show, and was planning to post it over the weekend. This is a real blow to Portland’s art scene.

1000 Words, the new online photo mag that’s got everyone (rightfully) aflutter, just posted a nice short film about Stephen Shore, who serves to remind us how wonderfully articulate so many photographers are about their work. [Wow—YouTube user elphistone, who uploaded the video, has similar shorts about the Bechers, Martin Parr, Todd Hido, and others. If I still had a desk job and a boss, they’d both be so neglected tomorrow.]

Yesterday I started reading the deeply engaging Weegee and Naked City from the Defining Moments in American Photography series. Today the Times gives Mr. Felig the slideshow, three-click-through article, video, and primer” treatment, whatever the fuck that is. (Seriously, what is that?) Weegee would be most pleased.

Lastly, Aperture has thrown together a web-only tribute to the year 1968, which is fine once you get past the goofy intro. There’s a nice gallery of photojournalism from the likes of Bruno Barbey, Raymond Depardon, Don McCullin, and Elliot Erwitt, as well as a reprint of “The Unbearable Relevance of Photography” by the underrated Fred Richtin. And as a special bonus: groovy fonts, man!

James C. Richardson, from “Cascadia: Living on Fire,” May 1998, National Geographic


Yesterday we made one of my favorite day trips to Mount St. Helens—a journey that manages a pitch-perfect harmony of natural beauty, horrifying evidence of destruction, and late capitalist kitsch. The drive to the Johnson Ridge Observatory just near the volcanic crater (a visitor center perpetually overrun with tourists, in a scene that looks exactly like James C. Richardson’s photograph, minus the polarizing filter) culminates in a recently re-envisioned, cracked-out educational film about the eruption, which ends with the screen lifting and the curtain parting to reveal the hissing crater just outside the window.

This dramatic finale is a fascinating play of reality and representation; the presentation and framing of nature; and of interior and exterior spaces. The enormous window that overlooks the mountain is even partitioned into a grid of thick black squares, as if it has been prepared for a public lesson on perspective drawing. When I first visited several years ago, I had the uncanny experience (for which I don’t believe there’s a name) of having walked into a familiar photograph: namely, Rick Dingus’ spot-on panorama of the theater, which I had studied long before ever setting foot in Washington State. [Dingus is no stranger to the application of framing devices onto popular views of the sublime. His major 1978 discovery as part of the Rephotographic Survey Project about Timothy O’Sullivan’s artistic liberties created a sizable ripple on the scholarship of 19th century landscape photography.]

Emmett Gowin, “Mount St. Helens, Washington,” 1980


The area of devastation (and the souvenir/tourist industry that’s sprouted in its wake) is ripe for a new wave of younger landscape photographers to cover. Just off the top of my head, I’d love to see what Jason Fulford, J. Bennett Fitts, or Jungjin Lee would do with a hillside residency. Emmet Gowin made a number of photographs of the mountain decades ago, but only the image of the downed tree and warbonnet stump stands out in my eyes.

Frank Gohlke, ” Aerial view: downed forest near Elk Rock. Approximately ten miles northwest of Mount St. Helens, Washington,” 1981


And then of course there’s Frank Gohlke, whose Mount St. Helens photos re-entered my life yesterday in a most lovely and unexpected way. Browsing the first of a half-dozen gift shops, I stumbled on a cache of still-sealed copies of the monograph that accompanied Gohlke’s Mount St. Helens MoMA show of 2005. Sweeter still—they were all marked down to $14.95, and Christine bought me a copy before I could even protest. When I got home, I was disappointed to learn that the book didn’t contain a proper essay about the photographs, even though John Szarkowski selected and sequenced all of the images. There’s a typically dull introduction by Peter Galassi, brief endnotes on the photos by the artist, and an essay by two scientists about volcanoes (adopted from a chapter in The Earth in Turmoil), which doesn’t even touch in Gohlke’s photographs. Rather than complain about it, I will try to organize a few thoughts about why Gohlke has succeeded in capturing the sublime horror and beauty of the eruption’s aftermath better than any other photographer in a short essay later this week. In the meantime, however, I have a big project to prepare for, so I will leave you with my favorite photograph of May 18, 1980, taken by Robert Krimmel for the US Geological Survey.

Not for the glib of heart, No Caption Needed’s recent post, Punctuated Equilibrium in the Photographic Record, was an invigorating read as well as a wake-up call to bloggers like myself, who need to step up their online critical writing game. There’s a place in the blogosphere for everybody, but No Caption Needed is starting to look a little lonely in the brainy end of the cafeteria. “Punctuated Equilibrium” poses a provocative question about the subtle worldview of popular photojournalism: “Is civilization the norm, with violence a marginal adaptation, or is violence the general characteristic of the population, punctuated occasionally by selective adaptations toward peace?”

Also spotted in the refreshingly wordy and well-composed annals of the internet is LA photographer Charlie White, whose essay “Minor Threat” investigates Gary Gross’ 1975 nude photo of then-10-year-old Brooke Shields, as well as the reverberations that were set into motion when Richard Prince rephotographed the image and christened it Spiritual America.

After all that reading, relax into Sunday with this 1940 classic, Elmer’s Candid Camera (considering it, perhaps, in relation to Sontag’s “In Plato’s Cave.”)

Gus Van Sant, Elephant, 2003


Gus Van Sant’s difficult and haunting Elephant screens tonight at the Northwest Film Center as the second installment in the director’s so-called Death Trilogy. When I first saw the film in theaters, the darkroom scene stood out most in my mind as the essence of (what I perceived to be) Elephant‘s indulgence. Aside from the fact that the high school photographer character was over-agitating his film (I’m a stickler for detail. Sue me.), I couldn’t fathom why Van Sant would subject us to a wordless, real-time scene of a boy alone in the darkroom. “At the end of the day,” I silently groused, “it’s still just a long shot of a guy inverting his film canister too many times.” And then, out of nowhere, the idea struck: “Things don’t develop until they’ve gotten sufficiently agitated.” I have no idea if Van Sant had this tiny metaphor in mind, but it seemed to apply to a film about school shootings, and it allowed me to appreciate Elephant and Van Sant’s subsequent films to a far greater degree.

As it turns out, Elephant‘s darkroom scene struck a chord with lots of writers:

“The next character we meet is a photographer, Elias, who spends a lot of time… scrutinizing his pictures in a darkroom. Van Sant stays with him for minutes at a time as he rotates his canisters and prints his captured images: Very evocative, but of what I’m not sure.” David Edelstein, Slate.com

“Another moment can be seen to be playing with audience expectations in order to question the reliability of the film image itself as a source of knowledge. One of the film’s first scenes depicts the student and keen photographer Elias taking a photograph of a couple of punks in the park. A later sequence, portraying the character developing negatives in the school’s dark-room, encourages the viewer to expect to see how this particular photograph turned out. A single, unbroken shot lasting two minutes initially captures Elias’s hand in extreme close-up as he rocks a tin enclosing his negatives back and forth; his rhythmic motion creating a ‘ticking’ sound akin to that of a clock. This auditory clock metaphor serves to highlight the length of time that the hidden negatives are the object of the camera’s intense close-focus interest. A following shot tracks from left to right across a desk in the dark-room as Elias and two fellow students examine their prints. With one student mistaking a rip in one of Elias’s models’ shirt for something ‘coming out of her head’, and then choosing to re-develop her own photograph because her first attempt ‘came out too light’, the content of the conversation here points up the question of both the unreliability of the photographic image and the potential to manipulate it. The form of this sequence is also important for the audience is never fully shown the punk photograph. As Elias holds it up for inspection the image is facing away from the camera and so the audience can only barely make out the outline of the two models .The next shot emphasises the camera’s role as un-knowing observer by placing it outside of the room in which Elias hangs up his print. Looking through a doorway which frames Elias in a long shot, the camera is much too far away to provide an adequate view of the photo and is thus never given full knowledge or understanding.” James Whitfield, Alternate Takes

“The walk is not always a fascinating one… Watching Elias hang up negatives in the darkroom, I began to worry I’d be in there forever.” Anna North, the Stanford Daily

Elephant, Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park, Sat June 14, 9 pm, $7

James Rajotte, “Nightclub,” 2006, former Photolucida Photographer of the Week

When I was pounding the pavement earlier today, I learned that Photolucida, Portland’s biennial photography portfolio review program, was holding a mini-session on July 26 and 27, with pretty-big-deal people attending, including Jen Bekman, Roy Flukinger, and Mary Virginia Swanson. (Sorry, registration’s full.)

The fact that Photolucida (formerly Photo Americas) has downgraded their ambition from full-blown photo biennial—complete with keynote speakers, citywide exhibitions, public events, an auction, and all the trimmings—into an auto-piloting portfolio review organization that doesn’t generate any form of community building saddens me tremendously. (By “community” I mean Portland’s photography and art community, not the bridge and tunnel crowd. My more concentrated circle of already-interested locals should be at least slightly invigorated by a festival of art photography; instead, most people I know aren’t even aware of it. [To be fair, there is a night where the registrants set up camp in the lobby of PNCA and open their portfolios to the general public, but that's the extent of the outreach program.])
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Members of an Unknown Amazon Basin Tribe: photography by Reuters (see final link below)


Today marks the one-year anniversary of master portraitist Arnold Newman’s death in New York City. As much as I pored over Newman’s photos when I was younger, dates like this don’t just stick in my head unassisted. That’s why I love the History of Photography Calendar—how else would I have known that I share a birthday with one of my favorite photographers, Arno Rafael Minkkinen?

Geoff Dyer can barely contain all of his thoughts on the Tate’s Street & Studio show in his latest column. Dyer has a highly informed and unique spin on photography that’s refreshingly free of the usual academic approaches to analysis. It reminds me, in a way, of James Agee’s film criticism: the deftly worded enthusiasms of an amateur expert.

If you are reading this, you’re almost certainly aware of the fledgling website, Women in Photography. Hopefully, founders Amy Elkins and Cara Phillips will have the time and energy to continue this important project on top of their own photography. A grant or two, or support from a kindred institution, could really help this site take off. The possibilities are endless, matched only by the tremendous bodies of photography that women have created in the past 169 years. (Speaking of, I’d really love to see a regular feature on there about female photographers throughout history.)

As far as context-free visual stimulus goes, Lens Culture‘s 33-image preview of Photo Espana is well worth clicking through. How wonderful does it sound to be in Madrid right now, listening to Joan Fontcuberta opining on The Future of Photography?

I wish Page 291 updated more often, because the author does a great job with concise impressions of East Coast exhibitions. For instance: Friedlander on Olmsted and the BMA’s curious history of photography.

This post on Photographic Anthropology (or more accurately, the image that inspired it, of remote tribesmen brandishing weapons at the low-flying airplane that repeatedly buzzed their primitive settlement) deserves to be expanded into a longer essay by someone with a stronger background in ethnography than myself. Is Coco Fusco on the case already? (full story)


Bill Jay is one of my favorite photography writers: Fiercely smart, grumpy and enthusiastic in equal measure, and ever-eloquent, Jay was the first editor of Creative Camera and author of countless essays about photography. Recently retired from Arizona State University, where he founded the Photographic Studies program, Jay has graciously archived more than 100 essays at his website. [Part One, Part Two]

Be sure also to check out his fully archived PDFs of Album, Jay’s fantastic 1970 photography journal that introduced England to the likes of Les Krims, Elliot Erwitt, and countless other young faces.

From Why Weegee Was Not a Westerner (PDF):

Suffice to say that photography, like pornography, is subject to community standards. The golden rule out West is this: if you do not generally see it out a car window, it is probably immoral or illegal; if you can see it out a car window, that’s what the local photographs will look like.

From Photography, God, and the Devil (PDF):

Incidentally, The British Journal of Photography in 1896 reported a controversy in Germany over whether or not a signature claimed to have been made by the devil was genuine. A Roman Catholic newspaper claimed that it was impossible to secure a genuine signature of his Satanic majesty; the Catholic Director of Feldburg stated that such opinions were untrue to Catholic teaching and traditions. The journal did not take sides in the dispute but recommended to photographers that a picture of the signature would be good business.

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Christopher Rauschenberg Washington DC, n.d.


My deepest condolences to Portland artist and tireless champion of photography, Chris Rauschenberg, whose father passed yesterday.

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